Professor Michael Cox introduces Ralf Dahrendorf: sociologist, public intellectual, cautious Europeanist and LSE Director from 1974 to 1984.
Britain has become like Ancient Rome: whoever wanted to come was made welcome, and soon taken into the fold. – Ralf Dahrendorf
Britain: love at first sight?
Ralf Dahrendorf once confessed that Britain was a country with which “he had fallen in love” even before “he had seen it”. One of the reasons why he did so was that his own home city of Hamburg, was, as he recalled it, the “most English city in Germany” where the locals’ “reserved coolness” was for “real”, and where the “people’s pin-striped suits” were perhaps even more pin-striped than those “worn in the City of London”. But it was also the idea of Britain that seemed to enthral him. As he later recalled, he “was British” even “before he became British”. In fact, it was through his “discovery” of Britain, as he put it, that he came to understand the very notion of the “West”.
Britain also changed his life for ever after the war. Indeed, having been evacuated with his family out of the Eastern sector of Berlin in 1946 by a British army officer – the intellectual historian Noel Annan – he then travelled on two years later to Britain with a number of other Germans to live and study at Wilton Park (in the years immediately after the war a training centre for German prisoners of war) where he openly admitted he was “educated in English ways”.
Nor did the relationship cool thereafter, and having completed a doctorate back in Hamburg at the tender age of 22 dealing with aspects of Marxist theory, he then went on to undertake postgraduate studies at LSE, a “cramped and rough place” he later observed. Here, amongst other things, he worked alongside young sociologists like David Lockwood (to whom he later dedicated his most important book – Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959)), completed work on his dissertation on “unskilled labour in British Industry”, and moved from being a classical social democrat to a forward looking liberal as a result of engaging with his LSE professor, Karl Popper, someone whom Dahrendorf later referred to as having “one of the greatest minds of the 20th century”. But not only did his political views evolve. He also confessed to having transferred his football loyalties from Hamburger SV in north Germany to the British team Arsenal located in north London!
Rescued by the School
For the next few years Dahrendorf divided his time between the United States, Canada and Italy. But these were in essence his “German years” as he called them, to be followed rather more unhappily by a stint in Brussels as a Commissioner where, according to the writer Hella Pick, both Dahrendorf and the Commission began to become increasingly “tired of each other”. Fortunately for Britain – and for Dahrendorf too one suspects – he was then “rescued” by being appointed Director of LSE in 1974, the second sociologist (the first being Alexander Carr-Saunders) but the first foreigner to lead the School since its foundation in 1895.
For Dahrendorf, returning to LSE was, as he admitted, just like “coming home”. That said, he was still very surprised to have been offered the position, and perhaps even more surprised when he finally decided to accept it. Thus opened up the happiest years of his life. However, it was not an easy position to fill. Like other institutions of higher education LSE was under constant threat of being pared back financially by government. He also had to deal with LSE’s acquired reputation of being a “hotbed of reds”, a not entirely unjustified label given what had gone before in the 1960s, and continued to some degree thereafter, when the School justly or unjustly became famous (or otherwise) for its student lock-ins, demonstrations and occasional occupations.
But Dahrendorf was clearly well equipped to do the job. He had after all gone through the much more serious unrest which had swept through German universities in the 1960s. He also brought to the School something which many felt had been lost under more recent Directors like Walter Adams and Sydney Caine: intellectual seriousness. Moreover, his interest in the kind of debates which were floating around at the time – a good deal of his own life as an academic had been spent engaging in a critical dialogue with Marxism and radicals like Rudi Dutschke – probably made him the perfect academic to be in charge of an institution where such ideas had become common place amongst sections of the student body.
Of course not all his initiatives were welcome, especially his idea of turning the School into what one writer has called a “British Brookings” on the Thames – a “tightly organised research-based research environment in which powerful minds could spark” to produce papers that would impact on the policy world. This, he believed, was very much in the LSE tradition set down by its founders back in the late 19th century; moreover, it now needed to be revived. High class research for its own sake was all well and good. But what was really required, he insisted, was a forum like the School deeply rooted in the social sciences where evidence could be sifted and arguments weighed by both academics as well as those who were “responsible for decisions in politics, business and major organisations”. LSE, he concluded, had always been what he termed an “almost natural centre for such contacts”. It was high time to develop this purpose once more.
As Dahrendorf later recalled, he was unable to convince academics that the School should move in a different direction. Nonetheless, whether by design or luck, during his directorship, some academics did appear to be thinking more seriously about engaging in applied research. Perhaps the most significant initiative here was the creation of STICERD. Established in 1978 with a capital endowment of £2 million, it brought together a number world-class academics to “put economics and related disciplines at the forefront of research and policy”.
LSE under Dahrendorf also experienced a run of early successes. Indeed, in the same year as his appointment, he was asked to deliver the hugely prestigious Reith Lectures. Here in a series of radio talks entitled The New Liberty, he not only outlined in his own liberal credo in depth, but was able to draw upon his own experiences in a German prison and concentration camp under the watchful eye of the Gestapo. Later published in 1975, his lectures were an important contribution to public debate, exploring as they did the need to refashion liberalism so that it could address the problems and tensions of contemporary societies.
