Kenneth May - a Communist?

Kenneth May and his father Samuel Chester May (1887-1955) had a public falling out over Kenneth May's activities on behalf of the Communist Party. This "falling out" was public in the sense that the story was covered by a great many newspapers to which both father and son made statements. The extracts we give below are taken from the following newspapers: Berkeley Daily Gazette (27 September 1940); Chicago Daily Times (27 September 1940); Daily Californian (27 September 1940); Los Angeles Times (27 September 1940); Milwaukee Journal (27 September 1940); New York Daily News (27 September 1940); New York Times (27 September 1940); San Diego Union (27 September 1940); and San Francisco Chronicle (27 September 1940). They all carry extracts from statements by Kenneth May and by his father Samuel May. We give the background to their dispute by quoting from the Milwaukee Journal:

Berkeley California. A college professor disowned his son Thursday because of the latter's communistic leanings. Professor Samuel C May, director of the bureau of public administration at the University of California, announced his decision just before leaving Sacramento in connection with his duties as a member of the state defense council. Wednesday night at a meeting of the board of education, the son, Kenneth May, teaching assistant in mathematics, avowed he was an official of the campus branch of the Young Communist league and of the Alameda County Communist party. The elder May said:
I have been expecting this to break and I have been dreading it for weeks. Everyone who knows me knows all my views are contrary to those of Kenneth. So decided are my views that I have completely disowned and disinherited my son. Kenneth seems to have gathered a lot of those beliefs in Europe.

Here are further extracts from Samuel May's statement given in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle:

I am in complete disagreement with the Communistic activities of my son Kenneth and I have determined that he will receive no aid from me now or after my death to carry on his activities. I am bitterly opposed to Communism. ... Kenneth seems to have a martyr complex. ... It is just one of those things that may happen to any father. Anyone who has children can understand. For twenty years I've been fighting communism. I have students scattered all over this State who know how I stand on radicalism and communism, so I don't believe anyone will question my position. When I became convinced my son had become an irreconcilable communist I took the only honorable course consistent with my personal views and the position I hold as an executive of the defense council.

We continue to quote from the Milwaukee Journal:


[Kenneth May] had supported a petition of the campus branch of the Young Communists for the use of a building owned by the Berkeley High school.

Kenneth May responded with a statement of his own. We quote the version given in the Berkeley Daily Gazette:

I first joined the Communist party as an undergraduate at the University of California because I found by actual experience in student activities that the Communists were consistent and uncompromising fighters for the interests of the students and against reaction within and without the university. I became convinced that the Communists were correct in their analysis of the University administration and the social system of which the University is a part. As a member of the Communist Party I have seen how the Party works everywhere to preserve and extend democracy, protect the living standards of the people, build the trade unions and keep this country out of war. During a stay of two years in Europe I observed the Communist Parties in France and England in action and visited a number of other countries, including the Soviet Union. All these experiences convinced me that the Communist Party is the greatest force for good in the world and that only through Socialism can the people of the United States solve the problem of unemployment, poverty, oppression and war. As a patriotic American I have no other choice but to work for what I consider to be the best interests of my country and the world.

The actions that followed are reported in the Berkeley Daily Gazette:


Reports on the Communistic activities of Kenneth May, teaching assistant at the University of California, were forwarded today to President Robert Gordon Sproul at Los Angeles, where he has been for the past two weeks. President Sproul ordered an enquiry last night to determine the extent of young May's activities on the campus in behalf of the Party of which he has declared himself a member. ... President Sproul will arrive in Berkeley tomorrow or Sunday, after which he will make a personal investigation of the matter, it was learned on the campus this morning. He was quoted in Los Angeles last night as saying: "Until I have obtained facts about the case - and I am going after them immediately - there is nothing else I can say." Apparently the Hatch "Clean-Politics" Act can be applied in the May case. The U.S. Civil Service Commission announced today at Washington that all employees of Land grant colleges come under this act, the United Press advised. The ruling was based on the fact that these colleges receive a flat sum from the government annually for general expenses. The University of California is a Land grant college. The Federal Hatch Act forbids political activity on the part of persons holding jobs supported in part or fully by federal funds. ... Concerning the possible application of the Hatch Act to his own case, young May said today: "The constitutionality of that act has not been decided as yet."

Sproul's investigation led to the Board of Regent's of the University of California dismissing May from his position as a teaching assistant in mathematics. He was allowed to continue with his registration as a Ph.D. student. May replied to his dismissal as a teaching assistant by giving a statement (see The Los Angeles Times (11 October 1940)):

The Regents have shown their disregard for our democratic form of government by denying my right to belong to a legally recognized political party.

May then withdrew completely from the University of California. He made the following statement (reported in "C V Jones, P C Enros and H S Tropp, Kenneth O May, 1915-1977. His early life to 1946, Historia Mathematica 11 (4) (1984), 359-379" but apparently not published at the time):

In taking an indefinite leave of absence from the University, I wish to make clear that this action is not prompted by any approval of the decision of the Board of Regents in dismissing me. The issue involved in the dismissal is one which must be fought out if this is to be a free University. My reasons for withdrawing are indicated in the following statement: Although my studies at the University of California have been largely in the Department of Mathematics, my interest has turned increasingly to mathematics as a tool for economic analysis, particularly in Marxist political economy and economic planning. It is in mathematical economics and statistics that I have done my graduate work. Economics, because of its proximity to the decisive issues of the day, suffers more than any other subject from the scholasticism, the divorce of theory and practice, and the outright suppression of free inquiry which tend to characterize science in that part of the world still ruled by capitalism. Although I had hoped to write a thesis in mathematical economics, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot make such a thesis an honest part of my work and development at this time. I am too dissatisfied with the theoretical framework within which it would have to be written. To construct an alternative is a task of years, not months. And it is a task which can be done only in closest connection with the daily struggles of the masses. For this reason Communist Party activity is for me not an alternative to, but a necessary part of, scientific work. These are the factors which make it possible for me without regret to leave the University for full participation in the working class movement. I hope in time to do more significant theoretical work than would have been possible within the University. Most scientists who become Marxists find that they can best carry on their work by remaining within the University and by integrating their scientific work with the struggle against scholasticism and suppression on and off campus. In deciding to leave the University, it is good to know that scores of others remain to carry on this task in the academic world.

JOC/EFR April 2015

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