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Book Title: Socialism: Past and Future|
The author of the book: Michael Harrington
Date of issue: September 1st 1992
ISBN 13: 9780451628541
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 570 KB
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On Feeling the Bern
During much of the 2016 US Democratic Party presidential primaries, I was confused by Bernie Sanders’ claim that he was a Democratic Socialist.
I wondered whether this term meant something different in the US, compared with British Commonwealth countries. Socialism is a derogatory term for a political philosophy that is condemned by many Americans as more or less the same as Communism, so it didn’t make sense to me that Bernie embraced the term with conviction and enthusiasm in the Post-Communist era.
During the primaries, I resolved to read (or re-read) some of my books about American socialism by authors such as Michael Harrington and Irving Howe, both of whom had greatly influenced my own political and cultural views. However, as a non-American, it was quite unusual to see the term “socialism” being embraced to describe what I have traditionally regarded as “social democracy”.
I can’t say I came away from this book with a clear understanding of the issues. However, I think the solution is in here, if you read it closely and spend some time digesting what you’ve read.
Irving Howe, friend of Mike Harrington, fellow democratic socialist and author of the introduction to this book, in 1989
Life and Death Matters
I don’t want to be too critical of Harrington for any apparent flaws in his account. He started to write this book the day he received a diagnosis that he had inoperable cancer. The book was published the month before his death in 1989. In the acknowledgement to his previous book, “The Next Left”, he also mentioned that his publisher contracted with him knowing he was a cancer patient. Thus, it seems that he wrote his last two books when he knew he was dying of cancer. This might explain his enthusiasm, his passion, and his sense of urgency, even though both books document his lifelong commitment (he was born in 1928) to what he calls “democratic socialism” and its future as a practical and democratic political philosophy.
Not One, But Many Socialisms
One of Harrington’s major points is that there is not one definition of socialism, but many rival definitions.
The first six chapters therefore seek to investigate these definitions and their history.
Harrington starts with a dictionary definition: “socialism is the public ownership of the means of production and distribution”. There is no express discussion of the meaning of “public” in this context. However, it is implicit that it could be some variation of society or the state.
He then discusses “utopian socialism”. He quotes Martin Buber: “the goal of Utopian socialism is to substitute society for State to the greatest degree possible, moreover a society that is genuine and not a State in disguise.” (29)
Within state ownership, Harrington differentiates between statism and democratic state ownership. Statism is the ownership by a dictatorship or authoritarian state, such as occurred in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin.
Democratic state ownership means that the state was elected democratically, that it acquired ownership by democratic means, that it submits regularly to the democratic process by way of elections and that it retains ownership by democratic means. Implicitly, it did not acquire control and ownership by a revolutionary process.
Harrington discusses Stalin in terms of War Communism, where the Soviet state was under internal threat from a civil war and an external threat from foreign capital and military intervention.
Next, Harrington discusses various versions of Third World Socialism, in which relatively backward countries tried to rapidly modernise their economies without embracing capitalism at any stage of their development.
At various stages, Harrington mentions social democracy. He doesn’t use any one particular definition of social democracy. Readers must extrapolate it from the context:
“The social democrats came up with transitional programs that made capitalism more humane - even if it remained quite capitalist.”
At times he refers to it in terms of the problem posed by Karl Kautsky:
“How can you have a system that is half capitalist and half socialist?”
At others, he refers to it as (growth-oriented) “social democratic Keynesianism” - a precursor to the welfare state - and the mixed economy (in which there are elements of both private enterprise and public enterprise owned by the state). He frequently describes it as “the social democratic compromise”. It’s implied that it has compromised with capitalism (by allowing it to continue), while compromising the goals and values of socialism (i.e., by simply regulating and managing capitalism rather than overturning or replacing it.)
The welfare state might have been motivated by the protection of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. However, the economic strategy was actually intended to benefit capitalism. It was “a legal floor...put under consumption”. If people had no money, they could not spend it on consumption. If there was reduced consumption, there would be reduced production and capitalism. Both jobs and profits are protected by the welfare state. Therefore, the welfare state props up capitalist production by subsidising public consumption.
It’s time to return to the concept of public ownership and what Harrington refers to as “socialisation”.
Harrington refers to “socialisation” as “a democratic, bottom-up control by the majority”. He also explains:
“One and the same word, socialisation, is used to describe counterposed phenomena: the growing centralisation and interdependence of capitalist society under the control of an elite; and the possibility of a democratic, bottom-up control by the majority.” (8)
“‘Socialisation’ describes two very different ways in which society can become more social: under capitalism, there is a trend toward a growing centralisation and planning that is eventually global, but it takes place from the top down; under socialism, that process is subjected to democratic control from below by the people and their communities.” (9)
Harrington believed that this capitalist socialisation was in fact anti-social. It was the role of socialism to address this problem:
“Socialism sought, precisely, the democratic socialisation of the process of elitist, irresponsible, and destructive socialisation of capitalism - a process that is very much at work today as revolutionary new modes of producing wealth are being introduced in ways that increase poverty and unemployment and widen the gap between the affluent and hungry areas of the world.” (15)
It’s this very sense of socialisation that requires socialism to be democratic. Democratic socialism is a direct consequence and precondition of the goal of democratic socialisation.
