My relations with Tony Judt date back a long time but they were curiously contradictory. We were friends, though not intimate ones, and while both of us were politically committed historians, and both preferred wearing informal gear as historians rather than regimental uniform, we marched to different drummers. Nevertheless our intellectual interests had something in common. Both of us knew that the 20th century can only be understood fully by those who became historians because they lived through it and shared its basic passion: namely the belief that politics was the key to our truths as well as our myths. In spite of our differences, both Tony’s Marxism and the French Left and my own recent How to Change the World are dedicated to the memory of the same independent thinker, the late George Lichtheim. We got on well in personal terms – but then Tony was easy to like, and generous. He thought very well of my own work and said so in his last book. At the same time he launched one of the most implacable attacks on me in a passage which has become widely quoted, especially by the ultras of the right-wing American press. It amounted to: make a public confession that your god has failed, beat your breast and you may win the right to be taken seriously. No man who doesn’t think socialism equals Gulag should be listened to. It was no doubt a sincerely felt rhetorical figure in an anti-red polemic. Fortunately practice differed from theory.

For most of us the image of Tony is dominated by the boundless admiration we feel for the way he confronted his death. There was a Roman grandeur about his refusal to concede to the inevitable that recalls memories of classical eulogies. It was not just the decision to carry on the chess game to mate, but the decision to provoke death by demonstrating his full abilities as a grandmaster, doomed but never defeated. It is a moving image, but we must abandon it: encouraging mythopoeia is not for historians. Tony has been presented as another George Orwell. This is wrong, because while both were enormously gifted and profoundly polemical, they were very different. Tony lacked Orwell’s combination of prejudices, forward and backward-looking Old Testament prophecy and imaginative denunciation – he could never have written 1984 or Animal Farm. And Orwell, the more powerful writer, had neither Tony’s remarkable range of knowledge, nor his wit, intellectual speed and manoeuvrability: there is no way he could have doubled as an academic.

But the comparison with Orwell is also dangerous because essentially it is not about two writers but about a political era that should now be over for good, the Cold War. Orwell’s reputation was constructed as an intellectual anti-Soviet missile site and even today, when the rest of Orwell has emerged or re-emerged, it still remains frozen in the 1950s. Tony was, of course, as anti-Stalinist as anyone, and bitterly critical of those who did not abjure the CP even when they were demonstrably not Stalinists and were, like myself, slowly edging clear of the original world hope of October 1917. Like those opposed to the performing of Wagner in Israel, he could let political dislike get in the way of aesthetic enjoyment, dismissing Brecht’s poem about the Comintern cadres, ‘An die Nachgeborenen, ‘admired by so many’, as ‘obnoxious’ not on literary grounds, but because it inspired believers in an evil cause. Yet it is evident from Thinking the 20th Century that his basic concern during the acute phase of the Cold War was not the Russian threat to the ‘free world’ but the arguments within the left.* Marx – not Stalin and the Gulag – was his subject. True, after 1968 he became much more of a militant oppositionist liberal over Eastern Europe, an admirer of the mixed but more usually right-wing academic tourists who provided much of our commentary on the end of the East European Communist regimes. This also led him and others who should have known better into creating the fairy tale of the Velvet and multicoloured revolutions of 1989 and after. There were no such revolutions, only different reactions to the Soviet decision to pull out. The real heroes of the period were Gorbachev, who destroyed the USSR, and men within the old system like Suárez in Franco’s Spain and Jaruzelski in Poland, who effectively ensured a peaceful transition and were execrated by both sides. Indeed, in the 1980s Tony’s essentially social-democratic liberalism was briefly infected by François Furet’s Hayekian economic libertarianism. I don’t think this late Cold War afterglow was central to Tony’s development, but it helped to give more body and depth to his very impressive Postwar.

His progress through the second half of the century is sui generis. Until he established himself in New York in the 1980s and began writing for the New York Review, he was not a particularly prominent historian, even among Anglophone specialists in French history, perhaps because he had been tempted too far into the Serbonian bog of endless debate about the nature of the French left. Before the 1980s one might have come across him on the margins of social history, with a first-rate study of socialism in Provence between 1871 and 1914. His French phase combined impressive erudition with, in my view, historically trivial results: increasingly it became an academic tournament in the marginal and ineffective world of the Left Bank. What happened in Les Deux Magots and Le Flore, while culturally prestigious, was politically negligible, compared to what happened on the other side of the boulevard St Germain in the Brasserie Lipp, where the politicians gathered. Sartre’s politics consisted in ‘taking positions’ because nothing else was available to him, and De Gaulle knew it. In any case the left was rarely in power, and probably the only intellectuals to become prime ministers were Léon Blum in 1936 and – at least he gave a good imitation of walking the walk – Mitterrand. By means of mental acrobatics, the absurdity of which Tony had no trouble demonstrating, left-wing intellectuals attempted to come to terms with a unique national situation along with their political isolation in the country that invented the term ‘ouvrierisme’, i.e. workers’ distrust of intellectuals.

Four things shaped French history in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Republic born of the incomplete Great Revolution; the centralised Napoleonic state; the crucial political role assigned to a working class too small and disorganised to play it; and the long decline of France from its position before 1789 as the Middle Kingdom of Europe, as confident as China of its cultural and linguistic superiority. It was ‘the capital of the 19th century’, especially for foreigners, but after Waterloo the path led slowly if discontinuously downwards in terms of military prowess, international power and cultural centrality. Denied a Lenin and deprived of Napoleon, France retreated into the last and, we must hope, indestructible redoubt, the world of Astérix. The postwar vogue for Parisian thinkers barely concealed their collective retreat into Hexagonal introversion and into the ultimate fortress of French intellectuality, Cartesian theory and puns. There were now other models in higher education and the sciences, in economic development, even – as the late penetration of Marx’s ideas implies – in the ideology of the Revolution. The problem for left-wing intellectuals was how to come to terms with an essentially non-revolutionary France. The problem for right-wing ones, many of them former communists, was how to bury the founding event and formative tradition of the Republic, the French Revolution, a task equivalent to writing the American Constitution out of US history. It could not be done, not even by very intelligent and powerful operators like Furet, any more than Tony, had he lived, could have restored the social democracy that was his ideal.

Tony had so far made his name as an academic bruiser. His default position was forensic: not the judge’s but the barrister’s, whose objective is neither truth nor truthfulness, but winning the case. To inquire into the possible weaknesses of one’s own position is not crucial, though this is what the historian of large spaces, long periods and complex processes must do. Yet his formative decades as an intellectual prosecutor did not prevent Tony’s transformation into a mature, thoughtful and well-informed historian. His major work as such was undoubtedly the door-stopping Postwar, a history of Europe after 1945. It was and is an ambitious though on occasion unbalanced book. I am not sure that its perspective will seem adequate to those who read it now for the first time, seven years after its original publication. Nevertheless I can assure you from personal experience that large works of historical synthesis based on secondary reading and the observation of contemporary history can only be written in maturity. Very few historians have the ability to tackle so vast a subject or to bring it to a conclusion. Postwar is a very impressive achievement. If only because any work taking the story up to the present has obsolescence built in, its future is uncertain. But it may have a longer lifespan as a critical narrative work of reference because it is written with verve, wit and style. Postwar established him for the first time as a major figure in the profession.

Yet already he was ceasing to operate as one. His 21st-century stance was not that of a historian so much as a ‘public intellectual’, a brilliant enemy of self-delusion garnished with theoretical jargon, with the short temper of the natural polemicist, an independent and fearless critical commentator on world affairs. He seemed all the more original and radical for having been a fairly orthodox defender of the ‘free world’ against ‘totalitarianism’ during the Cold War, especially in the 1980s. Faced with governments and ideologues who read victory and world domination into the fall of communism, he was honest enough with himself to recognise that the old verities and slogans needed to be junked after 1989. Probably only in the ever nervous US could such a reputation have been built so quickly on the basis of a few articles in journals of modest circulation addressed exclusively to academic intellectuals. The pages of the mainstream press had long been open to a Raymond Aron in France (clearly one of Tony’s inspirations), or a Habermas in Germany, and their impact had long been discounted. He was well aware of the risks, personal and professional, he ran in attacking the combined forces of US global conquest, the neocons and Israel, but he had plenty of what Bismarck called ‘civilian bravery’ (Zivilcourage) – a quality notably lacking in Isaiah Berlin, as Tony himself noted, perhaps not without malice. Unlike the ex-Marxist scholiasts and intellocrates on the Left Bank who, as Auden said of poets, made ‘nothing happen’, Tony understood that a struggle with these new forces could make a difference. He launched himself against them with evident pleasure and zest.

This was the figure who came into his own after the end of the Cold War, widening his courtroom technique to flay the likes of Bush and Netanyahu rather than some political absurdity in the Fifth Arrondissement or a distinguished professor in New Jersey. It was a magnificent performance, a class act; he was hailed by his readers not only for what he said, but what many of them would not have had the courage to say themselves. It was all the more effective because Tony was both an insider and an outsider: English, Jewish, French, eventually American, but plurinational rather than cosmopolitan. Yet he was aware of the limits of what he was doing. As he points out himself, the people who succeed in telling the truth to power are not columnists but reporters and photographers, through the omnipresent media.

By the early 2000s Tony had an international presence, at least in the English-speaking world. Would it last much longer than Warhol’s canonical 15 minutes? Fortunately thanks to the years of his final illness the question can be answered. His work will survive because, for the first time, he no longer saw himself as prosecutor in a law court, but tried to formulate what he really knew, felt and thought. Thinking the 20th Century is not a great book or even the torso of a great book – how could it have been, given the way it was written? – but it is essential reading for all who want to know what contemporary historians have to tell us. It is also a model of civilised discourse in the academic global village. It shows that historians can inquire into their own assumptions, examine their own certainties and see the ways in which their own lives are shaped and reshaped by their century. And not least, it is a worthy memorial to a remarkable person and the life he contrived to live.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 34 No. 10 · 24 May 2012

Eric Hobsbawm chides Tony Judt for studying the ‘marginal and ineffective world of the Left Bank’ rather than ‘the Brasserie Lipp, where the politicians gathered’ (LRB, 26 April). But it could be argued that, for example, Sartre’s influence on young people who refused to fight in Algeria was more significant in bringing about the end of the war than the assorted politicians of the Fourth Republic, who seemed powerless to do anything at all, and those of the Fifth, who simply did what De Gaulle told them to.

Ian Birchall
London N9

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences