Book Review: Tony Judt’s Reappraisals

In his sweeping anthology Reappraisals, Tony Judt analyzes the role of the public intellectual, and the future of social democracy

Tony Judt: ardent defender of liberalism | Photo: jezblog

Canaries in the Mine

There is a part in Tony Judt’s book Reappraisals in which he describes an exchange between British historian E. P. Thompson and the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski in the early 1970s. Thompson, according to Judt, “suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England: … How dare you betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal?”

Kolakowski’s response, writes Judt, “may be the most perfectly executed intellectual demolition in the history of political argument: No one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again.”

Judt’s sympathies are unequivocally with the Polish intellectual. They are both a grand reflection upon the political currents of post-war Europe and personally motivated. A British historian himself – though not in a leafy perch in the English countryside but at New York University for the past two decades – he has been dealing with the theories and the practices that have guided and misguided contemporary societies. The exchange mentioned is but one of the many examples he analyzes in Reappraisals in order to come to terms with the clashes that characterize our present. (The book has just been published in German under the title Das vergessene Jahrhundert.)

Different, however, from the many mandarins of power and the many salon dissidents that populate the pulpits of public opinion, Judt has always exposed himself to doubts, has acknowledged occasional dead ends of his speculations and has looked for the shaping forces of history behind the fog of phrases and proclamations.

As a leading contemporary historian, Tony Judt looks especially into the role that intellectuals and politicians have played in the twentieth century. His book is therefore to a large extent about disasters, missed opportunities and the danger that “not only did we fail to learn very much from the past – this would hardly have been remarkable. But we have become stridently insistent ( … ) that the past has nothing of interest to teach us.”

Reappraisals was written to counteract this danger. It is a collection of essays published between 1994 and 2006. The first two parts are dedicated to The Heart of Darkness (in German perhaps more aptly titled Zeugen der Finsternis, Witnesses of Darkness) and The Politics of Intellectual Engagement. They portray public intellectuals whose insights and writings were at the time either not welcome and considered inappropriate (e.g. Primo Levi); or they enjoyed brief periods of success and popularity before falling out of favor (such as Arthur Koestler, the author of Darkness and Noon, and Manés Sperber). Or like Camus, they were defamed and worse still, ignored. (Albert Camus: The best man in France is one of the earliest essays republished here; it may please Judt that Camus has meanwhile been rehabilitated and vindicated by the French left, and not only because of an anniversary: He died 50 years ago this year.)

Judt also deals with the more recent experiences and protagonists of the “short century” ending 1989: Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuba crisis, Kissinger (greatly overestimated, according to Judt), the people involved in the Alger Hiss affair about Communist spies, little known outside the U.S. He profiles national developments as exemplary of recent conflicts, such as in Romania, Belgium or Israel, “the country that would not grow up.” The author has always maintained and he repeats in the pertinent chapter that for him, the Middle East is a region of missed chances and a history gone awry.

Eventually, Judt deals with an issue that has concerned him more and more in recent years: What will happen to the “liberal” project after the reigns of Thatcher, Reagan and Bush père and fils, after neo-liberalism and the neo-cons?

The non-conservative America of the New Deal and of progressive movements died, in his words, “a strange death.” He portrays its fall with an acute sense for telling details that leave the usual left-right clichés behind. Intellectuals, for example, who used to be able to deliver subtle, differentiating analyses are today glad to adhere to a simple concept of the hated enemy: “Islamo-fascism.” Often, though, such a new dogma leads back to a very early adherence to intolerant cadre parties.

Judt keeps warning of such comfortable simplifications. He also refuses to pick up the popular game of “Europe v. America”: Liberalism is in his view endangered on both sides of the ocean, and it is needed more than ever here and there. Liberals, he writes, should keep their “universalist view” of things; they are after all “the canaries in the mine shafts of modern democracy,” i.e. they should be early alerts to toxic developments; they should thus not exercise self-censorship (as the American liberal pundits did after 9/11), but ask the important critical questions.

As Reappraisals and his new book Ill Fares The Land (see article, page 7) show, Judt has stayed true to this challenge. The questions he asks – and the answers he gives – confirm his status as one of the most eminent public intellectuals of our time.


Tony Judt, Reappraisals. Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. Vintage, 2008 In German: Das vergessene Jahrhundert. Die Rückkehr des politischen Intellektuellen. Hanser 2010.
This article is the revised version of a text first published in the Austrian daily Der Standard.

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