Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCarthyism

Reviewed by Clarence Taylor

Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCarthyism  By Andrew Feffer Fordham University Press, 2019 320 pages

Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCarthyism
By Andrew Feffer
Fordham University Press, 2019
320 pages

For decades, pundits, conservative writers, and political officials have obscured the political and ideological differences between liberals, democratic socialists and communists. It is quite common for both rightwing Republicans and those in the mainstream media to label liberals as the “far Left,” in order to imply their ideas pose a danger to the country. In the 1988 presidential election, for example, George H. W. Bush called his Democratic opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, a “card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union,” equating membership in the ACLU with membership in the Communist Party. Several Republicans and members of the Tea Party have accused former President Barack Obama of being a “socialist.” President Donald Trump has labeled Democrats as “radicals” who have adopted a “far-left agenda.”

But it is not just the right that has obscured the political discourse. Those who identify themselves as “moderate” Democrats have also argued that more left-leaning Democrats and Democratic Socialists are too far from the mainstream. Chris Matthews, host of a daily news program on the liberal cable station MSNBC, has consistently red-baited Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In February 2016, Matthews asked DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz whether there were “philosophical differences” between Hilary Clinton, whom he called a “regular Democrat,” and Bernie Sanders, who “ran as a socialist, who now calls himself a Democratic Socialist.” He then asked if Sanders advocated “collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” Matthews was smearing Sanders as a communist. Was Sanders, the TV host, asked, an advocate of a “stage in society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism.”[1] Former Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill warned that if Sanders were the nominee the Republicans would tag the Democratic Party with the “hammer and sickle.”[2] Former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman accused Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young Democratic Socialist who defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley for New York’s 14th Congressional district, of adopting a program that is “more Socialist than Democratic.” According to Lieberman, “Her approach foresees government ownership of many private companies, which would decimate the economy and put millions out of work.”[3]

Matthews, McCaskill, Lieberman, and others who classify themselves as moderates, along with those on the right, have blurred the ideological lines between liberalism, democratic socialism, and communism. Many Americans today cannot distinguish liberals who support capitalism but call for regulation of the market, social democrats who advocate that the state assure a wide social safety net to its citizens, and communists who call for eradicating capitalism and the establishment of workers state that controls of the means of production. In the summer of 2010, The Atlantic reported that in a poll, 55 percent of Americans who were surveyed believed that Barack Obama was a socialist while only 39 percent said he was not one.[4]

In his book, Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCarthyism, historian Andrew Feffer writes eloquently about the campaign launched by liberal and social democrats within the New York City Teachers Union and the College Teachers Union against their communist counterparts. The author argues that it is wrong to lump all the left into the vague category of liberalism. Starting in the early 1930s, long before the Cold War, ideological differences among those on the left led to fierce confrontation. Feffer helps clarify the ideological muddling among groups that label themselves progressives.

Bad Faith challenges the long-held view propagated by scholars such as noted liberal historian Richard Hofstadter and liberal sociologist Daniel Bell that McCarthyism was the result of “anxiety over perceived inequalities of status and power, which were especially prevalent in those parts of the country outside the centers of political authority such as Washington and New York.” He also refutes the argument that McCarthyism was a “single front in a much broader attack by ‘conservative coalitions’ on the regulatory policies and entitlement programs that started with the New Deal.” Instead, the author maintains that the liberals’ countersubversive campaign to silence left voices was pivotal in the formation of McCarthyism.

Feffer is correct that blaming communists for the breakup of the popular front coalition of liberals, socialists, and communists obfuscates the profound ideological and political divides that existed among these groups before the popular front. According to Feffer, liberals and communists have had competing views of progressivism. Communists embraced contentious engagement and mass social movement struggles. Liberals, on the other hand, rejected class struggle and instead promoted common interest and negotiation.

