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Tony Judt: The Right Questions

Tony Judt had a thing about railway trains. We even know from his last book, a brilliant compilation of his ideas on history and politics, distilled from a series of conversations with Timothy Snyder just before his untimely death, that he had wanted to write a history of trains, entitled Locomotion. This book, he explains, was to be about “the fate of modern sociability and collective life in our over-privatized societies. The railway, after all, was a creator of sociability.”

This is typical Tony Judt, a commitment to an idea of public good and community, laced with nostalgia. He recalls the Green Line buses of his childhood in 1950s London with equally deep fondness: “They made of me an English boy, perhaps just as much as school did.” Recounting the sad story of the decline of public transport that connected boys like him to the public lives of their countries, Judt hoped, “might be an instructive way to think through what has gone wrong in countries like America and Great Britain.”

A little oddly perhaps, this elegy for state-owned railways and buses brought to my mind the literary musing by an Englishman from a much earlier age, who would seem to have had very little in common with Judt: Thomas Hughes, author of the famous tribute to private upper-class boarding school education Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). In the first chapter of this paean to Rugby School, his own alma mater (as well as Neville Chamberlain’s and Salman Rushdie’s), Hughes laments the demise of the stagecoach that took him to school from his native village in the rolling hills of Berkshire. And then came the railways:

Oh young England! young England! You who are born into these racing railroad times, when there’s a Great Exhibition, or some monster sight, every year; and you can get over a couple of thousand miles of ground for three pounds ten, in a five weeks’ holiday, why don’t you know more of your own birth-places? …We were Berkshire, or Gloucestershire, or Yorkshire boys; and you’re young cosmopolites, belonging to all counties and no countries.

You might think that Hughes was a crusty old Tory, fighting progress at every turn, lamenting the lost ties to the native soil. In fact, like Judt, he regarded himself as a progressive figure, a liberal member of Parliament, the product of muscular Christian socialism. Indeed, he was precisely the kind of late-Victorian reformer that Judt often said he admired. Elegiac sentiments and leftist politics are not necessarily in contradiction, of course. At one point Judt describes the left as a permanent form of protest: “And since the thing most protested against is the damage wrought by rapid change, to be on the left is to be a conservative.”1

Means of transport, for Hughes as well as Judt, were about more than politics. Faster ways of getting around offer broader horizons, new kinds of belonging, different aesthetics, and a concomitant loss of earlier worldviews. In Hughes’s time this meant a shift from county to country. Judt, growing up in the age of bigger and faster airplanes, saw the move from country to continent, prompting his rather too nostalgic observation that the grand old railway stations are “pleasing to behold, whereas almost any airport…built one hundred years later is already utterly dysfunctional as well as grotesque in appearance.” True of JFK, perhaps, but surely not of Norman Foster’s Hong Kong, or Renzo Piano’s Osaka or Helmut Jahn’s Munich airport.

Still, the sentiment is clear. Such asides are typical of a book that has the carefully crafted shape of a real conversation between two learned men stimulating one another with ideas, insights, and occasional sparks of anger at the state of the world. Snyder, a very able historian in his own right, had the excellent idea of getting Judt, whose disease had robbed him of the ability to write, to talk about his life as well as his thoughts on history and politics. Life and ideas in this fascinating story are often intimately linked.

Judt felt strongly the pull toward cosmopolitanism and greater mobility. He stressed the importance of intellectually and physically transcending the merely local. Yet he longed for communal ties too: Jewish, British, Israeli, Parisian, Central European, American, and European once more. The constant tension between his affinities, chosen or inherited, and his politics, between the aspirations of the “universalist” intellectual and the man in search of an anchor, gave zest to his thinking. He may not have been right about everything, but he was never complacent. And the place of the individual in collective life remained his main concern.

How could it not be for a man who grew up in a thoroughly English, mostly Gentile, not to say genteel, suburb of London, as the son of Jewish parents with recent family histories in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Belgium? Neither of his parents was religious, and they made every effort to escape from “the stifling, ersatz mitteleuropeisch ghetto of North London Jewry.” His mother stuck closely to the rather philistine manners of the British middle class. His father was a socialist who gave his son Isaac Deutscher’s study of Trotsky for his thirteenth birthday. His paternal grandparents spoke Yiddish. “Neither of my parents were interested in raising a Jew,” Judt recalls. But “I always knew we were different.”

In a sense, of course, giving a book on Trotsky to a boy in his bar mitzvah year is a rather Jewish gesture, a way to reconcile the universal with the personal and link a person born with outsider status to the wider world. Judt was good at expressing his private feelings obliquely by filtering them through his thinking about history. In his conversation with Snyder, he remarks: “German civilization was one Jewish ideal of universal values; international revolution—its polar opposite—was another.” The cult of German Kultur was not for Judt, the son of Ostjuden, but revolution did exert its pull, at least for a while.

