Socialism and American Politics
A Brief Recollection (2009)
Note: I recently found the piece below on an old hard drive. It was written on March 2, 2009, exactly ten years ago this weekend. It was written for the brand-new blog that Dissent Magazine was then starting. It was never published. I’m publishing it now for three reasons: (1) because I’ve actually been thinking a lot about Michael Harrington lately; (2) because it is a reminder that red-baiting has a long history — as does conversation about socialism and American politics — and has been frequently deployed by Republicans since the 1930’s if not before; and (3) because it really is striking how much headway “democratic socialism” has made in public discourse in the past ten years. Which is why so many of us are spending so much time writing about it, and will continue to do so.
It is now clear that the United States, and the world economy of which it is a part, is in the midst of a major economic crisis. And so it is no surprise that public commentators would liken the current moment to the Great Depression, and compare the Obama administration and its policy agenda to FDR’s New Deal. And it is similarly no surprise that given the parallels between the New Deal period and our own, the same red-baiting invocations of “socialism” would be revived by critics of liberal reform. All the same, there is something disturbing about the historical short-sightedness with which this topic is discussed.
This Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review is a case in point. On its front page is a fine story entitled “’Socialism!’ Boo, Hiss, Repeat,” that documents the ways in which critics on the right continue to use the label “socialism” as a slur, at times in the most cynical of ways. And on its back page is a symposium on “When Will the Recession Be Over?” that contains brief comments from eleven economists. What readers of the Week in Review would be hard-pressed to know is that “socialism” is not simply a political slur mobilized by conservatives when they have no ideas of their own, but an idea with a respectable history (as well as a history of disasters; but this is true of all political ideologies), that in the twentieth century there was a vibrant socialist movement in the U.S. which was particularly strong during the Progressive and New Deal periods, and that this movement counted among its leaders or defenders such respected Americans as Eugene V. Debs, Florene Kelly, John Dewey, and Norman Thomas.
I am reminded of the moment when I first started reading the Week in Review, in the mid-1970’s, as a New Yorker coming of age intellectually in the wake of the sixties, Vietnam, and the Watergate crisis. I was a student at Queens College. Among my teachers were a number of brilliant economists, sociologists, historians and political scientists whose intellectual agendas were shaped by socialist and Marxist ideas. The most famous of these was a man who was in fact very famous, perhaps the most well-known “leftist” of his generation — Michael Harrington.
Harrington had been the author of a book, The Other America, that had been widely credited with having inspired the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty.” He was also a very public socialist, the author of a widely read book, entitled Socialism, published in paperback by Bantam, a major trade publisher; the leader of a group, called Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, and later Democratic Socialists of America, that was very active among leftists and liberals in the Democratic Party, and that indeed published a newsletter called “The Democratic Left”; and an active participant in the Socialist International, in which capacity he was the principal American interlocutor, and respected equal, of such world leaders as Willy Brandt, Olaf Palme, and Michael Manley.
Harrington was a great lecturer (he was the best public speaker I have ever seen or heard). He was also a widely read and well-respected author and public intellectual, a regular contributor to Dissent Magazine and newspaper op eds, a frequently-quoted commentator, and indeed a regular guest on William F. Buckley’s weekly TV show “Firing Line” (Harrington and Buckley were respected adversaries and perhaps even friends of a sort, and they participated in some classic debates). Harrington was very active in the crafting and support of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Bill of the mid-1970’s; he was very close with powerful, national labor leaders such as Walter Reuther and Douglas Fraser of the United Auto Workers and Anthony Mazzochi of the Chemical Workers; and with such national politicians as Ron Dellums, John Conyers, Bernie Sanders and Ted Kennedy. That’s right, Ted Kennedy. Perhaps this is why Buckley, the widely-acclaimed intellectual “godfather” of American conservatism, debated him so regularly—because his ideas mattered and he mattered, not simply intellectually but also, in a way, politically. He represented something that still exerted some influence, and for the good, on political life.
Harrington was a very public socialist, and indeed the emphatic and unabashed defense of democratic socialism in America was his calling. He was my teacher, and briefly a colleague, and I enjoyed talking with him. He passed away in 1989. I wonder how he would have understood the enormous changes in the world since that time. I wonder whether he would have moved away from an allegiance to “socialism,” even of the democratic variety, in the face of these changes, in a way similar to my own evolution toward liberalism (of a left variety). I have no doubt that he would have registered the changes in the world.
He published a book in 1976 entitled The Twilight of Capitalism. Over thirty years later, I doubt that today he would have the same confidence in the imminent (and immanent) possibility of a decent socialist future in the U.S. But I am also struck by the current relevance, and resonance, of the diagnosis presented in that book. We could do worse now than to revisit the arguments of that book, for if there ever were a time when the instabilities and injustices of capitalism were apparent, it is now. And some version of Harrington’s main points still stand: a good society should be able to use the democratic instruments of public policy to provide reasonable and fair solutions to public problems; a democratic society should value intelligent public policy rather than worship a “free market” that grossly mal-distributes wealth and power; and the values of democracy are relevant throughout the society, and not simply (in attenuated form) in the affairs of government.
I thought of Harrington when reading Sunday’s Week in Review. I thought about the way that what he represented has passed from the scene, ignored on the front page, in which “socialism” is treated merely as a slur, and on the back page, in which eleven mainstream economists are quoted on our current economic crisis, and yet not a single voice of the left is represented. This is a loss to our historical self-understanding and to our public discourse. It is something worth thinking about in the years to come as we face a protracted political-economic crisis, and seek truly democratic solutions to this crisis.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar, and his book #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, was recently published by Public Seminar/OR Books.