Saturday, December 9, 2017

October Revolution: Interview with Sharon Smith

Sharon Smith, author of Subterranean Fire, Women and Socialism, is
interviewed by Marilyn Vogt-Downey on the impact of the Russian Revolution on the American working class. This interview was part of a special broadcast on WBAI radio on the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.

Friday, November 24, 2017

October Revolution: Interview with Alexander Rabinowitch

Dr. Alexander Rabinowitch, author of Prelude to Revolution, The Bolsheviks Come to Power and The Bolsheviks in Power, is interviewed on his work and the lasting significance of the October Revolution on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

October Revolution Special Broadcast

To listen to the entire broadcast click on the icon below.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Centenary of the October Revolution

Petrograd Soviet in session
Listen to a special presentation on the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution on WBAI radio in New York, 99.5 FM, on Thursday, Nov 16 from 4 - 6 PM.  The program can also be heard  on the Internet at 

Note:  Today we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution.  It is an event that the Russia of Vladimir Putin has tried to eradicate, replacing the old Revolution Day holiday with a Czarist invention, "National Unity Day", marking an uprising against the Poles in 1612.   But historical memory cannot be so easily destroyed.  This defining moment of the 20th cetury, in which for the first time in history the working class took power and kept it for a number of years, will not go gently into the night. It will remain a source of inspiration for the millions who struggle against war, imperialism, social inequality and all forms of oppression.  And there is no better work of literature on the October Revolution than that written by one of its leaders, Leon Trotsky. His Preface to the History of the Russian Revolution remains an outstanding account of the dialectic of mass consciousness as a revolutionary epoch interrupts "normal" history. 

This version is reprinted from the Marxist Internet Archives.  

Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution


During the first two months of 1917 Russia was still a Romanov monarchy. Eight months later the Bolsheviks stood at the helm. They were little know to anybody when the year began, and their leaders were still under indictment for state treason when they came to power. You will not find another such sharp turn in history – especially if you remember that it involves a nation of 150 million people. It is clear that the events of 1917, whatever you think of them, deserve study.

The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That, however, is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of a preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task.

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.

The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Such in principle, for example, was the significance acquired by the social-democratic criticism. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection.

The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues.”

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis – the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses – so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces. Such, at least, is the general outline of the old revolutions.

Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the rôle of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.

The difficulties which stand in the way of studying the changes of mass consciousness in a revolutionary epoch are quite obvious. The oppressed classes make history in the factories, in the barracks, in the villages, on the streets of the cities. Moreover, they are least of all accustomed to write things down. Periods of high tension in social passions leave little room for contemplation and reflection. All the muses – even the plebeian muse of journalism, in spite of her sturdy hips – have hard sledding in times of revolution. Still the historian’s situation is by no means hopeless. The records are incomplete, scattered, accidental. But in the light of the events themselves these fragments often permit a guess as to the direction and rhythm of the hidden process. For better or worse, a revolutionary party bases its tactics upon a calculation of the changes of mass consciousness. The historic course of Bolshevism demonstrates that such a calculation, at least in its rough features, can be made. If it can be made by a revolutionary leader in the whirlpool of the struggle, why not by the historian afterwards?

However, the processes taking place in the consciousness of the masses are not unrelated and independent. No matter how the idealists and the eclectics rage, consciousness is nevertheless determined by conditions. In the historic conditions which formed Russia, her economy, her classes, her State, in the action upon her of other states, we ought to be able to find the premises both of the February revolution and of the October revolution which replaced it. Since the greatest enigma is the fact that a backward country was the first to place the proletariat in power, it behoves us to seek the solution of that enigma in the peculiarities of that backward country – that is, in its differences from other countries.

The historic peculiarities of Russia and their relative weight will be characterised by us in the early chapters of this book which give a short outline of the development of Russian society and its inner forces. We venture to hope that the inevitable schematism of these chapters will not repel the reader. In the further development of the book he will meet these same forces in living action.

This work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollections. The circumstance that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon historically verified documents. The author speaks of himself, in so far as that is demanded by the course of events, in the third person. And that is not a mere literary form: the subjective tone, inevitable in autobiographies or memoirs, is not permissible in a work of history.

However, the fact that the author did participate in the struggle naturally makes easier his understanding, not only of the psychology of the forces in action, both individual and collective, but also of the inner connection of events. This advantage will give positive results only if one condition is observed: that he does not rely upon the testimony of his own memory either in trivial details or in important matters, either in questions of fact or questions of motive and mood. The author believes that in so far as in him lies he has fulfilled this condition.

There remains the question of the political position of the author, who stands as a historian upon the same viewpoint upon which he stood as a participant in the events. The reader, of course, is not obliged to share the political views of the author, which the latter on his side has no reason to conceal. But the reader does have the right to demand that a historical work should not be the defence of a political position, but an internally well-founded portrayal of the actual process of the revolution. A historical work only then completely fulfils the mission when events unfold upon its pages in their full natural necessity.

For this, is it necessary to have the so-called historian’s “impartiality”? Nobody has yet clearly explained what this impartiality consists of. The often quoted words of Clemenceau that it is necessary to take a revolution “en bloc,” as a whole – are at the best a clever evasion. How can you take as a whole a thing whose essence consists in a split? Clemenceau’s aphorism was dictated partly by shame for his too resolute ancestors, partly by embarrassment before their shades.

One of the reactionary and therefore fashionable historians in contemporary France, L. Madelin, slandering in his drawing-room fashion the great revolution – that is, the birth of his own nation – asserts that “the historian ought to stand upon the wall of a threatened city, and behold at the same time the besiegers and the besieged”: only in this way, it seems, can he achieve a “conciliatory justice.” However, the words of Madelin himself testify that if he climbs out on the wall dividing the two camps, it is only in the character of a reconnoiterer for the reaction. It is well that he is concerned only with war camps of the past: in a time of revolution standing on the wall involves great danger. Moreover, in times of alarm the priests of “conciliatory justice” are usually found sitting on the inside of four walls waiting to see which side will win.

The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies – open and undisguised – seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement. That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself.

The sources of this book are innumerable periodical publications, newspapers and journals, memoirs, reports, and other material, partly in manuscript, but the greater part published by the Institute of the History of the Revolution in Moscow and Leningrad. We have considered its superfluous to make reference in the text to particular publications, since that would only bother the reader. Among the books which have the character of collective historical works we have particularly used the two-volume Essays on the History of the October Revolution (Moscow-Leningrad, 1927). Written by different authors, the various parts of this book are unequal in value, but they contain at any rate abundant factual material.

The dates in our book are everywhere indicated according to the old style – that is, they are 13 days behind the international and the present Soviet calendar. The author felt obliged to use the calendar which was in use at the time of the revolution. It would have been no labour of course to translate the dates into the new style. But this operation in removing one difficulty would have created others more essential. The overthrow of the monarchy has gone into history as the February revolution; according to the Western calendar, however, it occurred in March. The armed demonstration against the imperialist policy of the Provisional Government has gone into history under the name of the “April Days,” whereas according to the Western calendar it happened in May. Not to mention other intervening events and dates, we remark only that the October revolution happened according to European reckoning in November. The calendar itself, we see, is tinted by the events, and the historian cannot handle revolutionary chronology by mere arithmetic. The reader will be kind enough to remember that before overthrowing the Byzantine calendar, the revolution had to overthrow the institutions that clung to it.
November 14, 1930

Monday, October 23, 2017

Greece at the Crossroads: Epilogue

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In July or 2015, a few days after Tsipras’s betrayal of the referendum, my partner and I found ourselves in  the tiny village of Komitata on the Ionian island of Kefallonia.  In the one café at the center of the village we listened to Tsipras explaining his decision on television.  I subsequently wrote about this event in the book of essays we published titled ‘Greece at the Crossroads’. [1]
This past August we returned to Kefallonia and paid a visit to the café and its owner, Tasso.  He is a man in his 60’s who opened the café after retiring from a job he held for many years in the island’s capital, Argostoli. It was a little over two years since that evening when we first met Tasso and I was curious to know what he thought about the events of July 2015 and the present situation in Greece.

The past two years have witnessed a political stalement in Greece following the shock experienced by many of Tsipras's betrayal of the referendum of July 2015.  Since winning the hastily called election of September of 2015, the Syriza-ANEL coalition government, now purged of its troublesome left wing, has fully embraced its role as the instrument of EU imposed austerity on the working class of Greece. Tsipras’s poll numbers are at an all-time low since the heady days of January 2015 when Syriza first came to power. The journalist Helena Smith writes, 

The fallout from the U-turn has been colossal. Syriza’s popularity has plummeted; Tsipras’s own ratings have nosedived. Some polls show the leftists trailing by as many as 16 points, others less, but all seem to reflect a view that the charismatic politician “lied” by adopting the virulent neoliberal budget cuts and tax rises he had once vowed to overturn. [2] 

There is however little love for the opposition New Democracy. And the opposition is in no hurry to call new elections even though they would likely win.  They would rather sit back and let Syriza take responsibility for the cuts that are being imposed on Greece as a result of the Third Memorandum Agreement.

In the meantime Tsipras has been bragging to the foreign press that thanks to his leadership Greece has finally “turned the corner” and the economy is now growing. [3]  In a follow-up article in September, Guardian correspondent Helena Smith, expressing some skepticism about Tsipras’s claims to have turned the corner on the economic crisis, wrote of him,

To the delight of many, nonetheless, Tsipras, the man who set Europe ablaze with Marxist ideology and anti-austerity rage back in the heady days of January 2015, is becoming more pragmatic by the day. The 42-year-old’s embrace of the free-market policies he once abhorred was cemented last Sunday, when he announced that he would personally oversee the foreign investment drive now viewed as key to curing the curse of Greece’s unemployment rate. [4]

When we arrived in Greece in late June the entire country was in the middle of a trash collectors strike.  The strike, with over 10,000 part time employees participating, was in reaction to planned layoffs that will eventually destroy 150,000 government jobs. [5] The air in the streets of Athens was becoming increasingly putrid as the synergy between an unbearable heat wave and the rotting garbage left in the street took its toll. All this was the background to our return to the café in Komitata.

We sat with Tasso at a table on the plaza outside his café while we talked.  I asked him first of all how he would characterize his politics and what was his reaction to the events of July 2015.  In response to his political leanings, Tasso answered with a question of his own,

“Did you see the wall of my café?”

I took a quick peek inside the café and noticed three items on the wall; a clock, an iconic poster of Che Guevara, and a decoration of a hammer and sickle. Only instead of the hammer, Tasso had hung on the wall the traditional “worry beads” (κομπολόι). Tasso explained that the beads were his father’s, who took comfort in them when he was imprisoned during the Civil War.  Almost everywhere you turn in Greece, there are images pregnant with the history of the class struggle if you know where to look.

The wall in the café 

Tasso continued,

“We all had hope when Syriza won the election (in January of 2015).  We were very happy with the results of the referendum.  But then the ‘NO” became a “YES”. We couldn’t believe it!”

I then asked Tasso, “If there was a new election called tomorrow, who would you vote for?”

Tasso replied, “I would vote for the Far Left”.  He clarified this by saying he meant anyone to the left of Syriza, someone who would genuinely oppose the austerity.   I asked if he meant a group like ANTARSYA, to which he replied, “Yes”. 

Tasso then asked me about my politics, and I replied that I am a Trotskyist.  Tasso then said,
“We have a Trotskyist in the village”. 


I was astounded by Tasso's response since this village is in a remote part of a remote island, on the highest point of a one lane country road that winds its way through a mountain, far from the more popular tourist destinations in the Aegean such as Santorini or Mykonos.  There are no more than a dozen or so year round residents in this village.

The outside of Tasso's café

This past week, back in New York, I saw Tsipras on television in a joint news conference with Trump. While ostensibly on a mission to encourage foreign investment in Greece, Tsipras announced that a deal had been worked out for Greece to invest in American made military hardware to modernize its Air Force and beef up its military base in Crete.  Trump also praised Greece for devoting at least 2% of its GDP to its military, in fulfillment of its NATO commitment.  It is difficult to imagine a more candid representation of the complete betrayal of the Greek working class than this image of Tsipras embracing Trump.

Tsipras and Trump

The other side of this dismal picture however is the determination of the Greek working class. The betrayal of the referendum was a huge shock and unquestionably set in a period of demoralization. But the working class, though battered, has not been defeated. Nothing has been resolved. Despite Tsipras's happy talk, there is no economic recovery in sight. Greece's debt load of €340bn, or 180% of GDP is by any estimate competely unsustainable no matter how deep the austerity goes. The average income of a Greek household has dropped by 40% since the start of the economic crisis and unemployment remains amost 22% with youth unemployment much higher.  Pensioners continue to see their benefits cut to the point where the comfortable middle class life that they anticipated in their dreams has been turned into the  nightmare of a daily struggle for survival.

We are now in a period of anticipation before the next outbreak of the class struggle.  If you have any doubts about that just make a trip to the village of Komitata and have a talk with Tasso.

Alex Steiner
October 23, 2017 

[1]  See my political memoir, Greece at the Crossroads, Part I,
and Greece at the Crossroadds, Part II,
[2]  Helena Smith interview with Alexis Tsipras, Alexis Tsipras: 'The worst is clearly behind us', July 24, 2017,
[3]  Helena Smith, Ibid.
[4]  Helena Smith, The eurozone may be back on its feet. But is Greece?, Sept. 16, 2017,
[5]  For an account of the background to the strike see, Greek waste disposal workers strike against mass layoffs,

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Left Wing of the Permissible: the Politics of Michael Harrington

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Note: This article was originally published in the online periodical Counterpunch at
Given the dramatic rise of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), having recently boasted to have 25,000 members, many of whom were drawn to socialist politics as a result of the Sanders campaign, we think it is timely to cast a critical eye on the politics of Michael Harrington, a key founder of the DSA.  Creegan's essay is followed by a letter reacting to his essay along with his response.  
Jim Creegan was chairman of the Penn State chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s, lectured in philosophy in the 70s, he was a union shop steward during the late 80s and 90s. He lives in New York City, now unaffiliated but unresigned. His writings often appear in the Weekly Worker (UK). He can be reached at
Michael Harrington

