Tony Judt

Tony Judt, the great historian of modern Europe, is dead from a terrible neurological disease.  The news commands attention out of our usual box.  Judt was not afraid to preach a social democratic humanism to fill the vacuum left by the end of ideological conflict.  He was that rare thing for an Englishman- a public intellectual, although based on New York. Born an east end Jew, and later a  volunteer serviceman in Israel, he caused uproar there by advocating a Jewish-Palestinian State,  describing  Israel as  ” an anachronism”. 

In one his last essays, he returned to the theme defined by George Orwell – the political use of language. While this has parochial echoes, its application is universal.

Articulacy is regarded as an aggressive talent. But for me its functions were substantively defensive: rhetorical flexibility allows for a feigned closeness – conveying proximity while maintaining distance

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously

 IIl Fares the Land was Judt’s last major work, extracted here, expressing his fears that the challenges of the future will produce  a narrower , harsher State. His analysis will certainly be challenged, but David Cameron please note.

The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”

I want to challenge conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic. To be sure, the target has softened considerably. In the early years of this century, the “Washington consensus” held the field. Everywhere you went there was an economist or “expert” expounding the virtues of deregulation, the minimal state, and low taxation. Anything, it seemed, that the public sector could do, private individuals could do better.

The Washington doctrine was everywhere greeted by ideological cheerleaders: from the profiteers of the “Irish miracle” (the property-bubble boom of the “Celtic Tiger”) to the doctrinaire ultra-capitalists of former Communist Europe.

Today there has been a partial awakening. To avert national bankruptcies and wholesale banking collapse, governments and central bankers have performed remarkable policy reversals, liberally dispersing public money in pursuit of economic stability and taking failed companies into public control without a second thought.

All change is disruptive. We have seen that the specter of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil. Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences. Men and women will be thrown back upon the resources of the state. They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for “security.” The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state. It is thus incumbent upon us to reconceive the role of government. If we do not, others will.


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  • A N Other

    No surprise to see no response here; he was afterall a fearless critic of narrow orthodoxies.

  • RepublicanStones

    Good post Brian.

    Judt was a giant. He was able to beat cancer so mother nature truely is a cruel madam to have thrown another, this time inescapable illness in his direction. He had said the thing he missed most which his condition had deprived him of was the ability to travel. It is sad to hear of such a brilliant mind jailed within its own body. He was right about the Washington Consensus, which encouraged the well to do in developing nations to lift the skirts of their nations economies to the slimy advances of large international corporations. One remembers Reagans euphemistically termed ‘National Endowment For Democracy’ which seeks to promote ‘democracy’….for those who who would favour the Washington style of economics. Even further back I recall reading of Nixon’s order to the CIA to punish the Chileans for electing Allende, by making ‘the economy scream’. But….I digress…..

    Judt also created a storm with his proposal for his solution to that most protracted of conflicts. But it was a necessary storm. Of course the attack dogs couched his proposal in elminationist terminology when they criticised him for it (it was anything but), but as he said in one recent interview –

    “I think Intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community.”

    Rest in peace.

  • DC

    You sure – I thought he feared for the EU and suggested that nationalism tends to trump other political ideologies in the end?

  • wee buns

    Thanks for an introduction to Judt.
    What grabbed me was to see Orwells essays on Politics and Language mentioned, the content typically far sighted, a day does not pass when you see/hear his criticisims play out.

  • Aaron Callan

    Tony Judt was a great writer and thinker, his insightful thoughts will be sadly and greatly missed by all.

  • Tony Judt was a great figure, and it’s terrible that he had to go like this (or that anyone should have to…). He was a great, thought-provoking writer, and he’ll be missed,

  • Greenflag

    Very sad news indeed , but thanks for the links above and excerpts . Much of what Tony Judt writes is what many people who follow geo politics/economics closely , know to be true but are at a loss to see an alternative much less how such an alternative could come to pass .

    Nowadays unlike the 1960’s or the 1920’s in which in retrospect the ‘young’ and ‘rebellious’ were confident in their hopes for change the future -today we live in a world where the young appear to have no aspirations other than more consumerism whereas in the east they revert to mass religious hysteria and unreason . Meanwhile the western ‘defenders’ of the status quo both left and right are looking not just ideologically bankrupt but cowed by the scale of the crisis in which they have blind led their democracies .


