Michael Harrington: Theoretician of American Reformism

One of the most exciting developments of the last few years has been the phenomena of large sections of youth showing support for socialist and communist ideas. It is indispensable that the new generation find a way to educate itself in these ideas. In the United States, there is no party of any significant size based on these ideas, and the IMT, though growing, remains a modest force. Given Bernie Sanders’s betrayal and the rise of Trumpism, tens of thousands of people looking for organization and ideas joined the DSA and scoured the pages of Jacobin magazine. Unfortunately, what they found there was not revolutionary socialism, but a rehash of Michael Harrington’s American variant of reformism.

Although Harrington died in 1989, his views continue to have wide influence, especially in the DSA, whether or not people specifically acknowledge him. / Image: Bernard Gotfryd, Library of Congress

Doug Greene’s book, A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism, is a comprehensive look at the ideas and political life of the central figure in the founding of DSA. Although Harrington died in 1989, his views were certainly influential among the reformists of the American left in the 1970s and 1980s and they continue to have wide influence, especially in the DSA, whether or not people specifically acknowledge him.

Among others, Greene seeks to tackle the following questions: Who was Michael Harrington? What was his history in the socialist movement? What were his ideas? Are they correct? Is this really Marxism? Will Harrington’s ideas lead us to a socialist future or to a dead end?

As we will see, Harrington’s views conflicted head-on with genuine Marxism. These include his understanding of the state, his analysis of Stalinism, his approach to electoral politics, and his relationship with the “progressive” wing of the trade union bureaucracy. The foundation of these mistaken views stem in part from the environment he came from, but above all, from political mistraining.

Political education by an apostate

Doug Greene gives the details of Harrington’s evolution: from traditional Catholicism to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement to the Young Peoples’ Socialist League (YPSL). The Catholic Worker movement combined Catholicism, anarchism, and what today would be called “mutual aid.” A separate article would be needed to deal with this particular movement. In the case of Harrington, he was around it for a short time before joining YPSL.

Harrington lived a large part of his life during the post-World War II boom period. This thirty-year aberration helped fertilize many forms of revisionism and disoriented large swaths of the left—with the exception of the small forces of genuine Marxism grouped around Ted Grant in Britain. At the time, the “New Left”—along with many Stalinist, Maoist, and so-called “Trotskyist” sectarians—proclaimed that the working class in the advanced capitalist countries was no longer the agent of revolutionary change.

We must understand that if a socialist analyzes the world in a strictly empirical way, serious theoretical mistakes will be made. Mistakes in theory lead to problems in practice. Unsurprisingly, empirical pragmatism pushed many to draw incorrect conclusions about capitalism and the prospects for socialism.

Greene describes how Bogdan Denitch recruited Harrington into the YPSL, and then brought him to Max Shachtman. Denich and Harrington became lifelong friends and comrades. However, whereas people like Kautsky and Plekhanov started out as Marxists and degenerated over time, we cannot say this about Michael Harrington. The reality is that he never was a real Marxist. Harrington mentions that Shachtman was the most important mentor that he had in his life, and he felt this way even after Harrington had broken with him. As quoted by Greene: “Even though I have some serious disagreements with him on issues of socialist strategy, I am permanently and deeply indebted to Max Shachtman, who first introduced me to the vision of democratic Marxism and whose theory of bureaucratic collectivism is so important to my analysis.”

But Shachtman was an apostate from genuine Marxism, and had broken politically and publicly with Trotsky in 1940. As a young man, Shachtman joined the Communist Party and rose to the second tier of its leadership. To his credit, he joined forces with James Cannon and a few others and was expelled from the CP in 1928 for his association with Trotsky. Trotsky and his followers were marginalized by the Stalinist bureaucracy, but history shows that repressive methods can not defeat correct ideas.