By Jim Creegan
The beginning of the American New Left is usually dated from the appearance of the Port Huron Statement in 1962 . Drawn up by a handful of members of Students or a Democratic Society (SDS) at a conference in the Michigan town it is named for, the statement is an expression of the  growing discontent of middle-class students–“raised in modest comfort”, in their words–with the social and political status quo of mid-century America. Its call for the revitalization of American democracy is far removed from the radical leftist politics that SDS was to embrace later in the decade. It decries the prevalent apathy and social atomism on the college campus and in the larger society, and advocates “participatory democracy”—the direct involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect them. It enumerates concrete policy objectives, all clearly intended to be achieved by peaceful, democratic means. Internationally, these include universal nuclear disarmament as opposed to the Cold  War arms race, and support for third-world economic development instead of third-world dictators. On the home front, the manifesto advocates a renovation of the Democratic Party through a  break with the Dixiecrats, a large expansion of the public sector and the welfare state, and a democratization  and renewal of the labor movement as a force for social progress. Neither these goals, nor the manifesto’s urging of the incumbent Kennedy administration to act more aggressively in pursuit of racial integration and world peace, would seem to place SDS outside the framework of 1960s American liberalism. This conclusion is underlined by the statement’s explicit repudiation of the Soviet Union and Communism:
As democrats we are in basic opposition to the communist system. The Soviet Union, as a system, rests on the total suppression of organized opposition… The Communist Party has equated falsely the “triumph of socialism” with centralized bureaucracy. The Soviet state lacks independent labor organizations and other liberties we consider basic… Communist parties throughout the rest of the world are generally undemocratic in internal structure and mode of action… The communist movement has failed, in every sense, to achieve its stated intentions of leading a worldwide movement for human emancipation. (1)
Yet despite these decidedly non-radical pronouncements, the statement sounded a note of dissatisfaction with established liberal politics, and expressed a desire to break with the past, that was highly unsettling to the board of SDS’s parent organization, an educational arm of the Socialist Party called the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which received funding from the AFL-CIO and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, both fiercely anti-communist.
There was, for instance, Port Huron’s  sharp criticism of “a Democratic Party which tolerates the perverse unity of liberalism and racism,  prevents the social change wanted by Negroes, peace protesters, labor unions, students, reform Democrats  and other liberals.” (2)
The manifesto also took aim at the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, which “As a political force, generally has been unsuccessful in the post-war period of prosperity. It has seen the passage of the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin laws… it has made little progress against right-to-work laws, and has seen less-than-adequate action on domestic problems, especially unemployment… “ and “tends to be cynical toward, or afraid of, rank-and-file involvement in the work of the union” (3)
But what upset the LID old guard more than anything else was the distance SDS took from dominant political creed of the Cold War:
An unreasoning anti-communism has become a major social problem for those who want to construct a more democratic America.
Even many liberals and socialists share static and repetitious participation in the anti-communist crusade and often discourage tentative, inquiring discussion about the “Russian question…” (4)
The statement declared “open to question” “our basic national policy-making assumption that the Soviet Union is inherently expansionist and aggressive, prepared to dominate the world by military means.”(5) It also cast doubt on the motives behind the global anti-communist crusade:
With rare variation, American foreign policy in the Fifties was guided by a concern for foreign investment and a negative anti-communist political stance linked to a series of military alliances, both undergirded by military threat. We participated unilaterally—usually through the Central Intelligence Agency—in revolutions against governments in Laos, Guatemala, Cuba, Egypt, Iran. We permitted economic investment to decisively affect our foreign policy: sugar in Cuba, oil in the Middle East, diamonds and gold in South Africa…(6)
Passages like these provoked the ire of the LID board’s representative at the conference, who served as the  principal liaison between SDS and the organization’s old guard– the 34-year-old Michael Harrington. He had just published an exposé of poverty amid plenty titled The Other Americawhich would make him the country’s most famous Socialist, and earn him a place on Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty task force. On this occasion, Harrington protested that an earlier draft of the manifesto would send the LID board “through the roof.” He left the conference early  to report his dissatisfaction to the parent group’s headquarters in New York.
The principal authors of Port Huron—Tom Hayden and Al Haber, along with a few other SDS leaders– were soon summoned to a hearing in front of the  LID executive committee to determine whether the decisions of the conference were compatible with the purposes of the organization. Harrington acted as the chief inquisitor. It was alleged by one board member that Port Huron “lambastes the US and taps the Soviets on the wrist”. (7) When Hayden answered that the document hardly lets the Soviet Union off the hook, Harrington replied, “Document shmocuments. [Don] Slaiman [another board member who attended the conference] and I said that this was antithetical to the LID and everything it’s stood for.”(8)The executive was also furious that the conference had voted to admit a member of the Communist Party youth group, the Progressive Youth Organizing Committee, as an observer without voting or speaking rights. Harrington said, “We should have nothing to do with these people”(9). “Would you give seats to the Nazis too?”(10), another board member demanded. In addition, the executive objected to SDS’s choice of Steve Max as Field Secretary because his father had once been a prominent member of the Communist Party, and Max himself had belonged to the Communist youth group years earlier.
An hour after the hearing ended, the SDS leaders were informed that Hayden and Haber had been removed from the payroll; that all SDS documents and publications would henceforth have to be submitted to the LID for prior approval; that the LID would appoint a secretary for SDS responsible to itself rather than the membership. They found out later that the LID had cut off all funding for SDS, and, most galling of all, had had the locks changed on the door to its New York office.
The above episode did not result in a final rupture between SDS and the LID. On second thought the board decided it had been too harsh, and both sides made an effort at reconciliation. But the same issue–Cold-War anti-communism—would continue to bedevil relations between the two groups, especially as the Vietnam War issue took on greater urgency, leading to a permanent parting of the ways in 1965.
Years later, in the early 1980s, Michael Harrington was to apologize profusely for his conduct in the Port Huron episode. He was at the time trying to effect a merger between the organization he headed, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), and the New American Movement, a group containing many veterans of the New Left, some of whom remembered–and still resented—Harrington’s earlier role. From that time forth, past quarrels were more or less forgotten, and Harrington is today a venerable founding father in the eyes of many on the left. The organization that resulted from the 1982  merger, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), displays his image on its Web page. Yet, as we shall try to demonstrate below, the events of 1962 were not an aberration, but only the  shrillest variation on the most consistent theme of Harrington’s political career: socialism within the bounds deemed acceptable by the liberal wings of the Democratic Party and AFL-CIO officialdom. If Harrington expressed this position in more measured tones in later life, this was due as much to the wider acceptance of his politics on the left as to any fundamental change in his outlook, which exhibits a basic continuity from the time he first entered  politics to his death in 1989.
Accommodating Socialists
Michael Harrington settled in New York City in 1951, after having received a thoroughly Catholic education in his native St. Louis, and then at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. His lifelong passion for social justice led him first to the Catholic Worker Movement, a group founded by the pacifist and social activist Dorothy Day. Harrington resided at one of Day’s Hospitality Houses called St. Joseph’s on the Lower East Side, which ran a community kitchen, and whose residents dedicated themselves to living austere lives in service of the poor and marginalized. Harrington edited the group’s paper for a short time. However, he was soon drawn out of the orbit of the Church, toward the bohemian-intellectual life of Greenwich Village, and, most importantly, to the socialist movement.
Harrington first joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth arm of the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas, but, along with a new political co-thinker, Bogdan Denich, soon led a left-wing split-off which took the entire Socialist youth wing out of the party, and into an organization called the Independent Socialist League (ISL) and its youth group, the Young Socialist League (YSL). Here, he soon acquired a reputation as a talented writer, public speaker, and all-round charismatic personality.
The ISL’s leader was Max Shachtman. Shachtman had first come into prominence on the left as a follower of Leon Trotsky . He broke with Trotsky, however, in 1940 over the question of whether the Socialist Workers Party (the American Trotskyist group) should continue to defend the Soviet Union in the wake of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Trotsky argued that the USSR was still a “degenerated workers state,” worthy of unconditional military defense despite the pact and the horrors of Stalinism. Shachtman, on the other hand, maintained that the USSR represented a new form of state-dominated class society which he called “bureaucratic collectivism.” As such, Stalin’s Russia did not merit defense of any kind.
At the time Harrington joined the ISL/YSL in 1953, Shachtman still adhered to a “third-camp” position of equal opposition to Stalinism and Western capitalism/imperialism. He also held that the fight for socialism had to be waged independently of the two major capitalist parties, the Republicans and Democrats. But Shachtman soon began to move sharply to the right. By the early 60s, he had decided that Stalinism was a greater obstacle to socialism and human progress than capitalism. He reasoned that, if capitalism and Stalinism were both class societies that exploited workers,  workers in Western democracies at least enjoyed political freedoms that they were denied in the USSR. Shachtman’s  belief in Western capitalism as the lesser evil eventually led him to support America’s worldwide anti-communist crusade, including the 1962 US Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and—at first only privately  —the Vietnam war. Domestically, Shachtman came to see the Democratic Party as the political arena in which socialists should work, and within the Democratic Party, he viewed the AFL-CIO bureaucracy—first in the person of United Auto Workers chief Walter Reuther, then in the federation’s president, George Meany–as representing the true interests of the American working class.
Shachtman’s rightward turn was prefigured by a major organizational step. In 1958, he took the ISL  into the Socialist Party, although he had engineered the leftward breakaway of its youth group to his own organization just a few years earlier. While he continued to adhere to a “third-camp” position, and independence from the two major parties, and pledged to fight for these positions on the inside after joining, his determination did not last long. He pledged not to maintain his grouping as an internal faction within the party as a condition  of joining. Shachtman, moreover, entered the party in full cognizance of the politics and associations of its six-time presidential candidate and éminence grise, Norman Thomas.
Like social democratic parties in other countries, the Socialists opposed communism in the name of democracy. But Thomas could not have been insensible of the fact that his anti-communism also allowed the Socialist Party to escape the McCarthyite witch hunt of the 1950s, or of the considerable rewards it conferred in terms of financial support and proximity to power. Thomas served on the board of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACFC), the US affiliate of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international grouping of prominent artists and intellectuals whose declared purpose was the defense of  Western values of free thought and artistic expression against the state-imposed mind control of the Soviet bloc. In 1966, The New York Times revealed that the ACFC had been funded for years by the Central Intelligence Agency. Nor was Thomas unaware of the connection. In 1952, when the ACFC found itself hard up for cash, Thomas did not hesitate to call upon his old family friend, Princeton classmate and Long Island neighbor, CIA chief Allen Dulles, for financial relief, delivered promptly in the form of two grants totaling $14,000.
There is no evidence that emoluments like these were part of any explicit political quid pro quo. But Thomas would have had difficulty explaining how his passionate belief in democracy squared with his participation in the CIA-linked  American Friends of Vietnam, organized to shore up the reputation of the US-sponsored South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. The “Vietnam Lobby”, as Ramparts magazine dubbed it in a 1967 exposé, was instrumental in persuading the Eisenhower administration to back Diem—a step that led directly to US military involvement. Thomas’s signature appeared on a letter circulated in official circles supporting Diem’s decision to cancel the 1956 Vietnamese elections, mandated by the Geneva accords, for fear that Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh might prevail. Ten years later Thomas publicly associated himself with the Committee on Free Elections in the Dominican Republic, a CIA front group aimed at legitimizing rigged elections in 1966 to prevent the return to office of Juan Bosch, a democratically elected reformist president, effectively ousted by the invasion of 42,000 US troops in the previous year.
The decisions to cancel one election and annul the results of another were not mounted by the US government to defend democracy. The CIA and State Department rather sought to protect, in the name of democracy and anti-communism, the global regime of private property from all who would threaten it, from Stalinist regimes, to leftist  parties and unions in Western Europe, to third-world reformers and anti-colonial fighters. For this crusade, the US government was careful to enlist the aid of left-wing, or formerly left-wing intellectuals and political figures to give its designs a “democratic” and “progressive” face—a face that Thomas was only too happy to provide.
Harrington never took CIA money himself (and in fact declined to do so on one occasion when the agency offered to pay his airfare to a Russian-sponsored European youth festival on the suggestion of another CIA operative in Europe named Gloria Steinem). Nor did Harrington exist in the shadow of Thomas or Shachtman in the 50s and 60s. His literary and oratorical gifts gave him an independent presence on the American left, one that probably eclipsed that of his mentors. Especially after The Other America became a best-seller, and got the attention of the Kennedy and Johnson administrationsHarrington became a contributor to Dissent and other liberal journals and a big draw on the nationwide lecture circuit. But he remained loyal to the Socialist Party, and especially to Max Shachtman, up until the end of the 60s. It is with these politics, and these ties, that he confronted the leftward-moving authors of the Port Huron Statement in 1962, and with which he attempted to address the political upheavals that would soon be brought about by Vietnam War.
Vietnam Default
The emergence Vietnam as the defining political issue of the 60s presented a dilemma for those who pursued a strategy of leftward “realignment” of the Democratic Party. Up until 1969, the massive military assault in Southeast Asia  was being prosecuted and steadily escalated not by the “greater evil” Republicans, but by Lyndon Johnson, the head of the very party  socialists like Harrington were seeking to realign.  And the Johnson administration had indeed taken what they viewed as significant steps in the desired direction. Johnson had pushed two civil rights bills through Congress, and appointed Sargent Shriver to head his widely trumpeted War on Poverty, which took Harrington into its counsels. But even the minor role Harrington played in Johnson’s reform team came at a price: support for– or at least a willingness not to oppose–Washington’s global effort to “contain Communism.” Unlike figures such as Shachtman or the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, Harrington was not among the most zealous of cold warriors. But, despite definite personal misgivings, declining to call for US withdrawal from Vietnam was a price Michael Harrington was willing to pay for a seat at the table of power throughout the Johnson years. During the mid-to-late 60s, he often referred to Vietnam as a “tragedy,” as if it were an unfortunate natural disaster like a flood or tornado for which no one was responsible, instead of the deliberately inflicted American slaughter that it was.
Harrington was not among the signatories from his corner of the left to a letter circulated by Bayard Rustin—and signed by Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph and A.J. Muste–warning people away from the first big anti-war march on Washington in the spring of 1965 because it welcomed all who opposed the war, including those demanding unconditional  withdrawal, and even some openly supporting Vietnam’s National Liberation Front. But it was only weeks later that Harrington added his voice to the social democratic red-baiting chorus. In a statement co-authored with Rustin and Irving Howe, Harrington denounced those in the anti-war movement who offered “explicit or covert support to the Viet Cong”, or “hoped to transform the protest into an apocalypse, a ‘final conflict’ in which extreme gestures of opposition will bring forth punitive retaliation from the authorities.”(11) This was followed by an article in the Village Voice titled “Does the Peace Movement Need Communists?”, in which he once again argued that “any effective peace movement” would be one that dissociated itself from “any hint of being an apologist for the Viet Cong” and should instead demand negotiations between the warring parties, leading to free elections, and that he would “under no circumstances celebrate a Viet Cong victory” (12) in any such plebiscite. Articles like these prompted then SDS chairman Carl Oglesby to remark: “Here were these guys [Harrington and fellow Socialist Irving Howe] I admired so much denouncing me as a Red because I wouldn’t criticize both sides [in the war] equally—which seemed bullshit because both sides weren’t invading each other equally, weren’t napalming each other equally.”(13)
Within the Socialist Party, Harrington remained loyal to his principal mentor, Max Shachtman. Shachtman was by the mid-60s entirely in the orbit of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy and its fanatically anti-communist president, George Meany. The erstwhile Trotskyist  revolutionary was therefore, like Meany himself, squarely on the side of the US and its Saigon client regime, and told Harrington and Howe privately that he favored their military victory as opposed to a negotiated compromise, let alone withdrawal. Harrington was more inclined personally to a “neither Washington nor Hanoi” position, but was willing to swallow his qualms in the interest of party unity. Shachtman was less than candid in public about his support for the war effort because he wanted to maintain some kind of presence in the anti-war movement, where most of the action on the left was then taking place. Maurice Isserman comments in his sympathetic biography of Harrington, The Other American:
Michael heard what Shachtman was saying about the war, yet failed to draw what seems in retrospect the obvious conclusion: that if Shachtman and his supporters took part in organizing an “antiwar” group, they were dissembling.(14)
Isserman continues:
And so, the following spring [1967], Michael helped Shachtman and others organize a new group called Negotiations Now, which promoted itself as a responsible, moderate alternative to the irresponsible, radical groups calling for the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam… But Negotiations Now’s chief function was to serve as the SP’s placeholder in the antiwar movement—something they could point to when challenged to show that they too were working to bring the war to an end. Negotiations Now also served as a convenient podium from which the Shachtmanites could criticize the rest of the antiwar movement as being, in contrast, extremist, misguided, and objectively pro-Communist. It was a sham operation. (15)
It is true that Harrington was to change his position on Vietnam. The year of his conversion was 1970. Then, he finally declared that, while he still favored a negotiated end to the war, “only an American commitment to withdraw can make a negotiated settlement possible.”(16) This was a pathetically reluctant and belated reversal, considering the powerful currents that had swept the entire anti-war movement to the left in the preceding five years.
Three years before Harrington’s change of heart, Martin Luther King had denounced the war from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church. Several of America’s black ghettos had erupted in rage, at least in part over the war. Vietnam had radicalized a cohort of American youth, who were now conducting student strikes, occupying campus buildings, burning draft cards and brandishing Viet Cong flags at demonstrations. Televised scenes of American and South Vietnamese Army atrocities against civilians had shocked  and revolted much of the American public, nearly half of which was by this time in favor of withdrawal. Roughly a million people had marched on Washington in the biggest anti-war demonstration of 1970, demanding a pullout. Many GIs had come to the capital to discard their medals in disgust, and still more in Vietnam were refusing to go out on patrol, and “fragging”—i.e. tossing grenades into—their officers’ quarters.
These developments had a profounder effect on a number of other leading Socialist Party members than on Harrington. His change of heart occurred only  after two of Shachtman’s closest followers, Hal Draper and Julius Jacobson, had publicly broken with him over the war, and a third, Bogdan Denitch had taken a discreet distance; after another Socialist Party member, David McReynolds, had organized an internal faction called the Debs Caucus to oppose Shachtman, before quitting the party altogether; after Norman Thomas had publicly apologized for signing the earlier red-baiting letter, and begun speaking regularly at anti-war rallies (from  which Harrington was conspicuously absent until 1969).
It is difficult to account for Harrington’s change of heart through moral revulsion, or a decisive shift to the left,  when so many morally revolting things had already transpired, and so many occasions for breaking in a more radical direction had already presented themselves. An explanation in keeping with his “pragmatic”  profile is far more plausible.
Mounting American losses on the battlefields of Vietnam, especially after the NLF’s Tet offensive of February, 1968, and Johnson’s pouring in of  troops by the tens of thousands with no end in sight, were overextending the military; the war’s expenses were bankrupting the treasury and fueling inflation; the “patriotism” that kept citizens loyal to the government was fast eroding. The conviction was therefore gaining ground in Congress, and in elite economic and policy circles, that Vietnam was no longer worth the cost. There was the added worry among Democrats that the war was losing them younger voters, and many felt the need to restore the faith of radicalizing youth in the party and the political system.  Eugene McCarthy had mounted an anti-war campaign in the Democratic primaries in 1968, and Robert Kennedy, who had been supporting the war as late as January of that year, had been persuaded by McCarthy’s early primary victories  to throw his own hat into the ring as an anti-war candidate. (Despite the fact that he had not yet called for complete withdrawal, Harrington supported Kennedy, and after his assassination, McCarthy, in the 1968 Democratic primaries, but the thuggery perpetrated on antiwar protesters on live TV by the police at the behest of  pro-war Humphrey supporters in front of the Chicago Democratic convention that summer did not deter him from endorsing Humphrey in the general election). Differences among Democrats were also mirrored among trade-union officials, as Walter Reuther, having pulled the United Auto Workers out of the AFL-CIO, declared himself against the war. Add to this the fact that, since January of 1969, hostilities were being conducted by the newly elected Republican president, Richard Nixon. The way was now clear for Harrington to oppose the war without having to offend the Democrats. Within Democratic party and union bureaucracy, he could associate himself with a growing liberal wing that favored withdrawal for pragmatic reasons. A stronger antiwar position had, more than being morally imperative, become politically respectable.
The split among Democrats and union chiefs resulted in the breakup of the   Socialist Party. In 1972, the Socialist majority who remained loyal to Johnson/Humphrey and the Meanyite union right wing,  and continued to support the war, followed Max Shachtman and Bayard Rustin into Social Democrats, USA. Like Meany and the AFL-CIO, this group refused to endorse the Democratic anti-war presidential candidate, George McGovern, and Shachtman considered Nixon  the lesser evil. SDUSA can claim credit for being among the pioneers of neo-conservatism. Those who supported McGovern and the more liberal union wing  went with Harrington to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSOC).
A New Michael?
Political circumstances had greatly altered by the time DSOC merged with the New American Movement (NAM) to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 1982. The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, and the subsequent right-wing onslaught, made Harrington’s socialist brand appear considerably more radical than it had looked fifteen years earlier. Moreover, many  of the now older New Leftists and SDSers who comprised the core of NAM had gone on to raise families, acquire professional careers and adopt a commensurably more moderate politics. As Harrington remarked in a 1984  dialogue between himself and long-time comrade, Irving Howe  in The New York Times Magazine, “Time passed, tempers cooled, and old disputes faded.” But he immediately goes on to dispel any doubts about on whose terms the merger had taken place:, “And by now practically everyone on the left agrees that the Democratic Party, with all its flaws, must be our main political arena” Then, further on, “…when I criticize American foreign policy, our intervention in Central America, the MX [missile], I do that in the name of the national security of the United States… If you think back to somebody in the late 60s at an anti-Vietnam War rally getting up and talking about the national security of the United States—well, it would have been difficult.” Howe adds: “And you speak of the national security because you recognize that there is a totalitarian enemy out there which needs to be met.” Howe goes on to say that “We are loyal allies and sometimes friendly critics”(17) of the Democratic Party.  One of agreed-upon conditions of the merger of the two groups was support for the state of Israel.
Not only was Harrington’s anti-communist Democratic loyalism carried over into the DSA; his long-standing orientation to trade-union officials also remained intact. In the 70s, he cultivated three union chiefs who had gone against George Meany to endorse the McGovern candidacy in 1972. Two of the three—Victor Gotbaum of New York’s biggest municipal workers union, AFSCME District 37, and William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)—had actually belonged to DSOC. A third, then UAW chief Douglas Fraser, worked closely with the organization. All three bear major responsibility for the historic defeats suffered by labor in the 70s and 80s.
With investment banker Felix Rohatyn, Gotbaum was one of the architects of “rescue package” put together by the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC) in response to New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975, when the administration of Gerald Ford refused to lend the city the money to pay its debts to big banks. (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”, read a famous Daily News headline.) The package finally negotiated included the loss of thousands of municipal jobs, tuition charges for the City College system (which prided itself on being tuition-free up until then), and drastic cuts to social services of almost every kind. As a reward, Gotbam’s son was given a job at Rohatyn’s financial firm of Lazard Frères. Rohatyn also introduced Gotbaum to a personal friend, Henry Kissinger, with whom the union president went to parties and at least on one Easter Egg hunt.
The “concession bargaining” that Gotbaum pioneered in New York was being closely watched at the time by large employers across the country, particularly in the auto industry. In 1979, it came the turn of Chrysler workers to make sacrifices for the “financial health” of their employer. Fraser bargained away 50,000 jobs and negotiated a $3 per hour wage reduction. In return, he was given a seat on Chrysler’s board of directors, from which he was to urge against any softness toward the workers in his own union. He negotiated similar concessionary contracts at Ford and General Motors.
Harrington’s third union ally, William Winpisinger, who even described himself as a Marxist, found his union in a critical position when Ronald Reagan summarily fired over 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO) in 1981. Winpisinger could have come to the aid of the air traffic controllers by calling upon the airline machinists in the union he headed to respect PATCO picket lines, thereby crippling the industry and perhaps enabling the strikers to win. He preferred not to, citing his fear of fines and other legal liabilities his union could have incurred. The strike is widely regarded as the turning point in the 1980s rollback of labor’s historic gains. Reagan’s victory against PATCO encouraged employers across the country to hire scabs and bust unions.
None of these betrayals  prevented Harrington from continuing to see himself as a staunch ally of these union chiefs, or from promoting them as “progressives” in the labor movement.
Revisit and Reassess
Throughout his life, Michael Harrington tirelessly devoted his energy and outsized talents to his vision of progressive social change. His method was, however,  largely confined to persuading and cajoling those who already wielded power in politics and organized labor. His insider methods left little room for those who would challenge existing authority from the outside or from below. His chosen political label of “democratic socialist” was only a cosmetic reversal of terms. He was, in fact, an American social democrat. Because American workers have never formed a party of their own, socialists of Harrington’s persuasion were never able to participate in government. Tethered as they remained to the Democratic Party, they lacked the opportunity to carry out welfare-state reforms like the ones European social democratic governments enacted in the twenty-five “golden years” following World War II. Neither were they in a position to do the work of the neoliberal austerians in more recent decades, as Harrington’s confreres in the Second International—François Mitterand, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder—did not hesitate to  perform.  Despite his desire to be a player, Harrington was consigned to the margins of American politics.
Yet even within those margins, he operated in ways that were broadly similar to those of his more influential European counterparts. The “democratic” in “democratic socialist” betokened loyalty to parliamentary politics and gradualist methods, and also a willingness to act as a left custodian for the system against everyone—Stalinist or not–who threatened to go beyond its prescribed limits. These included—for European social democrats—the Spartakusbund of Germany in 1918-19, and– for Harrington– the student rebels of the 1960s—neither of whom were totalitarian, but who rather fought for a more radical version of democracy than the electoral kind. Harrington was only too willing to make the loud and repeated declarations of anti-communism that were required qualify as a loyal opposition in the 50s and 60s. When anti-communist ideology lost its grip a result of the Vietnam war, he sounded this note a little less stridently. The trade-union leaders Harrington promoted played the same role in imposing austerity on their members as Second International governing Socialists played vis-à-vis entire national populations. Harrington’s famous “left wing of the possible” was in fact the left wing of the permissible.
Broader horizons of  possibility may be opening up once again. The organization Harrington helped found, Democratic Socialists of America, has trebled in size since the Sanders campaign, and voted at its August convention to sever its membership of long standing in the Second International. Will it now go beyond the failed strategy of working within the Democratic Party and attempt to fill the void left in American politics by the absence of an independent socialist party? It only stands to reason that renewed debate over this question should be accompanied by a thorough re-evaluation of the Harringtonian legacy.
1.[1] The Port Huron Statement, New York, 1964, p.31
2.[1] Ibid. p. 60
3. Ibid., p. 57
4. Ibid., p. 30
5. Ibid., Pp. 31-32
6. Ibid., Pp. 29-29
7. Kirkpatrick Sale, sds, New York, 1974, p. 63
8. Ibid., p. 63
9. Ibid. P. 63
10. Ibid.p. 63
11. Quoted in Maurice Isserman, The Other American, New York, 2000, p. 259
12. Quoted in Isserman, p. 261
13. Quoted in Isserman, p. 262
14. Isserman, p. 271
15. Pp. 271-72
16. Quoted in Isserman, p. 288
17. The New York Times Magazine, June 17, 1984

A letter from Jason Shulman, first published in the periodical Weekly Worker: 


Unsurprisingly, former Spartacist League member Jim Creegan goes very overboard in his condemnation of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) founder Michael Harrington (‘Leftwing of the permissible’, September 7).
Harrington made many errors during his political career, but he was right about one thing: “The vocation of a radical in the last portion of the 20th century is to walk a perilous tightrope. He must be true to the socialist vision of a new society and constantly develop and extend its content; and he must bring that vision into contact with the actual movements fighting not to transform the system, but to gain some little increment of dignity or even just a piece of bread.”
He continued: “If the radical becomes totally obsessed with their vision, they will fall off that tightrope into a righteous irrelevance; if they adapt too well to the movement we hope to inspire, they will fall into a pragmatic irrelevance. Our task is to balance vision and practicality, to fight not simply for the next step, but for the next step in a voyage of ten thousand miles.”
I admit that Harrington and the organisations he founded wavered to the right of the tightrope too often - turning the Democratic Party into a social democratic labour party, with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) or DSA as its left edge, was never on the cards - but Creegan fails to even recognise the issue that Harrington was trying to deal with. He does not recognise his own “righteous irrelevance”.
And let’s get the facts right. Harrington openly and unequivocally demanded that the US get out of Vietnam in 1968; he didn’t wait until 1970. (Yes, 1968 was still too late; his ‘realignment’ strategy led him to compromise too much with the Socialist Party right wing - specifically his mentor, Max Shachtman). In the late 1970s, in the pages of The Nation, Harrington admits that he should have helped build an ‘Out now!’ movement along the lines of what the Socialist Workers Party (US) did in the 60s. In the 1970s and 80s he apologised, repeatedly, for his ‘stupid’ behaviour regarding Students for a Democratic Society and he condemned the US’s “criminal war” in Vietnam in his final book. (Had he not also done so earlier, then there was no way that the new left veterans of the New American Movement would have ever chosen to merge with Harrington’s DSOC in 1982.)
Furthermore, whatever its other failings in regard to its relationship to the left wing of the labour officialdom - and they were real - the DSOC explicitly supported the Ed Sadowski insurgency in the United Steelworkers as well as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and some of its members were involved with the Association for Union Democracy. If Creegan doesn’t believe this, he should try to get his hands on 1970s issues of the DSOC’s Democratic Left newsletter.
Had Harrington been a genuine cold warrior, there is no way that the DSA would have ever critically supported the FSLN (Sandinistas) against the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, as it did. The DSA also sponsored a national speaking tour in 1988 by Rubén Zamora, then vice-president of the El Salvadoran FMLN - another target of US imperialism.
As for “support for Israel”, all this has meant for the DSA is support for a two-state settlement along the lines of what Uri Avnery and Gush Shalom, in Israel, have advocated since 1993. Undoubtedly, for Creegan and others who write for the Weekly Worker, this is still ‘Zionism’ (and, admittedly, there were Labour Zionists in both the DSOC and early DSA), but, I promise you, real Zionists - the ones who write apologies for the strangling and bombing of Gaza and worry about Israel’s ‘demographics’ - do not agree. The DSA also explicitly supported the first intifada.
In any event, the DSA has never treated Harrington’s writings as holy writ in the way that, say, orthodox Trotskyists have done with James P Cannon. The DSA has never enforced a ‘Harringtonite’ orthodoxy. This gives Creegan’s condemnation of Harrington a particularly musty air. It’s long since time for all American Marxists to move on from heaping anathema on someone who has been dead since 1989 and spend far more time focusing on how to build the “far left of the possible” today.
Jason Schulman 

New York

Response to Jason Schulman by Jim Creegan, first published in the periodical Weekly Worker:


Jason Schulman (‘Letters’, September 14) finds my less-than-laudatory appraisal of Michael Harrington’s politics (‘The left wing of the permissible’, September 7) unsurprising, because I was a member of the Spartacist League in the 1980s.
In point of fact, my antipathy goes back even further - to the 1960s. Then, as a member of Students for a Democratic Society, I joined with many others of my generation in doing what I could modestly do to support the people of Vietnam, as they hurled defiance in the face of the world’s mightiest imperial colossus, and wrote the most heroic chapter of mass struggle in the history of the later 20th century. It could hardly escape our notice at the time that a couple of Michael Harrington’s prominent Socialist Party comrades - Max Shachtman and Norman Thomas - supported in various ways the government’s sanguinary effort to crush the Vietnamese.
The fact that Harrington cheered a little less heartily for the war than Shachtman, or eventually turned against it, does not alter the fact that his belated opposition was voiced from the standpoint of a loyal critic of US imperialism, attempting to correct what he saw as no more than a policy mistake. In contrast, those of us in SDS who were anti-Stalinist did not allow that belief to stand in the way of proclaiming ourselves to be unambiguously on the other side.
Schulman cites a passage from Harrington’s writings consisting of generalities about the need to walk a “perilous tightrope” between “socialist vision” and “actual movements”. The problem with applying this prescription to the Vietnam era is that the “actual movement” - or at least the most vital part of it, formed by the new left to which I belonged - was moving in the direction of anti-imperialist and revolutionary socialist politics of one kind or another. This was an “actual movement” that Harrington wanted no part of, and spared no effort to stigmatise. Only in less radical times can social democrats plausibly invoke the immobility of the masses as an excuse for their own role as the established order’s faithful left gatekeepers.
Schulman disputes only one of my factual assertions. He writes that Harrington came out for complete withdrawal from Vietnam in 1968 - not in 1970, as I wrote. I admit that I did no deep archival research for my article. For this particular claim I relied on The other American,Maurice Isserman’s biography of Harrington. It states that he was “becoming bolder in his criticisms of the war. In the fall of 1969, for the first time, he actually gave a speech at an anti-war rally. By the following January [1970 - JC] he decided that the anti-war movement had been right to emphasise the demand for US withdrawal from Vietnam, rather than simply negotiations” (p288). If Schulman can provide an earlier citation in which Harrington “openly and unequivocally demanded” complete American withdrawal, I will be happy to acknowledge my - and Isserman’s - mistake. But whether enunciated in 1968 or 1970, Harrington’s anti-war stand was, in the words of an old American expression, ‘a day late and a dollar short’.
For the rest, Schulman argues that, in the 1970s and 80s, when the dividing line between radicals and liberals became far less distinct, the Democratic Socialists of America veered once or twice to the radical side. They backed a campaign for rank-and-file democracy and against concession bargaining among steelworkers; they adopted a non-hostile attitude to the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Schulman adds that Harrington himself had certain critical afterthoughts about his previous red baiting of the 1960s anti-war movement. I have no doubt these things are true. And, while I suppose the DSA deserves credit for not being completely consistent in its overall orientation toward Democrats and bureaucrats, it is the main trajectory, not occasional departures and regrets, that define the politics of an organisation.
Will today’s enlarged DSA start to define itself differently? The most important question now facing this group is where it intends to go with the thousands of new members it has acquired as a result of the Sanders campaign. Unlike the current-day Spartacist League and its offshoots, I do not take toward the growing ferment in the left wing of the Democratic Party the attitude that Marx enjoined against: “Cease your struggles! They are foolish! Here is the truth! Go down on your knees before it!” I believe socialists must seek a way to engage left-moving Democrats.
But the question remains: if, as Schulman agrees, the project of ‘realigning’ the party to the left is a proven cul-de-sac,what is the DSA’s strategy for leading rebellious voters toward the exits and into a third party of the left (which I assume to be the alternative to realignment)? As far as I can tell, DSA has no strategy. It continues to include unreconstructed Democratic loyalists in its leading bodies; it speaks vaguely of an “inside/outside” approach - ie, supporting ‘progressive’ candidates who run either as Democrats or independents. But, on the question of what to do when ‘progressive’ Democrats throw their support behind mainstream ones after losing in the primaries (as most do), the DSA remains silent. Although leftish DSAers like Schulman may have given up on Democratic realignment, their inside/outside approach, in the absence of any plan for moving from the inside to the outside, effectively remains one of continuing to work within the party.
Finally, Schulman assures us that, although Harrington wasn’t nearly as bad as I make him out to be, today’s DSA is not dogmatically committed to his legacy anyway, and arguing about it therefore has a “musty air”. But, if this is so, perhaps Schulman can explain why he didn’t see fit to reply to an article of mine in this paper (‘Different plot twists, same ending’, August 25 2016) that was partly devoted to taking issue with his far more timely assertions about the Democrats and electoral politics, and was only moved to pound the keyboard in reply to my recent treatment of the musty political history of the DSA’s long-deceased and not-dogmatically-followed founder. Or why he continues to employ Harrington’s “left of the possible” slogan, thinking that substituting ‘far left’ for simply ‘left’ somehow changes things. Or why, for that matter, we are compelled to conduct this exchange exclusively in a British publication.
One reason is that the flagship periodical of the DSA left, the ‘radical slick’ Jacobin magazine, while acknowledging that my Harrington piece was “very well done”, rejected it as not being the “right fit” for its websiteCould it be that the facts I cited about the collaboration of Harrington and Norman Thomas in the cold war (which I sometimes think Jacobin would also like to expunge from history) are what didn’t fit the airbrushed, founding-father portraits of these figures that Jacobin and DSA wish to mount on their walls?
The presence on the Facebook page of the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Bhaskar Sunkara, of a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) Mount Rushmore-like collage of himself, together with Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, together with a video of Harrington’s 1989 memorial service, lead me to suspect that the answer is yes.
Jim Creegan 
New York