Monday, August 16, 2010


The many tributes, even the few barbs, that have appeared since Tony Judt died a week ago in New York aged 62 are their own testament to one of the most brilliant and rational public intellectuals of the past 50 years.

He was an academic historian but his life was very much of the present. So was his death, from the motor neurone affliction, diagnosed two years ago, that Americans call Lou Gehrig’s disease. (“Progressive imprisonment without parole,” Judt called it.) Encased in a steel tube, unable to breathe unassisted or move his limbs, he dictated a most extraordinary and moving series of recollections and reflections that was published in The New York Review of Books, the most recent two weeks ago.

Four countries influenced his life and work: Britain, where he was born and educated; the US, his home for the last quarter-century; France, from some of whose intellectuals he drew such inspiration; and, most controversially, Israel, best summed up in his pithy line, “You don’t have to be Jewish to be critical of Israel – but it helps.” Unlike so many of his intellectual peers, he never followed fashion or the moods of the moment. He remained a social democrat to the core but could be as critical of cant and dogma on the left as on the right, in politics and academia. This stood in marked contrast to so many who flocked to neo-liberalism or neo-conservatism or who became cheerleaders for the US invasion of Iraq. He was always clear-eyed about the real world....

At school in Putney, a German teacher, Joe Craddock, got his mental juices flowing, propelling him to Cambridge and a degree in history. He then spent a year at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, earning his doctorate from Cambridge in 1972. His dissertation, published in 1976 as his first book, was on French socialism after the first world war, which drew him to his guiding stars, Leon Blum, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, intellectuals of the left often critical of their own. Commensurately he became contemptuous of fellow travellers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who represented “the uneasy conscience and moral cowardice of an intellectual generation”....

A prolific writer of books and articles and a stimulating lecturer and public speaker, Judt was clearly in his element in cut-and-thrust New York. In a recent newspaper interview, he said: “Today, I’m regarded outside NYU as a looney-tunes leftie, self-hating, Jewish communist. Inside the university, I’m regarded as a typical, old-fashioned, white, male, liberal elitist. I like that, living on the edge of both, it makes me feel comfortable.”

While relishing the combat, he may have been taken aback by the ferocity of the storm that followed his 2003 article in The New York Review of Books, “Israel: the Alternative”. It described the Jewish state as “an anachronism” and argued that Zionism’s ethno-religious exclusivity be replaced by an inclusive liberal democracy. In effect, it called for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian impasse, as he did again in a New York Times column only last month.

The Jewish lobby, keenly aware of his standing, took great offence. He was fired as a contributing editor to The New Republic magazine, whose literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, charged that Judt had become “the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised”. Three years later a speech at the Polish consulate in New York was cancelled after protests from Zionists. His defence of an article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the excessive influence of the Jewish lobby over US foreign policy fanned the flames.

His legacy and philosophy lie in his words, written and spoken: “I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community.” In the same vein, he liked to quote Camus: “If there were a party of those who are not sure they are right, I’d belong to it.”

There was humour, too. Last October he addressedockquote 700 people in Greenwich Village on European social democracy (working to the end, he turned it into his final book, Ill Fares the Land). He arrived on stage sheathed in metal, literally, and said, “a talking head . . . wearing facial Tupperware”. It had been suggested that he say something uplifting about his condition, “but I’m English, we don’t do uplifting”. He then spoke for two hours, without notes, the audience spellbound.

After two earlier marriages, he wed Jennifer Homans, the dance critic, in 1993. She survives him, along with their two sons. Your obituarist feels beholden to Tony Judt. We never met, but he once sent me an e-mail complimentary of something I had written. I walked on air for weeks.

Jurek Martin, "Clear-eyed academic unafraid to defy the consensus," 14 August 2010,

"Francois Furet was a public intellectual whose qualities as an 'insider' did not prevent him being treated at various times and in various circles as an outsider and even a renegade. Like them, he went against the grain, in Furet's case twice over: first by undermining and recasting the history of the Revolution, France's "national foundation myth," and then publishing, late in life, an enormously influential essay on Communism, the myth (or illusion, in Furet's words) of the twentieth century. Like them, he was at times better appreciated abroad than at home. And like them, his influence and ideas have triumphed over his critics and will surely outlast them. It has been widely observed that there was not and is not a Furet school of French history. But then there is no Aron school of French social thought, no Camus school of French moralists, no Blum school of French social democracy. These men did not stand for some contending version of French intellectual or political engagement; they stood, in the end, only for themselves and what they believed".

Tony Judt, 'Preface' to The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century. 1998, p. viii.

