In the summer before the 1984 presidential elections, Michael Harrington and Irving Howe, in a widely noted interview in the New York Times Magazine, boasted that ‘by now practically everyone on the left agrees that the Democratic Party, with all its faults, must be our main political arena’.footnote1 In recent historical context there was a peculiar irony in this assertion, with its smug self-limitation of the ‘Left’. During the 1960s, American social democracy had been debilitated, almost discredited, by its advocacy of reform through the Democratic Party. The right wing of the old Thomasite Socialist Party, ‘Social Democrats, usa’, had broken away to become courtiers of Scoop Jackson and lobbyists for military victory in Vietnam. Meanwhile, a centrist current led by Harrington and Howe formed a small circle around Dissent with negligible influence on a burgeoning New Left which spurned their faith in the transformability of the Democratic Party. Indeed, the key radical organizations of the 1960s, sncc and sds, understandably regarded the Cold War liberalism incarnated by the Humphrey/Jackson wing of the Democratic Party (to which both camps of social democrats oriented) as the enemy, primarily responsible for genocidal imperialism in Southeast Asia as well as for the repression of the Black liberation movement at home.

From the McGovern candidacy of 1972, however, sections of the former New Left, together with a younger cohort of 1970s activists, began to slip back into Democratic politics, initially on a local level.footnote2 At first there was no sharp ideological break with the sixties’ legacy. The ‘New Politics’, as it was typed, seemed just another front of the anti-war movement or another tactical extension of the urban populism espoused by sds ’s community organizing faction. By 1975, with the sudden end of the Vietnam War, a strategic divergence had become more conspicuous. On the one hand, an array of self-proclaimed ‘cadre’ groups, inspired by the heroic mold of 1930s radicalism, were sending their ex-student members into the factories in the hope of capturing and radicalizing the widespread rank-and-file discontent that characterized the end of the postwar boom. On the other hand, another network of ex-sds ers and antiwar activists—of whom Tom Hayden was merely a belated and media-hyped example—were building local influence within the Democratic ‘reform movement’: the loose collocation of consumer, environmental and public-sector groups, supported by a few progressive unions, that had survived the McGovern debacle.

Although its significance was only vaguely grasped at the time, this increasing polarization between workerism and electoralism coincided with, and was immediately conditioned by, the decline of the Black liberation movement that had been the chief social motor of post-war radicalism. A dismaying, inverse law seemed to prevail between the collapse of grassroots mobilization in the ghettoes and the rise of the first wave of Black political patronage in the inner cities. While Black revolutionaries and nationalists were being decimated by J. Edgar Hoover’s cointelpro programme of preemptive repression and infiltration, Black community organization was being reshaped into a passive clientelism manipulated by the human-services bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. Although the civil rights movement remained an unfinished revolution with an urgent agenda of economic and political demands, its centrality to the project of a popular American left was tragically, and irresponsibly, obscured in the late 1970s. The ranks of the white, ex-student left, preoccupied with academic outposts and intellectual celebrities, showed a profound inability to understand the strategic implications of the halting of the civil rights movement. For all the theoretical white smoke of the 1970s, including the endless debates on crisis theory and the nature of the state, the decisive problem of the fate of the Second Reconstruction was displaced beyond the field of vision. With minimal challenge or debate, leading journals like Socialist Review and Dissent tacitly demoted Black liberation—the critical democratic issue in American history—to the status of another progressive ‘interest’, coeval with sexual freedom or ecology.

The crisis of Black radicalism, and its attendant white incomprehension, was soon followed by the disintegration of the workerist left. With the important but solitary exception of the International Socialists, who continue to play a vital role in Teamsters for a Democratic Union (the only surviving rank-and-file caucus from the 1970s), none of the workplace-oriented offshoots of the New Left proved to have the stamina or internal stability to weather the decline in union militancy that followed the 1974–75 recession. The bizarre implosion of the ‘new communist movement’, as the Maoist left moved from the factory floor to frenzied party building and street confrontations, reinforced, if only by harrowing negative example, the growing claim of the electoralists to represent the sole rational hope for a mass American left.

But it is unlikely that the transition towards the orbit of the Democratic Party could have occurred so rapidly without the intervention and coordination undertaken by the Harrington–Howe group, now reorganized as the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (dsoc). The charter concept of dsoc, according to a Harrington editorial written in the wake of the McGovern defeat, was the belief that ‘the left wing of realism is found today in the Democratic Party. It is there that the mass forces for social change are assembled; it is there that the possibility exists for creating a new first party in America.’footnote3 To pursue this realignment, Harrington and Howe proposed a two-storey organizational strategy. dsoc was intended to provide a kind of social-democratic inner sanctum within a larger liberal coalition, built from the top down through the selective recruitment of ‘influentials’: trade-union full-timers, local Democratic luminaries and well-known academics. These ‘influentials’, in turn, helped sponsor the Democratic Agenda, the ‘party within the party’, that aimed to coalesce progressive forces within the national Democratic Party. In this fashion, the Harrington–Howe group contrived to obtain a political leverage disproportionate to dsoc’s modest membership or its meagre contributions to day-to-day struggles.