Responsible Radical: Reflections on Michael Harrington's Legacy

Michael Harrington is one of the most influential American political radicals whose name would be unrecognized by most people today. Even bonafide left-wingers are often ignorant of his contributions. Yet in his all-too-brief lifetime, Harrington penned over twenty books, including The Other America, which even mainstream media sources have named one of the most important books of the twentieth century. It is not an exaggeration to say that this book helped spur President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Harrington’s most famous work, however, was just one of his many achievements. Above all, we should remember Harrington not only as a brilliant writer and theorist, but also as a “responsible radical.” While the progressive movement today largely lacks anyone of his stature and mold, there is much we can learn from his life.

Harrington was a true public intellectual at a time when that term held more meaning. William F. Buckley, also a prominent public intellectual at the time, once said that being the most famous socialist in America was “like being the tallest building in Topeka, Kansas.” Unfortunately, Buckley may have had a point. Yet the two men also had a great deal of respect for one another, and they held numerous spirited, though civil, debates. They were men of a bygone era: an era before the Internet, blogs, and the supremacy of cable television. It was a time when the term “public intellectual” held some meaning for a larger portion of America’s citizens. Although only a small number of individuals may remember Harrington today, his impact can still be felt.

It was not just Harrington’s status as a preeminent intellectual that set him apart from both his peers and his radical forebears; in addition, it was his ability to transcend generations and to combine theory with practice. In the turbulent 1960s, Harrington served as an important link between the Old Left and the New Left. He was one of the few people who talked to both representatives of the old guard, such as Norman Thomas, and young radicals such as Tom Hayden.

In fact, Harrington briefly participated in the famous Port Huron meetings, where he attempted to serve as a mentor to the young upstarts. While his input was not fully incorporated into that renowned statement of participatory democracy, the fact that he was invited demonstrates the high regard Tom Hayden and others had for him. Harrington was one of the few who could have served as a sort of mediator between Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the group’s patron, the labor group League for Industrial Democracy.

Today, those on the left generally fall into one of two camps: either they are ivory-tower academics who focus on theory to the detriment of action, or they engage in direct action while lacking an informed ideology. Sadly, few bridge this divide today. Michael Harrington did, however, and we would do well to follow his example.

Today, the best-known figures on the American Left are generally academics such as Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, or politicians such as Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders. While public intellectuals still exist, they lack the influence of those from Harrington’s time. This fact says as much about, if not more about, the state of modern American society as it does about the weakness of the left-wing movement. While he was still among us, Michael Harrington was a regular on National Public Radio. Many ordinary Americans listened to his commentary, or at least knew his name or of his work. If only there were a Socialist who was so well-known today! Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West perhaps come closest to fitting Harrington’s mold. Neither of them, however, is as closely associated with socialism as Harrington was, and it is questionable whether either is as widely known among the general public as Harrington was.

Harrington knew that a sectarian, isolated Left would become inept and eventually die. YDS, DSA, and the progressive movement as a whole would do well to heed his words by continuing to build broad coalitions with groups in the labor, immigrant, global justice, religious, racial justice, LGBT, and student movements, among others. While I cannot help but rue the fact that I never had the chance to meet Harrington or hear him speak, in the words of Joe Hill, “don’t mourn, organize.” We must study Harrington’s work and learn from his successes and failures, yet we should also be sure to move forward, without remaining mired in the past. That is the way Michael himself undoubtedly would have wanted it.

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