The Other American by Maurice Isserman
The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington
by Maurice Isserman
Public Affairs. 400 pp. $27.50
For a brief spell in the mid-1960’s, Michael Harrington was regarded as one of America’s most influential social critics. Thanks to his first major book, The Other America (1962), he was credited with having “discovered poverty.” Among those impressed by his analysis of widespread destitution in the midst of abundance were government officials who later in the decade would plan the details of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Harrington himself was to play a modest role in the formulation of that initiative.
It was not, however, as a policy intellectual that Harrington’s many admirers saw his real role, but rather as the leader of a broad coalition for radical change that would bring together such disparate forces as student activists, the civil-rights movement, and organized labor. He was, as one newspaper put it back then, “a vital voice of conscience for our times.” Seldom have such high expectations been invested in a man of the American Left.
Yet within a few years, Harrington’s reputation was in serious and permanent decline. Although he wrote book after book laying out the case for the coming demise of capitalism and the inevitable triumph of socialism, none made an impact on the American political debate, not even when Harrington returned to the issue—poverty—that had made him famous. He was an even greater failure as a political leader. Although treated with respect by intellectuals, political figures, and advocates of various liberal causes, his ideas and his political movement were ignored.
A study of Harrington’s career is thus principally of interest for what it reveals about the collapse of left-wing politics in the United States. Unfortunately, readers seeking enlightenment on this score will not find it in Maurice Isserman’s biography. In writing The Other American, Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College in New York, an erstwhile 1960’s radical, and the author of previous books highly sympathetic to both the American Communist movement and the New Left, has clearly let his activist inclinations get the better of his scholarship.
Michael Harrington was born in 1928 into an Irish-Catholic family in St. Louis. Raised in a strongly Catholic environment, he attended a Jesuit-run high school and a Jesuit university, Holy Cross. When he moved to New York in the 1950’s, his initial political involvement was as a volunteer in the Catholic Worker Movement that had been founded by the legendary radical Dorothy Day and was centered on a commitment to the poor and a militant form of pacifism. Harrington, who avoided soup-kitchen duty whenever possible, spent his days writing for the organization’s newspaper and his nights drinking at the White Horse tavern among Greenwich Village writers, folk singers, and their female admirers.
Harrington soon left both the movement and the church for a new cause: socialism. He joined the youth wing of a small organization of anti-Communist radicals led by Max Shachtman, one of 20th-century America’s more fascinating left-wing figures, who gravitated from orthodox Communism to Trotskyism and finally to a fiercely independent form of anti-Soviet socialism. What the Shachtmanites lacked in numbers (they never amounted to more than a few hundred activists), they made up for in dedication and intellectual firepower; the movement produced more than its share of notable writers and academics, along with leaders of trade unions, civil-rights organizations, and, by the 1980’s, as some former members shifted rightward, officials in the Reagan administration.
In the late 1950’s, when Harrington caught up with them, the Shachtmanites had merged with the Socialist party—the venerable and much-faded institution of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas. Many believed that Harrington—young, an effective polemical writer and platform speaker, and able to project an open, engaging, middle-American image—was destined to succeed Thomas as America’s leading socialist. Harrington’s ability to “speak American” was also useful in light of the new strategy Shachtman had devised to broaden his movement’s influence and appeal. No longer would socialists seek elective office as a separate body; instead, they would join together with allies in the labor movement, liberal organizations, and the black community to wrest control of the Democratic party from the coalition of urban machine politicians and Dixiecrats that had for so long functioned as an obstacle to reform.
As the 60’s dawned, the political environment seemed propitious for the Left and for Harrington personally. The civil-rights movement had inspired a new generation of student activists in colleges throughout the country, fertile recruiting terrain for a movement grounded in a realistic assessment of American political conditions. And Americans generally seemed open to new political ideas, as witness the reception accorded The Other America.
Fissures, however, began to appear with the rise of the student movement and the New Left. Almost from the outset, the Shachtmanites and other veteran socialists were offended by the younger generation’s arrogance and elitism, and were especially appalled by the willingness of the student radicals to open their ranks to Communists. At the Port Huron conference, where the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) issued its initial manifesto, Harrington engaged in a heated argument over the issue of Communist participation in the organization; after Torn Hayden and other SDS leaders refused to alter their policy, the trade-union body that had been sponsoring SDS, of which Harrington was chairman, padlocked the student group’s offices.
