2023-02-07 by Leif Lewin, translation: Hanns Lehner, illustration: Anna Illeby

Just before Christmas, European political science lost one of its greatest champions. Jean Blondel (1929–2022), the 2004 Johan Skytte Prize winner, was Professor Emeritus at the European University Institute in Florence and renowned both as a specialist in comparative politics and an outstanding institution-builder.

Let’s start with the latter. In the early 1970s, some European political scientists asked themselves what we could do to be as good as the USA. The United States completely dominated political science research, but American textbooks presented a picture of politics that many of us found hard to recognise – because the USA is different. In the USA, there are majority elections, there is separation of powers, there is no parliamentarianism, there are parties that are loose and changeable. We got a grant, funnily enough from the USA (from the Ford Foundation), called “for the best to be better”, which laid the foundations for the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR).The ECPR is an association not of individual members, but of political science institutions. Jean Blondel served as Executive Director. With his enthusiasm, work capacity and perseverance, he managed to overcome the pessimism and rebelliousness of his colleagues and turn the Consortium into a vital academic meeting place. The flagship is the “Joint sessions of workshops”, a series of parallel seminars each year, usually the week before Easter, travelling between European universities. The first “joint sessions”took place in Mannheim in 1973, during which I had the privilege of chairing one of the seminars. From the very beginning, we set out to give our gatherings a distinctive style of working discipline and attendance. A pattern was set that one could not, as in many American or international conferences, just drop in “to get a feel for the situation”. The ECPR requires that papers be submitted in advance and that researchers then attend the seminar throughout the week. The word “workshop” is taken literally, and at these meeting you really work together on problems, make improvements, rewrite things and then come back with a revised version, which is often published in the ECPR’s European Journal of Political Research.

At Jean Blondel’s side was the late Norwegian professor Stein Rokkan (who was taken from us far too soon), the Consortium’s first chair. His fireworks of ideas were balanced by the orderly Blondel’s constant questioning of how the ideas would be implemented. A third central figure in ECPR’s leadership at the time was Mannheim professor Rudolf Wildenmann, endowed with rich and unfathomable sources of funding. Impertinent questions about the budget at the annual meetings were met by Wildenmann with the disarming counter-question “Don’t you trust me?”. During board meetings, we younger colleagues sat timidly at the door, not only out of reverence but also to physically protect ourselves from the big elephants’ gesticulation, bickering and cascades of saliva.

But Blondel was not just a determined organiser. He was also an outstanding researcher. To the political scientist, Europe seems like one big laboratory with its rich variety of political and constitutional solutions. Blondel challenged us to study this diversity more deeply and systematically. In his landmark textbook Comparative Government, he sets out like a modern Aristotle into this changing political landscape, convinced that only empirical knowledge can provide sufficiently concrete evidence for normative insight into what constitutes good government. He had little use for those political philosophers who, without knowledge of the actual workings of government, are content to reference Plato or Rawls. How the electoral method works, what limits are set on state regulation of people’s lives, what the experts should decide in the age of the new theocracy and what should be reserved for the politicians, how the constitution can be beefed up to become a robust safeguard for human rights are questions whose complexity and explosiveness only become clear when one penetrates different political systems.

The year Jean Blondel was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize, the “joint sessions” were held in Uppsala, and the win was announced in the middle of the conference. The opening speaker was Prime Minister Göran Persson. I can still see him and Blondel during the reception in the living room of the professors’ suite, standing in front of the fireplace under the portrait of Johan Skytte and discussing comparative politics. “You have to compare the workings of government in different countries,” repeated Blondel. “But don’t you also have to compare the levels?” answered Persson. His experience was that politics consists of meetings of about twelve men, it was still mostly men at the time, who take on different roles: one is an ideologist, one a humourist, one a compromise politician, etc. That is how it is in the UN; that is how it is in Katrineholm. Thus, “multi-level comparisons” was Göran Persson’s response to Jean Blondel’s thoughts on “nation-to-nation comparisons”. Blondel immediately latched onto the idea and said – so typical of him – that he would immediately go home and rewrite his book, supplementing his horizontal comparisons with vertical ones.  

Leif Lewin, Johan Skytte Professor Emeritus