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Monday, June 1, 1987

A Reviewers Notebook: Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the Twentieth Century

Sidney Hook’s Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 628 pp., $29.95) is the story of an inspired career that has been responsible on more than one occasion for saving the United States from the disaster of a too trusting agreement with the Soviets.

A professor of philosophy at New York University in the Nineteen Twenties and after, Hook was a foremost disciple of John Dewey. This committed him to a credo that has always seemed to me to have its porous aspects. But porous or not, it never kept Sidney Hook from taking positions that were firmly against totalitarianism of any sort.

Before going into the subject of Hook’s lifelong career in fighting for freedom as a pragmatic good (which it certainly is), I should perhaps indicate the source of my own differences with Hook and Dewey himself. My trouble with Hook is rooted in the Deweyite use of the word “intellectual.”

Midway in his book Sidney Hook breaks off to state his own secular humanist credo. “I have held the lifelong conviction,” he says, “that faith in the existence of an all-powerful and all- loving god has no more intellectual justification than faith in the existence of a cosmic Santa Claus, and I agree with Marx that the critique of religious abstractions is strategic to the critique of all reified abstractions.”

Bringing in Santa Claus and raising the question of a god’s lovingness are distractions from the issue of the so-called argument from design, which is a wholly intellectual construct. Since Hook is committed to a defense of the human mind, he should think twice before rejecting the argument from design as something rooted in mysticism. Either the universe is the result of a series of unpredictable accidents, or it has some preordained order. It is only logical to suppose that some guiding presence that is otherwise completely mysterious is behind the creation of our world. Hook is free to reject any particular logic, but he can’t say that the intellect is not involved in tilting toward acceptance of the argument from design.

As it turns out, Hook is perfectly willing to discount the importance of his own credo about ultimates. He says that religion is a private matter. Dismissing arguments about divine purposes, he says “I just as strongly hold that freedom of religious belief (or unbelief) is integral to any morally acceptable schedule of human rights. I am therefore prepared to make common cause with believers in religious freedom against every form of totalitarianism, religious or secular.”

This brings matters back to the real importance of Sidney Hook’s autobiography. He has been “out of step” with the events of seven or eight decades in the matter of temporary response. But fortunately for all of us, events have always worked out in a way to justify Hook’s expectations.

Hook is amusedly rueful about this business of being “out of step.” “I was prematurely anti- war in 1917-1921,” he writes. He was also “prematurely anti-fascist, prematurely a Communist fellow-traveller, 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 detente and appeasement, prematurely for a national civil rights program and against all forms of invidious discrimination, including reverse discrimination.”

Foreseeing World Conflict

Hook might just as well have entitled his book “Ahead of the Game.” He was not the first to see that German nationalism would take an ugly turn in the Nineteen Thirties. But his experience in Munich and Berlin on a Guggenheim grant in 1929 convinced him that the thoroughly justified German animus against the Versailles Treaty would, in the absence of intelligent action by the League of Nations, result in a new world conflict.

He didn’t manage to foresee the course of Stalinism when he was in Moscow at the end of the Twenties, but he sensed that something was amiss when Stalin struck against both the Left and the Right in order to rid himself of any opposition in the Politburo. The starvation of the kulaks in Stalin’s man-made Ukraine famine of the late Twenties and early Thirties was no surprise to Hook. Nor were the Moscow trials of the mid-Thirties an unexpected thing.

Where other people may have anticipated Sidney Hook in identifying and reporting trends, nobody could beat him in the business of mobilizing intellectual opinion against totalitarianism in constructive ways. Hook put together many intellectual coalitions (the American Committee for Cultural Freedom and the international Congress for Cultural Freedoms are two examples.) His most important work was in rallying American intellectuals to the defense of Trotsky’s right to an asylum in Mexico. He persuaded John Dewey to head a committee that not only established the right to asylum, but also absolved Trotsky of charges made against him and his son Leon Sedoff in the Moscow Trials. The importance of the Dewey “preliminary commission of inquiry at Mexico City” had little to do with the question of Trotsky’s revolutionary theories. What John Dewey was after was an opportunity to prove that the right to a fair trial should belong to anybody, revolutionaries included.

Hook persists in being a socialist in a time when more and more intellectuals (the neo-con- servatives) are finding new justifications for capitalism. But he has learned from recent history that the property right cannot be dismissed with impunity if there is to be individual freedom in the world. I remember the day when Sidney Hook, when challenged, defended the right of possession with some heat. “Not my little place in Vermont,” he said when a heckler sought to challenge his possession of a few acres of Green Mountain vacation ground.

Hook commends Norman Thomas for coming around to the belief that if the State has too big a role to play in economic planning, the potential for totalitarian takeover is vastly enhanced. But the question of how to limit a mixed economy in a way to preserve fundamental property rights is not resolved in Sidney Hook’s book. When Hook comes up against a contradiction in the terms of discourse he often heads for the nearest exit.

Intellectual inconsistency, however, has not kept him from writing a magnificent chronicle of our times. He not only recalls such vivid figures as Max Eastman, Bertrand Russell, and Robert Hutchins, he also resurrects many interesting minor characters such as Sol Levitas and V. F. Calverton, whose magazines provided a forum for radical dissent beyond the leftist orthodoxies of The Nation and The New Republic.

There is richness in everything that Hook writes. As Jeane Kirkpatrick says, his book is required reading for those who care about freedom.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.