In the context of work, it requires worker participation in the decision-making process. Harrington aims to reconceive the nature of work, and the worker's relationship with it.
Mike Harrington in 1986
Giving Credit to Capitalism Where It Is Due
This also explains why Harrington doesn’t believe in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism:
“The capitalist - and antisocial - socialisation of the world is indeed subverting its most priceless accomplishment, the creation of the possibility of freedom and justice. And there must be a genuine - and social - socialisation if the precious gains of the capitalist era are to be retained and deepened.” (8)
Harrington believed that capitalism had taken us a long way along the path to freedom and justice from the oppression of feudalism, whether willingly or not. However, in a sense, it had stalled and was now obstructing further progress:
“The revolution we are now living through is creating a social and political environment that, if it is not subjected to democratic control from below, will subvert the possibilities of freedom and justice that capitalism did much - if reluctantly - to foster.” (7)
“There is no guarantee that socialism will triumph - or that freedom and justice, even to the limited degree that they have been achieved until now, will survive the next century. All I claim here is that, if they are to survive, the socialist movement will be a critical factor.” (3)
What is to be Done with the State?
The question remains: what is the role of the state, if any, in the achievement of the goals of democratic socialism?
How do you acquire power or control over the privately-owned means of production, if their owners resist? Can you only do so by way of the authority of the state?
How is this kind of democratic socialism different from social democracy?
Is it intended that capitalism or capitalists will cease to exist under democratic socialism?
Do democratic socialists have to obtain control of the state by democratic means (i.e., by way of democratic election) or is there a case for the acquisition of power by way of revolutionary force? Is revolutionary force intrinsically anti-democratic, even if it is used in the name of a majority of the public? Once power is obtained, can it be retained by way of force (e.g., by the modern equivalent of the dictatorship of the proletariat)? Is it acceptable that all gains can be reversed at the very next election (just as the gains won by social democrats can be [and have been] reversed by a neoconservative or populist government)? How can democratic socialists protect their gains against a hostile democratically elected government?
It would be interesting to know whether and how these issues have been considered and resolved by Bernie Sanders and those who feel the Bern? Also, if the movement is genuinely democratic, why is the word “revolution” rolled out so often? Is it merely a metaphor, or does it genuinely foreshadow and support the need for violent overthrow of the state and/or capitalism?
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Read information about the authorEdward Michael Harrington was an American democratic socialist, writer, political activist, professor of political science, and radio commentator.
Harrington was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended St. Louis University High School, College of the Holy Cross, University of Chicago (MA in English Literature), and Yale Law School. As a young man, he was interested in both leftwing politics and Catholicism. Fittingly, he joined Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, a pacifist group that advocated a radical interpretation of the Gospel. Above all else, Harrington was an intellectual. He loved arguing about culture and politics, preferably over beer, and his Jesuit education made him a fine debater and rhetorician. Harrington was an editor of The Catholic Worker from 1951 to 1953. However, Harrington became disillusioned with religion and, although he would always retain a certain affection for Catholic culture, he ultimately became an atheist.
Becoming a socialist
This estrangement from religion was accompanied by a growing interest in Marxism and a drift toward secular socialism. After leaving The Catholic Worker Harrington became a member of the Independent Socialist League, a small organization associated with the former Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman. Harrington and Shachtman believed that socialism, the promise of a just and fully democratic society, could not be realized under authoritarian Communism and they were both fiercely critical of the "bureaucratic collectivist" states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Harrington became a member of Norman Thomas's Socialist Party when the SP agreed to absorb Shachtman's organization. Harrington backed the Shachtmanite realignment strategy of working within the Democratic Party rather than running candidates on a Socialist ticket.
During this period Harrington wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States, a book that had an impact on the Kennedy administration, and on Lyndon B. Johnson's subsequent War on Poverty. Harrington became a widely read intellectual and political writer. He would frequently debate noted conservatives but would also clash with the younger radicals in the New Left movements. He was present at the 1962 SDS conference that led to the creation of the Port Huron Statement, where he argued that the final draft was insufficiently anti-Communist. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. referred to Harrington as the "only responsible radical" in America, a somewhat dubious distinction among those on the political left. His high profile landed him on the master list of Nixon political opponents.
By early 1970s Shachtman's anti-Communism had become a hawkish Cold War liberalism. Shachtman and the governing faction of the Socialist Party effectively supported the Vietnam War and changed the organization's name to Social Democrats, USA. In protest Harrington led a number of Norman Thomas-era Socialists, younger activists and ex-Shachtmanites into the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. A smaller faction associated with peace activist David McReynolds formed the Socialist Party USA.
In the early 1980s The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee merged with the New American Movement, an organization of New Left veterans, forming 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.
Academician and public intellectual
Harrington was appointed a professor of political science at Queens College in 1972 and was designated a distinguished professor in 1988. During the 1980s he contributed commentaries to National Public Radio. Harrington died in 1989 of cancer. He was the most well-known socialist in the United States during his lifetime.
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