The University of Chicago’s politics in 1950

I was just skimming a long interview with Richard Rorty (downloadable here) and I came across a really surprising description of politics at the University of Chicago sixty years ago.

RR: I was at Chicago until ‘52, and then I was at Yale from ‘52 to ‘56. I remember watching the Army-McCarthy hearings at Yale. Chicago was perhaps the left-most American university except maybe CCNY and Columbia. When the communists took Czechoslovakia in ‘48, I was a member of the Chicago student senate (or whatever they called it). I introduced a resolution of sympathy with the students of Charles University who’d been killed by the Communists. It was killed 40-2, because it was seen as lending aid and comfort to the capitalists. It was viewed as red-baiting. In those days, Chicago students genuinely believed that saying anything nasty about Stalin counted as red-baiting. The student newspaper was communist, and eventually it turned out that the editor had been registering for one credit a quarter. He was getting paid, believe it or not, by Moscow gold. He was being paid by the party to run the student newspaper. When McCarthy came along and said the Communists had infiltrated everywhere, he could produce lots of similar examples. But, of course, Chicago was not typical of the American academy at that time. I spent my time at Chicago making red-baiting remarks, as I had been brought up to do. I became unpopular with my fellow students for making them.

Admittedly, I have pretty much no evidence one way or the other, not being a historian of the university at midcentury, but given the current state of campus politics, one is hard pressed to believe that this university was ever the “left-most American university,” or that only 2.5% of elected students would have voted to condemn a Communist action. The university I know today seems more apolitical than anything else, and is certainly at least as marked by the pro-market Milton Friedman heritage as by any kind of leftist politics. To be sure, there’s a vague memory that SDS was big in the ’60s and that there was a building occupation in 1969, but even if you read the 2008 newspaper article commemorating that event, the sense is that the student body was quite diverse and far from monolithically radical. The time Rorty describes, of course, was twenty years before that, just as the Cold War was getting started — at a point when I suppose American views of the USSR may have been temporarily relatively positive, in the aftermath of the US-Soviet war-time alliance.

My guess is that Rorty is exaggerating in his description of late-40s communist sympathies at the University of Chicago; I doubt it was ever as widespread as he makes it out to be. In his description, you get the impression that pretty much 100% of students other than Rorty himself were communists, which strains credibility. Indeed, it seems exemplary of the hyperbolic mindset of someone who feels so politically outnumbered that they begin to imagine that they are the only one on their side surrounded by nothing but their opponents. “OMG, we’re surrounded by Communists!” — wasn’t that a popular trope of American political hysteria in the 50s?

Nonetheless, even if Rorty’s report is only half true, it’s enough to suggest that the politics of the university’s student body have shifted dramatically over the years. It would be interesting to know more about the historical and sociological reasons why that has happened.

14 thoughts on “The University of Chicago’s politics in 1950

  1. I can vouch for it, having read old maroons from that time. The paper sent students to communist congresses in Europe, etc. In fact, it was even radical into the 60s, with students taking over the administration building.

    But UofC has always been idiosyncratic. In the 50s that meant being pro-commie. And so on.

  2. Hey, thanks for the support! Let’s make a distinction here, though, between there being some degree of pro-communist presence on campus in the 50s, which I have no reason to doubt, and it being a completely communist campus, which I find difficult to believe. Again, the gist of that maroon article I linked about the admin building takeover in 1969 is that there were various reasons for the sit-in, not all the students were radicals, some of them (*cliche alert*) were ostensibly just doing politics to get laid (or so their professors wanted to think), etc. There’s no doubt that radicals get preferential media attention, but what was the student body as a whole really like, sociologically speaking? Not sure where to find good data on this.

    One counternarrative to the “commies!” meme: let’s recall that this was the era of the university’s racist urban “renewal” projects. Which have never sounded too radical to me…

  3. In other words, I guess I am very skeptical of narratives that would cast the university as ever having been politically monolithic, and especially as monolithically “left.”

  4. Don’t be too skeptical, though. From what I’ve read, rortys take on the Maroon rings totally true. As for SG, it’s a fiction to say it accurately represents the actual student body. Don’t use the 40-2 number, but use the “just less commie than ccny” number. No one would say ccny was 100% commies in the 50s. I think that some demographic considerations about who was going to the uofC in the 1950s would be good to keep in mind!

  5. Well, I basically meant in code there was the fact that UofC was accepting people who were still having difficulty getting into the Ivy League, either because of their gender, religion, or social standing. I guess H, P, & Y started opening up in the 50s already, but this was still the UofC of 16 year old Susan Sontag, remember.

    Where to get actual *numbers*, I don’t know. The UofC has published several histories about itself, but they’re all in the Reg.

  6. OK. Leaving aside exactly how many communist sympathizers there were in 1948… it seems to me that the undergrad body we know today would be impossible to mobilize in the way SDS mobilized there in the 1960s. Do you have any thoughts on why the U of C undergrads would have shifted politically between the 1960s and, say, the 1990s when you arrived on the scene? I know people always talk about the decision (not sure when it was?) to increase the size of the college and the arrival of more “conventional” students that went with it.

    Although I suppose we have to take into account also that the 1960s were a historically and politically very different era from the 2010s… that obviously has an impact on the student body too.

  7. You’re asking for a dangerous amount of speculation. I’ll say this, though. The story we told ourselves in the 90s, at least that I remember, was that we were in general apolitical because of how seriously we took our academics. College was a place to go *learn*, not dabble in activism. In my dorm freshman year, some students had even calculated the cost of each class, and they’d criticize others for throwing money away by cutting, etc. So not only were we missing ed opps, but also wasting money, since the tuition cost was exclusively for learning–not a larger “uni” experience. If people wanted to be activists, that was cool, too, but it wasn’t “cool.”

    College expansion was the first time I saw large student involvement in a political matter, and, of course, it was uofc specific. The main fear of expansion was that it would make the UofC less special–both by forcing us to share our resources more widely, but also by accepting less uofc-y students. The funny thing is that these “less uofc-y students” have struck me as more politically motivated than their often anti-social, bookish predecessors. There was way more Kerry organization on campus than Clinton organization in 96.

    Where in the US could SDS pull off what they did in the 60s these days?

  8. I’m guessing a good number of college campuses were far more politicalized/radicalized in those days than they are now, and that this perhaps represents a general shift, rather than just a shift at U of Chicago. The counter-cultural movement would have been strong enough to infiltrate many loci of power, because at the end of the day, it wasn’t really about immediate politics, per se (though it certainly commented on that). It’s was about generational social politics. America has since then absorbed and “become” (i.e. spit out as “American culture”) the counter-culture, thus the counter-culture has ground to a stop. (I feel another wave coming on, though.)

  9. Hi Max,
    Yes, there is no doubt that there has been a general shift in American political culture since the 60s! I’m not sure if summing it up as a “generational social” issue completely does justice to the apparent political radicalism of the times, but I’m sure we pretty much agree and I have no desire to quibble. At any rate, your and Moacir’s comments persuade me that just thinking about the changing local situation at UChicago is too limited an analytical framework. The interesting research question, I guess, would be about how the broader changes in national culture and politics played out locally — it would be interesting to have a chronology of the decline and end of 60s radicalism on campus, a study of the growth of newly professionally-oriented students (a huge fraction are now econ majors) and the politics of that… etc. But I have no desire to actually do that study myself so I guess we’re stuck with speculation for the time being!

  10. I claim no certain knowledge here, but having studied the careers of Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler quite deeply, I can say a few things:

    1. Walgreen and his ilk became concerned about communism on the campus, first in the 1930s, in part, because the great books/honors courses required the reading of Marx and Engels.
    2. Adler and Hutchins were linked to all sorts of things by period conservatives because of their sympathies with world federal gov’t. This may have helped foster a aura of liberal views/communist sympathies on campus.
    3. Adler and Hutchins complained most loudly about student apathy during the 1930s especially. I don’t recall either of them complaining, per their biographies (Hutchins via Dzuback and Ashmore) and autogiographies (Adler had two), about student communists.

    Now some questions:

    1. What of the sympathies of Maroon writers and editors versus the campus student body in general?
    2. Is it not possible that Rorty is simply bitter over a failed student gov’t initiative? I mean, we have a tendency to remember the most dramatic things in relation to our personal situations.

    – Tim

  11. Thanks for the info, Tim! One can only assume that perhaps the Maroon was more sympathetic to the communists than the student body at large. As for (2), if you read the rest of the interview, I think it’s safe to say that Rorty’s comments fit in well with his more general political outlook, so I think his remarks about UChicago should probably be interpreted in that context too.

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