Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Write-Up: Socialism, by Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington.  Socialism.  New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.  See here to buy the book.

Michael Harrington was an American democratic socialist.  Some have argued that his book about American poverty, The Other America, helped inspire the Great Society in the 1960s.  I read The Other America in 1996.  I was a conservative at the time, and I read Marvin Orlasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, which some have claimed was an inspiration for President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives policy.  I read The Other America to get a left-leaning perspective on poverty.

I recently learned about Harrington’s book Socialism from a commenter on my blogger blog.  In 2013, I blogged through W.A. Swanberg’s award-winning biography of six-time Socialist Presidential candidate Norman Thomas.  Some of these posts have gotten a lot of views lately, and the reason may be that Bernie Sanders’ Presidential candidacy has made people curious about socialism.  I was struggling in reading Swanberg’s book to understand what exactly socialism was.  For example, is it totally against private property?  Many of the European countries labeled “socialist” have private industries.  Plus, even American socialist platforms have seemed to presume that, under the society that they advocated, people would own things.  The commenter mentioned Michael Harrington’s book on socialism.  Harrington dedicated his book to Norman Thomas.

A key point that comes out in Michael Harrington’s book on socialism is this: left-wing ideology is far from monolithic, and Michael Harrington is not entirely happy with how it has been implemented.  In prominent cases, Harrington notes, it has led to the oppression and exploitation of people by the government.  This is the case with many Communist regimes, and Harrington argues that these regimes actually violate the teachings of Karl Marx, who, Harrington argues, had more of a peaceful, democratic view of revolution and society than many might think.  In a number of cases, Harrington argues, socialism, social democracy, or left-wing policies have left in place the class system.  The result has been that society, including the leftist ideas as implemented, continue to benefit the wealthy, the powerful, and the well-connected rather than (or more than) the people who need help.  This has been the case with the nationalization of industries and the welfare state.

Harrington tries to diagnose what has gone wrong and offers suggestions on what may work.  According to Harrington, a reason that Communism has not worked well is that many countries in embracing it have skipped a key stage of Marx’s historical scenario: capitalism.  Although Marx believed that capitalism would self-collapse, he thought that it would generate abundance, and then the abundance would be equitably distributed under Communism.  For the proletariat to control the means of production and use them for society’s benefit, in short, there need to be means of production.  But a number of countries that embraced Communism did not really have a capitalist stage of economic development: they had many peasants, but not a lot of producers.  Some, such as the Soviet Union, tried to make up for that, and they did not exactly do so nicely or efficiently.  Harrington supports socialism in prosperous countries such as the U.S. and Europe.  Moreover, he wants to include the Third World in the world economy in a non-exploitative manner.  For example, he is critical of imposing high tariffs on products from the Third World.

Harrington believes that socialism can work.  He points to the Tennessee Valley Authority as an example of socialism at its best: it makes money that it uses for its capital, and it provides low-cost electricity to people.  Harrington states at one point that the TVA is a better socialistic model than the post office!  Harrington also is not so naive as to believe that the U.S. can transition to socialism cold-turkey, but he maintains that feasible steps can be taken in that direction.  Steps can be taken so that businesses answer more to people and communities than their shareholders.  The tax system can be structured so that money is redistributed more equitably.  Harrington responds to the Wall Street Journal‘s argument that such proposals stifle innovation, invention, and job creation by contending that a number of investors profit parasitically rather than contributing to the well-being of people and society.

Harrington mentions Dostoevsky’s statement that socialism is too idealistic and disregards human nature.  Harrington states that Westerners perhaps are as they are because they have been conditioned by capitalism for years.  Harrington notes what he considers to be steps in the right direction, such as young people living in communes and rejecting materialism.  Harrington is critical of the totalitarian Communist regimes that tried to re-educate people from their capitalist assumptions, but he still seems to think that re-education may need to occur.  Perhaps he thinks that it can occur peacefully.

This book was published in 1972, and it is interesting to see what was on people’s radar then, and to compare that with what is on people’s radar now.  Income inequality and the struggles of the middle class were issues then, as they are now.  Harrington also mentions global warming, which he says may result in floods in 2070.  Knowing the outcome of what Harrington mentions was also interesting.  Harrington states that we will have to see how Salvador Allende’s Chile turns out.  This was written before Pinochet took over in a coup.

This is a worthwhile book to read.  I appreciated Harrington’s honest critique of how socialism and left-wing policies have been implemented.  I am not a libertarian myself, but the libertarian argument that government intervention has its drawbacks does resonate with me, and some of what Harrington was saying spoke to the part of me that feels that way.  I do believe that socialism is rather idealistic, that people need a reward to create and produce.  At the same time, I also think that successful models can be implemented that benefit people and society.

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