Thoughts reading Sidney’ Hook’s autobiography Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century.
Sidney Hook chronicles his intellectual journey in his memoir. Hook (1902-1989) was an academic, a philosopher and a public intellectual.
He flirted with Marxism in his early years and was a social democrat throughout much of his professional career. Unlike his peers (and those on the Left in the 1930s) he turned on the great socialist experiment, the Soviet Union.
As a young academic, he traveled to the USSR during the early 1930s. He was not impressed. He remained a fellow traveler (those on the Left sympathetic to communism) once he returned to the U.S. Then he dramatically broke ranks.
Reading William Z. Foster’s Toward Soviet America left Hook horrified. Foster encouraged a workers’ revolution in the United States. This was standard communist rhetoric. The next part showed its brutality: even before the communists seized power they should liquidate opposition parties (the GOP, Democrats, etc.) Foster supported the abolition of all civic groups (chamber of commerce’s, rotary clubs, employers’ associations YMCAs.), because they were signs of bourgeois rule.
This was the face of communism. It shouldn’t have surprised Hook, who’d already criticized the Soviet Union’s collaboration with the Nazis. Stalin supported Hitler’s attempts to purge his political opponents, including German socialists and communists. Communists believed Hitler’s rise would hasten a German revolution. This was a signal of Lenin’s aphorism: if you want to make an omelette you gotta break some eggs.
How could the Soviet Union be so ruthless against their ideological supporters? Wasn’t communism supposed to transcend national borders? Like so many critics of the USSR, Hook points to the 1921 event that revealed the inherent wickedness of this ideology.
In March 1921, a rebellion broke out in Kronstadt (an island in the Gulf of Finland) when Russian soviets demanded major liberal reforms. They insisted on free elections, free speech, and the release of political prisoners. Bolshevik troops were sent to Kronstadt and crushed the rebellion.
Much of Hook’s early criticism of Stalin’s actions fell on deaf ears. Many fellow travelers had what amounted to a blind faith in the social reforms underway in Russia. Hook was particularly upset with the reaction of Herbert Cowley and his liberal periodical The New Republic.
Few on the Left wanted to recognize the tumultuousness taking place as Stalin consolidated his power in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They looked the other way when he began purging his political opponents and staging the Moscow Show Trials. They did not acknowledge his growing cult of personality, while they condemned Hitler for doing the same thing in Germany.
Stalin brilliantly distracted the Left while he was ruthlessly dealing with his enemies. Heretofore the Soviet Union had cracked down on German communists and socialists, labeling them allies of fascism. That changed in 1935, when the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International embraced the Popular Front and encouraged all liberals and socialists to band together with them in the fight against fascism.
Liberals rejoiced at the news. Stalin realized he could unite the Left in its war against fascism, which began in earnest in Spain. George Orwell recalls the result of this “coalition” in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell writes that it allowed Stalin to purge his enemies within the Popular Front and systematically consolidate his power.
Many refused to condemn Stalin, even after his shenanigans during the Spanish Civil War. Signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler irritated some. But it wasn’t until Khrushchev addressed the 20th Party Congress in February 1956 that the wool was finally pulled from their eyes.
The speech, delivered in the dead of night, was an attempt to de-Stalinize the terror state. It tried to thaw tensions between the Soviet leaders and its people, and improve its relations with the United States. One statistic showed the extent of Stalin’s crimes: 90 of the 130 members of the 1934 Party Congress in Moscow had been shot by 1938.
As David Horowitz recounts in his memoir Radical Son, “the publication of the Khrushchev report was probably the greatest blow struck against the Soviet Empire during the entire Cold War.”
The news was something Sidney Hook had warned fellow travelers about for twenty years. Repeatedly, he said the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which played out with Lenin and Stalin (primarily) would produce carnage, produce a totalitarian nightmare, lead to the gulag and betray the ideals of social democrats.
Too few listened.