Swans Commentary » swans.com August 9, 2010  



Tony Judt: An Appreciation


by Louis Proyect





(Swans - August 9, 2010)   Tony Judt, a courageous and principled social democratic intellectual, died on August 6th after a two year struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Despite being almost totally paralyzed in his last few months of life, he continued to write about his illness and political beliefs, which had been growing more and more critical of American capitalism and the Zionism of his youth.

In his next to last essay that appeared in the New York Review, Judt referred to the final stages of his paralysis that would effectively rob him of his ability to communicate with the world -- his voice:

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts -- the view from inside is as rich as ever -- but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. (1)

Now that he is gone it is appropriate to assess the legacy of "the view from inside" that Judt externalized over a lifetime of writing.

Judt came of age intellectually as a Cold War intellectual after the fashion of Albert Camus, a natural outcome of his scholarly concentration on French radical politics. As has often been the case, identification with Albert Camus has gone hand in hand with "humanitarian interventions" of the kind supported by other self-styled Camus disciples such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens. In a New York Review piece on Ronald Steel's Temptations of a Superpower, Judt made the case for war in the Balkans, comparing the Serbs to pre-WWII fascists:

In the Thirties this was preceded by the effective end of the League of Nations on the occasion of its inability to punish or even inhibit Mussolini from his brutal occupation of Abyssinia; today the death toll of the United Nations has perhaps already been rung in Srebrenica and Zepa, where the UN forces first promised security to thousands of refugees, then betrayed them to the Serb forces. (2)

When Berman and Hitchens applied the same bloody logic to Iraq, Judt refused to go along. Unlike these two journalist/propagandists, Judt -- an intellectual of deep principles -- resisted the Wilsonian calls to impose "democracy" on the Middle East at the point of a bayonet. In another New York Review piece written almost 10 years after the one noted above, Judt found much to agree with in David Rieff's At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention and Andrew Bacevich's The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, books whose viewpoints are well expressed by their titles. This time the comparison with Mussolini was a bit different:

At the US's own interrogation centers and prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, at least twenty-seven "suspects" have been killed in custody. This number does not include extrajudicial, extraterritorial "targeted assassinations": a practice inaugurated by Benito Mussolini with the murder of the Rosselli brothers in Normandy in 1937, pursued with vigor by Israel, and now adopted by the Bush administration. (3)

Since the New York Review had been a bastion of support for the state of Israel, albeit with friendly criticisms from time to time, Judt's mention of Israel might have raised eyebrows among its readers. This was only the beginning.

Judt was one of the first intellectuals to break with the Zionist consensus. Along with New York Times op-ed contributor Roger Cohen, he has helped to legitimize critiques of Israel from within mainstream opinion. Judt's opposition was born out of disillusionment with the Zionist mythology that he experienced as a young Kibbutznik in the 1960s. In one of his "twilight" pieces for the New York Review written during his illness, he described his breach with a suffocating ideology:

What I did, however, come quite quickly to understand if not openly acknowledge was just how limited the kibbutz and its members really were. The mere fact of collective self-government, or egalitarian distribution of consumer durables, does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others. Indeed, to the extent that it contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard, it actually reinforces the worst kind of ethnic solipsism. (4)

It was that kind of ethnic solipsism that many other Jews and liberals rejected in Israel's most recent incursions into Lebanon and Gaza, as well as the ongoing colonization of the West Bank. Seeking to examine the roots of Zionist brutality, a group called Network 20/20 invited Judt to speak at a symposium on the Israel lobby to be held at the Polish Consulate in 2006. When word got out about the event, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League got on the phone and pressured Polish officials to cancel it. This led to letters of protests by major intellectuals against the Israel lobby's attempt to curtail free speech.

While Tony Judt was far more measured in his criticisms of Israel than a Norman Finkelstein, that did not matter very much to people like Abe Foxman or the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier. Despite having written for the New Republic in the past, Judt found himself on a collision path with the arch-Zionist magazine as his opposition to Israeli policies became more and more high profile. Of course, it did not help matters when Judt included Wieseltier as one of George W. Bush's group of "useful idiots" in a stinging London Review article dated September 21, 2006, that made the same arguments found in his review of the Bacevich and Rieff books:

Like Stalin's Western admirers who, in the wake of Khrushchev's revelations, resented the Soviet dictator not so much for his crimes as for discrediting their Marxism, so intellectual supporters of the Iraq War -- among them Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick and other prominent figures in the North American liberal establishment -- have focused their regrets not on the catastrophic invasion itself (which they all supported) but on its incompetent execution. They are irritated with Bush for giving "preventive war" a bad name. (5)

In an October 15, 2006, New York Observer article titled "Judt at War," Wieseltier asserts that Judt has broken with his past affiliations with the Cold War liberalism of the sort espoused by Camus:

I admired Tony's work because he was a staunch and learned defender of liberalism against precisely the kind of radicalism he now champions when it comes to the Middle East. He was the great student of Aron and Camus and the intellectually responsible people who understood how complicated the morality of power is, and refused to take any simple ideological line. But when it comes to Israel, he has become precisely the kind of intellectual whom his intellectual heroes would have despised. (6)

That is another way of saying that Judt refused to compromise his principles, something that is entirely lost on a Zionist mouthpiece like Wieseltier.

Finally, a word or two must be said about Tony Judt's posture vis-à-vis American capitalism, the economic substructure that made Cold War liberalism viable for the longest time. In keeping with his intellectual honesty, Judt's last major project was to scrutinize the underlying viability and ethos of what supposedly made the "American system" so superior.

In a book titled Ill Fares the Land, he examines the tatters of American society during the economic crisis and questions whether something different is needed. While not exactly embracing a revolutionary break with the system, he is unstinting in his critique, using the kind of rhetoric of an Old Testament prophet.

In an excerpt that appeared in the April 10, 2010 New York Review, Judt displays the power of a mind that a soon to be fatal disease -- his view from inside, so to speak -- could not silence. This is a voice that we commemorate in its passing:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears "natural" today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come. (7)




[ed. Note: these resources add to the seven notes and links Louis Proyect included in his Appreciation of Tony Judt.]

Move For ALS - Project supported by Tony Judt to raise funds to help find a cure to ALS.

Tony Judt on the NYRB Web site

Words - NYRB, July 15, 2010. Judt on language (his penultimate essay for the NYRB).

Night - NYRB, January 14, 2010. Judt explains his physical deterioration.

Toni - NYRB, April 19, 2010. Judt on Jewishness.

Ill Fares the Land - NYRB, April 29, 2010. This is the full excerpt from which Louis Proyect quotes. It is drawn from the first chapter of the book.

Austerity - NYRB, May 13, 2010. An opinion on hyper-consumption and the merits of a little "austerity."

What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy? - NYRB, December 17, 2009. From a lecture given at New York University on October 19, 2009.

What Have We Learned, If Anything? - NYRB, May 1, 2008. A critical view of our times and warmongering.


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1.  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jul/15/words/  (back)

2.  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1996/feb/01/temptations-of-a-superpower/  (back)

3.  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2005/jul/14/the-new-world-order/  (back)

4. http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/jan/18/kibbutz/  (back)

5.  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/tony-judt/bushs-useful-idiots  (back)

6.  http://www.observer.com/node/39587  (back)

7.  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/apr/29/ill-fares-the-land/  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 9, 2010