Priests of Our Democracy

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Marjorie Heins

Contrary to the common focus on the Hollywood Ten and nuclear spies, the most numerous victims of the McCarthyite witch-hunts in the US in the 1950s were public sector workers, and educationalists in particular. The stories of these "priests of our democracy", as Justice Frankfurter described them, and the class war waged against them by federal agencies, are the heart of this extensively researched and well-written account.

Heins points out that "Red Hunts" in academia were not exclusive to the 1950s ascendancy of Republican senator Joseph McCarthy. The first incidents were a response to the Russian Revolution. In early 1919 the New York "Lusk Committee" proposed a series of (short-lived) repressive laws which required school licensing, "Americanisation" classes, and a "teachers' loyalty bill".

A second, more extensive hunt was launched during the Depression, as Communist Party influence expanded among a growing milieu of school and college radicalism. This was exemplified by the New York City Teachers' Union, which fought for job security and benefits, but also challenged racist textbooks (both collectively and with scissors!) and encouraged community participation in school reform.

State battles over loyalty oaths and employment practices followed - including an injunction against the appointment of philosopher Bertrand Russell for his defence of homosexuality and extramarital sex. These culminated in the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government, or even to affiliate to a group that did so.

This aided action against "subversives" in schools, and though the following year's alliance with the USSR removed the worst of the anti-Communist venom, it set the tenor for the "guilt by association" precepts that guided the post-war Red Scare. Support for civil rights, pacifism, trade unionism - all could be considered to give comfort to or materially support the Red Menace. A range of groups were proscribed as "front organisations".

The choices facing progressive teachers and lecturers were unappealing. Communist Party members faced dismissal. If they denied it and two witnesses contradicted them, they faced long prison terms for perjury. Ex-Communists had to prove their loyalty by "naming names". Refusal to do so often meant the sack. It wasn't until 1967 that the Supreme Court truly recognised individual academic freedom as protected by the First Amendment.

Heins is sympathetic to Communist activists and sympathisers while rightly critical of the Stalinism of the leadership. There are touching accounts of what teachers risked and what many lost - but also encouragement in how many colleagues and students endangered their own careers in acts of solidarity. The twists and turns of Supreme Court judgements are not mystified, but explained in terms of its changing political composition and context. This ambitious book then examines some parallels and contrasts with recent sweeping "anti-terrorist" legislation.

Priests of our Democracy is more an account of constitutional developments and the stories behind them than a manual for opposing victimisation, but in its own terms it is difficult to fault.

Priests of Our Democracy is published by New York University Press, £24.99