A Failure of Vision

Image by Hennie Stander.

Doug Greene. A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism. London: Zero Books, 2022. 280 pages. Paperback. ISBN 9781789047233.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) currently boasts being the largest socialist organization in the United States with over 92,000 members. According to its website, the DSA focuses on four key issues: healthcare, labor unions, environmentalism, and electoral strategy. However, that last goal has arguably been the main focal point since DSA supported the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders. That electoral politics have been the center of attention for DSA is no accident: it is the core vision of its founder, Michael Harrington. For Harrington, the only way socialists could make waves in American politics would be to work within the established party system. If socialists could move members of the Democratic Party to the left, then the party would make meaningful reforms that would help working and oppressed people. Unfortunately, this strategy of realignment has continually failed to push the party leftward. In his book, A Failure of Vision, Doug Greene traces the genealogy of Harrington’s thought and its fundamental impact on the DSA today.

Harrington is largely remembered for his 1962 book on poverty in the United States, The Other America. Despite being known as “the man who discovered poverty,” Harrington grew up in an upper-middle-class Irish American family and was sheltered from directly experiencing the worst effects of the Great Depression. Influenced by his mother’s volunteer work with the Catholic Church, Harrington pursued a Jesuit education at the College of the Holy Cross. His father hoped he would become a lawyer like him, so after graduating, he enrolled in Yale Law School. Once there, his Catholic conservatism would be challenged by his left-liberal and socialist professors and colleagues. But Harrington’s politics remained influenced by the anticommunism of his day. It would take Harrington moving to Chicago to begin to see the exploitative effects of capitalism firsthand. Choosing not to finish his law degree, he enrolled at the University of Chicago to study writing instead. After graduating in 1949 with his master’s degree in literature, Harrington took a job as a social worker. During his first assignment in a sharecropper district, he recalled the horrible smells of backed-up toilets, rotting food, and decaying buildings, compelling him to spend the rest of his life “trying to obliterate that kind of house and to work with the people who lived there.”

Harrington decided to become a writer, so he moved to Greenwich Village, the intellectual and artistic hub that had boasted well-known communists and anarchists, such as John Reed, Emma Goldman, and Max Eastman. He landed a writing gig with Life that kept him afloat, but with the onset of the Korean War, he received a much-dreaded draft notice. Despite being a pacifist, he could not register as a conscientious objector since he had abandoned his religious membership with the Catholic Church. Trying to avoid taking up arms, he enlisted in the Army Medical Reserve. This spiritual crisis he faced during the war prompted him to return to the Church where he felt he could put his fledgling leftist ideas in practice by getting involved with the Catholic Worker Movement, an organization dedicated to both nonviolence and alleviating poverty. He quickly landed a job writing on left-leaning topics for the Catholic Worker. In 1952, Harrington was finally able to reach a widescale audience in a public debate with conservative William F. Buckley, who considered him a formidable adversary. However, after many debates between Harrington and his colleague Dorothy Day about atheism, socialism, and Marxism, Harrington began to feel that the Catholic Worker Movement did not have a strong working-class base (not to mention he was losing his religious faith). He decided to join the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) and break with the Church for a second time.

In 1953, the Workers Defense League (WDL) hired Harrington to handle the organization’s correspondence and newsletter. The WDL mainly focused on the infringement of civil liberties under McCarthyism. The WDL also had ties to the Socialist Party of America (SPA). When the SPA openly supported the Korean War, Harrington found himself “leading the charge against the Socialist Party’s pro-war position.” In 1954, after some debate, the YPSL formally cut ties with the SPA and fused with Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League (ISL) to form the Young Socialist League (YSL). Shachtman was an important political influence on Harrington’s thought. As Greene points out, Harrington adopted Shachtman’s “deep-rooted anticommunism” and his view that “the Soviet Union was a bureaucratic collectivist evil empire.” Harrington also took from Shachtman “an adaptation to social democracy, alliances with the labor bureaucracy, and support for ‘realignment’ in the Democratic Party.” While Harrington’s views did not always align with Shachtman, his strong political influence could be seen throughout Harrington’s political evolution.

Throughout the 1950s, Harrington continued to write and make connections with other distinguished left-leaning thinkers and writers. Most notable of these was Irving Howe, a key figure in the New York Intellectuals, a loose affiliation of former communists who became disillusioned by Stalinism and tried to adapt their Marxism to a more liberal-adjacent, American-friendly kind of socialism. Howe founded the magazine Dissent, which sought a middle ground between the prevailing liberalism in the United States and the communism of the Soviet Union. Howe argued for a “long-range socialist perspective,” one that aligned well with Harrington’s worldview, but not Shachtman’s, prompting Shachtman to forbid ISL members from writing for Dissent. Harrington was not dissuaded, however, and YSL passed a resolution embracing Dissent as a much-needed forum for the evolving socialist politics of their particular strain. The magazine allowed Harrington to refine his own political positions, and he would continue to write for Dissent for many years.

In 1957, the SPA, then headed by longtime socialist and pacifist Norman Thomas, merged with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and absorbed Shachtman’s ISL after its dissolution a year later. This reinvigorated Socialist Party (SP-SDF) sent Harrington around the country to recruit students. Harrington noted that the country was experiencing a “mood of change” and that, even though the Democrats supported capitalism, socialists had to accept that the Democratic Party was “the only game in town.” As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Harrington felt that socialists should prioritize civil rights activism to widen the left’s base. These changing social conditions provided the groundwork for Harrington’s key theoretical position: realignment. Having seen the ways the labor movement had become allied with the Democratic Party, he figured that the best route for socialists would be to work within this established institution rather than to fight against it, calling the strategy “the left wing of realism.” However, Harrington miscalculated the impact that leftwing interest groups would have on the Democratic Party once elected to office. Greene argues that Harrington’s failure to direct the left to develop its own independent socialist organization doomed his realignment strategy from the start.

Despite his overconfidence in the Democratic Party, Harrington made an important contribution to the bigger discussion on poverty in the United States with his seminal text, The Other America. In the early 1960s, the mainstream narrative presumed that postwar affluence meant that the problem of American poverty would soon be solved. However, The Other America demonstrated that, contrary to these assumptions, almost 50 million people were still living in poverty, nearly a third of the country’s population at the time. Rather than using these discoveries as a platform for socialists, however, Harrington called upon enlightened liberals to take up the poor’s cause by expanding social programs and civil rights legislation. The book might have gone unnoticed had it not been for Dwight Macdonald’s favorable review in the New Yorker, which came to the attention of the Kennedy administration’s anti-poverty task force. When Sargent Shriver (the director of the Peace Corps) reached out to Harrington to be a part of the task force, Harrington viewed his participation as a pragmatic opportunity to make some change, even though he admitted that the program did not go far enough. Harrington worried, though, that if Republicans took power, the attention to the War on Poverty would disappear, so he encouraged leftists to delay their revolutionary hopes and continue to vote for Democratic candidates so that these social programs would not be abandoned.

The rise of the New Left presented a unique set of challenges for Harrington’s thought. On one hand, he welcomed student radicalism as a vehicle for reviving the left. But, on the other hand, he worried that their ideological optimism might succumb to the “totalitarian” form of communism he wanted to avoid. To prevent these perceived pitfalls, Harrington wanted a broad organization to attract youthful activists that was not explicitly connected to any particular party. What emerged was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS grew out of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), a student-centered activist group founded in the 1940s as the youth wing of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), an organization with which Harrington worked closely. SDS cemented their ideological stance in their manifesto, the Port Huron Statement. Even though the manifesto advocated for civil liberties and ending poverty, Harrington still took issue with its leniency on communism, despite the fact that the statement claimed to be in opposition to the Soviet system. After Harrington raised objections to the statement at the Port Huron conference and advised LID to cut off SDS’s funding, SDS toned down the language in the Port Huron Statement, making it less critical of liberalism and solidifying their anticommunist stance. For Harrington’s realignment to work, he needed these new radicals to abandon any residual revolutionary attitudes that would hinder his vision for slower, more moderate reforms.

By the mid-1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War became a crucial focus of activism for the left, and SDS organized an antiwar march in Washington, D.C., which would be one of the largest protests in United States history up to that point. While Harrington agreed with the sentiment, he did not approve of SDS’s cooperation with communists out of a fear that their inclusion would alienate liberals and moderates. He argued that an antiwar movement in America would only be effective if it “disassociates itself from any hint of being an apologist for the Vietcong.” He also took issue with the burning of draft cards and any kind of militant antiwar action, insisting that change should come from within established “democratic forms” and claiming that these protesters had developed a “radical chic.” SDS eventually tired of Harrington’s anticommunism and cut ties. Harrington stuck by his conviction that realignment was the best way for the left to achieve its goals, so during the 1968 presidential election, he supported the Democratic Party, even though nominee Hubert Humphrey supported the Vietnam War. While he admitted that Humphrey was not an ideal candidate, he reasoned that he would still be better for the poor and for minorities than “four years of Nixon,” and he said that his decision in supporting him was “straight lesser-evilism.”

Disagreements about the Vietnam War and electoral candidates caused tensions between Harrington and other Socialist Party members. The Socialist Party decided to stop running independent socialist candidates in presidential elections and, hoping to shed the baggage that came with its name, changed their name to the Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Harrington no longer felt at home with the organization, so he resigned from the Socialist Party and quickly formed a new group, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). At its start, the DSOC had about 250 members with connections to students, labor unions, and, of course, the Democrats.

During the 1970s, DSOC membership reached 4000 members and had links to prominent liberal politicians within the Democratic Party. However, the group needed members who stemmed from more radical roots to ensure its socialist vision. Harrington decided to reach out to these former comrades with the hope of creating a broader unity among the left. One group that particularly interested him was the New American Movement (NAM), a socialist organization that stemmed from the ideologies of the 1960s New Left. The DSOC began working closely with NAM, and the two organizations considered a merger. However, some ideological tensions remained, as NAM members were wary of Harrington’s anticommunism and support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. After much debate, the two groups finally agreed to support a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In 1982, the organizations officially merged, forming the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Despite the fact that realignment had not yet worked, Harrington still felt the best way to gain an advantage was to support the Democrats, claiming that “everyone on the left agrees that the Democratic Party, with all its flaws, must be our main political arena.” This approach should have fit well with Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. Jackson had been an influential civil rights leader and wished to expand the welfare state. His Rainbow Coalition had a strong black and working class base, plus he eschewed much of the Cold War rhetoric that had become commonplace in American politics at the time. Yet, Harrington ignored his campaign and instead stuck with the safer choice of Walter Mondale. But support for the Mondale campaign proved shortsighted. As Greene notes, “The AFL-CIO and DSA’s entire lesser evil strategy of ‘Anybody But Reagan’ had failed.” Reagan beat Mondale in a landslide victory, winning 525 electoral votes and nearly 60 percent of the popular vote, one of the largest electoral victories in the country’s history.

Immediately after Mondale’s defeat, the Democrats blamed “special interest groups” as the cause of their loss. To gain support from corporate and wealthy donors for his 1988 campaign, Jackson had to tone down his progressive stance and distance himself from “far left” associations. Harrington worried that DSA support this time around may actually harm Jackson’s chances, so they approached him cautiously as to not draw too much attention to the fact that he had support from a socialist organization. Despite receiving 30 percent of the vote, Jackson lost the primary to Michael Dukakis. Even though Jackson had watered down his positions to be friendlier to mainstream Democrats, it did not matter in the end. Many Democratic politicians interpreted the Republican wins in 1980, 1984, and 1988 as proof that voters were moderate. Thus, Democrats further distanced themselves from any “far left” elements. Like Greene points out, Harrington’s realignment strategy depended on the notion that the Democrats could be persuaded to move leftward, but since the party already viewed socialists as a liability, realignment was turning out to be a nonstarter.

Harrington died in 1989, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For many, the end of the Cold War seemed like a death knell for the left and a triumph for capitalism. This new and uncertain political landscape left the DSA struggling to find its footing. For instance, in the 2000 election, DSA members were split on whether to support Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, SPUSA candidate David McReynolds, or Democratic Party candidate Al Gore. When Barack Obama ran for president, the DSA supported his campaign, admitting that “they knew a Democratic victory would not bring any significant reforms,” but, as Greene explains, they insisted that “an Obama presidency would be amendable to ‘consistent pressure from below’ since the Democrats in power would provide more space for the left to organize.” In actuality, the DSA had little influence on the Obama administration, and despite claims from the right of Obama’s “socialism,” Obama’s policies remained aligned with mainstream Democratic positions.

DSA’s membership had stagnated, but the Bernie Sanders campaign and the 2016 election stimulated a renewed interest in the organization. After the election of Donald Trump, DSA membership jumped from 6500 in 2014 to more than 28,000, and then doubled again by the end of 2019. In some ways, one could argue that the group has moved slightly leftwards again. Some branches now have Marxist study groups. Other branches hold protests in support of Palestinian liberation. However, despite these small pockets of leftwing activity, attempting to reform the Democratic Party from within remains the DSA’s number one initiative. Even by running “democratic socialist” candidates in local, state, and federal elections, those candidates have thus far not altered the composition of the Democratic Party to be more “socialist” in character. Instead, these candidates who break into the Democratic Party sphere often end up making concessions rather than making waves. Greene argues that, ultimately, if any lesson is to be learned from Harrington’s legacy, it is that realignment, while optimistic, is bound to backfire, and that the left cannot win by compromising with the very system it seeks to upend. For those who want to understand the man who shaped the DSA, this book is a first-rate primer on the development and legacy of Harrington’s ideas.

Shalon van Tine is a cultural historian who specializes in American and world history. You can visit her website at https://www.shalonvantine.com/.

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