Monday, September 17, 2018


Harry Targ

Dear Friends,

Many have seen these essays on Portside. I am interested in a conversation about the positions these two statements are taking.

First, the authors recognize the rise of neo-fascism and alt-nationalism.

Second, they see the connections between these aberrations of populism to dramatic economic decline.

Third, they see the economic decline for vast majorities-the 99 percent, the precariat, the industrial working class, people of color, women—as a direct result of the neoliberal stage of capitalism.

Fourth, they see the rise of the right as tied to growing alienation, as in prior periods of economic crisis such as Germany in the 1920s. (The rise of fascism did not begin with racism but racism was used to give explanation to the inexplicable collapse of European and North American economies in the 1930s).

Fifth, the movement against the rise of the right and neoliberalism has been sparked by new mass organizations and movements. In the US this includes Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, the MeToo movement, Climate Change campaigns, teachers strikes, gun control advocacy, a New Poor People’s Campaign, the organization of fast food and service workers, immigrant solidarity activism, solidarity with the Palestinian people, anti-militarism and nuclear disarmament. In the electoral arena these campaigns have coalesced around the Sanders campaign and its aftermath (Our Revolution) and insurgencies in the Democratic Party. In Great Britain the Corbyn majority in the Labor Party parallel the US developments. Other currents exist all across Europe and in the Global South. While experiencing hard times today, in the recent past we have seen the rise of the World Social Forum, the Bolivarian Revolution, protests against International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs, continuing admiration for Cuba’s revolutionary tradition, and China’s increasing connectivity to progressive governments in the Global South. 

Sixth, while the political currents listed above, particularly in the Global South, may have different features, causes, and concerns than some of the progressive campaigns in the Global North, the centerpiece of the proposed strategies in both articles is a call for building a Progressive International. I take this to mean that progressives and the left among them should work to support, coalesce, and develop a progressivism that establishes a 21st century New Deal. This is not socialism, but at this point in time represents an achievable reversal of fascism and neoliberalism. A 21st century New Deal (a Green New Deal) could reverse the enormous pain and suffering endured by vast majorities of people on the planet. And, perhaps most importantly, it would reestablish the legitimacy of government, social responsibility, community, and the belief that all humankind is interconnected. For me this could serve as a short-term transition to the construction of a democratic socialist world.

In sum, the authors make a powerful case for continuing to build a progressive majority in the United States and to work in solidarity with progressive comrades around the world. The seeds have already been planted in many countries. They need to be watered and nurtured to create just societies everywhere.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Essays on Higher Education

Monthly Review Online

Higher Education Today: Theory and Practice
Posted Aug 10, 2009 by Harry Targ, MROnline

In the Beginning
I am a child of the cold war.  I was born in 1940, was an adolescent in the 1950s, and devoid of political consciousness when President Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” in 1960.   I was modestly inspired by the young President Kennedy’s admonition to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”  In fact I have thought a lot about that exhortation recently as I compare the enthusiasm with which young people embraced the Kennedy campaign in 1960 and the way young people today are energized by Barak Obama.  While most of us did not realize then that JFK spoke for American empire, he helped mobilize young people who throughout the 1960s fought against it.

I was not just an empty vessel, ready for cooptation, however.  I read and heard about the courageous people organizing and participating in the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the freedom rides in the south.  And I slowly but significantly drifted into the cognitive orbit of the melodies and messages of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, but the politics of social change only marginally entered course work in high school and college.  As a student of foreign policy and diplomacy and international relations I gravitated toward the most “radical’ paradigm reflected in curricula at the time, “the realist” perspective.  This view suggested that all nations, even our own, were driven by the pursuit of power.  Defending freedom, fighting totalitarianism, standing up to communism, the realists said, was the discursive “cover” for the drive to power for which all nations were driven.
I attended a graduate program in political science that was in the forefront of the new “behavioral science” revolution.  We were told we were scientists in the academy and citizens when we returned home.  As scientists we were engaged in the pursuit of the construction of empirical theory about human behavior.  Our task was to better describe, explain, and predict — not change — political behavior.  The unverifiable “laws” of human nature, embedded in the realist logic, were to be replaced by rigorously acquired data and verifiable knowledge claims.

When I came to Purdue University in 1967, assigned to teach courses on international relations, I was troubled by the fact that neither the realists nor the behaviorists helped me understand the escalating war in Vietnam.  I was also increasingly troubled by the assumption that it was not my place as a professor to do anything about the war, as teacher or citizen, presumably armed with a body of knowledge that might have value to the debate about the war.
I started teaching a course with the ambiguous title “Contemporary Political Problems,” and through it my students and I explored the writings of the day that we thought bore upon our place in the world.  These ranged from The Autobiography of Malcolm X  (1965), to the Port Huron Statement (1995), to Camus’ The Rebel (1992), to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1959), to William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1972).  Later on I organized courses around anarchist and utopian thought.  My exposure to the Marxist tradition came later.

Almost invariably, our discussions ended up exploring what the various theorists and activists we read thought about education.  We added to our readings in these courses essays on education by Paul Goodman (1964), Ivan Illich (1999), Jonathan Kozol (1968), Herbert Kohl (1988), Robert Paul Wolff (1970), and such eclectic writers as Lewis Mumford (1963).  And this was before the availability of the works of Paulo Freire in the 1970s, and followers such as Henry Giroux (2007), Peter McLaren (2000), and other radical educational theorists.  Out of all this, I began to develop an analysis of the political and economic contexts of higher education; a sense of the contradictory character of education, particularly higher education; a conception of how my education had been shaped by the cold war and U.S. empire; how the modern university was “contested terrain,” as to ideas and behavior; how “theory and practice” were connected; and, for me, what the obligations of the educator were in the modern world.
The Political Economy of Higher Education

In his presidential address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 2000, Robert Perrucci refers to “Galileo’s crime.”  He argues that while most claim that Galileo was punished for proposing that the planets moved around the sun, others have pointed out that he was condemned because “he chose to communicate his findings about the earth and the sun, not in Latin, the medium of the educated elite, but in Italian, the public vernacular, parola del popolo” (Perrucci, 2001).

This thought, for me, constitutes a parable for the history of higher education as we know it.  In my view it is not unfair to suggest that institutions of higher education have always been created and shaped by the interests of the ruling classes and elites in the societies in which they exist.  This means they serve to reinforce the economic, political, ideological, and cultural interests of those who create them, fund them, and populate them.
Robert Paul Wolff years ago wrote a book entitled The Ideal of the University (1970)In it he identifies the historical university as the training ground for theology, literature, and law.  In each case, sacred or secular canonical texts were studied with a microscope.  Their study was designed to reify and transmit the core knowledge claims, ethics, and laws across generations.  Wolff’s description, written forty years ago, about a reality hundreds of years earlier might still resonate with us today.

Thus the activity of scholarship is in the first instance a religious and literary activity, directed toward a given corpus of texts, either divine or secular, around which a literature of commentary has accumulated.  The corpus is finite, clearly defined, growing slowly as each stage in the progress of Western civilization deposits its masterpieces in the Great Tradition.  Though the tradition may contain pregnant, emotionally powerful commentaries upon life and men’s affairs, the scholar’s concern is with the textual world, not with the world about which the text speaks.  (Wolff, 5)
Wolff (1970), Berlin (1996), Smith (1974) and others add to this discussion an analysis of how the university changed in the late nineteenth century to serve the needs of rising industrial capitalism in Europe and North America.  The university shifted in the direction of serving new masters: from the clerics and judges to the capitalists.  Plans were instituted in elite universities to develop “departments,” compartmentalizing knowledge so it can be fashioned for use in research and development, human relations, making the modern corporation more efficient, developing communications and accounting skills, and developing good citizens.  Elite universities initiated the changes that made higher education more compatible with and an instrumentality to modern capitalism.  The model then “trickled down” to less prestigious universities, which in the end become even more effective developers and purveyors of knowledge for use in capitalist societies.

