Revolutionary righteousness: A review of Doug Greene’s A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism
Platypus Review 149 | September 2022
Doug Greene, A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2022).
FROM THE 1960s through his death in 1989, the social critic Michael Harrington was often described as “America’s leading socialist,” a part previously played by Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas.
While Harrington never ran for President or led mass movements, his book, The Other America was widely credited with inspiring the war on poverty. He advised prominent Democratic leaders, including the Kennedy brothers. And he founded the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has since grown to some 100,000 members — the largest socialist organization since the days of Debs and Thomas.
But, most of all, Harrington tirelessly spread the socialist gospel, authoring 18 books and countless articles and lecturing at college campuses and union meetings across the country.
Now, in this relatively short book, Doug Greene very clearly states his thesis: “Michael Harrington and his legacy have proved to be a disaster for the development of socialist politics.”
Where does Greene think Harrington went wrong? And how could he – or anyone – have done better?
To be clear, this book is not an ideological hatchet-job. With admirable accuracy and even affection, Greene presents short narratives on various phases of Harrington’s life, starting with his Jesuit education and ending with his struggle with the cancer he discovered in 1984 and that ultimately killed him in 1989. In most of Greene’s narrative, Harrington’s major flaw centers on his advocacy that socialists engage in the mainstream of U.S. politics by working in the Democratic Party.
Only in the Appendix with a more in-depth theoretical discussion, do we learn that Greene argues that the more fundamental problem is that Harrington did not advocate a violent overthrow of the capitalist state — a “flaw” that Harrington shared not only with Debs and Thomas but also with socialist and communist leaders in other advanced societies.
Despite his harsh assessment, Greene shows respect and at times even fondness for his subject. As Harrington works through various issues, Greene refers to him as “Michael,” as though describing a friend. Through his Jesuit education, his ultimately futile struggle to maintain his Catholic faith, his sojourn to the edges of the Trotskyist movement as a disciple of Max Schachtman (whose journey took him from the Far Left to the Center Right before Harrington jumped off the train), and his lifelong identification as a Marxist. Harrington, Greene makes clear, always took ideas seriously.
While according respect to Harrington’s intellectual seriousness, Greene relentlessly argues that Harrington’s thoughts and actions proved baneful for the Left. Greene certainly does not belong to DSA, but he clearly seeks to influence the relatively large group of young people who have joined in recent years.
Let’s start with the centerpiece of the narrative section of Greene’s book.
He focuses on “realignment.” For those who came of age after the 1960s, this goal of transforming the Democrats into an expressly liberal party rooted in the labor and civil rights movements was pursued by pragmatic progressives from Harrington’s followers in the Socialist Party (SP) to realists in the student Left, including the late SDS leaders Paul Booth and Todd Gitlin.
Arguing it was and is the wrong strategy for socialists to pursue, Greene puzzlingly capitalizes “realignment,” takes it out of the specific historic context of the 1960s. It is really shorthand for saying that socialists had and have no proper reason to work with Democrats.
But Greene overlooks the history of the 1960s, when realignment was pursued by liberals, socialists, and most prominently civil rights activists who aimed to purge the openly racist, Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party. Because of Congressional seniority rules and the “Solid South” pattern of whites voting for Democrats after the Civil War, the Dixiecrats held key committee leaderships and consistently blocked legislation to benefit blacks. Greene quotes Harrington writing in the Socialist Party’s publication New America, arguing that realignment is a “precondition for the resurgence of a meaningful Socialist politics.”
Contrary to a lot of current debate about whether this strategy made sense, Harrington never proposed that a realigned Democratic Party would become a social democratic, much less a socialist party. As he phrased it himself many times over the years, Harrington opposed running third-party candidates in the interests of building a “first party” that could achieve real reforms. Democrats won the support of most workers, nearly all blacks and most liberals. Harrington hoped that a party without the racist Dixiecrats would be able to achieve real material gains for its supporters and that socialists could function openly to push Democrats to the Left.
Thus, the labor-liberal-civil rights coalition could and would become a natural governing majority. In the vast throng that filled the streets around Alabama’s capital at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights, he believed that he glimpsed that natural majority taking form. That mobilization did usher in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With the signing of that bill, the Dixiecrats lost their ability to stop civil right legislation. In an immediate sense, the realignment strategy had been achieved.
But the coalition in the streets of Montgomery did not pre-figure a liberal governing majority. When signing the Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) ruefully noted that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. More than fifty years later, it seems that LBJ was too optimistic. The Solid South that supported the Democrats for one hundred years after the Civil War became the strongest region for a Right-wing Republican resurgence.
Why did this happen, and what does it mean for socialist politics in 2022 and beyond?
None of this concerns Greene. After recounting the shameful treatment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Atlantic City Convention, Greene oddly concludes that blacks learned that the federal government would never be on their side. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law just a year later. Black voting rights did change the South and the nation.
This did not equate to the socialist revolution. Then again, neither Harrington nor the most important democratic socialist of this era, Martin Luther King, Jr., ever thought it would. Ending the legally sanctioned Jim Crow era did constitute a revolution. But, as King understood well, that revolution needed to be carried to a next level to achieve an American version of democratic socialism. In 1968, the Poor People’s campaign intended to do just that. King lost his life fighting for the dignity of sanitation workers in Memphis seeking to build a union. Readers who want to understand this era can consult Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume history around the theme of America in the Age of Martin Luther King.
Seeking to explain it all, Greene’s eternal sectarian wisdom explains nothing: Democrats are a party controlled by the capitalist class. Resistance is futile. And back to the sort of socialist organization Harrington first joined 70 years ago: a posse of purists arguing about theses as esoteric as Greene’s.
Harrington understood the strategy of socialists entering mainstream U.S. politics in a historic context. Realignment, in that sense, preceded that specific 1960s context. Greene and Harrington have very different understandings of that history. Exploring the Left’s positioning in the New Deal era provides a useful window into those different understandings.
Greene notes that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) reforms contributed, in the long run, to the stability of American capitalism. One cannot argue that point, but in the concessions by the New Deal to labor, workers and blacks (after the wartime ban on racial discrimination in war industries) made substantial gains. Harrington rightly notes that in the 1930s, the Communist Party (CP), by endorsing the New Deal, moved into the mainstream of American politics and played a key role in leading the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CP openly endorsed the New Deal, quite aware that FDR was not promoting a socialist program. Norman Thomas and the Socialist Party (and the very small Trotskyist grouping) in the 1930s opposed Roosevelt precisely because his program was not socialist. The mass of working people understood very clearly that the New Deal represented real advancement in their lives. FDR’s re-election campaign in 1936 was waged on clear class lines. Michael Kazin in his recent history of the Democratic Party argues that the New Deal Democrats were close to being a labor party. Union membership quintupled from 1933 when FDR took office till 1945 when he died.
The SP lost a major portion of its membership and leadership because of its firm opposition to working with Democrats. Upton Sinclair, a lifelong socialist, ran as a Democrat for Governor of California in 1934 on the EPIC (End Poverty in California) slogan. He lost the general election because of a massive mobilization by business interests (especially the newly powerful movie industry, which churned out propaganda against him). In the 1936 election, the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, representing the mass base of the SP split with Norman Thomas. Working with Popular Front Communists, they formed the American Labor Party so that workers could vote for FDR without backing Tammany Hall. Greene in several sections of his book mentions Walter Reuther. He neglects to note that Reuther and hundreds of others belonged to the Socialist Auto Caucus that played a significant role in organizing the United Auto Workers (UAW). In the 1938 Michigan gubernatorial election, the Socialist Party decreed that no socialist could support incumbent Democratic Governor Frank Murphy. A year earlier Murphy, resisting fierce business pressure, refused to call out the National Guard to end the Flint sit-down strikes. The general pattern in prior U.S. history was that either the state or federal government could be relied upon to break unions by sending in the troops. With neither Roosevelt nor Murphy playing that role, the UAW succeeded in winning a contract with General Motors. Reuther and his many allies in the Socialist Auto Caucus had to decide on their allegiance to their Socialist Party heritage or to the new UAW. Obviously, they chose their union.
Harrington understood this 1930s history as part of the background to a realignment strategy. In the debate over where socialists should have been, he sided with Upton Sinclair, with Sidney Hillman (leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers) and with Walter Reuther over Norman Thomas. By the 1950s, Norman Thomas agreed with that assessment.
Much as that history shaped Harrington in his approach to how socialists function in U.S. politics, Greene shows little interest in these details. While Greene laments that in the 1980s, leaders of the Democratic Party repudiated the New Deal legacy, one wonders why that matters. After all, FDR’s reforms stabilized capitalism. So why does it matter that subsequent Democrats abandoned the spirit and substance of the New Deal?
