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Socialism: Past and Future
by michael harrington
arcade publishing, 320 pages, $19.95 

If one is going to be a socialist, Michael Harrington’s variety is perhaps the best kind to be. Before his premature death from cancer this past year, Harrington worked with Dorothy Day to help the poor in New York slums, wrote sixteen books, made a major impact on national policy by calling attention to the scandal of poverty in our midst by his The Other America, and brought hundreds of disenchanted “old left” leaders from the thirties and perhaps thousands more of the alienated “new left” activists from the sixties into the mainstream of democratic participation.

As his final book demonstrates, Harrington was a democratic socialist in the traditions of Norman Thomas, Antonio Gramsci, Gunnar Myrdal, John Kenneth Galbraith, Willie Brandt, and Michael Manley. That is, he set a course that would not compromise democracy for the sake of socialism — a position that set him apart from assorted domestic political sectarians and especially from the Marxist-Leninist establishments and ideological Liberationists who, until recently, commanded the rhetoric as well as the policies in Eastern Europe and the Third World.

It is sad that Harrington did not live to see the transformations now taking place in Eastern Europe and Latin America as the people there struggle for (or stumble toward) democracy, for he would have been vindicated in his critique of the betrayals of the best dreams of socialism by the Leninist-Stalinist deviations that, he thinks, subverted the more promising aspects of Marx. In this regard, his 1972 volume, Socialism, stands as a monument in tracing the internal ideological battles that distorted what at least half of the world’s population in this century has held to be the dream of a better, more cooperative life for the common people.

In that, as in all his work (including the present volume), Harrington manifests a sense of honesty. He would not twist the data to make things come out favorably for socialism, although he obviously saw the data through glasses ground on socialist theory. In some respects, Harrington might be seen as doing for contemporary socialism what Peter Berger’s The Capitalist Resolution does for capitalism. In both instances we see what can be said with integrity about a position in the face of historical developments and the accumulation of data. In Harrington’s case, this motivation is, I think, combined with another consideration: he knew he was dying, and he wanted to give, as it were, a last message to his followers and the nation.

Harrington’s honesty was such that he began to recognize inadequacies in Marxist theory”not only in distortions brought to it by Stalin or power — hungry bureaucrats, but directly in Marx’s scientific socialism itself. He was, as it were, regrinding his glasses, the spectacles by which democratic socialism reads the world. If the hopes of the masses are to be fulfilled, Harrington came to believe, it will not be with the Marx who is read through the Manifesto or through the Party or even through the “great” interpreters — Engels, Lenin, Kautsky, etc. Instead, it will be with the Marx whose methods of concrete analysis allow us to interpret “things as they really are” and to foresee that “socialization” is the wave of the future even as dogmatic socialism begins to fail.

Harrington means by “socialization” the idea that the future is bringing, and will bring in geometrically increasing ratios, a deeper sense of increased human interdependence in a corporate environment, one marked by international demands for mutuality, by global communication and transportation, and by interpenetrating systems of production, distribution, and consumption, all of them interlocked and increasingly inclusive of more and more nations of the world. To put it crudely, the “international capitalist system” is becoming the matrix of increased socialization.

Harrington wants, above all, to see this socialization take place in a context where people have increased freedom (by which he means direct, grass-roots control over decisions shaping their own fate) and where principles of “social justice” (which implies an egalitarian norm) will govern both the polity and the policy of the common life. In this vision, he seeks to move beyond debates about the “welfare state” or East/West power politics and to find a way of speaking about a reliable, humane, and caring form of civil society.

This is a subtle book, one that contains enough old leftist phrases to make conservatives’ hair stand on end, but is just as likely in other ways to make true-believer leftists pull theirs out. What Harrington is doing here is comparable to what the Reformation did to Medieval Christianity. The Reformation was utterly dependent on what came before it, but it transformed the past by using parts of it against other parts, by taking key emphases already widely accepted among the faithful and showing that, if one saw this doctrine or that practice from a slightly different angle, everything was changed — all the while managing to maintain continuity with the deepest sources of the tradition.

A clue to this understanding of Harrington is evident in the ways in which he explicitly (it gently and unobtrusively) singles out and disposes of some of the mistakes in Marx’s own thinking that have come to disfigure Marxist analysis. Harrington specifies a number of areas where socialism must undertake a revision of Marx (or sort out again what Marx’s method “really” means):

Although Marx does so again and again in rhetorical flourishes, “society” cannot be seen as an agent. To say that “society causes” x or y, or to appeal to impersonal “social forces” that have a blind necessity to them, tells us very little as to why people act the way they do and history develops the way it does. In this, if I read him correctly, Harrington differs even from the mild Marxism of Robert Heilbroner in, for instance, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, wherein the inherent social structure of a phenomenon seems to take on machine-like inevitability.

The basic structures of the common life cannot be grasped by class analysis alone, although Marx thought the class factor was decisive. Divisions and bondings occur among people and groups on the basis of categories of skill, morality, ethnicity, cultural tradition, gender, religion, etc. that are not reducible to class analysis, and attempts to use a single version of the “master-slave” relationship to understand the modern social world is to pervert the real fabric of human relationships.

Marx expected the proletariat to become a majoritarian movement under capitalism, for he and many followers expected that the middle strata would inevitably be proletarianized. That does not seem to be what has happened. Instead, capitalism has engendered an expanding series of middle classes.

Marx never asked how socialism might be achieved directly by a pre-industrial society; he evidently believed that each must go through a capitalist stage. Thus his appropriation and application as a guide to Third World development has proven to be extremely precarious.

Marx anticipated a predictable “spread effect” of industrialization. That is, if the modern means of production were introduced in a society, certain social, political, legal, and cultural changes would inevitably follow. In fact, cultures and civilizations turn out to be complex products of multiple causes and influences and do not follow any single pattern of historical logic.

For all his revisionism, however, there is still much from Marx that Harrington wants to preserve. It is in the traditions of Marxism, broadly understood, that we will find the intellectual and social forces that will condition the future. We must recognize, Harrington suggests, that the market is an historically constructed artifact. It is not part of the natural order of things, but is continuously shaped by a broad range of human decisions that are not altogether rational or substantively just and that could be made to be more so.

Furthermore, he says, people will, under the continuing impact of socialization, demand more democracy in the workplace, increasing participation in both the scientific and the human dynamics side of management, further decolonization where it obtains, and less destructive disruption of the bio-physical universe that threatens all”the least advantaged most directly and immediately.

On reading and reflecting on this work, I am reminded of why it is that I remained in dialogue with the Boston-area branch of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), founded by Harrington and led locally by John Cort (author of Christian Socialism ) for more than a decade. Here is an authentic, human voice filled with ethical commitment. He wants the best for America and for dispossessed people everywhere. There was not a mean bone in Harrington, and I often wish that I could say as much about people with whom I agree more than I did with him.

I finally broke with DSOC, however, after visiting and studying in socialist countries of Eastern Europe and Asia. The break had to do partly with whether, if push came to shove, democracy would be sacrificed for socialism or socialism for democracy. It turned out that it makes a great deal of difference whether one is a democratic socialist or a social democrat, for the relative location of nouns, which convey the substance of things, and adjectives, which represent the modifiers, weights priorities time after time. John Cort was clear about this, and came down on the democratic side, as did, finally, Harrington as well. But many of the activists were not so inclined and were contemptuous of those who made that choice.

My break had also, and more profoundly, to do with fundamental understanding of human nature, and with the relationship of that understanding to the socialist vision. It must be said that this is Harrington’s greatest weakness, and that he does not differ from Marx in it. Harrington abandoned his Christian faith early. He makes vague religious noises in The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization, but they smack as much of a resigned Nietzscheanism as of anything authentically Christian. Harrington manifests, as did Marx, a rather empty anthropology and an intentionally empty metaphysics. That lack can be compensated for in the short run by authentic personal compassion, but over time it leads to a dispirited culture and an amoral civilization.

This defect shows up in the very methods of Marxist social analysis, not just in its assessment of particular phenomena. If basic spiritual, moral, and religious matters are not included in the primary understanding of why people do what they do, why civilizations follow the courses they follow, and why cultures get shaped the way they do get shaped, then something essential about the human condition is falsified. These things are not by-products, epiphenomena, or projections, as no small number of capitalist as well as socialist authors today think. In fact, when deprived of an explicit metaphysical-moral underpinning, the ideologies of either capitalism or socialism themselves take on cultish form, complete with secularized high priests, denominational orthodoxies, doctrinal disputes, and ritual excommunications all under the garb of social analysis.

Recent events suggest that the attempt to rehabilitate the secular radical vision may well fail. If it does (and I think it will) it will do so because it is not radical enough — it does not sufficiently take into account the moral and spiritual forces in social life. It is not enough simply to add these “soft” factors to conventional social analysis in some extrinsic way. The “hard” fact is that any scheme of social analysis that does not understand these factors to lie at the heart of the intellectual task is not yet deep or profound. It is bad social analysis and it will not, in the long run, satisfy or prevail. Those seeking redirection of the modern forces of socialization forget that at their peril.

Max L. Stackhouse is the Herbert Gezork Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School.

Image by Shurup62 via Creative Commons. Image cropped,

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