“Socialism has known increments of success, basic failure and massive betrayal. Yet it is more relevant to the humane construction of the twenty-first century than any other idea.”
With those words, the late Michael Harrington began his book “Socialism,” published in 1972. In his day, Harrington was often called “America’s leading socialist.” He was also one of the most decent voices in politics, a view shared not just by his friends but also by most of his critics.
Harrington founded Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which, in the often splintered politics of the left, was a breakaway group from the old Socialist Party. My hunch is that Harrington—whom I counted as a friend until his death in 1989 at the age of 61—would be amazed, though not entirely surprised, by the extraordinary growth of DSA since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
It would thrill him that the organization is now heavily populated by the young, although I also suspect he would have spirited tactical arguments with youthful rebels about what works in politics. Harrington was a visionary realist, and the dialectic between those two words defined his life. He preached vision to those worn down by a tired political system, and realism to those trying to change it.
Socialists have had quite a journalistic run since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old DSA member, defeated veteran Rep. Joe Crowley, a genial and rather liberal stalwart of the old Queens Democratic machine, in a primary last month.
Opinion has been divided, roughly between those who see her as the wave of the future and those who warn of grave danger if Democrats move “too far to the left.” I use quotation marks because that phrase has been repeated so much, and because it’s imprecise and misleading.
The triumph of a young Latina who emphasized the interests of working people caught the imaginations of not only progressives but also many who do not fully agree with her politics. Even her posters were innovative, as Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen pointed out in The Washington Post. But she also represented something very traditional: the transition of power from one ethnic group to another. As Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught us long ago in their classic book “Beyond the Melting Pot,” never underestimate the role of ethnicity in New York politics.