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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Open Thread: In Memoriam Tony Judt

Tony Judt, Professor of History at NYU, historian, thinker, teacher and polemicist, died surrounded by his family in his Manhattan Apartment yesterday afternoon, having struggled for two long years with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

I’ve written about Tony before, and here’s a picture of us both (me on the right, Tony in the middle, and Polish producer and activist Krzysztof Czyzewski on the left) from happier days in Oxford three years ago.

Though not unexpected, this is a personal loss for me, because Tony was both friend and mentor (as another friend has written “severe and kind”). I’d recently interviewed him for Prospective Magazine, and written an appraisal of his heroic stand on European history, Identity Politics, Israel, Iraq, and the corruptions of Marxism and the future of the left, published only this month….

Words almost fail me now. But to stop this being too maudlin (something Tony would have despised) I’ll repost the conclusion of my piece, to celebrate the provocative, engaged and vital energy of the man.

The major work written under the extraordinary conditions of his paralysing illness is also Tony’s least historical and most overtly political. Published this March, Ill Fares the Land began life as a public lecture undertaken “to prove that what I had been saying about this disease-that it doesn’t affect your mind-was externally verifiable… I suppose the book would have been a little tighter and maybe more methodologically consequential if I had done it the old way. But it would surely have lacked the energy and anger.”

The result is an indictment of the Anglo-Saxon model of free-market economics since 1979. If there’s an element of improvisation to the book’s origin, there’s nothing ad hoc about the host of references it unlocks. The historical range underpinning Postwar is all here, but deployed to explain that government wasn’t always bad and that collective action wasn’t always tainted by the “socialist” authoritarian smear.

Dedicated to Tony’s two American-born sons, the text tries to address both a transatlantic and generational divide. The result is an occasionally awkward attempt to reach very different audiences, but from its opening sentence it rarely ceases to compel: “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 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.” Ill Fares the Land has attracted some negative reviews from both right and left for skipping over the historical failures of Keynesianism and the electoral success of the “third way.” But the financial collapse of 2008 and the way the state had to step in and “save capitalism” are pretty unassailable arguments against the status quo ante.

What Ill Fares the Land does not do is describe a grand project for a brand new hegemonic future-it’s much more modest than that. When I ask him about what some might see as the book’s inherently tragic vision, Tony rejects the idea: “You can’t have a tragic vision in politics: not if you wish to intervene and convince… One of the very few things that I know I believe strongly is that we must learn how to make a better world out of usable pasts rather than dreaming of infinite futures. It’s a very late-Enlightenment view that says that the only way to make a better future is to believe that the future will be better.”

Judt has studied, combated and even taken part in many of the radical new beginnings of the last 60 years: Zionism, the new left, deconstructionism, neoconservatism, neo-liberalism, new Labour. Yet from a deep-rooted left-wing liberal perspective, Ill Fares the Land ultimately offers a conservative conclusion. The left has lost too much in its obsession with newness and creative destruction, it argues. The “usable pasts,” with all their limitations and possibilities, have the virtue of being known.

One of these pasts is the lost role of the public intellectual: well-informed but willing to range beyond the ghetto of expertise-who doesn’t just observe but also tries to intervene or provoke. The economic background to Ill Fares the Land might be incomplete but the reappraising anger is just. Tony’s willingness to take on this topic-to use his fast-depleting energies on this particular stage at this particular time-is yet another dramatic intervention, combining a personal voice with a knowledge of history and sense of occasion in a way that is both responsive and responsible, timely and moral.

Something that might be missed in all the plaudits coming in now, is that he was, for all his intellectual abrasiveness, incredibly kind generous, especially to those in need, those with no power, those with an open mind.

If the phrase, commonly attributed to Samuel Johnson, is true:

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good

…then Tony was a giant. Or to quote another of our fellow countrymen:

He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again


  1. louisprandtl

    No words can assuage the sense of your loss…please convey our deepest sympathy to your friend’s family…

  2. fogiv

    clearly, he’s made a mark upon you.  enough that you’ve shared with us here.  we can only hope that we’ll affect others enough that they’ll care to do the same for us.

  3. Shaun Appleby

    Of each insightful keeper of History we lose a little bit of the narrative of our tribe, whomever we are.  We can only celebrate and preserve what we have received from them.  It was ever thus.

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