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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Three Ways of Looking at a Blacklist

Posted by Ray Davis on 12/01/05 at 10:15 PM

Chandler Davis, full time mathematician, sometime fiction writer, and lifelong political activist lost his career in American academia for the third quality. Dr. Josh Lukin kindly mailed me copies of two of Professor Davis's comments on that loss:

In turn, Professor Davis has kindly consented to my making them freely available online. Both are beautiful examples of "plain speaking" rhetoric and possibly of interest for other reasons as well.

UPDATE, 2005-12-03: I've just added a third piece by Professor Davis, "The Purge". A history rather than an exhortation, originally written for the American Mathematical Society's A Century of Mathematics in America, it provides many more details about the post-WWII attack on leftist American academics (and the resistance to that attack).


The conclusion to the AAAS lecture, granting the progress that has been made in racial and gender justice, is a refreshing alternative to the jeremiads of those ex-New Leftists who decry “identity politics” and claim that the “racism-sexism-homophobia crowd” has driven attention to class out of the public discourse.  It helps, perhaps, that Chandler Davis has long been married to a celebrated feminist historian.

As for the relevance of “ . . . From an Exile” to the Holbonic post that you linked to, Ray, recall that I asked Professor Davis about his assertion that “ . . . diverse parties should dwell side by side, not with the tolerance of indifference, but embattled and cherishing each other; each should know that in its quest, the contest with those who disagree will bring faster progress than an unobstructed route” and wondered how he would interact with “fierce academics on the far right,” to which he replied,

“They might not be the people that I would choose to talk to.  I think there are some people that are very hard to talk to.  But you don’t ignore them, or suppress them either . . . I’ve been very interested to see what people said who came down on what I would regard as an oppressive side of some political issues . . .  if I were to say, ‘Oh, well, I can’t talk to a eugenicist,’ then I would be refusing the enlightenment which could be obtained from listening to some intelligent, sincere people who believe some of this stuff . . . I mean, obviously, you also have people who promulgate a racist theory which they know is not factual.  And maybe there’s not much to be learned from them.  Right?  But people who are trying to say something true --you can probably learn something by talking to them.  Anyway, I’ve often tried.”

By on 12/02/05 at 01:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For a while I was a member of the First Unitarian Church of L.A., which held the distinction of being one of the few churches to lose its tax exemption during the Red-hunt for refusing to subscribe to a loyalty oath.  Of course, churches, unlike people, do not lose their jobs.

I agree with most of what Chandler writes about this.  Where I disagree is with the end of “Did the Red-hunt Win?”, where he starts to write things like:

“What has happened is that the center of intellectual discourse has shifted, so that some opinions generally regarded as possible in the 1930s are forgotten as possibilities. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think I see this effect, I think it is a loss, and I think the Red-hunt contributed greatly to it.”

Well, with sympathy, no.  The failure of the left worldwide is the failure of the USSR.  Saying that the Red-hunt contributed greatly to it appears to me to be a subtle form of American exceptionalism, but like all American exceptionalism, not very convincing.

And really, that’s the part of the essay where Chandler heads into an area where the left, having lost, seeks to drag other political tendencies down with it.  He writes: “But as the agenda was cleansed of “our” issues — economic justice, and people’s control over the economy — the center shifted so far in the capitalist direction that certain ideas became almost unthinkable.” Were they really “our” issues?  As a liberal (I dislike that term left-liberal, which is really nothing more than an attempt at linguistic colonization of the same kind that I’m writing against), I don’t think that those were ever the exclusive issues of the left.  The people who spoke and still speak out against gradualism and reformism would say so, yes, but liberals never agreed.  And the more this is repeated, the more these ideas are themselves discredited by the remnant left which seeks to claim them, and whose failure was not merely a matter of opposition from the right.

So I sympathize with Chandler, and think that his essays certainly hold important lessons for academia today as they try to fight off the right.  But insofar as he’s trying to use the injustice of the Red-hunt to validate the particular ideas that he held, I don’t see it.

By on 12/02/05 at 10:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oops.  In my comments above, I referred to Dr. Davis as “Chandler” out of either temporary confusion of his first and last name or some deranged Valve habit.  No disrespect was intended.

By on 12/02/05 at 10:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment


With respect to the possibility that “the remnant left” can discredit those ideals of economic justice, you grant them too much power.  “We are dealing,” Michael Bérubé once wrote, “with people who, when we protest that we are anti-communists, will say they don’t care what kind of communists we are.”

But I agree with you that there’s a problem with the “our” issues formulation, as the Thirties Left’n’liberal coalition, for example, had many active factions in it in addtion to the Reds.  And of course, all of the issues support for which in the Fifties would guarantee that you’d be Redbaited (including anti-segregationism in the North, which “ . . . From an Exile” overlooks) were effectively advanced by many people who had not supported the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact.

I’m less persuaded by your “failure of the left worldwide” thesis, on accounta Davis addresses that issue and offers the evidence that in Canada, for example, ideas that were Redbaited into marginality here during the Cold War managed to stay alive.  There are a number of European countries about which he could have made the same argument, and others in which those ideas were only extinguished thanks to U.S.-supported terror which I’d be loath to say the Soviets were in some way ultimately responsible for.  And of course, Davis acknowledges the appeal of the argument you make about the Soviet Union (Having done some agitating for human rights among scientists in the Eastern Bloc during the Seventies, he is certainly not blind to the horrors of the Communist governments).

If, OTOH, you’d said “Australia had a Red Scare and still has national health care,” I’d have to go, “Hmmmmm . . . “

By on 12/02/05 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I am inclined to agree that the Red-Scare campaign of the fifties had a marginal effect on the decline of leftist ideas about social justice and economic justice in this country. 

If the high water mark of the anti-Communist hysteria was the 1950s, the high water mark of social welfare state liberalism was the 1960s, particularly the Johnson administration.  Not only did we see tremendous gains in civil rights, but we saw the some of the most ambitious attempts at social welfare and economic justice in the nation’s history:  anti-poverty programs, Medicaid/Medicare, Head Start, etc. 

The decline of American social welfare and ideas about economic justice were caused by other events:  the Vietnam War, the Republican Southern strategy of Nixon that continues to this day, the economic recessions and turmoil of the 1970s, the rise of rightwing pseudo-populism and the culture wars, etc. 

In fact, I think it can be reasonably argued that many of the victories of 1960s social welfare were only possible because the liberals denounced communism and socialism.  Embracing these ideas would have killed the Great Society before it got off the ground.  Indeed, we forget that Harry “Loyalty Oath” Truman himself fought vigorously for national health insurance.  Do we think he would somehow have been more successful if he hadn’t participated in the Red Scare? 

So while the Red Scare was undoubtedly a lamentable part of our history that needlessly destroyed many peoples’ careers and lives, I think Davis greatly exaggerates its importance for the current political situation.  Believing that it was primarily Red Scare tactics that drove certain ideas out of the mainstream political discourse will not help us identify how economic justice got off track or how to get back on track.

By on 12/02/05 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I should also add, I am not sure which ideas Davis thinks were Redbaited into marginality.  He is awfully vague on this point, which is a shame since its very difficult to talk about political goals in the abstract.  Is he talking about national health insurance and social safety net programs?  Is he talking about nationalizing the means of production?  It kind of makes a difference.

By on 12/02/05 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’m less persuaded by your “failure of the left worldwide” thesis, on accounta Davis addresses that issue and offers the evidence that in Canada, for example, ideas that were Redbaited into marginality here during the Cold War managed to stay alive.”

In what practical sense are they alive in Canada, Josh?  The main difference appears to be a form of national health care, the lack of which is one of the areas in which America might be truly exceptional, since just about every other industrialized country has it.  Universal health care is hardly a purely left issue.

The main difference, to me, appears to be that the left is not stigmatized in Canada in the way that the right has succeeded in doing in the U.S.  But is this a cause or an effect, and does it really mean much?

A lot of this seems to come down to the differences between socialists, social democrats, and liberals.  Both the left and the right love to blur these boundaries—the left, because it makes them appear stronger, the right, because it assists their demonization.  Just because the right is very dangerous at this time doesn’t mean that we need to accede to this blurring of ideas out of some kind of sense of solidarity.  I think that Chandler Davis’ old university really should pay him back wages, and apologize, although that won’t really make up for it, and they should strongly work against Horowitz now.  But that doesn’t mean that the ideas of that time also should be “compensated” in some way.

By on 12/02/05 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tiny little point, blah:  I think that repudiating “socialism” was not de rigeur for people who had an influence on public policy in the Sixties and Seventies, so long as they were sufficiently harsh on Communism.  Look at Michael Harrington and George Meany.

Otherwise, I very much like your argument.  The Age of Reaction in my lifetime was not the Fifties but the Eighties, when a bunch of factors (including those you mention) coalesced to help revive and empower old Redbaiters who we’d thought had been left in the dustbin.  The rightward shift that drove progressive taxation and secularism out of the center of the discourse really became visible then, didn’t it?

What I’d’ve liked to see Chandler (referring to a guy whom I address by his first name in person as “Professor . . . “ feels a little stuffy to me) elaborate on would be exactly what the “pacifist/anarchist/voluntarist” approach excluded, and how that became evident in later years.  In other words, trace the specific trajectory of a discursive change.  Because I do think that voluntarism is a big problem in the U.S. discourse, and even in some social justice movements; but, like you, I suspect that there were important counter-philosophies other than those of the Marxists.

By on 12/02/05 at 01:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I worry that there may be a whiff of condescension in my previous comment:  most of it seems to be written in the style of a comment on a student paper (no surprise, given what I spend most of every day doing).  Apologies --I have nothing but respect for Chandler and for the commentors above.

Indeed, I learned about antivoluntarist thought from a Marxist critic (who’d had some pretty disturbing political allegiances) whose book I bought in Canada, so there’s one data point in Chandler’s favor!

By on 12/02/05 at 02:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No one has taken up the concrete example that follows the quotation Rich pulled, that example being progressive taxation. The estate tax was, after all, put in place by a Republican. Consider how tax problems lie at a deeper level than that of health care. We pay more for our health care than Canada et al., but we would rather pay more than pay through taxes.

These issues play out in a larger historical scenario: the never-ending struggle against the New Deal. The Red Scare offered anti-Rooseveltians their first (after being swamped by the depression and the war) opportunity to beat back leftward economics. (Chandler specifically identifies political economy as an intellectual inquiry thus weakened.) The 50’s cut down the outermost elements of New Dealism. If McCarthy’s target was Communists, he was an abject failure, but if he wished to raise through intimidation limits on how much of a leftist a successful professional could be, he was a brilliant success. The general momentum of the New Deal continued, hence the Great Society, as did the efforts of its foes, hence the Reagan Revolution. & now we have the Constitution in Exile folks, seeking the reverse the New Deal as a whole, & having our current Chief Justice as a fellow traveller, if not a secretly card-carrying member. It’s hard for me to see all these things other than as moments in large-scale movements & counter-movements.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 12/02/05 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In very brief support of Lawrence’s multi-decade view, I’ll point out Irving Howe’s prescient (over the long haul) reaction to JFK’s assassination.

By Ray Davis on 12/02/05 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Wow.  Howe was deadly prophetic.

By on 12/02/05 at 05:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Re: blah and Ray on Howe = I second that “wow.” Just shows us that the “Reagan Revolution” didn’t come out of nowhere.

I also second Ray’s seconding of Lawrence’s post.  It reminded me of Pynchon’s take on all this in *Vineland* (which I’m teaching again, so sorry for getting all “literary” in the midst of a real political discussion).  From the Wobblies to the New Deal to the Red Scare to the 60s rebellions to the Reagan Revolution, it’s like a tug-of-war, not only over policy but over the very history of these events: as in Reagan’s Bitburg speeches, the entire historical Left has slowly been equated with Soviet “Communism” and, via totalitarianism, with Nazism.  Now it’s the “terrorists” (Horowitz is big on tracing all members of the Left back to Stalin and forward to Osama).

Can anyone recommend some historians who have traced the sort of multi-decade see-saw that Lawrence identified above?

By on 12/03/05 at 05:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And as anyone can testify who has spent some time in the Far West, this reaction involves an unashamed class selfishness such as we have not seen openly expressed in this country for some time, a new the birth of a kind of Social Darwinism which is laced with the snobberies of greed and racism, a frigid contempt for those millions who are said, somewhere in the invisible depths, still be to suffering poverty and joblessness.

Ahem.  Much better.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/03/05 at 08:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LLRW, thanks for putting things into perspective:  you’ve put your finger on the value of the Davis’s AAAS speech.  The “kind of Social Darwinism” is what I was gesturing toward when I mentioned how useful an ideology “voluntarism” was --what we started to see marginalized in the Fifties was active opposition to the idea that life all boils down to an individual’s free will and free agency, unconstrained by his/her specific conditions.  A student tells me that she’s often heard throughout her life “Frederick Douglass was able to escape slavery and improve himself, so you can’t whine that the slaves who didn’t were somehow blameless victims.”

But “If McCarthy’s target was Communists, he was an abject failure . . . “ How so?

“ . . .  but if he wished to raise through intimidation limits on how much of a leftist a successful professional could be, he was a brilliant success.” Not just professionals. by any stretch.  I think some people connected with the New Left realized that one of the triumphs of the Red Scare was the purging of the unions and the closing of the labor schools, facilitating a society in which “populism” ended up meaning George Wallace and Pat Buchanan.

Luther--a) Yes, the Right is big on the guilt-by-association thing, and willing to invent all kinds of association.  I think Rich may have been worried that Chandler Davis, as someone who was pro-Soviet even after the invasion of Hungary, is, however repentant, a flawed spokesman for the points we’re discussing.  b) I recall that Harvey Wasserman did a history of the see-saw in question back in the Eighties; I’d suggest looking at some of the other usual suspects in Left-leaning history (Buhle and that other guy) to find more recent perspectives. c) Pynchon’s a good cite (so’s Cyrus Patell’s commentary on him).  Powers and Boyle would work too:  the documentors of the oscillation Lawrence summarizes include a number of contemporary novelists.  IIRC, the University of Missouri’s Sam Cohen is studying that sort of fiction.

By on 12/04/05 at 05:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Josh: “I think Rich may have been worried that Chandler Davis, as someone who was pro-Soviet even after the invasion of Hungary, is, however repentant, a flawed spokesman for the points we’re discussing.”

No, not really.  I am wholly unconcerned with whether something contributes to the Right’s guilt-by-association; they are going to try it in any case, no matter who says what.  What I am concerned with is the following syllogism:

(A) Social and economic justice are issues that only the Left supports.
(B) I am not on the Left.
(C) Therefore, I must not support social and economic justice.

When Chandler Davis insists on (A), he makes (C) true for everyone for whom (B) is true.  That’s what I mean by the left trying to take everyone down with them.

By on 12/04/05 at 05:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can anyone recommend some historians who have traced the sort of multi-decade see-saw that Lawrence identified above?

It’s not really my field, so I can’t recommend much, but Fraser, Gerstle, eds. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order covers the New Deal into the 80s. It’s an edited collection, so somewhat uneven, but at the same time you might want to check out what the various authors have written elsewhere.

By eb on 12/04/05 at 06:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Davis doesn’t seem to be saying this as far as I understand it (though my understanding is not strong), but I’ve known plenty of people who would say something similar. May I offer the following possibility as a reconcilliation (as in trying to make your account & mine match): you speak of the term “left-liberal” as an example of “colonialism.” I don’t take it that way. In my experience it’s a contradiction in terms. In my graduate department, to drag that stinky old straw man back in, “liberal” was the worst you could be called. & there’s something to their approbation, if only in that there is an antagonism between, let’s say, Trotskyism & the Democratic party. (Not that any of my fellow students were Trotskyites. I’m afraid identity politics were pretty much the extent of their politics, or at least the only politics they wanted to talk about.)

Still, I call myself a left-liberal: the only visions of social justice that have made sense to me are leftist, yet I live my life as a thorough-going liberal. Mine’s undoubtedly a case of bad faith, but I continue to hope there’s some explanation awaiting somewhere down the line that will bridge the gap.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 12/05/05 at 02:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for clarifying, Rich, and sorry for my knee-jerk misconstruction of your position.  I think that your syllogism does not reflect Chandler’s beliefs, however tempting it may be to read his speech that way.  In the conversation I had with him in 2002, he praised Eric Alterman, who’s thought of by Leftists as a liberal, right?

So I’d modify premise A) and say that the thrust of the AAAS speech could perhaps be read as “The Left is indispensible for keeping social and economic justice central to the discourse.” No “only.” Perhaps patronizing to the liberals, or dependent upon a self-validating “political spectrum” model, but not a surprising view for a guy who grew up a Red in the Thirties.

Lawrence, I once defined my political views in grad school (to a professor) by claiming to “anarchism of the spirit; liberalism of the will” or some such.  Now you’ve got me all worried about “bad faith.”

By on 12/05/05 at 03:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence, I accept that your own particular political understanding might agree with the use of any particular term, but I don’t quite get it.  You wrote about the struggle against the New Deal.  You know that FDR was in no way a leftist, right?  He was a liberal, and denounced as such by leftists at the time.  Leftists like Chandler Davis opposed everything that I’d guess that you agree with: political pluralism, labor unions, reformism.  I fully agree that Chandler Davis and others should not have been fired, but in the same way that I agree that members of fundamentalist religious groups who deny the truth of all other religions and actively work against them should nevertheless have religious freedom.

Josh, I don’t accept your modification of the premise (A), in part because I don’t think it reflects the wording in Chandler Davis’ 1995 essay, and in part because I still don’t agree with it as you’ve reworded it.  As I said upthread, going into this with a casual definition of “left” gets you into trouble.  The left that Chandler Davis was a part of is fully dispensible in terms of social and economic justice. 

As for the approval-of-Alterman bit, really, I’m going by the wording in the 1995 essay.  I don’t question that Davis’ views may have changed over time or may not fit any convenient mold.

As I’ve said before, a redistributionist liberal politics is fully comprehensible in terms of maximizing freedom, using the concept of differing marginal utility of money between rich and poor people.  Unless you really believe in redistributing the means of production, I don’t see why you should think you’re a leftist.  If you do, good luck—there are some anarcho-socialist thinkers I respect, though I find them impractical, but if you’re going for “redistribution” through governmental ownership, you run into all the same problems that we’ve already seen in the history of leftism.  At least look into the history of the separation of social democracy from socialism.

By on 12/05/05 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment


What you call “leftist” I would call “communist,” but again I’m not so strong on this stuff, and definitely not as strong as you are.

I would say one further thing: plenty of people thought FDR was a leftist, called him a class traitor, yadda yadda yadda. Now they could be wrong, the same way those today who think the Clintons are leftist are wrong. But there is also a powerful political reality contained w/in that mis-identification. As I was claiming previously, McCarthy was a leading edge of a movement whose target was not leftists but liberals.

Let me use your excellent description to redescribe my own position: redistributing the means of production is the only thing that makes moral sense to me, but it has been demonstrated to be practically disastrous. Since my morals require practicality (I want happiness in this world), there’s something deficient in my moral vision. But none of the programs I am familiar with have improved it.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 12/05/05 at 01:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that leftism makes the most sense as describing the set of variants of socialism.  It of course has other meanings, but those generally appear to be tied in to attempted political manipulations (such as “no enemies to the left").  But I think that it’s particularly useless to rely on right-wing definitions of what the left is: just because rightists of FDR’s time called him a leftist, that doesn’t make him one, any more than Limbaugh calling Clinton a leftist makes him one.  There is a “powerful political reality” in that rightists are opposed to everyone who isn’t a rightist, and a long-standard right tactic is to blur all of their enemies together.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to blur our eyes too.

I don’t think that redistributing the means of production makes sense, at least, not in the classic forms in which it has been attempted.  Perhaps someone can come up with something better.  But in order to do so, they have to jettison Marx (a great economist for the 19th century, but, you know, if economics is a science then it must progress, and Marx was just wrong about many things).  Really, they have to be willing to jettison most of leftism, because most of what it teaches us is what failed.  I keep meaning to write a review of China Mieville’s _Iron Council_ / diatribe against leftist nostalgia, but I never quite do it.  In short, nostalgia is what the Right tries to do; it’s a poor fit for the left.  (And yes, extensive readers of Zizek, I’m talking about his views on Lenin.)

By on 12/05/05 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for thoughtful discussion growing out of my diverse essays.  I don’t know why two discussants described me as someone who remained pro-Soviet after the suppression of the Imre Nagy government in Hungary (I opposed the Soviet action at the time).  More relevant, I don’t know why Rich Puchalsky thinks I reject alliance with supporters of social and economic justice who fail to call themselves leftists.  I recognize and want to work with them.  The Red-hunt of 1947 through 2009 tries to scare them off some issues by associating those issues with us sinister leftists.  Don’t let it bamboozle you.

By on 09/25/08 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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