Liberals Fall Into Line: a Recurring Phenomenon

Photograph of Ramón Mercader

“Well, if it is Ramon Mercader, you’ll have quite a story. . . .”

I have found a snapshot of a man bearing a striking resemblance to the assassin of Leon Trotsky–in a suitcase stuffed with leaflets, posters, old letters, and photographs from my father’s 1940 sabbatical in Mexico.

The man gazes at the camera with a pensive, vaguely tormented expression–and I’m nearly certain it’s Mercador crouched in the gondola beside my young parents, their teacher friend [D.A.]–and a woman smiling from within the shadow of a wide sun hat.

“This will be the best thing you’ve written,” says my Trotskyist friend.

But a few weeks later, a letter of my mother’s that turns up in the same battered suitcase reveals the man’s true identity.

Xochimilco [my mother writes], as all travel folder readers know, is the floating gardens of Mexico. It is really a little town about 20 miles from the city, a series of clumpy islands mixed up with a canal. The islands are flower beds whereon rest every variety and more. On Sundays the canal is thick with little flower canopied flat bottomed boats, laden with families on Sunday Outings and here and there gringo tourists like us. Other boats are little venders, flower decked . . .

It turns out the man in the photo is [S.*]—and the woman in the hat, [G.*]—both music teachers from Philadelphia. Eight years on, at the beginning of the postwar red scare, they would refuse to sign loyalty oaths, quit teaching, and move to the West Coast to work for Folkway Records. But in the meantime, [S.*] heads a group called the American Friends of the Mexican People, for which my mother handles publicity.

Is it any coincidence so many Philadelphia teachers are down here on sabbatical? The newly elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, George Counts–claiming his narrow victory is a mandate to expel Communists and their supporters–is now investigating Philadelphia’s Local 192 for “subversion.”

Of course, membership in the Communist party–which is entirely legal–has no more bearing on their classroom teaching than the party membership of teachers who are Republicans or Democrats. Setting aside some fundraising efforts on behalf of Loyalist Spain, for the last five years they have been energetically involved in supporting the reform goals of the New Deal, and along with other Local 192 members, they have mobilized with their students’ communities around such issues affecting students’ needs as crumbling and segregated schools, segregated black teacher lists, racist textbooks, denial of teacher tenure along gender and racial lines [see Nicholas Toloudis, How Local 192 Fought for Academic Freedom and Civil Rights in Philadelphia, 1934-1941, Journal of Urban History, 2018].

For years, William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, has been trying to expel the AFT from the federation on the grounds that three of its largest locals–New York’s Local 5; New York’s College Teachers Union; and Philadelphia’s Local 192—are Communist controlled.

And when the Popular Front comes to a screeching halt—as party members fall into line following the shocking news of a Hitler-Stalin pact in the late summer of 1939–Green and his allies in the labor movement are finally able to achieve the longtime goal of ridding it of Communists. The Dies Committee—the House An-American Activities Committee (HUAC), established in 1938–now has a free hand from the administration to raid Communist offices and arrest Communists and their supporters. And unlike the witch-hunt of the McCarthy period a decade later, this red scare is directed solely at Communists and other leftists, not their liberal “fellow travelers.”

Henry Linville–an original founder of the AFT, who split from the union in 1935 when he and Green were unable to expel the Communists–testifies before the Dies Committee about the influence of Communism in AFT locals. A follower of the Old Guard wing of the Socialist party, Linville embraces Green and his Gomperist model of business unionism. Other friendly witnesses testify the union is controlled through underground manipulation while teachers did “GPU espionage and other service for Stalin’s regime.”

This narrative is carried to new extremes when the Rapp-Coudert committee hearings get underway in New York City’s federal courthouse in October 1940. Seven hundred teachers and school personnel will be questioned–and scores of City College professors fired—in a purge of the New York City school system cheered on by the New York Times and the rest of the city’s media. Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCarthyism, by Andrew Feffer, is a thoroughgoing examination of this two-year inquisition authorized by the state legislature.

It’s alleged the teachers have “conspired systematically . . . to foment revolution in New York City schools and colleges using the party’s strategic control of the city’s main teachers unions.” The teachers who are investigated aren’t permitted to have lawyers; their names are publicized, and it’s assumed those who refuse to testify are guilty. Because teachers who are Communists can’t admit they are Communists or discuss their role as Communists without losing their jobs, the focus quickly becomes the issue of their lying; and the question of their dishonesty and bad faith is “used to mask the ideological intent of the purges and mask the invasion of academic freedom.”(p.245)

Frederic Rene Coudert, Jr., the tall, patrician Upper East Side lawyer heading the investigation, is no Joe McCarthy—not even right-wing. Maintaining a façade of impartiality, he staffs his committee with lawyers who are veterans of anti-Tammany investigations. But their initial move is to seek out “the AFT renegade” Linville—who is happy to cooperate and directs the committee to other liberals, socialists, social democrats and former communists who he knows will also cooperate.

Feffer seeks to explain how such an all-out assault on academic freedom can have the enthusiastic help and support of so many liberals and trade unionists—most notably the philosopher John Dewey: The bitter denouement of a decade of teacher union rivalry also reflects an underlying ideological cleavage in New York’s intellectual life–centered in the municipal colleges–world-class intellectual institutions serving the city’s working and middle-classes.

Dewey, a charter member of New York’s Local 5, quit the AFT in 1935 along with his friend Linville to form a rival anticommunist union, the Teachers Guild. While liberal and radical teachers alike endorse the renowned ‘pragmatist’s child-centered educational philosophy, Dewey and his followers are school reformers who see progressive education as a panacea for overcoming social problems. Opposing all forms of mass action—they label the tactic of Communists and other leftists to mobilize students, teachers, and parents “the class-war” view.

“ . . . Hostile to Marxism as a philosophy and intentionally ignorant of its tenets,” Dewey “set the tone for his followers, . . . [who] established The Social Frontier as an alternative not only to conservative reaction but to the Communist left as well.” (p.133)

Their social reconstructionist views emphasize technology not class struggle as the motive force for social evolution: New technologies undermine the old order and create a “cultural lag” that requires schools to train students to a new point of view, “reconstituting the democratic tradition.” “The reconstructionists . . . repudiated Marxist class analysis as an anachronistic throwback to the days of laissez-faire capitalism and agrarian individualism. . . . Class privilege and even more generally, the class identity of the wealthy . . . [can] then be understood as a culturally determined misinterpretation of the world rather than a structurally determined maldistribution of power and privilege.” For these liberal academics, even capitalist violence inflicted on workers is a “matter of choice” engendered by bad habits of mind and misperception.

They argue for a democracy that is “deliberative and procedural,” grounded in shared values and plainly enunciated rules. For leftists, on the other hand, because the rules of deliberation favor those with class privileges–democracy is, by definition, rule-breaking.

Dewey castigates the Communists and far left for violating democracy by acting in “bad faith” in concealing both their true goal and their advocacy of class war and class struggle as a method of working toward social change.

For the Rapp-Coudert committee it is “axiomatic” that Communist teachers—because they are “under the discipline of the party”–even if they have not indoctrinated students will inevitably do so—therefore their preventive dismissals are warranted.

The committee operates under a double standard that “aggressively [targets] the left while showing little interest in exposing fascism.” In the city’s Italian neighborhoods, teachers active in the fascist movement openly proselytize and organize and recruit in the public schools—as they do in the municipal colleges. School personnel who complain about these activities are themselves investigated. But fascist teachers are “never pressed strenuously, not forced to testify publicly and allowed to denounce colleagues they [believe are] Communist.” The committee investigates Nazi activities but does nothing about them, and ignores evidence of antisemitism in the schools. This “gentle approach” to fascism, Feffer writes, arises not out of sympathy for the right wing but from the committee’s “deference to public prejudice, loyalty to Tammany Hall, the Catholic church and other pillars of New York conservatism.” (206-8)

Presaging McCarthyism, “Rapp-Coudert does look very much like a test run for the full-blown postwar red scare. . . . drawing out testimony that would be used in later cases, it set legal precedents for the subsequent firing of teachers . . . tested and expanded the power of legislative committees to force teachers and other public employees to acknowledge their political associations . . . evading the question of whether membership in the Communist party was sufficient grounds for dismissal (technically it was not at the time, since the party was legal in most states) or even whether suspects were being persecuted for their political views.” (p.5)

After the Rapp-Coudert committee ends its work, its files are circulated to police, school administrators, and private colleges–and used later during the McCarthy period.

In 1941, Philadelphia’s Local 192 and New York’s Local 5 and College Teachers local are duly expelled from the AF of L and the AFT, and Communist teachers (including my father) disqualified from membership.

The ostracism of leftists in the schools and media is a legacy of the liberal tradition. Citing Michael Rogin, Feffer finds “the need to purify political and cultural landscapes” a liberal as well as conservative compulsion. “That penchant for countersubversion marks a fundamental tradition in the liberal perspective, which preaches an open society yet silences points of view perceived to be threatening to political stability as liberals understand it.” (p.250)

After reading Feffer, one can only conclude that the liberal inquisitors, by “instilling fear” in academia and “inhibiting the free exchange of ideas,” were far more antidemocratic than the Communist teacher union members they were investigating.

“Even after McCarthyism had abated in the 1960s, Marxists were still pushed to the political fringes, to be at best tolerated but not heard—as were frank observations about the reality of class struggle.“ And this national evasion of class persists into the 21st century. Any consideration of the “systematic and structural exploitation as is addressed in the Marxist canon” is still off limits.

While in the U.S., in the spring of 1940, it has become more dangerous than ever to posit the idea of a class war, in Mexico a wider range of political expression is tolerated. President Lazaro Cardenas granted Leon Trotsky—targeted for death by Stalin—political asylum in Mexico in 1937.

And with the stunning impartiality characteristic of him, the president also gives his full backing to the country’s labor federation, the CTM, headed by Toledano, whose “top machinery” is “Communist controlled.” As Anita Brenner explains in The Wind That Swept Mexico, Cardenas believes “Organized labor would have to throw off its bosses from inside. . . . But regardless of political racketeering, the unions must be independently strong.

“’ . . . Some of my best friends tell me that if only I would use a strong hand on labor my difficulties would be over. They say we could get all the money we need for the country from the United States. But tell me, a government-in-business that puts a strong hand on the unions, what is that? Fascism.’” (p.94)

Unfortunately, Cardenas’s term as president is about to end; he won’t run again and hasn’t endorsed a successor. Mexican elections are usually violent events, and right now people fear the worst.

On April 24, 1940, my mother writes to her friend Ray Hoffman:

Lots of things have happened here since I wrote you last. Most exciting, for me, was the demonstration on April 11th—against Hull’s Note to the Mex. People on the Oil Expropriation. We marched, as a matter of fact, proudly led the parade, as representatives of the people of the U.S. expressing their solidarity with the Mex. people against U.S. imperialism. Even if we hadn’t marched, the demonstration would have been the most thrilling I’ve ever seen. But the kick I got walking along with such a LOT of union people, and the ticklish hint of danger, kept my stomach playing leap frog all day. Early in the morning we got up (Tommy, too), dressed our very tourist best, and edged our way to the Palicio de Bellas Artes, in the center of town, our designated place of assembly. Every store, shop, factory was closed down. In the streets—every street—marched huge battalions of workers. And I mean they marched! You never saw soldiers so trim and straight. They don’t have very fine clothes, the workers of Mexico, but they looked as neat and clean as anybody could wish, and their banners were beautiful. Every union had its own band. In the center of the city all streets were stopped up with rows and rows of workers ready to begin parading. We met with our progressive fellow countrymen—about 50 of us at most—at 9 a.m. Toledano and the PRM president came to greet us. We lined up behind a great big American Flag flanked on either side by Mex. flags. In front of us was a motorcycle-clear-the-way squad and on either sides of our lines were single files of workers (like our educational squads) with arms linked, bodies close together, for protection against any display of “anti-gringo” sentiment from the bystanders. I guess it was really needed because for a long while our banner, announcing why we, Americans, were marching in such a demonstration, was missing. We got a few ugly “gringos” thrown at us. Directly behind our section was a section of the leaders of Mexico. Toledano, the Peasant Leader, and officials of the PRM marched with linked arms, a safety measure. (Their raised arms revealed big guns on their hips) We were told it was particularly brave of Toledano to so expose himself, but with the manifestation of unity running so high, I hardly think anyone would have dared to start anything. It was right after we started to march that the peasant leader arrived and joined the parade with a batch of rugged campesinos (farmers). We marched down the main street into the zocolo (town square) where our banner arrived—the people of North America are with the people of Mex. in their stand against U.S. imperialism. Then we got cheers instead of scattered boos, and our little section was an important symbol of international solidarity, and boy, did we put out a proud leg. We lined up in front of the National Palace and Cardenas came out to wave greetings to us and to acknowledge the demonstration. Pictures snapped right and left, but by this time we were riding on a crest of solidity and even the most squeamish forgot to squeam. (Gee, there’s nothing like a good demonstration to give you a feeling of strength)

Then we marched down another main street, stopping in each block to sing and shout slogans. We did our share of slogan shouting too, in hodgepodge Spanish, and in good English when we passed the ritzy tourist hotels where nice people were hiding under beds.

We attended a very swell lecture in the evening, on the oil question, given by one of the guys from El Popular, the union paper. Copies of the speech are now being prepared and you’ll get your copy soon. . . . The lecture was sponsored by the Amer. Friends of the Mex. People, and attracted quite a few tourists. It was so very brilliant (the guy who lectured) that those who came to heckle “patriotically” left saying thank you. We do a little work for the Amer. Friends. Tommy distributes posters, but then that’s very easy here. No one refuses to display posters. Some even accept them like they was presents. At Sanborn’s, Mr. Sanborn says: Hmm, Amer. Friends of the Mex. People? Well, you don’t have many friends here, but hang the poster over there.

There are so many things I’d like to write to you about, but for reasons you’ll understand, they’ll have to wait for our dinner table. . . .

Since the demonstration, things have grown tense. Rumors are beginning to fly like bats at night. Some say that Almazan, the reactionary candidate for president, will pull his fireworks before July. Others say he’ll wait until September. He says he’s going to run a private election of his own and if official returns don’t tally with his, watch out. [Almazan promises he will abolish the unions.] At any rate, there is much preparation for whatever will happen, and we are trying to save enough pesos for fare home if things get too bad. Our lovely Mr. Lies [sic] is certainly doing his messy share like the noble patriot he isn’t.

To be continue…

Kathy Deacon can be reached at