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Report on the Project on the Comparative International History of Left Education 1997

By Marvin E. Gettleman

At my college during the tail end of that weird period in U.S. history known as "the McCarthy Era,"(1) two government agents entered a classroom where the teacher was lecturing on English literature, took him by the arms and led him out. It was mid-semester; his students never saw him again. At that time I made a vow to find out what brought about this extraordinary act of political and intellectual repression. I interviewed scores of people, and wrote a series of articles on the subject, not all of them published.(2) Then in 1986 Ellen Schrecker brought out No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford), an outstanding book which illuminated one side of the story: why the repression was unleashed on American academics.

Another side of the story remained to be explored: the nature of the pedagogical work carried out in the 1920s to the 1950s by those in and near the U.S. Communist Party. I began work on a still uncompleted book tentatively entitled "Training For the Class Struggle:" American Communists and Education. There was no secondary literature on the subject, although U.S. Socialist Party schools had been carefully studied by several American scholars.(3) Probably McCarthyist attitudes hindered scholars from looking at the far more ambitious and widespread pedagogical work of the CP/USA. While the sheer virginity of the field had its attractions, I did hope to find guidance and inspiration in the writings of historians of Communist education outside the American three-mile limit.

And I did. Such works as Stuart Macintyre's Little Moscows (1980); searching essays by the late Raphael Samuels in several numbers of the New Left Review; Damelle Tartakowsky's Les premiers communists française (1980), and Brigitte Studer's massive work on the Swiss CP, Un parti sous influence (1994) are superb. But little else had been published. Whole swaths of Left-wing pedagogy remained unstudied, so I organized the Project on the Comparative International History of Left Education to fill the gap. How foolhardy this was for an academic near-retirement from a non-elite technical college whose administration had little interest in supporting historical [research], became clear over time. But, after calling into existence an international steering committee, which did not object to having me take on the designation Project Director, we plunged right in.

The debut of what I will henceforth just call "the Project" took place at the 18th International Congress of Historical Sciences in Montreal, Canada. There, a diverse (and some felt scattered and collectively incoherent) selection of papers on International Communist Education was presented by a group of scholars nearly as international as their subjects: John Manley from the U.K. presented a study of how the Communist Party of Canada carried out its educational work, 1924-1954, while Geoff Andrews, also of the U.K, dealt with British Communist education in the 1970s. Coming from the Indian state of Kerala, P.M. Parameswaran presented the work of the People's Science Movement in his state and country. Phan Gia Ben of Vietnam talked on the role of education in the Vietnamese liberation struggle. Norman Levy of South Africa discussed the liberation struggle in his country with emphasis on education. Jorg Wollenberg of Germany talked on Communist and Left Education in the Weimar period and its legacy. John Hammond of the USA presented pedagogical aspects of the 1980s guerrilla war in El Salvador based upon his on-site field work. I talked generally on U.S. Communist efforts before McCarthyism and on the Project

Only a few of the Montreal participants engaged the work of their fellow-panelists. This regrettably illustrated one of the weaknesses of the Project: its difficulty in getting scholars to rise up from their locally-based documentation and attain a genuinely comparative perspective. This happened despite my attempt to come up with an extensive set of questions common to all the papers. Too lengthy for inclusion here, this abortive effort (which might succeed given a different institutional context - backing from a major university with a strong international program in the history of education) will be sent to any person who asks for it, especially if it can be sent via e-mail.

Modest funding for the Project's session at the Montreal Congress came from Brooklyn Polytechnic University, from Science & Society and from the Lipman-Miliband Trust. In the following year, the Lipman-Miliband Trust helped the Project's Director attend the first European Social Science History conference in Noorwijkerhout, the Netherlands, where I presented a paper on "Communist Education in the Golden State: The California Labor School, 1944-1957," made many contacts with scholars and was asked to organize two panels on the history of left education for the second European Social Science History Conference, scheduled to take place in Amsterdam in March of 1998. These panels and their participants are:


Daisy Devreese, International Institute of Social History, The Netherlands
Stephen Leberstein, Center for Worker Education, City College of New York, USA
Sandro Bellassai, University of Bologna, Italia


