The Original Right-Wing Gramscians

There are many conversations being had on the Right in recent years, usually divided in two: what do we want to conserve, or build; and how do we do so? The former, I am glad to say, is no longer stuck in the stasis of Blairism, that tinkering with the edges of a hostile establishment is an hegemonic approach, and with Rishi Sunak’s call to revisit the Equality Act (2010) is an extremely welcome development; but the latter is still under-developed. Fundamentally, the concern here, of how we achieve what we want to achieve, is a question of strategy.

The question of strategy is one that the Right almost fears addressing. There are many reasons as to why, and I am pretty sure that a cowardly inability to accept the fundamentally conflictual nature of politics is one of them, instead retaining a small-l liberal belief in the neutrality of institutions. But this belief holds us back, because it prevents us from seeing these institutions as battle-grounds themselves, where the culture war takes its most concrete form; and it holds us back because the Left has committed itself to a conflictual vision of politics.

It is for this reason that the Right needs to adopt a Gramscian approach to retaking control of the institutions that have long been captured by the Left, an approach of ‘marching through the institutions’. The fundamentals of Gramsci’s theory are not our concern here, but what matters is that his theory of politics as a war of position has informed Leftist political strategy for a long time, nearly a century at this point, with Gramsci writing in the late 1920s and early 1930s about the need for the Left to inculcate a revolutionary attitude amongst the ‘subalterns’ via ‘organic intellectuals’. In other words, Gramsci advocated that the Left should not try to ‘lead’ the working class and try to capture institutions of power first, as the Leninists did in Russia, but instead should change our culture first, and capture institutions of power last.

Many on the Right dismiss this strategy, taking it to be Marxist all the way down, and that the Right should seek to create its own strategies. Perhaps; this argument certainly has its merits. But the weaker argument comes from a belief that this strategy could never work. This argument is weak because, importantly, it has already worked, and I don’t just mean for the Left. In the second half of the previous century, there was a major, successful and, some might say, permanent Gramscian revolution from the right. This came from the think tank world, begun in what might otherwise seem to be an incredibly unlikely place.  

History in the Long View

In 1947, a group of predominantly European intellectuals met at a Swiss lakeside conference centre at the base of Mont Pélèrin, whilst the International Trade Organisation met at the opposite end of the lake. Organised by Friedrich Hayek, the group that met at the base of Mont Pélèrin took it as their namesake and formed the Mont Pélèrin Society. In many ways, Mont Pélèrin is ‘ground zero’ of the great Neoliberal Revolution of the second half of the twentieth century; and yet, almost nobody knows about it.

Two years prior to the meeting, at the close of the Second World War, came a reckoning for intellectuals. For many people, political philosophy, political theory, grand narratives of history and abstract theorising had not only had their day but were increasingly thought of as dangerous; they had led Italy into fascism, Germany into National Socialism, Russia into Communism, and China into civil war, as well as pushing colonies into open revolt, and causing the proliferation of dangerous beliefs in what were thought to be safe, secure Western democracies. 

Not only that, but despite the defeat of Nazism, it seemed as though those Western democracies had adopted an uncritical collectivism, whilst the shadow of Bolshevism spread malevolently across Eastern Europe. In 1947, it would be some time before the Warsaw Pact or the Eastern Bloc became geopolitical realities, but nonetheless it felt that the fires of individual liberty were well and truly extinguished in the cradle of Western civilisation. 

But the Mont Pélèrin Society was not the birthplace of what came to be called neoliberalism. In fact, in many ways, the diagnosis of the problems across the world in 1947 was the long-view of history, begun in the 1920s in response to the Great Depression, at a time when global markets seemingly froze, collapsed, and could not be revived from within. Adherents to the nineteenth-century brand of liberalism that had seen a great liberalisation of markets across the world argued that, to revive the global market and ensure its survival, there was a place for State intervention to maintain its role as the defender of the market order and the provider of prosperity and stability. In this regard, those who consciously called themselves neo-liberals of the 1920s saw themselves as committed to individual liberty supported by statehood. 

This ‘neoliberalism’ emerged as a response to both the First World War and the Great Depression and was emboldened (largely out of panic) by the emergence of the totalitarian governments of the late-1920s and 1930s. The political climate at the time, however, was not in their favour; obviously the totalitarian states of Europe would not be receptive to messages of individualism and liberty, but neither were the British or French imperialists of the time, who pursued preferential, imperial economic systems. Moreover, in the 1930s, the British economy was put into a state of paralysis that was later referred to as the Hungry Thirties, as this very imperial preference system saw increasing outsourcing of the textile industry to India and Africa, increasing union militancy, and a National Government riven with disagreement. So, the warning of the neo-liberals – that dynamic statehood was a necessary precondition of individual liberty – was ignored. 

It is important to recognise that the goals and aims of the Mont Pélèrin Society were achieved, but by no means overnight. It took over thirty years before a receptive government in Western Europe was prepared to pay attention to the ideas of the Society, during which time Britain experienced an enormous economic boom, then followed by decades of economic deflation that resulted in the dreaded stagflation of rising inflation and rising unemployment. But Britain was, of course, not alone in the 1970s – the Vietnam War, the Oil Shock of 1973, the near-collapse of industrial relations, and the complete exhaustion of the Keynesian model, which came to a head in the collapse of the Bretton-Woods monetary system in 1971.

All of this led to a sense that the current paradigm had failed. And whilst this was terrible for economists and politicians, for intellectuals their time had come. 

The Meeting at Mont Pélèrin

In many ways, we can see why intellectuals met at Mont Pélèrin in 1947; or at least, we have half-answered it. The problem of history is it is never neat, and we cannot know exactly the reasons that something happened, but we can establish two broad forms of cause. The first is the ‘push’ or the ‘negative’ factors: what had to go wrong for the event in question to take place? And, relatedly, we can establish the second, the ‘pull’ or ‘positive’ factors: what needs to change for the negative factors to be avoided or changed? We know the negative factors – a fear of collectivism, and its consequences – but what did the Mont Pélèrin Society want to achieve? 

This question can be understood best by considering another question first, specifically ‘who was there’? As mentioned, the principal figure was Friedrich Hayek, who rose to prominence in the 1940s for his work, The Road to Serfdom. Serfdom was known for its systematic analysis of how the forms of economic collectivism pursued in the West under the totalitarian government had lead to the death of liberty and, importantly, so too would other economically collectivisms. We can understand this by considering what Hayek considered the key features of the welfare state:

a.    ‘Central planning’ – Hayek’s opposition to this approach to economic organisation was essentially an epistemological one, which is that the knowledge necessary for an economy to function is so diffuse, and so minute, it is impossible to aggregate it into a single formula or under a single agency. 

b.   ‘The redistributive state’ – Hayek believed that economic centralisation cannot be separated from the other areas of life. To quote Serfdom, economics is not ‘a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served’. 

This systematisation of the welfare state, of ‘welfarism’, is so much more extensive than merely the provision of services; indeed, as Hayek says, ‘the conception of the welfare state has no precise meaning… the phrase is sometimes used to describe any state that “concerns” itself in any manner with problems other than those of the maintenance of law and order’. 

Why is Hayek so concerned with welfarism? It is because, to him, neoliberalism in its pre-war form is what its name ought to mean quite literally: a liberalism that is modern. In this, Hayek proposes a return to classical liberalism via neoliberalism: as I describe above, liberal did and do not advocate for ‘individualist minimal government’, because the state is necessary for the protection of the conditions for individualism. He says, in a very Aristotelian fashion, ‘…there are common needs that can be satisfied only by collective action… as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance […] which can be provided outside the market, will gradually rise… and government may […] assist or even lead such endeavours’. 

What matters is that we must be vigilant towards the methods of provision, especially where welfarism is concerned, as it is the mindset that only the state can provide minimal services, as ‘…though effective for particular purposes, they would in their aggregate effect destroy a free society’. The coercion involved is concealed by their presentation in terms of public service.  The illusion is public service; the reality is state coercion: ‘though they are presented as mere service activities, they really constitute an exercise of the coercive powers of government’. 

This is why Hayek’s presence at the Mont Pélèrin Society matters: even more so as the instigator of this group, as his desire was to bring together intellectuals – and specifically intellectuals – to address the challenges of collectivism, amongst which was counted National-Socialist as well as Soviet totalitarianism, but also American New Deal liberalism, British social democracy, and continental Christian democracy. 

Those intellectuals that Hayek gathered were, predominantly, economists, but importantly a lot of them were people who lived under National-Socialist collectivism. As a result, they witnessed the terrible power of totalitarianism, but also adopted what we might consider a semi-irrational suspicion of the state as a mechanism by which totalitarianism became possible – but significantly, this created the grounds for a specifically transnational form of free market activism that both recognised mechanistic statism but also refused to be subordinate to it. 

What is most interesting, looking at the speech delivered by Hayek at this first meeting, is that he consciously notes the predominance of economists, and the lack of sociologists and philosophers. What Hayek desired, in terms of those in attendance, is clearly more diverse and, in our post-modern language, ‘intersectional’. He also notes, importantly, the lack of lawyers. We can discuss the potential consequences of this composition, but I think the likely reason for the predominance of economists is that those economists in attendance were anti-statist, and most governments were not receptive to their messages, as I say. 

What needs to be drawn attention to, is the presence of businessmen and journalists from the start – which Hayek intended; and the reasons why Hayek intended this, helps us to explain what the Mont Pélèrin Society wanted to do.

A Meeting of Minds

A close reading of the speech given by Hayek shows his intended and preferred strategy. Hayek lays clear that he rejects mass movements – probably due to his rejection of collectivism – but prefers instead the power of both ideas and individuals. In this regard, he suggests an extremely closed shop: he says ‘the immediate purpose of this conference is… to provide an opportunity for a comparatively small group of those who in different parts of the world are striving for the same ideals’ but, ‘we should probably not include any name unless it receives the support of two or three members of our present group… it must remain a closed society, not open to all and sundry, but only to people who share with us certain common convictions’. But, for those in attendance and whose specialism he values, he remarks that ‘we have among us a fair number of regular writers for the periodical press, not in order that the meeting should be reported, but because they have the best opportunity to spread the ideas to which we are devoted’. 

It is in regards to this that we can understand what the Mont Pélèrin Society was truly intended to be: it was not a ‘think tank’, though Hayek hinted at a journal or similar publication, but was what one writer has called a ‘thought collective’, a space for ideas to be generated, shared, refined and disseminated. But it was that final point that is most important; disseminated. The Mont Pélèrin Society was not just a talking shop. It fully intended for the ideas it generated to be shared, and widely. An important development is the recognition of what we call ‘opinion formers’, of people who are not necessarily at the wheels of power but have the ear of those who are, in an attempt to create a web of institutions that would make neoliberalism a ‘natural’ alternative to social democracy.

To this end, the Mont Pélèrin Society aimed to do something quite radical in the history of political activism: transcend national borders in an intellectual manner. Whilst we can reasonably assert that the communist movements of the mid-nineteenth century aimed at the international proliferation of their ideas, the Mont Pélèrin Society was the first to actually achieve this. Amongst their numbers, they counted British MPs such as John Enoch Powell and Sir Geoffrey Howe – Howe of course becoming Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor – German Kanzler Ludwig Erhard, Italian Presidente Luigi Einaudi, and 22 of Reagan’s 76 economic advisers in his 1980 presidential campaign team – a quite impressive stat in itself. 

But it is the founding members themselves that probably brings home just how influential this group became. Alongside Hayek, was Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, three of the most important social, political and economic theorists of the twentieth century. 

The Think Tank Archipelago

Whilst the Mont Pélèrin Society was obscure, it was also highly influential. In many ways, the Mont Pélèrin Society was the ‘proto-think tank’, in that it was dedicated to the production, refinement and dissemination of ideas, but certain features of what came to be ‘think tanks’ were never achieved. For one, it did not produce a publication, and it consistently failed to raise the money it wanted. Moreover, a fracture between Hayek and Friedman led to the Mont Pélèrin Society declining in unity and effectiveness.

That being said, the Mont Pélèrin Society’s greatest legacy is not what it achieved directly, but what it spawned: the think-tank archipelago. Whilst the Mont Pélèrin Society may have a limited legacy in itself, there is no doubt that it became the prototype of a new kind of right-wing activism that sought to influence government policy by developing ideas and policy proposals, researching those ideas and their potential impact, before taking them to governments and political actors as a ready-made policy package that those actors could then use for their own governance.

In recent history, much of the intellectual heft of the British political scene came from inside the party system, not outside: Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill were Members of Parliament, as were, of course, Gladstone and Disraeli. Likewise, Harold Macmillan and Enoch Powell both wrote leaflets, pamphlets and books as backbenchers, with Macmillan’s The Middle Way book of the 1930s acting as an explicit repudiation of the extremism of the continent. It is often forgotten as well that Powell wrote extensively on the need to reimagine the market as a better form of goods provision in the 1950s. Likewise, on the Left, the British Labour Party had the Fabian Society, and these loose groupings of intellectuals were intended to produce specifically party-sympathetic literature.

But those who, like the Mont Pélèrin Society, wanted to change the way politics worked in Britain, refused to associate with any specific party at the outset. Indeed, they believed that the parties were part of the problem and instead sought to influence receptive individuals who may or may not be in parties.

What Does a Think Tank Look Like?

This is only a footnote in a sense, but an important one. Think-tanks were highly professional bodies: their appearance mattered, as they needed to be respectable and gain the sympathetic ear of the political elite. Do not forget that 1970s Britain was very different to today; people typically wore suits, bowler hats, and so on, and whilst activists today can get away with jeans, to attempt to do so as a professional in the 1970s would have been ridiculous.

But aesthetic appearance aside, location mattered. Many people will have heard of Tufton Street in London, which is only a stone’s throw from Westminster; in many ways, Tufton St. is a product of the think tank revolution. Think tanks intentionally positioned themselves closely to the centre of gravity they were seeking to influence, again due to the constraints of the age, specifically technological, and the need to hand-deliver many policy proposals, but also the ability to network, have ‘chance’ encounters, and appear omnipresent.

There is another important thing to note with regards to the appearance and style of think tanks. Given that they operated in the political world, one would be forgiven for thinking they operated according to political principles, such as accountability and so forth; indeed, many other activist organisations had internal elections, membership fora, and so forth. Not so with think tanks. Instead, they had (and still have) highly corporate structures, with a ‘Director’ and managerial staff, and – this is quite notable – a very high turnover of staff, mostly interns (that don’t need to be paid). This is because there was a specific, new goal that the think tanks took upon themselves: as Benjamin Jackson writes, ‘Harris and Seldon stressed in 1959’ that ‘neo-liberal activists like themselves worked as brokers who mobilised and connected four important elite groups: business, sympathetic intellectuals, journalists, and politicians’.

As I say, the think tank world was spawned in many ways by the Mont Pélèrin Society, a fact we can understand by looking at the first ever Mont Pélèrin Society meeting to take place in Oxford – in 1959. The fact that it took the Mont Pélèrin Society twelve years to organise a conference in Britain speaks to three main facts: first, Britain as a political culture was deeply unreceptive to the Mont Pélèrin Society’s goals. The post-war Consensus meant that the party system was not looking for pro-market ideas, and though the party system was not the Mont Pélèrin Society’s target audience, as I mentioned, it shows how much the political culture was against them. Second, the Mont Pélèrin Society was right to recognise that this was going to be a long process; they knew the political climate was against them, but they also knew they had to be patient and chip away at things. But third, and encouragingly for the Mont Pélèrin Society, it meant their movement really was as transnational as intended. Of course, we might make a joke about how long it took – but they certainly achieved it in the end.

