Socialism of the Heart
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
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
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
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