Tim Pendry's Reviews > Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century

Reappraisals by Tony Judt
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I have long been an admirer of the recently deceased Tony Judt, an intellectually clear-sighted and courageous thinker who faced his own death with dignity and with the same integrity that he applied to his work.

I say thinker but he was more of an analyst and recorder, an historian whose political philosophy, a sort of revisionist social democracy, was probably out of time and out of place - but this should not be held against him.

This book is not much more than a collection of articles, already published essays and book reviews that act as an extended appendix to his history of the post war era (‘Postwar’). It is not a narrative but a collection of ruminations on a number of themes from the mid-1990s through to 2007.

Like the work of many ‘public intellectuals’, some of his contemporary writing on contemporary issues is already dated after the passage of only a few years. His understanding of the past is superior to most but his understanding of the future no better than yours or mine.

Even historians seem to forget how fast things change. The world before the credit crunch already looks an age away. He is also on less sure ground in writing about international relations. One or two of his political essays (on Europe and a new social democracy) seem to me to be naïve.

But he is on much surer ground when writing about intellectual history and, since this subject makes up the vast bulk of the book, it is a must-read for anyone interested in modern European history.

The book is divided into four sections with an ‘envelope’ of thoughts, a little unpersuasive perhaps but sincere enough, about the sort of civilized political discourse this best of liberal intellectuals would like to see.

It is also important to understand that he is a European (indeed, a British) Jew writing mostly in America for an American audience. His work is important, for this reason, in explaining the role of Jews in the ‘European Civil War’ of 1914 to 1945 as is his sharp critique of Israel as a permanent adolescent with an ill-informed moral sense.

He is courageous because he writes as someone who is engaged with his own Jewishness yet prepared to stand up to those intellectual thugs who think that any criticism of Israel is anti-semitic and who dismiss any complaint from within their own kind as the language of the ‘self-hating Jew’. I criticize my own degenerate British political culture but I am definitely not a self-hating Briton!

The first section looks at four intellectuals of the interwar and post war period (Koestler, Levi, Sperber and Arendt) and uses them as exemplars of the confusions of that time. He does not hide that right-wing revolt against communism was defensive and that the offensive role of communism was often led by Jews. Bela Kun’s regime gave every reason to fear Bolshevism as not merely expropriatory but murderous and Judt is not a great fan of communism’s intellectual claims or actions.

This role of some Jews does not justify later crimes against humanity but it properly places the Jewish intellectual of a certain cast of mind in pole position as problematic initiator of a process that led to the deaths of many innocents amongst poor and middle classes alike, noth Jewish and non-Jewish.

He looks at responses over time to the evils of fascism, communism and colonialism by a number of intellectuals and at the problematic business of defining evil itself. He explores the switch of the public intellectual from embracing tyranny to opposing it with such fervor that the dislike was to be no more rational than the love.

Later in the book, he undertakes a devastating criticism of the latest turn of the liberal intellectual in America and on the European Right towards an almost neurotic and largely ignorant obsession with Islamo-Fascism. And he is no automatic admirer of every anti-Soviet dissident – he is too sophisticated for that.

One cannot help, as the evidence mounts, but consider the allegedly rational intellectual to be the most irrational and simple-minded of creatures, strutting for attention, and, though the type is by no means exclusively Jewish (on the contrary), it is reasonable to point out the role of the Jewish Enlightenment rationalist in the fads and fashions of murderous belief (and as provocateur of murderous belief).

This is not anti-semitism but observation. I only wish that Judt spent more time on the ‘other side’ – the alleged ‘irrationalism’ of such equally dangerous intellectual types as Junger, Eliade and Evola.

Indeed, the vast mass of Jewish people were victims of a cultural war in which their own intelligentsiya were complicit both sides of the Pripet Marshes and eventually in Zion itself.

It is not Jewishness that is the issue in this book but the excessive de-humanising rationalism, the universalizing tendencies of the disassociated neurotic, that is to be found today amongst all universalists of the West and the so-called Radical Centre today and which was once found in Marxism.

