September 06, 2016

"McCarthy and the death of Communism in the U.S. University": An extract from ‘The Capitalist University’ by Henry Heller

McCarthy and the death of Communism in the U.S. University: An extract from ‘The Capitalist University’

An extract from Henry Heller’s soon-to-be-published  The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States since 1945, the book is a history of the American university, from the ideological offensive of the early Cold War, to the radical upsurge of the 1960’s and the contemporary malaise that plagues postmodernism and neoliberalism, Heller shows how the American university has always been in constant dialogue with American capitalism. The book is available to pre-order now and will be published on the 20th October.

In this exclusive extract for the Pluto blog, Heller describes the wound left in American universities and cultural life by the anti-communist purges of the Cold War:

In the immediate post-war period there were communists within the universities but there was little organized political activity among left-wing faculty. Professors who were Communist Party members kept their affiliation to themselves for fear of dismissal. But significant numbers of returned war veterans increasingly in evidence on campus as a result of the GI Bill actively participated in politics, most notably through the communist-controlled American Youth for Democracy. And it was precisely against this group, named by J. Edgar Hoover as a communist front, that the anti-communist attack began. As the Cold War gained momentum with the issuance of Harry Truman’s loyalty-security program in March 1947, university administrators revoked the campus charters of the American Youth for Democracy organization, banning it from campuses where it was an established student group. For the most part this was the work of administrators, but at Queens College the faculty held a special meeting and proscribed the organization themselves. As the anti-communist campaign gained momentum the chill on student activism was reinforced by growing demands from university administrators for the membership lists of student organizations. Communist Party leaders and, incredibly, leading figures like Paul Robeson and Howard Fast, were banned from speaking in many universities.

Anti-communist investigations focused not so much on actual communists as on sympathizers or ex-members of the Party. One of the most glaring and significant cases was the McCarran House Committee attack on Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins University, and the Institute of Pacific Affairs which he directed. In the early 1950s the McCarran Committee singled out the Institute as a communist front that bore a large responsibility for the loss of China to the communists. The consequences of this particular attack were serious in that it crippled open-minded and critical academic study of East Asia including, fatefully, Vietnam and China. Universities demonstrated their allegiance to the Cold War policies of the government by initiating their own loyalty investigations. They exchanged information on suspected left-wing professors with the FBI and other intelligence bodies. They joined a blacklist refusing to hire faculty members who had been penalized at other institutions because of their political sympathies. Following passage of the McCarran Act (1950), travel by scientists suspected of left-wing sympathies as well as visits by suspect foreign researchers were sharply restricted. The complicity of universities with congressional investigations into communism on campuses climaxed with the issuance in 1953 of an official statement by the American Association of Universities in which the presidents of most leading universities reiterated that those who adhered to the worldwide communist movement were disqualified from holding an academic position, and that full compliance and cooperation with congressional committees investigating threats coming from that quarter were expected from faculty.

In the fall of 1947 the AAUP meanwhile rejected the view of Truman’s loyalty program and officially took the position that membership in the Communist Party, as a legal political party, should not be grounds for the capitalist university dismissal. That did not stop the University of Washington from dismissing two faculty members precisely on those grounds, an action which proved to be precedent-setting. Moreover, it was the view of the philosopher Sidney Hook, by now a leading academic anti-communist, that membership in the Communist Party—as a conspiratorial organization which demanded intellectual conformity from its members—disqualified such members as academics. Hook’s argument became the line taken by university administrators and most liberal faculty as a standard rationale. The majority of American academics, it is fair to say, were in fact liberal in their politics and accepted the Cold War consensus. On the other hand, it is notable that Arthur Schlesinger did not accept Hook’s argument, although on somewhat specious grounds. Hook had argued that members of the Party were inherently inflexible and therefore disqualified themselves as seekers of the truth. Affecting to ignore the repression that was all around him, Schlesinger argued that the fact that so many academics had left the Party in recent years proved that they were not after all that dogmatic. For good measure, most states imposed loyalty oaths excluding Communist Party members and required signing such an oath as a condition of employment in most public universities. The proscribing of active communists in this way exposed the limits of American democracy and its supposed political and intellectual openness. In fact there were few communists in academe by 1950, nonetheless the witch-hunt of ex-communists, Marxists, leftwingers, and even civil libertarians by congressional committees, the FBI, and the media carried on into the mid-1950s. It was coupled with an academic blacklist which made it more or less impossible for those accused of communist sympathies or Marxist opinions to find employment. Like the inquisitorial proceedings in early modern Spain, U.S. government repression helped put a damper on political activity and academic thought that did permanent damage in limiting what was thinkable and sayable in American public life then and now. That, of course, was part of their purpose.

It is important in conclusion to take a closer look at Hook’s rationale for excluding Communist Party members from academic life. If one looks at the Soviet Union in the Stalin period not only was there no free discussion in the Party but all aspects of intellectual life were closely controlled under the aegis of a dictator who thought of himself as a working-class philosopher- king. On the other hand, this was not the policy that the Comintern attempted to enforce on the other communist parties in the period of the Common Front or afterward. Nor could it have imposed such a policy even if it had wanted to. In fact, the intellectual life of the Italian, Indian, and British communist parties, and even of the more closely controlled French Communist Party, was quite interesting and intellectually fruitful within its limits. And this despite repeated unsuccessful attempts by Communist Party dogmatists to impose a political and intellectual line on intellectuals. Certainly, with its admittedly fraught relationship to the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre, and Louis Althusser, the intellectual life of the French Party was more open and interesting than the life of the mind on American university campuses at the height of the Cold War, where a fearful conformity reigned. Can one seriously compare American historiography of this period with the work of the British Communist Party historians—Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm—of the same period? Indeed, if we look at the history of the communist movement from the time of Lenin until the 1980s, its intellectual debates, to say nothing of the arguments between members of the Party and Marxists outside it, were in fact an unrivalled school for those who participated. In this regard the testimony of Marcus Singer, a professor of zoology at Cornell University, before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the spring of 1953 is illuminating. Asked about the communist group at Harvard-MIT, of which he had been a member during the war, Singer talked about himself and the group’s discussions of Marxian philosophy and how it applied to the contemporary world. But he refused to testify about other members of the group. Pressed by the Committee that because the Party was a conspiracy prepared to use force and violence he ought to testify, Singer responded: “We did not conspire. We did not do anything subversive … We were intellectuals. We were scholars.” 

Nor is it likely that such people could have been anything else. Admittedly the issue is complicated and requires some sense of political philosophy and historical context. On the other hand, it has to be said that in retrospect Hook’s argument seems like a kind of deductive syllogism about Leninist organization, and one that he imposed with remarkable success on American academe. But in doing so Hook played the role of intellectual commissar within a fear-driven institutional setting that was prepared to accept his formulation without much scrutiny. The parallel with the situation in the Soviet Union under Stalin is obvious. The price to be paid was of course the intellectual and political conformity that crippled American university life for decades to come.

If this book sparked your interest, please check the Pluto Press website for other similar titles, all our books are 50% off until 20th September. 

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