To the right, he is an apostate; to the left, a sinner who repented. Anthony Dworkin argues that John Gray's intellectual journey is more complex: he is a progressive who does not believe in progressby Anthony Dworkin / April 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
John Gray occupies a unique position in British intellectual life. He is a serious academic who writes widely on the political issues of the day; a broadsheet polemicist who understands the philosophical foundations of policy debates. His recent move to London as professor of European thought at the London School of Economics is likely to raise his already high profile. But Gray’s influence does not come simply from his role as a public intellectual-a stance common abroad, though unusual here. The way that the evolution of his thought has both tracked and foreshadowed the shifting concerns of British politics gives his views particular resonance. To partisans of the free market-the position he once held and now denounces-he is an apostate. To the soft communitarians of New Labour, he is a prize exhibit, the sinner who repented. For the rest of us, he represents something more complex: a sustained attempt to explore the possibility of reconciling justice and social cohesion, while dispensing with the idea that reason alone can solve the problems of political life.
Gray has received a certain amount of stick over the years for changing his mind about the free market-as well as some uncritical approbation. And it is true that his views now are far from the Hayekian approach he endorsed in the first edition of his book, Liberalism, in 1986. Since then, those familiar with Gray’s writing have watched his titles chart a scorched-earth march through the fundamental doctrines of modern political and social thought: Beyond the New Right (1994), Post-liberalism (1994), The Undoing of Conservatism (1994), Enlightenment’s Wake (1995), After Social Democracy (1996), Endgames: Questions in Late Modern Political Thought (1997). Gray presents himself as a fearless traveller striding towards the logical conclusion of his central beliefs, watching a series of obsolete dogmas fall away as he passes. It will come as little surprise to readers who know his taste for demolition that Gray’s new book on international capitalism portrays the age of free trade and globalisation as a False Dawn (Granta Books, March 1998).
A predilection for the sweeping and the ironic is characteristic of Gray’s intellectual style. In his tendency to follow ideas to their rigorous ends, he is at odds with the tolerant scepticism of his intellectual hero, the late Isaiah Berlin, and perhaps closer in manner to the classical free market liberals in whose camp he began. Nevertheless, the absolutism of…