Taking sides on Harrington

Joe Allen continues a debate about Michael Harrington and socialist politics with Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara (previous contributions here, here and here).

Michael HarringtonMichael Harrington

I WANT to thank Bhaskar Sunkara for continuing the discussion about the late American socialist Michael Harrington ("What we can learn from Harrington"). Sunkara isn't an uncritical admirer, to be sure. But the forcefulness of his defense of important parts of Harrington's legacy and his statement that my brief review of Harrington's political career was filled with "inaccuracies" deserve a reply.

While Harrington and his legacy might seem like an obscure question--and while it leaves aside Sunkara's many other important points regarding the left in his original In These Times article that I was responding to--I think that this debate can be useful for those of us, such as at Jacobin magazine and Socialist Worker newspaper, who want to rebuild a left that is, once again, relevant to broader mass movements for social change.

I want to restate my respect for Harrington's importance, particularly his skill in dramatizing the divide in American society between rich and poor, even at the height of the postwar boom, and his insistence that radical political action was necessary in the face of such injustices. But I also think Sunkara gives Harrington credit for being more radical than he was, at least in terms of where he stood regarding the critical struggles and movements of his time.

Before getting into the details about this--particularly Harrington's attitude to the Vietnam War--I think I need to address the issue of whether Harrington was a social democrat or not. Sunkara declares that my labeling him as such "is either a polemical device or reflects a frightening lack of clarity."

How so? Much of Harrington's political life was spent as a member of the Socialist Party, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee or the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which were or are affiliated with the Socialist International, the main international grouping of social democratic parties.

I never knew Harrington to identify himself as anything else, though he tended to reverse the order and call himself a "democratic socialist." His book Socialism, published in 1970, is the most complete exposition of his political philosophy and the tradition of social democracy that he saw himself proudly part of.

Maybe Sunkara's problem with the label is that he doesn't want to "lump [Harrington's] perspectives with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders." But if Sanders' social democracy (if it even deserves to be called that) is a pale reflection of Harrington's, that's because social democracy as a whole swung sharply to the right during the era of neoliberalism that unfolded mainly after Harrington's death in 1989.

Sunkara writes that "Harrington advocated not just for socialism within capitalism, but for socialism after capitalism--a definitive break with class society." But so did mainstream social democracy during his time--in words anyway.

It may be hard to believe, but the British Labour Party that gave us the war criminal Tony Blair continues to describe itself, in its constitution, as "a democratic socialist party." Until 1995, that constitution committed Labour to public ownership of the key means of production and the redistribution of wealth. The Labour Party is still, like Harrington's DSA, a member of the Socialist International--though it downgraded its participation to observer status...in February of this year.

How can Tony Blair's Labour Party still call itself "a democratic socialist party"? Because it does so in words, but betrays its embrace of capitalism and imperialism in deeds.

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DOES IT matter what we call Michael Harrington? I think so, because Harrington's commitment to the political principles of social democracy (or democratic socialism) marked his practical political stances and activities throughout his life.

It shaped his belief, upheld by DSA to this day, that socialists must work within the Democratic Party, despite its hostility to anything approaching socialist principles. It shaped DSA's instances of siding with the trade union officialdom at the expense of the militant struggle of union members, like during the PATCO strike, as I pointed out in my article. And it shaped Harrington's attitude toward U.S. imperialism and its wars abroad, such as Vietnam--where Sunkara also takes issue with my article.

What did the tradition that Harrington championed represent during the Vietnam era?

The Socialist Party that he had joined by the end of the 1950s was increasingly distinguished by shrill anti-communism on issues of U.S. foreign policy. Norman Thomas, the leader of the SP at the time, was a founding member of American Friends of Vietnam, along with Sen. John F. Kennedy and Cardinal Spellman of New York. The group became known as the "Vietnam Lobby"--and spent the '50s pressing for greater U.S. military and political assistance to the Diem dictatorship in Vietnam and its crusade against "communist aggression."

When a new generation of young activists, politicized by the civil rights movement, emerged in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and very gingerly challenged the suffocating anti-communist consensus, they were met with utter hostility. Harrington led the attack on the authors of SDS's founding document, the Port Huron Statement.

Sunkara writes that this was "an error that Harrington would later recognize and lament." But why did Harrington take the position in the first place? Because it was the logical product of his tradition's support for anti-communist crusades at home and abroad. This attitude was why people who became radicalized during the 1960s and early '70s viewed the old social democrats--among which Harrington was one of the youngest--as redbaiters from the left edge of the liberal establishment.

