Michael Harrington

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For other people named Michael Harrington, see Michael Harrington (disambiguation).
Michael Harrington
Michael Harrington.jpg
Chairman of Democratic Socialists of America
In office
Personal details
Born Edward Michael Harrington
February 24, 1928
St. Louis, Missouri
Died July 31, 1989(1989-07-31) (aged 61)
Spouse(s) Stephanie Gervis
Children Alexander Harrington,
Edward Michael "Ted" Harrington III
Occupation Politician

Edward Michael "Mike" Harrington (February 24, 1928 – July 31, 1989) was an American democratic socialist, writer, author of The Other America, political activist, political theorist, professor of political science, radio commentator and founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America. During the 1970s he coined the term neoconservatism.[1]


Personal life[edit]

Michael Harrington was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 24, 1928, to an Irish-American family. He attended St. Roch Catholic School and Saint Louis University High School, where he was a classmate (class of 1944) of Thomas Anthony Dooley III. He later attended the College of the Holy Cross, the University of Chicago (MA in English Literature), and Yale Law School. As a young man, he was interested in both leftist politics and Roman Catholicism. He joined Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement, a communal movement that stressed social justice and nonviolence. Harrington enjoyed arguing about culture and politics, and his Jesuit education had made him a good debater and rhetorician.[citation needed]

On May 30, 1963, Harrington married Stephanie Gervis, a free-lance writer and staff writer for the Village Voice.[2] He died on July 31, 1989, of cancer.[3]

Religious beliefs[edit]

Harrington was an editor of the newspaper The "Catholic Worker" from 1951 to 1953. However, he became disillusioned with religion and, although he would always retain a certain affection for Catholic culture, he ultimately became an atheist.[4]

In 1978 the periodical Christian Century quoted him thus: "I am a pious apostate, an atheist shocked by the faithlessness of the believers, a fellow traveler of moderate Catholicism who has been out of the church for 20 years." But Harrington observed of himself and his high school classmate, Tom Dooley, that "each of us was motivated, in part at least, by the Jesuit inspiration of our adolescence that insisted so strenuously that a man must live his philosophy."[5]

In "The Politics at God’s Funeral",[6] Harrington expressed his belief that religion was passing into oblivion. But he worried that the passing of legitimizing religious authority left Western societies without a moral basis to inspire virtue or define common values. He proposed that democratic socialism should assume the job of helping to create a moral basis; the goal was to salvage the values of progressive Judaism and Christianity, “but not in religious form.” [7]

Becoming a socialist[edit]

His estrangement from religion was accompanied by an increasing interest in Marxism and secular socialism. After leaving The Catholic Worker, Harrington became a member of the Independent Socialist League, a small organization associated with the former Trotskyist activist Max Shachtman. Harrington and Shachtman believed that socialism, which in their opinion implied a just and fully democratic society, could not be realized by authoritarian Communism, and they were both fiercely critical of the "bureaucratic collectivist" states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. [8]

After Norman Thomas's Socialist Party absorbed Shachtman's organization, Harrington endorsed the Shachtmanite strategy of working as part of the Democratic Party, rather than sponsoring candidates as Socialists.[9] Although Harrington identified personally with the Socialism of Thomas and Eugene Debs, the most consistent thread running through his life and his work was a "left wing of the possible within the Democratic Party."[10]

Socialist leader[edit]

Harrington served as the first editor of New America, the official weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, founded in October 1960.

During this period Harrington wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States, a book that has been credited with sparking Kennedy's and Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. [11] of "The Other American," Harrington was awarded one of the George Polk Awards and The Sidney Award.[12] He went on to become a widely read intellectual and political writer, in 1972 publishing a second best-seller, "Socialism." [13] His voluminous writings included 14 other books and scores of articles, published in such journals as Commonweal, Partisan Review, The New Republic, Commentary (magazine), and The Nation.[14]

He would frequently debate noted conservatives, e.g. Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley, Jr..[15][16] But he would also debate younger "New Left" radicals. He was present at the 1962 SDS conference that resulted in the creation of the Port Huron Statement, concerning which he argued that the final draft was insufficiently anti-Communist. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. referred to Harrington as the "only responsible radical" in America. Ted Kennedy said of him that "I see Michael Harrington as delivering the Sermon on the Mount to America," and that "among veterans in the War on Poverty, no one has been a more loyal ally when the night was darkest." [17]

In 1955, Harrington was placed on the FBI Index, a list of approximately 12,000 “dangerous characters” that were to be placed in detention camps in case of a national emergency. [18] Later he was added to the master list of Nixon political opponents.[19]

By the early 1970s, the governing faction of the Socialist Party continued to endorse a negotiated peace to end the Vietnam War, an opinion that Harrington increasingly believed was no longer viable. The majority changed the organization's name to Social Democrats, USA. After losing at the convention, Harrington resigned and, with his former caucus, formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. (A smaller faction associated with peace activist David McReynolds formed the Socialist Party USA).

