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Socialism for Our Time: Meeting Michael Harrington

Before Bernie Sanders, another famous Democratic Socialist led the fight for economic justice in the U.S. I met him in Maine when I was a VISTA-sponsored community organizer.

I met Harlan Baker in 1975 after my transfer from Augusta and United Low-Income (ULI) to a coalition partner, We Who Care, in Portland, Maine (my cynical friend Bob Thomas laughed himself silly upon hearing the name). Both organizations handled an array of community problems, from housing to welfare-rights questions, and lobbied the rich and powerful on behalf of social programs and awareness. My new office was located in a storefront next door to a barber college, just off Congress Street, Portland’s main street.

Harlan was a friendly, smiling labor organizer who dropped by frequently to discuss the topic of the day—usually politics, as Jimmy Carter had recently opened his campaign for the presidency. One day he came in and noticed my copy of Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States amid my pile of reading materials. Like Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, the book had biblical overtones for social activists like me who needed reference and inspirational material to carry on the cause of fighting for social justice in America. “Would you like to hear him?” Harlan asked, with his engaging smile and an innate mischievousness that I liked so much.

Harrington was scheduled to speak later in the week at the Saco-Biddeford campus of the University of Maine, a short drive from downtown Portland. As it happened, Harlan was host and designated driver for the engagement, as well as being a good friend of the renowned socialist author.

I went with Harlan as he picked Harrington up at the Portland Hilton.   The experience spun my head. I was in the company of one of the greatest social thinkers who ever lived, the intellectual heir of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. The man who enjoyed open access to JFK and had famously influenced the former president’s thinking.   Here was a man who had marched with Martin Luther King. Here was a man who had committed his life, against all odds, to the cause of democratic socialism! Harrington got in and sat in the front seat as Harlan drove over to the college. I sat in back next to Harlan’s pretty girlfriend, Christine.

Michael Harrington was one of my heroes, and meeting him remains one of my greatest life-events. Sensing my awe, he put me at ease with open, friendly questions about my Oregon roots, noting how much he liked the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t have to ask me about my job. I was an organizer, like him, and he knew all about our line of work.

A founder of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, Harrington had some time before split with America’s hardline socialists, whom he believed were drifting towards a totalitarian ideology suspiciously related to Soviet communism. For Harrington, socialism was a democratic ideal. His interests lay in reformulating the American system to create an economically inclusive democracy, ideas he elucidated in 1972’s Socialism: Past and Future, a book I believe to be as relevant to America’s present disposition as it was in 1975, the year I met the author.

At the college, the academics seized Harrington and took him to the stage where he sat as someone from the political science department introduced him. Naturally the introduction went on too long, embarrassing Harrington, who I briefly fantasized might cut the man short by clubbing him on the head with his notebook.

Harrington got up and talked about the current role played by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in destabilizing the Middle East. A gasoline shortage was then gripping America. He spoke for an hour, before mingling with whoever wanted to talk to him for another hour. When it was all over, Harlan drove us a few blocks to a bar in downtown Saco, a small city about 15 miles south of Portland.

Harlan opened the door of the bar for Harrington, and as he walked in the crowd parted like a sea of fans at a championship prize fight. The bar crowd showered him with love, and it dawned on me that the place was filled with activists, graduate students and professors, all of whom had been waiting for him. A big round table in back was prepped. Pitchers of beer were already set up. Somebody offered Harrington a chair. He sat down first as the honored guest and as many as could fit around the table joined him.

We drank beer and talked until closing, though I mostly listened and drank. Being one of the youngest and most inexperienced (never mind least knowledgeable) people in the room, I was hesitant to raise my voice. People came and went, taking turns sitting at the table, asking questions and voicing opinions. It was civil, but as with any political discussion elements of difference crept into the proceedings. The beer made some too brave. Harrington was wrong about this or that. No, he was right on. People compromised and laughed. Tempers flared briefly and were extinguished just as fast.

We drove Harrington back to the Hilton and said good night. I told him what a great pleasure meeting him had been and he remained cordial, tipsy but in control, flushed from the beer, and relaxed. Harlan walked him to his room and Christine and I stayed behind in the car. I turned to her. “How about that?” I said. “Incredible,” she said. She was as impressed as I that we had spent the evening with this brilliant thinker.

Harlan dropped me off at my place and I rolled into bed, but I had trouble getting to sleep. I kept thinking about the evening, the incredible experience I’d just had, a night I haven’t forgotten, nor ever will.

Later, in the summer, I joined Harlan and Christine in a NAACP march in Boston. I ran in and out of the march, snapping photos. I have some good ones of Harrington and Harlan marching together proudly under the bright red DSOC banner.

Sadly, Harrington died too young, in 1989 at 61, from throat cancer. Before he died he was instrumental in coalescing American socialists in a new organization, the Democratic Socialists of America.

Harrington loved socialism and democracy. He held great hope. Moreover, he loved people, for whom he carried his great vision of economic justice. I think about him and that night all the time. That night and the Boston march were the only times I met the man, but they were enough. To this day I believe his ideas are right.

And though Bernie Sanders may not be quite the critical writer that Harrington was, and by no means as prolific, he is perhaps now my last hope to see economic justice as Harrington envisioned it brought to life.

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Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books in Portland, Oregon.  This story is excerpted from his memoir of growing up in Oregon, A Marvelous Paranoia.

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