1974 also saw one of the School’s former professors – Hayek – being awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Now long gone from LSE, in his famous acceptance speech in Stockholm, Hayek pointed out that if he “had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in Economics” in the first place he would have “decidedly advised against it”! Hayek later submitted his lecture for publication to Economica, the LSE house journal for which Hayek himself had served as editor during the Second World War. More was to follow.
In 1977 the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to James Meade, who had been at the School between 1947 and 1957. And two years on, it went to Arthur Lewis who had studied and taught at LSE in 1930s – the first, and thus far, the only black person to be awarded the Prize for Economics.
Meanwhile, in a period filled with achievement for the School, the new library building named after Lionel Robbins was opened in 1978. Robbins had not only been inspired by the “Austrian School” of free market economics back in the 1920s. As an influential young Professor of economics at LSE it had probably been Robbins more than anybody else who finally managed to bring Hayek to the School in 1931.
It is hardly surprising that someone like Dahrendorf who was pushing for a “major reappraisal of the role of the social sciences with the School at the heart of his programme” would never be content just to sit in his office. He had been a public intellectual in Germany and was determined to remain publicly engaged in Britain too. He soon made his mark and went on to become an important public figure, becoming a Fellow of the British Academy in 1977, and in 1993 a member of the House of Lords. He became a trustee of the Ford Foundation in 1975, and from the 1980s was a non-executive director of several UK companies.
Later, Dahrendorf was also asked to write the official history of LSE to mark its centenary in 1995. A work of great scholarship which he considered to have been amongst his best, the book was widely and positively received. One reviewer talked of the work as being “interesting, balanced and generous”, laced throughout with some “wonderful portraits” of those had been at the LSE since its opening in 1895. Another made the perhaps even more telling point that in his “narrative” there were many heroes but “no villains”. Even those with whom he might not have agreed himself were all treated with the respect owed those who had helped make the School the world class institution it had become a century after its foundation.
In many ways the book also gave expression to Dahrendorf’s own view of the world. He had always insisted that all modern societies were riven by tension and conflict. There was no reason to believe therefore that a social science institution like LSE would be any different. Argument over fundamentals was both inevitable and indeed necessary. The key then was not to avoid conflicts but to ensure – as the LSE had done more or less successfully over the years – to manage them.
The British question
Having written about the fate of his own country over many years, it was perhaps inevitable that Dahrendorf would wish to say something about Britain too. He did so at length, without it seems provoking the usual storm of protests about foreigners in general (and perhaps Germans in particular) “interfering” into Britain’s internal affairs. As Sir Huw Weldon – one time Chair of Governors of LSE – later observed, Dahrendorf not only became something of an institution in his own right, but had by the 1990s (by then he was at St Antony’s College Oxford) become the most popular German in Britain since Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert!
But what about his views on Britain itself and where did he think it was heading in the last part of the 20th century? Dahrendorf was in many ways fulsome in his praise of Britain in ways that only someone who had experienced totalitarianism first-hand could be. As he confessed, there had always been, and there remained:
[a] fundamental liberty about life in Britain which was not easily found elsewhere.
Britain, he also went on, could also boast many strengths including a strong sense of continuity and tradition, as well as excellent institutions including the universities, the BBC and the Bank of England, all of which remained relatively independent from state interference. There was, moreover, a sense of community in Britain even across the class divide. Indeed, it was this more than anything else which “held British society together”. He even compared other countries (unfavourably) to Britain. Thus whereas in the United States there was what he called a “great rat race” which dominated people’s lives, in Britain there was a real sense of “solidarity”.
Yet ever the good sociologist, he was not uncritical of Britain and never shied away from pointing out some of its underlying structural problems, the most intractable one of all being its long-term economic decline. He did not mince his words. Whatever the nation’s many strengths, Britain simply had to face up to the profound challenges facing it in the last part of the 20th century. This did not mean that the nation was on the point of collapse. Nor did it suggest this would lead to more intense class conflict, though the 1970s had seen a rise in labour militancy. But the nation was beginning to fall behind and was doing so in large part because the system itself was no longer fit for modern purpose.
In effect, Britain had reached something of an economic dead-end. Its industries were no longer leading the world. Productivity was low and getting lower. There was a “corporate bias” built into the system. There was too much short-term thinking. Trade unions had probably acquired too much political power. And that great measure of progress – social mobility – was moving in the wrong direction. Britain was hardly on the point of falling apart. Nonetheless, the prospects going forward were not good.
Reform or decline?
Change therefore was not only required: it was absolutely essential if British leaders were to arrest the country’s “century-long slide”. But in what direction should Britain go? Joining Europe was at least one important part of the solution according to Dahrendorf. However, it was no panacea. More radical change might be required. Dahrendorf was of course no great fan of Mrs Thatcher. She felt the universities had failed Britain: Dahrendorf thought they were the “best in Europe”. She was in essentials a Hayekian who believed that the free market was the only answer to Britain’s ills: he was a devotee of Popper and thus opposed a root and branch transformation. Thatcher was what he once called a neo-Darwinian who believed in unfettered competition: he was a piecemeal reformer.
Yet in spite of all his reservations, if change was necessary to arrest British decline, then perhaps some form of her tough love economics might be necessary. Dahrendorf may have worried that many of Thatcher’s policies would likely change the kind of Britain he so much admired. Nonetheless, he was perhaps realist enough (along with many other notable Liberals at the time) to know that some major reform might be necessary to rescue the country from the plight it found itself in by the beginning of the 1980s. As one of his fellow Liberals peers, Paddy Ashdown, later conceded, Thatcher’s “aggressive liberalisation of the markets, stripping down barriers to business and lowering taxation… needed to be done…. at the time”. Dahrendorf was perhaps never prepared to go quite that far. Nevertheless, he later made the rather telling point that Blair, who had just been elected in 1997, was in a most “fortunate position” economically because all the brutal reforms had already been undertaken by his predecessor!
Dahrendorf took over the directorship of LSE in the midst of yet another “great debate” about Europe in the UK, one which finally culminated in 1975 with the country voting by a large majority to “remain”. Dahrendorf’s appointment and the move into Europe were not unconnected. With his extensive experience in Brussels and solid European credentials, many in the School felt that he was, to use the jargon, “the right man in the right place at the right time” coming at a crucial moment when the mood in the country appeared to be swinging towards “Europe”.
Dahrendorf, however, was not an uncritical admirer of the European project, especially as it evolved over time. As he made clear in a telling intervention in 1992, the project as it now stood had proven to be a disappointment to him; in fact “almost everything” about Europe he implied was “wrong”. Nor did he become any the less outspoken as time passed. There was, in his view, a very real danger of the EU losing touch with both its own citizens as well as with the newly admitted countries of Central and Eastern Europe too and urged it:
to focus on liberal, not statist principles when building a European demos.
Even so he was amongst the first to understand the significance for Europe of what happened in 1989, and very much welcomed the political space created by what he later called “the strange death of socialism” in central Europe and East Germany. As he noted, “1989 was as important a date as 1945”, a “watershed” moment by any measure. Being an activist (though never much of a politician) he also played a role in many initiatives to assist intellectual and civil society institutions in central and eastern Europe. He was, for example, closely associated with George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and Central European University in Budapest. However, unlike the more enthusiastic of the new reformers inspired by Hayek’s earlier attacks on socialism and his call for a “spontaneous” free market, he warned that their insistence on the absolute priority of the free market was inconsistent with the kind of open society advocated by his LSE teacher and guru Karl Popper.
He was also well aware of the many dangers which might arise as a result, one of which he early identified as populism, a political movement which in his view flowed in part from the unleashing of a free-for-all global capitalism which in his own telling words “built paths to the top for some while digging holes for others”. How prescient that early warning turned out to be. The nationalist-populist backlash which has arisen in many central European countries over the past few years no doubt has many sources.
It cannot all be ascribed to what the economist, Joseph Stiglitz, has called “market fundamentalism”. But perhaps if certain economic reformers of an earlier time had listened to his warnings, there is at least an outside chance that they might not be facing the political crisis they are confronting right now. In 1989 one very particular God called communism failed. Now it seems that another called liberalism is under severe pressure too. It is a pity that Dahrendorf – a problem solving theorist of modern industrial society if ever there was one – whose contribution to LSE and British life more generally was immense – is no longer with us to help chart our way through the stormy times we are all facing.
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Dahrendorf, R (1988) “Changing Social. Values under Mrs Thatcher” in Robert Skidelsky ed, Thatcherism, London, Chatto and Windus, 1988, pp 191-202
Dahrendorf, R (1989) “The Decline of Socialism”, Gresham College 25 May
Dahrendorf, R (1990) “The Strange Death of Socialism”. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 79(313), 7-17
Dahrendorf, R (1992) “Education for a European Britain”, RSA Journal, (140) 5426: 169
Dahrendorf, R (1995) LSE: A History Of The London School of Economics and Political Science, Oxford University Press
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Dahrendorf, R (2005) Reflections on the Revolution in Europe London, Routledge
Dahrendorf R and Kegan P (1959) Class and Class Conflict in an Industrial Society, London, Routledge
Graef, J (2019) “Dahrendorf on Populists, Populists on Dahrendorf”, Dahrendorf Forum, July 11
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This essay draws upon research done for my earlier “Ralf Dahrendorf, Britain and the European Project” in Helmut K Anheier and Iain Begg, eds (2020) Ralf Dahrendorf and the European Union 2030: Looking Backwards, Looking Forward. Here I would like to pay tribute to the work undertaken by the Dahrendorf Forum which held its first Symposium in Berlin in 2011. Supported by Stiftung Mercator, this joint initiative by the Hertie School in Berlin and LSE was set up to honour and draw inspiration from Lord Dahrendorf’s intellectual legacy.