Monday, October 29, 2012


Tony Judt was a British-cum-American historian who composed the magnum opus "POSTWAR", one of the finest works of history I've ever read, and which I reviewed here. His major critical and historical dalliances have been with the public intellectuals of the 20th century, but more broadly, the history of the 20th century in general – especially the European 20th century. Self-deprecating, witty, combative and self-assured, Judt did much credit himself to the notion of the "public intellectual", rehabilitating the phrase from the academy and the social-justice Left. Unfortunately, he passed away two years ago from ALS, a disease that withers everything but the mind. Judt, knowing that his days were few, composed this part-autobiography, part-history, part-essay collection by dictating it to fellow historian Timothy Snyder (whose idea this book actually was). I'm a big fan of Snyder's as well – my review of his "BLOODLANDS" is here – and these two giants together makes for an exceptionally thought-provoking, if wide-ranging book.

"THINKING THE TWENTIETH CENTURY" is nominally about Judt's early life as a British Jew borne of Marxists, and his wholesale, somewhat belated embrace of both Judaism and Marxist thought, as he become sentient enough to connect the strands of both. Typical of the book, a discussion of how Judt became a short-term Israel-dwelling Zionist in the late 60s then veers into an entire discussion of how the United States as a country came to venerate Israel, and how the Holocaust slowly made its way through world consciousness both during and (way) after World War II. Judt shed his Zionism and his Marxism fairly quickly, by the late 60s, and was extremely moved by intellectuals such as Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt and George Orwell who spoke stridently about totalitarianism in their own unique ways.

It's actually a bit of the thrill to see these two authors engage in vigorous debate and discussion about figures such as these, and to work hard to place themselves in the historical place & time in which they're writing and discussing. Judt has no patience for the revisionist historian who doesn't work at understanding the times and morals in which a historical event or passage took place, and a good chapter or two is taken up discussing – more interestingly than you'd think – the proper role of the historian. Topics are deftly weaved in and out of this semi-narrative, including imperialism; Winston Churchill; the role of the Spanish civil war in forming the consciousness of certain intellectuals; a strong and brutal critique of the various "-isms" (feminism, Black Studies etc.) that came to dominate higher historical teaching, especially in the US; the misbegotten appeal of Communism to many smart people; the history of the French Left; and so on.

Judt himself swerved from being a straight-up academic historian and writer of books on history in the 1990s, when he began to engage in composing political essays on current topics for the New York Review of Books. While definitely a man of the left, he articulates a fully-formed, non namby-pamby defense of "social democracy", which he generally means to be a capitalist model with a very strong role played by the government in protecting human welfare. He's annoyingly dismissive about, say, the Margaret Thatcher years in Britain, obsessing over "massive social alienation" that apparently occurred in the 1980s there and made Britian far worse of a place than it otherwise might have been under, say, a Labor government. Laughable. Yet his model society and arguments for it deserve some credit for generally being well-thought out – or at least well-articulated. I don't totally buy them, but I like that it's Judt who's making them.

I know that I was a little daunted by "Thinking the Twentieth Century" when I first encountered it, assuming that it might spin off into a navel-gazing contest between two great thinkers. Turns out that it's really gripping stuff when you get into it, and further underscores the loss suffered by humanity and by deeper thought in losing Mr. Judt at a relatively young-ish age.