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The Interesting Life of a Truly Committed American

December 13, 1988|WALTER RUSSELL MEAD

The Long-Distance Runner: An Autobiography by Michael Harrington (Henry Holt: $19.95; 260 pages) Michael Harrington is the most famous socialist in America, but, as William F. Buckley once remarked, that is like being the tallest building in Topeka, Kan. American socialism is one of those national oxymorons, like Italian Protestantism or British cooking, of which nothing much is expected.

Yet somehow, in each generation American socialism finds a spokesman who reaches out beyond the narrow confines of the left to strike a chord in the larger society. Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and now Harrington have all achieved a stature in American life that transcends party. Respected by many who would never vote Socialist, each of these men significantly expanded the range of political discussion in the United States, and all lived to see many of their ideas taken over by the Democrats and even, in some cases, by the Republicans.

Harrington's autobiography, "The Long-Distance Runner," is much more than a guide to the sights of Topeka. At one level, it is the story of every thoughtful white male of his generation, slowly coming to terms with the Civil Rights, student and feminist movements that in the last 30 years have remade American culture. As a Socialist, a member of a tiny and fractious political minority, Harrington witnessed and occasionally opposed these movements as one by one they challenged old assumptions, first on the American Left and then in the wider society. Excoriated at times by radical blacks, New Left students and militant feminists, Harrington both changed and was changed by these movements and, as the chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, survived to patch up a coalition among the mellowing survivors of the '60s and '70s.

From the Old Left

This sea change in consciousness is one of the keys to Harrington's real accomplishment. He is more than the Norman Thomas of his generation, the latest pope of the American Socialists. He is not just any pope; he is John XXIII, presiding over a profound transformation of his faith. As the author of "The Other America," a book on poverty that influenced John F. Kennedy and led to a new wave of federal anti-poverty programs, Harrington was already well known before the upheavals of the 1960s. He was a figure of the Old Left, rooted in the trade union movement, in immigrant communities of the Northeast and in the intellectual traditions of Democratic European Socialism.

The Old Left was committed to the old working class: Industrial, ethnic, ruthlessly exploited. By the 1960s, that Left was largely played out. The unions prospered, the old working class was moving into the mainstream, the ethnic communities were breaking up and the memories of the Depression were fading.

The New Left erupted into American life in the 1960s, and it represented something very different. The Old Left had a tradition of painstaking, even hair-splitting intellectual analysis; the New Left was more emotional. The Old Left emphasized the politics of class; the New Left looked to race and gender. The Old Left took pride in its roots and its traditions; the New Left gloried in its freedom from the past. The Old Left was Europe; the New Left, California.

Harrington was appalled by his first encounters with the New Left but soon realized that the future of both Lefts depended on their ability to discover common ground. A good--though rigorously Democratic--Marxist, Harrington argues that the working class has changed and so Socialist parties must change as well. His efforts to unite feminists, ecologists, old-style Socialists, consumer advocates and others in one movement reflect this vision of a new, less industrial working class.

Fruits of His Labor

Harrington became a convinced ecumenist of the Left, preaching unity and synthesis in a political movement that has traditionally been prone to violent disputes. His work has borne fruit; Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition is composed precisely of the forces that Harrington has sought to unite.

"The Long-Distance Runner" is more than a political chronicle. Harrington shares the Old Left's distaste for confessional intimacy, and the curious reader will learn little about his sex life and personal relations. Yet Harrington, despite his reticence, has written an intimate, often moving chronicle of a rich inner life. Not a religious believer, he has the religious sense; he meditates on the Protestant and Catholic (though not Jewish) elements in his soul, and the title is a reference to St. Paul's image of the Christian life as a long race for a heavenly prize. The final pages contain the record of his struggle against a cancer of the esophagus that, his doctors tell him, is likely to bring this gallant life to a close.

Readers of "The Long-Distance Runner" will come away with a new appreciation of Michael Harrington and join the multitude of political allies and opponents who wish this decent, honest, thoughtful man Godspeed on whatever roads still lie before him.

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