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What Do American Universities and Communist Political Systems Have in Common?

What Do American Universities and Communist Political Systems Have in Common?

More than you think.

Michael Mandelbaum

The outbursts of overt, flagrant antisemitism on university campuses following the murderous assault on Israel by the Gaza-based Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas on October 7, and the clueless responses of university administrators thereafter, surprised, indeed shocked, the vast majority of Americans who pay little or no attention to academic matters. The nation’s college campuses suddenly appeared to be unfamiliar, alien, and deeply unattractive places. While universities have in fact become very different from the schools older Americans attended and from what most of the country expects them to be, they do resemble a certain kind of political community that Americans, fortunately, have never known but in which, in the last century, millions of others have had to live: communist countries.

To be sure, today’s academy does not come close to reproducing the horrific conditions of the Soviet Union in the era of Joseph Stalin, with its mass killings. Instead, it has salient features in common with late-communist Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, which earned a reputation as “the merriest barracks in the Soviet prison-camp.” Hungarians in the 1980s had a good deal of personal freedom, but if they questioned two central dogmas—the supremacy of the Hungarian Communist Party and Hungary’s subordination to the Soviet Union—they would find themselves in serious trouble with the authorities.

Similarly, it is still possible for students to get a good education on American campuses today, and faculty members continue to conduct solid and sometimes path-breaking research; but they are free to do so only as long as they do not come into conflict with the ruling orthodoxies on race, gender, and ethnicity. If they do, they will suffer harassment by a vocal, aggressive minority of their fellow students and punitive action by the university bureaucracy.

The common features of latter-day communism and the present-day academy stem from a particular view of history. Each of them holds the overriding theme of the past to be a conflict between two sets of groups—the oppressors and the oppressed. The communist narrative of an ongoing struggle between workers and their capitalist oppressors has a parallel in the contemporary university’s designation of the systematic, ongoing oppression of people of color by white Europeans as the defining feature of social and political life. From these accounts arose the purpose of communism on the one hand and institutions of higher education, in the eyes of those who control them, on the other: creating a community that embodies justice, defined as reversing the alleged historically pervasive hierarchy and placing power and privilege in the hands of the groups deemed to qualify as oppressed. The term sometimes used to refer to this academic ideology, the equivalent of Marxism-Leninism, is “woke.” It is also known by the initials of the goals that it has made paramount in universities: diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI. Diversity in this context means representation of different census categories and emphatically not the diversity that is actually appropriate in institutions of higher education—that is, diversity of ideas.

Communist countries achieved their version of justice, sometimes termed “real existing socialism,” through the domination, in matters of economics, politics, and culture, of the Communist Party, the self-proclaimed and self-selected representative of the workers—the officially-designated oppressed group. Similarly, on campus, justice—often called “social justice”—depends on the procedures by which students are admitted and faculty and administrators are chosen, which give priority to membership in groups the ideology deems to be historical victims. 

That is how Claudine Gay—whose academic credentials, all apart from the plagiarism involved in acquiring them, are, to put it delicately, skimpy—became president of Harvard. If those selected for university positions do not actually belong to groups designated as oppressed, they must pledge allegiance to the reigning doctrine. Candidates for admission and for faculty positions are encouraged, and sometimes required, to submit “diversity” statements describing how they will contribute to the institution’s ideology-based goals.

Three aspects of these goals are worth noting. First, they have nothing to do with the original and proper aims of higher education—that is, teaching and research. Second, by favoring group membership and ideological conformity over competence in choosing students and professors, they follow the method of allocating positions in Maoist China, which favored “redness”—that is, ideological fervor—over expertise. In this way China lost an entire generation of the people needed to operate a complex modern economy. The selection of physicians, engineers, and scientists by woke standards rather than by ability will not turn out well for the United States, either. Third, if this method of selection seems un-American that is because it is: The American tradition and indeed the American Constitution treat people as individuals. DEI treats them according to their racial or ethnic group membership.

Both the communist and the DEI historical narratives contain a grain of truth, but as infallible, all-encompassing accounts of human history they are false. For that reason, both have had to be enforced. Communism had sections within the ruling party that imposed ideological conformity and communist governments made propaganda campaigns a part of daily life. The academy has entire departments devoted to the study of the people whom it deems oppressed, the courses in which almost invariably emphasize their victimization, thus reinforcing the dominant ideology. Universities also require students to take part in seminars on the principles of DEI and have DEI bureaucracies, whose purpose is to find and punish departures from the reigning orthodoxy. Inevitably, the bureaucrats do find them; their well-paying jobs depend on there being violations that need to be policed, and they are the policemen. Courses taught outside the departments explicitly devoted to “victim studies” also serve to reinforce the university’s ideological principles, since faculty members are increasingly chosen for their devotion to these precepts. 

