Tony Judt and Thinking the Twentieth Century


I recently attended a conference at the University of Sussex on the famous historian Tony Judt’s last book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, completed literally on his deathbed.

The American historian, Synder, held a series of engaging conversations with Judt. These conversations were later turned into this book. Synder is an expert on Eastern European history.

Judt was born right after WWII. And in many ways, his academic experience, in fact, the experience of his life are instructive. We has worn many hats. He was a French historian for a time, an eastern European historian, and English historian, and lived and worked for a large portion of his life in the US. In the course of his life, he worked on a kibbutz in Israel, before growing disenchanted. So in many ways, he has personally played a small role in some of the major movements in the mid-later 20th century.

What I find most interesting is his experience as an academic and intellectual, and the journey of his personal beliefs in many ways reflect and illustrate the intellectual swings and travails of his entire generation. He provides an admirable launch pad for discussing the intellectual history of the mid/late 20th century.

Intellectuals living in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, had many things to explain, to themselves and for themselves, and for society at large. They had to explain Fascism as an intellectual project, and they had to explain how it was able to grow out of, and subvert democratic, liberal society. They had to get their minds around the Holocaust; how the ideas behind it developed; how civilization was capable of such things and what it meant. If this wasn’t enough they have the problem of the Left, Marxism, and communism. If these three things are the same in your mind, then best untangle the three straight away because the relationship is anything but simple. Specifically, western intellectuals have to separate themselves from the Russian communist experiment and Stalinism in general. They have to work out their own loyalties, and they have to explain how communism could turn into Stalinism.

These problem of the Left is more interesting then the problem of Fascism and the Holocaust, simply because dealing with Marxism and communism challenge them and force them to apply the critical, analytical microscope to themselves, probably much more than they would like.

Marxism is both a political program, a scholarly approach and technique, as well as emotional/psychological program often described as a ‘secular religion.’ The peak of communism as a secular religion was probably 1870-1930, very roughly. It’s a generation, really , that’s political, emotional, and sociological problems seem to be largely solved, or at least, very convincingly explained. Marxism as a scholarly approach (still common and in use today) is based on the idea of materialism (physical things count; not mental or theoretical things). So Marxism isn’t simply economics; its an approach that assumes that the mode of production, how people live and make money counts for everything. Everything else (furniture styling, music styles, fashion, literature; these things are called the ‘superstructure’) follows from economic modes of production. This is an incredibly powerful way of seeing the world, as it explains very many things. Not that there are not weaknesses, but when Marx and Engels developed it in the mid 19th century, it was new and persuasive.

Judt was raised working class, in a family that ‘believed’ you could say. Thus like all intellectuals, he was a Marxist. Increasingly, these academics have to decide to what extent they are literally loyal to the Soviet Union and “communism.” As you might expect, most drift away from youthful communist belief, some stay true believers, and some stay Marxist, but disown and disavow the Stalinism.

Those that choose to remain Marxist but disavow Stalinism are challenged by 1968 events, the riots and repressions in Czechslovakia, and the Paris student riots and strikes, where the theory circulated that students were to foretold revolutionary vanguard class. It’s interesting that this was actually taken seriously at the time.

These intellectuals come to the ultimate problem that seems to link all of the problems that I’ve mentioned together. They have to explain mass society and its political consequences. They know that so far its been a disaster. So what happens? Do you believe in good ole’ liberal democracy, dispute its obvious weaknesses and failures? Is Marxism the true path to the future? And what is Fascism? They have trouble deciding if liberal democracy will always eventually lead to Fascism, or if Fascism and Communism are the same thing.

These questions are very much unanswered. Judt, near the end of his life, came to the conclusion that social democracy (what we would call the post-war european welfare state) was probably the best form of government. For a man starting life as a Marxist, its a surprisingly conservative conclusion.

Something that I think this older generation of academics are vulnerable too is a charge of nostalgia, of indulging fond memories of their childhood. If I’m honest, I think that the welfare state has more to recommend itself then we are willing to give it credit for. After the mid-70s oil crisis, followed by Reagan/Thatcher, welfare states have been increasingly dismantled, and social inequality is distinctly on the rise. These academics grew up in a time less plutocratic than ours, and I think they righty look back with a sense of loss.

But on a personal note, I think they have done a poor job on arming us with arguments against the Reagan/Thatcher movement. They have been inarticulate about the advantages of the welfare states; of what has been lost.

In this time of apathy, one searches for a new brand of academic or intellectual Leftist thinking to lead us back from the curious right of neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative politics. Is it steady state economics? The big question, can liberal democracy survive in mass society, is still very much unanswered.


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