Modern anti-Islamists think structurally like Marxists just as many Islamists think structurally like fascists – plus ca change ….

The second part takes some of the themes of the first but looks at a broader spread of intellectuals to build a picture of European thought as essentially religious in nature, a search for meaning.

He looks at Camus, clearly a hero to Judt but one who cannot escape from the religion of France, at Althusser, the monstrous epitome of unnecessary cultural pessimism, and at Hobsbawn, whose need to belief in the absurdity that is communism infects the official Left to this day and helps define for us the type of the ‘useful idiot’.

He writes of Kolakowski, who swapped one religion for another but who certainly exposed the logic of Marxist thought in a way that leaves no hiding place for Marxists, of Pope Paul II, who must be taken seriously (in my opinion as a dangerous and retrogressive figure) in any history of the modern West, and Edward Said, a rootless cosmopolitan who was to the Arab world what Judt was to the Jewish world, a stripper-away of illusions.

Said was right about the need ultimately for a one state solution to the problem of Israel-Palestine but there are too many vested interests for his sensible view to prevail.

From here (in Part Three) Judt goes on to take a look at aspects of French, British, Belgian, Romanian and Israeli politics.

His excoriations of Israel say all that needs to be said on the matter, he writes well on the French struggle for meaning as a nation and he is suitably unimpressed with the utter nonsense of Blairism, for which Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Emperor with no clothes might have been written. One hopes a veil may eventually be drawn over his (mal-)administration.

The two most interesting essays are on Belgium and Romania, countries scarcely considered in the Anglo-Saxon world except as problems. Both act as exemplars of fundamental problems underpinning a European Project now under immense strain as a result of the ‘credit crunch’.

Belgium, a non country like the African post-imperial states, is divided into ethnic North and South as much as the Ivory Coast. It remains a puzzle how it has held together for so long.

Romania (GDP was below Namibia’s in 1998) is poorer than some African countries and is a notorious political basket case in its own right. If a politician can be classed as truly evil, then Ceaucescu is definitely in the running.

Judt opens up to scrutiny just what the Eurocrats are taking on in trying to absorb the problems of such countries and about which they are in denial.

Belgium stands for the potential breakdown of Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom under economic pressure and the resentments that might be caused if German economic dominance turns East-Central Europe into a dominion in all but name.

Romania stands for the massive funding required to bring it and the Balkans into ‘civilisation’ at a time when Greece, Ireland, Portugal and parts of the UK, Spain and Italy threaten to go backwards (though Judt was not to know how bad things would get in the years after 2007).

The fourth section on America is less self-assured. There is a typically courageous defence of Whittaker Chambers against the Leftist and liberal true believers who would undertake any twist rather than accept that the Soviet Union was involved in offensive espionage and that Alger Hiss might have been guilty as hell.

There is an unpersuasive critique of Kissinger. He does a suitable knife job on Gaddis’ history of the Cold War – one of a series of triumphalist accounts of imperial victory that appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in the last decade and whose main purpose seems to have been to make the Anglo-Saxon Establishment feel good about itself.

His review of the Cuban Crisis reminds us (again, thinking of the current fiasco in the Ivory Coast) that elected politicians are generally going to be smarter than their opponents and the bureaucrats who surround them.

Major wars can start because one side misunderstands the other side’s priorities. Two different essays suggests that we should feel very lucky that Cold War Berlin (this time innocently) did not thrust us into a catastrophic war for the third time in a century – psycho-geographers must have a field day wondering what dark emanation makes that imperial city into the vortex of such actual and nearly missed horror: a lesson perhaps for our Euro-federalists.

All in all, excellent essays in a book that can be dipped in and out of to profit by anyone who wants to understand the world we live in today. Above all, it offers real insights into the puffed up and rather silly world of the officially sanctioned public intellectual. How they must have hated Judt because he was supposed to be one of their own.

Instead, as a humane and liberal Jew, he pointed out the foolishnesses of his own class whilst wholly respecting the importance of reasoned engagement with the issues of the day. He certainly saw through the nonsense perpetrated by Tony Blair, the new Radical Centre (which he persists in calling ‘liberal’) and Israel.

The book is by no means a polemic. Perhaps two or three essays out of 24 or so slip into this category and are a bit tiresome for that reason. The vast majority are thoughtful, very well researched, reasonable and instructive.

Above all, he is humane – on this, read his moving essays on Primo Levi, whose subtle response to the Shoah confused and irritated those determined to ‘take positions’ and on Sperber, another ‘survivor’, who gives cause for Judt to explore what the shock of the Holocaust, its breaking of all the rules, meant to this generation of intellectuals.

Indeed, if there is a hidden theme in the book, it is that ‘taking positions’ without independent thought on the facts is precisely the death of intellectual endeavour.

What Judt does, especially in the essays on prominent Jewish European intellectuals, is point out something forgotten entirely by their intellectually primitive Zionist and Neo-Conservative heirs in New York – that the European Jewish experience was massively complex and truly cosmopolitan.

Part of the shock of the Shoah was that the assault on many of them was by their own kind. It was Germans and Hungarians murdering Germans and Hungarians in their eyes and the Jewish aspects of the assault only hit home as it was happening and afterwards. Zionism is a very comprehensible response to the shock but it was never inevitable that Jews would all be obliged to be Zionists until that point.

I have left to last the key theme of much of the book – remembrance. Not in the sense of the ‘holocaust industry’ or memorialisation as fixed ritual but the constant attempt to think through the meaning of past events and relate them to the past. This is what history really is, not simple narratives that are designed to allow us to take this or that 'position’.

Thus, the holocaust is placed in its context of Bela Kun and Israel is not understood properly until it comes to terms with the fact of the Nakba and does not think that the Holocaust trumps what Israel did to the Arabs in some ridiculous Benthamite calculation.

Critical engagement with history, based on a humane understanding of personal responses and meanings, their purposes and their vulnerabilities, also means the ability to question narratives such as the determined obsession of many Americans to treat every challenge as if it was Munich. Iran stupidly becomes seen as Nazi Germany when it is nothing of the kind.

Those who saw Cuba as Munich in Kennedy’s circle were the ones who would have driven us into genocidal holocaust in the early 1960s. If you really want to be scared, read about the mind-set of the military loons in the President’s counsels. Dr Strangelove was creepily close to the truth of the matter.

As Judt says, even today, “the United States today is the only advanced country that still glorifies and exalts the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today.”

With ideological rigidity on the one side and bureaucrats without humane sense on the other as permanent features of global politics, and developed to a fine art of ignorance in modern America, it is no surprise to see Guantanamo, the panic over Wikileaks, drone murder of civilians, the demands over extradition and access to private data overseas, constant small-scale war and the brutalisation and torture of an unfortunate little man called Bradley Manning.

If only Tony Judt were alive to chronicle it all …
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Will You've captured the spirit of Reappraisals better than any other I've read.

message 2: by Lyn (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lyn Elliott Thank you for taking the time to write such an extensive review. I'm still reading it and think it's the most significant reappraisal of C20 political history I have encountered.

message 3: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Pendry Wow! Thanks, Lyn and Will ...

message 4: by Ted (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ted Tim, I "Liked" this review long ago, but just looked at it again, and was so re-impressed by it that I realized I had to say something, pressing the Like button doesn't do it justice. I have given this book 4 stars, but that was quite a while ago, and I can't remember why not five. I believe if I ever get around to writing a review (surely not as comprehensive as this one) I will upgrade it to a five.

message 5: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Pendry :-)

message 6: by Ted (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ted Tim wrote: ":-)"

Also decided I needed to bookmark the review. See https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/...

message 7: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Pendry Thanks. I wasn't aware of bookmarking so that is useful.

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