Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Tony Judt Retrospective

with 8 comments

by David

Tony Judt (1948-2010)

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.


8 Responses

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  1. David: Very nice. I’m currently going through a “casual” Tony Judt phase. I say casual because, thus far, it only involves two books (Memory Chalet and Postwar), but also because all the reading is occurring at night before bed. Memory Chalet is great, though there are a few average (C grade) essays therein. I’m only 70 or so pages into Postwar, and it is thus far everything you and and panelists above describe: “magisterial…beautifully written, incisive, sweeping, and original, without being polemical or moralizing.” – TL

    Tim Lacy

    January 21, 2012 at 18:40

  2. Judt spent 2005-2006 mocking striking NYU teaching and research assistants in the press and acting as a surrogate mouthpiece for a union busting university administration. If Judt is to be eulogized as an intellectual leader for the left, then that’s a left few I know or respect were or would ever have wanted to be a part of.


    January 22, 2012 at 15:26

  3. Tim, thanks for the kind words. You can’t hit the ball out of the ballyard every time you’re at bat, but I have no doubt that Judt will be remembered as one of the greatest historical writers of our time.

    Zach, as a supporter of said union, I take your point. Still, if I recall, Judt’s views were more nuanced than you portray them: he had some sympathy for the TAs, but felt that their energy could be better served elsewhere, i.e. opposing the Iraq War. Without over psychologizing him, I suspect Judt probably saw about of the 1968 Tony Judt is the TAs: fighting courageously and idealistically in Paris, but trapped within an absolutist, totalitarian ideology that prevented them from seeing that the real battle was in Prague, against the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

    I’d add that I think it’s important for the left to have a big tent rather than a small one. But if we’re going to narrow it, personally, I’d rather include Tony Judt, apologist for John Sexton, than Eric Hobsbawm, apologist for Josef Stalin.

    David Weinfeld

    January 23, 2012 at 13:01

    • Hey David, as someone who was actively organizing during and immediately prior to the strike, Judt’s public comments and, as I recall from comrades in the history department, his conduct in department meetings, were not particularly nuanced. Making him into a sort of grumpy Adorno figure aghast at the creeping fascism of the next generation of leftist intellectuals may not be entirely unwarranted, but i would argue it does an injustice both to GSOCers and to Adorno and doesn’t sufficiently take into account TJ’s institutional status as a named chair boutique tenured faculty member trying to delegitimize a strike which, while not without real problems, was being led and organized by contingent teachers and researchers, nearly two dozen of whom were fired and blacklisted for their efforts. Some were never rehired. I don’t think there’s much nuance here for instance, though I agree there’s some room for debate. In any event I would also, of course, disagree with what you suggest is his “prague” analogy, that the labor politics of academic institutions are distractions from some more important work taking place there or more important political struggles taking place elsewhere. And while I agree that there’s value in a “big tent” left, certainly when distinguished senior “comrades” start stabbing the folks whose labor makes possible their sabbaticals and teaching-free appointments in the back, I think any left I want to align myself with needs an understanding of why that is not ok and a praxis of actively rejecting it. As for Hobsbawm, I’d object that the analogy is perhaps unwarranted save for its suggested commonality between Sexton and Stalin, but then I just pulled a similarly far-fetched Adorno metaphor out of the ether so perhaps I am equally compromised.


      January 23, 2012 at 19:09

  4. […] -An account of the American Historical Association’s panel on the late Tony Judt, my intellectual hero [PhD Octopus] […]

  5. Zach, I don’t think Judt is really comparable to Adorno, in that Judt’s writing is beautiful and comprehensible. I suppose we can give Adorno something of a pass because he wrote in German.

    I think one can support GSOC and agree with some of Judt’s comments in the piece. I support GSOC like I support NYU 4 OWS: with limited active participation, impressed with the group’s efforts and overall vision, occasionally horrified at its ideological narrowness bordering on anti-intellectualism, along with its utter inability to be self-critical.

