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Has democratic socialism been a disaster in the U.S.?

A review of Doug Greene’s A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism

Tom Canel

Platypus Review 149 | September 2022

Doug Greene, A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2022).

WHEN AN INDIVIDUAL represents a politics, their biography can become a political treatise. Doug Greene’s recently published biography of Michael Harrington is a case in point: Greene announces the political thrust of the book in its very title: A Failure of Vision. Via a well-presented and intellectually honest historical account, Greene seeks to show that Michael Harrington’s influence upon the Left has been fundamentally deleterious; Greene goes as far as to say “disastrous.” In this review, I seek to recognize the high quality of the historical writing found in this book, just as I push back regarding its political stance.

Following youthful involvement in the Catholic Workers’ movement, engagement with New York bohemia, and involvement with the democratic, but distinctly sectarian, socialist politics of Max Shachtman during the 1950s, Harrington became a public figure writing and having published in 1962 a book exposing the reality of poverty in 20th century America. Harrington’s The Other America, made an enormous splash, as Greene writes: “By 1965, The Other America had sold over 70.000 copies, and gone through at least five editions” (64). Harrington’s book is credited for helping launch Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty projects. Harrington also became an advisor to the emerging Civil Rights Movement. After a psychic crisis, exacerbated by unexpected public success, Harrington recommitted himself to his socialist affiliations. Determined that the socialist Left break out of its debilitating marginalization, he became America’s oldest “young” socialist, acting as a liaison between the anti-Communist Old Left and the emerging New Left.[1] Given the contrast in historical experience, tensions between these generations of the Left was inevitable, as perhaps was the culmination of these tensions in a bitter breach. However, Harrington himself regretted his exacerbation of those breaches that led to personal bitterness between himself and many of the New Left generation. (These events are carefully detailed in Greene’s book.) The outcome was particularly bitter for Harrington, in that the old guard’s hostility to the anti-war movement in the 60s and to the New Politics expressed by George Mcgovern’s 1972 Presidential run, forced an equally bitter split in the Socialist Party between Harrington, his allies and the Rightward moving Old Guard, now led by Max Shachtman. (There was also a third faction that opposed both the war in Vietnam and work in the Democratic Party.)

Out of the fragments of the Socialist Party, Harrington led a group opposed to the Vietnam War, but supportive of socialists working within Democratic Party coalitions to form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). As Greene recounts, Harrington was desperate to atone for his mistakes of the 60s, and spent the remainder of his life rebuilding unity of the small-‘d’ democratic Left. The formation of the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) out of a merger with the New America Movement (NAM) in 1982 was an important step in this reconciliation. NAM incorporated veterans of the New Left, as well as former Communist Party members and leaders (including Dorothy Healey). The DSOC / NAM merger aspired to mend the rift between the anti-anti-Communist and the anti-Communist democratic Lefts.

My own memories of Harrington in the 1980s are dominated by his commitment to growing the fledgling socialist organization, and to zealously containing the centrifugal internal forces that threatened to tear the hard-won unity of the diverse organization asunder. His commitment to finding a viable consensus within DSA seemed unmitigated. He put great pressure, even on those identified with his politics, on everyone to compromise their demands for the good of building the socialist movement. (I recount my experience of such pressure below.) In this, he should be seen as having been a better socialist leader than Eugene Debs. Debs attempted to maintain unity in a fractious Socialist Party by standing above and distancing himself from the nitty gritty of internal factional politics. Rather than trying to be above the fray, in both DSOC and DSA, Mike dove into the weeds of internal factional disputes, albeit with the purpose of diffusing them. In the course of the narrative, Greene cites Harrington’s longtime friend and confidant, Bogdan Denitch, as emphasizing the extent to which Harrington was a “party-builder.” Denitch noted that this commitment involved getting political hands dirty, belying somewhat the perceptions of Harrington as “Saint Michael.” I myself felt betrayed when Mike spoke against a stand I took at a DSA national meeting in, if I remember correctly, 1987. I was trying to amend a resolution, whose language, unbeknownst to me, Harrington had helped negotiate. The resolution committed DSA to use its “leverage” in the labor movement to encourage support for Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition in the 1984 Democratic Party primaries. I argued that DSA should not be telling unions what to do, and that the language about using our leverage should be struck. My sense of betrayal came from the fact that I was making arguments that I had learned from Harrington himself. What I did not understand, in my youthful, albeit stodgy social democratic passion, was how important maintaining DSA unity was to Harrington. (I remember my then girlfriend, now wife, having to patiently explain this to me at the time.) Arguably, my youthful failure of vision is shared by too many of my decidedly non-social democratic counterparts in today’s DSA. When socialist organizations are fragile, unity is a precious asset to be nurtured.

