Diary

Noël Annan

I see that Ralph Dahrendorf has given us his reflections on the revolution in Eastern Europe.[*] Burke wrote his on the French Revolution to ‘a very young gentleman in Paris’ in order to damp his enthusiasm and instil some doubts in his mind; Dahrendorf his to a considerably older gentleman in Warsaw to dispel some fashionable muddles about the future in our minds as well as in his. To compare the two books would be like matching a Rolls-Royce against a BMW. The BMW lacks elegance and comfort, all the money has gone into the engine. But it is a powerful engine and the bodywork is not encumbered with an escutcheon depicting a thousand swords leaping from their scabbards and other signs of the age of chivalry.

The revolution, he tells his friend, was not made to substitute one system for another. Once Gorbachev let it be known that he would not intervene, people opted for the open society. I was interested to hear Dahrendorf say that Hayek’s dogmatic capitalism is almost as much an enemy of the open society as communism or socialism. Popper, not Hayek, should be the guide. There is no formula to follow, no system that will produce genuine civil society. Those who talk of a middle way are deluding themselves. Social democracy as a system is as dead as Communism. Just as Liberalism, victorious under Asquith and Lloyd George, created the social groups and forces that were to destroy it, so social democracy was undone by its victory in the Sixties and Seventies. As the solid blue-collar working class fragmented and an employee class emerged, the old class conflict turned into a fight for social mobility. People rejected the bureaucracy that managed the economy and the trade unions that made that management ineffective and produced stagflation. So let us have no visions of creating little Swedens east of the Elbe.

How can one establish an open society? First, practise constitutional politics. Constitutions have often been not worth the paper they were written on, but without one – without an independent judiciary, the rule of law and enforceable contracts – there can be no freedom. ‘Normal politics’ – how to increase production and distribute the benefits – comes second. But in revolutions this is easier said than done. Dahrendorf recalls Robespierre’s indignation when people rioted for bread. The Revolution had given them the rights of man: why should they howl for bread? But people must have bread or they catch the endemic disease of revolutions: disenchantment. Isn’t it ominous to hear Walesa saying that democracy might have to be suspended to allow economic reforms to proceed? How can these Eastern European states survive economically?

Rightly, I thought, Dahrendorf reminds us of the Wirtschaftswunder. After the currency reform of 1947 Erhard abolished rationing and freed all prices: rent control was abandoned later. The black market collapsed, and goods returned to the shops. At first hardly anyone could afford to buy them, and Erhard survived a vote of confidence by only one vote. But he served an imperturbable leader. Adenauer might despise socialism but he was influenced by the Papal encyclicals on the dignity of labour. He got a deal with the trade unions through Hans Böckler. Things were so bad in the Forties that Germans felt they could only get better. I wonder whether east of the Elbe people will feel the same. Dahrendorf thinks it will take at least six years to get economic results there. But to establish civil society will take far longer. Tom Marshall used to say at the LSE that it took three centuries to build it in Britain. Nevertheless the point Dahrendorf is making is that West Germany is not a Hayek state. It is a mixed economy, a corporate economy in which government, the banks and the key companies act most of the time in concert.

He is sniffy about the reactions of the European intellectuals. Many of them still hold the view that the political system of the West is so degrading that it must be reformed root and branch. They wallow in their alienation and their utopianism; and, as Dahrendorf writes, ‘alienation, utopia and dogmatism do not form a very attractive triad.’ The triad leads to authoritarian socialism. There is the Swiss journalist who wants to preserve the ‘achievements’ of the Communist states. What are they? The right to work does not exist: full employment may be a goal but whether it is attainable depends on the state of the market. To the Italian journalist who sneered that it was extraordinary that the East should find the West so attractive when the Eighties were the most anti-social decade in recent history, Dahrendorf answers: yes, the price for ending stagflation was high – an underclass of long-term unemployed and persistently poor has been created. But the majority of people did well out of the rebirth of confidence in the West, and the decay of the infrastructure in the East was far worse than in the West. His most caustic contempt is reserved for the gauchistes of all countries who, while not actually acting as apologists for Soviet Russia, nevertheless were enemies of the open society: especially those who made excuses for the SED in East Germany. I am not surprised he takes this line. I remember Dahrendorf’s courageous father, when I was helping the SPD in Berlin oppose in 1946 the forcible amalgamation of the SPD and KPD. He voted against it and was forced to flee to the West to escape Russian reprisals.

German intellectuals, he believes, have not risen to the occasion. There was Gunther Grass muttering Auschwitz and opposing reunification. Or Habermas fulminating against Deutschmark nationalism. Or Glotz lamenting that the EC shows no sign of making nation-states superfluous. Dahrendorf accepts that German unification alarms people, but the notion of the nation-state withering away is as utopian as the last stage of Marxism. The nation-state is ‘still the repository of the basic rights of citizenship and the EC is a community of law that takes decisions binding on its members.’

I like this Chatto CounterBlast. It is in a different class from its predecessors. It is a counterblast against all the pretensions of the Left about Europe. But it is not a manifesto from the Right. Dahrendorf says he is critical of many of Margaret Thatcher’s policies and feels downright uncomfortable with some of the new intellectuals of the Right, particularly the born-again atoning for the rabid radicalism of their youth. He believes in constitutional liberalism and appeals to the shades of Keynes, Beveridge, Aron and indeed of Max Weber. I therefore read him with pleasure.

There are, however, two defects in the policies of the centre. In rejecting either/or politics they opt for both/and. But in the end you have to choose. Is Dahrendorf in favour of integration within the EC or for co-operation, so that countries can opt out and ignore those directives they dislike? He seems at first to opt for co-operation. But if so, what happens to the sacred cows he thinks should be slaughtered, such as the virtual prohibition of takeovers in Germany, or zero VAT on children’s clothes in Britain, or on books in France? He says the EC must not deviate from the road to integration. It is a community of law which takes decisions binding on its members. What has happened to co-operation?

I have sympathy for Dahrendorf’s eclecticism. The only credible Chancellors of the Exchequer in Britain are those who see themselves as jugglers throwing a set of coloured balls in the air, one marked balance of payments, another investment and growth, another money supply, and so on. Throw one up too high and you drop another. Go for growth as Barber did, misread the indicators as Lawson did, and you end in trouble.

This still leaves open the question: what do you do about the deep malaises that affect the economy and welfare of every country? How do you justify change in politics and get the entrenched interest groups to move? Statesmen may reject a system but they need principles. G.M. Young once recalled an occasion on which a backwoodsman in a debate on the silk-trade war derided Huskisson as a philosopher. Canning came to his defence. ‘Why is it to be supposed that the application of philosophy – for I will use that odious word – to the affairs of common life indicates obduracy of feeling or obtuseness of sensibility? We must deal with the affairs of men on abstract principles, modified of course according to times and circumstances.’

The trouble is that the politics of the centre – the hard graft of preserving civil society and also governing and managing – is so boring. What are those lights that twinkle over the marsh so invitingly? They are the Coranians, those marsh fiends that tormented the young Sir Lancelot in his dungeon and now torment the new knights of Eastern Europe. They sting the irredentists in Transylvania, they foment border disputes, they pillory racial or ethnic minorities as scapegoats for present miseries. It says much for Dahrendorf’s open mind that he is aware that the sensible policies he advocates are just as likely to be scrapped as the illusions he has exposed.

[*] Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (Chatto, 144 pp., £5.99, September, 0 7011 3725 8).