A New Left Historian Rewrites Some History

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Can it be
that “it is not left-wing academics, but
ideologues of the radical right, who are pursuing political correctness in
American universities?”  No, not really, but that’s what 
1960’s activist and historian, and more recently labor lawyer, Staughton Lynd,
argues on The History News
 site. In a
hagiographic obituary for historian Herbert Shapiro, Lynd charges that the right has purged faculties by selecting for teachers
friendly to “the unrestricted pursuit of profit.”  He says flatly, “conservatism
rather than radicalism threatens the free exchange of ideas, intellectual
tolerance, and the life of the mind in academia.” 

case is thin and rambling. Echoing Shapiro, he starts with a minor incident
from the 1890s, citing a regent of 
University of Wisconsin who said that the economist Richard Ely was writing
“utopian, impractical and pernicious books,” and in Lynd’s words, was accused
of “consorting with union organizers, and supporting strikes.” Why cite this
now? As Lynd undoubtedly knows, many universities today have labor history
studies, as well as entire departments dedicated to training union personnel,
with no one risking dismissal for “consorting with union organizers.”

An Exaggerated Argument

University of Washington even has a “Harry Bridges
School for Labor Studies,”
 named after the head of the
International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union–and secret member of the
American Communist Party’s Central Committee. And in New York City, for
example, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York contains “The
Center for Place, Culture and Politics,” “The American Social History Project,”?”The
Center for the Study of Culture, Technology and Work,” and other similar
centers all devoted to setting a radical agenda for our country’s
transformation. If the right wing were to establish similar centers in major
universities devoted to creating a new generation of activists on the right, he
would be yelling bloody murder about how conservatives have taken over our
universities. These centers are all good examples of the politicization of the
universities by the academic left, clearly a development Lynd looks upon

from the 1890s to the 1940s,
 Lynd picks on a favorite target
of the far left—the Rapp-Coudert Committee
. It “forced
the dismissal of more than forty college faculty,
the Communists Philip S. Foner and Morris U. Schappes, the latter  who
“was sent to prison for supposedly testifying untruthfully to the Committee as
to the number of his colleagues whom he knew to be communists.” (Schappes was
in fact, 
lying, as I’m certain Lynd knows.)

Committee, set up by the New York State legislature, held hearings between 1940
and 1942 
to investigate so-called
seditious activities. 
Recently, in an article written
for a
exhibit about the firings displayed
at CUNY, Carol Smith referred to the hearings
 as a
“dress rehearsal for McCarthyism.”

hold no brief for a government investigation at any university carried out to
probe so-called “subversive” activity on the campus, particularly when it meant
investigating the political views and activities of faculty members. They were
denied counsel, 
pressured to reveal the names of colleagues
involved in leftist activities, and if they acknowledged they were Communists,
they had to name other Communists. But this is not the entire story. 

Communism Actually Posed A Threat

also writes that faculty members had joined the Communist Party because they
“viewed it as the most effective political vehicle to combat Fascism,
unemployment, and social and racial injustice.” The Communists, in other words,
were simply “liberals in a hurry,” uncompromising fighters on behalf of
the people. But in fact the professors closely followed the Communist 
line, attacking FDR and defending Hitler when the Hitler-Stalin pact was in
force, then switching positions abruptly to attack Hitler after he invaded the
Soviet Union

What Smith does
not address, however, is whether or not the professors who were called to
testify used their position to try and promote Communist policy to their
students, itself a violation of the principle of academic freedom.   

Why, then, when
the Board of Higher Education acted after receiving the Committee’s report, and
suspended those faculty members who had testified at public hearings and
refused to name others they knew to be Communists, did the public not rally to
their defense and demand that the dismissed teachers be hired back? After all,
were not the largely Jewish student body and their parents also opposed to
Fascism? Did they not want to defend Schappes and the other Jewish professors
and one African-American professor who were fired?

The answer is
simple. The Communists were promoting a
pro-fascist foreign policy. That stance is what led most New Yorkers to look
askance at them. If the public now looked favorably upon the activities of
the anti-Communist legislators of New York State, their task was made more than
easy for them by the position taken by the subpoenaed Communist professors. The
reason the Board of Higher Education fired them was clearly because the public
pressure of New Yorkers forced them to acquiesce in taking action of an
anti-Communist nature.
 Today’s reality is quite different.  We
do not live in the atmosphere of the hearings
in the period before the U.S. entered World War II. 
 At any rate, it is odd to cite a mid-1940’s episode as
indicative of right-wing power on campus now. ( In 1981, CUNY made public
restitution,), expressing “profound regret” at the firings and forced
resignations of its professors because of their membership in the Communist

In conclusion,
Lynd writes:

(Shapiro) critiqued, in turn, Illiberal Education by Dinesh D’Souza, Alan
Closing of the American Mind, C. Vann Woodward at the end of
his career, Eugene Genovese, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and
Ronald Radosh. He cites the work of Gilbert Allardyce as showing that courses
on Western civilization championed by opponents of PC had their origin in the
course on war aims developed at Columbia University during World War I. He
On Active Service in Peace and War by Jesse Lemisch.

I am flattered to learn that Shapiro and Lynd put me in such distinguished
company, especially in a list of the great historians Arthur M. Schlesinger,
Jr., Gertrude Himmelfarb and Eugene D. Genovese–an honor I certainly do not
deserve. But it says a great deal that to Lynd (and the late Shapiro), Arthur
Schlesinger Jr. is no different 
from the
conservative historians, because all three were anti-Communist and opposed to
political correctness and multiculturalism. The lumping together of
conservatives and anti-Communist liberals often seem
s reflexive
on the left.

also mentions as worthwhile a 145-page book by
left-wing historian Jesse Lemisch
, widely considered one of the
founding fathers of “history from the bottom up.” I know it well, because the
book contains one blurb, written by me– one of the worst choices I made in my
years as a man of the Left.

the work of a historian of the Populists, Norman Pollack, Lemisch writes that
historians who challenged him and his thesis were guilty of—-you guessed
it—“McCarthyism.” He writes: “The suggestion that a school of historians
which thought itself primarily liberal was in fact McCarthyite won Pollack few
friends among historians.” This is the kind of nonsensical analysis of the
period that Lynd still finds admirable and persuasive. The scholars Lemisch
hates most are not conservatives, but people like Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin
Lipset and Jacques Barzun— all decent liberals who were critics of the New
Left. The only reason people have to consult Lemisch’s work is to study the way
in which would-be intellectuals of the New Left  saw reality in the
upside-down world of the 1960s.

during the anniversary of the book’s publication in 1975, Lemisch was feted at
a forum held at New York University at which Lynd and Blanche Wiesen Cook both
took part. That too is a solid example of how a major academic institution has
been taken over by far-left radicals, who use their power and position to
enforce leftist orthodoxy, while complaining that they are repressed and how
the right controls the academy.

Lasch, himself a man of the Le
ft, wrote
that “the worst features of progressive historiography reappear under the
auspices of the new left: drastic simplification of issues;…reading present
concerns back into the past; strident partisanship.” Lasch might as well been
writing about Lynd, although as David Greenberg points out in The New
, he was actually commenting on the work of Howard Zinn.  This
is the essence of political correctness, and what Staughton Lynd writes in his
new essay proves precisely the opposite of the case he seeks to argue.


Radosh is an Adjunct Fellow at The Hudson Institute and a columnist for PJ

(Photo: historian Herbert Shapiro. Credit: American Historical Association.)


  • Ron Radosh

    Ronald Radosh is author or co-author of more than 16 books, including The Rosenberg File, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, and A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. He is Adjunct Fellow at The Hudson Institute and a columnist for PJ Media.

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One thought on “A New Left Historian Rewrites Some History”

  1. As a small footnote regarding joining the CP to fight fascism–anyone who says he joined the party to fight fascism and did not immediately resign when the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was revealed, is lying.

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