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Fourth International, May-June 1953 1953


Tom Milton

Sidney Hook’s Heresy, Yes – Conspiracy, No


From Fourth International, Vol.14 No.3, May-June 1953, pp.78-80.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Sidney Hook
The John Day Company, New York, 1953. $3.75. 283 pages.

In Heresy, Yes – Conspiracy, No, the ex-radical Sidney Hook, Professor of Philosophy at New York University, presents what he calls a program for “realistic liberals’’ as against that of the “ritualistic liberals” who continue to hold such hopelessly old-fashioned beliefs as the one that competent teachers may not be dismissed for their political affiliations and that competence can only be judged by classroom per’formance. Hook’s academic program has been adopted by the American Association, of Universities, an organization of the administrations of the wealthiest and most powerful colleges, except that whereas Hook says that it is the right and the duty of faculties to expel members of the Communist party from their midst the AAU assigns this task to the administrations. Each insists that this concession to the congressional inquisitors is a form of defense against them, since the academic community by purging itself is preventing the inquisitors from laying rough hands upon it. In the world of today Hook plays the part of the self-confident clergyman in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, who esteems himself an expert on witches, gives advice on how to detect them and then finds to his dismay that the enemies of the local squire and the local minister are being apprehended for burning without him having been consulted. He is for the right to heretical opinion, says the professor; it is only conspiracy which he insists must be cleaned out. But the contemporary witch-hunters are really after all those who are opponents or potential opponents – and this includes above all the labor movement – of American imperialism. They are making the Stalinists the focal point of their attack because, with their ties to the Kremlin, they are the most vulnerable.

“Free Trade of Ideas”

Unlike Miller’s clergyman, however, Hook is not dismayed by the witch-hunt of the McCarthyists, whose significance he minimizes. By doing so, while joining with them in their onslaught upon the Stalinists, he is falling in with their strategy and permitting the attack to be extended to other sectors. Thus when Chancellor Heald, making a drive to collect funds for NYU, told the New York State Chamber of Commerce that they need not fear communism on the campuses, where it is studied only as cancar is studied, to be the better excised, Hook remained silent, although Heald’s statement implied that the heretics who believe that not communism but capitalism is the cancer that requires a surgical operation have no place at NYU. As a matter of fact, Hook himself in his article in the NYU undergraduate newspaper implied that those opposed to the Korean War should not be allowed to teach when he said,

“I cannot believe that even those who believe that members of the Communist Party should be permitted to teach would like to turn them loose on students who are to join the armed forces ...”

The entire argument of his book in the last analysis serves the purpose of ruling out any effective fight against imperialism. It goes like this. A democracy is based on the free trade of ideas. The liberal, therefore, “stands ready to defend the honest heretic no matter what his views.” However, a conspiracy is different from a heresy. “The signs of a conspiracy are secrecy, anonymity, the use of false names and labels, and the calculated lie.” Such a conspiracy is the communist movement fathered by Lenin, who openly advocated the use of deceit, and brought to maturity by Stalin. As such, effective measures should be taken against it by the State and, within the teaching profession, by the teachers.

There are just three things wrong with this argument: it falsifies capitalist society, using the abstraction “democracy” without examining the concrete reality to see how the so-called free market of ideas works in the age of monopoly; it falsifies Leninism; it falsely identifies Stalinism with Leninism. To use Hook’s favorite marketing metaphor, in trying to palm off this stuff on the reader he is showing himself to be a cool customer or, rather, a slick salesman.

A free market of ideas – when press, radio; movies and television are monopolized by big business? Freedom of choice – when the ballyhoo artists systematically lie about their misleadingly labelled products? If the use of false names and labels and of the calculated lie is a sign of conspiracy, is not capitalist politics, with its election promises which Wendell Willkie once blithely dismissed as “campaign oratory,” a gigantic conspiracy? If secrecy is a sign of conspiracy, how are we to characterize the maneuvering by which, as the ‘ eminent historian Charles R. Beard irrefutably demonstrated, Roosevelt, behind the backs of the people, got the country into war against American capitalism’s imperialist rivals?

Pardon us, professor. We’ll take our stand and present our views despite the floods of hoopla thrown on the market by Big Business and despite its gangster tactics, and we’ll fight for the right to keep presenting our views too, confident that the working of capitalism itself will demonstrate the truth of our ideas. But don’t try to kid us that we’re up against “honest competition.”

Distortion of Lenin

And talking of honest competition, let’s get to Hook’s discussion of Lenin’s allegedly dishonest methods. Each of the three quotations from Lenin this teacher of ethics advances has been truncated by him to distort Lenin’s thought. For instance, when Lenin speaks of the necessity of building fractions in mass organizations, “mainly open groups but also secret groups,” Hook cuts off after “secret groups” the words “which should be obligatory in every case when their suppression, or the arrest or deportation of their members by the bourgeoisie may be expected.” The impression Hook seeks to give is that Lenin desired to deceive the masses. In reality the Bolshevik party was the most honest party in its propaganda to the masses in history, and it was because of this that it gained their overwhelming confidence. It was Kerensky, whose government Hook idealizes, who used the big lie that Lenin and Trotsky were agents of the Kaiser.

What Hook calls a “strategy of infiltration and deceit” is the valid self-defense of revolutionists against the houndings of the government representatives and the labor lieutenants of the capitalists. He quotes Lenin that Communists should use, if necessary, evasions and subterfuges in the trade unions, but he neglects to include in the quotation the statement that these evasions and subterfuges are to be used to get into the unions and stay in them in spite of the efforts of the corrupt bureaucrats, who “will resort to every trick of bourgeois diplomacy, to the aid of bourgeois governments, the priests, the police and the courts, in order to prevent Communists from getting into the trade unions, to force them out by every means, to make their work in the trade unions as unpleasant as possible, to insult, to bait and to prosecute them.” Some AFL officials use gangster tactics; Tobin calls upon Roosevelt to smash the Trotskyist leadership of the Minneapolis Teamsters union; Curran welcomes the FBI screening of the maritime workers; the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists uses unbridled red-baiting. Overlooking this terror, Professor Hook, always a man for fair play, calls upon the militants to stand up and be counted – so that they can have their heads chopped off!

“There may be some justification for conspiratorial activity in undemocratic countries,” Hook magnanimously concedes. The heroic underground fighters against Hitler “may” have had “some justification” for struggling against him – it can’t be said that they had every right to do so! However, he is more sure of himself in discussing the question of whether a bourgeois democracy may suspend its own laws: “Certain situations of emergency or crisis may lead to temporary restrictions upon freedom ... There are many situations in which the necessity of saving the country is the overriding consideration.” In other words, it is wrong to struggle against the arbitrary regimes of the union bureaucrats, it is not even certain whether it was right to conduct a struggle against Hitler which Hitler had declared illegal, but it would be all right for Eisenhower to declare an emergency and set aside the Bill of Rights. Really now, professor!

Lenin and Stalin

On a par with Hook’s description of Leninism and of democratic capitalism is his identification of Stalinism with Leninism. Trotsky, affirming the dialectical interconnection of ends and means in Their Morals and Ours, showed why the methods of Stalinism, like those of capitalism, could not be the methods of revolutionists:

“When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempts to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the ‘leaders’ ... The liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers’ leaders, fabricating legends, staging false trials, in a word, doing what the Stalinists do. These means can serve only one end: lengthening the domination of a clique already condemned by history. But they cannot serve to liberate the masses.”

Similarly, the organization form of the Bolshevik party is not the same as that of the degenerated Stalinist parties, although Hook equates the two. The Bolshevik party was dedicated to a relentless struggle against capitalism. Such a struggle demands a general adherence on, the part of the members of the party to a central strategy and to a tactical line suited to the situation. It demands that the party be a combat party, with the centralization and the discipline of an army. It is a unique kind of army, however, for its general staff is elected by the rank and file, and its policy is determined only after the most thorough-going democratic discussion in the ranks. A Leninist party is not only the most honest of parties; it is also the most democratic of parties, which has in its ranks not the robots Hook depicts but the boldest thinkers. The Stalinist parties, characterized by bureaucratic centralism rather than democratic centralism, are caricatures of Leninist parties. Orders from above take the place of democratic discussion within the party; independent thought, expressed by the formation of factions to fight within the party for programs of action, is forbidden; the membership, which includes many honest and sincere persons attracted to a party they mistakenly regard as revolutionary, is systematically miseducated. To entrust the punishment of the crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy to the capitalist State, however, is, like entrusting to it the punishment of the crimes of the trade union bureaucracy, to invite the destruction of the labor movement and all parties opposed to the existing administration. Likewise, for teachers to judge educational fitness by the individual’s political affiliations instead of by his professional competence and honesty is to succumb to the hysteria of the witch-hunt.

McCarthyism Exaggerated?

For Hook, however, the witch-hunt consists only of “scattered events of injustice, foolishness and hardship.” To be sure, “zealous individuals and groups, expressing themselves with anger and unrestraint on the shortcomings of national policy and leadership, have been guilty of ‘cultural vigilantism.’” The activities of these groups and the importance of McCarthy have, however, been much exaggerated. “If anything, all this testifies to an unregimented culture, particularly when directed against the state.” So too, no doubt, the growth in the twenties of Nazism, which also did not hesitate to attack the existing government, attested to the strength and vitality of bourgeois democracy in Germany.

Hook’s program to “reduce the incidence of cultural vigilantism” is somewhat less “tough-minded,” to use the book jacket’s description for the “philosophy” he has worked out “to guide American liberals,” than his program to combat “Communist conspiracy.” His first point is that “those who discuss communism ... should spend some time studying it” with the aid of a book-list obligingly furnished by him. “I predict,” he states, “that anyone who reads all these books will not hurl the charge of communism lightly against anybody.” The only difficulty, it would seem, would be to get Senator McCarthy, who has affirmed that he will not read the New York Post, to read the books. Hook’s second and third points are the use of secret hearings “where present and active membership in the Communist Party constitutes a prima facie case of professional unfitness for a position in non-federal public and quasi-public organizations” and the continuance of the attorney general’s list of subversive organizations – but with proper safeguards to protect “honest heretics,” of course – so as to deprive the “cultural vigilantes” of ammunition. His fourth point is that “in a democracy no one can silence for long the man who has the moral and intellectual courage to stick by his guns” so that a “show of independence” must finally carry the day. His fifth and final point is that we must not exaggerate the strength of McCarthyism so that it is made to appear “a danger to the survival of the nation equal to, if not greater than, Stalinism.” In short, we must lecture the McCarthyites, do their work for them but more tidily and tell ourselves that we have really nothing to fear from them. There is no proposal for organized action.

“Those who shout that Fascism is here today, even when this does not echo the Communist Party line, can produce nothing but wearied resignation before the real thing,” says Hook. It is not necessary to say that Fascism is here today to appreciate the ominous growth of reaction in the United States, similar to that in Germany under the government of the Catholic Brüning and the General Schleicher immediately before Hitler, and to understand that McCarthy’s mass following can, with the coming of a crisis, become the base for a genuine Fascist movement. An understanding of the nature of McCarthyism leads not to a “wearied resignation” but to a determination, to fight it. This fight can only be successful if the labor movement, disregarding the precepts of Professor Hook, ceases to compete in red-baiting with the politicians and takes the lead in organizing militant action against it.

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