Again, it is worth considering attended the 1959 Mont Pélèrin Society Oxford conference. The two most notable individuals in attendance were Arthur Seldon and Ralph Harris, the two young men entrusted to run the new British free-market think tank, the ‘Institute of Economic Affairs’ (IEA). Amongst the initial roster was also Arthur Shenfield, who knew Hayek personally and had helped to set up the IEA. The IEA itself was founded by Antony Fisher, the businessman who made his fortunes by introducing battery farming hens to Britain; Fisher, inspired by Hayek, established the IEA and employed Harris and Seldon to run it, as a ‘scholarly research organisation’. As one businessman commented to Harris, in the 1960s and 1970s the perception was that universities were producing resources for unions, so there needed to be something that produced ‘bullets for business’.

Alongside the IEA, there were several think tanks set up in the 1970s, foremost amongst them the Adam Smith Institute (ASI). Founded by Madsen Pririe and the two brothers Eamonn and Stuart Butler at the University of St. Andrews, the ASI took its name from the moral and political economist Adam Smith, whose work The Wealth of Nations is seen as the great liberal economics manifesto (perhaps erroneously). The ASI was markedly different from the IEA; whilst the latter aimed at more ‘intellectual’ pursuits, the ASI aimed at producing direct and ‘bold’ policies, and is widely regarded as one of the foundational think tanks of Margaret Thatcher’s economic programme. Still operating today, the ASI is increasingly libertarian, nicknamed the Adam Spliff Institute by anti-cannabis legalisation activists. It is telling, however, that Pririe was referred to as ‘a sort of right-wing Trotsky’ – he had energy, vigour, and a real desire to see the system overturned in favour of what he wanted (and in many ways, he is the most successful political activist of Britain’s recent past).

But a particular development of the 1970s was the establishment of the first ever Conservative Party think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Founded in 1974 by Kieth Joseph, and supporting Thatcher’s bid for leadership, the CPS was explicitly pro-market, but aimed to codify and bring together many of the pro-market publications and writers in the Conservative Party to develop an actual policy programme.

As a footnote, whilst these were the major groups, there were many (at the time) smaller ones: the Taxpayers Alliance; the Aims of Industry; my personal favourite, FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco); and the wonderfully-named NAFF (National Association for Freedom).

Thinking the Unthinkable

The aims of the think tank archipelago must never be mistaken for coherent. Part of the philosophy that inspired almost all of these think tanks was a decentred approach to intellectual production, and so there was almost never a collaboration of aims, which makes the general consensus between these think tanks all the more remarkable. That being said, there was still a broad development of the aims pursued between 1950s and 1980s: originally, the think tanks sought to oppose anti-competitive business practices, encouraging businesses to be more competitive and see each other as rivals in the marketplace; yet later, there was an increasing emphasis on the ‘problems of government’, in which the think tanks sought no longer to criticise businesses, but instead saw their role as defending them from the State, as the source of anti-competitive practices.

There are two key reasons for this change, that we can see: first, the erosion of liberty; and second, the self-interested nature of government institutions. On this first point, the continual expansion of social democratic institutions was seen to be eroding individual liberty and economic efficiency in favour of that which Hayek defined as welfarism, as the belief in the State as the only source of minimal economic provision. In Jackson’s words, the think tanks ‘diagnosed the fundamental problem as an excess of politics over economics’. They wanted a return to non-coercive economic practices, spontaneous market mechanisms, and individual liberty and responsibility.

Entwined with this, moreover, was the second important critique of Statism: the  think tanks portrayed democratic collective agencies (such as parties, the State itself, civil service, etc.) as primarily self-interested, given that they ‘sought to expand their own power rather than serving the public’. A really interesting question to ask here is, why? Was it because they hated this, and thought it was corrupting of the British pluralist state? Or was it because they actually liked this, and considered it a useful mechanism for advancing things, as a lesson taken from self-interested market mechanisms?

I think it is a combination of the two. I think, it begins with the first, and translates into the second: bearing in mind that the original neo-liberals did not reject State action, but saw it as a fundamental support to the functioning of a free market. In this regard, perhaps the neoliberals of the 1950s to 1980s believed that the neutral state was really a myth and, if state power was going to be used, better it be used by them. But, if so, then what they decided to do to remedy this was to take market economics and inject them into the functioning of State bodies, in order to make them more efficient and dynamic.

