Tony Judt: A righteous man in an unrighteous age

  • October 28, 2010
The recent death of historian and essayist Tony Judt at age 62 has shut down a remarkable wellspring of straight talk about the modern world and its woes, and left-thinking people everywhere bereft of one of our time’s finest political and moral voices.

His books helped make Judt famous. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), for example, is a majestic best-selling survey that has, in the words of a reviewer, “the pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.’’

But it was the essays from the decades on either side of 2000, gathered into the outstanding book Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), that earned Judt an international reputation as a fearlessly sceptical critic of modern political pieties. His best-known texts today, after the great Postwar, are surely his contributions on politics and current affairs to such journals as The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books, and especially The New York Review of Books.

In these occasional writings, he called on Israel in 2003 to accept a destiny as a secular bi-national state — for which he was lambasted as a Jew-hating Jew — and critiqued the European Union, which he thought had turned into a ponderous protection scheme for its wealthiest members. He opposed locked-step thinking in all its forms, sharply attacking the fashionable post-war leftist French intellectuals who fell into line behind Stalinism, as well as the so-called “neo-liberal” (viz., right-wing) pundits who backed George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. He described himself as a “universalist social democrat,” and he was surely one of the best contemporary specimens of that endangered type.

Judt was born in 1948 into a family of non-observant, apolitical North London Jews, who, despite their own nonchalance about religion, encouraged their idealistic teenaged son in his passionate left-wing Zionism.

“I was the ideal recruit,” he wrote shortly before his death, “articulate, committed and uncompromisingly ideologically conformist.”

A summer-holiday kibbutznik, and a participant in the Six Day War in 1967 — he worked as an interpreter on the newly captured Golan Heights — Judt quickly soured on both Marxism and Zionism. The occupation of Palestinian territory, he now believed, had turned Israel into just another bullying force, wrapped in the self-justifying mantle of coarse identity politics.

The excitement of his teenaged years behind him, Judt returned to England from Israel and made for himself a more reflective life at King’s College, Cambridge, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in history in 1969. The next couple of years were spent studying in Paris, after which he returned to Cambridge and won his doctorate in 1972.

Launching into a career as an historian of modern French culture — he eventually worked at Cambridge, the University of California at Berkeley and Oxford, and finally New York University in Manhattan — Judt found himself in a hurricane of campus crazes. Structuralism, French postmodernism, Derrida’s deconstructionism, the New Leftism then fashionable among historians, liberation ideologies of various kinds: the young scholar generally ignored them all, and stuck to building up his academic chops with one critical book after another about the origins and fortunes of leftist French culture in the 19th and 20th centuries.

By the 1980s, however, Judt’s interests were broadening beyond modern France and embracing the contemporary currents of thought throughout the whole European continent. The Eastern Bloc countries, then beginning their long struggle to free themselves from Soviet domination, especially fascinated him. His passion for social-democratic politics took a practical turn when he took up the stance of an engaged observer during Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in the latter years of the decade.

His involvements in the east sharpened Judt’s commitment to democratic values in highly practical circumstances, and lent his writing an urgency and contemporaneity that would never desert it.

Where are Catholic intellectuals with the same edge and power? Have the progressive Catholic advocates of justice and charity inside the academy been so cowed by right-wingers inside and outside the Church that they can no long do much more than whisper? The life and work of Tony Judt are examples of righteousness in an unrighteous age, well worth imitating.

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