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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Letters of Sidney Hook

Edward Shapiro

3 1998
Volume 4, Number 3


Socialism of the Heart

Fall 1998

LETTERS OF SIDNEY HOOK
Edward S. Shapiro, Ed.
M.E. Sharpe, 1995, xviii + 397 pgs.

To neoconservatives and even to some libertarians, Sidney Hook is a hero. As a young man, he achieved fame as the leading American expert on the philosophy of Karl Marx. But he soon broke with the Communists and devoted the remainder of his life to warning of the menace posed by their brand of totalitarianism.

True, he remained a collectivist, but he was a "democratic" socialist. Can we not forgive him his failure to embrace the free market, given his sterling fight against the Reds? An adulatory interview of Hook that appeared in Reason some years ago shows that this train of thought appeals to at least a few classical liberals.

Hook is indeed a person of real achievements, and his long-time anti-Communism merits praise. But the present comprehensive collection of Hook's letters demonstrates that there is very definitely a less than admirable side to Hook. I venture to suggest that classical liberals have no need to add Hook to their Pantheon.

Let us begin with Hook's strongest suit, his anti-Communism. For one thing, it was rather a long time in coming. At the age of twenty-six, he was still wildly enthusiastic about the Reds. In a letter to his parents dated June 24, 1929, written from Moscow, he states: "Just mingling with the people has enabled me to tap veins of enthusiasm that run deep under the surface of things. And just think of it! A country in which the red flag is the national banner and the 'Internation-al' the national anthem" (p. 20).

At the time Hook wrote this, the manifold atrocities of Lenin and Stalin were already widely known. And accounts of these were by no means confined to the capitalist press, which of course a distinguished progressive philosopher like Hook could not be expected to take seriously. The Social Revolutionary historian S.P. Melgounov published a detailed description of Bolshevik barbarism, The Red Terror (London: J.M. Dent, 1926), which Hook could readily have obtained had he cared enough to look at it. Instead, he preferred vapid expressions of enthusiasm for The Workers' Paradise.

In 1932, he supported the Communist Party candidate William Z. Foster for president. But disillusion did indeed soon set in. Why? Because Soviet Communism was not sufficiently revolutionary. Hook, we learn in a letter of 1934, attacked Stalin for failing to support a Communist revolution in Germany in 1923 (p. 35). The trouble with Stalin was that he overemphasized "the immediate needs of the Russian state."

Given Hook's commitment to international working class revolution, one naturally asks: what did Hook think so desirable about a socialist economic system? How did he respond to the criticisms of socialism raised by Mises and other economists?

His answer hardly strikes one as adequate. In a letter to Will Herberg dated May 29, 1932, he asks: "How do you imagine the soundness of the Marxian analysis will be demonstrated? It seems to me only by the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the development of a socialist commonwealth. Why? Because social action is not a controlled experiment but an irreversible activity on the basis of class need and choice" (p. 27). Away with argument about the merits of socialism! Act!

When Hook finally realized that Stalin was not Robin Hood reincarnate, what form did his anti-Communist efforts take? He devoted the bulk of his attention to organizing a Commission of Inquiry, headed by his mentor John Dewey, which aimed to discredit the allegations against Leon Trotsky raised at the Moscow Trials.

One must grant that Hook was correct. The Trials were farcical: Trotsky was not in league with Hitler to bring down Stalin. But what was the point of so elaborate a defense of Trotsky, himself an advocate of mass murder and totalitarian terror? Imagine a supposed anti-Nazi who devoted his principal attention to defending Gregor Strasser, a dissident Nazi murdered in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Would we not doubt the completeness of his conversion? Surely there were better things for Hook to do than beat the drums for Trotsky.

Hook in all fairness did turn later to a comprehensive attack on Stalinist murders, slave labor, and state-created famine. Given this, one would naturally expect Hook always to oppose Stalin root and branch. On the whole he did, but not when doing so would interfere with a sacred cause--America's participation in World War II. In a letter of February 21, 1984, he writes: "As almost a life-long opponent of communism [sic], when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union I advocated support of Stalin against him...even though Stalin had slaughtered far more people than Hitler at the time, because Hitler's victory would be more prejudicial to the survival of the free society at that time than Stalin's triumph" (p. 341). Stalin has killed more people than Hitler. Therefore, let's get into the war on his side lest something worse ensue. Never mind why this will happen. Not exactly a paradigm of logic, is it?

Once Hitler had departed the scene, Hook was quick to enlist in the Cold War. In reply to Albert Einstein, who claimed that American policy under Truman was aggressive, Hook in a letter of April 17, 1948, came up with this retort: "In 1940 American isolationists used to ask us whether America under Roosevelt had not been guilty of more hostile acts against Hitler's Germany than vice-versa. You will recall how we answered that" (p. 117). Never mind that the isolationist claim was true--we needed to enter the war in order to promote freedom. This is worthy of the Ministry of Propaganda in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One might object to my argument in this way. True enough, Hook needed more time than he ideally should have taken to arrive at a true picture of Communism. But, unlike most New York intellectuals during the 1930s, he did wake up. And if Hook failed to grasp the imperative need of a non-interventionist foreign policy to preserve a free society, was this not a failing shared by many? The first point merely shows him the best of a bad lot, and the second is an excuse, not a justification. Hook is no hero. w

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