An American Socialist in Saskatchewan

By Roberts, Joseph K. | Canadian Dimension, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

An American Socialist in Saskatchewan


Roberts, Joseph K., Canadian Dimension


My father was vice-president of Standard Oil (Indiana), and, like my schoolmate Don Rumsfeld, I was supposed to go on via Princeton to a corporate or government job. Like Rumsfeld, too, by pursuing higher education and exploiting the class-privileged American selective service system, I managed to skip both the Korean and wars.

But in the age of the Cold War, McCarthyism and the restoration of corporate control after the Great Depression, my family's plan for me went wrong. The main reason was Hugh Wilson. It was this professor of politics who introduced me to the realities of corporate power and the distortions of democracy. Wilson sent me on to Columbia to Robert Lynd, who in his turn helped me to broaden my understanding of class and power in America.

Studying public law and government allowed me to take classes in sociology, history, economics and law, as well as public administration. Among my formative experiences was a year-long class on social change with Herbert Marcuse. For me, academic work demanded direct action. Wilson had helped found the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a radical departure from the Cold War-compromised American Civil Liberties Union. I became versed in some of the more pressing First Amendment cases. In the New York of the time, there was also a strong peace movement that opposed nuclear testing.

In my doctoral dissertation, I examined the role of the oil industry in the Suez Crisis of 1956. During this period of academic and political activity, Lynd introduced me to Leo Huberman, who along with Paul Sweezy was the founder and co-editor of Monthly Review. This was the beginning of a critical relationship that has shaped my understanding, my teaching and my perspective to this day.

My wife required fieldwork for her anthropology degree, and, with the aid of a Ford Foundation grant, she chose Sierra Leone--so, in 1961 we set off for Africa. It was an opportunity to learn about imperialism firsthand. Britain was then in the process of relinquishing colonies like Sierra Leone--without, of course, abandoning its interests in those places.

Shortly after I returned to the U.S., President Kennedy was mysteriously assassinated. He and his entourage were idols of many American liberals, but for me he was not the enemy, but the escalator, of the Vietnam War.

From Michigan State to the University of Regina

In 1964, I went to Michigan State University to teach. The university's political-science department had established itself as a government contractor in the 1950s, attempting to create an administration in South Vietnam that was loyal to the U.S. As the war intensified, the university campus saw the birth of an opposition, in tandem with the already vigorous civil-rights movement. At first the environment was distinctly unfriendly, but in the spring of 1965, the first big campus "teach-in" was held at the neighbouring University of Michigan. This served to bolster our efforts at MSU.

In 1965, Hugh Wilson was invited by Dallas Smythe, an economist trained at the University of California, Berkeley, to the newly created University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus, as a visiting professor. Smythe was born in Regina and had been employed in the Federal Communications Commission until the Cold War forced him out. He then got a job in the Communications Department at the University of Illinois. Appalled by the Cuban Missile Crisis, Smythe accepted an invitation to head up the newly created social-science faculty at the Regina campus. Prompted by Wilson, Smythe then called me up and offered me a job.

However tame the Saskatchewan experience with "socialism" actually was, it nonetheless appealed to my need for an environment friendly to creative change. In August, 1966, with a new baby boy in our family, we arrived in Regina. A new university and an alternative tradition of political science seemed to offer greater hope. …

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