The Accidental Century by Michael Harrington (New York: Macmillan Co., 1965)
Next to the world-wide Moscovite movement, the largest phony “socialist” tendency is that which is frequently referred to as “social democratic,” or, unfortunately, as “socialist.” The Scandinavian social democratic parties, the Labour Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Party of America, are all of this tendency. At some time, social democracy could boast some able theorists. Now, however, it has a very low theoretical level. A recent illustration of this theoretical weakness is Michael Harrington’s book, The Accidental Century.
The author is known for his book, The Other America, the fame of which is attributable to its stimulation of the discovery of poverty by the liberal press and mass media.The Accidental Century presents the author’s general evaluation of the social developments of the last sixty years.
In the preface, the author acknowledges the inspiration of Norman Thomas, Max Shachtman, and Bayard Rustin. It seems incredible that this trinity of social democracy can be openly acknowledged as theoretical mentors. This in itself speaks volumes on the primitive level of social democratic theory.
The book seems addressed to an audience of “liberal liberals,” that is, those who are so very, very liberal. In trying to appeal to this type, the author tones down the more radical implications—conclusions are gently suggested rather than boldly pursued.
One somewhat amusing aspect of the book is that the author has taken on the posture of a literary essayist in an apparent imitation of ex-radical writers like Irving Howe, who have landed jobs as professors. As a man of letters and serious literary critic, Harrington is a flop. His pretensions to scholarship are quite “mid-cult.” For example, there is not even a bibliography provided; nor are any citations given for the plethora of quotations. Literary allusions plus a hodgepodge of synopses of men and ideas do not add up to anything profound. Of course, no doubt,, Harrington makes some correct summaries of literary themes, but his whole process is reminiscent of the term paper of the college sophomore mercilessly carried to great length. Clever phrases, comments and thumbnail sketches are not enough justification for writing a book, let alone one that purports to present a serious political perspective.
The theme of the book is the decadence of traditional capitalism along with the institutions and ideas associated with it. Harrington sees some of these ideas as valuable and he laments the dangers to these ideas from the forces unleashed by capitalist development. The cause of this decadence is the undirected and unintended byproducts of technological changes. This “revolution,” as he calls it (his terminology is imprecise), has “unsettled every faith and creed in the West.”
This, one would think, would be generally welcomed by Harrington. Yet there is a definite note of ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism in his designation of useful ideas as “Western.” He is really expressing sorrow for the decay of social democracy. Had social democracy presented a real alternative to capitalism, its decay would not have been so complete.
Harrington tells us ” . . . the one set and undeviating principle of socialism is its commitment to making the . . . free choice of the citizen the principle of social life.” A hundred and fifty years ago this expression of the ideals of bourgeois democracy would have been progressive. But today it ignores the recognition that democratic theories must be related to a social context. The social democrat never understood that the science of political economy is the heart of the matter. Democracy cannot exist on thin air; it refers to a social context. Specifically, where the social relations of wage labour and capital exist, democracy cannot exist. It is not that more planning is needed but that outmoded social relations must be abandoned. Socialism is not just that people get what they want; it refers to what can be done when people want and get a different society with different social relations.