Introduction: Towards Understanding Sidney Hook

Against the Current, No. 68, May/June 1997

THIS ARTICLE IS adapted from the forthcoming book Young Sidney Hook by Christopher Phelps, to be published by Cornell University Press in Fall 1997. Copyright (c) 1997 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher.

Ten years ago, Alan Wald’s widely reviewed The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (1987) reignited discussion of the American Marxist intellectual tradition in a revolutionary socialist and anti-Stalinist vein. The ATC editorial board believes the impending 1997 publication of Christopher Phelps’ Young Sidney Hook will be an important advance in that discussion.

In this selection from Young Sidney Hook, Phelps recounts the publication and importance of Hook’s Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx (1933), a brilliant work of Marxist philosophy which the later Hook, as an ardent Cold Warrior, never allowed to be republished.  Phelps also explains how Hook broke with the Communist Party, embarking on a fruitful five-year period as an independent Marxist.

Prior to this excerpt, Phelps tells of Hook’s childhood in New York’s immigrant slums, explains the genesis of his revolutionary politics in militant high school opposition to the First World War, outlines his conversion to pragmatism under the influence of his teacher John Dewey, sketches his visits to Germany and the Soviet Union to research Marx and Hegel, and clarifies his proximity to the Communist Party, including public support for the Communist ticket in the 1932 presidential campaign.

We believe that Young Sidney Hook will make an important contribution to current discussions of socialism and democracy and testifies to the undiminished potential for a historical materialist approach to intellectual history. Its most controversial aspect, however, is likely to be its fresh perspective on American pragmatism.

Pragmatism, which maintains that the value and veracity of ideas is best determined by their consequences in practical experience, is currently experiencing a renaissance in philosophy, literature, politics, legal theory, and feminism. Traditionally Marxism and pragmatism have been seen as antithetical: Marxists have viewed pragmatists as opportunists, pragmatists have viewed Marxists as dogmatists. The leading contemporary pragmatist, Richard Rorty, advocates “postmodern bourgeois liberalism” and is deeply influenced by the skepticism of the linguistic turn.

Phelps reminds us of a very different moment in the history of pragmatism: the young Sidney Hook, who viewed Marxism and pragmatism as mutually historical, naturalist, democratic, and experimental in method.

Christopher Phelps, an editor of Against the Current, is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon.

ATC 68, May-June 1997