Like Mike?

by Bhaskar Sunkara (Democratic Socialists of America) on May 2, 2013

Originally published at Jacobin — Michael Harrington was wrong about a lot of things, but not quite in the way Joe Allen describes.

Joe Allen recounts a story from 1980s, in which he asks a question to then leading democratic socialist Michael Harrington only to be glibly dismissed as the “Trot in the room.” That seems likely. Harrington engaged substantively with people like Peter Camejo, but his patience with those to his left often faltered. And not exactly uniquely — the history of the twentieth century is littered with curmudgeonly radicals.

In this case, it’s not clear what prompted the rudeness. From the account, it sounds like Harrington didn’t know Allen personally beforehand. He was perhaps tipped off by the language he used, its mode of thought, and style. There is no doubt that “Trots” can be singled out in a room full of leftists. And normally for good reasons: whatever its blemishes, American Trotskyism has been marked by rigor and seriousness, and record of being right on the major political questions of the twentieth century.

So while I appreciate the comradely tone of Allen’s response, it was disappointing to see it filled with inaccuracies. Billed as a substantive consideration, his piece is instead a polemic.

Allen claims that he was a “Harringtonite,” but when he started college in the late 70s, he quickly saw the error of his ways. He notes, correctly, that the posture adopted by Harrington and his co-thinkers like Irving Howe, the founding editor of Dissent, towards the emerging New Left was unproductive. Tom Hayden and the other leaders of the young movement didn’t fully grapple with the dynamics of Stalinism, but sniping from outside did those forces no good. It was an error that Harrington would later recognize and lament in the aftermath of the 1960s. That evolution happened even before Allen went to college.

But what’s wrong is Allen’s mentions of Harrington’s “support for the Vietnam War, long after even capitalist institutions like the New York Times came out against it.” This didn’t happen. Harrington never came out in favor of the Vietnam War — despite being handicapped by membership in an increasingly reactionary Socialist Party of America, he was a voice for peace in Vietnam from the very beginning.

This was Harrington’s political failure. Being for “peace” in Vietnam, was not the same thing as calling for the victory of national liberation forces. Harrington’s reflexive anti-Stalinism served him poorly. He should have applied the old distinction between “Stalinism in power” and “Stalinism in opposition” — the difference between Communist Party members fighting against racism in the Jim Crow south and Joseph Stalin in Russia — to the struggle of a flawed anti-imperialist force and more uncritically supported the Vietnamese resistance.

But whatever his politics there, at no point did Harrington ever embrace the United States’ foreign wars. He remained firmly in the Third Camp tradition that Allen crudely implies was somehow unique to the Trotskyist movement.

What’s more, his labeling of Harrington as a “social democrat” is either a polemical device or reflects a frightening lack of clarity. Through his life, Harrington advocated not just for socialism within capitalism, but for socialism after capitalism — a break with class society and the bourgeois state. As someone who read The Twilight of Capitalism, Allen should know that Harrington even saw the welfare state as a “an ambiguous and transitional phenomenon, the temporary salvation of the system, but also the portent of its end.” There is plenty to critique about the particularities of his vision, but it’s not analytically useful to lump his perspectives with those of, say, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

None of this is to act as lawyer for Harrington. My own political perspectives align better with more dynamic thinkers like England’s Ralph Miliband. But if we keep in mind that for most of his life Harrington was writing in a specific historical context — one that featured a booming post-war capitalism, a labor movement strong enough to force a social democratic class compromise of sorts, and the existence of a bureaucratic collectivist Eastern Bloc — some value can be gleaned from his work.

As far as the substance of my piece, which Allen doesn’t engage much with, it makes arguments and reflects an operative politics not at odds with those of Socialist Worker contributors. Our points of emphasis might differ, but that compatibility should be taken as a sign that the fissures of the twentieth century should give way to renewed political practice in the twenty-first.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh May 2, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Sunkara is wrong — Allen’s piece wasn’t a polemic, it was sniping and cheapshots combined with personalistic attacks. It certainly would not belong in the pages of Jacobin, a magazine dedicated to “culture and polemic.”

Reply

Richard Estes May 2, 2013 at 6:08 pm

There is a brief allusion to Harrington’s economic perspective:

“As someone who read The Twilight of Capitalism, Allen should know that Harrington even saw the welfare state as a “an ambiguous and transitional phenomenon, the temporary salvation of the system, but also the portent of its end.” ”

Given our current condition, I’d like to know more about this as it is highly relevant.

