Commentary Magazine

Fragments of the Century, by Michael Harrington

In Search of Unity

Fragments of the Century: A Social Autobiography.
by Michael Harrington.
Saturday Review Press/E.P. Dutton. 246 pp. $7.95.

Almost a decade ago, in 1965, Daniel Callahan edited a brace of autobiographical essays by “young Catholic leaders,” including Andrew M. Greeley, Wilfrid Sheed, Garry Wills, and almost twenty others. In his introduction, Callahan noted that nearly all the contributors felt distinctly uncomfortable in the autobiographical mode. As the deadline approached, he received plaintive letters: “Does the essay have to be personal?” Fear of autobiography, preference for the abstract, has been an American-Catholic affliction.

It is hard to imagine a comparable sample of young Jewish writers agonizing over the autobiographical mode. Elie Wiesel has told us that “life is story”; that story is personal, not abstract; that the teller of the story cannot hide; that, whatever the ironic distance or detachment, self-revelation is one of a tradition's keenest pleasures.

Yet here is Michael Harrington telling us that his new book “is autobiographical, but not an autobiography. I have no desire to write a confession in the manner of Rousseau. . . . I speak of myself in order to understand better the age in which I live. I want to be intimate and nostalgic about an epoch, not about me.” In this objectivization of the self, Harrington establishes the basic drama of his book. The opening line of chapter six, “My nervous breakdown began at a Unitarian Church in San Diego one Sunday evening in March 1965,” suggests that it is also the basic struggle in his life.

Harrington presents himself partly as the self-effacing, objective Irish-American from St. Louis; partly as a sophisticated and successful ingénu in the Jewish world of social democracy in New York City. He does not easily negotiate the differences, the nuances, the internal logics of those two quite various worlds. He makes social democracy over into his own mold. The patterns of Jesuit doctrine, Pascalian wager, acts of faith replace the traditions, passions, and personal conflicts we are accustomed to in Jewish accounts of the same world. Irish-Catholic reviewers like John Deedy of Commonweal have apparently read Harrington's voyage without feeling any bump or shock; from his early act of faith in Roman Catholicism until his later act of faith in socialism, no basic symbol changes—the content and the circumstances alter, but the world view is astonishingly continuous, smooth, unruptured. So it often happens that those who pass over from one world to another do not so much change themselves as appropriate materials to their own purposes.

In his brief prologue, Harrington calls his family background middle-class. That very wide net does not arrest the fact, which we later learn, that his father was a quite successful patent lawyer; in St. Louis, his family ranks high financially and in social status. The Irish Catholics of St. Louis are not, we are told, “wounded” in the way that Studs Lonigan of Chicago was, nor in the way many Irish of the Eastern cities have been, by the closed viciousness of the regnant social class. In St. Louis, they were part of the ruling class. Harrington praises his family's Americanization.

In his first chapter, “A Pious Apostasy,” Harrington describes how he slid away, first, from the narrow forms of Catholic faith the St. Louis Jesuits had taught him; then, later, from the “existential leap” he had learned from Kierkegaard and St. Augustine in his days at the Catholic Worker. Undramatically, it occurred to him he was an atheist. Without tears.

In the fashion of former Catholics, he chides latter-day Catholic philosophers because the encounter with the “nameless one” of which they write “may well provide spiritual sustenance for a small minority of sophisticated intellectuals. It will not, however, sustain a church or provide a basis for a culture.” Two hundred pages later, Harrington writes with romantic hope about a humble socialist gathering in a seedy hotel in February 1973: “We were a handful of people, perhaps eighty in all, the defeated remnant of a defeated remnant.” Enough to sustain a church or provide the basis for a culture?

His apologetics for socialism are almost identical to the Jesuit apologetics he learned in his earlier years: “I do not romanticize, even though there is now a Pascalian cast to my Marxism. I am excruciatingly aware of the socialist failures of the past and our woeful inadequacies in the present. . . . Socialism is today the dream of a majority of mankind, even, as Hungary and Poland in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 show, those who have been oppressed by impostors speaking its name. And yet, after more than a century, it is still beginning, a task to be accomplished, not a destiny to be awaited.” Thus preacheth the retreat master about the Catholic church. “Socialism,” Harrington says, “is problematic, even difficult to imagine. . . .” Thus, also, the Vision of God.

