The Left Wing of the Permissible: the Politics of Michael Harrington

The beginning of the American New Left is usually dated from the appearance of the Port Huron Statement in 1962 . Drawn up by a handful of members of Students or a Democratic Society (SDS) at a conference in the Michigan town it is named for, the statement is an expression of the  growing discontent of middle-class students–“raised in modest comfort”, in their words–with the social and political status quo of mid-century America. Its call for the revitalization of American democracy is far removed from the radical leftist politics that SDS was to embrace later in the decade. It decries the prevalent apathy and social atomism on the college campus and in the larger society, and advocates “participatory democracy”—the direct involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect them. It enumerates concrete policy objectives, all clearly intended to be achieved by peaceful, democratic means. Internationally, these include universal nuclear disarmament as opposed to the Cold  War arms race, and support for third-world economic development instead of third-world dictators. On the home front, the manifesto advocates a renovation of the Democratic Party through a  break with the Dixiecrats, a large expansion of the public sector and the welfare state, and a democratization  and renewal of the labor movement as a force for social progress. Neither these goals, nor the manifesto’s urging of the incumbent Kennedy administration to act more aggressively in pursuit of racial integration and world peace, would seem to place SDS outside the framework of 1960s American liberalism. This conclusion is underlined by the statement’s explicit repudiation of the Soviet Union and Communism:

As democrats we are in basic opposition to the communist system. The Soviet Union, as a system, rests on the total suppression of organized opposition… The Communist Party has equated falsely the “triumph of socialism” with centralized bureaucracy. The Soviet state lacks independent labor organizations and other liberties we consider basic… Communist parties throughout the rest of the world are generally undemocratic in internal structure and mode of action… The communist movement has failed, in every sense, to achieve its stated intentions of leading a worldwide movement for human emancipation. (1)

Yet despite these decidedly non-radical pronouncements, the statement sounded a note of dissatisfaction with established liberal politics, and expressed a desire to break with the past, that was highly unsettling to the board of SDS’s parent organization, an educational arm of the Socialist Party called the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which received funding from the AFL-CIO and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, both fiercely anti-communist.

There was, for instance, Port Huron’s  sharp criticism of “a Democratic Party which tolerates the perverse unity of liberalism and racism,  prevents the social change wanted by Negroes, peace protesters, labor unions, students, reform Democrats  and other liberals.” (2)

The manifesto also took aim at the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, which “As a political force, generally has been unsuccessful in the post-war period of prosperity. It has seen the passage of the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin laws… it has made little progress against right-to-work laws, and has seen less-than-adequate action on domestic problems, especially unemployment… “ and “tends to be cynical toward, or afraid of, rank-and-file involvement in the work of the union” (3)

But what upset the LID old guard more than anything else was the distance SDS took from dominant political creed of the Cold War:

An unreasoning anti-communism has become a major social problem for those who want to construct a more democratic America.

Even many liberals and socialists share static and repetitious participation in the anti-communist crusade and often discourage tentative, inquiring discussion about the “Russian question…” (4)

The statement declared “open to question” “our basic national policy-making assumption that the Soviet Union is inherently expansionist and aggressive, prepared to dominate the world by military means.”(5) It also cast doubt on the motives behind the global anti-communist crusade:

With rare variation, American foreign policy in the Fifties was guided by a concern for foreign investment and a negative anti-communist political stance linked to a series of military alliances, both undergirded by military threat. We participated unilaterally—usually through the Central Intelligence Agency—in revolutions against governments in Laos, Guatemala, Cuba, Egypt, Iran. We permitted economic investment to decisively affect our foreign policy: sugar in Cuba, oil in the Middle East, diamonds and gold in South Africa…(6)

Passages like these provoked the ire of the LID board’s representative at the conference, who served as the  principal liaison between SDS and the organization’s old guard– the 34-year-old Michael Harrington. He had just published an exposé of poverty amid plenty titled The Other America, which would make him the country’s most famous Socialist, and earn him a place on Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty task force. On this occasion, Harrington protested that an earlier draft of the manifesto would send the LID board “through the roof.” He left the conference early  to report his dissatisfaction to the parent group’s headquarters in New York.

