On making fine distinctions: a 20th-century philosopher's life

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Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century, by Sidney Hook. New York: Harper & Row. 628 pp. $29.95. Although Sidney Hook's account of his ``unquiet life'' omits most of his private life as well as the specific contributions he made in his chosen academic field of philosophy, it is a remarkably rich book, filled with people, incidents, ideas, arguments, drama, anecdote, conflict, and contrast. Not technically ``philosophical,'' it sparkles nonetheless with the fireworks of ideas and theories. Not, in the usual sense, personal, it is nonetheless alive with personality, passion, conviction, and opinions.

Born in 1902 to immigrant parents in Brooklyn, Hook underwent what he portrays as a rigid and boring elementary and high school education, which made him value all the more the progressive educational ideas of John Dewey, who would be his mentor at Columbia.

In the realm of practical politics, Hook was ``educated'' by the shock of seeing the intolerance and hysteria of World War I and its aftermath, expressed in the Sacco-Vanzetti case and in the deportation of Emma Goldman. As one of the earliest and ablest expositors of Marxist theory in America, young Hook was prepared to call himself a communist. But he did not join the Communist Party.

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Hook preferred to pursue his career as a philosopher. But he remained active in politics, published many influential books, and was a constant contributor to journals, particularly the New Leader. Although he helped organize the attempt to defend Trotsky in light of the notorious Moscow Trials of the late 1930s, Hook quite properly maintains he was not a ``Trotskyist'' because he did not share Trotsky's views on crucial aspects of Marxism.

In the 1950s, Hook was opposed to the extreme and ``hysterical'' red-baiting tactics of Joseph McCarthy. But, in a valuable and important distinction that strengthened the case for conducting anticommunist investigations, Hook argued (in a book called ``Heresy, Yes, Conspiracy, No'') that those who conspired to overthrow a lawful democratic government by unlawful means were not ``heretics'' but ``conspirators.'' A free society, he argued, should never seek to silence heresy, but does have a responsibility to defend itself against conspiracy.

Throughout this autobiography are many examples of Hook's gift for making provocative, often brilliant distinctions. He recalls he was drawn to socialism ``on ethical grounds rather than economic ones,'' not realizing ``that workers could be exploited in a collectivist ... as well as a free market economy.'' Repenting his failure to see the links between political and economic freedom, he remains unconvinced by Friedrich Hayek's view that socialism is inevitably ``The Road to Serfdom.'' To believe, with Hayek, that political liberty rests on the economic basis of laissez-faire capitalism, Hook puckishly points out, is to subscribe to a kind of Marxist economic determinism!

Hook sometimes departs from strict chronology to provide comprehensive discussions of specific topics or events. He pauses also to give us memorable portraits of fascinating individuals: Morris Cohen, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Whittaker Chambers, Albert Einstein, and Bertholt Brecht.

Hook retired from New York University in 1972. Since then, he has been a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution. In 1985, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

With understandable pride, this octogenarian looks back on his life as a series of ``prematurities'':

``I was prematurely antiwar in 1917-1921, prematurely antifascist, prematurely a Communist fellow-traveler, prematurely an anticommunist, prematurely, in radical circles, a supporter of the war against Hitler, prematurely a cold warrior against Stalin's effort to extend the Gulag Archipelago ... prematurely for a national civil rights program and against all forms of invidious discrimination, including reverse discrimination.''

Even those who find many of Hook's views congenial might be hard pressed to agree with everything he has to say. What is so impressive is the energy of his engagement with the major political and moral dilemmas of our time and the vigor and clarity with which he is able to make fine distinctions - and to make us see that fine distinctions are often the most vital ones.

On socialism, freedom, and the Soviet Union today

Speaking on the phone from his office at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., Sidney Hook reiterated one of the main themes in his book. ``When I was young, I believed the important thing was the choice between capitalism and socialism. Now, I believe it is the preservation of freedom. My socialism is not based anymore on a belief in collective ownership....

``To me, today, socialism means democracy.''

This lifelong student of Marxism remains skeptical about Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to increase freedom in the Soviet Union. Hook believes change is possible and he remains ``open to conviction.''

He is waiting to see if ``a time comes when it's possible for the people of the Soviet Union to make a choice of the form of government they have. ... They used to have elections with only one candidate per office - like a horse race with one horse! Now they have more than one horse running, but the horses are still selected by the political committee. What they still have, as far as I can see, is a totalitarian dictatorship which eases up sometimes.''

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