Reasoning that the socialist vote had declined from a peak of approximately one million in the years around World War I to a few thousand by the 1950s, Harrington believed that if socialists were ever going to leave their mark on the country, it would have to be done through the Democratic Party. He did, nevertheless, consider campaigning for the presidency himself, in the 1980 election. But he abandoned this idea when Ted Kennedy decided to challenge Jimmy Carter in the Democratic Party presidential primaries, 1980. [20]

In 1982, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee merged with the New American Movement, an organization of New Left activists, forming the Democratic Socialists of America. This organization remains the principal U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International, which includes socialist parties as diverse as the Swedish and German Social Democrats, Nicaragua's FSLN, and the British Labour Party.[21] Harrington was the Chairman of DSA from its inception until his death.

Academician and public intellectual[edit]

Harrington was appointed a professor of political science at Queens College in Flushing, Queens, New York City, in 1972. He authored 16 books and was named a distinguished professor of political science in 1988.[22] During the 1980s he contributed commentaries to National Public Radio.[23] He was also an occasional writer for The New York Review of Books.

Harrington was the best-known socialist in the United States during his lifetime,[24] in recognition of which the City University of New York established "The Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change" at Queens College.[25]

Media appearances[edit]

  • Harrington was a guest speaker on the television series Free to Choose, where he argued against some of Milton Friedman's theories of the free market.
  • In 1966 he appeared on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s television program Firing Line. He explained his opinions on poverty, and debated Buckley regarding government attempts to address poverty and its consequences.


Books about Michael Harrington[edit]

  • Isserman, Maurice The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington. New York: Perseus Books 2001

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harrington, Michael (Fall 1973). "The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics". Dissent 20.  Cited in: Isserman, Maurice (2000). The Other American: the life of Michael Harrington. New York: PublicAffairs. ISBN 1-891620-30-4. ...reprinted as chapter 11 in Harrington's 1976 book The Twilight of Capitalism, pp. 165–272. Earlier during 1973 he had described some of the same ideas in a brief contribution to a symposium on welfare sponsored by Commentary, "Nixon, the Great Society, and the Future of Social Policy", Commentary 55 (May 1973), p.39 
  2. ^ "Harrington Wins Award and Wife," New America [New York], vol. 3, no. 13 (July 10, 1963), pg. 2.
  3. ^ Herbert Mitgang, "Michael Harrington, Socialist and Author, Is Dead," The New York Times, August 2, 1989, p. B10.
  4. ^ Maurice Isserman, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), pp. 1-104.
  5. ^ "http://americamagazine.org/issue/100/notes-jesuit-education
  6. ^ http://archive.wilsonquarterly.com/book-reviews/politics-gods-funeral-spiritual-crisis-western-civilization
  7. ^ http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-3881.2010.00123.x/full
  8. ^ https://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/the-accidental-century-by-michael-harrington/
  9. ^ Isserman, The Other American, pp. 105-174.
  10. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/05/28/reviews/000528.28navaskt.html
  11. ^ http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1989-08-02/news/8901010409_1_michael-harrington-mr-harrington-socialism
  12. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/02/obituaries/michael-harrington-socialist-and-author-is-dead.html
  13. ^ http://inthesetimes.com/article/17741/michael_harrington
  14. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/05/28/reviews/000528.28navaskt.html
  15. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOMI0ORGH44
  16. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9pFRG7SPdE
  17. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/02/obituaries/michael-harrington-socialist-and-author-is-dead.html
  18. ^ http://student.sluh.org/prepnews/index.php/news/news/2526-harrington
  19. ^ Isserman, The Other American, pp. 175-255; Michael Harrington, Fragments of the Century (1973).
  20. ^ http://www.salon.com/2015/05/08/the_socialist_revolt_that_america_forgot_a_history_lesson_for_bernie_sanders/
  21. ^ Isserman, The Other American, pp. 256-363; Michael Harrington, The Long-Distance Runner (1988).
  22. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/02/obituaries/michael-harrington-socialist-and-author-is-dead.html
  23. ^ Scott Sherman, "Good, Gray NPR," The Nation, May 5, 2005.
  24. ^ Herbert Mitgang, "Michael Harrington, Socialist and Author, Is Dead," The New York Times, August 2, 1989, p. B10.
  25. ^ http://www.qc.cuny.edu/Academics/Centers/Democratic/Pages/default.aspx

External links[edit]