Book Review

The Unfollowed Leader

Michael Harrington, the successor to Norman Thomas as Mr. Socialism U.S.A., was not unfamiliar with Austin (though he spelled the name of the great legislative watering hole, Scholz’s, with a u). “On several occasions,” Harrington wrote in Fragments of the Century (1972), “I stayed in Austin … with Ronnie Dugger, the gentle, fervid, and brilliant editor of the Texas Observer, and spent time with the paper’s staff … and liberal legislators…. One law-maker even insisted that I sing the ‘Red Flag’ with him in the middle of Schultz’s beer garden.” Always likable, both a capable beer-drinker and a wide-ranging “public intellectual,” Harrington is now the subject of a definitive biography, The Other American, by the well-known historian of the Left, Maurice Isserman. Isserman’s reminder that LBJ for a while took counsel of Harrington may boost consolatory consumption at Scholz’s: Dubya harkens to Marvin Olasky.

By its title, The Other American recalls Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States, the little book that made a big noise in 1962 (six printings by 1964). Galbraith’s The Affluent Society had unintentionally provided “a celebratory catchphrase for the genius and bounty of the free market,” but an undeceived editor at Commentary set quick-studying free-lance Harrington to work with the suggestion that poverty would still be a good subject for an article. Harrington in fact did two articles, showing that “the culture of poverty” did too exist among some 50 million people from a total population of roughly 180 million. Publishers then saw the prospect of a money-making book, and Harrington signed a contract with Macmillan – with a princely $500 advance. Dwight Macdonald (often an ass but not always) gave the book a boost with a long, laudatory review in The New Yorker; JFK probably read the review if not the book; and after Kennedy’s assassination, Harrington was summoned to Washington to work with Sargent Shriver on Johnson’s plans for a “war on poverty.” A Socialist had become a celebrity, and (the ultimate in fame) his book is still excerpted in anthologies for freshman English courses.

Predictably, the free-lancing Socialist wasn’t altogether happy or profoundly influential among the great decision-makers. They were deeply concerned – for political advantage; but they weren’t prepared to expend, in improving life in the U.S.A., resources of the magnitude that they would later waste in destroying life in Vietnam. Murderous war in Southeast Asia combined with the Democrats’ election disaster in 1966 to put an end to benevolent warfare, some forty years after Herbert Hoover had boasted that “the final triumph” over poverty was almost at hand. Today, Michael Harrington remains “the man who discovered poverty” (which needed no discovery). The nation remains conservative in compassion for the poor.

There is much more to the Harrington story than The Other America. Otherwise there’d be no excuse for 450 pages on a self-described failed poet and “itinerant agitator” who himself produced two autobiographical volumes, The Long Distance Runner (1988) as well as Fragments of the Century. Besides the story of poverty’s discovery and discoverer, Isserman tells two others: “the story of Michael Harrington’s personal transformation from golden youth to a kind of secular Saint Francis of Assisi,” and the story of Harrington as heir to Debs and Thomas “as America’s foremost socialist,” who spent decades in only

partially successful efforts “to create a ‘left-wing of the possible.'”

Of Harrington as would-be saint, not much need be said. Isserman provides the relevant information, such as Harrington’s rather brief service (1951-52) “as a volunteer at … the Catholic Worker soup kitchen and residence” on New York’s Lower East Side. In his three score years and a bit, Harrington served other good causes (such as the civil rights movement), mingled with Eminencies as varied as William F. Buckley and Martin Luther King Jr., and won such affection as marked the celebration of his sixtieth birthday. Six hundred guests paid to honor him, and he was praised by César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, and Edward Kennedy. In what for him was highest praise, Kennedy said that Harrington had come closer than anybody else to fulfilling Robert Kennedy’s “vision of America.”

Isserman’s third story, the story of Harrington’s own vision, describes Harrington’s years of untiring labor for his variety of socialism. It was a conservative socialism, with public ownership of the means of production just one of the options that it offered. Simplified, it might be called a socialist version of government of, by, and for the people; but Harrington the practical idealist never tired of agitating for it.

Sometimes his personal qualities, even his idealism, got in the way. Aged thirty-four in 1962, he felt that Students for a Democratic Society, in their famous Port Huron Statement, showed insufficient respect for him as a wisely critical elder; and later the confrontational New Leftists grew contemptuous of his careful opposition to the Vietnam War. That opposition was consistent; but as a resolute anti-Communist, Harrington refused any action that would appear to support Communists against the United States. In his repeated speaking tours, he had come to a thorough knowledge of this country, and he had no sympathy for reforms driven not by love of it but by hatred.

Though Harrington had taken part, from the Fifties, in the interminable battles among Socialist mini-groups, it’s unnecessary to attempt a narrative of the moves and countermoves among “Socialists at War” (Isserman’s Chapter Nine). The Socialists were a vanguard (trapped in New York’s distinctive provincialism) that insisted on splitting into splinters of splinters. Isserman summarizes in one unhappy sentence: “The Vietnam War destroyed the Socialist Party, and with it Michael’s chance to reshape and reinvigorate the entire democratic left in America.”

The adjective “democratic” is crucial. Harrington wanted no part of authoritarian bureaucratic collectivism, and he was a gradualist, not a revolutionary. Knowing that social fragmentation had destroyed a single, unified proletariat (if such a proletariat had ever existed) and that no future either good or bad was inevitable, he still held on to his “hope for freedom, solidarity, and justice.” He began his last book with the proposition that “socialism … is the hope for human freedom and justice under the unprecedented conditions of life that humanity will face in the twenty-first century” (Socialism Past and Future, 1989). Instead of the “hierarchical and authoritarian organization of work,” he wanted “democratic control from below by the people and their communities.” Even folks who have a hissy-fit at the mere word “socialism” should find no fault with that.

Yet Harrington, as he died of cancer, died an honored and honorable failure. One look at “Technopolis” – Austin in the year 2000 – is enough to prove it. Amid loud triumphalism, Austinites form the quintessential two-tiered society; and at Scholz’s today, even Harrington might need more than a few pitchers to stay hopeful. Isserman ends his book with the judgment that “in American political culture” now, there’s “little room” for Harrington’s belief that one could “change the consciousness of a nation,” as he tried to, by building an organization, starting a publication, and speaking to every accessible audience.

In my view, Harrington’s background, upbringing, and personal character shaped that belief in top-down reform. For all his generosity, he could say of the poor that “society must help them before they can help themselves,” and there’s a lot of meaning in MLK’s remark (though he invited Harrington to his house for dinner) that “we didn’t know we were poor until we read your book.” I have to agree with Harrington’s friend and critic Paul Jacobs, who maintained that poverty was “the product of power relations within capitalism and could be ended only when poor people acted collectively in their own interest.” Like feminism, the civil rights movement moved the country because lots of ordinary folks just decided that they wouldn’t ride in the back of the bus any more. Certainly followers will find leaders, but a vanguard without followers quickly becomes a comic spectacle.

Harrington was never comic, but Isserman’s sad conclusions are still the right conclusions. His book deserves high praise. Neither hagiography nor psychography, it’s a richly researched, even-handed, yet affectionate account. It never speaks of Harrington as Harrington but always as Michael, but its statements are backed by over sixty pages of meticulous notes. Isserman continued his research as late as June, 1999; during over fifteen years he interviewed a variety of knowledgeable people; and he drew on written materials ranging from “the parochial records of Glanworth Parish in County Cork” to The Squirrel Hill Times. He records the most minute facts without getting lost in them. For example, Harrington got no grade below “B” in the M.A. program in English at the University of Chicago (“C” in grad school would have been failing), but he couldn’t spell burgundy. The Other American fully deserves the abused adjective definitive.

Having called Michael Harrington’s career an honorable failure, I must end this review with reminiscence. Harrington sat in my Chaucer class at Chicago, and that memory recalls another. When I was just starting out, a perceptive senior scholar warned me, “A teacher’s highest reward is to have some part in the education of minds better than his own.” I’ve learned a hell of a lot more from reading Harrington than that whole class learned from me. He taught me, for one thing, that a practical idealist wouldn’t say there’s no difference between Gore and Dubya, between a tricky but experienced and substantial bore and a smug nonentity in hopeless debt to rich puppeteers. At least the gods didn’t give us two nonentities.

James Sledd is professor emeritus at U.T.-Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST