Supply-side economics, popularized by New Right writer George Gilder, rationalized Reagan’s fiscal policy. It was a pure fantasy championed by economist Arthur Laffer, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jude Wanniski, and House Republican Jack Kemp. The “Laffer Curve” supposedly showed that massive tax cuts would generate far more revenue than they lost. For a half-century, Republicans had scolded that Democrats were bad because they handed out a free lunch at taxpayer expense. Republicans were the party of responsibility and Democrats were the party of irresponsibility. Reagan turned this tradition on its head by embracing the magical world of supply-side deliverance. Now Republicans offered a free-lunch bonanza to taxpayers, especially the rich. Everybody except the poor would get something and the tax cuts would generate a historic windfall of economic growth. The Reagan White House had to forecast how the economy would develop as a basis for calculating its proposals. Supply-side advisors wanted a very high figure for real growth in gross domestic product (GDP) in order to prove that their proposals worked. Monetarists wanted a low “in money” GDP (real GDP plus the rate of inflation) to prove that their policies held down prices. The two camps figured out what would have to happen to make their contradictory policies come true; then they claimed it would happen. This unhinged mentality tripled the nation’s debt in eight years. Every prediction of the Reagan White House failed, except the political one that tax cuts are wildly popular.
Reagan led the Republican Party and a host of enabling Reagan Democrats into temptation by persuading both that deficits don’t matter because tax cuts more than pay for themselves. Reagan cut the marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, cut the top rate on capital gains from 49 percent to 20 percent, and dramatically hiked military spending—an additional 4 percent increase on top of the 5 percent increase for 1981 authorized by Carter. This staggering splurge of social engineering fueled a huge inequality surge, which Reagan officials described as a return to the economic state of nature. The promised trickle-down effect of Reaganomics never materialized because only corporations and the wealthy gained new disposable income.
Harrington grappled anxiously with the stagflation, uneven growth, and threats to the welfare state that were the legacy of the 1970s. He said he felt closer to free-enterprise conservative Friedrich Hayek than to liberals because Hayek understood that the prosperity of the 1950s and ’60s was not coming back, while liberals refused to believe the world had changed. Hayek claimed the New Deal violated eternal laws of economics, eventually reaping what it sowed. The crisis of the 1970s and ’80s was the natural free-market punishment for Keynesian hubris. Harrington acknowledged that liberalism collided head-on with the structural limitations of the system it improved. Working- and middle-class Americans no longer expected to live better than their parents.
In May 1981, Harrington’s friend François Mitterrand was elected as the first Socialist president of France’s Fifth Republic. He enacted his entire campaign program, nationalizing banks and key industries, increasing social benefits, instituting a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, and enacting a solidarity tax on wealth. He sought to boost economic demand and achieve full employment with a stimulus designed to help the poorest the most. But the economy stagnated, unemployment worsened, the Bank of France maintained a stringent monetary policy, and the franc was devalued three times. Mitterrand began to retreat in 1982. In March 1983 he caved entirely, imposing austerity policies that wrung inflation out of the economy.
In political terms, Mitterrand’s adjustment worked. He had a respectable run as a social democratic manager, winning reelection in 1988 and remaining in office until 1995. Harrington, however, was chastened by the spectacle in France. Nationalizing the banks did not help and neither did Mitterrand’s Keynesian stimulus. Harrington said the only nation where Mitterrand’s aggressive approach might have worked was the United States, but it instituted Keynesianism for the rich instead. He did not claim that Mitterrand should have stuck to his convictions. The world was going through a wrenching transition that couldn’t be helped. What mattered was to limit the harm to workers and the poor.
For two years, Reagan presided over worse misery than anything that Mitterrand could stand or survive. Liberals crowed that Reagan was sure to be a one-term failure like Carter. Harrington warned in November 1982 that Democrats were overconfident and shortsighted. Lower wages, reduced inflation, lower interest rates, fear of unemployment, and shuttered plants might combine to revive the economy just in time to reelect Reagan. Harrington’s prediction was borne out after the defense buildup and consumer spending on credit kicked in. Unemployment was down to 3.5 percent when Reagan crushed Walter Mondale in 1984. Mondale was scorned as a tax-and-spend liberal and for warning about Reagan’s deficits and militarism. Harrington rued that Mondale united all the forces in the Democratic coalition and still got blown away by a brief recovery. It hurt worse than Carter losing, because Mondale was a good candidate.
“We never said the welfare state is a substitute for socialism.” This staple of Harrington’s lecture tours had a flipside, his retort to old-school socialists: “Any idiot can nationalize a bank.” He said both things frequently after Mitterrand retreated. Harrington relied on his core message: bureaucratic collectivism is an unavoidable reality. The question is whether it can be wrested into a democratic and ethically decent form. Freedom will survive the ascendance of globalized markets and corporations only if it achieves economic democracy. Harrington had long argued that the market should operate within a plan, but in the mid-1980s his actual position shifted to the opposite. He conceived planning within a market framework on the model of Swedish and German social democracy—solidarity wages, full employment, co-determination, and collective worker funds. To many critics that smacked of selling out socialism. He replied: “To think that ‘socialization’ is a panacea is to ignore the socialist history of the twentieth century, including the experience of France under Mitterrand. I am for worker- and community-controlled ownership and for an immediate and practical program for full employment which approximates as much of that ideal as possible. No more. No less.”
In 1982 he welcomed a merger between DSOC and NAM that created Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). NAM made important contributions to socialist feminist theory and to the Gramsci boon of the 1970s. DSA became a better organization than DSOC had been, but DSA accentuated the old DSOC problem of uniting activists primarily devoted to feminism, anti-racism, gay and lesbian rights, anti-militarism, labor, Third World solidarity, religious socialism, environmentalism, and other causes. It featured even less of a distinct socialist perspective than DSOC had managed. DSA stressed the interconnectedness of economic justice, cultural recognition, anti-militarism, and ecology. Cornel West was one of the newcomers to the merged organization. He said he joined DSA because he needed to belong to some organization that cared about everything he cared about. That was the best argument for DSA, but there were never enough people who felt that way.
Harrington and former NAM writer Barbara Ehrenreich became co-chairs in 1983, with mixed results at best. Many of us puzzled over and regretted the aversion between them, delicately steering around it. Ehrenreich wrote astute, wonderfully snarky op-eds on politics and culture; one of her collections was titled The Snarling Citizen (1995). She helped DSA survive the wilderness years with pluck and humor. Many DSA members were volunteer workers in Jesse Jackson’s Democratic primary campaigns of 1984 and 1988; I was one of them. Harrington was skittish about Jackson in 1984 because electing Mondale seemed imperative. Afterward Jackson won him over and Harrington wrote speeches for him in 1988. Jackson tried to build a Rainbow Coalition of social movements that outlasted the election cycle. Many of us Jackson volunteers worked harder for Mondale in the general election than we managed four years later for Michael Dukakis; others dropped out completely by then. We did not talk about realignment except to say that we no longer believed in it. Even Harrington said there were no political parties anymore. Hollowed out “dealignment” was the reality, organized anarchism. Political adventurers roamed the countryside to build their personal following, armed with state-of-the-art technology, battling each other like warlords. When they won they tried to govern by patching together ad hoc coalitions. Harrington believed that dealignment would eventually throw the entire system into a crisis. He didn’t claim to know what would happen next. He said he just wanted democratic socialists to be ready to be relevant.
In 1985, Harrington learned he had metastatic carcinoma, a secondary growth indicating that he had a serious primary cancer lurking somewhere, which was found at the base of his tongue. Harrington underwent treatment and had a successful operation. For two years he returned to road lecturing. The Youth Section was active in the Central American and South African solidarity struggles, and in 1987 a DSA-led coalition called Justice for All held rallies, teach-ins, and press conferences in more than one hundred cities protesting against cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, and federal aid for housing. Harrington had reason to believe that DSA was doing reasonably well despite everything, though sometimes he read too much into drawing a big crowd.
Harrington found out in November 1987 that he had a new and inoperable tumor in his esophagus. He vowed to write a capstone book, and the following June his friends organized a sixtieth birthday celebration at the Roseland Dance Hall in New York. Edward Kennedy, William Winpisinger, Gloria Steinem, Cesar Chavez, and Canadian Socialist leader Ed Broadbent spoke. Kennedy lionized his ailing friend. Harrington responded with his favorite set piece, the water parable. In desert societies, he said, water is so precious it is money. People fight and die for it; marriages are arranged to secure it; and governments rise and fall in pursuit of it. Entire societies stretched over several millennia have taken for granted that fighting over water is ingrained in human nature. Many such deserts still exist, deeply conditioning the human beings that live within them. Yet in modern societies we expect not to die of thirst: “Water is the one thing that has been socialized. Hoarding it, fighting over it, marrying for it are not part of human nature after all—because we have confidence that it will be shared. So why can’t we go a little further and imagine societies in which each person also has food and shelter? In which everybody has an education and a chance to know their value? Why not?”
His last book, Socialism: Past and Future (1989), expounded his signature trilogy of points: first, socialism is the hope of human freedom and justice under the conditions of bureaucratic collectivism; second, the fate of freedom and justice depends upon social and economic structures; and third, capitalism subverts the possibilities of freedom and justice that it fostered—unless it is subjected to democratic control from below. Harrington fastened on the contradictory meanings of “socialization” and the ambiguous legacy of Marx related to them. Marx caught the crucial contradiction of capitalism by describing it as private collectivism. Capitalism is an anti-social form of socialization that began by expropriating the labor power of the individual. Peasants were driven from their land, artisans were deskilled, and a regime of collective property replaced individualistic private property in the name of securing it. To be sure, Marx over-believed in contradiction dialectics, contending that capitalism would abolish itself after it abolished feudalism, but Marx was right about capitalism destroying its own best achievement. Harrington’s last book updated his argument that late capitalism subverts freedom and justice by enlisting the state to subsidize its interests, socialize its losses, and protect the rule of elites.
Socialization can refer to the centralization and interdependence of capitalist society under the control of an elite, or to bottom-up democratic control. Harrington wanted to say that socialization is really only the latter, while the former should be called “collectivism.” But that would be misleading, since both terms have varied historical meanings. Socialization can mean different things. Reagan employed the power of the state to carry out a class-based reduction of taxes to subsidize a rich minority. He used social power on behalf of an elite, but it would be strange to describe Reaganomics as collectivism. On the other hand, state ownership suited the socialist movement in only one brief phase of its history, between the two World Wars.
Good socialism is about empowering people at the base. Capitalism has created societies in which hardly anyone in the working class believes their work has a positive value. Harrington commended the feminist and ecology movements for relieving the Left of its traditional focus on the workplace, but he still viewed the human experience of work as central to economic justice. New technologies were creating new kinds of work that demand re-skilled workers and new kinds of workplaces. Harrington began to write his last book on the day he was told his cancer was inoperable. Socialism: Past and Future was a letter to the next Left.
Harrington said the world desperately needs socialism to have a future. Only socialists have a record of caring about everybody in entire societies and the world. Socialists do not let go of demanding freedom, equality, and community for everyone. He denied that his conception of socialism was insufficiently radical. Only a socialism construed as visionary gradualist pressure has any chance of democratizing bureaucratic collectivism.
Today this is a minority position in DSA. Many who surged into the socialist Left in recent years moved straight to one of its ultra-left ideologies. Revolutionary state socialists and anarchist-libertarian socialists are radically opposed to each other, but agree that Harrington-style gradualism is much too tame and modest. They point to the capitulation of European Social Democratic parties to neoliberalism, and to the SPD propping up four Conservative Merkel administrations in Germany. They are right on both counts, but there is such a thing as a social democratic socialism that fights for economic democracy. Harrington exemplified it to the end of his days.
The present article adapts material from the book American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory, forthcoming in September 2021 from Yale University Press.