The principal authors of Port Huron—Tom Hayden and Al Haber, along with a few other SDS leaders– were soon summoned to a hearing in front of the  LID executive committee to determine whether the decisions of the conference were compatible with the purposes of the organization. Harrington acted as the chief inquisitor. It was alleged by one board member that Port Huron “lambastes the US and taps the Soviets on the wrist”. (7) When Hayden answered that the document hardly lets the Soviet Union off the hook, Harrington replied, “Document shmocuments. [Don] Slaiman [another board member who attended the conference] and I said that this was antithetical to the LID and everything it’s stood for.”(8)The executive was also furious that the conference had voted to admit a member of the Communist Party youth group, the Progressive Youth Organizing Committee, as an observer without voting or speaking rights. Harrington said, “We should have nothing to do with these people”(9). “Would you give seats to the Nazis too?”(10), another board member demanded. In addition, the executive objected to SDS’s choice of Steve Max as Field Secretary because his father had once been a prominent member of the Communist Party, and Max himself had belonged to the Communist youth group years earlier.

An hour after the hearing ended, the SDS leaders were informed that Hayden and Haber had been removed from the payroll; that all SDS documents and publications would henceforth have to be submitted to the LID for prior approval; that the LID would appoint a secretary for SDS responsible to itself rather than the membership. They found out later that the LID had cut off all funding for SDS, and, most galling of all, had had the locks changed on the door to its New York office.

The above episode did not result in a final rupture between SDS and the LID. On second thought the board decided it had been too harsh, and both sides made an effort at reconciliation. But the same issue–Cold-War anti-communism—would continue to bedevil relations between the two groups, especially as the Vietnam War issue took on greater urgency, leading to a permanent parting of the ways in 1965.

Years later, in the early 1980s, Michael Harrington was to apologize profusely for his conduct in the Port Huron episode. He was at the time trying to effect a merger between the organization he headed, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), and the New American Movement, a group containing many veterans of the New Left, some of whom remembered–and still resented—Harrington’s earlier role. From that time forth, past quarrels were more or less forgotten, and Harrington is today a venerable founding father in the eyes of many on the left. The organization that resulted from the 1982  merger, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), displays his image on its Web page. Yet, as we shall try to demonstrate below, the events of 1962 were not an aberration, but only the  shrillest variation on the most consistent theme of Harrington’s political career: socialism within the bounds deemed acceptable by the liberal wings of the Democratic Party and AFL-CIO officialdom. If Harrington expressed this position in more measured tones in later life, this was due as much to the wider acceptance of his politics on the left as to any fundamental change in his outlook, which exhibits a basic continuity from the time he first entered  politics to his death in 1989.

Accommodating Socialists

Michael Harrington settled in New York City in 1951, after having received a thoroughly Catholic education in his native St. Louis, and then at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. His lifelong passion for social justice led him first to the Catholic Worker Movement, a group founded by the pacifist and social activist Dorothy Day. Harrington resided at one of Day’s Hospitality Houses called St. Joseph’s on the Lower East Side, which ran a community kitchen, and whose residents dedicated themselves to living austere lives in service of the poor and marginalized. Harrington edited the group’s paper for a short time. However, he was soon drawn out of the orbit of the Church, toward the bohemian-intellectual life of Greenwich Village, and, most importantly, to the socialist movement.

Harrington first joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth arm of the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas, but, along with a new political co-thinker, Bogdan Denich, soon led a left-wing split-off which took the entire Socialist youth wing out of the party, and into an organization called the Independent Socialist League (ISL) and its youth group, the Young Socialist League (YSL). Here, he soon acquired a reputation as a talented writer, public speaker, and all-round charismatic personality.

The ISL’s leader was Max Shachtman. Shachtman had first come into prominence on the left as a follower of Leon Trotsky . He broke with Trotsky, however, in 1940 over the question of whether the Socialist Workers Party (the American Trotskyist group) should continue to defend the Soviet Union in the wake of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Trotsky argued that the USSR was still a “degenerated workers state,” worthy of unconditional military defense despite the pact and the horrors of Stalinism. Shachtman, on the other hand, maintained that the USSR represented a new form of state-dominated class society which he called “bureaucratic collectivism.” As such, Stalin’s Russia did not merit defense of any kind.