Harrington may have had his regrets about how he responded to SDS and the New Left, but he never dropped the anti-communism that underlaid that response.

Did Harrington support the Vietnam War? It's true that he never said in so many words that he backed the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. What he did do--over and over again, even as it placed him more and more at odds with the growing antiwar movement--was echo the chief ideological justification of the U.S. war: anti-communism.

"I am anti-communist on principle," Harrington declared in 1965, "because I am pro-freedom." Such a declaration at that particular political moment was, at the very least, a huge concession to the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy throughout this era, used to justify all sorts of criminal behavior in the world, from "police actions" in Korea and the Dominican Republic to CIA-sponsored coups all over the place.

Harrington's stated position on Vietnam was support for negotiations to end the war. But the antiwar movement of that era more and more came to identify this as a pro-war stance. For one thing, it accepted the legitimacy of U.S. imperialism playing a part in determining the future of Vietnam and Southeast Asia. For another, it accepted the continuation of the war effort while negotiations took place.

In the introduction to a 1965 book titled We Accuse, a collection of writings, speeches and other documents from opponents of the war, James Petras explained the antiwar movement's growing rejection of calls for negotiations in favor of demanding immediate withdrawal. Referring to a 1965 debate between Hal Draper of the Independent Socialist Clubs and pacifist Robert Pickus, speaking for the "negotiated peace" position, Petras wrote:

To oppose American intervention in Vietnam, as Hal Draper pointed out in his debate with Pickus, is to call for the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. To call for it "later" (under whatever pretense) is to legitimize violence in the here and now--since one cannot impose utopian dreams on what the U.S. Army does in fighting a war of conquest. One would not be too irreverent to refer to this type of "peace" approach as "War now--Peace later."

Whether or not one agrees with this characterization, it can't be denied--and Sunkara agrees on this score--that Harrington was deeply and wrongly hostile to the radicalizing antiwar movement. R.W. Tucker, a contemporary of Harrington's, recalled a 1970 convention of the Socialist Party where Harrington, as chair of the convention, "presided over a spurious expulsion of the entire Wisconsin delegation, consisting of 22 antiwar delegates, and then bullied through a resolution on the war that in effect supported it."

Episodes like this put Harrington, it seems to me, on the wrong side of the divide between pro-war and antiwar.

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THERE'S A lot more to say about Harrington that neither Sunkara nor I have even brought up yet. For example, Harrington spent much of his later life trying to create what he called the "left wing of the possible." He argued for leftists to orient, whatever their criticisms, on the Democratic Party as the only realistic vehicle for achieving political change.

Such an orientation has a powerful practical appeal, particularly for newly radicalizing activists. It certainly did for me. It seemed to combine both the realism necessary to deal with U.S. politics and the idealism of fighting for socialism. But does it work?

Whatever doubts might have lingered for me about the question were cleared up by a debate between Harrington and Peter Camejo during the 1976 presidential election campaign, when Camejo was running as the presidential candidate of the Socialist Workers Party.

I read the transcript of the debate when it was published by Pathfinder Press several years after it took place. Harrington and Camejo were both in top form. Harrington was subtle and nuanced. But I thought Camejo, arguing for the importance of socialists remaining independent of the two capitalist parties in the U.S., won the debate.

I wasn't surprised by Harrington's pitch for a "lesser evil" vote for Jimmy Carter over the incumbent and unelected Republican President Gerald Ford, but I was struck by one particular point. Harrington said, "The conditions of a Carter victory are the conditions for working class militancy, and the militancy of minority groups, and the militancy of women, and the militancy of the democratic reform movement. We can actually begin to make victories on full employment, national health and issues like that."

I knew from my own experience of the Carter years that none of this happened--the mass movements didn't advance because of a Democratic victory. And if we replace Carter with Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry or Obama, can we say any different? This strategic "engagement" urged by Harrington weakened the left terribly during the post-Vietnam war era.

Sunkara believes that once Harrington's writings are understood in their context, "some value can be gleaned from his work"--and this is certainly true, as it is for many other political figures.

But it's also true that Harrington's political career demonstrates pitfalls for the left on critical issues, including its relationship to the Democratic Party, the tradition of anti-communism among some socialists, and confusion, at best, about opposition to U.S. imperialism. Hopefully, the left we seek to rebuild today can learn the negative lessons of Michael Harrington's legacy, too.