H. Chandler Davis Was a Lifelong Radical and a Moral Touchstone for the Left

Chan Davis, who died last month at the age of 96, faced down McCarthyite blacklists and imprisonment to pursue a brilliant academic career. Davis knew how to change and learn from political experience, but he always remained loyal to his socialist principles.

Chandler Davis photographed in 1975. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

A Red Diaper Baby

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).

In 1943, Chan joined the US Communist Party (CPUSA) but soon withdrew (in accordance with Party policy) to participate in a Navy officers’ training program. Nevertheless, he managed to graduate from Harvard in three years. In the spring of 1945, he received a commission at a Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School, and then served on a minesweeper in Florida.

In 1946, he entered the Harvard Graduate School Department of Mathematics and published his first story in the May issue of Astounding Science Fiction, “The Nightmare.” Featured on the cover, which depicted the Statue of Liberty being decimated by an atomic bomb, it was the first known fictional narrative to deal with the subject of nuclear terrorism. Two years later, another piece in Astounding Science Fiction, “Letter to Ellen,” addressed genetic engineering. This was followed by another ten stories and a number of essays.

Rejoining the CPUSA in 1946 as well, Chan found that he was under discipline to keep his membership secret as he was not seen as sufficiently orthodox to be a public representative. As a campus activist, Chan joined the Federation of American Scientists, founded by former members of the Manhattan Project who favored international control and peaceful use of atomic energy.

He also became active in the efforts of the Progressive Party, formed to support the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. It was at a meeting of Young Progressives that he encountered a politically like-minded Smith College senior named Natalie Zemon, a student of early modern history. Within a few weeks, they decided to get married. The following year, she enrolled in graduate school at Radcliffe College, which enabled her to take courses at Harvard.

Going on the job market in 1950, Chan received an offer from University of California Los Angeles but drew back when he learned of the California Loyalty Oath requiring university employees to sign a pledge that they were not members of the CPUSA. With that in mind, he chose to accept a position as an instructor at U-M, a rank that could eventually lead to a tenured position. He and Natalie moved to Ann Arbor, where she continued her graduate studies. Chan remained a member of the CPUSA for the first years of his academic career.

Facing HUAC

By 1953, however, both he and his father had begun to have doubts about what was happening in the Soviet Union. They were aware of political repression under Joseph Stalin, although without knowing the actual extent of it, and felt they were not getting accurate reports from Party leaders. They also doubted the CPUSA’s political efficacy in the United States, and both quietly dropped their membership.

In Chan’s case, he separated from the CPUSA not by means of a formal resignation but by failing to resume contact with the Party after taking a leave. Some months later, in the fall of 1953, he received a subpoena to appear before HUAC.

The McCarthy-era events at U-M have by now received detailed study in books such as Ellen Schrecker’s No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986) and more recently in an excellent unpublished study by Steve Batterson at Emory University, “The Un-American Treatment of a Red Mathematician.” This makes for lengthy and convoluted reading because of the maneuvers of President Harlan Hatcher and several faculty administrators, not to mention the many legal issues raised by the various appeal processes. But the gist is that a year later, in 1954, Davis became one of three faculty members suspended from the U-M after refusing to cooperate with the HUAC hearings that were held in Lansing.

Originally some fifteen faculty had been targeted by HUAC, but an agreement was reached between the FBI and Hatcher to focus on five who had the clearest connection to the CPUSA. One of these, future Nobel Prize winner Lawrence Klein, became a cooperative witness, although he was eventually driven out of U-M by an antisemitic senior member of the economics department. Another, Nate Coburn, was excused from the hearings due to serious illness. That left Davis, biologist Clement Markert (who had fought for the Republican side in Spain), and pharmacologist Mark Nickerson (the only one who was already tenured).

As a result of their uncooperative behavior in Lansing, the three were required to answer questions about their personal political views before U-M faculty committees. In this instance, only Davis refused to respond to interrogations about his own political history, and afterward he and Nickerson (seen as an antiauthoritarian troublemaker by the leadership of his department) were summarily fired with Hatcher’s agreement and denied severance pay.

In Nickerson’s case, the U-M faculty Senate opposed the firings, but the Medical School would not back him. In the case of Davis, his department and the College of Liberal Arts supported his reinstatement, but the Faculty Senate opposed it. Markert, endorsed by everyone, was reinstated, but felt his chances for tenure had been compromised, so he accepted a new position at Johns Hopkins University.

Even worse for Davis was the fact that Davis alone had pleaded the First Amendment (freedom of speech) in the Lansing hearings, rather than the more common Fifth Amendment (the right not to incriminate oneself). He expected to be judged to be in contempt of Congress and then planned to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he hoped to win a victory ending the persecution of Communists.

Instead, he lost all appeals and was sentenced to a six-month prison sentence in 1960. While incarcerated in Danbury, Connecticut, Chan authored an academic paper that had an acknowledgement reading as follows: “Research supported in part by the Federal Prison System. Opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and are not necessarily those of the Bureau of Prisons.”

In Exile

Blacklisted from teaching in the United States, in 1962 Chan and Natalie relocated to the University of Toronto where they launched highly successful careers. Chan specialized in the fields of algebra and operator theory (a branch of functional analysis). Three mathematical theorems are named in his honor, and he became vice president of the American Mathematical Society, distinguished editor of Linear Algebra and Its Applications, and editor-in-chief of the Mathematical Intelligencer.

Natalie became the author of numerous books, most famously The Return of Martin Guerre (1983). She taught for sixteen years at Princeton University, served as president of the American Historical Association, and received the Holberg International Memorial Prize and the National Humanities Medal.

Throughout his Canadian decades, Chan remained on the far left, although his illusions about the Soviet Union finally dissolved with the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was an ardent activist against the US war in Vietnam and traveled to North Vietnam in 1971 with other mathematicians such as the former Trotskyist Laurent Schwartz. In recent years, he was on the front lines in defense of Palestinian rights and against the apartheid of the Israeli state. From his hospital bed this past July, he spoke in support of Azat Miftakhov, a mathematician being held as a political prisoner in Russia.

In private conversation, Chan lamented his naiveté about the Communist movement but not his activism. He did, however, regret his military service due to his horror at what he learned afterward about the saturation bombings and use of nuclear weapons. In 1990, reflecting on his CPUSA years, he wrote me that “I decided some time in the 70s that what I really ought to have been is a Shachtmanite . . . .” Afterward, he no longer identified himself as a “Marxist-Leninist” but told biographer Batterson that he was a “red-green eco-socialist.”

Although his science fiction writing stopped after the 1950s, his stories continued to be reprinted. In 1986, he issued a volume of poetry, Having Come This Far, and, in 2010, a selection of prose edited by Josh Lukin, It Walks in Beauty. Several political essays of his have received wide notice, including “From an Exile” in The New Professors (1960), and “The Purge” in A Century of Mathematics in America (1989).

In 1990, following a revival of interest in the case of Davis and others who has been suspended (Markert and Nickerson were also still alive), the Senate Advisory Committee of U-M sought to convince the U-M Regents to make amends in some fashion. When this failed, an annual “Davis-Markert-Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom” was established and has been held every year since then. Even after he became the only survivor of the three, Chan continued to return to U-M for all the lectures, always participating in one fashion or another, going on stage and performing like a trooper.

Survived by Natalie and their three children, Chan was a person of great vitality and charm, large-hearted, affectionate, gifted with sharp political insight, and even a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. An even-tempered and relentless optimist, he spoke with unusual clarity and vigor, and unpretentious erudition. Moreover, he had mastered enormous aggregates of knowledge, had expansive horizons, a more retentive memory than a herd of elephants, and a wonderful imagination to boot.

Yes, he could be a bit contrarian: during the thirty years of our friendship, every time I sent him an essay that I had written he found something with which to disagree. Still, in his unfailing solidarity with social movements old and new, he established a new gold standard. Even as he sloughed off worn-out political skin over the years, he remained faithful to the bone of his convictions. To his last days he walked the walk. In the cause of social transformation, Chan Davis was one who had enlisted for the duration.