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Irving Howe

Intellectual Freedom and Stalinists

Shall CP Teachers Be Prohibited from Teaching?

(December 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 8, December 1949, pp. 23 –236.
Transcribed & marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The unusually interesting discussion on whether Communists should be allowed to teach in American colleges, seems now to be reaching an end. It is therefore convenient to venture an estimate of this discussion, particularly of some of its neglected political connotations. By way of introduction, I might say that while opposed to restrictive legislation or procedures that would prevent Stalinists from teaching in the schools, I do not consider the question quite so open-and-shut as the civil libertarians seem to think it. No problem involving the Stalinists can be viewed in the traditional categories, for the Stalinist movement is a new, unprecedented factor in political life. But of that, more later.

The Position of Sidney Hook

The point of view of those who would prevent CP members from teaching in the schools has been most forcefully presented by Professor Sidney Hook, a teacher of philosophy at New York University, in his articles in the New York Times of February 27, 1949, the Saturday Evening Post of September 10, 1949 and Commentary of October, 1949. For a fruitful discussion, it will be necessary to summarize Hook’s view in some detail.

The discussion by Hook and others was originally provoked by the now-famous incident at the University of Washington, in which three professors were discharged and three placed on probation because of alleged membership in the CP. Commenting on this incident, Hook rightly observes that for the first time teachers rather than universities are being accused of violations of academic liberty. The charge against these teachers is that, by virtue of membership in a political party which insists on an unbreached intellectual discipline, they are unable to function freely and honestly in the classroom; they express, not their immediate opinion, but whatever the CP line happens to be. For, he writes, “any doctrinal impositions, no matter what their sources, which set up limits beyond which the professor cannot go, affect him as a scholar and a teacher.” Such a teacher, held in leash by an external discipline, is unable honestly to consider ideas contrary to his own. He is obliged automatically to reject alternative ideas as “bourgeois,” “Trotskyist,” “Titoist” or whatever the momentary label of opprobrium may be.

To support these assertions Hook quotes from The Communist, official CP magazine, of May, 1937: “Marxist-Leninist analysis must be injected into every class.” And, says, Hook, this “party line is laid down in every area of thought from art to zoology.” Thus, when the CP calls Roosevelt a social-fascist one year and a progressive the next, the Stalinist history professor will obediently “instruct” his student accordingly. These designations, however absurd, would be tolerable if they came from the professor’s own mind, but they do not; they are simply the consequence of party need and imposition.

Stalinist teachers, continues Hook, do not establish honest intellectual relations with their colleagues or students: “Communist party teachers are fearful of exposure and quite aware that their practices violate accepted notions of academic freedom.” They hold secret fraction meeting at which decisions are made – or more often, conveyed – on how to influence the thought of students, capture control of university institutions, shape the curriculum, etc.

While not in favor of the expulsion of Stalinist teachers under all circumstances, Hook believes that such expulsions are justified in principle. He rejects the argument that to expel CP teachers is to hold them guilty by association, for, he says, when a teacher joins the CP he is committing a specific act which destroys his ability to function as a free intellectual. To propose, as do some people, that Stalinists be expelled from faculties only if found guilty of specific violations of their academic obligations is, says Hook, dangerous because it must lead to a system of spying on teachers and difficult because there may be no clear line of demarcation between the behavior of a fellow-traveller and that of a CP member. (Hook is against the expulsion of fellow-travellers.) Finally, he proposes that any action taken against Stalinist teachers be decided by the faculties, rather than administrations or boards of trustees.

I hope the above adequately summarizes Hook’s views; he has counter-arguments which I shall discuss in the course of my rebuttal below.

The Social Context of the Question

It is important to note, at the outset, the manner in which the question is posed in Hook’s articles: Shall Communists Be Allowed to Teach? is the title of his first article. To put the matter this way is implicitly to assume that there is some general community, some “we” faced with the problem. But that is highly doubtful. The problem, if such it is, is faced only by those who, in or out of the universities, enjoy social power – i.e., the generally reactionary or conservative forces which dominate American educational institutions. For liberal or radical teachers, it is usually a problem of what to propose or counterpose or advise. To put the question as Hook does is, in effect, to deny it its actual social context, to ignore what must in discussion of public policy always be a central question: who employs social power? Nor is this an academic point, for from it flows a whole series of consequences: why do trustees want to expel Stalinists? is it in the interest of anti-Stalinist teachers to align themselves in any way with such trustees? what possibly disastrous results may follow from such expulsions?

