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A Case of Intellectual Independence

1.

There are not many professors in any field equipped to produce, for example, learned essays on the novels of Primo Levi and the writings of the now- forgotten Manès Sperber—yet also able to turn their hand to, say, a close, diplomatic analysis of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Analysts of international relations, confident and polemical on the evolution of the European Union, exist, but few of them could deliver an erudite lecture on the oeuvre of Albert Camus. Scholars who could analyze the peculiarly Polish dimension of the theology of Karol Wojty a, the last pope, are doubtless in plentiful supply. But not many of them could sketch a humane, fully informed portrait of the work of Edward Said.

Through more than a decade of essays written for America’s foremost journals, Tony Judt has demonstrated that he belongs to each one of those rare, polymathic categories. The head of the Remarque Institute at New York University, Judt has moonlighted as a prolific and provocative essayist. Now a new collection of essays, most of them published originally in The New York Review, along with The New Republic (before he fell out with that magazine’s editors over Israel) and Foreign Affairs among others, confirms Judt as one of the most versatile public intellectuals working in the English language today. In twenty-four pieces, he covers an astonishingly broad range of twentieth-century life—from Whittaker Chambers to the state of the railways in Europe—almost always writing with authority, anchored in a depth and breadth of reading that few could match.

His enemies (and as Judt’s own postscripts to these pieces make clear, he has made quite a few) would probably snort at both the volume and the sometimes exotic provenance of the author’s references. They might note that when Judt was asked to assess the English-language edition of Pierre Nora’s three-part, seven-volume, 5,600-page work on French history and memory—a task that would have daunted even the most diligent reviewers—he spotted a “revealing” contrast between the preface to the new translation and the introduction to the French original. But to less jaundiced observers, such a remark suggests not that Judt wears his learning ostentatiously, but that he has been able to patrol a vast swath of history, politics, and culture without recourse to journalistic corner-cutting, maintaining instead—and nearly always—his scholarly rigor.

This variety of subject matter certainly sheds a favorable light on the author of Reappraisals, but it does not necessarily help bind these disparate essays into a coherent whole. In that sense, Reappraisals suffers from the fate of all journalistic anthologies: pieces that were written singly, and to stand alone, are suddenly required, by their presence between hard covers, to add up to something larger. Judt is certainly capable of writing over the distance, as it were: his last book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), despite its mammoth length, won particular praise for its coherence. But these essays were not written to be chapters in a larger thesis, and so readers should approach Reappraisals hoping to find a box of jewels rather than a single, neatly threaded necklace.

That said, the highlights of the book come when Judt’s expertise in one field illuminates another quite different subject. A telling example comes in the essay on the late pope, when Judt compares—in one respect—the Catholic Church with the Secretariat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (communism being one of Judt’s main themes in this collection):

John Paul II is at the center of a worldwide apparatus always at risk of splitting into heretical segmentation. “Eurocommunism,” “Socialism with a Human Face,” “Local Roads to Socialism,” and the like have their precise analogues in the modern Catholic Church.

Still, even if the content of Reappraisals is disparate, there are certainly persistent preoccupations and patterns that emerge. The first is a regular defiance of received wisdom. Thus Judt, whom most would regard as a man of the left, confounds his comrades by taking on Eric Hobsbawm, the revered historian, lifelong Communist, and, lately, British national treasure—while expressing admiration for the courage of Whittaker Chambers.

Hobsbawm, he writes, “refuses to stare evil in the face and call it by its name; he never engages the moral as well as the political heritage of Stalin and his works.” Judt understands why Hobsbawm, in line after line of his autobiography—each methodically held up to the light by Judt—airbrushed away the lives stolen and the liberties choked by Soviet communism. The explanation lies in Hobsbawm’s remarkable personal journey, specifically his formative years spent in the twilight of the Weimar Republic, which shaped what Judt calls “the romantic core of [Hobsbawm’s] lifetime commitment to Communism.” Judt half-admires Hobsbawm’s loyalty to his “adolescent self”—but condemns it all the same.

One senses in Judt a man who has had to make his own political ruptures over the years, including with friends and confreres. In an essay on Arthur Koestler, he writes:

It is perfectly possible to turn away from…years of youthful involvement in a political or national movement, and to redirect one’s attentions to an entirely different set of causes. Many of us have made precisely such a change.

That intriguing remark, undeveloped, is one of only a handful of glimpses Judt allows into his own biography, but it suggests a man who has been able to put conscience ahead of comradeship. And he demands the same courage in others.

The essay on Chambers is animated with similar awareness of the human, emotional, and psychological elements out of which ideological commitments are both formed and broken. Following the empathetic tone set by the book he was reviewing, Sam Tanenhaus’s biography of Chambers, Judt sees a man who, first, did no more than tell the truth when he named the US government official Alger Hiss as a Communist agent. (Judt is adamant that Hiss’s guilt is beyond doubt: “For those who do not believe in fairies, the Hiss affair is now closed.”) He sees Chambers, too, as the victim of a lazy liberal snobbery, a rumpled figure mocked for his appearance and awkwardness, in contrast to the smooth urbanity of Hiss. Above all, he believes that Chambers was motivated by an almost religious fervor for the struggle against communism: the zeal of the apostate. Even as its antagonist, communism meant everything to him, not least because, in Judt’s view, the years of Communist activism had been for Chambers (just as they had been for Hobsbawm) the “high point of his life.” Yet Chambers was able to make the break, and for that he wins Judt’s admiration.

There are several more challenges to conventional liberal opinion. It is a truism that Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was a stunning, and enormously influential, indictment of the true nature of Soviet brutality. Not so, says Judt. In his rereading, sixty years on, the novel only goes so far. “It is a book about Communists. The victims—Rubashov and his fellow prisoners—are Communists.” What’s more, there is little violence and no torture; in the interrogation scenes the emphasis is “upon dialectics rather than nightsticks.” In this way, Darkness at Noon is not the full-blooded denunciation of communism it was long held to be, but rather almost an apologia for it, presenting its crimes as intellectual deviations from a legitimate starting point, thereby setting it apart, including morally, from other tyrannies. (It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Judt is broadly sympathetic to Hannah Arendt, for getting the “big things right,” as he puts it, and particularly for understanding that physical terror is integral to, and not a regrettable deviation from or contingent add-on to totalitarianism, in both its fascist and Communist forms.)

Judt’s willingness to depart from received wisdom should not be confused with contrarianism: his reading of the 1962 record has him conclude that John F. Kennedy handled the missile crisis with cool restraint even though he was encircled by hotheads—just as Hollywood said he did. An essay on Kissinger and Nixon is no less hostile than many other liberal accounts. Still, he offers specific grounds on which to condemn them both—chiefly for their deceptions, their covert dealings, and their disregard for the constraints on foreign policy inherent in a constitutional republic, a pattern of behavior that confirms the mendacities of Watergate were not a domestic aberration.

It is, of course, easy for a New York college professor to take shots at Richard Nixon. But what becomes clear from this collection is that Judt will mete out similar punishment to anybody. He appears to have no sentimental attachments or youthful loyalties to hold him back. The United States is his adopted home—he speaks of “we Americans”—but his criticism is fierce. He was raised in Britain, but that does not prevent him from sketching his home country as a plastic-veneered heritage theme park, its history packaged and sanitized and therefore forgotten. While other British liberals of his vintage and ilk were swooning over Tony Blair—before the disenchantment of Iraq—Judt was not taken in. Writing in mid-2001, he described Blair as “the gnome in England’s Garden of Forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.”

Judt’s great passion is France; this is the prime terrain of his academic work, the subject of his first three books and several others. Yet he succumbs to none of the usual romanticizations favored by the misty-eyed, claret-sipping Francophile. To Judt, France is, no less than Britain, a country that has lost its past, that has confused commemoration with remembering. Its war in Algeria was as vicious as America’s in Vietnam; its resurgent, xenophobic far right, during the heyday of Jean-Marie Le Pen, at any rate, the most menacing in Europe.

No society feels the benefit of a blind eye from Judt, and that includes Israel, whose cause he joined in the 1960s, first as a Zionist youth activist in London and then as a volunteer fighter on the Golan Heights immediately after the 1967 war. (This was the “political or national movement” from which he turned away, referred to above.) This collection includes one especially fierce jeremiad against Israel’s current course, but, tantalizingly, excludes the piece that made Judt the object of a short but intense free-speech battle with Israel’s most hawkish defenders in the US.

In 2003, “Israel: The Alternative,” published in The New York Review, floated the notion of a one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Three years later, Judt found a meeting of a nonprofit group he was scheduled to address in a rented room at the Polish consulate in New York canceled an hour before it was due to begin. The staff of the Polish consul general revealed that he had received phone calls from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, exerting what he called “a delicate pressure.”

Since that is the essay that, thanks to the consulate incident, introduced Judt to an audience previously unfamiliar with his work, it surely had earned its place in this retrospective, but not only for that reason. Even those who do not share its conclusion have to concede that it was a brave argument to make, followed as it was by a further explanation in response to many letters. It would have taken no courage at all to publish it in the London Review of Books, where it would mainly have elicited a murmur of approval. But to make that case in New York was bold. (Judt notes that his name disappeared from the masthead of The New Republic soon afterward, thereby severing a long relationship with that magazine.)

The obvious conclusion to draw here is that Judt is a clear-eyed critic, his vision unclouded by sentimental attachments of any kind. But that might be mistaken. More likely, surely, is that Judt is harsh on these countries, including Israel, because he has an attachment to them. His engagement is in the tradition of the engaged intellectuals he describes here: Koestler, Sperber, Camus, and Arendt. He cares for France, for Britain, and for the United States—and, yes, one would wager, for Israel too. The one-state essay can be read not as an unambiguous call for a binational state of Palestine, but rather as a sounding of the alarm, an attempt by Judt to stir US Jewry in particular from its indulgent, closed-eyed slumber regarding Israel—and to provoke readers into saving a humane two-state solution, and therefore Israel itself, before it is too late. Judt’s 2006 essay on Israel, commissioned by Ha’aretz and included here, certainly does nothing to dispel that impression.

Nevertheless, Judt is also clearly a man who will cross the road to have a fight. His postscripts mention not the acclaim each article generated but the trouble it started, the “anguished exchanges” or “spirited and lengthy rebuttal[s]” held aloft as trophies of honor. Alongside Judt’s knack for a one-liner—“If Belgium disappeared, many Belgians might not even notice”—is his penchant for the vicious poke. “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralizing,” he writes. On Thomas L. Friedman: “To be sure, Friedman’s portentous, Pulitzer-winning pieties are always carefully road tested for middle-brow political acceptability.”

He is harshest of all on those who do not share his polyglot abilities and wholly international vantage point. Nixon and Kissinger stand especially condemned for their lack of interest in, and knowledge of, any country that was not a Great Power. But he is even more scathing of cold war historian John Lewis Gaddis, berating him for an account of that conflict which fails to include in the index “Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Panama, Grenada, or El Salvador, not to speak of Mozambique, the Congo, or Indonesia.” This intolerance can shade into arrogance. Having declared that the narrow US focus of Gaddis’s book “cannot be an effect of unbalanced sources,” since so many international documents are available, Judt adds in a footnote: “Except insofar as these are in languages Gaddis does not read.”

In Judt’s world there is no greater insult than to be branded a provincial, a word he hurls at several of his targets. Even the reader winces when Judt says of Hobsbawm’s refusal to join the fraternity of ex-Communists, or to stand with dissidents Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and Havel: “By excluding himself from such company, Eric Hobsbawm, of all people, has provincialized himself.” One would not want to be on the receiving end of Judt’s pugnacity but, along with the clarity of his prose, it makes him as readable as any journalist. Underpinned as his writing usually is by scholarly rigor, it’s a powerful mix.

2.

If there are patterns of style discernible in these essays, there are themes threaded throughout too. The book is subtitled “Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century” and, in an introduction, Judt sets out a broad argument: that we have “moved on” from the last century, put it behind us, at a dizzying and unseemly speed. The past has been “paved over,” not buried entirely, but converted into memorials and museums: “heritage.” Judt concedes that this, in itself, is not new—even Louis XIV’s Versailles began as a kind of replica theme park of the earlier Valois monarchy—but there has been a shift:

Whereas until recently (in Europe at least) the point of a museum, a memorial plaque, or a monument was to remind people of what they already knew or thought they knew, today these things serve a different end. They are there to tell people about things they may not know, things they have forgotten or never learned.

It is a counterintuitive thought, this. It is easy to imagine we are steeped in the twentieth century: history channels on cable TV seem to show nothing but an endless loop of Third Reich documentaries, while politicians seem to regard the 1930s and 1940s as a storehouse of analogy, to be raided for, say, “Munich” or “Pearl Harbor” comparisons. But this is not real remembering, writes Judt. It is “mis-memory.” The dogmas, ideals, and fears of the twentieth century are referred to in shorthand but not fully understood: “Incessantly invoked as ‘lessons,’ they are in reality ignored and untaught.”

Judt spells out why we ought to remember the bloody and dark century just concluded. We need to know what happened, in part, because to do otherwise is to risk forgetting “the meaning of war.” He adds that this is not a truth Americans ever—or at least in the twentieth century—understood directly anyway, having avoided occupation, defeat, serious civilian casualties, or even, relative to other combatant nations, the loss of many soldiers in battle. “As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced country that still glorifies and exalts the military,” Judt writes. This, he suggests, explains not only the gulf in historical recollection of the century just gone—with the triumphalism of an account of the cold war like Gaddis’s finding no real echo across the Atlantic—but also the different attitudes toward military engagement today. While other nations hesitate to go to war, the US revels in martial power—both approaches entirely rooted in the experience of the twentieth century.

More surprising, perhaps, is Judt’s belief that contemporary questions of social and economic policy can only be faced after an honest reckoning with, and knowledge of the core arguments of, the twentieth century. Central in this is the place of the state. If Judt dwells so long on communism in these essays—only France and the US get (narrowly) fuller entries in the index—it is partly because he believes that the bitter battles that were fought for and against that ideology are not dead and buried, but continue to inform, and deform, our current politics.

On the right, Judt argues, the collapse of Soviet communism has been used to discredit the very notion of governmental action and a robust role for the state. Of course, he writes, the Communist experience left no doubt as to the value and necessity of freedom in human affairs: but it is absurd to make the leap from that conclusion to the one that asserts neoliberalism as the supreme and incontrovertible economic system to be applied to all societies in all contexts at all times. In a neat aside, Judt says it is the neoliberals who are, in fact, the last modernists—still clinging to the illusion that anything is possible in principle, thanks to the glory of the market. Those who believe in an active state are “more modest and disabused”: they know we cannot have everything and would “rather choose possible outcomes than leave the result to chance,” or to the chill winds of market forces.

Still, it is the left that is Judt’s target audience. He believes the events of 1989 have hobbled progressives gravely. It is not just Communists who have lost their “master narrative.” Even moderate social democrats can find nothing to bind together disparate, if decent, policies. They have no larger story to tell, no way of sketching the good society they wish to create. Judt made that case in a 1997 essay, just as Tony Blair and “New Labour” were taking power in Britain—and the last eleven years have certainly not disproved his point.

Judt does not fully explain how such a new vision for the left can be recovered, or what it might contain. Indeed his prescriptions are almost meekly modest—more regulation here, a smidgeon of public ownership there, but “only what works or is required in each case” and certainly no return to, say, “early retirement on full pay for state employees” or any of the other statist accretions that did so much to discredit the postwar European settlement and the European social model which was its legacy.

Nevertheless, Judt is clear where the work has to start: “To do any good in the new century we must start by telling the truth about the old.” Judt’s contribution is to act as a human aide-mémoire, to remind people of those events and arguments that may now feel like ancient history but were also recent, lived experience—and that seem to be slipping down the memory hole between those two categories.

In this way, Judt volunteers himself for service as an intermediary, between past and present, most certainly, but also between societies that know less about one another than they think. He stands on the border between the US and Europe, with one foot in each; he stands outside Britain and Israel, too, even though he feels a kinship with both countries that makes his disappointment all the more keen.

In the essay on Manès Sperber, the Austrian-French novelist, essayist, and playwright, Judt notes how the writer “lived in many languages,” how he was both a cosmopolitan and rooted in a small, local shtetl culture, how he served as an observer across borders, how he was driven by the “ancestral duty” to remember. All of this flowed from Sperber’s Jewishness, says Judt, and it made him especially well-equipped to comprehend the world around him. If that is true of Sperber, it is surely true in every particular of Judt himself. As he writes: “You don’t have to be Jewish to understand the history of Europe in the twentieth century, but it helps.”

There are flaws in Reappraisals. The lack of an overall thesis prevents the collection from amounting to much more than the sum of its parts. There are occasional lapses of logic, usually when Judt slips the moorings of scholarship and gets most heated: he argues without complete success that the reason why so many so-called “liberal hawks” supported the Bush administration is because the US adopted “an Israeli-style foreign policy.” Similarly, in that 2006 essay, he crafts a nice metaphor of Israel as the fifty-eight-year-old country that refuses to grow up, suggesting that the Jewish state “remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature”: but is that immaturity really so curious when one considers that most other Western democracies are, in fact, much, much older?

Judt occasionally has a tin ear too. Women readers, and not only them, will double-take when they read Judt’s plea for clemency for Arthur Koestler’s behavior on the grounds that “there is only one unambiguously attested charge of rape.” For most, one is quite enough. Finally, it is frustrating that the book does not include some of the acerbic responses and Judt’s replies, which are alluded to in commentary but remain unseen.

None of this, though, should detract from what is an impressive selection from an impressive body of work. Judt refers often to the intellectuals he profiles as forming together a “republic of letters.” No one could doubt that Judt has carved a place for himself in that same republic—as one of its honored citizens.

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