- Founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee
- Founded the Democratic Socialists of America
Michael Harrington was born to a middle-class family in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 24, 1928. As a young man, he was a devout Roman Catholic and, politically, a conservative Republican. But after attending Yale Law School for one year, Harrington began to identify himself as a democratic socialist. He then transferred to the University of Chicago (UC), where he proceeded to earn a master’s degree in English. Both at Yale and UC, Harrington was deeply influenced by neo-Thomist philosophies that: (a) were critical of both unregulated capitalism and collectivist socialism, and (b) favored such measures as the outlawing of child labor, the enactment of a minimum wage, and the strengthening of the organized labor movement.
In 1951 Harrington joined the anarchist-pacifist Catholic Worker Movement (CWM), which had been founded 18 years earlier by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. From CWM’s headquarters on New York’s Lower East Side, Harrington served as the editor of its newspaper, the Catholic Worker, from 1951-53. During this period, he embraced Maurin’s philosophy of personalism, which emphasized self-sacrifice and commitment to social engagement while rejecting collectivism as a creed that objectified human beings in a manner that was incongruous with their dignity.
But as time passed, Harrington became frustrated by the slow pace of social change and he grew doubtful that the the Catholic Worker Movement was capable of doing anything to speed it up. In the spring of 1952, the sociologist Bogdan Denitch recruited Harrington to the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL), the youth section of the Socialist Party. By 1953, Harrington had abandoned both CWM and the Catholic faith. He then became the organizational director for the Workers Defense League, which had been established in 1936 by the famed socialist Norman Thomas.
In 1954, Harrington commenced an eight-year stint as a researcher and writer for the Fund for the Republic, a free-speech/civil-liberties organization backed by the Ford Foundation.
In 1954 as well, Harrington merged his New York-based YPSL into the Independent Socialist League (lSL) headed by the veteran Trotskyist organizer Max Shachtman. Opposed to the excesses of Stalinism but firmly committed to socialism, Harrington helped to organize the so-called “Third Camp,” an unsuccessful attempt to unify all socialists under the banner of a single coalition labor party. He remained YPSL’s national chairman until its dissolution in June 1958. Three months later, Harrington and other ISL-YPSL members began joining the Socialist Party en masse.
Also the 1950s, Harrington became actively involved in the early civil-rights movement. A member of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Advisory Committee, he participated in anti-segregation marches and sit-ins across the South. Harrington’s exposure to non-socialist currents of social activism within the civil-rights movement caused him to shift away from doctrinaire Trotskyism and to focus more intently on trying to build a progressive coalition labor party that would pull together not only socialists, but also anti-Stalinist communists, labor activists, student activists, artists, and intellectuals.
In 1959-60, Harrington authored a series of articles about poverty in Commentary magazine. From 1960-62, he edited New America, the Socialist Party’s official newspaper.
In 1962, Harrington’s aforementioned Commentary articles evolved into The Other America, a highly influential book in which he articulated three principal themes regarding poverty in the United States. First, Harrington claimed that, contrary to the prevailing assumption that the New Deal had largely brought poverty in the U.S. to an end, as many as 50 million Americans were still struggling to survive financially. Second, he asserted that those impoverished people were now immersed — through no fault of their own — in a “culture of poverty” that was nearly bereft of the traditional values of thrift, hard work, and self-sufficiency. Their physical and economic needs, he explained, could never be filled by capitalism, but only by a socially conscious government entrusted with the wholesale redistribution of wealth. In the third part of his analysis, Harrington called for a massive “war on poverty” designed to furnish the impoverished masses with money, food, housing, education, medical care, and all other basic necessities.
Harrington’s book was read by President John F. Kennedy, and it strongly influenced the anti-poverty programs of his administration and of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty which began in 1965. Indeed, Harrington — who firmly believed that a socialist reorganization of American government was the only thing that would be able to adequately address the problem of entrenched poverty — became a member of Johnson’s War on Poverty task force, where he played a major role in formulating policy ideas. As a Boston Globe editorial stated a number of years later, programs like Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, and expanded Social Security benefits were “directly traceable” to the Harrington’s 1962 book.
Moreover, Harrington’s philosophy was a strong influence on President Johnson’s famous 1965 observation that “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” Consider the similarity between that quote, and Harrington’s complaint that “People who are much too sensitive to demand of cripples that they run races, ask of the poor that they get up and act just like everybody else in society.”
In the 1960s as well, Harrington rejected the militant revolutionary tactics of the emerging New Left — e.g., the Students for a Democratic Society and its successor faction, Weatherman — which defiantly called for the evisceration — by any means necessary — of all American values and institutions. Rather, he advocated the transformation of American politics by evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, means.
Also in the Sixties, Harrington served as a liaison for the League for Industrial Democracy, an outgrowth of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.
In 1965 Harrington published his second book, The Accidental Century, which prescribed socialism as the only permanent remedy for the many defects of Western capitalist society.
In 1968 Harrington published his third book, Toward a Democratic Left, which called for a new political movement based on an alliance of Black Power, white youth, white-collar labor unions, the New Left, and religious groups.
In 1968 as well, Harrington was elected co-chair of the Socialist Party as its various factions debated what should be the proper stance toward the Vietnam War. Harrington’s faction, known as the Realignment Caucus, opposed the war but did not support unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Harrington eventually broke away from the Realignment Caucus and formed a so-called Coalition Caucus, which backed George McGovern in the 1972 presidential race.
In October 1972, Harrington resigned from his post as Socialist Party co-chair. That same year, he was hired as a professor of political science at Queens College.
In February 1973, Harrington led his Coalition Caucus out of the Socialist Party and established a new entity, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), of which he promptly became chairman. DSOC’s objective was to attract non-militant student activists to the cause of working with non-socialists within the Democratic Party while stealthily pushing the party’s ideology further leftward in a nonviolent, relatively non-confrontational way. Toward that end, Harrington advocated the enactment of a “fourth New Deal,” a comprehensive program for social and economic reform founded on an ever-expanding welfare state that would continue to use the capitalist production process to generate wealth, but would then apply socialist criteria to regulate the distribution of that wealth. As historian Ronald Radosh explains: “Harrington’s plan [was] to realign American politics through polarizing the electorate along class lines.”
In 1973, Harrington was honored at the Indiana-based Eugene V. Debs Foundation’s annual Eugene Debs Award Banquet that was named in honor of the famed socialist, political activist, and trade unionist.
In the early 1970s, Harrington and the editors of Dissent magazine coined the word “neoconservative” to describe their old leftist friends who — having grown disenchanted with President Johnson’s Great Society projects of the 1960s and the Democratic Party‘s leftward drift on defense issues in the 1970s — decided to move politically to the right.
Throughout the Seventies, DSOC continued to pursue its strategy to remake the Democratic Party through such projects as Democracy ’76 and Democratic Agenda, which were program and policy coalitions that formed within the Democratic Party itself. In the 1980s, a successor coalition called New Directions came to prominence.
In 1981 Harrington published The Next America: The Decline and Rise of the United States, a book that attacked the conservative national mood that was reflected in Ronald Reagan’s recent election as president.
In 1982 Harrington supported the merger of DSOC and the New American Movement, which resulted in the formation of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Harrington co-chaired DSA for the remainder of his life, along with socialist feminist Barbara Ehrenreich. He characterized his brand of socialism as a highly modified form of Marxism that had drawn many lessons from the twentieth-century disasters of communism and various forms of state-sponsored socialism.
In 1983 Harrington published The Politics at God’s Funeral, which argued that because God was dead, mankind would now need to implement a system of democratic socialism in order to maintain a just and moral society.
Harrington died of esophageal cancer on July 31, 1989, in Larchmont, New York.