Commentary Magazine

Socialism, by Michael Harrington

Crumbling the Barricades

by Michael Harrington.
Saturday Review Press. 436 pp. $12.50.

A specter is haunting the world—the specter of failed socialism. In the century and a quarter since Karl Marx wrote the words parodied in that sentence, as the opening of the Manifesto of the Communist party, socialism has attracted the idealism of millions and provided rallying cries for countless political movements. Even those who have betrayed it most brutally—Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, among many others—have usually done so in its name. All that is missing is an example of socialism, uncontaminated by totalitarianism, actually working. There are plenty of examples of collectivist dictatorships and well-intentioned social-reform movements. But socialism—a system which, in the eyes of its disciples, seeks to reconcile the requirements of democracy, social justice, and liberty and to create a society in which men and women respect each other in their diversity and develop, at work or at leisure, their full potentialities—remains a secular vision: respected by all, adopted by none.

The attraction of Michael Harrington’s book is that he is a socialist who is clear-eyed and honest about this predicament. He does not fall into the trap of wish-fulfillment—of hailing the latest hero-figure of the Left, whether he be Castro or Mao Tse-tung, as the Moses who has led his country into the promised land of socialism and so set an example to the rest of the world. Equally he is skeptical about the tactics of the Western European social-democratic parties: he argues that the welfare-state policies of the European Left, whether of Harold Wilson’s Labour party in Britain or of Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats in West Germany, have failed to deliver the goods of socialism—and that the distribution of wealth and power in these countries has not greatly changed.

So in this book Harrington goes back to the drawing board in an attempt to design a doctrine of socialism relevant to what Daniel Bell has called post-industrial society. Rejecting both what he regards as the ineffective reformism of traditional liberalism and the utopian anarchism of New-Left revolutionaries, he tries to present an alternative analysis. The starting point of this analysis is Marx. But it is what might be called the “real-Marx” as distinct from the “pseudo-Marx”—that is, Harrington’s own interpretation of Marx’s writing, not the popular, simplified version of Marxism. In line with recent fashions in Marxology, the emphasis is put on Marx the humanist as distinct from Marx the revolutionary authoritarian—the Marx who had a vision of man emancipated from the tyranny of machine-dictated work routines, fulfilling himself as a complete human being instead of being frustrated by the social superstructure of a capitalist economy.

This is a perfectly fair, if not exactly novel, reinterpretation. However, in historical reinterpretation as in picture restoration, there is always the danger that in removing the old varnish and over-painting done by other hands, the restorer may also remove some of the original as well. So, since Harrington himself attaches much importance to his version of the “real Marx” and devotes a large section of the book to this theme, it is worth looking at the restorer’s technique in some detail. Take the question of Marx’s attitude toward democracy, which is crucial, as I shall argue later, to the whole question of the role of socialism today. Harrington justly points out that the much-quoted, notorious phrase about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is usually taken out of context. It should be seen, he argues, in the wider context of Marx’s general attitude toward democracy. Thus he quotes Marx writing approvingly of the 1870 Paris Commune and in particular its introduction of universal suffrage for the election of officials, who were also subject to immediate recall by the people. From this Harrington concludes that dictatorship for Marx “does not mean dictatorship but the fulfillment of democracy.”

But does it? And if it does, is not the implication that Marx’s idea of democracy may have been rather special? For Harrington’s argument cuts a lot of corners. In the first place the unsuspecting reader may assume from Harrington’s interpretation that Marx approved of the Commune. He did not. He thought it was (to quote Isaiah Berlin’s classic biography) “a political blunder.” It was dominated by the various left-wing revolutionary sects for whom Marx reserved his very special hatred and contempt: those whom he once described as the advocates of “mutton-headed, sentimental, utopian socialism.” However, he gave the Commune his blessing because it gave the international socialist movement its heroic martyrs: fodder for the propaganda machine. Secondly, it is not at all clear what either Marx or Harrington understands by “democracy.” I suspect that in fact—all honor to Harrington—their definitions would have very little in common. For Marx and the Commune must be seen in their historical perspective: the perspective of Rousseau and the French Revolution, the intellectual and historical influences which did so much to mold 19th-century socialist thinking.

Rousseau disliked the word democracy and thought the ideal unattainable. The ideologues of the French Revolution, the link in the intellectual chain between Rousseau and the Communards, believed not in democracy but in the will of the people. This almost mystical concept could be used—as J. L. Talmon has shown in his The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy—to justify almost any act of crowd tyranny or the dictatorship of an elite claiming to speak for the collective mind. It is a concept which is the antithesis of democracy if by democracy we mean (among other things) the toleration of dissent and respect for minority opinions. For to tolerate dissent is to betray the general will (or the party).

