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Sidney Hook Was Right, Arthur Schlesinger Is Wrong

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Sidney Hook, who died in 1989, would have been 100 this year. To celebrate this, two forums were held recently in New York City, honoring and placing in perspective the work and ideas of the late pragmatist philosopher. A member of the philosophy faculty at New York University from 1927 until his retirement in 1972, Hook was an intellectual giant and a fierce political warrior, a former Marxist who became a major critic of communism.

Throughout his life, Hook bitterly fought both the totalitarians of the Left and the authoritarians of the Right. A self-declared “secular humanist,” he always maintained that he was at heart a socialist, albeit one who was willing to admit the errors and fallacies of classical socialist thought.

For those who have long admired the work and passion of Sidney Hook, the forums were long overdue. But there was a major difference between the two.

The first, held at the City University of New York on October 25th and 26th, featured a roundtable discussion on Hook’s legacy, at which historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., offered an assessment of Hook that became the most talked about presentation at the meeting.

Mr. Schlesinger reiterated what he had written in a famous review of Hook’s memoir, Out Of Step, which is that Hook let “anti-Communism consume his life to the point that, like Aaron’s rod, it swallowed up nearly everything else.” In his presentation, Mr. Schlesinger said that Hook had exaggerated the influence of American Communists and contrasted Hook unfavorably to a Murray Kempton, who although he was also anti-Communist, kept, at least according to Mr. Schlesinger, his “intellectual and political balance.”

In his own memoir, A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950, Mr. Schlesinger had elaborated upon his criticism. Hook’s greatest mistake, Mr. Schlesinger argued, was that he was an “obsessive” anti-communist, who always grossly exaggerated the supposed “great influence” that communists had in the cultural and political life of the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.

Hook believed that communists dominated the literary, cultural, and academic landscape, while Mr. Schlesinger retorted that they only had a somewhat nebulous “power in secondary areas like book reviewing and publishing,” all of which were “marginal operations.” Indeed, Mr. Schlesinger argues that Communists actually had only a “negligible influence on anything serious.”

Thus, Mr. Schlesinger attacks Hook for one of the proudest and most important events in his long career — his organization of serious intellectual opposition to the communist-sponsored Waldorf Conference in 1949. Organized secretly by the American Communist Party and financed by Moscow as part of its so-called peace offensive, leading American fellow-travelers like Lillian Hellman, Dalton Trumbo, Corliss Lamont, Rockwell Kent, and Leonard Bernstein all gave the meeting their blessing and the benefit of their participation.

Rather than blindly accept the occurrence of this event, Hook worked day and night to create an opposition by non-communist intellectuals, including Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, and Nicolas Nabokov, all of whom spoke at a packed counter-meeting held at Freedom House.

Mr. Schlesinger, who himself took part with Hook in this event, in retrospect attacked Hook's role, because Hook supposedly tried to order the participants around, and the only real protest, Mr. Schlesinger wrote, came from Nabokov, Macdonald, and McCarthy, who evaded “Hook’s orders,” got passes to the meeting, and tried to ask the Russian delegation “searching questions.”

In reality, Hook tried to speak at the conference, was formally turned down, and only then tried to create an opposing event. Nor did he oppose those who managed to have a small chance to publicly confront the Soviet delegates.

Hook, as Mr. Schlesinger puts it, had let “anti-communism take over his life,” with the ultimate result that he soon began a “steady movement to the right,” becoming an “unabashed supporter of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan” — unlike Mr. Schlesinger, who stood with any left/liberal Democrat, from George McGovern to Ted Kennedy. Hook, he wrote, “found more sustenance in right-wing anti-communist fundamentalism than in what seemed to him the dangerous softness of liberals who detected changes in the Soviet Union.”

It is clear that Mr. Schlesinger had come not to honor Hook — except perhaps for the early “good” anti-Communist Hook — but to castigate him for supposedly going too far, rather than pursue the path approved by the eminent historian.

The second forum, “The Legacy of Sidney Hook,” was appropriately held at New York University on December 2, and featured a retrospective celebration of Hook’s life by his friends and admirers, including Arnold Beichman, Norman Podhoretz, Arch Puddington, Edward Shapiro, Hilton Kramer, and Robert Talisse. I had the honor of appearing with these other distinguished friends and admirers of Hook, and I chose to use my time to take up the points made by Mr. Schlesinger.

Is there, in fact, any merit to Mr. Schlesinger’s blistering critique of Hook’s so-called “obsessive anti-Communism?” Who was right, the philosopher Hook or the historian Schlesinger?

First, let us look at Mr. Schlesinger’s claim that communist influence was only “marginal.” The facts give the lie to his claim.

