Ralf Dahrendorf, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (London, 1990)

This post, an appreciation of the work cited above, admittedly falls outside the stated scope of this blog, but it refers to the important and topical questions of the future relationship of the United Kingdom and Europe, and the relationship of the Christian religion with both.

Lord Dahrendorf KBE, FBA (1929-2009) was born in Germany, the son of a social democrat, and spent part of his youth in a Nazi concentration camp.  As his titles indicate, he later took British nationality, and had an illustrious career as a European Commissioner and Director of the LSE.

This book, whose title alludes to Edmund Burke’s famous work, discusses the future of Europe after the momentous events of 1989, the destruction of the Berlin wall and of the communist regimes that lay behind it.


Marxism was based on a providential concept of history.  It taught that history had chosen the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist mode of production and create a new society.  From the start, however, Marxists were not content to rely on this impersonal, and supposedly inevitable, historical process, but engaged in political activism to to advance their new society.

Marxist theory actually had little support from history.  It confused the French revolution and the industrial revolution, which did not happen in the same place or at the same time.  There was no historical evidence for supposing that the proletariat represented a new force of production.

However, Marxist theory was plausible when applied to 19th century Russia.  Russia was economically backward, and had no powerful, wealth-creating middle class as Europe and America had.  The Party therefore seemed to be the only vehicle of economic progress.  Hence Marxism makes more sense in a third-world country (which tsarist Russia was) than in an advanced society.  Communism does not survive economic advancement.

Marxism is radically different from social democracy.  While Marxists sought to overthrow the state, social democrats wished to strengthen it.

The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the old Soviet Union) went through 2 phases:

(1) Stalinism, a state of permanent revolution backed by terror, then

(2) Brezhnevism, an authoritarian state in which a bureaucratic elite exploited the people.  There was a relative absence of terror, and official corruption allowed a black market to operate.  The black market provided some relief from poverty.

It is wrong to be nostalgic for the ‘high culture’ that supposedly flourished under communism.  High culture was merely a substitute for other values (e.g travel, politics, religion) which communism denied to people.

However, post-communist society will inevitably be a culture shock.  The correct response to the culture shock is to hold onto the sound cultural values of the past, while not giving in to nostalgia: ‘let the huge wave of [unfamiliar and unattractive change] roll over you, and make sure that you come up again once it has passed’ (pp.107-8).

The events of 1989 effected a reunification of language, as they removed any ideological divide.  After 1989, politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals from across Europe, both East and West, ‘all used the same words and concepts, and spoke of the same things’ (p.11).  However, unlike the French and American Revolutions in the 18th century, 1989 did not produce any new ideas.


The intellectual void created by 1989 must not be filled by a naïve democratic idealism.  There is no such thing as ‘government by the people’ (p.9).  This is a dangerous illusion, as it merely gives opportunity to extremists.

Nor does the future lie in free market fundamentalism.  It is no coincidence that many theorists of the free market are former Marxists.  Free market fundamentalism cruelly divides human beings into winners and losers.  Like communism, it raises false hopes and expectations that it cannot fulfil.  It takes no account of the manifold inequalities between human beings.  It complacently allows the strong to exploit the weak.  This is not only wrong in itself, it also risks political instability which gives totalitarianism its opportunity.

Robespierre held that a constitution gives freedom to citizens, whereas a tyrant only gives them bread (p.76).  This view is untenable.  Man does not live by bread alone, but nor can he live only by freedom or ‘values’.  However, a constitution which promises a right to work which it cannot deliver will become discredited.  Indeed a constitution ought to guarantee a right not to work, as a protection against forced labour.

Economic prosperity is a double-edged sword.  It may create a ‘feel-good factor’ that encourages acceptance of the status quo, but it may also breed discontent and radicalism.  A democracy that rests only on economic prosperity, like the old West Germany, is precarious.  Postwar British democracy, by contrast, remained strong despite decades of economic decline.

Political change is quicker, and in a way easier, than economic change: ‘economic changes cannot be introduced in a matter of months … economic reforms will without fail lead through a valley of tears.  Things are bound to get worse before they get better’ (p.77).

The difficulty, therefore, is that liberalising reform will be rejected if it is seen to cause economic hardship.  The best solution to this problem is to mitigate the inevitable hardship caused by economic freedom with a welfare state.

The author argues that all systems, including the free market system, are tyrannies.  Any form of utopianism, however well-intentioned, must be rejected.  Post-communist governance must therefore be a-systematic.  It must create an open society which is capable of offering ‘infinite possible futures, some of which compete with each other’ (p.37).

The Open Society requires 3 things:

(1) a constitution

(2) normal politics

(3) social foundations

Constitution-building is ‘the hour of the lawyers’ (p.79).  To be properly effective, a constitution requires an independent judiciary to enforce it.  The difficulty is that the judiciary is inherently the weakest of the 3 ‘powers’ of government.  It depends on the support of the executive for the practical efficacy of its judgements (p.81).  However, even a paper constitution, without an independent judiciary, has some small value.  The most tyrannical regime cannot deny what is written in its constitution.  Dissidents, and the international community, can still appeal to it.

