Every January finds the United States celebrating the life and work of one of the most influential and important activists and civil rights campaigners in world history, Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day also brings a less savory American tradition to mind: the twisting of historical figures into a role of support for any and every ideological bent. Everyone from the far right to the far left will use MLK Day to paint King in their own image and more importantly, they will use his legacy to justify and legitimize their stance and work. Many people before me have taken the right wing to task for misappropriating Dr. King’s legacy, but few people outside of right wing think tanks ever do the same for the American Left. And that’s exactly what I’d like to do.
This taking-to-task of the Left for hijacking MLK’s legacy isn’t sectarian in nature – I don’t want to call anyone out for some perceived ideological impurity (I’ve criticized this kind of thing before). I think that it’s important how the Left thinks of itself and I think that it’s even more important how we display ourselves to the people who’d we’d like to organize. Scoring debate points is pointless, but creating a fertile ground for revolution to grow in isn’t – it’s the greatest work we could possibly engage in.
Much has been made of King’s “And maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism” quote and few groups have gotten more mileage out of it than the Democratic Socialists of America. DSA uses that quote on statements (like this one) all of the time, MLK Day or not. So, what’s the big deal about this and why should anyone care?
DSA was founded by Michael Harrington, a famous democratic socialist (read social democrat in the European sense) who wrote the well-known book, The Other America, among many others. Harrington, who DSA reveres greatly and who is included on the above statement, was famously and viciously anti-communist, both foreign and domestic, and occupied a political position that amounted to barely tacit support of the Vietnam War and by extension, the role of American imperialism in shaping the futures of developing countries.
Harrington’s position on communism and the Vietnam War is completely at odds with King’s staunchly anti-Vietnam War and anti-imperialist views. In the famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King expresses explicit solidarity with the people of Vietnam against the US-backed South Vietnamese puppet-dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem and the coup-prone government he helped to found. In this speech, King said “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.”’ Around the same time, Harrington declared, “I am anti-communist on principle because I am pro-freedom.” King’s statements in solidarity with the Vietnamese peoples’ struggle express a kind of internationalist anti-imperialism while Harrington’s quote could have easily come from a speech by Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.
So again, what’s the point of this? On the surface, it could seem like I’m trying to score the kind of petty sectarian points I decried earlier, but that’s not at all what I want to do here. I think that this kind of information is important and highly relevant to the current US Left because we often try to position ourselves to the public with references to famous American figures from the past. We say things like, “Did you know that MLK was a socialist?” to take the scariness out of the word “socialism.” Putting aside the fact that it’s a bit of a stretch to call King a socialist, we don’t need to bring in a beloved historical figure to shine a better light on what we believe. We (hopefully) don’t believe in what we do because some good guy from the past said it was OK. We (hopefully) believe in what we do because it’s right. That’s it. Don’t justify it any further than that. A need for justification is a sign of a weak position. Don’t apologize for anti-capitalism – be proud of it.
In addition to the problematic politics of justification and apologia, the American Left needs to grow up and face the mistakes of the past and move beyond them. Harrington and the Left that he led was anti-communist (a bad and ahistorical position) and backed militarism and imperialism because it furthered their anti-communist orthodoxy. This is a huge problem that even Harrington’s defenders recognize, though they pile praise on top of the criticism so it isn’t very visible. Harrington was just as much of a red-baiter as any conservative think tank was or is and he also famously believed that our only hope was to “save” the liberals by kowtowing to the Democratic Party and corrupt union leaders, a curiously religious viewpoint. Tying Harrington’s politics to those of Dr. King, as the above linked DSA statement explicitly does, doesn’t redeem him or cancel out his mistake.
We don’t need to cast all politically problematic figures into the flames of oblivion, but we do need to face them and honestly assess what they’ve done. If Harrington’s defenders are right and we can learn something from what they see as Harrington’s positive example, then we can also learn from his copious negative examples as well. Michael Harrington was wrong about a lot of things and clinging to his disproven politics does nothing but furthers the original mistakes. And trying to polish those mistakes with Dr. King’s legacy doesn’t do anyone any good.
Michael Harrington, the patron saint of democratic socialism, and Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t agree and MLK Day is as good a time as any to point that out. MLK Day is also a good time for the US Left to tackle its mistakes and try to learn something from them. In general, I don’t like writing in analogies, but I currently have a perfect one taken from some hard-earned home improvement advice my landlord didn’t take form me. If you have mold in your walls, you can’t just put a fresh coat of paint on and expect that to fix it. Rather, you have to tear out all the infected material and replace it with something new.
This mold-in-the-wall situation is directly analogous to what we’ve been discussing here. We can’t put a fresh coat of paint on American social democracy (or democratic socialism as they like to call it).We need to dig into our collective past and tear out the old mistakes and replace them with a new political consciousness. We should never forget the old problems and we don’t need to tear down the whole house. But, before we’re all covered in black mold, let’s take care of the problem the right way – without vindictiveness but also without flinching from the necessary either.