Liveblogging World War II: April 8, 1943
Ta-Nehisi Coates on Michael Kelly: Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?

Yes, George Orwell Is a Good "Plutarch's Lives" Partner for Tony Judt...

…not least because Eric Blair's various authorial personas and Eric Blair himself was a much more devious operator than was Orwell's self-presentation and the presentation of him his fans today make. Totally successful. Astonishingly right. But not quite the bluff, honest English truth-teller…

Geoffrey Wheatcroft has a very nice piece:

Professor Judt changes trains | TLS: [Eric] Hobsbawm says that, although Judt “has been presented as another George Orwell”, the comparison is inapt, and Pankaj Mishra’s scrupulously fair essay on Judt… is quizzically entitled “Orwell’s heir?”…. There has been only one thoroughgoing assault, by Dylan Riley in the New Left Review… very much less enthusiastic than either Mishra or Hobsbawm, which will come as no surprise at all….

[He]was on the point of becoming a schoolmaster when King’s offered him a junior fellowship. Even then he was restless, and displeased with the spirit of the age, as he showed with a frontal attack on current academic fashion, “A Clown in Regal Purple: Social history and the historians” (History Workshop Journal 7 (1), 1979), which helped make his name, in Hobsbawm’s phrase, “as an academic bruiser”. More then a quarter-century later, in Postwar, he would look back on the 1970s as having been for “the life of the mind . . . the most dispiriting decade of the 20th century”, distinguished not only by vary badly written and misleading “social history”, but by the sundry intellectual impostures of structuralism and Cultural Theory…. That’s to say, he was and remained both a political liberal and an unashamed intellectual and cultural conservative… a political liberal and an unashamed intellectual and cultural conservative….

Socialism in Provence also addressed a… question: what kind of socialism is there without an industrial working class?… Judt’s socialists were peasant farmers rather than proletarians. His next book was Marxism and the French Left: Studies in labour and politics (1985)…. [W]hen Judt reached “French Marxism 1945–1975”, he was venturing on to what was then still bitterly contested territory. One shouldn’t attribute motive, but some of the animus against him still found on the sectarian Left surely dates from that book more than quarter of a century ago. Judt was everything the New Left Review has always most loathed, a liberal anti-Communist, or worse still an anti-Stalinist social democrat, and an English empiricist to boot. As if that weren’t bad enough, he openly blasphemed against the two holiest names in the [New Left] Review’s iconology, Saint Jean-Paul [Sartre] and Saint Louis [Althusser]…. Judt was derisive about “those who take Sartre, Althusser, and his followers very seriously”. That category conspicuously included Perry Anderson, at whom Judt took a swipe for his defence of those oracles. Althusser’s “choice to remain within the Communist movement”, Anderson had written, “involved paying the price of silence in order to maintain activity in the major party of the French working class”. As Judt asked, “what price? to whom?”….

Past Imperfect… an examination of what now seems a bizarre as well as repellent episode, the extreme infatuation during the post-war decade of so many French writers, academics and “intellectuals” – a noun that had itself been coined in Paris, during the Dreyfus Affair – with Communism, Soviet Russia and Stalin himself. Judt fixes his unsparing gaze on sad, now-forgotten figures like Emmanuel Mounier… grotesque apologia for the Stalinization of Eastern Europe…. But the central figure is Sartre…. Judt’s disdain is clear; but then nothing he writes about Sartre could be as damning as Sartre’s own words and actions, or inactions. As the best-known Yiddish writers and other prominent Russian Jews were persecuted to death, and while Stalin’s own Jew-hatred became became more blatant, along with the openly anti-Semitic character of the show trials in the Soviet satellite states, notably the Slansky trial in Prague… Sartre… attended a Communist “Peace Congress” in Vienna only days after the mass execution of Slansky and ten others, and when François Mauriac asked him to join a protest at this atrocity, Sartre replied, “The problem of the condition of the Jews in the People’s Democracies must not become a pretext for propaganda or polemic”….

In May 1995 he gave a series of lectures about contemporary Europe at the Johns Hopkins Center in Bologna, which were published the following year as A Grand Illusion?. This is a splendid little book, not merely penetrating but eerily prescient. Indeed, to reread it in the light of the present existential crisis gripping the European Union is positively chilling. All of eighteen years ago Judt wrote that every successive stage of joint European action, from the Coal and Steel Treaty in 1951 to Rome in 1957 to the Hague in 1969 to Maastricht in 1992, had followed a consistent 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 backwards, the latter is then adduced to account for 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.

That passage may not be widely known to young people in Athens and Madrid with no work, no money and no future, but it exactly fits their awful predicament….

Judt… admitted to being a Euro-pessimist, who saw that a truly united Europe was sufficiently unlikely to make it unwise and self-defeating to attempt it. That also sounds even truer now than when written….

Postwar is one of the best history books published in the past generation…. Its timing was fortuitous. In the 1980s, Judt had taught himself Czech… and… joined the group of Western scholars and writers who visited Czechoslovakia and Poland more or less clandestinely…. Judt conceived his “while changing trains at the Westbahnhof” in Vienna in December 1989. He had just come from Prague, where a democratic revolution had been “tumbling forty years of ‘real existing Socialism’ into the dustbin of history”, and that was one of his themes….

By the time the Soviet Union imploded, it had long since been predeceased by Marxism-Leninism as a doctrine anyone in Russia pretended to take seriously; and just as “in 1945 the radical Right had discredited itself as a legitimate vehicle for political expression”, Judt wrote, the radical Left followed two generations later…. By the end of the century, “A 180-year cycle of ideological politics in Europe was drawing to a close”. In that respect, the book on the politics of ideas Judt never lived to write would have been something of an archaeological treatise. What we have in Thinking the Twentieth Century can be seen as notes for that treatise, although it is best enjoyed as a commonplace book….

If Judt had merely been an anti-Communist “cold warrior”, in the stale vocabulary of another age, he might have gloated over the disintegration of the structure Lenin and Stalin had built. To the contrary, he saw that the downfall had “undermined not just communism, but a whole progressive narrative of advance and collectivization”. Judt now became a ferocious critic of “Bush’s useful idiots”…. At the very end of his life, Judt said that he was “more or less the same age as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it…." e regrets once more:

the tendency of mass democracy to produce mediocre politicians…. Politics is not a place where people of autonomy of spirit and breadth of vision tend to go. And I think that that is true even in the case of someone like our present president, Barack Obama, who is proving most adept at what some of us feared would be his salient quality – the desire to be thought reasonable, a verdict which has not been confuted since it was uttered…

Comments