The Origin of America’s Intellectual Vacuum
The blacklisted mathematics instructor Chandler Davis, after serving six months in the Danbury federal penitentiary for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), warned the universities that ousted him and thousands of other professors that the purges would decimate the country’s intellectual life.
“You must welcome dissent; you must welcome serious, systematic, proselytizing dissent—not only the playful, the fitful, or the eclectic; you must value it enough, not merely to refrain from expelling it yourselves, but to refuse to have it torn from you by outsiders,” he wrote in his 1959 essay “…From an Exile.” “You must welcome dissent not in a whisper when alone, but publicly so potential dissenters can hear you. What potential dissenters see now is that you accept an academic world from which we are excluded for our thoughts. This is a manifest signpost over all your arches, telling them: Think at your peril. You must not let it stand. You must (defying outside power; gritting your teeth as we grit ours) take us back.”
But they did not take Davis back. Davis, whom I met a few days ago in Toronto, could not find a job after his prison sentence and left for Canada. He has spent his career teaching mathematics at the University of Toronto. He was one of the lucky ones. Most of the professors ousted from universities never taught again. Radical and left-wing ideas were effectively stamped out. The purges, most carried out internally and away from public view, announced to everyone inside the universities that dissent was not protected. The confrontation of ideas was killed.
“Political discourse has been impoverished since then,” Davis said. “In the 1930s it was understood by anyone who thought about it that sales taxes were regressive. They collected more proportionately from the poor than from the rich. Regressive taxation was bad for the economy. If only the rich had money, that decreased economic activity. The poor had to spend what they had and the rich could sit on it. Justice demands that we take more from the rich so as to reduce inequality. This philosophy was not refuted in the 1950s and it was not the target of the purge of the 1950s. But this idea, along with most ideas concerning economic justice and people’s control over the economy, was cleansed from the debate. Certain ideas have since become unthinkable, which is in the interest of corporations such as Goldman Sachs. The power to exclude certain ideas serves the power of corporations. It is unfortunate that there is no political party in the United States to run against Goldman Sachs. I am in favor of elections, but there is no way I can vote against Goldman Sachs.”
The silencing of radicals such as Davis, who had been a member of the Communist Party, although he had left it by the time he was investigated by HUAC, has left academics and intellectuals without the language, vocabulary of class war and analysis to critique the ideology of globalism, the savagery of unfettered capitalism and the ascendancy of the corporate state. And while the turmoil of the 1960s saw discontent sweep through student bodies with some occasional support from faculty, the focus was largely limited to issues of identity politics—feminism, anti-racism—and the anti-war movements. The broader calls for socialism, the detailed Marxist critique of capitalism, the open rejection of the sanctity of markets, remained muted or unheard. Davis argues that not only did socialism and communism become outlaw terms, but once these were tagged as heresies, the right wing tried to make liberal, secular and pluralist outlaw terms as well. The result is an impoverishment of ideas and analysis at a moment when we desperately need radical voices to make sense of the corporate destruction of the global economy and the ecosystem. The “centrist” liberals manage to retain a voice in mainstream society because they pay homage to the marvels of corporate capitalism even as it disembowels the nation and the planet.
“Repression does not target original thought,” Davis noted. “It targets already established heretical movements, which are not experimental but codified. If it succeeds very well in punishing heresies, it may in the next stage punish originality. And in the population, fear of uttering such a taboo word as communism may in the next stage become general paralysis of social thought.”
It is this paralysis he watches from Toronto. It is a paralysis he predicted. Opinions and questions regarded as possible in the 1930s are, he mourns, now forgotten and no longer part of intellectual and political debate. And perhaps even more egregiously the fight and struggle of radical communists, socialists and anarchists in the 1930s against lynching, discrimination, segregation and sexism were largely purged from the history books. It was as if the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had no antecedents in the battles of the Wobblies as well as the socialist and communist movements.
“Even the protests that were organized entirely by Trotskyists were written out of history,” Davis noted acidly.