Harrington met Shachtman in the early 1950s, by which time Shachtman had accommodated himself to the American ruling class. / Image: fair use

In the late 1920s and the 1930s, Shachtman became one of the top US and international leaders trying to build the forces of genuine communism, under Trotsky’s guidance. Unfortunately, the leadership of the American Trotskyists never heeded Trotsky’s repeated urgings on the need to study Marxist theory and apply it to analysis, perspectives, political interventions, and organization building. While he was alive, Trotsky was able to correct the mistakes of Cannon and other leading Trotskyists. After Trotsky’s assassination, however, their pragmatic, mechanical methods led them into a sectarian cul-de-sac. However, Shachtman broke with Trotsky before his assassination in August 1940.

Shachtman did not truly understand dialectics—de facto preferring the philosophical worldview of the American bourgeois—and felt he could be a Marxist without using Marxist methods! He was linked to the petty-bourgeois intellectual milieu and was susceptible to the pressure of “public opinion.” The outbreak of World War II deepened his own confusion and led him to seek theoretical justifications for a break with Trotsky and the majority of the Socialist Workers Party, as documented in Trotsky’s classic work, In Defense of Marxism.

Trotsky had observed that, while Shachtman was a talented journalist, he had not developed a theoretical understanding beyond this. As Trotsky wrote, “Everybody is aware of the facility with which Shachtman is able to weave various historical episodes around one or another axis. This ability makes Shachtman a talented journalist. Unfortunately, this by itself is not enough. The main question is what axis to select.”

Marx and Engels explained that the dominant ideas of society are the ideas of the ruling class. The US ruling class was able to take power and hold on to power with the use of empirical pragmatism. But such an outlook is not sufficient to truly understand capitalism, let alone overthrow it and replace it with socialism. By default, this low theoretical level permeates the labor leadership and the left, including the various sectarian outfits. In this context, an experienced and “talented journalist” could make a big impression on somebody like a young Michael Harrington, who went to college at Holy Cross, as well as Yale and the University of Chicago.

Shachtman’s ideas

Harrington met Shachtman in the early 1950s, more than a decade after his break with Trotsky. History shows that when people break with Marxism, they drift inevitably in a reactionary direction. By the time they met, Shachtman’s positions on a number of issues showed he had accommodated himself to the American ruling class.

Shachtman had broken with Trotsky chiefly on the question of the USSR. Trotsky had argued that the USSR was a degenerated workers’ state, and that, although Marxists opposed the Stalinist bureaucracy, the working class should defend the nationalized planned economy, in its own way and with its own methods. Shachtman adopted James Burham’s concept that the USSR was a “bureaucratic collectivist” society, little different from Nazi Germany, and he refused to defend the Soviet Union against imperialism and Hitler.

At the end of World War II, US imperialism was the world’s mightiest power and it organized the remaining imperialist powers into an alliance against the USSR, which came out of the war greatly strengthened. Domestically, the postwar economic boom, coupled with the Red Scare of the McCarthy period drove Shachtman further to the right. Shachtman eventually supported US imperialism as the “lesser evil” to Stalininsm.

The postwar economic boom, coupled with the Red Scare of the McCarthy period, drove Shachtman further to the right. / Image: Library of Congress

This mistaken analysis led to other political errors. There was no attempt to understand the longer term perspectives of American and world capitalism and the boom’s effect on the class struggle. Marxists argued that the postwar boom was real, but an aberration. It took the edge off the class struggle, but eventually, the contradictions of capitalism would lead to a massive decline and period of crisis and sharpened class struggle. This is exactly what happened in the middle 1970s.

None of this concerned the “talented journalist.” Shachtman gave up the perspective that the working class needed its own political party and began to adapt to the Democrats with his theory of “realignment.” He argued that labor should run candidates in the Democratic Party primaries, as this would allow labor to take the Democrats over at some point, or create a situation where labor would break with them. His idea is directly echoed by the present theory of the “dirty break”, which some tendencies in DSA support. This also led Shachtman to support the inherently conservative trade union bureaucracy, including the many committed anti-communists in it.

In a completely mechanical way, Shachtman was simply changing his ideas to accept the present “reality.” But this is a slippery slope, and the logic of his ideas led him to support more “hawkish” Democrats like Washington state Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Eventually, he supported Republican Richard Nixon against Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 election, although Shachtman died a few days before election day. Marxists opposed both bourgeois candidates in 1972.

Trotsky warned about people who are “worshipers of the accomplished fact.” This “accommodation to the present” is opposed to a dialectical view, which sees the world as constantly changing and understands that developments that may not be apparent today will eventually lead to opportunities for radical change. Things change into their opposite. The real task of Marxists is to understand the process and build our forces today to be in a position to seize the opportunities that will emerge tomorrow.

Imperialism and Stalinism

Harrington basically adopted Schactman’s views and, armed with the empirical method, took a position that US imperialism was the “lesser evil” vis a vis Stalinism. Doug Greene shows, for example, how Harrington was dead set against working with Communists such as SDS and Port Huron in the US. Instead, Harrington supported President Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964.

Harrington supported Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964. He saw Johnson as a tragic figure, rather than the leader of imperialism trying to stamp out forces of national liberation. / Image: Yoichi Okamoto, Wikimedia Commons

Once in office, Johnson dramatically increased the US troop presence in Vietnam to more than 400,000, and oversaw a relentless bombing campaign. Harrington opposed the war, but he thought that the anti-war movement should not work with US communists and he believed both two sides—the US imperialists and the Vietnamese National Liberation Movement—were equally “to blame” for the war. As of 1968, Harrington basically tailended the policies of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, which represented the wing of the American ruling class that wanted to make an accommodation with Stalinism. This position was also based on Harrington’s false view of imperialism and his refusal to see that the nationalized planned economy, albeit deformed, was historically progressive.

Greene shows how Harrington started by rejecting Lenin’s position that imperialism was a function of capitalism and its logical outcome. Instead, Harrington argued that imperialism results from policy choices fomented by a reactionary wing of the ruling class. He saw Lyndon Johnson as a tragic figure, rather than the leader of imperialism trying to stamp out forces of national liberation. Hence, by electing democratic socialists to government on the Democratic Party ballot line, imperialism would end, as if by magic. This is where an absence of dialectics and class analysis leads.

Harrington’s adaptation regarding the state

Michael Harrington considered himself a Marxist, but right from the start, like his mentor, he never understood the Marxist method. He started with a false theoretical foundation and continually adapted his ideas to accept the framework of American capitalism and its limitations. He said he wanted to be the “left-wing of the possible,” which was a way of convincing people to accept the limits of the capitalist system. This includes his views of the state.

Marxism explains that the state apparatus can essentially be reduced to “bodies of armed men.” The state evolved along with class society. It exists as a force to maintain order and defend the dominant class’s relationship to the means of production. Under capitalism, a numerically small ruling class exploits the mass of the population. There are many forms of bourgeois state, from a democratic republic to a fascist dictatorship. But in the final analysis, they all defend capitalism. The working class cannot simply “control it,” but must smash it and replace it with a state of another kind, a workers’ state.

Harrington not only rejected the Marxist theory of the state, he claims that Marx himself rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat later in life and argued for the peaceful seizure of power through parliamentary means. Harrington thought that the left could win a majority in bourgeois elections and gradually change society, little by little, starting with a capitalist welfare state and eventually ending with socialism. Unsurprisingly, Harrington was an active member of the Socialist International, the remnant of the degenerate Second International. He was friends with former West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, and had links with the Swedish Social Democrats and the French Socialists until he died on July 31, 1989.

Is revolution necessary? Does it need to be violent?

Harrington tries to justify reformism by emphasizing the question of violence in the process of revolution. His logic is essentially this: if you want to avoid violence, then change your view of the state. Instead of examining the state as it exists and has evolved in society, one should resort to “wishful thinking” to impose a predetermined view on objective reality. This is not the Marxist method and is, in fact, very dangerous—as anyone who has studied the events of Chile in the early 1970s can tell you.

There is no evidence that Karl Marx revised his view of the state. The Critique of the Gotha Program was written only eight years before his death. Marx also collaborated with Engels on The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, although this was published after Marx’s death. In none of these works do Marx or Engels reject the need for the forcible overthrow of the old order.

Furthermore, what Marx wrote about violence in the process of the revolution should not be confused with his understanding of the class nature of the state. Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin and Trotsky, took a serious approach to revolution. They understood that the ruling class would use any means to maintain their rule, including violence. This is what happened during the Paris Commune of 1871. Violence is a tool used by the ruling class and the counterrevolution. The working class must understand this and be prepared for that.

Paris Commune 1871
Marx and Engels understood that the ruling class would use any means to maintain their rule, including violence. This is what happened during the Paris Commune of 1871. / Image: public domain

If the working class is politically prepared, with the support of the mass of the population, there may be minimal or even no violence in a revolution, as the ruling class and its institutions collapse. Ultimately, the army and police are made up of people, not disconnected from the broader pressures of society. However, no serious person would assume a “pacifist ruling class.” We can hope for the best, but we must prepare for the worst. Marx always wanted to make sure that any violence that arose during a revolution would be seen as instigated by the capitalist class.

Harrington discarded all of this and argued that simply running in elections under the direction of the bourgeois state will allow the working class to incrementally take power. Where has this ever happened?

The failure of European social democracy

Harrington pointed to the various reforms and improvements that came about for the European working class in the 1960s and the 1970s, and used this as evidence that we can gradually reform our way to socialism. This superficial, impressionistic approach is exactly what we would expect from someone trained by Shachtman, who had no use for dialectics.

If we look at European capitalism during its period of growth in the late 1800s to 1914, or the postwar boom of 1945 to the middle 1970s, we see that when capitalism is in a period of expansion, it can provide reforms as a byproduct of the class struggle. The existence of the USSR, even though it was under the control of the bureaucracy, also created additional pressure for the world capitalist class to provide reforms for the masses.

But this in no way meant that the capitalist state had lost its class character. When the periods of expansion end, the standard of living of the working class is driven down. The end of the postwar boom has led to a crisis of all the reformist parties in Europe. As an example, the Swedish Social Democrats were in the vanguard of the reformists when Harrington was alive. Accepting the limits of capitalism, they have now turned to counterreforms when they are in government and have lost lots of support. This, in turn, has opened up space for far-right, anti-immigrant parties, which were tiny sects in Sweden back in the 1970s.

Electoral conclusions flowing from a bad premise

Based on his empiricism and illusions in the bourgeois state, Harrington logically linked to mainstream capitalist politics. Both Shachtman and Harrington evolved in a rightward direction. In 1958, Shachtman’s International Socialist League joined the Socialist Party of America and dissolved itself. The Socialist Party of America had become a small reformist sect after 1937.

Greene writes that Harrington joined the Village Independent Democrats, a liberal Democratic Party club in Manhattan, in 1959. Despite this, Harrington did not vote for JFK in the 1960 election, but he soon changed his position and he came to regret this. Harrington basically adopted lesser-evil politics and thought that socialists must work with the liberal wing of the Democrats. This also led him to work with the labor bureaucracy, who were also in the Democratic Party. According to Harrington, the working class does not need its own, class-independent party, it just needs to “influence” the Democrats and push them to the left.

Greene writes that Harrington did not vote for JFK in the 1960 election, but he soon changed his position and came to regret this. / Image: UPI, Wikimedia Commons

Greene quotes Harrington in the early 1960s from the Socialist Party magazine, New America: “American socialism must concentrate its efforts on the battle for political realignment, for the creation of a real second party that will unite labor, liberals, Negros, and provide them with an instrument for principled debate and effective action. Such a party as the Democratic Party will be when the Southern racists and certain corruptive elements have been forced out of it. Political realignment is a precondition for the resurgence of a meaningful socialist politics in America; it is also a precondition for meaningful and progressive social welfare, labor, and civil rights legislation.”

Harrington got his wish. With Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the Republicans took over the southern segregationist wing and the northern big-city political machines. For their part, the Democrats leaned on the media-influenced “reformers,” liberals, labor leaders, and the black and Latino population.

We must ask: how has any of this served the working class? What did the Democrats do for the workers and socialism when they controlled both the White House and Congress from 1977–1980, 1993–1994, 2009–2010, and 2020–2022? In the case of Jimmy Carter (whom Harrington supported), his policies of austerity and deregulation, coupled with the monetarist policy of his Federal Reserve chief, Paul Volcker, were merely a preview of Reaganism before Reagan.

When Harrington was alive, there were just two members of the DSA in Congress, Ron Dellums and Major Owens. Many decades later, there are four. How has this helped the working class? Let’s not forget that three of these four voted in the fall of 2022 to make any strike by railroad workers illegal.

Identity politics and electoralism

The Socialist Party was dominated by Shachtman and his supporters in the late 1960s. In March 1972, the SP merged with the Democratic Socialist Federation, which was the remnants of a split from the SP in 1936. This led to a three-way split in the Socialist Party that unfolded in 1972 and 1973. In December 1972, the Socialist Party of America renamed itself “Social Democrats of the USA”. The left wing, grouped around David McReynolds, formed the Socialist Party, USA. Harrington took his group out and formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee or “DSOC.” DSOC was admitted to the Socialist International as a member in 1976 and it later merged with the New American Movement to form DSA in March 1982.

DSOC did not claim to be a party nor was it trying to build one. Its main focus was on electoral politics. This flowed from its false theoretical understanding of the bourgeois state and its lack of understanding that the power of the working class flows from its potential to control production and distribution. In electoral politics, it was trying to “realign” the Democratic Party, reinforcing the idea that workers did not need a party of their own. On top of this, the “realignment strategy” was based on building “coalitions” among groups within the population, not class. With this, they bought into the long-standing strategy of American capitalism, which divides workers on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, and so on. It did not see that the fundamental dividing line within each of these groups is class. Well before it was called “identity politics,” this has been a trend in US politics.

Greene explains how Harrington saw DSOC, and later DSA, as gaining influence in the Democratic Party, culminating with the election of Jimmy Carter. But the record shows that the Democrats actually moved even further to the right under and after Carter, as that was what was required by the capitalist system.

Harrington’s legacy and the crisis of reformism

The end of the post-World War II boom in the middle 1970s led to a crisis of reformism and this crisis is still playing out. The once-mighty parties of the Socialist International are in crisis and have lost much support. Harrington saw the beginning of this in the last 14 years of his life. When he died, DSA had a few thousand members who were mainly oriented to Democratic Party electoral politics. Over time, it declined, and eventually, quite steeply.

However, the crisis of capitalism continued to unfold and this pushed many, especially the youth, to look for socialist ideas. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign filled this vacuum, as he claimed to be a “democratic socialist.” In the end, Bernie supported Hillary Clinton and did not provide a place for those who wanted to stay active in the fight for socialism. It was in this context that, although it was small and stagnant, DSA became the beneficiary of an influx of youth.

Though it will not be easy, the only way forward is on the basis of class struggle and class independence. / Image: Socialist Revolution

Unfortunately, DSA did not show them a way forward with Marxist ideas. Many of its new leaders claimed to have broken from the ideas of Michael Harrington, but in essence—such as their understanding of the bourgeois state, identity politics, electoral strategy, and the Democratic Party—their ideas were broadly similar, if not identical. Similar erroneous methods and conditions will produce similar demoralizing results, and DSA appears to have lost many of the thousands of people who joined prior to 2020. Workers and youth are looking for a way forward to socialism and they must start by avoiding the temptation of “short cuts” and adaptation to the limits of the capitalist system.

Though it will not be easy, the only way forward is on the basis of class struggle and class independence. An unsentimental and unflinching look at the history of our movement must be combined with a theoretical struggle against the reformist ideas of today. If we learn from the mistakes of the past, we can grasp the many opportunities coming our way. Greene’s meticulous analysis of Michael Harrington and his failed ideas is a welcome contribution.

Ideas have enormous power—provided they are correct and connect with the struggles and aspirations of the masses. Genuine Marxism is growing, and under the right circumstances, these ideas will allow small forces to grow into a sizable party that can play a decisive role in future revolutionary events.


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