log in

  • Published in Book extracts

The second extract from Heller's The Capitalist University describes intellectual and political conformity that dominated academia during the Cold War


Henry Heller The Capitalist University: the Transformations of Higher Education in the United States, 1945-2016 (Pluto Press 2016)

The assault on the Communist Party and Marxist influence was a completely unwarranted attack on political and intellectual freedom. It deeply wounded American democracy and cultural life—wounds from which they have scarcely recovered. Moreover, the idea that the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party were bent on revolutionary change in this period is false. The Stalinist conversion to a popular front, as we have noted, was no mere tactic. It represented for better or worse a profound change in the nature of the communist movement, one which no doubt also reflected a conservative transformation within the Soviet Union, namely the liquidation of the old communist political and cultural vanguard. The popular front and its deepening during World War II meant that the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party had committed themselves to a long-term strategy of evolution rather than revolution as the path to socialism. It reflected itself in Soviet attitudes toward the politics of post-war Germany, Italy, Greece, and China. In the United States in the post-1945 period, it meant extending the influence of the Communist Party by deepening the New Deal. The sudden hardening of American policy with respect to the Soviet Union and labor unrest under Truman took communist leaders aback.

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.57 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.58

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.59 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.60 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.61 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.62

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 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.63 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. […]

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?67 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.”68 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.


57. Francis Stonor Saunders, Who aid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London: Granta Books, 1999, p. 86.

58. Ibid., pp. 89, 91, 92.

59. Ibid., pp. 161–6.

60. Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism and the Cold War, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999, p. 272.

61. Wang, Age of Anxiety, pp. 274–9.

62. Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 188.

63. Ibid., p. 94.

64. Ibid., pp. 105–12, 127.

65. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 326.

66. Schrecker, No Ivory Tower p. 116.

67. David Parker, Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2008.

68. Quoted in Schrecker, No Ivory Tower, p. 216.

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now