In Between Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek

Qin Hui has been my favorite scholar since many years ago. I think he is among the small group of Chinese contemporary scholars who are actually presentable on a global stage. Recently I had the chance to listen to his lecture series My View on Karl Marx. It was fascinating. I translated a small excerpt from the last episode into English, so my western friends can have glimpse of it.

Towards the end of the Q&A session, someone asked Mr. Qin:

You seem to believe that there are ideas worth inheriting from both the left and the right side; at the same time, there are things from both sides that call for criticism. But then, don’t you have a preference? For example, in view of fighting against tyranny, would you say the thought resource provided by Marx is more valuable, or more effective, compared to the thought resource provided by Hayek?

And here is Qin Hui’s answer to this question:

I had a recent discussion on this matter with a friend, who, just like me, is liberal. He is also a fan of Hayek. He believes Hayek is the most important thinker. I said I agree that Hayek is indeed very important, but from my own experience, I get more inspiration from Marx than from Hayek.

The friend was very surprised at my response. He said, I didn’t know you are a Marxist.

I said, I’m no Marxist. Nor am I a Hayekist. I believe in the universal values. But in my pursuit of the universal values, if I’ve ever been inspired by past thinkers, just as Ding Xueliang – who I quoted during the lecture – once said, it was Marx (who inspired me.)

My friend found it hard to understand. But I think it’s simple. When I say Marx inspired me more than Hayek did, I am talking about what kind of issues they’ve made me aware of. Marx, living in the 19th Century, had to think about fighting against tyranny, about finding the path to liberty, the road to freedom, whereas for Hayek, living in the Weimar Republic, the issues were not about the road to freedom, nor were they about fighting against tyranny, but were about how not to revert back to tyranny. Or to put it simply, how to avoid losing freedom when you already have it.

Hayek’s solution can be summarized in 2 primary points: First, people should refrain from becoming overconfident in rational design. Spontaneous order is preferable over rational design. So, don’t think too much about ideals. Let the society manifest itself naturally, that is the best way to develop.

Second, idealism concerning others is dangerous. As long as everyone minds his own business, tyranny cannot play its tricks on us.

Considering the situation Hayek faced in Weimar Republic, I totally understand his point of view – not that I agree totally. What happened afterwards proved him mistaken. The rise of Fascism could not be countered by everyone minding his own business, nor the rise the result of overconfidence in rational design. It was more the result of over confidence in power.

But then, I have to say, I don’t think what Hayek advocates is worse than what the leftists in a free society advocate. Or, I don’t think the leftists nowadays can give me more inspiration than Hayek did.

Conversely, the liberal scholars in the 19th century – Adam Smith, for example, or Bastiat, who was an opponent of Marx – had an understanding of freedom and liberty that is not necessarily worse than Marx’s.

So you can see, in any given historical context, I don’t think the left is necessarily better than the right, or the other way around. However,  if we compare thinkers over different ages, we are comparing the issues they addressed. In that case, I naturally believe the ideas from thinkers lived in an age of tyranny, leftist or rightist, can give us more enlightenment than those from thinkers lived in a free age, leftist or rightist.

Marx inspired me more than Hayek did, which I believe is very easy to understand – not because Marx was a leftist whereas Hayek was a rightist, but rather, because Marx lived in the 19th century, whereas Hayek lived in a too modern society, too different from the society I live in. Marx on the other hand, although the situation he lived in is not exactly the same as mine, but his issues are much closer to me than Hayek’s.

I dare to say, this preference is just natural to anyone. I once told a friend, imagine you were in the concentration camp in Auschwitz, would you find it strange that a Jew communist collaborates with a Jew liberal to escape the camp? Or in a different scenario, when all the Jews were driven out of their homes, separated from their families and put in concentration camps, you tell them,  “you should learn from Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, break away from your families, that is how you get your freedom”. Do you think this kind of enlightenment reasonable?

Considering both cases, as someone who’s in the camp of Auschwitz, would you find the communist who can help you escape, or the Nora Helmer who can help you break away your family, more relatable?

Of course, once get out of Auschwitz, the situation would be different. Once out of the camp, you have all the freedom to form alliance with Nora and debate against the communist, because now you are in a totally different situation and the issues you are aware of are totally different.

Tolstoy has a famous saying, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. I would say, “Conditions in freedom are all alike; Conditions that lack freedom are not free in their own way.” Lacking of freedom in Auschwitz is different from lacking of freedom under parental control; lacking of freedom under a theocracy is different from lacking of freedom under a secular regime; lacking of freedom under kidnap for ransom is different from lacking of freedom living in a hereditary estate. Lacking of freedom in Qin Dynasty institution is different from lacking of freedom in Zhou Dynastay institution. Even the lacking of freedom happens under national conquest, conditions under British conquest is different from conditions under Japanese conquest. Knowing this, you’ll understand why the Hong Kong people felt sympathy with the British under Japanese invasion. Even communists, for example, communists in Malaysia, supported alliance with Britain to fight against Japan. Because the lacking of freedom under British rule is different from the lacking of freedom under Japanese rule.

Of course, the situation can be much more complicated when commonly, different freedom depriving forces are at work at the same time. It is impossible for an individual to free himself from all the freedom depriving forces all at once. In such a situation, which force one should free oneself from first, or maybe utilizing certain depriving force to break away from another depriving force, or the other way around, the choice is critically important. Once this choice is decided, you still have to decide on the timing of each and every stage along the path. A simple copy of any single existing thought model is not adequate in making any of these decisions. This is why I believe we should learn from a diverse repertoire of thought resources.

OK. That is all I say about this. Thank you!