Harrington himself, however, remained torn between his apprehensions over the New Left’s ultra-radicalism and a desire to retain his credentials as unofficial leader of the American Left. He also had political differences with Shachtman, and these widened with the escalating war in Vietnam (which the Shachtmanites declined to condemn). The final break came in 1973, when Harrington resigned from the Socialist party and formed yet another organization, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
From the split with Shachtman until his death from cancer in 1989, Harrington devoted his energies to building his new party and the socialist movement. He resolved the conflict over his past criticism of the New Left by embracing many of the ideas he had previously spurned and by apologizing, again and again and again, for his failure to identify with the young radicals and their causes. Although he never abandoned his critical stance toward the Soviet Union, he veered toward a position of cold-war neutralism; emblematic of his evolution was his participation in a group sponsored by the Socialist International to “defend” the Nicaraguan revolution at a moment when the antidemocratic leanings of the Sandinistas were on full display.
Harrington also worked for the continued left-wing realignment of the Democratic party by joining in coalitions with new political forces—feminists, gays, environmentalists. Although he exerted less influence on the Democrats than those who were more explicitly representative of identity politics, he did contribute to the party’s leftward shift in those decades and its increasing estrangement from the values of the American electorate.
For a man with his obvious abilities, Michael Harrington left a remarkably thin legacy. Isserman recognizes this, but to him, the fact that Harrington’s “heroic” vision failed to catch on is attributable at least in part to the profound flaws in America’s political culture. Also weighing in the balance, in Isserman’s view, was Harrington’s reluctance to embrace fully the rising generation of 60’s activists; had he been less quick to condemn the mistakes of the young, he might have helped push the student movement toward a more responsible and therefore more successful brand of radicalism.
Isserman is at particular pains to lambaste Harrington’s Shachtmanite adversaries. Their unwillingness to join in condemning the Vietnam war he ascribes to the desire to ingratiate themselves with the AFL-CIO, in the hope of gaining influence and jobs in the only liberal institution where anti-Communists were still welcome. He singles out the black civil-rights activist and trade-union organizer Bayard Rustin, a one-time Harrington friend, for special opprobrium as a self-serving manipulator and lackey of organized labor.
This is tendentious nonsense. For one thing, a genuine reconciliation between Harrington and the leaders of the SDS was never in the cards. Tom Hayden and his comrades were nothing but contemptuous of sympathetic liberals who failed to endorse the organization’s radical program, and would have treated Harrington with disdain as long as he continued to reject (however faintly) their view of America as a sick and murderous society or to criticize (however faintly) their infatuation with third-world tyrants.
As for the anti-Communism of the Shachtmanites, Isserman’s refusal to acknowledge the moral basis of their position, though perfectly in line with his own unflagging New Left commitments, is inexcusable in a historian who, at this late date, still fails to acknowledge the horrific costs of Communism around the world and, most relevantly, in Vietnam. Similarly off the mark, and similarly disgraceful, is Isserman’s treatment of Bayard Rustin. Unlike the New Left, Rustin tempered his once radical ideas, recognizing that blacks could progress only if they abandoned Utopian notions of socialist transformation or Black Power, and came to terms with the realities of the American political and economic system.
This view was as reasonable back in the 1960’s and 70’s as it is today—and it makes an instructive contrast with the ideas about poverty held by Harrington. In The Other America, Harrington frequently referred to a seemingly intractable condition called the “culture of poverty,” a concept he borrowed from the radical sociologist Oscar Lewis. Among those designing Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, this notion fell on the ready ears of some who aimed at transforming the condition of the poor not by creating jobs but through “community action” and similar strategies of “empowerment.” The result was that the “invisible poor” about whom Harrington had written were replaced by the “participatory” poor, who, egged on by radical academics, clamored for an ever-expanding list of government benefits. With welfare rolls rising dramatically in an era of near-full employment, public and political support for the antipoverty program soon evaporated.
Again in contrast to the pragmatic Rustin, Harrington remained an unwavering socialist to his dying day. By socialism, Harrington meant something more far-reaching than the watered-down social democracy that prevailed in Sweden, Germany, and other European countries. As he never tired of declaring, the American socialism he favored would be democratic, yes, but major sectors of economic life would be subject to collective decision-making; economic planning would be the order of the day.
Harrington clung to this creed to the very end, throughout a period when socialism, democratic or otherwise, became increasingly irrelevant to the problems of America and the world, and downright dangerous when embraced by third-world despots. As in so many others, the search for the perfect solution to the planet’s ills had produced in him a form of mental ossification, until in the end he too fell victim to the idea of which he had been such an ineffectual evangelist. There is a deep and affecting story here, but Maurice Isserman is unqualified to tell it.