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Review of Thomas Wheatland's The Frankfurt School in Exile, Part III: John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Herbert Marcuse

Kevin MacDonald

October 19, 2009

Chapter 3 of The Frankfurt School in Exile is titled “John Dewey’s Pit Bull” — a reference to Sidney Hook. Hook had a leadership role among the New York Intellectuals, and is presented as the quintessential Jewish charismatic figure—passionately engaged in public debate. One has the image of him standing up in crowded venues where intellectual debate was a form of hand-to-hand combat, organizing loud protests and angry denunciations of his enemies.

But at the same time, Hook was a professional philosopher with a tenured position at New York University where he specialized in Marxist philosophy. He therefore became the more or less official authority on Marxism among the New York Intellectuals, a group for whom Marxism was at the very center of their world view.

Hook was no dogmatist and he changed with the times. In particular, as he noted in his autobiography, he saw his job as that of developing an intellectually respectable Marxism that fit with American intellectual currents. Indeed, Hook's worldview was centered around the same problem as the Frankfurt School: The failure of the proletarian revolution in the West conflicted with Marxist dogma.

This is where John Dewey comes in. Hook realized that his leftist political agenda would be strengthened by becoming allied with Dewey because he was a prominent philosopher and public intellectual. As is well-known, the Hook and the New York Intellectuals did much to promote Dewey. Hook and the editors of Partisan Review (an important journal of the New York Intellectuals) praised Dewey to the skies (see Culture of Critique, Ch. 7). And as intellectual historian David Hollinger points out, “If lapsed Congregationalists like Dewey did not need immigrants to inspire them to press against the boundaries of even the most liberal of Protestant sensibilities, Dewey’s kind were resoundingly encouraged in that direction by the Jewish intellectuals they encountered in urban academic and literary communities.”

Dewey subscribed to a Hegelian philosophy of an active mind able to construct reality. The activist mind has deep roots in American philosophy — going back to the Transcendentalists of the 19th century who in turn were influenced by the same German idealist tradition originated by Hegel.

The basic idea is that humans can construct visions of reality that they can then engineer into existence. This approach is very open to science in the sense that  science was seen as a tool to find how to attain human potentials.

The basic problem is that these human potentials are seen within a leftist perspective. Science would be used to created a utopia as imagined by these leftist intellectuals.

These idealistic philosophical ideas are entirely consistent with the findings of contemporary psychology: As I noted in my review of a book on the transcendentalists:

The Transcendentalist belief that the mind is creative and does not merely respond to external facts is quite accurate in light of modern psychological research. In modern terms, the Transcendentalists were essentially arguing that whatever “the animal wants of man” (to quote [Ralph Waldo] Emerson), humans are able to imagine an ideal world and exert effective psychological control over their ethnocentrism. They are even able to suppress desires for territory and descendants that permeate human history and formed an important part of the ideology of the Old Testament—a book that certainly had a huge influence on the original Puritan vision of the New Jerusalem. Like the Puritans, the Transcendentalists would have doubtlessly acknowledged that some people have difficulty controlling these tendencies. But this is not really a problem, because these people can be forced. The New Jerusalem can become a reality if people are willing to use the state to enforce group norms of thought and behavior. Indeed, there are increasingly strong controls on thought crimes against the multicultural New Jerusalem throughout the West.

Hook therefore never abandoned his leftist proclivities but saw Dewey’s philosophy as a better way to attain Marxist political objectives than was possible using classical Marxist ideology — not only more palatable to an American audience but also free from the baggage of historical determinism. After all, Marxist historical  determinism had failed: The revolution didn't happen.

Both the Frankfurt School and Dewey were oriented to achieving practical change in a leftist direction — “promoting rational and progressive social change through action” (p.105). In fact, as Hook described him in his autobiography, Dewey was useful to the communists even though he did not accept Marxism: Dewey “was in Communist eyes the ideal ‘honest liberal’ — a phrase used to characterize liberals who, if not sympathetic to, were at least not critical of the Soviet Union” (p. 159).

The result was a "pragmatic Marxism" much more acceptable to American academics: “Hook’s pragmatic Marxists made up their own minds based on their own evaluations of scientific evaluations of contemporary reality. If consensus could be reached among these private evaluations, collective action was possible, and its democratic course was assured” (p. 109). While phrased in terms of democracy and science, clearly this is a plea for an elite consensus followed by action. Still, it is opposed to orthodox Marxism which believes in historical determinism. Hook eventually saw pragmatism as offering all the advantages of Marxism without the baggage.

It's interesting that in pursuing his pragmatic Marxist agenda, Hook was unencumbered by a need to justify his views on race and culture. In his autobiography, Hook simply accepts the idea that Franz Boas and his followers had refuted evolutionary theories of cultural differences that had been dominant until the triumph of the Boasians in anthropology.

Again, this illustrates the centrality of Boas. By discrediting Darwinian theories of culture and race, there was nothing to stop the domination of the intellectual arena by varieties of leftist activism like that of Hook. Indeed, Boas combined his successful academic crusade against Darwinism with far left political activism. Hook notes that Boas, as the leading light of the American Committee for Intellectual Freedom and Democracy was “Surrounded by a hard core of Communist Party members and fellow-travelers and, using Boas’ name as bait, this committee rallied hundreds of American scientists to protest racial and political oppression in Germany, Spain, and Italy. This was followed by another appeal, equally worthy and successful, addressed to scholars in the humanities” (Hook, p. 257). At the same time, Boas and the group “refused to recognize that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian country” (Hook, p. 258).

