The Party That Came Out of the Cold War: The Party of Democratic Socialism in United Germany

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To Michael, Democratic support for the war was a tragic error and not the symptom of anything deeper. He refused to target the Democrats as complicit in the war because that could only alienate them. To that end, Michael argued that the antiwar movement needed to be kept within proper limits and stay respectable.

He therefore opposed militant action, the participation of communists, breaking the law, or anything that would actually end the war. Only when the Democrats were not the ones conducting the war after and large swaths of the public and the establishment saw it as unwinnable did Michael come out against it, while his allies like Max Shachtman backed the war to the bitter end. Aside from differences over Vietnam, Michael remained steadfast in supporting the original vision of Realignment by supporting progressives in the Democratic Party and labor bureaucracy, and he was committed to winning over moderates in the New Left.

The factional fight between Shachtman and Harrington tore the Socialist Party apart.

In , Michael Harrington finally resigned from the party. DSOC had a solid base of support among progressives in the labor bureaucracy. Its strategy was to support realignment in the Democratic Party to push it to the left. Instead, he felt betrayed when the Carter Administration enacted austerity measures and ignored the program of the Democratic Agenda. The Reagan years saw crushing defeats on organized labor, attacks on the legacy of the New Deal, and an escalation of the Cold War.

To oust Reagan, Michael Harrington and his allies in the labor bureaucracy eschewed any form of independent socialist politics or militancy from below, and instead placed their faith in the Democratic Party. In a postmortem of the democratic socialist electoral strategy, Alexander Cockburn concluded:.

The pathos of their opportunism lies in its shortsightedness. As every tactician can attest, the key to defeating Reagan is turnout. But turnout has political content and context.

Harrington would support conservative Democrat Walter Mondale in the election. After a series of operations and surgeries, it appeared that his cancer was gone.

History - Party of the European Left

During those last years, he continued his political and intellectual work. Still, his condition deteriorated and he quietly passed away on July 31, While Michael Harrington did not originate the idea of Realignment, he did develop it into a full-blown strategy for not only transforming American politics, but as a necessary part of a socialist transition.

He believed that after World War II the social weight of the organized working class had declined. Rather, there are several potential majorities at any given time and which one will actually emerge depends on a whole range of factors. For Michael Harrington, the issue was not about reversing these collective trends, which he accepted as a given, but whether the future would be democratic or totalitarian.

For Michael, the key factor determining the future lay in the contradictory nature of the new class. Who will control the machines that establish human destiny in this century? And there is clearly the possibility that a technological elite, perhaps even a benevolent elite, could take on this function. It could be an ally of the poor and the organized workers—or their sophisticated enemy.

A Short History of the Party of the European Left

In other words, an unprecedented social and political variable seems to be taking shape in America. Eventually, he believed that the components of the new majority would seek political expression. Rather than creating a new third party, Harrington believed it was necessary to realign the Democrats. He argued that the Democrats were a site of struggle for socialists since they not only contained segregationists and capitalists, but also held the allegiance of labor unions, blacks, and progressive sections of the new class. In other words, he claimed there was a contradiction within the Democratic Party between its social base and its racist and capitalist leadership.

But it is not enough simply to denounce the scandal. We must abolish it.


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While American labor unions had avoided independent political action in the shape of a labor or socialist party like their European counterparts, he argued that they had actually created one in all but name. It is our invisible mass movement. It will be the emergence of a revived liberalism—taking that term to mean the reform of the system within the system—which will of necessity, be much more socialistic even though it will not, in all probability, be socialist.

Therefore, the Realignment strategy required patience and playing a long game, but the promised result was the creation of a left-liberal, if not social democratic, party that would take over the Democratic Party and lay the foundations for democratic socialism. This position assumed that the Democrats were a loose coalition of diverse interest groups such as labor and capital who were more or less equally balanced.

In fact, the Democrats are a capitalist-controlled party representing the interests of more liberal elements among the ruling class. Capitalist hegemony in the Democrats allows them to thwart any internal challenge or to co-opt them as the need arises. This is a reality that Michael Harrington never understood.

