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Julius Falk

Youth and Student Corner

[Academic Rights]

(7 March 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 10, 7 March 1949, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

At Queens College, Olivet, University of Washington, Oregon and elsewhere the attacks on academic rights have spread like a political rash. There is no evidence of “conspiracy” between the administrations of these institutions, but the assault on student and faculty rights in each of them is politically related to the intensity of the cold war and the general uneasiness which grips the academic powers-that-be in such a pre-war atmosphere.

The attempts of civic and school administrations to stifle dissent is nothing new in the United States. But there are a number of unique aspects to this particular drive which need to be indicated and discussed.

The traditional source of inspiration, as well as the initiative for and leadership of the drive to “kick out the Reds” from the school system, is no longer the same. In the past it was the most prejudiced and reactionary forces – Hearst, for example – which virtually monopolized this “crusade.” Today, however, the spokesmen for suppression of classroom freedom include “socialists,” liberals of high academic standing and the like. These gentlemen have introduced a new ingredient into what is essentially the same anti-democratic stew. Unlike the Hearst followers of yesteryear, they do not emphasize chauvinism or jingoism but use a much more subtle approach: what they claim is the best interests of academic freedom.

The argument goes as follows: a teacher who is a member of the Communist Party is not a free agent but, on the contrary, must follow the dictates of his Russia-dominated party. He must bring into the classroom not only the curriculum but the various political twists and turns of his constantly gyrating organization. Therefore, the Stalinist as a teacher cannot be objective or allow for honest investigation and the free play of ideas, but must constantly channelize lecture and discussion in such a manner as to indoctrinate students with totalitarian concepts. Thus, the argument concludes, the Stalinist teacher falls outside the pale of academicians, privileged to teach in conformity with accepted democratic educational techniques.

Political Motivation

The story looks almost convincing on the surface but a bit of reflection is all that is necessary to unmask the superficiality of this approach.

To begin with, it must be pointed out that the Communist Party, is not the only reactionary institution which has its spokesmen on the campus. There are many others who must follow the dictates of their organizations. For example, a member of the Catholic Church who teaches, and there are many such, is bound by a discipline no less insistent than that of the Stalinists, to teach in accordance with his theological views. Otherwise he may be excommunicated by the church and as a result damned to the fires of everlasting hell. Therefore, isn’t it fair to conclude that the tie of a devout Catholic teacher to his church has at least as much compulsion as the obligation of a Communist faculty member to his party? At least the Communist Party has not as yet asserted its powers over individual destiny in the hereafter.

The answer lies outside the realm of educational philosophy. It is not an academic problem primarily, but a political one. The motivation for the drive against the Stalinists flows from the conflict between Russian and American imperialism and the desire on the part of the American ruling class to eliminate opposition to its ideology in our great halls of learning. It is the campus counterpart of loyalty purges and Taft-Hartleyism. What is more, this pressure is being felt, not only by the Stalinists, but, as is inevitable, by non-conformists of all types, liberals, pacifists, socialists, etc.

Exchange of Ideas

What must be pointed out next is the simple fact which is so freely overlooked by the sophisticated exponents of thought regulation. That is, that the Communist Party, fortunately, neither writes the textbooks nor makes up the curriculum for the course of study. It is impossible for any Stalinist, no matter how hard he tries, especially in the physical and natural sciences, to make his own Stalinist views more than incidental to what is the normal course of study.

The fact that a Stalinist history teacher may distort certain phases of his subject, is no more reason to fire him than the typical bourgeois teacher who is hardly objective in his approach.

One function of the classroom should be that of a laboratory wherein all ideas can be discussed and examined. From this point of view, the presence of Stalinists on teaching staffs serves a useful function of introducing students to this particular ideology. Students are not so intellectually frail that contact with Stalinist ideology via either other students or teachers will make them succumb to it in a democratic atmosphere. We should not fear, but rather welcome the opportunity to combat Stalinism in the open. The legal suppression of Stalinist teachers will not even accomplish its purpose of delimiting the influence they have had on the student body. On the contrary, it will afford the Stalinists the opportunity to utilize their mistreatment, pose as martyrs of the progressive cause and thus gain additional support from- the student body which might not be the case if students are permitted contact with all ideologies.

Analogy with Fascists

But aren’t you in favor of dropping fascists and Nazis from teaching staffs when they preach anti-Semitism, racial discrimination and labor-hating, the earmarks of this genre of totalitarianism? If so, why quibble over the dismissal of those who demonstrably owe allegiance to Stalinist totalitarianism? This argument by analogy is another clever approach employed to justify the recent firings. Let us see how valid it is.

The methods of fighting totalitarianism are not absolute. That is, they vary from situation to situation and from one kind of totalitarianism to another. The above question does not take this into consideration, and therein lies its essential fallacy. The teacher who teaches race hatred cannot be regarded in the same light as the one who tries to convince us of the blessings of Russian life. Today, those who can be swayed by a Nazi will not be the same element as those convinced by a Stalinist. The former will be the most backward students who are predisposed to racist propaganda; the latter are invariably the more rebellious students and they are the ones whom we must be most concerned with. The suppression of the Stalinist teacher will not break the rebellious student from Stalinism but only increase its prestige in his eyes.

In a comparison of the right of the Stalinist and the Nazi to teach, we must bear in mind the base of support each of these totalitarian forces has off campus. In the one case, the Stalinists have their support in a section of the working class; the Nazi or fascist organizations have support in the most backward wing of the middle class, land and capitalist class. We should be interested in winning away the Stalinist worker from his party; we do not show the same concern for the social base of the Nazi or fascist movement. We cannot break the Stalinist worker from his party by refusing his intellectual leaders the right to teach in the school system.

Standard of Competence

Another reason why progressives must defend the right of a Stalinist to teach, and not necessarily that of a fascist, is the fact that anti-Stalinist legislation on campus can be more easily broadened to include all those who are genuine opponents of American imperialism; off campus this kind of legislation can always be extended to include real left-wing parties and the labor movement itself.

No teacher should be barred from his profession on the basis of his convictions. The prime determinant must be, not political ideology, but competence in his particular field. If a Stalinist can teach math effectively then he is entitled – as is the Catholic or the advocate of “free love” – to be a teacher. For once the standard of competence is dropped and that of ideology substituted for it, no matter how “democratic” the motivation given, the consequence will spell disaster for freedom of education.

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