After Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington died in 1989, when I was five years old.  Harrington cannot be directly credited for my personal trajectory towards socialism and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).  By the time I joined the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) in 2003, Harrington seemed to me to be nothing more than a faded picture and a collection of his works at the DSA national office.  He was hardly mentioned in YDS meetings and only occasionally brought up by older members to connect our group to the organization he cofounded decades before.

As a younger leftist, I once felt that DSA needed to move on from Harrington.  It appeared to me that some members were hung up on the past.  People remembered the height of our influence with elected local and national officials, the Democratic Agenda project (tied to the push for Ted Kennedy to get the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination), and our involvement with the Socialist International.  They identified Harrington with these bygone glory days.  I wondered if his specter was more a roadblock than an inspiration.

Yet I found the indirect influence of Harrington’s beliefs on myself during my education as a YDS activist.  As a child, my family had a mug with a faded fist-and-rose in our pantry.  There were Harrington’s books that sat unread for years on our shelves.  I had learned about DSA through stories of Chile Solidarity from my parents.  Harrington once sought the input of my father—then a nascent Anglophone—on a draft resolution for Congress on the Pinochet regime.  My dad assured Harrington that anything he wrote would be fine, which was more of an attempt to get out of helping edit the draft than deferential treatment.

When my parents gave advice to me as a high school social activist, Harrington’s legacy truly came to light.  They gave two distinct pieces of advice: be a marathon runner and believe in the “left wing of the possible.” The first counsel was an adaptation of Harrington’s autobiography The Long-Distance Runner.  My folks firmly believe that it is always a lengthy movement towards social justice.  People who are “sprinters,” or activists who are impatient for change and abandon the fun parts of life, will burn out.  Those who make a lasting impact will have a balance in their lives between action and pleasure, or at least try the merge the two whenever possible.

The concept of the left wing of the possible had a lasting impact on my political work.  It’s a powerful and brilliant standard: one should orientate one’s efforts to move the liberal-left toward better politics.  This principle kept me away from sectarianism.  When I found myself worrying about what rival socialist organizations did or said, I’d remember that being the “right wing of the impossible” (the alternative to Harrington’s guidance) was a dead-end position. Our focus can’t be on small would-be vanguard formations.  You can’t organize those who think they have all the answers, but you can move those in need of a more sophisticated analysis to inform their work for reforms.

Today, I enjoy living out Harrington and my parents’ words of wisdom in Boston DSA.  Our local has become active in the battle for the Employee Free Choice Act and national health insurance.  We continually engage with Jobs with Justice, the labor movement, and healthcare activists to move a progressive agenda forward.  We also remind our allies that absent a wildly embraced democratic anti-corporate critique and a practice of class struggle, the limits of reformist politics in both the unions and the movement for universal healthcare will soon become apparent.

But the influence of Harrington goes beyond the political; he was a figure who had deep personal connections with his comrades.  At the end of his life, Harrington lived in Larchmont near my grandparents.  When Harrington was diagnosed with cancer, during a family visit my father went to leave a bottle of wine at the Harrington family doorstep to thank him for his work.  As many know, Harrington was never one to turn down a good drink in his days at the White Horse in lower Manhattan.  So, two decades after his passing we should toast him as he would have wanted.  Even long distance runners need a water break!

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