40 Fighting Years

To win the support of liberals, Harrington argued that socialists needed to practice moderation and play according to the rules set by the Democratic Party. Since the Realignment strategy saw the Democratic Party as the only political arena for socialists, this led socialists to accept the logic of lesser-evilism and supporting any Democrat, no matter how right-wing, which ultimately thwarted the goals of the entire strategy. Lastly, the Realignment strategy was doomed because it refused to develop an independent socialist organization.

It can and it will play the role of the most courageous and intransigent force for realignment. As Christopher Lasch argued,. Presumably this means that radical change can only take place if a new political organization, explicitly committed to radical change, wills it to take place. But Harrington backs off from this conclusion. Instead he seems to predicate his strategy on the wistful hope that socialism will somehow take over the Democratic party without anyone realizing what is happening.

Instead, Realignment forced socialists to maintain good relations with liberals in the hopes of reform at the expense of revolutionary militancy from below. Instead of through a violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, Michael Harrington believed that socialism could be achieved peacefully through an electoral majority. Michael Harrington argued that socialists needed to create a counter-hegemonic bloc that comprised a majority of the population, who would have a vested interest in a new order.

A politics without poetry will simply not be able to bring together all the different and sometimes antagonistic forces essential to a new majority for a new program. In a profound sense, that is our heritage more than theirs. For a democratic transition to socialism to be possible, socialists must be able to capture the existing state apparatus from the bourgeoisie.

Due to the great wealth of the bourgeoisie, they naturally exercised greater power in the state than the working class. As part of his strategy, Michael Harrington said socialists must utilize the state bureaucracy and undertake a transitional program of structural reforms. He argued that socialists could not dispense with existing bureaucracy since it was essential to the functioning of a modern economy. The problem lay not with bureaucracy per se, but with bad bureaucrats. He believed that this transitional program could be undertaken without any cataclysmic changes since he did not expect violent resistance from the bourgeoisie.

As he said in a debate with Peter Camejo:. My policy is very much like the Communist policy in the s. You bet your life it is. But while the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party were getting absolutely nowhere because they counterposed themselves to the workers who wanted to vote for Roosevelt, the Communist party of the s was building the biggest, largest movement calling itself socialist in the United States since the days of Gene Debs, and winning leadership in a third of the unions of the CIO. In other words, he believed in a popular front without Stalinism.

During the s, the CPUSA did have a visible presence in unions, black freedom struggles, and anti-fascist coalitions, but this did not come about due to the popular front strategy, but in spite of it. The major successes of the CPUSA in organizing workers occurred before the popular front was implemented when the party experimented with militant united front tactics and still maintained its revolutionary identity. After adopting the popular front strategy, the CPUSA retreated from all that and, in the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy, the Communists ceased all their criticism of the labor bureaucracy, the Roosevelt administration, and liberal organizations.

Economic Update: Living in a Socialist Economy

Over the course of the s, the class character of the CPUSA changed as its members took up positions within the labor bureaucracy and clamped down on working class militancy. According to Charlie Post:. The ability of socialist governments to deliver the type of structural reforms that Harrington advocates such as higher wages and an expanded welfare state depends on higher taxes on capital, both of which ultimately depend upon profitability.

If a socialist government seriously pursued structural reforms, then this would threaten the flow of profits and spark resistance from the existing bureaucracy. This means that there are definite limits on the ability of the capitalist state—even if its governing personnel are principled and dedicated socialists—to implement reforms. Harrington also forgets that a socialist majority in parliament does not equal state power. Rather, the real power in the state resides in its unelected institutions—the military, state bureaucracy, courts—all of which will resist structural reforms and a democratic road to socialism with whatever means are at their disposal.

The reality that no ruling class willingly surrenders its privileges and power was precisely why Marx and Engels said a violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat was a necessary strategy for revolutionaries. This is something that Michael Harrington refused to acknowledge. While its earlier exclusion was justified by portraying the PDS as crypto-communist, the integration strategies of the late s were supported by modernization theorists recognizing the party's contribution to the integration of post-unification Germany. An executive summary of the first decade of post-unification German politics, Oswald's book offers a precise interpretation of the learning processes within the PDS.


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It also provides a close analysis of the disputes within the PDS characterizing the party as a political subculture in which East Germans could come to terms with the ruptures of their history and their biographies while at the same time finding a role in the politics and society of united Germany. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. Libraries Unlimited. Need Help? Try our Search Tips. Award Winner.

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