In his Appendix, Greene explains more. At the core of it all, Harrington’s failure of vision comes down to his not being a revolutionary socialist committed to the violent overthrow of the capitalist state. In explaining why revolutionary violence remains a current necessity, Greene cites Chile and the Spanish Republic as examples of how the bourgeoisie will resist a peaceful socialist transition. Of course, in both 1930s Spain and 1970s Chile, the fascists who rose to power depended on foreign sponsors, Hitler and Mussolini for Franco, Nixon and Kissinger for Pinochet. Greene himself cites the Spanish Republicans as a Popular Front government. A few pages earlier, Greene informs us that the Popular Front had nothing to do with promoting socialism. In his reporting from Spain, George Orwell also made clear that the revolutionary currents in Catalonia were quite distinct from the Republic’s overall politics. The Chilean Left under Allende’s leadership pursued an aggressive reform agenda. The most revolutionary action, seizing and nationalizing the copper mines, had support across party lines in the Congress. While Kissinger ranted that the Chilean people could not be allowed to vote themselves into communism, it’s more likely that the U.S. intervened to stop the power of a good example, i.e., an honest, democratic and Left-led government capable of delivering benefits to its citizens. If Allende succeeded, others might get ideas. Breshnev, in crushing the Prague Spring in 1968, had the same motivation. Arguably Putin’s current invasion of Ukraine seeks the same end.
More recent and more relevant examples of the failure of socialist transition can be found in Sweden and France in the 1980s; in neither case did the ruling class need violence to achieve its ends.
Swedish unions promoted the Meidner plan. Workers’ pension funds could over time buy controlling interest in major firms. This put into practice Harrington’s concept of the “euthanasia of the rentier.” In France, a united Left won a decisive victory to put Francois Mitterand into the Presidency. The Socialist government promised major, structural reforms.
Mitterand’s ambitious plan to restructure French society faced a strike by French capital. The Socialists needed to trim back their program. Similarly in Sweden, a hard push back from business leaders forced the Social Democrats to abandon the Meidner plan and a program that would move beyond the welfare state.
Workers’ movements across Europe had succeeded in creating advanced welfare states over many decades. Harrington understood clearly that the welfare states in Europe and the New Deal order in the U.S. represented an uneasy truce in the ongoing battle between labor and capital. Capital constantly sought to undermine the gains workers had won. By the 1970s many socialists grew concerned that the historic gains represented by the welfare state were threatened by a newly aggressive business offensive. The structural reforms proposed in France and in Sweden aimed to increase the power of popular forces over the business class. While Reagan and Thatcher ruled the U.S. and the UK, socialists on the Continent hoped to establish an alternative set of governing assumptions.
Those hopes were dashed in the global ascent of what we now describe as neoliberalism. Globally, capital pushed back against the social democratic compromise in Europe and against the weak welfare protections in the U.S. That neoliberal offensive doomed the hopes Harrington and DSA had raised for a major Leftward move in American politics.
For socialists who see the reforms of the New Deal here and the advanced welfare state abroad as simply strengthening and stabilizing capitalism, the struggle against neoliberalism may look like weak reformist politics. That misunderstanding obscures the history of the last forty years of U.S. and world politics. Bernie Sanders in his two Presidential campaigns mobilized millions specifically in the struggle against neoliberalism. Our politics is better for that mobilization.
Greene’s advocacy of violent socialist revolution makes no sense in the U.S. of 2022. There are people who believe fervently in their right to take up arms against an oppressive federal government. That’s why they insist on their Constitutional right to possess assault rifles. We know that some of them had weapons stored in northern Virginia on January 6, 2021, hoping that Trump would issue a call to arms to preserve his government. In El Paso and in Buffalo, white supremacists have used their assault rifles to kill immigrants and blacks.
They have the guns and the willingness to use them. Promoting the fantasy of an armed workers’ uprising that looks like the 1871 Paris Commune provides a sense of revolutionary righteousness, but the concept of an armed workers’ uprising bears no relation to the reality of U.S. politics now or in any future that we can currently imagine. As Greene notes elsewhere, ideas have consequences. He should think long and hard about the consequences of advocating violent insurrection in a country already suffering too much violence — and in a country where opponents of democracy are actually preparing for armed struggle. |P
 Students for a Democratic Society.
 See Michael Kazin, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).
 International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.