Wolff quoted Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California system and the target of the student movement in that state in the 1960s, who hinted at this theme of connectedness between certain societal needs, power, and education, and a parallelism between the era of the industrial revolution and the quarter century after World War II.

The American University is currently undergoing its second great transformation.  The first occurred during roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the land grant movement and German intellectualism were together bringing extraordinary change.  The current transformation will cover roughly the quarter century after World War II.  The university is being called upon to educate previously un-imagined numbers of students; to respond to the expanding claims of national service; to merge its activities with industry as never before; to adapt to and rechannel new intellectual currents.  By the end of this period, there will be a truly American university; an institution unique in world history, an institution not looking to other models but serving, itself, as a model for universities in other parts of the globe.  (Wolff, 33-34)
For Kerr, the modern “multiversity,” responding to the needs of society as reflected in federal and corporate research funding, is obliged to produce scientists, engineers, and doctors.  This university, he said, was “a model” for higher education around the world.

During World War II and the cold war, the modern university began to serve powerful new masters.  As Charles Wilson, president of General Motors, advocated in 1946, there was a need to maintain the coalition of forces that defeated fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in Asia to stave off new threats to U.S. and global capitalism and to forestall a return to the grim Depression economy of the 1930s.  To do that, Wilson said, we needed to justify the need for government (particularly the defense department)/corporate/and university collaboration, a collaboration that did so much to secure victory during the war.  He once referred to his vision as “a permanent war economy” (Jezer, 31).  As the post-war years unfolded, that justification was created, the threat of international communism.  The military, defense-related corporations, and research institutions had a reason to work together: to lobby for dollars, do the research, produce the technologies, train future scientists and engineers for the cold war, and educate the broader non-technically trained population in and out of the university to accept the basic parameters of the cold war struggle.

Henry Giroux paraphrased President Eisenhower’s warning, referred to above: “. . . the conditions for production of violence, the amassing of huge profits by defense industries, and the corruption of government officials in the interest of making war the organizing principle of society had created a set of conditions in which the very idea of democracy, if not the possibility of politics itself, was at stake” (Giroux, 14-15).
Giroux claims that in Eisenhower’s first draft of his famous farewell address he refers to a “military-industrial-academic complex.”  In it Eisenhower recalls that in prior days scientists tinkered in their laboratories with experiments that intrigued them.  Now, because of huge costs, of course, scholarship and research required federal and corporate dollars.  But, and here is the warning, “. . . the prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”  Later in the 1960s, J. William Fulbright, former senator from Arkansas, warning about the influences of defense spending and the arms industry, wrote that “In lending itself too much to the purposes of government, a university fails its higher purpose” (Giroux, 14-15).

What kind of claims can be derived from these formative statements; the variety of literatures of more recent vintage, such as those by theorists such as Giroux; and our observations of universities, curricula, and academic professions?
First, higher education remains subject to, influenced by, and financially beholden to governments and corporations.  These influences profoundly shape what professors and graduate students teach and research.

Second, as history shows, conceptions of disciplines, fields, bodies of knowledge, appropriate methods, fundamental truths pervasive in disciplines (rational choice in economics and the pursuit of power in political science) and the academic organization of universities are shaped by economic interest and political power.

Third, the sociology of professions — professional associations, journals, peer review, the validation of professional work, definitions of the substance of courses, dominant paradigms governing disciplines — is largely shaped by economic and political interest.

Fourth, in the main, the university as an institution is, and has always been, designed to serve the interests of the status quo, a status quo, again governed by economic and political interest.

Discourse and Contradiction in Higher Education

It would be a mistake to leave the impression that all that the university does is diabolical, even as it is shaped by and serves the dominant economic and political interests in society.  Within the confines of what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science,” researchers and educators have made enormous contributions to social advancement in scholarship and human development.  However, the argument here is that the university as we should see it does serve some more centrally than others.  But even this is not the whole story.
There emerged over the centuries and decades a view that this institution, the university, should have a special place in society.  It should be, as Lasch referred to the family, “a haven in a heartless world.”  Through its seclusion, professors could reflect critically on their society and develop knowledge that could be productively used by society to solve human puzzles and problems.  In other words, the doctrine of higher education diametrically conflicts with the reality described above.

The Galileo case suggests he was punished for his theoretical and communications transgressions by the academic hierarchy of his day.  More recently, scholars such as Scott Nearing were fired for opposing World War I, and over the years hundreds more for being communists, eccentrics, radicals of one sort or another, or for challenging accepted professional paradigms.  Of particular virulence have been periods of “red scares,” when faculty who taught and/or engaged in activism outside some mainstream were labeled “communists,” which by definition meant they were traitors to the United States.
In response to the ideal of the free-thinking scholar who must have the freedom to pursue her/his work, professional organizations and unions embraced and defended the idea of “academic freedom.”  Academic freedom proclaimed that researchers and teachers had the right to pursue and disseminate knowledge in their field unencumbered by political constraints and various efforts to silence them and their work.  To encourage young scholars to embrace occupations in higher education and to encourage diversity of views, most universities in the United States gave lip service to academic freedom and in the main have sought to protect the principle in the face of attacks on the university in general and controversial scholars in particular.

During periods of controversy and conflict in society at large, universities become “contested terrain.”  That is external pressures on universities lead administrators to act in ways to stifle controversy and dissent.  The targets of that dissent and their supporters, and students and colleagues at large, raise their voices in protest of efforts to squelch it.  Interestingly enough, the university, which on the one hand serves outside interests, on the other hand, prizes independence from outside interests.
Red Scares in Higher Education

Ellen Schrecker documents the enormous impact that the red scare of the 1940s and 1950s had on higher education in her book, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1988).  She interviewed academic victims of McCarthyite attacks on faculty at prestigious universities.  They were subpoenaed to testify before state legislative or Congressional committees about their former political affiliations and associations.  As was the requirements of the times, those ordered to testify could not just admit to their own political activities but were required to give witness against others who they may have known.

Some victims were former members of the Communist Party, others were signatories to petitions supporting the Spanish loyalists during their civil war, and still others had supported banning atomic weapons.  The most troubling element of the red scare story was the fact that university administrations refused to defend those of their faculty attacked and in fact, as she reports, some university officials demanded that their faculty cooperate with the investigatory committees.  Her subjects reported that they received little or no support from administrators because officials wished to protect their universities from funding reductions.
Since the collapse of the cold war international system, some scholars have begun to examine other aspects of the anti-communist hysteria as it related to the academy.  Fones-Wolf (1995) and others have addressed the multiplicity of ways in which funding priorities, rightwing assaults, official pronouncements from government officials, lobbying efforts by big business groups, and shifting electoral political currents affected and shaped the content of academic programs.  For example, disciplines can be seen as reflecting dominant “paradigms” which include assumptions about what the subject entails, what aspects of the subject deserve study, what theories are most appropriate for understanding the subject of the field, and what methods should be used to study subjects in the field.  All the social sciences and humanities privilege paradigms that did not challenge ongoing U.S. cold war assumptions about the world.

