Tony Judt: the last interview

Prospect Magazine

Tony Judt: the last interview


Exclusive to Prospect online, the full transcript of Peter Jukes’s interview with historian and author Tony Judt

Peter Jukes (right) with Judt (middle), 2007

Tony Judt died, surrounded by his family, on the the evening of August 6th, 2010. The New York Times obituary can be read here. This is the full transcript of Peter Jukes’s interview with Tony Judt—conducted earlier this year via email, due to the progress of Judt’s motor neurone disease. The full text of Jukes’s portrait of Tony Judt is featured in the August issue of Prospect, and can be read online here.

Peter Jukes: I’ll start with a confession. Before we first met 12 years ago at the Remarque Forum [a conference Judt sponsored as professor of history at New York University] a joint friend of ours sent me an example of your work—a chapter I think from your 1979 book Socialism in Provence 1871-1914. I must admit my heart sank. I’m sure it was compelling and well documented, but it gave no indication of the liveliness and relevance of the discussion at that Forum, nor of the range of your writing. I think you must have been half way through your compendious history of the whole of post-war Europe at the time.

So my question is: how did you move from the micro-analysis of the French left between two wars to the often global historical issues you address today?

Tony Judt: Remember it was a long process. I started work on my first French history book in 1969; on Socialism in Provence in 1974; and on the essays in Marxism and the French Left in 1978. Conversely, my first non-academic publication, a review in the TLS, did not come until the late 1980s, and it was not until 1993 that I published my first piece in the New York Review. So that’s a 25 year learning curve. Moreover, there was a transitional book: Past Imperfect. This was real intellectual history, but it was also a political intervention and it’s often unclear even to me which way I was leaning in any given chapter.

I don’t think that English historians of my generation or the immediately preceding one were incapable of the bigger picture, whether in form or content. But there was (no longer is) a deep prejudice against “popularization.” Some people did it well—Hobsbawm or Trevelyan—and many people did it badly; but there was no academic reward for it. Recall that AJP Taylor, a truly first-rate historian, diminished his reputation by spending too much time on radio and TV shows, not to mention reviews in the Beaverbrook Press. Popularizing—much less venturing beyond one’s secure turf—was frowned upon for many years. I think I probably internalized the prohibition, even though I was—and knew I was—among the best speakers and writers of my age cohort. I don’t mean I was the best historian, a quite different measure.

PJ: Was the training you had part of the problem here, given that you took your degree and then your doctorate in Cambridge, and then wrote from a university position in France? You’ve often regretted the lack of public intellectuals in modern life—is this because of issues with modern academic systems?

The problem of déformation professionnelle is real but mostly American. It would be suicide in the American academy to show too early an interest beyond your doctoral specialization: charges of everything from charlatanry to ambition would be levied and tenure denied. I’ve seen this first-hand. This is because the American graduate school universe was created by Germans (refugees) and echoes many of the worst as well as the best features of its model: deep academic research, carefully limited range of materials, engagement in internally-referential debates and utter unconcern for the market. These are not all bad qualities—without them we would not have had some of the world’s greatest historical monographs. But they inhibit people for decades from putting their nose above a parapet. I have always loved sticking my nose about a parapet, so long as I had a decent weapon to hand. That’s partly an English trait, partly an Oxbridge trait and probably mostly a recessive Judt trait. John Dunn, my favorite King’s supervisor, once described me as “the silver-tongued orator”: a barbed compliment, since it suggested that I spoke before I thought and seduced rather than convinced, but I like it all the same.

The shortage of public intellectuals (in the English-speaking world) goes back to the decline of the written media: the first TV intellectual was Foucault, who was at home in both media, but his successors and imitators know only the camera. This forces sound bites upon even the most complex material: see Schama, Ferguson e tutti quanti. Also, and paradoxically: public intellectuals are best when they are grounded in a particular language, culture, debate. Thus Camus was French, Habermas is German, Sen is Bengali, Orwell was deep English. This made their cross-frontier ventures plausible, in the same way that Havel or Michnik today have street cred because they started out as courageous dissidents in a very particular time and place. The opposite is the ridiculous Slavoj Zizek: a “global”’ public intellectual who is therefore of no particular interest in any one place or on any one subject. If he is the future of public intellectuals, then they have no future.

PJ: This love for sticking your nose above the parapet: is that what drew you to Israel in 1967, or Paris in 1968? You’ve written you knew you wanted to be a historian from an early age: so what made you march towards the sound of (water) cannons: the desire to be an observer or a participant?

TJ: I am not sure I know the answer. I never thought of Paris in 1968 as “nose above the parapet”—if anything, it was a rather conventional thing to do! Israel in 1967 was a bit different, but in that case I was following my ideological nose where it led, rather than poking it up for the sake of it. I’m not sure that I am nearly as controversial or awkward as my reputation suggests: I didn’t even drop out of high school until I had a place at King’s College, Cambridge.

That said, it’s true that periodically from the early 1970s through the present I have published something that put the institutional or professional noses out of joint. I think this comes from a mischievous disposition already in evidence at primary school where I was in constant trouble: a distaste for humbug, rules and undeserving authority. It may also be a result of never having been part of a school of historians but always being something of a lone wolf. And, lastly, it was clearly facilitated by early adoption into the Oxbridge elite, which bought me status and security from which to be a difficult boy.

PJ: Your work abjures the messianism of both the right and the left. And your latest book, Ill Fares the Land, emphasises this, explaining how the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the Reagan/Thatcher paradigm undermined all these narratives of a future when history would end. In a way, it’s a classic tragic vision. But somehow how, you rescue some kind optimism out of this—especially in regard to a revival of social democracy. How do you square that?

TJ: I see what you mean about the tragic vision. But you can’t have a tragic vision in politics—not if you wish to intervene and convince (with the exception of grand turning points, from which one should not generalize). What I am against is false optimism: the notion either that things have to go well, or else that they tend to, or else that the default condition of historical trajectories is characteristically beneficial in the long-run. I think that in order to sustain such irenic visions one has to have been born at very particular historical moments and in fortunate places. Just now I think we have very good grounds for pessimism. And as you noted, I’ve tried to write an intervention that turns pessimism into a political program rather than a despairing sceptical dismissal of all possible programs.

One of the very few things that I know I believe strongly is that we must learn how to make a better world out of usable pasts rather than dreaming of infinite futures. It’s a very late-Enlightenment view that says that the only way to make a better future is to believe that the future will be better. Smarter people than me used to believe very differently and I think it is time to listen to them once again.

PJ: Before we discuss Ill Fares the Land in more detail, it seems to me that your decision to move to the US in 1987 was a vital transition or self translation. Not only did New York welcome “intelligent pontification,” but it gave you the distance and perspective—not to mention time and resources—to complete your vast book, Postwar, on modern European history.

TJ: All true: but we must not mix up causes and consequences. My motives for leaving Oxford in 1987 were interwoven with personal stuff (girlfriend in Stanford) and English politics: the horrible Thatcher years and the beginnings of financial and bureaucratic strangulation of higher education in the UK—the catastrophic long-term consequences of which are now becoming clear.

I came to New York with no particular plans to stay long term. I was attracted by the French Institute at NYU, but by the early 1990s I was already moving away from French material. Moreover, I did not do any public intellectual stuff for at least five years: my first New York Times piece was in 1990 I believe and my first NYRB essay in 1993. I nearly left the US on various occasions—offers from Oxford in 1993, Chicago in 1994, Oxford again in 1999 and more recently Princeton and EUI. But each time something about the city and the wonderful flexibility of NYU kept me back.

I agree on the resources: both academic and financial, which made Postwar possible. But above all it was the University’s willingness to let me travel and live abroad for long periods which made the book feasible. I could never have done that from Oxford. And yet, curiously, NYC felt closer to Europe than Oxford itself: more urban, more cosmopolitan, more international.

PJ: Yet for all that, it wasn’t long before the moeurs of US academia grated on you. I’m thinking particularly of your dislike of “cultural studies” and your rubbing up against the political correctness of identity politics.

TJ: I always hated that crap: I left Berkeley for Oxford in 1980 in part because of it. And things were worse a decade later. But the great thing about my independent status at NYU—and above all the independent status I insisted upon for my Institute and its activities—was that even while the pollution was rising all around us, we were free to do whatever we wanted and ignore it. I could protect students and colleagues from it, offer jobs to people who could otherwise never find them because of it, and say things that no one else dared say. For a brief while, as Humanities Dean here at NYU in the early 1990s, I was even able to push money in unconventional directions: medieval studies, minority language learning (minority here meaning Slovenian, not Cherokee), and above all build the country’s number one philosophy department, a counter-cultural achievement of which I’m proud.

All that said, had it not been for the Remarque Institute I would certainly have gone back to Europe. But being allowed to do everything I wanted and invite anyone I wanted to say anything they wanted, I experienced more freedom here as an academic than would have been possible in any other country or perhaps even university in the world. When I explained back in 2000 at a lunch in St John’s College Cambridge how Remarque worked, how much cash we had and how free I was to spend it as I chose, you could see them gagging…

And then of course there was the NYRB.

PJ: And yet, for all your dislike of the “personal being political,” it seems to me that this strong strand of English moralism requires a notion of the personal voice. Certainly, when it came to your controversial writings for the NYRB from 2003 on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, you partly stood up because you knew it would be harder to impugn you on personal grounds, given your background working as translator for the Israeli Defence Force during the Six Day War in 1967.

TJ: But this is not about the personal being political. This is invoking the personal to create space in which to be political. But you are right that this is not something that came easy to me. I used to avoid the first person and personal memoirs like the plague. But it became clear that if I wanted to say unpopular things in large public places, I needed street cred. Being Jewish is not enough. Being an ex-Zionist is not enough. But being an ex-Zionist who wore the Israeli army uniform (and has a pic of himself complete with cutie and sub-machine gun): that helped. And in this case the end justified the means. No one can shut me up on this subject, so they are forced to resort to clichés about self-hating Jews and the like: evidence of failure.

All the same, it does irritate me when I am described as a controversialist and commentator on Israel. I see myself as first and above all a teacher of history; next a writer of European history; next a commentator on European affairs; next a public intellectual voice within the American Left; and only then an occasional, opportunistic participant in the pained American discussion of the Jewish matter…

PJ: I don’t want to go about this at length, because it does seem unfair that you’re identified with this one issue. However, the controversy surrounding the one state solution piece took a while to die down. Your op-eds seemed to disappear from The New York Times, and you no longer wrote for The New Republic. This was soon followed by the cancellation of a talk at the Polish Consulate in 2006. I recall there were Rabbis threatening to picket your lectures with holocaust survivors.

TJ: Again, all true. The rabbis of Riverdale (approximately the Golders Green of New York) got me banned from one talk and picketed another at a local high school, with picket-liners dressed as concentration camp inmates.

This ought to hurt a lot: some of my family disappeared into the camps and a large part of my childhood was side-shadowed by this memory. But all I can do is find it stupid. The influence of extremist Rabbis and the Anti-Defamation League worries me much more as a broader cultural phenomenon of (self-) censorship. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, I don’t lack platforms for my opinions so the problem is not the “silencing” of Judt. It is the closing of the Jewish mind here in America.

PJ: Around the same time, you also broke with prevailing US opinion on the issue of Iraq, taking both the Neocons to task, as well as their Liberal apologists. Like Obama, you seemed to recognise it was a dumb war of choice early on. However, if I recall rightly, you were—unlike much of the US or European Left—not opposed to liberal interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

TJ: In the 1990s, I was fully in favour of what is rather lazily called “liberal interventionism.” I prefer to think of it as taking seriously the UN Charter mandating protection of minorities extending into repressive states rather than stopping at their borders. But I recognize and always recognized the limitations. Politics, especially international politics, is about what is possible. You can intervene in Rwanda or Bosnia, you can’t in Chechnya (you in this case being the benevolent West). The reasons are obvious. But the charge of hypocrisy—why intervene only where you can and not where you should?—seems to me less weighty than the charge of opportunism: using the excuse that you can’t do everything in order to do nothing.

But just because I know that we could have intervened effectively and quickly in the Balkans or the Great Lakes, it doesn’t mean that I think there aren’t problems. However, I see a huge difference between sending in a couple of battalions of paratroops to smash Serbian irregulars on the hills outside Sarajevo, and inventing grounds for a pre-emptive war on an Arab state—whose murderous chieftain was until very recently our best friend in the region.

My objection to all my liberal friends who ran with the Iraq hawks is that they were not making the case for liberal interventionism but for exemplary war. On Afghanistan, I took the view in 2001 that a rapid response directed at a police-style operation to capture Osama was both politically prudent and legally justifiable. The longer it went on—the more it became a war and less a police operation—the less justifiable it was. And, of course, extending it into Iraq discredited the whole exercise.

