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August 1, 2003

Fearless Sidney Hook

Thomas Main on Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation and The Essential Essays: Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy and Freedom by Sidney Hook

Sidney Hook.
Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation.
Expanded edition. Ernest B. Hook, editor.
Prometheus Books. 539 pages. $32.00

Sidney Hook.
The Essential Essays: Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy and Freedom.
Foreword by Alan Ryan. Robert B. Talisse and Robert Tempio, editors.
Prometheus Books. 455 pages. $32.00


Back in the mid-eighties I attended a conference at which I met the director of a conservative think tank. His organization wanted to establish an annual award for distinguished careers in public affairs writing. Did I have an idea about who should be the first recipient, he asked me. I suggested Sidney Hook, thinking of his anti-communist and pro-Cold War work. Immediately the director’s face lengthened. Oh no, that wouldn’t do, I was told. Didn’t I realize that Hook was a secular humanist?

This episode testifies to the eclecticism of Hook’s thought. Hook’s was an array of positions that did not fall into any obvious ideological pattern: socialist, anti-communist, secular humanist, pro-welfare state, educational progressive, anti-affirmative action, cold warrior, anti-conservative, and plenty more. Hook’s understanding of Marxism was in itself a complicated combination of opinions: For most of his career he rejected nearly every idea characteristic of Marxism and abhorred regimes that designated themselves as Marxist, but he still respected Marx as a democrat and a philosopher. One could not possibly agree with Hook on everything. Readers who were more concerned with what Hook believed rather than how he believed it and argued for it were, given the heterogeneity of Hook’s opinions, likely to find something or other objectionable.


There is, however, one opinion — or better, one set of opinions — that one had to share with Hook in order to admire him much. This was his anti-communism and the policy conclusions that he drew from it. After the 1930s, anti-communism was probably the theme Hook most frequently took up. Hook’s writing was always intense, but when he wrote on anti-communism it could be with the urgency of someone calling life-saving instructions to a drowning victim. Such was the tone of his book from the early fifties, Heresy, Yes — Conspiracy, No, in which he argued that communism was not “an open and honestly avowed heresy but an international conspiracy centered in the Kremlin, in a state of undeclared war against democratic institutions.” Hook was very seldom personal in his polemics but he could be stinging in his characterization of an antagonist’s reasoning when the issue of communism came up. Thus, he blasted “Lillian Hellman, who in her book Scoundrel Time seems to have duped a generation of critics devoid of historical memory and critical common sense.” Or again, he began his condemnatory review of a book by David Caute on the McCarthy period by noting, “It is a well known phenomenon that without containing a single falsehood, a description of an historical situation, personage or event can still be a lying account.” Sometimes, in presenting a passage from anti-anti-communist authors, Hook could not resist inserting a “sic” or even a “sic!” in the quotation, as if reading such stuff was almost too much to bear.

Hook faithfully pursued what he saw as the policy consequences of his anti-communism. He supported the Cold War, rejected the New Left, and — most fatefully for his reputation — opposed allowing Communist Party members to hold teaching positions. All of this led to the common complaint that Hook was an obsessive anti-communist. Indeed, Arthur Schlesinger has claimed that Hook’s “great error” was “in letting anti-communism take over his life.” This judgment is unfair. Precisely what Hook did not do was allow his anti-communism, or any other single idea, to determine the whole of his thought. Many of the characteristic ideas that he continued to express prolifically to the end of his life had nothing to do with anti-communism. Nonetheless, anti-communism was a major theme in Hook’s work, and the perception that he was overly preoccupied with it has had a negative impact on his reputation.

Allegedly obsessive anti-communism is not the only feature of Hook’s work that has damaged his reputation. Hook was a polemicist, “probably the greatest polemicist of [the twentieth] century,” as Edward Shils has written. And Hook’s modal form of expression was the essay, rather than the book, and that often published in a nonacademic journal. His philosophical interests — Marxism, pragmatism, and public affairs — were considered marginal concerns in academic philosophy throughout much of his university career. For this reason, an article in the National Post (December 17, 2001) condemns the trajectory Hook’s career took after the publication of one of his early books as follows: “unlike Hook’s later and more polemical work, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx was a genuine original contribution to philosophy.” In this way, Hook has often been seen as a politicized intellectual journalist rather than as a serious philosopher.

Recently, however, this judgment seems to be waning. Several developments suggest that Hook is beginning to receive serious consideration as something other than a street-fighting debater. One indication of this change was a symposium entitled “Sidney Hook Reconsidered: A Centennial Celebration,” held at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York last October. Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, originally published in 1933, is back in print for the first time in decades. And a much-needed representative sample of Hook’s essays from throughout his career is now available, The Essential Essays: Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy and Freedom.


What might be called the archeological approach to reinterpreting Hook is embodied in the republication of Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx and has been given its most complete expression in the 1997 book Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist by Christopher Phelps. The characteristic feature of this approach is to focus on Hook’s work from the 1930s and early 1940s, especially the Marx book, as well as various essays written about the same time and, to some extent, the book From Hegel to Marx. During this period Hook was a communist — not in the sense of being a member of any communist party, nor in the sense of subscribing to the “line” of any such party. Rather, as he explained in his essay “Communism Without Dogmas,” Hook was a communist in the sense that he was an independent, critical expositor and defender of the political and philosophical “principles to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, and in the economic and political works of Lenin and Trotsky.” For most of his life Hook’s own attitude toward his early works was largely negative. This was not because he judged them incompetent efforts, but because, as his son Ernest B. Hook writes in his preface to the new edition of Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: “[H]e came to repudiate and abandon almost all of the views he expressed in this volume. . . . Certainly I sensed that he feared that some overenthusiastic new readers might be inspired inappropriately to foolish views or actions.”

That is, the mature, anti-communist Hook rejected his youthful communist writings and for decades did not consent to having them republished. Indeed, Ernest Hook tells us that the reissuance of Karl Marx “violates his [Sidney Hook’s] only injunction to me about his professional afterlife. . . . [A]llowing it to be reprinted still feels like an act of betrayal.” Why, then, has the volume been made available, and what is the point of the current interest in the young Sidney Hook?

Part of the reason for the interest in the book is the judgment that, as Phelps argues, “As a full-length work of philosophy, Hook never did anything comparable again.” But in what, according to this approach, does the excellence of the young Hook and the relative decline of the old Hook consist? In his book Phelps writes:

[T]his biography argues that Hook’s early revolutionary anti-Stalinism had a character quite distinct in principle from his later Cold War liberalism, despite subsequent obfuscations by friends and critics alike. These findings corroborate in greater detail what Julius Jacobson, editor of New Politics, has written regarding the New York intellectuals: “It was not anti-Stalinism that proved to be sufficient cause for that capitulation to the West; the causal link between what they were and what they became was their abandonment of an independent socialist perspective.”

It is primarily for its lucid articulation of this “independent socialist perspective” that Phelps recommends to us Hook’s early work. Phelps argues, both in his book and in an introduction to the new edition of Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, that the particular form this perspective takes is a synthesis of Marxism with the quintessential American philosophy, pragmatism. Given his unique position as a student of John Dewey and also a Marx scholar, Hook was able to bring off this synthesis and create an Americanized “Communism Without Dogmas.” Marxists of various stripes have rejected this commingling of Marxism with what they see as the bourgeois philosophy of pragmatism, and part of Phelps’s project is to argue for the validity of this pragmatic interpretation of Marx: “The familiar philosophical thesis that Hook’s anticommunism was the simple result of his pragmatism is a poor substitute for biography and history. Precisely because of his pragmatist understanding, the young Hook was led to emphasize the revolutionary elements of action, experiment, and democracy in Marx.” Phelps believes that the present-day left can learn from Hook’s early writings:

The American left is once again in need of hope to carry it through hard times. The questions that Sidney Hook considered in his writings on revolution and democracy remain vital, and many of the solutions he put forward years ago have remarkable resonance today [including] his insistence on the ability of working people and their allies though democratic and participatory activity to change the world and their own lives.

The later Hook, in this analysis, fails to be of similar relevance because “the key concept of democracy in his writings became an abstract standard, stripped of class analysis, with almost exclusively moralistic meaning.” But this contraction of Hook’s conception of democracy showed “[t]he degree to which Hook’s Marxism had evaporated and his pragmatism become a pale shadow of its former self.” In other words, the mixing of Marxism with pragmatism was valid; Hook’s problem, allegedly, was that he backed off from the radical democratic implications of both these philosophies.

Phelps’s work of intellectual archeology has several virtues. It is an impressive work of literary scholarship and greatly expands our understanding not only of the early Hook, but of American intellectual life during the crucial decade of the 1930s. Hook’s readers have known all along that he passed through a radical phase in his youth, but the detail of his thought from this period was generally unknown because the mature Hook never cared to expand on it. Phelps’s book, together with the republication of Karl Marx, brings this lost world to light.

Phelps is also right to insist that Hook’s project of reinterpreting Marxism in light of pragmatism was a legitimate approach to developing a workable progressive social philosophy. Other philosophers have noted the affinity between pragmatism and Marxism. No less an authority than Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy (Simon and Schuster, 1945) notes Marx’s espousal of “the theory called ‘pragmatism’ or ‘instrumentalism’” as follows:

[Marx] called himself a materialist, but not of the eighteenth-century sort. His sort, which, under Hegelian influence, he called “dialectical,” differed in an important way from traditional materialism, and was more akin to what is now called instrumentalism.

The whole chapter on Marx in Russell’s History, with its emphasis on Marx’s activist theory of perception and knowledge, presents a very pragmatic interpretation of Marx. In fact, it seems possible that, since Russell was familiar with Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, his reading of Marx might well have been based on Hook’s work. However that may be, the point is that the affinity of Marxism and pragmatism is real, and the effort to fuse the two and so produce a progressive social philosophy relevant to the American scene was an intellectually legitimate enterprise.

Hook, furthermore, was not the only thinker to attempt to renew Marxism by reinterpreting it in light of later philosophical developments. Phelps usefully puts the early Hook in the company of the so-called Western Marxists: Western European thinkers such as Sartre, Gramsci, and the Frankfurt School, who rethought Marxism in the context of various non-Marxist philosophies. The most obvious parallel here is Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness (1923), in which the author tries to replace the scientistic aspects of Marx’s thought with a subjectivistic methodology borrowed from literary and cultural studies. If Hook’s political evolution had not taken him rightward, he might very well have enjoyed the kind of vogue among the New Left that Lukacs and other Western Marxists did. Indeed, one source reports that unauthorized, mimeographed copies of Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx were printed up and distributed among student radicals of the sixties.


No, the problem with Hook’s fusion of Marxism and pragmatism is not the pragmatism, but the Marxism. Reading Karl Marx now is a strange experience. Hook’s characteristic earnestness and lucidity are there, and the book still works as an introduction to the imposing structure of Marx’s thought. But all the characteristic weaknesses of Marxist thought are also evident, and they make it impossible to accept the book as an adequate analysis of social problems either then or now.

For example, Hook emphasizes Marx’s theory of value which “would distribute the social product in accordance with some social plan whose fundamental principle is not the accumulation of capital for private profit but its intelligent use in behalf of mankind.” Two questions immediately present themselves: Just what is social planning? And is it possible? One does not have to buy the arguments of the Austrian economists in all their detail to realize that social planning, in the sense of replacing markets with centralized management of the economy, is almost certain to lead to disaster. And Hook does seem to contemplate replacing markets, for he specifically contrasts the Marxist theory of value with “the operations of the laws of supply and demand.”

Like most Marxists of his time, the young Hook is completely unconcerned with what social planning means and how is it supposed to work in the absence of markets. Such placid unconcern is troubling enough given that the anti-planning argument had already been developed in Ludwig von Mises’s Socialism, published in German in 1922 and available to any Marxist who took the planning problem seriously. And, of course, readers of the twenty-first century — with the experience of the Stalinist five-year plans and the failed centralized economies of the former Soviet-bloc states before them — will find it hard to take seriously an analysis that entirely ignores the planning question.

Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx is also remarkably naïve about the role of states in political life. The issue of the nature of the state is important because, Hook claims, “it can be categorically stated that it is Marx’s theory of the state which distinguishes the true Marxist from the false.” Hook quotes with approval Marx’s dictum from The Communist Manifesto that “The modern state power is merely a committee which manages the common business of the bourgeoisie.” The idea is that the state is wholly a class phenomenon and that no change in the state, short of revolution, can alter the fundamental class character of the state. Hook does not hesitate to conclude that gradual reformism is doomed:

The attempt made by “liberal” Marxists throughout the world . . . to separate the existing economic order from the existing state as well as their belief that the existing state can be used as an instrument by which the economic system can be “gradually revolutionized” into state capitalism or state socialism, must be regarded as a fundamental distortion of Marxism. “Liberal Marxism” and “gradual revolution” are contradictions in terms.

Such passages make for depressing reading for several reasons. First, even at the time the passages were written, the reforms of the New Deal were already underway and were soon to demonstrate that employing state power to transform the economy was indeed possible. True enough, when Hook wrote Karl Marx he had not yet seen the success of the New Deal. But then neither had his fellow intellectuals supported the New Deal, kept their wits about them, and trusted in the democratic political process rather than revolution. Almost as if determined to demonstrate his unreasonableness, the young Hook rejects the possibility of gradual revolution in the U.S. — a possibility broached by Marx himself! Hook quotes Marx to the effect that “we do not deny that there are certain countries, such as the United States and England, in which the workers may hope to secure their ends by peaceful means.” Hook then pronounces himself mystified as to “what led Marx and Engels into the error of qualifying their general position [on the necessity of violent revolution] as they did.” The young Hook’s position was ultramontane even by 1930s and Marxist standards and is all the less relevant to present-day readers, who are familiar with successful reform efforts not only in America and England, but even in places like South Africa and Mexico.

One could continue citing such flaws in Karl Marx, but pointing out the deficiencies of a communist analysis written 70 years ago is an unsatisfying business. The weakness of such an approach is glaring to today’s reader, as it was glaring to Hook himself not long after he wrote it. Phelps’s work and the republication of Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx do not, unfortunately, unearth a forgotten but viable young Hook, useable as a tool for political analysis today. What these efforts do provide is a deeper appreciation of Hook’s later work. Reading Karl Marx and following the career of the young Hook, one can feel the seriousness and passion with which he made the case for communism. The shock and humiliation that such a man must have felt as his cherished cause was blasted to atoms by the catastrophes of the thirties — the rise of Stalin, the show trials, the failure of communism as a defense against fascism — must have been nearly overwhelming. It is of no use to argue, as Phelps does, that Hook could have retreated to an anti-Stalinist but pro-communist position. The foundation of Hook’s pragmatic Marxism was the insight that the truth of an idea is to be found in its effects. And surely few ideas ever had more disastrous effects rained down upon them than communism in the thirties. With this rediscovered material before us, Hook’s later obsessive anti-communism, if such it was, is, if anything, more intelligible.


Another approach to rediscovering Hook has found expression in the publication of The Essential Essays: Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy and Freedom, edited by Robert B. Talisse and Robert Tempio. As its title suggests, Essential Essays is an exercise in connoisseurship, a collection of what the editors take to be Hook’s best essays, culled from his entire career. Quality is not the only criterion of choice, however, as the editors have elected to leave out the polemics for which Hook was so famous and to include only more strictly philosophical works. The object of this approach is, as Alan Ryan puts it in his foreword, to “reveal that the philosophical Hook was alive and well alongside the street-fighting Hook throughout those years [1930-1985].”

The philosophic Hook on display here is important not so much for any particular position he took, but because of the ideal or paradigm of a politically engaged philosopher that he presents. By now all of us — except for certain economists — realize that ideas do in fact make a difference in political life. But what type of ideas makes a difference? In a well-known essay on this subject Mark Moore argued, “Most such ideas are not very complex or differentiated. There is no clear separation of ends from means, of diagnosis from interventions, of assumptions from demonstrated facts, or of blame from causal effect. All are run together in a simple gestalt.” We are all familiar with such “ideas,” which perhaps are better described as symbols or even sound bites: “lower the rates, broaden the base,” “close the back door to open the front door,” and “end welfare as we know it” are typical examples. Whatever one thinks of such ideas, and of an intellectual environment in which their manufacture and dissemination is a salient aspect, they were not Hook’s stock in trade. (Although, interestingly, one of Hook’s least fortunate exercises certainly has the ring of a sound bite: Heresy, Yes — Conspiracy, No.) Such ideas were more like the raw material on which Hook worked his art. And Hook’s art was precisely the disentangling of means and ends, causality and blame, diagnosis and intervention, and so forth. The Essential Essays is perhaps best read as a guide to using philosophical analysis to bring clarity to everyday discourse on public affairs.

One could say a great deal about how Hook brought philosophical analysis to bear on public discourse, but one feature of his approach that is especially relevant to our evaluation of his reputation is the role he assigned to polemic. It is significant that the title of one of Hook’s best-known essays is “The Ethics of Controversy” — not “The Ethics of Discussion” or “of Discourse.” Hook writes that “Discussion is the lifeblood of the democratic process, and, wherever discussion flourishes, controversy is sure to arise.” Given Hook’s well-known penchant for polemic, one cannot help but read a bit into this and similar statements and feel that Hook, in the course of prescribing the limits of, is also beginning to make the case for polemic as a necessary part of democratic discourse.

Looking back over Hook’s life work, we can see that his affinity for polemic has deep intellectual roots. First there is Hook’s Marxism, in which thinking itself is understood as a dialectical process necessarily involving a clash of various interests. In this respect, it is interesting to note that another important product of Hook’s youth, the book From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx, explicates Marx’s thought by presenting it as a development of his polemics with various members of the Young Hegelian movement. After reading that work one comes to a realization: The development of Hook’s own thought may be best understood through his polemics with more recent ideological, political, and philosophical movements.

Then there is Hook’s pragmatism, the essence of which is the maxim that the truth of an idea is determined by putting it to some sort of a test. Applied to politics, pragmatism views public policy as a series of experiments to be tested. But tested how? The editors of Essential Essays sum up Hook’s answer in their introduction:

Following Dewey, Hook offers what he calls the “method of intelligence,” or the “experimental method.” What are the principles of this method? According to Hook, its principles are derived from the experimentalist epistemology embodied in the methods of science. Most generally, the experimental method treats all proposals as hypotheses to be tested. It recognizes only experimental results as reasons in favor or against a proposal. It acknowledges challenges, suggestions, and alternative proposals from every quarter of the community.

Testing the truth of multiple policy proposals assumes not merely debate but vigorous debate among their supporters. Thus, Hook writes in “The Ethics of Controversy”: “One of [democratic society’s] basic assumptions is that truth of fact and wisdom of policy can be more readily achieved through the lively interchange of ideas and opinions than by unchallengeable edicts on the part of a self-perpetuating elite.”

Again, given Hook’s career as a controversialist, it is fair to stretch his words just a bit here and see that, for him, polemic is a kind of scientific instrument and public debate a proving ground of political policy. For this reason a reader already familiar with Hook’s work comes away from reading Essential Essays with a sense that something is missing, specifically a sample of Hook’s polemics. The obvious candidate for inclusion here is Hook’s exchange with Russell on war and peace in the nuclear age.

Realizing that polemic was, for Hook, an extension of scientific method helps one understand one of Hook’s more highly praised intellectual propensities. Certainly most thinkers with whom he crossed swords found him an obstinate opponent, but when he felt he had been hit he admitted so willingly. Ernest Hook, in his introduction to Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, notes several examples of his father making such admissions (and also of Hook being unusually good-natured to his adversaries). It is almost as if Hook felt it was a democratic and ethical imperative to pour all his energy into political debate — but also regarded every debate as a kind of experiment to be observed with scientific detachment. A defeat was not a bad outcome, but simply a scientific datum which, whether positive or negative, was to be dispassionately noted.

Of course the greatest example of Hook’s ability to admit he was wrong was his forthright rejection, when the relevant evidence came in, of his cherished brainchild, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx. The more one pores over the volumes here under review, the more one sees this episode as not only pivotal in Hook’s career, but emblematic of his style of thought. Karl Marx required tremendous passion to compose, but also tremendous detachment to disown. Today one does not often see such a combination of emotional commitment and intellectual distance. Present political discussion has been, as it were, broken in half. In political journalism, the many practitioners of the various identity politics on the left, and of blood-and-soil apologetics on the right, all accept that “the personal is political” and offer up their torrents of emotion as analysis. The academic world is characterized by a mania for impersonality and scientific, or sometimes scientistic, method. Hook represents a thinker who united these two worlds, and for that reason he deserves to be considered a kind of hero.