  • SDLP Man

    Thanks for this, BW, and commentaries. My own feeling is that, if it is worked at, social democracy is the way forward for both jurisdictions in the island in the 21st century. What price a new constitution, a new republic to replace and supersede the two very unsatisfactory declarations of 1916 and 1948, but one that comprehends all the people of the island in the diversity of their allegiances.

    Just finished reading ‘A Dangerous Liaison’, a joint biography of J-P Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. What a pair of shits they both were in their slavish devotion to Stalin and totalitarian communism.

    Interesting that the Beardy Boy recently made a remark to the effect that social democracy was dead. Did you ever look closely at GA: he has inherited Stalin’s eyes!

  • Greenflag

    It seems I have more confidence in the young that you, there is a very angry group of young workers out there, of the type the cretin Martin McGuiness has taken to calling anti social elements, but in reality are the kids of his core support base; plus a comparatively well educated section of middle class young people whose ambitions are going to be thwarted.

    What they have in common is they will all be hit hardest by the unnecessary and obscene cut’s coming their way. I doubt all of them will go home, shut the door and spend their time pondering on the trainers their parent could once afford to buy them.

    The tragedy of Judt death, is it is yet another voice of realism and reason departing the world when such people are desperately needed.

    Social democracy created the most harmonious and prosperous period of European human existence. What did for it was corporate greed and the wiliness of the working and middle classes to believe almost any old crap the ruling, political, business, and media elites told them. Cutting the deficit quickly, or disaster awaits being the biggest lie of all.

    I doubt, and certainly hope, their children will not be as gullible and pliable as their parents have been. After all, these days, what trinkets can they be offered to buy them off?

    Arrogance and ignorance are always a recipe for disaster; and the UK and Irish government have them in spades.

    Interesting times are coming, and millions of people will have to decide where they stand, with the thieves, incompetents and lackeys who have got us where we are, or with the young people who will undoubtedly cry enough.

    Take the current UK coalition government, it is now claiming it is impractical to send half of all young people to university, in a world in which a knowledge based economy will be king, if they are unwilling to do even this, what useful purpose do they serve?

    None, I am tempted to cry off with their heads, but that may put the fear of god into Mick F’s new pals. Never forget, there is always another way.

  • Greenflag

    For all who may have an interest an interview with Tony Judt on NPR last March in which he talks briefly about his terminal illness and his book ‘Ill Fares the Land’

    A very great and brave man .

  • Greenflag

    ‘Take the current UK coalition government, it is now claiming it is impractical to send half of all young people to university, in a world in which a knowledge based economy will be king, if they are unwilling to do even this, what useful purpose do they serve?’

    They may have a point . Cameron may just be succumbing to hard nosed ‘honesty ‘ . To the extent that the UK economy is a smaller version of the USA economy despite differences in health care and education then it’s not unreasonable to assume that ‘educational ‘ provision and supply of educational services will eventually be broadly similiar in both countries and across the western world generally.

    We are back to the ‘fallacy of composition’ . When everybody has a university education then (at least in a market economy) the value of such an education reduces in value (not educationally ) but in terms of what the ‘market’ will pay for those ‘skills’ . Some young people may earn more over a lifetime and be happier as plumbers or electricians etc than as microbiologists or English language lecturers ;)?

    While we are moving and have moved into what you call a knowledge based economy the latest forecasts for new job creation in the USA (possibly the UK as well ) is that most ‘new ‘jobs will be in what is called the ‘services’ sector . In the USA it looks like about 75% of forecasted ‘new jobs’ will be in areas like health care , the armed forces , convenience products (fast food and such like) or in areas which will not require or at least traditionally did not require a third level qualification .There will be higher paid jobs created in government , in high tech industries and innovative newer businesses but these will be a ‘minority’ of future requirements .

    There is also the much ignored fact of life that most people are not academically inclined anyway and it’s probably doubtful if a few years ‘wasting ‘ time in university does much for such individuals other than reduce the number on the ‘dole ‘ lines or help people postpone their ‘career’ decision until they are older.

    We go back to the old education for education’s sake or should the needs of the economy dictate the type of educational provision . In dynamic systems such as our ‘globalised’ economy there will nearly always be an imbalance between supply and demand in terms of the particular types of educated ‘worker’ the economy needs and this ‘imbalance’ will become even greater depending on the rate of change in the economy .

    Some 200,000 young people left Ireland (ROI) in the mid 1980’s and 400,000 ‘immigrants ‘came in in the 1990’s . Similar outflows and inflows can be seen for the UK and probably the USA although numbers will be much larger.

