At the hour of false gods

After 1989
October 3, 1997

Soon after he had come to the London School of Economics as its director, Ralf Dahrendorf gave the Reith lectures. They were reprinted in The Listener, which still existed in those days. I recall going into the SCR one morning and scanning the issue carrying the lectures. A senior colleague, a distinguished historian, saw me reading Dahrendorf's lecture and remarked: "He has to care about democracy. He is German after all." Catty as the remark was, it said as much about English snobbery as about Dahrendorf. He does care about democracy and about open society and about plurality. But also, unlike any one else around today, he has a genuinely European concern about Europe. Not for him either fanatic Euroscepticism or indeed the frothy Europhilia that some in his own Liberal Democrat party display.

Soon after the fall of the Berlin wall, Dahrendorf wrote a letter in the spirit of Burke about the upheaval. In this collection of essays he continues the dialogue about Europe, East and West, and its prospects. The occasions which inspire these essays are awards of honorary degrees or prizes or honours. The sheer scale and size of these awards are by themselves impressive. But Dahrendorf uses these occasions to prod away about what concerns him. As is inevitable in these things, lectures given in distant locations but around the same time have overlaps, but at no time does this get to be irksome. Even as he returns to a concern, Dahrendorf plays it slightly differently. These are, in that sense, jazz pieces rather than a symphony.

The 15 essays are grouped in four themes. The first is "Opening walls" which is concerned with the nature of the revolution, or rather "refolution" as Timothy Garton Ash, his St Antony's colleague, has called it. At the outset, in his George Orwell lecture given in 1990, Dahrendorf is very hopeful that the refolution is total. He knows from his history that Thermidor is only round the corner but is it inevitable for a liberal revolution? He wants open society to be the model for the new states. There have to be options and mobility for everyone. But he is more demanding than just to ask for flexible labour markets or liberal market reform. As he says in what could be a coda to the book: "It is not enough that everyone can do a lot of things. What is missing is the element of meaning to make sense of options; deep structures are missing, ligatures."

Thus an open society has to be a deeply rooted community where alienation and anomie do not raise their ugly heads. Citizenship is a very live active concept showing the influence of another of his LSE teachers, T. H. Marshall. So the next section, entitled "The good society", explores the content of the open society further. Not for Dahrendorf the idiocy of rural life or the nostalgic backward look to the small town that Walter Lippman pined for. He is an urban, modern person who knows that progress comes from conflict, that the open society has to be untidy and slightly unsafe. A quotation from Kant about Arcadia recurs like a musical phrase: "All human talents would remain forever in a dormant state, and people, as good natured as the sheep they tended, would scarcely render their existence more valuable than that of their animal flocks."

But Dahrendorf is no Burke; indeed the exact opposite of that defender of Marie Antoinette. So he pushes the boat out further. He senses the faltering of the refolution and the revival of the old forces in Poland and Hungary and the Slovak republic. Democracy and the market are not enough. People want a home. "Important human needs remain unsatisfied by the institutions of the open society. Thus people look around elsewhere; and if the going gets rough - elections disappoint, convertibility and privatisation do not bring immediate prosperity - people want satisfaction quickly and comprehensively. The hour of false gods has arrived and that of their worldly spokesmen, the new dictators, as well."

In the last two sections, Dahrendorf connects these concerns to his real loves: the social sciences and the European idea. "Understanding change" is the third section in which social science, especially sociology, is brought in to understand change and its uneven pace. He knows the limits to which social science theories are subject but still likes to explore them. In "The democratic revolution", Dahrendorf is bold enough to go back over his own work and that of others to formulate even some general propositions about revolutions. In simplified terms monopoly of power leads to its being challenged, eventually. But a democratic replacement can also be discarded if it merely leads to anarchy and anomie. Thus, "There is no straight and painless road from monopolistic structures of power to pluralism and democracy". Is this much help, he asks? Frankly no, he admits. General theories are difficult to come by for messy historical events.

This is perhaps why economists stick to numbers and symbols, because there at least is found some regularity. Dahrendorf is no friend of such economists. Like many who have to deal with economic realities without the benefit of economic theoretical expertise, he prefers his economists to be political economists, a theme taken up in "Whither social sciences?". But political economy can give precise guidelines to the real world no more than sociology can. There is no free lunch in life or in epistemology. You pay for what you get. In a fascinating essay, Dahrendorf turns from the social sciences to individual social scientists as public intellectuals. Here are the great and tough minds that he wishes to celebrate - Karl Popper, Josef Konig, Jurgen Habermas, Edward Said and Ernest Gellner. What they do and whom they represent are hard questions to answer. But by their efforts intellectuals illuminate the world and at times resist forces that will make it darker. Intellectuals may also sometimes see the usefulness of destructive forces, however. One such was Ernest Gellner, who classified the world in terms of relativists, fundamentalists and Enlightenment puritans. Dahrendorf notes how for Gellner even Enlightenment puritans were lacking in a sense of danger. Fundamentalism is needed perhaps just a touch to ensure that the "ambiguous, unstable, uneasy relationship between faith, indifference and seriousness" works in politics and in moral life.

The last section is on Britain, Germany and Europe. Dahrendorf has been a champion of Europe for a long time. But again the earlier doubts about the insufficiency of democracy and markets remain. Where are the deep structures for Europe going to come from? At present they are bound to individual nations and creating them for Europe will not be an easy task. The effort to construct a union by uniformity, a single currency and hand-outs fills Dahrendorf, quite rightly, with melancholy. Deep structures are local and resist any agglomerative designs. So making a union is not easy, unless, that is, we have a few dozen people like Dahrendorf who are rooted in Europe rather than in particular localities thereof. But that is perhaps asking too much. Even one Dahrendorf is quite a lot to have and enjoy.

Lord Desai is director, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics.

After 1989: Morals, Revolution and Civil Society

Author - Ralf Dahrendorf
ISBN - 0 333 71419 9
Publisher - St Antony's Press/Macmillan
Price - £35.00
Pages - 179

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