On the general question: I don’t believe that one should have one-size-fits-all moral rules for international political action. That’s what misled Adam Michnik and Michael Ignatieff and others into saying that because they believed in truth and beauty and rights for Poles and Czechs, they had to believe in them for Iraqis as well and therefore could not oppose plans to liberate the latter. That isn’t how the world works. George Bush’s motives were not those of his intellectual apologists, with the result that the latter lose their autonomous ethical credibility and pollute their own pure purposes. Back in 1988, I wrote an essay about “The Dilemmas of Dissidence” in which I said that Havel and his friends were perfectly adapted to moral opposition under conditions of political impotence (late Communism); but that in later years, they would need to understand the very different terms in which political calculations get made in messy liberal worlds. They failed to do this, and their embarrassing subservience to Dick Cheney was the result.

Where does that leave me? Trying, as usual, to square general truths with particular circumstances. That’s the difference between pure ethics and political theory; but it isn’t resolved by simply abandoning the tension and sliding to one end of the pole.

PJ: Isn’t there a danger here that the contemporary historian gets pulled into cursory judgments and cloudy polemics. For example, while your diagnosis of the ideological dangers of Clinton’s triangulation or Blair’s New Labour have been vindicated over the years, you seem to already despair of the Obama administration in Ill Fares the Land. Isn’t it—much like the French Revolution according to Mao/Ho Chi Minh—a bit early to tell?

TJ: Excuse me, but it was Zhou Enlai who said that! Okay: anyone who opens his mouth in the present tense risks being proven wrong in retrospect. And of course I am free to be right or wrong about Obama depending upon how many years in the future you pick for your point of reference.

But: it was a distinctive quality of the Obama campaign that it offered not just particular legislation or programs, but a radical recasting of the mood of politics in a democracy dangerously detached from its own founding virtues. His complete failure to vindicate that promise—indeed, his abandoning of nearly all the terms of innovative political approach that got him elected—is far more serious and devastating than his particular failure to follow through on health policy, the Middle East, etc. He has raised and dashed hopes in a way that no one has done here for two generations. That seems to me grounds for despair. What would you have me say? That he may yet do better? That he inherited a tough situation? That all politics is the art of compromise? All true. And all secondary to the scale of lost hopes.

PJ: The “scale of lost hopes” could be an apt description of Ill Fares the Land, which must be your most political book to date: an impassioned attempt to revive the exhausted language of social democracy made all the more urgent, it seems to me, by two extraordinary circumstances. The most obvious is the credit crunch of 2008. But the second extraordinary thing is the personal circumstance under which you made this intervention. Because of the sudden onset and fast advance of Lou Gehrig’s disease, it must have taken an enormous act of will to imagine, mentally compose and then dictate this book.

TJ: I suppose so, though in retrospect things always seem tidier. Actually, what happened was that I was planning a sort of valedictory seminar talk at my own Institute last autumn, precisely on the lines of what became the lecture/book. The Dean of NYU talked me into doing it as a public lecture, which I undertook as a sort of personal and intellectual challenge: something between an effort of will and a determination to prove that what I had been saying about this disease—that it doesn’t affect your mind—was externally verifiable.

The next stage came when the New York Review offered to publish a polished version of the recorded lecture and various people, beginning with my agent, urged me to think of it as a book. Initially I declined, put off by the prospect of the work. Then I began to see a shape—and, of course, another challenge. The latter proved both huge and quite manageable: the bit that I thought would be hard—dictating a whole book from cold—became surprisingly familiar thanks to a fantastic assistant; the organization took shape thanks to nocturnal mental exercises as I have described. I suppose the book would have been a little tighter and maybe more methodologically consequential if I had done it the old way. But it would surely have lacked the energy and anger.

PJ: The other thing I notice about Ill Fares the Land is a sense of a generational “handing over.” The book often feels like a primer for those—like your sons—in their teens, who have little idea of the Keynesian post-war consensus (i.e. the state saves capitalism) that obtained both in Western Europe and the US in the thirty years after World War II. You then follow the neo-liberal dismantlement of those ideas of intervention, basically from the late 1970s onwards, and the social, political and even historical costs of this, especially in the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe.

TJ: Yes. I was conscious of this: having had to back-and-fill for my sons Daniel and Nicholas when explaining aspects of my lecture after the fact. And it really is the case that for the last decade on and off I have been talking these things through with students for whom all of that is, if not completely news, then certainly ancient history. And I do think that one of the original aspects of the book is my insistence on the “back to the future” aspect: that sometimes the best future entails recovering good pasts.

