Socialism in bad times

Submitted by AWL on 15 August, 2004 - 9:55 Author: Colin Foster

Colin Foster reviews The Other American: the life of Michael Harrington by Maurice Isserman

This book has some interesting things to teach us about how socialists operate, both in times of adversity and in times of opportunity.

Michael Harrington, later to become the USA's most famous reform socialist, joined the US socialist movement in 1952. It was not a good year for the movement.

Working-class combativity had declined sharply since the big strike wave of 1946-7. It had been assuaged by economic boom, and pushed down by Cold War political reaction. McCarthyism was rampant.

"Third Camp" socialists, like the group Harrington would join - people who refused to side with the USSR in the Cold War - were doubly unlucky. They were abhorred by majority opinion as communists different only in quibbling from the outright Stalinists, and despised by most of the left, Stalinists and Stalinoids, as fainthearts and sectarians.

The Stalinists, the Stalinoids, and even some of the neo-Trotskyists, could gain courage from the thought that great (if maybe imperfect) revolutions were proceeding in China and Vietnam. The "Third Camp" socialists had too lucid a view of the Stalinist reality to be comforted.

The group that Harrington first joined, the Young People's Socialist League, had 134 members spread across the vast expanse of the USA. Within a year or so the YPSL would split and Harrington and his friends would join with the youth of Max Shachtman's Independent Socialist League to form a Young Socialist League. It had some dozens of members, no more.

Often, small revolutionary Marxist groups recruit primarily by being in the right place at the right time - by finding some friendly and lively broader movement in which they work with new activists and convince them. In the USA of 1952 there was no "right place" of that sort. A "third camp" socialist within the YPSL, Bogdan Denitch, found Harrington on a small protest outside the Spanish embassy against repression of trade unionists in Franco's Spain.

Harrington was not a ready-made recruit. He had been brought up in a wealthy Catholic family; had dropped out of Yale Law School; and, after a spell in journalism, had gone to live and work in the Catholic Worker soup kitchen for the destitute in New York.

The Catholic Worker group were an odd lot - vaguely anarchist but also ultra-pious. According to Harrington: "There was a standard Catholic Worker statement in my time. People would ask, 'What are you here for?' And we would sometimes say, 'Well, I want to be a saint'. That was considered a perfectly rational and legitimate thing to say".

Denitch was not daunted. He had not gone to the Spanish protest just to register a presence, or to groan at the follies of the young Catholic leftists. He was looking for people willing to discuss, however big the arguments he would have to have with them.

Harrington had already read some Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, prompted to do so by an debate between the anarchist, individualist approach of Catholic Worker, and Catholic trade unionists. He was widely-read in theology and philosophy, too.

Denitch bombarded Harrington with books, magazines, and arguments. Denitch was only 22 - two years younger than Harrington - and had been in the socialist movement only four years, but he knew what to give Harrington to read, or, when he didn't know, he knew how to find out.

After some weeks, Harrington joined the YPSL. Nine months later, he ceased to believe in heaven and hell, quit Catholic Worker, and turned himself to full-time work in the socialist movement. Another year or two later, he would finally abandon his belief in God.

The YPSL was attached to the US Socialist Party, which, writes Isserman, "had reached an advanced stage of organisational decay". The SP supported the USA in the Korean war.

The "Shachtmanite" ISL was politically more vigorous, but organisationally in sharp decline. Two years later, when Hal Draper, the editor of the ISL's paper, denounced Irving Howe for quitting the movement and abandoning the struggle, Howe could sneer back: "What struggles does Draper have except the very real one to fill the pages of Labor Action every week?"

But the ISL did not wait for mass movements to come along to give them a boost. They looked for every point of leverage they could find. They latched onto the YPSL, rallied a faction with Denitch and Harrington to oppose the Korean war, and split it away.

Once formed, the new Young Socialist League latched onto Students for Democratic Action (SDA), a group of a few hundred students sponsored by a mildly leftish Democratic Party think-tank. Instead of recoiling in disdain at the naivety or slackness of the SDA, they rallied those students who would oppose McCarthyism (which the parent body critically supported). Eventually the parent body shut down the SDA and the best activists went to the YSL.

The ISL also agitated for the US trade unions to form a labour party. That was probably right as a broad general perspective. As an immediate guide to action, with the US unions as they were in the 1950s, it was useless, and would remain useless for decades to come.

Paradoxically, what would eventually turn the rump of the ISL into a sect was not go-getting tactics of the sort of its operations in the YPSL and the SDA, but erosion of that sort of activity and collapse into the broad perspective.

In 1958 the ISL entered what was left of the Socialist Party. In theory this might have been another go-getting tactic. In fact it was not. As left-wing politics revived in the early 1960s, the ageing ex-ISLers got themselves stuck in a policy of defending the existing labour movement - in effect, the trade-union bureaucracy - against the (often ultra-left) young radicals. They morphed their labour party perspective into one of "realigning" the Democratic Party, the argument being that if the racist southern-US wing of the Democratic Party could be sloughed off (as in fact it has been) then the Democratic Party would actually become a labour party valuably bulked out with constituencies in the black communities and among middle-class leftists.

In 1962 Students for a Democratic Society adopted a new, more radical, manifesto, the Port Huron Statement. SDS was a student offshoot of a leftish think-tank, and now Harrington was on the board of the think-tank.

Harrington and his colleagues thought SDS's new turn prejudiced their grand perspective. They sacked the SDS full-time staff and changed the locks on the SDS office.

The new policy was soft on Stalinism, they said. It had a sentence criticising "unreasoning anti-communism" - though it also declared SDS "in basic opposition to the communist system."

The SDS manifesto was irresponsibly impatient with the labour movement, they claimed - though it warned that "middle class students have yet to overcome their ignorance, and even vague hostility, for what they see as 'middle-class' labor bureaucrats".

By 1969, when SDS was 100,000 strong, it would indeed splinter into various follies of Maoism and ultra-leftism. In the meantime Harrington and his friends had virtually defined themselves out of influencing that evolution.

Their "various pronouncements about the shortcomings of the anti [Vietnam] war movement" gave the impression that they had "already, in their own minds, lost the battle to influence the movement".

"It was as if Michael and his comrades were in a rush to claim the role of a defeated and excluded opposition - something that, of course, had been the fate of anti-Stalinists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. But this time their assumption of this role came at a moment when they still had a good chance to emerge at least in a position of influence comparable to that of their rivals on the left".

It may be coincidence, but is probably not, that Harrington defined himself out personally for many of the crucial years for the shaping of the new left - getting married and spending a year abroad in 1962-3, having a child in 1968, spending more of his time on writing books. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1965.

By the early 1970s Max Shachtman himself, and some of Harrington's other friends, had hardened their stance from the early and mid 1960s to the point where their main political activity was seeking positions at the top of the trade union bureaucracy. But Harrington retrospectively criticised his stance on Port Huron in 1962, and moved into unequivocal opposition to the Vietnam war. He broke with Shachtman in 1970 (much later than those ex-ISLers who continued to be revolutionaries, like Julius Jacobson or Hal Draper).

Although until his death in 1989 he continued to consider himself a Marxist, as early as 1966 he had concluded that "the theory of the working class's historical mission has been undermined by the technological revolution". The future belonged to "no single class, but a coalition of progressive social forces". Harrington's phrase for it was the "conscience constituency".

In 1973 Harrington founded what is now the Democratic Socialists of America, a mildly social-democratic caucus within the Democratic Party. Isserman, a DSAer himself, writes a very readable biography, though one marred by snobbish disdain for, and consequent incomprehension of, the debates in the revolutionary Marxist movement of Harrington's youth.

The book, published in 2000, is now widely available remaindered.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/08/2004 - 20:26

Colin Foster's review of Maurice Isserman's biography of Michael Harrington was mostly fair. Some corrections are required, though. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is no more a caucus within the Democratic Party than the AWL is a caucus within the Labour Party. It does officially support some Democrats -- and some Greens and some independents -- but it is not part of the Democratic Party machinery, in large part because there really is no such machinery. Nor is DSA "midly social-democratic." DSA is openly anti-capitalist. Mild social democrats are, at best, resigned to capitalism, believing nothing better is feasible.

Now, why would socialists ever support candidates of a bourgeois party, you might ask. The answer is as follows:

British comrades should understand that the U.S. electoral system system is not analogous in any significant way to these or any other liberal-democratic electoral systems. Consider England, where Ken Livingstone wanted to run for mayor of London, and the majority of dues-paying Labour Party members voted for him, but party mechanisms allowed Tony Blair to deny him the nomination. He therefore ran as an independent, which made perfect sense in that context. But were Livingstone an American and had run for office as a Democrat, he could have won the Democratic nomination simply by winning the primary, no matter what the Democratic National Committee, or any Democratic official, wanted. While it may be true that Republican and Democratic Party clubs, wards, etc., can throw people out, the "members" they toss out can still run in Party primaries for Party positions. The state, not the parties, controls who can join (anyone who registers); the parties have no control over who registers, runs in their primaries, or holds office under their name.

The U.S. effectively has 435 separate parties, corresponding to each electoral district, loosely affiliated, but with no party discipline. (At the moment, Democrats and Republicans — aside from their Presidential candidates — are more polarized from each other and more homogenous internally than at any time this century, but for most of this century, each party would have votes going in completely opposite directions on almost every vote.) The national parties may help but they are usually do not contribute a significant portion of any candidates funding. One effect of the McCain-Feingold bill is that even less money will be now coordinated by the national party committees; left-of-center donor groups are now setting up their own coordinating groups to directly hand out money. (No one writes checks to "the Democratic Party"; they write them, usually, for individual politicians.)

No Democratic Congressperson has ever been sanctioned in an effective way by the Democratic National Committee. Congresspeople may be challenged by unions or corporations or other non-party groups, but not specifically by the party organs themselves. There no party discipline at all exerted in that way. Within Congress, party discipline is at times enforced by promising or denying "pork" to chairmanships, but this is the same for any candidate of any party once elected. It's standard operating procedure for every legislature in the world, regardless of whether it's a multi-party proportional system or a two-party first-past-the-post system. Most party discipline in the U.S. is exerted from the grassroots, not from inside the Beltway. Congresspeople hardly care about the call from DNC headquarters, but they do care about the calls from back home. And those calls are now more partisan and uniform district to district across the country than they once were, largely because Southern Democrats are now overwhelmingly responsible to black or increasingly Latino rather than white primary constituencies, much like urban Democrats in the North. There has also been a homogenization of cultural polarization of constituencies between the "parties" around issues like abortion and the environment.

It shouldn't be forgotten that the central organizing event of the modern U.S. party system was the Civil War — an event of transcendent significance and permanent effects for Americans, the results of which loom over our political system even today. As a comparison, reference Ireland, in which the Labour Party has never risen above third place, because Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were the opposing sides in the Irish Civil War, which was the crucial fact in the organization of the modern Irish state.

The institution of the Presidency, elected separately from the legislature, is also a barrier to the building of a mass third party. (Note that Charles De Gaulle, by creating an elective Presidency for the Fifth French Republic, largely destroyed the multi-party nature of French politics.) And then there's the Federal system. The effects of this on U.S. politics are often overlooked — the most dramatic example is, of course, the Civil War. The U.S. is the only country that fought such a war over the abolition of slavery because it is the only country that defined so basic an institution as local! Consider such matters as corporate charters to see how federalism privileges the rule of bourgeois politicians. Furthermore, federal systems contribute "fuzziness" to electoral results — as in Canada and Germany, where opposition parties tend to gain control of the states or provinces in elections that react against the center.

All of this should be taken into account when making an argument regarding pro-working class electoral strategy. The unpalatable bottom line is that the U.S. Constitution requires coalition politics in order to get anything done. And, given the rules of the game and nature of American society that means that both (main) "parties" are in fact coalitions of disparate elements, which contain elements that are unsatisfactory to each other. Both the Republicans and Democrats have a hard core of ideological/interest group supporters, and a group of centrists who ally with them for one reason or another. The cores are always dissatisfied that they don't get their way on "more" while the center always entertains fantasies of the imaginary "great party of the center," which would sweep any election.

It is a fact that every Democratic president since the Civil War (with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt) came from the center-right of the party/coalition. Candidates further over rarely win the nomination and never the presidency. And certainly every Democratic nominee for president since George McGovern has been, in reality, a pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council type (the DLC has a wonderful ability, whenever its candidates lose, to blame it on the Democratic left wing). In governance, both Carter and Clinton have both ended up unsatisfactory both to the DLC and to the "liberals" (which is what U.S. social democrats are usually called), because they scurried back and forth between them. That's the nature of the Democratic Party, and it is that way because of the reality of the political system in which Americans live.

Had Al Gore become president, he would, perforce, have done what Clinton did, and tried to satisfy, alternately, all the different groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Bush has done the same, only with much greater ease because of the more homogeneous nature of the Republican Party. That means his views are to the right of some 70 percent of the American people.

The nature of the American electoral system is what it is, and not to be overcome by an act of will. The reason that third parties haven't become major parties once the ballot access rules were changed in the 1890s is not a failure to try. It’s been tried, and tried, and tried again.

Similarly, the link of major institutions such as the AFL-CIO to the Democratic Party is not to be overcome by an act of will. The supporters of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign may believe they are speaking for the oppressed but it is a necessity of what they are doing to denigrate the leadership of those potential allies. But the AFL-CIO is lead by John Sweeney, not George Meany, and it makes the same electoral decisions. Why? Because, given the electoral system, it makes sense. (This is not to say that Sweeney is a radical, but he is not to the right of the typical European social democratic labor top.) It was just those calculations that made most of the leaders of the Socialist Party, at various stages since the 1932 election, abandon the idea of running SP candidates and become Democrats. Does this solve the problem of building a mass socialist left? Hardly. _No strategy has worked._

However, I do have great confidence in stating that a never-endorse-Democrats third party strategy, under the present rules of the game, won't work. Changes in state laws to permit multiple-party endorsements, the alternate vote, proportional representation and the like would vastly improve the prospects of third parties. Hell, a simple proposal to substitute a direct popular vote for the Electoral College would help third parties.

A simple geographical way to think about the U.S. is to remember that the state of Missouri is not only the population "center" of America — it is also the political center: it votes for the winning candidates more than any other state. Show me the likelihood of a successful leftist third party in Missouri and I'll scream, "break with the elephant, break with the ass, build a party of the working class!" Absent that, I'll continue to support social-democratic Democrats, and those who think that I'm actually supporting bourgeois politicians will continue to be mistaken.

Adam Kohn

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