At the time Harrington joined the ISL/YSL in 1953, Shachtman still adhered to a “third-camp” position of equal opposition to Stalinism and Western capitalism/imperialism. He also held that the fight for socialism had to be waged independently of the two major capitalist parties, the Republicans and Democrats. But Shachtman soon began to move sharply to the right. By the early 60s, he had decided that Stalinism was a greater obstacle to socialism and human progress than capitalism. He reasoned that, if capitalism and Stalinism were both class societies that exploited workers,  workers in Western democracies at least enjoyed political freedoms that they were denied in the USSR. Shachtman’s  belief in Western capitalism as the lesser evil eventually led him to support America’s worldwide anti-communist crusade, including the 1962 US Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and—at first only privately  —the Vietnam war. Domestically, Shachtman came to see the Democratic Party as the political arena in which socialists should work, and within the Democratic Party, he viewed the AFL-CIO bureaucracy—first in the person of United Auto Workers chief Walter Reuther, then in the federation’s president, George Meany–as representing the true interests of the American working class.

Shachtman’s rightward turn was prefigured by a major organizational step. In 1958, he took the ISL  into the Socialist Party, although he had engineered the leftward breakaway of its youth group to his own organization just a few years earlier. While he continued to adhere to a “third-camp” position, and independence from the two major parties, and pledged to fight for these positions on the inside after joining, his determination did not last long. He pledged not to maintain his grouping as an internal faction within the party as a condition  of joining. Shachtman, moreover, entered the party in full cognizance of the politics and associations of its six-time presidential candidate and éminence grise, Norman Thomas.

Like social democratic parties in other countries, the Socialists opposed communism in the name of democracy. But Thomas could not have been insensible of the fact that his anti-communism also allowed the Socialist Party to escape the McCarthyite witch hunt of the 1950s, or of the considerable rewards it conferred in terms of financial support and proximity to power. Thomas served on the board of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACFC), the US affiliate of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international grouping of prominent artists and intellectuals whose declared purpose was the defense of  Western values of free thought and artistic expression against the state-imposed mind control of the Soviet bloc. In 1966, The New York Times revealed that the ACFC had been funded for years by the Central Intelligence Agency. Nor was Thomas unaware of the connection. In 1952, when the ACFC found itself hard up for cash, Thomas did not hesitate to call upon his old family friend, Princeton classmate and Long Island neighbor, CIA chief Allen Dulles, for financial relief, delivered promptly in the form of two grants totaling $14,000.

There is no evidence that emoluments like these were part of any explicit political quid pro quo. But Thomas would have had difficulty explaining how his passionate belief in democracy squared with his participation in the CIA-linked  American Friends of Vietnam, organized to shore up the reputation of the US-sponsored South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. The “Vietnam Lobby”, as Ramparts magazine dubbed it in a 1967 exposé, was instrumental in persuading the Eisenhower administration to back Diem—a step that led directly to US military involvement. Thomas’s signature appeared on a letter circulated in official circles supporting Diem’s decision to cancel the 1956 Vietnamese elections, mandated by the Geneva accords, for fear that Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh might prevail. Ten years later Thomas publicly associated himself with the Committee on Free Elections in the Dominican Republic, a CIA front group aimed at legitimizing rigged elections in 1966 to prevent the return to office of Juan Bosch, a democratically elected reformist president, effectively ousted by the invasion of 42,000 US troops in the previous year.

The decisions to cancel one election and annul the results of another were not mounted by the US government to defend democracy. The CIA and State Department rather sought to protect, in the name of democracy and anti-communism, the global regime of private property from all who would threaten it, from Stalinist regimes, to leftist  parties and unions in Western Europe, to third-world reformers and anti-colonial fighters. For this crusade, the US government was careful to enlist the aid of left-wing, or formerly left-wing intellectuals and political figures to give its designs a “democratic” and “progressive” face—a face that Thomas was only too happy to provide.

Harrington never took CIA money himself (and in fact declined to do so on one occasion when the agency offered to pay his airfare to a Russian-sponsored European youth festival on the suggestion of another CIA operative in Europe named Gloria Steinem). Nor did Harrington exist in the shadow of Thomas or Shachtman in the 50s and 60s. His literary and oratorical gifts gave him an independent presence on the American left, one that probably eclipsed that of his mentors. Especially after The Other America became a best-seller, and got the attention of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Harrington became a contributor to Dissent and other liberal journals and a big draw on the nationwide lecture circuit. But he remained loyal to the Socialist Party, and especially to Max Shachtman, up until the end of the 60s. It is with these politics, and these ties, that he confronted the leftward-moving authors of the Port Huron Statement in 1962, and with which he attempted to address the political upheavals that would soon be brought about by Vietnam War.

Vietnam Default

The emergence Vietnam as the defining political issue of the 60s presented a dilemma for those who pursued a strategy of leftward “realignment” of the Democratic Party. Up until 1969, the massive military assault in Southeast Asia  was being prosecuted and steadily escalated not by the “greater evil” Republicans, but by Lyndon Johnson, the head of the very party  socialists like Harrington were seeking to realign.  And the Johnson administration had indeed taken what they viewed as significant steps in the desired direction. Johnson had pushed two civil rights bills through Congress, and appointed Sargent Shriver to head his widely trumpeted War on Poverty, which took Harrington into its counsels. But even the minor role Harrington played in Johnson’s reform team came at a price: support for– or at least a willingness not to oppose–Washington’s global effort to “contain Communism.” Unlike figures such as Shachtman or the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, Harrington was not among the most zealous of cold warriors. But, despite definite personal misgivings, declining to call for US withdrawal from Vietnam was a price Michael Harrington was willing to pay for a seat at the table of power throughout the Johnson years. During the mid-to-late 60s, he often referred to Vietnam as a “tragedy,” as if it were an unfortunate natural disaster like a flood or tornado for which no one was responsible, instead of the deliberately inflicted American slaughter that it was.

Harrington was not among the signatories from his corner of the left to a letter circulated by Bayard Rustin—and signed by Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph and A.J. Muste–warning people away from the first big anti-war march on Washington in the spring of 1965 because it welcomed all who opposed the war, including those demanding unconditional  withdrawal, and even some openly supporting Vietnam’s National Liberation Front. But it was only weeks later that Harrington added his voice to the social democratic red-baiting chorus. In a statement co-authored with Rustin and Irving Howe, Harrington denounced those in the anti-war movement who offered “explicit or covert support to the Viet Cong”, or “hoped to transform the protest into an apocalypse, a ‘final conflict’ in which extreme gestures of opposition will bring forth punitive retaliation from the authorities.”(11) This was followed by an article in the Village Voice titled “Does the Peace Movement Need Communists?”, in which he once again argued that “any effective peace movement” would be one that dissociated itself from “any hint of being an apologist for the Viet Cong” and should instead demand negotiations between the warring parties, leading to free elections, and that he would “under no circumstances celebrate a Viet Cong victory” (12) in any such plebiscite. Articles like these prompted then SDS chairman Carl Oglesby to remark: “Here were these guys [Harrington and fellow Socialist Irving Howe] I admired so much denouncing me as a Red because I wouldn’t criticize both sides [in the war] equally—which seemed bullshit because both sides weren’t invading each other equally, weren’t napalming each other equally.”(13)

Within the Socialist Party, Harrington remained loyal to his principal mentor, Max Shachtman. Shachtman was by the mid-60s entirely in the orbit of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy and its fanatically anti-communist president, George Meany. The erstwhile Trotskyist  revolutionary was therefore, like Meany himself, squarely on the side of the US and its Saigon client regime, and told Harrington and Howe privately that he favored their military victory as opposed to a negotiated compromise, let alone withdrawal. Harrington was more inclined personally to a “neither Washington nor Hanoi” position, but was willing to swallow his qualms in the interest of party unity. Shachtman was less than candid in public about his support for the war effort because he wanted to maintain some kind of presence in the anti-war movement, where most of the action on the left was then taking place. Maurice Isserman comments in his sympathetic biography of Harrington, The Other American:

Michael heard what Shachtman was saying about the war, yet failed to draw what seems in retrospect the obvious conclusion: that if Shachtman and his supporters took part in organizing an “antiwar” group, they were dissembling.(14)

Isserman continues:

And so, the following spring [1967], Michael helped Shachtman and others organize a new group called Negotiations Now, which promoted itself as a responsible, moderate alternative to the irresponsible, radical groups calling for the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam… But Negotiations Now’s chief function was to serve as the SP’s placeholder in the antiwar movement—something they could point to when challenged to show that they too were working to bring the war to an end. Negotiations Now also served as a convenient podium from which the Shachtmanites could criticize the rest of the antiwar movement as being, in contrast, extremist, misguided, and objectively pro-Communist. It was a sham operation. (15)

It is true that Harrington was to change his position on Vietnam. The year of his conversion was 1970. Then, he finally declared that, while he still favored a negotiated end to the war, “only an American commitment to withdraw can make a negotiated settlement possible.”(16) This was a pathetically reluctant and belated reversal, considering the powerful currents that had swept the entire anti-war movement to the left in the preceding five years.

Three years before Harrington’s change of heart, Martin Luther King had denounced the war from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church. Several of America’s black ghettos had erupted in rage, at least in part over the war. Vietnam had radicalized a cohort of American youth, who were now conducting student strikes, occupying campus buildings, burning draft cards and brandishing Viet Cong flags at demonstrations. Televised scenes of American and South Vietnamese Army atrocities against civilians had shocked  and revolted much of the American public, nearly half of which was by this time in favor of withdrawal. Roughly a million people had marched on Washington in the biggest anti-war demonstration of 1970, demanding a pullout. Many GIs had come to the capital to discard their medals in disgust, and still more in Vietnam were refusing to go out on patrol, and “fragging”—i.e. tossing grenades into—their officers’ quarters.

These developments had a profounder effect on a number of other leading Socialist Party members than on Harrington. His change of heart occurred only  after two of Shachtman’s closest followers, Hal Draper and Julius Jacobson, had publicly broken with him over the war, and a third, Bogdan Denitch had taken a discreet distance; after another Socialist Party member, David McReynolds, had organized an internal faction called the Debs Caucus to oppose Shachtman, before quitting the party altogether; after Norman Thomas had publicly apologized for signing the earlier red-baiting letter, and begun speaking regularly at anti-war rallies (from  which Harrington was conspicuously absent until 1969).

It is difficult to account for Harrington’s change of heart through moral revulsion, or a decisive shift to the left,  when so many morally revolting things had already transpired, and so many occasions for breaking in a more radical direction had already presented themselves. An explanation in keeping with his “pragmatic”  profile is far more plausible.

Mounting American losses on the battlefields of Vietnam, especially after the NLF’s Tet offensive of February, 1968, and Johnson’s pouring in of  troops by the tens of thousands with no end in sight, were overextending the military; the war’s expenses were bankrupting the treasury and fueling inflation; the “patriotism” that kept citizens loyal to the government was fast eroding. The conviction was therefore gaining ground in Congress, and in elite economic and policy circles, that Vietnam was no longer worth the cost. There was the added worry among Democrats that the war was losing them younger voters, and many felt the need to restore the faith of radicalizing youth in the party and the political system.  Eugene McCarthy had mounted an anti-war campaign in the Democratic primaries in 1968, and Robert Kennedy, who had been supporting the war as late as January of that year, had been persuaded by McCarthy’s early primary victories  to throw his own hat into the ring as an anti-war candidate. (Despite the fact that he had not yet called for complete withdrawal, Harrington supported Kennedy, and after his assassination, McCarthy, in the 1968 Democratic primaries, but the thuggery perpetrated on antiwar protesters on live TV by the police at the behest of  pro-war Humphrey supporters in front of the Chicago Democratic convention that summer did not deter him from endorsing Humphrey in the general election). Differences among Democrats were also mirrored among trade-union officials, as Walter Reuther, having pulled the United Auto Workers out of the AFL-CIO, declared himself against the war. Add to this the fact that, since January of 1969, hostilities were being conducted by the newly elected Republican president, Richard Nixon. The way was now clear for Harrington to oppose the war without having to offend the Democrats. Within Democratic party and union bureaucracy, he could associate himself with a growing liberal wing that favored withdrawal for pragmatic reasons. A stronger antiwar position had, more than being morally imperative, become politically respectable.