What may seem abstract in the previous paragraph becomes decidedly concrete in light of the events at the University of Washington. It is quite significant that in all his articles Hook avoids taking a position with regard to the expulsions at that University. In fact, he conspicuously avoids discussing the question in the concrete, i.e., in terms of the one major incident in which his position may be tested. But the actual events at Washington are of great importance, helping us to place our discussion in a here-and-now context.

The University of Washington Cases

Six faculty members at the University of Washington, some of whom had taught there more than 20 years, were brought up on charges: Professors Butterworth, Phillips, Grundlach, Ely, Ethel and Jacobs. The charges, heard before the Faculty Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom, fell into two groups: 1) that the six were CP members, and 2) that they had violated faculty rules of behavior. After a time, it is important to note, the second group of charges was completely dropped – with the exception of Grundlach, whose expulsion was recommended on grounds irrelevant to this discussion. Against the other five, the only charge was membership in the CP. The Faculty Committee split into several fractions in its recommendations, but a majority opposed the expulsion of the five, while a differently constituted majority proposed a change in faculty rules which would make such expulsion possible in the future.

However, the Board of Regents chose to ignore the Faculty Committee’s recommendations, and discharged Grundlach, Butterworth and Phillips, the latter two self-admitted CP members since the mid-1930’s. The other three teachers who admitted to previous but lapsed CP membership and who refused to identify publicly members of the CP, were placed on “probation.”

Nor did these events occur in a social vacuum. They followed a one-and-a-half-year inquiry conducted by a state legislative committee which, in the words of Robert Lampman, a liberal member of the University’s Economics Department, “was a roadshow company version of a Martin Dies production.” (The Progressive, May 1949.) In other words, the action taken against these six professors was the consequence, at least in part and very probably in full, of a reactionary drive by a small-minded legislative committee which created an atmosphere of fear and hysteria.

When these facts are borne in mind, several questions arise with regard to Hook’s argument:

Hook, of course, is quite right in saying that doctrinal impositions, whatever their source, affect adversely the work of a teacher. But then we must notice that doctrinal impositions are the work not only of Stalinist teachers but of a great variety of other teachers: Catholics, NAM economics teachers, etc. Hook counters this view by saying that there is “no evidence whatsoever of the operation of Catholic cells in non-sectarian universities,” as there is of CP cells. Hook’s statement is true but irrelevant, for doctrinal imposition is not contingent on the existence of party cells: one can exist without the other.

It is true that the Catholics have no cells in the universities; they long ago abandoned such crude methods of operation. (I suppose, however, one could maintain that their cells meet regularly every Sunday morning.) The Catholic teachers generally don’t need the spur of cells, their intellectual discipline and coherence being products of centuries-long tradition and training. This intellectual discipline – or more accurately, as Hook puts is, doctrinal imposition – is often as extensive and severe as that of the Stalinist movement. (I speak of the genuine believers, not the fellow-travelling “sleepers” of the faith.) And this doctrinal imposition is no less real because Catholic teachers in any given university never hold “fraction” meetings.

Catholics and Stalinists

Surely, Hook must know that a Catholic teaching French history is no more likely to be objective about Voltaire than a Stalinist teaching Russian history will be about Trotsky. Surely he knows that a Catholic historian is no more likely to be objective about the role of the Vatican in modern politics, birth control, companionate marriage, contraceptives and Marxism than a Stalinist about Titoism. And is it likely that a Catholic philosopher will be more objective about “atheistic materialism” than a Stalinist about pragmatism? Of course, in practise, there are probably quite a few Catholic teachers who do discuss Voltaire, birth control and materialism with at least enough objectivity to give their students a reasonably accurate notion of the views with which they disagree (more than that one cannot ask of any teacher). But in practise there are also some Stalinist teachers of whom this can be said. In fact, so long as there is even one CP teacher known to be intellectually fair to opposing ideas in his classroom, then any proposal for the outright expulsion of all CP teachers invokes guilt by association.

Hook must decide which it is he objects to: doctrinal imposition or party cells. If the former, then many non-Stalinists teachers can be shown to be as guilty as Stalinists; if the former, then Hook faces the obligation of drawing a usable line of distinction between doctrinal imposition and the sincere and vigorous expression of an opinion. But if he objects to party cells, then Hook is raising another question, namely: do teachers have the right to form branches of a political organization on the campus ? Hook would undoubtedly reply that they do, but that he objects to conspiratorial organizations, a point which I shall discuss shortly. One thing should be clear: there is no necessary connection between doctrinal imposition and party cells; a fellow-traveller or CP member not functioning in a cell may express the party-line more faithfully than a CP member in a cell.

Consequently: non-CP members may be as guilty of doctrinal imposition as CP members and if Hook is to propose the expulsion of any teacher for such imposition he must, in fairness, propose the expulsion of all teachers, in or out of the CP, guilty of such behavior. Such a proposal, if carried out, would create a serious unemployment problem in the academic profession.

In actual life, it is impossible to prevent such imposition by teachers, and one may doubt whether it would be advisable to do so even if it were possible. If the university is to be a genuine intellectual center, it must confront the student with a variety of opinions, more or less reflecting those he will later meet in the outer world. The student must be taught to evaluate opinions, but he should not be insulated from any, even those of CP members.

In practise, what is the status of the Stalinist teacher? Here we reach the heart of the problem, and here Hook almost makes a convincing case.

If intellectual freedom involves the right to investigate and hold ideas without inhibition, then it must involve the right to act on those ideas; consequently, it is a violation of academic freedom to expel any teacher merely for belonging to a political party, no matter which. Difficult though it may be for Hook, or me, to understand how an adult intelligence trained in serious methods of inquiry can become a Stalinist, we must acknowledge not only the possibility that such may happen but the fact that it has. And, if I understand Hook correctly, he is saying that the mere fact that a teacher reaches Stalinist opinions, believes, say, that Stalin is fighting to save the world peace or to build socialism in Russia, is no reason to take punitive measures against him.

But then Hook makes another point which is important: namely, that when a teacher joins the CP, even if as a consequence of sincere and serious investigation of political possibilities, he surrenders his right and ability to think and speak freely in or out of the classroom. In this, Hook is partly right. And it is important to be clear as to just where he is right and wrong.

The Concealment of Affiliation

He is wrong when he says that Stalinist teachers violate academic freedom because they meet secretly and “are fearful of exposure.” Surely he must know that radicalism, or what is commonly taken for radicalism, has always been suspect in most American universities; that for a professor to admit to serious and committed radical views has meant and still often means to endanger the possibility of his winning tenure, promotions, research funds and social acceptance. There is consequently understandable reason and often considerable justification for Stalinists (who, no matter how wrongly, are usually taken to be radicals in the universities) to be “fearful of exposure.” When, during the recent war, they were tolerated and accepted in American life more than ever before or since, they functioned on the campus with very considerable openness now, of the cold war, they are being harried. To denounce Stalinist teachers for veiling their affiliations would be appropriate only if there were an intellectual atmosphere in the universities making for free and unpunished expression of all views, and only if this atmosphere were in turn sustained by a corresponding intellectual tolerance in the outer world. But to denounce Stalinist teachers for veiling their affiliations at a time when acknowledgment of them means possible loss of employment, is surely a rather dubious business.

Yet we must grant that Hook raises one highly serious point: that by the very nature of Stalinist discipline the teacher who joins the CP is unable to express himself freely. The mere fact, I would say, that he joins the CP does not mean that he is not acting as a free intellectual, for he is free to join or to quit whenever he wishes. But the discipline of the CP is such that it prevents the teacher from expressing himself critically (or at least tries to) on any segment of the CP line; in fact, it requires him to advocate the party line in its entirety regardless of his own opinions. Hook correctly says in this connection:

“Usually, he [the CP teacher] squares this to himself with the reflection that the point on which he feels the party line is wrong is comparatively unimportant. But it is precisely this subordination to his total commitment, and his evaluation of what is important or unimportant in the light of a political objective, that makes it impossible for him to exercise the free criticism he would engage in were he loyal to the principles of scientific inquiry.” (Emphasis in original).

