Sidney Hook: Marxism and Beyond; Rowman and Littlefield; Totowa, NJ.

Sidney Hook’s latest book is largely a collection of previously printed articles and reviews; but it is nevertheless another interesting contribution to American intellectual life and a worthy companion to such works as Political Power and Personal Freedom. Hook remains an astute observer and an unrepentant democratic socialist — with a decided emphasis on the “democratic.” Marxism and Beyond examines the history of Marx’s thought, its distortion of and impact on American life, Solzhenitsyn, and the contemporary communist threat.

Hook remains a staunch defender of the “orthodox,” the traditional Social Democratic interpretation of Marx’s thought. For Hook, Kautsky, and Plekhanov, and not their Leninist enemies, were the true heirs of Marx: Marx was a decent, basically democratic thinker, closer to anarchism than to totalitarianism. Marx’s hopes for a stateless society without division of labor were utopian and the predictions based on “scientific socialism” have almost all been disproved. Marxism is obsolete, and “to go beyond Marx,” Hook comments, “is not a form of apostasy but of development required by the recognition of the pluralistic factors at work in history.” For those who pretend that Marx’s predictions were correct, or try to resurrect Marxism by ignoring Marx’s claims that his work was susceptible to scientific proof — and therefore disproof — Hook is  scornful. To the totalitarians’ misuse of Marx, Hook is still violently hostile.

Hook’s view of Marx may be over kind. All of his claims to scientific validity notwithstanding, Marx was not above cooking the books for propaganda purposes. His literary transformation of the Paris Commune into a heroic socialist uprising in The Civil War in France is a case in point. But Hook is a clear expounder of ideas. His chapter “Marxism: A Synoptic Exposition” is one of the best short accounts of Marxist thought It and other chapters are especially valuable for their dissection of what Hooks dubs “spectral Marxism,” the adaptation, or assembly, of odd doctrines using Karl Marx as a false front: “What passes for Marxism today is largely a mélange of doctrines that differ from Marx’s leading ideas and that he would have scornfully disowned for all their sentimental socialist fervor.” Hook dissects the “existentialist,” Frankfurt (Marcusian), and other schools of “Marxism” which base themselves not on what Marx considered his lifework, but on his 1844 “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” whose ideas he specifically repudiated, or on even more arcane sources. While Marx’s actual views have been demolished by events and the march of social science, he remains, absurdly enough, important. As Hook notes sardonically, ‘Toe discovery of the social problem by phenomenologists, neo-Thomists, positivists, and even linguistic analysts, usually results in an at­ tempted synthesis between Marx and some outstanding philosophical figure who has very little in common with him.” The misinterpretations of Marx by George Lukacs, Robert Heilbroner, and Michael Harrington are each shot down. Most of these fancies suggest that every­ one in Marx’s lifetime or immediately after it misunderstood him; not until Lenin, Lukacs, or someone else read Marx was the thought of the man truly understood. This line of thought has reached a culmination in Michael Harrington’s claim that Marx misunderstood himself!

Perhaps of greater interest, and urgency, are Hook’s chapters on communism and the contemporary situation. Hook, a veteran of the political warfare among American intellectuals from the 1930’s to the present, is able to make acute observations about American communism and its long-term effects. Among other things, he stresses to a highly unfashionable degree the influence of American communists on the intellectual life of the 30’s — American communism was, he notes, primarily a small movement of lower- and middle­ class intellectuals and professionals. Yet, it was able to “dominate the cultural life of the country” for a time in the 30’s. Hook, perhaps optimistically,  stresses the “idealistic” appeals of  communism at that time; he discounts the views of those who stress the greed for power, the hope of being a member of a prospective ruling stratum, as a source of communist appeal in that era. This favorable interpretation of their motives, however, does not make him less condemnatory of the “spiritual degradation and Byzantine servility” of intellectual apologists for the Soviets — or the eyewash recently produced to apologize for them, notably, Malcolm Cowley’s disingenuous memoirs and David Caute’s slickly dishonest book, The Great Fear. Hook sadly concludes his analysis of the communist impact on American intellectual life by noting that “the disillusioned fellow-traveling intellectuals have bequeathed anti-American intellectuals.” “Today, by and large,” he maintains, “the mainstream of American intellectuals is either indifferent to the challenge of the Communist world to the relatively free world of the West or hostile to the very conception of such a challenge as a manifestation of Cold War sentiment.”

Hook’s view of the world situation is not optimistic. Eschewing an examination of the military balance, he remarks that “the morale of Western Europe and its psychological readiness to resist aggression …. are a t a very low ebb.” Noting the bravery displayed by the Berliners in 1948, he glumly comments, “there is very little of that spirit left.” With his characteristic courage to look unpleasant facts in the race and to describe them, he bluntly views detente as appeasement. While contemptuous of the folly of our allies, he concludes that the United States is most responsible for the current mess. Our endorsement of detente was the signal for the West’s abandonment of sensible Cold War policies — though, he notes, the change was welcomed by the Western Europeans. Unlike many neoconservatives and conservatives, however, Hook is not afraid to see that “the containment policy has not been successful,” that there was always something seriously  wrong with  the  Western policies of the 40’s and 50’s. Hook’s sally “In Defense of the Cold War” is a clear, brief discussion of the contemporary w0rld situation: only one point in his analysis is hard to agree with. Hook offers the strange argument that Watergate had more to do with America’s national demoralization and the decline of our military power in the 1970’s than Vietnam did. It is hard to accept this notion; our military decline began in the late 1960’s when the Johnson Administration under­ estimated the Soviets’ will and ability to increase their power, and gave Vietnam priority over other military needs. The demoralizing impact of Watergate has been vastly exaggerated. Vietnam, or the prevalent image of that war, had al­ ready destroyed American morale. And Watergate, in any case, could have disillusioned people only if it had discredited a leader who was immensely popular, like FDR or Eisenhower, or who was the sort of man who is respected even by his political enemies, like Adlai Stevenson or Robert Taft. Obviously, Nixon fits neither of those categories.

Nonetheless, both war and subjugation can still be avoided, Hook insists. The alternative is not “either Red or dead,” but “neither Red nor dead.” Actually, as the careers of Stalin and Pol Pot show, in ‘many cases it is a matter of first Red, then dead.

The last portion of the book is one many conservative readers may find less appetizing. It is a closely reasoned defense of social democracy, the mixed economy, and the 20th-century liberal outlook against conservative criticisms — what Hook deems to be a futile attempt to resurrect the very limited ”watchman” state of the 19th-century. En route, Hook bluntly lets fly with a few truths that libertarians may find uncomfortable, noting that freedom is not a natural state. Hook also tries to refute the insistence of Solzhenitsyn and many conservative thinkers that  morality  and  ethics must rest on a religious basis. Unlike much left-of-center comment on conservatism, Hook’s approach is not a dismissal of his opponents as a bunch of blind, stupid fanatics. It is, rather, an attempt to offer a different explanation by a man who shares much of the perception of reality of conservatives. Hook, too, condemns the absolutization of freedom, the arrogance and stupidity of the news media and the imperial judiciary, the proliferation of idiotic regulations, and, most of all, the West’s “failure of nerve.” He is ready to concede that some welfare-state measures he finds desirable may have to be sacrificed to the necessities of defense.

Hook’s “critique of conservatism” per­ haps applies more forcibly to libertarians, on one hand, and the New Right, on the other, than to regular conservatives and neoconservatives. It is, however, a useful analysis and so worth consulting. Its sole fault, in fact, is a negative one. Hook offers no real explanation for the West’s decline and the “collapse of its morality.” He is clearly anguished and puzzled by it, though he rightly does not despair. Still, without an explanation, the book suffers.  cc