Tony Judt

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Tony Judt

Tony Judt, historian, died at the age of 62 in 2010.

A friend of mine sent me this article recently, which had some things I liked a lot. I had heard of Judt only tangentially but I might pick up a book of his soon:

Judt replies: "When we spoke of the Marxists we could begin with concepts. The fascists don't really have concepts. They have attitudes. They have distinctive responses to war, depression and backwardness. But they don't start out with a set of ideas that they then apply to the world." After summarizing the views and abilities of such thinkers, he offers an odd consolation: After the Second World War, "fascism lost its purchase.... the one thing that fascists do supremely well -- transforming angry minorities into large groups and large groups into crowds -- is now extraordinarily hard to accomplish."

Such insights lead to brilliant accounts of the French Popular Front, the Spanish Civil War, and the Moscow show trials -- which most people considered real trials for real crimes.

Judt observes that our parents and grandparents couldn't understand why Stalin, surrounded by enemies, destroyed the officer corps of the Red Army. They couldn't understand why the Nazis, fighting for their own survival, wasted resources on exterminating the Jews.

Then comes another insight: "Those who got the twentieth century right... had to be able to imagine a world for which there was no precedent. ... To be able to think the twentieth century in this way was extraordinarily difficult for contemporaries. For the same reason, many people reassured themselves that the Holocaust could not be happening, simply because it made no sense. ... This application to human behavior of a perfectly reasonable moral and political calculus, self-evident to men raised in the nineteenth century, simply did not work in the twentieth."

Part of the above seems rather nostalgic ("perfectly reasonable moral and political calculus," etc.) and I disagree that "fascism has lost its purchase"; but I like the suggestion that fascism is based on "attitudes."

More from Judt:

"If you look at the history of nations that maximized the virtues that we associated with democracy," he says, "you notice that what came first was constitutionality, rule of law, and the separation of powers. Democracy almost always came last."

The implications of that statement are shocking: Among other things, we were fools to go into Afghanistan to impose democracy on a country lacking the institutions that would keep democracy alive. "Democracy," he says, "is not the solution to the problem of unfree societies."


But Judt has more to say: "Mass democracy in an age of mass media means that, on the one hand, you can reveal very quickly that Bush stole the election, but on the other hand, much of the population doesn't care. ... Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy is not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or oligarchy; it's much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself.

"Democracies corrode quite fast; they corrode linguistically, or rhetorically, if you like -- that's the Orwellian point about language. They corrode because most people don't care very much about them."

I don't have much to disagree with the above.

Judt's come up once or twice on the boards before, for example here's a nice review from Fotheringay-Phipps of Ill Fares the Land:

A moving and inspiring short book, created under the ribs of death. Judt calls for a return to politics and civic engagement, to communal effort as the key to improvement. He decries our obsession with wealth, celebrity and the unregulated market. He is quite open in his advocacy of social democracy. He sees it not as some half-hearted compromise between capitalism and socialism, but as the power behind the years the French call ‘les trente glorieuses', that between 1945 and 1975 produced an unparalleled flowering of equality and opportunity. Judt criticizes the right, as might be expected, but also doesn't spare the left. Too often, he says, the left has been in such a hurry to embrace new utopias that it has failed to properly appreciate the considerable achievements of those who went before. As an historian, he reveres men like Beveridge and Keynes, who were able to tame the wilder excesses of capitalism and create a more equal society than had been possible a few years earlier.

The writing is masterly: urgent without being rushed, assured without being arrogant. He never yields to the temptation of overstating his case or shrieking condemnation. He maintains a grave, lapidary style fuelled by moral fervour. His spacious, cosmopolitan habits of mind and immense learning shine through. I was moved to find Judt quoting the great Leveller Colonel Rainborough: "The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he." I remember thirty years ago my father was near his own far too early death. Like Mr Judt, he "held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better". He wasn't a scholar but was widely read and had run across the Putney Army Debates somewhere. He quoted that line to me, marvelling at the greatness of ordinary men seized by a cause. Judt's book may be an act of filial piety for the social democrats who built the modern world.

According to his wikipedia page, he called himself a Marxist Zionist as a young man before dropping the Zionist in the 1960s (he earned the wrath of US Zionists by calling for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis). In his later life, he referred to himself as a "universal social democrat."

Do any babblers have experiences or opinions of Judt?


infracaninophile infracaninophile's picture

No, I had never heard of him but thank you for bringing him to our attention. I've just ordered Ill Fares the Land from the library and look forward to learning more. His newest book (I requested it, too) has a number of holds already on it but I will get it eventually.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Oh, great, infracaninophile! Make sure you check back in and let us know what you think. I think I might check out his last book too, the one in conversation with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century.