At the beginning of Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the Twentieth Century, Sidney Hook describes his childhood in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn before World War I: It was a “slum of checkered ethnic pattern—Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, with a scattering of East and Southeastern European families.” Each ethnic group had its own enclave, and Jewish boys such as Hook risked a beating when they ventured into streets that were considered the territory of the Irish and German boys. Jewish boys were called “Sheenies,” and fights between ethnic groups of boys were common—although Hook suffered no more than bruises and abrasions. From the start, Hook implies, he was introduced to a world of conflict and prejudice. If he occasionally had to run away from his tormentors, he usually held his own on the streets and in the classroom. A fierce proponent of democratic, anti-Stalinist ideas, Hook has often engaged in what the reviewer in The New Leader has called “verbal overkill.” In his long autobiography, Hook displays his penchant for overwhelming his opponents with arguments, but he also provides a shrewd estimate of his time and of the personages who came to dominate it.
Hook’s autobiography is essential reading because it reveals the roots of American radicalism in the twentieth century. Before World War I, there was no socialist state. Hook and his contemporaries could see the injustices of capitalism—the unemployment and poverty to which large masses of people (including those in his neighborhood) were consigned—and dream of a better world. As Hook puts it so well, socialist faith “contrasted the realities of the capitalist system with the ideals of a vaguely defined socialism.”
What made the Russian Revolution of 1917 so exciting was the idea that suddenly the socialist faith would be transformed into reality. As Hook trained in philosophy—first at City College of New York with Morris Cohen and then at Columbia University with John Dewey—he tried to reconcile the American concept of pragmatism with Karl Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism. Since Hook’s intention is not to write about technical, philosophical matters in his autobiography, he does not make clear exactly how Dewey and Marx were to be synthesized. It is fairly clear, however, that Hook was attracted to these two philosophers because both insisted that ideas be rooted in material conditions; that is, the ideas that a philosopher held had to be translated into some kind of action. If the ideas themselves were to have any merit, they had to be tested by reality.
Although Hook does not say so, it was probably his dedication to pragmatism that eventually led him to abandon his support of the Soviet Union. Until 1934, Hook was a fellow traveler, sympathetic to the Communist Party but not actually a member or under its discipline. By then, he was already a controversial college professor and had rejected the suggestion of Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party, that he do undercover work. What changed Hook’s views about socialism and capitalism, and about America and Russia? It was the increasing amount of evidence plainly revealing that Joseph Stalin had turned the Soviet Union into a totalitarian state.
The Moscow trials of the mid-1930’s convinced Hook that his socialist faith had been betrayed. In these trials, many of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s original followers, his most trustworthy Bolsheviks, were accused of treason and of spying for the Germans. Moreover, these Bolsheviks confessed their so-called crimes in such self-abasing detail that Hook and others suspected that the defendants had been coerced. Stalin had expelled Leon Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1929, and it appeared to Hook that the trials were a way of consolidating Stalin’s power.
The American Communist Party, as always, followed Stalin’s line, and many American liberals—still in the grip of the socialist faith—refused to recognize Stalinist tyranny. It is characteristic of Hook that he did not merely argue with liberal fellow travelers, but also tried to demonstrate that Stalin had absolutely no warrant for the trials that resulted in the executions of several innocent men. Hook persuaded his former teacher Dewey to head a commission of investigation. The very idea of challenging the authenticity of the trials provoked a firestorm of criticism against Hook, Dewey, and other commission members. The commission’s work, however, has been vindicated by history. In retrospect,...
(The entire section is 1863 words.)