U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Book Review: Andrew Feffer’s Bad Faith

“I cheered when Humphrey was chosen
My faith in the system restored
I’m glad the commies were thrown out
Of the AFL-CIO board.”

 — Phil Ochs, Love Me, I’m A Liberal

In Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberals, and the Origins of McCarthyism, historian Andrew Feffer challenges us to rethink both our standard narrative about the emergence of McCarthyism and our conventional political categories. Such substantial and consequential arguments are supported by a remarkably detailed exploration of a little-known episode of anticommunist persecution that took place in New York between 1940 and 1942; the Rapp-Coudert hearings. While Feffer takes his readers through the process that eventually led to the firings or forced resignations of more than 40 teachers at City College of New York and Brooklyn College, he also situates this outcome as deeply connected to conflicts from within New York teachers’ unions themselves – in particular, disputes between liberals and leftists that reached back into the 1930s and involved some of the most respected representatives of the liberal creed. As a result, Feffer challenges more common ways of approaching the relationship between liberals and leftists. As he writes, we cannot “sufficiently understand the legacy of American liberalism, nationally and internationally, without better understanding its contempt for the left, for Marxism as well as communism, and its role in clearing the postwar world of competing ideologies and points of view.”[1] Moreover, he also presents us with a story filled with dilemmas and dynamics that will ring eerily familiar not only to anyone who has participated in ideological struggles within the Democratic Party, or anyone ever involved in union politics, but also anyone in academia who ever had to worry about finding a job.

The Rapp-Coudert hearings conducted by the New York state legislature began in December of 1940, headed by a reform-minded liberal Republican, Paul Windels. Born in Brooklyn, Windels had built his political career by the side of Fiorello La Guardia, assisting in his campaigns and later serving in his administration.  When the hearings began, Windels assured the press that he would not conduct a careless witch hunt, engaging in hearsay or punishing teachers for their personal political beliefs alone. However, these words would come to have little meaning in an era when a legislative inquiry could subpoena witnesses and documents, convict them of contempt for not cooperating, and all the while deny them legal defense in the course of the hearings. Not surprisingly, Windels and the committee used every trick in the book to back accused teachers into a corner, leaving them with only bad options. By the time the hearings wrapped up two years later, dozens had lost their jobs and the left’s presence in the teacher unions of New York City had been greatly weakened.

At heart of the committee’s investigations was the belief that communist instructors were using their classrooms and their influence as teachers to brainwash and recruit students into the communist cause. More than half a century before David Horowitz published an entire book listing the names of professors supposedly partaking in such schemes, Windels and his committee successfully employed the same tropes and accusations to attack the lives and livelihoods of dozens of teachers. Not surprisingly, little evidence existed for this claim; not only were communist teachers careful to avoid any impression of political bias in their courses – after all they had much to lose in a political environment where being a communist was a serious liability – but when debating the issue of their responsibility as teachers and as communists, the vast majority had taken the position that radical education ought to be pursued through workers’ education, not through public colleges. No matter – the committee’s determination to see premeditated brainwashing at work resulted in sometimes ridiculous misreadings of the evidence. In one rare case of a teacher actually bragging about rifling the feathers of his conservative students, the scolding he received from his colleagues was interpreted by the committee not as evidence for the rarity of such proselytizing but evidence that his colleagues did not appreciate the instructor being so explicit and thus giving up the game according to the committee, communists believed that real indoctrination had to be subtle to be successful.[2]

Yet the dynamics of the hearing ran deeper than simply the resolve of anticommunists to detect subversion, evidence be damned. As Feffer convincingly argues, the cultural cache of such witch hunts replied on the legitimacy of antileftism found not only in conservative or Republican circles, but deeply liberal ones as well. In fact, the backdrop history to the Rapp-Coudert hearings cut not only through a national liberal/left divide, but through the heart of a major conduit for representing teachers in New York City; Local 5.

In the 1930s, Local 5 – an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) – faced many challenges. While legislators slashed education budgets, they also implemented policies to deal with the resulting shortfalls, many of which sound painfully familiar. For example, the city began hiring substitute teachers for usually full-time jobs for lower pay, enabling “flexibility” and of course saving money.[3] In 1933, the city also increased class sizes by 10 percent to deal with a budget cut of $6.5 million.