Karl Marx, who came from a long line of rabbis, believed that after the revolution such categories as Jew and Gentile would be rendered obsolete.2 For many Jews—including the two Judts, père and fils—Marxism offered an attractive route to a kind of assimilation. Or as Judt put it: “To be a revolutionary Marxist was to make a virtue of your rootlessness….” Long after he lost his youthful enthusiasm for Trotsky and Marx, he had more to say about the Jewish infatuation with revolution, which reflected his skepticism about—though never rejection of—mass democracy.

“Odd as it may sound today,” Judt tells Snyder,

democracy was a catastrophe for Jews, who thrived in liberal autocracies…. Mass society posed new and dangerous challenges: not only were Jews now a serviceable political target, but they were losing the increasingly ineffectual protection of the royal or imperial figurehead. In order to survive this turbulent transition, European Jews had either to disappear altogether or else change the rules of the political game.
Hence the emerging Jewish proclivity, in the early decades of the twentieth century, for non-democratic forms of radical change with an accompanying insistence upon the irrelevance of religion, language or ethnicity….

The other option was Zionism, especially in its socialist form. Judt was keenly attracted to Zionism at a time when he actually seemed to be comfortably settled in a corner of British society. He was the product and beneficiary of postwar educational reforms in Britain. Along with the welfare state came excellent free schools for gifted children from low-income families. Bright grammar school boys, such as Judt, were usually the first in their families to go to Oxford or Cambridge. As he explains: “We were thus the very epicenter of a great sociological shift and yet we did not, I think, feel like outsiders.” Judt was a student at King’s College, Cambridge, where John Maynard Keynes and E.M. Forster had taught. “I felt and behaved, I think, as though this were my Cambridge, and not the Cambridge of some alien elite that I had been mistakenly permitted to enter.”

Zionism appealed to Judt, as did all his communal enthusiasms, for personal as well as political reasons. He was dating a woman named Jacquie Philips, later to become his first wife, who was active in a Zionist youth group. He also saw, as he put it, “Israel through a rose-tinted lens: a uniquely left-of-center land, where everyone I knew was affiliated with a kibbutz and where I could project onto the whole Jewish population a peculiarly Jewish social democratic idealism.” If Marxism enabled Jews to make a virtue of rootlessness, while clinging, in Judt’s words, “to a style of reasoning which would have been very familiar to every Hebrew school student,” left-wing Zionism offered a convenient merger of Jewish identity and political idealism.

Judt was soon to be disappointed with the narrowness of kibbutz life, but his disillusion with Zionism only came during the 1967 war, when he offered his services to the Israeli army as a translator, and “came to appreciate that Israel was not a social-democratic paradise of peace-loving, farm-dwelling Jews who just happened to be Israelis but were otherwise like me.” For the first time, he was exposed to different kinds of Israelis. The country outside the kibbutz was becoming more familiar to him, and he found he no longer liked it. Bigoted attitudes toward the Arabs shocked him, as did the common disdain shown toward non-Israeli Jews, referred to contemptuously as “heirs of the Holocaust.” Once the fantasy of “socialist Israel” wore off, Judt chose to see the Jewish state as “a Middle Eastern country that despised its neighbors and was about to open a catastrophic, generation-long rift with them by seizing and occupying their land.”

Like his elegiac temperament, this too was typical of Judt: the initial passion for a collective cause, followed by disenchantment. Passion and skepticism would always be in competition in his mind, as though he were forever debating his own enthusiasms. He has been criticized for being inconsistent in his views. But arguing with oneself, especially with one’s passions, is the mark of a real thinker. And Judt didn’t stop thinking until he drew his last breath.

Commitments to communal causes and places waxed and waned. In 1970, disenchanted with Harold Wilson’s “cynical, depleted, apologetic” brand of socialism in Britain, Judt moved to Paris as a postgraduate at the École Normale Supérieure. The identification with France was again personal as well as political. France had been the country of Léon Blum and the Popular Front. In Paris, more than London or Cambridge, politics were taken seriously. Paris, as he remarks about the 1930s, was the place to talk: “It was politics which brought me into French studies.” But the history of Blum, one of Judt’s great social democratic heroes, appealed for personal reasons too. Blum, he says, was “unashamedly and totally French” as well as “proudly Jewish.” He later

  1. 1

    “The Social Question Redivivus,” reprinted in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2008), p. 427. 

  2. 2

    On this issue, see Isaiah Berlin’s essay “ Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, and the Search for Identity,” reprinted in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (Princeton University Press, 2001)

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