Orwell’s heir?

Historian Tony Judt brilliantly dissected the failings of liberalism. But in the end he fell into the same traps
January 25, 2012
New century, new ideas: “The Revolt” (1911) by the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo

Thinking the Twentieth Centuryby Tony Judt (William Heineman, £25)

“The twentieth century,” Tony Judt asserts in this luminous book of conversations with the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “is the century of the intellectuals.” What does it say about intellectuals, then, that the century in which they exercised so much influence on policymaking and public opinion was also the bloodiest in history? There are some sobering answers—few of them flattering—in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Published two years after Judt’s death from motor neurone disease, this book contains his final views on politics and economics and on a range of thinkers from Keynes to Eric Hobsbawm.

A relatively obscure British academic based in New York, Judt refashioned himself in the last decade of his life into a strikingly bold and prominent public intellectual. Published in 2005, his masterpiece Postwar, a panoramic account of Europe after the second world war, broadened his reputation as a scholar of French intellectual history. But Judt was to become even better known for his eloquent defence of the old values of good governance, social and economic justice, and his attacks on his peers—western liberal intellectuals—for having succumbed to the false consolations of dogma and the blandishments of power.

Judt valiantly tried to resurrect a faded ideal: of the unaffiliated intellectual who told the truth as he saw it, as opposed to those who appealed to the higher “truths” of nationalism, human rights, security interests, neo-imperialism, or some other abstraction. “The distinctive feature,” he argued in 2006, “of the liberal intellectual in past times was precisely the striving for universality; not the unworldly or disingenuous denial of sectional interest but the sustained effort to transcend that interest.” In the end, Judt himself did not overcome the failings of post-war liberalism that he so brilliantly illuminated. But few of his contemporaries seem to have been as aware as Judt of the many traps—the seductions of higher status as well as of ideology—which the 20th century laid for intellectuals.

As Judt’s book relates, the raucously polemical century began with the obviously malign thinkers on the right such as the antisemitic newspaper editor Edouard Drumant and the fascist Robert Brasillach. These were followed by the idealistic thinkers on the left whose endeavour to make a better world for all of humanity ended in, as Albert Camus wrote, “slave camps under the flag of freedom,” and “massacres justified by philanthropy.”

After two world wars and the Holocaust came an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity in the west—the perfect interlude, you might think, for intellectuals to uphold their oft-asserted ideals of reason and justice. But the cold war seems to have enhanced the capacity of writers, academics, politicians and journalists for terrible ideological choices. Stalinism and the gulag did not lack for apologists in the west. Nor did the unconscionable nuclear build-up at home, and the destructive proxy wars abroad for the sake of the “free world.”

As intellectual life was professionalised in the postwar period, universities and think tanks expanded, bringing previously unheard-of material rewards for those pursuing the life of the mind. Various “systems analysts” and “game theorists,” such as Herman Kahn, a connoisseur of thermonuclear war, proliferated around military-industrial complexes. Many more scholar-experts like Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger eagerly helped advance and justify American policies in the cold war.

In a prodigiously successful postwar America, the old notion of the freelance intellectual, who questioned all verities, including his own, was threatened with irrelevance. In his influential book The End of Ideology (1960), the American sociologist Daniel Bell proposed that the overwhelming superiority of the American model of industrial capitalism and democracy over communism had rendered intellectual debate moot. According to Bell, there was a “rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues: the acceptance of a Welfare State; the desirability of decentralized power; a system of mixed economy and of political pluralism.” Furthermore, Bell added, America’s “affluent” society could find a place, even “prestige” for even its most bitter former critics.

Indeed, no one moved faster to realise this possibility, and whisper advice to power, than the ex-Marxist radicals of Bell’s own generation: Irving Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Norman Podhoretz. They were the first neoconservatives and precursors to today’s Washington-based intellectuals who derive their salaries from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the Weekly Standard and affirm their allegiance in turn to the right wing of the Republican party.

Towards the end of his life, Judt, born in 1948, became queasily aware that many liberals of his own generation—a “pretty crappy” one in his unforgiving assessment—had also followed the neocon trajectory, retreating, as he put it, “from the radical nostrums of youth into the all-consuming business of material accumulation and personal security.” Unlike Bell’s cohorts, who had their first political awakening in the mean 1930s, Judt’s peers “grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political.” His generation came to maturity as the bland postwar consensus in favour of the welfare state gave way, after the economic crises of the 1970s, to Reagan-Thatcher neo-liberalism. When the Berlin wall collapsed, Judt’s compatriots were ensconced in universities, the media and think tanks. Having lived with the menace of communism for most of their lives, few were immune to the belief that liberal democracy and capitalism had “won.”

Over the following years, from the disastrous social and political engineering in Russia by free-marketeers to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, many intellectuals were to ignore classical liberalism’s exhortation to moderation and self-scrutiny. Instead, they became vulnerable to the hubristic ambition that had once flourished among their communist rivals. Many adopted the view that political and economic systems originating in one small part of the world could be exported anywhere with sufficient application of will and resources. The Canadian liberal Michael Ignatieff approvingly described the United States as “an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.”


