Society and Culture

Of socialist hedgehogs and liberal foxes

In his 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, the philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin talked about what he saw as “one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general”, namely:

“[T]here exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way”.

Leaning on a quote from an ancient Greek poet – “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” –, Berlin referred to the former types as “hedgehogs”, and the second types as “foxes”.

That distinction can quite easily be applied to the ideological landscape of modern-day Britain. The 2016 EU referendum, for example, has created an army of “Brexit hedgehogs”, who manage to make everything that happens in Britain about Brexit. Woke progressivism is the ultimate hedgehog ideology, which sees everything through a lens of victimhood and oppression, and which sacralises presumed victim groups. Covid has created (or at least boosted) lots of conspiracy hedgehogs, who see everything as part of a master plan by a shadowy global elite to enslave the population.

A hedgehog is not to be confused with a single-issuer. Unlike a single-issuer, a hedgehog will gladly talk about a wide variety of subjects – it is just that they will always link them back to their One Big Idea. A single-issuer will try to change the subject if you talk about something outside of their comfort zone. A hedgehog will go along with whatever subject you choose, but they will quickly turn your subject into a subtopic of theirs.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, post-Thatcherite conservatism is a quintessential “fox” worldview. Social democracy and centrism are not far behind. Conservatives, social democrats and centrists have one policy for issue X, another policy for issue Y, and yet another for issue Z, but you’ll struggle to find much of a common thread running through them.

Classical liberalism is somewhere in between, but if we had to draw a boundary somewhere, liberalism would be, just about, on the “fox” side of that boundary. Liberalism has recognisable core themes: distrust of centralised power, a belief in a competitive market discovery process, a preference for “exit” over “voice” (i.e. the belief that individual choice is more meaningful and empowering than collective democratic choice), an emphasis on the importance of secure and well-defined property rights, the centrality of the rule of law, and so on. But what this means in practice differs hugely from one policy area to another. It is not a customisable template. You will not be able to transfer it from X to Y unless you know quite a bit about Y. Classical liberals will also accept that there are issues on which they have little to nothing to say. When our numerous critics point out that liberal capitalism does not provide people with a sense of belonging, community, purpose, and meaning in life – we accept that this is entirely correct. Liberalism does not, and cannot do that.

In the battle of ideas, hedgehogs have a number of advantages over foxes.

On the “supply side”, a big advantage that hedgehogs have is that it is easier to communicate One Big Idea than it is to communicate two or three dozen small-to-medium-sized ones. It is easier to maintain “message discipline” if all of your individual messages are just variations of your One Big Message.

Also on the supply side, hedgehogs tend to be more self-confident than foxes, because they believe themselves to be in possession of the master key that unlocks all of the world’s mysteries. They will speak confidently on a wide range of subjects, including subjects they know little about, because they have a standard template which they can apply to everything. Foxes, on the other hand, will be painfully aware of their knowledge gaps, and self-conscious about them.

On the demand side, hedgehogs have the advantage that people like coherent narratives, and hedgehogs are nothing if not coherent (even if their coherence is an illusory one).

Also on the demand side, hedgehog arguments often sound superficially more sophisticated than fox arguments. Clever people see connections between things, where not-so-clever people just see isolated phenomena. Since hedgehogs claim that everything is connected to everything, they can at least imitate the outward form of a sophisticated argument. (Although, of course, if X, Y and Z really are separate phenomena, saying so does not make you stupid, and making up some spurious connection between them does not make you a genius.)

This does not mean that hedgehogs will automatically win every argument: they have some disadvantages as well.

For a start, they are putting all their eggs into one basket. If their One Big Idea does not appeal to you, they have nothing else to win you over with. “I don’t agree with Carole Cadwalladr on Brexit, but I think she’s great on other issues”, said no one ever (or at least not since 2016).

Their self-assuredness can also come across as smugness. Their tendency to bring everything back to the One Big Idea can also come across as cranky, obsessive, and reductionist, at least to those who do not believe that the One Big Idea is really all it’s cracked up to be.

Which brings us to a hedgehog ideology that had long suffered from its association with cranks and fringe groups, and which then suddenly became immensely popular, experiencing a rebirth as a hip youth movement: socialism.

The One Big Idea of socialism, at least in its current “Millennial Socialism” incarnation, is that every bad thing in the world is somehow the fault of capitalism, and would somehow disappear in a socialist society. It is perhaps best expressed by Jeremy Corbyn (who, while technically no longer leader of the opposition, remains an important symbolic figurehead for the socialist Left):

“We used to think that there were a series of distinct crises: the climate, the refugees, the housing, the debt, the inequality crises, the crisis of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. We tried to isolate each one and solve it. […]

Now we can see that we don’t face multiple separate crises. The system itself is the crisis. The global system is not in a crisis that can be resolved. The system is crisis and must be overcome, replaced”.

In Isaiah Berlin’s terms, we could say that what Corbyn describes here is his transformation from a fox to a hedgehog. (Although I strongly doubt that Corbyn was ever a fox, so I do not believe that this “transformation” really happened.)

A good illustration of the hedgehog character of socialism is the Marxism Festival 2022, which will take place next week. It is organised by the Socialist Workers Party, but it is not some irrelevant fringe event: speakers include the aforementioned Jeremy Corbyn, as well as John McDonnell, Yanis Varoufakis, and various others who, while not household names in their own right, represent organisations which are (such as Black Lives Matter).

They will run plenty of sessions of the type that you would expect from a conference called “Marxism Festival”, with titles such as “Marxism in 30 minutes”, “Socialism or barbarism: the politics of Rosa Luxemburg”, “October 1917: coup or revolution?”, “Did Lenin lead to Stalin?”, “Is there anything cool about Stalinism?”, “Socialism and Revolution”, “Time’s running out: Leninism in a time of crisis”, “Exploitation: where do profits come from?”, “Accumulation: the driving force of capitalism”, “Why Cuba isn’t socialist”, and “Was China ever socialist?”.

But – and this is where the hedgehog shows its spikes – there are also plenty of sessions on environmentalism, foreign policy and “woke” topics, where the socialist angle is far less obvious: “Race, class and identity”, “Ukraine: New frontier of empire?”, “Resisting the war on trans people”, “Capitalism’s crimes against nature”, “More than a moment: what is the legacy of BLM?”, “Political crisis and state racism”, “Revolution in a time of ecological crisis”, “Spiking to harassment: why does sexism run so deep?”, “More than statues: empire, slavery & reparations”, “How do we turn imperialist war into class war?”, “Abolition: can we get rid of the police?”, “Is Marxism eurocentric?”, “Islamophobia: the hate the state made”, “Palestine: a revolutionary struggle”, “The roots of Israeli apartheid”, “Black Marxism and racial capitalism”, “Fighting for climate justice and system change”, “Is there a difference between sex and gender?”, “Where does racism come from?”, and so on.

The conference is, in this regard, quite representative of the modern Left. Popular left-wing publications churn out articles with titles such as “Why anti-racism must be anti-capitalist” (Tribune), “Oliver Cromwell Cox and the capitalist sources of racism” (Jacobin), “When fighting racism meant fighting economic exploitation” (Jacobin), “Ending climate change requires the end of capitalism” (The Guardian), “Climate change is class struggle” (Jacobin), “The only way to halt climate change is to challenge the logic of capitalism” (New Statesman), “Only class war can stop climate change” (Jacobin), etc., all the time.

It would be tempting to dismiss this all as a childish, immature “socialism means ponies for everyone”-type utopianism. But there clearly is a demand for all this, especially from younger audiences. There clearly is a demand for a unified theory of everything, which gives you at least the illusion that suddenly, everything falls into place, and everything starts to make sense. There clearly is a demand for a “Think Big” utopianism, even if it is, in practice, a remarkably unthinking one, which does a lot of asserting and very little actual thinking.

Liberals cannot match that, and in my view, should not try to. You could put some plastic spikes on a fox, but it would nonetheless make a very unconvincing hedgehog. And yet, there are some things we will have to learn from the hedgehogs, because at least among the younger generations, the hedgehogs are quite clearly winning. The least we can do is steer clear of an unambitious “cheems mindset”, and move beyond our traditional comfort zones.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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