In each case, dominant paradigms of the 1950s and beyond constituted a rejection of 1930s and 1940s
thinking, which was shaped by the labor and other struggles of the Depression era.  Literature shifted from privileging proletarian novels to the “new criticism,” separating “the text” from historical contexts.  History shifted from a model of historical change that highlighted conflict to one that emphasized consensus-building.  Sociology shifted from class struggle/stratification models of society to “structural functional” approaches.  Political science shifted from “elitism” and institutional approaches to emphasizing “pluralism,” in political processes.  For political science, every citizen in a “democracy” can somehow participate in political decision-making.
In other words, the military-industrial-academic complex shaped personnel recruitment and retention and the substance of research and teaching.  Some new disciplines, such as Soviet studies, were funded and rewarded at selected universities and the scholars trained at these institutions then secured jobs elsewhere.  Thus an anti-communist lens on the world was propagated.  Disciplines with more ready access to research dollars — from engineering to psychology — defined their research agendas to comport with government and corporate need.

In response to the university in the “permanent military economy,” students in the 1960s began to demand new scholarship and education.  Opposition to the Vietnam War particularly stimulated demands on professors to rethink the historical character and motivation of United States foreign policy.  William Appleman Williams and his students, the so-called revisionists, articulated a view that the United States practiced imperialism ever since it became an industrial power.  Classrooms where international relations and foreign policy were taught became “contested terrain” for argumentation and debate between the older and more benign view of the U.S. role in the world and the view of the U.S. as imperial power.  Dependency and world system theories gained prominence.
The contestations spread.  Students demanded more diverse and complicated analyses of race and racism in America, patriarchy and sexism in gender relations, and working-class history.  Every discipline and every dominant paradigm was subjected to challenge.  The challenges were also reflected in radical caucuses in professional associations and even in some of the more upright (and “uptight”) signature professional journals.  As a result there was a diminution of red scares in higher education, for a time.

The spirit of ideological struggle in the academy diminished after the Vietnam War and especially after Ronald Reagan became president.  Reagan brought back militant cold war policies, radically increased military expenditures, declared Vietnam a “noble cause,” and developed a sustained campaign to crush dissent and reduce the strength of the labor movement.  The climate on campus to some degree returned to the 1950s.
However, a whole generation of 60s-trained academics were now tenured faculty at universities around the country.  They had institutionalized programs in African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Peace Studies, and Middle East Studies.  Critical theorists populated education schools, American Studies programs, and other pockets of the university.  These faculty continued the debate with keepers of dominant paradigms, created interdisciplinary programs, and developed programs shaped by key social issues such as racism, class exploitation, gender discrimination, and war.

But by the 1990s, a new red scare was surfacing.  Some conservative academics and their constituencies talked about declining standards brought by the new programs.  Others criticized what they regarded as an insufficiently rosy view of United States history.  They claimed that the United States was being unfairly condemned for being complicit, for example, in a holocaust against Native Americans or because slavery and racism were central to the history of the country.  They formed academic associations and interest groups to defend against critical scholarship.
Then David Horowitz came along.  Overseeing a multi-million-dollar foundation funded by rightwing groups, Horowitz launched a campaign to purify academia of those who have records of teaching, research, and publication that he saw as unduly critical of the United States, ruling political or economic elites, or the global political economy.  He opposes those scholar-activists who participate in political movements or in any way connect their professional life with their political lives.  And he opposes those academics who participate in academic programs that are interdisciplinary, problem-focused, and not tied to traditional fields of study.  He published a book in 2006, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (2006), in which he presents distorted profiles of illustrative faculty whom he believes have violated academic standards because of a variety of transgressions.  Most of those identified either engage in political activity and/or participate in interdisciplinary scholarly programs that he finds offensive: Middle East Studies, Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, American Studies, and Peace Studies.

In conjunction with the book and similar assaults on those he disagrees with on his electronic news magazine, Horowitz has encouraged right-wing students to challenge the legitimacy of these professors on college campuses and has tried to get conservative student groups to get state legislatures to endorse so-called “student bill-of-rights legislation.”  Such legislation would establish oversight by state legislatures over colleges and universities, especially their hiring practices.
In conjunction with campaigns led by Lynn Cheney, the former vice-president’s wife, and Senator Joe Lieberman, senator from Connecticut, an organization called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni was created.  As Giroux summarizes it, “. . . ACTA actively supports policing classroom knowledge, monitoring curricula, and limiting the autonomy of teachers and students as part of its larger assault on academic freedom” Giroux, 162).

Horowitz, ACTA, and others who attack the university have targeted visible academics for scrutiny and persecution.  Ward Churchill, a provocative professor of  Ethnic Studies, at the University of Colorado, was fired after a university committee was created to review his scholarship because of  controversial remarks he made off campus.  Norman Finkelstein, a DePaul University political scientist who had written several books critical of interpreters of Israeli history and foreign policy, was denied tenure after a coordinated attack from outside his university led by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.  Distinguished political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been the subject of vitriol and false charges of anti-semitism because they published a long essay and book analyzing the “Israeli lobby.”
This latest red scare against higher education has had failures and successes.  Horowitz has had a visible presence on national cable television and radio.  He used it to attack some of the 101 dangerous professors.  However, his supporters have not been able to get any of their legislative proposals accepted.  Also, most university administrators have defended their faculty from the crude assaults from Horowitz and his followers.  In addition, many of the 101 and others like them have stepped up their public defenses of their scholarship and teaching.  It is unusual for any students to level attacks against targeted professors.  If anything, they defend the right of professors to be critical analysts in their subject areas in the classroom.

But, the new red scare has reinforced and legitimized the dominant paradigms in various academic disciples and created an environment of intellectual caution in the academy.  While the impacts are immeasurable, younger faculty cannot help but be intimidated by the public attacks on their senior colleagues.  The system of tenure and promotion in most institutions is vulnerable to public pressures, individual reviewer bias, and honest disagreements among faculty about whether published work and teaching is worthy of promotion and tenure.  Therefore, just as the administrators and faculty of the 1950s felt vulnerable to outside assault on their institutions, those passing judgment on today’s faculty might see the necessity of caution in hiring and retaining faculty whose perspectives are new, different, radical, and engaged.
Intellectuals, the Critical Organic Discourse Model, and Higher Education

The latest red scare has rekindled debate concerning the role of higher education and faculty as to research, teaching, and activism.  Those propagating the red scare insist that education should focus on celebrating American society, history, and institutions.  Anything less, to them, constitutes bias and a violation of the principles of academic freedom.  In addition, educators should not engage in political activism.  Being an academic and being a citizen must remain separate.

While ACTA and others complain about the negativity of those reflecting on United States history, more sophisticated red scare spokespersons, including Horowitz himself, emphasize one or another of two different approaches to the academy.  Some argue that the professorate must be “fair and balanced” in their academic work.  That is, they should in the classroom present all points of view, indicating favoritism to none.  Presumably their research and writing should strive for this balance as well.

Parallel to the fair and balanced position is the argument that teachers and researchers should be objective, that is, apolitical, and indifferent to the merits of competing sides to a conflict being studied.  The objectivity standard requires that the professor abstain, in his/her public role from participation in society.  It should be noted that some targets of the red scare attacks have responded by claiming they are fair and balanced and objective, and occasionally their students have defended them on these grounds as well.  In fact, when Horowitz has been asked on national television if he has proof that his victims have not been fair and balanced and objective in the classroom, he has been forced to admit that he has no way of knowing since he and his researchers had not had occasion to observe the professors in question.

While being fair, balanced, and objective are worthy goals, they stand in contradiction to the history of the university alluded to throughout this paper.  What I call the critical and organic discourse model is a more appropriate standard of scholarship, teaching, and engagement for these critical times.  It has several dimensions: speaking truth to power; critically reflecting on all institutions and processes in society, privileging unpopular ideas, and applying those ideas in social settings where they may be helpful to bring about change.

