Of the writers who belonged to the original “family” of the now much-chronicled New York intellectuals, Sidney Hook has been in several important respects the most unusual. In a circle of writers who prided themselves on their insiders’ knowledge of Marxism—and for whom, indeed, Marxism was long held to be the central issue of the day—Hook was the only one who was a recognized authority on the subject. Whereas the others were all, in varying degrees, amateurs of the Marxian dialectic—brilliant amateurs in some cases, but amateurs nonetheless—it was Hook alone who early on established his reputation as a professional scholar in this field and wrote the books—Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx (1933) and From Hegel to Marx (1936)—that helped to shape the agenda of intellectual debate. He came to the subject, moreover, not only out of a partisan political interest—this was true of all the New York intellectuals—but as a trained philosopher who brought an intimate knowledge of Marx’s writings and their philosophical sources to bear on the incessant factional disputes and divisive ideological claims and counter-claims that have loomed so large in the intellectual life of his time.
In the early 30’s, when Hook was vigorously espousing Marxist causes, the authority he brought to the subject made him a formidable and influential figure—admired by radical intellectuals as much for his courage as for his perspicacity. He was said to be the only avowed Marxist to serve on the faculty of a major American university—he had already begun his long association with the department of philosophy at New York University—and in this period, no less an eminence than Earl Browder, then head of the American Communist party, had invited him to set up a Communist spy apparatus. This was distinction indeed! Browder had called on the wrong man, however. Even as a Marxist, Hook showed a disturbing tendency—some would say a compulsion—to act as an independent thinker. Although an inveterate joiner of boards and committees who was always ready to enlist in a cause he believed in, Hook was politically unclubbable. And this tendency to independence, which in the course of the 30’s brought him into fierce and open conflict with the Communists and their sympathizers, soon made him a figure of another sort—a despised renegade, and at times a pariah, who became for many liberals and radicals an unquestioned symbol of political perfidy and whose example, for that very reason, even some of his faint-hearted intellectual associates and admirers feared to emulate too conspicuously lest they, too, be consigned to the outer darkness. In this role, as well, Hook has often been unusual, if only for the intensity of the abuse he has been made to suffer for his frankly stated and scrupulously argued beliefs.
It is not exclusively to the world of the intellectuals, however, that Hook has directed his voluminous writings and his many-sided political activities. He has also been unusual among his confreres in the New York intellectual world for electing to play a public role. The determination and tenacity which Hook has brought to the task of initiating and pursuing public debate over a whole range of political questions, with himself often occupying an unpopular position, has long been one of the salient characteristics of his career. While for the most part it remained the practice of the New York intellectuals to conduct an intramural, highly factional debate about such political questions—at least until the 1960’s, when the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker provided some of them with the means and the opportunity to reach out to a larger readership—Hook habitually adopted a more public role in his campaigns to distinguish historical truth from political falsehood. From the time of his break with the Communist party, which occurred in 1933-34 in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s coming to power—an event in which he clearly perceived the role of Stalin and his policy of the-worse-the-better—Hook seems to have understood the importance of acting as an embattled citizen of the democracy with which, as an independent radical, he still had many quarrels, to be sure, but which he nonetheless embraced as a cause to be energetically defended. It was (and is) this civic dimension to the many tasks he set himself that so often placed Hook at odds with his fellow intellectuals, who, in their attachment to the ethos—if not always to the specific political doctrines—of the Marxist legacy, so frequently refused to identify their interests with the survival of bourgeois democracy. Oddly enough, Hook still calls himself a “socialist”—a matter to be discussed—but it is unmistakably as a champion of bourgeois democracy that he has long been locked in public combat with the true believers in socialism.
Though often accused of being a zealot and a die-hard, especially in his opposition to Communism and its liberal apologists, Hook has actually been a good deal more forthright and reasonable about the shifts he has made in his political outlook over the years than many of his accusers have been about their own. Hook’s shifts, moreover, have never been tethered to the winds of fashion—he has never had a taste for what was chic—nor have they been tailored either to serve the interests of a political party (or a political candidate) or to win for Hook himself an appointment to political office. Agree with them or not, Hook’s views and the arguments given to support them have been reasoned and informed responses to the central political events of this century, and much of the time they have resulted in highly unpopular opinions. As he remarks in the closing pages of Out of Step, the long and aptly titled volume of memoirs he has now published1:
Almost always I found myself in a minority. . . . I have always been somewhat premature in relation to dominant currents of public opinion. I was prematurely antiwar in 1917-21, prematurely anti-fascist, prematurely a Communist fellow-traveler, prematurely an anti-Communist, prematurely, in radical circles, a supporter of the war against Hitler, prematurely a cold warrior against Stalin’s effort to extend the Gulag Archipelago, prematurely against the policy of détente and appeasement, prematurely for a national civil-rights program and against all forms of invidious discrimination, including reverse discrimination.
The book that Hook has given us in Out of Step is, in effect, the political chronicle of an American intellectual dissident, and it has the great virtue of reminding us, again and again and again, that Communism has been the principal cause of the author’s dissent from received intellectual opinion because Communism and the illusions it has generated have played so important and so disheartening a role in the intellectual life of our time. Communism is not, to be sure, the only subject discussed in this book—far from it—nor is it the only subject on which Hook has taken a critical position, but it is certainly the main one. For this reason, Out of Step is not a book to be recommended to those who are easily wearied by lengthy accounts of the polemical battles that intellectuals have waged with one another on the issue of Communism and the nature of Soviet power. Since he has devoted so much of his long life to opposing the views of those who either defended the Communist cause because they wished to see it triumph or mistakenly discounted the threat it posed to the survival of freedom and democracy because they failed to grasp the true dimension of that threat, this chronicle of Hook’s intellectual career inevitably places a greater empasis on this issue than on any other. I think it is proper that it does so, and the result is a book that must be counted as a major contribution to the literature of anti-Communism—the most important contribution by an American writer, I think, since Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. It is not a book without serious flaws—some of which will be noted here—but it is nonetheless essential reading for anyone who aspires to an understanding of the place that Communism and the opposition to Communism have occupied in American intellectual life.
The historical scope of Hook’s chronicle is a broad one, reaching from the period of World War I to that of the Reagan administration, and its cast of characters includes, among many other distinctive figures in the intellectual and political world of his time, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Arthur Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, Morris Raphael Cohen, Max Eastman, Norman Thomas, V. F. Calverton, Malcolm Cowley, James Burnham, Edmund Wilson, and the writers of the Partisan Review circle. About some of these figures—Dewey, Russell, Einstein, and Cohen—he writes at length, while others—Cowley, for example, who is depicted solely for his work as an outstanding literary apologist for the Moscow Purge Trials—are given little more than walk-on roles. Some are discussed with an impressive spirit of generosity—Dwight Macdonald, for example, with whom Hook fought some crucial political battles in the 40’s and 50’s—while in other cases—Philip Rahv’s, most particularly—old scores are settled with an all too evident rancor. (Hook is no doubt correct in his assessment of Rahv’s character, but he is dead wrong about Rahv’s literary and intellectual gifts.)
Not surprisingly in a book of this sort, Hook has also availed himself of an opportunity to respond to the many false and unfair charges that have been brought against him in other writers’ memoirs—Alfred Kazin’s and Irving Howe’s, among others—and in these passages we are given a glimpse of the various ways in which even such renowned literary figures have, like so many lesser mortals, often edited their memories to suit the needs of the day. If at times there is a certain bitterness in Hook’s devastating attacks on his critics, there is also a certain humor—and it isn’t Hook, in most cases, who has initiated the controversy. Again and again, his positions have been misrepresented and his motives maligned, and it was not to be expected that he would endure such treatment with a saintly indifference. In all of this “gossip,” there are important issues at stake, and Hook has naturally been concerned to set the record straight as well as to defend his own honor. I think he has succeeded in doing both.
Out of Step is not a book primarily concerned with personalities, however. It is a book about history, and it is in its account of certain key episodes that Hook’s memoirs are likely to have a permanent historical interest. The most important of these episodes are recounted in the chapters that Hook devotes to the Dewey Commission of Inquiry, which was organized by John Dewey, Hook, and others in the 30’s to investigate the truth about the Moscow Trials; the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, which took place at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1949 and was a Cominform effort to enlist American intellectuals in the defense of Soviet foreign policy; the activities of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom and the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the 50’s, and the reasons for their demise; and the collapse of his own university in the late 60’s (described in painful detail in the chapter called “Walpurgisnacht at New York University: The Academic Ethic in Abeyance”).
In the events recounted in these chapters, though spread out over a period of thirty-odd years and involving many different figures, the essential historical drama is the same: American intellectuals, representing the political conscience of the Western democracies, found themselves challenged by a widespread and well-organized campaign to falsify the political record and the political goals of the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes for the purpose of advancing the interests of those regimes. In the ways in which our intellectuals responded, or failed to respond, to these historic challenges, much of the political history—and, alas, the moral history—of American intellectual life since the 30’s was written. It is a mark of Hook’s distinction that he was deeply involved in all of these events, and always on the right side, upholding a standard of truth and a commitment to democracy in the face of Communist mendacity and the support it so often received from fellow-traveling liberals.
The chapters that Hook devotes to the American Committee for Cultural Freedom and the Congress for Cultural Freedom make particularly interesting reading in the light of the many slanders which have been hurled at those organizations, often by writers who did not hesitate to benefit from them when they were in their heyday. Hook staunchly defends the morality of the now-famous CIA subsidy to the Congress, but freely acknowledges that it was nonetheless a political blunder of considerable magnitude to have accepted the subsidy. At the same time, he recalls for his readers the political atmosphere in which the work of the Congress was undertaken:
We were already in fact, if not de jure, engaged in a defensive war with Communism—the war was actually raging in Korea—and our fears [were] that its flames would spread and engulf Western Europe. We were in daily contact with a stream of refugee intellectuals, whose harrowing tales of persecution not only moved us deeply but gave us a sense of guilt. . . . Our conviction that in all likelihood we would soon be involved in a European war, triggered by the advance of the Red Army or an attempt by the Communist party in France or Italy to take power, accounted for the stilling of uneasiness about our funding.
If it was permissible to help keep free trade unions from being overwhelmed by the Communist trade unions with access to the unlimited resources of the Kremlin, if it was permissible to aid democratic political parties in Western Europe to carry on a political struggle in opposition to the Communist parties funded by the Soviet Union, certainly a case could be made for the legitimacy of aid to those who were attempting to keep the alternative of a free culture open to the intellectuals and opinion-makers in the same areas.
Beyond this, Hook offers his readers a list of twenty actions taken by the Congress between 1951 and 1956 that will no doubt come as a surprise to those whose mental picture of the Congress’s political agenda has been derived from the writings of Christopher Lasch and other left-wing critics. Beginning with 1951, the first item on the list is the following: “Protested against the execution of 17 Negroes in Martinsville, Va., and the local system which punished men differently according to their color for the same crime.” For 1952: “Protested the admission of Spain in UNESCO.” For 1953: “Protested to the Peron government [of Argentina] against the arrest of Victorio [sic] Ocampo and Francisco Romero.” For 1954: “The American Committee produced a book entitled McCarthy and the Communists, exposing the nature of McCarthyism.” And so on. The history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom remains to be written, but until it is, Hook has given us the best account of it that we have.
In reading Out of Step, the question that inevitably arises about its account of Communism is: does Hook exaggerate the extent of its influence in American life? The charge has often been made that he does, and it was made again, most recently, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in his review of Out of Step in the New Republic (May 4, 1987):
Looking back, Hook considerably exaggerates the power of American Communists—an overestimate that, ironically, he shares with the young historians of the New Left. He speaks of Communist influence in the 1930’s as “so strong that it amounted to domination of key areas of American cultural life, in literature, art, and movies.” The Communist popular-front organizations, he writes, “dominated the cultural, literary, and in part the academic landscape.” And again: “The climate of opinion in American liberal and literary circles with respect to the [Moscow] Trials, until the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, remained overwhelmingly favorable to the Soviet Union.” All this gives the Communists far too much credit. [Emphasis added]
Schlesinger concludes by dismissing Hook as one of those people—obviously to be pitied—who “are transfixed by the Communist issue for all their lives.”
This, I think it is fair to say, is now the received opinion about Sidney Hook among those liberal intellectuals who, though they may once have served—and served with distinction—in the anti-Communist ranks, no longer wish to be identified as “cold-war liberals,” and do everything in their power to shed the anti-Communist label. Liberals of this persuasion—born-again liberals, as I tend to think of them—are not to be confused with the kind of doctrinaire leftists who emerged in the 60’s as the unashamed champions of Marxist ideology. Born-again liberals tend to be older and to know more about Communism than the 60’s types, and they wouldn’t dream of baldly defending the aspirations of Marxist-Leninist regimes. All the same, they have been profoundly affected by the anti-anti-Communist and anti-American attitudes of the 60’s and by the wave of historical revisionism—especially as it had been applied to the history of the cold war—that these attitudes brought in their wake.
This, too, is a subject that awaits its historian. The subject is certainly a fascinating one, full of dramatic reversals and personal disavowals, and its dramatis personae are a rather distinguished, even a glamorous lot. George F. Kennan, Mary McCarthy, and Theodore Draper must be counted among the group’s intellectual superstars, and so, also, must Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Each has exorcised his anti-Communist identity at a time and place of his own choosing: Kennan upon returning to America from his diplomatic duties abroad; Miss McCarthy on arriving in Hanoi, where she discovered that the real enemy in the Vietnam war wasn’t Communism but the United States; Draper—well, that is a tale too long to be told here. Schlesinger seems to have undergone the requisite rite somewhere in the vicinity of Hyannis, around the time that Robert Kennedy was making his ill-fated bid for the Presidency. Moving to the Left in the heady days of the antiwar movement, Schlesinger has been more effective than any of the others in transforming himself from the very archetype of a cold-war liberal into the newer, more stylish, born-again model. His categorical censure of Hook on the issue of Communism and its influence is therefore worth some attention, for it clearly defines the great shift that has occurred in liberal thinking about the Communist issue over the last two decades.
In his review of Out of Step in the New Republic, Schlesinger acknowledges that he “was at Hook’s side in some of those battles [against Stalinist influence] after the war, and I rejoiced with him as he struck down the infidel.” He is speaking of the late 40’s, but he never quite explains why he thought it important to join Hook in this political battle, for he now describes the power of the American Communists after the war as consisting of little more than “a mild influence in the labor movement and the intellectual community.” This is not exactly the position that Schlesinger upheld at the time, however.
In 1949, a decade after the Nazi-Soviet pact, the issue of Communist influence was still sufficiently compelling in his eyes for Schlesinger to devote an entire chapter to “The Communist Challenge to America” in The Vital Center—a book designed, in significant part, to the task of winning American liberals away from the influence of the Communist movement. A year earlier the Communist party had succeeded in taking over a candidate—Henry Wallace—for the American Presidency. In the very year that The Vital Center was published, the Cominform mounted the Waldorf conference, enlisting the services of prominent American scientists, writers, and academics on behalf of the Soviet Union. The two leading liberal weeklies, the Nation and the New Republic, were still following the Stalinist line on most political matters, and one of them, the New Republic, was still owned and operated by a man who, as he subsequently acknowledged, had earlier been recruited by Anthony Blunt to serve as a Comintern agent.2 In 1947, Alger Hiss was still a high official in the U.S. State Department, and then, until his resignation in 1949, president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Somehow the word “mild” does not suffice to describe the phenomenon Schlesinger is alluding to.
There is, moreover, another interesting connection between The Vital Center and Schlesinger’s review of Out of Step. In his attack on American radicalism in The Vital Center, Schlesinger invoked the character of Hollingsworth, the utopian reformer in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, as an example of the kind of totalitarian mind that liberalism should resist. He even attacked the literary historian Vernon L. Parrington for his sarcastic dismissal of Hawthorne—no doubt in this matter reflecting the influence of Lionel Trilling, who in 1940 had published the first version of the classic critique of Parrington that was to receive a wider readership when it became part of the essay called “Reality in America” in The Liberal Imagination (1950).3 “Parrington evidently thought that in Hollingsworth,” Schlesinger wrote, “Hawthorne was portraying a George Norris or a Bob LaFollette. We know today that he was portraying a Zhdanov.” Schlesinger went on:
And if . . . the Parringtons were caught off guard, if nothing in their system prepared them for totalitarianism, how much more unprepared were the readers of the liberal weeklies, the great thinkers who sought to combat Nazism by peace strikes, the Oxford oath, and disarmament, the ever hopeful who saw in Soviet Communism merely the lengthened shadow of Brook Farm! . . . This was in a real sense a trahison des clercs.
It is bracing to recall what a good writer Arthur Schlesinger once was about these matters, but it tells us something important about the character of born-again liberalism to see what use he makes of Hawthorne’s Hollingsworth in his review of Out of Step. For it is no longer a Zhdanov that Hollingsworth calls to mind for Schlesinger, but—Sidney Hook! It is in this facile and unconscionable equation of anti-Communism with Communism itself that the true face of born-again liberalism is to be seen. A writer who has devoted much of his life to opposing Communist influence in the name of freedom and democracy is placed on a par with a representative of the Stalinist terror. And Schlesinger wonders why Hook is at times so bitter about his intellectual contemporaries!
The truth is, it is the born-again Arthur Schlesinger, not Sidney Hook, who is guilty of distorting the issue of Communist influence, and the method he employs in doing so is all the more ignoble in being the work of a renowned historian who can be expected to know something about historical evidence. When Hook writes that “The climate of opinion in American liberal and literary circles with respect to the [Moscow] Trials, until the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, remained overwhelmingly favorable to the Soviet Union,” is he right or wrong? Schlesinger does not actually say. He simply declares that “too much credit” is given the Communists. But, it must be asked, how much is “too much”? The Moscow correspondent of the liberal New York Times in the 30’s wrote approvingly of the Trials, as Schlesinger well knows, and the American ambassador whom the liberal Franklin Roosevelt installed in Moscow was likewise disposed toward them. (Hollywood even produced a popular movie celebrating the fact.) On the literary scene, Hook cites the case of Malcolm Cowley—the literary editor of the New Republic, then one of the leading organs of fellow-traveling liberal opinion, who wrote repeatedly in defense of the Trials, even going to the trouble of favorably “reviewing” the published transcripts, and not as fiction, either. Is all this ancient history that can now be forgotten, even by renowned historians? Well, not exactly. For it was not until 1984, nearly fifty years after the Trials, that Cowley finally got around to acknowledging his shameful role in this affair—and even then, though admitting that his writings on this subject “did have some effect on American liberals as a result of the reputation I had earned for being moderate,” he rather grandly exonerated himself from any harmful influence. He then went on, in characteristic Stalinist style, to denounce the “Trotskyists” (meaning, I suppose, the writers who pilloried him in Partisan Review) as “imperialists themselves [who] tried to lead a struggle against Communism in any form, in any country, with Senator McCarthy as their embarrassing ally.”4 Even now, half a century later, it is only in Sidney Hook’s chronicle that we are given a truthful account of this episode.
There is a great deal more to be said about the distortions to be found in Schlesinger’s review of Out of Step, but I will cite only a single further example of his curious way of dealing, or not dealing, with Hook’s criticisms of his contemporaries. For Schlesinger, Hook is clearly guilty of an act of lèse-majesté in writing harshly about intellectuals, especially born-again liberals, if they have achieved literary celebrity. Thus, he quotes a remark about Mary McCarthy—“an almost infinite capacity for self-deception”—as an example of what he calls Hook’s “resentment,” but says nothing about Miss McCarthy’s own political writings, which are the basis of Hook’s judgment. But how is one to account for the pernicious inanities that Mary McCarthy has written on some of the gravest political issues of our time? Her attack on Orwell in The Writing on the Wall is easily explained, for she clearly understood how loathsome Orwell would have found her apologia for the Communist regime in North Vietnam. “I can hear [Orwell] angrily arguing,” she wrote, “that to oppose the Americans in Vietnam, whatever their shortcomings, is to be ‘objectively’ pro-totalitarian.” Orwell might indeed have so argued, and would he have been wrong to do so? How can one explain her gushing praise for that totalitarian regime except by reference to her capacity for self-deception? Open any page of Mary McCarthy’s Hanoi, and you find something like this:
No cultural revolution would be thinkable here, since culture—the accretion of the past—is the guarantor of Vietnamese independence. The delicate position of Pham Van Dong’s government is that it is bent on preserving Vietnamese traditions but it is also bent on preserving the sacred tradition of socialism, i.e., watchful central planning. On the one hand, it proceeds with an almost tactile sense (cf. Dr. Tung’s surgical fingers) of what its people—and their history—will accept or reject. On the other, it insists on what is “good” for them; this is a moral, ascetic government, concerned above all with the quality of Vietnamese life.
One weeps to think that these are the words of a writer now held up to us as an exemplary literary figure—“Our Woman of Letters,” as Michiko Kakutani recently called her in an article of that title in the New York Times Magazine, an article in which (needless to say?) no reference is made to Hanoi. A writer of conscience—a Camus, say, or a Silone, not to mention Orwell himself—might have felt obliged to return to the subject of Vietnam in the light of the catastrophe that overtook the country in the wake of the American withdrawal, but Mary McCarthy has never been that kind of writer.
Whereas Hook candidly addresses such matters in Out of Step—matters that occupy as large a place in American intellectual life today as they have done in the past—Schlesinger merely sidesteps them by fatuously announcing that “there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the anti-Communist philosophy.”
There is an irony to be noted about this line of attack on Hook, for it attempts to discredit him precisely where he is least vulnerable—in the history he has given us of the political attitudes and the political actions of the American intellectual Left in its relation to the Communist movement—and it leaves unaddressed what may very well be the weakest and least persuasive aspects of the positions he has epoused. I have already observed that Hook made his first reputation as an authority on Marxism, and it is as a writer on Marxism and its influence on American intellectual life that he has made his most important contribution to American thought. But at the same time, he has also been the vocal exponent of another philosophical tradition: that of John Dewey. In both Marx and Dewey he obviously found a sympathetic confirmation of his own disposition toward a completely rationalist, instrumentalist, and materialist approach to life.
It was the emphasis that Dewey placed on the practical application of ideas—his insistence that every philosophical issue be tested in the crucible of experience, and his correlative belief that philosophical issues cannot really be said to exist if they have no immediate application to experience—that exerted an immense appeal for Hook. At a single stroke, all the mysteries of mind and spirit that had occupied Western philosophy from Plato onward were effectively set aside, and what Hook describes as “unbridgeable dualisms or supernaturalisms” were no longer to be considered legitimate objects of thought. “What excited me more than anything else,” Hook writes, “was Dewey’s revolutionary approach to philosophy that undercut all the assumptions of the classical tradition in philosophy.” Henceforth, thinking was to be regarded as “a form of behavior,” as a guide to “action in problematic situations.” For all practical purposes—and there could be no other—metaphysical reflection was rendered obsolete.
In Hook’s case, this species of pragmatism—so firmly anchored in the realm of verification, and so inimical to the idea of transcendence—served as a bulwark against whatever metaphysical or idealist tendencies were to be found in the Marxian philosophy. It is my impression, anyway, that Marxism was never for Hook a surrogate eschatology, but, on the contrary, that under Dewey’s influence it became more and more a variety of political pragmatism, and when it failed to meet the requisite tests of verification, he showed himself ready to acknowledge its default and consider the alternatives. In this respect, at least, Dewey can be said to have served as a salutary influence on his political as well as his philosophical development.
The price of that influence came high, however, for Dewey’s is a spiritually arid philosophy. It leaves the soul (as I believe it must be called) defenseless and virtually mute in the face of extreme experience. For the poetry of life it has no way of accounting, and for dealing with the tragedies of history—not to mention the tragic dimension of human experience—its problem-solving mentality has proved to be a feeble instrument. There is a touching moment in Hook’s chronicle when he speaks of his discovering the novels of Dostoevsky in his freshman year at City College. “For years I nourished the hopes of writing a book on Dostoevsky . . . on the sweep and significance of his ideas,” he writes. And then he adds, surprisingly: “Despite my absorption with political and social affairs, I still believe that the questions of God, freedom, and immortality are the most important of all questions that human beings can face.” From an avowed rationalist and atheist, this is an extraordinary admission, but we hear little more about it in the course of this long chronicle. Those were not, for the most part, the kind of questions that were given priority on Dewey’s philosophical agenda, and it was to Dewey, not to Dostoevsky, that Hook gave his intellectual allegiance.
As a result, Hook’s mind has long been closed to the whole religious dimension of human affairs—even, it must be said, to the religious dimension of the political questions which he has so often addressed. In writing about a figure like Whittaker Chambers, for example, his sympathy for and understanding of Chambers’s ordeal—which are considerable—grind to a halt when it comes to the religious question. He cannot quite forgive Chambers for the religious crisis he suffered, for such crises are not susceptible to the tests of verification. And this means, among much else, that Hook cannot really fathom the extent to which the appeals of Communism—as well as other totalitarian creeds—have so often in this century been religious in nature.
This does not mean, however, that Hook himself has always remained immune to the seductions of faith. Far from it. As resistant as he is to the idea of transcendence, he has nonetheless continued to cherish his own notion of the sacred, which he insists on calling “socialism.” Few writers in this century have done more than Sidney Hook to discredit the claims that have been advanced in the name of the socialist ideal, and he knows better than most what horrors have been committed in its name. Yet his devotion to that phantom ideal remains an article of faith—a poignant reminder that even the most determined rationalism is not always impervious to a certain kind of mystification.
Religion is not the only realm of the spirit, moreover, that Hook has turned a blind eye to. In the arts he has been similarly disinclined to find anything of great human consequence, and in the relations that have obtained between aesthetics and politics in this century—a century in which so many writers and artists have suffered political exile or imprisonment or even death as a result of their artistic pursuits—he does not seem to have taken even a perfunctory interest. In the chapter that Hook devotes to the Congress for Cultural Freedom, he mocks the idea that the high cultural achievements of the West might actually have an important role to play in serving the interests of political freedom. He gives us a detailed account of the dazzling festival of the arts which the Congress sponsored in Paris in 1952 under the direction of Nicolas Nabokov, but only in order to register his disapproval of the entire project. “The whole premise of the undertaking was oversimplified, if not false,” Hook writes. “Since art has flourished even under political tyrannies, there was nothing the festival presented that could not have been offered to the world under the aegis of an enlightened despotism.” This statement is not only untrue but is so obtuse in so many ways that it could only have been written by a man for whom the life of art has never really existed either as a personal interest or as a cultural datum. As if, in any case, the problems that the Congress for Cultural Freedom had been created to deal with had anything to do, at that moment in history, with enlightened despotisms. This was still the age of Stalin, who—as Hook must surely know—took more than a passing interest in such matters. As did every Communist party in the world. On this question, Louis Aragon and Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler are better guides than Sidney Hook.
Something like the same cultural philistinism is also to be regretted in the chapter that Hook devotes to his old associates on Partisan Review. In this case, of course, the provocation has been extreme, for Hook did play an important role in the political history of the magazine and there is something shameful in the way its editors have in recent years attempted to eliminate all trace of his connection with it. (Not that he is the only one to have suffered this treatment—but that is another story.) All the same, Hook’s condescending and dismissive account of his former colleagues does him no credit, and can only leave the reader wondering why, if they really were such a bunch of ignorant dolts and untalented knaves, he ever bothered to get involved with them in the first place. Hook seems not to understand how much of his own reputation as a writer derives from his association with Partisan Review when the magazine was in its intellectual prime. Surely my own case is not untypical: it was in the pages of Partisan Review that I first read Hook in the 40’s, and what I read there prompted me to look up his earlier books. No matter what the provocation, nothing is to be gained and much is to be lost by attempting to repeal that history today.
There is, then, no lack of flaws and failures to be found in Out of Step and in the ideas of its author. But on the central question at issue in this book—about the response of the American intellectual community to Communism in general and to Soviet power in particular, from the 1930’s to the present day—Hook is not only consistently right, but he has given us the most definitive account we have. He is more thorough in recounting the history of this subject than any other writer, and more tenacious in separating myth from fact. On page after page of this long chronicle, we find accurately described for us a great many episodes that have been willfully and mischievously misrepresented in the political and historical writings of the last twenty years.
This, of course, is the main reason why Out of Step and its author have been so harshly treated in the liberal press. Now in his eighty-fifth year, Hook is still tireless in his determination to set the record straight, and tenacious in his willingness to correct falsehoods and call their authors to account. Truth-telling of this sort is bound to be damaging to the many reputations it encompasses, and it should come as no surprise when its victims, or their representatives, attempt to strike back. Yet how rarely are they able to marshal the facts in their own defense. As we have seen in the case of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., what we are offered instead is a wholesale exercise in denial.
Hook has been around long enough to have observed at first hand a good deal of the historical experience he is at pains to recount for us in such vivid detail. His memory is still sharp, and his familiarity with the historical evidence without rival. He knows where the bodies are buried, and if the task he has assumed in disinterring so many political corpses is not always a pretty one—and it is not—it is nonetheless an extremely important one at this moment of history when, as the result of the war in Vietnam and the other cataclysms of the 60’s that shattered the liberal anti-Communist movement in this country, an entrenched revisionism has induced a phenomenal historical amnesia to spread like a plague among intellectuals and politicians alike.
It is sobering to look back now to the time—1949-50, say, the period that saw the publication of books like The Vital Center and The Liberal Imagination—when some of the finest minds of the American intellectual class were vigorously engaged in the effort to free our democratic culture from the noxious illusions about totalitarianism that had cost our country—and the world—so much in the preceding decade, and were gratefully admired for doing so. The world has changed, but has it really changed for the better as far as the power and influence of democracy are concerned? Are we less endangered now than we were then? Communism was then clearly and correctly perceived to be a worldwide threat to the survival of democratic institutions, but it actually controlled the fate of far fewer inhabitants of the globe than it does today. Under Stalin, both the military power of the Soviet Union and its vast espionage apparatus were seen to constitute a danger to every non-Communist society in the world—including that of the United States—yet Gorbachev commands a far greater war machine than any Stalin ever had at his disposal, and if recent revelations are any guide, a no less effective espionage network. By every significant measure, the Soviet Union is a far more formidable adversary today than it was forty years ago, and one of the things that makes it more formidable is its unbroken record of conquest in the intervening years. It already enjoys an unchallenged hegemony in more parts of the world than it did forty years ago, and the momentum of its drive to seek further conquests shows no sign of abatement.
Yet the intellectual class in this country which once met with intelligence and valor what was, in truth, a simpler and less daunting challenge to the survival of our political institutions and our cultural traditions than the one we face today has been transformed, for the most part, into a force that at best withholds its assent from American initiatives on the world scene and at worst actively argues in support of policies guaranteed to diminish our resistance to Communist expansion. In 1949, when Arthur Schlesinger looked back on an intellectual class similarly disposed to forfeit its defense of free institutions, he spoke without fear of contradiction of a trahison des clercs. Today, he—or anyone else—who spoke in such terms would be run out of the academy with cries of McCarthyism! It is because it speaks to this macabre situation with such courage and probity that Sidney Hook’s Out of Step is finally such an indispensable text for our time.
1 Harper & Row, 628 pp., $29.95.
2 I refer, of course, to Michael Straight. In a new book on the Blunt affair—Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 616 pp., $22.95)—we are reminded that it was to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., then a member of President Kennedy's White House staff, that Straight confessed his involvement with the Soviet espionage apparatus. Kennedy had offered Straight the chairmanship of a new agency, the Advisory Council on the Arts, and Straight knew what would happen when the routine check by the FBI was carried out. Schlesinger then arranged for Straight to tell his story to the FBI, and it was Straight's confession that led to the unmasking of Blunt as a Soviet agent.
3 See “Parrington, Mr. Smith, and Reality,” in Partisan Review, January-February 1940. It is interesting, in the present context, to consider Sidney Hook's role in Lionel Trilling's intellectual development. According to Mark Krupnick, in his recent book, Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism, “All through the 30's [Hook] had been the single greatest influence on Trilling's political attitudes.”
4 See “Echoes of Moscow: 1937-1938” by Malcolm Cowley, in the Southern Review, Spring 1984.