Everyone remembers the first time he or she heard Michael Harrington speak. Mine was sometime in the early seventies in a drab room at the Catholic Worker house on the Lower East Side. I didn’t know Mike’s history with the Worker and was surprised that someone so famous would spend a Friday evening speaking to a small group made up primarily of derelicts and elderly leftists. The lapsed Catholic friend who had invited me started hearing the Voice of God in the middle of the speech. The whole scene was very uncomfortable, except that as Mike spoke I was caught up in the common sense of his message and his uncommon description of socialism. Like many others, I would join the democratic socialist movement in large part because he was so convincing, so credible, so charismatic.
Later, as a staff member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and Democratic Socialists of America, I regularly saw people respond to him with that same excitement. This was a man whose work had changed people’s lives: not only poor people’s, but our lives. By then, for me, the edge was off the excitement. Years of arranging agenda items for endless meetings, of juggling creditors, of internal wrangling gave me respect for Mike’s considerable organizational skills but dulled my ability to see land at the edge of the swamp. Then he would step up to the podium and the fire would flare. No matter how tired he was, no matter how dismal the external or internal political situation, he could call forth the best in us, holding out a vision of the new world. He always cautioned that socialism was not a religion, which is true. But he preached it with such fervor and made so many “altar calls” that one could get confused. As “chair of the Catholic Atheist Caucus” he might wince at the following description, but his life illustrated the biblical passage that those who “wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run, and not be weary, and they shall walk, and not faint.” The strength finally gave out. The work and the legacy remain.