Historian Tony Judt brilliantly dissected the failings of liberalism. But in the end he fell into the same trapsby Pankaj Mishra / January 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
New century, new ideas: “The Revolt” (1911) by the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo
Thinking the Twentieth Century by 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,…