 Finally, communist countries did not allow dissenting ideas to be expressed, either in speech or in writing. Similarly, at universities, speakers who hold views at odds with the DEI orthodoxy are routinely barred from addressing campus audiences or shouted down when they attempt to do so.

Just as the majority of Hungarians in the 1980s understood that the tenets of Marxism-Leninism that governed their lives did not reflect the truths of the real world, so many students and faculty members in American universities today see that the historical framework on which the governing DEI ideology rests severely distorts reality. In both cases, however, neither group questions the orthodoxy for fear of incurring the wrath of, and persecution by, the established authorities. Silent assent is the price of being left alone.

Given all this, overt antisemitism on campus should come as no surprise. The reigning narrative classifies Jews as oppressors and Israel, the Jewish state, as a “settler-colonial” enterprise. Both characterizations run counter to the facts of Jewish and Zionist history but, as in communist countries, when the facts contradict the orthodoxy the facts do not matter. Similarly, the harassment of Jewish students violates the norms to which these institutions are supposed to be committed, but because these threats of violence, occasionally spilling over into violence itself, are directed against “oppressors,” administrators ignore if not condone them.

The transformation of the American university from a site of learning to a vehicle for enforcing a view of the world to which most Americans do not subscribe and which is not, in fact, accurate has been a long time in the making. Roger Kimball’s classic account of what have become dominant features of the academy, Tenured Radicals, was first published in 1990. Moreover, the system that has taken root on campus has powerful self-perpetuating components. The universities themselves select their own students, faculty, and administrators, and thanks to the institution of tenure, faculty members can remain in place for life no matter how lazy or crazy they may be. The academy will therefore be difficult to change.

Communism in Europe also had powerful self-perpetuating elements, yet it collapsed between 1989 and 1991. Because of its hyper-centralized structure, the initiatives of one person—the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—could set in motion the events that (unintentionally) brought it down. Higher education in the United States, by contrast, is decentralized. Change is, however, possible, and can come in one or both of the two ways that change comes to the similarly decentralized American economy: competition and regulation.

Competition is already present. Efforts are under way to establish new institutions of higher education dedicated to fulfilling the original and appropriate purposes of the university: education rather than “social justice.” The newly established University of Austin (UATX) is an example. Some existing institutions, such as Hillsdale College in Michigan, have remained faithful to higher education’s legitimate aims. Moreover, if one of the selective (read expensive) institutions should free itself from the yoke of woke—by committing itself to the mission of educating rather than indoctrinating students, and by conducting genuine research based on the principles of free inquiry by people selected for their academic accomplishments and potential rather than their group membership—it would attract monetary contributions, faculty members, and students. Such a development would create incentives for other institutions now in the grip of the DEI ideology to follow suit, in order to keep up financially as well as in the ongoing contest for institutional prestige.

As for regulation, state universities are responsible to state governments, which thus have considerable potential leverage over them. Three scholars of education in independent think tanks—Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, Jenna Robinson of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in North Carolina, and David Randall of the National Association of Scholars in New York City—have drafted model legislation for interested state legislatures that mandates the creation of independent schools of general education within state universities. These would teach what were once staples of higher education: the Western philosophical, political, and cultural traditions.

Private universities do not operate under the same constraints as public ones, and some have gigantic endowments: Harvard’s is $51 billion. This wealth does not, however, provide impenetrable protection against actions by the government. Harvard and other Ivy League institutions rely on federal funding to support the research that takes place in their science departments and medical schools. The Supreme Court has already found Harvard’s policy of using racial preferences in choosing its undergraduate students to be unconstitutional. That practice, which is common in other colleges and universities, and perhaps other violations stemming from their dominant ideology provide the basis, at least in theory, for denying them federal funds unless they return to the original role of higher education. 

More broadly, universities, like all institutions, cannot flourish if they flout, consistently and as a matter of principle, the basic values of the society in which they are embedded. The conspicuous enthusiasm on campus for the atrocities of October 7 demonstrated that those who control higher education today are engaged in precisely that. The surprised, shocked, disapproving, and often angry reaction in the wider public provides grounds for optimism that, over time, the pressure of public opinion, in conjunction with competition and regulation, can return American universities to the conditions that once made them the envy of the world.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His book The Titans of the Twentieth Century: How They Made History and the History They Made–about Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gandhi, Ben-Gurion, and Mao–will be published in September.    

Image: Sather Gate at the University of California, Berkeley. (Wikipedia: Carol Highsmith Archive, LOC)