Sidney Hook
Sidney Hook; drawing by David Levine

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.

One of Phelps’s main differences with Hook is over Hook’s relationship with Trotskyism in this period. In Out of Step, Hook tended to minimize his closeness to Trotskyism and emphasized that he had had no “organizational sympathies” with it, that he was “hardly an ally” of the Trotskyists, and finally that “Trotskyism was Stalinism manqué.” Phelps believes that Hook was much more closely identified with the Trotskyists in 1935-1938 than he was willing to admit. Phelps offers evidence that Hook was instrumental in getting the Socialist Party to merge with the Trotskyist Communist League of America to form the Socialist Workers Party of the United States in March 1936, though Hook did not join the new party. Phelps thinks that Hook was “closer to Trotskyism than to any other organized current” but was never ideologically comfortable with Trotsky’s adherence to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which Hook wanted to change to “workers’ democracy.” Phelps concludes that Hook’s position in 1936-1938 was “Trotskyesque, if not Trotskyist.”

“Workers’ democracy” was a midway passage for Hook. It implied that democracy was to be limited only to workers—but yet in a democratic, not a dictatorial, way. It was still anti-capitalist and sought to realize American ideals—“that all men are created equal” with “certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—in a socialist society. Depending on which word might be emphasized—“workers”‘ or “democracy”—the slogan turned in both directions. In effect, Hook was not yet ready to give up all ties to the old faith.

In any case, the activist in Hook came roaring back with the Commission of Inquiry into the Truth of the Moscow Trials in Mexico City in 1937. This effort to enable Trotsky to defend himself was largely successful because of Hook’s ability to get John Dewey to act as chairman of the commission. Hook explained his feverish activity to involve Dewey and to organize the commission as transcending the case of Trotsky and his follower, but in retelling the story, he did not miss the opportunity to ridicule all the liberals who refused to support the cause.

Dewey was, of course, no Trotskyist, and Trotsky was no Deweyite. Trotsky’s politics to the end of his days were imbedded in his years as a Bolshevik under Lenin and dedicated to “the class struggle, this law of all laws.” Dewey never shared Trotsky’s piety for revolutionary class struggle and glorification of the revolutionary party; and he never traveled far from the main liberal tradition in social and political policy. They came from very different worlds and had little in common philosophically. But they respected each other’s integrity, and Trotsky was then a symbol of intransigent struggle against Stalinism.

Hook was now close to his final break with the entire revolutionary tradition, which in one way or another had preoccupied him for about twenty years. Phelps thinks that it came “unevenly” in the course of 1938. Hook is said to have begun to “rely upon bourgeois democracy as the alternative to Stalinism and fascism.” Phelps’s term “bourgeois democracy”—which Hook never used—recalls Hook’s old term, “workers’ democracy”; Hook had by now given up delimiting democracy by identifying it with workers or any other class, but Phelps, an indefinable sort of homeless academic radical, cannot shake himself free from some of the old shibboleths. Hook’s break certainly took place by 1939 when, always the activist, he “decided to launch a new movement,” as he put it, the Committee for Cultural Freedom. The second paragraph of its manifesto stated:

Under varying labels and colors, but with unvarying hatred for the free mind, the totalitarian idea is already enthroned in Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, and Spain. There, intellectual and creative independence is suppressed and punished as a form of treason. Art, science, and education—all have been forcibly turned into lackeys for a supreme state, a deified leader and an official pseudo-philosophy.

By 1940, Phelps says, “Hook was hostile to all revolutionary politics—especially to the Soviet revolution and Leninism.” With evident contempt, Phelps reports that Hook “turned almost overnight into a partisan of Allied military efforts as the only real alternative to Nazism.” Phelps never hints just how the Nazis could have been overcome without Allied military efforts.

World War II undoubtedly pushed Hook further into adopting a political outlook at variance with his previous views. He believed that the real choice was between totalitarianism and democracy, not between socialism and capitalism. He embraced the welfare state as the best that could be expected in social policy. His most intense fire was aimed at the Soviet Union; he regarded the American Communists as little more than agents of a foreign power. He labored mightily against the Communist enemy in such postwar organizations as the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, of which he was co-chairman of the executive committee, and the international Congress for Cultural Freedom, of which he was also elected to the executive committee.

Phelps’s book stops in 1973, when Hook retired from New York University and went to the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford, California. The interested reader can follow the final years in Hook’s autobiography. In 1984, Hook was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan and three years later published his autobiography, Out of Step, at the age of eighty-five. He died two years later.

Phelps’s book is for the most part a competent, straightforward account of Hook’s political journey from socialist revolutionary to what Phelps calls “bourgeois democracy.” He uses letters, interviews, and other documents to fill out some of the murkier parts of Hook’s own story. He makes some revisions of Hook’s autobiography but the main line does not vary much from it. His own political viewpoint is stated frankly in his introduction: he wants “popular power and social justice…again placed on the stage of history by egalitarian movements from below.” In effect, he is a young, academic radical who was attracted to Sidney Hook as an inspirational forerunner—but only to a part of Hook’s long career.

That part is the “young Sidney Hook.” Phelps rejects those who see the younger Hook’s radicalism as “the romantic dream of a principled young man” and “his later anti-communism as the product of maturation and realism.” He maintains that Hook held on to “an admirable consistency in his methods, principles, and integrity.” Hook saw himself as a coherent critic of whatever—in a later phrase—passed as politically correct, wherefore he named his autobiography Out of Step, by which he meant both early and late in his career. The times changed, as he saw it, and he changed with them.

Of more importance to Phelps is the charge of leftist writers that Hook abandoned Marxism because his initial pragmatism was either “the American version of petty-bourgeois liberalism” or “a fig leaf for imperialism.” On the contrary, Phelps argues, “pragmatism helped him arrive at the particular type of Marxism that he espoused, one opposed not only to capitalism but also to the philosophical determinism and political bureaucracy of both Stalinism and social democracy.” Thus Phelps maintains that Hook’s “early thought was a sophisticated, fruitful formulation of democratic revolutionary theory.” This type of theory is what Phelps yearns for—democratic and still revolutionary. He thinks he has found it in the early Hook.

The later Hook gets no commendation from Phelps, who refers to Hook’s “subsequent deterioration.” He forgets that Hook was first a socialist and then a pragmatist by claiming that “because of his pragmatist understanding, the young Hook was led to emphasize the revolutionary elements of action, experiment, and democracy in Marx.” He objects to dividing Hook’s thought into only two periods—Communist and anti-Communist—on the ground that Hook spent five years after his break with the Communist Party trying to work out some kind of “revolutionary theory and practice.” He sums up his understanding of Hook’s entire career in this way:

Sidney Hook is best understood as a casualty in the tragedy of the American left, not a villain or hero in its melodrama. His work of the 1920s and 1930s is important not as an object lesson of the corrosive dangers of pragmatism or a passing youthful romanticism but as an eloquent elaboration and defense of revolutionary socialism. His later thought was not the logical consequence of his early views but the antithesis of them.

Hook himself saw his advocacy of pragmatic Marxism differently. He was markedly unsuccessful in converting others to his interpretation. His mentor and longtime friend, John Dewey, never agreed with him in this project. Hook wryly remarked: “For were Marxism to be identified with the version I read out of him, I would be the only Marxist in the world—which is too much even for my sense of humor.” This was his wry way of admitting that his “version” never took hold. Hook never gave up his pragmatism but he gave up his Marxism and cut the umbilical cord between them. Pragmatism has lately enjoyed a revival but not in the form of attaching it to revolutionary Marxism. Hook’s early pragmatic Marxism has not inspired the present revivalists of pragmatism, who have gone back to Dewey, not to Hook. Hook would have been the first to enjoy the irony that a phase of his life which he left behind should now have been taken up by a radical, young academic to revive a “revolutionary theory and practice.”

In one respect, Hook never agreed that he had lacked consistency in his thinking:

When I look back on my long life, I am not aware of having undergone any serious conversions from the days of my youth, or of having abandoned my basic ideals or surrendered my faith in intelligence as the most reliable guide in solving problems—to the extent that they were soluble. As the reader will have noted, I have made grievous errors in judgment—about persons and movements and about the possibilities of pro-gressive changes in American life—but the ideals that led me into these errors are the very ones that, in the light of the historical evidence, led me out of them. Idealism, alas, does not protect one from ignorance, dogmatism, and foolishness.

Hook never gave up the use of his intelligence, but he gave up a different kind of consistency; from time to time his intelligence told him to believe different things. Phelps’s book bifurcates his career into “young” and “late” segments; Hook preferred to think of his life as coming out of the darkness into the light, a pilgrim’s progress for our times.

Whatever may be thought of Hook’s ideas and career, his was a remarkable intellectual journey for a poor Jewish boy who started out in Brooklyn. To the end, he remained the incorrigible controversialist. He was just as apt to tell an audience at a Catholic institution what Aquinas meant as he was to tell self-styled Marxists what Marx meant. His life was filled with so many “events, studies, meetings, travel, teaching, and administrative duties” that he wondered “how I was able to encompass them in the span of time that actually elapsed.” His autobiography testified to his lifelong immersion in events, and if he was castigated by radical true believers, he gave as good as he got; Out of Step is an anthology of how to pay back one’s critics without mercy.

Yet what remains of permanent value in his work is questionable. I suspect that in part Phelps is right—Hook will always be remembered chiefly for his early writings on Marxism; From Hegel to Marx is a major historical contribution that does not rest on his pragmatism. His pragmatic Marxism was an original synthesis that will always hold a special interest, whatever one may think of it. The welfare state, after all, did not need his blessings. In addition, he was so central in the dissident politics of the 1930s that no history of the period can leave him out. The pity is that so much of his activity was evanescent and robbed him of the time and energy necessary for more lasting intellectual work.

The phenomenon of Sidney Hook is a thing of the past. The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in which he grew up, has changed beyond recognition. Many Jews have fled; blacks and Hispanics have replaced them. Disciples of the later Hook are more likely to be neoconservatives than revolutionary socialists. Phelps’s Hook was a child of his time, and that time cannot be recovered.

This Issue

April 9, 1998