The commitment to establishing a socialist presence within the Democratic Party’s progressive, liberal wing came to define Harrington’s political strategy. Greene follows what seems to be current practice on the Left: putting this all under the rubric of “the realignment strategy.” That is not quite right. As Greene’s narrative recounts, the realignment strategy, as originally formulated, applied to a historically specific political constellation. It presupposed that the presence, in the Democratic Party of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, of advocates of racial segregation in the South obstructed the natural development of trade unionists, Civil Rights Movement supporters, feminists, etc. into a mass social democratic movement of the kind that had become a real presence in Western Europe after the end of World War II. The idea was to force the segregationists out of the Democratic Party, enabling the hidden social democracy to come out into the light. Passage of the Civil Rights Act proved to be enough to prompt the segregationists to switch parties without additional effort from the progressives. However, the emergence of a new neoliberalism within the Democratic Party, presaged by Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential run, stymied the hoped-for progressive dénouement of realignment. (Harrington was quick to see the dangers to his project posed by the rise of neoliberalism in the Democrats, which was why, even though DSA did not endorse any Democratic candidate for president in the primaries of 1984, Harrington made sure that we mobilized against Gary Hart’s candidacy.) While the realignment strategy, strictly defined, became inoperative when the segregationists left the Democratic Party of their own volition, Harrington’s commitment to socialists operating within the liberal / labor wing of the Democratic Party continued to lie at the core of his political strategy, as A Failure of Vision recounts.

Greene’s thesis is explicit: Harrington’s orientation to the Democratic Party surrendered genuine radicalism at the altar of respectability, and this surrender was disastrous for the Left. In my view, Harrington’s concern with respectability was actually a mark of political seriousness. Harrington did not abhor opposition to the status quo; what he abhorred was sectarian isolation from political relevance; in his view, such isolation made opposition to the status quo moot.

Harrington’s Left anti-Communism has always provoked controversy. Greene’s account reveals how Harrington’s version was fundamentally different from Right-wing anti-communism, but stresses that it was still anti-communism nevertheless. Supporters of Michael Harrington would stress here that Left anti-Communism does not denounce non-authoritarian understandings of communism. Greene argues that in the context of the time at least, even Left anti-Communism was politically disastrous. Greene describes Harrington’s defense of democratic rights against McCarthyism of even Communists he regarded as authoritarian. However, for Greene, condemning Communists for authoritarianism was necessarily politically deleterious, because it helped the Right discredit the Left. Harrington’s fraught relations with the New Left during the 1960s acts as grist for the anti-anti-communist mill here. Greene notes — and this is an instance of his intellectual honesty and seriousness — that Harrington did not just dismiss or oppose the New Left. While profoundly critical of an alleged diffidence toward the established labor movement and the need to oppose Stalinism, as well as being opposed to apparent flirtations with insurrectionism, he believed that “once the new Left’s ‘substitute proletariats’ and Blanquism failed, then they would return to realism and come up with a strategy that offers real hope for the other America” (109). Harrington later acknowledged and deeply regretted that some of his decisive responses to the alleged failings of the New Left were overly harsh to the extent of being destructive.[2] Greene acknowledges Harrington’s remorse about ill-considered actions, but notes that Harrington never abandoned the Left anti-Communist values that precipitated them. For supporters of Harrington such as myself, he made tragic mistakes of judgment during the 60s, for which he took full responsibility. We feel that he more than atoned for them through invaluable contributions during the 70s and 80s. Some on the Left though, Greene included, argue that the mistakes went beyond interpersonal tonal stridency. At stake here is the identification of the nature of Stalinism’s betrayal — Harrington thought of Soviet and Chinese Communism and the like as instances of Stalinism — of socialism: are the crimes of Stalinism better understood as being the suppression of basic civil liberties and political rights by authoritarians usurping a socialist identity, as Harrington would have claimed, or is it better to consider them as consisting primarily of the strangling of the post-1917 revolutionary wave, as some in the Platypus Affiliated Society would aver? (Challenging the latter view, one might argue that it was historical reality, not Stalinism, that strangled the post-October revolutionary wave.) Like it or not, as Pabloites have always pointed out, subsequent actual attempts at constructing revolutionary post-capitalist society were predominantly Stalinist in nature.

