Towards an Understanding of Sidney Hook

Christopher Phelps

THIS ARTICLE IS adapted from the forthcoming book Young Sidney Hook by Christopher Phelps, to be published by Cornell University Press in Fall 1997.  Copyright 1997 by Cornell University.  Used by permission of the publisher.

Ten years ago, Alan Wald’s widely reviewed The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (1987) reignited discussion of the American Marxist intellectual tradition in a revolutionary socialist and anti-Stalinist vein. The ATC editorial board believes the impending 1997 publication of Christopher Phelps’ Young Sidney Hook will be an important advance in that discussion.

In this selection from “Young Sidney Hook”, Phelps recounts the publication and importance of Hook’s “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” (1933), a brilliant work of Marxist philosophy which the later Hook, as an ardent Cold Warrior, never allowed to be republished.  Phelps also explains how Hook broke with the Communist Party, embarking on a fruitful five-year period as an independent Marxist.

Prior to this excerpt, Phelps tells of Hook’s childhood in New York’s immigrant slums, explains the genesis of his revolutionary politics in militant high school opposition to the First World War, outlines his conversion to pragmatism under the influence of his teacher John Dewey, sketches his visits to Germany and the Soviet Union to research Marx and Hegel, and clarifies his proximity to the Communist Party, including public support for the Communist ticket in the 1932 presidential campaign.

We believe that “Young Sidney Hook” will make an important contribution to current discussions of socialism and democracy and testifies to the undiminished potential for a historical materialist approach to intellectual history.  Its most controversial aspect, however, is likely to be its fresh perspective on American pragmatism.

Pragmatism, which maintains that the value and veracity of ideas is best determined by their consequences in practical experience, is currently experiencing a renaissance in philosophy, literature, politics, legal theory, and feminism.  Traditionally Marxism and pragmatism have been seen as antithetical: Marxists have viewed pragmatists as opportunists, pragmatists have viewed Marxists as dogmatists.  The leading contemporary pragmatist, Richard Rorty, advocates “postmodern bourgeois liberalism” and is deeply influenced by the skepticism of the linguistic turn.

Phelps reminds us of a very different moment in the history of pragmatism: the young Sidney Hook, who viewed Marxism and pragmatism as mutually historical, naturalist, democratic, and experimental in method.

Christopher Phelps, an editor of “Against the Current”, is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon.

AS HIS CONFLICTS with the dominant forces within the Communist movement mounted, Sidney Hook put the finishing touches on “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation” (1933), a masterful examination that even today remains one of the most compelling guides to Marx’s thought.  The book took germinal form in some of Hook’s writings and talks of the late 1920s.  It was, in finished form, his greatest accomplishment of the early 1930s.

The book’s release, timed to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Marx’s death, coincided with the “bank holiday” declared by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in March 1933, a date which seemed to mark the nadir of capitalism’s basic financial institutions.

The premise of “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx was that Marxism” is not an armchair philosophy of retrospection, but a philosophy of social action; more specifically, a theory of social revolution.”  [1] Since Marx’s death, that understanding, Hook argued, had been buried beneath an accumulation of interpretations to the contrary.  The first and most powerful half of “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” was devoted, hence, not to explicating Marx but to a critical history of his interpreters.

The eclipse of the active element in Marxist theory was due, Hook held, mainly to the rise of reformist Social Democracy in nineteenth-century Germany, a phenomenon which he explained by historical factors: Economically, Germany rose to imperialist stature, permitting state insurance and rising wages for skilled workers, and encouraging nationalism and conservative trade unionism; politically, the combined influence of Bismarckian repression and subsequent liberalization caused timidity among leading socialists, a penchant for restrained language and a desire to maintain electoral respectability.

The two wings of German Social Democracy-the “orthodoxy” of Karl Kautsky and Rudolph Hilferding, which held Marxism to be an objective science of social development proving the inevitability of socialism, and the “revisionism” of Edward Bernstein, who argued for abandoning talk of revolution altogether and declaring the party an association of democratic social reform-were in Hook’s judgment equally illegitimate claims to the tradition of Marx: “Instead of dialectical materialism, the German socialists became sensationalist and mechanical, ignoring praxis.”  [2] (9, 33)

Marxist orthodoxy between 1895 and 1917, Hook wrote, was “not only fatal to honest thinking; it involved the abandonment of the revolutionary standpoint which was central to Marx’s life and thought.”  His criticism of Marxism’s ossification within German Social Democracy and the falsity of the social-democratic claim to uphold Marx’s method was consistent with Georg Lukacs’ essays in “History and Class Consciousness” (1923), especially “What is Orthodox Marxism?” But Hook was even closer to Karl Korsch, whose “Marxism and Philosophy?” (1923) declined to compete for the mantle of “orthodoxy,” renouncing the very impulse to orthodoxy as dogmatic and religious.  [3]

Hook gave rather grudging credit to Lukacs for linking “Marx up-unfortunately much too closely-with the stream of classical German philosophy.”  Korsch had confirmed the “practical-historical axis of Marx’s thought,” Hook wrote, though he had underestimated “the difficulties in treating the formal aspect of Marx’s thought from this point of view.”  (ix, xii)

Reformists seemed on surest footing in their claims to orthodoxy-that is, accurate representation of Marx-when citing certain phrases of Engels, Marx’s lifelong collaborator.  But even Engels, Hook maintained, was not what German Social Democracy had made him out to be. In a series of late-life letters which Hook translated into English for the first time and appended to his book, Engels warned against fetishism of legality and crude economic determinism.  The “orthodoxy” of Social Democracy, Hook concluded, was in reality based upon a highly selective reading of Engels.  (4)

One contemporaneous challenge to Second International reformism came from French syndicalist Georges Sorel, who was appalled by parliamentary cooptation in France and trade union conservatism in Germany.  Sorel, wrote Hook, repudiated the reformist fetishism of pacifism and celebrated direct mass action but fell prey to irrationalism and anti-intellectualism with a cult of “myth” that foresook rational politics.

Marxism’s real line of preservation lay elsewhere, in the theory and activism of Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and Russian Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin.  Both Luxemburg and Lenin had criticized social-democratic reformism, pressed for working-class self-emancipation, repudiated economism (the idea that workers left to their ordinary struggles over wages and conditions will automatically rise to revolution), and advocated that the seizure of political power be the aim of the socialist movement.

Whereas the German Social Democrats voted for war bonds, Luxemburg and Lenin argued for class struggle to defeat imperialism and war. Thus, as the leaders of the Second International proudly proclaimed their Marxist “orthodoxy,” Luxemburg and Lenin and their sundry “deviations” had shown a greater fidelity to the revolutionary method of Marx and Engels.

Neither Luxemburg nor Lenin-the heroes of Hook’s book-passed without criticism.  On the famous point of dispute between the two over forms of socialist organization, Hook came down on Lenin’s side, judging tight discipline appropriate to Russia’s repressive conditions.  Hook also dissented from Luxemburg on national liberation, challenging her theory that accumulation crisis would inexorably require imperialism’s collapse at its core.

As for Lenin, Hook resurrected his epistemological objections to the mechanical materialism of Lenin’s “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”.  In contrast to some of his writings of the 1920s, however, Hook was appreciative of Lenin’s general intellectual contributions, especially the emphasis upon revolutionary practice in “What Is to Be Done?” In that call to action, Hook maintained, lay Lenin’s “true philosophy,” that which he actually had to follow in order to bring about the Soviet revolution.  Hook went so far as to praise Lenin as the only accurate interpreter of Marx. (62-64)

Mistaken interpretations of Marx, Hook argued, depended upon the extraction of his statements from their polemical context.  Only a historical reading of Marx, one that positioned him in relation to the doctrines he sought to refute, would reveal his method.  What seems wildly contradictory in Marx-here incitement to voluntary action, there an emphasis on unalterable economic causality-becomes “the application of the same principles and purposes to different historical situations,” if grasped contextually.  (67)

Another frequent mistake, Hook wrote, was to seek in Marx’s writings an absolute law or pure science: “Social science is class science; and what Marx means by science is not what is meant by the word today, but criticism based upon the observable tendencies of social development.”  Because revolutionary commitment infused all of Marx’s theory, the search for an objective Marxist science outside of class struggle would end in frustration or distortion.  (69)

At the core of Marx’s thinking was his dialectical method, which Hook argued had a number of exceptional characteristics: an historical and materialist basis, unlike Hegel’s idealist abstraction; an insistence on cultural interconnectedness without any single explanatory principle; an admission of the interrelation of cause and effect, so that consciousness was not simply effect and the external world not merely causal; and the realization that social change occurs through a combination of social conditions, felt needs, and action.

Although Marx carried over from Hegel the dialectical understanding that change involves unity through preservation, difference in destruction, and qualitative novelty, Marx did not, according to Hook, take dialectics to mean an abstract triadic model capable of mechanical application to any social process.  Marx merely took from idealism the insight that knowledge is active and that sensations are social, not mere biological impressions on passive subjects.

The significance of Marx’s method was not its abstract character, as so many mistakenly supposed, but its practical implications.  Proper dialectical understanding, Hook explained, illuminates the path between and beyond reform and utopia.  Reformers try to mediate irreconcilables, utopians to suppress cultural and economic continuities.  Each meets with futility.  Revolutionary socialism, by contrast, pursues sweeping social transformation while simultaneously proposing to build from what exists.

Marxism draws upon the visionary qualities of utopianism as well as the practicality of the reform impulse, while refusing either to draw up fixed blueprints of the new social order or to capitulate to contemporary political situations.  “Marxism,” Hook concluded, “is neither a science nor a myth, but a realistic method of social action.”  (114)

Marxism and Pragmatism

“Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” received a wide audience and high praise from reviewers.  In “The Nation”, independent radical Benjamin Stolberg pronounced the book “the most significant contribution to Marxism which has as yet appeared in America” and gushed that “it is thrilling to behold such intellectual courage in a university teacher.”  In “The New Republic,” the British scholar of politics Harold J. Laski called “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” “the most stimulating introduction” to Marx “so far written in English.”  [5]

Along with the praise came a telling line of criticism.  Although Hook had not explicitly sought to reconcile pragmatism and Marxism in his book, he was faulted for mixing the two doctrines.  Hook had in fact been the favorite student of John Dewey, the most important pragmatist philosopher of the twentieth century.  Accusations that he was attempting to import Dewey into Marx were probably made with knowledge of that connection.

Beliefs are rules for action, the pragmatist theory of inquiry argues, and thinking is the production of habits for action.  Our conception of an object, according to pragmatists, is determined by our understanding of its potential effects.  The coherence of any idea is insufficient to judge the idea’s veracity or “warranted assertibility” (the substitute term for truth that Dewey came to prefer because of its less absolutist connotations).

Ideas must be verifiable in experience.  Dewey, in fact, preferred the term “experimentalism” over “instrumentalism” or “pragmatism” to describe his philosophy.

This extension of basic scientific method into the realm of social and moral life Dewey distinguished from preceding empiricisms because of its emphasis upon creative thought in the generation of knowledge.  Pragmatists contend that people are not mere creatures of physical or spiritual forces.  Humans anticipate and aim toward-and thereby shape, to one degree or another-future outcomes.

Since future consequences cannot always be foreseen, pragmatism requires that all propositions be treated as hypothetical, fallible, and provisional.  At the same time, classical pragmatists refuse to condone cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism and strive to enhance self-critical intelligence and expand democracy.  [6]

Although Dewey’s name had not appeared once in the entire text of “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx,” both Laski and Stolberg perceived his undue influence.  “By using .  .  .  characteristically pragmatic terms in all their technical implications,” wrote Stolberg, “Dr. Hook persuades himself that Marx was a sort of left-wing, revolutionary Dewey.  The truth is that both the Marxian epistemology and its psychology are the exact opposite….Marxian `instrumentalism’ has none of the worship of empiricism of the pragmatists.  It is calculated to advance revolutionary tactics within a strictly” a priori social logic.  It learns from means only when they are conceived to serve its ends, while pragmatism is the idolatry of endless means.  Pragmatism, indeed, is the most sophisticated expression of the planlessness of modern capitalism.”  [7]

Stolberg was correct about the pragmatist undercurrents of “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx”.  But in reproducing the left’s conventional biases against pragmatism, he failed to engage Hook’s arguments.  He omitted, for example, Hook’s pragmatist reading of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach, which Hook astutely took to mean, “Any problem which cannot be solved by some actual or possible practice may be dismissed as no genuine problem at all.”  (76)

In linking pragmatism to capitalism, Stolberg simply could not admit to the possibility of the revolutionary socialist pragmatism conceived by Hook. “The task of the revolutionary philosopher,” Hook had written, “is to bring social classes to an awareness of what it is they are doing and of the historical conditions of their activity.”  (185)

By associating pragmatism with capitalism even in a text that held as its explicit principle the abolition of capitalism, Stolberg had substituted intellectual prejudice for argument.  Stolberg’s “Nation” review was nevertheless representative of the fate Hook’s project would so often meet on the left, despite widespread recognition of his lucidity and scholarship.  [8]

Communism and Philosophy

The leaders of the Communist Party were unable to temper their criticism, as Stolberg did, with appreciation of Hook’s achievement.  Their vitriol was peculiar, since “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” did not once polemicize against the Marxism of the Comintern or express any qualms about developments in the Soviet Union since 1917.[9] Hook’s salute to Lenin and the Third International as the rescuers of Marx from reformism was a fact that did not escape the book’s reviewers.  “To Dr. Hook,” wrote Stolberg, “it is Lenin who is the greatest Marxian revolutionary, not merely tactically but also dialectically.”[10]

Nonetheless, “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” was sure to provoke Communist misgivings.  Hook endorsed dialectical materialism in a form incompatible with that doctrine as it was coming to be defined by the Communist Party.  Communist theoreticians increasingly treated Marxism as an infallible science capable of revealing absolute historical laws, presented the dialectic as a tripartite formula of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, and treated culture as a secondary sphere fundamentally determined by an economic base.[11]

By challenging Communism to abandon such narrow formulations, by arguing that this sort of philosophical dogma had nothing in common with Marx, by criticizing Russian masters like Georgi Plekhanov and Nikolai Bukharin for their monistic simplification, by expressing debt to the heretics Lukacs and Korsch, Hook had not merely pushed philosophical boundaries.  He had overstepped them.

Had Hook’s sole difference with the Communist Party been its Third Period program, he might have been able to sustain a relationship of critical sympathy with the party, for soon after the German disaster the CP began to advocate a “united front from below”-a stunted form of the united front in which party members tried to persuade rank-and-file socialists to join them in common action while still denouncing socialist leaders in emphatic terms.

The Comintern’s sectarianism and contribution to the Nazi seizure of power, however, were only one issue in Hook’s rupture with the American Communist Party.  A sustained attack on his own writings, immediately after the 1932 election had concluded, was more important.  Although “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” had not yet appeared in print, Hook had completed the manuscript and had since 1930 been publishing articles enunciating its themes.  When vilification of Hook erupted in the party press just prior to the publication of “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx,” it was clear that the party was preparing in advance for the book’s appearance.

Late in 1932, Hook received a telephone call from Joseph Freeman.  Freeman invited him to a meeting with top party officials to discuss his views on Marxism.  Rumors had been circulating that the party wanted to recruit Hook, perhaps because of his status as an authority on Marx, perhaps in order to utilize his connections to win over Dewey.  But when Hook reached the ninth floor of party headquarters on East 13th Street, he found that the meeting had quite a different purpose.

Hook was directed to a table at which sat the party’s highest leaders, including Earl Browder, Clarence Hathaway, James Ford, Alexander Trachtenberg, Sam Don, Avram Landy, Joseph Pass, Joseph Freeman, Robert Minor and V.J. Jerome.  Browder requested a summary of his forthcoming book and Hook delivered it. Then Sam Don-a graduate of the Lenin School in Moscow who served for years on the staff of “The Daily Worker’-argued adamantly against Hook, claiming that Hook’s arguments for the primacy of historical process rather than physical matter were idealist and citing a number of passages from Engels to prove it.

Hook responded that because revolutionaries seek to create a new society different from existing reality, the mirror theory of consciousness was inadequate; a copy-book theory of knowledge could not account for anticipation, let alone imagination.

The argument, which lasted over an hour, also touched upon Hook’s disparagement of universal laws of social development, his views on dialectics, and his doubt that Marx meant the “inevitability” of communism to be taken literally.  Trachtenberg, Freeman and Browder appeared to Hook to be fairly receptive to his arguments, except on the question of the dialectic, which Hook interpreted simply as the element of conscious activity in human action and did not believe extended to nature itself.

Browder asked Hook how he then differed from Max Eastman, a figure scorned by the party in part for his own renunciations of the dialectical theory of nature.  Hook recounted his severe criticisms of Eastman’s attack on dialectics and conception of revolution as social engineering.

Party leaders also appeared discomfited by Hook’s assertion of the relative autonomy of politics and philosophy.  Hook explained his view that dialectical materialism or any other metaphysical position did not necessarily entail any specific set of social beliefs, so that one could be a communist or socialist and not a dialectical materialist, or a materialist without espousing socialism.

After the meeting ended, with Hook having provided his answer to each criticism leveled against his work, he and Browder retired for a cup of coffee to a cafeteria on University Place, where Browder complained to Hook about the chaos caused to the party in 1929 by the departure of the Lovestone group.[12]

Although Hook had answered his opponents, he had not dissuaded them. Hook’s most persistent antagonist during the meeting, Sam Don, was at that time, unbeknownst to Hook, a critic of Browder’s conciliatory gestures toward “bourgeois intellectuals.”  Former “Daily Worker” correspondent Sender Garlin describes Don as a “literal- minded kind of fundamentalist,” and Don proved true to that reputation in his volley against Hook in a “Daily Worker” article on December 14, 1932.

Don castigated Hook and even upbraided the party’s theoretical magazine, “The Communist”, for having not yet attacked Hook’s “scholastic and absolute revisionism.”  This scorcher made Hook the first intellectual supporter of Foster and Ford to come under party fire.[13] The January 1933 issue of “The Communist”, as if in answer to Don’s cue, unveiled a condemnation of Hook by V.J. Jerome, “Unmasking an American Revisionist of Marxism.”

Although he had clearly sided with Don during the ninth- floor meeting, Jerome, who had audited a course of Hook’s at NYU in 1930-31, had refrained from saying much in the course of the debate.  His article was crude and tendentious.  Jerome ignored Hook’s admiration for Marx and Lenin and his repeated criticisms of the social-democratic views of Bernstein, Kautsky and Hilferding, baselessly imputing to Hook the view that “not in Marx, not in Lenin, nowhere except in German revisionism can Hook find the true Marxism!”

Jerome accused Hook of being “a willful distorter and falsifier of Marxism,” and maintained that Hook’s “pluralistic hypotheses are a return from scientific militant materialism to reactionary idealist experientialism.”  He dismissed Hook’s polemics against Max Eastman as quarrels within the same bourgeois family, and linked both Hook and Eastman by their association with Dewey, whom Jerome described “ad hominem’ as “this American bourgeois in cap and gown” and “a blatant supporter of the social-fascist presidential candidate, Norman Thomas!” The fact that Hook, in contrast to Dewey, had thrown his public support behind the Communist slate was conveniently suppressed.

Jerome blustered that “with Hook the speaker for the proletarian platform has come Hook the ideologist of the platform for the bourgeoisie, Hook the carrier of the specific philosophy of the American bourgeoisie dressed in phrases of Marxism.”  In a final triumph of Third Period logic, Jerome proclaimed that “despite his objective position among the intellectuals uniting toward the revolutionary movement, Hook is subjectively a force pulling away from it.”[14]


The attack did not impress radical intellectuals.  Not even those who were themselves critical of Hook’s pragmatism found Jerome’s approach productive.  Rather than stigmatize Hook, Jerome’s hatchet job reinforced the convictions of many who already held the Communist Party’s theoretical and political approach hapless.

J.B.S. Hardman, editor of a trade union publication, “The Advance,” wrote to Hook that, “If the job had not been done so clumsily and to a considerable degree dishonestly, I should not like to take exception to it, for the `revision’ is there.  The trouble with professional and labeled Marxians is that they neither know Marx nor care to know him; if anybody isn’t going about the matter religiously he is their enemy entirely.  They only feel safe in an atmosphere of faith.  Then they know how to exact it and how to break it.”[15]

Jerome’s blast failed even to satisfy those intellectuals who remained dedicated Communists.  “New Masses” editor Granville Hicks wrote to Hook that “it ought to be possible to criticize a man’s ideas without calling him a social- fascist,” and confessed that, “Personally I cannot accept your instrumentalism, and I should have welcomed an intelligent analysis of it. But Jerome’s article is practically worthless.”[16]

Even at the late date of September 1933, Smith College professor Newton Arvin wrote Hook that he had greatly enjoyed “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx:” “I don’t know what the official Party attitude toward it is (though I suppose it is unfavorable), but if you are still proscribed as a heretic, I fear that I am one, too, for I haven’t succeeded in seeing anything that, in my ignorance perhaps, strikes me as wrong with it.”[17]

The smear campaign against Hook did not abate, however.  In January 1933, the “Daily Worker” unleashed a wave of invective against him. One article described approvingly the disruption by hecklers of a teachers’ meeting at which Hook and his old City College professor Harry Overstreet spoke.[18]

In another “Daily Worker” polemic, H.M. Wicks-a “master of vituperation,” as one former Communist who knew him recalls-purported to explain “how Hook serves capitalists.”  After calling Hook a “shallow vulgarizer,” “muddled pretender” and “philosophic hack,” Wicks alleged that Hook had been privately telling “those who will listen that no one in the Communist Party, U.S.A. or in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union knows the first thing about philosophy.”[19]

In February and March, “The Communist” published Hook’s reply to Jerome, which Hook had shared with Arvin, Hicks, and Corliss Lamont prior to publication.[20] The move was highly unusual for a journal devoted to laying down uniformly correct positions, since it admitted implicitly the value of exchange over fundamental differences within Marxism.  Rather than simply produce Hook’s reply, however, “The Communist” printed it within a two-part article by party leader Earl Browder, sandwiching long passages from Hook’s response betwixt Browder’s point-by-point rebuttal.

Jerome and Wicks came in for some criticism from Browder for the clumsy manner in which they had carried out their attacks, but Browder came down on their side on the general charge that Hook had “an understanding of Marxism in conflict with that of the Communist Party and the Communist International.”  Hook began his rebuttal to Jerome with quotations from Marx, Lenin, even Stalin-this was the first and only time that Hook would summon Stalin as a positive authority in defense of a position-meant to demonstrate that each rejected dogmatism.

Hook justly accused Jerome of “intellectual dishonesty” for misrepresenting his position and called for a “creative Marxism” rather than one based upon sacred texts.  “The teachings of Marx, Engels and Lenin are the most valuable truths we have .  .  .  .  But they themselves have urged that any movement which refuses to learn new things in new situations-to submit all principles to the test of experience and action-is doomed to sectarianism and futile failure.”

Browder, however, accused Hook of arrogance in presuming that he, and not the Communist parties of the world, understood Marxism properly.  Hook’s philosophy, Browder concluded, was idealist, so that “while it puts on a brave revolutionary face as emphasizing action, more action, [it] achieves the opposite result in reality by laying the foundation for confusion and disruption.”[21]

Before the exchange, Hook harbored hopes that Browder would come to his defense, though in a letter to Will Herberg he lamented “illiterate party bureaucrats like Jerome and Don and Wicks, [who] attempt to settle things merely by quotation.”  With the mutilation of his reply to Jerome in “The Communist” and Browder’s refutation, it was clear that Hook could expect no redemption from on high.

“What a piece of work,” wrote Herberg.

Are you satisfied now that you can expect nothing from Browder?  Browder not only endorses all of Jerome’s lies and outright forgeries but even “blames” Jerome for not going far enough: “Jerome’s crime in this respect is serious because he thereby detracted slightly from the full force of his attack against Hook’s revisionism.”  In my opinion, Browder’s article is even more ignorant and even more indecent, if that is possible, than Jerome’s.

Morris U. Schappes concurred: “Well, Browder is as bad as Jerome, and he doesn’t seem able to learn from your demonstration of Jerome’s blunders.”[22]

By late spring 1933, Hook and the Communist Party were completely estranged.  Hook’s philosophical convictions ran too deep to permit him to capitulate to party authority, as Browder insisted.  Precisely because he remained a communist and revolutionary Marxist, Hook was unable to submit to the authoritarian and monolithic form of discipline that had been demanded from him by the Communist Party.

The onslaught against Hook’s Marxism by party officials had only given urgency to a differentiation long in the making.  Hook’s pragmatism had given to his Marxism a methodological emphasis upon provisional truth rather than absolute certainty, scientific inquiry over doctrinaire fidelity, flux and change over fixity and determinism, and the potential of human action over fatalism.  Although Hook did not deny the importance of theoretical works and historical conditioning, he sought to restore the active and subjective component of Marxism against the hardened Marxism propounded by the Second International.

While occasionally critical of official Communism, Hook had been a dedicated fellow-traveler and political supporter of the Communist Party.  His criticisms derived not from a hostility to communism as a principle and social goal, but from the perception that official Communism was straying from its stated aim and classical theory.

Intellectual historian Morton White once wrote that John Dewey had led a “revolt against formalism” in philosophy.[23] Likewise, Hook helped to initiate a revolt against formalism within American Marxism.  The formalists, typified by Jerome, Wicks, Don and Browder, temporarily crushed his revolt.  Unwittingly they had driven him to revolution.

Hook had sought to refute the copy-book materialism of Lenin in “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism,” but only so as to make sense of the revolutionary activism of the Lenin of “What Is to Be Done?” Now, it appeared, Lenin and the rest of the revolutionary tradition required rescue from the Communists.


  1. Hook, “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” (New York: John Day, 1933), 9.  Subsequent page references are to this work unless otherwise noted.
  2. The latter phrase illustrates why Paul Buhle is mistaken to interpret “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” as a critique of dialectical materialism.  Only much later did Hook treat dialectical materialism as metaphysical dogma.  In “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx,” Hook considered dialectical materialism the correct term for Marx’s philosophical standpoint.  Of course, like Hook’s earlier article on the subject, “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” emphasizes the dialectical, or active and historical, nature of Marx’s materialism.  He meant nothing religious, mystical or dogmatic by it. Perhaps Buhle meant to counterpose the book to Stalinism, but since Hook never criticizes the Communist Party or its official philosophy explicitly anywhere in the book, even that interpretation would have to be heavily qualified.  Paul Buhle, “Marxism in the USA” (London: Verso, 1987): 166-67.
  3. Georg Lukacs, “History and Class Consciousness,” trans.  Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: MIT, 1971), and Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy”, trans.  Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review, 1970).
  4. A common criticism of “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” is its supposed bias against Engels, whom, critics allege, Hook blamed for supplying the scriptural justification for economic determinism in Marxism.  The objection is inexplicable.  It is true that Hook criticized Engels in places.  He also criticized Marx and Lenin.  But Hook summoned Engels as an authority just as often, and he criticized those Marxists who cited Engels to justify their economic determinism and fatalism.  The letters translated by Hook and appended to the book were meant to demonstrate Engels’ flexibility and opposition to economic determinism.
    >The allegation that Hook maligned Engels is not merely mistaken.  It misleads, because Hook’s interpretation of Engels was situated strategically within his central project of rescuing both Marx and Engels from their doctrinal usurpation by the Second International.  It is ironic that Hook’s attempt to refute a one-sided reading of Engels has been met by a similar reading of Hook. Those who have faulted the early Hook, especially “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx,” for a supposed anti-Engels bias include: Max Eastman, “The Last Stand of Dialectical Materialism: A Study of Sidney Hook’s Marxism” (New York: Polemic Publishers, 1934); Cristiano Camporesi, “The Marxism of Sidney Hook,” Telos 12 (Summer 1972): 115-127; Alan Wald, “The New York Intellectuals” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1987): 125-6; Buhle, “Marxism in the USA,” 166; and George Novack, “Polemics in Marxist Philosophy” (New York: Pathfinder, 1978): 109.  For favorable references to Engels by Hook, see “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx,” 30-33, 117, 129, 139, 153- 54, 172, 179-80, 182-83; for critical reference to Marx and Lenin, whose assertions that revolution in the U.S. might come about peacefully struck Hook as untenable, see 290-93.
  5. Harold J. Laski, Introduction to Marx, “The New Republic” 75 (28 June 1933): 186-187; Benjamin Stolberg, The Americanization of Karl Marx, “The Nation” 136 (12 April 1933): 414-415.
  6. Readers familiar only with the neo-pragmatism of philosopher Richard Rorty and others influenced by the linguistic turn may be surprised by this anatomy of classical pragmatism (or “paleo-pragmatism,” as historian Robert Westbrook has dubbed it).  The contemporary pragmatist boom, which reaches well beyond philosophy into feminism, legal theory and literary criticism, often takes forms influenced by post-structuralism and post- modernism.  Neo-pragmatism differs in important ways from the Deweyan intellectual milieu in which Hook, as a second-generation pragmatist, formed his views.  The literature on pragmatism is immense, but for several useful historical overviews, see David A. Hollinger, “The Problem of Pragmatism in American History,” “In the American Province” (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1985): 23-43; Cornel West, “The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism” (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1989); Richard J. Bernstein, “The Resurgence of Pragmatism,” in “Social Research” 59:4 (Winter 1992): 813-840; and James T. Kloppenberg, “Pragmatism: an Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?” in “The Journal of American History” 83:1 (June 1996): 100-138.
  7. Harold J. Laski, “Introduction to Marx,” in “The New Republic” 75 (28 June 1933): 186-187; Benjamin Stolberg, “The Americanization of Karl Marx,” in “The Nation” 136 (12 April 1933): 414-415.
  8. In the intervening years, pragmatism and Marxism have been repeatedly counterposed.  For the case that pragmatism is petty-bourgeois, which rests upon the historical association of pragmatism with political liberalism and middle-class reform currents, see George Novack, “Pragmatism versus Marxism” (New York: Pathfinder, 1975).  For the argument that it is the ideological expression of monopoly capital and imperialism, which draws upon Dewey’s pro-war stance during the First World War and his criticism of the Soviet Union, see Maurice Cornforth, “In Defense of Philosophy: Against Positivism and Pragmatism” (London: Lawrence & Wisehart, 1950); Harry K. Wells, “Pragmatism: Philosophy of Imperialism” (New York: International, 1954); and J.S., “Against Pragmatism,” in “The Communist” 2 (Summer/Fall 1978): 3-60.  A facile dismissal of pragmatism is also made by Shlomo Avineri in “The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx” (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1968): 74-5.  Each of these three strands counterposes Marxism and pragmatism from a particular left-wing perspective—Trotskyist, Stalinist and social-democratic, respectively—but there have from time to time been more sympathetic treatments of pragmatism from within Trotskyism and social democracy, at least.  See, for instance, James Kloppenberg, “Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920” (New York: Oxford, 1986).  For a neo-pragmatist call for radical intellectuals to dispense with Marxism and socialism, see Richard Rorty, “The Intellectuals at the End of Socialism,” in “Yale Review” 80:1-2 (April 1992): 1-16.
  9. On the contrary, Hook hailed the Soviet Union’s “progressive elimination of national, cultural and racial hostilities among its heterogenous peoples,” which he said had been done by “voluntary participation in a socialist economy” and “not by suppressing national units or indigenous cultures” (247), an estimation that he would come to reconsider rather quickly.
  10. Stolberg, 414.
  11. For a sampling of Stalinist philosophy from the 1930s, all of which attempt to codify dialectical materialism into a fixed system, see: V. Adoratsky, “Dialectical Materialism” (New York: International, 1934); Howard Selsam, “What is Philosophy?  A Marxist Introduction” (New York: International, 1938); David Guest, “A Textbook of Dialectical Materialism” (New York: International, 1939).
  12. This reconstruction drawn from Hook, “Out of Step”, 158-65.  Hook’s account of the meeting cannot be verified, but his recollection of the conversation’s subjects corresponds to the issues at stake in the subsequent published debate as well as to philosophical positions he expressed in “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx.”  On rumors that the Party sought Hook as a member, see John McDonald to Alan Wald, 6 August 1985 (Hook Papers, Box 133).
  13. Don article: “Daily Worker” (14 Dec. 1932): 4, as quoted in Klehr, “The Heyday of American Communism,” 83, 428 n. 34.  Information on Sam Don (born Sam Donchin) is drawn from A.B. Magil to author, 8 March 1992; and interview with Sender Garlin, 9 May 1992.
  14. All citations from V.J. Jerome, “Unmasking an American Revisionist of Marxism,” in “Communist” (Jan. 1933): 50-82.
  15. J.B.S. Hardman to SH, 17 Jan. 1933 (Hook Papers, Box 2).
  16. Granville Hicks to SH, 25 Jan. 1933 (Hook Papers, Box 2).  Within a few more years, Hicks himself would take a shot at Hook when, at the height of the Popular Front, he published a bit of humorous doggerel in the “New Masses”.  The subject of Hicks’ poem, “Revolution in Bohemia” (1938), is Halstead Weeks, a dilettante who flirts with revolution, only to go over to the anti- Stalinist left and then withdraw from politics completely: “He found the works of Sidney Hook sublime / And planned to read Karl Marx when he had time.”  Granville Hicks in the “New Masses”, ed. Jack Alan Robbins (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1974): 314.
  17. Newton Arvin to SH, 8 Sept. 1933 (Hook Papers, Box 5).
  18. M.B. Schnapper, “Teachers Expose, Discomfit Sidney Hook and Overstreet,” in “Daily Worker” (25 Jan. 1933).
  19. Harry Wicks (1889-1957) was a member of the CP from 1922-1938.  He was expelled after it was discovered that he had been working as an undercover agent for a private company, raising the distinct possibility that Wicks’ attack on Hook was a deliberate exacerbation of tensions by a provocateur.  “Vituperation”: Interview with Sender Garlin, 9 May 1992.  On Wicks: H. M. Wicks, “Revolutionary Theory Applied to Present-Day Problems,” in “Daily Worker” (10 Jan. 1933); Harvey Klehr, “Wicks, Harry,” in “Biographical Dictionary of the American Left,” ed. Bernard K. Johnpoll and Harvey Klehr (New York: Greenwood, 1986): 414-415.
  20. Granville Hicks to SH, 25 Jan. 1933 (Hook Papers, Box 2).
  21. Earl Browder, “The Revisionism of Sidney Hook,” in “Communist” (Feb. 1933), 135, 145, and (Mar. 1933), 289, 299.  The Browder condemnations were given added weight when they were reproduced in Earl Browder, “Communism in the United States” (New York: International, 1935): 316-333.
  22. Will Herberg to SH, 7 Feb. 1933 and 26 Mar. 1933 (Hook Papers, Box 15); Morris U. Schappes to SH, 6 Feb. 1933 (Hook Papers, Box 2).
  23. Morton White, “Social Thought in America” (New York: Viking, 1952).