Walter Kendall 1996

Review of Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future

Source: New Interventions, Volume 7, no 3, Autumn 1996. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future, Pluto, London, 1995, pp 320

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At the Erfurt Congress in 1891 which laid the basis for the then infant socialist parties (the Russian included) all around the world, August Bebel, colleague of Marx, co-founder with Wilhelm Liebknecht of German Social Democracy, confidently assured the assembled delegates: ‘I am convinced that there are only a few people in this hall who will not experience the “Great Day.”’ One hundred and five long and weary years have passed, and the Great Day has yet to arrive. What went wrong? This is the problem to which Michael Harrington, American socialist and an Honorary President of the Socialist International, devotes his attention. By and large, he does so very well.

Harrington sets himself three specific tasks. Firstly, to examine the past history of socialist theory and practice; secondly, to distinguish socialism proper from the Stalinist command economy which existed in the former Soviet Union and its satellites; and thirdly, to consider the hopes and prospects for socialism in the really existing world of multinational capitalism in which we live today.

Harrington’s treatment of these themes is wide-ranging, well written and singularly well informed. That is not to say that we find here many avuncular judgements which lay claim to a finality which in the real world it is more usually singularly difficult to achieve. As a former Shachtmanite, he clearly sees himself as a Marxist, but not any longer one in any sense out of the Leninist or Trotskyist schools. This leads to a certain eclectic tolerance of outlook which this reviewer at least finds a great deal the better for that.

It is now clear, Harrington concludes, ‘that there is no such thing as a socialist apocalypse, a sudden leap, to use the classic Marxian formulation, from the “kingdom of necessity” to the “kingdom of freedom.” Modern society is so complex that even in the unlikely event of a political revolution in the West, fundamental change – of human consciousness as well as of technology and institutions – takes a great deal of time. We are talking, then, about a transitional epoch, not a day, a year, or even a decade.’ What we are talking of is what Harrington terms ‘visionary gradualism’ working itself out over a whole epoch.

The question is: ‘Can socialism learn from the defeats and betrayals that resulted from its flawed understanding of its own profound truths?’ The answer to this question as yet remains open and undecided. Everyone concerned to find an answer would do well to read this book.

The text is preceded by a stimulating introduction by Arthur Lipow of the Michael Harrington Foundation, which is based at Birkbeck College of the University of London. One hopes that this centre will give birth to further volumes of equal merit in the not-too-distant future.