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Tony Judt

“The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve… The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

That these accomplishments were no more than partial should not trouble us. If we have learned nothing else from the twentieth century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Imperfect improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unraveling and destabilizing those same improvements: this should make us much angrier than we are. It ought also to worry us, if only on prudential grounds: Why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dikes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?

A social democracy of fear is something to fight for. To abandon the labors of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come. It would be pleasing—but misleading—to report that social democracy, or something like it, represents the future that we would paint for ourselves in an ideal world. It does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us in the present, it is better than anything else to hand. In Orwell’s words, reflecting in Homage to Catalonia upon his recent experiences in revolutionary Barcelona:

There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

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Pulled from Tony Judt’s speech “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?”, given at New York University in October 2009, the same month he became paralyzed from the neck down due to ALS.

You’ll find a modified version in his excellent collection of conversations with Timothy Snyder Thinking the Twentieth Century.

Listen to it:

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