Tony Judt on the State, Democracy and Religion

A recent interview with Tony Judt is of great relevance to the extended debate triggered by Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy. It touches on our conceptions of the state, democracy, religion and politics. It also reiterates the importance of conversations across ideological divides as a means to improving our understanding of the issues that are critical in our times. In this post we reproduce key excerpts and provide a link to the complete interview at the end.

You still have faith that the liberal state can be restored to health. But is there a reason that there has to be a liberal state? The “liberal state” itself is a historically specific creation, isn’t it?

… With globalization, with the fear of economic change, with the insecurities that the twenty-first century is going to bring, which are going to be far greater than those of the twentieth, the level of insecurity is going to have the paradoxical effect of throwing people back on the state much more, looking to it for everything from medical protection to physical protection to job guarantees to protection against outside competition and such. So the question is not going to be, Will there be an activist state? The question is going to be, What kind of an activist state?

And that brings us to the second consideration, which is how we think about it. We’ve emerged from a twentieth century which we’ve learned to think of as a kind of seventy-year running battle between the over-mighty state and the wonders of individual freedom. Extreme forms of individualism versus extreme forms of collective enforced authority. Roughly speaking, Stalin versus the tea party. That’s a caricature of the twentieth century. But it’s one that we have to a large degree internalized, so when people think of the political choices facing them, they think of them in terms of maximized individual freedom versus maximized collective repression, or power or authority or whatever. And then they think of any changes with one or the other, regrettable compromises with freedom or so on. We need to change that conversation so we can think of the state not as some external creature that history has imposed upon us but simply as a way of collective organization that we chose to place onto ourselves. In that sense the liberal state either has a future or it doesn’t, but it really is up to us.

So democracy becomes a real problem, right? If people continue to choose inequality, what can you do?

Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally–and it really is accidentally–get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies…  Democracy comes last. Democracy is simply a system of selection of people to rule over you. And it’s not accidental that everyone is now a democrat…  Democracy is a dangerously empty term, and to the extent that it has substance, and the substance consists of allowing people to select freely how they live, the chance that they will choose to live badly is very high. The question is, What do we do now, in a world where, in the absence of liberal aristocracies, in the absence of social democratic elites whose authority people accept, you have people who genuinely believe, in the majority, that their interest consists of maximizing self-interest at someone else’s expense? The answer is, Either you re-educate them in some form of public conversation or we will move toward what the ancient Greeks understood very well, which is that the closest system to democracy is popular authoritarianism…

Where is religion in Ill Fares the Land? You remark that “most people” have dispensed with it, but certainly in the United States it hasn’t gone anywhere.

… What’s missing from public conversation and public policy conversation is precisely a sort of moral underpinning, a sense of the moral purposes that bind people together in functional societies.

… What we need to learn to do is conduct substantive moral conversations as though they were part of public policy, so that abortion is a terrible thing and a necessary thing, and both statements are true. You see what I mean?… Then you could learn to think of difficult moral issues as part of social policy rather than just screaming at each other from either side of a moral barrier. Then we could reintroduce what look like religious kinds of conversations into national social policy debates.

I come from a very religious background, and it seems to me that people on the left are so embarrassed about the language of morality that they’ve ceded the ground to the right.

I totally agree. I think it’s a catastrophe for both sides. What it means for the left is that it’s got no ethical vocabulary. What it means for the right is that it smugly supposes that it’s got a monopoly on values. Both sides are completely wrong… I’d like to say parenthetically that I come out of a sort of secular dissenting Jewish background… in which there was a natural correspondence of social values and ethical criteria. And the divorce between them has been one of the disastrous results of the last half-century. I’d love to contribute to re-forming that link.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Ill Fares the Land is a book for anyone who cares about the collective world that we live in and are making for ourselves, whether we like it or not. It’s not a book written with a view to presenting a solution to a fixed set of problems, saying, Read this and do that. It’s a book deliberately designed to ask what’s wrong, how should we talk about it, how should we think about fixing it. And that’s all that it should be. Anything more than that would close off conversation. I want to open it up.

The complete interview is highly recommended and can be accessed here. The lecture and essay mentioned in the interview are archived here on this blog.


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5 Responses to “Tony Judt on the State, Democracy and Religion”

  1. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    I would like to reflect on just two of the issues – “religion” and “no ethical vocabulary of the Left” – raised in the above interview.

