I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Back To Basics

Enda O’Doherty

Ill Fares The Land, by Tony Judt, Penguin, 237 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0718191412

In 1980, the year after his general election defeat by Margaret Thatcher, Labour’s James Callaghan resigned the party leadership, clearing the way for a succession battle which, in the second round of voting, came down to a straight fight between Denis Healey, the standardbearer of the party’s centre and right, and Michael Foot, the candidate of the left. Given Healey’s well known abrasiveness, and the respect and affection in which Foot was generally held as a Labour elder statesman, the old Tribunite argued that only he had the ability to unite the party, now riven by the fears (and millennial hopes) unleashed by a significant inflow of new far-left members and an attempted Marxist and marxisant takeover of its key institutions. This active insurgency, which was accompanied by a growing threat of “deselection” for any MPs who displeased the incoming political activists, was a movement of which Tony Benn was the figurehead, but not perhaps the leader.

The humorist John O’Farrell, who was a student at Exeter University at the time, recalls: “When [Foot’s] ascension was confirmed in a second ballot, my fellow students and I drank a happy toast to this victory for socialism. I looked across to the Tory students on the other side of the university bar and they seemed to be celebrating something too.” And understandably so: internal warfare in Labour branches and constituency organisations and the party’s developing election policies of unilateral nuclear disarmament, substantial increases in welfare benefits, liberalisation of immigration regulations, nationalisations and ‑ above all ‑ withdrawal from the EEC, led to the secession of key figures (“the Gang of Four”) from the centre and centre-right, who set up shop in the new Social Democratic Party (SDP). In the 1983 general election, fought by Labour on a manifesto that Gerald Kaufman MP described as “the longest suicide note in history”, the party’s vote in the country fell dramatically to 8,456,934, its lowest level since 1935; the SDP and the Liberals, campaigning together as “the Alliance” polled a close 7,780,949 votes ‑ this, in Britain’s cherished first-past-the-post system, giving Labour 209 seats and the Alliance twenty-three.

What happened next for the British left can be summed up by the title of O’Farrell’s 1998 bestseller Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. Things did get just a small bit better quite soon when Foot resigned and was replaced by Neil Kinnock, a more convincing leader who was to win back a million and a half votes for Labour in each of the succeeding general elections (1987 and 1992). But the party had to await the leadership of Tony Blair and the phenomenon known as New Labour to return to power. Despite his three successive election victories (1997, 2001 and 2005) Blair did not succeed in endearing himself to every section of his party. Indeed the New Labour project continued to be regarded with suspicion by the unions and what remained of the left – but not just by them: former deputy leader (to Kinnock) Roy Hattersley was more than once to marvel in print at the strange mutation whereby his own old-fashioned brand of egalitarian social democracy (and his pro-Europe positions) had once put him on the right of the party; in the years of New Labour however he found himself decidedly on its left: as Hattersley stood still, the party, it seemed, had upped and passed him out on its anxious rush to what it was still pleased to call “the centre”.

Internal divisions can be found in parties of any size or colour but it is true that those of the left seem more prone to feuding, something no doubt to do with the greater importance they attach to doctrine and indeed the quasi-religious nature of much left-wing experience. Apart from differences and splits within parties there was also of course, for many decades after 1920, a major split down the middle of the left-wing movement as a whole, (or, if one prefers, a split into two movements), separating those who sympathised with ‑ and would soon take direction from ‑ Soviet Russia from their less revolutionary comrades. These opposing groups would become known as communists and socialists, or sometimes social democrats. (Before the 1920 split the entire movement had, in many countries, called itself social democratic, but there was from the beginning, and still is, a confusion of labels.)

Tensions between these two major strands of the left (anarchism in the early days constituted a significant third strand) had been building over many years. The dominant figure of the Second International (1880-1916), the Czech-German Karl Kautsky, had maintained and defended the orthodox position of the founders of “scientific socialism”, Marx and Engels: essentially that the laws of history dictated that capitalism must soon collapse, a victim of its own “internal contradictions”; the workers, in the meantime, should organise, build up their strength and prepare themselves for the great task that awaited them, administering industry, trade and society themselves in the post-capitalist era. The workers had indeed, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, been growing in strength, organisational capacity and confidence in many European countries, perhaps particularly in Germany and England, where they had found it possible to extract significant concessions and reforms from employers and the state. But success, some felt, had its own dangers, in that a working class which could get what it wanted (or much of what it wanted) this side of the revolution might soon lose interest in that revolution. Already many politicians and ‑ in particular ‑ trade unionists, were showing alarmingly “reformist” tendencies; soon they had a theoretical champion in the German Eduard Bernstein. Leszek Kołakowski writes:

In Bernstein’s opinion, it was the misfortune of Marxist theory that it derived from Hegelianism. Marx, he thought, had never quite shaken off the Hegelian tendency to make deductions about social conditions from abstract, a priori dialectical schemata, with insufficient regard to actual facts. This had led him to believe in historical determinism and in a single factor governing the course of history, in relation to which human beings were merely instruments or organs.

Bernstein also argued that Marxist theories on the concentration of capital, increasing class polarisation and inevitable cataclysm and revolution were mistaken: the real task of the social democratic movement was not to prepare for revolution but to gradually socialise political institutions and property. The party, he claimed, had already accepted this in practice but did not have the courage to accept it in theory. “What is generally called the ultimate goal of socialism is nothing to me,” he wrote. “The movement is everything.”

Bernstein’s view that the working class could by its own efforts improve its working and living conditions to such a degree as to make violent revolution unnecessary was rejected by almost all other major social democratic thinkers. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, if it is supposed that capitalism can be reformed by forcing it to treat workers more humanely or by finding solutions for its tendency to enter periodic crisis then there is no point in working for a revolution; but capitalism is by its nature crisis-prone and the worker is automatically exploited by virtue of having to sell his labour power – and so capitalism cannot be reformed. As for the failure of reality to accord with the predictions of the Marxist catastrophists (the failure, that is, of capitalism to collapse as forecast), this was a small matter which could be satisfactorily dealt with by a slight tweaking of the theory. “Scientific socialism” was on its way to becoming an endlessly adaptable and essentially self-referential (if ramshackle) theory that could never be disproved. Kołakowski again:

Marxism was [to Luxemburg] the universal key to the meaning of history, enabling the mind to reject as insignificant trifles any adventitious factors that might disturb its course. In this way historical materialism could be looked on not as an extreme impoverishment of reality but as a process of scientific abstraction, preserving the essence of things and eliminating what was merely accidental. No one seemed to notice, however, that this meant treating the whole of actual history as a series of unimportant contingencies, leaving science to contemplate only the general framework of the transition from one economic system to another. All the rest – wars, national and racial conflicts, constitutional and legal forms, religions, artistic and intellectual life – was relegated to the scrap-heap of ‘accidents’, of no concern to the theoretician brooding over the majestic phases of ‘great’ history. In this way the barrenness of simplistic schemata was endowed with a false sublimity.

With the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 however, socialism was to move decisively from matters theoretical to matters real and political. According to classical Marxist tradition, the revolution was supposed to break out first in an advanced capitalist society with a large and well organised working class – most likely Germany. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s tactical gifts, and opportunism, in grabbing and, in spite of everything, holding onto power in backward Russia in 1917 was regarded by many other Marxists (Luxemburg and Kautsky among them) as an intolerable offence against theory and one destined to end badly. Even Lenin himself did not hold out great hopes for the survival of his revolution unless it could act as a catalyst for successful sympathetic uprisings in more advanced states, which would then come to Russia’s aid. But such uprisings, where they occurred, were not successful and the Bolsheviks were left to defend their revolution on their own. This they did by vigorous and often bloody repression, not just of active counter-revolution but soon of all dissent or difference.

Perhaps Lenin’s key ally in this programme of repression, apart from Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka political police, was Leon Trotsky, the chief organiser of the Red Army, whose talents were key to Bolshevik success in the Russian Civil War. Trotsky is also remembered, by anarchists in particular, as the butcher of Kronstadt (1921), where he was responsible for the execution of up to three thousand prisoners, chiefly sailors who had risen up in mutiny to demand the restoration of some measure of political freedom and pluralism in Russian society – Trotsky had threatened them that unless they surrendered they would be “shot like partridges”, and so they were. In the following year he acted as an enthusiastic assistant to Lenin in the deportation of a shipload of Russia’s leading philosophers (see Lesley Chamberlain’s The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia), one of whom he described as “a philosophical, aesthetic, literary, religious sponger … he’s the dregs, trash”. Trotsky was often in later decades called upon to defend himself against the charge that the crimes he accused Stalin of committing he had, before his exile, committed himself. In his 1938 pamphlet Their Morals and Ours he explained however that when he had taken hostages (including children) from the families of political opponents (as Stalin was now doing with “Trotskyists” in Russia) he had done so to fight the class enemy. Stalin on the other hand was doing it to defend bureaucracy. Nor could communism properly be compared to fascism, even if they appeared to employ similar methods (abolishing elections, for example). All that mattered was whose class interests were served by these methods. Some critics might be inclined to accuse Trotsky of hypocrisy, in that he routinely invited people to be morally outraged at violent acts that he was quite prepared to carry out himself – though on a different set of victims. But this would be inaccurate: he was actually something more frightening than a hypocrite.

The late historian Tony Judt owed much of his reputation (before the hugely successful mass market seller Postwar in 2005) to his intimate knowledge of one of the outlying phenomena of twentieth century communism, the world of the non-party “fellow traveller”. In his 1992 study Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 and in numerous essays, Judt anatomised a political type which in this country might be called the “sneaking regarder”: the kind of left-wing democratic socialist, who, finding others of his tribe weak-kneed or opportunist (and perhaps they were) insisted on “keeping open a dialogue” with communism or “working for the unity of all progressive forces”. Such people normally purported to be well aware of the defects (or, in a softer formulation, “problems”) of Soviet and eastern European societies, but hoped (were sure) that these would eventually be ironed out. And while insisting that they were absolutely wedded to political democracy (this being what distinguished them from communists) they nevertheless wished to see it “completed” by economic democracy ‑ certainly a desirable condition but one which, in any of its existing forms, seemed to involve expropriation, the creation of a numerous and powerful political police and ‑ for all classes judged to be historically moribund (peasants, shopkeepers, professionals, clergy, factory owners) ‑ a little help through the gate into the graveyard.

In 2008 Tony Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease); from the following autumn he was paralysed from the neck down. In the last two years of his life (he died in August last year), he wrote two books, The Memory Chalet and Ill Fares The Land, and conducted a series of interviews with fellow historian Timothy Snyder, which will be published early next year as Thinking the Twentieth Century.

Ill Fares The Land, the credo of a self-described “universalist social democrat”, is dedicated to Judt’s adolescent children, Daniel and Nicholas, but it is also in a more general sense written with the young in mind – both American and European (“This book was written for young people on both sides of the Atlantic.”) Like many of those in later life (he was sixty-two when he died) Judt seems inclined to believe that the world has been going to hell in a handcart for quite some time: to be fair he chiefly blames his own generation, the “baby boomers”, for this. One symptom of the decline he perceives is that, in contrast to their parents or grandparents, the young know very little about history or politics, about how they have got to where they are and what has been achieved by past generations and might be worth defending. One of the book’s main purposes is to explain to this audience a little about contemporary political ideologies and how they have evolved over the last seventy or eighty years. If Ill Fares The Land has some notable weaknesses as well as strengths, many of the former can be attributed to the difficult task it has set itself –introducing political concepts to a wide, intelligent but under-informed readership in (at least two) quite different political worlds. We start with a difficulty over terms:

A liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others: who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behaviour … Social democrats … share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance … Like most liberals, social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services …

