Several news sources, including New York magazine, are reporting that the English historian and essayist Tony Judt has died. In November 2008, Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neuro-degenerative condition that very quickly left him paralysed from the neck down. He continued to write almost until the end, however, even delivering the 2009 Remarque Lecture at New York University (where he had taught for many years) in a wheelchair and from inside the prison of a body that permitted him to do little else but speak and breathe (and this only with the help of a machine).
That lecture, entitled “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy”, was turned (with astonishing speed, bearing in mind his condition) into a book, Ill Fares the Land, in which Judt offered — for the benefit, he said, of “young people on both sides of the Atlantic” — both an account of what he saw as the corruption of our moral sentiments (he borrowed the phrase from Adam Smith, whom he rightly took to have abhorred the “uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake”) and a vision of what political discourse used to be like — not in the distant past, but in his own lifetime, during the postwar heyday of social democracy.
It was a period, Judt wrote, in which there was a “moralised quality to policy debates”, when questions such as unemployment and inflation were regarded not just as economic issues, but also as “tests of the ethical coherence of the community”.
Ill Fares the Land was both a threnody (for a language of the common good that Judt thought we had carelessly misplaced) and the expression of a certain kind of political temperament:
Social democrats are characteristically modest — a political quality whose virtues are overestimated. We need to apologise a little less for our 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. Incremental 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 unravelling and destablising them: this should make us much angrier than we are . . .
Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand. (Ill Fares the Land, pp. 224-25)
Much of the scholarly work with which Judt made his academic reputation (books such as Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 and The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century), before gaining wider acclaim (and, it has to be said, notoriety) on the strength of his literary journalism for the New York Review of Books, was devoted to the terrible seductions of the “perfect answer” in politics and to the irresponsibility (and irrelevance) of intellectuals who insist that nothing less than perfection will do.
What that passage from his last book shows, however, is that Judt also knew that a sober recognition of the limits of politics is not the same as a quietistic and defeated abandonment of them. He will be greatly missed.