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R. Fahan

Washington Case Raises Civil Liberties Issue

Should Stalinists Be Permitted
to Teach?

(14 March 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 11, 14 March 1949, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most interesting civil liberties case since the frameup of Trotskyists in Minneapolis during the war has arisen in the University of Washington. The issues involved are several: academic freedom, the nature of the present academic climate, the right of Stalinists to teach, the role of anti-Stalinists in the universities. Before discussing these, however, I should like to present a few facts.

What actually happened at the University of Washington? Three professors – Herbert Phillips, Ralph Grundlach and Joseph Butterworth – were fired by the university’s Board of Regents for being members of the Communist Party, Phillips and Butterworth having admitted their membership. Before the Board of Regents acted, the matter was discussed by two other bodies: the Faculty Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom and the Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities of the State of Washington. (These facts are taken from an excellent article by Ralph Lampman, a member of the university’s economics department, in the March Progressive.)

The Faculty Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom voted to dismiss ONLY Grundlach, for reasons quite irrelevant to the present case. It did NOT vote to dismiss Phillips and Butterworth. The Faculty Committee acted AFTER a year and a half long investigation by the local version of the Dies-Thomas Committee, which had hailed professors to its chambers to pry into their political beliefs. Phillips, Grundlach and Butterworth had refused to answer questions on constitutional grounds. Three other teachers – E. Harold Eby, Garland Ethel and Melville Jacobs – admitted to having been members of the CP, said they had since dropped out, but refused, when urged by the committee, to divulge the names of other members of the CP.

Please keep clear in your mind the fact that the charges were filed by the university AFTER the legislative committee’s hearing against the above six teachers. You will see why that is important as we go along ... especially when we get to Professor Sidney Hook, ex-Marxist and doubtful democrat.

Charges Fall into Two Categories

The charges against the six were of two general kinds: One, that they were members of the CP and that membership in the Communist Party is incompatible with intellectual and academic freedom, since they now subscribe, as Raymond Allen, president of the university, said, to “the doctrines and dogmas of a political party which admits of no criticism of its fundamental principles and program.” The second group of charges: that the accused had committed specific acts representing academic dishonesty, incompetence and neglect of duty, such as failure to observe proper standards of objectivity in classroom work and failure to respond satisfactorily to questions put by the legislative snoopers.

Now notice that as soon as Butterworth and Phillips admitted to CP membership, the college administration dropped the second group of charges and concentrated on the first one: CP membership pure and simple.

This is the way the 11-member Faculty Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom voted. Five felt that under the existing tenure code the professors could not be fired, because they were being tried on an ex post facto basis, that is, they were being tried for “crimes” which had not previously been specified as such. They believed, however, that the tenure provisions should be reversed to allow CP members to be fired. Three other members were against firing CP members. Three other members were for it.

How to interpret this split of opinion? A majority of the Faculty Committee was in the immediate situation, against firing Butterworth andPhillips. But President Allen claimed that a majority of the committee favored firing CP members “in principle.” Both interpretations may be right, but the fact remains that the Board of Regents rejected the SPECIFIC advice ot the Faculty Committee. Furthermore, be it noted that the majority of the Faculty Committee declared Butterworth and Phillips academically competent.

The Socio-Political Context of Case

These are the facts; now, the issues.

Articles have been written by Professor John Childs and Professor Sidney Hook, the former a Liberal and the latter a Social Democrat, approving the firing of the CP people. Their argument can be summarized briefly: The CP is not a political party in the usual sense of the word; it is a conspiratorial organization loyal to a foreign power and equivalent to a spy society; it exerts the kind of unquestioning intellectual discipline – from art to zoology, says Hook – which makes it impossible for them to be honest teachers. What is not involved, they say, as President Allen of the U. of Washington has said, is the right of teachers to hold Marxist views. Only party membership counts.

Now there is a good deal of truth in SOME of these remarks. But the totality is a dangerous argument.

The CP is a conspiratorial organization of the kind Hook says it is; it is an agent of a foreign power. But it must also be remembered that it is being attacked on the grounds, inaccurate though they are, that it is a “RADICAL” organization. And it must be remembered that the fired professors are being charged with belonging to a “radical” organization, and that the charges against them are the consequences of a long session of legislative committee “investigating” – with all the reactionary, anti-civil liberties implications of that fact. And it is more than curious that. Hook in his article does not mention this fact; he writes as if Butterworth and Phillips were fired simply as a result of a calm, reasoned discussion of the faculty, even though exactly the contrary is the truth.

Now it takes no special brilliance to realize that, there is today a general attack on civil liberties in the making; that the reactionary forces which are attacking the Stalinists are quite ready to attack, as well, anti-Stalinists. Hook himself is a little worried about this. He 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.” That “IF” is beautiful. Doesn’t Hook know about the Olivet case, the case of the Oregon professor fired, not for being a member of the CP, but for believing in Lysenko’s genetics, And above all, doesn’t he know that the action of the U. of Washington is the DIRECT consequence of the snooping of the state legislative committee? That should show that there are reactionary elements involved.

For us, this is the first consideration, the prime consideration: in what social and political context, in what climate of intellectual opinion, is the firing taking place? I would say that the indisputable fact is that the firings are taking place in an atmosphere of general repression of intellectual freedom – a repression that is not yet extreme, that has only begun but is nonetheless evident. And from that central point of view, it is necessary to oppose the firing of Butterworth and Phillips.

Can Stalinists Present “Truth”?

But let us look at a few of the general arguments on the question of Stalinist teachers. We are told they cannot present the truth, because they belong to a disciplined organization. But that raises some interesting questions. It would be false to equate the Catholic Church with the Stalinist movement, but the church is as INTELLECTUALLY, if not organizationally, disciplined as the CP. Suppose a Catholic teacher is discussing birth control? Can he – tell us, Professor Hook! – tell “the truth”? Suppose a Catholic teacher is discussing the role of the Vatican in a history class? Can he tell the truth? And suppose, again, that a professor of one of the usual business schools is talking about the labor movement; can he present the truth?

The answer is obvious. There are innumerable biases in universities, biases as stubbornly clung to by people outside of the CP as inside it. There are many professors in whom we have no greater confidence to tell the “truth” than in Stalinists. The problem cannot be posed as if the university is some sort of abstract body, completely apart from capitalist society. The university is part of capitalist society, susceptible to its pressures, usually doing its bidding; and only by extremely persistent efforts is it possible for any kind of oppositionist views to retain their standing in the university. To assume that Stalinists should be expelled because they cannot tell the truth is to lay the way open for the most appalling sort of repressions.

But there is another question. Who is to tell which truth is the “real” truth? If the university were somehow exempt from the criss-cross of opinions in the modern world and could, by some stroke of intuition, reach the truth, then perhaps it could pretend to judge. But that claim would be ludicrous. Hook and Allen speak as if they have the truth tucked away in their back pocket. We agree that the Stalinists don’t have the truth, but we say that to fire people because we think THAT is to turn to the methods of the inquisitor.

In any case, if the university is to serve as a genuine intellectual preparation for life, it must confront the student with a variety of opinions, more or less reflecting those to be met in the outside world. Those who want to defeat Stalinism should realize that, especially since it attracts, often enough, the most sincere and radical elements among the students, it is necessary to use intellectual, political arguments against it, rather than police clubs. Hammer away at them in the classrooms; defeat them in debates; isolate them intellectually – good. But do not stoop to Stalinist methods to fight the Stalinists – if only because you thereby help the ‘Stalinists.

Hook argues that in joining the CP teachers commit an intellectual ACT which disqualifies them to teach. That is sophistical argumentation. By a specific act that would disqualify a Stalinist professor, one could mean: giving lower grades to anti-Stalinists than their work deserves; discriminating against anti-Stalinists in the faculty, etc., etc. If such charges can be proved, then let the Stalinist teachers be fired. But it is significant – is it not, Professor Hook? – that these charges were DROPPED in the Butterworth and Phillips cases.

It may be argued that one can tell in advance how a Stalinist will behave. There is truth in that. (After all, we are not trying to say that it is, GOOD to have Stalinist teachers; we are saying only that it is WORSE to fire them.) But it must be remembered that academic Stalinists may often be different from others. One of the six teachers in Washington, a teacher of anthropology, testified that he had disagreed with the CP on certain points of “scientific doctrine.” That may seem unlikely – but it is not impossible. Fortunately for human beings, we are not all completely consistent. A Stalinist teacher cannot necessarily be assumed to be dishonest and unfair to anti-Stalinist colleagues or students. If he is, oust him – on SPECIFIC academic charges. But no expulsion by association.

A Few Questions to Prof. Hook

We wish finally to say a word about Hook’s article. Hook says that he thinks the whole problem would be solved if the faculties were allowed to make decisions on such cases, rather than boards of trustees or regents. Within limits we agree with that. (Why not provision for student participation in such decisions?) In that case, however, we would ask him a few questions:

  1. Since the majority of the Faculty Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom voted AGAINST expelling Butterworth and Phillips, why do you not stand with them?
  2. What is your opinion about the action of the Board of Regents in placing on probation for two years the three teachers who HAD been CP members but were so no longer? After all, Prof. Hook, other people could be put on probation for reasons like that.
  3. You say that you would allow faculty bodies to decide on Stalinists and that you favor firing of Stalinist teachers because they cannot teach honestly. Good. We should like to see you argue that such Stalinists (it does not matter if they are CP members) as Burgum of NYU’s English department or Struik of MIT should be fired for incompetence as teachers. Would you be willing to try that? Would you be willing to urge Burgum’s dismissal on the ground that he changed his opinion of Andre Malraux since Malraux quit the Stalinists?

That Hook is on weak grounds, and not too happy about them either, is seen in a letter he sent to the New York Times protesting the firing of a professor from Oregon State University for supporting the genetics of Lysenko. Hook tries to distinguish between firing a scientist for surrendering “his freedom to inquire into the truth by virtue of Communist Party membership” and firing him for coming to erroneous scientific conclusions. But doesn’t he see that the former leads to the latter by creating certain climates of opinion?

This question is not simple. Stalinists as teachers create much damage. But in the university as elsewhere there is only one way to fight them: political exposure and intellectual defeat.

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