Page 14


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 teer 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 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 Cesar Chavez, 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 thirtyfour 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” were a vanguard \(trapped in New York’s 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 proleeither 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, thoritarian 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 inthat “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, evenhanded, 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 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. 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 7. 2000