H. Chandler Davis Was a Moral Touchstone for Scholars on the LeftBreaking News
tags: obituaries, McCarthyism, radical history
Alan Wald is a member of the editorial boards of Against the Current and Science & Society and was appointed the H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan in 2007.
Chandler Davis (born Horace Chandler Davis and called “Chan” by his friends) was an internationally esteemed mathematician, a minor science fiction writer of note, and among the most celebrated political prisoners in the United States during the years of the high Cold War.
Dismissed from the University of Michigan (U-M) in 1954 for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on First Amendment grounds, he served six months in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut, then faced an academic blacklist that drove him to pursue a career in Canada.
The death of this endlessly resilient, lifelong radical at the age of ninety-six on September 24 in Toronto seems like the passing of an emissary from a world of the socialist Left that no longer exists. Despite errors of political judgment, which Chan was the first to acknowledge, he was for many of us a moral touchstone in our own decades of political upheaval and unpredictability.
Chan came from a Communist family. His parents had joined the Party in the early 1930s and he happily enlisted in its youth group, Young Pioneers of America, while in elementary school. His father, Horace Bancroft Davis (always called “Hockey”), a descendant of Boston abolitionists and feminists, was a labor journalist and steelworker in the 1920s, completing a doctorate on the steel industry at Columbia University in 1934. His mother, born Marian Rubins, also did graduate work at Columbia.
Hockey Davis is best known today for his books published with Monthly Review — Nationalism and Socialism (1967), The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg (1976), and Toward a Marxist Theory of Nationalism (1978) — but he taught at many colleges and universities from which he was regularly dismissed for his radical politics. Both he and Marian spent the last years of their careers teaching at historically black colleges in the South. After Marian’s death from breast cancer in 1960, the Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund was established for students working for social change. In 1971, autobiographical memoirs of Chan’s parents were published jointly as Liberalism is not Enough.
Chan, born in Ithaca, thus had a peripatetic childhood, including a year in Brazil. At the age of sixteen, in 1942, Chan was awarded the prestigious Harvard National Scholarship and entered Harvard College as an undergraduate. Throwing himself into a milieu of diverse radicals, he also began attending meetings of the Astounding Science-Fiction Fanclub. Immediately he gravitated toward a circle known as “the Futurians,” originally a Marxist tendency that evolved in the late 1930s in New York and included pro-Communists John Michel, Frederik Pohl, Isaac Asimov, and Donald Wollheim, and later the Trotskyist Judith Merril (born Judith Grossman).
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