Tony Judt Retrospective
While Peter was participating in (and ably chronicling) the Occupy Chicago’s protest of the American Economic Association’s (AEA) annual conference, I stayed behind at the American Historical Association’s (AHA) annual meeting to attend a panel commemorating the late historian Tony Judt.
The similarity and contrast between the two events is revealing. Before succumbing to ALS in 2010, Judt became an intellectual leader to the left, most notably in his moving 2009 NYU address, “What Is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy,” later expanded into a book called Ill Fares the Land. Had he lived, I think Tony Judt would have found a lot to admire in the broader Occupy movement and in this specific protest, for as Peter notes, he was an ardent critic of “economism,” the American cult of efficiency, and he howled against the decline of the welfare state and rising rates of inequality.
On the other hand, a central theme of the Judt retrospective, and of the latter half of Judt’s life, was his militant, strident anti-Marxism. All four panelists, John Dunn (Judt’s professor at King’s College), Marci Shore (eastern European historian at Yale), Peter Gordon (European intellectual historian at Harvard and my undergrad professor), and Timothy Snyder (also an eastern European historian at Yale) made this a major focus on their talks, particularly the last three presenters. Judt would have had no use for the Marxist and anarchist platitudes of the protesters.
The panel, titled “Thinking the Twentieth Century: In Memory of Tony Judt,” presented a remarkably balanced portrait, at once admiring, sympathetic, and critical, as I think Judt himself would have wanted it. Many of the speakers pounced on Judt’s 1992 polemic, Past Imperfect, where he excoriated French intellectuals who apologized for Stalin, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre. Though they all, to varying degrees, seemed to share his commitment to progressive social democracy, none of them ever really had a Marxist phase. They had no monster to slay, no demon to exorcise. Thus they shared none of his anger. And Judt’s attacks were angry, and moralizing, and self-righteous, but, and this is important, they were never dogmatic.
For though Judt was a historian of France by training, the intellectuals who loomed largest at the end of his life, at least that can be gleaned from his writings and this talk, were British: specifically Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. As Gordon noted, Judt was not really an intellectual historian: he never seemed particularly interested in ideas about aesthetics or metaphysics, structuralism or poststructuralism, or the deeper meaning of existence. Rather, he was a “political historian of ideas,” and those ideas were political and economic ones.
Unlike the French intellectuals, who turned gave Marx their absolutist embrace, Judt found his home in the tradition of British empiricism. Adam Smith, of course, had been trained by the great Scottish skeptic David Hume. In “What is Living and What is Dead,” Judt wrote admirably of Smith’s work concerning “moral sentiments,” and those reclaiming Smith for the left have noted his allowance for government to give “the invisible hand” some direction. Keynes, similarly suspicious of totalizing economic systems, left his mark on Cambridge, where Judt would study. The young Tony must have imbibed some of the Keynesian spirit, even if it only emerged much later.
After all, Judt was among those protesters in May of 1968 in Paris, the supposed seat of radicalism in Europe. And yet, as he realized later, the real action in 1968 in Europe was not in Paris but in Prague, where protestors fought real authoritarianism at home. Trapped in French Marxist dogma at the time, like a good British empiricst, Judt learned from what he perceived to be his errors and abandoned his absolutisms: both Marxism and Zionism. Like a good historian, Judt learned from history.
Specifically, he learned from eastern European history. Shore, Gordon, and Snyder all pointed to eastern Europe as a crucial theatre for Judt’s intellectual development. As a Jew, Judt knew the scourges of Nazism, Fascism, and antisemitism well, but in examining eastern Europe, Judt learned of the horrors of the Soviet system, even after Stalin. One panelist noted that 1989 happened at exactly the right time for Tony Judy, when he was coming into his own as a critic and historian, and able to diagnose the totalitarian sicknesses of the 20th century.
Judt’s life itself offered a history lesson. Just as his ideas evolved, so did his abilities. As the panelists noted, Judt improved as a historian as he got older. While Past Imperfect may have been less an academic text than vitriolic polemic, Postwar is a magisterial work of history, beautifully written, incisive, sweeping, and original, without being polemical or moralizing. Judt also perfected his craft as an essayist, as can be seen in his awe-inspiring essays in The New York Review of Books–some of which were published after his death–collected in a volume titled The Memory Chalet.
Though best known as a writer and speaker, Judt was also a teacher. Shore shared a revealing anecdote, of advice Judt gave her as she embarked on her teaching career (I’m paraphrasing from memory). Judt noted that when he began teaching, in the 1970s, and lectured on Marxism, he taught students who all wondered “how could something so beautiful have gone so wrong.” When she would teach Marxism, though, she’d be facing students thinking: “how could anyone have believed this garbage in the first place.” Judt, it seems to me, sympathized with the latter group, having once been a member of the former. Such are the lessons of history.
And yet, unlike some American Trotskyites turned neoconservatives, Judt remained on the left his whole life. Perhaps not enough for his colleagues: he never made the linguistic turn, and remained an academic “dinosaur,” eschewing “theory” in favour of “facts.” He refused to see any value in identity politics, as he could never commit to one identity himself: a Brit who studied France, a European living in America, a Jew without religion. In this way, Judt was a Jew, a “non-Jewish Jew,” as Isaac Deutscher would have had it, or, in his own words, one of the “Edge People,” (read this essay, it’s great), always on the margins, able to criticize even the movements he ostensibly supported. As the panelists noted, this is way his critiques of Zionism and Marxism were so penetrating: he was once one of them.
In the question and answer period, I asked if Judt’s legacy would ultimately lie in his criticism of Israel, most notably his essay, “Israel: The Alternative,” which suggested a one-state solution to the Middle East conflict. Though the panelists all observed that Judt’s point would have made less of a splash in Israel than it did in America, and though I vehemently disagreed with Judt on his “alternative,” I still think that is how I’ll remember him, and remember him fondly. He was a man willing to criticize orthodoxies from having been on the inside, who questioned accepted wisdom yet maintained an elitist embrace of what was best in Western culture, a man who chafed at identity politics yet brilliantly mined his own hybrid identity for wisdom, a “universalist social democrat,” who was skeptical of left-wing ideology. Through it all, despite his gloomy forecast of our present age, he remained optimistic for a better future, and pointed a wary, uncertain way forward, even in these dark times.
Subscribe to comments with RSS.