Michael Harrington: The Long Distance Runner

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Harrington
Title: “Michael Harrington: The long Distance Runner”
VTR: 7/6/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

When my guest agreed a few weeks ago to join me today, I went first to my bookshelves, took down, and re-read the volume I’d treasured for more than a quarter century now: his first seminal contribution to the understanding of poverty in our nation, The Other America … then I re-read his recent and most appropriately titled autobiographical book, The Long Distance Runner, published by Henry Holt.

For Michael Harrington has brilliantly stayed the course of American Socialism with intelligence and verve and devotion – becoming, as The New York Times editorialized recently, “An American conscience,” reminding us of no one more than his long ago predecessor at this table, Norman Thomas.

Our humanity, of course, has sentenced us all to death. And, battling cancer now, Michael Harrington is paid vast tribute in the press as our “Ailing veteran of the Left.” But it is his continuing sense of what ails this nation that intrigues us most even as we look back and then forward to The Other America and that perhaps even fewer of us choose to recognize today than a quarter century ago.

Mostly about Michael Harrington there is an assumption that not all share, to be sure … indeed, perhaps fewer share it now than when he and I – and the world – were younger: that “In a nation with a technology that could,” he insists, “provide every citizen with a decent life, it is an outrage and a scandal that there should be such social misery … at precisely that moment in history where for the first time a people have the material ability to end poverty, they lack the will to do so … the conscience of the well-off are the victims of affluence … the problem, then, is to a great extent one of vision. The nation of the well-off must be able to see through the wall of affluence and recognize the alien citizens on the other side.” So, Mr. Harrington, my question is whether we do see through this “wall of affluence?”

HARRINGTON: Well, I think we obviously, in the 1960’s, we did re-discover poverty in the United States. And I’m optimistic in the sense that even during the Reagan years, during the last eight years, it seems to me that the media have done a pretty good job. Nobody in the United States can possibly be ignorant of the homeless, the hungry, the people out in the farm areas of the United States who lost their family farms. So, I think that we know the reality, I think the evidence is that the American people are concerned with the reality. As long as Ronald Reagan is President of the United States with that veto power, we’re not going to do very much about it. And, indeed, as long as so many people in the Democratic party basically accept the Gramm Rudman philosophy of limits and austerity, we’re not going to do very much about it. But I’m hopeful that we’re about to enter a new period. And I think we can begin once again to try to deal with the problem of “the other America,” although I’m afraid I feel that now poverty is even more intractable, more difficult to deal with than it was 26 years ago when my book first came out.

HEFFNER: Intractable, more difficult to deal with. When John Kennedy read your book in the White House, he was moved to action. It was indeed a call to action to so many of us. And in that time you say we have come to deal with a situation that is, perhaps, more intractable. Then, from whence comes that optimism that you always express?

HARRINGTON: Well, first of all, by more intractable I mean that in 1962, 3, 4, you could still talk about taking poor people and putting them into automobile plants as a way of solving their problems. Now, we’re firing non-poor people from automobile plants and threatening them with poverty, rather than the other way around. And what I’m saying is that the development of automation, of the decline of manufacture, the fact that the new jobs have either been very well-paid “yuppie” jobs, or very low-paid service-sector jobs, all of these factors make it much more difficult to deal with poverty. I’m still hopeful because I think that this is basically a generous country, I do think that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is right to say that there are cycles in American political history. Whether his exact version of the cycles is mine is another question, leave that aside. And I think we’re coming to an end of a conservative cycle, and for that reason I think that we’re going to have the opportunity to do something about the question. What bothers me, and the book before The Long Distance Runner came out last year, of mine, called The Next Left, I made the argument in that book, there is going to be an opening for the Left, whether the Left will be capable of taking advantage of it is another question.

HEFFNER: But why do you raise that as a question? It must indicate that you’re doubtful.

HARRINGTON: Well, because I think that in the 1960’s, we had an ideology that allowed us to deal … ideology … we had an analysis, a program, that allowed us to deal with at least some of the problems. Keynesianism was a coherent way of approaching problems, it worked to a certain extent, had we not gone into Vietnam, it would have worked much, much more than it did. And we sort of knew where we were going. We had programs, we said, “all right, let’s take hardcore ghetto unemployed from Detroit, put them into automobile plants,” we actually did it for a year or two. Now, the problem is that in a world economy the likes of which this country has never experienced, that old Keynesian wisdom simply does not apply and that, in its traditional form. And what bothers me, is that although I think there are some economists on the Left, people like Bob Kuttner and Jeff Faux and Carol O’Cleireacian, there are some who have begun to think through new problems. A lot of people don’t appreciate really how radical our plight is. And how to do things in the ’80’s which would have been liberal a decade or so ago, is going to take much more far-reaching commitments and much more change.

HEFFNER: But, look, I do want to press you on this. On the one hand you say there are so many who do not yet understand the nature, the extent of our plight. On the other hand you say, “Thanks to the media, thanks to the fact of the visibility of the other America today, we no longer can escape from the fact that there is great poverty.”


HEFFNER: But what you leave out here is knowing it, are we willing to do what has to be done, and indeed can we do things that will, in your estimation, mitigate this problem?

HARRINGTON: That’s a political question, and it’s a political question in the sense, I think that there is a willingness in America to do something. There have been some recent polls which even show that Americans will respond to the question, “Would you accept your taxes being raised if you knew the money were going to deal with the problem of homelessness and hunger?” And you actually get a majority that say “yes.” The problem is, I think that sentiment is there, that attitude is there, but what is required and what I don’t yet see on the horizon is a political leader who will focus it, who will give it, give it shape, give it a program. I assume Michael Dukakis will be the Democratic nominee, I personally hope he is the next President of the United States. Whether he is that man I don’t know. I think in part that will also be determined by what kind of movements there are pressing. Let’s say there is a Michael Dukakis administration, will there be the equivalent of a Martin Luther King? Will there be a Civil Rights Movement out there? One of the reasons why we got a war on poverty in the 1960’s was Martin Luther King. Another reason was John XXIII. That is to say it was the Black Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Ecumenical Movement in the churches, John Kennedy’s death … his death created a willingness in this country to entertain ideas that I think he would have had difficulty with, ironically, had he been alive. And Johnson benefited from the emotions, so there you had a political situation, which I think opened up a real opportunity. I think we might have that in the next period. What I am concerned about is not simply that there be the savior, the individual, but that there also be the Movement, which I think sometimes create the individual.

HEFFNER: You know, I wouldn’t have the temerity to question some of the assumptions that you make, but I do have to point out that seated at this table have been, and you suggested this yourself before, a great many economists, a great many political scientists, a great many people responsible for the wherewithal of this nation, and when asked to comment on a point that you make again and again and again in your writings, that we have the wherewithal in reality, this is a nation that can afford social justice, they don’t respond as positively as you do. And they seem to make the choice instead of saying, “we’re going to have to accept the notion of a bottom rung of the ladder and it’s going to be a rather large bottom rung.”

HARRINGTON: You see, I … I have a simple answer. I think they’re wrong. That is to say, you have Peter Peterson and others talking about, “Well, it’s all these entitlement program. We’ve simply got to cut back. And the party is over.” I think they’re wrong. If you look at what we actually spent in the ’60’s on the poor, it was an exceedingly modest sum of money. The major outlay in the United States on social spending is not for the poor, it’s for the non-poor through the Social Security program. Now, I’m not … at 60 years of age, I’m not about to knock the Social Security program, believe me.


HARRINGTON: But, but the fact of the matter is if you look at the amount of money we have spent on AFDC and then look at, let us say the tax deduction on the interest on the mortgage for suburban housing, if we didn’t … I’m not for abolishing that deduction because it’s one of the few things that many Americans feel they get from their government, but if we put a cap on it, if we said, “you can only deduct the first $10,000 worth of interest, after that, you’re on your own. You got to pay for your own house.” And took some of the savings from that to deal with the problem of homelessness …

HEFFNER: But you keep saying “if only,” “if we would do this.” We seem not to be willing to do this.

HARRINGTON: Well, but I, for example, in the recent primaries I supported Jesse Jackson. And I must say that I think Jackson ran an excellent campaign in terms of program, I think he was talking about many of the ideas that I’ve talked about. And I must say that I was surprised at the resonance, at the response that, that Jackson found. And I was surprised by the fact that he doubled, compared to 1984, his white vote in the primaries. And that in a state like California, Jess Jackson got 30 percent of the white vote. Now that means that these people are listening to ideas. I’ve even … I had friends in Pittsburgh who told me about … in one steel plant … a worker who had been a George Wallace enthusiast was persuaded by Jackson because Jackson was talking sense. Now I think the problem is that Jackson, and by the way, I think Jackson affected Dukakis and everybody else in the campaign. They all talked a bit of a more populist rhetoric at the end than at the beginning. But, what I’m saying is that I think that there is, there is a constituency out there. And the problem is to find somebody to appeal to that constituency.

HEFFNER: You know, I’ve almost resolved that from this point on and I don’t mean today, but I thought of this a few months ago, that I would ask each guest on The Open Mind one simple question. Do you believe that you are and I am my brother’s keeper? And I wonder what you think the answer would be in largest part if there were honest answers today.

HARRINGTON: Oh, I think, see I think this country is such a dynamic contradiction. On the one hand I think this is the most egalitarian country on the face of the earth. I sometimes like to shock people, I sincerely believe it, by saying that I think America in terms of its manners and attitudes is the most socialist place I’ve ever been. At the same time it’s the most individualistic place. Americans really believe in one part of their mind that everybody is as good as anybody else. They know in another part of their mind that that’s not really the way the system works. So that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, I think one of the most depressing, shrewd statements I ever heard in my life was made by Alice Rivlin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, now at Brookings. And Rivlin said that if you tell an American audience that the system is rigged to benefit a small elite of privileged people, their attitude will be, “How do I get my kids into the elite,” not, “how do I change the system.” So I think that this country at any given moment has a real capacity for greed, individualism, isolation and ignoring one’s brother and sister. And on the other hand I think as the ’60’s proved, as the enormous impact that Martin Luther King had, proved there is a rough sense of justice in this country. I happen to be, which is not sort of standard on the Left, I don’t think, I’m a deeply patriotic person, and I’m aware of this individualism and this callousness in the American character. But I think there is an openness, and again I come back to the politics. Will we develop a politics, and not just a politics of the individual leader, but a politics of movement that can harness that energy, which I think is there.

HEFFNER: What’s happened to the Socialist movement in America? Absorbed by the Democratic party?

HARRINGTON: Not absorbed. We discovered, I think it took us much too long to find it out, that this is a two-party country. It’s an either/or country. In large measure because we’re presidential and not parliamentary. And so you get down to this November, your choice is going to be either Michael Dukakis or George Bush and there is … any third vote is really a waste. And I wish it were otherwise, I wish we had the Canadian system where you do have a Socialist Party in the Parliament of some significance. We don’t. We learned that finally. We stopped hitting our head against the wall. I think we made a terrible mistake, and my good friend Norman Thomas knew it, in the 1930’s when we said to Socialist trade unions and Socialist activists and other movement, “Roosevelt is the candidate of capitalism. You have to be for Norman Thomas.” Well, Roosevelt was the candidate of capitalism, but he was supported by the entire working class, and we didn’t recognize that. So what we Socialists are doing now, we’re very small in number, we are for electoral purposes in the Democratic Party, but we try to be in the Democratic Party not absorbed by it, but to constantly raise these ideas of going beyond of the need for really progressive taxation, of the need for national health which has practically disappeared from the American debate. Now with Dukakis and his health program in Massachusetts, maybe it will come back. Who knows. But I think that we have become a kind of a ginger group in the Democratic Party. And I think that in the Labor Movement, and in the minorities movement and the Women’s Movement we have had a certain impact. And the one thing we preach over and over is that all of these various progressive movements have to unite. We go to the Environmental Movement and say, “You’ve got to be concerned about the people who work in the plants that you want to shut down.” And we go to the Labor Movement and we say to the Labor Movement, “You’ve got to be concerned with (what) these plants are doing to the environment.” We have to find a way that working people don’t pay for environmentalism, which is thought up by middle class people, and so we constantly try to build the bridge to say, for example, in terms of race, William Julius Wilson, the very brilliant scholar at the University of Chicago who just wrote a marvelous book called The Truly Disadvantaged. Wilson’s a Socialist. He’s a member of Democratic Socialists of America. And what Wilson argues is what we want is not a program for Black people. We want a program for poor people, black and white and brown and yellow and whatever, of whatever race or ethnicity they may be. If you have a program for poor people, if you really get full employment, if you really raise the wage at the bottom of the society, the real wage at the bottom of the society, that will disproportionately help Black people, because Black people are disproportionately poor. But don’t praise it as if this were something we’re doing out of noblesse oblige for Blacks. The way it should be put is this is something we’re doing for the entire country. And then I, when I speak at union meetings, I like to then point out, that if we abolish the poverty at the bottom of the society, if we raise the wages of the working poor, and by the way, the great increase in poverty since ’79 has been among the working poor, not the welfare poor. If we deal with that problem, that’s going to help the well-paid union member, the well-paid worker, because there is a tendency if you raise the bottom, there’s a ratchet effect that goes all the … all the way up the occupational ladder. So, what we Socialists try to do, and finally, by the way, also in terms of international poverty, is to point out that if Argentina goes down the tubes, if it loses democracy, if its living standard is further depressed in paying off the American banks, that’s not good for American workers, because you can’t sell tractors and machines to an Argentina which is using all of its foreign currency to pay off American banks. You can’t sell anything to them. And therefore it is in the interests of working people in the United States to settle the international debt crisis. To show the connections, that’s our job. And I have no illusion that we Socialists are going to lead the nation in the near future, or maybe ever. But I think we’ll have an impact on the nation.

HEFFNER: To show the connections you say. Nice phrase. And you talk about having an impact upon the, upon the nation. Politically speaking, does Socialist support, whatever that means, prove to be a negative, to have a negative impact upon those whom you bestow your benevolence.

HARRINGTON: In some situations, yes. It’s significant that the only two members of Congress who are public members of, or members at all, of Democratic Socialists of America are Ron Dellums and Major Owens, and that both are Black. In a sense, it’s the very poverty of the constituents they represent that protects them from being “red-baited” because they come out and say, Yes, I, I, I’m a Socialist.” When we endorsed Jesse Jackson, there were some people in Jackson’s campaign who were not wildly enthusiastic about being endorsed by a Socialist organization. Jackson, to his credit, said, “I want your support.” And, indeed, he phoned me when there was a story in The New York Times saying that some of his people were upset about it. But there’s no question that most Americans, to this day, I’m afraid, think that a Socialist is a Stalinist, that we are for dictatorship, that we view the Soviet Union or China or Eastern Europe or Cuba as our model, who don’t make the distinction between Democratic Socialism and dictatorial societies calling themselves Socialists. It’s a very tough road.

HEFFNER: But it’s a road that you have stayed on. Long Distance Runner, wonderful title for your … the latest episode of your autobiography. If you had to predict now, let’s turn to the end of this century, not far away, where do you think we’ll be in terms of your interests, in terms of your concern for poverty, for social justice?

HARRINGTON: I think that number one, we will be radically different. That I’m convinced of. Whether that’s good or bad, let me defer for a second.

HEFFNER: Radically different in what way?

HARRINGTON: Than we are now. The Office of Technology Assessment released a study this year, U.S. Congress institution, and it said, “Within the next two decades every job in the United States is going to be radically changed because of technology. Every single job.” There’s a marvelous new book called In the Age of the Smart Machine …


HARRINGTON: … by Shoshana Zuboff. And she goes into actual automated enterprises and sees the impact on workers and managers. We are changing the nature of work. We are doing radical things. I’m convinced that Ronald Reagan swept so many economic problems under the rug, that we put it on the cuff, that we were able to have a relative good period under Reagan because we borrowed the money from foreigners. We’re going to have to pay the tab one of these days. You cannot forever put the American economy on Mastercard and Visa. And, so I’m convinced that we will be facing problems that will require more radical solutions than are now imagined. But, and here has been my qualification, I think that there is the possibility of a technocratic semi-authoritarian way of dealing with these radical problems in which you pension off the … an under class, you say, “Well, you give them some money, build a fence around them, hire a lot of guards to be sure that they only shoot one and other, and not us.” Or, there is the possibility which is what my point of view is for a democratic bottom up civil libertarian solution to these problems. So, what I’m saying is that I’m convinced that, let’s say by the year 2000 or thereabouts, that we will have been forced to innovate in ways that we do not now imagine, whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Make a guess. Truly make a guess as to whether technocracy is going to make us even more divided as a nation between those who have, intellectually, technologically and those who haven’t.

HARRINGTON: It’s a … I think that … if I had to take my money out of the bank and bet …


HARRINGTON: I would bet on the authoritarian technocratic solution. Not the democratic solution. Already the French call it the Society of Three Speeds. A top 20 percent doing very, very well; a middle 50 percent precarious, a bottom 20, 30 percent miserable. I think that could really become the image of he future. But then, as an American Socialist, as a long distance runner, I don’t take my money out of the bank and bet it on that kind of a calculation. I fight.

HEFFNER: How do you fight against the machine, the smart machine, and the people who succumb to it?

HARRINGTON: Well, you see, you’re talking to a person who was once hit by lightening … in the good sense. That is to say, I am one of those rare writers who wrote a book that actually had some impact, and caused money to be spent, caused politics to move, helped, helped movements grow. I think that if you hand in there, most of the time with the kind of ideas that I articulate, most of the time we’re going to be defeated. I long ago realized that. But there come moments when the society is faced with problems that it can no longer ignore, and suddenly, as in the 1930’s, to a certain extent as in the 1960’s, men and women of power look around and say, “My God, we actually need a new idea or two.” And movements arise, like the Labor Movement of the ‘30’s or the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60’s, which from the bottom start talking about new ideas.

HEFFNER: We have about 40 seconds left. Where do you think that impetus for those ideas will come from?

HARRINGTON: Well, I hope from the Socialist Movement, I hope from, particularly I think maybe from Hispanics, Blacks, women, from the people who are now excluded, from the people who have to think new ideas, to solve their present problems.

HEFFNER: From those who don’t have, rather than from those who do have.


HEFFNER: Switching around the Marxian concept of how reform takes place.

HARRINGTON: Could well be.

HEFFNER: Okay. Thanks so much for joining me today, Michael Harrington, I’ve so much enjoyed talking with you.

HARRINGTON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program and our guest, please write to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation.

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