In posthumous release, Judt reflects on his life and the role of the public intellectual
Last October, during a warm Yom Kippur weekend, I took a stroll down to Occupy Wall Street. For me, the Saturday-morning field trip was an organizer’s self-indulgence; as a DC human rights advocate, I came to learn, but largely to ogle in bewilderment at Occupy’s peculiar community of anarcho-syndicalists, disillusioned college professors, anti-imperialists, and seasoned AFL-CIO operatives.
As I made my way through Zuccotti’s whimsical village, I encountered a myriad of ideologies, global perspectives, and theories of everything. I met a participatory economist, a Robert Owen plagiarist, and a Connecticut high school teacher with an oddly romantic, revisionist perception of Iroquois governance. I asked a few questions of my newfound companions: Why are you here?
What does this grassroots community mean to you? Where do you see the Occupy movement in five years? And, perhaps most importantly for the radical activist, what’re you reading?
Most literature recommendations were unexceptional, in that I had never heard of them. There was one conversation, though, that caught my attention. A Fordham law student, he had taken the subway down to Zuccotti everyday for the past week and was an active member of the now-controversial People of Color working group. I asked him for a couple of book recommendations, and he pulled two short essays from his bag: Indignez-Vous, by Stéphane Hessel, the French provocateur; and Ill Fares the Land, by the late historian Tony Judt.
As Jennifer Homans recently noted in a New York Review of Books essay, her husband died three months before Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, too early to bear witness to today’s social transformations. Judt’s physical decline was slow, heart-wrenching, and inspiring: between late 2008, when he was first diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and his death in August 2010, Judt wrote prolifically, publishing incisive reflections on social-democratic politics, contemporary intellectual history, and his encounters with postwar trans-Atlantic society. Before his diagnosis, Judt began work on an intellectual history of twentieth-century political and social thought. Judging from Thinking the Twentieth Century—a posthumous collection of topical dialogues with a protégé, Timothy Snyder—the original content would have mirrored the structure of Postwar, Judt’s self-described magnum opus: an overlay of historical analysis, undergirded by the historian’s personal encounters with intellectuals and activists.
In many ways, Thinking the Twentieth Century strikes the reader as a more appropriate approach to intellectual history, buttressed by Snyder’s contributions on Eastern European history, Marxism, and American politics. In his foreword, Snyder describes the origins of the book’s structure: more complex than a simple compilation of interviews, Thinking the Twentieth Century has its origins in “spoken history,” a popular tradition in Eastern Europe’s historical literature. The thematic importance of Snyder’s discursive framework is not confined to Eastern Europe, however. The structure of Jewish Talmudic dialogue and the Left’s centuries-old argumentative style, both of which played critical roles in Judt’s intellectual evolution, are similarly apparent.
Many narratives characterize Judt’s life, work, and thought, but none more pointedly than the twentieth-century tale of global upheaval, its social impact, and the lives of the minds which understood it (or, more frequently, which did not). In Thinking’s early pages, Judt paraphrases Eric Hobsbawm, whose personal narrative of modern left-wing politics spans his “short twentieth century”: “We have never quite lost the sense that… you cannot fully appreciate the shape of the twentieth century if you did not once share its illusions, and the communist illusion in particular.” Judt’s interactions with Snyder, then, can be seen in this light: as an attempt to reckon with his past demons, to redress his intellectual failings, and to reflect on the political shortcomings of his erstwhile “circles.”
Of course, Judt’s historical shortcomings were comparatively minor. Raised in London’s East End by a Trotskyist, the young historian persistently diverged from the Communist mythology of his old Left predecessors; despite his participation in the Grosvenor Square demonstrations against the Vietnam War, as well as the 1968 Paris “street,” Judt dismissed the crude Third Worldism of his new Left contemporaries. While Judt derides the “old/new Marx” debates that captivated the bearded philosopher’s 1960s’ adherents, the discourse clearly underlines his under- standing of Marxist thought. When probed on his selective Marx bibliography, Judt refers his readers to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, published in 1952. As with most of Marx’s work, Brumaire is a dual-layered text, comprised of Marx’s class-oriented history of France’s 1848 political transition, as well as a broader study of the art of history and historical observation. Judt’s preference for the Brumaire—rather than, say, his father’s abridged copy of Capital—underlines the historian’s support for a human, compassionate politics, rather than the obscure, detached system of Marxian political economy.
Ethical clarity defined Judt’s thought, as well as his perception of intellectual responsibility throughout the twentieth century. Judt began his academic career as a historian of French labor politics, studying the evolution of grassroots socialism in fin-de-siècle France. In 1979, his engagement in labor history led him to publish a visceral, biting critique of social history’s reliance on theoretical, modeled perceptions of politics, entitled “A Clown in Regal Purple.” As Judt transitioned into France’s postwar intellectual history, manifested in the 1994 publication of Past Imperfect, his ethical politics became increasingly clear; like Raymond Aron, François Furet, and France’s liberal democrats, the historian condemned Sartre, Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty’s self-justifying, contradictory support for Communist terror and atrocity. In Thinking, Judt mounts a rousing case against the teleology of Marx’s dialectic, defending a liberal—in his lexicon, social-democratic—understanding of historical events and social progress.
Judt’s coverage of Marxism is nuanced, reflective of his thorough comprehension of the ideology’s evolution, historical application, and ethical failings. The same cannot be said for Judt’s understanding of Zionism, which, unfortunately, remains the historian’s most prominent legacy. In contrast to his learned engagement with Marxism, its supporters, and its critics, Judt’s engagement with Zionism relies solely on youthful experience. During the 1960s, the student of history worked as a kibbutznik, attracted to Israel’s collective farms by Labor Zionism’s social-democratic mythology. During the 1967 war, Judt served as an auxiliary serviceman in the Israel Defense Forces, embedded in a Golan Heights unit. In his conversation with Snyder, Judt describes his gradual disillusionment with Labor Zionism’s ecumenical utopia, demonstrated by the emergence of anti-Arab sentiments among his Israeli compatriots.
Judt’s Jewish binationalism, by far the most discussed, disputed component of Judt’s public voice, stems from his experiences during the war, in contrast to his broad familiarity with Marxism. Where Judt takes the reader through the complex, late-nineteenth century debates on Marxist orthodoxy and evolutionary socialism, the historian describes Zionism’s evolution as a dichotomous interaction between political Zionism and its Jabotinsky-infused, revisionist Zionism. Judt may be right about the problematic psychology of Holocaust memory in the United States, but his portrayal of American Jewry’s encounters with Israeli politics, the rise of right-wing politics in Israel, and its impact on the ideology of Jewish nationalism strikes the reader as, well, anachronistic.
At its core, Thinking the Twentieth Century is a humble guide to the ethics of history, with pervasive relevance. In the midst of the twenty-first century’s first “revolutionary” wave, Judt’s cautionary approach to historical teleology, his simple, articulate defense of moral economics and the public sphere, and his commentary on intellectual responsibility have much to offer. The historian’s literary presence at Zuccotti Park is fitting, as well as a challenge to the spirit of contemporary social movements. As Judt makes clear in Ill Fares the Land—and reinforces in Thinking the Twentieth Century—a revolution of the ninety-nine percent may not be necessary, prudent, or applicable to the process of crafting a communitarian society. Given the intellectual consequences of exaggerated historical self-awareness, it may be more appropriate to, as Snyder says, view the near future as something “just a bit better,” and mobilize a collective ethic to attain it. Judt may not have lived to address this century’s early upheavals, but his ethical perspective on the twentieth century certainly should.