U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Politically Correct”: A History (Part I)

This is the first post in a series in which I will explore the history of the descriptor “politically correct” as both a term of praise and a term of disparagement. [edited Feb. 16, 2015: Part II is posted here.]

This history – at least as I have been able to piece it together so far — begins not in the 1980s nor even in the 1960s. The use of the term “politically correct” as first an ideal and then an insult, first an aspiration and then an accusation, goes at least as far back as the 1930s. The double-edged connotation of the term was forged and sharpened in internal debates on the Left – debates between Communists and socialists in the 1930s and 1940s, between New Left radicals and radical feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, between radical feminists and “libertarian” (or, in current parlance, “sex-positive”) feminists in the 1970s and 1980s.

In any case, the pejorative use of the term “politically correct” is not a consequence of debates in the late 1980s or early 1990s; calling someone “politically correct” as a way of being insulting is a practice that goes back for several decades.

“I first heard the phrase ‘politically correct’ in the late 1940s,” Herbert Kohl wrote, “in reference to political debates between socialists and members of the United States Communist Party. These debates were an everyday occurrence in my neighborhood in the Bronx until the McCarthy committee and HUAC silenced political talk on the streets in the early 1950s. Before McCarthy, members of the CP called current party doctrine the ‘correct’ line for the moment.”[1]

This use of “politically correct” as a technical term within Communist circles to denote ideological conformity to official Party doctrine predated Kohl’s memory by more than a decade at least. This usage shows up, for example, in The Communist in 1930, in a resolution of support for recent CPUSA actions offered by American-Canadian students at the Lenin School in Moscow. These actions, the students affirmed, had “cleared the way for the correct application of the line of the Sixth World Congress and the Tenth Plenum of the U.S.A.”[2] The students commended the Party for recent statements demonstrating its “politically correct perspective,” but they expressed some concern over the extent to which the CPUSA was taking sufficient practical steps to implement that correct line.[3]

Concern about the distance between “politically correct” doctrines and practicable solutions comes through more clearly in a 1932 Communist article by Harrison George. In the piece, “Causes and Meaning of the Farmers’ Strike and Our Tasks as Communists,” George pushed back against both internal and international criticism of the CPUSA’s support for the United Farmers’ League:

The impoverished famers will fight. But for what demands and around what slogans? Around this question there has been a discussion which has been an obstacle rather than an aid to our Party….The comrades were against the U.F.L. program. They were also against the U.F.L. and desired it liquidated. They insisted that all things be revamped to conform with the program for European peasants adopted by the All-European Peasants’ Committee. We looked over the program, but are sure that few farmers would ever understand it. Of course, it is politically ‘correct’ to the last letter.[4]

The scare quotes around “correct” signified doubt about the value of political statements that adhered to “the letter” of Party pronouncements without regard to practical or tactical needs. And the matter of political correctness was, in this case at least, very much a matter of using approved language. George acknowledged that the language of the UFL program, by calling its activist units “Township Committees” rather than the officially approved term, “Committees of Action,” may have “obscured” the UFL program’s aims to its critics. However, he said, “we did not conceive this program of the U.F.L. as applying to the whole country, but to the Middle West where township organization is natural as a form of the united front. If we had said ‘Village’ Committees, our critics might have understood. But the Dakota farmers would not, and we wrote our program for them.”[5]

So within the CPUSA of the 1930s, there was some discussion about the desirability and possible deficiencies of “politically correct” discourse. These two examples in particular highlight perceived tensions between expectations of doctrinal purity and considerations of practical efficacy.

With the onset of World War II, Kohl argued, Communists who insisted on adhering to the “correct” Party line put themselves in the position of defending the morally indefensible.

During World War II, the Hitler-Stalin Pact caused many of these CP members considerable pain and often disgrace on my block–which was all Jewish and mostly socialist. The ‘correct’ position on Stalin’s alliance with Hitler (in favor) was considered to be ridiculous, a betrayal of European Jewry as well as of socialist ideals. Thereafter, I remember the term ‘politically correct’ being used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion and led to bad politics. It was used by the socialists against the communists, and was meant to separate out their own beliefs in egalitarian moral ideas from those of the dogmatic communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.[6]

Kohl, writing in 1991, argued that the contemporary, pejorative use of “politically correct” by neo-conservative critics of the academy was a deliberate effort to portray advocates of “anti-sexist and anti-racist education” in the same moral light as “Communist party hard-liners who insisted on the correct ‘line'” even when the Party line required defending the Hitler-Stalin pact – in other words, Kohl accused the neoconservatives of redbaiting. “It is a clever ploy on the part of neo-conservatives–a number of whom were themselves Communist Party members in the ’50s and are quite familiar with the term’s earlier use–to insinuate that egalitarian democratic ideas are actually authoritarian, orthodox, and communist influenced when they oppose racism, sexism, or homophobia.”

Ironically, this broad-brush invocation of an unnamed “number” of ex-Communists engaged in a “clever ploy” to paint multiculturalists as communist-influenced ideologues was itself a bit of (tongue-in-cheek?) redbaiting. That does not necessarily diminish the plausibility of Kohl’s explanation for what gave charges of “political correctness” in the 1990s at least some of their polemical punch. However, the valence of “politically correct” in the late ’80s and early ’90s was probably shaped by more recent intra-Left disputes (or more recent caricatures of such disputes).

One of the most significant intra-Left disputes informing discussions of the “politically correct” was the emergence of second wave feminism as a separate — and sometimes separatist — political force on the Left.  As many scholars have noted, the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s grew out of women activists’ rejection of the “male chauvinism” of the New Left.[7] Feminist critics pointed out that, as envisioned by the male leadership of the New Left, the radical politics of liberation was perfectly compatible with a traditional practice of subordinating women to men. Thus, for example, some feminists argued that the sexual revolution was not necessarily liberating for women, and that unconventional living arrangements often involved not so much a rejection of the bourgeois institution of marriage as a reinstantiation of its exploitative appropriation of women’s emotional, physical, and sexual labor.   As part of her contribution to the manifesto, “Toward a Female Liberation Movement,” Judith Brown framed the issue in these terms:

The radical woman lives off-campus, away from her parents, and often openly with one man or another. She thinks this is ‘freedom.’ But if she shares a place with a man, she ‘plays marriage,’ which means that she cooks, cleans, does the laundry, and generally serves and waits. Hassles with parents or fear of the Dean of Women help to sustain the excitement—the romantic illusions about marriage she brought to the domicile.

If she shares an apartment with other women, it is arranged so that each may entertain men for extended visits with maximum privacy. Often, for the women, these apartments become a kind of bordello; for the men, in addition to that, a good place to meet for political discussion, to put up campus travelers, to grab a free meal, or sack out. These homes are not centers for female political activity; and rather than being judged for their interior qualities – physical or political – they are evaluated by other women in terms of the variety and status of the radical men who frequent them.[8]

A radical feminist writing in off our backs a few years later put the matter more pithily:

Males in the 1960s tried to turn daughters off to their mothers’ raps about how all men wanted was cunt—they turned this wise old woman knowledge that has been passed down from mother to daughter since the fall of the matriarchies into something that was known as unhip and unpolitical. The hippie chick became politically correct ass. The Male Left convinced ‘their’ women that it was politically correct to fuck their brains out. Non-monogamy as a political ideology in my lifetime grew up in that male context….And what the straight feminists have yet to realize who are still exploring non-monogamous relationships with men is that this is nothing new for men – they can still get free pussy if they’ll go soft on their chauvinism during foreplay.[9]

In this passage, the term “politically correct” may be less pejorative than sarcastic. In other words, the author is not necessarily criticizing the aspiration of some women to arrange their lifestyle in accordance with their political views. I think that’s what “politically correct” means here – putting one’s principles into practice. Rather, this author is criticizing how men on the Left have misused these women’s aspiration to put their politics into practice. But the aspiration itself – an aspiration born of the recognition that “the political is personal” – does not come under censure.

In my next post, I will pick up where I have left off here, with an examination of how radical feminists used the term “politically correct,” and what they meant by it. It seems to me that a key moment in this history (and perhaps a key moment in taking these intra-Left conversations to a broader audience) was the 1982 conference on sexuality at Barnard – especially the controversial panel on “Politically Correct, Politically Incorrect Sexuality.”[10]

But I am still sorting this out — as I said at the start of this post, I am exploring this history, not handing it down as a settled matter. So any suggestions or critiques would be much appreciated.


[1] Herbert Kohl, “The Politically Correct Bypass: Multiculturalism and the Public Schools,” Social Policy 22, no. 1 (Summer 1991), 33.

[2] “The Internal Situation in C.P. of U.S.A.,” The Communist (Jan. 1930), 86.

[3] “Internal Situation,” 87.

[4] Harrison George, “Causes and Meaning of the Farmers’ Strike and Our Tasks as Communists,” The Communist (October 1932), 926.

[5] George, “Causes and Meaning,” 926.

[6] Kohl, 33.

[7] Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (New York, N.Y.: Hill and Wang, 2012), 123. On the emergence of the women’s liberation movement out of the New Left, see, e.g., Self, 123-125; Linda Nicholson, editor, The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1997), 1-5; Barbara A. Crow, editor, Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader (New York, N.Y.: NYU Press, 2000), 1-3; Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 2011), 235-240.

[8] Beverly Jones and Judith Brown, “Toward a Female Liberation Movement,” in Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader, 41-42.

[9] marychild, “CALLING ALL DYKES…COME IN PLEASE,” off our backs 4, No. 8 (July 1974), 22.

[10] In 1984, the journal Signs published a forum about this panel, “The Feminist Sexuality Debates.” See Signs 10, No. 1 (Autumn 1984):102-135.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. L.D. That is an excellent introduction and summary of the phrase or term. The writings of Chairman Mao are filled with the term correct, as in “correct handling of contradictions among the people”. There was, at least prior to the revelations of the crimes of that regime, enormous sympathy with the Maoist line, especially but not exclusively, among radical Feminists who were also part of movements for socialist transformation and even sought ways to combine their partial separatism with integrated Marxism.

    I myself remain troubled and ambivalent about ALL of these movements and especially this language which I consider a sort of turgid jargon that recreates the worst aspects of scientific and technocratic writing. I find it sad, maybe even tragic, that “criticism” of PC seems to come only in the form of neo-conservatism and conservatives for they have very much an agenda that is quite extreme.

    I recall that in the 1990s my fondness for Fred and Ginger movies was called politically incorrect at an academic cocktail party on the (as in morally wrong) – on the grounds that the dancing style was anti-woman (because of Astaire leading? I am not sure) etc. this was quite serious and was not meant in a self deprecatory way and in some socialist groups I was in there were reading lists of disapproved and approved books.

  2. Mitch, thank you so much for this comment!!!! I sure hope you saved some of the ephemera from those socialist reading groups. Good primary sources!

    I had a section on Maoist discussions of the “politically correct,” but I decided not to go with it, because (at this point in my research), my ability to connect Maoist terminology to the US “p.c.” discussion is inferential. That is, I have secondary sources (e.g., Kazin, Crow) who mention that the New Left and women’s liberation feminists were influenced by the work of Mao. But without some good examples from, say, RAT or Ramparts or The New Left News (that’s some of the legwork I need to do to turn this from an exploration into an article), I didn’t want to claim too much for Maoist borrowings. I guess I should have been more brave!

    The key — a key — with Maoist uses of “politically correct” is the connection to the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, etc. That is, not just an insistence on p.c.political doctrine, or even p.c. art, or p.c. literature, but a notion that everything and anything in life/society could be politically correct or politically incorrect. That kind of comprehensive vision of culture as politics would be the key influence. But again, that’s something I want to track down better in primary sources.

    On Maoist enforcements of “political correctness,” I found these articles helpful:

    Arnold L. Herstand, “Art and the Artist in Communist China,” College Art Journal 19, No. 1 (Autumn, 1959):22-39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/774078

    Lowell Dittmer, “‘Line Struggle’ in Theory and Practice: The Origins of the Cultural Revolution Reconsidered,” The China Quarterly 72 (Dec. 1977):675-712. http://www.jstor.org/stable/652558

    My sense (so far) is that there were always hardcore believers on the radical Left who were serious about “political correctness” in that Party line sense, but from the sources I’ve looked at so far, most people on the Left who are using that term are using it with what appears to be a lot of eye-rolling and sarcasm.

    In terms of what the term “politically correct” meant or contained or embraced for those who used it seriously, that shifts on the Left at this time, and I think feminism is key here — “the personal is political,” the idea of sexual politics, the dialectic of sex, etc.

  3. L.D.:
    Very informative post.

    Re Mao: a few years ago Xavier Marquez (a political scientist in New Zealand) wrote a long blog post on the personality cult in Mao’s China (riffing off a book on the subject). Been quite a while since I read the post; in glancing at it just now, I see there is a reference to ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ cults of personality. Anyway, I’ll give the link to the post below (fwiw).

  4. Louis, thanks for the link. That blog post provides one of the better examples of how ngrams can be useful that I’ve encountered. Plus it’s fascinating.

    The extent to which being “politically correct” in U.S contexts was about signaling v. the extent to which it was viewed as a pragmatic/effectual matter is an interesting question. Not sure yet if I’ll get to it in the next post, but worth thinking about.

    This week my primary source work is mostly in the writings of radical feminists of various “camps.” My big takeaway so far: radical feminists were radical. (This observation brought to you by “Stating the Obvious, with L.D. Burnett”™)

  5. Deconstructing Political Correctness

    This essay, just as the Marxist Movement in general, loses the original and most important definition of ‘political correctness’ and fails to define what a ‘correct political line’ signifies or what it was used for and substitutes a useless petty bourgeois misinterpretation of the term for discussion. The distinction is 100% important.

    In the example covering women’s liberation, it implies the struggle against American imperialism takes presidence over male chauvanism. However, this is never really made explicit. The only thing that is made explicit is the question if women should work in organizations with or without men? It was deemed by the New Left it seems that men and women should participate in the same organizations and feminists insisted on separate organizations. Therefore, ‘political correctness’ was deemed anti-feminists by modernist feminists.

    Oy gevalt. Facepalm from a male postmarxist or marxist postmodernist. Mansplanation ensues.

    First, ‘political correctness’ is not a political position or our line. It is the assessment of a political position after a period of time, sort of like the conclusions of an experiment. In general, if the revolution succeeded then the line was correct. If it was crushed or the Communist Party was completely ineffectual, then the line was incorrect.

    From this point of view we can safely conclude all of the organizations, the CPUSA, the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground etc. were ALL INCORRECT. The obvious resolution to the organizing principles for women would be – vanguard female revolutionaries should join organizations that include men or do not include men as fits their personal disposition. Contradiction resolved, end of story.

    Check out American Communist Party, not CPUSA on fb.


    • The concept that there are only two mutually opposite answers to a question is binary modernism. The false conclusion that the adoption of one solution means that another solution must be wrong by definition.

  6. Barton, this (and the following blog post) is a first pass at a historical inquiry looking at shifts in usage/meaning of the term “politically correct” in American discourse.

    Based on the sources I have cited here from the 1930s, I have argued that PC was used at the time as “a technical term within Communist circles to denote ideological conformity to official Party doctrine,” but also sometimes used in ways that pointed to “perceived tensions between expectations of doctrinal purity and considerations of practical efficacy.” I don’t think that’s a particularly strained or tendentious reading.

    Do you have some examples of texts from the 1930s U.S. that show the term used in a different sense at that time? That would be very helpful for me in my research. And of course it would improve your self-described mansplaining immensely if you could cite some actual historical evidence to support your claims. Historical evidence is super important for us bourgeois historians — we’re kinda funny that way.

  7. As a linguist, I am fascinated by the use of positives as negatives, and vice versa and how language clusters form. Correct becomes incorrect, bad becomes good. I will read the follow up. In my observation, such meaning switches always have social tensions at their root.

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