- Life Chances by Ralf Dahrendorf
Weidenfeld, 181 pp, £8.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 297 77682 7
It is not disarming when Professor Dahrendorf writes, in the very first sentence of his Preface: ‘The subject of this volume is simple: what are human societies about?’ And later: ‘What is human society and its history about?’ The intention is probably to appear informal, friendly and approachable, and at the same time to be profound in theme: but the effect is depressing.
The vagueness leads one to expect a desultory and unfocused argument, and this is, in fact, the character of the book. Part of the explanation lies in the book’s composition from different pieces and fragments, some previously published, some not: almost half consists of draft chapters of a longer work in preparation. The clear impression is left that this work is not worthy of its author, and that it represents an interval in his more serious writing. With all such allowances made, I still believe that speculative sociology of this kind is necessarily a deceiving discipline, and that this little book richly illustrates the deceits. I cite some representative sentences, by no means the worst from the point of view of style and of the quality of thought conveyed: ‘From one point of view, social institutions as the reality of hegemonical values are always a response to social forces, that is, to the potential of human life chances provided by the economic, social and technical resources of a society. Institutions may be an adequate, in formal terms a flexible, open, response to these forces: if and as long as this is the case, there are not liable to be doubts in legitimacy [sic] to any considerable extent. It is, however, conceivable – and indeed at times inevitable – that the potential of a society outgrows its reality.’
I can think of no discipline other than sociology which normally tolerates such generalised lucubrations and mild meanderings. If the reader asks himself, after half a dozen pages, ‘What have I learnt?’ he will perhaps find that a few highly abstract possibilities have been conjured up before him, possibilities of future social change: but no definite and testable evidence of their coming has been provided. All is supposition, a lantern show of more or less bright ideas and changed perspectives. After walking through a marsh, one longs for the hard ground of, for example, demography, or law, disciplines that encourage definition and testability.
If this was just a disappointing book, there would be no reason to dwell at length upon its defects. But it is also the symptom of a well-established academic disease, which spreads into journalism and corrupts political argument. Consider the two questions put on page 40: ‘What is the direction of the processes which move human societies?’ and ‘Where is the driving force of history?’ It is a very large assumption that there actually exists such a direction, or that there exists ‘a driving force of history’. There have been, and there still are, many variants of the doctrine that God’s providence governs the history of human societies and is the driving force, and that history has its appointed end in some form of redemption, when evil and alienation are to be finally overcome. One offshoot of this doctrine has been the Hegelian philosophy of history, which supposed that human societies will grow up in intelligible phases as they mature towards a final full self-consciousness in which the conflicts of history are resolved; the evolution of reflective intelligence is to be the driving force. An offshoot of this philosophy is the Marxist theory of history, properly supplied with both direction and driving force, which it is now unnecessary to describe. Another offshoot, contemporary with Marx and no less influential in the West, is the positivist theory of history, coming originally from Condorcet, Saint-Simon and Comte. Human societies would pass through ordered phases of intellectual enlightenment, gradually discarding magical and religious styles of thought, and finally achieving a lucid scientific attitude to social problems and to human problems generally. This philosophy of history has had as its heir a theory of modernisation which predicts that societies, once introduced to contemporary technology, will unavoidably adopt similar systems of education and similar ways of life and similar social structures. These theories are offshoots of offshoots of the old doctrines of God’s providence working in history. The two kinds of philosophy of history, the German Hegelian-Marxist, the French positivist, commanded the minds of many thinking men at the end of the last century, and sociology was as a discipline born into this heritage.
There is another tradition of historical thinking, which has its roots in Classical pagan philosophies and which flourished in Christian Italy, and this has no place for an inclusive direction of history, and no place for a single, or even a principal, driving force of social change. The most glorious and forceful representative of this tradition since Thucydides, and since the advent of Christianity, was Machiavelli. Machiavelli allowed that we can, and that we should, learn certain rough general truths about the usual causes of social change, about relations between classes, and about shifts of power in different societies, and that we can learn these very useful rough general truths from the study of history. There are repetitions of the past and cyclical recurrences in public affairs, as in private life, and there are even regressions to a primitive past, as states and cities rise and fall.
The truths that we learn are ‘purely empirical’, needed for practical purposes; they have the same roughness and uncertainty as the truths that a doctor would use in default of any systematic physiology and chemistry. They are uncertain, because surrounding conditions and individual cases will always vary inexhaustibly. Prudence and political skill partly consist in the sudden recognition of local particularities, of the strange exceptions to the general rule: this is a kind of political connoisseurship, an instinct for turns of fortune and for the meeting of contingencies that produces wholly unexpected outcomes. The skill of the politician, and, derivatively, of the historian and political observer, is to allow just sufficient place, not too much, nor too little, for Fortune – that ancient irreducible element in practical human affairs, coldly noted by Aristotle, elaborated, and dwelt on with a sort of voluptuousness, by Machiavelli. He who loves politics, and has the essence of the matter in him, loves and studies the uncertain play of Fortune, the sudden, irrational leap of a precipitating cause: insignificant in itself, it may unravel a policy and destroy a government, as the smallest subsidence may precipitate an earthquake, or a minute abrasion precipitate the runaway degeneration of cells that destroys the whole body. In the psychology of art, and in biology, the role of chance, and of the small unpredictable abnormality that triggers off a great mutation, is more familiar now than in the last century. So also with the great mutations of human affairs, as with the Bolshevik revolution, which from small and local precipitating causes spread change across half humanity. A modern Machiavellian, who writes history, cannot allow humanity to be any kind of unity except as a species, even less to be a historical agent with a coherent history of its own. The providence that allegedly guides the sacred history of fallen humanity, and leads to the final redemption, does not intrude upon the secular history which the responsible statesman needs to understand. Providence does not in this philosophy have a moral meaning and a direction; it is not that kind of driving force – not Dahrendorf’s kind.
The deciding step for Professor Dahrendorf’s argument is, first, the assumption that there is such a thing as the development of humanity as a whole, as opposed to the several and divergent developments of different empires and different populations; secondly, the assumption that there is a path of development, which can be traced both among individual populations and in humanity as a whole – not merely the rise and fall of artificially grouped populations and of their governing powers, in accordance with rhythms that do not compose a single theme. Given these two assumptions, which emerge from the philosophies of history of the last century, it will make sense to reify history and to inquire into its direction, which will turn out to have some moral significance: a redemption of some kind, an overcoming of immaturity, a liberation. And so it is with Professor Dahrendorf: the direction of social change, quite generally, is towards an expansion of life chances, which he calls ‘the subject-matter of human social development’. This is another version of the liberal hope which Macaulay and Mill revised and revived.
Resistance to this hope is not merely a distaste for the two vast and implausible assumptions involved in it. Thinking and writing in these generalised and unhistorical terms softens or deadens our alertness to the danger actually in view for the species – the danger that it will soon destroy itself in a twist of Fortune and an accidental war. The leaden tread of the prose may leave students of sociology with the soothing impression that their society is working in accordance with its proper and necessary design. Professor Dahrendorf quotes with approval Professor Merton, perhaps the best-known, and most respected, sociologist in the United States: ‘The social structure acts as a barrier or as an open door to the acting out of cultural man dates.’ The educational consequences of wading through sentences of this character, a mish-mash of mechanical metaphor and figurative abstraction, are frightening. Once accustomed to such ruminations, a student could easily lose the habit of separating statements into true and false. But there is a still more far-reaching objection to this abstract style. It obliterates, or at least obscures from view, the two most evident features of social orders, as they are so far known to history and to anthropology. First, cultural diversity, and in particular diversity of languages, has so far been essential to the species, which has developed its cultures and its intelligence within a setting of exclusivity and division. Humanity has not been constituted, either as agent or as patient, with a common fate – and Esperanto proved to have no future. The second evident feature of history, connected with the first, is that political and social orders rise and fall, and disappear altogether, in constant rivalry with each other, some leaving memories, some leaving almost nothing behind, but certainly with no traceable concentric tendency, at least since the fall of the Roman Empire. Since that event, or set of events, there has naturally been speculation, as a main theme in political thought, on the possible unity of mankind once again: either as a Christian commonwealth of nations, wild as this expectation now seems, or as a commonwealth of enlightenment, a rational community of like-minded free-thinkers who had climbed over the walls that confined them in their local cultures. We now know from recent experience that the fissiparous, divisive, innately hostile and self-distinguishing dispositions of men are back again in force, at least temporarily: the swing of the pendulum between modernisation and rich superstition, between a thin rationality and the return of noisy priests and prophets, makes the philosophies of history of the last century seem inadequate to the recent facts. Professor Dahrendorf’s increase of life chances seems an implausible goal, because of the present relapse from liberal hopes in the corso e recorso of history. Vico’s cyclical theory of human societies, which must swing back and forth between prosaic good sense and richly imaginative barbarism, is as good a guess as any about human nature in society.
Professor Dahrendorf certainly does not believe in the inevitability of progress. He notices and stresses the receding of liberal expectations and beliefs in the West. Nevertheless, both the style and the method of his thought about the future seem to me delusive, as in that hopeless and misleading question: ‘What are human societies about?’