Those who remained in charge of American intellectual thought went on to establish the wider “heresy of leftism” in the name of academic objectivity. And they have succeeded. Universities stand as cowardly, mute and silent accomplices of the corporate state, taking corporate money and doing corporate bidding. And those with a conscience inside the walls of the university understand that tenure and promotion require them to remain silent.
“Not only were a number of us driven out of the American academic scene, our questions were driven out,” said Davis, who at 84 continues to work as emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto. “Ideas which were on the agenda a hundred years ago and sixty years ago have dropped out of memory because they are too far from the new center of discourse.”
Davis has published science fiction stories, is the editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer and is an innovator in the theory of operators and matrices. He is a director of Science for Peace. He also writes poetry. His nimble mind ranges swiftly in our conversation over numerous disciplines and he speaks with the enthusiasm and passion of a new undergraduate. His commitment to radical politics remains fierce and undiminished. And he believes that the loss of his voice and the voices of thousands like him, many of whom were never members of the Communist Party but had the courage to challenge the orthodoxy of the Cold War and corporate capitalism, deadened intellectual and political discourse in the United States.
During World War II Davis joined the Navy and worked on the minesweeping research program. But by the end of the war, with the saturation bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, as well as the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he came to regret his service in the military. He has spent most of his life working in a variety of anti-war and anti-nuclear movements.
“In retrospect I am sorry I didn’t declare myself as a conscientious objector,” he said. “Not at the beginning of the war, because if you are ever going to use military force for anything, that was a situation in which I would be happy to do it. I was wholehearted about that. But once I knew about the destruction of Dresden and the other massacres of civilian populations by the Allies, I think the ethical thing to do would have been to declare myself a CO.”
He was a “Red diaper baby.” His father was a professor, union agitator and member of the old Communist Party who was hauled in front of HUAC shortly before his son. Davis grew up reading New Masses and moved from one city to the next because of his father’s frequent firings.
“I was raised in the movement,” he said. “It wasn’t a cinch I would be in the Communist Party, but in fact I was, starting in 1943 and then resigning soon after on instructions from the party because I was in the military service. This was part of the coexistence of the Communist Party with Roosevelt and the military. It would not disrupt things during the war. When I got out of the Navy I rejoined the Communist Party, but that lapsed in June of 1953. I never got back in touch with them. At the time I was subpoenaed I was technically an ex-Communist, but I did not feel I had left the movement and in some sense I never did.”
Davis got his doctorate from Harvard in mathematics and seemed in the 1950s destined for a life as a professor. But the witch hunts directed against “Reds” swiftly ended his career on the University of Michigan faculty. He mounted a challenge to the Committee on Un-American Activities that went to the Supreme Court. The court, ruling in 1960, three years after Joseph McCarthy was dead, denied Davis’ assertion that the committee had violated the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech. He was sent to prison. Davis, while incarcerated, authored a research paper that had an acknowledgement reading: “Research supported in part by the Federal Prison System. Opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and are not necessarily those of the Bureau of Prisons.”
Davis, who has lived in Canada longer than he lived in the United States, said that his experience of marginalization was “good for the soul and better for the intellect.”
“Though you see the remnants of the former academic left still, though some of us were never fired, though I return to the United States from my exile frequently, we are gone,” he said. “We did not survive as we were. Some of us saved our skins without betraying others or ourselves. But almost all of the targets either did crumble or were fired and blacklisted. David Bohm and Moses Finley and Jules Dassin and many less celebrated people were forced into exile. Most of the rest had to leave the academic world. A few suffered suicide or other premature death. There weren’t the sort of wholesale casualties you saw in Argentina or El Salvador, but the Red-hunt did succeed in axing a lot of those it went after, and cowing most of the rest. We were out, and we were kept out.”
“I was a scientist four years past my Ph.D. and the regents’ decision was to extinguish, it seemed, my professional career,” he said. “What could they do now to restore to me 35 years of that life? If it could be done, I would refuse. The life I had is my life. It’s not that I’m all that pleased with what I’ve made of my life, yet I sincerely rejoice that I lived it, that I don’t have to be Professor X who rode out the 1950s and 1960s in his academic tenure and his virtuously anti-Communist centrism.”