A constitution should procure as much democracy as possible, a wide distribution of power (consistent with the ability of the government to govern), in order to minimise the risk of subversion by extremists.

Normal politics are ‘the hour of the politicians’.  The task of normal politics is to resolve, as far as possible, the inevitable tension between politics and economics.  Political reform is never popular if it causes economic hardship.  Normal politics is concerned to negotiate this tension.  Postwar West Germany provides the model for this.

Social foundations are ‘the hour of the citizen’.  These are all-important, as they give long-term stability to the Open Society, in bad times as well as in good (p.93).  They comprise ‘a multiplicity of groups and organisations and associations’ which exist outside the state, and hence protect society against the excesses of state power (p.95).  Social foundations include political parties, churches, universities, charities and small businesses.

The difficulty is that social foundations cannot suddenly be invented.  They tend to evolve spontaneously over time.  If they are artificially created and organised by the state, that will defeat their political purpose which is to be independent of the state.  Nevertheless, efforts must be made, somehow, to create social organisations outside the state.

On this view, the Christian religion or Church is both (1) a contributory to, and (2) a beneficiary of, the Open Society.  It contributes by providing one of the social foundations that gives the Open Society stability and legitimacy.  It also benefits from the religious freedom that the Open Society guarantees.


The author professes his hope for ‘a constitution of a united Europe one day’ (p.127), and for European monetary union (p.132).  Yet the Open Society is not easy to reconcile with a European superstate.  Both the democratic institutions and the social foundations on which the Open Society is based are likely to be of local or national origin and character.

The author’s point is that the Open Society must precede the European superstate.  Post-communist states must settle their constitutions, politics and social foundations first.  Only when these are sufficiently stable and mature can they be integrated into the European superstate.  Nevertheless the difficulty remains that a European superstate which lacks a democratic mandate and a basis in local communities risks causing alienation of the kind that facilitated the rise of 20th century totalitarian regimes in the first place.

This faith in internationalism and supranational institutions is rooted in a fear of totalitarianism.  Before communism there was fascism.  The experience of fascism suggests that nation-states cannot be trusted with the human rights of minorities within their borders.  The author quotes a survivor of the holocaust: ‘how fragile these human rights become when they no longer correspond with citizenship rights’ (p.125).  This attitude, though wholly understandable in a European context, is radically different from the Whig-inspired English trust in parliamentary sovereignty as the surest guarantee of liberty.

The author wrote a quarter of a century ago, a long time now.  What has happened to Europe since then?  Utopian democratic idealism seems to have been avoided successfully.  Economic liberalism, the market economy, has been universally accepted.  A former European Commissioner (also a former Marxist) is credited with the observation that ‘We are all Thatcherites now’.  The free market’s disregard of inequalities between human beings has been addressed not only by a social-democratic welfare state, but also by an ideology of so-called ‘equality’ reminiscent of that preached by communism.  The free market and the ideology of equality are both regulated, and the tension between them arbitrated, by supranational European institutions.

Christianity has been excluded from this post-1989 compromise.  The downfall of communism did not lead to a revival of Christianity, despite the efforts of the then Pope, St John Paul II (himself a native of a communist country).  His Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (2003) presents a gloomy account of European apostasy, and there is little sign that matters have improved in the 12 or 13 years since he wrote it.  Post-communist Europe is also post-Christian Europe.

Thus the Pope’s appeal to include a reference to ‘the Christian heritage of Europe’ in the European Constitution was rejected (cf para 114).  (The British Constitution, by contrast, does make reference to its Christian heritage.) There has indeed been a reunification of language between the secular elites of Europe, but they all now speak a different language from that of traditional Christianity.  The Pope acknowledged (para 11) that the position of East European Churches and Christians has become much easier since 1989.  The position of West European Christians has become more difficult.

Communism preached the equality of all human beings, but it defined human beings by their relationship to the Party.  This produced tyranny, a flagrant denial of the most basic human rights.  Post-1989 equality does not refer to the Party, of course, and it is undeniably preferable to the evil communist version that preceded it.  However, post-1989 equality also rejects the unique truth of Christianity, holding that all religions are equally valid (and hence equally invalid).  In particular, it refuses to recognise ‘the notable gap between European culture, with its profound Christian roots, and Muslim thought’ (cf para 57).

It also rejects the Christian understanding of gender and marriage.  (The environmental (green) movement takes ‘equality’ a step further, by suggesting an equality between human beings and other created things (animals, plant-life, minerals).  It implies that there is nothing special about human beings.)  Pope John Paul’s successor warned that post-1989 equality has placed Europe ‘on the verge of a dissolution of our concept of man’ (Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Europe’s Identity’, Values in a Time of Upheaval 2005-6, p.148).

The relationship between religious faith and political constitutions is discussed in the post ‘Constitutions without Faith: the Good, the Bad and the Weak’, which is filed below.