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.”
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.” 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
 Herbert Kohl, “The Politically Correct Bypass: Multiculturalism and the Public Schools,” Social Policy 22, no. 1 (Summer 1991), 33.
 “The Internal Situation in C.P. of U.S.A.,” The Communist (Jan. 1930), 86.
 “Internal Situation,” 87.
 Harrison George, “Causes and Meaning of the Farmers’ Strike and Our Tasks as Communists,” The Communist (October 1932), 926.
 George, “Causes and Meaning,” 926.
 Kohl, 33.
 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.
 Beverly Jones and Judith Brown, “Toward a Female Liberation Movement,” in Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader, 41-42.
 marychild, “CALLING ALL DYKES…COME IN PLEASE,” off our backs 4, No. 8 (July 1974), 22.
 In 1984, the journal Signs published a forum about this panel, “The Feminist Sexuality Debates.” See Signs 10, No. 1 (Autumn 1984):102-135.