Michael Harrington and the Future of Socialism in America
Michael Harrington came to the American socialist movement in the late 1940s, at a time when many socialists, having given up on any meaningful political conquest by the left, realistically redefined their goals in terms of progressive pressure on the more enduring centers of powers. In the wake of official and vigilante repression, the radical left had all but withdrawn as a public entity on the political scene. Moderates, reduced to the gadfly tactics of Norman Thomas, assumed a stance which had been their de facto position for well over two decades--since the disappointing electoral showings of the Thirties and the final defections of the remnants of socialist unionism after 1936.
Harrington dates his entry into the socialist camp from his affiliation with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. If today he is fond of describing himself as being on the left wing of what is possible, there is in this position a good deal of continuity from those early years. Dorothy Day represented a socialism of compassion, a tactical retreat from the politics of power. If in 1949 to be a Marxist, a revolutionary, and a political was increasingly inexpedient, to be a passionately concerned Catholic made the greatest sense to Michael Harrington, whose developing socialism was a reflection of his middle-class, Midwest, Catholic decency. Unlike Debs, whose baptism in socialism came through confrontation and struggle, Harrington found the left through an encounter with the imperatives of altruism. He relates in his autobiography an experience in his native St. Louis: