Michael Harrington's last words

Issue 

Socialism: past and future
By Michael Harrington
NAL/Dutton. $9.95
Reviewed by Craig Brittain

It was characteristic of Michael Harrington that when he learned he was dying of cancer in 1988, he began to write what he knew would be his last book, on socialism. It was a cause to which he'd devoted much of his life.

Was socialism a hollow dream which had been corrupted irredeemably; or did it still hold the seeds for the future freedom, equality and fraternity which it had promised in the beginning? Does it mean anything more nowadays than organised capitalism with good social services?

He wanted a chance to re-evaluate and summarise the main themes and ideas which had preoccupied him as a writer and activist for 40 years — as his legacy to the democratic left. He asked the doctors to keep him alive long enough to finish the book, which they did. The result is not only a distillation of his previous writing — valuable in itself — but a good book in its own right.

Its overall message is summed up in the last two paragraphs:

"More than a hundred years ago it [socialism] understood the basic tendency of capitalist society, that drive toward an unsocial socialization. And it counterposed a vision of democratic socialization, one that has inspired almost every gain in human freedom in modern times. But when socialism tried to implement that concept of a new civilization that went beyond simple reform, it was sometimes disastrously wrong or else vague and rhetorical. The question is: Can socialism learn from the defeats and betrayal that resulted from its flawed understanding of its own profound truths?

"... if it can learn from its own past about how to create the future, then there is hope for freedom, solidarity and justice."

This is a message which would be familiar to readers of his other books; for him the political issue was not "whether the future is to be more collective, but how it is to be so". A choice would be made, one way or another. "... man [sic] is going to choose a new society — or a new society will choose, and abolish him ... In order to choose the new society, rather than being chosen by it, [we] ... must make this accidental century conscious and truly democratic. And this goal I would call socialism ..."

The choice is between authoritarian socialisation (corporate capitalism or state capitalism) — what he calls socialisation from the top; or democratic socialisation — socialisation from the bottom (and he sees examples of this in the union movement, and more recently in the environmental and feminists movements, and in such organisations as the Socialist International). The other alternative, of course, is complete social breakdown — chaos. As Rosa Luxemburg had said: the choice, ultimately, is between socialism and barbarism.

Harrington re-examines the history of socialism, from the utopian socialists, through Marx and Engels, to the welfare state, and lues which have been its driving force and without which it can't be said to exist.

That the outcome will be democratic socialism is by no means certain. In fact, looking at the perversion of the ideas of socialism by people supposedly acting in its name, the odds aren't good. But the alternative is despair; and in choosing despair there can be no doubt about the future.

Michael Harrington, like George Orwell, was one of the great advocates for the democratic left in this century. This book, like his autobiography The Long-distance Runner (1989) is well worth reading.

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