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Michael Harrington

Magazine Chronicle

Hook Goes Soft on Gomulka

(Fall 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 4, Fall 1957, pp. 269–271.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Fall 1957 issue of Partisan Review contained a long, serious and highly interesting article by Sidney Hook entitled Socialism and Liberation.

There are so many remarkable things about Hook’s article that it is impossible to treat them fully in the brief space of this column. But let me take two points to give an idea of the intellectual flux which is taking place in the mind of a man who, for almost a decade, has symbolized a “hard” (heedless of many of the civil liberties aspects of the problem) anti-Communism.

For one thing, Hook views changes in contemporary Communism primarily in terms of shifts in ideology and in doing so he quite often seems to lapse into a strange methodology. For another, this very approach leads him to an estimate of Gomulka which is, to say the least, surprising in its softness and optimism. Indeed, at times one hears all kinds of echoes of Isaac Deutcher in Hook’s piece – which is something we had hardly been prepared for, given his past writings.

For Hook, the destruction of the Hungarian Revolution rules out the possibility of a sudden, internal transformation of the Communist world. Consequently:

“The only realistic perspective in the next historical period – short of a revolution or civil war within the Soviet Union itself – is, it seems to me, liberation by evolution. I mean by this the gradual transformation, within the ideological tradition of Marxism-Leninism, of the totalitarian system of Communism in satellite countries into a liberation culture ...”

Two points need comment here. The first is that Hook is concentrating upon the satellite countries in isolation from Russian developments. That is, he is mooting the really central issue, which is the spread of the anti-Communist revolution into the heartland of Communism itself, into Russia. We now know that the Hungarian and Polish events left their mark upon Russian society, indeed that their impact penetrated China and was one of the reasons for Mao’s famous speech of February 1957. Posing the question as Hook does, seeking to anticipate the fate of an isolated and unassisted anti-Communist revolution in one satellite, is simply a way of foreclosing the possibility of any significant internal development. (Can we forget, for instance, that Warsaw was the match which lit the powder-keg in Budapest?)

This is not to come out in favor of a sterile “revolutionism,” to predict that always and at every moment the Russian people are on the verge of an uprising. But it is to say that the question cannot be viewed in isolation – or rather, that if you do, you will be forced, like Sidney Hook, to see hope in a “gradual transformation, within the ideological tradition of Marxism-Leninism ...”

But the second thing which must be noted about Hook’s opening premise is of greater methodological interest: it is his emphasis upon change “within the ideological tradition of Marxism-Leninism.” (My emphasis) This shows up most sharply in his analysis of Gomulka. For example:

“... when Gomulka proclaims that ’the best definition of the social contents inherent in the idea of socialism is contained in the definition that socialism is a social system which abolishes the exploitation and oppression of man by man,’ ... these pronouncements constitute a more radical revision of traditional Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism than do Titoism and Maoism. Its sweep is as radical as Ockham’s intellectual transformation of Aristotle. For it follows at once from this conception of socialism that it is absent in the Soviet Union and the alleged people’s democracies ...”

Such an approach is truly remarkable, for it is based upon Hook taking Gomulka at his word. There is no analysis of the Polish leader’s balancing between the Nationalist right wing and the revolutionary left. Rather, there are sweeping conclusions drawn from the words themselves. Almost at random, I picked a Stalin pamphlet from my book case and turned up with this:

“What is the principal merit of the socialist method of industrialization? It is that it unites the interests of industrialization with the interests of the basic mass of the labouring population, that it does not impoverish the masses but improves their living standards ...”

It is from a speech delivered against the Opposition in 1926, and these words are, of course, the cover for a line of action which was to be their direct contradiction.

What is most surprising is that Hook himself has given ample evidence that he understands this point. Why then this change? The answer is, I think, related to the first point. Hook has no perspective of decisive mass revolutionary action within the satellites because he takes the satellites singly, he abstracts them from their relation to Russia and the rest of the world. Once having done this, his hope for change must then be directed toward the bureaucracy itself, or rather, toward the intellectuals.

“Even without war and foreign intervention, even without violent revolution, the intellectual elite of all Communist countries will produce in each generation, and in every social group or class, critical spirits nurtured on the ideals of freedom expressed in the classics of Marxism ...” (my emphasis)

Fine. That is, of course, true and we have had ample evidence of it. But when does this transformation inside the intellectual elite become politically operative, i.e. at what point does it constitute a significant threat to the ruling class (which will always put its Hairichs in jail and tell its Dudinstevs how to write books) ? Clearly the answer is, when the spirit which is most articulate, most conscious among the intellectuals, pervades the people and develops into action.

Without that action, without the support of the masses of people, the intellectuals may “constitute a permanent opposition to cultural and political tyranny” as Hook affirms. But will they provide a way for the transformation of the society? Will Hairich, unaided by the German working class, change Ulbricht? Hook does not face this question, because he has ruled out the possibility of really answering them. Instead, he has become ... soft on Gomulka, soft on Kardelj, overly anxious to find change in the bureaucracy, overly optimistic.

In all of this, it is, of course, impossible to assume the attitude of having the answer. The development of the struggle against Communism within the Communist world is an agonizing, zig zag thing. But once one rules out the most fundamental dynamic of that transformation, the action of the workers and farmers, of the people united against tyranny, there are only two political choices: “liberation” through the armed intervention of the West; “gradual transformation” through an inexplicable process in the Communist world itself. The first alternative presupposes risking the destruction of humankind; the second, a Communist ruling class remarkably susceptible to abstractions and unmindful of class position. It is strange to find Sidney Hook, in this article, tending toward the second choice.

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