“In politics a community of hatred is almost always
the foundation of friendships.”
Norman Podhoretz, in the March 11, 1987, Washington Post, describes Sidney Hook as “one of the most courageous intellectuals of the twentieth century.” While this particular description may more aptly be used for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and others who have fought for human dignity in the face of brutal oppression. Hook has been willing to espouse unpopular causes. Though an archetypal m.an of the left, he has been second to none in decrying Communist tyranny. He is right to remind us that he condemned Soviet imperialism when the isolationist right in America was more concerned about imaginary Communists at home than real ones in Soviet uniforms.
At age 85, Hook can look back on a distinguished career as an academic philosopher and controversialist. Born in New York City to immigrant Jewish parents. Hook spent most of his life exploring philosophic and existential questions within 10 miles of his place of birth: first, as a student at City College of New York, caught between the redemptive promise of revolutionary Marxism and the dialectical sharpness of his philosophy professor Morris Raphael Cohen; later, as a graduate student of John Dewey at Columbia University, where he slowly abandoned Marxist-Leninism for Dewey’s pragmatic method and social democratic views; and finally, as a longtime head of the philosophy department at New York University. In The Meaning of Marx (1934), Hook demonstrated his thorough grounding in Marx’s writings and his interest in reconciling Marx’s understanding of history and an empirical, characteristically Deweyite approach to learning.
As Dewey’s pragmatism and the recognition of Soviet inhumanity came to dominate his thinking. Hook turned passionately against Communist dogmatism and its implicit worship of history. In the late 50’s he was instrumental in organizing the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a group of mostly left-of-center intellectuals who tried to combat Communist fellow travelers in the arts and universities. In his tract “Heresy, Yes, Conspiracy, No” (1953), Hook disputed the claim that Communists could be dispassionate scholars and worthwhile members of the academic community. In “Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy” (1970), Hook took on the new breed of academic radicals of the 60’s and 70’s. In the name of academic freedom, such radicals, he insisted, were subverting academic authority and deliberately inciting others to violence.
Hook exposes others on the left who have refrained from criticizing the Soviets. And he discredits Soviet apologists by revealing embarrassing things about their political stances. For example, Lincoln Steffens, who paid homage to the “Soviet experiment,” admired fascism as well as communism; it was only in speaking about societies that would have granted him personal liberty that Steffens lost his visionary enthusiasm. Bertolt Brecht, who in college German classes is still presented as an “anti-fascist author,” comes in for even more devastating comment. According to Hook, who conversed with him, Brecht not only knew about Stalin’s genocidal crimes but also endorsed them. Brecht let it be known that Stalin had overcome bourgeois superstitions by killing the innocent. Hook also draws memorable portraits of New York intellectuals, such as Philip Rahv and other hopelessly hooked fellow travelers. Deprived of their youthful faith in a Soviet paradise but still unreconciled to American middle-class values, these intellectuals looked desperately to the slogans and gestures of the New Left to give meaning to their protest. Often, as in the case of Rahv, a Russian-Jewish intellectual who wrote perceptively on European literature, the attempt to bridge the generational gap produced ludicrous fiasco. The older Marxists, who read books, took baths, and treated their parents with respect, had little in common with the rising generation of radicals.
Because of Hook’s admirable record as an anti-Communist and as a defender of rational academic discourse, other anti-Communists have shown reluctance to disagree with him. For example, Paul Johnson, in reviewing Hook’s memoirs for the Washington Times, praises him without qualification. Never does Johnson mention that some of the most provocative parts of Out of Step are Hook’s defense of socialism and a “democratic form of secularization.” This omission, on Johnson’s part, seems strange, coming as it does from a self-declared Christian conservative historian. Perhaps Johnson agrees with one movement conservative who in speaking about Hook explained: “He’s sound where it counts, fighting the Commies and the academic crazies.”
Needless to say, such a judgment fails to take Hook’s world view seriously. For want of a better term, one may call this view “untragic atheism.” Unlike those atheists who consider the “death of Cod” to be somehow disturbing, even the point of departure for an anguished, fatalistic philosophy. Hook and other untragic atheists pooh-pooh the loss of a Providential universe. Indeed they go on believing in a soft kind of Christianity, a secularized form of progress, which teaches that humankind is advancing, even though jerkingly, toward a culturally homogeneous and socially egalitarian future. Moral laws as such will not crumble in this future world but become more humane as the result of rational dialogues, the removal of class barriers, and the disintegration of theistic illusion.
Hook presents this view most explicitly in his critical observations about Whittaker Chambers, the former Communist who became a founding father of postwar conservatism and a devoutly Christian Quaker. According to Hook, Chambers was correct to abandon Communism but wrong to turn against the “authentic liberal tradition . . . from Jefferson to [John] Dewey” and to make a nonexistent deity “the source or the justification of man’s moral judgments.” Hook argues that Cod is “always created in man’s moral image.” Thus “when Chambers thought he had ‘found God,’ he was really rediscovering certain basic moral truths that do not rest in theology.” “If God is completely other [as Augustine, Karl Barth, and Chambers all insist], one can believe in Him and still do anything one pleases.” Moreover, “the religious view of the world becomes sensitive to human freedom only when it is persecuted.” Hook concludes that the “final conflict of the age” is not between belief and unbelief but “between the democratic form of secularization, dedicated to the broadest religious tolerance, and the totalitarian form of secularization, intolerant not only of religion but of all free and spontaneous variations in art, philosophy, and other works of the human spirit.”
Here as elsewhere in his book. Hook insists on hurling down the gauntlet before religionists who, like Johnson, may go on extolling him without noticing this repetitive gesture. Hook sets up a straw man in place of religion. His own version of Christian theological claims removes God entirely from the universe, by misrepresenting the doctrine of divine transcendence.
Contrary to Hook’s assertion, neither Solzhenitsyn nor Karl Barth nor Augustine argued that Cod remained totally aloof from the world He had created. One might have expected Hook to know enough Christian theology not to confuse it with some variant of the Gnostic heresy. It is also questionable whether skeptics have a better record of defending political freedoms than Christians and Jews. Hook presents his case unfairly by identifying religion with obscurantists while associating skepticism with people like himself—that is, with those who grew up in a still vestigiously religious society, whether Eastern European Jewish or middle-class Protestant. Why not, for the sake of balanced perspective, place Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Eichmann in the camp of the freethinkers? This seems only fair, seeing that Hook cannot discuss religion without evoking the bugaboo of ecclesiastical authoritarianism. Of course the piety Chambers exemplified was unrelated to ecclesiastical authoritarianism. Indeed Chambers, who embraced the teaching that the Kingdom of God is in each man, emphasized that side of biblical Christianity most supportive of the individual person.
One might even suggest that Hook’s increasing isolation on the anti-Communist left may indicate something about the untenability of his position. The reconstructionist and homogenizing thrust of his thinking, together with its implicit denial of permanent moral restraints, makes his democratic secularism a doubtful bulwark of our liberty. His plan for reforming society assumes that everyone can be transformed into an idealized clone of himself. One wonders, what is the intended fate of those who resist conditioning or who continue to struggle for their property rights and religious convictions? Hook’s paeans to democratic procedure cannot redeem what is morally problematic and theologically simplistic in his thinking. Counting heads may be a good idea where agreement on first principles exists. In the absence of such consensus, as Plato pointed out, democratic rituals are an invitation to anarchy and to tyranny. Thomas Molnar explains rather well why Hook and other anti-Communist secular humanists must fight a lonely battle with a diminishing base of support: “The difference between totalitarianism and the liberal-democratic secularists is that the latter suggest the gradualness of the process of absorption, while the former insist on its acceleration.” The theoretical battle between Hook and the Communists may be seen as one over instruments and procedures. Hook is undoubtedly a kinder and more decent man than those he attacks, but it is best to turn elsewhere for true alternatives to the Communist vision of man.
[Out of Step, by Sidney Hook; New York: Doubleday]