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Tony Judt: the last public intellectual?

In this collection of conversations recorded shortly before his death, Judt reveals a tremendous command of his subject but also an unwillingness to face up to the left’s failings.

Neil Davenport

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Twenty-one years ago, an American-Japanese academic, Francis Fukuyama, wrote an essay called ‘The End of History’. His argument was that the collapse of Stalinist communism in Eastern Europe vindicated the supremacy of liberal-capitalist democracies. For Fukuyama, ‘this was it’ for human progress. Capitalist triumphalism, however, barely lasted 12 months, let alone a lifetime, as Western political elites ended up as disorientated and as demoralised as radical left-wingers. Incredibly, by the mid-1990s, Marx’s political economy was back in academic vogue in the United States, while Western politicians often flattered the moral grandstanding of ‘anti-capitalist’ protesters. From that point on, a consensus has emerged that says economic growth isn’t all its cracked up to be and the state is to be cherished and worshipped. In 2012, who would have thought that ‘The End of History’ would look like Sweden?

This is the conclusion of the late British historian Tony Judt in his interviews with an American historian, Timothy Snyder, in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Judt came to prominence for his brilliant 2005 book, Postwar, a panoramic survey of European societies since 1945 onwards. In 2008, Judt discovered that he was suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), an incurable degenerative disease. Over a two-year period, Snyder records and transcribes a series of conversations that cover both Judt’s life and intellectual pursuits by way of the tumultuous events of the last century. Judt died in August 2010, 62 years old, just a few weeks after dictating a final afterword to this book.

The format works surprisingly well. Judt relishes his role as a public intellectual and makes accessible huge swathes of history and ideas throughout the book’s 400 pages. There are never any lapses into impenetrable jargon or academic riddles. The book is tremendously lucid and informed, thoughtful and engaging. Credit must be given to Snyder who, rather than stamping on the coat tails of Judt’s intellect, proffers sharp questions and observations only intermittently. When he does, it serves as a striking reminder that this is a conversation, not an academic monologue. Mostly we are left to marvel at Judt’s command of his material, his knowledge, intellect and insights, as they’re casually reeled off into a digital recorder. The working-class ex-grammar school boy makes attractive and vital something that has been relentlessly and scandalously attacked in recent decades: a liberal, humanities-based education.

Born in London in 1948, into a Jewish immigrant family, Judt travelled geographically (Israel, Paris and New York) and intellectually (Zionism, Marxism and social democracy) and, with each turn, he shed a number of illusions. He plausibly argues that you can only properly understand the twentieth century if you can share or at least understand many of its illusions. As an idealistic 15-year-old, he bought into the kibbutz vision of Israel and took part in building the Zionist state during the 1960s. Like many with his left-wing background, he had become disillusioned and scathingly critical of Israel by the early 1990s.

Judt gave much of his early career to the history of the French left, but could not buy into their assumption that the Russian Revolution was merely the continuation of 1789. And to his credit, he saw through the cultural studies, Marcuse-era left of 1968, too. As he rightly puts it, ‘my residual socialist-Marxist formation made me instinctively suspicious of the popular notion that students might now be a – the – revolutionary class’. He was also spot on about how the cultural left fragmented history as a discipline into competing ‘narratives’.

These are all sharp, well-observed points. So it’s a pity that, like so many left-leaning academics before him, he retained that most durable of illusions: belief in the credibility of the British Labour Party’s social democracy. For someone so well versed in Marxism and interwar radicalism, it’s surprising that he remained steadfastly quiet about the real purpose of social democracy. And if he was feeling generous about its achievements, he doesn’t nail down social democracy’s strengths during its postwar heyday, either. Although he used the social-democracy banner to describe contemporary politics both in Britain and Europe, there’s no awareness of how ‘parliamentary socialism’ has come to mean something very different in the twenty-first century.

Nevertheless, his potted history of social democracy and his explanation of the appeal of Keynesianism for the elites are often insightful. Rooted in the grave crisis of confidence in the free market in the 1930s, he outlines that, far from a radical innovation, state intervention was the norm from Hitler to Stalin, through to Britain and France. It is true that Keynesianism plays an important part in the DNA of social democracy, but at no point does Judt discuss social democracy as the ‘great compromise’ between capital and labour, the reconciling of the working class to a social system that is not run in its interests. Like so many before him, he sees social democracy as the great slayer of both Nazism and Stalinist forms of totalitarianism and as the bright new dawn of progress. But social democracy was always designed to halt genuine progress by preventing ordinary people having meaningful decision-making power over how society is organised. By accepting the notion that social democracy was progressive, Judt was buying into well-worn, wrongheaded notions that the ‘people’s war’ paved the way for positive change in the postwar set up.

There is no denying that changes to living standards and liberties made the 1960s a dynamic, optimistic period. But there is little sense here of how social democracy furnished the era with a set of beliefs and values that successfully cohered society together. It would be crude, and wrong, to see social-democratic values as anchored around welfarism and state support. Rather, social democracy promoted liberal meritocratic values that believed the brightest and the best, from whatever social background, should be able to reach the very highest positions in society. The crumbling of deference and the old, fossilised social order opened up society to ordinary people like never before. Far from social democracy encouraging state dependence, the idea of the Good Society – based on rising living standards and greater individual freedoms – was based upon a set of beliefs shared by millions of people in society.

Of course, there were always limitations to the promise of the Good Society, particularly when the economy faltered. But the important point here is that the political class at least had a vision of society to cohere people around. Millions of people had a clear sense of what society stood for and political engagement was relatively high. Very few politicians would insult the intelligence and the autonomy of citizens in the way that is commonplace today. Whether they were Labour or Conservative, politicians attempted to engage citizens through ideas and beliefs rather than bribes or authoritarianism. Social democracy always had a technocratic and even managerial dimension to it, but it was still underpinned by readily identifiable ideas and beliefs, none of which Judt appeared willing to interrogate.

Although Judt has a commanding, authoritative understanding of the overall direction of the twentieth century, he is weaker on understanding how that century ended: post-ideological and post-political, micro-meddling rather than macro-planning. As a result, his enthusiasm for social democracy is on the level of pragmatic (everything else has failed) and technical grounds only. For such an eminent historian, his portrait of social democracy is curiously ahistorical. By avoiding any discussion of what social democracy stood for, and why millions bought into it, he thus fails to understand how it changed over the past 20 years. Emptied of any ideological coherence, social democracy evolved into the ‘Third Way’, based on communitarian notions that unchecked individualism needs to be tightly monitored. That instrumental relationship to citizens, built on bribes and coercion, replaced an open-ended relationship based on beliefs and ideas.

As a consequence, the state, as a conduit for managerial instrumentalism, plays a far greater role today than even during the years of the postwar consensus. In an era bereft of language, beliefs and ideas to engage the masses with, state meddling fills the vacuum where politics once was. Oddly enough, while Judt is correct to talk about ‘the politics of fear’, he reckons that social democracy’s new role is to act as a ‘challenger’ to fearmongering. Far from it. The instrumentalist, liberty-hating twist of neo-social democracy has been among the biggest motors of the politics of fear – all the better to justify further state encroachment on people’s autonomy.

In this sense, Judt was an apt public intellectual for the twenty-first century as much as a chronicler of the twentieth. He eloquently articulates the baby-boomer generation’s experience of political defeat and dashed dreams. From the first ambitions of Zionism, through to Marxism and Sixties radicalism, Judt was committed to, and became disillusioned by, all of them. That such a brilliant historian could only envisage politics in its current statist form reveals just how deep that disillusion ran for the brightest of that generation.

Neil Davenport is a politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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