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R. Fahan

Sidney Hook:
His New Friends in the Vatican?

(28 March 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 13, 28 March 1949, p. 3. [1]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

About four years ago, the present writer was a silent bystander at an informal discussion between Sidney Hook and Max Shachtman. The subject under discussion was the war question. At the time Hook was expressing himself very strongly on the subject of the threat to intellectual liberties represented by the Catholic Church; he had acquired a considerable reputation as a polemist against Catholic spokesmen.

In a turn of the conversation that seemed at the time an almost deliberate attempt to shock, Shachtman said that, despite Hook’s many polemics against the Thomists and other reactionary Catholic philosophers, Hook would before the end of a decade find himself a political partner of the Catholics. Hook laughed away the remark, saying it was a typical Trotskyist exaggeration – how could anyone conceive of him, an ex-Trotskyist, a pragmatist, a violent opponent of all forms of mysticism and irrationalism, making a political alignment with the Vatican? Impossible.

But Shachtman persisted. Hook, he said, had abandoned a primary concept of independent revolutionary socialism: the concept that socialists could not become apologists for or defenders of an imperialist government, in either peace or war. He had further abandoned the idea, at least in practice, that a working-class socialist movement alone could bring peace to the world. Having aligned himself with Western capitalism against the Stalinist world, Hook would soon realize – continued Shachtman – that he had few reliable allies. The bourgeois governments would show themselves notoriously inept in political strategy against the Stalinists; the Social-Democrats could not be taken seriously except when it came to handing out cabinet posts; and what did that leave? Only the Catholic Church; the church would continue, from its point of view, opposition to Stalinism in Europe – even after politicians made their peace.

Consequently, concluded Shachtman, Hook and the others like him, having abandoned the perspective of independent socialism, would soon be forced to ally themselves, however regretfully, with the church.

Shachtman erred, as Marxists are prone to err, in his timing. He gave Hook ten years. He could have cut his estimate in half.

Hook’s New Revelation

For while his prediction has not been fully proved – not, at least, as yet – there is already enough evidence to show that he knew whereof he spoke.

In an article in the March Partisan Review, Sidney Hook reports on a philosophers’ congress in Europe, which he attended. The article is interesting for Hook’s usual lucid and intelligent presentation of the behavior of Stalinist intellectuals, in this case philosophers. A struggle broke out at this conference between philosophers of the East and West. The latter introduced a resolution in defense of freedom of thought.

Writes Hook:

“One of the most dramatic moments in the discussion was the impassioned speech of the Catholic philosopher and logician, Father Bochenski of Switzerland, in support of the resolution. It followed hard upon the eloquent remarks of Professor Frondizi, the philosophical exile from Argentina, who urged the meeting to adopt the resolution because in his country no philosopher could hold a university post who did not subscribe to the Thomist philosophy. To my surprise I discovered that some of the clerical philosophers at the Congress, deriving from orders not conspicuous for their defense of philosophical freedom in previous centuries, were among the strongest advocates of the resolution. Indeed, throughout the Congress, on every issue which involved intellectual and political freedom, these philosophical priests lined up solidly with the democratic forces. One sensed that their experience in the various resistance movements combined with their defensive position on the Continent, so different from their position in the United States, had produced a new awareness of the dangers of authoritarian institutional controls to the integrity of the philosophical life.” (My emphasis – R.F.)

On this quotation, a few remarks:

  1. The italicized phrase “in previous centuries” is precious. It can only imply that while the Catholic orders were not conspicuous for their defense of freedom for the first 19 centuries of Christendom, something different has been the case for the 20th century. Please specify, Professor Hook, not merely with evidence that Catholics voted for certain resolutions but with evidence of how they behave in the countries where they have either state or educational power.
  2. Were there, perhaps, any Spanish “philosophical priests” voting together with Hook’s “democratic forces”? Has the “new awareness of the danger of authoritarian institutional controls” spread south of the Pyrenees? Why not? Or is Hook forming an intellectual bloc only with the Swiss Catholics?
  3. Does this, then, mean that Hook has discovered a break in the totalitarian structure of Catholicism? Has he discovered what might be called Swiss exceptionalism?
  4. What consequences in practice – what, if you please, operational consequences – will follow from the “new awareness” which he hails? Will the Catholics permit free secular education in Italy and France? Will they tell their dictator friends in Spain and Portugal to restore political freedom? Or will they merely read Hook’s article and have themselves a few laughs?

To show that this is no temporary aberration, Hook has simultaneously published the article in the N.Y. Times which I discussed in these columns two weeks ago. That article is about the firing of the professors from the University of Washington. In it, he rejects the argument that Catholicism can be compared with Stalinism with regard to intellectual freedom on the campus.

Now we are quite aware of the differences between Catholicism and Stalinism. It is, also true, as Hook says, that the Catholic Church does not exert the kind of organizational control over its followers that the CP does over its members. But the intellectual discipline of the church is at least as rigid as that of the CP. A teacher who belongs to the church with genuine fervor will be as firm about birth control, say, as a teacher who belongs to the CP will be firm about Russian foreign policy. It may be argued that the former is not as important a subject as the latter; perhaps. But Hook’s exoneration of the Catholic discipline is something else again.

One of these articles might be passed by as an accident. But two of them?

Where are you going, Sidney Hook? Why such haste in fulfilling Shachtman’s prediction?

* * *

Footnote by ETOL

1. Two weeks later Fahan [Irving Howe] published a letter in Labor Action slightly modifying his criticism of Sidney Hook.

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