Despite the fact that  Hook decried the communist affiliations of Boas, he accepted the logical outcome of Boasian anthropology — the ideology of ethnic and cultural diversity as a paradigm for America. Indeed, Hook also had a very strong Jewish identification and saw being Jewish as intimately related to advocating diversity. In a Partisan Review article of 1949, Hook presented his ideas on what it meant to be a Jew: 

No philosophy of Jewish life is required except one—identical with the democratic way of life—which enables Jews who for any reason at all accept their existence as Jews to lead a dignified and significant life, a life in which together with their fellowmen they strive collectively to improve the quality of democratic, secular cultures and thus encourage a maximum of cultural diversity, both Jewish and non-Jewish. . . . If it is pruned of its Utopianism and its failure to understand that the ethics of democracy presupposes not an equality of sameness or identity but an equality of differences, much of the universalist view still has a large measure of validity.

Judaism = democracy = advocacy of secularism (i.e., opposition to a special place for Christianity in American culture) = advocacy of cultural (and presumably ethnic) diversity. Whatever else one may say about this, it certainly does not represent traditional Jewish society which was highly authoritarian, tolerated no heretical views on religion, and had very negative views of outgroups.

Nor does it represent even vaguely Judaism as it has evolved in the Jewish state (where, as Yuri Avnery notes, Eli Yishai, the current Interior Minister, is energetically promoting ethnic purity within Israel by expelling people, including wives of Israelis, who can't establish their Jewish ancestry, and where descendants of Russian immigrants with a non-Jewish mother are relegated to second class citizenship. As I was reading the L.A. Times op-ed page today, I thought how refreshing it would be if they ran Avnery's article. But alas, they saw fit to run an op-ed on the imminent extradition from Australia of an 88-year-old native of Hungary who is alleged to have murdered a Jew in 1944.)

Clearly, although Hook's philosophy of Judaism is presented in the loftiest of ethical sentiment, it is a philosophy of Judaism tailor-made to suit Jewish interests as a Diaspora within Western societies. Just as clearly, it is a program this opposes the legitimate interests of the White, Christian population of America to retain political and cultural control.

In general, the New York Intellectuals moved in the direction of accepting basic American institutions as a framework for their political activism. The revolution of the left would happen not as a result of bloody revolution but within the traditional institutional structure of the West:  “Whether because of Stalin, the theory of social freedom, the purge trials, then Nazi-Soviet pact, the Second World  War, the Cold War, the rise of the Warsaw Pact, postwar American prosperity, or the repression of Hungary, almost all the New York Intellectuals grew to embrace American democracy and be suspicious of radical rhetoric” (pp. 133–134). 

The Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals retained their theoretical differences. For example, Wheatland spends a chapter on the intellectual feud between Hook and the Frankfurt School's Max Horkheimer. (My verdict: Horkheimer did not appreciate the  power of the Dewey/Hook philosophy for creating a leftist revolution.) Each group saw itself as scientific and democratic and the other as metaphysical. But they were on the same page in seeing Christianity and ethnic intolerance as the central problems of America. And they both saw science as able to provide the cure. Intellectual historian David Hollinger notes that they saw themselves as

guarantors of a particular vision of democracy: one authentically Jeffersonian, but being subverted by the perpetuation of old-fashioned religious and ethnic prejudices and being inhibited by a psychologically immature and socially provincial predilection for absolutes that portended an authoritarian political culture for the United States. (p. 136)

The new enemy was not capitalism but the religious attitudes and ethnic intolerance of White people, with White people seen as latent fascists on the verge of enacting an authoritarian society to safeguard their interests as Whites.

But despite paying lip service to democracy, both of these groups championed elitist, anti-democratic attitudes: The whole point was to change America from the top down by getting rid of the traditional folkways of America.

Wheatland concludes with two chapters on Herbert Marcuse and his relationship to the New Left, arguing convincingly that Marcuse did not have much influence on the New Left and may well have been influenced by them to take more activist positions. In the end, the Frankfurt School as a whole and Marcuse in particular had far more direct influence on the leftist culture of the academic world in the period after the 1960s than on the leftist culture of 1960s protests.

The main long term effect of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals was to seize the high ground of American culture in the academic world. Indeed, beginning in the 1970s, scholars of the Frankfurt School obtained positions at all the most prestigious US universities and became a major part of the leftist culture of the social sciences and humanities.

These ideas were broadened by other leftist currents unleashed by the 1960s counterculture (e.g., studies of Marxism and identity politics centered in departments of ethnic studies and women’s studies). They were then watered down and distributed in the media and in the K12 educational system. The organized Jewish community was also deeply involved in promoting and funding these intellectual activists and in promoting their ideas throughout the  school system. Eventually they were reinforced by powerful social controls against people who dissented from the culture of the left — what amounts to the culture of Western suicide.

At the end of the day, therefore, there was a remarkable commonality among these two groups of leftist Jewish intellectual activists. Much of their success derived ultimately from Jewish ethnic networking. Apart from a few non-Jews like Dewey and Dwight MacDonald, they were self-contained Jewish worlds.

But that Jewish world extended out to important parts of the high ground in American society, particularly the universities.  Ultimately, it is not at all surprising that it was all connected to all of the critical concerns of Jewish in post-Enlightenment Western societies: “Critical theory offered the key that unified the interests and concerns of the New York Intellectuals. Marxism, modernism, alienation, conformity, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust were all interconnected within the  thought of the Institute” (p. 187). 

Kevin MacDonald is editor of The Occidental Observer and a professor of psychology at California State University–Long Beach. Email him.

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