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George Breitman

Social Democrats Endorse
Witch-Hunt in Colleges

(21 February 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 8, 21 February 1949, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The New Leader, rallying center for Social Democrats, Trumanite liberals and assorted Stalinophobes, has now given its formal blessing to the spreading invasion of the witch-hunt into the field of education. In addition, as proof that there is no service for capitalist reaction which the New Leader is unwilling to perform, it has offered to the witch-hunters – free of charge – a “non-political” formula which they can use as a “democratic” mask for their academic purges.

Must attacks on democratic rights begin with expressions of devotion to democracy. And the New Leader editorial of Feb. 5 is no exception:

“Freedom of teaching is an ancient and respected part of the American system ... It is well to have among the instructors teachers belonging to all partips and to all opinion groups from the most conservative to the most radical ... Americans have always believed in the freedom which provides this sort of intellectual variety.”

But –

“But in this system of academic freedom, the Communists present a special problem. Can we increase and preserve our freedom of teaching by hiring and retaining as instructors men who are not free? Members of the Communist Party or, often enough, men under the influence of Communist thought have made intellectual commitments. They, themselves, are not free to approach problems openly and critically. What they are bound to teach is sterile and prescribed. Any university or educational System is justified in rejecting such instructors on purely educational grounds ...”

And that’s the formula. Purge the teachers not on the basis of certain political or theoretical differences – but on the ground that those who have such differences are automatically unable to teach the “objective truth” and are not qualified as teachers on “purely educational grounds.” Don’t fire Professor Jones because he tends to accept Marxist ideas – that’s too crude. Fire him on the ground that he isn’t a good teacher – that sounds more “democratic” and less “discriminatory.”

The, formula is not original, of course. It is borrowed, as virtually all Social Democratic ideas are, from one school of reaction of another. Stalin uses it in his purges too; educators ousted from schools in the Soviet Union are not only accused of deviating from the Stalinist political line but also of failing in their duty as teachers. And when James Kutcher was fired in Newark, he was not accused of believing in socialism but of “disloyalty” which disqualified him to work as a file clerk for the VA.

“Dangerous Thoughts”

What does the New Leader mean by “intellectual commitments?” It obviously cannot mean mere beliefs. All teachers, to one degree or another, more or less cohspiously or firmly, must have some beliefs in theories or systems of ideas. If they don’t, they are hardly fitted to teach anything.

Take Professor James Burnham, for example. A rabid propagandist for American imperialism, he is also the country’s foremost publicist for the victory of deGaullism in France. Should he be fired from the teaching staff of New York University because of these intellectual commitments? Obviously not,. according to the New Leader, which has just completed the publication of three articles by Burnham extolling deGaullist authoritarianism. In short, it is not mere belief or advocacy of belief, no matter how reactionary, which disqualifies a man as a teacher in the eyes of the New Leader.

“Intellectual commitments,” then, is Social Democratic jargon for “dangerous thoughts” – dangerous, that is, to capitalism. Teachers with pro-capitalist commitments are acceptable to the Social Democrats; advocates of “free enterprise” and agitators for war against the Soviet Union are not “sterile and prescribed” and can be depended on to give their students the objective truth.

But those teachers who question or reject the premises of capitalism – either from the viewpoint of revolutionary Marxism or of Stalinism, which the Social Democrats join the Stalinists in identifying as one and the same thing although they are opposites – such teachers are congenitally incapable of presenting the truth apd must be driven from the campus. This is the gospel of democracy, 1949 model, as interpreted by the ideologists of the coming war of “democracy against totalitarianism.”

Where Do They Stand?

Almost simultaneous with the appearance of this editorial was the passage by the Oklahoma House of Representatives of a bill requiring the signing of an “anti-communist” oath by both faculty and students at the University of Oklahoma. (These legislators evidently believe that if teachers with “intellectual commitments” have no place in the schools, then neither have students with such commitments.) The bill, now under consideration by the State Senate, would subject violators to a $500 fine and 10 days in jail.

It has aroused a veritable storm of opposition from the faculty and student body as well as nonacademic organizations – none of whom parade as “theoreticians of democratic socialism” like the New Leader crowd. The following questions therefore present themselves:

On what logical ground can the New Leader do anything but support such a measure in principle? If it is in the interests of the Social Democratic concept of academic freedom to purge the school of those with dangerous thoughts, why should they balk at implementing their concepts along the lines followed by the Oklahoma legislators? Will its editors in their next issue have the courage to stand by their own intellectual commitments and applaud the Oklahoma action and demand its extension throughout the country’s schools? (There is nothing fantastic about such a possibility when you recall that the Social Democrats favor the retention of the anti-communist affidavit introduced in the Taft-Hartley Law.)

An Uneasy Plea

Throw them out, but give more freedom to those of us who support you in this move – that is the note on which the New Leader editorial ends:

“As long as teachers are democrats, as long as they are not disloyal, they should be encouraged to follow the truth and to encourage freedom of thought and discussion among their students. The effort to root out Communists – who are against freedom – must logically be accompanied by a conscious effort tp increase the boundaries of freedom.”

There is good reason for this uneasy note in the Social Democrats’ plea to the ruling class. They know well enough that witch-hunters don’t always stop to draw fine distinctions about treating “democratic socialists” or even liberals differently from Marxists or Stalinists (see, for example, the dismissal from Olivet College of Professor Tucker. P. Smith, a member of the Socialist Party which is blood-brother to the Social Democratic Federation.) They know from the way Hitler treated the German Social Democrats that reactionaries are not always properly grateful for anti-communist formulas and tend to lump together and destroy every organization associated with the labor movement.

The Social Democrats have good reason for trepidation, but their pleas for special privilege will not suffice to stop the march of reaction. You cannot put out a fire by feeding it fuel. That is just what the Social Democrats are doing, and eventually they are going to get burned too.

It will be interesting to see what reaction to this, editorial, if any, will come from John Dewey, a contributing editor of this paper. Or from such recent recruits to its list of contributors as the novelist, James T. Farrell.

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