Page 12


FORTY YEARS AGO Michael Harrington walked into a decaying house near the Mississippi River in St. Louis. The house, Harrington wrote in his autobiography, Long Distance Runner, “stank of stopped-up toilets, dead rats, and human misery.” Though the social worker’s job that led him into the house was only a way station for Harrington, an opportunity to save enough money to go and live a Bohemian poet’s life in New York, what he saw on a rainy day in 1949 changed forever the direction of his life. “An hour or so later,” Harrington wrote, “riding the Grand Avenue streetcar, it dawned on me. that I should spend the rest of my life putting an end to that house and all that it symbolized.” Harrington compared the experience to Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus a Protestant experience. “Protestants” Harrington observed, “tend to have dramatic conversions.” \(Perhaps a more appropriate comparison for the Jesuit-educated Harrington would have been Ignatius’s muleback And so reborn, he began. ,Michael Harrington embraced the teachings of Dorothy Day and became a Catholic Worker, lived the renunciate’s life in a Worker’s house where he spent two years serving the poor. In 1950, when the Korean War began, he declared himself a conscientious objector, in 1951 he met Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s perennial Presidential candidate. An autodidact, Harrington immersed himself in Marx and classical German philosophy, mastered German, French. By the mid-1950s he was a “fiercely sectarian socialist” who would have nothing to do with an organization like the Democratic Party. In some ways, it seems, Harrington was a quintessentially Jesuit atheist. The secular religion he professed was firmly rooted in an elaborate intellectual system and the movement he envisioned was based on a cadre an order of socialists advancing a cause. BY THE TIME he stood before the gathering of American radicals at Port Huron, Detroit, Harrington was “America’s oldest young socialist.” It was at Port Huron, the 1961 crucible for Students for a Democratic Society, where Harrington defended the anti-communism of his particular faction of the Old Left against the Soviet accommodationism of the New Left. Harrington, then 34 and a member of the League for Industrial Democracy, according to Todd Gitlin in Years of Hope, Days of Rage, “. . . must have been horrified that [Tom] Hayden would refer to trials, executions, and invasions of Eastern Europe as `irresponsibility’ and ‘small and large denials of human dignity.’ With Hungary still burning in his heart, Harrington could not have warmed to Hayden’s statement that `the savage repression of the Hungarian Revolution was a defensive action rooted in Soviet fear that its empire would collapse.’ ” Though Harrington later admitted that he was guilty of a “middle-aged tantrum,” at Port Huron, Gitlin ultimately conceded that Harrington had been more right than wrong on the issues. According to Gitlin, who was both a participant and chronicler of the Port Huron meeting, Harrington “took on all corners.” How could SDS write off American labor, where Harrington had found more indigenous socialism than in any other sector of society? In the labor movement Harrington discovered “intellectuals who have never been to college, reflective people who have come to a profound understanding of a society by their participation in it. . .” Unions, Harrington argued, were the only hope of a united labor-left coalition. “If one dismissed the entire American labor movement, and the libeial middle class, what hope was there of ever building a majority coalition that could transform the most powerful and imperial capitalist power in human history?” This pragmatic thinking ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the Democratic Socialists of America. American socialists, by Harrington’s analysis, had been committing political suicide attempting to create a European-style party and movement. While in Europe there are true political parties, in the U. S. there are undisciplined and “periodic coalitions” brought together every two years by electoral opportunism. Coalitions with no real programs to put in place when elected. The Democratic Party, Harrington wrote, includes “some of the most reactionary people in the United States: not just crooks and swindlers, which was obvious enough, but union busters, militarists, racists, sexists, and just about every single variety of political undesirable.” But the same party also includes “the clear majority of the progressive forces.” =0, .b.iTi… server AUGUST 18, 1989 VOLUME 81, No. 16 FEATURES The Union Vote By Louis Dubose 1 Bushwacker Democrats By Ronnie Dugger Developers’ Paradise By Tom McClellan 14 DEPARTMENTS Dialogue 2 Political Intelligence 11 Books and the Culture Bright Lights, Big City By Rosalind Alexander 16 A Journey Without Maps By Bryce Milligan 18 A Window Unit on the South By Bill Adler 19 Afterword Editor’s Notes By Dave Denison 22 So the DSA became a party within a party its most recent contribution to national politics, the agenda advanced through the Presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson. Michael Harrington faced the end of his life with an optimism befitting an American socialist. Ronald Reagan’s America, Harrington wrote, would also pass. The ideas that he himself had advanced were again becoming more acceptable. In 1987, Harrington testified before the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources; in 1988 he was drafting speeches for Jesse Jackson, and Harrington’s commentary was a regular feature on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” The Other America, which inspired Kennedy and Johnson’s War on Poverty, is as timely today as it was in 1962 when it was published, and Harrington’s 14 additional titles are an important part of the socialist-progressive canon. In the months before he died, on August 1 of cancer that had been diagnosed 1985, Michael Harrington continued his writing and NPR radio commentary. He died, still fighting against everything the miserable house he walked into in 1949 represented. He would no more renounce the term socialist and become an American liberal than he would accept seven percent unemployment as full employment. “The fundamental truth of these times,” Michael Harrington believed, “is radical.” L.D. EDITORIAL The Other American THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3