Well, not exactly, but after our rest with pastoral and industrial poems by D.S. Savage, we go immediately to Sidney Hook’s “Some Social Uses and Abuses of Semantics,” Vol.4., No.5. April, 1938.

hook youngsidney-hookGUggenheim Hook 1922

In 1973, when I was a student at Reed College in Portland Oregon, and trying to discover what Hegelian Marxism was all about, and also wanting to hang around with a group of students whom I had judged to be very cool, I joined a Hegel Reading Group. We started with the “Preface” to the Phenomenology of Spirit, and as I was used to doing, I went looking for help on getting a view… A friend cautioned me that as far he could tell, “Annie, you only understand one ‘moment’ of the Preface.”  So on his advice I went off and read Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, which was reckoned around the Reed College Coffee Shop to be a great guide to the motions of first, Hegel’s and then Marx’s mind. That was the same year that ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ was added to the Coffee Shop jukebox.  It was my soundtrack to Hegel.  I read the Marcuse and felt that I was now starting to get the hang of dialectical process and also finding a rationality to it that I hadn’t understood before.  When I said to my friend, “Yeah, great, I loved it and I can understand much better what Hegel is on about.” My friend, who is now a lawyer in southern California, said, “Yeah, but  Annie, you only get one ‘moment’ of Marcuse”.  That’s what it was like then and there.  Going farther afield, I picked up from the Library a copy of Sidney Hook’s 1936, From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx.  There, in a casual discussion with someone in the stacks, I learned that Hook, like many others from the PR circle, had become right-wing after the War and moved from being  a Trot to a  Cold Warrior. So cowardly I slipped the book back into its slot on the library shelf and fled.

That is why it is rather heartening to read a piece in which Sidney Hook, as the young student of Dewey takes on the discipline of early 20th century language theory and logical positivism as a foil to argue for a Marxist theory that will produce BETTER philosophy than what comes out of language theory’s success. So with a not-quite-willling suspension of disbelief, here we go: Click here Some social uses and abuses of semantics if you want to read his essay before you read this post.

Charles Sanders Peirce William James John DeweyRussell Ludwig Wittgensteinjpeg

“The recent philosophy has been increasingly concerned with the nature of words, meaning and communication. The work of Peirce, James and Dewey in America, of Russell and Wittgenstein in England , and of logical empiricists everywhere , has resulted in a kind of minor intellectual revolution.”   Hook is happy enough to leave the specialised scholarship aside, and talk to the reader from the ‘popularised versions’ of a theory of meaning which disallows meta-physics altogether, and turns on a set of criteria for the verifiability of statements. I took a course on this stuff about a thousand years ago, and hardly remember it at all, and if you have any similar memory or ignorance issue on this question, click here for an articulate precis of the main types of  Logical Positivism.

Hook’s argument takes on the ‘extravagant claims’ of popularisers about what can result from ‘the failure to distinguish between words and things, abstractions and concreta, definitions and laws.’  Hook creates an extreme version of the ‘verification principle’ — ‘a test for whether something had meaning or was merely nonsense or tautologous. All meaningful statements had to be either tautologous or directly verifiable in experience’.

He adds that one of the wrong turns taken by the populariser of analytic language theory is “the assumption that, where analysis has revealed that two conflicting doctrine are dealing with uninterpreted terms or are committed to statements that are beyond any possibility of empirical verification, therefore no genuine conflict of any kind if involved.

Hook insists that even if there are occasions on which two opposed sides may be fighting with empty platitudes and rhetorical metaphysics, there are social and political contexts which in fact do provide definitions and hence, verifiability.  And here the argument begins to draw on Hook’s Marxism. In fact, Hook had won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928 which he was to use, according to the Foundation’s Report for 1928: “to make a study from a new point of view of the Post Hegelian philosophy in Germany (1831–1850); an interpretation of the break-up of the Hegelian school in terms of the political, social and cultural movements current during the time; and prepare a philosophic history of the period from Hegel to Marx, with emphasis on the social and political forces which controlled the evolution of ideas…..” I guess that was the book I hid back in the stack in 1973.  So the engagement between his work in pragmatic philosophy under Dewey and his research into Hegel and Marx made him a excellent analyst of the work that words do in the world.“Pure metaphysics may be nonsense but I know of no important conflict in the history of its expression, whether it be between realism and nominalism, idealism and materialism, which cannot be significantly associated with conflicts of a more concrete social and historical kind.”   And with this, the argument has broken the bounds of linguistic analysis and introduced historical process and concepts as well as statements of history.

Hook then  takes what he commends in logical positivism and applies it to the situation of 1938; and in particular to Stalinism. He draws the scientised disinfected discipline into the realm of historical reality, while proving its demystifying capability:

“Let us begin with a proposition of Marx in the Manifesto”. “The modern state power is nothing more than a committee for administering the common affairs of the bourgeoisie as a whole.” Now let us look at the proposition enunciated by Marxists who have generalised Marx’s original proposition:“The state in class societies is an instrument of the ruling class.” If by ‘ruling class’ is meant ‘politically ruling’ class, the statement is a tautology, By ‘ruling class’ here must be meant ‘the economically dominant’ class. To assert,however, that the state its an instrument in the hands of the economically dominant always, i.e., at any given time, is obviously false.”

Hook’s examples show how Lenin’s theory of a ‘worker’s state’ is tied directly to historical concepts, which are not subject to the criticism of being either tautological or or meaningless, but rather contextually meaningful.  He goes on to show that words as apparently empirically based as ‘workers’ are fluid with respect to the definitions which may apply to them at any given time. SO, “Under capitalism, the objective referent of ‘workers’ are formally free individuals who sell their labour-power to other individuals to other individuals who own the instruments of production and who operate them in an ever continued quest for profit. Under  socialism and during the transitional period, ‘the workers are those who perform useful labour; they do not sell their labour-power to themselves and their is no other economic class to whom they can sell it.”

Now, as the argument rises to its conclusion, Hook presents the PR critique of Stalinism through his adroit use of elements of Logical Positivist theory:

“Let us examine the position of those who say that by  a workers state, they mean a society in which the workers own the instruments of production.  Very well, what does it mean to say that the Russian workers own the instruments of production? The meaning, on our approach, is determined by the methods used to verify it  and evidence used to substantiate it.  Now so far as I can see, the usual evidence presented as proof of the statement that the workers own the instruments of production are other statements to be found on the statute books.  We observe the social behaviour of men in their relations to each other in order to discover both what is meant and whether what is meant is actually so. is there any other evidence that the workers own the instruments of production in Russia aside from decrees? What can we observe  in practice which will be sufficient evidence one way or the other?

The only clue to that to look for is to be found in other situations where we meaningfully use the term ownership. When we say that a man owns land, buildings or machines, we mean that he has the right (i.e., a claim enforced or forcible by the power of law) to exclude others from its use or enjoyment. No matter what claim a man may make to a thing, if the law will not exclude others from taking or using it, he does not own it. Now if we soberly look at the situation in Russia, we find that the workers do not own the instruments of production, but that a group of men in political posts, who control the armed forces, have the right to exclude any worker or group of workers  from access to the instruments of production. On paper, everyone is guaranteed the right to work; in practice, only those have the right to work who have not opposed the bureaucracy. If we judge the truth of a proposition by observations of human behaviour, we cannot escape the conclusion  that, in the ordinary sense of the term ownership, Stalin and the CP-GPU apparatus own the Russian instruments of production. …

AJ: quod erat demonstrandum that the Stalinists are lying bastards… and demonstrandum that logical positivism has its uses, e.g.,  to expose Stalinism.