Liberals, according to Feffer, argued that communist teachers and professors acted in bad faith, covering up their real agenda of indoctrinating students to Marxism, promoting class warfare and revolution, and undermining American institutions. Liberals declared that communist teachers operated outside the norms of democracy attempting to subvert teachers and students, therefore posed a danger to the country. Since the early 1930s, the author maintains, liberals have carried on a countersubversive campaign against communists. Within the New York City Teachers Union, Local 5, liberal thinkers such as Henry Linville, John Dewey, and AFT president George Counts, with the support of AFT President William Green carried out a campaign to throw the communists out of the union starting in the early 1930s. Feffer examines the 1933 trial conducted by the leaders of Local 5 of members of the communist-dominated Rank and File Caucus and other members of left-wing caucuses. He details the effort of socialist Henry Linville, founder and president of the TU, education philosopher John Dewey who was founder of the progressive education movement, and other liberal TU leaders who accused the communists of class warfare and violent disruption in an attempt to take over the union. We learn of the walkout of 700 TU members of Local 5 after the unsuccessful attempt to remove the communists from the TU, and the formation of the anti-communist Teachers Guild. Feffer points out the liberal record of George Counts, who became president of the AFT and his successful measure to revoke the charter of the TU in 1941.

One of the most ardent proponents of the bad faith argument targeting communist educators was liberal philosopher Sidney Hook. Hook’s books, articles, and speeches played a major role in propagating the bad faith argument, Hook became a legend trying to “unmask” the communist threat to educational institutions. One of his most famous works, “Trojan Horse in American Education,” played “prominently in American countersubversive demonology for the next half century.” Feffer contends that Hook’s role in Rapp-Coudert was not public. However, the Committee‘s final report, “which in its survey of the literature…followed his interpretation of Stalinist orthodoxy.”

Most of Feffer’s attention is paid to the Rapp-Coudert Committee. The author argues that the Rapp-Coudert Committee picks up where the liberals and social democrats in Local 5 and its parent organization the AFT left off. He describes how liberals in the New York State Legislature, teamed up with those on the right to form the Rapp-Coudert Committee to investigate communists at the City University of New York and the city’s public schools. A key figure in the Committee’s work was Paul Windels, Chief of Staff for the committee. According to the author, Windels was a “liberal Republican,” who managed Fiorello La Guardia’s successful campaign to the U.S. House of Representatives and was on the team that helped elect him mayor of New York City. Windels “underscores how mistaken the assumption is that the repression we call ‘McCarthyism’ was a rightwing movement on which liberals merely tagged along in the chill of the Cold War.”

Adopting the bad faith notion, Windels conducted investigations and held hearings of public school teachers and CUNY professors, distorting and fabricating witnesses’ testimony without any constitutional restraints. The most devastating lie put forth by the committee was that those questioned by its members were indoctrinating students. Rapp-Coudert and subsequent anti-Communist witch hunts led to not only the firing, forced resignation and forced retirement of hundreds of teachers but to the eventual end of the college teachers Union and its parent organization, the Teachers Union.

Bad Faith’s major strength is its detailed account of the impact that the liberal anti-communist movement had on New York City public school teachers and professors at the City University of New York. Just as important, Feffer’s work is a major contribution to the growing literature on American anti-communism. By turning our attention to the role that anti-communist liberals played in marginalizing those on the left during the Cold War, the author provides a richer history and clearer understanding of the political ideologies. The author successfully addresses the question of “what were the ideas, attitudes, and interests that led so many liberals to join the red scare from 1934 on.” They “simply maintained a point of view set during the Depression, a liberal version of the countersubversive tradition that framed communism according to the myths of subversion, indoctrination, class war, and the party line.”

Clarence Taylor is Professor Emeritus of History at Baruch College.


[1] Transcript, Hardball with Chris Matthews, February 4, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joe Lieberman, “Vote Joe Crowley, for Working Families,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2018.

[4] Derek Thompson, “Poll: 55% of Likely Voters Think Obama is a Socialist,” The Atlantic, July 9, 2010.