Highly readable snapshot of 1840s neo-hegelian German philosophy, as carried out by sniping in the radical press.
Originally written in the 1930s when Hook was some kind of marxist, this edition from the period of High McCarthyism includes a "new introduction" that does not throw the book under the bus, but rather distinguishes it from the Soviet Empire, finding unlikely "the contention that socialism spells the abolition of human self-alienation" (7) and that we "may be more alienated in a highly planned socialized economy in which political democracy is absent" (8). He turns Marx against the Soviets, suggesting that "any economy in which free trade unions are lacking, the legal right to opposition non-existent, and the right to strike taboo is an economy of forced labor" (id.). Ultimately, he reasseses that "it is not the mode of economic production but the mode of political decision which is of decisve importance" (9), which is a break with marxist theory.
The principal text is great: a decent essay on Marx's debt to and critique of Hegel, and then a development of Marx's polemics with Strauss, Bauer, Stirner, Ruge, Hess, and Feuerbach, ending with a detailed reading of the theses on Feuerbach. This means that though the Manifesto is mentioned, the intellectual biography does not get there. This one concerns the maturation of historical materialist theory.
The opening essay addresses how Marx arises out of Hegel, who has "ostensibly the most conservative system of philosophy in western European tradition" (15). The analysis includes both what Marx preserves of Hegel and what gets thrown out. Hook cites to Peirce for the proposition that Hegel's dialectics "is the logic of natural continuity" (68), which is apt (and which makes sense of Foucault's later remark that his studies of discontinuity assume the truth of marxism but don't bother belaboring it). The text is otherwise content to disregard the schematic thesis-antithesis-synthesis heuristic.
Strauss is presented as an idealist (89) whose higher criticism of scripture showed that it "had no more justification than the superstitions of the Hottentots" (82), a positive development, but nevertheless "irretrievably bankrupted the Hegelian stock in the German market" (86).
Bauer is the "high-water mark of higher biblical criticism" (89) who "denied the historicity of Christ" (91), but was nonetheless destroyed by Marx as an idealist (116).
Ruge is described as "the central figure of the Young Hegelians" who presented "the political aspirations of the rising bourgeoisie in Germany" (126). Ruge started off the Hallische Jahrbucher
as a Protestant rag, and then attacked the Prussian state for not being sufficiently pious (128). But it was all bullshit; his letters reveal that he was faking rightwing ideas in order to beat the censor (id.). It all came crumbling down when he dared attack romanticism. Ruge is therefore the 1840s Stephen Colbert. First as tragedy, second as farce, no?
Stirner is presented as a hyper-individualist, and I suspect that there is nothing in Ayn Rand that Stirner did not originate. Hess, on the other hand, is a "true socialist," which the Manifesto repudiates as feudal nostalgia. I have long suspected that "true socialist" theory is one part of fascism. The detailed discussion and critique of Feuerbach that concludes the volume is well done. Feuerbach is revealed by turns as very slick and very stupid.
Overall, very much a philosopher's contribution, concerned with traditional ontological and epistemological categories; politics and ethics are marginal. We should keep in mind that author eventually ended up in a subliterate rightwing thinktank during the Reagan years, becoming an unreconstructed cold warrior in his frail dotage--but this one's worthwhile.