Back in 2012, my undergraduate dissertation* questioned the contribution of the concept of the ‘spontaneous order’ to Friedrich Hayek’s liberalism. I’ve not dipped much into Hayek’s catalogue or anything related to it since then, so it made a nice change to pick up Simon Griffiths’ book Engaging Enemies: Hayek and the Left recently.
There is a great deal that we know about Friedrich Hayek already. A vehement opponent of socialism and a neo-liberal thinker, Hayek greatly influenced Conservatives and conservatives in Britain and America. As somebody who writes about coalitions, I occasionally grow weary of hearing Disraeli’s old dictum about England and its lack of love of them. Avid readers of Hayek literature will no doubt tire of hearing the similarly overused story about Thatcher slamming The Constitution of Liberty (Hayek 1960) down on the table, stating ‘this is what we believe’, but we hear it again and again because the broader point remains: Hayek influenced neo-liberals and conservatives.
However, the argument that Hayek’s influence might stretch to the other end of the political spectrum remains an idea with little voice. Andrew Gamble’s (1996) account of Hayek’s political thought gave us a fascinating glimpse into this idea. In particular his analysis of Hayek’s idea of knowledge, and subsequently the concept of the ‘spontaneous order’, show that the left can still appreciate the limits of centralised planning, due to imperfect nature of knowledge in society.
It is from this point that I introduce Simon Griffiths’ (2014) book. Griffiths shows the engagement of four key thinkers of the left with Hayek’s work: David Miller, Raymond Plant, Hilary Wainwright and Andrew Gamble. Miller’s market socialism, Plant’s revisionist socialism, Wainwright’s arguments of twentieth century pluralism and Gamble’s engagement with Hayek (noted above) are all analysed and brought together to give an informative account of the evolution of socialism, and what can be taken from engagement with Hayek for the future.
Griffiths argues that Hayek can provide insights into the evolution of socialist thought in the 20th century. The socialists’ rejection of an omniscient state and an openness to individual liberty and devolution of knowledge from centrist organisation suggests that Hayek should not be viewed solely as an influence to the right.
Alongside the analysis of Hayek’s influence on socialist thinkers of the twentieth century (largely in Britain) are some real gems that I’d never come across before. Take George Orwell’s review (see here) of Hayek’s (1944) Road to Serfdom:
Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.
Griffiths manages to mix detailed analysis of sometimes complex ideas and discussions with a comfortable style that makes this one to read over a weekend (I personally read it a café in Waterloo over tea and cake. The café had a cat). In particular, his comments on the relationship between ideology and ‘real life’ politics were helpful to my own work.
I’ve enjoyed Griffiths’ writing ever since reading his review of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. In the review, he highlights the following questions as guiding principles:
Why do we write? How should we talk about politics? What problems do people face and what solutions are available?
Answers to these questions shine through in Griffiths’ book. It’s a pleasure to read whether you’ve never read Hayek or whether his concepts of taxis and kosmos roll of the tongue with ease. It is very much recommended.
*For those interested, I’ve uploaded my undergraduate dissertation here.
Gamble, Andrew (1996). Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty. Oxford: Blackwell;
Griffiths, Simon (2014). Engaging Enemies: Hayek and the Left. Rowman and Littlefield.
Hayek, Friedrich A. (1944). The Road to Serfdom. London: Routledge;
Hayek, Friedrich A. (1960). The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press;