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The British Liberal Defence

Hook, who was social democratic for much of his career, distinguished between a genuinely progressive left that operates in a heretical and democratic matter, and the Stalinist American Communist Party and its fellow travellers. Heresy, for Hook, is an entirely legitimate expression of dissent on controversial matters. However, he held the Communist movement to be inherently conspiratorial and subversive of the very ground rules of democracy, and this led him to advocate restrictions against its carrying out policies and actions inimical to elected government. In effect, Hook affirmed the legitimacy of democracy protecting itself not just from external aggression, but from internal subversion in the interest of foreign aggressors, such as the USSR. He took this to be in keeping with the pragmatist emphasis on democratic consensus and open debate in the interest of solving social problems, a methodology diametrically opposed to Stalinism.

Hook’s core thesis of muscular liberalism is powerfully stated in a New York Times Magazinearticle subsequently expanded into a 1953 book:

Liberalism in the twentieth century must toughen its fibre, for it is engaged in a struggle on many fronts. Liberalism must defend the free market in ideas against the racists, the professional patrioteer, and those spokesmen of the status quo who would freeze the existing inequalities of opportunity and economic power by choking off criticism.

Liberals must also defend freedom of ideas against those agents and apologists of Communist totalitarianism, who, instead of honestly defending their heresies, resort to conspiratorial methods of anonymity and other methods of fifth columnists. (Hook, 1950: 143).

The usual objections to pragmatism are pertinent to its Deweyan anti-totalitarian strain. These revolve around the claims that pragmatism has an insufficiently robust and general conception of truth and evidence to serve as an adequate foundation for ethical and political principles. Ethical foundationalists in particular, have rejected pragmatism as possessing excessively relativistic implications, and for lacking a strong sense of moral tradition.

Contemporary pragmatists have, in different ways, attempted to respond to such criticisms by stressing the great value of democratic society in upholding value pluralism and open-ended inquiry: