Harrington has faded from our historical memory nearly completely some fifty years after his path breaking exposé The Other America. The book is said to have inspired President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. We've too often lost any immediate consciousness of US poverty these days, ever since we pushed destitute women with dependent children off the national agenda with the the 1996 "welfare reform." Liberals and progressives talk about harms to "the middle class." Harrington demanded the United States deal with its poor citizens.
Recently I read Maurice Isserman's 1990 biography of the man who made poverty an issue in the 60s, The Other American : The Life of Michael Harrington. Harrington's life seems an instructive tragedy -- one I'm draw to in part because I too passed through one of his formative influences, the New York house of the Catholic Worker movement.
I'm not going to try to explain about Catholic Workers here. At this website contemporary CW folks tell their own story -- at the moment they seem entangled in responding to the Catholic hierarchy's intent to fully appropriate and canonize their founder, Dorothy Day -- when they are not getting busted for protesting Guantanamo and the drone war.
Harrington came to the CW out of an intense, insular Catholic upbringing in St. Louis and then at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. Bumping around in New York after college, he rediscovered his youthful Catholicism and honed his journalistic skills in the movement's paper. Isserman reports on a 1952 article called "Poverty U.S.A" that gave a taste where Harrington was drifting intellectually at the time. (Throughout the book, Isserman irritatingly refers to his subject as "Michael," as if the man were a little boy. I reproduce that here.)
Though Harrington would drop the Christian frame in later life, this catches the impossible dance he was caught in between " calculation" -- understanding systemically how and why evils happen and are perpetuated -- and a necessary recourse to "immediate relief" in response to dehumanization. He never seems to have found a satisfactory balance -- a balance between mind and a good heart -- that satisfied him. Many of his subsequent gyrations seem to come from that conflict.
From the Catholic Worker with its soup kitchen and immersion in the dirt and pain of the poor, Harrington jumped into 1950s sectarian Marxism, an environment that today seems even more exotic than the Catholic Worker. If you couldn't swallow the Stalinism of the Soviet-affiliated Communists but were drawn to "scientific socialism," you ended up a Trotskyist of some sort, as Harrington did. Trotskyists elaborated intricate, and sometimes insightful, readings of capitalist development -- but as intellectual rebels within and against an authoritarian tradition, they tended to be greatly attached to their own intellectual rectitude. Consequently, Trotskyist groups usually split over arcane theoretical disputes after they attained any size -- several hundred adherents at most -- and devoted most of their energies to afflicting their ideological foes rather than attacking the system.
Isserman is very good at describing this obscure snakepit in which Harrington rapidly made himself a leading figure through sheer brainpower and energy. He became an accomplished sectarian infighter -- and yet, even at his most removed from real-life struggles in his "socialist" cocoon, He remained someone who allowed realistic concerns to break through his intellectual bubble. Many of his comrades mused that a socialist country could properly use nuclear weapons against the imperialists. Not Harrington.
Such breaks with sectarian orthodoxy as well as the post-McCarthyism thaw in US politics gradually drew Harrington closer to mainstream respectability. It became possible to point to social ills without being hounded for "Soviet sympathies." Harrington gradually came to occupy a somewhat unique position as a prominent self-proclaimed socialist who could nonetheless mingle with the more liberal fringes of the political class, the more daring Democrats of the day. Out of this phase of his life came the book -- The Other America -- that put domestic poverty into common discussions. That book may not hold up as sociological inquiry, but it is still in print and on Kindle which says something for its longstanding influence.
After Kennedy's assassination and Lyndon Johnson's decision to make his own mark by pushing a radical "War on Poverty," Harrington was drawn into staff consultations on the program. He seemed poised to exert real influence on the creation -- if not of socialism -- of progressive policy choices that mitigated the evils of unregulated capitalism.
And then it all fell apart, not only for Harrington, but for everyone who hoped for a relatively united liberal-left, for what we call today an "inside/outside" strategy for political progress, a choice to use both the tactics of electoral participation and of applying street heat to win partial victories for the society's less fortunate.
Harrington was an intellectual combatant, not so much a movement worker or an organizer. By embracing Trotskyism, he had placed himself outside the grass roots social movements of his day. Though the little socialist sects of the 50s-era provided some infrastructure assistance to the emerging black-led Southern freedom movement, that movement kept them at arms length, not wanting the stigma of Communist associations or the intrusions of white guys who were theorists, not doers. Meanwhile President Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam alienated a generation of young people who saw no reason to die in the jungles for an immoral imperial policy. Harrington was out of sync, still as much concerned that Vietnamese Communism was an evil system as by the atrocities of his own country's war.
While Martin Luther King and young left leaders everywhere denounced the Vietnam adventure, Harrington -- scarred by his resolute fights in the previous decade to reclaim the label "socialist" from the Communists -- never could whole-heartedly join their vigorous witness against the war.
In the late 60s and 70s, as the possibility for a progressive coalition between socialists and liberal Democrats collapsed in the bitter divisions about Vietnam, the War on Poverty lost its elite backing. And while Harrington was losing his influence both to his left and his right, he was elaborating a progressive balancing act that still has some resonance today. As early as the mid-60s, Isserman writes that Harrington asserted:
Again, from the mid-70s:
Harrington sought to give his principles institutional form by founding the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (1973 -- merged into Democratic Socialist of American in 1982). At the founding convention, he laid out a realistic tactical stance:
The aftermath of that meeting smacked Harrington upside the head with what he'd missed through his effective absence from the on-the-ground struggles of his day: the women of DSOC pointed out he'd envisioned an all-male leadership and they weren't going to take it. The organization never escaped its limitations: good ideas didn't translate into effective on-the-ground practice. Harrington toiled on, teaching, writing, sticking to the principled socialist loyalties of a lifetime, and died quite young of cancer in 1989.
I found Isserman's biography informative, annoying (it is neither tightly constructed nor deftly written), and mostly just sad. There's lots for any political progressive to learn in the Harrington story, even when his life seems far removed from contemporary struggles. We're all still caught in Harrington's balancing act between envisioning a better, more just and moral, society and deciding what compromises and associations we have to take on to get closer to it. Harrington played out these contradictions on a larger stage than most; I'm grateful to Isserman for preserving the story. I wouldn't be surprised if Harrington attracts new biographers as new generations re-examine his era.