The last point, inspired by Gramsci’s idea of the “organic intellectual” and the discussion by Jacoby and others about the role of the “public intellectual,” suggest that knowledge in the end comes from and should be used in support of those in society who have been disenfranchised politically, economically, and culturally.  As Gramsci put it, “The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader,’ and not just a simple orator. . .” (Gramsci, 10).  Gramsci’s “organic intellectual” is the intellectual who is connected to various social groups or movements and acts in concert with and stimulates the activities of such groups.  The organic intellectual in class society is linked to the project for historical change of the working class.  Historically the university has not served their needs, and those who embrace this model of teaching, research, and engagement should stand with the disenfranchised, such as the working class.
In sum, the most important elements of the critical and organic discourse model involve giving voice to the voiceless and engaging in education, research, and activity to pursue peace, social, and economic justice.


We have seen that the university historically has reflected and represented whatever ruling classes were prevalent at a given point in time.  We have also seen that the university is a site of contestation defined by a public ideology of academic freedom that justifies critical thought, pedagogy, and practice.  In this latter regard, Giroux points out, the university is an uncommon institution in modern life where full democratic participation in dialogue and critical reflection can take place.  Being fair, balanced, and objective is not enough to meet the needs of building a democratic space.  The university (its educators) must use this democratic space to engage students in reflection about the pursuit of peace in this violent world, and the striving for social and economic justice and against racism, sexism, and economic inequality.  (Some peace researchers have defended their practice by using a medical education metaphor.  Medical education is based on the study of creating health out of illness.  Fields like Peace Studies are based on the creation of a healthy body politic out of violence, discrimination, and inequality.)

Each approach to teaching in the university is evaluated on the basis of different “validation principles,” that is, the standards of judgment of success or failure.  For the crude celebration-of-America approach, teaching and writing is judged on the basis of how positive it has been about the American experience.  For the fairness and balance and objectivity approaches, validation comes from colleagues who judge the quotients of different points of view and/or the distance of the research and teaching from a point of view.  For the critical and organic discourse model, validation comes from the extent to which the ideas developed resonate with and reflect the voiceless and the extent to which the total product of the professors activities — teaching, research, and activism — have facilitated peace and justice or not.  This is indeed a very high standard but, given the world we live in, the only realistic standard that should be applied both to the university and those of us who work in it.


Berlin, James. A., Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures, Refiguring College English Studies, National Council of Teachers of Education, 1996.

Camus, Albert, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, Vintage, 1992.

Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-60, University of Illinois, 1995.

Friere, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.

Giroux, Henry, The University in Chains, Paradigm, 2007.

Gramsci, Antonio, Selections From the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers, 1971, 10.

Illich, Ivan, Deschooling Society: Social Questions, Marion Boyais Publishers, 1999.

Jezer, Marty, The Dark Ages: Life in the United States, 1945-1960, South End Press, 1982.

Kohl, Herbert, 36 Children, Plume, 1988.

Kozol, Jonathan, Death at an Early Age, Bantam, 1968.

Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grove Press, 1965.

McLaren, Peter, Che Guevara, Paulo Friere, and the Pedagogy of Revolution, Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Mills, C. Wright, The Power Elite, Oxford, 1959.

Mumford, Lewis, Technics and Civilization, Harvest, 1963.

Perrucci, Robert, “Inventing Social Justice: SSSP and the Twenty-First Century,” Social Problems, May, 2001, 159-167.

Schrecker, Ellen, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, Oxford, 1988.

Smith, David N., Who Rules the Universities? An Essay on Class Analysis, Monthly Review, 1974.

Students for a Democratic Society, “The Port Huron Statement,” in Alexander Bloom and Win Breines, ‘Takin It to the Streets,’ Oxford, 1995.

Williams, William Appleman, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Delta, 1972.

Wolff, Robert Paul, The Idea of the University, Beacon, 1970.

Harry Targ is Professor at the Department of Political Science of Purdue University.  This article is the text of his public lecture, presented at the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 1 April 2008.


Diary of  Heartland Radical

Harry Targ

What radical scholars must therefore rediscover is not merely that intellectuals play a significant role in the reproduction of capitalism and the capitalist state, but that education has been and remains every bit as much a contested terrain as the shop floor, the party caucus, and the halls of legislative assemblies. Clyde W. Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education, 1894-1928, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 9.  

But many professors and other observers said the roller coaster hit a new low Friday afternoon when the (Wisconsin) State Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee approved, by a vote of 12-4, the elimination of tenure from state statute. The committee also approved adding new limits to the faculty role in shared governance and procedures for eliminating faculty members in good standing outside of financial exigency. (Colleen Flaherty, “Trying to Kill Tenure,” Inside Higher Education, June 1, 2015).

One of the most thorough, analytical, and historical analyses of the relationship between the capitalist economy, the state, and higher education was provided by political scientist, Clyde W. Barrow (Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education 1894-1928, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). Although his focus was on the rise of the modern university in the “age of reform” (from the 1890s until the 1920s), many of his insights are relevant today, another era of educational “reform.”
According to Barrow, the modern university had its roots in the period of rising capitalism after the Great Depression of the 1870s to the 1890s when mergers created an economic system in which a few hundred corporations and banks came to dominate the entire U.S. economy. Interlocking directorates of corporations and banks created a system of financial speculation, concentrated wealth, and a capitalist state. The capitalist state through pro-corporate and banking regulations, the allocation of tax and other benefits for the wealthy and powerful, and military mobilizations, such as President Cleveland’s use of the United States army to crush workers during the Pullman strike of 1894, helped create twentieth century monopoly capitalism. 

Higher education, once dominated by theological pursuits, was refashioned to serve the needs of modern capitalist society. The need for scientific and technical skills coupled with a trained work force stimulated the establishment of educational institutions that could produce credentialed graduates who would serve the capitalist system. Also theoretical work and classroom education was required to educate the young to celebrate the blessings of the economic system and the conduct of the government. Young people learned about the desirability of market economies, the country’s long tradition of democratic institutions, and the manifest destiny of the United States as it conquered the North American continent and established a global empire from the Philippine Islands, to Cuba, to Central and South America.
Barrow provides data to show that members of university Boards of Trustees, the key decision makers in these institutions, came largely from big corporations, huge banks, and law firms which served big business. Some universities from the Midwest and South were led by trustees who represented regional manufacturing and finance capital, but their outlook and interests paralleled those from the major universities of the Northeast and the major state universities. There were never representatives of broader citizens groups such as labor unions on these boards.

During the early twentieth century, Trustees worked to establish an administrative class that could carry out the day-to-day operations of the university and manage the faculty who were the producers of the mental products the university was assigned to produce. Managerial procedures were adopted to control mental labor in the classroom and the laboratory. Metrics were institutionalized to evaluate the rates of productivity of the faculty; from measuring enrollments, publications, and the rankings of the university.
Federal and state governments and foundations funded the construction of a national university system that would serve the interests of twentieth century capitalism. Major foundations generated studies, did surveys, and made recommendations that found their way into institutions and policies of both public and private universities. During periods when domestic crises, such as depressions, and international ones, such as World War I, stimulated critical analyses from universities, faculty were disciplined or fired for challenging the economic system or state policy. The educational mission was to serve the interests of the capitalist elites and the state, not to provide a venue for critical thinking and debate about issues important to society.

