Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Pierre Fix-Masseau: Exactitude, 1932. Illustration © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

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


Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Albert Camus, Paris, 1944

combined great sympathy for the newborn Jewish state in the Middle East with near indifference to the Zionist message itself. These ostensibly incompatible identifications and enthusiasms were perhaps not so far removed from my own at various times….

The same thing seems to have been true of some of Judt’s living French mentors.

Judt was perfectly content in Paris at first, “studying in the very building where Émile Durkheim and Léon Blum had studied.” He even “began to think and talk like a normalien.” One of his mentors was the distinguished historian of French communism Annie Kriegel, whose earlier dedication to the Soviet Union had been replaced by an equally fervent support for Israel. Judt had little sympathy at that stage for either of these infatuations, but Kriegel’s disenchantment with communism fed his growing skepticism toward the radical left. He tended to like thinkers who had grown disillusioned with their own radicalism: Arthur Koestler, François Furet, Leszek Kołakowski. To him, Camus, more than anyone, was a model of integrity. Judt admired the passion of these men, as well as their doubts, and especially what he saw as their moral commitment. Politics, for Judt, were above all a moral concern.

Judt’s own passion for France, as happened in Israel, began to cool with increased familiarity. As he explains it:

I was intensely familiar with France—geographically, historically, politically, culturally, linguistically. The result was rather like living with someone for too long: the very familiarity and intimacy that once made everything so easy can become sources of irritation and ultimately of disrespect.

It is, in Judt’s account, as though all attempts at joining had to end in disenchantment. But not because of being rejected; more because of a preemptive move on the part of the enchanted. Still on the subject of being Jewish, specifically on being Jewish in the US, he says something very interesting, especially in the light of his critical views on Israeli politics that would enrage a number of American Jews some years later. He wonders why Jewish Americans, living in a country where “assimilation has really worked,” are so obsessed with “those circumstances in which assimilation has either failed or been outright rejected: mass extermination and the Jewish state.” Judt’s Zionist teachers, he says, would have had an answer to this paradox. They would have said: “Even if the gentiles like you and treat you as one of their own, you will not like yourself. Indeed you will like yourself even less for just that reason.” As a result, you turn to a paranoid kind of Jewishness, living vicariously, as it were, with the ghosts of Nazi mass murder and the specters of Arab terror. Judt adds: “And sometimes I think the Zionists have a point.”

Judt’s own preemptive move, it appears to me, was to reassert his position of the “universalist” intellectual whenever he felt the clammy embrace of any community that might wish to claim him. This did not make for a cozy life, and could lead to polemical positions that were vulnerable to criticism, but it was a vital source of his intellectual vigor.

By the time Judt found a new commitment in the dissident struggles in Central Europe, in the mid-1980s, he was writing his now famous reckoning with the French left. The book, called Past Imperfect (1992), was to be “a case study of a national shortcoming: the striking incoherence, in politics and ethics alike, that marked French intellectual responses to the rise of totalitarianism.” Naturally, French intellectuals were not unique in this respect; and some had actually taken the same line as Judt. But it marked the time for another change of focus in his life, even as the quest—for a moral politics, for a superior kind of social democracy—remained the same.

Judt’s new inspiration came from Polish intellectuals, such as Jan Gross and his then wife Irena Grudzinka-Gross. “Rereading Past Imperfect,” he says, “I am struck by its central European perspective.” The key phrase was “civil society.” Like other dissidents in the European periphery of the Soviet empire, his new Polish friends were engaged in an intense struggle for human rights, individual freedom, and political morality in societies that had become thoroughly cynical. Judt, who learned Czech to better understand the situation, was convinced that dissent in Central Europe was serious, and the student rebellions in Paris, London, and Berkeley were a little frivolous by comparison. But there was a personal identification with Central Europe too. Jan, Irena, and others were “not just my contemporaries; we could all, but for small twists of fate, have been born in the same place. My father’s father, after all, came from Warsaw.”

Some of Judt’s Central European friends, including Jan Gross, would end up in the US. One gets the sense from his account that Judt really felt most at home with exiles, Polish intellectuals in Paris or Oxford, or Palestinians in New York, misfits who had escaped the clutches of their native communities, and become thinkers with “a view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel’s phrase). About his friend Edward Said, he says:

The intellectuals most free of the risk of being co-opted for interested parties or purposes are those who start off with loose or nonexistent connections to the nation they happen to find themselves in. I think of Edward Said, living in New York but acting intellectually upon the Middle East.

This nicely expresses Judt’s ideal of the cosmopolitan intellectual, but it is not entirely convincing. Distance can actually sharpen partisan positions: radical Sikhs in Canada, Irish-American supporters of the IRA, not to mention the more fervent Jewish champions of Israel. Said himself was not exactly independent of interested parties and communities either. His was not “the view from nowhere.” Nor was Judt’s own. Not that he was a spokesman for any party or nation. But he always spoke from somewhere. The fierceness of his commitments, to places, to people, and perhaps even more his disenchantments, shows how little detached he was from the various bases in his life. His attachment to the US was as complicated, and as fraught, as his attachments to Israel, England, or “Europe,” but it was always strongly felt.

At first, in the 1970s, driving across the country in a gold Buick LeSabre, he was clearly seduced by the allure of America. This was true of many Europeans of his generation, especially, curiously enough, left-wing Europeans, perhaps because of a residue of New Deal politics, or because the American counterculture still hadn’t lost its sexy appeal in the early 1970s. There was also another woman in Judt’s life, his second spouse, an American academic. Later, inevitably, when he came to live full-time in the US as a professor in New York, he was a lot less starry-eyed. (He also seems to have rather swiftly lost interest in his second wife.)

