Excerpted from The American Spectator, January 1985, No. 1



Sidney Hook: Three Intellectual Favorites




In Praise of Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Melvin Lasky


ALTHOUGH finally they were never students of mine, and probably never think of themselves as such except in a Pickwickian sense, I know that some of the friends and unfriendly critics of Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Melvin Lasky sometimes refer to them as my students. Even though each one has sharp differences with me I would have been proud to be their teacher. For their intellectual development and diverse careers exhibit an independence and originality that reflect not only their personalities but powers of growth which were stimulated during the stormy years of their adolescence in the thirties. This was a period in which the powers of growth of some of their equally promising fellow-students were arrested by fixation on current dogmas of social salvation.

 Actually my relation to them was more avuncular than pedagogic. I got to know them fairly well when I became a contributor to the New Leader and later to Commentary, where their dramatic and sometimes prankish exploits somewhat lightened the somber mood of successive defeats in the editorial sanctum. I have some responsibility for the fact that two of them are now stars of the first magnitude in the academy. I rode herd on Dan Bell until he abandoned the richly rewarded field of labor journalism in which he has had no peers in scholarly breadth and historical insight for the uncertain life, at the time, of the academy. He resigned a post as labor-editor of Fortune for a modest position in the department of sociology at Columbia University at less than half of his current salary.

 Irving Kristol’s transmutation into academic life was more precipitate. I was on the committee appointed by the then president of New York University, James Hester, to find someone to fill the chair of the recently established Endowed Luce Professorship. Some of my colleagues had not heard of Irving Kristol, and others weren’t very much enamored with what little they had heard. But after presenting a series of names of distinguished academic figures who, I was confident, my fellow committeemen disliked for relevant and irrelevant reasons, my nomination of Irving Kristol was accepted as the lesser known risk. Since that time, in consequence of his contributions which have made him an esteemed national figure even among those whose skins itch when they read his cool judgements, he has been reappointed and become an adornment to the university.

 This recommendation of mine....



THE greatest vocational paradox that characterizes our three intellectual troubadours is that the individual who seems almost by nature cast in the role of a university profressor is currently not one. I mean Melvin Lasky. What a magnificent professor he would be! In appearance, in scholarship, in voice and presence, Melvin Lasky is the very model of the model University Professor – and of the ideal German professor of pre-World War I vintage at that! Professionally trained as a historian, he seems at home in all the humanities and social studies. He speaks in well-formed sentences, and can fascinate a drawing room as well as a crowded meeting hall with the unconscious art of a performer who gets his point across as effectively with a dramatic whisper as with an eloquent peroration. In conversation his intellectual antennae are all aquiver to catch the waves of some new idea or notion struggling to find expression. He is an avid reader in several languages not only of scholarly works but of the daily press and the obscure factional literature of dissident Communist groups.

 There is one quality Melvin Lasky has which has been matched by few German professors I have known. That is an extraordinary intellectual and moral courage. I refer not merely to the kind of courage expressed in an article or esoteric writing that will bring down on him the wrath of other writers or scholars or the hired literary guns of the Kremlin and its satellites, but to the courage displayed in a public confrontation with a hostile crowd. I have seen him in action on several occasions when most academics I know would have fled, fearful of their physical safety. This is particularly true when Lasky finds himself among European neutralists or those judicious souls, mindful of the future and forgetful of the past, who regard the Soviet Bear and the American Eagle as equally hostile to the great European humanist legacy. His detractors to the contrary notwithstanding, Melvin Lasky has never been an apologist for American domestic or foreign policy. He has exercised his privilege as a citizen of a free culture to criticize his own country’s shortcomings, particularly in defense of freedom. Unfortunately there is a type of American, I have found its exemplars, sad to say, often among Fulbright scholars, who in order to ingratiate themselves with their foreign hosts play the roles of Tom Wicker and Anthony Lewis, the New York Times’s famous ritualistic liberals, without surcease. Whatever the shortcomings of Wicker and Lewis, who apparently believe the United States can never be right about anything, they occasionally are critical of other countries, too. But not the anti-American Americans abroad. An audience accustomed to them is sure to be taken aback when Lasky tries to tell it as it is or rather as it seems to be to him. It goes without saying that he is not popular with the anti-American Oxbridge contingent….



WHEN Melvin Lasky left Berlin and the editorship of der Monat to edit Encounter he did more than inherit the legacy of Irving Kristol. He kept it alive despite an intense attack on its bona fides by angry critics who refused to judge it by its contents but by its subsidies from the Congress for Cultural Freedom that had been traced in part to the CIA. Those subsidies were discontinued, and Lasky began a heroic task to raise the extensive resources it required to keep publishing the magazine on its customary level of distinction. As issue after issue appeared, Lasky rewon the confidence of the critical reading public and scored one journalistic coup after another. Today it is at its highest intellectual level. In this achievement Lasky has been aided by a staff of devoted and self-sacrificing editorial and commercial associates. Of special note have been the interviews conducted by George Urban with some of the leading political and literary personalities of our time. Urban has been no mere interlocutor. He plays a creative non-intrusive role in interchanges that are as dramatic as they are informative. And yet for all the contributions of his collaborators, Encounter is Lasky’s handiwork. To those who write for it, how he produces it and when is a mystery unfathomable as the lapses and replies of his correspondence.

 Lester Markel of the New York Times who enjoyed a legendary reputation as a hard and hated taskmaster once told me with becoming modesty: “Every good editor must be a son-of-a-bitch.” I have no doubt that Markel was both but I have met good, even excellent, editors whose paternity is normal. Mel is certainly a good editor but most of the contributors tp Encounter find him elusive. One never knows when a contribution accepted with enthusiasm will appear. He never explains or apologizes for the delays. Although they fume and fret, even the most choleric of writers end up by accepting the wisdom of the editorial judgment without ceasing to deplore the periodic reticence and sometimes the absence of frankness of the editor. Despite his long absences abroad, Mel is quintessentially American and will remain so all his life, fascinating, provocative, and as a human being, fundamentally attractive to Europeans of all political persuasions except totalitarians, anti-anti-Communists, and confirmed anti-Americans.

 As young men our three intellectual troubadours could have teamed together to publish a magazine, organize a great symposium, launch a new moveemnt, and in general to make mischief for their etachers and elders in every area of their interest. As mature persons – it is hard for me to accept the fact that they are all grandfathers! – each one is the central figure in his own intellectual constellation. I enjoy them all, proud to have influenced them and been influenced by them.


Sidney Hook was Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, New York University, and Senior Reseacrh Fellow at the Hoover Institution. 


Hook, American Spectator