Sunday, May 12, 2013

Tony Judt and the Anticommunist Left

Writing the history of the recent past is always a highly political act. Historians who take up the big events of the past century often become public figures, their books treated as newsworthy events. After all, we regularly look to recent events as guides or warnings about what we should do now, and anyone who writes a book about, say, the origin of the European Union, or the American conservative movement in the 1960s, is begging to be asked what light his or her book sheds on contemporary events.

Tony Judt is a good example. Judt was a historian who insisted that properly understanding the recent past is crucial to acting wisely in our own time. Our problem, he wrote, is not ignoring the past; "the characteristic mistake of the present is to cite it in ignorance. . . . Without history, memory is open to abuse."

Judt died in 2010 at the age of 62, of ALS, and his unfinished last book has been brought to print by his friend and collaborator Timothy Snyder. The title is Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century. The book is mainly a record of conversations between the two men, interspersed with stories about Judt's own life. If you have any curiosity about this book or Judt's career, I recommend a wonderful review essay in the TLS by Geoffrey Wheatcroft.

Judt was a British Jew who lived much of his life in New York. He flirted briefly with Marxism in his youth but gave it up for a more soft-hearted leftism, and for most of his career he was an anti-communist social democrat. He was a controversialist, and in his books and articles he has directed most of his fire against others of the left. He angered many on the French left by repeatedly attacking the Stalinist leanings of their leading figures -- Sartre, Althusser, de Beauvoir -- asking why anyone would take seriously the thoughts of people who apologized for or tried to cover up Stalin's atrocities. In the 1980s Judt learned Czech on a whim, and he was thus in a great position to report on, and then write about, the events of 1989. This experience sealed his estrangement from Europe's left-wing tradition -- he understood immediately the great appeal of capitalism and market freedom to people emerging from communist tyranny.

And yet he always remained a man of the left, deeply worried about economic inequality and capitalism's other weaknesses. He was also strongly anti-war, and he got back in the news in the early 2000s by launching angry attacks on the "liberal interventionists" -- his term was "useful idiots" -- who supported Bush's invasion of Iraq. He was extremely suspicious of increasing European unity and worried that the European Union was at its base a project of enlightened despotism, led by intellectuals and businessmen who hated democracy and were tired of having always to consult and woo the voters. Even before the current economic collapse, he wrote that each step toward greater unification had followed the same pattern:
the real or apparent logic of mutual economic advantage not sufficing to account for the complexity of its formal arrangements, there has been invoked a sort of ontological ethic of political community; projected backward, the latter is then adduced to account the the gains made thus far and to justify further unificatory efforts. It is hard to resist recalling George Santayana's definition of fanaticism: redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.
Judt was also very involved in Jewish issues, lived for a while on a kibbutz, and wrote several times on the fate of Jews under Stalin, yet in the end he turned against the whole project of Israel as a Jewish state. Not seeing any way for Israel to continue without a degree of militarization and police state repression that he could not stand, he renounced the whole idea.

Which brings me to the corner into which liberalism has painted itself, or been painted by history, in my time. Are the means we are willing to use adequate to achieve our ends? To be a liberal is to be dubious of the triumph of capitalism and very worried about the fate of ordinary people in a world of billionaires and giant international corporations. Yet it also means renouncing the only real alternative that has ever been tried, state socialism. It means hating dictatorships and extremist regimes, but believing that their violent overthrow, either by internal revolution or foreign invasion, will inevitably lead to further awful problems and may only makes things worse. Against their longing for radical actions, bold solutions, and clear-cut distinctions, liberals always have to set their fear of violent conflict, distrust of state power, and humility about the failures of the leftist past.

But if you are against tradition and revolution, capitalism and socialism, what are you for? The renunciation of combat, whether military or political, leaves us no way forward but the sort of negotiated half-measures that have become the liberal specialty in the US and Europe: thousand-page long laws with clauses crafted to avoid damaging anyone's interests, and loaded with billion-dollar gifts strewn in all directions so as to create a coalition big enough to overcome conservative intransigence. Liberalism leads, not to bold action or revolutionary change, but to the Affordable Care Act. And that right there will tell you why so many liberals of Judt's generation turned to conservatism. Judt did not; for him the creation in postwar democracies of a world without fear of want was one of humanity's greatest achievements. Of the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution he says, "It seems to me that the resurgence of fear, and the political consequences it evokes, offer the strongest argument for social democracy that one could possibly make." Asked by Snyder if it will take another era of world war and depression to bring that spirit back, Judt answered no. It is up to intellectuals, he said,
to remake the argument about the nature of the public good. . . . This is going to be a long road. But it would be irresponsible to pretend that there is any serious alternative.

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