Radical Intellectual


Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century, by Sidney Hook, New York: Harper & Row, 628 pages, $29.95

Sidney Hook was born 85 years ago in New York City, where he has lived the greater part of his life and where he is still undoubtedly the best-known academic figure since the heyday of his own great teacher, John Dewey at Columbia. Not that Hook's fame is confined to New York. I can't think of any intellectual's name that would come more quickly to mind in any discussion involving political and cultural affairs in this country, this century, than Sidney Hook's.

All his life he has been in the thick of things ideological but also things academic and scholarly. His commitment to political activism began in high school, where, he tells us, he opted for socialism. He attended City College in New York and then Columbia University, where he took his doctorate in philosophy under the great John Dewey. Hook's portrait of Dewey in this book is by far the best I have read. So are his portraits of Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Whittaker Chambers, and Max Eastman, all winning in their by turns acerbic and affectionate ways.

There is never the suggestion of the all-too-common practice these days of the portraitist insinuating himself into the foreground of the portrait. Hook is admirably detached, though this does not mean a gelded approach to everyone; far from it. He has been fighting the Soviet Union, the Comintern, and the American Communist Party for many years, and he doesn't disappoint us by going soft in his ninth decade on those such as Brecht, whom he once ordered from his home after some particularly callous and Stalinist remark.

One of his more charming stories is of the time that Mary McCarthy, when she was a fellow-writer in Partisan Review, asked Sidney Hook to give her lessons in metaphysics. The professor declined, however, on the advice of his wife, and thus Hook was saved, as he gratefully acknowledges, from winding up as an unsympathetic character in one of her novels.

There has been a good deal written in the last several years about Partisan Review, the best work being by William Barrett, but Hook's pages on the subject in his autobiography lose none of their special poignance. He knew the magazine from the time it first began, as a Stalinist publication at bottom, under Philip Rahv and William Phillips; then its remarkable and heady transformation, under the same editors, a couple of years later into the brilliantly and relentlessly anti-Stalinist, strongly left journal that it was during its most influential years.

Hook was in many ways the father of the Partisan group and, for that matter, of many of the younger intellectuals who have been active, in book, article, and journal, since World War II. Hook was also our one thorough scholar in this country in the '30s and '40s in matters relating to Marx and Marxism. His Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx and From Hegel to Marx, both products of his Partisan Review years in New York in the 1930s, set a standard of internal criticism and contextual understanding not often equaled since.

The fight all through the '30s and '40s waged by Sidney Hook and his anti-Soviet band of radical intellectuals is reminder of the sordid record of not only American liberals, with The New Republic and The Nation in the vanguard, but of our business class in depressing numbers, led by Joseph Davies in his shameful Mission to Moscow and ardently reinforced by President Franklin Roosevelt in the courtship of Stalin and his regime. It was the socialist New Leader and Partisan Review, not any of the mainline magazines like Harper's and Atlantic, much less any of our major newspapers, that spearheaded the assault against, that led the unmasking of, Stalin and his Soviet despotism. I was a student at Berkeley all through the '30s; Stalinist Communism was a very strong force there and throughout the San Francisco area. There was no one who infuriated the Communists and fellow-traveling liberals as much as Hook.

One of the more engrossing parts of Hook's autobiography is his account of first the Waldorf Peace Conference in New York shortly after the war—shot through with Communist influence, as was, about the same time, the Independent Progressive Party of which Henry Wallace was the figurehead—and then the answering organization of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF) and the Congress for Cultural Freedom. These were all watershed events in the 1940s; the Communist-Soviet vein of American thought lost most of the luster it had had among so many Americans from the time of the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941—a luster incessantly burnished by the Roosevelt-Hopkins White House.

But, as Hook makes clear, the ACCF was much more than a phalanx of anti-Sovietism. It fought to stop censorship of Edmund Wilson's Hecate County in Pennsylvania and of other books; it resisted the Catholic Church's efforts to ban certain movies, among them The Miracle; it supported Charlie Chaplin—despite his pro-Soviet stance—when he was under attack by culture vigilantes, and it was among the first to identify and oppose Joe McCarthy. To my clear recollection, this organization, so largely the brainchild of Sidney Hook, did the crucial work in halting and then repulsing the whole Communist thrust in American political and intellectual life during the decade of the '40s.

Sidney Hook knew Whittaker Chambers during the '30s about as well as anyone did. His characterization of Chambers and of his extraordinary career makes for exhilarating reading. It was Hook that Lionel Trilling took one day in 1933 to meet Chambers for lunch and to seek to persuade him to abandon the Communist movement altogether. Trilling knew of Chambers's respect for Hook's mind and learning in revolutionary matters. Trilling "was particularly interested…in having me present my criticisms of the theory of social-fascism to Chambers." It is increasingly difficult to remember that particular Communist effort to destroy all liberal activities (on the ground that "objectively" they hastened the onset of fascists); its sheer idiocy invites memory loss. But at the time more than a few intellectuals were very solemn indeed about the theory, Chambers among them.

Ideas, theories, and concepts are all over the pages of Out of Step, as are many of the signal events of the past 60 years in America: the formation of the American Communist Party, the impact on intellectuals of the Depression, the currents and crosscurrents aroused by the Spanish Civil War, the Pact between Stalin and Hitler in the summer of 1939 and its shattering effect on American radicals, the Roosevelt White House's blatant favoritism toward the Soviets over Great Britain and in utter disregard of postwar geopolitics, and the renascence of Marxist writ and the revolutionary thrust of the 1960s. The New Left had no need for the old-line Communists, nor for labor unions of almost any kind; and it seemed particularly to despise Old Socialists like Hook and New Liberals like John Kenneth Galbraith. In cultural respects the New Left exerted more, and more lasting, force than the Old Left ever had in America.

Sidney Hook's autobiography is among the half-dozen best I have read by Americans of this century. He is remarkably dispassionate in his recollections and latter-day judgments, but this doesn't prevent a very charming, warm, wise, and altogether unsolemn personality from lighting up his subject matter. He is not the same Sidney Hook he was when his name first became known, and he is aware of that. "One would have to be totally devoid of a sense of humor and proportion to claim that one has not changed in the course of a long life." Quite so. And Hook makes his change, and the world's change this century, an exciting, altogether edifying personal history.

Robert Nisbet, a frequent contributor to REASON, is finishing a new book, The Present Age.