Book review, Sidney Hook, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx


Book review by Jim Farmelant
Sidney Hook, Towards the Understanding of
Karl Marx : A Revolutionary Interpretation
First published in 1933
First Expanded Edition, Columbia University Press, 2002
Reissued in 2007 by Prometheus Books, 420 pages
(Hardcover Nonfiction)

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 reissued late last year. 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 call for it to never be republished. It is said, Hook even went 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. 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 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 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 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 agreeing to republish this classic work of American Marxism.

Book review copyright 2008 by Jim Farmelant, licensed to
Sidney Hook (1902-1989)