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Michael Harrington, American Socialist

Democratic Socialists of America founder Michael Harrington, who died thirty years ago today, was a beacon of humanity, decency, and socialism throughout his lifetime.

Michael Harrington in Boston on December 11, 1977. (Barbara Alper / Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, on July 31, 1989, Michael Harrington died in Larchmont, New York, a victim of the cancer that he had battled since 1985. He was sixty-one years old. Among Harrington’s enduring legacies are his authorship of The Other America: Poverty in the United States, the 1962 book that helped spark the War on Poverty during the Lyndon Johnson administration, his service as a political adviser to Dr Martin Luther King Jr (“You know,” Dr King once jokingly told Harrington, “we didn’t even know we were poor until we read your book”), and his leading role in the 1982 founding of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Harrington was raised in a devoutly Catholic household in St Louis, educated at Jesuit institutions, and gained his first left-wing political experience in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement. In his last years, confronting his own mortality, he found the familiar religious phrases of his childhood echoing in Latin in his thoughts, especially Magnificat anima mea Dominum (My soul doth magnify the glory of the Lord).

Harrington hadn’t actually been a believer since departing the Catholic Worker for the socialist movement in 1952, at age twenty-four. Even the prospect of imminent death wasn’t going to change that; shortly before the end, he told his childhood companion and cousin Peggy Fitzgibbon, a nun, that if upon dying he somehow came face to face with God in heaven, he intended to accuse Him of mumbling.

That didn’t mean he had lost interest in the religious teachings and sensibility of his youth; their echoes continued to inform the way he understood the world, including his personal commitment to the socialist cause. “I grew up in the Church,” he told a reporter in the early 1980s, “and from the time I was a little kid the Church said your life is not something you are to fritter away; your life is in trust to something more important than yourself.”

In the introductory chapter of The Politics at God’s Funeral, an extended consideration of morality and politics from a socialist perspective published in 1983, Harrington discussed the implications of eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s argument that God’s existence cannot be proved:

So God is not the basis of morality, for morality rests upon reason, and reason cannot demonstrate that God exists. He is, rather, a postulate of morality, a being who gives us cause to act upon the categorical imperative of the conscience. One acts “as if” God were there.

A “postulate” is something suggested or assumed as true, as the basis of reasoning, argument, or belief.  Socialism for Harrington, at least in his later years, had become a kind of Kantian “categorical imperative,” a requirement that must be obeyed to satisfy the demands of conscience. Thus, for a religious believer, “one acts ‘as if’ God were there,” or, in Harrington’s case as a socialist, one acts as if achieving socialism were an imminent possibility.

Interviewing Irving Howe, founding editor of Dissent magazine, a couple of years after Harrington’s death, I asked him whether his good friend and comrade had truly believed he would ever see socialism in his own lifetime. Not really, Howe replied, certainly not in his last several decades of political involvement. Howe, too, compared this understanding of socialism’s meaning to Kant’s categorical imperative, “something which helps . . . determine your immediate behavior.”

Socialism for Harrington, in other words, was more a process, or perhaps a journey. “Socialism is still beginning,” Harrington wrote on another occasion, “a task to be accomplished, not a destiny to be awaited.”

As readers of Jacobin don’t need to be reminded, democratic socialism is currently having its (hopefully longer than) fifteen minutes of fame in the United States, sparked by Bernie Sanders’s strong showing in the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory in New York State’s 14th Congressional District two years later, and a resulting tenfold growth in DSA’s membership. One side effect is that Michael Harrington’s name is getting mentioned more often in mainstream publications — if sometimes disparagingly.

Last March, in an article in New York magazine titled “When Did Everyone Become a Socialist?” reporter Simon van Zuylen-Wood offered a good-natured, if gossipy, set of variations on the “Brooklyn hipster” trope about DSA’s recent gains (“At least in Brooklyn and the spiritual Brooklyns of America, calling yourself a socialist sounds sexier than anything else out there . . .  ”). Well, whatever, he spelled the name right.

Not much history in the piece, at least before 2016, but van Zuylen-Wood does take one glance back toward DSA’s misty origins in the long-ago eighties, writing that the organization “was founded, to little fanfare, in 1982 by the social theorist Michael Harrington. Harrington’s group occupied the ‘left wing of the possible,’ a sensible enough mantra that excited nobody and helped the organization stay minuscule for decades.”

“Left wing of the possible,” I’ll admit, is not the most exciting slogan I’ve ever embraced. As a freshman in college in 1968, I joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which offered much more rousing alternatives — “The elections don’t mean shit – Vote with your feet,” is one I particularly remember from that fall (I still have the button). There were also a lot of bracing slogans about things we were determined to “smash” — imperialism, racism, sexism, you name it. Good stuff. Exciting. Of course, a year later, SDS, a hundred thousand strong when I signed on, proved that its most enduring legacy lay in smashing itself out of existence.

Somehow, in contrast, Harrington’s boring old DSA hung on for three and a half decades of obscurity until it could reinvent itself as the institutional base upon which the current revival of democratic socialism is being built. And, as I asked in a letter to the editor of New York in response to van Zuylen-Wood’s article, what is it that’s “behind DSA’s recent growth, if not a variant of operating as the ‘left wing of the possible’? Isn’t that what Bernie Sanders represents? And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? They are working within the Democratic Party to push it leftward.” And with considerable success, I might have added, as the party embraces what a few years ago would have been seen as fringe policies and slogans — Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, a $15 an hour federal minimum wage. All of which was an awfully long time coming — but might, with some historical perspective, be seen as the vindication of Harrington’s “sensible enough mantra that excited nobody.”

Still, it’s probably wiser to let sleeping slogans lie. “Left wing of the possible” was coined in a particular historical moment, the dawn of the “Reagan Revolution,” when Antonio Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect” seemed a better guide to the immediate future of the American left than its companion “optimism of the will.” Thanks for the shift lately to a more optimistic appraisal of the Left’s prospects go to Bernie, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, and a host of others.

Members of the new generation of democratic socialists will naturally come up with slogans more congenial to the times in which we now live (and, I suspect, “the elections don’t mean shit” won’t be one of them). Since Harrington’s lifelong political project, from the 1950s through the 1980s, was recruiting the next generation of American socialists, I imagine that would strike him as entirely appropriate.

Reporting back to his comrades on a national speaking tour he had undertaken on behalf of the newly founded Democratic Socialists of America in 1982, Harrington commented wryly that the only “negative note” he encountered en route was an otherwise sympathetic article in the Baltimore Sun describing him as “the grand old man of American socialism.” Actually, he insisted, he remained in his sixth decade “a closet youth.” Thirty years after his death, I think both descriptions fit the man and his legacy.