Thinking the Twentieth Century: Tony Judt's final work

Based on a series of loosely scripted chats with the academic Timothy Synder, the late polemicist Tony Judt's final work is a tour-d¿horizon of the ideas and political ideologies that tormented and defined the last century.

Protesters take part in a demonstration in Downing Street, London, demanding the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam in 1968. The South East Asian conflict is one of the pivotal events of the last century explored by the late polemicist and historian Tony Judt in his final book. Sydney O'Meara / Evening Standard / Getty Images
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Thinking theTwentieth Century, Tony Judt's final work, emerged out of trying circumstances. In 2008, the polemicist, historian and author of Postwar, was diagnosed with ALS, an incurable degenerative disease. At the time, Judt, who died in August 2010 (aged 62), had been contemplating a substantial work on 20th-century social thought; but his physical condition soon made writing, in the traditional sense, an impossible task.

Instead, he teamed up with Timothy Snyder, a young historian of Eastern Europe, for a series of loosely structured chats on the contours of 20th-century history. The book that resulted is an often bracing tour d'horizon of the ideas and political ideologies that tormented and defined the last century. Judt and Snyder go back and forth about a myriad of topics: the role of intellectuals; the fate of Mitteleurope's Jewish culture; the allure of communism and fascism; the fortunes of liberalism against totalitarianism; the historian's craft; Israel and US foreign policy - Judt is scathing about both; and the prospects for social democracy in the 21st century. Snyder guides the dialogues, but there is still organic disorder to the proceedings: we hear the ebb and flow of real conversation.

The subject of intellectuals - their virtues and, more often, their vices - takes up a good bulk of these pages. Judt excoriates US liberal thinkers who supported - and the policymakers who carried out - the Iraq war. For Judt, it was a replay of the habits of mind that tarnished so much of 20th-century intellectual life: "Once again, other people's ordeals are being justified as History's way of delivering a new world." It was merely a continuation of a dismal tradition. "The intellectual sin of the [20th] century," Judt tells Snyder, was "passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information." In earlier works like Past Imperfect and The Burden of Responsibility, Judt wrote harshly about the blindness of Sartre and other Left Bank intellectuals about Stalin's crimes.

Judt is a moralist, and a certain arrogance colours his words. But he is often at pains to situate his views in the tumultuous context of 20th century. A man of the left, Judt liked to argue against the left.

The son of Eastern European émigré Jews, Judt grew up in East London. His father was a diehard socialist who had only contempt for communists; in some ways, so too does the son.

But Judt acknowledges the importance of communism, whatever its flaws, as an ideological project. In an exchange about Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian and decades-long member of the defunct British Communist Party, Judt observes, "You cannot fully appreciate the shape of the 20th century if you did not once share its illusions, and the communist illusion in particular." After all, "Marxism is a marvellously compelling account of how history works, and why it works." Judt endorses Marxism's version of history as a chastisement "to liberals and progressives who assert that all is for the best".

Against this, Marx "offers a powerful narrative of suffering and loss, deterioration and destruction".

But Snyder poses an interesting counter argument: if there are intellectual advantages to having been a Stalinist, then logic suggests there might be methodological gains to be had from being an ex-Nazi. Judt will have none of it. There are no Nazi Eric Hobsbawms, he says: "I simply cannot think of a single Nazi intellectual whose reasoning holds up as an interesting historical account of 20th-century thought." The historian was nothing if not bold in his sweeping dismissals of ideas he disagreed with.

This is also a volume of personal reflection. Judt wrote poignantly about his own past in his memoir The Memory Chalet, but here Snyder presses him further on the stations of his own political evolution. He scrutinises Judt's status as Englishman and Jew and transplanted New Yorker (Judt was for many years professor of history at New York University). Recalling his schooling, Judt notes that the "range of traditional cultural reference, this sense of being at home in English if not exactly in England ... allowed me to swing comfortably back from youthful politics towards the liberal mainstream in later life".

Judt's own youthful radicalism was hardly outrageous. For him, the beach wasn't under the pavement: the idea that students were at the vanguard of history in 1968 was something "I could never quite get enthused about". Whatever his Marxisant orientation, Judt was conditioned by his Englishness.

Indeed, a theme that comes up in these conversations is the infinite, if slightly ridiculous, political accommodations of English society.

Unlike the European continent, political extremism never took root in Britain. Fascism fared poorly; communism only marginally better. For an ideological affiliation in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union, you might get lined up against a wall and shot. In the United States, communism might have been an impediment to a career; in England, Hobsbawm became a man of the establishment. This curious state of affairs is nicely summed up in a comic anecdote Judt relates about a demonstration against the Vietnam War in London. Running in the street after a rowdy confrontation with the defence secretary, Judt encounters a policeman who inquires, "So how was the demonstration, sir?" Judt, "finding nothing bizarre or absurd in his inquiry", responded, "I think it went quite well, don't you." It was "no way to make a revolution".

Snyder and Judt cover an enormous amount of ground as they ponder some of the most difficult questions of political history. But Judt does not ignore the present. If he made his name with his writings on the French left and the European past, Judt, in the last phase of his life, turned to the issues of our time. He was not shy. In 2003, he published an infamous essay in The New York Review of Books calling for a one-state solution and equal rights for all Jews and Arabs. The piece prompted a torrent of correspondence (and several cancellations), as well as Judt's banishment from the The New Republic, for whom he wrote many brilliant pieces.

Judt here reviews his own tangled history with Israel. Fired by the socialist Zionism of Israel's early leaders, he worked on several kibbutzim as a young man. But he was quickly disabused of his ideals after a stint in the Israel Defense Forces when he was 19. What he found outside the kibbutz was "not a social-democratic paradise of peace-loving, farm-dwelling Jews who happened to be Israelis but otherwise like me." Here was another of the 20th century's illusions to be shed. In the army "he met Israelis who were chauvinistic in every sense of the word: anti-Arab in a sense bordering on racism; quite undisturbed at the prospects of killing Arabs wherever possible". His views on Israel earned Judt much censure, and his comments will surely make a few readers squirm. He is unstinting in his criticisms of American Jews' support for Israel.

It would seem that Judt wishes most of the political ideologies he debates with Snyder to be consigned to the dustbin of history. But there is one creed, forged from the wreckage of the 20th-century war, revolution, and conflict, that he passionately defends: social democracy. This was not an achievement of the revolutionary left. Rather, it was pragmatic liberal reformers who after the Second World War "forged strong, high taxing and actively interventionist states which could encompass complex mass societies without resorting to violence or repression".

The lines are drawn: "The choice we face in the next generation," Judt muses about the coming decades, "is not capitalism versus communism, or the end of history versus the return of history, but the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes versus the erosion of society by the politics of fear". It's a standoff whose outcome, at this juncture, remains uncertain.

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.