An Important Distinction

Now here a distinction is necessary. There are occasions when an organization has the right to insist that its members publicly refrain from criticizing its policy, even if they disagree with it. When a union decides to call a strike, it has the right to demand that those of its members who believe the strike unwise still quit work; otherwise, they would be violating the union’s central reason for existence. When a political party runs candidates for office, it usually has the right to demand that its members not support the candidates of an opposing party; otherwise, there no longer really are political parties. To take a more grandiose example: when, just before the Bolshevik Revolution, Zinoviev and Kamenev divulged the Bolshevik perspective of a quick ascent to power, Lenin had the right to urge their expulsion, though being a wise man he didn’t.

But such problems of political discipline rarely, if ever, arise in a classroom. The distinction between a strike struggle and a discussion of genetics, materialism or the historical role of Roosevelt is perfectly clear, and in almost no conceivable circumstance does a political party have the right to demand of teachers that they follow in the classroom the kind of discipline sometimes necessary in the world of social struggle. Thus, a teacher who actually behaved as the CP resolution quoted by Hook insists he behave – that is, for example, defend Lysenko in a classroom while privately convinced Lysenko is wrong – would obviously be surrendering his intellectual independence.

So we must grant Hook’s claim that when a teacher joins the CP, knowingly the kind of universal intellectual discipline it demands, he is, at least formally, surrendering his intellectual independence. But this does not yet provide us with an answer to the question: should Stalinist teachers be expelled? We have still to ask ourselves several questions:

Is this kind of surrender of intellectual independence different in kind from that indulged in by other, non-Stalinist teachers?

Do, in practise, Stalinist teachers behave in the way the party resolution bids them to?

And even if they do, would the consequences of expelling them from the universities be more harmful to intellectual freedom than the consequences of permitting them to continue teaching?

Now it is clear, I think, that the behavior of a Stalinist teacher in the classroom, in so far as intellectual freedom is concerned, is not qualitatively different from that of Catholic or reactionary or sometimes even liberal teachers. Doctrinal imposition that is not the product of immediate organizational dictation is not necessarily better than doctrinal imposition that is the product of such dictation. Hook has compared the teacher’s signing of a CP card with an economics teacher’s accepting money from the NAM for propaganda in the classroom, but I think the comparison invalid. In the latter case the economics teacher is guilty of venal behavior, though in practise he may not say anything different from what is said by another professor who propounds the NAM line out of sheer love. But the teacher who sells himself for money should be expelled while the teacher who expresses the NAM point of view because he believes it should not be expelled. Now when another teacher joins the CP he does so with no expectation of personal gain; quite the contrary, he can only face personal discrimination and hardship. In almost every case, the CP teacher holds to his views out of deep conviction; he actually believes in the CP line by and large; and even if he does refrain from criticizing it here and there in his classroom (which, of course, is insupportable) he does so for intellectual reasons, out of intellectual convictions. That, alas, is the way his mind works; and no teacher of standard competence should be expelled for the way his mind works.

How Stalinist Teachers Behave

How do Stalinist teachers actually behave? It is hard to say in any generalized way, for there seem to be wide variations. But it is quite certain that they are seldom the party-line automata the CP resolution quoted by Hook directs them to be and as Hook assumes they are. It must be remembered that many CP teachers are men quite competent in their fields, with a certain training in the methods of free intellectual inquiry. They are not ordinary Stalinist hacks. At the Washington hearings one of the accused professors, an anthropologist, said that, while a CP member, he had differences of opinion with the CP on “certain points in scientific doctrine.” Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter; what matters is that this teacher could make this statement publicly. In the U.S., the CP is not in a position to enforce the kind of intellectual discipline from its teacher-members that Stalinist movements can in those countries where it has state power. And since the CP knows this it allows its teacher-members a greater degree of latitude in the expression of opinion than it does other members. (I recall that when the well-known Stalinist Morris Schappes taught in a New York college, he usually – with what inner resentment I neither know nor care – had to adhere to the rules of intellectual freedom in his classroom.) And often, too, some CP teachers will go out of their way to show their independence by criticizing the party line. Perhaps this is insincere, but the very fact that it can happen undermines the view that a teacher, merely because he joins the CP, is never in a position to do anything but parrot the party-line. And once the possibility is admitted that a CP teacher might still be able to act with a certain simulacrum of intellectual independence, then clearly the criterion for expulsion can no longer be mere membership in the CP but must be the actual behavior of individuals.

