William F. Warde

From Revisionism to Social-Chauvinism

I. The Degradation of Sidney Hook

(June 1942)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.3 No.6, June 1942,pp.174-178.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

This war is clarifying many things. Among them is the real character of that new school of revisionism which flourished around the fringes of the American revolutionary movement in the last decade. These gentry, who made such great pretentious of “modernizing” Marxism and making it “more revolutionary” and “scientific,” have gone over in a body to the imperialist camp. As soon as the ruling class put a little pressure upon them, from fellow-travelers of the proletariat they became fellow-travelers of the imperialist bourgeoisie, shrieking warmongers and servile social-patriots.

The head of this school is Sidney Hook, and his degradation is typical of their evolution. Hook’s ideas exercised great influence in the petty-bourgeois intellectual wing of the radical labor movement during the past decade. He was the best known “interpreter” of Marxism in bourgeois literary and academic circles. He had many disciples among the radicalized university youth. He made the most ambitious attempt of any American except Max Eastman to destroy from within the theoretical foundations of Marxism. Outside of Stalinism, Hook’s was the most popular revisionist tendency amongst the petty-bourgeois fellow-travelers of the proletarian movement.

Today Hook has fallen on his knees before the Roosevelt regime and embraced its imperialist program. He is a far more fanatical supporter of the second imperialist war than he ever was of the struggle for the proletarian revolution. Hook’s masquerade as a super-Marxist, which fooled many uncritical people, is over. Hookism now exposes its full features as an up-to-date-American model of Marxian revisionism, opportunism and betrayal.

How and why did Hook, who once aspired to be the theoretical head of American Marxism, become another vulgar petty-bourgeois democrat and fellow-traveler of the imperialist bourgeoisie? An examination of Hook’s career, his ideas and methods of thought will show that this outcome is not accidental.

Hook’s Background and Education

Sidney Hook, born in 1902, grew to maturity and acquired his interest in social and philosophical questions under very different historical circumstances than his chief mentor, John Dewey. Dewey perfected his ideas under the sway of an ascending, relatively stable American and world capitalism. Hook arrived at his ideas under a debilitated capitalism, shaken

by colossal crisis and proletarian assaults. The first imperialist war and its aftermath propelled him toward the adoption of radical socialist solutions in politics and in philosophy. His way was facilitated by the fact that he was a Jew, of poor parentage, living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where he was exposed to the influence of revolutionary propaganda and activity.

“My historical thinking ... began,” he wrote about himself, “during the World War, when I was a student at Boys High School, Brooklyn. It was the result of my opposition to “the war to make the world safe for democracy.” The necessity of defending on reasoned grounds an extremely unpopular position led me to wide reading in history. I was particularly impressed by the popular and historical writings of Marx and Engels and their followers.”

After the war Hook studied at the College of the City of New York and Columbia University. He began his philosophical career as a disciple of Morris R. Cohen, the mathematical rationalist, and a critic of Dewey, the pragmatist. He soon became a critic of Cohen and an adherent of Dewey. His doctoral thesis: The Metaphysics of Pragmatism (1927) was an effort to generalize the logical foundations of Dewey’s pragmatic system – instrumentalism. He has since become, in fact, Dewey’s principle disciple, the interpreter of his thought, the defender of his method and the author of an official exposition of Dewey’s life and ideas (John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait, 1939).

In order to complete his personal development in philosophy, Hook should have progressed from Deweyism to Marxism. It appeared for a time that he might do so. His philosophical training, his historical studies in the genesis of Marx’s ideas, later embodied in From Hegel to Marx (1936), his socialist sympathies and interests, made it possible for him to undertake the prime philosophical task of our epoch in the United States.

The nature of that task had been directly determined by two factors: the exhaustion of the theoretical work of the Progressive school headed by Dewey and the general crisis in American life.

Dewey was the philosophical chief of that tremendous mass movement of petty-bourgeois protest against the tyranny and conservative ideas of the ruling plutocracy which agitated American society from 1870 to 1929. This middle-class revolt against the ideas and institutions of the big bourgeoisie was

conducted on many fronts, beginning in economics and politics and ending in the spheres of philosophy and religion. Dewey’s philosophic ideas and his pragmatic method of thought were the theoretical summation of this social and cultural movement. Dewey’s instrumentalism was above all instrumental in reflecting, reshaping and making effective the aims, prejudices and habits of thought of the liberal middle-class elements at that specific stage of their development in the United States. This unmistakable organic social connection between Dewey’s ideas and the sustained mass movement behind the Progressive school invests his philosophy with great historical significance and gives it an imperishable place in the development of American thought.

