Sidney Hook (1902–1989)

Issue Date Winter 1990
Volume 1
Issue 1
Page Numbers 133-35
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With the death last July 12 of the American philosopher Sidney Hook at the age of 86, the cause of democracy in the twentieth century lost one of its most stalwart champions. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Professor Hook stood in the front rank of those who opposed tyranny wherever it appeared. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, where he studied under the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, whose influence was to have a lasting impact on his life and work. Professor Hook’s professional life was spent at New York University and later at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. His classroom teaching and his voluminous writings (both popular and scholarly) on the practical challenges and theoretical foundations of democracy influenced generations of students.

Professor Hook’s break with the U.S. Communist Party in the early 1930s culminated in one of the first critiques of Soviet totalitarianism and its apologists formulated by an important left-wing intellectual in the West. He also vigorously opposed appeasement and disarmament as responses to the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan. A leading figure in the postwar effort to counteract the influence of communist-controlled organizations on the cultural and intellectual life of the United States and Western Europe, Professor Hook at the same time denounced the anticommunist excesses of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he termed “a heavy liability to the friends of American democracy and international freedom.”

During years when many intellectuals despaired of liberal democracy and hailed communism-first of a Soviet and then of a Maoist, Castroist, or “national-liberationist” stripe-as “the wave of the future,” Professor Hook fearlessly swam against the tide of opinion. Once a Marxist and long a self-described “social democrat,” he harnessed his enormous energies as both a scholar and an activist to defend human rights and free, popular government against all their foes.

Amid the din of many controversies, and throughout the scenes of a long and intensely active career, Professor Hook never lost either his unstinting dedication to reason and the examined life, or his great love [End Page 133] of freedom and democracy. Nowhere is the spirit that linked these objects together in his devotion better expressed than in the statement he placed at the end of his entry in the American edition of Who’s Who for 1988-89, a statement which might fittingly serve as his epitaph:

“Survival is not the be-all and end-all of a life worthy of man. Those who say that life is worth living at any cost have already written for themselves an epitaph of infamy, for there is no cause and no person they will not betray to stay alive. Man’s vocation should be the use of the arts of intelligence in behalf of human freedom.”

Remarks of graduate student Yin Lujun at a Memorial Service held for Sidney Hook at Stanford University, 18 July 1989:

Sidney Hook and I were close friends of radically different ages and cultural traditions. He was a classmate of my former advisor in China, who had also studied under John Dewey at Columbia University in the 1920s. Like those of his teacher Dewey, Sidney’s works on Man and on pragmatism were at first condemned and banned in the China of the 1960s and 1970s. By the late 1980s, however, works of his such as Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy and The Hero in History had gone through many editions.

The relationship that I had with Sidney during my years at Stanford has proved to be the most treasured and intellectually enriching experience of my life. As a philosopher, a fighter for freedom, and a man, Sidney had profound compassion, great integrity, and a noble cast of mind. I am very proud to have been his friend during his last years. The day before he died, he held my hand as I stood by the side of his hospital bed, and said with a trembling voice: “Fight for freedom, fight for freedom. God bless you and your family.” I could not hold back my tears before this man, whom I loved and admired so greatly.

Sidney, I believe that the best way to- honor you is to fulfill your final injunction. I therefore promise you that I will dedicate myself to the fight to ensure that freedom and democracy triumph in the struggle for the future of China.

Sidney Hook on “The Democratic Way of Life” (from Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy, Humanities Press, 1940).

The greatest tribute to democracy as an ideal of social life is unwittingly paid to it in the apologias of the dictators of the modem world-Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. For all of them insist in the shrillest tones that the regimes they control are actually, despite appearances, democracies “in a higher sense.” For example, Mussolini in a public [End Page 134] address delivered at Berlin in September 1937, proclaimed that “the greatest and soundest democracies which exist in the world today are Italy and Germany”; while Stalin, after the worst blood purge in history, praises the constitution that bears his name-a constitution that openly provides . . . for the control of all socio-political institutions by the minority Communist Party-as the most democratic in all history. . . .

That the greatest enemies of democracy should feel compelled to render demagogic lip-allegiance to it is an eloquent sign of the inherent plausibility of democratic ideals to the modern mind, and of their universal appeal. But that its enemies, apparently with some success, should have the audacity to flaunt the principles they have so outrageously betrayed in practice, is just as eloquent a sign that these principles are ambiguous. Agreement where there is no clarity merely cloaks differences; it does not settle them. Sooner or later it breeds confusion and confusion breeds distrust. In the end there grows up a venomous rancor which is so intent upon destroying the enemy that it is blind to what the real differences are.

The analysis of the concept of democracy is not merely, then, a theoretical problem for the academician. The ordinary man who says he believes in democracy must clearly understand what he means by it. Otherwise the genuine issues that divide men will be lost in the welter of emotive words which demagogues skillfully evoke to conceal their true intentions. There is such a thing as the ethics of words. And of all the words in our political vocabulary none is in greater need of precise analysis and scrupulous use than “democracy.” . . .

A democratic society is one where the government rests upon the freely given consent of the governed. Some ambiguity attaches to every term in this preliminary definition. The least ambiguous is the term “governed.” By “the governed” is meant those adult participating members of the community, with their dependents, whose way of life is affected by what the government does or leaves undone. By “the government” is primarily intended the law-and-policy-making agencies, legislative, executive, and judicial, whose activities control the life of the community. In the first instance, then, government is a political concept; but in certain circumstances it may refer to social and economic organizations whose policies affect the lives of a large number of individuals. In saying that the government rests upon the “consent” of the governed, it is meant that at certain fixed periods its policies are submitted to the governed for approval and disapproval. By “freely given” consent of the governed is meant that no coercion, direct or indirect, is brought to bear upon the governed to elicit their approval or disapproval. A government that “rests upon” the freely given consent of the governed is one which in fact abides by the expression of this approval or disapproval. . . . [End Page 135]


Copyright © 1990 National Endowment for Democracy