On Tony Judt

Professor Tony Judt. Photo: Corbis.

Tony Judt began as an intellectual historian; he will be remembered by many as a bracing critic of Zionism, a vigorous proponent of European-style social democracy, and–tragically–a victim of ALS. I have heard many describe as “moving” his snatches of memoir, published at intervals in the New York Review of Books over the last year of his life. This is true–but what may have been even more moving was the extent to which he devoted his last days to making the case, which he had made many times before, for the welfare state. He broached the issue as early as “The Social Question Redivivus” in 1997 (reprinted in the collection Reappraisals), and he delivered what turned out to be one of his last salvos in the magnificent “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy”–delivered in 2009 from the wheelchair where he felt like he was “imprisoned in a cell that shrank by six inches every day.”

In the way his scholarship informed his larger political concerns, Judt was an old-style intellectual, after the manner of his teacher (and New York Review of Books writer) George Lichtheim. It was a fact Judt emphasized. His titles often alluded to the debates among previous generations of writers, such as Benedetto Croce’s “What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel.” He singled out intellectuals of an earlier generation for praise (Raymond Aron, Albert Camus) and others for censure (Jean-Paul Sartre, E. P. Thompson), suggesting the models that he either followed or abjured. Though he weighed in on contemporary issues rather widely, his writings betray barely any dilettantism: except for his polemics on Israel, borne out of an initial support for Labor Zionism, his work rarely moved beyond the horizons of 20th century Europe (and even Israel could be said to fit within those horizons).

Like his forebears and a few contemporaries, he was also extremely angry. Any kind of cant or whiff of intellectual dishonesty could set him off, a spectacle which was either highly gratifying or angering in turn, depending on your tastes. Like most of his readers, I usually exhibited both reactions. His essay “Bush’s Useful Idiots” from the London Review of Books lavished his every last reserve of scorn for liberals who supported the American adventure in Iraq. I remember reading it with an admixture of relief, and shame that I had to travel, intellectually speaking, all the way across the Atlantic to get an opinion that frank and true.

On the other hand, he had a habit of sideswiping great writers in a fashion that usually seemed unnecessary. For someone so gifted at intellectual history, he had little understanding of his own generation’s interest in the fringes of left theory and politics; in Postwar, he managed to sweep away all of the ’60s student movements with one laconic hand-gesture of a sentence: “The boys and girls of the Sixties just weren’t serious.” Particularly egregious was his recounting of a debate between Leszek Kolakowski and the great E. P. Thompson, where Judt described Thompson as behaving “his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous . . . patronizing, and sanctimonious.” His self-awareness deserting him, Judt goes on to lament Thompson’s “pompous, demagogic tone,” while claiming that anyone who reads Kolakowski’s response to Thompson “will never take E. P. Thompson seriously again.”

“I fail to understand the tone, the content, or the purpose of Tony Judt’s assault on E. P. Thompson,” wrote one reader, expressing my sentiments and surely those of others. Judt’s response–that Thompson really was self-indulgent–doesn’t fully explain what really must have brought out all his anger. As one sees from his other writings, Judt was particularly incensed by an intellectual sympathy for Marxism. He liked to remind us that he had been a Marxist at one point, only to recant rather quickly, more quickly than most of his heroes. While I am sure that Judt was quite serious in his interest in Marxism, as he was about everything else, his hatred for Marxists seems to have come less out of a personal discovery of its inadequacies than out of the history of those who embraced it–particularly the French “fellow-travelers” he wrote about in his fine book, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956, who pardoned every one of Stalin’s crimes in the name of a doctrine they supported ardently and understood poorly. In Judt’s view, if you did not discard Marxism, you did not discard a manner of thinking that could only lead to human catastrophe. This is why he admired the courage of those who broke from communist orthodoxy to condemn the system they knew intimately. From Kolakowski, himself a Polish ex-communist, Judt took the idea that “all-embracing ‘systems’ of thought [lead] inexorably to all-embracing ‘systems’ of rule.” (In these pages, Saul Austerlitz noted an analogy between Judt’s criticism of Marxism as a blind system and his rhetorically similar criticism of Israel.)

To his eternal credit, Judt did not leap from a repudiation of Marxism to an embrace of markets.  There have been few spokesmen for the welfare state–that most prosaic of institutions–as eloquent as Judt. Postwar itself can be seen as one long paean to the construction of welfare states across Western Europe in the aftermath of World War II. European social democrats, Judt once wrote, occupy an essentially schizophrenic position: they constantly have to resist calls for freer markets while emphasizing their support for regulated ones; at the same time, they have to reiterate a belief in democratic institutions, committed to reducing inequality, against the more radical claims for transformation embodied by the revolutionary Marxists. Their successes have been fragile, Judt showed, and they need expanding. In any case, he said it all best himself, as the quote below displays amply; would that he were here to keep saying it, in a way that few others could.

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.

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?

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