Who Was Ralf Dahrendorf?

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World Economic Forum


Ralf Dahrendord and Dutch Prime Minister Joop den Uyl in World Economic Forum

I was introduced to Ralf Dahrendorf in a paper entitled The Politics of Public Debt by Wolfgang Streeck, a prominent contemporary German economic sociologist. In that paper, he cites Dahrendorf’s essay Vom Sparkapitalismus zum Pumpkapitalismus whereby he credits him for coining the term “Pumpkapitalismus”. Here is the pertinent excerpt:

Over time, insufficient growth gave rise to a sequence of different crisis configurations, with (i) high inflation and low debt in the 1970s followed, from 1980 to 1993, by (ii) low inflation and public and private debt rising simultaneously, and from 1994 to 2007 by (iii) low inflation, receding public debt, and further increasing private debt. Since 2008, we continue to see (iv) low inflation, now combined with slightly declining private debt and exploding public debt … Overall, growing public debt was part of a general rise of indebtedness in capitalist countries, which coincided with low growth and indeed may have been the result of attempts to sustain and restore economic performance (“Pumpkapitalismus”15).

So, I searched his name on Google to know more about this curious man and I ended up watching a lively interview of him from the series Conversations with History (a video series on international affairs) hosted by UC Berkeley’s Harry Kreisler recorded on April 4, 1989. It was a joy to watch Dahrendorf talking about his life and work with excellent eloquence in speech, a remarkable breadth of historical knowledge, and well-grounded philosophical views.

Ralf Gustav Dahrendorf was born in Hamburg on May 1 1929. In the summer of 1939, His father, a former Social Democrat deputy in the Reichstag, like many other SDP MPs, was arrested by the Nazis when they came to power. He was educated at the Heinrich-Hertz Oberschule, and was sent to a concentration camp at age fifteen, accused of anti-Nazi activities. According to the interview he luckily survived, and after the war enrolled at Hamburg University, where he read Classics and Philosophy. He became a doctor of philosophy and classics (PhD) in 1952, and after that he decided to go to London, to study sociology at LSE.

He is highly achieved both in scholarly world, and in the world of politics, and public service. In the latter world, condensing only some of his life achievements to a string of few words, we encounter a man who was member of the German Parliament, Parliamentary Secretary of State at the Foreign Office of Germany, European Commissioner for External Relations and Trade, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Education and Member of the British House of Lords.

In the world of academia, he was director of the London School of Economics for a decade, then the chairman of the social sciences department at Konstanz University until 1987 when he accepted the position of warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He was also a Research Professor at the Berlin Social Science Research Centre. His mentor at LSE was Karl Popper and Kant, Weber, and Marx are certainly great influences on his intellectual formation. He generally describes himself to belong to the tradition of European liberalism, and an advocate of an enlightened Kantian society. He shares the view of social democrats (of his time) on social reform of welfare-state to provide opportunity for wider group of people, and also on insistence on defence of universal propositions of human rights, and civil rights. He believes that social order and structure has to offer a breadth of opportunities and a sense of citizenship for all and this citizenship is to provide the access to wide choices. But according to him, contrary to social democrats, he puts greater emphasis on individual life choices, and that is the liberal nuance in his thinking which is also part of European liberal thinking.

One crucial point he makes in the interview which I found very interesting and I would like to highlight it here is the dramatic distinction between the world of theory and the world of politics. As a man with incredible profile in both worlds, it is worthy to quote him here:

I suppose this question of theory and practice is in certain sense the real theme of my life and is a complicated one. One of the mentors I quote is Max Weber who of course in his important writings in beginning of the century and then again the time of First World War distinguished dramatically, almost unbearably dramatically, between investigating the facts, i.e. the world of science and advocating programmes, that is the world of politics. To him, these worlds were two necessarily divided and separate worlds. While he did not rule out a person moving from one to the other, he did rule out any facile union, a merger of these two worlds.

He continues:

Sometimes, people have said to me that it must have been wonderful for you to apply your social science to politics. I’ve never seen it that way, never. In politics you have to win the votes, and you have to get things done, and that is not applying social science. It is totally different world, totally. Similarly, it is not that you actually apply your experience in practical life to your scholarly investigations, although it may make certain differences. So, there are two different worlds, two different time scales and two different sets of constraints. But, one person can be part of both and that is what I tried to do … You see the real difference is this: in real world you never determine the questions which you have to answer; you do not determine the time scale within which you have to answer them. In the scholarly world, in the best and strictest sense, you define the problems which you have to deal with, and timescales in principle are unlimited although your funds may run out before you actually get anywhere… and these different time-scales make for different rhythm of life, and modes of thinking. And I for a long time would resist the notion of one informing the other in any direct way. I think they inform each other through the experience of the person.

On the same point, here is Habermas’s view:

Academic studies are always written with the reservation that all research is fallible. This role must be clearly separated from the other two roles of a left-wing intellectual – from his involvement in political discussions in the public sphere and from the organization of joint political action. This separation of roles is necessary even if the intellectual attempts to combine all three roles in one person.

(Critique and communication: Philosophy’s missions - A conversation with Jürgen Habermas)

In order to understand how crucial this distinction proves to be it is perhpas insightful to contrast it with its anti-thesis, that is a metaphysical commitment to a totality of of both worlds in which every political programme should be based on a theoretical ground.

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