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  • Liberalism of Sorts
  • João Carlos Espada (bio)
After 1989: Morals, Revolution and Civil Society. By Ralf Dahrendorf. St. Martin’s, 1997. 179 pp.

Ralf Dahrendorf is one of the most thoughtful public figures of our time. A distinguished German sociologist, he also served as a member of Willy Brandt’s first government and as European Commissioner before becoming Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (1974–84) and then Warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford (1987–97). He has now returned to London, where he devotes much of his time to serving in the House of Lords.

This collection of essays, all drawn from notable academic lectures and public addresses presented during the 1990s, is not easily characterized. It is perhaps best described by Lord Dahrendorf himself in his brief preface: “In some ways, this book will undoubtedly fall where it should: between all stools. It is neither a work of social science nor one of politics, but both. It is neither a work of scholarship nor a popular tract, but both. It is moreover the book of a German Briton, an active intellectual, a straddler of the borders of all worlds in which he had the good fortune to be made welcome.” The title After 1989 stems from Dahrendorf’s belief that 1945 and 1989 were the two most important years during his lifetime. The former brought about the victory over Nazism (and his own liberation from a Gestapo camp). The latter signaled the collapse of communism and the extension of the fruits of the 1945 liberal-democratic victory to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

The opening essay, “Must Revolutions Fail?” is a short and elegant critique of revolutionary utopianism, including democratic revolu-tionary utopianism, and a defense of the Anglo-American tradition of [End Page 168] “reluctant revolutions” (1688 and 1776) as opposed to France’s utopian Revolution of 1789. This chapter sets the tone for the whole book and sketches out Dahrendorf’s “liberalism of sorts”: open to change but respectful of tradition; in favor of individual choice but against unfettered individualism; strongly on the side of free markets and private property, but opposed to the destruction of the “third sector,” which he perceives as indispensable to the strength of civil society.

Doctrinaires of various dispositions will doubtless regard this a futile attempt to square the circle. In fact, that is the subject of another essay in this volume, “Prosperity, Civility and Liberty: Can We Square the Circle?” Its main argument (which also underpinned the work of the Dahrendorf-led House of Lords Commission on Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion) is that “the key to squaring the circle is strengthening, and in part rebuilding civil society” (p. 77). By civil society, Dahrendorf means “that texture of our lives with others which does not need governments to sustain it because it is created by grass-root initiatives.” Its central feature is association, which provides the necessary element of cohesion in civil society. The market (in the economic realm) and the public (in the political realm) are where the associations of civil society interact. Civil societies provide the deep structures or, as Dahrendorf calls them, ligatures where the constitution of liberty finds its anchor. Edmund Burke put this well, Dahrendorf adds, when he spoke of “the primeval contract of eternal society.”

In the chapter “Why Excellence Matters,” Dahrendorf develops his “liberalism of sorts” in a direction that is particularly unpopular among present-day liberal intellectuals: a critique of egalitarianism and relativism. Here Dahrendorf describes a “misguided conception of democracy”:

Values are thought to “emerge” somehow, by freeing people from constraints, encouraging them to be their best selves, bringing them together for discourse and communication. Somehow, like geysers out of Iceland soil, truth and goodness and beauty will arise. This is Habermas (albeit in caricature) and Rousseau before him. But it is wrong. . . . Taking a “why not” approach to whatever people do, say, want, and look like is a step towards anomy, the absence of rules. Anomy, however, like entropy, is ultimately death

(p. 65).

Similar concerns are raised in “The Public Responsibility of Intellectuals: Against the New Fear of the Enlightenment.” This...

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