Book review: Biography of Michael Harrington exposes his ‘Failure of Vision’

By CHUCK CAIRNS

Review of Greene, Douglas, “A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism” (Zero Books, Alresford, England, 2021).

Greene’s book is a valuable tool for revolutionary socialists. It traces the political life of one of the most influential American socialists of the 20th century, Michael Harrington (1928-1989). Harrington was a founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is now the largest socialist organization in America, and it is growing rapidly. As Greene says, “Since 2016, members swarmed into DSA as ‘democratic socialism’ gained in popularity with the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders. In just 3 years, DSA has gone from an older-aged paper membership of 6500 to a vibrant and younger one approaching an impressive 60,000, and it is now the largest socialist organization in the United States in over 60 years.”

According to the DSA website as of this writing, it has grown to over 92,000 dues-paying members since Greene wrote. It is obvious that there is a large reservoir of young people fed up with a government that is unable to govern while the world is going to hell in a basket, and who are energetically looking for ways to take matters into their own hands. Many of these youth consider themselves socialist and they quite naturally flock to the DSA. However, as Greene explains, the DSA has neither the political program nor the leadership cadre to lead a transition from capitalism to socialism. This is tragic; the world needs a socialist revolution, yet the largest socialist party in America is not up to the job. Revolutionary socialists should use Greene’s book as an educational tool to help recruit for building a party that is capable of leading the human race from capitalism to socialism.

Greene’s book has 11 chapters and an appendix. The main body of the book traces Harrington’s life from his Jesuit education as an Irish Catholic in St Louis, Mo., to his commitment to Democratic Socialism and the founding of DSA. The appendix is an evaluation of Harrington’s interpretation of Marxism; not only can this be read independently of the first 11 chapters but it is an excellent primer of the Marxist political tradition, including the essential contributions of Lenin and Trotsky, in the form of a critique of Harrington’s thinking.

Greene describes how Harrington’s politics never rose above those of a petty bourgeois radical. He was unable to make a firm choice between support of a revolutionary program and catering to the liberal bourgeoisie; he was comfortable with the middle-class values of his upbringing and never adopted a proletarian political perspective. He arrived at his socialism not through any personal experiences in the class struggle, but through his Jesuit-trained intellectual reasoning and debating skills. He enjoyed the company of intellectuals and middle-class liberals more than that of militant youth and rank and file; he was never able to penetrate deeply into workers’ struggles, but rather catered to the labor bureaucracy who had been, essentially, bought off by the capitalists.

The main political idea that guided Harrington throughout his political career was the Realignment Strategy (RS) that he proposed in the 1960s. Despite the fact that RS has been an “unmitigated disaster for democratic socialism and the wider left” (p. 13), MH stuck with it until his dying day. Although the DSA has technically dropped RS, the party’s practices remain well within the confines of that strategy, a point made not only by Greene, but also by Kim Moody in “Breaking the Impasse.”[i] RS holds that socialists should work within the Democratic Party because its major “constituents” are “labor unions, blacks, women and farmers,” and that socialists should drive “out its racist, conservative and wealthy elements so that the party would truly represent the interests of the ordinary people.” The realigned Democratic Party can then be used to push for strengthening welfare, passing the Green New Deal, instituting universal health insurance, and building a just and efficient democracy here in the metropolis of the empire, a democracy like those in most of the rest of the capitalist world. All this would “lay the foundations for democratic socialism.”

Many of the fallacies of RS that Greene points out apply to the current DSA. First and foremost is the idea that socialist forces could somehow capture the Democratic Party and convert it into an instrument to replace capitalism with socialism. The Democratic Party is a sophisticated tool that has been used by the capitalists and imperialists since Roosevelt to thwart, co-opt or otherwise head off any serious challenges to their rule. The capitalists, who hold a firm hegemony within the Democratic Party, are very experienced at using this tool. It is pure hubris to think that socialists could somehow hoodwink the capitalists into ceding their party to socialists so that we could weaken their hold on power. The Democratic Party has a set of very effective strategies for becoming the graveyard of all progressive social movements, including labor, civil rights, environmental movements, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. It stretches plausibility to think that we could somehow convert the Democratic Party into an instrument for transitioning from capitalism into socialism.

