Unlike Mike

The Democratic Socialists of America is much bigger than it was in founder Mike Harrington’s day. But has it strayed too far from his vision?

By Jo-Ann Mort

Tagged Democratic Socialists of AmericaMichael Harringtonsocialism

The West is living through an economic and social crisis so unprecedented in its tempo, so complex in its effects…the contemporary crisis is more radical than the Great Depression of the thirties or the ‘stagflation’ of the seventies. When it is resolved, America—and the world—will have been more fundamentally transformed than….

These prescient words were written by the socialist activist and writer Michael Harrington in a book published in 1986, aptly called The Next Left: The History of a Future, published just two and a half years before his untimely death from cancer at age 61. Michael Harrington was an American socialist intellectual and activist long before the Bernie Sanders for President campaigns.

Now here we are, more than three decades later. “Socialism” has become a household word in our country, not because of Harrington’s determined intellectual grit of decades past, nor because of the organization he founded and created, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It is front and center today largely due to a candidate for President who ran on the Democratic Party ticket but never joined the Democratic Party, while talented local and high-profile politicians, most especially Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, proclaimed themselves democratic socialists inside of the Democratic Party.

DSA is thriving, no doubt about it, with some 60,000 members as opposed to the few thousand back in Mike’s day. Yet, DSA operates today with little similarity to Harrington’s politics or purpose. In fact, I suspect that Harrington would find himself, were he alive, disowning the organization he founded—and its leadership would most likely disown him, too.

As the primary season began, DSA took a vote to endorse a “Bernie only” position. Not Elizabeth Warren, not anyone—and for them, certainly not Joe Biden. Even after Bernie Sanders endorsed Biden, DSA announced it was sticking by its position.

The vision of Harrington—and socialist predecessors like Eugene Victor Debs (who founded the American Socialist Party in 1901, with a base that grew out of organizing Pullman railroad workers) and Norman Thomas (a Princeton-educated Presbyterian Minister who succeeded Debs as the party’s leader and died in 1968)—is so far from the orthodoxy of DSA today. DSA today represents a sectarian faction, not a way forward for progressives in America. Indeed, the Debs/Thomas/Harrington tradition was deeply grounded in a Midwestern American spirit. Jill Lepore, in a recent piece about Debs in The New Yorker, observed that Debs “had less to do with Karl Marx and Communism than with Walt Whitman and Protestantism.” For these three leaders, socialism was about an American spirit unbounded as corporate interests were kept in check. There was something profoundly American about the earlier socialist iterations. When the Socialist Party was strongest in the United States, it was a combination of this Midwesternism with an emerging immigrant urban class, especially in the industrial unions. Debs’ Socialist Party had 118,000 members in 1912. But as the industrial unions grew and found their home not in the Socialist Party, but in Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, the SP weakened. Socialist ideology without voters became a hollow proposition—much as it is in the current DSA position.

Harrington was a leader in the tradition of both Debs and the Thomas, both of whom ran for President on the third-party line. He was also greatly influenced by the urban immigrant milieu. A member of a smaller faction within the socialist movement as a young man (led by a brilliant though caustic intellectual named Max Shachtman), Harrington found his socialist engagement on the streets of Greenwich Village in the 1950s, where the bohemian, artistic lifestyle was mixed with leftists of either a socialist or a communist bent. After a few stormy years that included his activism within Thomas’s Socialist Party and then several splits due to sentiments around the Vietnam War, Harrington, in 1973, founded a fledgling socialist organization called Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC, known as DEE-sock to the initiated) as a break-away from the Socialist Party, U.S.A. This came after SPUSA had been captured by a pro-Vietnam War faction that eventually became a small break-away group, Social Democrats USA whose power base was in the 1970s-80s iteration of the AFL-CIO under then-president Lane Kirkland, with a narrowly pro-worker, anti-Communist stance.

Another reason for Harrington’s new group was that he believed that it was time to work within the Democratic Party. “I’ve been in third parties most of my life,” he used to preach, “and I only want to be in a first party from now on.” In 1982, Harrington’s DSOC merged with the New American Movement, a formation of New Left activists from the 1960s and ’70s and former communists, to forge the Democratic Socialists of America, which had 6,000 members upon its founding. One of the key demands from the DSOC side was that their strategy of working inside of the Democratic Party would remain. Back then, we never imagined the ranks swelling to where they are today, at ten times that number, largely young people drawn from the ranks of Sanders supporters.

I worked closely with Mike Harrington during the late 1970s and early 1980s until his death. I was chair and then vice-chair of the largest local organization of DSOC, the New York City local, and then later I was an organizer for DSA’s Democratic Party programming and outreach and a vice chair of DSA. I resigned my position in the early 1990s over political disagreements relating to the beginnings of the political shifts, post Harrington’s death.

Michael Harrington was an extraordinary person in every way; a polyglot intellectual schooled by the Jesuits, enamored of and heavily influenced by Dorothy Day, though not a religious person whatsoever. With an advanced degree in literature from the University of Chicago— obtained during the heyday of the intellectual movement fostered by then-university president Robert Hutchins—he was a lapsed poet and a poetic visionary. Mike’s writing metamorphosed into more than a dozen books that covered the proverbial progressive waterfront from domestic and international politics to cultural issues and, unsurprisingly given the Day influence, the impact of religion on community and politics. He was a close reader and friend of political intellectuals like Harvey Cox and James Cone, with a sort of split-screen interest in both Cox’s notion of religion’s place in a secular world and Cone’s early promotion of liberation theology in the black and overall Christian church. Mike was a very comfortable “Commonweal Catholic”—informed by Catholic theology in his political ideals and concern for the poor, but not beholden whatsoever to that theology for any religious observance. He broke from his comrades there regarding the issue of abortion, which he supported. He would often point to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a critically important social democratic force supporting the American working class, in spite of their position on abortion (he died before the scandals emerged among the bishops).

His wife, Stephanie, was Jewish, and Mike used to enjoy debating issues related to Israel by pointing out that, according to all Jewish law, his two boys would be able to take advantage of Israeli law to settle there as Jewish citizens. Harrington visited Israel frequently and supported a two-state solution. He had a soft spot for Shimon Peres, with whom he shared the title of vice president of the Socialist International (there were dozens of VP’s). His political and intellectual colleagues were giants of thought and action from abroad as well, like Sweden’s Olof Palme and Germany’s Willy Brandt, both of whom were friends and allies.

Mike believed in socialism as best represented by the Swedish social democratic model and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), transformed by its support for the Bad Godesberg Program in 1959. This program, as E.J. Dionne, Jr. and William A. Galston document in their Socialism: A Short Primer, defined the social function of the state as “provid[ing] social security for its citizens to enable everyone to be responsible for shaping his own life freely and to further the development of a free society…The program focused not on government taking control of the economy, but on using government to improve the lives of all citizens. Key planks included full employment, generous wages, and shorter working days, a redistributive system of taxation, secure retirement with a state-guaranteed minimum pension, universal access to health care, and decent and affordable housing.”

Indeed, this social democracy, before Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, informed the politics of an earlier generation of Democrats led by Senator Ted Kennedy, whom Harrington saw as an influential guide to domestic politics and with whom he often conferred. They exemplify the politics of Elizabeth Warren, even though she pointedly doesn’t call herself a socialist. These leaders and these ideas were part of a broad-based coalition that Harrington called the “democratic left,” marrying liberalism and socialism in a partnership for change in America. These ideas and this coalition could, and should, easily inform a revived Democratic Party liberalism, especially one emerging from the wreckage of a post-pandemic, post-Trump America.

Harrington saw a logical partnership between the liberal project and his social democratic (or socialist, he used the terms interchangeably) project. He saw the voters and activists in the Democratic Party as the mobilizers of a social democratic agenda: workers, feminists, communities of color, the same populations that voted for the German SPD or the Swedish Social Democrats or the British Labour Party. And he saw that they shared the common aspirations of a better and more equal America. He believed deeply in being part of the mass aggregation of the populations whose self-interest would be reflected in a more just America.

Harrington worked in the Democratic Party because he believed that it held within its ranks the equivalent of a European social democratic party, without being named as such; “a hidden social democracy,” as he referred to it in his 1967 book, Toward a Democratic Left. His goal was to grow and strengthen its progressive wing, while fighting internally against the pro-corporate wing. That’s why he launched Democratic Agenda in 1977, a project of DSOC and then, DSA—to stake the socialist claim in the policy debates in the Democratic Party.

Harrington also knew, firsthand, the power of policy arguments. His own claim to fame arose not from his leadership of a tiny American movement (akin to being the tallest building in Wichita, as the conservative writer William Buckley once described it, and on whose long-running PBS show “Firing Line” Harrington often appeared), but rather from his first book, The Other America, published in 1962. The book, tiny though it was, made a tremendous impact by skillfully shining a spotlight on the 50 million citizens at that time who were living in poverty. Calling them the “invisible” Americans, Harrington documented urban and rural poverty both, for a country that was flush in the middle of its self-image of the nation with the highest living standard in the world, consumed by new forms of mass production. It sold more than 70,000 copies in its first year, a huge number then for a book of that type, and it caught the attention of the Kennedy Administration and went on to inspire the War on Poverty.

“Democratic Agenda” was Harrington’s model of a transitional program from liberalism to socialism, his idea for how socialists should work in the Democratic Party. As he told a gathering of socialist students in 1979: “Democratic Agenda is not a specifically socialist program, but it was DSOC’s transitional program. It is the most socialist thing in the world—to work out transitional demands to where people are, to begin to set them in motion to go beyond where they are.”

Democratic Agenda’s biggest victory was probably the platform fight at the 1978 midterm convention in Memphis, when Harrington led 40 percent of the delegates to oppose President Jimmy Carter’s economic policies and back the Democratic Agenda platform of federally provided universal health care, full employment, and a shift away from fossil fuels. Notably, the floor manager on behalf of the Carter agenda was a rising star in the Democratic Party, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. (Later the Democratic National Committee cancelled the midterm convention, and Harrington’s Democratic Agenda ran a policy conference of its own called New Directions, which I directed in 1988 at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center. We gathered together 2,000 activists, ten national unions, scores of congresspeople, economists, feminists, and citizen activists.)

The author with Harrington at the 1988 New Directions conference.

“Socialists are not liberals, but socialists in America are part of the liberal community,” he said. “Liberalism is the dominant ideology of American working class if you define it as a mass movement that supports social change. So, for U.S. socialists, we are part of the liberal community. We see the growth of a mass socialist movement growing out of liberalism very broadly defined, a movement of radical change growing out of a movement of partial change.” And that is why Harrington’s DSA never sat on the sidelines. When Carter beat Kennedy for the nomination, DSA encouraged its members to vote Democratic, though they didn’t endorse Carter. They did the same thing after Dukakis beat Jesse Jackson in 1988, having supported Jackson in the primary. On the left in those days, we would have called it “critical support”; we didn’t endorse, but we never, ever said to our members that they should not vote for the Democrat. But today’s DSA clings to an inexplicable purity. Against Donald Trump. This goes against everything that a socialist should believe; gradual change is not the enemy. Saving lives is not the enemy.

In one of his least appreciated but most stunning books, The Accidental Century, published in 1965, Harrington wrote a short treatise on the decadence of the twentieth century and what he saw as a rebirth of goodwill emerging from the excess. He prophetically examined a workforce pounded by technological change and the creep of global corporatism; he was profoundly prescient regarding where we find ourselves today. In the conclusion, he wrote: “…the past which is the dream of the American Right is beyond recall; and the present which is recognized by American liberalism is much more radical than is imagined. At some point, then, a new political movement must begin to talk of a new political program—the democratic and conscious control of a technology that is already collective and bureaucratic…”

We are in this political moment now. Technology has taken over our world; we are fighting a work environment increasingly controlled by the leviathan example of Amazon. “It is no longer a question of yearning for a mystic day on which history will turn a corner,” he concluded in this book. “Now it is literally possible to construct freedom—if the political will can be found in the daily life.” This was his accidental century. Now, it is ours.

Harrington would be for Joe Biden, without doubt. I suspect, too, that a DSA that was still in his image would also support Biden. A responsible socialist movement would never stand by and allow America to continue on its present course. No matter how many members DSA has today, it is acting like a small sect; not a responsible movement whose aim is to create a more equal and just America and world.

DSA today has succeeded in putting socialism on the American agenda in a way that those of us from Harrington’s time could never have imagined. Much of it is good. DSA has engaged tens of thousands of community activists all across this vast country. They helped catapult Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to national attention—one of the most talented politicians of this century. They made socialism part of the public debate at a time when inequality is rampant, and we see, through the COVID-19 disease, how poverty and inequality both are literal killers. Indeed, debates about how to reduce inequality are more critical than ever before. But by squandering the moment with a sectarianism that misses the enormity of possible change (albeit via gradualism), and sitting on the sidelines in such a fraught moment is nothing short of a betrayal of the very Americans DSA professes to support.

Read more about Democratic Socialists of AmericaMichael Harringtonsocialism

Jo-Ann Mort is a member of the Dissent magazine editorial board, and writes frequently about progressive issues, with an expertise in areas related to progressive Judaism and Israel. Her last article for Democracy was "What Work Is."

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