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The "Incurable Democrat": Michael Harrington in Mexico

Harrington in 1974

March 31, 2024

by Philip Gambone

"With more than a century of a common border between us, we have robbed Mexico of half of its territory, exploited it, romanticized its pre-Columbian art and civilization and, on the whole, not looked at it."

So wrote Michael Harrington in his 1977 book, The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World's Poor. Harrington was a prolific author (16 books), social justice activist, founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, and professor of political science at Queens College CUNY. When I was in college, during the heyday of the many liberation movements of the 60s, Harrington was one of my heroes. For me and many of my progressive Catholic friends, he was someone who steered a passionate but fair-minded course between a socialist agenda and a moral outlook informed by liberal Catholicism.

Dorothy Day

"Neither as a Catholic, nor as a socialist was he ever a fanatic," writes his biographer, Maurice Isserman. "He could tolerate error. The sin he had trouble tolerating was sloth, the sloth of the unexamined life, and a self-indulgent individualism that paid no heed to the claims of community."

Community was Harrington's lifelong cause, the community of humankind. As he wrote in The Vast Majority, "I have often thought—under Augustine's influence, I assume—of humanity as a pilgrimage. At my most optimistic moments, I think that pilgrimage leads, not to the City of God, but to the City of Man." For Harrington, the City of Man was a world organized around the elimination of social and economic inequality and the redistribution of global wealth.

To this end, Harrington, whom Isaac Chotiner in the New Yorker, once called "the last really important leader of the Socialist Party," firmly believed that the United States had historically contributed to the injustices of a world "partitioned among the fat and the starving." What we need, he wrote, is "a commonwealth of humanity."

Michael Harrington was born in Saint Louis in 1928. A precocious kid, who "grew up with his nose in a book," according to one of his classmates, Harrington entered the Jesuit-run St. Louis University High School, when he was 12. Isserman writes that in high school, Harrington "created an identity for himself that allowed him to stand out from the crowd (as a ‘gentle scoffer,' one of his classmates put it) but also to make his mark within the community." He attributed his politics and activism in part to "the Jesuit inspiration of our adolescence that insisted so strenuously that a man must live his philosophy."

St. Louis University High School

Harrington went on to Holy Cross, the Jesuit college in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he was editor of the student newspaper and the literary magazine. He later attended the University of Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in English, and did a year at Yale Law School before dropping out to join Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement in New York.

In New York, Harrington became fascinated by the "outlaw subculture" of the gay and lesbian folks he hung out with. While he himself was decidedly heterosexual, he was, according to a Holy Cross classmate, "quite proud of his knowledge of the folkways and his command of the slang of the gay world. You could not get more ‘other' in the America of the early 1950s than by frequenting gay bars in Greenwich Village, unless you become something as outlandish as a socialist, which would be Michael's next step."

By his mid-twenties, Harrington had left the Church. He had also gained a reputation as a fierce, intelligent activist in the socialist movement. One fellow socialist who heard him speak, wrote that, in comparison to Harrington, he came to "realize how terribly superficial my whole life is."

As the "oldest young socialist in America," Harrington traversed the country, organizing and writing for progressive journals like Dissent, Commonweal, and the New Leader. His articles on poverty for Commentary magazine, led to his first book The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962).

In that book, Harrington argued that it was misguided to think that a robust economy would automatically lift the poor out of their misery. "Society," he wrote, "must help them before they can help themselves." By the next year, he was invited to participate in planning sessions for Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. It has been suggested that many of the country's social welfare programs including Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and expanded social security benefits were inspired by Harrington's ideas.

The New York Post predicted that Harrington would become the unifier of the "scattered legions among the liberal intellectual community, the civil rights activists and the more enlightened sectors of organized labor." That was, says Isserman, "exactly the role that Harrington attempted to play for the next quarter-century, struggling to tug the Center to the left, and the Left to the center."

Recently, on one of my scavenger hunts through the used book tables at the Biblioteca, I came across a well-marked copy of The Vast Majority. I hadn't thought of Harrington in years, but seeing that title and his name brought back all of my own youthful, if cautious, fervor for social justice. Browsing through the book, I saw that Harrington had included an account of his 1972 visit to Mexico—"a society that has one of the deeper, more intricate histories of the Third World." Most of us today would not categorize Mexico as "Third World," but 50 years ago, the classification was apt. What, I wondered, could reading this book show me about the Mexico I live in today?

In The Vast Majority, Harrington took a serious and scholarly look at what he called "the relations of domination and inferiority." He focused his aim on "a world economic structure that perpetuates backwardness." It was a structure, he wrote, "dominated by gigantic multinational corporations with an enormous ability to control prices, jump over the tariff walls of the impoverished in order to rob them of their ‘comparative advantage' and discover synthetic substitutions for primary commodities which weaken the latter's market position." In essence, he was castigating the "corporate domination of the planet."

America's basic international economic policy—a policy "to get guaranteed, secure access to raw materials and to defend multinationals on the grounds that private capital offers the greatest hope for the economic development of the Third World"—was, Harrington argued, a policy that relegates underdeveloped countries to the status of "industrial hostages." Summoning up all of his socialist zeal, he wrote, "We must change those policies which help perpetuate misery."

In The Vast Majority, Harrington mustered an encyclopedia of facts and statistics to argue his case. (The year he spent at Yale Law School is much in evidence here.) But for me, the most compelling parts of the book were the transcripts of the journals he kept on trips to India, Africa and Mexico.

On a previous trip to Mexico, he had looked out from the window of his tourist hotel in Mazatlán onto a dusty slum with ragged children and emaciated animals. Now, ten years later, he wondered how Mexico's glorious history—its struggle for independence and revolution against the entrenched privilege of the ruling class—how, despite of all that reformist energy, were there still "poor people walking down the road as if nothing happened."

Harrington acknowledged that the poverty he encountered is often "a part of a coherent social whole," a whole that includes family life, religion, caste, and the ancient ways of doing things. But this so-called "freely-chosen" poverty was, in considerable measure, determined by a capitalist system that had locked countries like India, Kenya and Mexico into their position of inferiority. "Why don't these people assault us well-dressed, well-fed, camera-carrying tourists? Why don't they scream ‘unfair' and set upon us? In part because they are decent people, though poor; in part, because a society holds together precisely because those on the bottom are socialized, ideologized and repressed into accepting the intolerable."

Americans taking Veracruz

In the specific case of the Mexicans—"a people who have been patronized and pushed around for centuries"—much could be explained by the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Under the Porfiriato, the peasants lost their common land, and the railroads, mines and oil wells came under the control of U.S. corporations. In 1910, North Americans owned 78 percent of the mines, 72 percent of the foundries, 58 percent of the petroleum. Moreover, during the ten years of the Revolution, the U.S. consistently sided with the forces allied against reform and democratic rights. Even during the liberal presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas that followed, 1.5 percent of the proprietors still owned 97 percent of the land.

Porfirio Díaz

In the Mexico of 1972, Harrington still saw a "submerged nation of the poor." The majority of people had been "marginalized by … the tragic lopsidedness of Mexico's relatively successful economic development." He longed to see a new economic system, one that "would cease transferring wealth from the poor to the rich."

America remains "cruelly innocent," Harrington maintained. "It is because our history has exempted us of any sense of wrongdoing that we can be so complacent…. We are a decent and charitable people. We want to do right. But in this overwhelming area of human life, with the fate of the vast majority of humanity at stake, we do not even suspect what the right is."

As I finished the book, I wondered how much of Harrington's take on Mexico still obtained today. And was his critique of the U.S., which, he said, "has probably done more to impede the development of the Third World than any other advanced country," still, if ever, valid?

A recent exchange on the San Miguel Civil List about anti-gringo protests in the Centro brings this question to the forefront: "I have seen this repeatedly," one correspondent wrote, "where expats address locals in English and then get angry when those they're addressing do not understand their (foreign) language. To not even learn the cordialities of the country you are visiting—or living in—is arrogant and disrespectful."

I wholeheartedly agree. But I wonder if the anti-gringo feelings are triggered by something even deeper than the arrogant and disrespectful behavior on the part of some expats. One has only to talk to the good people who volunteer for food assistance programs like Feed the Hungry and So Others May Eat; or walk down the Ancha where poor, dirty children try to sell toy burros and packets of seeds; or wander through some of the "unsafe" colonias that the luxury realtors won't touch to become aware of where that anger may also be coming from.

"The only way to overcome this problem is to build a single world," Harrington—who called himself "an incurable democrat" and "a patriot in my own Leftist way"—declared. Harrington died in 1989. "If he did somehow make the ascent to heaven's left coast," wrote Isserman, "I'm guessing that he's watching recent developments … with his characteristic cautious optimism."

Harrington in 1988

The Vast Majority is almost a half century old, but for those of us open to imagining a different world order, one that is more equitable and just, where Mexicans will not find reason to vilify the gringos in their midst, Harrington's book is still very much worth reading.


Philip Gambone, a retired high school English teacher, also taught creative and expository writing at Harvard for twenty-eight years. He is the author of five books, most recently As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father in World War II, which was named one of the Best Books of 2020 by the Boston Globe. It is available through Amazon, at the Biblioteca bookshop, and at Aurora Books off the Calzada de la Aurora.


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