As for his anti-Stalinism, an evaluation of it requires a bit more than presented here. Based upon the limited discussion in this article, I’m not so sure that he should be condemned for his stance, because, much like Camus in relation to Algeria, it is possible that he took a longer view, and perceived perils in the success of the North Vietnamese, just like Camus did in regard to the FLN. If he erred, he erred in making the issue so prominent in his relations the with New Left.

Reply

John Halle May 2, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Re: Harrington’s position on the war see Maurice Isserman: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DemocraticLeft/message/21076

Bottom line, Harrington was both anti-war (did not support U.S. intervention) and anti-anti war (consistently red baited anti war movement) . To describe him as one or the other is a misrepresentation.

Reply

Fonte Relance May 2, 2013 at 9:22 pm

How is that different than Sunkara’s characterization? Seems to be the gist that I got from this piece exactly (Isserman link included).

Reply

John Halle May 2, 2013 at 10:14 pm

Sunkara does not mention that he consistently redbaited the anti-war movement.

Reply

David Berger (RED DAVE) May 2, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Having hung out with, and crossed swords with, Mike Harrington in the early 60s, let me say this. It’s almost as if there were two people inside him. When he talked theoretically about socialism, few people around then were as incisive and inspiring. He was immensely knowledgeable and persuasive and always approachable.

I remember one night, it must have been in the late winter of ’61-’62, Mike going over a pamphlet he had written on capitalism with a bunch of members (couldn’t have been more than a dozen) of the Young People’s Socialist League, of which I was a member. I can close my eyes and here his voice right now, more than 50 years ago. He was non-strident, non-polemical, brilliant: everything anyone could want in a teacher.

However, combined with this was a jones for the Democratic Party liberals and the labor bureaucracy. And at Port Huron, he could not make the break with the dogmatic anti-stalinism that he had inherited from Max Shactman. To answer Richard Estes, above, without commenting on Camus, no, Mike did not have a long view. His analysis of stalinism was not that nuanced.

Somehow, Mike could not make the breaks that would have made him, probably, the outstanding socialist leader in the US in the second half of the 20th Century.

Reply

Richard Estes May 2, 2013 at 9:13 pm

appreciate this elaboration

Reply

John Halle May 2, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Question about Harrington for those who might know: what was his position on the national security state. Did he go along with labor and the DP in supporting cold war defense budgets, and nuclear and conventional weapons development? The Isserman article doesn’t mention this.

Reply

Roseanna January 18, 2017 at 9:23 am

I deitlifeny love the andes peppermint crunch!! i baked with them for the first time a few weeks ago and i’m a fan!! these cookies look great and i love that it’s got chocolate chips in addition to the peppermint chips!

Reply

4000 euro kredit gibt es February 16, 2017 at 10:01 am

You’re the greatest! JMHO

Reply

Joaquín Bustelo May 2, 2013 at 11:44 pm

Michael Harrington was a social-imperialist scoundrel. He was a Cold War state department “socialist” that, when push came to shove, tried to use a purely formal, verbal antiwar position as cover for a campaign of anticommunist redbaiting to disrupt the antiwar movement, dovetailing with the FBI’s COINTELPRO program.

For a decade or so, Vietnam was the central issue in world politics. And it was the most important conflict of the entire anticolonial revolution that marked the three decades following WWII. And in that conflict, Harrington was unwilling and unable to take a righteous position of principle in defense of the right of the Vietnamese people to control their own destiny. He insisted the antiwar movement should be as much against the heroic people of Vietnam fighting Yanqui imperialism as the savage machine of death and destruction Washington had unleashed against them. And his practical activity and those of his party comrades in the United States was aimed squarerly against he antwar movement.

There is only one reason I don’t call Harrington an imperialist rat.

I have a lot more respect for rats that I do for “socialists” of his ilk.

Reply

PatrickSMcNally May 3, 2013 at 7:35 am

During the Cold War the CIA began funding things like the Congress for Cultural Freedom in an attempt to create an “anti-communist Left” which they huped would block the emergence of a real Left. There was also a greater willingness on the part of many establishment liberal magazines to promote social democratic views in line with the CCF and such. Not everyone who was drawn into such games was a cynical trickster. Some were honestly deluded into thinking that they enjoyed some independent importance. That seems to have been the case with Michael Harrington. He never comprehended how vitally important the successes of the USSR, PRC and other such states were in creating an environment in which “The Other America” could enjoy a receptive audience. He seems to have really believed that it was his own intellectual significance which brought the book to prominence.

Reply

David Berger (RED DAVE) May 3, 2013 at 10:47 am

PATRICKSMCNALLY: … how vitally important the successes of the USSR, PRC and other such states were …

DAVID BERGER: What you are saying is that he wasn’t a stalinist. No, he wasn’t. That’s not a political crime, except for people who think that the USSR, PRC, etc., were some kind of socialism.

Harrington, in my opinion, was basically a social democrat, although, since he knew the miserable history of social democracy, and its miserable practice in the 50s and 60s, he would have denied it. The term “democratic socialist,” which he used, in practice means “social democrat.”

Reply

PatrickSMcNally May 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm

One need not be “Stalinist” in any sense in order to grasp that if there were no Soviet state then the Eusenhower years would have looked a lot more like what Robert Welch and the John Birch Society wanted things to look like. That becomes pretty pathetic when someone has to be considered a cheerleader for the Moscow Show Trials in order to acknowledge that the real revolutions throughout the world were what made it possible for Harrington to be a prominent public intellectual. Certainly the real Leon Trotsky, whatever his other mistakes, would never fallen into that kind of error. Trotsky’s principal error was simply underestimating the ability of capitalism to recover after WWII. But he broke from Shachtman precisely over this kind of issue.

Reply

Aaron Aarons May 4, 2013 at 12:49 pm

DAVID BERGER writes:

What you are saying is that [Harrington] wasn’t a stalinist. No, he wasn’t. That’s not a political crime, except for people who think that the USSR, PRC, etc., were some kind of socialism.

No, you don’t have to be a “stalinist” — why lower case? — to believe that “the successes of the USSR, PRC and other such states were “vitally important […] in creating an environment in which “The Other America” could enjoy a receptive audience” or that “the USSR, PRC, etc., were some kind of socialism”. I happen to believe the latter and am not sure about the former. You may consider me a Stalinist if you like, but I have always opposed the essence of Stalinism, which is “peaceful coexistence” with imperialist capitalism.

I think it is clear, though, that it was the threat of the Soviet example, flawed as it was, that made possible the fairly radical welfare-state reforms, in Western Europe in particular, in the post-war period.

Reply

David Berger (RED DAVE) May 4, 2013 at 6:26 pm

AARON AARONS: I think it is clear, though, that it was the threat of the Soviet example, flawed as it was, that made possible the fairly radical welfare-state reforms, in Western Europe in particular, in the post-war period.

DAVID BERGER: Prove it.

Considering that by 1948, with the Cold War, the USSR was well on the way to being discredited in the US, and China never had a reputatiion for “welfare-state reforms” and then winds of McCarthyism were already blowing, the “Soviet example” played little or no role. The USA was the predominant economic power in the world, with 40% of the world’s industry within its borders in the late 1940s. It could afford such reforms.

Reply

Aaron Aarons May 5, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Did you see the words, “in Western Europe in particular”, in my comment?

There were strong “Communist” parties in Italy, France and Belgium. These got their strength from the existence of the Soviet Union. And, no, neither the USSR nor China were admired for their “welfare-state reforms”, but for their having overthrown capitalist rule, which is what the Western European bourgeoisie and their U.S. patrons were afraid of. They countered the threat with a combination of reforms that benefitted workers and peasants with overt and covert repression.

Reply

David Berger (RED DAVE) May 3, 2013 at 8:35 pm

PATRICKSMCNALLY: One need not be “Stalinist” in any sense in order to grasp that if there were no Soviet state then the Eusenhower years would have looked a lot more like what Robert Welch and the John Birch Society wanted things to look like.

DAVID BERGER: And if my grandmother had had wheels, she would have been a bus. The notion that the US was more liberal because of the presence of the USSR and PRC is bizarre, to say the least.

PATRICKSMCNALLY: That becomes pretty pathetic when someone has to be considered a cheerleader for the Moscow Show Trials in order to acknowledge that the real revolutions throughout the world were what made it possible for Harrington to be a prominent public intellectual.

DAVID BERGER: What you’re saying is that US intellectuals, who, like Harrington, were the heirs of 200 years of struggle for US democracy, were really able to express themselves because of … Mao and Stalin. Great thinking.

PATRICKSMCNALLY: Certainly the real Leon Trotsky, whatever his other mistakes, would never fallen into that kind of error.

DAVID BERGER: I don’t think that Trotsky, when he volunteered to speak in front of the Dies Committee, or when he testified in front of the Dewey Commission, considered the USSR to be a pillar of democratic rights.

PATRICKSMCNALLY: Trotsky’s principal error was simply underestimating the ability of capitalism to recover after WWII. But he broke from Shachtman precisely over this kind of issue.

DAVID BERGER: If you want to start a thread about Trotsky, I suggest that you engage in some study of what he actually wrote and did. (And, by the way, in addition to engaging in debate with Harrington, Shactman and I had a few words to say to each other face to face a couple of times.)

Reply

Richard Estes May 3, 2013 at 10:05 pm

[DAVID BERGER: And if my grandmother had had wheels, she would have been a bus. The notion that the US was more liberal because of the presence of the USSR and PRC is bizarre, to say the least.]

Without jumping into this argument, it is worth noting that Eric Hobsbawm believed this.

Reply

PatrickSMcNally May 4, 2013 at 6:40 am

So did Malcolm X and a lot of others.

Reply

David Berger May 4, 2013 at 7:17 am

(1) Could you document your assertion that Malcolm X and “others” (presumably “significant others”

Reply

David Berger (RED DAVE) May 3, 2013 at 10:49 pm

DAVID BERGER: And if my grandmother had had wheels, she would have been a bus. The notion that the US was more liberal because of the presence of the USSR and PRC is bizarre, to say the least.

RICHRD ESTES: Without jumping into this argument, it is worth noting that Eric Hobsbawm believed this.

DAVID BERGER: With all due respect to Hobsbawn (whose book on jazz I’m currently using as part of the research for my upcoming book on Thelonious Monk, his poitics were a bit irregular. For example, although he protested the Russian invasion of Hungary (which did little to enhance democracy in the US) he stayed in the British CP.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hobsbawm#Politics

Reply

Aaron Aarons May 5, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Speaking of the Hungarian uprising, it’s stil not clear, almost 60 years later, whether the leftist, working-class elements or the right-wing elements were, or would have become, dominant. At the time, and for the next 40 years or so, I was convinced that it was a working-class political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Just one of the many things that made me start doubting myself on that was an encounter at some forum or other with an anti-communist Hungarian woman who, in response to my saying that the Hungarian uprising was “socialist”, scoffed at the idea and said that the socialist language of the leadership was just for show, presumably to weaken Soviet and leftist hostility.

Maybe, just maybe, Copeland and Marcy were right all along.

Reply

David Berger (RED DAVE) May 9, 2013 at 7:46 am

Oh, Lord. You had an encounter with a right-wing Hungarian, and that makes you doubt the Hungarian Revolution? Wow!

Reply

Aaron Aarons December 16, 2014 at 6:33 am

[I’m not sure what link I clicked that brought me back in time from 2014/12/16 to 2003/05/09, but:] Did you miss the beginning of my sentence or did you choose to ignore it: “Just one of the many things that made me start doubting myself on that […]” [emphasis added]

Reply

Aaron Aarons June 9, 2016 at 2:05 pm

Correction: That should have been 2013/05/09, not 2003/05/09.

Reply

Richard Estes May 5, 2013 at 9:28 pm

“With all due respect to Hobsbawn (whose book on jazz I’m currently using as part of the research for my upcoming book on Thelonious Monk, his poitics were a bit irregular.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Reply

PatrickSMcNally May 5, 2013 at 10:31 pm

People who like a more professional opinion than that of Malcolm X may look up Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line.

Reply

Pham Binh May 6, 2013 at 9:39 am

Weird that Socialist Worker removed the hyperlinks from Sunkara’s response to Allen:
http://socialistworker.org/2013/05/06/what-to-learn-from-harrington

Reply

Pham Binh May 8, 2013 at 10:27 am

Joe Allen responds and dials back his claim that Harrington supported the U.S. war on Viet Nam:
http://socialistworker.org/2013/05/08/taking-sides-on-harrington

Reply

John Halle May 10, 2013 at 11:33 am

This is quite good- what he should have posted the first time. An additional point which Allen could have mentioned is how Harrington’s redbaiting of the antiwar left, recycling lies and slanders manufactured by the right, established the BOP for New Republic/Dissent liberals like Michael Walzer and Paul Berman. Pretty dubious legacy.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: