Part I: Sidney Hook sets the Stage.
Sidney Hook, known to my generation as a Marxist who became a Cold Warrior, has, over the years, become something of a sadder and truer icon: not as a Stalinist, but as an intellectual whose clarity of argument and presentation in his early writings gave way to apologetics for Capitalism, in battle against Communism, and led him to denounce the New Left of 1968. You can look back to my post of 27 May, 2017 about “Sidney Hook’s uses of Logical Positivism,” to find a more benignant understanding of Hook, and an example of the silliness of Reed College students in the 1970s (the example being me), if you want a different entry into his work.
In fact, Hook was a serious philosopher who was a student of Dewey’s Pragmatism, with an early commitment to socialism and soviet communism, and it was only with the rise of Stalinism and the Communist party’s advocacy of Popular Front politics in the war against Fascism and Nazism that he felt that the revolutionary thrust of the United Front had been de-fanged by the ideology of the Popular Front, with its authorising of stable Capitalism as the defence against the Fascists.
Before looking more closely at Hook’s arguments about the Popular Front, it is worth noting that he was dogged by criticism throughout his distinguished career at NYU
In the 1960’s, Hook was criticized by the New Left for his positions on the Vietnam War, racial quotas and academic freedom.
He maintained during the American war effort in Indochina that, while a withdrawal of American forces was desirable, it should come only in conjuction with a similar action by the North Vietnamese.
Professor Hook criticized quotas in university admissions designed to redress racial imbalances, calling them perversions of the concept of equality of opportunity. And, while he debated publicly with Bertrand Russell, Hook criticized American universities for refusing to allow Russell to teach in this country because of his political views.
In this blog, we have had lots of articles about the Popular Front, and the damage it caused for any revolutionary position in WWII. But it is interesting to hear Hook’s analysis of it from the position of a wavering fellow-traveler, and in response to a widely read book by Max Lerner, Its Later Than You Think, which Hook describes as “one of the few earnest attempts to make sense of a policy which almost the entire Left is following despite the tragic results of such policies wherever they have been tried. For this reason, if for no other, the book deserves the attention of every student of the American political scene.”
Hook points out that many intellectuals on the Left have already praised the Lerner book, particularly those who support the Roosevelt Administration: “The upshot of the book is an argument to show why anyone who accepts socialism should support an American Popular Front.”
Hook is clear that there is a crisis of political revaluation going on, but rather than being about the reformulation of ideas, it has instead been in “the form of strategical maneuvers, new combinations, with an eye to the day to day situation, not to a long term perspective.” And so there has been a splitting and quarrelling and the proliferation of small groups, all on the outs with each other: who are they?: “The Social Democrats, Communists, Laborites, Farmer-Laborites, some Socialists, the liberals and progressives of indeterminate hue who sleep in a different political bed every Election Day. All, practically but the Bolshevist-Leninists, who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since 1917, and who in their simplistic thinking, imagine the only alternative to the murderous despotism of Stalin, is the ‘enlightened’ minority one-party dictatorship of Lenin, out of which Stalin grew…” Hook was supportive of the Trotskyists, and he worked for his mentor, Dewey’s tribunal to exonerate Trotsky. SO he has a kind of floating critique, not entirely from a party position , but from his philosophical training which often makes one liable to maverick peculiarity (think, for example, of Christopher Hitchens’s random political positions after he moved from the UK to Vanity Fair, etc.).
Hook takes Lerner’s arguments seriously, in particular Lerner’s position that Liberalism now [that is the late 1930s] has to incorporate the influences and pressures of ‘democratic collectivism,’ if it aims to further its own values and ideals. Yet, Lerner sees that the consequences of its internal movement leads to the perils of capitalism: “economic crises, fascism, and war.” Hook says that Lerner understands that “the Left, Right, and Centre’ are cursed either by sectarianism or opportunism”. And therefore, “The only alternative that remains is a Popular Front opposed to reaction for the defence of whatever democracy now exists.” What Lerner is going for is a Labor Party to be formed, outside the Popular Front.
Next Week: Part II: Lerner anticipates his critics, and Hook replies