West Village to West Bank

Tony Judt is an intellectuals' intellectual. To review a book composed of his book reviews, which are often about other people who wrote a lot of book reviews, you feel you really ought to be sitting in a caf' on the Rive Gauche, smoking Gauloises and sipping Pernod.

In fact, you are more likely to encounter Judt in downtown Manhattan, where he directs the Erich Maria Remarque Centre at New York University. Readers of Postwar, his recent, critically acclaimed history of Europe since 1945, will know that he is a highly readable authority on sometimes unreadable west European (and especially French) intellectuals. What this new collection reveals, however, is how the Left Bank looks viewed from the West Village.

A regular reviewer for the unwaveringly liberal New York Review of Books, Judt is accustomed to writing for an elite American audience. At times, he is content to lead that audience in a liberal singalong. On page one of Reappraisals, he laments the years between the fall of the Berlin wall and "the catastrophic American occupation of Iraq" as "the years the locust ate: a decade and a half of wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic". His parting shot is a call for "the left in Europe ... to reconstruct a case for the activist state". Ho hum.

Thankfully, Judt says these boring things only so his liberal readers drop their guard. Then he delivers the intellectual equivalent of a left hook. "The Jewish intellectuals of interwar and postwar Central Europe", he writes, "were especially drawn to Marxism ... 'Zydokomuna' ('Judeo-communism') may be an anti-Semitic term of abuse in Polish nationalist circles, but for a few crucial years it also described a reality." It takes nerve to write a sentence like that, especially in the NYRB.

The uppercut soon follows: "After 37 years of military occupation [of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967], Israel has gained nothing in security; it has lost everything in domestic civility and international responsibility; and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever."

And finally, a knockout punch: "Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and the shame of the age."

Judt is by education (King's, Cambridge, 1966-1972) a man of the left. But, as his devastating verdict on Hobsbawm suggests, he reserves his harshest words for Marxist intellectuals, especially formerly line-toeing communists. Judt now understands what some people knew all along: "Some version of liberalism that accords the maximum of freedom and initiative in every sphere of life is the only possible option."

Judt is also by birth and upbringing a secular Jew; the descendant of Lithuanian rabbis, he spent his gap year on a kibbutz and even volunteered for the Israeli Defence Forces during the Six-Day war. But in this volume he bestows his highest praise on Edward Said, for decades the Palestinians' most vociferous spokesman in the US.

He even endorses Said's view that Israel should recognise the Palestinian refugees' "right of return" and become a "binational" state, shared equally between Jews and Arabs.

Many of the "rootless cosmopolitans" about whom Judt writes were uprooted by forces beyond their control. Judt is a cosmopolitan who has uprooted himself. He has lapsed not just once but twice: as a socialist and as a Zionist.

It is not surprising, then, that so many of Judt's heroes are what the Germans call Querdenker or contrarian thinkers: Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt and, especially, Albert Camus. The thread linking these intellectuals, in Judt's mind, was their readiness to question dogma, especially when they saw it used to justify violence. "Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed," he (twice) quotes Camus, "but in every case it is someone else's blood."

As a rule, the Querdenker ends up with more enemies than friends. Certainly, Judt lost friends by criticising Israel. But he is clearly a man with the courage of his (new) convictions. He abhors bloodshed but relishes a verbal fight. You sense that he rather admires Koestler for (as one contemporary recalled) being "capable of reciting the truths of the multiplication table in a way to make some people indignant with him".

Judt certainly has a wonderful eye for the telling quotation. Here, in all its awfulness, is the snobbery of the London left circa 1970, as exemplified by Sonia Orwell at a dinner party: "Auschwitz, oh dear, no! That person was never in Auschwitz. Only in some very minor death camp."

Also beautifully captured is the pompous, overblown style that EP Thompson favoured in debate: "There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts," he wrote to the great Polish political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, author of the definitive (and damning) Main Currents of Marxism. Kolakowski's withering riposte was entitled "My Correct Views on Everything".

Judt's deepest fear is that this world - that of the "free-standing intellectual" - is fading as fast as the Marxist ideology that was its principal talking point. Nothing, in his view, can be done to salvage Marxism. But Judt would love to preserve the milieu within which it was discussed - though I can't help feeling that intellectuals without Marxism are a bit like jazz musicians without cigarette smoke.

Like all collections of essays, this one has its duds. On the fall of France in 1940 Judt is beta-double-plus at best. Ditto the piece on the Cuban missile crisis. There is disappointingly little insight in the 1998 critique of Henry Kissinger. And, apart from one slightly funny line ("Blair ... is the gnome in England's Garden of Forgetting"), the piece on New Labour's Britain is off-key.

The discrepancy between these and the many straight alpha essays is easily explained. When Judt writes about generals, politicians and statesmen, he is playing away from home, far from his familiar bohemian haunts. Try as he may, he simply cannot empathise with the men of action who actually make history.

It is only as a reviewer of those who themselves review - the denizens of the caf's, not the situation rooms - that the intellectuals' intellectual excels.

Financial Times
  • Show All
  • New York Times
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Daily Telegraph
  • Financial Times
  • Newsweek/Daily Beast
  • The Washington Post
  • The Australian
  • Daily Mail
  • Huffington Post
  • Vanity Fair
  • FORA.tv
  • The Telegraph
  • Time Magazine
  • Foreign Affairs
  • The Sunday Times
  • London Evening Standard
  • The Spectator
  • The Atlantic
  • The Globe and Mail
  • Politico Magazine
  • The Times Literary Supplement
9 Article Results