Although completed a decade ago, Tony Judt’s history of postwar Europe presaged some of the challenges that it faces today.
Shortly after the collapse ot the Berlin Wall in 1989, one of our greatest contemporary historians Tony Judt resolved to write a book to sort his thinking out. It took fifteen years, but the resulting Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is an (almost 900-page) extraordinary achievement.
It is not just that he covers sixty years in surprising detail, or refocuses Europe away from the west – the way we tend to think about it – to the centre which, until recently, was dominated by colonies of the Soviet Empire. He does so with style, wit and good judgement and with a very wide knowledge of the historical details. He is a ‘Romantic European’, although as much as loves the ‘Idea of Europe’ – a liberal prosperous community in which individuals resolve ancient tensions by adopting a European identity which transcends the traditional divisions – he is aware of the authoritarianism, the violence, the intolerance and the racism which have bedeviled it (as elsewhere). One of his many bons mots is ‘Silence over Europe's recent past was the necessary condition for the construction of a European future.’
It is easy to say that the collapse of the Soviet Empire and, shortly afterwards, of the communist regime was inevitable, especially if you were not paying attention. (Judt remarks ‘Nothing in its life so became the Soviet Union as the leaving of it.’) But what was to replace it? Judt’s nicely balanced picture is that many of the characteristics of the succeeding regimes followed on from what had gone before. (Compare Putin with his Communist predecessors). Nor is it obvious that things were entirely better for the colonials after the Empire fell. Judt recalls that many celebrated the arrival of ‘European’ values of liberty but regretted the loss of economic security. (Despite the promises, not everyone was materially better off after the collapse.)
Although presenting a narrative history, Judt, who is also a fine intellectual historian steeped in European political thought (and literature and films), often adds a throwaway remark which leaves the reader pondering. Here is an extract which deserves a lot of consideration:
‘Britain's Labour Party [arose] ... from its origins [as] a labour movement rather than a socialist party, motivated above all by the concerns (and cash) of its trade union affiliates. It was thus less ideological—but more blinkered. If asked, Labour Party spokesmen would readily accede to the general objectives of continental European Social Democrats; but their own interests were much more practical and parochial. Precisely because of the built-in stability of British (or at least English) political culture, and thanks to its long-established—albeit shrinking—working-class base, the Labour Party showed little interest in the innovative settlements that had shaped the Scandinavian and German-speaking welfare states.’
Judt’s passage is distinguishing Labourism from Democratic Socialism (which is different from Communism of the Soviet kind and Social Democracy, which Judt supports – I’ll explain what he means in a later column). Aside from the institutional differences, I think what he is saying is that one strand of the Left gives a greater role to social delivery via the labour market and unions than do others but that the delivery is not always efficient; indeed it can discourage progressive developments.
For example, American healthcare is primarily delivered via employment entitlements. (Obamacare has been an attempt to provide for those without paid work.) The consequence has been that Americans get a very poor health deal. (They would have got an even worse one if the unions had not taken action.) Another is that trying to resolve inadequacies in the income distribution by labour market interventions such as minimum wages means that those without full-time employment (including children) will suffer.
(Of course a Democratic Socialist or a Social Democrat sees a role for a strong independent union movement but it is only as a part of a more holistic society.)
The book ends with some reflective chapters on the state of Europe at the time of publication in 2005. They are remarkably perceptive, setting out the challenges which Europe faces today. It does not include Brexit, Judt a Brit based in America after years studying continental history, could surely not have envisaged that – a romantic European would have been appalled by the thought. But he gets right the difficulties of the European Monetary Union, the tensions between nationalism and Europeanism and the incipient racism evident in the anti-immigration movements.
(The book does not predict Trumpism either; domestic US politics is for another book. I was surprised at the relative minimal role Judt assigns to the US in the development of postwar Europe. His vision is that were the US to fail in its international responsibilities, Europe should fill the gap. We shall see.)
Alas the book will not go into a second edition. Judt tragically died from motor neuron disease at the age of 64 in 2012. Before doing so he turned from narrative history to a polemic envisaging al vision of a social democratic future. My next column will be about Ill Fares the Land.