Unlike Mr. Jurek Martin, I met and knew Tony Judt. Not by any means 'well', but still I did know him. Back in anno domini 1991, I took a doctoral seminar on the subject matter, which became what will in retrospect be regarded as the subject of his magnum opus: 'Post-war Europe'. He also informally supervised my doctoral seminar paper on British foreign policy in the post-1945 period. Prior to that I of course had heard of him, as he was regarded as one of the leading (not by the bye, 'the leading') lights in the History Department of New York University. A great polymath and teacher, his classes were quite popular with the more intelligent 'Europeanists' in the department. I had of course known of him a bit before even that: the first time being when I read an essay of his in a now obscure, gauchiste periodical, which dealt I thought, both intelligently & sensitively with the subject matter of cinema and post-war Europe (see: Tony Judt, "Moving Pictures," Radical History Review, Spring, 1988, pp. 129-144.). Within a few years, his first well known work ("Past Imperfect") was published to mostly positive reviews in the leading intelligentsia periodicals of the Anglophone world (New York Review / TLS / London Review, et cetera). From there on, he appeared to acquire ever greater and greater prominence and renown. Culminating with the tragic story of his dying so early of motor neurone disease. An event which was made all the more poignant by the fact that he was so courageous and public about the fact that he did not have much more to live. Something which was brought so directly by the lecture that he gave a little under a year ago, at NYU. Where he was wheeled in to the lecture hall, breathing & speaking via a special tube to a spellbound audience (I being among them). The superb series of personal essays that he wrote in the New York Review in the last six months of his life only adding to the sense of loss.

With all that being said, how does one 'place' Judt in the wider frame of the historical profession and his position in the post-war / post-cold war Anglo-American intelligentsia? Without of course being necessarily negative (since I have always had the utmost admiration for him), I cannot quite bring myself to agree with the type of unthinking acclaim that people like Jurek Martin laud him with. The reason? Well, first that from the vantage point of a historian, it would be more accurate to regard Judt as being someone who never quite fulfilled his potential. Not that his opus is not in its own way impressive. Merely that in retrospect, he never quite became one of the grande maitre `a penser of the historical profession (think Braudel, think Elton, think Stone, think Thompson, think Pocock, think indeed Furet). And, it is perhaps the case, that au fond, he had no real interest in becoming one. Which explains I think his switch, relatively early in his career from historical specialist in early 20th century French history, to a larger and broader subject matter of post-war Europe, with a particular interest in Central and Eastern Europe (actually really just the former and not much of the latter). Of course this partial change of interest was not something which Judt alone managed. Without necessarily belittling his own partial transformation, it would be accurate to say that Judt was following down a path which had already been followed by a good number of the people in the Anglo-American intelligentsia. As Judt himself pointed out subsequently, after being neglected for a good number of years after 1945, tout a coup,Central Europe became all of the sudden 'sexy' and interesting. These were the years of Timothy Garten Ash's essays in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, of Neal Ascherson's pieces in the New Yorker, indeed of Milan Kundera's roman, 'The Unbearable lightness of Being,' being published in its entirety in that periodical (something unimaginable today of course). In his growing interest in Central Europe and his drawing away from specializing in purely French intellectual, nay indeed French history tout court, Judt was merely an example of much greater trend of his generation. Both of intellectuals and to a lesser degree historians. Again, this is not necessarily a 'bad thing', but, it does give the lie to a degree to the idea that he was necessarily a fearless, Camus-like / Aron-like intellectual loner. Similarly, his 'coming-out', as a critic of the State of Israel and Zionism, in the past ten years or so, while quite laudable, was hardly the stuff that heroes are made of. As an intellectual / historical critique, Judt's position was little different from the standard issue criticism that one could find (as indeed I remember finding thirty years ago) on the Left, from such individuals as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said (the latter being someone who Judt had a very high opinion of). And, while his criticisms of Israeli politics were more interesting by virtue of the fact that they were from someone who for awhile was a believer in the Zionist project, that per se did not make them any more cogent or for that matter unusual. Especially, once one looks at them from outside the purely American / New York perspective. Indeed, from a European perspective his criticisms were rather mainstream in fact.

To sum up, I would regard Tony Judt as following in the best traditions of the Oxbridge academic. One part maverick, one part mandarin (think A.J.P. Taylor, think Trevor-Roper, think Hobsbawm). Someone who was a great stylist and publicist, who garners great attention from both the lay educated public and the intelligentsia (both academic and non-academic). His passing to a certain extent marks a passing of a unique product of a time and a place which perhaps we may not ever see re-produced. Something which I believe he himself was a to a degree aware of at the end of his life. In short, Judt was very much akin in a specifically Anglo-American way, to those great French intellectuals of the mid-20th century (Aron, Camus, et. al) who he himself celebrated and admired.


At 1:34 AM, Blogger bungle said...

Tony Robert Judt will be remembered by the world.
Charles Coutinho won't.


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