In 1973, he coined the term neoconservatism.
He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 24, 1928, to an Irish-American family. He attended St. Roch Catholic School and St. Louis University High School, where he was a classmate (class of 1944) of Thomas Anthony Dooley III. He later attended the College of the Holy Cross, the University of Chicago (MA in English Literature), and Yale Law School. As a young man, he was interested in both leftist politics and Roman Catholicism. He joined Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement, a communal movement that stressed social justice and nonviolence. Harrington enjoyed arguing about culture and politics, and his Jesuit education had made him a good debater and rhetorician.
On May 30, 1963, Harrington married Stephanie Gervis, a freelance writer and staff writer for the Village Voice. He died on July 31, 1989, of cancer.
Harrington was an editor of the newspaper The "Catholic Worker" from 1951 to 1953. However, he became disillusioned with religion. Although he would always retain a certain affection for Catholic culture, he ultimately became an atheist.
In 1978, the periodical Christian Century quoted him: "I am a pious apostate, an atheist shocked by the faithlessness of the believers, a fellow traveler of moderate Catholicism who has been out of the church for 20 years." Harrington observed of himself and his high school classmate, Tom Dooley, that "each of us was motivated, in part at least, by the Jesuit inspiration of our adolescence that insisted so strenuously that a man must live his philosophy."
In "The Politics at God's Funeral", Harrington expressed his belief that religion was passing into oblivion, but he worried that the passing of the legitimizing religious authority made Western societies lose a moral basis to inspire virtue or define common values. He proposed that democratic socialism should assume the job of helping to create a moral basis; the goal was to salvage the values of progressive Judaism and Christianity "but not in religious form."
His estrangement from religion was accompanied by an increasing interest in Marxism and secular socialism. After leaving The Catholic Worker, Harrington became a member of the Independent Socialist League, a small organization associated with the former Trotskyist activist Max Shachtman. Harrington and Shachtman believed that socialism, which in their opinion implied a just and fully democratic society, could not be realized by authoritarian communism, and they were both fiercely critical of the "bureaucratic collectivist" states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
After Norman Thomas's Socialist Party absorbed Shachtman's organization, Harrington endorsed the Shachtmanite strategy of working as part of the Democratic Party rather than sponsoring candidates as Socialists. Although Harrington identified personally with the socialism of Thomas and Eugene Debs, the most consistent thread running through his life and his work was a "left wing of the possible within the Democratic Party."
Harrington served as the first editor of New America, the official weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, founded in October 1960.
He wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States, a book that has been credited with sparking John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. For "The Other American," Harrington was awarded one of the George Polk Awards and The Sidney Award. He went on to become a widely read intellectual and political writer, in 1972 publishing a second bestseller, "Socialism." His voluminous writings included 14 other books and scores of articles, published in such journals as Commonweal, Partisan Review, The New Republic, Commentary (magazine), and The Nation.
He would frequently debate noted conservatives, like Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley, Jr. He would also debate younger "New Left" radicals. He was present at the 1962 SDS conference that resulted in the creation of the Port Huron Statement, and he argued that the final draft was insufficiently anti-Communist. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. referred to Harrington as the "only responsible radical" in America. Edward Kennedy said, "I see Michael Harrington as delivering the Sermon on the Mount to America," and "among veterans in the War on Poverty, no one has been a more loyal ally when the night was darkest."
In 1955, Harrington was placed on the FBI Index, a list of approximately 12,000 "dangerous characters" that were to be placed in detention camps in case of a national emergency. Later he was added to the master list of Nixon political opponents.
By the early 1970s, the governing faction of the Socialist Party continued to endorse a negotiated peace to end the Vietnam War, an opinion that Harrington came to believe was no longer viable. The majority changed the organization's name to Social Democrats, USA. After losing at the convention, Harrington resigned and, with his former caucus, he formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. (A smaller faction, associated with peace activist David McReynolds, formed the Socialist Party USA).
Reasoning that the socialist vote had declined from a peak of approximately one million in the years around World War I to a few thousand by the 1950s, Harrington believed that if socialists were ever going to leave their mark on the country, it would have to be done through the Democratic Party. Still, he considered campaigning for the presidency himself, in the 1980 election. But he abandoned this idea when Kennedy decided to challenge Jimmy Carter in the Democratic Party presidential primaries, 1980.
In 1982, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee merged with the New American Movement, an organization of New Left activists, forming the Democratic Socialists of America. It had been the principal U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International, which includes socialist parties as diverse as the Swedish and German Social Democrats, Nicaragua's FSLN, and the British Labour Party. until it voted to leave in 2017. Harrington was the chairman of DSA from its inception to his death.
Harrington was appointed a professor of political science at Queens College in Flushing, New York City, in 1972. He wrote 16 books and was named a distinguished professor of political science in 1988. During the 1980s he contributed commentaries to National Public Radio. He was also an occasional writer for The New York Review of Books.
Harrington was the best-known socialist in the United States during his lifetime in recognition of which the City University of New York established "The Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change" at Queens College.Harrington was a guest speaker on the television series Free to Choose and argued against some of Milton Friedman's theories of the free market.
In 1966 he appeared on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s television program Firing Line. He explained his opinions on poverty and debated Buckley regarding government attempts to address poverty and its consequences.
The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
The Retail Clerks. New York: John Wiley, 1962.
The Accidental Century. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
"The Politics of Poverty," in Irving Howe (ed.), The Radical Papers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1966; pp. 122-143.
The Social-Industrial Complex. New York: League for Industrial Democracy, 1968.
Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority. New York: Macmillan, 1968; Baltimore: Penguin, 1969 paperback edition, with new afterword.
Socialism. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.
Fragments of the Century: A Social Autobiography. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973.
Twilight of Capitalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.
The Vast Majority. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.
Tax Policy and the Economy: A Debate between Michael Harrington and Representative Jack Kemp, April 25, 1979., with Jack Kemp, New York: Institute for Democratic Socialism, 1979.
James H. Cone, "The Black Church and Marxism: what do they have to say to each other", with comments by Michael Harrington, New York: Institute for Democratic Socialism, 1980.
Decade of Decision: The Crisis of the American System. New York: Touchstone, 1981.
The Next America: The Decline and Rise of the United States. New York: Touchstone, 1981.
The Politics at God's Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization. New York: Henry Holt, 1983.
The New American Poverty. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1984.
Taking Sides: The Education of a Militant Mind. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1985.
The Next Left: The History of a Future. New York: Henry Holt, 1986.
The Long Distance Runner: An Autobiography. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.
Socialism: Past & Future. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1989.
Isserman, Maurice The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington. New York: Perseus Books 2001