Thinking the Twentieth Century, incandescent on every page with intellectual energy, recounts how Tony Judt managed to escape the delusions of his pretty crappy generation after a conventional start. He outlines in his conversations with Snyder a fairly orthodox career of an Anglo-American academic: stints at Oxbridge and Berkeley, specialist studies in French intellectual history, which in the 1980s broadened into an interest in east Europe, all of this interspersed with minor marital crises.

There seems something conventional, too, about Judt’s early cold-war liberalism. If he absorbed from the French intellectual Raymond Aron an obsession with Marxism, he took from Camus a broader distrust of vulgar instrumentalists—those who claimed that eggs had to be broken in order to make omelettes. This training made him contemptuous of communism and its variants, such as Maoism, that justified sordid means by positing noble ends.

Yet like many anti-communist liberals, Judt did not apply these principles to the practices of modernisation supported by the west in the third world. Meant to usher rural societies into industrial capitalism with western tools and expertise, these top-down measures were often, as with Iran under the Shah, accompanied by immense violence. Nor did he have much to say about the “free” world’s support of fanatical Islamists in Afghanistan.

It was as though Judt could not overcome the partial visions of liberalism—an “ideology of the rich,” the Irish critic Conor Cruise O’Brien declared once, “the elevation into universal values of the codes which favoured the emergence, and favour the continuance, of capitalist society.”

Liberalism had accumulated its persuasive power in western Europe during the heyday of industrial capitalism and imperialism. Battered and on the defensive during the intra-European conflicts of the first half of the 20th century, it acquired, almost by default, a flattering self-definition during its ostensible struggles with the Third Reich and the miserable utopias of Soviet and Chinese communists. Many liberals came to see themselves as upholding a superior universalist ideology, an attitude that amounted in practice to a parochial disregard, even contempt, for other values and worldviews. Symptomatically, the “east” denoted eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the mainstream liberal perspective, not the vast unknown lands beyond the Aegean Sea, with whom Europe shared a deeply fraught history, and where the United States had, in the postwar era, picked up the white man’s burden.

Until the final decade of his life, Judt never seems to have been a vocal outlier. Before 2000 he had little to say about even decolonisation, which defined the second half of the 20th century, and was often violently resisted by the liberal-democratic west. On French colonialism in Algeria, Judt was prone to give the dithering humanist Camus an easier pass than did other critics. In Israel in 1967, Judt witnessed a country “that despised its neighbours and was about to open a catastrophic, generation-long rift with them by seizing and occupying their land.” But if the steady rise of settler-Zionism in Israel in the 1970s and 80s troubled Judt a lot, there is little hint of it in his writings. And Anglo-American Europeanists like himself, generally quiescent on economic issues, were hardly well-placed to take a stand against the neo-liberal orthodoxies that began their long reign under Reagan and Thatcher, or to point out that the Third Way of Clinton and Blair actually denoted, in the absence of a Second Way, a refurbished First Way.

Judt may have taken too seriously Raymond Aron’s straitjacketing notion, borrowed from Weber, of the responsibility of intellectuals: that they “must always face the decision of how to act in a given situation.” (In the case of Aron, a consummate “insider” in French politics, this meant keeping silent on torture in Algeria). In any case, before 2000 Judt never seems to have criticised the norms of an intellectual milieu where the concerns of European and American elites were paramount, and philosophy and history appeared essentially western in nature and provenance.


This is partly why Judt’s emergence as a critic of regnant wisdom in the wake of 9/11 caught many by surprise—especially those demoralised and depressed by the spectacle of western liberals (mostly American, but also some British and French) lining up to justify George W Bush and Tony Blair’s wars with such fig leaves as “humanitarian intervention,” “regime change,” and “democracy-promotion.”

Christopher Hitchens, overwhelmed by some “exhilarating” ideological clarity about “Islamo-fascism” on 9/11, had to dramatically renounce long-held principles and acrimoniously debate old mates. Many liberals of Judt’s generation didn’t even have to work this hard. For them it was the “good Fight,”—“reassuringly comparable,” Judt writes, “to their grandparents’ war against Fascism and their Cold War liberal parents’ stance against international Communism.” In reality it resembled more the ideological manias of the first world war, which turned a European liberal like Thomas Mann into a chest-thumping chauvinist and the American pragmatist John Dewey into a war-monger.

Eastern European intellectuals ennobled in the 1980s and 1990s—Václav Havel and Adam Michnik—also stood behind Bush and Blair. The temptation to follow his old heroes would have been immense for Judt. And such was the intellectual climate of conformity, particularly in America, that few liberals openly questioned the dominant narrative in which liberal democracy was under siege by “Islamo-fascism.” (In Britain, the dissenting voices were relatively conservative figures like Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Max Hastings, John Gray and Simon Jenkins). Ian Buruma’s mild reservations about the Islam-baiter Ayaan Hirsi Ali was to provoke a book-length assault on him by Paul Berman; Martin Amis’s sadistic fantasies about Muslims went unnoticed long after he first confided them to The Times; and a soft bigotry about Muslims and Islam in general has been the norm among many European and American liberal intellectuals.

