The Dahrendorf Legacy

The Forum takes its name from Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009).

Dahrendorf rose to academic fame in postwar Germany as a leading social scientist with a wide range of interests in sociology and political thought. He entered politics in the late 1960s, first as a liberal member of the Landtag of Baden-Württemberg in 1968 and then as a Member of the German Bundestag in 1969. In 1970 he became a Commissioner in the European Commission. From 1974 to 1984, he served as Director of the LSE, and from 1987 to 1997 he was Warden of St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. He was appointed a Member of Britain’s House of Lords in 1993 and took the name Lord Dahrendorf of Clare Market.

Writing in 1969, Dahrendorf famously defined the role of the public intellectual thus: “to doubt everything that is obvious, to make relative all authority, to ask all those questions that no one else dares to ask”. It is in this spirit that the Dahrendorf Forum promotes critical thinking on the public policy challenges that Europe faces. The Forum seeks to highlight those issues and perspectives which tend to be ignored or underrepresented – not for criticism’s sake but in order to move Europe forward.

Reflecting on Europe’s revolutionary year of 1989, Dahrendorf raised the possibility of a “democratic, united Europe”. At the same time, he recognized that the continent was “as yet less real and relevant, and certainly less generous. Still, the fortunate Europe to which we belong exists and has a certain magnetic effect even if it does not discharge its evident responsibility very impressively” (After 1989: Morals, Revolution, and Civil Society, 1997). Today, Dahrendorf’s vision of a democratic and united Europe remains as relevant as it was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Communism. Brexit, migration, the rise of populist movements, and other recent developments within Europe will all have profound and far-reaching implications across Europe, affecting economies, foreign and security policies, and political culture. In response to this, Britain and Germany need to carve out new terms for positive cooperation, as their previously sustainable – if challenging – relationship is put to the test in the months and years to come.

The democratic legitimacy of European political integration is increasingly being questioned. And old and new threats – from ultra-nationalist and xenophobic movements to external security threats – risk tearing Europe apart.

Central to Dahrendorf’s intellectual approach was the insight that liberal market societies are prone to tensions and conflicts of many kinds, and yet, at the same time, they are also in a better position to handle them. Unlike statist and autocratic forms of governance, liberal societies prevent conflicts from bottling up. Instead, social and economic tensions become creative elements that allow societies to move forward. Smart forms of governance turn potential conflicts into opportunities, and actual conflicts into solutions. If this is to happen peacefully, societies need some form of conflict management, an agreement among stakeholders that legitimate and viable solutions can be found. Indeed, the way Europe has evolved over the last decades is a good example of what Ralf Dahrendorf had in mind, even if the European Union needs further development to achieve this potential.

What is the source of conflict in modern societies? For Dahrendorf, it is more than the obvious fact that individuals have different interests and expectations. Rather, it is the outgrowth of unavoidable tensions that modern societies have to negotiate and balance, between the competing values of justice, liberty and economic wellbeing, and between economic efficiency, identity and security.  While some stakeholders may prioritise one set of objectives over others, policy-makers will want to have all of them realised. How can European societies become just, open and prosperous? How can they aim for efficient economies where people have a sense of community and enjoy internal as well as external security?

Managing such tensions at the national level is hard enough under the best circumstances. It becomes even more challenging in a European Union of diverse member states. If we add to this the complex layers of sub-regional and international governance, from the Eurozone to NATO, the United Nations and transnational regimes, it becomes clear that such tensions exist at multiple levels. Identifying Europe’s latent and manifest tensions at these different levels, their conflict potential, and the options that present themselves for managing and resolving conflicts – that is the essence of Dahrendorf´s approach. The Dahrendorf Forum pursues this approach through research, engagement and debate, and in doing so seeks to honour Dahrendorf’s intellectual legacy.