PJ: But there’s one question I have about this generational handing over. It was your generation, the baby boomers, the children of the 1960s, who felt the real benefit of social democratic security who also oversaw its dismantling. One could say the last thirty years have been accompanied by the grating sound of a whole generation pulling up the ladder behind them. I feel the anger, range of reference and intelligence in your response to this. But I’m not sure I detect an acknowledgement of any complicity.

TJ: Okay, okay. But I do say, again and again, that we 1960s people threw it away. Yes, the sound of a whole generation pulling up the ladder is not inaudible to me either, but I don’t feel complicit. I don’t recall ever being swept into the vortex of the “me” generation, nor did I ever believe that the personal is political, much less that we can afford to throw away the security blankets of the postwar years and just indulge.

God knows I can think of enough things that I did wrong both personally and as part of my cohort. But I never abandoned what I thought of as the benefits of the postwar consensus in favour of sectional advantage. Actually, I was always a bit awkward in this as other respects. As you know, I was against root-and-branch school comprehensivization on the grounds that the postwar arrangements combining meritocracy with opportunity, while imperfect and logically indefensible, were better than the radical schemes on offer – which have trashed much of the pedagogical gains of the early postwar decades.

In the same way, I never liked New Labour—something about the smug enthusiasm for success and wealth and public celebrity grated on my austerity-raised postwar personality. I recall a dinner party back in 1998 I believe, full of New Labourites and the more socially fashionable liberals. I hated it and felt old and Michael Footish. At the same time, the Labour party of Tony Benn always seemed provincial and deluded to me, for the obvious reasons. So I’m just an awkward customer, I guess.

PJ: You said earlier that you tended to avoid the first person in your writing. But in the last few months that inhibition has gone and you’ve published some very personal pieces in the NYRB, about Revolution, Girls, Cars, Trains, even Putney. These aren’t memoirs in the traditional sense of preserving individual identity for future record. Indeed, they feel more like something else: where in the awful nocturnal immobility of the night you use your memory to make new connections, connections so dense, rich, often comic, sometimes tragic, that they go beyond narrative to something almost poetic.

TJ: Thanks! It really doesn’t always feel like that, but looking back I see a few good phrases…

PJ: I know you don’t write these in the traditional way, but compose them in your head using the classic ars memoria in the long empty hours of the night, and then dictate them in the morning. My sense is that these are not elegiac—setting yourself down for posterity—or angry ravings against the dying of the light, but a matter of more urgent personal survival: making sense of things, now, for you,

TJ: Yes. Certainly not Dylan Thomas. More a sense that I see better now than I could have done before the shape of all the little wholes of my life, even though I am seeing them now from the perspective of one very large incomplete. I don’t think I enjoyed living as much as I should have done—too busy thinking about it all the time. So now I am enjoying thinking about it (which is a different sort of thinking) and getting as close to enjoying it in the moment as retrieved memory will permit.

I do, though, note an occasional temptation to slip into analytical moralizing via past memory—another déformation professionnelle. I don’t altogether resist it, just try to keep it under control. It’s also, of course, my way of making sense of things. Not the only possible way—perhaps not even the only way that I might once have gone (in school I was better at literature than history and was urged by various interested parties to go in that direction, but something pulled me back).

PJ: Now that you’ve finished the book, will the disease allow you to compose more?

TJ: In one sense, yes. It’s getting a little harder to dictate, but only because of the irritating secondary symptoms: phlegm mostly. But if I wanted to write something, I certainly could. What will be an issue will be energy and concentration versus alternative claims upon them (e.g. boys); and also perhaps the difficulty of writing non-urgent texts, where huge bursts of mental energy are less forthcoming and sustained concentration is the problem. I truly don’t yet know the answer.

  1. February 10, 2011

    Constance Ellis

    I am a late reader of this superb interview. Peter, what a sensitive and
    preceptive job! You got Tony at his best in the face of dire circumstances.
    Your description of his memoire pieces in NYRB is spot on. I am grateful that Tony had the benefit of your admiration and your friendship.
    Vive le Forum!
    Connie Ellis

  2. October 8, 2011


    Interesting flowing enjoyable and brought the mans views to life with his character – so a fitting tribute.

    Just heard bad faith on the radio and really enjoyed it. Deeply held beliefs came across with authenticity and humour. I worked in a prison for ten years and live in St Pauls Bristol and it was good to hear something that reflected.

Leave a comment


Peter Jukes

Peter Jukes writes for print, stage, television, radio, and now online 

Share this

Most Read

Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times

Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia