Felix Morrow

Sidney Hook:
Recruiting Sergeant

The Professor Is a New, but Typical Convert to War

(27 July 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 30, 27 July 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Sidney Hook has written an article in the July 20 New Leader which formally records his transition to the camp of social-chauvinism. This will surprise no one who has watched him join the intellectuals in retreat from Marxism during the last five years. Nevertheless, Hook’s first open avowal of support of the “democratic” imperialists meant for me a moment of personal sadness. We had been friends for many years. It is one thing to be aware of the statistics that a good many girls become prostitutes; it is something very different to see your own sister do it.

And how easily and with what scorn the Hook of ten years ago, with his fine intellectual scalpel, would have cut to shreds the shabby logical structure by which today’s Hook justifies supporting the “demotracies” against German imperialism!

The Hook of those days would have demanded first of all that, when a man abandons concepts he has avowedly held for some 23 years, he should give an intellectual accounting of why he has dropped them. During these years Hook avowed the international socialist position on war; with Liebknecht he said: “The main enemy is in your own country.”

That wars are inevitable under capitalism; that the stakes are markets, sources of raw materials and spheres for capital investment and not the ideological fig-leafs proclaimed by either side; that the state is the executive committee of the ruling class, whatever the difference in the forms of rule of the contending classes; that the working class shall support neither side in a war between the powers but in each country the working class shall take advantage of the war conditions to overthrow its “own” rulers – all this Hook had avowed. Yet now he throws this overboard silently, without explanation! From his article it would be impossible to discover that he had ever believed these or, for that matter, that he had ever heard of these concepts!

Hook’s Theory for Supporting the “Democracies”

Hook’s present position, like that of all the more “idealistic” supporters of the one imperialist camp against the other, is based on constructing a basic difference between ‘the two. The New York Herald Tribune can call for war against Germany on the basis of cold-blooded references to America’s “national interests”; this base metal must be transmuted by the Hooks into holier stuff.

Here is an outline of Hook’s theory:

  1. Nazism is not what “the dogma of all Leninist schools – Trotsky, Dutt, Guerin, etc.” claims it is – the last phase of finance capitalism. “Functionally defined” property no longer is capitalist. “Power has been transferred from the capitalists”; therefore “the basic instruments of production are owned by the party bureaucracy,” for “Finance capitalists – insofar as there are any left in Germany today – take their orders from the Nazi party and not vice versa. Nor is there any evidence that their counsel has greater weight in Nazi party circles than that of other social groups.”
  2. This new, Nazi system of property relations is fundamentally hostile to the ideals out of which capitalism arose. “Every one of the ideals of the French Revolution, with one possible exception, is anathema to the Nazi philosophy of life ... The one possible exception is fanatical nationalism which did not emerge with the French Revolution but with Napoleon, who arrested even as he consolidated some of its gains ... The Nazi critique of capitalism was, and is, that it (capitalism) abides by these ideals even in their very imperfect forms. Hitler is well aware of this. ‘Democracy of the West today,’ he tells us. ‘is the forerunner of Marxism which would be inconceivable without it.’”
  3. “It follows at once that every democrat and socialist must be an irreconcilable opponent of Nazism ... Insofar, then, as Nazism wages war against the existing democracies, it is an elementary duty of socialists not merely to join the fight against it but to lead in that fight ... It may be true that the most effective struggle against Nazism can be conducted only by a socialist or labor government. But that is no reason for lagging in support of any government which is genuinely fighting Nazism. It is foolish when we cannot have the best to choose the worst.”

It is difficult to believe that Hook cannot be aware of the gaping flaws in his logic:

(1) If his “functional” definition of property were true, Britain like Germany is no longer capitalist. British finance capitalists today take their orders from the government as much as German finance capitalists take their orders from the Hitler government. In both cases this apparent contradiction of the supremacy of private property under capitalism arises from the same cause; the desperation of the capitalist class. The desperation was evidenced earlier in Germany: a defeated capitalist class which had to expand or die and therefore accepted fascist centralization for the task.

In Britain imminent prospect of defeat faces the British capitalists, and it accepts state centralization for the task of resistance. Hook’s so-called “functional” definition of property does not really define forms of property. Both Germany and Britain remain domains of private property.

This fact is made most obvious by reference to France. Yesterday France was one of the “democracies”; today it is a fascist regime, avowing itself explicitly opposed to the “liberty, equality, fraternity” of the French revolution. Yet the same system of property continues as before, and the same class continues to rule. There is no Chinese Wall between capitalist democracy and fascism: they are different forms of capitalist rule. Hook’s elaborate distinction between the two systems falls to the ground.

(2) It is true that Nazism is fundamentally hostile to the ideals of the French Revolution. But so is “democratic” capitalism. If the ideals of the French Revolution were any factor at all in the war, how explain the capitulation of France? It is obvious that the French ruling class could have abandoned continental France and continued the war from the French colonies. If democratic ideals were a factor, they would have done that. Instead, they preferred to remain in France, to make peace with Hitler, adapt themselves to him, turn the regime into a fascist one. Where, then, is the Chinese Wall between fascism and democracy?

Hook’s reference to the introduction of “fanatical nationalism” by Napoleon exposes Hook’s false method. Napoleon, let us recall, was the defender of the new property forms of the French Revolution: he represented progress as against his feudal and semi-feudal enemies; he burned away much of the feudal remains throughout France. Yet even with Napoleon, Hook is really admitting, the lovely purity of the ideals of the French Revolution were beginning to fade!

Since then a century and a quarter have passed, in which capitalism long ago reached its highest point, long ago entered its decline, long ago began to drag humanity down with it. Long ago capitalism by the logic of its development and its degeneration became the enemy of every ideal of its own youth. The whole thing is summed up in the fact that the remnants of democracy now exist only in the most wealthy, the most aristocratic capitalist states, those which, by virtue of keeping hundreds of millions of peoples in slavery in their colonies can therefore still pay the overhead of some democratic forms in the metropolitan centers.

It is a vile lie that Hook perpetrates when he propounds the thesis that the American and British empires today defend against Hitler the ideals of the French Revolution. For every country in which Hitler extirpated those ideals, there is another in which the American or the British rulers extirpated them. Look at South America, Africa and Asia!

Hook Used to Expose Fallacy of ‘Lesser Evil’

(3) Because we are enemies of Nazism it does not at all follow that we should join the existing democracies in their war against Germany. That no more follows than that, as socialist enemies of “democratic” capitalism we should join the Nazis in their war against the “democracies.” Hook once knew this well; he wrote at that time able polemics against the Stalinist “Popular Front” line and against its twin-brother, the social-democratic theory of the “lesser evil.” Yet now he tells us that “It is foolish when we cannot have the best to choose the worst.”

Very well, then, we should like to see him apply his mealy-mouthed aphorism to France. The workers should have supported the French government in its war against Hitler, he says. But such support – as Hook once well understood – means inevitably the weakening of the working class. The capitalist class does not cease its pressure upon the workers during the war; striking blows at their unions, cutting wages, conducting propaganda against working class-consciousness, etc. The only real response the workers can make is to conduct the class struggle. But that means strikes, conflict with the government, that is, Interference with the war. Hence if support of the war is necessary, that means no strikes, no resistance of the workers to the pressure of the bosses and the government.

Presumably when the government and the bosses capitulated to Hitler, at that point Hook would have advised the workers to resist, to take over control of France and to continue the struggle against Hitler. But the workers might then have said, to their advisor, Hook:

“When we still had strength, you told us to subordinate ourselves to the democratic government in the name of the fight against fascism. We did as you said. As a result, our organizations ceased to have any power. Today, when we are, thanks to your advice, at our lowest ebb, you tell us: ‘Take power.’ With what, Professor Hook? With the strength which the capitalists took away from us during the course of the war? With the morale which oozed out of us as a result of the blows we endured without answering by strikes which would have interfered with the war? Under the leadership of the thousands of militants who were jailed during the war and whom we could only have saved by political strikes which would have interfered with the war?”

Hook Once Knew Better; But Something Changed

What answer could Hook give to these accusing questions? None. Like his colleagues of the New Leader, he can only turn his back on the French workers, ignore and distort the plain meaning of the lessons of the French experience, and call on the American workers to repeat the mistakes of the French workers.

How can Hook be blind to these obvious facts? one may ask. The answer is that there are none so blind as those who will not see. Hook is merely the latest of that numerous strata of intellectuals who have succumbed to the pressure of the “democratic” bourgeoisie. They have succumbed because they were vulnerable to bourgeois pressure. Their mental capacities, indubitable and potentially of such enormous value to the working class, are perverted in the service of the “democratic” imperialists. And perverted because the alternative – ostracism by “public” opinion, the loss of comfortable jobs – was one they could not face.

“It won’t last.” Hook laughed, when he was first appointed chairman of the Department of Philosophy of Washington Square College, New University. “How long can a revolutionist hold such a job?” Then later on there was a second stage, when he grinned and said: “You party men will have to take the rap. but I won’t. I have no party responsibilities. I can keep quiet when the war comes.” And now – oh happy accident, oh fortunate coincidence – he has evolved a political position which in no way interferes with his chairmanship. The power of the human mind is evidenced in the evolution of Sidney Hook. Or, to put it plainly, renegacy has its explanation.

Last updated on 23 May 2020