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Thinking the Twentieth Century
author: Timothy Snyder , Tony Judt
publisher: Penguin
pub date: 02.02.2012
pp: 432
tags: Nonfiction , History

G.J. Meyer on Thinking the Twentieth Century


February 8th, 2012 reset - +

AT THE PEAK OF HIS CAREER and in the full ripeness of his abundant talents, the intellectual historian Tony Judt was struck down by Lou Gehrig's disease. He died before his 63rd birthday. Judt was someone America needed in these rancid times: a superbly trained intellect, magnificently informed, passionate about the truth and fearless in speaking it to power. With his 2005 book Postwar he had come about as close to reaching the mass market as is possible for a genuine scholar in the age of Dan Brown. It is painful to consider how Judt, had he lived, might have enriched the ridiculous circus that is public discourse in the United States today, and what sort of impact he could have had as he went about the lonely business of exposing the holes in the prevailing popular wisdom.

We Americans seem no longer able to keep the kinds of people we most need — even in cases when they aren't felled by incurable diseases. When the state of New York gives rise to a governor willing to challenge the buccaneers of Wall Street, he quickly self-immolates via a blazing sex scandal. When, in the sewer that the U.S. Senate has become, one man somehow keeps himself clean and clear-headed through a miraculous three terms, even casting the only vote against the Patriot Act, the voters of Wisconsin (supposedly and ironically burning with rage at the Washington Establishment) replace him with a nonentity summoned to public service by the big money. And if two genuinely progressive members of Congress survive in the rust belt of northern Ohio, count on the state legislature to amuse itself by throwing them together into the same new district so that, no matter what the voters want, only one can possibly survive. 

So perhaps we should be grateful not only that Tony Judt lasted as long as he did, but that he wrote and spoke as much as he did and received at least a measure of attention while what looks increasingly like a new dark age descended upon us. In a nation capable of swallowing Newt Gingrich's claims of being a "historian" (and to have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by a mortgage company for his services in that capacity), a real historian as substantial as Judt never had much chance of being more than a ghost at the feast. A culture befuddled enough to heap fame and riches on charlatans as mean-minded as Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter should not be expected to have much honor to spare for a genuinely prophetic figure bearing unwelcome news. 

What made Judt special — what made him possible, innate brainpower and integrity aside — was his remarkable life story. Born in London in 1948 to immigrant Jewish parents whose roots were in various parts of Russia's czarist empire, he grew up in a household where the tenets of Marxism (not to be confused with Stalinism) were accepted as obviously and importantly true. In early adolescence he became an ardent Zionist, spending long periods on kibbutzim in the fledgling state of Israel. But by the end of his undergraduate years at King's College, Cambridge (which he attended on a scholarship), Judt had absorbed and discarded both Marxism and Zionism alike. The academic career that followed seems almost to have been arranged by fate to prevent him from settling into even the most respectable kind of rut: a doctorate in French history (conferred by Cambridge, but earned on the continent under the guidance of Parisian mentors); teaching appointments at Cambridge, Berkeley, Oxford, and finally New York University; a succession of books culminating in 2008's Reappraisals and last year's Ill Fares the Land. In part at least, that career was a lifelong search to find a substitute for the Marxist understanding of history and the world in an age of unfettered free-market capitalism, and for Zionism in the aftermath of what he called "the great rupture in the history of the century: the Holocaust."


The curtain began to come down on Judt four years ago, with a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and its descent was rapid; in short order he was paralyzed from the neck down. Though he continued to produce articles and even give the occasional lecture, the books he had hoped to write — starting with a history of ideas in the twentieth century — were soon beyond his strength. It was at that point that Yale professor Timothy Snyder entered the picture, proposing a series of conversations that, transcribed and edited, could serve as Judt's final summation of what he thought he had learned and what he had come to believe and expect in forty years of study. The result is Thinking the Twentieth Century, appearing 18 months after Judt's death, in which Snyder limits himself to a distinctly secondary role, interjecting just enough to broaden the dialogue where appropriate and keep it driving forward.

Though not really an autobiography, the book is both chronological and personal, each of its sections centered on some specific stage in Judt's development. The first such stage ends with his concluding, while still on the threshold of adulthood, that communism is morally insupportable because it's "always about a future omelet that could justify an infinite number of broken eggs in the present," and (after serving as a translator in the Six Day War) that Israel is "unhealthily dependent upon the Holocaust — its moral crutch and weapon of choice with which to fend off all criticism." These ideas continue to occupy him until, entering middle age, he loses interest in the subject that had been his life's work ("I don't think I had realized how truly bored I was with France after studying it for two decades") and decides that the most interesting thinkers and ideas are to be found not in western but in central and eastern Europe. At which point he settles down to learn Czech in order to provide himself with a window onto the political cultures that were producing the likes of Václav Havel and Karol Wojtyla. 

What this journey produced was a self-described lifelong outsider ("for me this has always been a safe, even comfortable position") whose knowledge of what he called the century of the intellectuals was both deep and broad (two dimensions not commonly found together in a contemporary academic thinker). What makes his final testament such a gift is that he knew it tobe his final testament. He saw it as his chance to unpack himself while there was still time, and he approached the job not only bravely, not only with good humor, but with genuine relish. 

The first thing to be said of the unpacking process is that it shows Judt to have remained, to the end of his life, not idealistic exactly, at least uncynical. Though life caused him to lose patience with what he came to think of as "the cesspit of Theory" (the attempt to explain everything in terms of grand overarching intellectual constructs), he never stopped believing that there is such a thing as truth, that the truth of the historian is reached not through abstractions but through the collection and confirmation of facts, that that kind of truth matters in a big way, and that learning and telling the truth about the past is about the closest thing that the contemporary world has to a sacred responsibility. Though he was convinced that the West had lost its bearings both intellectually and morally within the past generation or so, his response was not despairing but combative. In Thinking the Twentieth Century he insists repeatedly on the need to reacquaint ourselves with the facts of our own history, because unless we possess the facts we can never draw the right lessons from them. From this proceeds his view of what the study and writing of history is — or should be — all about: telling the story, "reminding people that things actually happened," and "[getting] it right: again and again and again." It's because they have lost sight of this essentially simple truth, and have been taught to value "large theoretical claims about the deconstructive purpose of the research" above getting it right, that academic historians "don't know what they're doing any more." They have been seduced by the siren song of supposedly pure and beautiful "higher truths," saving themselves from involvement in the "ugly and complicated" real world and, in the process, losing contact with the reading public. Only attention to the facts, Judt says, can allow us to engage constructively in the debate that has been at the center of public life for the past century: the rise of the welfare state, and what to make of it. For him, the United States came closest to a sane and satisfying position on the question in the four decades from the 1930s to the 1960s, when something like a national consensus assumed "that if America could afford to make itself a good society, it should want to do so." At the root of this assumption lay a sense of community, of "common need and shared interest." Americans accepted that it is entirely legitimate to tax for the advancement of the public good, and even to tax all for the benefit of some (those in need of education or medical care, for example). 

Today, as we don't need Judt to tell us, such assumptions are not only marginal but objects of ridicule, and our two most recent Democratic presidents have been, in important respects, markedly more conservative than Eisenhower. The replacement consensus, the ideology that exalts the market to a position of supremacy over all other possible sources of value and seeks the destruction of social democracy, was implanted in the United States in the form of Reaganism and in the United Kingdom as Thatcherism. The arguments for it came directly out of the University of Chicago's economics department: Milton Friedman and his colleagues and disciples. Ultimately, however, its origins are Austrian: They reach back to Friedrich Hayek and his iconic work The Road to Serfdom. Hayek's view of politics and economics is powered by his conviction that to allow the state any interference with the workings of the market is to start down a fatally slippery slope at the bottom of which, totalitarianism lies waiting. 

In dealing with Hayek, Judt and Snyder draw upon their shared knowledge of recent eastern European history to lay out a persuasive (to this reviewer) demonstration of how he got things wrong. They argue that he misrepresented the process by which, in the 1930s, Viennese social democracy gave way to authoritarianism, then to fascism, and finally to Nazism. The detailed evidence outlined in this and other passages defies summarization; a reviewer can only point to its existence and invite prospective readers to judge for themselves. 

The consequences of Hayekian worship of the market are, thanks to the credit crunch and the cascading economic calamities that have followed in its wake, now obvious to all but the willfully blind — as obvious as they were to Adam Smith and the other fathers of economics. What Judt and Snyder contribute is a discussion, fact-based but also philosophically penetrating, of just how deep these consequences go and just how dangerous they are to a decent and sustainable society. Viewed in this context, Margaret Thatcher's famous statement that there is no such thing as society — only families and individuals with real economic interests — takes on a fuller, more poisonous meaning. Where there is no society, there is only the world dreamed of by the Hobbesian American right: nature, red in tooth and claw, the war of each against all. Where vestiges of traditional society survive, they have been subjected to a relentless process of erosion by the exaltation of competition and a "pervasive culture of fear."

Since the 1970s, as Judt says, the erosion has advanced to the point where it can seem naive, even ridiculous, to ask about right versus wrong. In a world "shorn of ethical meaning" by the new values, nothing matters except "whether a policy is efficient or inefficient ... whether it improves productivity." Economic output becomes the measure not only of success but of legitimacy — of good. Anything that might limit output becomes a priori illegitimate, intolerable, a threat. We are left with a singularly shabby and shallow-rooted moral code, one that is indifferent to injustice and too obsessed with the accumulation of more to give any thought to whether that more is consistent with the long-term well-being of the commonwealth. We are left also, more emphatically in the United States than in western Europe, with chronic and pervasive insecurity. "Gone is the sense that the skills with which you enter a profession or job would be the relevant skills for your working lifetime," Judt observes:

Gone is the certainty that you could reasonably expect a comfortable retirement to follow from a successful working career. All of these demographically, economically, statistically legitimate inferences from present to future — which characterized American and European life in the postwar decades — have been swept away.

The result — again, most notably in the United States, and in flagrant contradiction to how we Americans were raised to see ourselves — is a politics of fear: fear of the stranger, fear of falling into the ranks of the losers in a dog-eat-dog culture, fear of the future. Which in turn leads to the kind of paralysis that characterizes our national government today and, though Judt and Snyder do not use the word, to a decadence that manifests itself in everything from the numbing mediocrity of our political leadership ("politics is not a place where people of autonomy of spirit and breadth of vision tend to go") to legal and officially promoted gambling ("regressive, selective, indirect taxation"). It's decadent to embrace vast spending on the maintenance of a warfare state in order to, among other things, drain off resources that might otherwise be available to the welfare state. 

No one who follows Judt through his critique of today's America will be surprised by his remedy: a recovery of the sense of shared need and responsibility that makes social democracy possible, along with the preservation of the institutional arrangements — constitutionality, the rule of law, and the separation of powers — without which democracy can only be a sham. As to whether any such recovery is likely to occur, it seems fair to infer that Judt died thinking it possible but far from probable. One obstacle, in his view, is that "democracies corrode quite fast," and are corroded most dangerously by public indifference. "Mass democracy in an age of mass media means that on the one hand, you can reveal very quickly that Bush stole the election," Judt points out, "but on the other hand, much of the population doesn't care." So the rot accelerates, helped along first by an educational system that leaves the public ignorant of its own history (and therefore vulnerable to being grossly deceived), and then by preemptive wars that by their nature are "internally corrosive of what democracies are supposed to be about."

If the process of decay continues, where might it take us? Towards the end of Thinking the Twentieth Century's last chapter, Judt suggests the chillingly plausible possibility that we are, perhaps, in the process of becoming China: of becoming, that is, "an unfree capitalist society" in which the government stays out of the economy except at the loftiest strategic levels (eliminating competition from outside, for example) while remaining brutally repressive politically, systemically corrupt, and, yes, indifferent to injustice. He notes that American voters, in expressing their preferences at election time, seem to be indicating that they prefer the Chinese model not only to European social democracy but even to the genuinely democratic achievements of their own still-recent past.

That, Judt says, is what he finds "terrifying."