This will shock many of my readers. Yes, there was indeed a time in my life when I flirted with socialism. And it was all due to a wonderful humanitarian with a big heart. named Michael Harrington.
My younger readers may not even know who Michael Harrington was. I would recommend to them that they immediately order his book, published in 1962, The Other America: Poverty in the United States.
This book was a landmark in American history. It focused on the widespread then existing, yet almost invisible, poverty in all its forms and from numerous causes. He analyzed the poverty caused by racism and inadequate care for our senior citizens. He described the manifestations of poverty in both rural and urban America.
And Michael Harrington prescribed solutions. He was a strong influence on both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. The anti-poverty solutions he prescribed were put into practice by these two presidents. Indeed, the anti-poverty components of LBJ’s Great Society were very much a product of the ideas of Michael Harrington.
Over the years, it has become fashionable to criticize Harrington for the failures of some of the anti-poverty programs in the Great Society. The recent book by conservative scholar, Amity Shlaes, entitled Great Society: A New History, is totally devoted to discrediting virtually all aspects of the Great Society.
In evaluating the Great Society as a whole, however, one must keep in mind its three major successes, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968. These three historic accomplishments far outweighed the Great Society’s failures.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that The Other America was one of the five books that most influenced my generation, the generation of the 1950s and 1960s.
During my undergraduate years at Northwestern, I had the pleasure of hearing Michael Harrington speak. Listening to Harrington was like hearing the musical prose of an ultimate intellectual.
As my study of economics deepened and I read the works of free market economists like Milton Friedman, I came to disagree with many of Harrington’s prescribed solutions for poverty. I retained, however, the concern about the poor that he had imparted to me, and neither my admiration for his intellect nor my affection for him abated in any way.
Now Michael Harrington was a socialist. He founded in 1982 the Democratic Socialists of America. His socialism, however, was of a non-Marxian brand. And his Socialism, in practice, was much different from that of Bernie Sanders.
In his book, Socialism Past and Future, written shortly before his death in 1989, Harrington defined his concept of “socialization”as “the democratization of decision making in the everyday economy, of micro as well as macro choices.” This type of socialism could manifest itself in many forms of corporate ownership, such as giving workers a say on corporate boards, having enterprises organized as worker-owned cooperatives, or forcing companies to issue shares of stock to the workers.
Sanders has embraced this corporate ownership democratization thesis. But in three significant respects, the Harrington and Sanders brands of Socialism in practice diverge widely.
The first is their attitude towards foreign Marxist authoritarian regimes.
Harrington historically was a fierce critic of these dictatorships, condemning them for their repressive practices. He severely repudiated the non-democratic measures and authoritarian rulers of the former Soviet Union, Castroite Cuba, and Sandinista Nicaragua.
By contrast, Sanders throughout his adult life has been an apologist for these regimes. If you don’t believe me, please read the following columns in the Wall Street Journal, “Bernie’s Undemocratic Socialists” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/bernies-undemocratic-socialists-11582567403?emailToken=773f2db556a9a1ce79923007ce430637uzTeAIRRMV5NZzO5kLJRIfKi2DZz9DgjbDMaMAKFnhew+sd8fQlF5qhRlfBB7TK3Qtbh2yE0QugB67Tp12uMug%3D%3D&reflink=article_copyURL_share) and the Washington Post, “In Cold War Travels, Bernie Sanders Found Much to Admire Behind Enemy Lines. Now That’s a Problem for His Campaign.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/in-cold-war-travels-bernie-sanders-found-much-to-admire-behind-enemy-lines-now-thats-a-problem-for-his-campaign/2020/02/24/fd02fb50-572a-11ea-8753-73d96000faae_story.html).
The second significant difference is with regard to the styles of the outreach of these two men to the electorate.
The Harrington public outreach was totally humanitarian in style and substance, seeking to heal the nation’s wounds, end hatred and bigotry, alleviate the poverty of the poor, end the suffering of the sick, and eliminate societal inequality without promoting hatred between ethnic groups and economic classes. The Harrington message was one of reconciliation.
Michael Harrington reflected this civility in his political life, forming friendships with people who disagreed with him, like the conservative icon, William F. Buckley, Jr. He appeared as a guest on Buckley’s show, Firing Line, and the conversation between the two was indeed uplifting.
By contrast, Sanders appeals to societal “have nots”, his core constituency not by appealing to their hopes, but rather to their fears, demonizing capitalism and capitalists. Unlike the Harrington message of hope, the Sanders message is one of polarization, characterized by anger and demonization.
Finally, there is the issue of the American alliance with the State of Israel. Harrington was an outspoken supporter of the Jewish State, while Sanders has been a virulent critic, threatening to withhold aid from Israel if it does not accept his demands for concessions, even if they jeopardize Israeli security.
I ask what kind of an example am I to my granddaughter if I support the reelection of a racist, misogynist, corrupt, lawless Donald Trump. I think of my late pro-Israel parents and ask how could I support Bernie Sanders.
I will always revere the memory of Michael Harrington, a true friend of the American Jewish community and Israel, a Socialist dedicated to the betterment of all Americans who could work with people like me of diametrically opposite views.
Bernie Sanders, you’re no Michael Harrington.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.