Barrow summarized his findings about higher education:
Individual institutions were developing into centralized corporate bureaucracies administered according to nationally standardized measurements of productivity and rates of return on investment. The entire educational enterprise was being restructured within these standards as a production process that was increasingly integrated into local or regional markets for labor, information, research and professional expertise. The process was more and more a planned undertaking directed by the federal government. The construction of a national ideological state apparatus oriented toward solving the problems of capitalist infrastructure, capital accumulation, and political leadership within a capitalist democracy was well under way. (123)

This description of the emergence of the modern university system about one hundred years ago bears resemblance to the wrenching changes that are occurring in higher education in the twenty-first century. First, the further consolidation of capitalist class power in higher education in the current century comes in the aftermath of the Great Recession that began in 2008. United States capitalism continued its transformation from manufacturing to finance as rates of profit from the latter declined. Financial speculation led to banking failures and the collapse of the housing market. Consumer demand shrunk due to rising structural unemployment and falling real wages. And the cost of state support for the provision of education and various social safety nets programs rose. Economic crisis was used to justify austerity policies that included significant reductions in support for higher education. As Naomi Klein suggested, economic shocks facilitated changes in public policy, in this case the adoption of “educational reforms.”
Second, the economic shocks were used by Boards of Trustees, and their advisers in think tanks and political organizations, to demand increasing efficiencies in the production and teaching of knowledge. Programs that could not be justified as good “investments” became vulnerable. The humanities disciplines had to be justified by their use value to the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.

Third, metrics have become omnipresent. Colleges and universities are using quantitative instruments to measure “creativity,” “critical thinking,” “personal satisfaction,” “teacher effectiveness,” and faculty “productivity.” University administrators strongly imply that if the activities at their institutions are not measurable in the narrow numerical sense, they should not be supported.

Fourth, academic fields are shaped by paradigms, or theories that justify the existing economic and political order. The university is not usually a haven for discussions about the fundamental structures of inequality, racism, patriarchy, the devastation of the environment, or war. In the end, Boards of Trustees, think tanks, university administrators, and federal programs, are committed to a university system that supports the capitalist state. Only limited and circumscribed debate about issues fundamental to economic vitality and political democracy are allowed.  In sum, the university was not created for nor does it prioritize today discussions of fundamental truths.
Finally, as the experience of academic critics one hundred years ago of child labor, anti-union policies, World War I, and financial speculation suggests, the nature of debate in the university is circumscribed. University policies, in response to organizations of professors and students, have expanded rights to “academic freedom” and have provided some job security through tenure. But, as the recent decision made by the Wisconsin state legislature suggests, attacks on tenure (which is a right to job security that all workers should enjoy if they perform their duties) may spread as the twenty-first century “reconstruction of American higher education” proceeds. 

To forestall these trends, faculty and students, as Barrows suggests, need to understand that “education has been and remains a contested terrain.”  Most educators believe that the primary purpose of the university is or should be to stimulate a “marketplace of ideas.” However, the history of higher education, he says, is really about how the university can serve the preservation and enhancement of the capitalist state.


An Education Worth Fighting For

The neoliberal revolution is radically reshaping higher education. Faculty can play a central role in fighting it.

On April 27, Purdue University’s president, Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, unveiled a dramatic new program that he and the board of trustees had been fashioning in secret for months. This self-proclaimed world-class university would be acquiring Kaplan University, one of several controversial for-profit, online education companies that have emerged over the last twenty years.

The announcement surprised the university community, who learned about the deal either during a hastily called meeting between Daniels and select faculty or through an email message. When the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed students and professors about the proposed merger, many expressed concern.

My colleague David Sanders decried the “Walmartization” of higher education, in which degrees are provided quickly and cheaply. “When speed and cost become more important than quality,” he explained, “faculty are going to object.”

The dramatic developments at Purdue point to a number of issues facing universities and colleges in the twenty-first century. While universities have long served the interests of business and the capitalist state, the neoliberal revolution has radically shifted educational priorities, assessments, and budgets, sparking adjunctification, state disinvestment, attacks on faculty tenure, the prioritization of STEM fields, and the introduction of online education.

In the face of this barrage, faculty, in alliance with students and other groups, must fight for a free and well-rounded education for all students, fair employment practices for all instructors, and the right to participate in the decision-making process about their institutions’ future.

The Ivory Tower’s Capitalist Roots

The modern university system in the US developed at the turn of the twentieth century, as capitalism bounced back after a string of deep recessions.

Mergers created an economic system in which a few hundred corporations and banks dominated the entire economy. Interlocking directorates birthed a system of financial speculation and concentrated wealth. The government enacted pro-corporate and pro-banking regulations, allocated tax and other benefits to the wealthy and powerful, and used repression — as when President Grover Cleveland deployed the army to break the 1894 Pullman strike — on capitalists’ behalf.

During this period, higher education, which had been dominated by theological pursuits, refashioned itself to serve the modern economy. Corporations needed workers with scientific and technical knowledge, so educational institutions were established that could produce credentialed graduates.

Theoretical work and classroom education inculcated in the young a reverence for capitalism’s blessings and the government’s conduct. Young people learned about the benefits of free-market economies, the United States’ long tradition of democratic institutions, and the glories of Manifest Destiny, which justified the American conquest of not only North America, but the Philippine Islands, Cuba, and Central and South America.

As Clyde Barrow documents in Universities and the Capitalist State, members of university boards of trustees came largely from corporations, banks, and law firms that served big business. In the Midwest and South, trustees who represented regional manufacturing and finance capital ran the universities. Their outlook paralleled the administrators at the Northeast’s major universities. Few representatives of non-elite groups, like labor unions, were ever selected to serve on these boards.
Trustees established an administrative class that both oversaw the university’s day-to-day operations and managed the faculty, who produced the school’s key commodities: education and research. They adopted managerial procedures to control mental labor in the classroom and the laboratory and institutionalized metrics that measured enrollment, publications, and university rankings to evaluate productivity.
Federal and state governments, as well as nonprofit organizations, stepped in to fund a national university system designed to serve the interests of twentieth-century capitalism. Major foundations generated studies, conducted surveys, and made recommendations that influenced both public and private universities’ policies.
Crises, from the depressions of the late nineteenth century to World War I, sparked critical analyses from some professors. Frequently, faculty faced discipline or even termination for challenging the economic system or the state. The university’s educational mission was to serve elites and the state, not provide a venue for debating important social issues.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
Fast forward to today. The capitalist class has further consolidated its power in higher education since the Great Recession of 2008, using the crisis to justify austerity policies that have wrested money away from colleges and universities (not to mention public K–12 schools).
Boards of trustees and their advisers in think tanks and political organizations have used economic shocks to demand greater efficiency in the production and teaching of knowledge. Programs that cannot be justified as good “investments” have become vulnerable to termination. Humanities programs now have to prove their utility to the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to survive.

Colleges and universities use quantitative instruments to measure qualitative categories like “creativity,” “critical thinking,” “personal satisfaction,” and “teacher effectiveness.” University administrators strongly imply that if faculty cannot measure their activities in the narrow numerical sense, they do not count.

Finally, just as academic critics of child labor, anti-union policies, World War I, and financial speculation a hundred years ago faced censure and unemployment, universities are being pressured to circumscribe accepted debates. While the higher-education system has extended academic freedom and provided job security for some through tenure, attacks on these provisions are spreading as the twenty-first century reconstruction of American higher education proceeds.

The Crisis of Higher Education

The decades between the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the onset of neoliberalism can be characterized as the golden years of American higher education.

After World War II, economic priorities shifted toward stimulating manufacturing, creating consumer and military demand, and expanding education. For the first time, college was affordable for working-class Americans. War veterans enrolled in great numbers with the help of the GI Bill, and big states like New York and California built whole university systems to serve the influx of students. Community colleges were set up to provide inexpensive degrees and allow workers to attend school part-time.

Simultaneously, the size of faculties increased dramatically. Professional associations and journals grew to credential new generations of instructors. In response to uprisings in the 1960s over war, racism, and student rights, universities created new programs that supplemented the traditional canons of scholarship and education, which had often omitted people of color, women, workers, and immigrants. The postwar economy boomed and took higher education along with it.