In other respects, too, Harrington does not explore sufficiently the complexities and contradictions of Marx. The popular picture of Marx as the man who claimed to have discovered the “iron laws” of history may be an oversimplification. But to underplay this element is an equally misleading oversimplification. For psychologically, surely, Marx’s appeal largely rests on his identification of the desirable with the inevitable. This goes a long way toward explaining Marx’s reputation among the millions who have never read a word of him. Others may have had equally subtle and rewarding insights into social processes, but no one else used those insights with such force and imagination as the basis of a secular prophecy. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to suggest that this was Marx’s view of himself: for example, he wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin—the man who had discovered the law of revolution paying homage to the man who had discovered the law of evolution.

Although Harrington rightly points out that Marx gave much greater emphasis to human freedom than the popular version of his doctrine would suggest, he ignores the other side of Marx, which was the authoritarian welder of a revolutionary movement. The early history of the International is largely the history of Marx’s complete intolerance of disagreement; like Freud, he had no time for disciples who strayed. His concern was to build an effective instrument of revolution, not a debating society for educating the masses—which is what I suspect Harrington, as a gentle and humane man, would like. If democracy means a willingness to put up with dissent, Marx was not a democrat.



Harrington’s attempt to reinterpret Marx is an essential part of a more ambitious exercise still: to square the ideals of humane liberalism with those of traditional socialism. It is a courageous attempt which, I think, in the end fails, just as his attempt to redraw the portrait of Marx is not convincing, despite many shrewd touches.

For what, after all, distinguishes liberalism from socialism? On the whole it is not their ideals. Most liberals and socialists would probably find little difficulty in agreeing on a common platform of general aims. To a large extent they draw on a shared vocabulary—social justice, racial equality, and all the rest. It is this which has so often made it easy for dictatorships of the Left to appeal to the more unsuspecting liberals. The difficulties come, and the splits appear, when rhetoric has to be translated into action. There may be conflicts among different aims, all desirable in themselves: the redistribution of wealth may be highly desirable on grounds of social equity but undesirable inasmuch as it limits individual liberty. Equally, there may be cases where the means chosen—the actual program adopted—may threaten some of the ends, and liberals may then part company from socialists.

The weakness of Harrington’s book is that his argument tends to peter out before reaching this crucial point. Take the example, much stressed by Harrington himself, of the power exercised by private corporations. Harrington makes a twofold indictment of this power. First, he cites the example of Britain and other European countries to argue that corporate power is used to block effective measures to redistribute wealth and eliminate poverty. This argument, when applied to Britain, is certainly an oversimplification, if not without some basis in fact; the failure of Wilson’s Labour government was caused predominantly, though not exclusively, by its ineptitude in handling economic policy. To argue that it was the power of the bankers which sabotaged the Wilson administration, as Harrington comes close to doing, is to invite the counter-argument that it is the trade unions who are sabotaging the Conservative government of Edward Heath which is now being forced to abandon Tory policies quite as much as Wilson was obliged to abandon socialist policies; the balance of power is perhaps not quite as one-sided as Harrington’s argument requires. Second, Harrington rightly stresses the social implications of business decisions. He argues, quite fairly, that the slogans about market forces insuring freedom of choice are empty rhetoric in that these forces may block as many choices as they open up: my freedom of choice is diminished, for example, when my favorite brand of biscuits is taken off the market.

From this double-pronged argument, Harrington concludes that the European social democrats have been wrong to abandon their traditional emphasis on the social ownership of industry. And he puts forward instead a program for socializing industry by taking over control—though the liberal in Harrington insists that this socialist aim can be achieved gradually and painlessly, for instance by introducing inheritance taxes. The trouble is that if Harrington is correct in putting so much emphasis on the power of the corporations, then surely the conventional Communist emphasis on revolutionary tactics must be right as well. If the European social democrats are wrong in believing that the aims of socialism can be achieved without changing the power structure of society (as Harrington thinks), then why assume that the power structure itself can be changed with the consent of those who are currently in control of it?



As so often happens, Harrington here is betrayed by his own niceness. He is a revolutionary who believes in good will. But he really cannot have it both ways. If those wielding power in Western capitalist societies can be persuaded to give up that power—and this is what Harrington’s scheme for more social ownership implies—then presumably they could more easily be persuaded into accepting the less painful measures involved in a program of social engineering. Even income redistribution is less threatening than property redistribution. However, Harrington is pessimistic about the chances of successfully carrying out such a program of social engineering—despite his diagnosis of an emerging social-democratic mass movement, represented by social-reform-conscious trade-unionism, in the United States. So it is all the odder that he should be hopeful about his own, far more radical program of political action. Indeed it is difficult to take Harrington seriously as an analyst of the political situation. Either he ought to be urging the people to storm the barricades of privilege and power, or he ought to rally to those who, despite defeats and disappointments, pursue the tactics of gradual melioration. As it is, Harrington gives the impression of a man who hopes that the barricades will gently crumble away under the pressure of his eloquence and the faith of the masses. He is too much of a liberal to urge revolutionary tactics and too much of a socialist to settle for liberal-reformist policies.

