Sidney Hook, globalisation, Afghanistan, Jesus, Wall Street


The lost Marxism of Sidney Hook by Barry Finger
The global alibi by Philip Whitefield
Afghanistan's tragedy by Patrick Benton
On earth or in heaven? by Peter Burton
The markets by Gerry Bates

The lost Marxism of Sidney Hook

Young Sidney Hook, by Christopher Phelps. Cornell University Press.

Sidney Hook briefly emblazoned the Marxist heavens like a revolutionary nova, only to end his political career as a menacing black hole, through which neither the illuminating vision of a socialist alternative nor the heat of insurgency's passion would ever more emerge. Unlike, say, Max Shachtman, who virtually lost the capacity to write, when to do so would have meant justifying the ideological repudiation of the work and commitment of a lifetime, Hook is remembered chiefly by the blighted literary landscape with which he cluttered posterity in the wake of his extended moral collapse.

Shachtman exposed Hook's first foray into the reformism of the "League of Abandoned Hopes" (1939); Hal Draper chronicled how Hook's democratic ideals were to become by 1941 solidly identified with the status quo; and Julius Jacobson was to identify an emerging "authoritarian liberalism" in Hook's semi-McCarthyite assault on academic freedom (1953) which was contribute to the flowering of a malodorous neoconservative blossom several decades later.

Yet it is well worth taking a step back to remember the other Sidney Hook - not only the Sidney Hook who was so organisationally instrumental in arranging the merger between the American Workers' Party and the Communist League of America which gave birth to the Socialist Workers' Party, nor the Sidney Hook who was to recruit Dewey to the cause of Trotsky's defence - but the powerful revolutionary thinker who insisted on a Marxism whose methods were at once critical, historical and experimental. It was out of his dedication to a society "whose institutions permit and encourage the widest possible use of a free and critical intelligence" that he saw in the Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky kindred spirits. For here, in opposition to the equally sterile antipodes of "orthodox" Marxist determinism or free-floating syndicalist spontaneity, resided a uniquely committed emphasis on the will to action - of conscious, deliberative political agency - embedded in the knowledge of the relation between institutions and human needs; a relationship tested, verified and corrected in the course of struggle for power from below.

And it was here, in the 1930s, that this other Sidney Hook was brilliantly able to deepen and extend these Marxist insights against the challenge of a consolidating Stalinist juggernaut. And he was to do so, unlike Lukacs and Korsch - the contemporaries with whom he is often compared, by giving expressed centrality to the Leninist aspiration for a socialism, "million(s) (of) times more democratic than the most democratic (of) bourgeois republic(s)." In this Hook was able to salvage and reaffirm the positive moral and political ethos of socialism in the teeth of the overwhelming historical tragedy then unfolding. "Socialism, democracy and scientific method ...are indissolubly connected. Neither one can fully come into its own without the others."

For a bourgeois democracy, it suffices for the maintenance of social power on the part of the dominant class that governance rest on the consent of the ruled; a workers' or proletarian democracy, on the other hand, requires nothing less than the active participation of society's rank and file in the formulation and execution of public policy, without which the worker remains at most a comfortable slave. Both societies are social "dictatorships" in that even the most vibrant of workers' democracies would circumscribe activities through which capitalists and their supporters could restore society to such a state of affairs as to render a revolutionary democracy inoperable. Thus in outlawing exploitation, a workers' democracy makes no pretence at representing the interests of all.

That is why the advocacy of democracy per se can never exhaust the political issue, without answering the additional question of how democracy is deployed. To pose the broader question of democracy as such is, at the same time, to explain why capitalist society - however "democratic" - cannot organically evolve into a higher phase without a revolutionary break. It is to explain how the question of democracy's advance is inextricably bound to the question of socialism.

Whereas, moreover, the maintenance of bourgeois democracy crucially depends on its repressive class efficacy and is therefore, in effect, always "provisional", it is the repressive aspects of a workers' democracy which are themselves "provisional", driving relentlessly to self-dissolution by virtue of society's own capacity for self expansion. For a workers' democracy defends itself best to the extent that it can enlarge its economic base sufficiently to embrace formerly hostile social elements and convert them into, "voluntary and trusted participants in the collective work of society." To the extent that the active participation of the masses, on the other hand, is supplanted by the growth of bureaucracy - first as an organ of repression, then increasingly as one of administration - a workers' democracy is crippled. In this weakened state it may be threatened from without by capitalist restoration, but it is most certainly endangered from within by bureaucratic extinction. The wider applications of these insights to the world situation delivered Hook to the crossroads of the Trotskyist movement.

This was the context for his greatest works: Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx; The Meaning of Marx; On Workers Democracy; Communism without Dogmas; and Marxism and Values. It was also the springboard for his concerted assault on Stalinist pretensions, where Hook destroyed the Comintern's theory of social fascism as well as the characteristic Stalinist "antics in philosophy". It would have to await the further intervention of the Workers' Party/Independent Socialist League to fully flesh out just how Stalinism perverted the deepest moral urges and liberating doctrines of humanity into a vehicle of social enslavement. By that time the promise of what might have been a fruitful collaboration would be left unfulfilled. Phelps' explorations into these writings is not an introduction, but a brilliant extended discussion and analysis of Hook's earlier period. It is a tragic shame that, at Hook's insistence, the original texts were never republished and so, for most, remain inaccessible for study alongside Phelps' remarkable work.

Barry Finger

The global alibi

Civilising global capital: new thinking for Australian Labor, by Mark Latham. Allen and Unwin.

The term "globalisation" has emerged as an all-encompassing rationale for everything, from the privatising of education to the deregulating of public toilets. Essentially, the theory maintains that capital has eliminated its dependence on individual nation states. The mobility of capital, with its power to create industries and provide employment, is flexible and politically supreme. National governments have been relegated to the role of playing a cautious balancing act of attracting "global capital" while placating demands for services from the local citizens. A key consideration for this proposition is that capital movement is normally to low-cost production sites. But in 1991, 81% of the world stock of foreign direct investment was located in high-wage and high-tax countries such as the USA, Germany, UK and Canada. The flexibility of large corporations to disinvest large productive assets in a country is not established by Mark Latham - until recently the Federal Shadow Minister for Education - or by the proponents of globalisation. The spectacular rise in the movement of money capital has greatly distorted the flexibility image of productive capital.

It is erroneous to argue that nation states can manage the national economy independently of the world economy, or to deny that production is internationalised. The nation state "downloads" global processes for identification and manipulation. But it is hard to read Latham's work as a genuine study of economics or politics. As the book relies heavily on mainstream "supply-side" economic theory, it appears to give little attention to accounting for economic crisis. Rather, the book presents strongly as a crafted political document that is intended to justify the conservative policies of a future ALP government.

Latham devotes a few brief chapters to education. While making nebulous comments on curriculum and teaching, he makes no commitment to increasing resources for state schools and universities. He suggests that the capital-labour conflict is now redundant, writing that: "The new radical centre is formed by moving to the centre of the old Left/Right spectrum and, most critically, lifting above this plane of politics through the expression of new and radical social values." The belief that social conflict has been transcended is very fashionable, particularly in academic post-modernist circles. It is also a very old idea. But, as the fight between the Maritime Union of Australia and the Howard government indicates, class conflict is very much alive in the 1990s.

Philip Whitefield

Afghanistan's tragedy

The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan, by Peter Marsden. Zed Books.

Peter Marsden explains how the Taliban drew on both the traditions and culture of the dominant Pushtunis and the most extreme fundamentalism, melding them into a force irresistible to a war-weary population desperate for peace and stability. He details the role of "The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice," the remorseless religious police. The Taliban's repressive policies on women, the ruthlessly enforced dress code, the abolition of educational facilities for girls and mass closure of girls' schools, and the strict limitation on the forms of work women are permitted to do, are placed in historical and global context.

Marsden also provides evidence of how the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have all been implicated in the rise of both the Taliban and its fundamentalist opponents.

Patrick Benton

On earth or in heaven?

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan. Harper.

Crossan's conclusions are strikingly similar to those contained in Kautsky's classic Foundations of Christianity and Archibald Robertson's Origins of Christianity. He argues that all pre-Constantine Christian images only showed Jesus in three settings - communal eating with other peasants, healing and preaching. There are no images of the crucifixion, the resurrection, or Jesus in triumph. Crossan concludes these were emphasised only after Jesus' death, by Paul.

Jesus' mission was specifically directed at the peasants and destitute in the villages of lower Galilee, the destitute being those who had been taxed out of their land and forced into either banditry or begging. Radical leaders were trying to create an interaction between the peasants and the destitute, so they could stand together in the face of Roman oppression.

Crossan sums up the New Testament writers neatly with the words, "Prophecy historicised more than history remembered." In other words, the Gospel writers wrote about Jesus as a vindication of the prophecies in the Old Testament. This was combined with the myths that grew up between the death of Jesus and the Gospel of Mark, around 80 CE, and the multiple distortions that were a product of an ongoing faction fight between Pauline and non-Pauline Christians. It led to a very sanitised, de-radicalised account in the gospels.

A radical human being not famous in his own lifetime becomes a god whom those trying to establish a church hang everything on. He is thus made more acceptable to Roman persecutors and richer people whose funds are needed.

The aim of a Kingdom of God "on earth as it is in Heaven", i.e., an earthly vision of a better world where the "first would be last and the last first", is distorted by the Gospel writers into an after-life for those who have lived right.

Crossan continues his argument that Jesus was trying to build a social base of support among the oppressed by quoting his attacks on hierarchy, patriarchy and elitism. Jesus said, "Do you think, I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law" (Q Gospel and Luke 12:51-53).

Peter Burton

The markets

Wall Street, by Doug Henwood. Verso.

"The US financial system performs dismally at its advertised task, that of efficiently directing society's savings towards their optimal investment pursuits. The system is stupefyingly expensive and has surprisingly little to do with real investment... One thing the financial markets do very well, however, is concentrate wealth... The opinion of 'the markets' - essentially the richest one to two per cent of Americans and the professionals who manage their money - is now the final word on economic and social policy."

As well as denouncing Wall Street, Doug Henwood also, in crisp and colourful prose, gives masses of facts and figures, elucidates the main ideas of orthodox finance theory - and supplies an intelligent gloss on Marx's scattered comments about finance and credit. For Henwood is not one of those he dismisses as "financial populists", or of "the soulful capitalism crowd". He is a foursquare Marxist, who concludes with three proposals: tax the rich, restore the welfare state, aim for workers' and community control of the big corporations.

Gerry Bates

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