Crusader for a better society

The Other Americanby By Maurice IssermanPublic Affairs. 450p. (hardcover), $14 (paperback, forthcoming)

Maurice Isserman, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., has a well-earned reputation as a leading historian of the American political left. His specialty has led him to explore the life of the socialist activist Michael Harrington (1928-89), whose The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962) provided some impetus to Lyndon Johnsons War on Poverty. Issermans understanding that Harringtons activism was rooted in his Catholic youth also makes this biography a major contribution to the intellectual history of the American church and, in particular, the history of the Society of Jesus in the United States. Even though Harrington lived most of his adult life as an atheist, the reader is left wondering whether the contradictions of his religious education may account for some of the shortcomings of his career.

In the spring of 1965, when he was much in demand as a lecturer because of his reputation as a creator of President Johnsons social programs, Harrington suffered a nervous breakdown. Later, Harrington himself attributed his illness to a combination of childhood relationships with his parents and his realization that the escalating Vietnam War threatened any attempts to eliminate American poverty.


In his nuanced discussion of this episode, Professor Isserman is careful to point out that we rightly have no access to Harringtons psychiatric records. Nevertheless, the author speculates as to what really caused the breakdown. Isserman cites a temporary estrangement between Harrington and one of his mentors, the perennial Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas, as evidence that Harrington had simply labored too long to fulfill the expectations of significant elders in his life.

There is another possibility, however, that ought to foster reflection on Harringtons Jesuit and Catholic education. Did he feel a conflict between an ethic of success and an ethic of service that he learned at both St. Louis University High School and Holy Cross College? His breakdown came at a moment when his books and talks on poverty had led to a sharp increase in his income, leaving him vulnerable to the quip that he was the only man ever to get rich off poverty. In his later years, when he moved to Larchmont in New Yorks Westchester county while continuing to publish socialist books, there were even more such wisecracks.

Isserman is so skillful at reconstructing Harringtons Jesuit education that he prompts the question whether the early education fostered these later contradictions. Isserman shows us how Harringtons ambitious mother, Catherine, saw a Jesuit education as her only childs entrée into the Irish Catholic upper-middle class. Once in school, however, Michael heard the Jesuit call to serve some higher cause than himself. His youthful struggle was to find some specific cause to which he could commit himself.

Eventually, despite an intense early devotion to the church that drew him to Dorothy Days Catholic Worker movement, Harrington renounced his belief in God. Isserman believes that Harringtons affable, bohemian and skeptical personality simply kept him from carrying any cause to unreason. As a specific example, he gives us the case of Harringtons disillusionment with the Catholic Worker. Harrington felt that it encouraged its members to such self-preoccupation with salvation that they cut themselves off from any real efforts to exert influence on social institutions and thereby effect genuine change in American society. This indictment is worth further serious reflection by students of that movement, and the authors discovery of it in Harringtons writings is another example of the value of Issermans perspective as an outsider on American Catholicism.

Even as an atheist, Harrington never lost a desire for moral centering. He retained the essence of his early literary hero, Gilbert K. Chesterton, who had hoped to build a better world through Christianity. Harrington simply sought a different means to construct a better society. A year at Yale Law School ended a brief attraction to corporate Republicanism. Desiring to be a writer, he went on to the University of Chicago, where he was moved by its president, Robert M. Hutchins, who insisted that any quest for truth carried with it moral responsibility. Absorption in the life of Greenwich Village finally led Harrington to identify socialism as his very own cause. This also offered the prospect of personal success by persuading the American people to serve one another better in community and solidarity.

In that cause he was to have many disappointments. But the claim that the Vietnam War ended Harringtons crusade against poverty is only part of the truth. In fact, Harrington did not have much input into the actual decisions of the Johnson administration, even when poverty was a priority in the earliest days of L.B.J. Harrington was welcome but marginalized in governmental councils because he favored organizing the poor by private rather than public agencies. His position upset the stereotype that socialists always favored governmental expansion. He wanted government to insure its own fall from power by encouraging activism among its clients. He was thus more sensitive to individual liberties than his conservative critics were willing to admit, and showed an ability to universalize his own yearning for empowerment.

The poverty program that was enacted into law in 1964 stressed governments role in promoting individual enterprise. A disappointed Harrington felt that this approach overlooked the need for systemic changes in the American economy. But Isserman gives Harrington just credit for serving as a national conscience on poverty at a time when too many people blithely assumed that the preponderant national affluence of the postwar era would naturally override all economic distress.

The tension between success and service influenced many of Harringtons political strategies. He hoped to gain power through winning elections, an ambition not shared by all Socialists, and he knew that electoral majorities in the American system are achieved only through coalitions. Consequently, he distinguished between socialism and Communism, and never lost his conviction that the white ethnic labor unions would be essential to any radical majority.

Harrington had a troubled relationship with the Students for a Democratic Society because he regarded their view of Communism as naïve, and he supported Robert Kennedy for president in 1968 because he thought the senator from New York might unite intellectuals with both the white working class and the poor of all colors. Still later he had reservations about identity politics because of its tendency to promote introspective special interest groups rather than organizations interested in coalitions. His overall concern with mainstream voters restrained Harrington from criticizing the Vietnam War as fast and as clearly as many on the left had urged him to do. This restraint, which he later regretted, showed not only the weakness to which coalition politics itself is prone when it tries to please competing constituencies, but also the ambiguity that could undermine Harrington personally when his desire to achieve clashed with his desire to be of service.

In his last two decades, Harrington decided that the future of the American left lay in gaining control of the Democratic Party. Considering how his views had been watered down by the Johnson administration, this was a naïve conclusion. He showed how deeply he held it, however, in 1972, when he resigned the chairmanship of the Socialist Party because of its criticism of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. Harrington died in 1989, time enough to have seen the middling Carter administration and the Democrats tepid opposition to President Reagan. No doubt he would have been further disappointed by the centrism of the Clinton administration in the 1990s. In fact, his conflict between success and service parallels the Democratic Partys own conflict between a desire to return to power and a desire to accomplish great things for the left-out members of American society. The overall message of Harringtons life makes one seriously question whether the Democrats will ever seriously attempt the systemic changes he advocated.

In another area, however, Harrington was more prophetic. He wrote a great deal about the culture of poverty in the United States. He described it as characterized by a lack of education and skill, by bad health, by poor housing and by low levels of aspiration and high levels of mental distress.

Harrington called upon affluent Americans to reform this culture not only out of charity, but for their own sakes. If the problems were ignored, eventually they would infect the affluent as well. Today, when it is clearer that issues like quality of education, development of skills and levels of mental stress are as problematic among the affluent as among the poor, Harringtons ambition for solidarity across class lines deserves a reconsideration.

During his last illness, when he began to entertain the possibility of religious belief again, Harrington threatened to accuse God of mumbling to the human race. Isserman has shown us a man who himself struggled all his life to speak clearly. That his struggle to reconcile success and service sometimes led to his own mumbling may help to explain why Harrington rarely moved a mass following. When he did speak clearly, however, Harrington often said things that remain worth heeding.

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1 year 6 months ago

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