Bourgeois society began to decline with the decay of capitalism at the time of the first World War. The growing crisis in the capitalist world affected all shades of bourgeois thought, big and little, in the United States as well as in Europe. Reformism of the petty-bourgeois and labor varieties exhausted its progressive possibilities along with the pragmatic methods of thought and opportunist practices associated with it. Politics and philosophy demanded a revolutionary renovation which could come only from genuine Marxism.

This crisis inevitably manifested itself, although weakly at first, in American intellectual life. Dewey had advanced the general thought of the liberal petty bourgeoisie as far as it could go without negating itself. At this point American philosophy came to a fork in the road. It could escape from the impasse of pragmatism by going forward to dialectical materialism – or else it could relapse into obsolete and reactionary modes of thought, dressed in fashionable, pseudo-scientific costumes (mathematical rationalism, logical positivism). In any case American philosophy could not stick fast at Deweyism, any more than American politics could mark time at reformism, without playing into the hands of reaction. This situation clearly indicated both the nature of the task confronting philosophy and the means for its solution. Dialectical materialism formulates the insights and achievements of modern science from the standpoint of the international revolutionary proletarian movement. To overcome the present crisis in American culture and solve the most pressing problems in intellectual and practical life, we are obliged to make the ideas and methods of dialectical materialism available and understandable to the proletarian vanguard and through them to the masses and radical intellectuals.

Just as the eminent liberal ideologists of the past period, Dewey, Beard, Parrington, et al., had given expression to the class aims, characteristic ideas, special needs and general outlook of the progressive petty bourgeoisie, so must the most advanced thinkers of our generation perform the same kind of intellectual service for the rising proletariat. Our class is coming forward to challenge bourgeois (and petty-bourgeois) rule in all its aspects from economy to philosophy and is striving to supplant bourgeois domination with its own ideas and institutions. Just as the great ideologists of the first American revolution (Sam Adams, Jefferson, Tom Paine) drew upon the cultural resources and radical ideas of England and France, so the ideologists of the coming American revolution must turn to the priceless contributions of European Marxism for guidance and instruction, especially the works of the German Marxists (Marx, Engels, Luxemburg) and the Russian Marxists (Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky). Marxism provides the indispensable theoretical instrument for criticizing and correcting the results of previous schools of thought in the most comprehensive and fruitful fashion and for promoting the progress of American thought. Only through the acquisition, assimilation and application of dialectical materialism can we expand and enrich our philosophical patrimony.

This was the juncture at which Sidney Hook arrived upon the arena of American philosophy. It is his merit that he recognized the main problem of American philosophy and tried to solve it in the only possible progressive direction through the introduction of Marxist ideas. He failed for lack of will and integrity.

Hook’s Philosophical Method

The theoreticians of European socialism had been faced with the same objective historical task after the death of Marx and Engels. They dealt with the problem along two entirely different lines, corresponding to the division between the proletarian and petty-bourgeois currents, the revolutionists and reformists, which culminated in the split of 1914.

The revolutionary continuators of Marx and Engels cast aside all outworn ideas, appropriated and assimilated the ideas and methods of dialectical materialism, and mercilessly criticized all bourgeois schools of thought from that revolutionary standpoint. They worked to replace the one-sided, semi-scientific, pseudo-scientific or reactionary ideas inherited from the past with the rounded, fully scientific, progressive conceptions of genuine Marxism. This was the method most consistently pursued by Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg.

The revisionists of the right-wing and centrist varieties tried to adapt Marxist ideas to petty-bourgeois conceptions, to reconcile the two opposed philosophies, to disguise a fundamental adhesion to petty-bourgeois thought and politics under a formal oath of allegiance to Marxism. This was the way of the reformists and opportunists (Kautsky, Bernstein, the Austro-Marxists, Blum, Stalin).

How did Hook proceed? After hesitating for a time between the alternatives, he took the path of the revisionists. Instead of planting himself wholly and firmly upon the basis of Marxism, he attempted to adapt Marxism to Deweyism, dialectical materialism to pragmatism, Bolshevism to Social-Democratic reformism, Marxian political economy to some fashionable form of bourgeois economics, the revolutionary proletarian standpoint to that of the radical or liberal petty bourgeoisie. In the end he abandoned all formal identification with Marxism and revealed the reactionary essence of his ideas.

Such is the characteristic, the fundamental tendency of Hook’s thought and the source of its distinctive features.

Hook tried to set himself up as a totally “independent thinker” untrammeled by the orthodoxy of a Lenin or a Trotsky and standing above the special social interests and political tendencies inspiring his opponents. “I could never share the position of those who called themselves orthodox Marxists – people who having given up the traditional religions still believed in a church, the Party, and who, when challenged, fell back upon a new religion based on the inevitability of socialism,” he confessed.

Real Marxists never disguised their class allegiance or the class character of their theoretical position. They unmistakably identified themselves and their ideas in all disputed questions involving the conflicting claims of petty-bourgeois and proletarian philosophies. Hook, however, adopted the classic procedure of centrists in politics, jurists in bourgeois law, and petty-bourgeois reformers in general. He disclaimed the class character of his. thought, and instead of siding

sharply and clearly with the proletarian against the non-proletarian schools, he assumed the function of arbiter between them.

Like all mediators in the contest between opposing class forces, in the process of his mediation he was finally forced to come out for one side against the other. In most cases he forsook Marxist for anti-Marxist positions. In 1942 this is crystal-clear in his support of the imperialist war.

Hook always rejected the term dialectical materialism as a definition of his own philosophy. This was symptomatic of the inner spirit of his thought which shied away from unmistakable identification with Marxism. He was at best an eclectical materialist. Under the guise of modernizing, interpreting and improving Marxism, Hook set about to distort its cardinal teachings. He claimed to be engaged in lopping off its excrescences, its reformist encrustations, its Stalinist perversions, in cleaning up “misunderstandings.” In actuality he rejected the essentials of the proletarian revolutionary outlook (the dialectical laws and materialist method, the labor theory of value, the inevitability of socialism). In the last analysis he retained only – for a time – the phrases, the trappings, the incidental ideas and episodic formulations he needed to bolster up his own zigzags in philosophical thought and in politics.

A chart of Hook’s political evolution from the first World War to the second graphically demonstrates how he veered from one side to the other, from the proletarian to the petty-bourgeois camp, from a revolutionary to a reformist position in obedience to the strongest social pressures at each stage of his blind staggers. The crisis of capitalism engendered by the first World War and the Russian revolution pushed him toward communism. The temporary stabilization of American capitalism and the ebb of the proletarian revolution during the twenties led him to become Dewey’s disciple and concentrate upon an academic career aloof from politics. The crisis of 1929-33 resulted in a renewal and strengthening of his ties with the Communist Party and an attempt to effect a closer approach to Marxist philosophy. During this period he wrote his most radical book: Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx (1932).

The degeneration of Stalinism and the German debacle drove him onto new roads. He became the theoretical inspirer of the American Workers Party and aided its fusion with the Trotskyist Communist League. Nevertheless Hook did not join the product of that fusion, the Workers Party, in 1934. He thereby demonstrated his congenital incapacity for fully merging either his ideas or his activities with the main stream of the revolutionary movement.

Subsequently, instead of moving forward, he stagnated and retrogressed. From 1935 to 1939 he became a vulgar anti-Stalinist with leanings toward the left wing of Social-Democracy. Eventually the advance of world reaction, the pressure of bourgeois public opinion and the war crisis flung this “independent thinker,” like an empty bottle on a wave, amongst the Social-Democratic jingoes where we find him today.

Hook does not believe in the objective reality of contradictions. He scoffs at the dialectical law of the unity and permeation of polar opposites. He demands that Marxists provide him with examples of these laws. He need only scrutinize his own political orbit. A youth who became a revolutionary socialist as a result of the first World War has become transformed into a reactionary patriot by the second World War! Can this fact be denied? And is this not verification of the transmutation of a political personage into his opposite?

What factors operated upon Hook to produce the zigzags that led him back by a roundabout route to the capitalist camp? His course of conduct fluctuated with the ebb and flow of the class struggle. Like all petty-bourgeois individualists who imagine themselves free of social pressures, he was in reality utterly subservient to them. As they pushed him about from one position to another, he reacted to them in a semi-conscious fashion. He was not the ruler and interpreter of the historical process, but its slave and its victim.

Whenever capitalism was on the skids and proletarian power came to the fore, Hook, in common with the front rank of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, moved away from the bourgeois world and its ideas toward revolutionary socialism. This happened in 1918-19 and again in 1929-34. But when the revolutionary vanguard sustained defeats and the labor movement retreated, when capitalism appeared predominant, Hook fell back into the arms of the bourgeoisie. This was not a purely personal vagary on Hook’s part; it was typical of the radical petty-bourgeois intellectuals during the past two decades, not only in the United States, but throughout the western world.