Indeed, an episode in which Mr. Schlesinger himself was involved offers stark evidence to the contrary. Having been given a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Mr. Schlesinger brought the book to his editor at Knopf, Angus Cameron, a well known Stalinist. Cameron, of course, refused to publish the manuscript.

This kind of power can hardly be called marginal. Moreover, the communist influence was so pervasive in the cultural world that even after Moscow’s intentions were clear, so many prominent intellectuals willingly lent themselves to its propaganda apparatus at the Waldorf Conference.

The truth, as Irving Howe wrote, is that the Communists “debased the culture.” This judgment seconded that made in 1947 by the late literary critic Robert Warshow, who wrote that as a result of the Communist’s Popular Front cultural stance, “the whole level of thought and discussion, the level of culture itself, had been lowered.”

More to the point is Mr. Schlesinger’s failure to deal with the effects of the major secret communist underground and its ability to thoroughly move in the New Deal’s corridors of power. Thanks to the Venona translations, we know that the KGB had as its agents such influential New Dealers as Alger Hiss; Asst. Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White; chief of the State Department’s Division of American Republics, Laurence Duggan; the head of its Latin American Division, Maurice Halperin; and Lauchlin Currie, administrative aide and State Department liaison to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

As anti-communists like Hook had argued, to much scorn, there was a successful and dangerous Soviet penetration of our government, as well as network of Soviet spies.

When he wrote The Vital Center in 1949, Mr. Schlesinger opined that the wide support for communism in left/liberal circles was “in a real sense a trahison des clercs,” and later he would write that FDR’s most “spectacular failure” was to not take the presence of Communists in government seriously, which he termed “a great potential challenge to American democracy.”

But now, writing in a far different age, Mr. Schlesinger attacks Hook for making the same points he himself was making in the 1940s and early 1950s.

As for general politics, historians have long established that Communists played a major role in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, in the California Democratic Party, the Democratic Party in the State of Washington, and had two secret Communists in Congress, along with New York’s well-known fellow-traveler Vito Marcantonio. And through the CIO, Communists controlled a good portion of labor’s major union affiliates, as well as its newspaper and political action committee.

Indeed, when Joseph McCarthy falsely attacked the Asian scholar Owen Lattimore as not only a Soviet spy, but as “Alger Hiss’s boss,” many liberals sprung to his defense. But anti-Communist liberals, including Hook and Mr. Schlesinger, stood on the same side — and criticized Lattimore for trying to get pro-Soviet foreign policy positions accepted in the United States.

Hook wrote that Lattimore was not simply “a well-meaning liberal martyrized by McCarthy,” but at “the very least, … a devious and skillful follower of the Communist Party line on Asian affairs” who had a secure job, had published a best-selling book, and had more influence on policy than “all anti-Communists combined.”

Mr. Schlesinger urged those who blindly supported Lattimore to read an exposé of him written by none other than Irving Kristol, and Mr. Schlesinger himself complained that Lattimore “defends every item of Stalinist justice, and in defending the Moscow purge trials, his writing ‘sounds to me like fellow-traveling.’” Mr. Schlesinger wrote, sounding much like Hook at the time, that “I have never seen any reason to admire men who, under the pretense of liberalism, continued to justify and whitewash the realities of Soviet Communism.”

If Mr. Schlesinger’s new criticisms of Hook are to be taken seriously, the historian has to say in effect that he, too, was wrong when he stood alongside Hook in the anti-Communist fight. What really irks Mr. Schlesinger, I suspect, is that Sidney Hook did not abandon his anti-Communism to become an ardent exponent of what has come to be called anti-anti-Communism.

When Mr. Schlesinger came back from a conference recently held in Cuba to discuss the Cuban missile crisis, he told the press upon his return how impressed he was with the charisma, warmth, and openness of Fidel Castro. If Hook was alive, he would not ever have been caught singing the praises of the one remaining Latin American dictator, despite the changes in the international situation.

Nor would he have joined Mr. Schlesinger in publicly honoring Mikhail Gorbachev for purportedly alone ending the Cold War. Nor would Hook have followed Murray Kempton in the kind of “balance” he showed when he unreservedly praised and glorified the late thug Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s.

On all these issues, Sidney Hook has been proven to have been right, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. has been proven to be wrong. One suspects, as Hilton Kramer has argued, that had Mr. Schlesinger kept up such a stance, he “ran the risk of sounding like Richard Nixon and, after 1980, even more like Ronald Reagan.” Mr. Schlesinger changed his views to now attack the old anti-communism as wrong and “obsessive,” and to chastise those who stuck to principle.

No longer could a member of the liberal intelligentsia be viewed as a tough anti-Communist. It is to Hook’s credit that he never sought admission to that club, and put principle ahead of opportunism.

Copyright 2002 The New York Sun