Friday, February 12, 2010

Michael Harrington's Legacy--A Book Review By Rob Tucker

Apostle of Lesser-Evilism

The Other American:
The Life of Michael Harrington
By Maurice Isserman

Review by R.W. Tucker

U.S. antiwar sentiment owes much to the Socialist Party. The SP steadfastly opposed World War I; its leader, Eugene Victor Debs, was jailed for his speeches against the war. In 1920 Debs ran for president from jail, his fifth try, and garnered about a million votes.

After he died a new leader emerged, Norman Thomas a pacifist, though he wavered for a while after World War II. Thomas ran for president six times, through 1948. In the 1960s, in his eighties, he barnstormed against the Vietnam War. By then he had become beloved far beyond his party's ranks. Unlikely U.S. leaders hailed him as the conscience of America.

Who would succeed him? The evident answer was Michael Harrington. He was a brilliant and extremely engaging speaker; he was a debater with few peers. And he had written an important best-seller, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, in which, in a clear, readable, unsentimental style, he discussed the fact that the poor had become mostly invisible and delineated their plight by categories. Everybody saw him as the next leading spokesperson for the Left.

It didn't happen. In the early'70s, the Socialist Party suffered a devastating three-way split. Harrington ended up heading one of the three successor organizations, the one now called Democratic Socialists of America. Thereafter for years he urged socialists to support Democrats in the name of lesser-evilism. (his term). His books on socialism are the modern standard, and at the time of his early death from cancer in 1989 he was honorary chairman of the Socialist International. But a great many socialists thought of him as a betrayer. This biography will greatly interest people who admired Harrington, and no less, those who were disappointed in him.

Realignment and Vietnam
Maurice Isserman has done a huge amount of research. He writes well, with an eye for the telling detail and many flashes of humor. The first hundred pages of The Other American narrate Harrington's claustrophobic Catholic upbringing, his education by the Jesuits and his time in the Catholic Worker movement. The Jesuits used to boast, Give us the boy and we will give you the man, and though Harrington in time abandoned pacifism, the Catholic Worker, and the Catholic Church itself, Isserman suggests that the Jesuit influence was pervasive: Harrington thought about Marxism in Jesuitical ways. In particular, he adopted and adapted Jesuit teachings about choosing the lesser evil.

In 1959, Max Shachtman, a Marxist ideologue and Harrington's mentor, began preaching Realignment. to his Socialist Party comrades. Socialists must go where labor is, he argued, and labor was in the Democratic Party. What America needed was not a third party, but a second party. The reactionary Southern Democrats must be driven to the Republicans, creating a true conservative-liberal choice. SPers bought this argument, and in 1960, for the first time, put up no presidential candidate. They had become discouraged by their ballot failures, and Shachtman had put a positive spin on withdrawing from the fray.

Harrington, though, bought Realignment with the fervor of a true believer. Thanks to the Realignment doctrine, he was free to join with aides to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in working out details of the War on Poverty and the Great Society. The Other America was their Bible. Although, as Isserman shows, Harrington was uneasy about the Vietnam War, an attack on Johnson over the war would surely have ended his influence on the anti-poverty program. Others told him that the war was destroying the anti-poverty program, but for years he apparently couldn't see it. Realignment had also given the SP close ties with George Meany, the conservative head of the AFL-CIO, along with labor staff jobs for many SP members; going where labor is had turned out to mean going where the top labor bosses were and the labor bosses supported the war.

In 1962, Harrington lost a chance to play elder brother to the early New Left at the organizing meeting of Students for a Democratic Society, at Port Huron, MI. He hectored and bullied its early leaders for popular frontism. This he later apologized for. But he never apologized for his disgraceful behavior at the 1970 SP convention. As chairman, he presided over a spurious expulsion of the entire Wisconsin delegation, consisting of 22 antiwar delegates, and then bullied through a resolution on the war that in effect supported it. To those of us who knew his personal opinion of the war, his behavior was incredible.

Isserman says only that hundreds of members of the old party voted with their feet, as the party majority moved steadily rightward. This misstates what took place. Most of the state organizations, with the huge exception of New York, withdrew from the old party, which then changed its name to Social Democrats USA and more-or-less invented neoconservatism. Those who had withdrawn reconstituted the Socialist Party; they included almost all the pacifists, the older leadership, and pretty much the entire party as it had been in 1957.

The reconstituted SP came out against the war. Its members decided the Realignment strategy was bankrupt, so in 1976 they resumed running token candidates. Harrington might have been welcome among them had he come wearing sackcloth, but instead he called the reconstituted SP a sect, because it opposed Realignment. So when Harrington, in turn, could no longer stomach the Social Democrats pro-war policy, he formed his own group. He spoke of the total collapse of the Socialist Party and the need to start all over again, as if the renewed SP did not exist. A few months before his death, I asked him if there was any hope of the organizations reuniting, and he literally shuddered: Oh no, no, no, no. Isserman's failure to explore this attitude is a major flaw in his biography.

DSA in some ways became the most successful political organization on the Left. But it continues to be in Harrington's shadow. For instance, it was unable to take a position on the recent bombing of Serbia. Now it wanders in the wilderness, because all the goals of Realignment have been met, with the result that both major parties have moved rightward. Isserman has given us an object lesson in the perils of lesser-evil thinking.

R.W. Tucker worked closely with Michael Harrington from 1958 to 1962.

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