Nevertheless, as Judt tells Snyder, “it seemed to me increasingly urgent… that we discuss uncomfortable matters openly at a time of self-censorship and conformity.” Judt also recognised his unique freedom and responsibility as a tenured academic. “Intellectuals with access to the media and job security in a university carry a distinctive responsibility in politically troubled times.” It helped, too, that Judt also possessed a subtle understanding of the paradoxes of the militant humanitarianism advocated by liberal intellectuals. Liberty is indeed, he tells Snyder “a universal human value.” But “ever since the nineteenth century, we have moved rather too easily from one man’s freedom to speak of collective freedoms, as though these were the same kind of things. But once you start talking about liberating a people, or bringing liberty as an abstraction, very different things begin to happen.”

Like Orwell, who did so much to rinse the English liberal-left of its cant and self-righteousness, Judt began after 9/11 to chip away at the mendacities and delusions of his own side. His timing couldn’t have been better. The ostentatious moralism of many of his peers stemmed from a growing crisis within liberalism. Deprived of its foil in the “east,” after 1989, liberalism had become complacent and directionless, passively endorsing neoconservative and neo-liberal fantasies of remaking the world. Liberals had come to depend on simple ideological oppositions and the satisfaction of standing with the victors of history. Judt was, as he tells Snyder, “not interested in winners”—an un-American moral and political disposition that allied him with those possessed of a tragic vision of history.

He was not going to follow the example of Isaiah Berlin, who, he tells Snyder in one of the sharp asides that pepper this book, largely owed his success in Anglo-American circles to “his reluctance to take a stand, his unwillingness to be ‘awkward’ about certain “controversial matters.” Judt’s own god of Zionism had died in 1967. Performing some delayed obsequies in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2003, Judt not only assailed the deceptions of the two-state solution, which, even as it recedes from sight, is invoked piously in liberal intellectual circles. Denouncing ethno-nationalism, he called for a single state that accommodated Palestinians as well as Israelis as full citizens.

Judt probably knew the costs of this: exclusion from at least some Anglo-American circles of influence. Many liberal intellectuals had consistently failed to publicly express any disquiet about reflexive American support for a country where, as Judt pointed out, long before this belief became a commonplace, political power had “shifted toward religious zealots and territorial fundamentalists.”

After his article on Israel appeared, Judt faced, in addition to brusquely curtailed friendships, organised boycotts and even some threats. Most members of homo academicus, a generally timid species, would have capitulated at this point. To his credit, Judt only grew bolder, using every available platform to amplify his ideas: the New York Review of Books, one of the few American periodicals to survive the intellectual fiasco of the last decade, as well as the Nation, where he praised such reviled figures as Edward Said and argued for the existence of the then taboo entity, the “Israel lobby.”

His prose, shorn of academic orotundity, acquired a sardonic vigour without congealing, like the late Christopher Hitchens’s style, into a bullying agglomeration of such adjectives as “sinister,” “creepy” and “totalitarian.” Judt’s review of a book on the cold war by John Lewis Gaddis is typical of his output during this period, criticising it as “perfectly adapted for contemporary America: an anxious country curiously detached from its own past as well as from the rest of the world and hungry for ‘a fireside fairytale with a happy ending.’”

As the global recession deepened, Judt also recognised that the liberals promoting democracy abroad had missed the big ideological shifts at home. The obsession with GDP and the fetishisation of individual wealth had shifted public debate from the moral realm of redistribution and justice to the narrowly utilitarian one of productivity and growth. “I think,” he tells Snyder, “we really are the victims of a discursive shift, since the late 1970s, towards economics. Intellectuals don’t ask if something is right or wrong, but whether a policy is efficient or inefficient.” Judt hoped that the young, forced now to deal with the mess left behind by his generation, would rediscover “the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes.”

This reinvention of social democracy was, as Judt himself probably recognised, too optimistic (and, in America, positively utopian). Proposing it, he seemed to be nostalgic about the immediate postwar era in which a nanny state nurtured middle-class intellectuals like himself. “The great victors of the twentieth century,” he tells Snyder, “were the nineteenth-century liberals whose successors created the welfare state in all its protean forms.”

His foray into intellectual antiquarianism not only simplified the history of capitalism; it also ignored the extent to which welfare-state liberalism depended on its existential rivalry with communism and the continuing economic somnolence of the “east” beyond the Aegean Sea. Not surprisingly, liberals nowadays offer no real solution, apart from a warmed-over Keynesianism, to the severest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s.

Judt, too, failed to see how liberalism, quietly complicit in the long history of unregulated capitalism outside the west, could not but fail to respond to the inequities of liberal capitalist democracy in the west itself, let alone the new threats of environmental degradation. Still, one cannot point out the limitations of Judt’s thought without admiring how intrepidly he, in his last years, pushed its limits—an intellectual journey that promised many more surprises when it was cruelly curtailed.

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