[Marxism] Vera Shlakman, Professor Fired During Red Scare, Dies at 108
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Tue Nov 28 08:25:02 MST 2017
NY Times, Nov. 28 2017
Vera Shlakman, Professor Fired During Red Scare, Dies at 108
By SAM ROBERTS
Vera Shlakman, an influential economics professor who was fired by
Queens College after she refused to tell Senate investigators whether
she had ever been a card-carrying Communist — a punishment that brought
an apology three decades later — died on Nov. 5 at her home in
Manhattan. She was 108.
Her death, which was not widely reported at the time, was confirmed by
her friend Ellen J. Holahan.
Dr. Shlakman was the last survivor among more than a dozen teachers at
New York City’s public colleges who were ousted by the Board of Higher
Education during the early stages of the Red Scare wrought by Senators
Pat McCarran and Joseph R. McCarthy.
A 42-year-old assistant professor when she was fired in 1952, Dr.
Shlakman neither taught economics again nor wrote a sequel to her
groundbreaking 1935 book on female factory workers.
Thirty years later, 10 of the fired professors, including Dr. Shlakman,
were indemnified with pension settlements after receiving an apology
from college officials.
“They were dismissed during and in the spirit of the shameful era of
McCarthyism, during which the freedoms traditionally associated with
academic institutions were quashed,” the trustees of the City University
of New York declared in a resolution adopted unanimously in 1980. The
trustees had succeeded the Board of Higher Education.
No one doubted Dr. Shlakman’s political leanings.
She had been named for the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich. Emma
Goldman, the anarchist, was a regular guest in her family’s home. Dr.
Shlakman was vice president of the college division of a Teachers Union
local that was rebuked for being dominated by Communists.
But when she was summoned before a public hearing of the Senate Internal
Security Subcommittee, led by Senator McCarran, a Nevada Democrat, Dr.
Shlakman invoked her constitutional guarantees of free speech and
privilege against self-incrimination when asked about her membership in
the Communist Party.
“Do you believe that a member of the Communist Party can be a college
teacher?” Robert J. Morris, the subcommittee counsel, asked Dr. Shlakman
at the hearing, held on Sept. 24, 1952, at the United States Court House
in Foley Square in Manhattan.
She replied, “I think that any teacher must be judged on the basis of
his performance in the classrooms; that if a teacher follows
professional standards in the classroom, and is a scholar, he is
entitled to teach as any citizen.”
As an economist, Dr. Shlakman seemed to suggest that “communism” had
become an overwrought term. She cited one example of what, by her
reckoning, had once been branded radical but became an accepted staple
of American life while leaving democratic institutions intact.
“When the United States Post Office began to carry packages,” she said,
“this activity was viewed as a challenge to private enterprise’’ and “a
kind of socialistic or communistic activity.”
Pressed about whether being a Communist would close a teacher’s mind to
any deviation from the party line, she replied that similar speculations
had been raised against devout Roman Catholics.
“We don’t condemn people now — at least I assume we don’t — on the basis
of guilt by association,” she said.
As far as the committee and college administrators were concerned,
though, by refusing to respond to the question about party membership,
Dr. Shlakman became a “Fifth Amendment Communist.”
She was fired from her professorship 12 days after the hearing under two
New York regulations. One, authorized by the State Legislature in 1949,
barred the school system from employing anyone who belonged to what was
deemed a subversive organization.
The other, a provision of the city charter enacted to thwart corruption,
provided that a city employee’s refusal to testify about his or her
official conduct, because doing so might be self-incriminating, was
grounds for dismissal.
Both provisions would be declared unconstitutional in the late 1960s.
But they were enforced in Dr. Shlakman’s case, and as she told her
fellow professors after she testified, her firing had left the academic
community with a choice.
“It must either grovel and accept the standards of orthodoxy prescribed
by the McCarrans and the McCarthys, and those who have capitulated to
them,” she wrote, “or it must resist.”
She recalled that educators had resisted earlier congressional inquiries
into reading requirements for college courses. “Is the dismissal of
teachers,” she asked, “easier to accept than the burning of books?”
But profiles in courage were few and far between during the McCarthy era.
The British economist Mark Blaug, a former student of Dr. Shlakman’s,
wrote in an essay in 2000 that she had been “scrupulously impartial and
leaned over backward not to indoctrinate her students” — which was why,
he added, as a college tutor he had endorsed a student petition
demanding her reinstatement.
Less than 24 hours later, he said, the Queens College president ordered
him to resign or be dismissed.
“For a day or two, I contemplated a magnificent protest,” wrote
Professor Blaug, who died in 2011, “a statement that would ring down the
ages as a clarion bell to individual freedom, that would be read and
cited for years to come by American high school students — and then I
quietly sent in my letter of resignation.”
After leaving Queens, Dr. Shlakman was unemployed for a year.
She then worked as a secretary and a bookkeeper and taught
intermittently. She was placed on an F.B.I. watch list because she was,
as an F.B.I. file put it, “reportedly” a member of the Communist Party
from 1944 to 1946 and had invoked the Fifth Amendment before the
subcommittee, according to Marjorie Heins’s “Priests of Our Democracy:
The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge” (2013).
In 1960, Dr. Shlakman finally started teaching again at Adelphi
University, a private institution on Long Island, in its School of
Social Work. In 1966 she was hired by the Columbia University School of
Social Work, where she taught full time until she retired as professor
emerita in 1978.
Dr. Shlakman was born on July 15, 1909, in Montreal, to Louis Shlakman,
a tailor and shirtwaist factory foreman, and the former Lena Hendler,
both Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. (Her sister, Eleanora, was
named for Karl Marx’s youngest daughter; her brother, Victor, for Victor
Dr. Shlakman never married and leaves no immediate survivors. In her
last years, when she was homebound and blind, she was looked after by
several friends, including Judith Podore Ward and her husband, Bernard
Tuchman, and Ms. Holahan. They said they never asked, nor did Dr.
Shlakman reveal, whether she had ever been a member of the Communist Party.
Dr. Shlakman earned a bachelor’s degree in 1930 from McGill University
in Montreal, and went on to receive a master’s in economics there. She
earned her doctorate in economics at Columbia.
Queens College hired her as an instructor in 1938, shortly after it was
established. She taught courses there in labor, Social Security and the
concentration of wealth.
Dr. Shlakman’s doctoral dissertation, an analysis of female factory
workers in 19th-century Chicopee, Mass., was the basis for her book,
“Economic History of a Factory Town” (1935).
Joshua B. Freeman, a distinguished professor of labor history at Queens
College and the City University Graduate Center, said by email that her
book had “extended the boundaries of American working-class history” and
influenced a generation of historians.
Alice Kessler-Harris, a Columbia history professor emerita, wrote in the
journal International Labor and Working-Class History in 2006, “Shlakman
raised the question of how a transformation in the meaning of work for
female workers could, and perhaps did, alter the workplace environment
and the nature of family life.”
Professor Kessler-Harris said in an email that at a time when the field
was dominated “by Jeffersonian myths about the harmonious interaction of
labor and capital,” Dr. Shlakman’s study of Chicopee confirmed that
capital and labor were at odds with each other in fundamental ways, and
that labor protests were a check on the excesses of the marketplace.
Dr. Shlakman’s firing from Queens banished her to academic obscurity.
Professor Kessler-Harris said that her copy of “Economic History,”
borrowed from Columbia’s library in 1951, was not taken out again until
1966. (The book was, however, reissued in 1969.)
After City University offered its apology in 1980, Dr. Shlakman and
another fired colleague, Oscar Shaftel, appealed to City Comptroller
Harrison J. Goldin to resolve a dispute with the state over pensions or
death benefits for former professors who had been dismissed during the
In April 1982, the city announced a $935,098 settlement with seven
living former professors and the estates of three who had died. Dr.
Shlakman received $114,599 — the equivalent of almost $300,000 in 2017
“Do you feel you have gained your honor back with this?” Dr. Shaftel was
asked at a ceremony where he was joined by Dr. Shlakman and two other
“I never lost my honor,” he replied.
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