I omitted to comment last week on an article by Nick Cohen in The Observer about Bertolt Brecht. Nick rightly terms Brecht "a communist writer, not a writer who happened to support communism".
I've written about Brecht here. The writer I'd compare him to is Maxim Gorky: an author of a handful of outstanding works that transcend the limitations of his politics, but whose writing as a body is corrupted by an absolutist and fanatical ideology.
Note in particular the illuminating anecdote at the end of Nick's article about a meeting (the third and last) between Brecht and the American philosopher Sidney Hook in New York in 1935. Hook undemonstratively showed Brecht the door when Brecht unabashedly defended the Moscow trials and the purges. The story comes from Hook's memoirs, Out of Step, 1987, p. 493. (Hook had first recounted this story in print in an article entitled "A Recollection of Bertolt Brecht", in The New Leader, 10 October 1960.)
I tried recently to introduce readers of "Comment is Free" to the political significance of Sidney Hook, but without great hopes of success. I commend his plain speaking and anti-totalitarianism to my readers.
Hook was never a member of the Communist Party, but he was at one time a fellow traveller. In the 1932 presidential election he supported the Communist candidature of William Z. Foster sooner than vote for FDR. While he became one of the most effective and learned opponents of Communism, Hook never abandoned his socialism. Thirty years later, he declined to support LBJ against the Republican Barry Goldwater, and instead voted in the 1964 presidential election for Eric Hass, the candidate of the minuscule Marxist Socialist Labor Party. Towards the end of his life, when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan, Hook summarised his domestic political philosophy this way: "I am an unreconstructed believer in the welfare state and in a steeply progressive income tax, a secular humanist, and a firm supporter of freedom of choice with respect to abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and other domestic measures to which [Reagan] is opposed."
For what my views are worth: I am a reconstructed believer in the welfare state as well as a supporter of the principle of progressive taxation; and I do not support voluntary euthanasia. I also lack a sense of humour sufficiently wry to call myself a socialist. It strikes me as an immense historical hindrance to the cause of the Left in the UK that its dominant party never - or at least, not until Tony Blair - saw the need to revise its ideological premises in the way that the German Social Democrats did in the late 1950s. And while well able to see that socialism was a defunct ideology that breathed its last in the financial crises of the early Mitterrand administration, Blair advanced as its alternative the essentially empty notion of a Third Way between the market and a command economy. But once you make allowance for Hook's idiosyncrasy in keeping alive the label of socialism, his approach to politics is, in my view, one for our age, as it was for his.