The American ruling class in the 1930’s was faced with a working class that was showing unprecedented combativity as it flocked by the millions into the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). The question of the day was whether this heralded an organization of the workers into political organizations, independent of the capitalist class, where they might be able to develop a program of mounting a serious challenge to capitalist rule. President Roosevelt managed to reform the Democratic Party into an instrument that was able to restructure the instruments of class rule so as to absorb this discontent into traditional political norms. That is where the leaders of the Democratic Party, a section of the ruling class, learned to co-opt, decapitate and comfortably absorb any social movements that have the vaguest hope of challenging capitalism. And that is why the Democratic Party is poison for any socialist movement. Not only are they far too crafty for us to snatch their party away from them, it wouldn’t be a useful tool even if we did; the Democratic Party is designed for capitalist rule, not for proletarian rule.

Another fallacy that Greene points out is that RS is doomed to failure because “it refused to develop an independent socialist organization,” (p. 68) a flaw that persists into the current DSA. DSA is a membership, dues-paying organization, but it is hardly independent of the Democratic Party. A perusal of their website reveals that a major focus of their activity is running their own candidates on the Democratic ticket. Whenever any of their candidates fail an election, DSA usually ends up supporting a Democrat as “a lesser evil” candidate. As an inheritor of Harrington’s RS, the DSA is hardly “an independent socialist organization.”

A third fallacy that Greene points out with RS is that “the liberal-labor alliance was an illusion of Harrington’s own imagination.” Citing Kim Moody,[ii] he argues that liberalism was “mostly a middle class phenomenon” that not only could never gain sufficient traction to challenge capitalist property relations but was even unable to expand Roosevelt’s New Deal programs such as a national health-care system. Even though liberals were not effective allies for social change, Harrington nevertheless argued that winning and maintaining liberal support was absolutely necessary for transitioning from capitalism to socialism; socialists therefore had to “practice moderation and respectability by playing nice in the Democratic Party” (p. 68). The proper arena for political actions by socialists was in the Democratic Party, not in the streets. Greene says “… RS forced socialists to maintain good relations with liberals in the hopes of reform at the expense of revolutionary militancy from below” (p. 69).

This is an important point: because Harrington’s road to socialism requires not antagonizing labor bureaucrats, liberals and other allies in the Democratic Party, radical activity must be carefully reined in. Chapter 8 of Greene’s book, entitled “The Tightrope,” gives revealing examples of how Harrington would consistently subordinate political independence and a revolutionary program to coalitions with liberal capitalist politicians. Harrington’s stance on the imperialist assault on Vietnam is particularly revealing because it illustrates typical petty bourgeois vacillations—an inability to make a firm choice between the camps of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, of revolution and imperialism. As long as Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Democrat was in the White House, Harrington counterposed the moderate slogan “Negotiations Now” against the increasingly popular antiwar demand “Out Now”[iii] because he did not want to “actually offend the sensibilities of Democratic Party Liberals or anticommunists in the AFL-CIO.” However, when Nixon, a Republican, became president in 1968, MH abruptly switched and favored an American withdrawal without prior negotiations.

Harrington’s utter lack of a revolutionary program is revealed by an incident that Greene recounts in Chapter 9, which describes the formation of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. By 1976, DSOC had managed to “become part of the mainstream Democratic Party, just as our theory said we should, and had even won the approval of voters in one congressional district in the process. Our only problem was, we didn’t know what to do.” One must marvel at his lack of program such that he didn’t know what his next step would be upon winning a major political “victory.”

I propose that revolutionary socialists use Greene’s book in an educational campaign aimed at the young workers and students who are attracted to the current DSA. It not only exposes the fatal flaws of DSA and its commitment to the Democratic Party, it also provides, in the Appendix, a very useful introduction to the revolutionary thought of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky.

NOTES:

[i] Moody, Kim, “Breaking the Impasse: Electoral Politics, Mass Action, and the New Socialist Movement in the United States.” (Chicago: Haymarket Books) 2022.

[ii] Moody, Kim, “On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War” (Chicago: Haymarket Books) 2017.

[iii] Fred Halstead’s book “Out Now,” describes the important role of revolutionary socialists in the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam and it holds important lessons for contemporary socialists. Halstead, Fred, “Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the U.S. against the War in Vietnam.” (New York: Pathfinder Press) 1978, 1991.

Photo: Michael Harrington in 1988. (Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)

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