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Sidney Hook’s Revolution

Sidney Hook started out in the world as a poor Jewish boy in Brooklyn. He was the fourth child of immigrant parents, his father from Moravia, his mother from Galicia. In the New World, his father became a tailor whose life was filled with little more than work. As a token of Americanization, his mother changed his first name from Saul to Sidney when he was enrolled in school at the age of five. He grew up in a milieu of poverty which, he later said, was “so stark as to be almost unimaginable these days.” Toilets were in the yard; the family froze in winter and fried in summer. It was the usual fate of most Jewish immigrants in New York in 1902, when Hook was born.

His future, as with so many others of the time, rested with his education. He was lucky to get into Boys High School, then and until World War II the only school in Brooklyn limited to outstanding students, most of them Jewish. From there he went to the College of the City of New York, better known as City College, from which he was once suspended for distributing a pamphlet by Upton Sinclair. At City College, he came under the influence of one of the few Jewish professors, Morris Raphael Cohen, a philosopher, his first mentor. He went on to graduate school at Columbia University; to pay for it he taught in an elementary school from 9 AM to 3 PM and at an evening high school from 7:15 PM to 10:15 PM, leaving the afternoon hours for his graduate courses.

At Columbia, from 1923 to 1927, he moved philosophically from the logic of Morris Cohen to the pragmatism of John Dewey. He was drawn to the experimentalism and empiricism in Dewey’s thought by writing what he intended to be a refutation of it. To his surprise, he ended up a convert to Dewey’s philosophy. For the rest of his life, Hook acknowledged Dewey as his mentor and based his own political and philosophical beliefs on Dewey’s pragmatism. Yet he used it in an original way, and it brought him his first notoriety.

For Hook had grown up in a milieu in which socialism was the only alternative to religion. He discovered sociialism at the age of thirteen and began to speak on soapboxes at street corners two years later. He was almost expelled from high school for his activity against the First World War. At City College, he fell in with some Communist students and with them organized a Social Problems Club. Nevertheless, all this was youthful effervescence until he went to Germany on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928. He observed the increasing threat of a Nazi takeover and the fratricidal rivalry between the German Communists and Socialists. He spent the year in study and travel, after which he was invited to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow where for fourteen weeks he devoted himself to Marx’s early social and philosophical works. He went to the Soviet Union already convinced that it was the fulfillment of the socialist ideal in practice.

By this time, Hook had also worked out the substance of his original synthesis of Marxism and pragmatism. It sought to infuse pragmatism with Marxism and invigorate Marxism with pragmatism. In effect, Hook wanted to give Marxism an experimental interpretation. Ideas, including Marx’s, were no more than plans of action to be tested—and if necessary reconsidered. This view went against the teachings of traditional Marxists, both Communists and social democrats, but Hook was not deterred; he was apparently exhilarated that he had discovered a way to Americanize Marxism through pragmatism and to revolutionize pragmatism through Marxism.

Just how Marxism and pragmatism could be reconciled was Hook’s central problem. He found passages in the early writings of Marx and letters by Engels which suggested they had advocated a view that emphasized the “practical” implications of any theory, including their own. They wrote so much in so many different circumstances that it was not hard to find evidence for varying interpretations of their work. But Hook was up against an already long tradition that had hardened Marxism into a solid mass of axioms and formulas. He was then working on the outskirts of the Communist movement, which had in Moscow a monolithic authority on everything that bore on Marxism—and much else. He was daring enough to tamper with the holy writ, and, whether he was right or wrong, he was doomed to be struck down as an interloper and renegade.

In 1927, Hook had been hired—the result of a “fluke,” he said—as an instructor in the philosophy department at Washington Square College of New York University. He was the first Jew in the department and in the school. In that year, he published articles in the Journal of Philosophy on dialectical materialism in which he first expounded his activist view of Marxism and made himself—at age twenty-five—a leading interpreter of the doctrine. After going abroad on his Guggenheim fellowship in 1928-1929, he returned to teach and to spread the new doctrine of Marxist pragmatism or pragmatic Marxism. He published furiously and quickly attracted attention as a rising star in the intellectual world. By 1934 he was head of his department.

In 1930, Hook gave the first graduate course on Marxism in an American university. At this point, I caught up with him. My cousin was a student in this course. When I heard about it, I decided to get into it, though I was a student at City College, not New York University. I asked him for permission to audit the class, which he granted on condition that I should not speak. I considered myself to be a socialist but had read little more than one or two pamphlets. I listened intently and was never the same; Hook was a superb teacher, and many of his students went from his tutelage into one or another radical party.

I saw Hook for the last time at his summer home in South Wardsboro, Vermont, not long before his death in 1989. He was already very ill and spent the entire evening resting on a couch. I reminded him that he had given me permission to attend his first Marxist class but not permission to talk. He pointed out that he had been only ten years older than I was; he was twenty-eight and I was eighteen. I had thought he was an elderly sage.

In any case, I had fortuitously followed in Hook’s footsteps—Brooklyn, Boys High School, City College, and for a short time Columbia University. It was the path of a post-immigrant generation until World War II and the growing Jewish affluence. Hook influenced me to become, at that time, a Marxist, though not a pragmatic Marxist, and I did not follow him politically in subsequent years.

Now a young visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon has written a book on the “young Sidney Hook.” The immediate question is in the adjective. Why the “young” and not the entire career? Actually the author takes Hook’s story up to 1973 when Hook was seventy-one years old and had retired, after forty-six years, from NYU. Nevertheless, there is reason in this choice.

The clue is in Phelps’s political outlook. He is one of those academic radicals who are looking for a new revolutionary faith or doctrine. The shibboleths of socialism, communism, Trotskyism, and the rest no longer serve. They were exhausted by previous generations, whether of the 1930s or of the 1960s, and their successors have found that they have no sound tradition to build on. Phelps thinks that he has discovered one. His book mainly takes the form of a close examination of Hook’s early intellectual life. In this respect, it should be read alongside Hook’s autobiography Out of Step. Phelps has gone over much of the same ground and makes some useful commentaries on Hook’s own account.

In 1932, Hook and other later anti-Communists came to the support of the Communist presidential candidate, William Z. Foster. Hook had meanwhile taken an interest in Trotskyism and in February 1932 had written a favorable review of the first volume of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.* Phelps goes so far as to call Hook “a sympathizer of Trotskyism working within the Communist Party milieu.” This is doubtful; Hook considered himself to have been a Communist “fellow traveler.” The pamphlet on which he collaborated, Culture and the Crisis, endorsed the general Communist program of 1932. Hook’s early interest in Trotskyism came from his intellectual curiosity rather than at this stage any overt “sympathy.” In any event, his support of the Communist ticket linked him popularly more with the Communist Party than with any other faction.

This identification did not last long. In 1933, he came out with the first of his major books on Marxism, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation. In it he argued that Marxism, rather than an objective science of social development, was “a theory of social revolution”—a theory which was open to verification and experimentation. But some of the book was too Marxist for his later comfort, and he never permitted it to be reprinted.

By now, the Communist leadership suspected his allegiance and called him in for a meeting in which his views were hostilely examined. Thus the Party leaders, not Hook, took the initiative to cast him off. He was soon subjected to a smear campaign in the Communist press. The honeymoon was over.

Hook later attributed his brief engagement with the official Communists to his “political obtuseness” and “defective” judgment. In fact, he had not realized that the main test of a Communist or even a fellow traveler was absolute obedience to the Party line, wherever it led. The line tended to change every five years; it was not the line or policy that made a Communist but the willingness to accept any line. Hook wanted to act as a Communist independent of the Party, with the liberty to criticize the official view of Marxism or any other particular aspect of Communist policy. This made him intolerable to the Party leaders, who understood better than he did what Communist discipline entailed.

Far from being finished with radical politics, Hook spent the next five years moving from one group to another. He taught and he published; he engaged in fierce ideological controversies and threw himself into even more direct political activity. In late 1933, he became the “ideological spokesman” of the American Workers Party, whose key figure was A.J. Muste, a former minister. It sought to make itself the rival of the Communist Party by coming out as a purely American revolutionary party. The AWP did not last long, and in early 1934 Hook played a “key role” in its merger with the Communist League of America, the official Trotskyist organization. Oddly, Hook explained his approval of the merger on the ground that he wanted to drop out of political activity. In fact, he withdrew from active participation in the newly formed Workers Party of the United States, which was soon taken over by the Trotskyists, and in 1936 put out his second large book on Marxism, From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx, his most detailed account of Marx’s development. It explained how Marx had developed out of the influence of Hegel, his differences with a group of Young Hegelians, and finally his emergence with a full-fledged theoretical position of his own. It was a historical tour de force and anticipated much later work by others on Marx’s early work.

  1. *

    Phelps mistakenly writes: “Despite the Communist Party’s 1928 expulsion of Cannon, Shachtman, and many others sympathetic to Trotsky, the lines of division were not yet absolute between the CP [Communist Party] and the [Trotskyist] CLA” (p. 64). This may have been true of the Trotskyists who still demanded reinstatement in the Communist Party, but it was not true of the Communist Party, which considered any sympathy with the Trotskyists to be counterrevolutionary.

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