Harrington’s work within the Socialist International (SI) in the 80s demonstrated that he had learned from his mistakes of the 60s. Not only did he, as is recorded in A Failure of Vision, help to rebuild the SI as an organization of some effectiveness, he used his credibility as a known Left anti-Communist to advocate for the SI to be supportive of the revolutionary Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the FDR / FMLN[3] in El Salvador. He supported his own organization, DSA, working closely with a Central America solidarity movement that shared as uncritical a stance towards third-world revolutionary movements as that expressed by the New Left in the 60s. He was able to articulate carefully modulated critiques of illiberal actions by the Sandinistas, without creating the kind of damaging fallout that tarnished his less measured interventions of the 60s. Since I first encountered Harrington speaking at a 1979 DSOC Youth Section conference, his good work of the 80s inevitably stands out for me more than the mistakes of the 60s.

The unifying thread of Greene’s argument is that Harrington’s desire for respectability belied genuine radicalism and this was disastrous for the Left. Specifically, Greene argues that this desire led to the realignment strategy and its allegedly “disastrous” consequences. I would start my defense of the realignment strategy and its latter day counterparts by recasting the desire for respectability imputed to Harrington as being, rather, an abhorrence of sectarian isolation. Given the unbearable horrors of capitalist reality, the Left forgoing effectiveness in mitigating, let alone overcoming, those horrors, by isolating itself from the political mainstream has been the real disaster.

Harrington was clear that sectarianism toward the hard Left can be as problematic as sectarianism toward liberalism, and he viewed his own mistakes of the 60s as an example of the former variety of sectarianism. An example of this: Harrington and his allies being late to advocate unilateral and unconditional U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. For too long they called for a military ceasefire to be followed by negotiations, rather than the unconditional withdrawal of troops. (Greene gives a good account of this in the book.) While in 1965, one could argue that the Negotiations Now position was in line with mainstream anti-war sentiment, and advocating that position was the most effective way to leverage popular sentiment to end the war. But, by 1968, as Greene relates, anti-war sentiment had clearly gone beyond just calling for a ceasefire and negotiations, and it was sectarian misjudgment for Harrington and his comrades not to realize that.

Was engagement with the Democratic coalition by socialists disastrous for the Left, as Greene claims? I would argue that on the contrary, engagement with the Democratic Party, whether in the form of Communist Party support for the New Deal in the 1930s or support for Bernie Sanders and the Squad today, has been much more positive than negative, enabling Leftists to at least begin to break out of stifling isolation. To counter this argument, opponents of this orientation to the Democratic Party have to demonstrate that, on the contrary, this engagement had measurably negative results, and made outcomes substantively worse. The above claims cannot be demonstrated, because they are simply not true. For example, the American working class would not have rushed to the revolutionary politics of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party or even the centrist (in between revolutionary and reformist) politics of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party, if the Communists had not encouraged support for Roosevelt and the New Deal. Twists in the Comintern line notwithstanding, the Communists were following the workers, not the other way around. Today, Leftists breaking with Bernie and the Squad would not lead to the constitution of a mass revolutionary party or movement, but just return the Left (including DSA if it were to go down this route) into a state of isolation. The only times that the Left has been able to grow outside of the Democratic Party, is when movements, such as that of the anti-Vietnam War movement, have gained traction outside of the Democratic Party. However, progressive movements disconnected from the Democratic Party are unlikely to gain much traction today. As Harrington always pointed out at many a speech at DSA Youth Section conferences in the 1980s, roughly 99% of the social movement people we would need to reach to build a socialist bloc, are, currently at least, accessible only via the Democratic Party. Today at least, access to social movements, like labor, racial-justice coalitions, feminism, and LBGTQ+ necessitates engagement with the Democrats. Platypus writers have concluded from this that we should stand aloof from social movements, at least as they are currently constituted, and acknowledge ourselves to be in a pre-political stage. Immersion in the social movements currently arguably involves liquidation into the Democratic Party. For those Leftists who refuse to remain pre-political by staying aloof from mass movements, there is, I claim, no viable alternative but full engagement with the Democrats.

A Failure of Vision is both a work of history and a political treatise. Its quality as a book of history is exemplified in the intellectual honesty of providing substantive detail, even when that detail complicates the political case being made. Greene does not obscure the complexities and nuances of Harrington, either as a person or as a political actor. I admire A Failure of Vision as a book of history. (Everyone should rush out to buy it!) With respect to its political thrust though, I respectfully demur. |P

[1] Capital-“C” “Communism” is here understood as “official Communism” of the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union, China, etc., whereas lowercase-“c” “communism” should be understood in a more general sense. Similarly, capitalized “Socialist” refers to a specific organization(s), while “socialist” denotes the more general meaning.

[2] For details see both Failure of Vision and Maurice Isserman’s equally excellent but more sympathetic biography, The Other America: The Life of Michael Harrington (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2000).

[3] Frente Democratico Revolucionario / Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional.