He was born in St. Louis into a Catholic and fairly prosperous family in 1928 and grew up in that city that was said to have the largest Hooverville in the United States during the Great Depression. In college at Holy Cross his best subject was English. As a young Republican there he participated in debate, worked on student publications, and liked to write plays, poems, and short stories. He reflected later that the danger in a religious school is that a few bright students just might start to take their idealism seriously. What went into Michael Harrington's youthful thoughts and struggle has been well chronicled in The Other American by Maurice Isserman (Perseus Books, 2000).
I look at this biography not just as the life story of one political maverick. Rather it is the detailed history of radical thought in the whole second half of the last century. Interesting people and offbeat relationships turn up every page or so. One was the casual friendship at Yale between Harrington and William Buckley who, you may remember, became nationally famous after writing, God and Man at Yale.
It was at New Haven and a little later at the University of Chicago where Robert M. Hutchins was president that young Harrington began to ponder the great old ideals of academic freedom and free thought. After earning a Master's Degree in English there, he joined the work of Dorothy Day in New York City and started writing for the Catholic Worker. But he longed for some political action and Day and her group, living spartan, dedicated lives of voluntary poverty while at the same time helping the poor, did not support one candidate or party over another.
It was when Michael started reading Marxist literature that he moved from the Catholic to the Marxist left. He became a socialist, following the beneficent example of Norman Thomas, and got a job in one of Thomas' projects, the Workers Defense League.
Isserman reminds us that in the late 1940s and early '50s many scholars, including sociologist Daniel Bell, were saying the socialist movement was history. After all, in the presidential election of 1948, both the Progressive Party candidate, Henry Wallace and the Socialist Party candidate, Thomas, had done very poorly.
Ironically, as the biographer shows, at the time Harrington entered its ranks, the Socialists were divided and quarreling among themselves with youth versus age, militants versus the Old Guard, and many members versus the contentious Max Shachtman. Here are glimpses of the wide variety versus. of left-wingers -- Tom Hayden, Irving Howe, pacifist A.J. Muste, and many others.
In the early 1960s Harrington persisted in his goals and worked his way up to the high point of his political influence with the publication of his study on American poverty The Other America. Although he did not become a true Washington insider (President Johnson largely ignored him) his book was credited with helping to start the national "war on poverty." Reading about it, I found it rather surprising that the problem of poverty in the 1960s had been badly neglected by socialists because they were so concerned about communism and civil rights.
The Other America, published in the spring of 1962, stated that 40 to 50 million people in the United States lived in "an economic underworld," that in many instances poverty, in a kind of ripple effect, created a culture of its own, and that poor people then '(as now) are almost invisible to the rest of the society, and -- an important point -- that, in Harrington's words, "Society must help them before they can help themselves." By the way, he did not once use the word "socialist" in the book.
Harrington also stressed the relevant idea that in the long run living with poverty and its expensive side effects is more costly to the country than paying to help people get out of poverty. Some of us keep trying to eliminate poverty, even though it's of low priority right now. Edward Kennedy is an admirer of Harrington and later said of the book and Harrington's ideals that "Some call it socialism. I call it the Sermon on the Mount." Business Week, in a kind of non-committed tone, called The Other America a classic on poverty.
Isserman also reminds readers that those years were memorable too for other important books, like John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Harrington wrote several books on socialism and its history, but he will be best remembered for pointing out poverty in a nation of great wealth.
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