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.