The piece, 'What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?' appears in the New York Review of Books.
I think it's well worth reading.
It's quite a lengthy excursion across the subject suggested by the title, and--among other topics--Judt considers differences between the political language of western Europe and the United States, the lingering relevance of nearly century-old economic debates and the difficult necessity of recovering a sense of common social purpose and belonging.
Much of it is not really earth-shattering, and there are some bits where I'm not really convinced.
But I was most struck positively by the parts of his essay in which he discusses, first, the past accomplishments of social democracy and, second, the need for it--if it wishes to maintain its success in the future--of reminding people about the reasons it emerged in the first place.
As to the past:
The welfare state had remarkable achievements to its credit. [...] The common theme and universal accomplishment of the neo-Keynesian governments of the postwar era was their remarkable success in curbing inequality. If you compare the gap separating rich and poor, whether by income or assets, in all continental European countries along with Great Britain and the US, you will see that it shrinks dramatically in the generation following 1945.
With greater equality there came other benefits. Over time, the fear of a return to extremist politics—the politics of desperation, the politics of envy, the politics of insecurity—abated. The Western industrialized world entered a halcyon era of prosperous security: a bubble, perhaps, but a comforting bubble in which most people did far better than they could ever have hoped in the past and had good reason to anticipate the future with confidence.
The paradox of the welfare state, and indeed of all the social democratic (and Christian Democratic) states of Europe, was quite simply that their success would over time undermine their appeal. The generation that remembered the 1930s was understandably the most committed to preserving institutions and systems of taxation, social service, and public provision that they saw as bulwarks against a return to the horrors of the past. But their successors—even in Sweden—began to forget why they had sought such security in the first place.
As to the future:
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.Well, are we?
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?
I've spent a certain amount of time over recent years trying to figure out the processes that have made relatively decent societies and those that have seen them unravel.
I'm still not entirely sure; however, I think that being very aware that they can unravel is a healthy corrective to complacency.
And that's, perhaps, a start.