Sunday, February 03, 2013

Michael Harrington: stranded "mid-air between sectarian irrelevance and successful betrayal"?

I asked a well-read older friend just now, do you remember Michael Harrington? She looked blank. Was he a novelist? No, he wasn't.

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.)

Michael set out to challenge the current economic consensus that "things are pretty good." … Michael added an interesting caveat to his article, intended to demonstrate the moral superiority of the Catholic Worker's religious radicalism to the blend of economic determinism and ends-justify-the-means cynicism that he believed characterized the outlook of more secular radicals, particularly Marxist revolutionaries. In doing so, he introduced a dichotomy between the head and heart, and between the pressing social needs of the present and the vision of a transformed social order in the distant future, that became a recurring theme in his political writings.

If the problems of the poor were understood as and reduced to "the means toward the well-being of some future generation, as merely an incitement to class consciousness on the part of those involved," he warned, "then we have changed people into objects, means. The problem must be faced as one of the future -- and of the present. Immediate relief through any means which are not clearly immoral must be studied. To think otherwise, to view this poverty as a force in a historic [dialectic], is not only the dehumanization of the poor; it is the dehumanization of him who thinks it. The reaction to this poverty should be partly one of calculation, of how can it be eradicated, but it must also be of the Beatitudes, of hunger and thirst for Justice, of love and grief for what goes on before our eyes."

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.

When it came to atomic weapons, Michael argued that moral judgment had to be absolute not relative; under no conceivable circumstance could the use of such weapons be justified, regardless of whether they were good socialist or bad capitalist bombs. If he had to step outside the boundaries of conventional Leninist concepts and terminology to justify his position, Michael was willing to do so. …

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.

In the eyes of Michael's critics, the issue at stake in Vietnam simply did not turn on the question of whether or not Ho Chi Minh was a Stalinist, but on whether the United States had the right to unleash its vast technology of destruction on a poor and distant country like Vietnam, in defiance of the very principles of national self-determination that Americans supposedly cherished. …

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:

There was no single formula for principled political behavior. In different historical eras, different balances would have to be struck, according to circumstance and opportunity. In the early 1950s, Michael contended, when there was no movement for fundamental change afoot or even on the horizon, the radical intellectual "was obliged to seek his own alienation." In the 1960s, with a … widening of the possibilities for securing real social gains, "the radical must brave semi-commitments." [Christopher Lasch's] The New Radicalism in America, Michael argued, "misses the ambiguity of the radical who must exist in mid-air between sectarian irrelevance and successful betrayal."

Again, from the mid-70s:

[Harrington wrote] "The vocation of a radical in the last portion of the twentieth century is to walk a perilous tightrope. He must be true to the socialist vision of a new society and constantly develop and extend its content; and he must bring that vision into contact with the actual movements fighting not to transform the system, but to gain some little increment of dignity or even just a piece of bread."

[Isserman observed that for Harrington] … Socialism was a process, rather than a result, and there was never going to be a final moment of triumph when the red flag was raised over the prostrate capitalist foe. But neither was the world static and unchanging. The accumulation of thousands of small and often hidden changes in politics, in economics, and in culture would some time or another add up to a transition -- if not a revolutionary leap -- to a qualitatively different world, where human existence was governed not by necessity but by freedom.

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:

'We must go where the people are, which is the liberal wing of the Democratic party," Michael told the assemblage. Radicals should get over their love affair with being principled losers: "Victory, even limited victory, is radicalizing. Defeat, even glorious defeat, convinces people you can't fight city hall. It is time to speak our own name in the Democratic party, to become a conscious visible presence."

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.


Kay Dennison said...

We need a new movement based on the old stuff. But that would mean thinking and caring, wouldn't it?

I've added this book to my overloaded reading list.

LarryE said...

I understand the dilemma, the two-way tug between "now" and "future" that Harrington felt. For whatever it's worth, this is how I expressed it for myself in a speech some years ago (for context, I was running for office at the time):

"Now I may sound like a philosopher, but the fact is that what I'm interested in is change: not slogans, not philosophies, but getting-the-job-done type change. That means being hard-nosed, practical, and factual in our programs. It was the Italian pacifist Danilo Dolci who said 'Faith does not move mountains. Work, exacting work, moves mountains.'

"But when I say 'practical,' I don't mean practical in the sense of the neoliberals, those people who lower their sights, harden their hearts, darken their vision, and then congratulate themselves on their 'realism.' No, I mean something different. You know the saying 'I dream dreams of things that never were and ask "Why not?"' What we have to do is dream dreams of things that never were and ask 'How?' How? What are the practical steps we can take, right now, today? We have to approach the world with steel in our eyes.

"But at the same time we can't let the steel in our eyes cloud the dream in our hearts. We have to hold to the vision of what we as a people, what we as a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse.

"That's what I call on you to be: steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, factual work to be done but never forget just where that work is supposed to take them."

Like I said, FWIW.

janinsanfran said...

Hi LarryE -- some speech! Did you prevail?

Haven't seen anyone make reference to Danilo Dolci in years and appreciate being reminded ... what a great quote. Thanks.

LarryE said...

Jan -

Re prevailing: I was in central New Jersey running for Congress as a democratic socialist. So, um, no.

If you'd like to know what I'm up to these days, you can check out my YouTube channel.

Oh, and having done that bit of shameless self-promotion, I should tell you that while I rarely comment - actually, yesterday may have been the first time - I come by here almost every day. Just FYI. :-)

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