Because it traces its origins to the Enlightenment tradition, the left has tended to conceive of itself as a “progressive” force, steering the course of History toward a more or less inevitable higher stage of development as the right tries to conserve traditional society from the onslaught of modernity. Today, the term “progressive” is applied to more or less the entire left from moderate liberals to socialists, and we tend to accept the moniker and the historical narrative completely unreflectively.
But what if this framework no longer applies? Could our reflexive identification with “progress” be undermining our political project? What if we are the political force that is more accurately defined as conservative (in the best, non-pejorative sense), defending society from the obviously corrosive tendencies of contemporary historical developments?
That’s the argument the historian Tony Judt makes in his 2009 Remarque Lecture, reprinted in the newest edition of the New York Review of Books:
If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.
The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. 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?
Leaving his relative political timidity aside, this is somewhat similar to recent arguments made by Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Zizek, and others on the left who don’t necessarily inhabit the same ideological neighborhood as Tony Judt. I happen to think that they may be right, and in any case it’s healthy to question the left’s tendency to see history as moving ever onward and upward. William F. Buckley launched National Review with the motto, “It stands athwart History, yelling Stop!” As we hurtle toward potentially terminal environmental and social catastrophes, perhaps we should adopt it as one of our own.
Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter. He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn. This article was published by The Activist on 5 December 2009 under a Creative Commons license.