But national and global economic stagnation set in in the 1970s. Rates of profit declined, and consumption could no longer match production. Governments stopped allocating sufficient resources to fund public programs, and critics of the modern welfare state marshaled their wealth and power to challenge the very premises of public policy.

By the late 1970s, Democrats as well as Republicans began to endorse government policies that cut support for social programs. Both parties deregulated finance, manufacturing, and markets; politicians on both sides of the aisle approved privatization schemes for public institutions and programs.

Below the political radar, the billionaire Koch brothers established the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the early 1970s to encourage state legislators to pass pro-business bills. ALEC created expert think tanks on various policy issues and wrote model legislation on subjects as varied as health care, labor, charter schools, and higher education.

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a cascade of victories for the neoliberal project in the US. By the late 1980s, Rush Limbaugh could celebrate neoliberalism’s many triumphs. But the radio host declared that one institution remained as-yet untouched: the university.

This has become the project endorsed by ALEC, state legislators, right-wing advocacy groups, and university administrators all across the nation.

The Shock Doctrine

On March 17, 2015, Mitch Daniels testified before a US House subcommittee about what he calls higher-education reform. That same week, he spoke to the American Council on Education and the Brookings Institute. A centerpiece of his recommendations was “income share agreements,” whereby students partner with investors, particularly alumni, who provide funds for their education in exchange “for a small share of the student’s future income.”

Daniels touted this idea while boasting about new policies at Purdue that he said would save students money: three-year programs, new metrics for measuring student preparation to reduce the time to degree, and tuition freezes. He also urged a reduction in federal regulations.

Some of Daniels’s proposals and programs have merit, but the ideas he and other administrators have put forward to slow rising tuition and mounting student debt ignore the major reason why costs are increasing: the collapse in state government financing.

In 2014, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) issued a report demonstrating that higher-education funding remained below 2007–8 levels in forty-eight states. According to the CBPP, “the large funding cuts have led to both steep tuition increases and spending cuts that may diminish the quality of education available to students.”

CBPP reported that, since the Great Recession, state spending on higher education had fallen 23 percent, or $2,026 per student. Public colleges and universities substantially increased tuition from 2008 to 2014, ranging from $253 in Montana to $4,493 in Arizona. In Indiana, tuition rose $1,191 during this period.

In 1988, higher education institutions received 3.2 times more of their revenue from government than from students. By 2013, that ratio had declined to 1.1.

“Nearly every state has shifted costs to students over the last 25 years — with the most drastic shift occurring since the onset of the recession,” the CBPP writes. “Today, tuition revenue now outweighs government funding for higher education in 23 states.”

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein argues that elites use periods of economic or political crisis to introduce policies that slash public services.

The CBPP data suggests that the Great Recession gave ALEC, as well as the politicians and educators they support, the pretext to reduce resources available to higher education. As a result, universities have become even more dependent on corporations, banks, and the military, and students have had to pay a higher share of the cost of their education. The Daniels plan, for instance, relies on wealthy benefactors to support students while doing nothing to stall rising costs.

The end result of these trends is the privatization of higher education.

Threats to Education and Faculty

In 2015, Lindsey Russell, director of ALEC’s education task force, published an essay called “STEM — Will It Replace Liberal Arts?” His answer was a qualified yes. While Russell cited Bureau of Labor Statistics projections that estimate a 13 percent growth in STEM-related jobs between 2012 and 2022, he also quoted a Forbes article suggesting that STEM graduates still need “critical thinking skills” to pursue their careers.

These skills, Russell asserted, are precisely what a liberal arts education provides. “Liberal arts education may seem irrelevant today, but it is necessary if America’s youth are to become successful members of today’s STEM-dominated workforce,” he wrote.

Arguments like Russell’s — as well as similar claims that the American educational system is falling behind in science and math education — are nothing new: they date back as far as the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik launch. Nor are they particularly well-founded.

As a May 2015 article in Monthly Labor Review notes, STEM-related employment prospects are far more complicated than Russell implies. “The STEM labor market is heterogeneous,” the report states. “There are both shortages and surpluses of STEM workers, depending on the particular job market segment.”

In the academic sector, evidence points to “noticeable oversupplies of PhDs,” while some government sectors cannot find enough STEM-trained personnel to hire. Private industry struggles to hire “software developers, petroleum engineers, data scientists, and those in skilled trades,” but have plenty of biomedical, chemistry, and physics PhDs to choose from. Training in science and technology alone cannot solve the United States’ rising youth unemployment rate.

Perhaps the most damning statement about STEM degrees and jobs came a few years ago in an article by the sociologist Hal Salzman: “All credible research finds the same evidence about the STEM workforce: ample supply, stagnant wages and, by industry accounts, thousands of applicants for any advertised job.”

Rather than continuing to debate about prioritizing STEM, we should discuss the substance and role of what is usually called the liberal arts. Are they only a training ground for honing critical thinking and communications skills, or does the project go deeper?

At Purdue University and elsewhere, administrators now measure all sorts of things. They collect data on time to degree, on trends in grades, on the quality of jobs attained by students, on employer satisfaction with graduates, and on graduates’ and faculty’s satisfaction. They’ve begun ranking professional journals and other universities (and only those with high scores count toward faculty promotion).

In virtually every phase of the education process, universities have traded qualitative evaluations for quantitative assessments.

 There’s nothing wrong with quantitative metrics. But they should be supplemented with qualitative yardsticks, and assessed with rigor. Instead, administrators use a narrow set of metrics to justify the neoliberal policies they endorse. For example, they defend the shift to STEM education on the basis of some empirical research while ignoring findings that would suggest a different set of educational priorities. Numbers have all but replaced analysis.

The shift in metrics has pushed schools to socialize administrators, faculty, and students into measuring their own performance in terms of these standards. Some schools have even created new programs to help “mentor” faculty and students to perform better according to the new regime.

Faculty end up worrying more about the number of articles they publish than their quality. Students end up focusing on grades rather than acquiring knowledge. Assessing a school’s performance comes down to enrollment numbers, grade distribution, and the introduction of new technologies. Intellectual curiosity, a passion for knowledge, and the pursuit of exciting questions have disappeared; no one has time to do anything except perform by the numbers.

On top of that, tenure itself is under assault. Schools and states are attacking the idea that faculty, who work in a setting where the free flow of ideas is vital, should be protected from controversy in their teaching and research.

As part of this assault on tenure, colleges and universities have radically reduced the percentage of classes taught by tenure or tenure-track faculty, relying instead on graduate students and adjuncts. This policy also saves the institution money: as state legislatures reduce funding, universities hire low-paid adjuncts, often on a course-by-course basis.

The adjunctification of teaching has negative effects on part-time faculty as well as students. As most adjuncts have to teach at more than one university to survive, they spend more time traveling between institutions than they do keeping up with relevant research and working with students. These precarious jobs not only reduce the quality of education but also hinder instructors from securing one of the very few secure, full-time jobs still available.

Of course, as the Purdue-Kaplan story shows, boards of trustees, ALEC, corporate executives, and politicians-turned-university administrators all believe that online education works just as well as in-person instruction.

But this is not necessarily the case. Online education may have a place in a student’s total academic career, but there first must be discussion and debate on the appropriate mix of campus and online coursework, of interpersonal and electronic contact, of reading assignments, video lectures, and remote PowerPoint presentations. While Kaplan’s model of for-profit education is being touted as a boon for nontraditional students, the quality of such education is not being discussed.

In fact, Bernie Sanders’s proposal to make higher education free for everyone would do more to help nontraditional students than collaborations with for-profit firms with dubious performance records. Likewise, programs that provide additional support to regional campuses, community colleges, and extension programs or extended hours on campus for evening classes would help students who cannot access a traditional course of study.

Organizing for the Future of Higher Education

Seven years ago, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus made a series of proposals to address some of higher education’s crises. They began by noting that tuition for public and private colleges had doubled compared to a generation ago. Rising costs have forced parents to make large financial outlays for their children’s education — often second only to house mortgages. Students have had to take out loans that burdened them for their entire lives.

To combat this accumulation of debt, Hacker and Dreifus suggested a number of proposals, all of which faculty should fight for.

Institute free higher education for all who want it. Maintain course requirements that provide instruction in history, the arts, sciences, and reasoned discourse. Provide secure, full-time teachers for every classroom and eliminate the system of graduate students and temporary adjuncts, who receive one-sixth the pay of the tenured faculty. Pay presidents and other administrators salaries commensurate with public employees, not Wall Street CEOs.

While our wealthiest and most powerful institutions — corporations, banks, the military, the health care system — have come under intense public scrutiny in the new century, higher education has not. Education is still cast as an escape route from poverty, despite elevated real unemployment and crushing debt.

For faculty, the task is to organize effective groups, in alliance with students, labor, and the public at large, to defend the ideals of the university and challenge assumptions about higher education and its costs, accessibility, and labor practices. In every college and university setting, instructors must lead discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of the neoliberal agenda, with particular emphasis on its consequences for higher education.

The erosion of public higher education is proceeding apace, but it is not inevitable. “Education,” Barrow reminds us, “has been and remains a contested terrain.”

Monthly Review

Cold War Revisionism Revisited: The Radical Historians of U.S. Empire
by Harry Targ

(Dec 01, 2017)

Since the end of the Second World War, undergraduate and graduate education in international relations has been largely shaped by four theoretical approaches. As an undergraduate in the 1950s, I was exposed to the logic and rhetorical elegance of theories of political realism. The textbook used in my first course in international politics was a later version of Hans Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations, and in my subsequent courses, Morgenthau’s version of realpolitik was supplemented by the work of realist writers such as George Kennan, Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Kissinger, and E. H. Carr. While varying widely in their politics and background, all saw the root causes of violence and war as grounded in “human nature.”

As a graduate student in the 1960s, I was inspired by the new science of international politics and the claim that by gathering enough data and analyzing it carefully, using the latest statistical techniques, scholars could develop an integrated theory of international politics that could replace limiting assumptions about human nature. We could study war, intra-state violence, revolution, economic cooperation, and institution-building with rigor. At last, scholars could develop a science of human behavior that would parallel the natural and physical sciences.

Based on the lingering assumptions of realism and the passion for constructing a science of international relations, two areas were subjected to specific inquiry: national security and modernization. Security studies was designed to use the tools of science to determine how nations could best defend their physical space and deter aggression. Modernization studies emphasized processes of economic development that could improve living standards, particularly through markets and democratic institutions. In the end, the American field of international politics was dominated by this nexus of realism, behavioralism (the quasi-scientific study of international behavior), security studies, and modernization.
Not coincidentally, these approaches to research and education in international politics arose at the height of the Cold War. The United States was embarking on a dramatic escalation of its adventure in Southeast Asia, and defense spending was expanding such that President Eisenhower warned of a growing “military-industrial complex.” As the war in Vietnam grew more controversial, the prevailing international-relations perspectives were increasingly challenged, both in the classrooms and the streets. But for the most part, studies based on paradigms of realism, behavioralism, security, and modernization remained disconnected from broader debates about the world.

To the era’s activists and radicals, the cause of this disparity between the academic study of international politics and the social reality of the anti-war movement was obvious. The former was influenced and supported by governmental institutions, including the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, and in the main, its theories and approaches served intellectually to justify U.S. foreign policy—from nuclear buildups and military interventions to sponsoring coups and assassinations. In sum, the midcentury American science of international politics, which shaped a generation of students, was an ideological tool serving the foreign policy of the United States and its allies.
Political Economy and Foreign Policy

Anti-imperial sentiment has had a long history in public discourse on U.S. foreign policy. But by the 1950s, the virulently anti-communist and conformist environments of academia, the media, and electoral politics had caused discussion of the United States as an imperial power virtually to disappear. The last prominent political figure to criticize U.S. Cold War policy was Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president in 1948. A year after Wallace’s defeat, eleven unions were purged from the Congress of Industrial Organizations for their leftwing politics, including their support for Wallace.1 The voice of militant labor was silenced, and this was followed, more famously, by anti-communist purges in radio, television, and the movies. Prominent progressive figures lost their jobs, livelihoods, and access to a broad public.

Academic fields were transformed into ideological training grounds in support of the United States’ mission in the world. In history and social science, new scholarship portrayed an American politics, history, and society founded on pluralist democracy rather than political elitism, consensus-building rather than class struggle, and groups, not classes, as the basic units of society.
Indeed, in the 1950s, some realists represented the most “radical” of critics of U.S. foreign policy. While they did not highlight economic interest, the pursuit of empire, or overreaction to the Soviet threat, they did argue that U.S. national interests had to be defined more carefully in security terms. They challenged the view that moral purpose and global vision should or could guide foreign policy. Theorists such as Morgenthau claimed that international relations should be motivated by needs of national security, not some grand campaign against international communism.

At the same time, however, a handful of historians began to challenge these dominant narratives. In particular, the history department at the University of Wisconsin encouraged young scholars to examine the economic taproots of U.S. foreign policy. In 1959, the university’s most influential historian, William Appleman Williams, broke new ground with The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. His students and others began to challenge reigning orthodoxy about international relations and the historic role of the United States in the world. Williams documented the rise of an American empire that expanded after the Civil War, while other historians began to conceive of the conquest of the North American continent as part of an empire-building process founded on the slaughter of millions of native peoples and the seizure of a large section of the landmass of Mexico. Still others studied the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans as central to the construction of the Southern cotton economy, and ultimately to the global capitalist system.

In The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, along with The Contours of American History (1961) and The Roots of the Modern American Empire (1969), Williams located the origins of U.S. imperial expansion in the rise of agricultural production and the need for a growing economy to find markets overseas, particularly after domestic outlets had been capped with the closing of the “frontier.” Drawing on Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” U.S. leaders believed that a new, global American empire was needed to sell products, secure natural resources, and find investment opportunities.

The rift between realist thinking and the newer radical scholarship is clearly illustrated by their contrasting interpretations of Secretary of State John Hay’s articulation of a new Open Door policy during the administration of William McKinley in 1898. In a series of notes, Hay warned European leaders that the United States regarded Asia as “open” to U.S. trade and investment, as occasioned by the disintegration of the Chinese state into civil war and the occupation of the country’s regions by European states and Japan. The United States insisted that unfettered access to markets in China be honored—and by implication, that the closing of such markets to U.S. goods might lead to confrontation.

For realists, the Hay “Open Door Notes” illustrated the propensity of policymakers to make threats that far exceeded any likely action. The strategic gap between rhetoric and reality, they argued, had long characterized U.S. foreign policy, from the 1890s to the era of President Woodrow Wilson’s calls for democratization to the vehement stance against the spread of communism expressed by every Cold War president.2

Revisionists such as Williams instead argued that the Open Door Notes presaged the emerging U.S. global imperial vision.3 Hay’s demands that the world respect the country’s right to penetrate economies everywhere would become the guiding standard for the U.S. role in the world.

Some of Williams’s writings seemed to emphasize material reality—the needs of capitalism—and others the beliefs held by elites, namely the overriding necessity of new markets. Among the revisionist school of historians, which also included Lloyd Gardner, Gar Alperowitz, and Thomas Paterson, was Gabriel Kolko, author of The Politics of War and, with Joyce Kolko, The Limits of Power: United States Foreign Policy from 1945 to 1954.4 In these volumes, the authors laid out in more graphic and precise terms the material underpinnings of U.S. Cold War policy. The Kolkos emphasized the material and ideological menace that international communism, particularly the example of the Soviet Union and popular Communist parties in the third world, represented to the construction of a global capitalist empire after the Second World War.

For the Kolkos and other revisionists, the expansion of socialism constituted a global threat to capital accumulation. With the end of the Second World War, there were widespread fears that the decline in wartime demand for U.S. products would bring economic stagnation and a return to the depression of the 1930s. The Marshall Plan, lauded as a humanitarian program for the rebuilding of war-torn Europe, was at its base a program to increase demand and secure markets for U.S. products. With the specter of an international communist threat, military spending, another source of demand, would likewise help retain customers, including the U.S. government itself. The idea of empire, which Williams so stressed, was underscored by the materiality of capitalist dynamics.
The historical revisionists thus introduced a political-economic approach to the study of foreign policy. This frame emphasized different factors shaping U.S. global behavior than did those that singularly emphasized national security. The realists referred to human nature and the inevitable attributes of state behavior, particularly the pursuit of power. The traditionalists highlighted the threat to security of certain kinds of states, mostly from international communism. For them, the modern international system was driven by a vast ideological contest between free and democratic states and totalitarian ones. Power, security, and anti-communism were together central to understanding U.S. foreign policy, not economic interest.

The revisionist approach emphasized several different components of policy. First, the new historians saw fundamental connections between economics and politics. Whether the theoretical starting point was Adam Smith or Karl Marx, they looked to the underlying dynamics, needs, and goals of the economic system as sources of policy. These writers began from the assumption that economic interest infused political systems and international relations.
While the realists acknowledged economic interest as a factor of some importance to policy-making, it was considered merely one of a multiplicity of variables shaping international behavior. By contrast, revisionists argued that while the forces of security, ideology, elite personalities, and even “human nature” had some role to play, all were influenced in the end by economic imperatives. The behavior of dominant nation-states from the seventeenth through the twentieth century involved trade, investment, financial speculation, the pursuit of slave or cheap labor, and access to natural resources. The pursuit of economic gain drove the system of international relations, and while sometimes this required cooperation, at other times it necessitated war, conquest, and colonization.

The revisionists made a further innovation at the level of discourse: during the Cold War, the mere mention of the word “capitalism” signaled that the user was a Marxist. Consequently, without naming the economic system, any hope of analyzing its relation to politics and policy was foreclosed. And that meant ignoring the possible relevance of the dominant economic system from the fifteenth century on. But, as has been suggested, some historians and social scientists who employed the political-economic perspective recognized that as an economic system evolved, international relations changed with it. This was so because capitalist enterprises and their supporting states accumulated more and more wealth, expanded at breakneck speed, consolidated both economic and political power, and sometimes built armies to facilitate further growth.
Some historians, borrowing from Marx, studied the evolution of capitalism by analyzing the accumulation of capital and newer forms of the organization of labor. At first, theorists wrote of the rise of capitalism out of feudalism. Marx called this the age of “primitive” or “primary” accumulation, because profit came from the enslavement of peoples, the conquest of territories, and the use of brute force. Subsequently, trade became a significant feature of the new system, and capitalists traversed the globe to sell the products produced by slave and wage labor.

This era of commercial capitalism was dwarfed, however, by the emergence of industrial capitalism. New production techniques developed, particularly factory systems and mass production. The promotion and sale of products in domestic and global markets increased. By the 1870s, the accumulation of capital in products and profits created enormous surpluses in the developed countries. These required new outlets for sale, new ways to put money capital to work, and ever-expanding concentrations of capital in manufacturing and financial institutions. By the mid-twentieth century, some theorists wrote of a new era of “monopoly capitalism,” a global economic system in which most commercial and financial activities were controlled by a small number of multinational corporations and banks.5

The revisionists of the 1960s argued that much of this economic history was ignored entirely by mainstream analyses of international relations. They responded by uncovering the reality of the U.S. role in the world, concentrating on specific cases of links between economics and politics. These included the influence of the country’s largest oil companies on the U.S.-managed overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 or the coup in Guatemala in 1954 after president Jacobo √Ārbenz threatened to nationalize lands owned by the United Fruit Company. And while some revisionists did see the Soviet Union as a security threat to the United States, the broad consensus of the political-economy approach was that socialism as a world force threatened the continued global expansion of capitalism. As the nature of the anti-capitalist forces and challenges in particular countries changed, so too did the needs and tactics of U.S. foreign policy.

The political-economy approach also regarded class structure as central to the understanding of the foreign policy of any nation. Some classes dominate the political system at the expense of others. In capitalist societies, those who own or control the means of production dominate political life. Therefore, while realists and traditionalists prioritize states as the most important actors in world affairs, political economists see states and classes as inextricably connected. Writers of all schools write about rich and poor states and powerful and weak states. Most, however, stop there. The state is central. Political economists and historical revisionists connected states to classes, and vice versa.
Finally, while revisionist historians worked on the principle that class interest controlled the foreign policy process, they tended to take a “hegemonic” view of that control, leaving little room in their theoretical frame for counterforces of resistance. The resulting analyses often seemed to imply that the United States was omniscient, all-powerful, unbeatable, and unchangeable in its conduct. After the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War, however, some analysts began to focus on challenges to U.S. hegemony around the world, especially in the global South. However, in the main, the historical revisionists developed a top-down understanding of international relations. Much of the anti-American ferment in the world, including anticolonial struggles, revolutions, and third world coalition-building, received insufficient attention.

The Revisionist Legacy
Ways of thinking have consequences. Generations of students in the twentieth century were exposed to analyses of international relations that emphasized certain purportedly iron laws of state behavior. Others were taught that international politics was best understood by embarking on statistically based studies that disaggregated political reality into a complex array of discrete variables. Still other students of international relations were encouraged to specialize in security studies or modernization and democratization. As the Vietnam War escalated, activists began to turn to a small group of historians for an alternative understanding of U.S. involvement in the country. The activism and scholarship of the Vietnam era began the process of challenging the hegemony of intellectual systems that had generally supported the U.S. role in the world.

Although that hegemony has been weakened, the traditional ways of studying international relations in the United States remain influential. Many studies are ahistorical, atomizing political reality while marginalizing the causal role of economics, and ignoring the effect of class interests in the making of foreign policy. The old enemy, international communism, is gone, but a new one, international terrorism, has taken its place. And like their Cold War precursors, mainstream theorists of international relations normalize war, regime change, and an ever-expanding military and security state.
Hegemonic thinking during the Vietnam era was questioned by scholars who challenged professional barriers and ideological taboos. Social movements demanded new thinking about world affairs. And scholar-activists began to revisit the work of maligned theorists such as Marx and V. I. Lenin. Historical curiosity increasingly led them to ask not only what happened, but why. Breaking through hegemonic ideas remains a vital task today.


1.      An old but still compelling history of U.S. labor struggles and anti-communism in the early years of the Cold War can be found in Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Labor’s Untold Story (New York: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, 1955).

2.      See George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

3.      William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: Delta, 1962).

4.      Lloyd C. Gardner, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Hans J. Morgenthau, The Origins of the Cold War (Waltham, MA: Genn, 1970); Gar Alperowitz, Atomic Diplomacy (New York: Vintage, 1965); Thomas G. Paterson, Soviet-American Confrontation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973); Gabriel Kolko, The Roots of American Foreign Policy (Boston: Beacon, 1969) and The Politics of War (New York: Vintage, 1968); Joyce Kolko and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power (New York: Harper, 1972).

5.      Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).