Thursday, June 18, 2009

The persecutions known popularly as "McCarthyism"

by Norman Markowitz

There was an article in the New York Times a few days ago about the 1950s political purges of New York City School Teachers who were Communists.

A great deal is known about these and other purges in trade unions, government, and the arts, sciences and professions, and there have been many valuable scholarly studies of them. Only the far right really defends them today, although there are still those in journalism and scholarship who scavenge in the world of spy stories to "balance" accounts of these purges with "recognition" of a "legitimate" Soviet "threat" to the United States. And there are others among scholars who still illogically separate the achievements of Communist party activists in advancing peoples struggles (which it is no longer possible to deny, given the historical record) with a party leadership that is portrayed as authoritarian and largely disconnected from the membership which followed it.

Yet this was a fascinating story. Besides having down research into the history of the postwar persecutions, which both victims and onlookers called witch hunts at the time, I have known blacklisted New York City teachers, their children, and some who escaped the purges by a combination of luck and the stupidity of the hunters.

The story deals with a law suit filed by Lisa Harbaktin, a writer, to obtain access to the files of her deceased parents from the New York City Board of Education. The city's assistant corporation counsel, Saul Moskoff, served literally as the Board of Education's Grand Inquisitor, calling teachers before him, questioning them and deciding whether than would be fired or not. Harbatkin, as the heir to her parents estate, received access to the documents discovered that her father had surrendered his license and position rather than face Moskoff, but that her mother had been spared. But she was denied access to the records of the other teachers, the 1,500 who were "investigated and the 378 who were purged.

None of these teachers were ever accused of any malfeasance in their duties as teachers. They were, as Clarence Taylor, a scholar dealing with the New York Teachers Union, hunted because "of their affiliation with the Communist Party." The union, which was founded and led by Communists in the 1930s was eventually destroyed during the persecutions, its remnants merged into the United Federation of Teachers in 1964 under the leadership of the rabidly anti-Communist, anti-Black Liberation and pro Vietnam War Albert Shanker, who had a large negative imprint on what was an expanding teachers union nationally at a time when a different kind of leadership might have played a much more positive role for both unionized teachers and the general labor movement.

While the article mentions accurately that the "purges came to be widely condemned as the city's witch hunts, repudiated later by subsequent administrations which re-instated dozens of dismissed teachers (actually successful law suits which provided victims with apologies and some compensation, not jobs long gone) it raises a question which doesn't deserved to raised in advanced industrial country with representative institutions, a "democracy" as against a dictatorship of the right. "Among the questions," it contends," all these years later, is whether their names (the teacher's names) can be published, and whether there is still a stigma in being named, or having named, a Communist."

A stigma? Who would asked that question in most places where there are serious democratic rights, representation, free elections? The "stigma" of belonging to a party whose members were subject to legislation like the Smith Act of 1940, the McCarran Act of 1950, and New York's Feinberg law aimed at teachers "teaching or advocating" the violent overthrow of the governments--laws which did not "outlaw the Communist Party as such but sought to terrorize its members into leaving and informing on their comrades or face economic and social segregation in the society. The "stigma" of having to prove you were not red, to perform rituals of degradation before official and unofficial inquisitors, little McCarthys in work places, HUAC meat heads (who snickered that their enemies were egg heads and who called Lenin Nikolai and didn't know that there was a long u in the pronunciation of the word Communism, expanding their ignorance as through their acts of repression.

In an advanced industrial country which calls itself a democracy, the "stigma "is not with teachers who are mostly dead now but with the police spies who gave inquisitors like Moskoff their names, with little McCarthys like Moshkoff who did the dirty work of the Board of Education, the dirty work of managers and administrators who were at the time cogs in machine that C. Wright Mills rightly called a "permanent war economy," a machine building bigger and better nuclear weapons with the capacity to destroy humanity many times over, fighting a war in Korea that produced millions of casualties, mostly Korean and Chinese but also American, and setting the stage for a war in Vietnam that would produce millions more casualties.

The struggles of Communist activists against fascism, racism, imperialism, even anti-Communists in many advanced industrial countries often accept, are worthy of honor, even if those anti-Communists reject the socialist principles of Communists and oppose the policies of nations like the former Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. The kind of actions that New York City teachers and tens of thousands of others faced in the high cold war period in the U.S., people in democracies identify either fascist occupation in Europe or colonial rule in other places, minus of course the concentration camps and the executions.

The story, which is generally both informative and well-meaning, highlights Irving Adler, a 96 year old fired school teacher who it states has written "fifty six books"(about one book for every year that followed his firing) mentioning that Adler, nine years after he left the CPUSA was, as he later discovered thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, on J. Edgar Hoover's FBI "Security Index" to be arrested and put in a political concentration camp in the event of a "national emergency." The article also mentions Minnie Gertrude, a teacher who took her own life after being called out of her classroom and harassed about her political beliefs and associations.

Teachers pulled out of their classrooms and dismissed, never to teach again. Inquisitors like Moshkoff sometimes letting individuals off the hook for some reason because he had the power to do so (that was also true, although usually because of bribery, in the old clerical Inquisition). It represents a level of outright persecution that no political movement or party had to face for so long in U.S. history. The survival of the CPUSA and its continued work in struggle is perhaps the greatest badge honor which emerges from this sordid history.

The article does mention that there is a fascinating documentary in progress, "dreamers and fighters: the New York City Teachers Purges," begun by the late Sophie Louise Ullman, a social worker and artist and continued by her cousin Lori Styler. The unfinished work is narrated by the distinguished actor, Eli Wallach, whose stage, screen, and television credits are far too long to mention. Wallach, who is now 93, was the brother of Samuel Wallach, head of the NYC Teachers Union from 1945-1948 who was fired as a teacher in 1948 after being called before the Superintendent of Schools William Jansen, and grilled about his politics. (When I was in grade school, "Dr." Jansen's name was sometimes mentioned with reverence by teachers in my classes.)

The project has a website When completed it would complement such fine documentaries as "Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist." Readers of our blog might check it out and perhaps bring to the website and or our blog their knowledge and comments about the New York City teacher purges and similar events.

Although these and allied persecutions through the society played a central role in retarding economic and social progress at home and transforming U.S. foreign policy into a modern militarized "Manifest Destiny," history more than half a century later has already vindicated the victims and condemned and "stigmatized" the low and middle level perpetrators, if not the top leaders and the larger system which brought this about. That vindication can only grow and the work of documentaries like "dreamers and fighters" can only help it grow.