    I don’t think GSOC’s efforts are a waste of time at all, but I think GSOC needs a heavy dose of humility, which is I think what Judt was asking for. The only time I heard him address the issue publicly was at a remarkable talk he gave at NYU law school about censorship in the media and the academy, most of which featured Judt criticizing the American discussion on Israel. One grad student asked a question about GSOC and the strike, which absolutely nobody in the audience came to hear about. Nonetheless, Judt gave a lengthy, eloquent answer, where he basically said that he sympathized with the plight of the graduate students (that rang a bit hollow considering he barely taught them) but thought the strike a bad way of going about it, and thought the Iraq War more important. Then, another GSOCer asked yet another question about GSOC, once again ignoring Israel and the far more important discussion that people had come to hear, and selfishly and stupidly trying to advance their own agenda at the entirely wrong forum, succeeding only in alienating people who might have otherwise been sympathetic to their cause. It was a great example of GSOC actively disrupting important academic and intellectual discussion, on a topic where most of GSOC’s members probably agreed with Judt, to achieve nothing at all. Judt found that irritating, and so did I, a GSOC member and supporter.

    As we well know, instead of teaching, Judt spent his time touring the country, giving talks and writing op-eds blasting the Bush government and the Iraq War effort and criticizing Israel. He called out liberal supporters of the Iraq War like David Remnick, referring to them as “Bush’s useful idiots.” I think he was doing valuable and important work in that capacity. Should have he been better on NYU labour struggles? Sure. But should that negate the far more valuable contributions he made to far larger issues? Personally, I don’t think so.

    Judt was a hero to the left for his article on Israel alone. Though Chomsky, Said, Hitchens, and others had been raising those concerns for years, Judt brought them to mainstream respectability in the US in a crucial way. Walt and Mearsheimer could do what they did because of Judt. Mainstream liberal pundits like Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Andrew Sullivan, and others can now criticize Israel, and harshly, because Judt successfully moved the mainstream conversation. For that alone he should be remembered fondly.

    Last, his 2009 speech is favour of social democracy was more compelling, and more convincing a left-wing manifesto than anything I’ve ever seen or heard live, ever. I suspect many in the audience felt the same way. Judt gave voice to an intellectually serious, pragmatic, non-Marxist social democratic vision, in a way that few if any had done before. I had my disagreements with Judt, I didn’t care for his stance on GSOC, his complete rejection of identity politics, his lack of concern for teaching or his graduate students. But on his scholarship and writing alone he was a master, combined with his intellectual leadership of the left as his health failed him, he was a giant. I stand by that.

    David Weinfeld

    January 24, 2012 at 17:37

  6. Judt was a run-of -the mill talented left wing desperately assimilating Jew. He made made light of his inconsistencies and own indulgences. He wrote about and laughed off how he had an affair with his graduate student who became his wife. How many other graduate students were there prior? Apparently when his Jewish prior marriages turned sour (no one has interviewed the ex-wives, interestingly) he attempted to abandon Jewish identity entirely and became the caricature of the proverbial “Uncle Tom Jew” grasping any and all rational and objective reasons for the dissolution of the Jewish identity entirely, and with it the State of Israel. Note the absence of encomiums from graduate students at NYU or England or elsewhere for that matter. Anglo American historians like Simon Schama ( who most probably knew him as both a student and professorial colleague) , for instance, seem to not touch him as well.

    ee mann

    January 25, 2012 at 01:20

  7. Judt was yet another Jew who won fame for defaming his people, supporting their enemies, and undermining Jewish survival both as individuals and as a people. I wouldn’t call say that he “brilliantly mined his own hybrid identity for wisdom,” I would say that he exploited an accident of birth that if he had said it about the Kurds, the Palestinians, or the Irish would have been seen as the warmed-over trash of a “progressive” dogs breakfast it really was.
    Judt will be remembered only until the next self-hating Jewish intellectual celebrity comes along. Who remembers Jacqueline Rose?

    Shalom Beck

    March 6, 2015 at 17:11

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