The Causes of Hook’s Degeneration

But every case has its own peculiarities – and it is worthwhile analyzing the specific causes of Hook’s backsliding and betrayal. One constant factor in Hook’s thought was his opposition to dialectical materialism – an opposition he shared with Eastman, Edmund Wilson, Burnham, and the editors of the Partisan Review. For all his learning and pretentions, Hook never grasped the fundamental doctrines of Marxism – indeed explicitly repudiated them. An extraordinary fact! Here was a professor of philosophy and self-professed authority on Marxism, yet he denied the basic ideas of Marxian philosophy (the scientific character of dialectical materialism; the universality and objectivity of the dialectical laws of evolution, their indissoluble connection with natural processes, the labor theory of value, etc.). He tried to palm off an alien philosophy, Deweyism, in its stead.

Prominent European revisionists had played the same trick. Under cover of modernizing Marxism, Bernstein and his school had tried to insert a Kantian foundation under Marxism. Bogdanov and others sought to substitute empiric-criticism for dialectical materialism, as Lenin demonstrated in his polemic: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Hook, the American revisionist, borrowed from the bourgeois intellectual world its prevailing philosophy of pragmatism and tried to graft it onto the body of Marxism.

This was not done candidly but surreptitiously. Like revisionists everywhere, Hook claimed that he was not falsifying Marxism, or trying to substitute an alien philosophy for it. He was peddling the real thing. He alone knew – and was telling the world – “what Marx really meant.” When his swindle was exposed, Hook sought to throw suspicion on others. Not he but “the orthodox Marxists” were trying to palm off fakeries in the name of Marxism!

He went to absurd lengths, asserting for example that Engels in Anti-Duehring had falsified Marx or misunderstood him – until Hook came along to correct him. In reality Marx had not only read and approved every word of this book, but had written one section of it.

Once Hook cast off his mask, he was more outspoken. In 1934 he professed to be presenting nothing but The Meaning of Marx. In 1940 he could say:

“Whether such a synthesis is called Marxist or not, is immaterial, as is the question whether it is “what Marx really meant”.”

In 1935 he denied that he was identifying Deweyism with Marxism. In 1939 he could write:

“The most outstanding figure in the world today in whom the best elements of Marx’s thought are present is John Dewey. They were independently developed by him and systematically elaborated beyond anything found in Marx.”

Hook, who ostensibly started out by trying to adapt Deweyism to Marxism, ended by making Deweyism swallow and surpass Marxism!

Dewey’s experimental empiricism is a pure petty-bourgeois philosophy – and Hook’s rejection of dialectical materialism and his saturation in Deweyism constituted his initial and permanent ideological bond with petty-bourgeois schools of thought. This bond facilitated his later open conversion to reformism and social-patriotism.

Trotsky once wrote to Max Eastman concerning his revisionism:

“I do not know of one case in the history of the revolutionary movement of the last 30 years where a rejection of Marxism did not ruin a revolutionist politically also. I repeat: not one case. Moreover, I know of outstanding cases, where people began with a rejection of dialectic materialism, especially historical materialism, and ended ... in a reconciliation with bourgeois society.”

This generalization applies with full force to Hook – and all those who follow in his footsteps. Why is this? Dialectical materialism embodies and expresses the theoretical outlook, the historical experiences of the struggle for socialism. To attack it is to form a theoretical alliance with alien class tendencies against the revolutionary proletarian movement. If fully developed, this tendency can lead only to a thorough-going rupture with Marxism and public reconciliation with capitalism.

The primary social factor that made Hook so susceptible to the infection of petty-bourgeois influences was his total immersion in the academic environment. He has been for years a professor and is now head of the Department of Philosophy at New York University. He has high standing in official academic circles. He is regarded by his fellow professors as, on one hand, the outstanding American exponent of Marxism, and on the other, as Dewey’s foremost disciple.

The bourgeois academicians see no contradiction in this appraisal. Neither for that matter did Hook himself for a long time. Marx, he stated in 1939, differed from Dewey, and Dewey from Marx only in their social and political philosophies, which were moreover different merely in “spirit and in emphasis.” “Their fundamental metaphysical and logical positions are the same,” he declared.

We must give Hook his due. He is indeed the ideal interpreter of Marxism for bourgeois professors, just as Norman Thomas is the ideal leader of socialism for preachers and YWCA audiences.

Hook never felt at home in the turbulent waters of the revolutionary movement. He had no intimate contacts with organized labor. He never participated in a responsible manner in party life and escaped as soon as possible when, for a brief unbalanced moment, he became a member of the American Workers Party. The atmosphere of the class struggle was alien to him.

His place was on the sidelines. He felt most at home in university lecture rooms, in magazines for intellectuals and professionals, in cafes and parlors frequented by intellectuals. He was an American specimen of the old German Catheder-Socialists.

In a revolutionary party, in a trade-union meeting, in a strike, in times of difficulty, of persecution, Hook was a fish out of water. That involved personal responsibility to the organized workers, real struggle, sacrifice, devotion to an ideal. He tried for a time, like many others, to make the best of both worlds, the academic and the revolutionary. But such a compromise could not be maintained. When the squeeze came, Hook made his choice. He broke all ties, intellectual and political, with revolutionary Marxism, and took the road of academic preferment, of easy existence, of petty-bourgeois self-preservation.

Politically Hook never whole-heartedly embraced communism. He always had reservations and conditions. At his most radical he was not a Bolshevik but a left Social-Democrat. He felt closer to types like Muste and Norman Thomas than to Trotsky or Cannon. The New Leader, organ of the degenerate right-wing Social-Democrats, now affords ample scope for his talents.

These attachments first prevented Hook from accomplishing a thoroughgoing revision of the conceptual material and methods acquired from the more progressive petty-bourgeois theoreticians, either in his own mind or in his works. They tended to pull him back to reactionary positions in periods of intense stress like the present until they came to dominate and to transform him into a servile camp-follower of the imperialists.

We are here applying to Hook’s own evolution the tests he recommended in his autobiography for others. “As a Marxist I knew that history is not to be understood in terms of thoughts and passions which move men, but in terms of the conflicting group (sic) pressures and interests which express themselves through them now in one way, now in another.” Hook cannot exempt himself from the rules he not so long ago laid down for the rest of humanity, and which he himself once drew (with the requisite distortion) from Marxism.

Hook is far from being an eccentric or an isolated figure. He is in fact the most typical representative of a whole group of radical petty-bourgeois intellectuals who came to maturity during the 20’s and 30’s. He was the most articulate spokesman for the radical intellectuals who carried on their activities in and around New York. In his ideas and writings, his sentiments and aspirations, Hook expresses the views of these volatile fellow-travelers of the left wing of the labor movement. He is submerged in this stratum of intellectuals. He leads, instructs and influences them; their coteries in turn affect and determine his attitudes and actions.

These radical petty-bourgeois intellectuals are unstable and opportunist by nature. They shift political positions like weathercocks with each breath of change in the relations of forces between organized capital and organized labor. Let capitalism manifestly weaken itself and the workers assert their might, and these people will turn socialist overnight, become “redder than the rose.” Let the relationship of forces veer in the opposite direction – and these so-called “independent” minds will change accordingly, like manikins on the end of a strong cord. They become subjected to bourgeois influence largely through the medium of petty-bourgeois public opinion, which they not only follow but to a certain degree mould in their own image.

Hook’s ideological somersaults and political turnings follow this itinerary of this generation of intellectual fellow-travelers of revolutionary socialism in the epoch between the two world wars. From an unconscious adaptation to bourgeois culture and politics, they swung over under the impact of the world crisis of 1929-33 toward the proletarian revolution. But they could not as a group make the grade. They were set back, one after another, by the subsequent world reaction. Today they have returned en masse to the bosom of the bourgeoisie and nourish themselves upon the dried-up udders of bourgeois democracy. This relapse into political infantilism can be discerned in the evolution of such prominent friends and disciples of Hook as Max Eastman, Edmund Wilson, Lewis Corey, Louis Hacker and others. This “lost generation” of radical intellectuals tried in vain to reconcile petty-bourgeois ideas, politics and ways of life with the proletarian revolutionary movement; they broke with Marxism; and finally returned by diverse routes to bourgeois ideas and methods. Hook, the Social-Democrat, the social-patriot, the outright opponent of Marxism and revolutionary socialism, shows the slower members of this tendency the image of their own future.

(This is the first of a series of articles on contemporary revisionism.)


“In 1953, this same Sidney Hook, now fifty-one years old, a full professor, and the former chairman of the New York University Philosophy Department, published a book called *Heresy, Yes—Conspiracy, No*. Its thesis was that 'communism. . . is the greatest menace to human freedom in the world today.' Hook unabashedly called upon faculty and administrators to enforce 'a policy of exclusion of members of the Communist Party and similar groups' from teaching in schools and universities. Even as he wrote this book, Hook still considered himself a liberal socialist. Two decades later, he campaigned for Richard Nixon, and in 1980 he proudly endorsed Ronald Reagan, who in turn sent warm greetings to Hook's eightieth birthday party in the fall of 1982.” Alan M. Wald, *The New York Intellectuals: The rise and decline of the anti-Stalinist left from the 1930s to the 1980s*, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987, p. 4.


Last updated on: 5.2.2006