Marching to the Institutions

The strategies open to the neoliberals were quite varied, but the specific one that they chose was very much informed by the Mont Pélèrin Society’s stated goal of addressing ‘opinion formers’: for instance, the IEA wanted to ‘bombard university students, school teachers and university lecturers’ in order to shape how politics and economics was taught, especially the relationship between them. But a more successful strategy was to influence the views of the ‘small metropolitan media and political elite that shaped policy debate in Britain’.

Whilst judging ‘success’ is difficult, when it comes to think tanks, we can do so in two regards: did they influence policy? And did they succeed in attracting donors?

As I said above, these think-tanks did not align themselves with any particular party, but the most receptive to their message in Britain was the Conservative Party. This being said, they did attract some specific apolitical allies: the Duke of Edinburgh was a fan of the IEA, for instance. But where they definitely made their success was in informing the political economic programme of Margaret Thatcher, mostly through her chancellors and advisors. Sir Geoffrey Howe, for one, was a long-time member of the IEA, as well as the Mont Pélèrin Society, and communicated with the ASI throughout the decades. Another tangible success for the IEA was that they advised Keith Joseph on how to set up the Centre for Policy Studies, which became the unofficial pro-market think tank of the Conservative Party, and is still active today (more prominently known through its publication, CapX).

As for donors, we know for a fact that the IEA was extremely successful. In 1968, it had £47,264 in donations; in 1981, that figure was £267,040. Likewise, in the same period, the income from sale of publications rose from £13,926 to £38,320. But the biggest rise come from corporate sponsors:

o   1974 – £76,574

o   1975 – £161,979

o   1979 – £210,343

Donations came from extremely important titans of industry, such as BP, IBM, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Procter & Gamble, Shell, Tate and Lyle, and Unilever, as well as many major newspapers and high-street banks.

But these figures hide a more important story. As Jackson details, these think tanks could only exist thanks to donations: they never sold enough of their own works or publications to even cover their running costs. This matters because it is not simply a case of the donors paying and the think tanks doing as they asked: in reality, whilst the donors, corporations and businesses that funded them wanted a pro-market intellectual presence, Philip Mirowski makes it clear that many of these donors did not know exactly what kind of economy and society was in their best interest. As Harris and Seldon put it at the Oxford conference: sometimes the worst enemies of the free market are businessmen.

In many ways, lobbying is the think tank weapon par excellence; a lot of wining and dining, but with the intention of convincing potentially receptive political actors of their policy and political programmes; and, of course, throwing a lot of money around. Yet ultimately, the best expression of this think tank revolution’s success comes from the fact that so many think tanks still exist. They have become an institutional feature of government, and are still a go-to choice for new attempts to influence policy.

The Drowning of the Think Tank Archipelago

I do not want this article to be mistaken: I do not consider think tanks to be an effective method of altering the way in which British politics works anymore. For one thing, they have become highly institutionalised, and instead of challenging the establishment’s method of thinking, they do the thinking for them, and as it was once said that ‘whoever is in government, it is the treasury that’s in charge’, I think it is more accurate to say that whoever occupies 10 Downing Street, the thinking is done on Tufton Street.

But the problem goes further. The excellent Herbalis substack explains that the formation of what we call ‘the Blob’ emerges from think tanks recommending the existence of a funding body, from which those think tanks then receive funding; meanwhile the substack SW1 Forum takes the theory put forward by Herbalis and finds its clearest expressions. And very often, these think tanks, by virtue of being unmoored from a political party or philosophy, can so easily endear themselves to whoever is in power that it truly does not matter who they are trying to influence, only that there is someone to influence at all; consider the fact that the ASI, thought of as Thatcher’s greatest think tank allies, became so wedded to the Blaire governments.

What I aim to have shown in this article is that right wing Gramscianism is a viable option. I am not trying to urge the creation of another think tank archipelago; that particular form of Gramscianism is exhausted, and probably for the better. But the form should not be mistaken for the strategy, and the exhaustion of one tactic should not be mistaken for the exhaustion of the army. As Napoleon said, ‘you must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war’. 

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