Tony Judt’s rousing call for social democracy

The often-controversial London-born historian Tony Judt, Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University, has been rethinking the meaning of what it is to be human.

Stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease] in September, 2008, Judt told Ed Pilkington of The Guardian in September that the affliction has forced him to rethink the nature of the human experience.

One result is the essay in today’s edition of the same paper on social democracy in the light of events since 1989. Eloquent, passionate, and well-reasoned, A manifesto for a new politics offers a much-needed perspective on the potential for creating a more humane society. What follows are excerpts:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever

remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatisation and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.


It was not by chance that the late-Victorian reformers and their 20th-century liberal successors turned to the state to address the shortcomings of the market. What could not be expected to happen “naturally” – quite the contrary, since it was the natural workings of the market that created the “social question” in the first place – would have to be planned, administered and, if necessary, enforced from above.

We face a similar dilemma today. The reaction against unrestrained financial markets has obliged the state to step in everywhere. But since 1989 we have been congratulating ourselves on the final defeat of the over-mighty state and are thus ill-positioned to explain to ourselves just why we need intervention and to what end.


Can we still afford universal pension schemes, unemployment compensation, subsidised arts, inexpensive higher education, etc, or are these benefits and services now too costly to sustain? Is a system of “cradle-to-grave” protections and guarantees more “useful” than a market-driven society in which the role of the state is kept to the minimum?

The answer depends on what we think “useful” means: what sort of a society do we want and what sort of arrangements are we willing to seek to bring it about? The question of “usefulness” needs to be recast. If we confine ourselves to issues of economic efficiency and productivity, ignoring ethical considerations and all reference to broader social goals, we cannot hope to engage it. For too long, the left has been in thrall to the 19th-century romantics, in too much of a hurry to put the old world behind us and offer a radical critique of everything existing. Such a critique may be the necessary condition of serious change, but it can lead us dangerously astray. In the 19th century, “history” sat uncomfortably on the shoulders of a generation impatient for change. The institutions of the past were an impediment. Today, we have good grounds for thinking differently. We owe our children a better world than we inherited; but we also owe something to those who came before.

However, social democracy cannot just be about preserving worthy institutions as a defence against worse options. Nor need it be. Much of what is amiss in our world can best be captured in the language of classical political thought: we are intuitively familiar with issues of injustice, unfairness, inequality and immorality – we have just forgotten how to talk about them.

George Orwell once noted that the “thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality.” This is still the case. It is the growing inequality in and between societies that generates so many social pathologies. Grotesquely unequal societies are also unstable societies. They generate internal division and, sooner or later, internal strife – usually with undemocratic outcomes. As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But that is not enough. If we think we know what is wrong, we must act on that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

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