Commentary Magazine


Letters of Sidney Hook edited by Edward S. Shapiro

A Life in Battle

Letters of Sidney Hook: Democracy, Communism, and the Cold War.
by Edward S. Shapiro.
M.E. Sharpe. 416 pp. $69.95

On February 18, 1937, the late Sidney Hook wrote a letter—the first of several—to one Jerome Davis. Davis was a professor of sociology at the Yale Divinity School and, to judge from Hook’s remonstrations, a once-soft liberal recently turned outright Communist fellow-traveler. At the time, Hook—already well known as a philosopher and an authority on Karl Marx, and as one who had moved from a brief fling with Communism to the anti-Communism which would remain his lifelong passion—was engaged, along with John Dewey, Horace Kallen, Norman Thomas, Franz Boas, and other certified liberals, in an organization called the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky.

This committee had been established to sift the evidence, if any, for Stalin’s charges against Trotsky, and it would eventually widen its scope to include the Moscow Trials. And Jerome Davis? He had added his name to a letter, circulated under orders from the Communist Party USA, denouncing the committee with that inimitable vocabulary of scurrility for which the Communists had by the 1930′s become famous. Now Hook demanded to know why Davis had joined in this attack, especially in light of the fact that Hook, along with some other members of the committee, had also been engaged in defending Davis himself, on civil-libertarian grounds, against the Yale Divinity School, which was intending to fire him for ideological reasons.

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Hook’s correspondence, from which Edward S. Shapiro has chosen this collection, was mammoth—occupying more than 3,000 files in the Hoover Library in California. It seems that no letter to him, no matter how disagreeable or simple-minded, went unanswered. And in addition there is a mountain of letters that he himself initiated: letters to friends, to enemies, to the press, to public figures and politicians. Shapiro’s collection is, unhappily, highly selective, focused almost entirely—and rather literal-mindedly—on the problems of Communism and the Communists. Yet reading these letters leads to the conclusion that in some sense Sidney Hook’s correspondence over the years was all of a piece, defined by the weighty and often complex question of freedom, particularly intellectual freedom.

As a correspondent, Hook sometimes wrote with affection, and sometimes, though rarely, playfully; but almost never did he engage in merely friendly chat. Though he sometimes complained of having permitted himself to be dragged into politics—his true field, he would say at such moments, was formal philosophy—it is impossible to believe that he really wished to be shed of public responsibility. As this book so vividly, and so chasteningly, reminds us, Sidney Hook was a man who spent his entire life in battle—down, indeed, to virtually his dying moment in 1987, at the age of eighty-five, when a visitor found him sitting on what would prove to be his deathbed with a tablet of yellow foolscap on his knees, composing a letter of protest about something or other to some editor or other.

It would have been unmanageable to include in this volume any of the letters to which Hook was responding. Still, one misses them, not only as an aid to remembrance of ideological warfare past but as a reminder to the uninitiated of the sheer dogged loyalty to principle and indefatigability in argument that were the bone and sinew of this man. Thus: after taxing Jerome Davis both for his disingenuousness and for his ingratitude, Hook sets about in the space of some 600 words to instruct him in the ways of reason, logic, and justice. A week later, Davis having in the meantime obviously replied, Hook is at him again, arguing and scolding:

You believe, so you write, that “the men who were convicted in Moscow on their own confession were guilty.” Does this mean that you believe that Trotsky, who has not confessed and claims that the whole thing is a frame-up, is also guilty? Perhaps he is. The Committee has no view on the matter. All it holds is that the cause of humanity would be served if it were made known whether T. is innocent or guilty.

More than two years later, we find Hook answering a complaint that he had misrepresented Davis’s views on the Soviet Union:

Since you say that you have often and vigorously criticized Russia for its restrictions on liberty and unjustified violence, I shall be very much obliged if you will refer me to the published record of such criticism since 1937.

And again within a week there is another letter, answering Davis’s answer.

There are many more important things in this volume than the correspondence with Davis, just as there would be many more important issues and activities in Hook’s long and busy life than the Trotsky Committee. But nothing else here so vividly captures Hook in opposition: stern, strong, and almost unendurably willing to go over and over and over again the elements of the argument he is making. By all accounts, Sidney Hook was a great teacher. No doubt this willingness to rehearse his arguments ad infinitum—it was, after all, a willingness drawn from the deepest well of human courtesy, no matter how pugnaciously it was expressed—formed a very large part of his success as an educator. He could be scornful; he could be profoundly irritable; but neither scorn nor irritation ever seemed to get in the way of his passion to convince.

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This passion would be indispensable to Hook in the 1950′s, when it was no longer just the Communists and their blind liberal sympathizers who were arrayed against him but an influential group of his fellow anti-Communist liberals and leftists as well. The country had by then reached a more or less general consensus about the nature of the Soviet Union. But there was sharp disagreement—beginning most famously with the Hiss case, and underlined by the controversy surrounding the prosecution for espionage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—about the role played (and yet to be played) by America’s own homegrown allies of the Soviet Union.

At this point, for those who were not merely anti-anti-Communist, the problem concerned the issue of civil liberties. And here for a goodly number of years Sidney Hook was to earn the disaffection of all but a tiny handful of his fellow intellectuals. For, on the strength of his conviction that those loyal to the Communist party were not merely expressing a political commitment but were in fact taking orders from a hostile foreign power, he supported a highly controversial view. In the case of anyone being considered for an academic appointment, Hook held that membership in the party should be taken as prima-facie evidence—not proof, but evidence—of an unfitness to teach. This view, articulated in a number of magazine articles and in a little book called Heresy, YesConspiracy NO!, caused an uproar among Hook’s academic colleagues and, in addition to requiring him to write endless letters, made his name a byword in the lexicon of political insult.

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The great impediment to the anti-Communists of the 50′s, and especially to Hook, was Senator Joseph McCarthy and the investigative activity that came to be associated with his name. Because of the potential smirch of McCarthyism, every proposal to deal with the problem of Communist subversion and disloyalty had first of all to be defined by what it was not. On occasion this made for almost unmanageable complexity. “I am beginning to despair of getting what I say understood . . .,” Hook writes to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on March 18, 1953:

For your comments seem to assume that I support the general rule of “automatic exclusion [of Communists from employment in teaching] on the grounds of party membership alone.” But I specifically dissociated myself from this position . . . and have always done so.

In outlining how he wants Schlesinger and others to understand his actual position, Hook goes on to explain that, “because of the nature of that organization and its educational directives” membership in the Communist party is indeed, for him, grounds for investigation by a faculty committee. But, with one exception, such a committee should not investigate classroom practices. The exception is if an individual is exploiting his position in the university to disseminate party-line lies (the example Hook cites is the propaganda circulated during the Korean conflict that the U.S. was using bacteriological warfare).

Hook’s letter to Schlesinger was written in the hope that the two might reach an agreement on “an intelligent and liberal formulation.” Small wonder that Hook should complain of the difficulty in making himself understood. In the abstract, perhaps, his own formulation—that any and all heretical ideas should be permitted in the classroom, but doing the propagandistc bidding of a party loyal to a hostile foreign power should be ruled out—might have sounded persuasive. Politically, however, both the distinctions he wished to draw and the means he proposed for realizing them were quite impracticable. That is sometimes the fatal weakness of the friends of democratic society in the face of radical assault.

This same weakness would be given even more dramatic expression in the late 60′s and early 70′s, when the country’s most active internal enemies neither concealed themselves nor submitted to the discipline of a foreign power. Unfortunately, Shapiro has included only a sprinkling of letters from these years, although it is beyond imagining that Hook was not then a busy correspondent. There was campus “unrest”; there was the Vietnam war, of which he was a vocal supporter; and there was all the rest. As ever greater numbers of his colleagues gave way before the new wave of radicalism that would in short order become the dominant ethos of the country’s academic and intellectual life—and thence of the life of the liberal community in general—Hook remained, as ever, loyal to what he believed and what he knew and what he remembered.

In the last decades of his life, some of what he believed and some of what he remembered created certain difficulties for those, especially among neoconservatives, who were his truest admirers. They, after all, had traveled a considerable intellectual distance over the years to arrive at last at the political point where he had always been. But he on his side remained so infernally, so obdurately, unreconstructed.

At one point in his late years, for example, when he was gravely ill, Hook declared that he wanted to be allowed to die. His request was—blessedly—ignored; and as it turned out, he had a number of productive years to go. For many of his friends, his attitude made little sense. Whatever he was suffering, how could someone as virile and combative as Sidney Hook really wish to depart this earth? Yet here, in the course of a letter written as early as 1961, is Hook declaring himself “a devoted member of the Euthanasia Society.” In other words, he had—devotedly—supported the idea of helping the gravely ill to die long before, with a dreadful consistency of mind, he came to apply the logic of this idea to himself.

The question of euthanasia is connected to the larger question of his ideas about God and religion. It was not just that he was no believer himself. While sometimes pretending to tolerate, he did not really respect, and certainly did not come near to comprehending, religious faith in others. In later years he may have softened his tone somewhat in addressing the subject, but there is every reason to think that he ended as he began: an atheist and an anticlerical of a very old-fashioned kind. In several of the letters from the 1950′s, there are references to the Vatican that are positively startling to a contemporary reader, less for their hostility than for their Paul Blanshard-like crudity. Such references, one feels, derive not so much from the mind of Sidney Hook the philosopher of pragmatism as from a certain carry-over of Sidney Hook the youthful and combative Marxist.

Along with his atheism, another thing about Hook that proved difficult for many of his friends and admirers to get around was his undying insistence that he remained, no matter what, a democratic socialist. For the most part, these friends simply refused to take his declaratory positions seriously. And to some extent they were perfectly justified in doing so, for Hook’s loyalty to socialist democracy made not the slightest difference to his political behavior, and in any case the socialist democracy he claimed to believe in never did exist, and never will. Still, holding to this position was a small personal luxury of irrelevance which he continued to afford himself, and which none of his friends, at least, attempted to deny him.

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Almost nothing of this—key to a real grasp of the unique role played by so extraordinary and irreplaceable a man—is allowed expression within the far too narrow definition of topics Shapiro has set for himself. Thus the rich complications that are so vital to the telling of Hook’s story fade away on these pages. When the cold war began, the intellectual Left in America boasted a fair number of anti-Communists and pro-Americans; but, of the latter in particular, few if any had stayed the course with Hook by the time it ended. To understand him in those days is to understand the most important part of his legacy to us.

Be that as it may, in the 1980′s the kind of official public honors that had long been due him were at last bestowed. By a happy irony, it was the Reagan administration that saw fit properly to honor this would-be unreconstructed socialist. And Hook accepted with a grace and a gratitude far beyond what might have been the expected response to an acknowledgment so long deserved and so long withheld. That, too, is part of his legacy—about which, one day, perhaps a fitting book will be written.

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