Friday, February 10, 2017

Tony Judt’s “Reappraisals”: The shipwrecks of the 20th century

Tony Judt was a Jewish Anglo-American historian of France and of Western intellectual life. He used to write for the New York Review of Books.

After these two sentences (deliberately mimicking the first  sentence of Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, very well reviewed in Judt’s book), you should basically know what to expect: Judt was a mainstream liberal thinker similar to the scores that have in the recent decades populated New York, Paris and London publications.  While in some sense this is true, it would be also a simplification of the man as he appears in these essays. There are at least two important areas where Judt diverges from the pensée unique which has so disastrously overwhelmed Western  intellectual life in the past thirty years.

He wrote extraordinarily prescient articles in the early naughts about the dangers that Western democracy faces due to the runaway globalization and rising inequality at home with the gutting out of the middle classes. These were not the usual homilies (although even such homilies were exceedingly rare prior to 2007) but well-argued and genuinely felt cris de coeurs about the perils of the post-Cold War Western triumphalism. Historians can often detect social trends much earlier and better than more empirically-minded economists, among whom only a tiny minority sensed the forthcoming dangers.

Judt was very critical of Tony Blair whom in another prescient essay about the emptiness of New Labour, and inauthenticity of the England outside of London, he calls “gnome” and “an inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land”. That essay, written in 2001, can be read today as an almost perfect introduction to Brexit.

The second topic on which Judt differs from the mainstream is his very tough stance on Israel, in this book appearing in the essay on Edward Said whose engagement and policies Judt fully supports. I will not enter into how realistic is his proposed one-state solution because I am not a specialist of the Middle East and it is not my topic here, but I just mention it to highlight the dissonance of Judt from other liberal thinkers.

Now, those who read carefully the first two sentences know that people who fit that description write on about six topics in toto: the Holocaust (Shoah), the Ribbentrop-Molotov  pact and the division of Poland, Kirov murder and Moscow show trials, the Vichy France, Camus vs. Sartre and McCarthyism. Judt is faithful to this description and most of his essays can be allocated to one of these themes.

But if you do only these themes, however  important they might seem, you are leaving out a lot of other themes and you end up with a strongly blinkered view of the world. It is that that I would like to discuss next.

What struck me as I was reading Judt’s reflections on Sartre, Camus, Kolakowski, Hobsbawm, Koestler etc., most of which obviously have to do with Communism and Marxism, are two things. First, they were discussions of ideas where people (“real people”) have almost no place, and second, their discussion, so anachronistically placed around the events in the 1930s or 1940s, has very scant real-life resonance to somebody who lived under Communism in the 1970s and 1980s (like me) and obviously even less to anyone today. It occurred to me that practically no one of these people (Kolakowski obviously excepted) lived under Communism and for them the Cold War battles were waged in New York and Paris. Moreover, they were waged around the issues that were of almost total irrelevance to the “real people” in Eastern Europe.  In some sense, these “battles” replicated Lenin without Leninism: primacy of ideology, disregard of real life.

This is why, “ the world he describes seems unreal, like the bodies of the Gods who in the Vedic belief project no shadow” (“le monde qu’il decrit semble irrreel, comme les corps des dieux qui, dans le croyance vedique, n´ont point d’ombre”; Paul Veyne on Rostovtzeff’s description of the Roman world).  

Today we can see much better the real importance of these ideological battles: it was quasi nil. Communism fell for entirely different reasons, because it lost the economic race with capitalism and because people wanted to own property. Whether Camus was right and Sartre wrong mattered in the end very little. In effect, it did not even matter to the French working class, and of course even less to anyone else. Reading of the sterile debates among the people who were either intellectual (Malraux) or political poseurs (Sartre) is today a waste of time.

When Judt wears the blinkers of his “pensée unique” he fails to make the subjects he discusses compelling and move them into interesting directions.

In his essay on Arthur Koestler he criticizes Darkness at noon for never mentioning the use of force whereby false confessions were extracted during the Moscow trials. Almost in a socialist realistic way, he chides Koestler for hiding the ugly truth of torture, stopping just short of implying that Koestler, despite his anti-Stalinism and anti-Communism, remained the prisoner of the ideas he once believed in. But Judt fails to see that this is precisely the strength of Koestler’s book. Extracting confession through torture is nothing new: it has been practiced through times immemorial. But convincing people that they should deliberately and falsely accuse themselves in order to further a cause is something truly important. It shows the quasi religious nature of Communism. Ignacio de Loyola and Glatkin (the interrogator in Darkness at Noon) would have perfectly understood each other, as indeed Dostoyevsky in his “Great Inquisitor”  saw a century before. Compared to that, beating somebody to a pulp is banal.

Than, take Eric Hobsbawm on whom Judt writes a nice essay that turns abruptly and sharply critical because Hobsbawm never explicitly abandoned his faith in Marxism. But Hobsbawm should have, much more interestingly, provided Judt with the theme of loyalty to one’s ideas and friends vs. loyalty to truth. We may be loyal to truth (as Djilas—unmentioned--, Koestler, Silone etc.) were but fail to be loyal to the people who are, often, our closest friends. What should we choose: loyalty or truth, mother or justice (to use Camus’ example)? It is important to acknowledge the existence of this difficult choice, perhaps the most common dilemma of the dreadful 20th century. “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”  Is present here too.

Judt’s very narrow focus on Western Europe, plus Poland, makes him not realize how politically parochial he can be at times. In an otherwise nice essay on Romania (a bit unusual given the geographically constrained topics of the book), Judt reports, with apparent disapproval, how a listener in a Romanian town asked him whether European Union should be limited only to Christian nations (p. 258). The question is supposed to illustrate the “nativism” of the Balkan man. Judt finds the idea abhorrent. But only five pages later (p. 263), Judt mentions how Bucharest, being “Balkanic” and “Byzantine” (as opposed to Central European cities) somehow rules the country out from the membership in Europe. Thus, in the span of five pages, we move from a seeming (skin-deep?) cosmopolitan inclusiveness to cultural nativism.

There are many similar contradictions, rather bizarrely displaying the prejudices of the author—the very same prejudices that, when political correctness lights are “on”, he rejects in other, less enlightened, individuals.

I enjoyed reading Reappraisals. Given the number of writers covered in the book, I could write several reviews. But I do not think that reading this book made me wish to read his History of Europe since 1945. Too bad because he was a good writer.

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