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Sun May 28 09:45:01 MDT 2000
New York Times, May 28, 2000
The Left Wing of the Possible
Maurice Isserman's 'The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington'
A biography of a writer who tried to change the world once he thought he
First Chapter: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/i/isserman-american.html
By VICTOR NAVASKY
This book is mainly about ''The Life of Michael Harrington,'' its subtitle.
But given the nature of Harrington's idiosyncratic career, ''The Other
American'' is also a veritable Zagat's guide through the left sectarian
factions of the last three-quarters of the 20th century. Maurice Isserman,
a Hamilton College historian who specializes in studies of the left, knows
that one can't really understand Harrington unless one understands some of
the maddening political nuances of the recent past -- the difference, say,
between the Cannonites and the Shachtmanites.
Not that Harrington, who died of cancer at the age of 61 in 1989, was a
sectarian. Though he often joked that he was ''America's oldest young
socialist,'' Harrington made his major imprint on the national psyche at 35
in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy discovered, through Dwight
Macdonald's 50-page New Yorker essay-review of Harrington's book ''The
Other America,'' that there were 40 to 60 million people living in poverty
in what many had been calling our affluent society.
Until then, according to Isserman, thinking about the poor within the
Kennedy administration had been ''piecemeal.'' Harrington's book supplied
the organizing concept, the target, the word, and thus was the idea for the
War on Poverty born. It can indeed be argued that what Betty Friedan's
''Feminine Mystique'' did for feminism, Rachel Carson's ''Silent Spring''
for the environment and Ralph Nader's ''Unsafe at Any Speed'' for the
public interest movement, ''The Other America'' did for the poor. Two
decades later, when Charles Murray began his attack on the welfare system,
Harrington's analysis of the culture of poverty was the main hurdle in his
path. Murray called Harrington the ''pamphleteer'' for the poor.
Harrington was a social critic whose writing seemed to grow out of his
political activities rather than vice versa. Born in 1928 into a
middle-class Irish Catholic family in St. Louis, he attended a Jesuit high
school and a Jesuit college (Holy Cross), and started out as a Republican.
But after trying a year of law school at Yale and a year of graduate school
in literature at the University of Chicago, he headed straight for
Greenwich Village and a job with Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement,
which, as he later put it, was ''as far left as you could go within the
church.'' Day (who was recently proposed to the Vatican for beatification)
had toiled for The Masses, The Liberator and The New Masses before she
founded her own radical pacifist paper, named after her movement. Of this
sometimes autocratic pacifist, one Catholic Worker said, ''Dorothy wanted
to be an anarchist, but only if she got to be the anarch.''
By day, when he wasn't sweeping the floor or literally hand-folding the
eight-page 5,000-circulation tabloid The Catholic Worker, Harrington was
filling its pages with articles and reviews, many written under inscrutable
pseudonyms to avoid Harrington-byline overload. By night he was exploring
the Village in general and the White Horse Tavern in particular, where he
sang, argued about literature and politics and downed pints of
half-and-half with various folk-singing Clancy brothers, the then
tempestuous Norman Mailer and the young Daniel Patrick Moynihan, among
other marathon conversationalists. ''I was in the Horse every night for
more than 10 years,'' Harrington wrote in his memoirs. ''As the people of
KRated PG-13nigsberg were said to set their clocks by Immanuel Kant's
walks, you would see me, punctually dissolute, appear on weeknights at
midnight and on weekends at 1 o'clock.'' It was in the Horse that he met
and wooed Stephanie Gervis, who ended up with him in what is reputed to
have been The Village Voice's first and only marriage announcement.
In 1952 he left The Catholic Worker and his roach-infested room in the East
Village and headed across town to work for a socialist future. But
Harrington's socialism at this time was not that of the Socialist Party,
under whose banner Eugene V. Debs had won almost a million votes in the
1920 presidential election. Instead, he joined the Young People's Socialist
League, the youth wing of a faction known as the Independent Socialist
League. And here is where the difference between the Shachtmanites and the
Cannonites comes in.
James Cannon was the head of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the
late 1930's and, following Leon Trotsky, argued that the Soviet Union was a
''degenerated workers' state.'' Max Shachtman and his colleague James
Burnham disagreed, insisting that the Soviet Union was not a workers'
state, degenerated or otherwise; rather, it was a ''bureaucratic
collectivist state,'' and as such no longer deserved socialist support. In
the early days of World War II, they walked out of the Socialist Workers
Party and formed their own Workers Party, soon reconstituted as the
Independent Socialist League. (Burnham, by the way, kept right on walking
and a decade later found himself on the editorial board of William F.
Buckley's National Review.) Before long, Harrington was an editor of Young
Socialist Challenge, a weekly four-page insert in Shachtman's paper, Labor
Action, which itself numbered Irving Howe among its previous editors.
(When, in 1954, Hal Draper, the current editor of Labor Action, criticized
Howe for abandoning ''the struggle,'' Howe responded, ''What struggles does
Draper have except the very real one to fill the pages of Labor Action
Isserman proceeds to track Harrington's political evolution through his
voluminous writings: 14 books and scores of articles he published in such
journals of opinion as Commonweal, Partisan Review, The New Republic,
Commentary and The Nation. Moreover, it seemed that every new political
tendency gave rise to a new journal, organ or fugitive newsletter, and
Harrington either edited or wrote for all of them, including Anvil (1951);
Dissent (1955), Irving Howe's antisectarian socialist magazine; Liberation
(1956), David Dellinger's radical pacifist quarterly; New American (1960),
the Socialist Party's biweekly; and so forth.
Isserman carefully documents the twists and turns in Harrington's
ever-evolving line, including his break with Shachtman over the Vietnam War
(which Harrington himself, by Isserman's lights, was woefully late to
recognize as a moral disaster) and his conversion from an anti-Communist
absolutism that led him to denounce the New Left (which had no compunctions
about working with Communists) in the early 1960's to a cold war neutralism
that led him repeatedly to apologize for his previous denunciations. But
Isserman makes clear that notwithstanding Harrington's personal
identification with the Socialism of Debs and Norman Thomas, the most
consistent thread running through his life and his work was his effort to
create a ''left wing of the possible,'' which, by the end, had become ''a
'left wing of the possible' within the Democratic Party.'' Even as he was
commuting from his home in Westchester (''Friedrich Engels was a
businessman, for Christ's sake,'' he told one critic of his bourgeois
lifestyle), he continued to commute between his life as a Socialist and his
behind-the-scenes role as a lobbyist for a more progressive Democratic Party.
Neoconservatives may judge Isserman too sympathetic to Harrington's
eventual cold war neutralism. Feminists may find him insufficiently
outraged at Harrington's early manifestations of male chauvinism.
Right-wingers will condemn Isserman's acceptance of socialist values. And
sectarians of every stripe will find him too tolerant of other sectarians.
But in the end, while one may differ with his judgments on this and that
and wish he had said more about why Socialism has never taken hold in the
United States, Isserman has given us the facts to make up our own minds in
this fair and fascinating account of a charismatic and appealing actor on
the American political stage.
The question remains: Was it, finally, all a waste of time, energy and
talent? I'm not so sure. In addition to Harrington himself, the alumni of
Shachtmanism include Howe, the public education innovator Deborah Meier,
trade union leaders too numerous to mention and, oh yes, journalists like
Dwight Macdonald, who was first a Cannonite and then a Shachtmanite, before
he abandoned his old comrades to start his own pacifist, anarchist,
Trotskyist magazine, Politics, which ran for five years, after which he was
discovered by . . . The New Yorker.
(Victor Navasky is the Delacorte professor of magazine journalism at
Columbia University and the publisher of The Nation.)
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