Michael Harrington

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Michael Harrington
Michael Harrington, cropped.jpg
Chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America
In office
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded by???
Personal details
Edward Michael Harrington Jr.

(1928-02-24)February 24, 1928
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
DiedJuly 31, 1989(1989-07-31) (aged 61)
Larchmont, New York, U.S.
Stephanie Gervis
(m. 1963)
EducationCollege of the Holy Cross (BA)
University of Chicago (MA)
Yale University

Edward Michael Harrington Jr. (February 24, 1928 – July 31, 1989) was an American democratic socialist. As a writer, he was perhaps best known as the author of The Other America. Harrington was also a political activist, theorist, professor of political science, and radio commentator. He was a founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and its most influential early leader.


Early life and education[edit]

Harrington was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 24, 1928, to an Irish-American family. He attended Roch Catholic School and St. Louis University High School, where he was a classmate (class of 1944) of Thomas Anthony Dooley III. He later graduated from College of the Holy Cross and the University of Chicago (MA in English literature), and attended Yale Law School.

As a young man, Harrington was interested in both leftist politics and 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.[1]

Harrington was an editor of the newspaper Catholic Worker from 1951 to 1953, but he soon became disillusioned with religion. Although he always retained a certain affection for Catholic culture, he ultimately became an atheist.[2]


Harrington's 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 (ISL), a small organization associated with the former Trotskyist activist Max Shachtman. Harrington and Shachtman believed that socialism, which they believed implied a just and fully democratic society, could not be realized by authoritarian communism, and were fiercely critical of the "bureaucratic collectivist" states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.[3]

In 1955, Harrington was placed on the FBI Index, whose master list contained more than 10 million names in 1939. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover added an untold number of names of U.S. liberation activists he considered "dangerous characters", to be placed in detention camps in case of a national emergency.[4] Later, Harrington was added to the master list of Nixon political opponents.[5]

After Norman Thomas's Socialist Party absorbed Shachtman's ISL in 1957, Harrington endorsed Shachtman's strategy of working as part of the Democratic Party rather than sponsoring candidates as Socialists.[6] 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."[7]

Harrington served as the first editor of New America, the official weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, founded in October 1960. In 1962, he published The Other America: Poverty in the United States, a book that has been credited with sparking John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.[8] For The Other America, Harrington was awarded a George Polk Award and The Sidney Award.[9] He became a widely read intellectual and political writer, in 1972 publishing a second bestseller, Socialism.[10] 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.[7]

Harrington often debated classical liberals/libertarians like Milton Friedman and conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr.[11][12] He also debated younger left-wing radicals.

Harrington was present in June 1962 at the founding conference of Students for a Democratic Society. In clashes with Tom Hayden and Alan Haber, he argued that their Port Huron Statement was insufficiently explicit about excluding communists from their vision of a New Left.[13] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. called Harrington the "only responsible radical" in America. Ted Kennedy said, "I see Michael Harrington as delivering the Sermon on the Mount to America," and "among veterans in the War on Poverty, no one has been a more loyal ally when the night was darkest."[9]

By the early 1970s, the governing faction of the Socialist Party continued to endorse a negotiated peace to end the Vietnam War, a stance that Harrington came to believe 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.

Harrington was appointed a professor of political science at Queens College in Flushing, New York City, in 1972. He wrote 16 books and was named a distinguished professor of political science in 1988.[9] Harrington is also credited with coining the term neoconservatism in 1973.[14]

Harrington said that socialists had to go through the Democratic Party to enact their policies, 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. He considered running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980 against President Jimmy Carter, but decided against it after Senator Ted Kennedy announced his campaign.[15] He later endorsed Kennedy and said, "if Kennedy loses or is driven out of this campaign, it will be a loss for the left".[16][17]

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. It was the principal U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International, which includes socialist and labour parties such as the Swedish and German Social Democrats and the British Labour Party,[18] until it voted to leave in 2017.[19] Harrington remained chairman of DSA from its inception to his death.

During the 1980s, Harrington contributed commentaries to National Public Radio.[20]


Harrington died of esophageal cancer in Larchmont, New York, on July 31, 1989.[21][22][23]

Political views[edit]

Harrington embraced a democratic interpretation of the writings of Karl Marx while rejecting the "actually existing" systems of the Soviet Union, China and the Eastern Bloc. In the 1980s, Harrington said:[24]

Put it this way. Marx was a democrat with a small "d". The Democratic Socialists envision a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning… and racial equality. I share an immediate program with liberals in this country because the best liberalism leads toward socialism. […] I want to be on the left wing of the possible.

Harrington made clear that even if the traditional Marxist vision of a marketless, stateless society was impossible, he did not understand why this had to "result in the social consequence of some people eating while others starve".[25]

Before the Soviet Union's collapse, the DSA voiced opposition to that nation's bureaucratically managed economy and control over its satellite states.[26] The DSA welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the Soviet Union. Sociologist Bogdan Denitch wrote in the DSA's Democratic Left (quoted in 1989):[26]

The aim of democrats and socialists should be… to help the chances of successful reform in the Soviet bloc. […] While supporting liberalization and economic reforms from above, socialists should be particularly active in contacting and encouraging the tender shoots of democracy from below.

Harrington voiced admiration for German Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, which sought to reduce antagonism between Western Europe and Soviet states.[27]

Personal life[edit]

From May 30, 1963, until his death, Harrington was married to Stephanie Gervis Harrington, a freelance writer and staff writer for the Village Voice.[28][29] Gervis Harrington published articles in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, The New Republic, The Village Voice, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Newsday and other publications.[28] After Harrington's death, she raised their two children and continued her work as a writer. Gervis Harrington died on November 8, 2008, at age 71.[28]


In 1978, the periodical Christian Century quoted Harrington:

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.

Harrington observed of himself and his high school classmate Tom Dooley, "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."[30]

In his 1983 Wilson Quarterly article "The Politics at God's Funeral",[31] Harrington wrote that religion was passing into oblivion, but he worried that the passing of legitimizing religious authority made Western societies lose a basis for virtue or common values. He proposed that democratic socialism help create a moral framework to salvage the values of progressive Judaism and Christianity "but not in religious form.”[32]

In 1988, Harrington wrote:

The politics of international economic and social solidarity must be presented as a practical solution to immediate problems as well as a recognition of that oneness of humankind celebrated in the Biblical account of the common parents of all human beings.[33]


The City University of New York has established The Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change at Queens College in his honor.[34]

Media appearances[edit]

  • Harrington was a guest speaker on the television series Free to Choose and 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 on government attempts to address poverty and its consequences.


  • The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
  • The Retail Clerks. New York: John Wiley, 1962.
  • The Accidental Century. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
  • "The Politics of Poverty," in Irving Howe (ed.), The Radical Papers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966; pp. 122–43.
  • The Social-Industrial Complex. New York: League for Industrial Democracy, 1968.
  • Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority. New York: Macmillan, 1968; Baltimore: Penguin, 1969 paperback ed., with new afterword.
  • Socialism. New York: Saturday Review Press. 1972. ISBN 978-0-84150141-6.
  • Fragments of the Century: A Social Autobiography. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973.
  • Twilight of Capitalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.
  • The Vast Majority. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.
  • Tax Policy and the Economy: A Debate between Michael Harrington and Representative Jack Kemp, April 25, 1979., with Jack Kemp, New York: Institute for Democratic Socialism, 1979.
  • James H. Cone, "The Black Church and Marxism: what do they have to say to each other", with comments by Michael Harrington, New York: Institute for Democratic Socialism, 1980.
  • Decade of Decision: The Crisis of the American System. New York: Touchstone, 1981.
  • The Next America: The Decline and Rise of the United States. New York: Touchstone, 1981.
  • The Politics at God's Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization. New York: Henry Holt, 1983.
  • The New American Poverty. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1984.
  • Taking Sides: The Education of a Militant Mind. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1985.
  • The Next Left: The History of a Future. New York: Henry Holt, 1986.
  • The Long Distance Runner: An Autobiography. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.
  • Socialism: Past & Future, New York: Arcade Publishing, 1989


  • Isserman, Maurice The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington. New York: Perseus Books 2001
  • Doug Greene, A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2021.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Isserman, Maurice (Fall 1992 – Spring 1993). "Michael Harrington: An "Other American"". Sacred Heart University Review. Fairfield, CT: Sacred Heart University. 13 (1). Retrieved November 23, 2018.
  2. ^ Maurice Isserman, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), pp. 1–104.
  3. ^ "The Accidental Century, by Michael Harrington". Commentary Magazine. January 1966. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  4. ^ "Harrington". Sluh. Archived from the original on July 10, 2014. Retrieved August 15, 2015.
  5. ^ Isserman, The Other American, pp. 175–255; Michael Harrington, Fragments of the Century (1973).
  6. ^ Isserman, The Other American, pp. 105–74.
  7. ^ a b "The Left Wing of the Possible". The New York Times. May 28, 2000. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  8. ^ Kenan Heise (August 2, 1989). "Michael Harrington, 61, Socialist Who Wrote 'The Other America'". Chicago tribune. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  9. ^ a b c Mitgang, Herbert (August 2, 1989). "Michael Harrington, Socialist and Author, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  10. ^ Isserman, Maurice (July 31, 2015). "Remembering Michael Harrington, A Heroic Democratic Socialist Leader". In These Times. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  11. ^ "Milton Friedman Versus A Socialist". YouTube. November 4, 2010. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  12. ^ "Michael Harrington – Poverty: Hopeful or Hopeless" – Part 1". YouTube. December 7, 1964. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  13. ^ Todd Gitlin (1993). The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Bantam. pp. 377–409. ISBN 978-0-55337212-0.
  14. ^ 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: Public Affairs. ISBN 978-1-891620-30-0. Reprinted as chapter 11 in Harrington's 1976 book The Twilight of Capitalism, pp. 165–272. In 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.
  15. ^ Eric Lee (May 8, 2015). "The socialist revolt that America forgot: A history lesson for Bernie Sanders". Salon. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  16. ^ Cohen, Marty (May 15, 2009). The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. p. 197. ISBN 978-0-22611238-1 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ "Socialists and the 1980 election". The Courier-News. February 8, 1980. p. 7. Archived from the original on February 24, 2020. Retrieved February 24, 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  18. ^ Isserman, The Other American, pp. 256–363; Michael Harrington, The Long-Distance Runner (1988)
  19. ^ Ferre, Juan Cruz (August 5, 2017). "DSA Votes for BDS, Reparations, and Out of the Socialist International". Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  20. ^ Scott Sherman, "Good, Gray NPR," The Nation, May 5, 2005.
  21. ^ Herbert Mitgang, "Michael Harrington, Socialist and Author, Is Dead," The New York Times, August 2, 1989, p. B10.
  22. ^ Meyerson, Harold (August 2000). "The (Still) Relevant Socialist". The Atlantic. Retrieved November 23, 2018. Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America, was the most charismatic figure on the American left in the past half century. His case for a democratic socialism takes on new meaning in the age of globalization
  23. ^ Oliver, Myrna (August 2, 1989). "Michael Harrington, Socialist Activist and Author, Dies at 61". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, CA. Retrieved November 23, 2018.
  24. ^ Mitgang, Herbert (August 2, 1989). "Michael Harrington, Socialist and Author, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved November 5, 2009.
  25. ^ Bella Stumbo. "A Socialist Utopia" Archived December 18, 2020, at the Wayback Machine. Los Angeles Times. April 12, 1987. Retrieved November 8, 2009.
  26. ^ a b Harrington, Michael; Ehrenreich, Barbara (June 16, 1989). "In Spirit of Glasnost, a Half-Toast to Perestroika; U.S. Left Supportive". The New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2009.
  27. ^ Isserman. The Other American. pp. 351–52.
  28. ^ a b c "Stephanie Harrington, Senior Reporter for My hometown Bronxvile, Dies". My Hometown Bronxville. Bronxville, NY. November 2008. Retrieved November 23, 2018.
  29. ^ "Harrington Wins Award and Wife," New America [New York], vol. 3, no. 13 (July 10, 1963), p. 2.
  30. ^ "Notes on Jesuit Education". America Magazine. October 26, 1985. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  31. ^ "The Politics at God's Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization". Wilson quarterly. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
  32. ^ Gary Dorrien (May 26, 2010). "Michael Harrington and the "Left Wing of the Possible"". CrossCurrents. 60 (2): 257–82. doi:10.1111/j.1939-3881.2010.00123.x.
  33. ^ "The (Still) Relevant Socialist". The Atlantic. August 2000.
  34. ^ "Michael Harrigton Center". Qc.cuny.edu. Retrieved January 7, 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • Maurice Isserman, The Other American : The Untold Life of Michael Harrington. New York: HarperCollins/Public Affairs, 2000.
  • George Novack, "The Politics of Michael Harrington," International Socialist Review, vol. 34, no. 1 (Jan. 1973), pp. 18–25.
  • Doug Greene, A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2021.

External links[edit]