LSE: A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science 
by Ralf Dahrendorf.
Oxford, 584 pp., £25, May 1995, 0 19 820240 7
Show More
Show More

The troubles at the LSE go back a long way. Perhaps they began on the day in July 1894 when Henry Hutchinson shot himself, thus activating the terms of the will that he had made. A loyal if morose member of the Fabian Society from Derby, Hutchinson had stipulated that the bulk of his sizeable fortune – say a million in today’s money – should be applied by his executors ‘to the propaganda and other purposes of the said Society and its Socialism’. What he could hardly have anticipated was that Sidney Webb would use his position as an executor to deflect most of the money away from the obvious political uses that had been intended. George Bernard Shaw’s indignant account of a subsequent meeting of the Fabian executive, at which Webb ‘hinted that the bequest had been left to him to dispose of as he thought fit, and that the executive had nothing to do with it’, was not just Shavian hyperbole. His incredulity at the Fabians’ supine acceptance of some token Hutchinson Lectures, duly propagating socialism, at the price of Webb being allowed ‘to commit an atrocious malversation of the rest of the bequest’, was hardly unreasonable. But, as Beatrice Webb’s diary records, Sidney was already irrevocably committed to his own scheme: ‘His vision is to found, slowly and quietly, a “London School of Economics and Political Science” – a centre not only of lectures on special subjects, but an association of students who would be directed and supported in doing original work.’

That Sidney should have announced this immediately after opening the black-edged envelope from Derby, over a farmhouse breakfast at which he and Beatrice were joined by their habitual cronies, Graham Wallas and Shaw, makes a good story: one which Ralf Dahrendorf is essentially ready to credit in his unexpectedly fine history. It is not unexpected, of course, that a major history would be produced to mark the centenary, if not of the Borough Farm breakfast, then of the inauguration of an academic programme in October 1895, in two rented rooms in what is now John Adam Street. Nor is it unprecedented for someone who has run the School to write about it. One can point to the austere history of the LSE’s foundation by Sir Sydney Caine, or to what Dahrendorf calls ‘William Beveridge’s intriguing London School of Economics and Its Problems’ – some would point also to the celebratory history by Beveridge’s fellow intriguer, Jessy Mair, later Lady Beveridge. What this ex-director has pulled off, however, cannot be dismissed as dutiful commemoration, still less as score-settling. Dahrendorf’s LSE is a striking achievement, combining standards of detached scholarship with subjective insight in a way that exemplifies the virtues of the institution itself.

Most of the reviews of this volume have been by other insiders, especially old students prompted to recall even older teachers. Glimpses of the aged Sidney and Beatrice surveying their intellectual progeny; stories from the halcyon age of prurience of what went on in the new lift between Jessy and William; recycled gossip about Harold Laski that he had probably fabricated in the first place; golden memories of Lionel Robbins’s steely eloquence; affectionate embroidery of R.H. Tawney’s old clothes. With anecdotage piled on apocrypha in an innocent affirmation of corporate identity, this turns into the sort of college history in which we all wallow from time to time – so long as it’s about our own college, of course; otherwise it’s a bore. Dahrendorf, who first went to ‘the School’ as a student from Germany in the early Fifties, taps such floods of reminiscence, but he almost entirely escapes the indiscriminate inundation characteristic of the genre.

This does not mean, however, that he retreats into the School’s own archives, though he has put in a lot of work in mastering them. He generously acknowledges the help of his team of research assistants but evidently was not too grand to get his own hands dirty in retrieving dusty files and perusing the yellowing minutes of long-defunct committees. Why, it has been asked, should an intellectual of Dahrendorf’s calibre have devoted precious years to such a task? It is difficult to believe that those who have actually read the book will not feel they have an adequate answer literally in their hands. For its author capitalises on the fact that the LSE is virtually unique – Imperial College is analogous in the natural sciences – among major British academic institutions. The School is more famous than any single Oxbridge college, but smaller and more coherent than the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, its only world-class competitors. Not only does its development manifest relative academic coherence, being constrained in disciplinary scope to the social sciences, its lack of antiquity is crucial in endowing its story with dramatic unity, being nicely contained within the past century, during which the modern notion of a university evolved. Thus the nature of the institution has made it possible to write something more than an institutional history – this is an intellectual history, too – by exploiting the advantage of its being in the ivy league without the ivy.

The LSE may not fulfil the intentions of its initial Fabian benefactor, but there is still a real sense in which it is the institution Sidney Webb created. His thinking obviously was that socialism on the Fabian model held the future in its bones. As disinterested knowledge about the economy, society and politics systematically advanced, so would the inevitability of gradualness, wave by wave, bring in the collectivist tide. Thus Webb was unmoved by Shaw’s protests that the endowments of the School were paying known adherents of individualism to teach for it. That the first director (once Wallas had declined the job) was the imperialist Conservative W.A.S. Hewins, was one signal of the School’s non-partisan credentials. Webb, breasting 35, was happy to have such a vigorous collaborator, six years his junior – two young men with a common commitment to making a success of the School for all their differences in political outlook.

The fact is that the two had a good deal in common, through their basically anti-Glad stonian outlook, at a time when liberal economists – the majority – looked to the Cambridge of Alfred Marshall for a lead. In resisting the Marshallian hegemony in the establishment of economics as an academic discipline, the LSE made room for dissenters who resisted the all-embracing claims of a theoretical model in favour of an appeal to the practical outcome in particular times and places. It was Marshall’s paradigm that ultimately prevailed. But there are many ironies here. One is that, when the LSE later became the great stronghold of what Keynes was to dub ‘classical’ economics, he found no doughtier opponents than Friedrich Hayek and Robbins. During the Thirties, they together dominated the teaching of economics at the School, which thus acquired a ‘right-wing’ flavour quite at odds with its common reputation. This completed an academic reversal, in which Cambridge and the LSE maintained their rivalry only by each changing sides. Moreover, the School’s hostility to a Keynesian approach was reinforced by its current director – the same Beveridge whose name subsequently became coupled with that of Keynes as patrons of a full-employment, welfare-state consensus.

Clearly the troubles at the LSE have always been more complicated than a simple clash between an ill-dissimulated socialist bias and the claims of academic neutrality. Ralf Dahrendorf brings out the reality of Sidney Webb’s role as founder by showing his constant readiness, over a period of half a century, to let others take advantage of the opportunities which he had created. He fully merited the tribute from Carr-Saunders, director at the time of Webb’s death in 1947: ‘Our founder was wiser than most and less self-regarding. Having set the School on its feet, he never attempted to impose his own views.’ But not through mere modesty. Webbian claims to superior expertise were in a sense institutionalised with the foundation of the School. Dahrendorf goes so far as to say that this is ‘why a caste of experts had to be trained; the vanguard, not to say the nomenklatura of the positivist state. ’As a political strategy, this is just what suspicious critics always feared; though at the end of the 20th century the strategy itself looks less like a crime, still less a success, than a blunder. The overweening self-confidence of the Fabians has always had its critics, not least in the backlash in our own era against their kind of beneficent paternalism. But it also needs to be said that Webb’s creative self-abnegation over the LSE surely derived from the same smug confidence that, in the end, the facts of life would turn out to be Fabian.

Webb constantly used his guile to protect his School from vulgar imputations of bias. When Hewins responded to Joseph Chamberlain’s dramatic call for Tariff Reform in 1903, the director’s protectionist views suddenly became more than an academic foible: they became a political liability, as Webb was well aware. Hewins had to go. His successor as director, happily for the School’s bipartisan image, could claim a Liberal pedigree – at least initially. This was Halford Mackinder, the charismatic pioneer of a conception of geopolitics which later acquired a somewhat sinister resonance. If Mackinder himself was not a proto-Nazi, he wasn’t a milk-and-water Gladstonian either; and again the School found itself, for the next five years, with a Chamberlainite imperialist at the helm. Little wonder that, on Mackinder’s resignation in 1908, the alarm bells were ringing in the founder’s head. His Fabian colleague Pease recorded: ‘Webb said we really must appoint a freetrader: otherwise the City will think we are Fair traders in disguise.’ Thus the appointment of W. Pember Reeves, the first Fabian to become director, can be seen as defusing issues of partisan bias – which long antedated the Labour Party’s rise to power, and were not necessarily focused on socialism at all.

Admittedly, Webb himself incautiously got into trouble with his ‘railway speech’ in 1911, which had an anti-capitalist tone. This prompted his resignation as chairman (under the decent cover of an impending journey round the world). Nonetheless, it was Webb who had to do the dirty work when Reeves, a broken man, needed to be eased out in 1919, and Webb who engineered the appointment of the next director, William Beveridge. Dahrendorf justifiably entitles his two hundred pages on the Beveridge era ‘A Second Foundation’. For it was during these 18 years that the LSE emerged in the form in which it became celebrated around the world. True, it had long since achieved acceptance as a constituent college of the University of London; but when Beveridge presumptuously thrust himself forward in 1926 for a stint as vice chancellor it began to seem as if the tail were wagging the dog. The domination of Bloomsbury by the massive tower of the Senate House, whispering the last enchantments of the Thirties, was the posthumous child of this liaison. On the LSE’s own site, the decisive growth in numbers and resources became the template for future expansion in higher education. It was the origin of the joke about a vice chancellor’s empire being one on which the concrete never sets.

Dahrendorf shows particular strengths in this part of the book, not least because he is alert to the archival footprints of his predecessors. Beveridge himself was, in every sense, a formidable operator; but he brought with him from his wartime work in the Civil Service a worthy collaborator in Jessy Mair. Her presence might be thought as unforgettable as the distinctive spelling of her name (though quoting Harold Wilson’s careless reference to her as ‘Mrs Jessie [sic!] Mair’, or even Lancelot Hogben’s ‘Mrs Maer [sic!]’, are examples of a surely disproportionate punctiliousness from an author who can wrongly write of Beatrice Webb as the ‘only woman’ on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law, not to mention ‘Peterhouse College’). Jessy Mair was the wife of Beveridge’s cousin, and remained so until David Mair’s death in 1940, whereupon she became Lady Beveridge. By the beginning of 1921 she was installed as secretary and dean at LSE, with unique access to the director throughout his tenure. She later wrote that she had ‘established when I came to the School of Economics a system of records classified and filed, so that the kind of history which I prefer could be written with some hope of accuracy.’

The relationship between Mair and Beveridge was crucial to the way the School was run between the wars. Jose Harris’s distinguished biography of Beveridge has already given us an account which discloses a rich sub-plot of human comedy running through the strenuous epic of administrative politics which encompassed their lives. On the big question to which academic minds will naturally turn first – did they or didn’t they? – Dahrendorf offers no new evidence and in its absence maintains a dignified agnosticism, shading towards scepticism, even about the adequacy as a love nest of the ‘bathroom’ appropriated by Mair in the new Houghton Street building. Rather than an affair, Dahrendorf suggests, this was ‘symbiosis’ and, respectful of the Webbs’ symmetrical relationship between equals, he even hesitates to say ‘partnership’. Maybe. One nice vignette is of Mair using a favourite porter as a personal dogsbody – ‘Panormo this, Panormo that’ – and even sending him to check the passenger list for one of Beveridge’s transatlantic voyages ‘to see who was travelling with him’. It is not every director who gets such attention from his staff. The fact is that nobody within the School during those years doubted that its secretary spoke for the director, too – a situation which changed abruptly on the change in directorship in 1937. And some of the reports on Beveridge’s dealings with outside bodies like the Rockefeller Foundation convey the same sense of ventriloquism. While Beatrice Webb notoriously used to say that ‘we do not take sugar in Sidney’s tea’, it is still not clear how many lumps Beveridge had.

It was in Beveridge’s LSE that Tawney, as professor of economic history, became the patron saint of ethical socialism and Laski, as professor of political science, acquired a reputation as an advocate of a rather less ethical strategy for bringing down capitalism. And all the while, Beveridge was extracting very large sums of money to sustain the School’s activities from that paragon of capitalist enterprise, the Rockefeller Foundation, which was then financing no less than a quarter of the School’s expenditure. This showed Beveridge and Mair at their best and at their worst, with double-dealing to bully the School into projects which supposedly enjoyed Rockefeller support while the supposition that these were the School’s own priorities was used to lever more Rockefeller dollars. In the end it all came unstuck, with much ruefulness though no open scandal. Dahrendorf writes with unwonted bluntness: ‘Thus in 1935 Beveridge’s two-faced game was up.’ Still, the School was a net beneficiary of the Beveridge-Mair regime, which literally laid the foundations for state-financed expansion later.

True, there were recurrences of the old trouble along the way, notably in 1934 with some characteristically provocative lectures by Laski in Moscow bringing an equally predict able response from Tory MPs and the Daily Telegraph. It was hardly news to read in its pages that ‘the London School of Economics, where Professor Laski functions, has long been regarded as a hotbed of Communist teaching’; and obviously no hard-pressed, cash-strapped director would have felt that his life had been made easier as a result. The Webbian tactic of putting Tories into high honorific positions was one defence; the presence of Hayek and Robbins, with their purist, free-market ideology, was a useful diversion; and even Laski proved amenable, under pressure, to dropping his column in the Daily Herald.

Whether this represented an attack on ‘academic freedom’ is discussed by Dahrendorf, who argues that the freedom at stake was that of the marketplace rather than the lecture theatre. ‘This has nothing to do with academic freedom,’ he argues. ‘Professors do not have any particular right to say outrageous things in public, nor do they have a particular claim to wisdom in political matters.’ This is a trenchant distinction, but, as a professor, I must admit to starting from a different premise. Recalling the hundreds of thousands of words which I have freely published in the LRB over the last fifteen years, I appreciate that they contain many examples of my wisdom in political matters – sufficient (if it had any shame) to provoke the fall of the Conservative Government. For this I make no professional apology and expect no professional reproach; but if I were to exhibit similar partisanship in the Cambridge History Faculty, this would surely constitute an abuse of any privileged defence of academic freedom. Luckily, the issue does not arise since I am not at the LSE – of the peculiarity of whose location and history Dahrendorf shows himself cognisant in his comment: ‘We are, however, talking about a school of the social sciences in the centre of London.’

Even this site was Webb’s doing. Through his LCC connections he spotted that the redevelopment of Holborn that created Kings-way would permit the School’s colonisation of buildings near Clare Market (with Houghton Street around the corner) as a permanent home. And such it has proved – so far. Beveridge dreamed of a consolidation of the whole university, including the School, in Bloomsbury. During the Second World War evacuation to Cambridge brought a superficially unlikely co-existence with Peterhouse – and also an opportunity for some fence-mending in economics since, while Keynes was in the Treasury with Robbins as an admiring colleague, it was Hayek who lectured on economic theory in Cambridge. In the post-war years there was an opportunity for a move to a green-field site at Croydon. But however cramped the conditions in Houghton Street, even after Beveridge’s concrete-mixers had provided new classrooms (and bathrooms, of course), it was this site, with its maze of undistinguished, reach-me-down buildings, which has inspired generations of staid academics to rhetoric worthy of estate agents – twixt Westminster and City, mins theatreland and law courts, an irreplaceable opportunity and a real home.

Still, a sense of unresolved crisis, engendered by the very success and growth of the LSE, hangs over the later chapters of this book. The best-known troubles are associated with the date 1968 – understandably but incorrectly, since that was ‘the quiet year’ in between two explosions of student unrest. The first was over the appointment of a new director, Walter Adams, from the University College of Rhodesia; the subsequent (violent) clashes came over an inept plan for the installation of ‘gates’, which were perceived or presented as ‘the material expression of class oppression’. For those who are interested in exploring these knotty and contentious events, Dahrendorf does his level best. But his finest moment comes with his account of his own tenure as director, where he exhibits masterly German understatement in neither inflating his own achievements nor insidiously shifting responsibility for failings onto his predecessors or successors.

That there have been failings in recent years, measured against the trajectory of the LSE’s impressive earlier record, seems undeniable. On quitting in 1984 after ten years as director, Dahrendorf confesses that ‘a feeling of sadness came in, sadness about the School tinged with anger about the country of which I am so fond.’ In a book of such restrained tone, with the hindsight of a decade to cool any understandable intemperance of the moment, his words carry commensurately greater force. ‘How could it be that a Government, and a wider concerned public, were so unaware of some of the greatest strengths of Britain?’ he asks. ‘When has there ever been such a wave of destruction of successful institutions, with the authors of the destruction gleefully viewing their work?’

The cuts and squeezes, the febrile chopping and changing of Government policy, still had a along way to go under Dahrendorf’s successor, I.G. Patel. Driven to repair its finances by expansion of student numbers, the LSE put its already stretched facilities under even greater pressure. Moreover, it found its long-standing commitment to international recruitment pushed into caricature when the proportion of overseas students reached 48 percent in 1990. ‘Why does the LSE always have to appoint foreigners?’ Mrs Thatcher had asked Patel on his appointment as director. He should have replied: ‘So that the students will feel at home.’ When the Conservative policy of abolishing the Greater London Council yielded its final fruit in the imminent availability of County Hall, it simultaneously presented the Government with a magnificent opportunity for resolving the LSE’s crisis. Naturally the opportunity was spurned, leaving market forces to keep this key site unoccupied. Instead of County Hall, the LSE was given the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement – one in the eye for Sidney Webb, oh yes.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 17 No. 22 · 16 November 1995

I was extremely puzzled by Peter Clarke’s description of Dahrendorf’s ‘masterly German understatement’ in his history of the LSE (LRB, 21 September). I have been living in Germany for fifteen years, and have never heard a single understatement yet. Surely what Professor Clarke is praising is Dahrendorf’s Teutonic hyperfulfilment of the German conception of Britishness.

Michael Robertson

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences