Michael Harrington

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Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington (February 24, 1928 — July 31, 1989) was an author, educator and socialist activist. His most influential book, The Other America, exposed the prevalence of poverty in the midst of America's post-WWII affluence and is widely acknowledged as the inspiration for the war on poverty during the 1960's. Michael Harrington was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science on the faculties of Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.[1]

Early life

Harrington’s origins lay "in a bourgeois Catholic family in Depression- era St. Louis, where Catholics were members of the traditional establishment courtesy of French colonialism. Mike’'s dominant mother was a town and parish personality in her own right; his father was a fairly retiring attorney who left much of the child-rearing to his wife. Their only child sailed academically through rigorous parochial schools, engaged at a fairly young age by serious matters of life, death, faith, and politics".

After an Eastern education at Holy Cross, a year at Yale, and a fairly liberating stint at Hutchins’ University of Chicago, Harrington landed in post-war Greenwich Village to write poetry, drink, and join the Catholic Worker of Dorothy Day.[2]

Early socialism

Bogdan Denitch recruited Michael Harrington to the Young Peoples Socialist League in the Spring of 1952.[3]

Bogdan Denitch "met a fairly unkempt and hairy Michael Harrington, clothed as most Catholic Workerists at the time in frocks donated for the poor, on a rainy picket line in 1951. After many political discussions—and drinks–Mike joined the Young People’s Socialist League a short while later". As Maurice Isserman has noted , "we did what the mainly Jewish, deeply marginal left did at the height of McCarthyism in those days, we shoved the Waspy-looking (to us, when shaved) Irish-Catholic Midwesterner right to the top and made him YPSL National Chair. The Socialist Party of the time was delighted, particularly since beneath that sweet Irish face lay a steel hard political mind. For the next seven years Mike and I worked very closely together, he as the ‘good cop’ in debates across the country, me as ‘bad cop’. And we worked very closely with the growing Civil Rights movement, through our connections with Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and with the Sleeping Car Porter’s Union."

Michael Harrington was among the few in the top leadership of the socialist movement who was jailed rarely. "This was a deliberate choice of the organizations, not Mike’s choice. Mike wanted to share the fate of other activists in the civil rights movement, but we decided that Mike could accomplish more out raising bail money, spreading publicity or going to unions. Every once in a while Mike would be jailed to keep his credentials up, so we’d tell him to “bring a toothbrush today. We’ll see you in two days after bail is raised.”

Michael Harrington's two loyalties were to Norman Thomas, the grand old man of the Socialist Party, and, unfortunately, Max Schactman. Schactman "was a brilliant, relentless, remorseless factionalist, who started moving right at approximately the time when Mike and I joined the youth wing of his Independent Socialist League. So Mike was unfortunately trapped in this conservative Schactmanite trajectory at the exact time when opportunities for a broad left, particularly among students, began to open up. He consequently ended up on the wrong side of a number of issues which were emotionally devastating to Mike. In the early 60s he even broke for a while with close friends like Debbie Meier over the issue of the Cuban invasion, and our call for total, immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam."

According to denitch "one of the reasons Mike had a breakdown in the sixties was that all the people he was close to were on different sides. The people he stayed close to he really couldn’t stand. In fact many of them later scattered to the pre-Sweeney AFL-CIO bureaucracy, and some much later to the Reagan administration. Max Schactman created some right-wing Bolsheviks, who were subsequently relentless at publicly tearing down Mike’s reputations after he finally did break with them, form DSOC and then DSA. But by this time it was hard to cut off Harrington’s access to people; he had become too well known as the poverty-finding “Mr. Socialism” of the U.S."[4]

"The Other America"

That Michael Harrington is so often identified as the “man who discovered poverty” is partially the result of happenstance. He was asked by the then liberal-left magazine Commentary to look into the issue of the poor in the U.S. He wrote this article, marrying the notions that there were millions of poor Americans out there in the “Affluent Society,” to a concept that he picked up from radical anthropologist Oscar Lewis, based on his study of family life in Mexico.

Harrington’s Commentary piece attracted more attention than usual to such journalism, helped by the timing of a 1960 presidential primary in which JFK was pitted against Hubert Humphrey in West Virginia, where the media was transmitting images of very depressed mining communities. Later, after JFK’s elections, CBS broadcast Harvest of Shame, which highlighted the plight of migrant workers. At this time a shrewd editor at Macmillan asked Harrington to turn his Commentary pieces into a book, resulting in "The Other America", which got good but not spectacular reviews. Mike was so certain that the book would hardly sell that he had no trouble going to Paris for a year.

In that year the longest ever New Yorker review, fifty pages, was written about TOA, by Dwight MacDonald. Reprints of the review sold in the tens of thousands. The review came to the attention of Walter Heller, Chair of Kennedy Council of Economic Advisors, and eventually landed on JFK’s desk. JFK’s primary economic strategy up to that point had been to seek a tax cut that would benefit the middle class, but Heller suggested that the 1964 campaign would be helped by doing a bit for those that hadn’t made it into the affluent society. But 1963 was the year of Birmingham, the March on Washington, and a growing civil rights movement that included a place for the demands of the poor.

Upon JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson needed to make the martyred Kennedy programs his own, and he picked up this idea of a war against poverty. So Michael Harrington returned from Paris in 1963 to find himself famous. He was summoned to DC to take part in discussions on the war on poverty legislation being drafted by Sargent Shriver’s task force. However, what they borrowed from Harrington is this notion of the culture of poverty, that is to say that poor people lived lives with a different set of values and norms from that of the dominant culture, or the middle class. This, to Harrington, was in part because they were beaten down by structural economic forces, not the thoroughly behaviorist notions that the right later employed to distort this concept and gut the social wage in the 1980s.

LBJ wanted to wage war on poverty–but cheaply. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then at the Labor Department as Assistant Secretary, was supported by Harrington and Paul Jacobs in advocating that jobs programs were the most effective means to raise people up — but they were expensive. LBJ wanted to limit any “war” on poverty to under a billion dollars. By contrast, the initial 1935 appropriation for the WPA was five billion dollars—ten billion in 1964 dollars! Johnson didn’t want to spend money. The administration also selectively picked up the ‘culture of poverty’ argument that suited its purposes, making the values/aspirations aspect of the notion the centerpiece of most programs. "Mike always said that you have to spend money, and create jobs. In his 1984 book, The New American Poverty, Harrington quite consciously distanced himself from the notion of the culture of poverty".[5]

Harrington symposium

On November 15 2007, the Tamiment Library in NYC held a symposium celebrating the life and work of Democratic Socialists of America Founding Chair Michael Harrington (1928-1989) and the official opening of the Harrington Papers. Invited speakers included DSA National Director Frank Llewellyn.[6]

According to Bogdan Denitch;

As the person who recruited Mike to the YPSL in the Spring of 1952 I want to stress three things about him: (1) He was a left-bohemian intellectual, very much interested in literature and regarded himself as a poet and writer. For several years he was very much on the Village scene and most Fridays we drank, first at the White Horse and later at my place on Greenwich Street. “We” were a younger group from Catholic Worker and a few pals. (2) He was a full time Socialist activist and organizer. He spent ten years touring the country, speaking, debating and participating in organizational activities of a small left-socialist youth organization with some dozen campus chapters. He was, by choice, a full time socialist cadre until the seventies when he got a “real” job teaching at Queens College where he remained very active in both the local chapter and as a national figure. One could even say, alas, THE national figure. (3) He was serious about politics and theory. His books are a monument to that seriousness. They remain relevant today. Of the three great figures of the American socialist movement, such as it was, Debs, Thomas and himself, Mike was the most important figure intellectually, and like Thomas spent his life trying to build a movement. Unlike Thomas he never gave up the idea that it might be possible to build a significant socialist presence in the US. In that he differed from most academic socialists with roots in the New Left.

DSOC founding convention

The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee founding convention Socialism'73 took place in New York City, October 12 and 13, 1973, at the Loeb Student Center, NY University and at the McAlpin Hotel. Speakers included;

Chile petition

In 1973;

Circulated a petition opposing the anti - socialist military government of Chile.[8]

We urge that the people of the world join in pressing upon the military junta of Chile the realization that they must abide by the norms of civilized practices and human decency.

Socialist Debs award

Every year since the mid 1960s the Indiana based Eugene V. Debs Foundation holds Eugene Debs Award Banquet in Terre Haute, to honor an approved social or labor activist. The 1973 honoree, was Michael Harrington.[9]

Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee

Some 150 delegates and 100 observers met at Houston's Airport Holiday Inn, February 16-19, 1979, for the fourth national convention of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC).

DSOC's leadership[10]at the 1979 convention included-Michael Harrington, chairman, Julius Bernstein vice chairman, Victor Reuther vice chairman, Jack Clark national secretary.

the national board consisted of-Julian Bond, Harry Boyte, Bogdan Denitch, Harry Fleischman, Irving Howe, Alex Spinrad, Gloria Steinem, Harry Walsh, Nat Weinberg, Richard Wilson

Cablegram to Portugese Socialists and the M.F.A.

In 1974, after a pro-communist military coup in Portugal;

More than eighty Americans, all identified with opposition to the Vietnamese war and with various radical and liberal causes, sent on August 9 a cablegram to to the Portugese Armed Forces Movement, to Portugese president francisco da Costa Gomes and to portugese socialist leader Mario soares expressing the hope that "democratic freedoms"...will continue to grow in Portugal".

Michael Harrington, the national chairman of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, organized the effort with help from 5 "Initiators" - Lawrence Birns (writer), Sissy Farenthold (past president National Women's Political Caucus), Congressman Michael J. Harrington, Martin Peretz (chairman, editorial board New Republic), Cleveland Robinson (vice president, Distributive Workers of America), Leonard Woodcock (president United Auto Workers, Jerry Wurf (president AFSME).

Elected officials who signed the cablegram included: Julian Bond, Willie Brown, Jr., John Conyers, Jr., Don Edwards, William Gluba, Edward J. Koch, Parren J. Mitchell, Henry S. Reuss, Benjamin S. Rosenthal and Louis Stokes.[11]

In The Times Founding sponsors

In 1976 founding sponsors of the Institute for Policy Studies/New American Movement linked socialist journal were;

Democratic Agenda

More than 1,200 people attended the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee initiated Democratic Agenda Conference held November 16-18, 1979, at the International Inn and Metropolitan AM Church in Washington 1 DC. The conference focused on "corporate power'; as the key barrier to "economic and political democracy," concepts many Democratic Agenda participants defined as "socialism.'

The Democratic Agenda meetings attempted to develop anti-corporate alternatives" through influencing the direction of the Democratic Party during the period leading to the July 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York.

Keynote speakers included Washington, DC, Mayor Marion Barry, Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee leader Mildred Jeffrey and Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee chairman Michael Harrington.[13]

Harrington said that the Democratic Agenda alliance hoped to control as many as one-third of the delegates to the Democratic Party National Convention. "We have to see to it that when that convention meets in New York, it is an anticorporate convention,"

Harrington said, "We must light a fire and turn this crisis into a movement for economic and social justice... We must take this nation as far beyond Roosevelt as he took it beyond Hoover.

Harrington's solution for U. S. social and economic ills was the Democratic Agenda program:

  • A federally-owned gas and oil corporation "on the model of the TVA
  • full employment with price controls "by putting Americans back to work as part of a national plan to meet desperately urgent human

and economic needs;" ,

  • a comprehensive national health plan
  • greatly expanded federal housing programs that would guarantee "the right to decent housing
  • ending federal subsidies to agribusiness corporations while "providing encouragement" to "family farmers."[14]

Democratic Agenda/Socialist Caucus

For groups and organizations seeking radical social change within the Democratic Party, the National Convention of 1980 had at least one historic first - formation of a Socialist Caucus of delegates. Organized by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and by the Democratic Agenda which was DSOC's cadre and supporters within the Democratic Party and was based in DSOC' s New York office and at 1730 M Street, NW, Washington, DC. Some 31 delegates and alternates from twelve states and Democrats Abroad attended the Socialist Caucus.

As a preliminary to the convention's Socialist Caucus meeting, , indeed as a "building event" and as a continued show of support for Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the Democratic Agenda sponsored a convention rally at New York's Town Hall. The speakers included Herman Badillo, Julian Bond, Fran Bennick, Harry Britt, Cesar Chavez, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI}, Douglas Fraser, Murray Finley, Michael Harrington, Terry Herndon, Ruth Jordan, Ruth Messinger, Eleanor Smeal, Gloria Steinem and William Winpisinger.

DSOC works within the Democratic Party, said Harrington, because of the party's relationships with organized workers, blacks, feminists, environmentalists and other "progressive groups."

The Socialist Caucus circulated a list of convention delegates who were caucus members, including;[15]

New American Movement 10th convention

In 1981 Michael Harrington, National Chair, Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee; Roberta Lynch, NAM National Leader; Eqbal Ahmed, Transnational Institute and Joanne Barkan, NY NAM spoke on a mini-plenary entitled New Dangers, New Opportunities: Building a Socialist Politics for the '80's at the 10th Convention of the New American Movement. The convention was held in a union headquarters in Chicago and ran from July 29 - August 2, 1981.[16]

Tribute to Ben Dobbs

On Sunday, June 7, 1981, the Los Angeles Chapter of the New American Movement sponsored a Tribute to Ben Dobbs for "His lifelong commitment to socialism". The event was held at the Miramar-Sheraton Hotel, Santa Monica, California. Sponsors of the event included Michael Harrington.[17]


In a report to the New American Movement National interim committee, Frank Ackerman, a member of the NAM/DSOC merger negotiating team, commented on Harrington's growing anti-anti-communism;[18]

My sense of it is that what DSOC really insists on is the explicit criticism of the Soviet Union; when that is agreed to,

many of them, including Harrington, are willing to be quite clearly critical of U.S. imperiralism, of domestic anti-communism (the attempt to discuss anti-communism here fails, I think,to capture the extent of Harrington's current .. anti-anti-communism," a change in his positions over the last few years).

District 1199 Cultural Center

In 1982 Advisers to the District 1199 Cultural Center, Inc. New York were:[19]

DSA co chair

In 1984 Democratic Socialists of America co chairs were Michael Harrington and Barbara Ehrenreich[20].

American Solidarity Movement

The American Solidarity Movement was announced in early 1984 by Democratic Socialists of America, as a vehicle to support American labor unions it considered under attack, or on strike and in need of support.

Members of the Initiating Committee for an American Solidarity Movement were: Michael Harrington (convenor), Stanley Aronowitz, Balfour Brickner, Harry Britt, Harvey Cox, Rep. Ron Dellums, Bogdan Denitch, Barbara Ehrenreich, Cynthia Epstein, Jules Feiffer, Rep. Barney Frank, Msgr. George Higgins, Irving Howe, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Frances Fox Piven, Jose Rivera, Ray Rogers, Gloria Steinem, Peter Steinfels, Ellen Willis.[21]

Socialist International

According to Timothy Sears, Michael Harrington was the principal author of the Socialist International’s new statement of principles, "but he found the process of writing-by-committee maddening. The initial draft he wrote was absolutely brilliant—some of the best he ever wrote." However, at the SI Congress in Lima, Peru in 1986, it was roundly criticized by those (particularly from the French Socialist Party) who" were essentially Blairites before Tony Blair" and considered his draft excessively “utopian.” They insisted on major changes to tone it down. Harrington also wrote the final version that was adopted, "which is quite good, but he was really frustrated with the whole thing". Harrington , Jim Chapin and Sears were DSA delegates at the Lima Congress.

I remember Mike and Jim talking about whether we should publish his original draft as a DSA pamphlet. Someplace I must still have a copy of the original draft…[22]

During the seventies and eighties. At that time, Harrington was the Si's leading American spokesperson and a valued adviser and strategist for the SI's ruling triumvirate of Olaf Palme, Willy Brandt and Francois Mitterrand. According to John Mason;[23]

For over a decade, DSA's marginality at home was offset within SI councils by Harrington's brilliance as an essayist, and his energy and insight as a socialist strategist. But this also meant that DSA's connection to the SI was largely a one-man show Since Michael's death in 1989—and with the disappearance of the generation of European leaders who had welcomed him into their ranks—the relationship between DSA and the SI has never been the same.

Working Together conference

In February 1986, the Youth section of Democratic Socialists of America sponsored a conference at Columbia University, "Working Together:Beyond Single Issue Politics".

Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Harrington, Hulbert James, Richard Barnet and Maggie Kuhn spoke at this conference for student activists.[24]

Opposing loans to Chile

In 1987, Joanne Landy, Thomas Harrison and Gail Daneker, Directors, Campaign for Peace and Democracy/East and West, New York, circulated a statement Against Loans to Chile calling upon the Reagan Administration to oppose all loans to Chile.

It has been signed by leading "peace, labor, human rights, religious and cultural figures from the United States, Western Europe and Latin America." They were "joined by a large number of activists and writers from the USSR and Eastern Europe, many of whom have been persecuted in their own countries for work in independent peace and human rights movements."

Michael Harrington endorsed the call.

The majority of signatories were affiliated with Democratic Socialists of America.[25]

Michael Harrington Center

The Michael Harrington Center was founded in honor of Michael Harrington. The website states,

The Center exists to promote public, democratic discussion of social issues, to advocate for social change and to work in partnerships with others to build a more just, equitable and democratic society.[26]

Congress on Religion and Policies


Theologies of Peace and Justice: A Congress on Religion and Politics. Chicago Theological Seminary May 27-30, 1988.

Plenary Speakers:

For conference information please contact: Religion & Politics Congress Rm 1201, 1608 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL 60647


Template:Reflist Template:Eugene V. Debs Award recipients

  1. http://mhconline.org/about-the-center
  2. Dem. Left, Fall 2000
  3. http://www.dsaboston.org/yradical/yr2008-01.pdf
  4. Dem. Left, Summer 2000
  5. Dem. Left, Summer 2000
  6. TYR, Jan. 2008
  7. [1] Newsletter of the Democratic Left, October 1973, page 6
  8. [2] Newsletter of the Democratic Left, October 1973, page 3
  9. Eugene V. Debs Foundation homepage, accessed March 14, 2011
  10. Information Digest March 7 1979 p 63
  11. Democratic Left, Sep. 1975, page 2
  12. [3] In These Times home page, accessed March 6, 2010
  13. Information Digest, December 14, 1979, page 372
  14. Information Digest, December 14, 1979, pages 368
  15. Information Digest, Septemer 19, 1980, p 333
  16. NAM 10th Convention Agenda, July 29, 1981
  17. Tribute to Ben Dobbs program, June 7, 1981
  18. NAM Discussion bulletin No 35, Spring 1981 p 16
  19. District 1199 Cultural Center, Inc. letterhead 1982
  20. DSA membership letter Oct 24 1984
  21. Democratic Left, Jan./Feb. 1984, page 6
  22. TYR, Jan. 2008
  23. Dem. Left Millenium issue Part 2, 1999, page 4
  24. Democratic Left, Jan/Feb 1986, page 5
  25. New York review of books, Vol 34, Number 10, June 11, 1987
  26. http://mhconline.org/about-the-center