Communism, Atheism, & Free Love

The real story behind Reed’s unofficial slogan.

By John Sheehy ’82 | October 21, 2021

I have always thought of it as an inside joke. A sardonic, Spanky-and-Our-Gang password to unlock the clubhouse door. There was something playfully subversive yet purposely archaic about it, even in my student days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the scourge of AIDS, and the rise of the religious right. That its irony was largely lost on the outside world only reinforced the secret confederacy. For me, “communism, atheism, free love” efficiently conveyed the spirit of a community that cherished personal freedom and radical dissent. That it did so with verbal aikido—confidently flipping a derogatory slur back on its intolerant attackers—made flaunting it half the fun.

Exactly when the phrase was coined is not clear. Variations on “communism, atheism, free love,” were bandied about in the national press throughout the 1910s and ’20s, mostly as conservative shorthand for perceived threats to the American status quo, especially those posed by liberal institutions. The word “atheism” was often linked with “communism” as a disparaging qualifier of Marxist ideals. “Free love” originated in the mid-nineteenth century to challenge the rights of ownership and authority exercised by men over women in marriage. By the early twentieth century the term had evolved to stand for a range of sexual freedoms for women.

The outspoken opposition of Reed’s founding president, William T. Foster, to U.S. entry into World War I made the college a natural target for the label. Reed's other peculiarities helped it stick. When a national survey in 1917 reported that the majority of college coeds listed financial affluence as their primary requirement of a suitable mate, the Oregonian decided to survey Reed coeds. Consistent with the college’s nonconformist image, Reed women ranked intellect as their number-one criterion in a mate. Specifically, that the man be their intellectual equal. They also stipulated that he be a feminist, “one who will stand for equal rights in both political and domestic matters.”

Reed’s adherence to academic freedom also raised hackles. Soon after the Russian Revolution, radicalized workers such as the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) took to the streets, calling for a socialist or anarchist revolution. A red terror spread throughout the country—except at Reed. There, a prominent leader of the Socialist Party of America was invited to campus to discuss the revolution’s potential impact on militarism, emancipation of women, and ending the persecution of Jews.

As Portland grew increasingly hostile toward Reed, Reed circled the wagons and turned inward. Ellen Knowlton Johnson ’39, daughter of longtime Reed physics professor Tony Knowlton, grew up on campus. She told me that during the 1920s, the Reed community reclaimed “communism, atheism, free love” from local critics as a tongue-in-cheek slogan. This was confirmed by other alumni of the era.

The second Red Scare in the 1950s brought the Velde Committee to Reed to investigate alleged Communist infiltration, reinforcing the college’s association with the slogan. In the wake of the committee’s hearings, a Quest editorial took issue with fallout from the “facetious motto”—not for the political notoriety it cast upon the college, but for the wild rumors of free love that led Reed’s trustees to clamp down on dorm inter-visitation between the sexes. In the late 1960s, t-shirts featuring the slogan served to elevate it from secret password to subversive icon.

Some alumni—and students—would like to see the slogan retired. After 100 years, they consider it an anachronism that no longer speaks for Reed, and instead places the college in a polarizing stance to the outside world. That, however, has been precisely its purpose all along. As sociologist Burton Clark points out in The Distinctive College, the spirit of intellectual rebellion upon which Reed was founded demands that the community “continue to define itself in ways antithetical to those of outsiders.” To that end, the slogan has become, for better or worse, part of the Reed “brand.”

According to branding expert David Aakes, neutralizing a brand once it is established is virtually impossible. One can only hope to include and transcend it, which is essentially what the Reed community did in the 1920s when, marginalized for their nonconformity and freedom of expression, they appropriated “communism, atheism, free love” as their own.

John Sheehy ’82 is the editor of Comrades of the Quest, the oral history of Reed College. This article first appeared in Reed Magazine in 2007.

Tags: Editor's Picks, Reed History