Commentary Magazine

Heresy, Yes-Conspiracy, No, by Sidney Hook

Freedom and Responsibility
Heresy, Yes—Conspiracy, No.
By Sidney Hook.
John Day. 283 pp. $3.75.


For the thoughtful person, reading something by Sidney Hook means an encounter with a mind informed by the social sciences, well disciplined in philosophy, sensitive to the best values in democracy, and intelligently alert to the contemporary issues which define the problems of the day. All of this one expects and one gets in Mr. Hook’s latest writing, Heresy, Yes—Conspiracy, No.

One obvious merit of this book is its balance and reasonableness. Mr. Hook goes after the cultural vigilantes on the right and the ritualistic liberals on the left. He writes movingly of the vocation of the teacher; he also shows how teachers have failed to clarify their own standards of professional integrity. He attacks authoritarianism in education and makes strong the case for academic liberty; at the same time he criticizes the Communist party members and the fellow-travelers who weaken academic liberty. And while the book is pretty well focused on the problem of Communism, Mr. Hook does not fail to remind us, in conclusion, that the chief evil from which the schools suffer is not Communism, but community neglect—the failure of a democratic society to assume its responsibilities to public education.

Another important characteristic of this writing is its courage. For Mr. Hook dares to affirm that much of the blame for the mess in which we now find ourselves lies in his own—and my own—profession of teaching. While he has confidence in the great majority of his professional colleagues, he does say that “statistical studies of the most influential Communist front organizations, conducted by the author from 1936 to the present, show that college and university teachers constituted the strongest and most influential group of Communist fellow-travelers in the United States.” The last chapter of the book contains a sharp indictment of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, for its failure to cope realistically with the problem of Communist infiltration. And the important footnote on page 270 is a shocking revelation of the illiberal and doctrinaire temper of those professional academic liberals in the AAUP who, even while they are defending their own right to freedom of expression, have been unwilling to allow that freedom to any one who disagrees with their officially liberal position.



The two main theses of the book seem to me to be well established. The first is that membership in the Communist party means active participation in a conspiracy, and makes the member unfit for the teaching profession. Mr. Hook elaborates this unfitness with reference to teaching, to other campus activities, and to work as a research scholar. He does say, however, that admitted Communist party membership, although prima facie evidence of unfitness, need not automatically lead to dismissal. But since the question is ethical rather than legal, the burden of proof at this point rests with the party member. He is not being tried for a crime. He is being confronted with an indictment of his professional character and integrity.

The other thesis is that heresy is to be tolerated within the limits of professional competence. Here Mr. Hook discusses the fellow-travelers—the “ideological typhus Marys.” There is an enumeration of instances, a good description of the signs and symptoms, and a discussion of the cause and cure.

At this point it is relevant to inquire what is the orthodoxy with reference to which heresy is defined. If I understand Mr. Hook aright, the central article in his faith is a faith in the supremacy of intelligence. Various statements of this faith crop up on pages 17, 19, 34, 117, 125, 136, 143, 170. There is Justice Holmes belief in the “free trade of ideas”; the Deweyan doctrine that “the primary commitment of the teacher is to the ethics and logic of inquiry”; the faith which affirms that the “commitment of democracy is not merely to freedom, but to the method of intelligence in social and political affairs”; the conviction that “the supreme and ultimate authority, the final validating source of all other authorities in human experience, is the self-critical authority of critical method—or intelligence.”

Now if Mr. Hook is here stating the essential for the professional ethics of the scholar and of the teacher, all of this seems to me to be admirable. But if he intends this as an adequate statement of the meaning of liberalism—as it seems to me he does—then I have to say that this is too thin a doctrine for me. There have been men who had a faith in intelligence—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—who had no love for liberal and democratic institutions. There have been men—Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt—who contributed greatly to liberal institutions who were not primarily characterized by a love of intelligence. Certainly there is a drastic difference between the thinned-out liberalism of Dewey and of Holmes and the full-bodied liberalism of John Locke, Roger Williams; Thomas Jefferson, and, yes, of Adam Smith. May it not, indeed, be just the trouble with our academic Communists and fellow-travelers that they have left of their liberalism only this thinned-out liberalism which is the faith in intelligence, and that their intelligence has led them just where they are?

Mr. Hook can make rejoinder at this point, in that he has indicated in detail the logical inconsistencies that preclude such persons from the claim of being intelligent. But it is the pragmatics of the situation that bothers me. For the one weakness in Mr. Hook’s discussion seems to lie precisely in his treatment of the cause and cure of fellow-traveling. Having described the irrational symptoms of this phenomenon, he asks, “How can intelligent men and women believe such nonsense?” How, indeed, if they really are intelligent, and if it is intelligence that emancipates from nonsense?

Mr. Hook hopes to heal the disease by some long-range educational strategy which shall make for the “intellectual sophistication” which “alone gives lasting immunity to infectious myth and dishonest argument.” More specifically, he wants a critical study of the theory and practice of Communism made a required part of the college curriculum; he wants the rest of us to break with the genteel tradition of suffering intolerance in silence; he wants every faculty to adopt rules on the rights and responsibilities of the teaching staff; and he proposes a Faculty Committee on Professional Ethics to hear complaints and to conduct investigations. But if the “intellectual sophistication” of the faculty has already led it to espouse the dogmas of positivism and of cultural relativism, how is it ever going to agree on any ethics, how can it formulate any rules, and how will it ever develop the decisiveness of action that comes only from the full-bodied faith in freedom?



The fact is that man lives by faith and hope and love more than by “intellectual sophistication.” To put it in the language of John Dewey, experience consists of having and being and doing and undergoing, as much as it does of knowing. Some of the deepest things of life are apprehended rather than comprehended. In some abstract scheme intelligence may cease to be intelligent when it is false to its own rules and principles. But in concrete experience the intelligent person is betrayed into the most radical nonsense when he loses kinship and contact with fundamental values of which intelligence is neither the creator nor the judge, but which are the soil into which it puts its roots and the air which it breathes. Freedom, brotherhood, justice—even truth—are great passions before they are great ideas, noble aspirations before they are noble thoughts. And when intelligence loses its rootage in them, it has neither the vital power nor the logical rigor to preserve even its own private values.

No one, of course, can accuse Mr. Hook of being deficient in courage or in conviction. And if we must be satisfied with intelligence, I am content that it should be Mr. Hook’s intelligence that we get. But this is not just because I know Mr. Hook’s intelligence to be honest, rigorous, sensitive, free from external constraint, and subject only to the discipline of its own method. It is also because I know that his intelligence operates within a context of values—the passion for social justice, the respect for the rights of the individual, the zeal for human liberties, the devotion to truth—which, to be sure, he has indicated in the course of this discussion, but to which he has been unwilling to assign the position of “supreme and ultimate authority.”

While my disagreement here could be of crucial importance in any long-range consideration of the problem, it happens to affect only some half dozen pages of Mr. Hook’s present discussion. For the greater part of his performance one can register only an enthusiastic assent. Indeed, I do not know of any other book which deals with the whole issue of academic freedom in its current complications with the realism, the courage, the incisive logic, and the sensitive and discriminating regard for values that are exhibited here. Nowhere else, between the same covers, will one find this valuable distinction between heresy and conspiracy, this brilliant analysis of the Smith Act, the careful treatment of guilt by association, the detailed presentation of the role of the Communist party member or of the fellow-traveler in academic circles, the impartial exposure both of cultural vigilantes and of ritualistic liberals, the eloquent argument for academic freedom, the inspiring statement of the true vocation of the teacher.

Heretofore, in reviewing books, I have resolutely refrained from saying that any book is a “must” book for anyone. Nevertheless, I could wish that Heresy, Yes—Conspiracy, No were in the hands and in the minds of every member of the teaching profession, of all persons related to administrative responsibilities in the academic world, and of all citizens who have any concern for the vitality and dignity of our educational institutions.



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