Judt became a US citizen. Yet he tells Timothy Snyder that he “profoundly” does “not identify with America,” even though he does “care a lot.” Then, two pages later, he declares that it is “our American” failure to address the problems in Israel and Palestine that worries him. Near the end of his life he wrote something about his ties to America that will resonate with others in a similar situation: “For a long time I toyed with the option of returning to teach in Europe—but it was in America that I felt most European. I was hyphenated: two decades after landing in Boston, I had become an American.”3

Judt’s views on America, very often, are reflected in his views of Europe, as though one continent must be seen through the prism of the other. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, he is still quite well disposed toward the US: skeptical about the European “project” in 19964; generally positive on US influence in 20005; critical of unthinking European anti-Americanism in 2003.6 Then, when he was quite rightly galvanized by the Iraq war, a much darker picture is painted of the US; the European Union, rather than being an example of a noble but deeply flawed project, becomes a countermodel to the horrors of America under George W. Bush. In 2006, he writes that “boundary-breaking and community-making is something that Europeans are doing better than anyone else. The United States, trapped once again in what Tocqueville called its “‘perpetual utterance of self-applause,’ isn’t even trying.”7

Apart from the fact that Europeans have recently been rather less successful at “community-making,” this is not necessarily unjust. But the more disenchantment with the US set in, the better Europe looked to him in contrast. This doesn’t mean that Judt ceased to care about the US. On the contrary, his best writing tends to come not from his enthusiasms but his disenchantments. I find him most interesting in his acidic mode. His piece on the “useful idiots” who followed President Bush in his “war against terror” still holds up very well: “Long nostalgic for the comforting verities of a simpler time, today’s liberal intellectuals have at last discovered a sense of purpose: they are at war with ‘Islamo-fascism.’”8 This was—and still is—spot on.

What stays constant in Judt’s travels through the countries and continents of the West, despite the twists and turns of his affections and disillusions, is one central idea: politics has to be a moral enterprise. His idea of social democracy is a moral one, based less on Marxism than on what he describes as “the distinctive late ninenteeth-century mix of cultural self-confidence informed by a duty to engage in public improvement.” His heroes—Léon Blum, John Maynard Keynes, Clement Attlee, Luigi Einaudi, and William Beveridge, the architect of the British welfare state—were all born between 1872 and 1883. What Judt most valued, and in a way kept longing for, was the society they made, and that made him: those public-spirited railways, those superb state schools, that excellent nationalized health system. Judt’s biggest and best-known book, Postwar (2006), was meant partly as a tribute to what he calls the “social democratic moment,” lasting roughly from the late 1940s to the 1970s.

This state of grace became more and more expensive. Gross inefficiency was sometimes caused by vested interests in trade unions, the bureaucracy, and dying industries. So it could not go on as it was. But to look for efficiency, in Judt’s view, is to miss the point, or at least the most important point. Too much concern with economic efficiency, at the expense of all else, is precisely what is wrong with intellectuals today. Intellectuals, he claims, stopped asking around the 1970s “if something is right or wrong.” Instead they care far too much “whether or not it improves productivity.” Even, he says, if the kind of privatization demanded by neoliberals since the Reagan-Thatcher era “were the economic success claimed for it (and it most decidedly is not), it remains a moral catastrophe in the making”(my italics).

Judt’s great concern at the end of his life was not just to “think the twentieth century” as a historian, but to think of a way back to the kind of society that made him. This is what his last public lecture, later published as a small book, entitled Ill Fares the Land,9 was all about. Even though he could only breathe with the help of a machine, Judt’s intellectual passion was undiminished. His project was, to quote from an e-mail he sent me not long before his death, to find a “radical epistemology with which to counter the coherence of rightwing universalism.”

In Judt’s view, the collapse of public spirit, of a coherent social democratic narrative, cannot just be blamed on Thatcher or Reagan and their neoliberal boosters. The turn among the left since the 1960s toward identity politics is to blame as well. And Judt was surely right to point out that the total disillusion with communism and the end of the Soviet empire in 1989, though a marvelous event in almost every respect—and a validation of the staunch anticommunism of his social democratic heroes—had unintended side effects, which were not entirely positive: “The failure and the collapse of the Soviet Union undermined not just communism, but a whole progressive narrative of advance and collectivization…. When that story lost its anchor, much else went adrift.”

As he pointed out, a new radical epistemology is yet to be devised. Judt’s own provisional answer was an anxious one. In an age of whipped-up populist fears about globalization, immigrants, Muslims, “Europe,” and so forth, social democrats should be able to draw strength from legitimate fears of their own. In Judt’s words: “We are likely to find ourselves as intellectuals or political philosophers facing a situation in which our chief task is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones.”

Given the current crop of Republican presidential contenders, we can see he was not kidding. But it is a rather conservative proposition for a new progressive narrative. Something more is needed, something that will need much hard thought. Judt’s own time ran out, which is not only a personal tragedy for his family and friends but a public tragedy too, for his thinking was much needed. The death of a learned man also means the death of wisdom accumulated over years of experience and scholarship. Judt would have been the last to claim that he had all the answers. But he asked all the right questions. And for that we can only be grateful.