The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 24, 2019

REFERENCE DESK
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Hook, Sidney
Edward S. Shapiro - 07/20/11
Lifespan: (1902–1989)

One of America’s leading anticommunist intellectuals, Hook supported American entry into the Korean War, the isolation of Red China, the efforts of the United States government to maintain a qualitative edge in nuclear weapons, the Johnson adminis-tration’s attempt to preserve a pro-western regime in South Vietnam, and the campaign of the Reagan administration to overthrow the communist regime in Nicaragua.

Hook’s parents were poor Jewish immigrants who had settled in Williamsburg, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Their son graduated from Brooklyn’s Boys High School in 1919 and from the City College of New York in 1923. It was common at this time for young Jews with an intellectual bent to repudiate Judaism and to adopt a surrogate religion. In Hook’s case this was Marxism. He became a radical at an early age, protesting American involvement in World War I while still in high school.

Hook received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1927. While at Columbia, he fell under the sway of John Dewey, the founder of the philosophy of instrumentalism, an offshoot of pragmatism. Dewey’s influence was seen in Hook’s naturalism, his disdain for metaphysical abstractions, and his faith in intelligence and social planning.

Hook was a Marxist as well as an instrumentalist during the 1930s. He signed the famous 1932 statement “Culture and Crisis” calling for the election of William Z. Foster, the American Communist Party candidate for president. But Hook also recognized that the orthodox Marxism of his day was unacceptable. Its totalitarian monism and determinism conflicted with the openness, freedom, and individualism of Dewey’s instrumentalism. In the early 1930s, Hook’s most fruitful philosophic period, he sought to purge Marxism of Leninism and Stalinism, and to disentangle Marxism from Hegelianism and from the concepts of the dictatorship of the proletariat, historical materialism, the withering away of the state, and the new socialist “collective man.”

The guarantee of individual rights and democratic processes found within the American liberal tradition was more important to Hook than Marxism. For a while he thought liberalism could be fused with Marxism, and he suggested in 1940 that Marxists should look for inspiration to John Dewey. In believing that Marxism could be synthesized with instrumentalism and democracy, Hook’s understanding of Marxism was idiosyncratic and, as he would later write, an “intellectual conceit.”

After 1945, Hook played no role in formulating a socialist alternative to capitalism and individualism. The great postwar debate, he continually emphasized, was not between collectivism and private enterprise but between democracy and its enemies, or, as he put it in 1959, “between the absolutist and the experimental temper of mind.” Hook, however, differed from Walter Lippmann and others who based the defense of democracy on the doctrine of natural rights. For Hook, democracy was not metaphysically but empirically true because it provided more freedom, prosperity, and security than any other political system. His confidence in democracy stemmed not from any belief in the goodness of mankind. He was too familiar with totalitarianism to assume that. Rather, he believed in the possibility of educating the citizenry.

Those both within and outside of conservative circles viewed Hook as one of the gurus of the neoconservative revival during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1985, President Reagan presented Hook with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for being one of the first “to warn the intellectual world of its moral obligations and personal stake in the struggle between freedom and totalitarianism.”

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