A Privileged Source of Information

An Interview with Ralf Dahrendorf

Norbert Schreiber


If computers decline in performance, tuner software programs are used. If electrical impulses need to be amplified, radio specialists use “tuners”, so, for example, radio receivers, as amplifiers. How can performance improvements can be achieved in politics and societies, societal development effects be amplified, this was the topic discussed by Frankfurt journalist Norbert Schreiber with the renowned sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, who has published a new book from CHBeck-Verlag about the role of intellectuals in today’s society.

In a brilliant society analysis of the “liberal mind”, Dahrendorf develops at the same time a political ethic, a doctrine of virtue which could be effective as a control element, a “tuning model” for politics and society.

Drawing on an abundance of exemplary biographies in the tradition of the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, Ralf Dahrendorf tests to what extent these personalities correspond with his liberal mind. Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Aron and Norberto Bobbio, Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno and George Orwell are included along with Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Manès Sperber, Arthur Koestler or Georg Lukács. The result of the examination is a doctrine of virtue of freedom that lays claim to long-term validity.


In your book you talk about doctrine of virtue. What theorems does your doctrine of virtue have?


God, theorems sounds as if I had developed an entire medieval philosophy that needs to be learnt by everybody. It is a slightly ironic concept in favour of theorems that those who are immune to the great temptations of totalitarianism, or want to be, need certain virtues. I do deal extensively with some of them. For example, one needs to be able represent one’s own positions clearly and courageously even when entirely surrounded by different positions, perhaps even opposing ones, and then this remarkable capacity to be a committed person in current issues and yet remain an observer is important to me, not entering into the tumult and not joining the fight. And somewhere behind this there is always an idea that good sense can exercised even with passion. That good sense is therefore not simply out of touch. That the perseverance of good sense is also one of the virtues that it’s all about. I don't wish to speculate now on whether that actually earns the word doctrine.


Conveying virtues is a process of upbringing, with parents, educational institutions, school, universities and role models coming into play, because after all the aim is to make virtues a liveable experience. What could a process of reconstructing virtues look like, since after all we have lost virtues?


Completely right and at the same time I have become a bit sceptical over the course of my life as regards the possibility of consciously conveying virtues through such authorities. There is hardly anything more important than role models and, above all, visible role models, and one of my purposes in the book is to use personalities as illustrations of what differences there really are. After all, there are no standard personalities, but Raymond Aron and Isaiah Berlin, Norberto Bobbio, Hannah Arendt and others are very different and yet have the same ideas. I trust in role models.


You also talk about the intellectuals, their successes and failures, in your book. Can you name a few examples?


For me, one successful intellectual, first of all, is the philosopher, sociologist and essayist and journalist Raymond Aron, but one can also add Berlin, Popper and others. However, most of the others failed in the 20th century. And although my intention in my book was not to place the focus on failure, I did, however, describe a few examples. After all, intellectuals are also open to temptation and somebody like Jean Paul Sartre fell into every fashion, so to speak, that was popular at the time and then fell away from it again. Even a man like Heidegger, who made horrifying Nazi speeches in 1933 and 1934, afterwards withdrew into a more quiet world and was suddenly no longer the protagonist of a new ideology. But those are examples of failure, and unfortunately there are too many of those. However, my interest is in those who didn’t fail.


It’s no surprise that a sociologist should be undertaking classifications, you placed the group of the erasmists at the focus of your book. These are no “little green men” from Mars, you bring the erasmists together as one group in your book, what was the meaning behind this?


Yes, first of all I have to say that this game that I allowed myself in my book has been taken more seriously by some people than I intended. After all, I also point out that it is a game, it’s not about forming a group. For the people portrayed are not group people. Actually, one of the crucial statements by Erasmus of Rotterdam to which I refer is that he was not a member of any party and does not wish to be classed as such, either. It is therefore a question of a category, if you like. A type of behaviour, a category of virtues that I link with the remarkable humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, who, at a time when all decisions had to be made – back to the orthodoxy of the Catholic church, to Luther and Protestantism – managed to assert a completely individual position, a position which in this respect corresponds to what my erasmists of the 20th century have done. At the end I then produced a type of table and said with it that there was a “Societas Erasmiana.” Therefore it is not a question of a group, never ever, it's about individuals, not to say individualists.


It is currently being discussed that the social binding forces could be lost in society. As a sociologist, you have the task of observing this society, after all. How do you view the “force of the binding force”, to put it in such terms?


The loss of social binding forces has been a topic of social sciences and politics as well for 150 years; when Tönnies wrote “Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft” he saw a society and a moving away from communities, and when Henry Maine said in the 1860s that we are moving away from the permanent ties with contractual circumstances he was thinking of exactly the same thing. Certainly that is a particularly weighty matter today and one needs to take account of that as a sociologist; indeed, I coined the term ligatures, binding forces, deep ties, which have been lost for many people. Precisely with this new book, “Versuchungen der Unfreiheit. Die Intellektuellen in Zeiten der Prüfung”, I am concerned with the other matter, freedom, the full unfolding of freedom. It is a question of not being taken in by false ties, replacement religions, virtual ties, for that is the risk when too strong a focus is placed on this motive for ties.


On the one hand we have radical changes that put these binding forces at risk, on the hand, though, they also conceal chances to develop this society further, to better assume new challenges.


That is completely right, times of radical change and times of dynamism are always also times when severe new problems arise. For example, a time of economic dynamism, such as the one we are experiencing now, is one which has many losers, at any rate setting us, and consequently these people, new tasks at first. For me, that has never been a reason for resisting the dynamism itself or attempting to stifle what comes with new developments because it has side-effects. This also applies for freedom and ties. More freedom comes at a price for ties. However, that does not mean that one needs to give up freedom because ties are so attractive, but it means that one must seek and defend freedom. And simultaneously, or afterwards, one must worry how things are looking for the ties. And this simultaneously or afterwards is a key for me. That is to say, we will never realise, simultaneously, something which we consider worthy. And sometimes we need to decide: between two values that we respect equally highly, for example. My decision is clear; it is a decision for freedom.


Europe is currently in a legitimacy crisis; we are currently discussing the necessity of delimiting Europe more clearly, also telling the citizen in more precise terms, where Europe stops. What “tool” does politics have to produce legitimacy?


The reason for our really having this Europe must be clear. Since I am of the opinion that Europe only makes sense if it brings added freedom, I don’t share many of the concerns that some professional Europeans have. I also have no illusion concerning the intensity of European unity in the early days of the European Community. I was a European Commissioner in the early days, and I cannot discern that the Europe of the Six was such an enormous friendly club, while today’s Europe is falling apart. The Europe of the Six was totally disunited. De Gaulle conducted empty chair politics, Helmut Schmidt and Giscard D’Estaing had endless fights over whether joint currency or economic policy should be the priority. That was not a lovely and close and intensive tie. Which is why I am not even worried that 25, 27 or even 30 members are now concerned. For my part, a Europe of freedom includes precisely not setting any limits, but dealing with any issues that arise, when they arise. The Turkey question exists, the Ukraine question does not exist at the moment, so we must deal with the Turkey question and if it turns out during negotiations that Turkey not least accepts the political Copenhagen criteria, then in my opinion it is a thoroughly serious member. That is to say I have a much more open idea of Europe than is commonly the case and am therefore not as worried as those who allow themselves to be guided by the United States of Europe.


And a European like you also does not believe that Europe can be prescribed a DIN-standard soul, if possible from Brussels.


You say it as someone who loves freedom, I also love variety and simply believe that a Europe of variety is of better service to people and is also better for the world.”



English translation by Alexandra Cox