Socialism, Old and New

Socialism, Old and New May 19, 2020

A fresh consideration of socialism is happening these days. Two remarkable presidential campaigns by Sen. Bernie Sanders and perhaps a more significant Congressional campaign by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have put socialism into public discussion. During Covid 19, serious questions about public health and welfare have additionally opened a door to socialism’s approaches.
Like capitalism, there are several definitions of socialism and a variety of ideas and personalities associated with it. The merits of capitalism are usually measured in practical terms; particularly by quarterly stocks values. Socialism, by contrast, tends toward the theoretical and seems to thrive on argumentative factions accounting for several brands of socialism. It might surprise some people to learn that among its threads there is a substantial body of religious socialism.

Let’s begin with Michael Harrington (1928-1989). He launched Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in 1973. Since a 1982 merger, it is known as Democratic Socialists of America. Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are among its members.
Harrington was a journalist, a well-regarded author, a live-in volunteer at a homeless shelter, a government advisor, a public lecturer, briefly a juvenile caseworker and an occasional teacher. He was raised Catholic and educated in Jesuit schools. He knew his faith and took it seriously… until that is he gave up on Catholicism based on his understanding of some doctrines. This turn occurred gradually but was decisive nonetheless. Harrington maintained a love of the church, its rituals, its saints and of course the gospel. But Harrington was firm in his renunciation of his faith. During his final months of cancer his closest relative and a friend, Sr. Peggy FitzGibbon, RC, tried unsuccessfully to coax him back to Christianity.

Subsequent columns will consider Harrington’s religious struggle and his abiding Catholic sensibility. Other future columns will consider other socialists; those who kept to their faith, including serious Catholics, a movement in the Anglican church and more. For now, a few sentences on Harrington’s famous book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Scribner [1962]; $17).
The Other America is not a book about socialism. In fact, its topic was somewhat a departure for Harrington. The book was influential because it is not strident. In fact, except for statistics it reads well today. Its themes are still with us.
Upon reading The Other America President John Kennedy (1917-1963) was motivated to give prominence to anti-poverty measures. (Historians think Kennedy actually read a review in The New Yorker; not the entire book.) After Kennedy’s murder, President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) launched a War on Poverty to honor Kennedy. Johnson appointed Sarge Shriver (1915-2011) as the director of that effort. Shriver, in turn, drew upon The Other America and put Harrington on his team for awhile.

The Other America popularized a term, culture of poverty. It soon enough became quite controversial. Harrington’s point was that a cluster of variables are usually present among the poor: inadequate housing, unhealthy nutrition, lower educational attainment, incidence of juvenile delinquency, scarce job opportunities, below average rate of membership in unions, vibrant churches, civic clubs and the like. It does little good to address one symptom of the problem, Harrington said. A single health clinic in a neighborhood, for example, is a noble gesture. But it will not make a dent in poverty without other simultaneous interventions. The failure is “not individual and personal,” he writes. Poverty is not solved by exhortations directed at the unfortunate. Poverty “is a social product.” Its manifestations are “not the biographies of unlucky individuals.” They are “the effects of an environment.”
After the book received wide readership, neo-conservatives came forward with the old story of rugged individualism. The poor are at fault for their plight, the argument goes. They have low aspirations; their moral system is deficient. This is because they don’t try hard enough. They are living the fate they deserve. Government anti-poverty efforts are thus a waste of money.
The neo-conservatives have been so influential that now using the term culture of poverty is a guarantee for rebuke.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.


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