Revolution, Reform, and Social Justice
REVOLUTION, REFORM, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE, by Sidney Hook, New York: New York University Press, 1975, 307pp.
In the introduction to this collection of essays, Professor Hook points to two of what he believes are the chief dangers facing democratic societies "in the critical final quarter of the twentieth century": those societies may be destroyed if they botch the job on "pressing social problems" or may yield to totalitarianism because of "an estrangement from the basic values that hold a society together." Wisely foregoing the chance to prescribe exact doses of pet nostrums for those domestic ills, Hook devotes these essays to countering the peril of an intellectual and moral failure of nerve in the democracies.
Hook is mainly concerned in the first eight chapters to challenge what passes for Marxism in various quarters these days. In the remaining four, he examines the politics of violence and civil disobedience, the virtues and vices of bureaucracy, and the demands of "social justice," all in the light of what he takes to be a normative philosophical doctrine of democracy.
From the standpoint of scholarship and logical analysis, Hook succeeds fairly well in the first of these enterprises. Modern Marxists soi-disant and a mob of their camp followers have been imprudent enough to commit their cogitations to print. Such darlings of the woolly-minded as Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse, along with a job lot of academics ranging from Henry D. Aiken to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, have thus provided concrete evidence from which, bringing to bear his erudition in Marxist lore, Hook can convict them of intellectual and moral malfeasance.
"From 'Scientific Socialism' to Mythology," the first and longest chapter, is something of a smorgasbord. Its first part is a turgid and not quite successful attempt to explain Marx's "second coming" in the academy and amongst the intelligentsia. Following this, Hook provides: a devastating critique of the late C. Wright Mills; an examination of the peculiar Marxisms of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Louis Althusser; a discussion of the "new Marx" lately exhumed from the Paris manuscripts of 1844; a good analysis of the varieties of alienation; a review of the recent brouhaha about "the end of ideology;" an essay, "The Temple of the Ten Thousand Marxes;" and an evaluation of Marx's preliminary studies for Das Kapital, lately published as the Grundrisse.
The next chapter, "The Enlightenment and Marxism," is an exercise in the history of ideas, concentrating on the notions of reason and of rights. On the first, Hook shows some of the affinities and continuities between the allegedly concrete, historical approach made so much of by Marxists and the presumably abstract, unhistorical standpoint of the philosophes (18th-century French philosophers, e.g., Rousseau and Voltaire). The Marxist-Hegelian view turns out to be neither logically coherent nor as brilliantly original as its advocates fondly believe. The outcome confirms one's suspicion that talk invoking History, historical laws, historical processes, etc., is largely cant. On the second point, Hook demonstrates that the Marxist notion of the rights of the citizen—as opposed to what Marx denigrated as the atomistic, negative, and bourgeois rights of man—is exceedingly confused.
Chapter 3 examines the theory of revolution, as expounded by Marx and Engels and as understood by Hook, and the radical revision and distortion of that theory at the hands of Lenin. This, along with the eighth chapter, "Rethinking the Bolshevik October Revolution," provides more evidence against historical materialism and the Marxist doctrine of economic determinism. It also demonstrates Lenin's amorality and opportunism and the Bolshevik betrayal of the Russian people.
In the survey in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of some modern radical views on revolution, there is a useful discussion of the concepts of revolution and of reform. Not unexpectedly, Hook finds no excuse in parliamentary democracies for violent revolt on the French or Russian model. He exposes the irrationality of "the cult of revolution" and warns of "the human costs of revolution."
Following this, in the seventh chapter Hook contemplates the evolution of communism as a political force accompanied by a melange of ideologies contrived ad hoc. Here he even indulges in some mild speculation about the future.
On the whole, little of this is surprising, nor invested with fresh insights freshly expressed. It is, however, handy to have so many views summarized and dissected, with most of the main sources pin-pointed for more study. Unfortunately, the writing is tedious, professorial in the worst sense, and often slipshod. (For example the rules of tense are violated in the clumsy sentence beginning on line 13 of page 73.) Sometimes, too, Hook's thinking seems to be as muddy as that of the people he criticizes. Thus, as quoted in the first paragraph of this review, Hook speaks of an estrangement from "the values that hold a society together." But surely he must know that what holds societies together isn't identical with the liberal, democratic principles he espouses. Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian, and Chinese societies, hardly models of democracy, "held together" with at least as good a run as modern democracies have had. Still farther, why does Hook think that values are the nuts and bolts holding societies together? Indeed, what are values anyway? Another example of muddy thought is Hook's comment (p. 16) that "Sartre sees correctly that in the Stalinist world, the event has become 'an edifying myth.'" I can't make sense of that, and I bet 10 years' salary that Hook and Sartre can't either.
The book also suffers from some annoying failures in documentation. Hook tells, for instance (p. 90), of Rosa Luxembourg's criticism of Lenin's failure to hold elections in 1918, but he gives no source for Luxembourg's statement. Similarly (p. 97), Herbert Marcuse's ideas are characterized as "non-Marxist" and Leninist, but without citation of relevant passages. Still worse, Hook throughout expresses admiration for Marx as a devotee of freedom, a humanist, and a thinker, but Hook does not document these claims for Marx's virtues. (For all I know, those claims may be true. If so, they would support the belief that Marx was addled.)
By and large, however, these first eight chapters do make good Hook's case against the different sorts of Marxism he has examined. He does not fare as well, though, in the second of his enterprises, defending his version of a democratic political philosophy. The critical acumen used with such good effect against the Marxists hasn't been applied with equal vigor to the notions that Hook favors, such as the welfare state, rights, equality, and social justice. For example, Hook is in favor of equality. But he agrees that mere quantitative equality in the possession of economic goods won't do, as Aristotle pointed out in discussing justice in the Nichomachean Ethics. Consequently, Hook finds himself refining, redefining, and qualifying the notion beyond all recognition. Clarity and cogency would have been served had he spoken of justice instead of wasting effort trying to save the French Revolution's notion of egalite.
His defense of more traditional aspects of parliamentary democracy is also unconvincing, and for similar reasons. He simply asserts the virtues of majority rule, respect for minority views, freedom of the press, and so forth. Those already in agreement can sleepily nod their heads as the platitudes go by, getting the same warm glow of edification as from a sermon in a fashionable suburban church. Those who disagree, however, don't find arguments with which to contend.
In sum, this book can serve as an introduction to some of the major issues that fall under the rubric of "Marxism." It is not, however, a book that will keep you up all night.
Sidney Trivus teaches philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Revolution, Reform, and Social Justice".