Doug Greene

Sep 23, 2022

Failure of Vision

Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism

Zero Books 2022

The Democratic Socialists of America have exploded in the last few years, going from just a couple thousand members to close to a hundred thousand. This was from a combination of factors; two insurgent presidential campaigns by Bernie Sanders, a proto-fascistic movement coalescing around Donald Trump, the specter of climate change, a worldwide pandemic, general increasing economic inequality and a general sense that this world is bad but a better one might be possible. But what exactly is the underlying political philosophy of this organization? Is it actually for socialism, or capitalism with a stronger safety net? Is it a subsection of the Democratic party, or an independent movement? And how does it see political and historical change actually happening?

In order to answer these questions, my guest Doug Greene has written a biography of the organizations founder, Michael Harrington. Starting with his early life in Jesuit education, Greene tracks Harrington’s political development through the 1950’s all the way up to 1982 when he founded DSA. Along the way, Harrington developed a conception of political change that would happen within the Democratic party, a conception that still clearly animates the approach of many on the left today. Written as a comradely critique, Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism (Zero Books, 2022) manages to give a genealogy of many of the tensions that still run through the contemporary left, and offers a sobering assessment of what can actually be accomplished when playing by realism’s rules.

Doug Greene is a freelance writer and historian in Boston. He is also the author of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui’s Politics of Revolution. His writing has also appeared in a number of outlets, including Left Voice.

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