Political identification is a tricky game, especially out on the left. Uniquely positioned in American political and intellectual life, Harvard has its own long and complex history with communism—and its own formative experiences of anxiety and exclusion.
In February 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy launched the Communist witch hunt that defined an era and established his name. “Today,” he said, “we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down, they are truly down.”
Harvard found itself at the center in this national scare. It was a clear target, in fact, with a reputation for turning out liberal graduates and an apparently strong Communist presence between the wars—all of which had earned it the moniker “Kremlin on the Charles.” Yet throughout the many turns of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, Harvard fought to balance its commitment to intellectual freedom with its desire to avoid being marginalized or pressured from above.
The discussion of communism on campus, initially private to Harvard’s students and faculty, became a deeply public matter, and the tensions of the ’50s left a legacy of partisanship and pariahdom that was influential through the Vietnam era and beyond.
“REDS OF ALL SHADES”
The Communist fever that made Harvard the “Kremlin on the Charles” during the 1930s was slow to take shape. In the early days of American communism, its supporters faced little criticism at Harvard.
Leftist political thought first took official form on campus in 1908 with the formation of Harvard’s chapter of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS), a national organization of student and faculty working to spread socialist thought throughout the country.
Until at least 1920, Harvard delegates went to the annual ISS Convention, where they met with students from ISS chapters at other universities to discuss contemporary political affairs. In 1914, the Harvard ISS boasted 60 members: a small fraction of the College’s enrollment, but a recognized and tolerated group.
While the 1930s are generally considered the high point of Communist activity on college campuses, the start of that decade was quiet in terms of Harvard’s campus sentiment. But if Marx was not on everyone’s mind just yet, then politics certainly were.
An op-ed in The Crimson from April 1930 affirmed a strong belief in the freedom of speech and thought on campus. The article expressed “shock” in response to the University of Washington’s suppression of on-campus Communist groups.
The author went on to give a casual overview of left-wing politics at Harvard: “Harvard has her share of reds of all shades from a pinkish tint to a dark blood-red and Harvard is rather fond of them in a very mild sort of way. They add to the variety of the college scene.”
While these tinges of red were present—and non-threatening, according to the writer—it was not until two years later that they were officially recognized. In April 1932, Harvard students participated in the creation of the New England branch of the National Student League (NSL), which became known for its strong communist ideology. Gathered in a corner of Eliot House, students from Harvard, Radcliffe, Tufts, Boston University, and other local universities established the organization.
The NSL made its political goals apparent from the start and outlined them in its official agenda, “The Student Review.” It took a clear anti-capitalist stance, seeking to “expose the sham of ‘democracy’” and fight the “consistent denial of the elementary rights of free speech, press and peaceful assembly” it perceived as prevalent in America.
Philip G. Altbach writes in his book “Student Politics in America” that the NSL provided “a key means of recruiting students to the Communist party in the early thirties.” The 1935 founding of the American Student Union dissolved the individuality of the NSL, but Altbach insists that its basic political approach remained influential in the student movement throughout the 30s and, in various forms, until the present.
Marxist thought quickly spread across college campuses around this time, according to Harvey E. Klehr, a professor of history and politics at Emory University and an authority on the American communist movement. “The ’30s was the period in which the Communist Party made its most significant intrusion into college life and attracted the most support it ever would have among college students,” Klehr said.