Harrington makes three contributions to the recent discussion of social issues. First, he is far more conservative, both in instinct and in analysis, than he frequently pretends. He has some inner need to be well over on the Left, among the radicals, even when his better judgment drags its feet, kicks, protests. His account of the New Left is alternately harsh and biting (he attacks its “intolerance,” “conformism,” and “confused young idealists”) and embarrassingly sycophantic (he apologizes over and over for being “wrong,” after having shown that he really wasn't very wrong). His analysis of “the new class,” its biases, its miscalculations, its remoteness both from reality and from any conceivable popular base, confirms the by now almost universal view, first enunciated when it was not fashionable by those Harrington calls “the liberal conservatives.”

Secondly, Harrington wants to live it all again—finding “reasons to hope” in the “rising generations of the Left” who may yet “become part of a new majority movement to transform American society,” a movement in which, once again, he would “hope to take part.” The New Left of the 60's, he believes, “signals a new mass intelligentsia which has been won to some important leftist ideas.” In a section on Nathan Glazer's “The Limits of Social Policy,”1 Harrington still dreams: “We failed in the 60's, not because we did too much, but because we did too little.” He fudges the true point: not that we did too much, or did too little, but that we were—and remain—demonstrably ignorant of the effects, often ironic, of our interventions.

Harrington celebrates the inevitability of collectivization: “The planet is collectivizing itself everywhere: in America, Russia, China, the Third World.” He wants us to be bold, radical, decisive. But he is no more filled with light about what precisely we ought to do today, and what may be its precise effects, than Glazer. The limits of social knowledge bind him; but his faith, hope (a recurrent word for him, almost desperate in its incantation), and enthusiasm are great.

The deepest dispute between Harrington and the “liberal conservatives,” by his account, is his ability to “see” the revolution, whereas, “All they miss is the most important happening of the age—a revolution that is inevitable in everything except its outcome.” But underlying this comparative percipience is a quite different judgment about the virtue of “the new mass intelligentsia.” Harrington admits that this new class may be elitist and dangerous; but he has “hope.” He is for the modern, deracinated society,2 for progress, for the future, for science, for technology. He celebrates. Whereas his critics see hubris, ignorance masquerading as knowledge, decisive actions whose massive effects are the opposite of their intentions. They count the costs of the destruction of organic communities, and they dread the intolerant attitudinizing and sloppy sloganeering that seem to spore faster than critical enlightenment in that “new mass intelligentsia.”


The third contribution Harrington makes concerns the discussion of “nervous breakdowns,” as in the Eagleton affair. He is brave enough to bring the subject up at all, and he makes some good points; viz., that serious nervous disorders are not to be made light of, out of misplaced liberal sentiment. (Liberals, however, not “the Yahoos” he needlessly attacks, clamored loudest for the sacrifice of Eagleton.) There is something awkward and wrong, however, in Harrington's courageous account of his “nervous breakdown.” He discusses it in abstract, theoretical terms. He writes about psychoanalysis as if it were a foreign discipline, the terrain of “educated secularists” (as he calls them), who “were atheists and agnostics and could not take their cares to God or one of his priests.” For one who is not writing autobiography, this chapter is strangely intimate; and yet distant, cool, exhibiting a painful split. One's heart goes out to Harrington, as his did to Eagleton.

But one's mind, as his mind in respect to Eagleton, wants to question Harrington on the most basic, fundamental point of socialism: alienation. If he had not shown us these “fragments of the century,” it might be illegitimate to make such demands of him. But now that he has raised the matter publicly, one must ask him publicly: Was it only “social vertigo” during this “strange twilight of the bourgeois era” that afflicted him, this “outsider . . . patronized by the newly created, and quite affluent, audience for social criticism”? Or something far more personal and morally dangerous?


Michael Harrington is a valuable writer in our midst. But he does not convince us he can fuse personal vision to social vision in singleness of heart. One feels throughout a double alienation: a failure to grasp the limits of his own imagination, Irish-Catholic to the core and not at all at one with the milieu of Max Shachtman, Irving Howe, and others of whom he writes as though they shared more than they do; and a failure to grasp the extent to which socialism is for him not a vision that wells up from inside, from the heart, but an external vision to which he has no better relation than “faith,” no stronger cord than “hope,” no deeper ultimate commitment than “a wager.” Some day, perhaps, this faith, too, may slide away, as undramatically as did his faith in the Irish-Catholic sky-God. On the evidence here presented, these fragments cry out for unity.


1 Originally published in COMMENTARY, September 1971.

2 “The most modern—and deracinated—[places] are the most healthy.”

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