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George Breitman

Sidney Hook – Then and Now

(14 March 1947)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 11, 14 March 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Most of the intellectuals who were attracted to movements of rebellion against capitalism by the crisis of the Thirties have signed their separate peace with Big Business and entered into its service. Hypnotized by the power of capitalism in its last real stronghold and blind to the potentially greater power of the working class, they devote themselves nowadays to defending the same reactionary practices and institutions which they used to oppose ten or fifteen years ago. A good illustration of this transformation is afforded by the leading article in the Feb. 27 N.Y. Times Magazine, written by Sidney Hook, head of the Philosophy Department of New York University and contributing editor of the Social Democratic New Leader.

As part of the cold war against democratic rights in this country, the ruling class has decided to drive from the schools all teachers in any way critical of Wall Street’s preparations for war and world domination. The signal was given with the purge at the University of Washington, and while many educators are reluctant or truly puzzled about what to do, the Social Democrats have jumped into line.

Over 90% of Hook’s article is an aggressive defense of the witch-hunt, along the following lines: Purging “communist” teachers is in accord with the best and highest tradition of academic freedom, rather than a violation of it, because they are under the pressure of their party’s discipline to preach its views and therefore are not free to teach the objective truth. (What about all the other teachers who are subjected to pressures and prejudices, social and ecomonic as well as political, which drastically impede their presentation of the truth? Hook can’t seem to get worked up over them, especially when their concepts of the “objective truth” jibe with the interests of capitalism.)

To the objection that this is an attack on the fight of teachers to hold dissident political opinions, Hook replies that the purge is warranted because membership in the CP is “an act, not merely an expression of opinion.” But what good is the right to hold opinions if you cannot express them effectively, if you cannot exercise this right in organizational as well as mental terms – that is, by association with other people sharing your opinions in a party which, after all, it is still legal to belong to in. this country? Teachers harboring “dangerous thoughts” can still keep their jobs in the Soviet Union so long as they don’t express them; is that “academic freedom” too?

Hook’s zeal in logic-chopping leads, him to denounce even the “civil libertarians” who cling to the old-fashioned notion that all teachers, regardless of political affiliations, “must be judged by. their individual actions in the. classroom.” Their position has “two fatal difficulties,” he says:

  1. It would “require spying in every classroom to detect the party line, and disorganize or intimidate ... the entire faculty.” (Thus academic thought-control turns out to be really just a laudable bulwark against intimidation of ALL teachers!)
  2. It would be “very difficult” to decide when a teacher defended a conclusion because he “honestly believed it” and when he was merely following the party line. (Why bother with such “difficulties” when a purge is so much simpler?)

But the most interesting thing about Hook’s article is its conclusion, advancing some mild and tentative reservations to an all-out purge. He is not satisfied that the proper formula has been found for dealing with “the more difficult and involved ’question” of the “fellow-traveler.” Furthermore, “Although the exclusion of Communist party teachers from the academic community seems justified in principle, thjs by itself does not determine whether it is a wise and prudent action in all circumstances ... If removal of Communist party members were to be used by other reactionary elements as a pretext to hurl irresponsible charges against professors whose views they disapprove, a case might be made for suspending action.”

In other words, Hook recognizes the very clear and present danger that the witch-hunt against the Stalinists will be extended to encompass other dissident elements. He wants a purge but he wants it regulated so it won’t hit at teachers who couple their support of capitalism with criticism of some of its aspects. And he even suggests a solution: “If the execution of the policy were left to university faculties themselves, and not to administrators and trustees who are harried by pressure groups, there would be little ground for complaint.” In short, let the purge be conducted under a bastardized form of “workers§rsquo; control” – control by the teachers, who have control over nothing else in the universities – and then it will be a nice, safe, effective purge, with little ground for complaint.

What accounts for these reservations? For one thing, a few anti-Stalinist teachers, including some of Hook’s own blood-brothers, have already felt the axe in the purge’s first stages. But something else is worrying Hook, something of a more personal nature, and here is what it is:

In 1934–5 the itearst press ran a rabid redbaiting campaign to clean the “subversives” out of the colleges. And one of Hearst’s specific targets was Hook himself. (At that time Hook was a member of the organization led by A.J. Muste, which merged with the Trotskyists in December 1934 to form the Workers Party, a forerunner of the present Socialist Workers Party.) Hearst’s campaign became so virulent that a mass meeting denouncing it was held under the auspices of the Non-Partisan Lahor Defense in the Central Opera House, New York, on Feb. 3, 1935, with Hook as one of the main speakers before an audience of 2,500.

Hook is still haunted by that memory. Although he long ago gave up all pretence of being a revolutionary Marxist, he knows there is no telling where a witch-hunt in high gear will stop, and he is thinking about his own neck. But his reservations don’t change the fundamental nature of his position – namely, that he is now proposing in the name of “anti-totalitarianism” to do to his political opponents precisely what Hearst tried to do to him in the name of jingo-patriotism. And his pleas for special privilege will have no effect at all in retarding the machine of reaction, whose engine he has fueled and whose wheels he has greased.

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