Yuval Dror, Oranim School of Education, Israel
Irma Filatova, University of Durban-Westville, South Africa
Janet Coles, University of Leeds, 15K
Marvin E. Gettleman, (Emeritus) Polytechnic University

In the future the Project may attempt to attach other sessions to international conferences in various locales on the model of the Montreal and Amsterdam conferences. It will thus, incrementally, help give rise to a body of scholarship that did not exist before on international left education. Hopefully the separate essays produced will be published in various journals, and may eventually be collected in a volume of proceedings. An alternative would be the construction of a Project website where essays and problems can be discussed, which may contribute to new cross-borders and cross-disciplinary efforts. A best-case scenario is that brought into electronic (and then face-to face) contact, almost spontaneously a widely scattered group scholars working on related subjects, can discover a set of more-or-less-coherent problematiques and empirical solutions to them.

Or, for a variety of reasons, the Project may fail. For one thing, the Director has, after attaining the status of professor emeritus, has become re-employed (as Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives in the USA), and will have less time than ever to devote to the Project. This will be a serious drawback to what has essentially been for three years a one-person operation. Or, the lack of institutional support and funding may exacerbate what might be called the internal contradictions of the Project: that is, the likelihood that some of the most important left educational work (in what used to be called "the third world") will go unstudied (4) while what may be less significant efforts in the Euro-Atlantic context will be favored. In the former regions, and in poorer areas in the industrial countries, scholars lack research resources and opportunities, and without far more assistance than this Project has so far generated, cannot readily attend international conferences or participate in electronic interchanges. Or both.

Yet, just as this essay was taking shape a ray of hope appeared on the horizon. I received a set of reports from the Centre de Documentation sur les Internationales Ouvriers (CDIO) at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, France, that describe an exciting "journée d'étude" on "propagande et diffusion des savoirs dans les milieux populaires en Europe aux XIXe et XXe siècles" - in short left education. Eagerly I responded, explaining the parallels between with what the Comparative Education Project in the USA was attempting and what CDIO was planning. Of course I called attention to what surely are the eurocentric limitations of the efforts presently underway in Dijon. But if the Burgundians expand their geographical vision and embrace some of the themes of the Project described here, the Comparative International History of Left Education may very well have found a far, far better home than New York (as presently configured) could provide. And I won't even mention the food.


1. Early in 1998 Ellen Schrecker's study of what has been this inadequately-studied phenomenon, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, will be published in the U.S.

2. Gettleman, "Communists in Higher Education: C.C.N.Y. and Brooklyn College on the Eve of the Rapp-Coudert Investigation, 1935-1939," paper presented at the 70th Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Atlanta, GA., 1977; "Rehearsal for McCarthyism: The New York State Rapp-Coudert Committee and Academic Freedom, 1940-41," paper presented at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Washington DC., 1997. The data in these unpublished papers have been incorporated into Ellen Schrecker's No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), Chaps., 2, 3. See also Gettleman, "The Jefferson School of Social Science," in Mary Jo Buhle et al., eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York, 1989), pp. 389-90, and Gettleman, "The New York Workers School, 1923-1944: Communist Education in America," in Michael Brown et al., eds., New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism (New York, 1994), pp.[ ].

3. Key works are Richard Altenbaugh's Education for Struggle: The American Labor Colleges of the 1920s and 1930s (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Kenneth Teitelbaum's Schooling for "Good Rebels:" Socialist Education for Children in the United States, 1900-1920 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); John Glen's Highlander: No Ordinary School, 1982-1962 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988).

4. Among the third world educational projects that badly need systematic study is the liberatory pedagogy promoted by the Brazilian educator Paolo Friere (1922-1997), author of what may be the most acclaimed pedagogical volume of the twentieth century, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). I also offer the following political justification for a broad internationalist perspective on left education: namely, that despite the current triumphalism voiced by spokespersons for global capitalism, it is more than possible that capitalism will not succeed in the third world. (I pass over in silence here whether a collapse of "southern" economies would drastically and catastrophically affect "the north" as well.) If so, the rebirth of the global left may take place in these regions, and if so, where they would surely generate a significant pedagogy, probably drawing heavily on Freireist concepts.

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