    Do such large scale movements of peoples across national frontiers make social and economic and political sense ?

    The ‘market’ seems to think so .

    ‘Social democracy created the most harmonious and prosperous period of European human existence.’

    I agree . Certainly beats ‘feudalism’ and the Victorian epoch and the Middle Ages although in those those historical eras a very small minority did well apart from in areas such as life expectancy , health and dental care etc 😉

    ‘Never forget, there is always another way.’

    Probably but at his stage and speaking in the general sense rather than in a country specific sense , I’m reminded of the old Soviet era joke.

    ‘Will there be a Third World War?’

    ‘No , but there will be such a struggle for peace that not a stone will be left standing’

    Right now as the Tony Judt points out our ’emperors’ of both the left and right seem to appear naked in the face of the political and economic future not just of their own countries but of the world economic system .

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I wouldnt really chide too many people for not rushing to comment on Tony Judts death at a comparatively early age…..the second historian whose untimely death has been noted here in just about a month.
    Not really sure about his relevance in Norn Iron although a giant in his field.
    And how many people outside the narrow field of History & Politics had actually heard of him.
    Certainly he did profess a brand of analysis that would be popular with the usual suspects who tend to believe that our shabby little history/politics needs or deserves uplifting.

    But it stretches credulity to think that his death is a talking point in the Members Dining Room at Stormont. Has Robinson, McGuinness, Empey or Ritchie actually heard the name?
    I doubt it.
    And I wouldnt go down the road of thinking that Politics and History should be left to an intellectual elite.
    Another death this week ………and I have not noticed it mentioned on Slugger (apologies if it has……as I have been busy with real life recently) is the death of Jimmy Reid.

    I daresay his name means something outside the Overclass.

  • Greenflag

    Fitzer ,

    ‘But it stretches credulity to think that his death is a talking point in the Members Dining Room at Stormont. Has Robinson, McGuinness, Empey or Ritchie actually heard the name?
    I doubt it.’

    Indeed but if slugger were to restrict it’s threads, bloggers and posts to only those matters which are talking points in the Member’s Dining Room at Stormont then it would be a very poor site indeed . The ‘members ‘ or at least more than a few of them can do with their minds being ‘stretched’ beyond their limited tribal boundaries now and again .

    ‘Not really sure about his relevance in Norn Iron ‘

    Norn Iron is part of the world is it not ? It is a ‘democracy’ of sorts is it not ? It broadly adheres to western principles of the free market at least theoretically even if in practice it’s more like a ‘gentler’ USSR economy minus the opposition gulags ?

    I read about Jimmy Reid’s death as well . North of Hadrian’s wall he’ll be remembered by more than south of Potter’s Bar . The eh Overclass did’nt like him then any more than they’ll have regard for him .


  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I make the point that the dining room at Stormont is rightly or wrongly part of the real world. Many Sluggerites try to find a link between Norn Iron and the big outside world. Fair play to them but its a losing battle.
    The point that you make about Jimmy Reid is exactly the same point I make about Judt.
    Reid and Judt were from different worlds though both intellects of high degree.
    But in the real world in which Reid lived he was the same places where Judt was unknown.
    The chattering classes and Overclass around their Islington dining room will ask “who he?” about Reid but would probably spend all night talking about Judts meaningful contribution to History.

  • Greenflag


    ‘I make the point that the dining room at Stormont is rightly or wrongly part of the real world.’

    I did’nt say it was’ nt.

    ‘Many Sluggerites try to find a link between Norn Iron and the big outside world. Fair play to them but its a losing battle.’

    The more NI engages with the outside world the better for all it’s people . The world will have it’s way sooner or later -economically and politically . NI can run but it can’t hide and neither can any other State 😉

    It may have escaped your notice but the world has become much smaller in recent decades . No man is an island unto himself and ditto for modern states -North Korea is probably an exception but I’m sure you will agree that the hereditary communist monarchy of North Korea is not a role model for aspiring democracies.

    ‘Reid and Judt were from different worlds though both intellects of high degree.’

    The world is a poorer place for their passing even if neither achieved any great political prominence but then they each contributed to the greater good in their own way .

    I would’nt make that comment about say a Bernie Madoff or a Dick Cheney or a Maxwell or a Newt Gingrich or a hundred /thousand others of the same ilk who had passed .