The Writings of Bertell Ollman
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BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman
Chapter 6


On April 18, 1978, just two weeks before our Class Struggle press conference, the Washington Star newspaper announced, "The University of Maryland is expected to appoint perhaps the first Marxist to head a U.S. college political science department." Three days later, on April 21, The Washington Post reported, "The nomination of a Marxist political scientist to head a University of Maryland department has provoked a growing campus controversy that yesterday spilled over into the arena of state politics as Acting Governor Blair Lee III questioned the wisdom of the appointment... Lee warned that the appointment 'could kick up quite a backlash.'" Lee also said that the state legislature might react to the appointment by trying to cut the university's budget. A loud echo came from State Senator Roy Straten, chairman of the Appropriation Committee of the Maryland Senate, who said the university "may have gone too far this time.

About five weeks before, on March 15, I had been offered the position of chairman of the University of Maryland Department of Government and Politics, "subject to the approval of the president," by Provost Murray Polokoff. A search committee that included 10 professors from the Department of Government and Politics had chosen me out of approximately 100 candidates for the job, and Chancellor Robert Gluckstern, the top administrator on the University of Maryland College Park campus, had ratified their choice. All that remained was the approval of President Wilson Elkins, and Poloff and others assured me that this was a mere formality, since Elkins had never disapproved of any chairman appointment.

What is especially remarkable here is that none of the people, who had anything to do with nomination, not the search committee, not the provost or the chancellor, indeed none of the 41 professors in the Department of Government and Politics, were Marxists. They were professors and administrators who honestly believed that a person should be judged on the basis of his scholarship and character and not his ideology, and were ready to act on this belief—to the point of recommending a Marxist colleague for a position of academic leadership. American universities, I proudly reflected, had come a long way since the intolerant days of Joe McCarthy.

Given the chance to expand this new tolerance even further and to advance ever so slightly the cause of critical thinking in the Academy, could I turn it down? Class Struggle, Inc., I was certain, would be able to operate quite well without me by the end of the summer. After a couple of intense family councils and a visit to Washington (College Park is a suburb of the nation's capital) to look into schools and housing, I called Provost Polokoff and accepted his offer.

In early April, a half-dozen of the older, academically less productive and politically more conservative members of the Department of Government and Politics wrote to President Elkins about the calamity that was about to befall the University of Maryland, to wit, the hiring of a Marxist chairman. They also alerted the student press, and on April 18, the University of Maryland Diamondback ran the banner headline, "Marxist Eyed for Top Post." The story was picked up immediately by the Washington, Baltimore, and—with the help of Governor Lee—New York papers. I couldn't help but recall my imbroglio at the University of the West Indies, but I quickly dismissed it. This time the outcome would be different.

Putting polemic aside, the question was a simple one of freedom to teach and research as one wishes, and to rise in the Academy to the level justified by one's abilities. It was a question not only of my own academic freedom but also that of the scholars and administrators who chose me and of the students whom I would eventually teach. A leading American political scientist, Michael Parenti, has said, "We should want the same good things for Americans (students included) that we so passionately desire for the Russians and Chinese, namely that they have the opportunity to hear, express, and advocate iconoclastic, anti-establishment views in their media and educational institutions without fear or reprisal." Otherwise, how do we differ from THEM?

The people who recommended me for the job obviously agreed with this sentiment, as did a large portion of the press that commented on this subject. In an editorial entitled "Litmus Test at College Park," the Baltimore Sun said, "We can never tell if the avowed American respect for academic freedom has reasserted itself until a toleration test arises." This, the Sun claimed was such a test.

Opposition to my appointment was also spreading. Its more vocal spokesmen included leading state politicians, several members of the University Board of Regents, and a broad phalanx of conservation newspaper columnists, including Kilpatrick, Buchanan, Drumond, and Evans and Novak. It became clear that a lot of people favor academic freedom in principle on the condition that no one use it in practice, at least no one they seriously disagree with, and especially not Marxists. What Marxists do or say that is so terrible was generally left very vague in the attacks on me, but by calling myself a Marxist I had clearly put myself beyond the pale.

A member of the University Board of Regents, Samuel Hoover, J. Edgar's younger brother, said, "I just don't think a Marxist should be a state institution in a position of that caliber. He'll never get on there." But when asked by a reported what he understood by "Marxism," he replied, "I really don't know what it is. I'll be honest with you.

Others who thought they knew what Marxism is attacked me for not being "objective" (as if other professors don't also have a point of view), or for being intolerant in the classroom (against all the evidence gathered from my decade of teaching at NYU), or as an enemy of democracy (when I have defined "socialism" again and again as the extension of democracy into all walks of life). No one accused me of being a pawn of the Soviet Union, but a document that was sent to President Elkins by the U.S. Labor Party, a small, right-wing sect, suggested that I might be part of a British conspiracy to overthrow the American government. My repeated assurances that I would run a pluralist department and not do anything that other chairmen don't already do did not satisfy my critics.

What they were really objecting to, of course, was the content of my Marxist views and to the facts that I became chairman these views would get a wider hearing. My opponents could not say this in so many words, because they would clearly identify them as enemies of academic freedom and of free speech generally, principles that are still so popular in America that few dare attack them openly.

Michael Olesker, a columnist for the Baltimore News-American, saw clearly through all the disguises: "Ollman's made it clear," he said. "If he's appointed, he will teach socialist ideas in the classrooms. So that's why all those True Believers are upset. It doesn't matter that virtually all other courses are taught by non-Marxists. What matters is all these college kids who might become tainted. They might find something in this one course, and this one man, that is far more appealing than anything else they've gotten in years of academic and political indoctrination. And that's the final absurdity of what the Ollman detractors are saying: There's something so juicy here, so enticing in this Marxist business that we're absolutely terrified of letting anybody hear it. Better to present me to the public as a fox who had been hired to guard the chickens (the headline over a page of hostile letters on my case in the Washington Star) than to have them mistake me for the little boy in the story of the emperor's new clothes. But if they think that one or even a few Marxists could wreak such havoc on the minds of the young, what are they saying about the truth and power of their own ideas?

There is a danger in stopping here, and viewing the opposition to my appointment as just another expression of political reaction. The Baltimore Sun may have been right in editorializing that "in Mencken's old precincts...the Boobus Americanus" was waging one of its perennial wars to preserve "the blue crap harvest," but there is a deeper meaning that needs to be uncovered. For the struggle over my appointment reflected not only differences in people's acceptance of academic freedom, but also several conflicting tendencies, or contradictions, within the university itself.

On the one hand, universities function to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next, to teach critical thinking and to allow scholars to study and discuss the most important questions of the day. Readers will recognize this as the stuff of every Commencement Day speech. In order to perform these functions well, universities require some Marxists as well as supporters of other critical perspectives, and an atmosphere in which people feel free to follow their interests and insights wherever they may lead. If professors and students know that some ideas are barred from the university, they naturally become skeptical about what is taught.

What is generally left unsaid in Commencement Day speeches is that our universities also function to produce learned rationalization by both industry and government (especially in the area of defense [sic]), to provide custodial care for young, unemployed worker (to serve as what Ira Shor has called a "collegiate ware-house for unneeded labor"), and to teach studentsthe skills and attitudes that will make them effective, model workers for their future capitalist employers. Scholars, who try to relate these functions to the workings of our social-economic system, to understand what groups benefit most and what groups least, and to explore alternatives, mayactually undermine the effectiveness with which these less recognized functions are being carried out. From the point of view of the people from whom this is decisive work of the university (chiefly members of university boards of trustees, businessmen, politicians, and conservative ideologues), the presence of any Marxists constitutes a dangerous threat.

Fortunately, many of these same "academic statesmen" also understand that the activities they consider primary require for their own effective implementation the pursuit of a program in which knowledge gets transferred, critical thinking is taught, and basic questions are discussed. Otherwise, we don't have a university but a technical school, and a bad one at that. Students need to believe, in other words, that they are getting a real education—one where different opinions can be heard—if they are to submit willingly to the ideological indoctrination and job training that constitutes the standard fare of their college years. Likewise, professors must believe they are more than trainers, ideologues, and warehouse attendants if they are to do the jobs well. And the general public has to believe that the ideas that filter down from universities have won out in fair and open combat with other ideas if these notions are to receive the credence that their sponsors require. In sum, the opponents of Marxism are limited in what they can do against Marxists by what they want and need to do for themselves.

Conservatives, then, need academic freedom—albeit for their own peculiar ends—as much as radicals. Similar ideological work is down by the notion of "consumer sovereignty," which helps mask and render acceptable an economy dominated by large corporations, and by the idea of "democracy," which helps legitimate a government dominated by Big Money. In America, where everything is bigger, we have fig leaves that hide mountains. Hence the paradox that those who consistently oppose real democracy, genuine consumer sovereignty, and through-going academic freedom are often found among their most vociferous defenders.

American universities then need some Marxists. The key question is, when and at what level of authority do some become so many? From the start, the realcontroversy over my appointment has been over where to draw the line and, to a lesser extent over who should do it. To be sure, the two sides in this battle also disagree overwhat are the most important functions of a university and the kind of society worth preserving or building. For the most part, it is the liberals who once again are trying topreserve what is best in American traditions (aided by radicals who hope to build upon them), while so-called "conservative" do their best to destroy these traditions in the name of preserving them. While the labels are confusing, the conflict is all too familiar.My battle for academic freedom at the University of Maryland turns out to be part of the broader class struggle.

In the spring of 1978, the class struggle had progressed far enough for a Marxist to be nominate for the post of chairman in a political science department at a major university. This was a greater surprise than the subsequent attacks on my appointment. The widespread support I enjoyed among University of Maryland students and faculty also convinced me this battle could be won. How would President Elkins react to the enormous political pressures that were being brought to bear on him? For the moment, events were out of my hands—and luckily so, for these hands were becoming increasingly occupied with the work of Class Struggle, Inc.