Michael Harrington, Socialist Activist and Author, Dies at 61

Times Staff Writer

Michael Harrington, the salty, irreverent Socialist activist and author who inspired the federal government’s “War on Poverty” in the mid-1960s, has died at his suburban Westchester County (N.Y.) home, it was reported Tuesday.

Harrington, who lost a four-year battle with cancer of the esophagus, was 61 when he died Monday in Larchmont.

The author of the classic “The Other America” had gamely continued his work to improve the plight of the poor even after surgery and chemotherapy for the throat cancer in 1985.

With typical humor, he said that his primary complaint was that doctors insisted that he dilute his wine with water and limit himself to three or four beers a day.


“As my wife always says,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1987 interview, “beer is one of the few really fine products society has ever produced that’s within the price range of the working man.”

In the last half of his life, Harrington was a prolific writer and lecturer, turning out several books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, and commanding $2,000 speaking fees throughout the country. He taught political science at Queens College in New York, and served as chairman of the party of the Old Left, the Democratic Socialists of America.

But whatever his accomplishments in later life, he conceded that his greatest fame occurred when he was only 34 and published a book called “The Other America” describing the nation’s “invisible poor.” Its pages at first awakened a nation’s leaders and then a nation.

A. H. Raskin evaluated the momentous 1962 volume in the New York Times Book Review as “a scream of rage, a call to conscience.”


Hobart Rowan later observed in the Washington Post: “By writing a book, he pricked the conscience of the men in power sufficiently to change the course of events.”

President John F. Kennedy, greatly moved by the book, proposed that the federal government come to the aid of the nation’s poor. After Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson shepherded the proposal, launching the War on Poverty in 1964.

Harrington was enlisted as a paid consultant in the $1-billion anti-poverty program, which fell by the wayside in the midst of military expenditures during Vietnam.

On Tuesday, President Kennedy’s brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said: “Michael Harrington never believed that we could not do better and never stopped urging us to try harder. My memories of Michael are kaleidoscopic--a charming Irish politician working the floor at a Democratic convention, a thundering Old Testament prophet demanding that our country honor its promise to the poor and the weak, a worldly intellectual. . . .


“Our nation is immensely richer because of his work,” Kennedy added.

Edward Michael Harrington was born in St. Louis, Mo., the only child of well-to-do Irish Catholic parents, Edward M. Harrington Sr., a patent lawyer, and Catherine Fitzgibbon Harrington, a former schoolteacher.

‘Taft Conservative’

When he attended Holy Cross College, a Jesuit institution in Worcester, Mass., Harrington described himself as a “Taft conservative.” His political move to the left began with a summer job assisting sharecroppers and continued at Yale, where he attended a year of law school.


Switching to the University of Chicago, Harrington reveled in philosophical discussions at Reader’s Drugstore and the University Tavern, later recalling that his colleagues there “had been talking and reading for years. I read like a madman to catch up.”

He earned his master’s degree in English literature in 1949, horrifying his family by announcing that he wanted to become a poet rather than a lawyer like his father.

Harrington’s initiation to the underclass of poor that he was to write about included jobs in the 1950s as a social worker in St. Louis, and in New York as associate editor of the Catholic Worker, and staff member of St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, a settlement house aiding Bowery derelicts.

Harrington also began his political work in the early 1950s, as an organizer and speaker for the Young Socialist League on college campuses and as a regular at bohemian gathering places in Greenwich Village where he lived.


Became an Atheist

The more he saw of poverty, the further he moved away from his Catholicism, later declaring himself an atheist.

“Why else would most people on this Earth be born to a life less than human?” he explained in 1987. “What kind of God is that?”

After publishing “The Other America,” Harrington produced more than a dozen other works, including “The Accidental Century” (1965), “Toward a Democratic Left” (1968), “Socialism” (1972), “Fragments of the Century” (1974), “Twilight of Capitalism” (1976), “The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World’s Poor” (1977), “Decade of Decision: The Crisis of the American System” (1980), “The Next America: The Decline and Rise of the United States” (1981), “The New American Poverty” (1984), and “Taking Sides: The Education of a Militant Mind” (1985).


His most recent books include “Socialism: Past and Future” this year and a second volume of memoirs, “The Long-Distance Runner,” published in 1988.

He was a key leader and spokesman for the Democratic Socialists of America and a respected intellectual who spent several weeks a year traveling abroad as America’s representative at global conferences of the Socialist International.

In 1986 alone he was in West Germany, Spain, Botswana, Peru and Yugoslavia.

Throughout a prolific career, even his critics were repeatedly struck by Harrington’s regular-guy demeanor and reasoned approach to radical political thinking.


Journalist and author Alden Whitman described him as “an articulate and astonishingly readable watered-down Marxist. . . . Unlike many of the soothsayers around, Harrington makes sense most of the time. . . .” Writer Marion Magid marveled that “the oddest thing . . . was that he was not at all . . . eccentric.”

Harrington clearly enjoyed taking his critics by surprise, telling the Times interviewer two years ago: “I am also very conscious of the fact that what most people, and the media especially, expects a Socialist to be is a wild man. They want a real nut, some screwball who’ll stand up and shout, ‘Hell with everything! Let’s tear this joint down! . . .’ ”

‘I Can Convince Them’

“Give me half an hour with damned near anybody,” he continued, “and I can convince them that I am in the real world, a serious person with some smart answers to plenty of practical problems plaguing this society--not just some wild-eyed dreamer.”


Although he championed the poor, Harrington was not among them, born to comfort and in his later years earning more than $80,000 a year.

“Socialist Leader Flees to Westchester,” twitted one New York newspaper when he moved his wife, free-lance writer Stephanie Gervis whom he married in 1963, and their two sons to Larchmont, in affluent Westchester County.

Accustomed to being called everything from a hare-brained hypocrite to a pinko traitor, Harrington said:

“There are all kinds of people who think that, if you’ve written books on poverty, then you should be poor too. And that’s garbage! Friedrich Engels was a businessman, for crissake! And Karl Marx lived in poverty for part of his life, but eventually moved out, in effect, to the suburbs so that his daughters could meet some eligible guys to marry.


‘Poverty Actually Stinks’

“My point is, I don’t want to be Jesus, or even Gandhi. I am not a Franciscan. Even when I was at the Catholic Worker, I hated the lousy food, the bedbugs, the smells--poverty actually stinks, did you know that?

“Closed-off buildings, reeking with the odors of food, urine. . . . Anyway, you’d have to be an absolute nut to want to live like that. I’m willing to put up with it, if necessary, but I happen to like nice food, good wine. . . . And I’ve never made any secret of it.”

Dismissed by many as a utopian dreamer, Harrington wrote candidly in his collection of essays “Taking Sides” that: “I see no possibility that socialists will play a major role in leading a mass movement in the foreseeable future.”


Yet he remained optimistic as well as pragmatic, telling The Times in 1987: “Yeah, maybe we’re dreamers--but if human beings can only begin to just imagine total perfection today, then they will at least be that much closer to achieving it tomorrow. If I go to bed tonight, for instance, dreaming my utopian dreams, then maybe I will be just that much closer to having some very good, practical ideas on how to design a health or housing program at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, which might at least benefit those most in need, those at the very bottom of our society.”