Again, it is worth being pedantic on some points of detail. For there is a danger that Harrington’s book may reinforce the legend that the welfare-state tactics of gradual social improvement have failed. This is certainly not true of Western Europe, from which Harrington himself takes most of his examples. It is true that welfare-state policies have admittedly failed—as in Britain, frequently mentioned in the book—to eliminate poverty, slums, and inequality. But it is the successes of the welfare state which have largely sensitized us to these failures: every advance reveals new requirements of social action which in the past would have been ignored because far more rampant evils were claiming our attention. One might even argue that one of the characteristics of a welfare-state society should be a permanent state of dissatisfaction and a continual search for improvement in social conditions—by constantly raising standards it will always fall short of its own expectations—and paradoxically, this will provide ammunition for those who want to argue that the entire approach has failed. Harrington’s argument also assumes that we know how to deal with social problems, that our failures are those of will, not of comprehension. In many areas of social action, this is simply not true; we often create new social diseases in our attempts to deal with old ones. The failures of urban renewal cited by Harrington are often the result not of a lack of social planning but of planners’ hubris: the assumption that we are in a position to calculate the consequences of all our actions.



To be fair, Harrington fully recognizes the fallacy of equating social planning with bureaucratic planning. He is aware that bringing industries into state ownership may simply mean the emergence of a more powerful bureaucracy. But, as so often in this book, after having defined difficulties with precision, he relies for their solution on verbal incantation. What does social control and social planning mean in practice? What social criteria are to be applied, and by whom? A brief reference to “cooperative and neighborhood forms of ownership” hardly answers questions like these. It is pretty clear that Harrington is as flummoxed as the rest of us when it comes to giving precise, specific meaning to the rhetoric of good intentions, and is original chiefly in his optimism.

The British experience suggests that it is easier to place industries under social ownership than to run them on any principle of social accountability. As Harrington points out in a pained sort of way, the Labour government’s renationalization of steel “left many of the previous managers in control of the public enterprise.” Why the surprise? Given the increasing technical complexity of industry, rightly stressed by Harrington in another context, it is precisely the “previous managers” who have the required know-how—even when the nominal exploiters, the stockholders, have been expropriated, to use the Marxist jargon. The problem of accountability has exercised a number of committees of the British Parliament. The result is a shelf of reports and a series of unanswered questions. But the main conclusion, paradoxically, has been that the best form of social accountability is financial discipline: the rate of return on investment and similar capitalist indices of performance. Although Harrington advocates moving toward a moneyless economy—and is scornful of economists who insist on the importance of costs—the British experience points in the opposite direction. It is easy enough to provide some services—like health—free of charge. However, as was pointed out by Aneurin Bevan, one of the great figures of the British Labour party’s left wing, priorities are the language of socialism. And determining priorities in turn means measuring the cost of alternatives. Even though Harrington sees socialism as the outcome of economic growth rather than as its cause—indeed for Harrington socialism is made possible only by affluence—it seems unlikely that any society, however prosperous, can shrug aside this sort of problem.

To talk about priorities is also to admit that there may be conflict about aims. Different groups in a society may have different demands. Somehow any social system—capitalist or socialist—has to address itself to the resolution of conflict. One man’s gain in freedom may be another man’s loss of liberty. Further, a balance has to be struck between what Isaiah Berlin has called negative and positive liberty; very crudely put, this means freedom from interference (the ability to do one’s own thing) on the one hand and freedom to carry out certain activities (which may require publicly-provided facilities) on the other. Issues like these are absolutely crucial to any discussion of what social control means in practice, but they are left untouched by Harrington. Perhaps his assumption is that conflict is a product of capitalism, which is certainly the traditional Marxist doctrine. But this is overly simple. Take the issue of a factory which is polluting the atmosphere and rivers, an example of market forces imposing extra social costs on the community. This seems a clear-cut case for limiting the freedom of the factory owner in the interests of the freedom of the community as a whole. But what if the result of curbing this freedom to pollute is to increase the cost of the product—and the product is consumed by only one group in the community? Again, a classic clash of freedoms is involved in the current American debate over school busing:1 how far is the freedom of whites to be curbed in the interest of extending the freedom of blacks?

Harrington’s implicit assumption in neglecting this whole area—the crucial area of political institutions and choice—seems to be that socialism in itself eradicates conflict and produces a harmonious community of interests, a latter-day version of Rousseau’s general will. And it is at this point that liberals will probably part company with Harrington—despite the generous humanity of his vision. He has succeeded in demonstrating yet again that even modified capitalist societies are far from eradicating freedom from hunger, social and cultural deprivation, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of technological complexity. But he has not demonstrated, what is indeed far more difficult to demonstrate, that his brand of affluent socialism can bring all the advantages of collectivism and none of its disadvantages. The dilemma of the liberal reformer who may well share Harrington’s indignation about present evils but who cannot relax on his featherbed of optimism about a socialist future remains unsolved; the prospect still seems to be that of a dogged, long-drawn-out campaign of change—less enticing than Harrington’s leap but more realistic.




1 See Nathan Glazer's “Is Busing Necessary?” in COMMENTARY, March 1972.

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