The Threat to the Campus

Yet it would be absurd to deny that teachers who join the CP usually cease to function as free teachers should. To keep them in the faculty of a school means to risk the possibility that they will convert a few students, perhaps capture a little pocket of power here and there, etc. But is this, at present, a serious danger? Is it Stalinism which threatens intellectual liveliness and independence on the campus today? Of course not; the power of the CP on the campus is now infinitesimal, a power largely sustained by those who conduct – not political – but punitive campaigns against it.

Hook writes:

“If removal of Communist Party members were to be used as a pretext by other reactionary elements to hurl irresponsible charges against professors whose views they disapprove, a case might be made for suspending action.”

For a man whose mind is as cogent and realistic as Sidney Hook’s, this statement is quite extraordinary. Were not the Washington expulsions the direct consequence of reactionary elements hurling irresponsible charges ? (One of the charges was against a teacher, Melvin Rader, who, it has been conclusively shown, had no

connection with the CP; he was forced to go to great pains, losing much money and time, in order to “clear” himself.) And isn’t there at least an “atmospheric relationship,” if not a direct causal one, between the Washington case and the subsequent expulsion of an Oregon professor for defending Lysenko’s genetic system? But, most important of all, one must be wilfully indifferent to the potentialities of one’s proposals if one sees no serious danger in expelling teachers for being Communists at a time when the cold war becomes increasingly warm.

Reasons for Dismissal

There are, of course, instances in which it is quite proper to propose the discharge of a Stalinist teacher. Suppose a Stalinist who is assigned to teach physics devotes himself exclusively to discussing the wonders of Russia in his classroom. Or suppose a Stalinist teacher visibly discriminates against an anti-Stalinist student in grading. Or suppose, again, that a Stalinist teacher refuses his students the normal rights of discussion and conducts his class as if it were a local of the fur workers’ union. In such instances, these teachers should be discharged, not because of their political views, but because they are not properly performing their duties as teachers – i.e., because of their individual behavior.

Hook offers two objections to this proposed procedure: it would involve spying on teachers and it would be difficult to distinguish CP members from fellow-travellers. If it is necessary to “spy” on a teacher to find out if he is misusing his classroom, then the overwhelming likelihood is that he is not; consequently, there is no reason to discharge him. When teachers act as petty tyrants, the news travels very quickly in the universities. (But what about those teachers who are subtle and clever in spreading the CP line? Whoever asks that question is clearly determined to expel teachers merely for their opinion.) As for Hook’s second objection, it is meaningful only if one’s premise is that the automatic elimination of all CP members from the campus is desirable. But if one judges teachers by their individual behavior, then it is quite conceivable that a fellow-traveller might merit expulsion while a CP teacher might not. The essential criterion is: how does this teacher behave in the classroom, not what does he think.

In his articles Hook continually makes the comparison between fascists and Stalinists. If, he says, people do not object to the expulsion of a fascist teacher, why then object to the expulsion of a Stalinist? Which is true, but irrelevant.

Teachers holding fascist views should not be discharged merely because of those views. If a man like Lawrence Dennis were a competent member of a faculty, it would be most unwise, particularly in the present atmosphere, to advocate his discharge. The expression of fascist opinion in intellectual terms should not be prohibited. But if a teacher taunts Jewish students with anti-Semitic remarks, thereby directly humiliating and preventing the growth of a reciprocal relationship between himself and the students, he should be discharged. Thus, the problem in the Knickerbocker case at CCNY was not whether Knickerbocker held fascist or anti-Semitic opinions but whether he had made anti-Semitic remarks to his students. (If the mere holding of anti-Semitic opinions were enough to warrant the expulsion of teachers, there would have to be a considerable cleansing of the American universities – as Hook must certainly know.)

The comparison between Stalinist and fascist teachers is invalid for yet another reason. Stalinism is today attacked as if it were part of the radical movement. To advocate punitive measures against the CP is to advocate suppression which in the public eye is directed against radical dissidence – which, in turn, makes it somewhat easier for the persecution of actual radical groups, e.g., the recent Attorney General’s “subversive list.” It is here necessary to understand that the CP is not merely a totalitarian organization, though it is that, but that it is also a movement which peculiarly bases itself on and exploits the legitimate dissatisfactions of workers and intellectuals. And those power agencies which today attack the CP have no particular reason to distinguish the pseudo-radical from the genuinely radical. To support such suppression is to help strengthen the adherence to the CP of those of its followers who should be won away from it – for the best CP supporters, the most sincere and idealistic ones, will draw closer to it when it is persecuted, only the middle-brow riff-raff will run in fright.

Two political aspects of this discussion remain to be mentioned, which while they do not directly affect the problems discussed tell us a great deal about the context in which they are raised. First, one wonders why this issue has suddenly become so vital at precisely this moment. Is the discussion based on a high- minded desire to keep the universities intellectually clean, or is it the product of the rather less academic cold war? To put the question in another way: why was not the dismissal of Stalinist teachers proposed during the years when the U.S. and Russia were war allies ? Surely, the Stalinist teachers were then no different, no less treacherous. Or is it as the Stalinists themselves like to say, that conditions have changed?

Perhaps most depressing, however, in this entire discussion is what it reveals about the intellectuals of the “anti-Stalinist left.”

The truth seems to be that most of these intellectuals are rapidly losing their capacity for political action on any issue but opposition to Stalinism. When the opposition committee to the Stalinist Waldorf conference was formed last spring, scores of intellectuals who had been politically mummified for years suddenly sprung to excited life. Good: it was necessary to fight the Stalinists. But it is questionable whether many of these people could be roused to action on any other issue. I do not mean to say that the intellectuals of whom I speak do not despise Jim Crow or that they do not believe in civil liberties. But their political orientation and social values are such that they have lost the capacity, for the most part, to act on those domestic social problems which once agitated so many American intellectuals. They may and do recognize that there are dangers in this country other than Stalinism, but in their deepest feelings, in those feelings which are the true focus of their existence, these other dangers no longer stir them. Only Stalinism rouses their feelings, only Stalinism can jolt them into making an occasional political response.

And this is a great danger – not least of all because it is so certain a way of helping Stalinism



1. Hook’s only remark that might be construed as such a reference is curious. In his Commentary article he violently attacks Professor Helen Lynd, who, in the Spring 1949 American Scholar, wrote that she had private information from several people who attended the Washington Legislative Committee’s hearings that Representative Albert Canwell, head of the Committee, had stated: “If anyone insists there is discrimination against Negroes in this country, or that there is inequality of wealth, there is every reason to believe that person is a Communist.” Hook quotes from a letter from Canwell denying that he ever made such a statement. How, asks Hook, can a reputable social scientist like Helen Lynd make such serious charges against Canwell merely on the basis of hearsay, and why did not Lynd ask Canwell directly if he had made the alleged statement?

We may grant that Helen Lynd should have checked her information with Canwell, though Canwell’s denial does not necessarily mean that he actually did not make the statement. In fact, if Canwell’s denial is conclusive, why has he not sued Helen Lynd for character misrepresentation? Why was his denial contingent, as it apparently was, on a request from Hook that he speak up?

There is no more reason to credit or discredit Canwell’s denial than the charges of Helen Lynd’s unnamed informants. No stenographic record of the hearings was kept, and in the absence of such a record there are obvious reasons why either side should wish to distort the facts. But even if Canwell did not make such a hair-raising statement, the atmosphere created in Washington was not one conducive to fair treatment of the accused. The sheer fact that such a legislative committee held hearings points to the presence of intimidation. For is not intimidation the very raison d’être of such committees?

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