The leadership of Local 5 responded to these assaults by counseling sober, careful deliberation. As the union’s executive board put, “social sanity is the need of the hour.”[4] Yet many rank-and-file members did not agree – in fact, the union was deeply divided. On the left stood many varieties of radicals – including Stalinists, Trotskyists, Lovestoneites, and anarchists – who had little patience, particularly in the shadow of the Depression, for legislation and lobbying. Rather, they counseled mass and direct action – protests, marches, and mobilization. For example, the Unemployed Teacher’s Association (UTA) (the mere existence of which indicates the conditions of the time and also sounds like a compelling strategy for the present), affiliated with the Communist Party, pushed for mass attendance at Board of Education meetings, so that they would be “so flooded with teachers and parents that the Board will be ‘virtually forced’ to hear us.’”[5] Sometimes these divisions broke down along lines unfamiliar to our contemporary political landscape – the president of Local 5, Henry Linville, had been a staunch defender of teacher rights and was a member of the Socialist Party. In the 1930s, however, the left was wide enough to allow for lefitsts like Linville to look rather liberal, leaving Feffer to describe them as “conservative socialists.”[6] More familiar to contemporary readers, however, was the disagreement between the radicals and the union leadership over how to regard the Democratic establishment – in this case, the powerful Tammany Hall. Linville and his allies pushed for politics as usual; negotiation and lobbying; while the radical left sought to wrestle control over teaching conditions away from what they regarded as a completely corrupt party machine.

As long as Linville and the more moderate leadership maintained clear control of the union, these conflicts persisted but did not boil over. By the spring of 1932, however, the superior attendance numbers at union meetings of various left factions started to pose a serious threat to their positions. To make a complicated story short, Linville decided to open an investigation into the activities of Local 5 communists, creating a committee largely controlled by himself that quickly brought charges against 12 radical members with activities as diverse as disruption or “refusal to respect the commonly understood standards of decency in debate” to attempting to use poorly attended meetings as a means for achieving “minority control.”[7] Of course, at the heart of all of these “charges” rested a profound disagreement over the role of the union, the strategy that should be adopted, and the position of the working class itself in an electoral democracy like the United States.

To help make the case against the leftists, Linville and his allies called upon the help of one of the most revered figures in twentieth century liberalism: John Dewey. A founder of Local 5 and deeply respected by the rank and file, in the past Dewey had staunchly defended the union. When appointed as the head of the investigating committee, he considered himself to be doing the same – except now it was devious leftists that posed the threat. In the committee’s final report, Dewey agreed with Linville’s accusations of a deliberate plot to “subvert” the union. The leftists complained about abuse of authority and retaliation for dissent, but Dewey believed these merely covered for “a deliberately adopted procedure of so discrediting the Administration as to bring about a thorough change in the basic policies, aims and methods of the Union.”[8] Moreover, the report concluded that at the heart of all these deceitful ploys rested communism and its theory of class war. Because communists (and the committee did not distinguish between the various left factions involved) believed that class war offered the only proper tactics toward revolution, they would conceal their identity as communists and work to divide and conquer any organization – including a union – that failed to adopt such strategies and instead sought to work within the American political tradition.

The dozens of individual incidents, conflicts and contested meeting minutes that made up the nitty-gritty of the committee’s report collectively offer an excellent example of how even personal and petty disputes are often ultimately rooted in ideological difference. If leftists showed more dedication to showing up to union meetings and thereby won many votes, was this subversion or the very essence of participatory democracy? In a democratic organization, do members have to agree upon a shared ideological world view or is that itself open to contestation?

Commendably, Feffer does not avoid the responsibility to make his honest assessment of the conflicts known, and his understanding of events favors the leftists. This is made easier by some of the more absurd and puzzling arguments made against them – for example, Dewy and the committee contended that the very fact that communists often concealed their party identification clearly reflected their desire to derail the union by means of subterfuge. But expecting communists (particularly ones with insecure employment, as many of these teachers suffered from) to openly declare their ideology at almost any time in American history, let alone in the shadow of the first red scare, seems either cluelessly lacking in empathy or insincere point-scoring. Moreover, as a leftist, it is perhaps not surprising that I found myself deeply confused by some of the more centrist commitments of the committee liberals. Dewey, for example, “accused” the leftists of believing that “the proper purpose of the Union is to join the class war in order to promote the cause of workers against employers” – next to which I wrote in the margins, “WTF else is a union for?!”[9]

Of course, others would reply to that question with similar credulity. But that disconnect gets us to the conflict at the core of Feffer’s book – twentieth century liberals, arguing that communists could not participate honestly in American democracy, stigmatized Marxist analysis, excluded leftists from organizations, and contributed to the political culture that would result in witch hunts, firings, and destroyed reputations. And yet they did it all – as far as they were concerned – in defense of democracy and the essential liberal values of pluralism and tolerance. Feffer meticulously documents that there is something very wrong with this picture, making two interrelated arguments: our historiographic and chronological account of McCarthyism needs to be reconsidered, and liberalism “preaches an open society yet silences points of view perceived to be threatening to political stability as liberals understand it.”[10]

Feffer’s first argument is the easier case to make. He clearly shows that there is a connection between these earlier internal union fights and the later era of McCarthyism: after all, the Rapp-Coudert Committee’s final report would repeatedly refer to the “Dewey trial” as support for its position, and material from the Rapp-Coudert investigation would, in turn, show up in the heydays of McCarthyism.[11] Local 5, meanwhile, would eventually be killed by a labor movement committed to liberalism. The American Federation of Teachers (of which Local 5 was a part) expelled the local in 1941 for supposedly being under “communist control,” and quickly replaced them with the anticommunist Teachers Guild – a rival union created by Henry Linville when he felt his control over Local 5 slipping.[12] Especially considering that such persecution from within the labor movement was hardly unique, Feffer’s second argument – about the nature of liberalism itself – should be at the least, very compelling.

And yet, such conclusions are often rejected or, in a more passive move, simply ignored. Hence the version of 1950s anticommunism as a simple tale of a principled liberalism versus a uniquely reactionary conservatism still persists, albeit if in zombie form. Despite an abundance of scholarship from the last two decades showing the importance of participation by liberals in the creation of projects and trends traditionally deemed solely “conservative” – from the “solution” of segregation to the construction of a carceral state – the implications of this family resemblance continues to be implicitly denied in nearly all subfields of United States history.[13]

However, Feffer’s book adds a valuable contribution to the body of work that is making this ostrich move more and more difficult to maintain. It is particularly impressive how he connects his deep and detailed research to the larger picture; Feffer certainly does not make the common mistake of losing the forest in the trees. Feffer also navigates his narratives well, no small feat considering how dizzying the ins-and-outs of New York politics and teachers’ unions can be. This mastery enables Feffer to quickly dispel any argument that he is oversimplifying a complex situation; he clearly understands its complexity as much as anyone, but convincingly demonstrates how conflicts are ultimately connected to ideological divides between liberals and the left.

Yet when it comes to how we should understand the position of the left in American politics, Feffer seems undecided. On the one hand, he consistently highlights the conservative and reactionary elements of liberalism, while also noting that in the context of the 1930s and 1940s, most Americans regarded communism as more of an existential threat than fascism – after all, racism and antisemitism are deeply American traditions. On the other, he seems to argue for a compatibility between leftist politics and the everywhere-vaguely-defined “American values” that his own evidence and narrative seem to belie. For example, when discussing the lack of concern about fascism in the schools and society, Feffer rightly notes that Communists should have not been surprised to be labeled subversives “by people who accepted anti-Semitism and racism as the norm.”[14] Yet when discussing the strategic mistake of communists in denying their party affiliation, Feffer seems to think it would not have been too hard of a sell to claim that it was communism, really, that represented the American tradition. “One can imagine a completely different series of hearings,” he writes, “in which openly avowed Communists made a case to the public that what they did at the municipal colleges served the core values of American democracy, especially on questions of economic and racial justice.”[15] But if fascists groups faced less harassment than leftist ones because they were more in line with popular attitudes, in what way does racial justice become an American value?

The truth – as always! – is complicated, and of course both racism and antiracism, capitalist inequality and egalitarianism, are part of American political history. But the left can do better than attempting to press an American sticker on values which have been extremely embattled in actual American history. While left-leaning liberals often try to insist that “American values” can be whatever liberals want to believe they are (à la Jill Lepore) or that leftist values can be “repackaged” as American values (à la Michael Kazin), the preponderance of evidence suggests that such strategies remain shallow PR moves without sufficient social roots to really take hold. It’s surprising, then, to see Feffer occasionally engaging in that most tempting – but also ridiculous – of Americanizing moves when he twice invokes the Founding Fathers as standing by the side of the persecuted leftists.[16]

The frustrating thing about this indecision is how it engages in exactly the confusion that Feffer so astutely identifies among liberals. As he writes, “this was the paradox of American liberalism in the twentieth century, a politics that endorsed social planning without violating the basic norms of modern industrial capitalism in the name of democratic impulses that liberals themselves often defeated.”[17] Exactly – and perhaps what is most frustrating about liberals, then and now, is not that they defend the American system and attack the left but that they do so in the name of values they are actively trampling on. It’s the denialism and the hypocrisy that makes it so maddening and – as Steven Salita can tell you – devastating and difficult to defeat. Yet the problem of what to do with intolerance in a society supposedly rooted in tolerance doesn’t disappear just by insisting that the left has a better record in this regard. This is why arguments about free speech, Antifa, BDS and platforming fascists keep going around and around, perpetuated by the paradox of tolerance that befuddles both the left and the liberals.

The troubling truth that each side fails to be honest about is that a society rooted in endless and universal tolerance cannot really be, at one at the same time, committed to democratic values. Leftists generally are better on this, for sure, but at the same time we often understate this problem or we fail to articulate clearly our vision for a society that values tolerance but also understands that this requires occasionally privileging social justice first. After all, as Feffer recognizes himself at several points, leftists – especially communists – were, in a fundamental sense, subversive of the American system. That they definitely were not diabolically plotting against their own unions or secretly brainwashing their students, as their conservative and liberal opponents believed them to be, just goes to show how difficult grappling sincerely with radical left critique can be – leftists are only comprehendible as treacherous liars or cultish zealots. But the injustice of their oppression doesn’t turn radicals into the truest of true Americans, any more than a “true patriot” is a dissenting protester. Trying and failing to work that magic elides the fundamental problem, which is simply that not only can we not lay claim to “American values” but – even more fundamentally – trying to do so ultimately does more harm than good. We need to finally let go of nationalism.

However, this tension in Feffer’s book represents a problem much larger than he, or any one person, could be expected to solve. Bad Faith is an incredible accomplishment: the result of deep research and honest analysis that takes that research to the next level. Feffer never mistakes, as so many studies do, his findings for his argument – and ultimately it is his argument, about the way we think about and understand the left and liberalism, which we increasingly need to come to terms with while we cope with the political realignments of our time.

[1] Andrew Feffer, Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCartyism (New York: Empire State Editions, 2019), 251.

[2] Feffer, Bad Faith, 189.

[3] By 1940, at least one teacher, outraged that she had not been given a full-time position after eight years of substitute status, lost her patience with the usual process of complaint and “attacked an associate superintendent in his office, smashing inkwells, a lamp, and the administrator’s ‘favorite family picture.’ As she was being carted off for psychiatric observation, she screamed ‘No matter how long I have to wait I will get you!’ (Feffer, 65). Obviously, this woman is my hero.

[4] Feffer, Bad Faith, 92.

[5] Feffer, Bad Faith, 94.

[6] Feffer, Bad Faith, 11.

[7] Feffer, Bad Faith, 96.

[8] Feffer, Bad Faith, 99.

[9] Feffer, Bad Faith, 102.

[10] Feffer, Bad Faith, 250.

[11] Feffer, Bad Faith, 229, 184.

[12] Feffer, Bad Faith, 234-237.

[13] I particularly have in mind here Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart and Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right.

[14] Feffer, Bad Faith, 210.

[15] Feffer, Bad Faith, 225.

[16] Feffer, Bad Faith, 13, 190.

[17] Feffer, Bad Faith, 8.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.