Books that changed the world - for a while
SIXTY years ago this week, George Orwell reviewed a work by a little-known Austrian professor and refugee from Hitler, FA Hayek. It was called The Road to Serfdom, and Orwell didn’t think much of it.
Conceding that there was some justice in Hayek’s criticism of collectivism, which Orwell granted was "not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisition never dreamed of", Orwell nevertheless dismissed Hayek’s argument for a return to "free" competition out of hand: "Since the vast majority of people would far rather have state regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter."
Well, Orwell got it wrong. Within 40 years, it was collectivism that was in retreat while governments, especially in the UK and the US, were withdrawing from attempts to manage the economy and reasserting the virtues of the free market. And they found the intellectual justification for their policies in the book that Orwell had dismissed.
Now, with the free market and globalism dominant - for the time being, anyway - Hayek’s may be claimed as one of those books that changed the world, even though comparatively few have read it, and of those who have done so, not all, probably, have understood it.
There’s nothing new in that, of course. Books may have a huge influence even when few have read them in their entirety. That certainly could be said of the work which Hayek may be said to have dislodged: Das Kapital, by Karl Marx. No-one can deny that Marx was the most influential political thinker of the 19th century. His critique of capitalism and his emphasis on the inevitability of its overthrow provided the intellectual basis for the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
If it seemed to many who called themselves socialists or social democrats that capitalism was doomed (as Orwell believed), this was because Marx had told them so. Even more remarkably, inaccurate as Marx’s analysis of history was, reputable historians endorsed his interpretation of the historical process.
Books that changed the world? Well, very obviously, that may be claimed for the Bible and the Koran. It’s inconceivable that either Christianity or Islam could have spread as they did without the authority of the Book. St Paul, in his epistles, fixed the Christian view of sexual morality for almost two millennia: quite an achievement. The Hebrew Bible - the Old Testament - put Man at the centre of a Divine creation.
It took another book to question this: Darwin’s Origin of Species. Admittedly, there are still Creationists who refuse to accept his (or anyone else’s) theories of evolution, but the question that Disraeli rhetorically put: "Is man an ape or an angel?" - now generally receives the answer: "more like an ape anyway." That is Darwin’s triumph.
Few books, however, spring from virgin territory. The way had been prepared for Darwin by geologists such as Hutton and Lyell, who had shown that the Earth was much older than its dating from biblical evidence had led men to suppose. Moreover, the men of the 18th-century Enlightenment had taught men to think in new ways. Rousseau’s Le Contrat Sociale is in many respects a silly book. Yet its grand assertion - "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains" - so effectively challenged the established order as to be classed as one of the books that changed the world.
Some would accord that description also to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations which certainly revolutionised political economy and paved the way for Hayek. Yet, of all the works of the Enlightenment that might be considered world-changing, the accolade must go to A Treatise of Human Nature, written by the young David Hume. After all, as the American aphorist Logan Pearsall Smith observed, it called all certainties into question.
And if that is not revolutionary, what could be?
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