But German liberals (the FDP), or Irish ones like the (now defunct) Progressive Democrats, do not particularly favour progressive taxation: they favour low taxation as a stimulus to “wealth creation”. And if this entails a lower level of public services, well so be it. It would also be fair to say that if a European liberal “opposes interference in the affairs of others” the others we are talking about are often businessmen or bankers, who in the liberal view should not be burdened with anything more than “light” regulation. The problem here arises chiefly because an American liberal and a European can often be quite different animals. Since no politician in the US can afford to be seen as a socialist, or even a social democrat, “liberal” there has become a synonym for left-wing. Thus, when it was said by Republicans that the late Edward Kennedy (in contrast with, say, Bill Clinton) was on the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party this did not normally mean that he held strong progressive views on gay, lesbian and transgender issues (though he may well have done) but that he strongly favoured public spending and state programmes to combat poverty. In many European countries liberals on the other hand have traditionally been regarded as the political spokesmen of the wealthy, and in particular of “industry”, though in Britain they were, until recently, seen as a party of the moderate centre-left. Tony Judt may have a point when he states that “Liberal is a venerable and respectable label and we should all be proud to wear it” but he would have some difficulty persuading even a quite moderate member of the French Parti socialiste of this.

If social democracy dares not speak its name in the United States, Judt insists that it has nevertheless operated there, most notably during the terms in office of two of the presidents he most admires, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society were the sort of ambitious programmes that would have made any European social democrat envious. US Congresses of the 1960s created food stamps, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, Medicaid, Headstart, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This was “big government” of a kind that would have given the Tea Party apoplexy and perhaps even raised a sweat in President Obama.

One of a number of questionable aspects of New Labour ideology in Britain was its departure from the previous consensus on the arts, its tendency to kowtow to fashion (“Cool Britannia”) or what were assumed to be the tastes of “ordinary people” and to paint as paternalist or “elitist” policies which attempted to make culture and intelligence accessible and attractive, policies which might thus be considered –given the philistine instincts of those currently in control of mass media – culturally “counter-cyclical”.

For Reith [John Reith of the BBC] or Keynes [the economist John Maynard Keynes, also an instigator of the Royal Ballet and the Arts Council] or the French Culture Minister André Malraux, there was nothing patronizing about this new approach – any more than there was for the young Americans who worked with LBJ on the establishment of a Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Humanities. This was “meritocracy”: the opening up of elite institutions to mass applicants at public expense – or at least underwritten by public assistance. It began the process of replacing inheritance by wealth with upward mobility through education. And it produced a few years later a generation for whom all this seemed self-evident and who took it for granted.

It was this later generation, in Judt’s narrative, which presided over the destruction, or at the very least the serious erosion, of the social democratic achievements of the middle decades of the century. On the one hand those whose natural gravitation was towards the left began to distrust and oppose the state, seeing it principally not as a provider of security but as an agent of oppression and perhaps an obstacle to their own personal “liberation”. Simultaneously they largely lost interest in their own working classes, preferring to substitute for them a more exotic and faraway subject. Judt writes:

True, many radicals of the ’60s were quite enthusiastic supporters of imposed choices, but only when these affected distant peoples of whom they knew little. Looking back, it is striking to note how many in western Europe and the United States expressed enthusiasm for Mao Tse-tung’s dictatorially uniform ‘cultural revolution’ while defining cultural reform at home as the maximizing of private initiative and autonomy.

Onto this landscape of relative prosperity, security taken for granted and a new emphasis on the personal (which, all other questions having presumably been settled, had suddenly become political) were eventually to move the smiling figures of Margaret Thatcher (“there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families”) and Ronald Reagan, and behind them the anti-state and anti-planning theorists associated with the Chicago school of free market economics – though, as Judt argues, the theorists, particularly those, like Hayek or Schumpeter, of the first postwar generation, are not necessarily responsible for all the excesses of their political acolytes. A whole generation of politicians (of “the Thatcher-Blair-Brown era”, Judt writes) became enthralled by “bankers, brokers, traders, the new rich and anyone with access to large sums of money”. This led to “unstinting admiration for a minimally-regulated ‘financial services industry’ – and a consequential faith in the naturally benevolent workings of the global market for financial products”. It also led, in the Blair era in particular, to a surprising number of very wealthy individuals declaring, quite oddly, that they were friends of the Labour Party (as Peter Mandelson said, the party was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”). We know what happened next.

At the Congress of Tours held in December 1920 the French socialist movement split in two when the majority of delegates accepted the twenty-one conditions that Lenin had stipulated for adhesion to the new Third International. A minority, which however included a majority of the French party’s parliamentary deputies, refused Lenin’s conditions and, led by Léon Blum, who was to become prime minister in the 1930s Popular Front government, chose instead to “keep the old house”. The “old house” was the SFIO, the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière, which in 1969 became the Parti socialiste. The breakaway (though majority) group founded the SFIC, later the PCF (Parti Communiste Français). The two parties, the two traditions in French socialism, were to battle it out in electoral politics over the rest of the twentieth century, with the PCF during the 1940s and 50s the dominant rival. Since the 1980s in particular however the communists have been in a slow decline and have performed extremely badly in the last two presidential elections, though they still have considerable pockets of local support.

However the influence of communism (and “revolutionism”) in France has arguably often extended well beyond the PCF itself. The SFIO, finding itself in its early years at something of a disadvantage to its rival, was keen not to yield to it all the radical ground: this had the effect of tending to keep the socialist message a quasi-revolutionary one – in spite of the rather reformist dispositions of most of its leaders. This split personality – occasionally fiery talk, careful and pragmatic practice – was to remain a feature of French socialism over many decades. In the immediate postwar era Léon Blum and his party general secretary, Daniel Mayer, tried to move the SFIO away from identification with revolutionary perspectives to a more Labourist perspective, but the party rejected their views and Mayer was replaced by the left-winger Guy Mollet (curiously the “right-wing” Mayer was to oppose the Algerian war and the “left-wing” Mollet to support it). The mostly moderate (and frequently Machiavellian) President François Mitterrand liked to speak grandly of a rupture with capitalism, while the Parti socialiste in 1972 adopted a programme with the rather ambitious title Changer la vie (Changing Life). Mitterrand’s chief strategic aim in the early 1980s however was to clasp the communists to his bosom ‑ and crush the life out of them. Some of the rhetorical extravagance of socialist leaderships and the speechwriters they employed was no doubt calculated: every party wishes to have within its ranks a certain number of members who are young, idealistic and “hungry”; they become a problem only later if they persist in showing a lack of appreciation of the pragmatic wisdom of their elders.

In Germany it took until 1959 for the Social Democratic Party to finally align its principles with its practice with the adoption of the Godesberg programme, which ditched Marxism and redefined the SPD as a Volkspartei or people’s party ‑ one which would henceforth seek support not just from among the working class but from wherever in society it might find it. In Britain, where communism had never been a significant political force, there still remained current a maximalist version of socialism (nationalising the “commanding heights” of the economy for example) that could stand in for it. In Ireland meanwhile, the left-right divide seemed to be eternally reducible to the question of whether the Labour Party should or should not enter coalitions with “capitalist parties” like Fine Gael; the party left wing’s thinking and “strategy” here seems, in 2011, virtually identical to the positions of the 1970s: Labour will harm itself by participation in governments whose policies are not socialist. It should therefore stand aside and allow these policies to be implemented by others (and of course fail); at this point the scales will fall from the people’s eyes and they will elect Labour as a single-party government to implement socialist economic policies – whatever these might be.

Judt is concerned to explain the puzzling phenomenon whereby many democratic socialists, at least with one part of their beings, seemed to actually regret the demise of communism in Europe in 1989 and after.

Social democracy was … inherently schizophrenic. While marching confidently forward into a better future, it was constantly glancing nervously over its left shoulder. We, it seemed to say, are not authoritarian. We are for freedom, not repression. We are democrats who also believe in equality, social justice and regulated markets.

And yet many of them still hoped that somehow a rupture might be possible, that we could make a clean break with capitalism and usher in on this earth the reign of reason and harmony and co-operation ‑ but that all this could be somehow achieved without the disagreeable mess (and murder) associated with communism. The actual disappearance of communist states as the dominoes fell in 1989 seemed to mean that this would now never happen, for even in their ugliness and deformity they had represented for many concrete proof that there was, that there could be, some alternative to capitalism. Thus twentieth century socialists and social democrats remained “in thrall to the core presuppositions of 19th century socialist thought”. This residual belief system, Judt writes, bore the same relationship to genuine ideology as English low-church Anglicanism does to full-blown Catholic orthodoxy, which is to say that while it lacked the baroque extravagance of either academic Marxism or official Marxism-Leninism it still remained stubbornly on as a prayer in the hearts of the faithful.

So if the hope of “overthrowing capitalism” is an illusion (or a dangerous and potentially catastrophic misstep), what is left? For Judt there are two elements that remain not just valuable but essential to any worthwhile social democracy: equality and the positive role of the state. As he told the London Review of Books in the year of his death:

I think what we need is a return to a belief not in liberty, because that is easily converted into something else … but in equality. Equality, which is not the same as sameness. Equality of access to information, equality of access to knowledge, equality of access to education, equality of access to power and to politics. We should be more concerned than we are about inequalities of opportunity, whether between young and old or between those with different skills or from different regions of a country. It is another way of talking about injustice. We need to rediscover a language of dissent.

The primary role of the state, for Judt, is as the chief agent of redistribution of wealth and the guarantor of security to its citizens through universal social provision. The word universal here is important, for two reasons: first, Judt is opposed to means testing or “targeted” benefits on the grounds that it is demeaning for the poor or the unfortunate (those, for example, who have suddenly lost their jobs) to be cross-questioned about their circumstances and then offered help only with ill grace or as a charity; it should rather be their entitlement and the entitlement of all citizens that the state will take care of them if called on to do so; second, he believes that services which are consumed only by the poor (in health and education, for example) will tend to be substandard or to deteriorate over time. If they are consumed by everyone regardless of income, the standards are likely to be higher and the services are more likely to be strongly defended against the demands of political expediency or financial stringency. It is one of the weaknesses of Judt’s position – and a symptomatic one – that he never addresses the question of affordability. “Even in social democratic Norway”, he complains, failure to demonstrate that one is seeking work can be grounds for losing benefit. Judt obviously find this a deplorable state of affairs but has no interest in asking why some people might have felt it was necessary – even in social democratic Norway. Indeed throughout the book he exhibits all the fastidious distaste for questions of money one might expect from an old-school professor in the humanities, even going so far at one point as to suggest that the only conceivable purpose of teaching business studies to undergraduates must be to extinguish the naturally altruistic feelings of the young. EF Schumacher’s influential 1973 work Small Is Beautiful was subtitled “Economics As If People Mattered”. One feels reading some of the more careless or cavalier passages of Ill Fares The Land that it might have been subtitled “Politics As If Economics Didn’t Exist”. As Judt importantly states, social democracy is essentially about redistribution. All politics however is about choices. There are arguments (I have heard them) in favour of continuing to pay child benefit to a family where the parents are both professionals with a combined annual gross income of, let us say, €130,000. There are also arguments against cutting the numbers of special needs assistants in schools. Since we cannot buy everything in the shop, perhaps we will have to choose between these two: if so, let us hope it is not the votes of the professional couple that are uppermost in our minds ‑ or their greater proximity to influence and power.

Judt’s book, almost certainly because of the circumstances of its composition, suffers from a certain raggedness and inconsistency of tone, while simultaneously remaining impressive for its intellectual assurance, command of historical reference and, as always with Judt, the quality of the writing. On the one hand we have cogent and eloquent statements of the essence of traditional social democratic belief. On the other, we have this, coming after a consideration of the possible threats to our (relative) comfort and security from the unexpected and the nasty:

If we are going to build a better future, it must begin with a deeper appreciation of the ease with which even solidly-grounded liberal democracies can founder. To put the point quite bluntly, if social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. (My emphasis – EOD)

If I am disinclined to agree with that statement, it is not because I identify with the “Yes we can” school of politics or think that everything is possible if we have the will. No, what we can do will depend on the resources we can marshal. Fear, however, is a quantity that has always been of most use and interest to the radical and populist right; the armoury of social democracy is surely not yet so empty that fear is the only weapon it has left.

Earlier this year in Ireland we experienced a very dramatic general election in which the hitherto dominant political party was reduced to relative insignificance, its previously loyal supporters migrating (chiefly) to its main traditional rival, Fine Gael, but also to Sinn Féin, Independents and the new United Left Alliance, an electoral consortium of a number of disparate groups of, as the French say, obédience trotskiste. As many commentators told us in advance of the poll, the electorate was angry, resentful, confused. So if they elected ‑ and it seems they did ‑ five Trotskyist TDs to represent them, one should not assume that that was because they approved of the execution of political prisoners or the wholesale deportation of inconvenient intellectuals. Nor was it either, one might guess, because they wished to see the economic policies the ULA offered them being put into effect, measures which would, at the cost no doubt of the shedding of some blood, quickly turn Ireland into a perhaps more equal but chronically poor and probably more corrupt society, a sort of Nicaragua (in our case Nicaragua with drizzle). No, rather it was because, in keeping with their customary political lightheadedness and the service a rather underperforming media provides to them, Irish voters did not actually know what a Trotskyist was – or indeed think it necessary to find out. That, of course, is one explanation; another, and less admirable one, is political choice conducted as an expression of personal style: the self-conscious adoption by the “alternative” voter of a radical mantle ‑ what we might call the River Rock vote, “politics you wear”.

Politicians in recent years have tended to be assailed ‑ and particularly by rather unsavoury elements of the lumpencommentariat ‑ for their supposed manifold vices: dishonesty, disconnectedness from ordinary people, pursuit of self-interest, collusion with a remote (European) establishment or with a (native) corrupt business elite. While one cannot deny that there has been a certain complaisance in some quarters as regards business sharp practice and cutehoorism there is really scant evidence that would convict the majority of our councillors or rank and file TDs on any of the above heads. Rather they tend to be a group of men and women who work long hours, deal with difficult people, regularly confront almost insurmountable problems and ‑ if they succeed in remaining human ‑ are frequently assailed by boredom, anxiety and doubt. This is not to say that they are always inspiring or as creative and productive in their work as we would like ‑or perhaps need ‑ them to be.

European socialists have been prone to recurrent bouts of pessimism in recent decades (another effect of 1989, I think), which have led to the publication of many essay collections, most of them barely readable, on the theme of “reinventing the left”. It is frequently remarked that the left now seems unable to win elections, but I would suggest that this is neither entirely true nor exactly where the problem lies. Certainly socialists are currently out of power in Germany, France (where in fact they have not often held power at national level), Italy and the United Kingdom. On the other hand they are securely in power in Norway, have recently regained power in Denmark and have a share of power, as we know, in Ireland. They also hold or share power in nearly all German Länder (and this is real, substantial power) and most French régions and départements. This might tell us that socialists or social democrats across many parts of Europe are fully trusted by the electorate to administer things. If there has been a tendency for the left (or centre-left) to lose out in the national elections of the larger countries this may be because voters have had difficulty believing in socialist economic policies, or indeed in believing that socialists believe in them themselves. It is not a catastrophe to lose an election; nor should doing so necessarily always induce an existential crisis. One’s time will come round again and perhaps the intervening period can be used for reflection. And since the purpose of politics is not solely to win elections one might equally consider the plight of those who find themselves in office but without solutions to the problems of government or those, like the unfortunate Barack Obama, who are in office but not in power.

It would seem to me to be an implication of Tony Judt’s efficient disposal of the residual millennialism of democratic left thinking that we must recognise that social democracy has no privileged place in the political spectrum and is, at bottom, an ideology like any other. It is neither historically or economically inevitable, nor uniquely moral or just. It must then, as it were, be brought to the market by those who believe in it to see who buys. A good society, one stallholder will say, is one which properly rewards enterprise, innovation and hard work. A good society, another will counter, is one which cares properly for all its people, and in particular those most in need. The purpose of the process of politics, of the “cut and thrust”, is to put flesh on those propositions and then to seek support for them. It should perhaps in Ireland give us pause that the most able public defender of social democratic ideas over the last generation was the former leader of what is supposed to a Christian Democratic party, the late Garret FitzGerald.

If one goes to market and finds there is little enthusiasm for one’s produce it is only sensible to consider changing it. And so also with political goods. What is it, we must ask, that they did not like? There is however little point in a Labour or social democratic party offering conservative (or individualist) policies since there is already a conservative party that can do that very well. Continual disappointment in the political market eventually led Labour Party members in Britain to accept the serious “over-correction” that was New Labour, an over-correction from which that party is still trying to recover. If you abandon the ambition of making society more equal through policies and programmes funded by taxation you have ceased to be a social democrat; if you no longer contest the views of liberals and conservatives who promise to “give people back their own money” you have ceased to be a social democrat; if you are tempted by the notion that politics should be principally about “rewarding success” you have ceased to be a social democrat.

It is one of the benefits of the political and electoral system in Ireland (and in other European countries) that governments are now almost inevitably coalitions. This can to some degree remove the debilitating compulsion to always court “the centre ground”, a negative and impoverishing factor in both British and US politics where hugely disproportionate weight is accorded to the concerns of that small group of voters who might be prevailed upon to change their allegiance from one major party to the other. The assumption that the post-election government will be composed of some combination of parties depending on their relative strengths – and compatibility – certainly permits a clearer setting out of the stall and a more intellectually coherent, and even honest, electoral politics. Then, after the election, the bargaining begins and what is desirable is reduced to what is possible, which is also a perfectly honest process.

Tony Judt’s social democratic testament, while a valuable and indeed sometimes inspiring read, certainly suffers from a number of flaws: it has nothing to say about economics; it shows no interest in (planning for) the needs of industry or business (we don’t care how you make it, we just want to spend it); it paints its heroes (Roosevelt and Johnson) and villains (Clinton-Blair-Bush-Brown-Sarkozy) in pure white and black; it is frequently cavalier or underinformed about economic and social facts (in his passing references to Ireland Judt paints the Celtic Tiger economy and polity as simply a mirror image of the liberalised US and British ones; in fact tax revenues in Ireland during the boom years funded large increases in unemployment benefit, old age pensions and child benefit, bringing us up from near the bottom of the EU league to near the top).

Yet Judt is surely right in his central message when he says that what the left is not doing now and must do again is to tell people what it stands for (finding a way to do this that embodies intelligence, carries conviction and avoids “tub-thumping” is an important but surely not insuperable task for party managers). And it is in the pages of Ill Fares The Land, much more than any similar book I have read recently, that one might begin to find the raw material for this task of reflection and communication. Judt is above all right in emphasising again that, after all revolutionary illusions have gone, the essence of social democracy is redistribution; also that, however inconvenient a truth this might be for some, social class has not disappeared and neither should it disappear from our politics:

The rich do not want the same thing as the poor. Those who depend on their job for their livelihood do not want the same thing as those who live off investments and dividends. Those who do not need public services – because they can purchase private transport, education and protection – do not seek the same thing as those who depend exclusively on the public sector …

Social democrats are characteristically modest – a political quality whose virtues are overestimated. We need to apologize a little less for past shortcomings and speak more assertively of achievements. That these were always incomplete should not trouble us. If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences.

Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of The Dublin Review of Books.



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