Sidney Hook's *Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation*

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Sat Mar 8 12:31:02 MST 2003

Nearly seventy years after its original publication, last year,
Prometheus Books republished Sidney Hook's classic work
of Marxist scholarship: *Towards the Understanding of Karl
Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation* which along with his
next book *From Hegel to Marx* established Hook as the
leading American scholar of Marxism.  This book has had
an interesting history.  Having been originally published
by John Day Company in 1933, it was never to be reissued
until late last year.  And the main reason why it was never
reissued for such a long period of time, was because its
author, having repudiated the political outlook represented
by this book, took steps to suppress it, going so far as to
specify in his will, that it never be republished, and it is said,
Hook even when so far as to attempt to get this book removed
from libraries.  Nevertheless, his literary executor, his son,
Ernest B. Hook was finally prevailed upon to authorize the
republication of this book by Prometheus Books.  And indeed,
the new version of this book includes an essay by Ernest
B. Hook in which he, among other things, explains why he
has authorized the reissuing of the book , and admits to
a feeling, that he has betrayed his father's wishes.  In the
end, he feels that he has not really betrayed his father's
wishes because his father in his later years, somewhat
relaxed his opposition to republication, indeed, at one
point, seriously contemplating, reissuing it with a
new introduction, in which he would have explained
his reasons for having turned against his youthful
Marxism.  As it so happens, that never came to
pass, and Hook never got around to writing a
new introduction for *Towards the Understanding
of Karl Marx* but apparently to make up for that,
Ernest did insist that the reissuing of the book
include the late Lewis Feuer's cold war essay
"From Ideology to Philosophy: Sidney Hook's
Writings on Marxism.  Ernest seems to believe that
Feuer's essay, represents the sort of view that
Hook, himself, would have taken, if he had written
a new introduction, himself.

 *Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx:
A Revolutionary Interpretation* after seventy
years remains of interest to us because it
is one of the outstanding works in the
tradition that has come to be known as
Western Marxism.  Indeed, as a work, it
belongs on the bookshelf alongside
such other classics of Western Marxism
as Lukacs' *History and Class Consciousness*,
Korsch's *Marxism and Philosophy* or
Herbert Marcuse's *Reason and Revolution*.

Hook after having completed
his doctorate in philosophy, went to Europe
to pursue his post-doc studies.  Among
other things, he was to visit the Soviet Union,
where he spent some time at the Marx-Engels
Institute in Moscow, which at that time was
in the process of editing and publishing
Marx's earlier writings including the
*1844 Manuscripts*.  Hook while pursuing
his studies in Central Europe came across
Georg Lukacs' *History and Class Consciousness*,
which wasn't translated into English until many
years later, as well as Karl Korsch's *Marxism
and Philosophy*.  Hook attended Korsch's
lectures, and struck up a personal friendship
with him.  Hook, in the Preface of the 1933
edition, acknowledge his indebtedness to
both Lukacs and Korsch, and the text of the
book, clearly builds upon their arguments,
with Hook offering a blistering attack on
the kind of 'orthodox Marxism' that had
prevailed within the Second International,
the sort of Marxism that had been developed
and popularized by such figures as Karl
Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov.  Against
Kautsky and Plekhanov, both of whom,
Hook interpreted as having vulgarized
Marxism into a mechanistic, fatalistic ideology,
Hook advanced the notion of praxis.  Hook
read Kautsky and Plekhanov as having
misinterpreted Marx as having taught that
the triumph of communism over capitalism
to be inevitable.  Hook on the contrary argued
that the revolution would never occur except
by way of human action, informed by theory,
that is through praxis.  In Hook's view,
the positivistic, evolutionist interpretations
of Marxism that Kautsky and Plekhanov
had popularized had helped to provide
a theoretical rationale for the betrayals
by the German Social Democrats of the
proletarian cause in the First World War.

Given Sidney Hook's later notorious anticommunism,
it is interesting to note that in *Towards the
Understanding of Karl Marx* he took a very
pro-Lenin, indeed, pro-Leninist stance, and
like Lukacs and Korsch before him, maintained
that he was advancing a conception of praxis
that was consistent with Lenin's.

Sidney Hook, as everyone knows was a student
of John Dewey at Columbia University, and
like his teacher and mentor, a convinced
pragmatist.  Now in the text of *Towards the
Understanding of Karl Marx*, he makes no mention
of Dewey at all, and yet from the time of its original
publication, reviewers and critics from Bertrand
Russell and Max Eastman all the way down to
contemporary Hook scholars like Christopher
Phelps and Cornel West, have quite correctly in
my judgement, taken it to be a work of Deweyian-
Marxism.  Indeed, I think that the young Hook must
have been struck by how similar the conceptions
of praxis in the work of Lukacs and Korsch
were to Dewey's instrumentalism.  In fact it seems
apparent that for Hook, Marx's dialectical method,
as interpreted through the prism of Lukacs and
Korsch, and as understood in light of Marx's
own earlier writings, was closely akin to the
experimental naturalism that he had assimilated
from Dewey.  Indeed, in an essay, that Hook wrote
a couple of years later "Experimental Naturalism,"
Hook wrote "When Marx's early manuscripts were
published, I took the occasion to make a re-study
of all his works. . . . I became convinced that his
dialectic method by which he strove to combine
realism and activism to do justice to the facts of
objectivity and relativity. . . involved a nascent experimental
naturalism.  This was essentially the same position
which John Dewey had independently arrived at. . ."

The expanded edition of *Towards the Understanding
of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation* includes an
introductory essay by Ernest B. Hook, a Historical
Introduction by Christopher Phelps as well as pieces
by Lewis Feuer and Paul Berman.  Credit is no doubt
due to Paul Kurtz for having helped to persuade
Ernest Hook to authorize the book's republication.

Jim Farmelant

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