    RELIGION: Religion has varying degree of importance and relevance for different people. But – and this but is quite crucial – notwithstanding the extent to which religion informs one’s perception, it is best kept out of the societal discourse. In fact, even the understanding of different adherents of a given religion can vastly differ, which reflects that, in the ultimate, religion is not the cause but the effect of a host of factors. And, moreover, in a societal discourse, one is concerned about the implications for the society, and not the ‘life-after-death’ of an individual. And, latter is generally considered as the religion’s focus or reference point. In contrast, the societal discourse needs to be human-centric. To quote Ghalib

    Nah haa kuchh to khudaa thaa, kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa
    Duboyaa mujh ko honey ney, nah hotaa main to kyaa hotaa?
    (When nothing was, then God was; had nothing been, God would have been
    My being has been my undoing, had I not been, then what would have happened?)

    Undoubtedly, our focus has to be this world – and with reference to the most important species, the human being. And, the ‘common basis’ for the dialogue is to be provided by the universal values of peace, health, education, ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’ FOR ALL. Today, these ideals have come to acquire acceptance of the vast majority of the people-at-large.

    ETHICAL VOCABULARY OF THE LEFT: I fail to appreciate the understanding that claims that the Left has no ethical vocabulary. The common basis enumerated above is nothing but the ethical vocabulary of the Left; and, the dominant trend in the Urdu literature – especially of the past – has been the best exponent of this vocabulary. Being Ghalib’s partisan, I would single him out as the greatest exponent of Left’s ethics. Look, what he says below:

    Kyaa zohd ko maanoon, keh nah ho garcheh reyaaei
    Paadaash-e amal kee tama-e khaam bohat hai
    (Shall I accept piety even if there were no hypocrisy
    The vain expectation of rewards is enough)

    The good deeds are to be performed – not because of expectation of reward in the post-death life, but – because these provide satisfaction and help make the world a better place.

    In the political realm, what can be more ethical than the desire to help people-at-large optimally realise their potential – for the given developmental level of the productive forces.

    The Left’s ideology is that of progress, and concerns the concrete real world; and, a Leftist can be highly religious or an atheist (not anti-theist, or against religion per se) in his personal life. A Leftist ‘s approach is represented by Ada Jafri in the following verse:

    Dekho naadaan hai, naadaan sey maayoos nah ho
    Aakhir insaan hai, insaan sey maayoos nah ho
    (See, he is ignorant; don’t lose hope
    After all he is human; don’t lose hope)

    One on the Left is interested in building an equitable, just and egalitarian society, free of discrimination and exploitation. If that is not ethical vocabulary, I wonder what is.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Hasan: Tony Judt is not saying that the Left does not have an ethical vision nor that it should focus on religion. His point is that the Left does not speak in the language of the people it aims to help. The Left is not talking with the people; it is talking at the people. This is a critique of the “religion is an opiate of the masses” position. Is it a fair observation that there is an element of condescension in the attitude of the Left?

  2. Vinod Says:


    From your post, I gather that the dominant thrust of the left’s vocabulary is one of distributive justice. But that does not address issues with ethical dimensions unrelated to utilitarian morality – such as that of torture, freedom or dignity of human beings. Because the left has consciously tried to keep religion out of its social discourse it has unwittingly dropped the ball on non-utilitarian morality that religion is pregnant with. In doing that, it has precisely surrendered those aspects of justice and morality to the right and made itself susceptible to the rational knife of economics and thereby emasculated itself.

  3. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    I fail to understand that why a dialogue cannot be conducted without reference to ‘religion’ – and with reference to human being. When, for the Left, human is at the center of attention, and the good of the human beings forms the very yardstick of judgment, then it naturally encompasses freedom and dignity etc., i.e., all what you have mentioned.

    Religion can be interpreted in vastly different ways even by the ‘followers’ of a given religion. And, therefore, it would be better to not to bring it in a societal discourse. Moreover, as mentioned in above response as well, religion is primarily focussed on the other world, whereas the Left is concerned about this actually existing concrete world.

    It would be wrong to infer that the Left has “made itself susceptible to the rational knife of economics”. Left stands for rationality and all that is in the best interest of humanity, and is unencumbered by the dead yoke of the past. And, of course distributive justice is one important concern for the Left. But, that cannot be construed as Left’s obliviousness towards issues such as freedom and justice. The cornerstone of Left’s politics is to stand against all injustices perpetrated under any guise – and that is possible only because the Left does not identify on the basis of any primordial identity but on the rational basis of discrimination – irrespective of its hue.

  4. SouthAsian Says:

    Tony Judt died on August 6, 2010 aged 62. These two comments provide a retrospect on the life and thoughts of a remarkable historian and public intellectual:

    Note, in particular, this hallmark of the character that exemplified Tony Judt:

    “education provided the key to Tony’s character: in his case, not education to serve the interests of any tribe or ideology, but education to understand and improve the world about him. His driving passions were evidence, rigour and truth. If his pursuit of those passions led him to reject earlier views, or to offend erstwhile allies, so be it.”

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