Cold War


When Cold War philosophy tied rational choice theory to scientific method, it embedded the free-market mindset in US society

By John McCumber

Aeon Magazine

McCumber is professor of Germanic Languages at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (2016).

The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was worried. It was May 1954, and UCLA had been independent of Berkeley for just two years. Now its Office of Public Information had learned that the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner was preparing one or more articles on communist infiltration at the university. The news was hardly surprising. UCLA, sometimes called the ‘little Red schoolhouse in Westwood’, was considered to be a prime example of communist infiltration of universities in the United States; an article in The Saturday Evening Post in October 1950 had identified it as providing ‘a case history of what has been done at many schools’.

The chancellor, Raymond B Allen, scheduled an interview with a ‘Mr Carrington’ – apparently Richard A Carrington, the paper’s publisher – and solicited some talking points from Andrew Hamilton of the Information Office. They included the following: ‘Through the cooperation of our police department, our faculty and our student body, we have always defeated such [subversive] attempts. We have done this quietly and without fanfare – but most effectively.’ Whether Allen actually used these words or not, his strategy worked. Scribbled on Hamilton’s talking points, in Allen’s handwriting, are the jubilant words ‘All is OK – will tell you.’

Allen’s victory ultimately did him little good. Unlike other UCLA administrators, he is nowhere commemorated on the Westwood campus, having suddenly left office in 1959, after seven years in his post, just ahead of a football scandal. The fact remains that he was UCLA’s first chancellor, the premier academic Red hunter of the Joseph McCarthy era – and one of the most important US philosophers of the mid-20th century.

This is hard to see today, when philosophy is considered one of academia’s more remote backwaters. But as the country emerged from the Second World War, things were different. John Dewey and other pragmatists were still central figures in US intellectual life, attempting to summon the better angels of American nature in the service, as one of Dewey’s most influential titles had it, of democracy and education’. In this they were continuing one of US philosophy’s oldest traditions, that of educating students and the general public to appreciate their place in a larger order of values. But they had reconceived the nature of that order: where previous generations of US philosophers had understood it as divinely ordained, the pragmatists had come to see it as a social order. This attracted suspicion from conservative religious groups, who kept sharp eyes on philosophy departments on the grounds that they were the only place in the universities where atheism might be taught (Dewey’s associate Max Otto resigned a visiting chair at UCLA after being outed as an atheist by the Examiner). As communism began its postwar spread across eastern Europe, this scrutiny intensified into a nationwide crusade against communism and, as the UCLA campus paper The Daily Bruin put it, ‘anything which might faintly resemble it’.

And that was not the only political pressure on philosophy at the time. Another, more intellectual, came from the philosophical attractiveness of Marxism, which was rapidly winning converts not only in Europe but in Africa and Asia as well. The view that class struggle in Western countries would inevitably lead, via the pseudoscientific ‘iron laws’ of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, to worldwide communist domination was foreign to Marx himself. But it provided a ‘scientific’ veneer for Soviet great-power interests, and people all over the world were accepting it as a coherent explanation for the Depression, the Second World War and ongoing poverty. As the political philosopher S M Amadae has shown in Rationalising Capitalist Democracy (2003), many Western intellectuals at the time did not think that capitalism had anything to compete with this. A new philosophy was needed, one that provided what the nuanced approaches of pragmatism could not: an uncompromising vindication of free markets and contested elections.

The McCarthyite pressure, at first, was the stronger. To fight the witch-hunters, universities needed to do exactly what Allen told the Examiner that UCLA was doing: quickly and quietly identify communists on campus and remove them from teaching positions. There was, however, a problem with this: wasn’t it censorship? And wasn’t censorship what we were supposed to be fighting against?

It was Allen himself who solved this problem when, as president of the University of Washington in 1948-49, he had to fire two communists who had done nothing wrong except join the Communist Party. Joseph Butterworth, whose field was medieval literature, was not considered particularly subversive. But Herbert Phillips was a philosophy professor. He not only taught the work of Karl Marx, but began every course by informing the students that he was a committed Marxist, and inviting them to judge his teaching in light of that fact. This meant that he could not be ‘subverting’ his students – they knew exactly what they were getting. Allen nevertheless came under heavy pressure to fire him.


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