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
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
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