The split among Democrats and union chiefs resulted in the breakup of the   Socialist Party. In 1972, the Socialist majority who remained loyal to Johnson/Humphrey and the Meanyite union right wing,  and continued to support the war, followed Max Shachtman and Bayard Rustin into Social Democrats, USA. Like Meany and the AFL-CIO, this group refused to endorse the Democratic anti-war presidential candidate, George McGovern, and Shachtman considered Nixon  the lesser evil. SDUSA can claim credit for being among the pioneers of neo-conservatism. Those who supported McGovern and the more liberal union wing  went with Harrington to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSOC).

A New Michael?

Political circumstances had greatly altered by the time DSOC merged with the New American Movement (NAM) to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 1982. The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, and the subsequent right-wing onslaught, made Harrington’s socialist brand appear considerably more radical than it had looked fifteen years earlier. Moreover, many  of the now older New Leftists and SDSers who comprised the core of NAM had gone on to raise families, acquire professional careers and adopt a commensurably more moderate politics. As Harrington remarked in a 1984  dialogue between himself and long-time comrade, Irving Howe  in The New York Times Magazine, “Time passed, tempers cooled, and old disputes faded.” But he immediately goes on to dispel any doubts about on whose terms the merger had taken place:, “And by now practically everyone on the left agrees that the Democratic Party, with all its flaws, must be our main political arena” Then, further on, “…when I criticize American foreign policy, our intervention in Central America, the MX [missile], I do that in the name of the national security of the United States… If you think back to somebody in the late 60s at an anti-Vietnam War rally getting up and talking about the national security of the United States—well, it would have been difficult.” Howe adds: “And you speak of the national security because you recognize that there is a totalitarian enemy out there which needs to be met.” Howe goes on to say that “We are loyal allies and sometimes friendly critics”(17) of the Democratic Party.  One of agreed-upon conditions of the merger of the two groups was support for the state of Israel.

Not only was Harrington’s anti-communist Democratic loyalism carried over into the DSA; his long-standing orientation to trade-union officials also remained intact. In the 70s, he cultivated three union chiefs who had gone against George Meany to endorse the McGovern candidacy in 1972. Two of the three—Victor Gotbaum of New York’s biggest municipal workers union, AFSCME District 37, and William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)—had actually belonged to DSOC. A third, then UAW chief Douglas Fraser, worked closely with the organization. All three bear major responsibility for the historic defeats suffered by labor in the 70s and 80s.

With investment banker Felix Rohatyn, Gotbaum was one of the architects of “rescue package” put together by the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC) in response to New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975, when the administration of Gerald Ford refused to lend the city the money to pay its debts to big banks. (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”, read a famous Daily News headline.) The package finally negotiated included the loss of thousands of municipal jobs, tuition charges for the City College system (which prided itself on being tuition-free up until then), and drastic cuts to social services of almost every kind. As a reward, Gotbam’s son was given a job at Rohatyn’s financial firm of Lazard Frères. Rohatyn also introduced Gotbaum to a personal friend, Henry Kissinger, with whom the union president went to parties and at least on one Easter Egg hunt.

The “concession bargaining” that Gotbaum pioneered in New York was being closely watched at the time by large employers across the country, particularly in the auto industry. In 1979, it came the turn of Chrysler workers to make sacrifices for the “financial health” of their employer. Fraser bargained away 50,000 jobs and negotiated a $3 per hour wage reduction. In return, he was given a seat on Chrysler’s board of directors, from which he was to urge against any softness toward the workers in his own union. He negotiated similar concessionary contracts at Ford and General Motors.

Harrington’s third union ally, William Winpisinger, who even described himself as a Marxist, found his union in a critical position when Ronald Reagan summarily fired over 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO) in 1981. Winpisinger could have come to the aid of the air traffic controllers by calling upon the airline machinists in the union he headed to respect PATCO picket lines, thereby crippling the industry and perhaps enabling the strikers to win. He preferred not to, citing his fear of fines and other legal liabilities his union could have incurred. The strike is widely regarded as the turning point in the 1980s rollback of labor’s historic gains. Reagan’s victory against PATCO encouraged employers across the country to hire scabs and bust unions.

None of these betrayals  prevented Harrington from continuing to see himself as a staunch ally of these union chiefs, or from promoting them as “progressives” in the labor movement.

Revisit and Reassess

Throughout his life, Michael Harrington tirelessly devoted his energy and outsized talents to his vision of progressive social change. His method was, however,  largely confined to persuading and cajoling those who already wielded power in politics and organized labor. His insider methods left little room for those who would challenge existing authority from the outside or from below. His chosen political label of “democratic socialist” was only a cosmetic reversal of terms. He was, in fact, an American social democrat. Because American workers have never formed a party of their own, socialists of Harrington’s persuasion were never able to participate in government. Tethered as they remained to the Democratic Party, they lacked the opportunity to carry out welfare-state reforms like the ones European social democratic governments enacted in the twenty-five “golden years” following World War II. Neither were they in a position to do the work of the neoliberal austerians in more recent decades, as Harrington’s confreres in the Second International—François Mitterand, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder—did not hesitate to  perform.  Despite his desire to be a player, Harrington was consigned to the margins of American politics.

Yet even within those margins, he operated in ways that were broadly similar to those of his more influential European counterparts. The “democratic” in “democratic socialist” betokened loyalty to parliamentary politics and gradualist methods, and also a willingness to act as a left custodian for the system against everyone—Stalinist or not–who threatened to go beyond its prescribed limits. These included—for European social democrats—the Spartakusbund of Germany in 1918-19, and– for Harrington– the student rebels of the 1960s—neither of whom were totalitarian, but who rather fought for a more radical version of democracy than the electoral kind. Harrington was only too willing to make the loud and repeated declarations of anti-communism that were required qualify as a loyal opposition in the 50s and 60s. When anti-communist ideology lost its grip a result of the Vietnam war, he sounded this note a little less stridently. The trade-union leaders Harrington promoted played the same role in imposing austerity on their members as Second International governing Socialists played vis-à-vis entire national populations. Harrington’s famous “left wing of the possible” was in fact the left wing of the permissible.

Broader horizons of  possibility may be opening up once again. The organization Harrington helped found, Democratic Socialists of America, has trebled in size since the Sanders campaign, and voted at its August convention to sever its membership of long standing in the Second International. Will it now go beyond the failed strategy of working within the Democratic Party and attempt to fill the void left in American politics by the absence of an independent socialist party? It only stands to reason that renewed debate over this question should be accompanied by a thorough re-evaluation of the Harringtonian legacy.


1.[1] The Port Huron Statement, New York, 1964, p.31

2.[1] Ibid. p. 60

3. Ibid., p. 57

4. Ibid., p. 30

5. Ibid., Pp. 31-32

6. Ibid., Pp. 29-29

7. Kirkpatrick Sale, sds, New York, 1974, p. 63

8. Ibid., p. 63

9. Ibid. P. 63

10. Ibid., p. 63

11. Quoted in Maurice Isserman, The Other American, New York, 2000, p. 259

12. Quoted in Isserman, p. 261

13. Quoted in Isserman, p. 262

14. Isserman, p. 271

15. Pp. 271-72

16. Quoted in Isserman, p. 288

17. The New York Times Magazine, June 17, 1984

Jim Creegan was chairman of the Penn State chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s, lectured in philosophy in the 70s, he was a union shop steward during the late 80s and 90s. He lives in New York City, now unaffiliated but unresigned. His writings often appear in the Weekly Worker (UK).] He can be reached at