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The ‘Liberal God’ That Failed

In response to:

Tony Judt: The Distinctions from the February 10, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

Thomas Nagel comments on the late Tony Judt’s supposedly ironic put-down of his own “incoherence” at being both radical and a member of an elite, “giving everyone a chance and then privileging the talented” [“Tony Judt: The Distinctions,” NYR, February 10]. This is not an incoherent position for Nagel but “the common sense of the old left.” Well three cheers for that, but let’s not pass over the sheer agony of liberals born around 1950 forced by the next generation to feel their best intentions were politically hopelessly muddled. What convinced them of their own incoherence was surely the Marxist-Leninist idea that the very content of what they loved to teach, High Culture, so to speak, only shored up the interests of the bourgeoisie.

A whole book deserves to be written about how that wrongheadedness instilled itself in the later left and made silent martyrs of the older liberal generation. The class of 1950, to which I belong, were educated, if they were lucky, to believe in a humanist truth that was, in the true sense of the word, disinterested, that is, nonpartisan, non-class-specific, and universal. Judt’s self-accusation of “incoherence” reflects what for many, and especially lesser-known figures and schoolteachers in the same mold, must still be the tragedy of their professional lives. The Western liberal god of High Culture also failed.

Lesley Chamberlain
London, England

Thomas Nagel replies:

Lesley Chamberlain rightly emphasizes the intellectual and cultural damage caused by the identification of High Culture with social injustice, which Tony Judt also refused to accept. She describes it as a Marxist- Leninist idea, and it may have been presented that way, but I believe it owes nothing to Marx. His conception of partisan ideology in the service of class interests did not imply either that there is no such thing as disinterested and universal truth, or that it cannot be found in the creative works produced by a class society. That is another of the distinctions we have to hang on to.

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