Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Don't Forget the 20th Century

Tony Judt's tough history lessons for Israel, Tony Blair and Washington's deluded warriors.

By Stan Persky 21 Jul 2008 |

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. His most recent book is Topic Sentence: A Writer's Education (New Star, 2007).

image atom
Tony Blair, continuing Thatcherism.
  • Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century
  • Tony Judt
  • Penguin (2008)

Historian Tony Judt's telling use of the biblical phrase, "the years the locusts ate," to describe the years since the fall of communism in 1989 can probably also be applied to our memory of almost everything after World War II. The British-born Judt, who directs New York University's Erich Remarque Institute, is the author of the deservedly praised, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Postwar (2005), a history of Europe since 1945, and several more-narrowly focused studies of French politics and intellectual life. His new book, Reappraisals, collects some two dozen of his essays written over the past decade or so, all of which reflect on aspects of what he fears is the already "forgotten twentieth century."

The wide-ranging Reappraisals offers retrospective evaluations of such thinkers as Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Edward Said and other intellectuals from the last century, as well as considerations of contemporary England, Belgium, Romania and Israel, and a critical look at "the American (Half-) Century." Yet the book is strikingly more coherent and tightly argued than one might expect from a compilation of seemingly disparate essays. Some of the reasons for its quality of sustained thought are that Judt's essays are unfailingly interesting, knowledgeable without being pedantic, well-written, contentious but not cranky, and straight-from-the-headlines relevant. As well, two anchor essays at the beginning and end of the book not only set out the themes and sum up the reflective investigations in between, but underscore that haunting phrase from the biblical Book of Joel about the years the locusts ate.

'An age of forgetting'

In the introductory "World We Have Lost," Judt lays out the concerns that are on his mind. At the broadest level, he is interested, first, in "the role of ideas and the responsibility of intellectuals" in societies like ours, hence his survey of various provocative thinkers. Second, Judt reflects on "the place of recent history in an age of forgetting: the difficulty we seem to experience in making sense of the turbulent century that has just ended and in learning from it." Judt fears that if we look back at all, we shall "look back upon the half generation separating the fall of communism in 1989-91 from the catastrophic American occupation of Iraq as… a decade and a half of wasted opportunities and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic." It was with "too much confidence and too little reflection" that we put the past century behind us and strode into the new one wrapped "in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market."

Paradoxically, though we wear the last century "rather lightly," Judt observes, "we have memorialized it everywhere: museums, shrines, inscriptions, 'heritage sites,' even historical theme parks are all public reminders of 'the Past'." But there is something odd about this semi-commercial commemoration. "We encourage citizens and students to see the past -- and its lessons -- through the particular vector of their own suffering (or that of their ancestors). Today, the 'common' interpretation of the recent past is thus composed of the manifold fragments of separate pasts, each of them (Jewish, Polish, Serb, Armenian, German, Asian-American, Palestinian, Irish, homosexual… ) marked by its own distinctive and assertive victimhood." In short, the past is reduced to a sort of wounded tribalism. "Whatever the shortcomings of the older national narratives once taught in school" -- and the shortcomings, whether of the "Manifest Destiny," "Dictatorship of the Proletariat," or "Peace, Order and Good Government" variety, were many -- "they had at least the advantage of providing a nation with past references for present experience."

In an era whose slogan is an injunction to put the traumas of the past "behind us, seek closure, and move on," Judt asks, "What, then, is it that we have misplaced in our haste to put the twentieth century behind us?" First, "curious as it may seem, we (or at least we Americans) have forgotten the meaning of war."

Faith in war

For much of the world, the 20th century "was a time of virtually unbroken war: continental war, colonial war, civil war." And war meant occupation, destruction and mass murder. But "the United States avoided all that… The U.S. was never occupied. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens or huge swaths of national territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in neo-colonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), it has never suffered the consequences of defeat."

The result, Judt suggests, is that for "many American commentators and policymakers the message of the last century is that war works. The implication of this reading of history has already been felt in the decision to attack Iraq in 2003. For Washington, war remains an option -- in this case the first option. For the rest of the developed world it has become a last resort."

Judt is also on firm ground, I think, when he says, "After war, the second characteristic of the twentieth century was the rise and subsequent fall of the state." The former refers to the emergence of autonomous nation-states throughout the century. Judt, however, is appropriately more focused on the erosion of state power "at the hands of multinational corporations, transnational institutions, and the accelerated movement of people, money and goods outside their control."

One of Judt's worries is about the diminishing allegiance to the notion of the state during the course of the last century. For the post-World War II period, "it was widely accepted that the modern state could -- and therefore should -- perform the providential role; ideally without intruding excessively upon the liberty of its subjects." But in the last third of the 20th century, "it became increasingly commonplace to treat the state not as the natural benefactor of first resort but as a source of economic inefficiency and social intrusion best excluded from citizens' affairs wherever possible." Here, Judt is referring to the now familiar triumph of both conservative ideology and unrestrained capitalist globalization.

What Judt wants us to remember is that "it was not always self-evident that the state is bad for you; until very recently there were many people in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and not a few in the U.S., who believed the contrary." If they hadn't, says Judt, neither the New Deal, nor the 1960s Great Society programs, nor the social democratic institutions of Western Europe would have come about.

In the end, Judt is arguing that "we need to learn once again to 'think the state,' free of the prejudices we have acquired against it in the triumphalist wake of the West's cold war victory." We're all aware, as of the end of the last century, "that you can have too much state. But..." -- and here's the punchline -- " can also have too little."

Limits to 'economism'

The antagonism toward the state, and the concomitant undermining of a concept of the citizen, leads directly to Judt's third broad theme of forgetfulness: "We have forgotten how to think politically." The striking result of this is "how far we have lost the capacity even to conceive of public policy beyond a narrowly constructed economism."

Instead, "we describe our collective purposes in exclusively economic terms." There's a clear and present danger: "Democracies in which there are no significant political choices to be made, where economic policy is all that really matters -- and where economic policy is now largely determined by nonpolitical actors (central banks, international agencies or transnational corporations) -- must either cease to be functioning democracies or accommodate once again the politics of frustration, of populist resentment." Some would say that that's exactly what's happened in the U.S. during the George W. Bush period.

Canadian readers of Judt who find his arguments somewhat familiar are no doubt correctly hearing an echo of John Ralston Saul's 1995 Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization, where a similar plea for the public good, against corporate partial interests, and for the renewal of citizenship was eloquently rehearsed. It was Ralston Saul who said, "The most powerful force possessed by the individual citizen is her own government.... Government is the only organized mechanism that makes possible that level of shared disinterest known as the public good. Without this greater good, the individual is reduced to a lesser, narrower being limited to immediate needs."

Most of Judt's essays here are occasioned by, and are a response to, recently published books he's reviewing. What I particularly like about Judt's book, in addition to his willingness to do some of the heavy lifting, is the kind of piece he writes, a very attractive sort of essay that's become increasingly rare in the shrunken review pages of most publications. Instead of the standard ("pre-shrunk") review, Judt writes a well-rounded essay, of the type that can only be found these days in the New York Review and a few similar journals (and in fact many of the essays in Judt's book first appeared in NYR). The advantage of this style of essay writing is that you not only get an account, frequently critical, of a particular work under review, but if you know nothing about, say, Arthur Koestler or Primo Levi, or have mostly forgotten, you're able to come away from Judt's writing with a fairly clear idea of the life and works of the person being written about, as well as Judt's invariably perceptive underscoring of the significance of the subject's thinking. The strength of Judt's essays is that they're persuasive invitations to the life of the mind.

Tony Blair, off the rails

When not writing about particular minds, the second kind of reappraisal that Judt engages in concerns the perilous state of The State and why we need to re-learn how to "think the state." Judt's most savage essay is about England's Tony Blair, whom he nails as "the gnome in England's Garden of Forgetting."

Beyond the shredding of a political personality, the serious subject of Judt's essay is the catastrophic privatization of the British rail system under Thatcher, John Major and Blair. "The outcome has been a chronicle of disasters foretold," Judt says, and then proceeds to detail the greed, dis-service, and literal dangers contained in that chronicle.

Judt's point is that "railways are a public service. That is why the French invest in them so heavily (as do the Germans, Italians and Spanish). They treat the huge subsidy given their train system as an investment in the national and local economies, the environment, health, tourism, and social mobility." And that's a good thing, says Judt. For most Europeans, "railways are not a business but a service that the state provides for its citizens at collective expense.... To treat trains like a firm, best run by entrepreneurs whose shareholders expect a cash return on their investment, is to misunderstand their very nature."

A prescription for Israel

If Judt's essay about Blair's England is his most excoriating prose, his writings about Israel are the expression of his most controversial thoughts, and they deserve mention perhaps simply because they are controversial. As with most issues he tackles, Judt knows whereof he speaks: he was raised in a radical Jewish household, and did a tour of duty as a teenager on an Israeli kibbutz in the mid-1960s. Judt was also friends with the Palestinian-American Edward Said, and wrote a fond essay (included in Reappraisals) that prefaces the posthumous collection of Said's late political writings.

What's controversial about Judt's views is that he aligns himself with Said's eventual advocacy of what's known as a "one-state solution" -- a democratic, secular, egalitarian state, that is -- to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than the standard "two-state" proposal which retains the present theocratic, ideologized, antagonistic relations. This isn't the place to argue that argument -- and at the moment, neither proposal looks even vaguely likely, or likely to bring peace -- but one can see how unorthodox views like Judt's lead to his revilement, especially by other, mostly North American, Jews.

In a piece for an Israeli newspaper, Judt characterizes the Jewish state as "the country that wouldn't grow up," a country that retains its adolescent belligerence, wounded amour propre and its assertion that it can do what it wants. And at one time, Israel, with its rooted-ness in Holocaust history, could pretty much get away with it.

"But today everything is different," Judt claims. "We can see, in retrospect, that Israel's victory in June 1967 and its continuing occupation of the territories it conquered then have been the Jewish state's very own... moral and political catastrophe." Today, the "routines of occupation and repression," once known to only an informed minority of specialists, "can be watched in real time, by anyone with a computer terminal or a satellite dish." Little wonder, then, at some of the hostility directed to that Middle Eastern Hebrew-speaking power. And little wonder that this is the sort of criticism that doesn't endear Judt to many of his fellow Jews. I'm one of those readers (and Jews) who thinks that Judt's criticisms are in the main justified, but that argument, like the one about state solutions, should be left for another occasion.

Beware the locusts

At the end of his book, Judt comes full circle with an essay about what the French call "the excluded," those large numbers of people who are or who have become hopelessly and brutally marginalised in their societies, and this returns Judt to the question of the state. That's because, in his view, only the state can ameliorate the inhuman condition.

Judt's reminders of what we have forgotten, and his moderate plea for the reconstruction of the social welfare or social democratic state may or may not add up to "change that we can believe in," as the hopeful Barack Obama presidential campaign slogan has it. But his essays are free of political "spin," suffused in intelligent thought, and just may save us from another plague of locusts.