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What Remains of Michael Harrington’s Legacy

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) founder Michael Harrington died today in 1989. Here, former DSA national director Maxine Phillips reflects on the legacy of her friend and comrade.

Members of the Democratic Socialists of America gather outside of a Trump-owned building on May 1, 2019 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty

History may be written by the winners, but it’s also written by people who weren’t there, and whose interpretations then become fodder for another generation that wasn’t there, either. And even if you were there, your memories don’t always correspond to those of your comrades.

Thus it has been with Michael Harrington’s memory and legacy. Today, his name is known only to the people who heard him speak or whom he recruited to the democratic-socialist movement, as well as to sociology students who might be assigned his most famous book, The Other America. Some newcomers to the movement have called those early recruits “Harringtonites,” a term none of us ever heard or would have thought of using.

Mike didn’t shy away from the limelight, but he didn’t believe in “condescending saviors.” He trusted in the intelligence of the people who made history from the bottom up. And he knew that the movement didn’t depend on one person for it to succeed.

Historian Jim Chapin, who served as a national director when Mike chaired the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), said that Mike’s greatest strength was that he never gave in to despair. The hope he always held out was not the hope of optimism. It was hope grounded in thoughtful analysis and hard work. Hope that we could find solutions. He certainly had ideas, and detailed them in some sixteen books, yet he stressed that the actual program would have to be hammered out in the crucible of politics.

Not all of his books stand the test of time. But a budding socialist should read his 1972 Socialism or the posthumously published Socialism: Past and Future.

How many times over the past thirty years have I longed to be inspired by Mike’s rhetoric, to hear his analysis of an issue, to see him at work bringing conflicting sides together? Those tasks have fallen to others, and they’ve done well. The difference is that Mike could do all of it, which was both a strength and a weakness. In his day, he was the best-known socialist in the United States. Now, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wear those labels, and it’s a more crowded field. This is a good thing.

Thirty years ago, I could say to non-leftists that I belonged to Michael Harrington’s organization, and they would know his name, if not always his specific politics, which I would then explain. Today, I can say that I’m a member of DSA, and the connection to socialism is immediate.

What remains of Mike’s legacy, then? In the spirit of the three points that Mike would always make (nobody can remember more than three points, he claimed), here are my takeaways.

First, there are the people and how they’ve spent their lives. Hundreds of young people were motivated by him and his soul-stirring speeches during their politically formative years. Many of them built organizations that continue today, even if not as explicitly socialist ones.

He championed “visionary gradualism,” what later DSAers would call “non-reformist reforms,” think Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act.

Mike, after all, never forgot that real people suffered under capitalism and needed help right now, right here, not in some future workers’ paradise. He could talk to auto workers and doctoral students in economics, to talk-show pundits or rallies of thousands. And when he was through, every one of them had a broader vision of the “left wing of the possible.”

Second, there is the model of cooperation on the Left and uncompromising commitment to democracy. Mike left behind an organization that did not die with the charismatic leader, nor did it split into various factions, each “purer” than the last. Having learned from the mistakes of his Trotskyist mentors and his own early ideological rigidity, he vowed to keep an open mind to newcomers and new ideas. However long it took to listen to the opposition and then make his own points, giving a little, taking a little, he would make the effort. A meeting would end on a Saturday with discord, and after several hours, usually in a bar, all parties would have come to an agreement by Sunday morning.

Third is the refusal to despair. And here, I think, today’s socialists could look to another book of Mike’s, The Long-Distance Runner: An Autobiography, written after he’d received his fatal cancer diagnosis. George H. W. Bush had been elected president. The damage done to workers, people of color, women, and the poor by the preceding Reagan years would lead to even worse outrages. But Mike played a long game.

What would he have made of those comrades who post on Facebook that they’ve been active for three years now and capitalism hasn’t surrendered, so they’re taking a break?

When he died, I wrote in Dissent that “no matter how tired he was, no matter how dismal the external or internal political situation, he could call forth the best in us, holding out a vision of a new world.”

Mike’s name may no longer be synonymous with that of DSA, and his books no longer appear in bookstore windows. What remains are the people who were inspired by him and who in turn inspired others, the willingness to engage in the messiness of real-world politics, and the vision of a world where inequality no longer exists.