Tag Archives: Public Intellectual

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

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Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Affirmative Government Advocate

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Andrew and Stephen Schlesinger, eds.,
The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. 

      Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was what we would today likely describe as a “public intellectual,” a top-notch historian who was also deeply engaged in political issues throughout his adult life.  Schlesinger’s father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., was himself a top-notch historian.  Both father and son taught at Harvard, with the younger Schlesinger finishing his academic career at the City University of New York.  Born in 1917, the younger Schlesinger was the author of a highly respected book on Andrew Jackson (“The Age of Jackson”) and a three volume series on Franklin Roosevelt (“The Age of Roosevelt”). He also wrote an influential 1949 political tract, The Vital Center, an argument for liberal democracy, based on civil liberties, the rule of law, and regulated capitalism, as the only realistic alternative to  fascism on the right and communism on the left.  Schlesinger was one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, ADA which, more than any other single organization, epitomized mainstream post-World War II liberalism. He was also a loyal, always passionate, and often-elegant spokesman for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

      Schlesinger served as an advisor to President John Kennedy, whom he revered. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Schlesinger wrote an account of the short Kennedy administration, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Schlesinger stayed on briefly as an advisor to President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s death but came to detest Johnson and his decision to escalate the Vietnam War. He returned to academia at City University of New York after his stint with the Johnson administration, where he remained until his retirement in 1994. He died in 2007 at the age of 89. Over the course of a long lifetime, Schlesinger wrote letters – lots of letters.

        Both the quality and the quantity of Schlesinger’s letter writing habits are on full display in this nearly 600-page collection, The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., edited by Schlesinger’s sons Andrew and Stephen. The sons have culled together selected letters to and from their father and arranged them in chronological order, adding editorial comments by way of footnotes. They estimate that they reviewed approximately 35,000 letters before making their choice of those contained here. Spaced over 71 years of Schlesinger’s adult life, from age 18 to his death at age 89, 35,000 letters amounts to an astounding average of almost 1½ letters per day during Schlesinger’s adult years.  Schlesinger corresponded regularly with presidents and presidential candidates, Congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, writers, journalists, religious leaders, intellectuals and scholars. He also answered questions from members of the public, including school students.

       Formal letter writing is today largely an extinct practice, replaced by email exchanges that occasionally resemble letters of old, although more often are less formal and far more cursory. Throughout most of Schlesinger’s life, however, letters were a frequent and frequently consequential mode of communication. Schlesinger, the editors observe in their introduction, “may indeed be one of the last of the old-fashioned breed of American figures for whom letters were the paramount means of communication – a phenomena that seems oddly arcane in a digital age” (p.xii).

       The “abiding theme” of the letters contained here, the editors indicate, was Schlesinger’s preoccupation with political liberalism and its prospects. “He was always in some way promoting and advancing the liberal agenda; it was his mission, purpose, and justification.” (p.xi), they write. Through their selection of letters, the editors seek to show their father’s “intellectual and political development as one of the nation’s leading liberal voices” (p.xiii). The collection they have assembled easily meets this objective.  It allows the reader to piece together the constituent elements of what might be termed classical, post-World War II mainstream American liberalism.

     Schlesinger’s brand of liberalism was staunchly anti-communist in post World War II America, yet supported civil liberties even for communists and therefore vigorously opposed the “mad, brutal and unrestrained fanaticism” (p.76) of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaigns.  Schlesinger’s liberalism supported civil rights in the United States, a strong stand against the Soviet Union — a “monstrous police despotism” (p.27) — across the globe, and independence for colonized countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  Above all, Schlesinger’s liberalism was predicated upon what he termed “affirmative government,” the use of federal authority to regulate capitalism, assist the men and women working within the capitalist economy, and advance the national interest.  As McCarthy’s intemperate brand of anti-communism gradually faded in the late 1950s, Schlesinger’s anti-communist fervor also subsided. By the end of the 1960s, the plight of newly independent states no longer seemed to be a preoccupation, and Schlesinger had by then recognized that communism bore many faces in addition to that of the Soviet Union.  By contrast, support for affirmative government, civil rights and civil liberties remained at the core of Schlesinger’s credo until his death in 2007.

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       In numerous letters, Schlesinger warned against the Democratic Party becoming too pro-business.  We already have one pro-business party in the United States, Schlesinger argued with correspondents, we don’t need another.  In a 1957 letter to then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, whose support Schlesinger recognized as essential to driving a liberal legislative agenda through Congress, Schlesinger sought to dissuade Johnson from prioritizing budget cutting.  Schlesinger described the “great tradition of the Democratic party” as the “tradition of affirmative government – the tradition of Jackson, Bryan, Wilson and FDR – not the tradition which hates the national government, but the one which regards it as an indispensable means of promoting the national welfare. If Democrats reject this tradition, they reject any chance of national political success. And a frenzy for budget cutting as an end in itself amounts certainly to a rejection of this tradition” (p.144).

      Schlesinger remained an advocate for affirmative government throughout his adult life. After Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Schlesinger criticized Carter for his “systematic attack on the great creative contribution of the modern Democratic party – the idea of affirmative government,” an attack which he considered “demagoguery” and pandering to the “most vulgar American prejudices” (p.470). He advised 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale to avoid deficit spending as a political issue: “The Republicans have used the deficit as an issue for fifty years . . . The only people who worry about the deficit are businessmen most of whom have always voted Republican and will doubtless do so again” (p.485).  After Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in November 1994, Schlesinger sent a long, and apparently unsolicited, set of suggestions to President Bill Clinton on themes for his forthcoming January 1995 State of Union address. Arguing that the Clinton administration “cannot succeed by trying to out-Republican the Republicans” (p.549), Schlesinger urged Clinton to reject the view that the election was a “repudiation of activist government” (p.548) and to “outgrow the illusion” that “power taken away from government falls to the people; much of it goes rather to corporations not accountable (as government is) to the people.” The United States cannot solve its  problems by “turning them over the marketplace and thinking they will solve themselves” (p.550), Schlesinger contended.

       Schlesinger’s numerous letters to presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson are among the richest in this collection. Schlesinger supported and advised Stevenson in his two bids for the presidency, in 1952 and 1956. Although an admirer of Stevenson’s cerebral qualities, Schlesinger perceived an infuriating “Calvinism” in Stevenson. He “cannot bear to have things come easy or to say things which please everybody” (p.60), Schlesinger wrote in 1953.  Schlesinger was incensed in 1956 that Stevenson appeared to back “gradualism” in desegregating public schools after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional. He compared Stevenson’s queasiness on desegregation to that of Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy, then campaigning openly for the Vice-Presidential nomination, who called on Democrats to take a forthright stand in support of the Supreme Court’s decision despite the possibility of alienating southern voters. I know Kennedy is “damn anxious to get southern support for the Vice-Presidency,” Schlesinger wrote to Stevenson speechwriter Willard Wirtz.   Yet Kennedy gives an “altogether different impression of his feelings on the subject [of civil rights]” (p.130),

       When President Dwight Eisenhower’s health became an issue prior to the 1956 presidential elections, Schlesinger talked himself into the view that Stevenson had a shot at being elected.  On several occasions, Schlesinger felt forced to remind Stevenson that the “one important doubt” the American people had about him was “whether you want to be President” (p.103), as he stated in a 1955 letter to Stevenson. A few months prior to the 1956 election, Schlesinger sent Stevenson a lengthy letter coaching the presidential aspirant on how to respond to questions at a forthcoming political event:

Don’t say that problems are intricate and complicated. Everyone knows that they are. . . Don’t profess ignorance on questions, or say that you don’t know enough to give a definite answer. If you are running for the Presidency, people expect not necessarily a detailed technical answer, but a clear and definite expression of the way you would propose to tackle the problem. Don’t hesitate to give a short answer. . . Do not think that all this is in any sense a counsel of dishonesty. Politics, as its best, is an educational process” (p.134-45, italics in original).

       After Stevenson went on to suffer his second lopsided loss to Eisenhower in the 1956 elections, Schlesinger turned his attention to Senator Kennedy.  When he first met Kennedy at a dinner party in 1946, Schlesinger described the young man from Massachusetts (born in 1917, the same year as Schlesinger) as “very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side” (p.17). In supporting Kennedy’s run for the presidency in 1960, Schlesinger sought to coax the Senator to move toward more liberal positions.  Perceiving lethargy in the campaign after Kennedy received the Democratic Party nomination in August 1960, for example, Schlesinger urged Kennedy to “exploit one of your strongest assets – i.e., that you are far more liberal than Nixon. There is no point, it seems to me, in playing this down and hope to catch some votes in Virginia at the price of losing New York . . . I think you should take a strong liberal line from now on” (p.215).

         Schlesinger was among the many “brightest and the best” whom Kennedy assembled to be part of his administration, and Schlesinger frequently remarked that his opportunity to serve in the Kennedy administration was the high point of his career. However, there are not many letters here from Schlesinger’s time at the White House, perhaps because he did not feel free to comment to outsiders on administration business, perhaps because he did not have the time in that position to write letters with the frequency he had had as an academic.  Schlesinger stayed with the Johnson administration only through January 1964, and quickly became a caustic critic of Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.

       Schlesinger refused to endorse Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, his long-time friend and former ADA ally, for the Democratic Party nomination in 1968 (Schlesinger was a strong supporter of Robert Kennedy for the nomination until his assassination in June 1968, after which he supported George McGovern). In July 1968, Schlesinger responded to ADA lawyer David Ginsburg’s statement that Humphrey’s approach to Vietnam and that of the Republican candidate, former Vice-President Richard Nixon, would not be “too far apart.” If this is so, Schlesinger replied, “then give me Nixon – on the simple ground that, with the Democratic party in the opposition, we could stop his [Nixon’s] idiocy quicker.” If we are to have a “stupid and reactionary foreign policy, it should be carried out by a Republican administration, not by a Democratic administration” (p.358).

       Although Schlesinger never embraced Jimmy Carter and his presidency, he saw the Reagan years as a disaster for the United States. He therefore eagerly backed the candidacy of Bill Clinton, even though Clinton seemed to be like Carter, running against affirmative government.  After the Clinton presidency, Schlesinger offered advice and support for 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, Jr.  When Gore lost that election despite winning the national popular vote by a wide margin, Schlesinger withdrew from active counseling of presidential aspirants.

      The collection’s most amusing correspondence involves Schlesinger’s quibble with conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr., over a “blurb” on a Buckley book, Rumbles Right and Left, which quoted Schlesinger in 1963 as asserting that Buckley had a “facility for rhetoric which I envy, as well as a wit which I seek clumsily and vainly to emulate” (p.262). Schlesinger vehemently denied he ever said anything like this about Buckley and threatened to sue Buckley’s publisher to retract the attribution. Their feud reveals that Buckley did indeed have a first class wit, and that Schlesinger was humor-challenged.  Buckley signed one letter “Wm. F. ‘Envy His Rhetoric’ Buckley, Jr.” (p.263).  When Schlesinger refused to go on Buckley’s television show Firing Line — Buckley said that he was informed that Schlesinger did not wish to “help” Buckley’s program – Buckley taunted Schlesinger by asking him, “shouldn’t you search out opportunities to expose yourself to my rhetoric and my wit? How else will you fulfill your lifelong dream of emulating them?” (p.389). To this, the dour Schlesinger could only reply, “[c]an it be that you are getting a little tetchy in your declining years?” (p.389).

        Readers are likely to find curious Schlesinger’s frequent correspondence with Mrs. Marietta Tree, a socialite and Democratic party activist, the granddaughter of Reverend Endicott Peabody, founder and first headmaster of the Groton School, and the wife of a British Member of Parliament, Ronald Tree, himself the grandson of famed Chicago businessman Marshall Field.  Schlesinger wrote to Tree in exceptionally endearing terms over the course of nearly two decades. In one particularly impassioned flourish, Schlesinger told his “Darling M” that he could not “resist writing to you from the heart of the Middle West [Topeka, Kansas]. Why won’t you come with me on one of these trips? You gently bred eastern girls ought to get to know America. . . It is long since we have had a good, old-fashioned evening together and I need one desperately.  All dearest love, A” (p.167-68, italics in original). Schlesinger’s sons point out in a footnote that their father and Tree “were never lovers, despite the words of endearment in their correspondence. Her passion was reserved for Adlai Stevenson” (p.57*).  Judging by the language of his letters, however, their father was plainly smitten by the enticing Tree.

       Then, suddenly, the letters to Mrs. Tree stop.  This comes at a time when we learn via another editorial footnote that Schlesinger and his first wife Marion, whom he married in 1940, divorced in 1970, and that he remarried Alexandra Emmet Allen in 1971. But there are no letters here containing references to a deteriorating marriage relationship or a developing interest in another woman. This may be the result of an editorial decision on the part of his sons to eschew the personal side of Schlesinger and emphasize the political.

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       The lack of references to key moments in Schlesinger’s personal life is also a reminder that a collection of letters should not be confused with biography or autobiography. This smartly compiled collection nonetheless provides a keen sense of how the galvanizing political and public issues of Schlesinger’s adult life looked not only for Schlesinger himself but also for the robust and unapologetic liberalism that he articulated from the early post-World War II years into the first decade of the 2st century.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 8, 2015

6 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, History, Intellectual History, Politics, United States History

Grotesquely Unthinkable

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Tony Judt, with Timothy Synder,
Thinking the Twentieth Century

           Sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, Tony Judt became what I term colloquially my “main man.” I tried to read everything Judt wrote. I was smitten by the enormous insight he brought to the subjects that most interested me – 20th century France and 20th European history and political theory. His best known work is a magisterial text about Europe since World War II, entitled simply “Postwar.” But his background also fascinated me. A near contemporary, born in 1948 in Great Britain of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, Judt was raised in South London, educated at Kings College, Cambridge, with formative years in Israel, France and California, before he wound up teaching at New York University. He also had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage. All of the above is written in the past tense, as Judt succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in August 2010, at the age of 62. “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is likely the last book to bear Judt’s name as an author. An “Afterword” is eerily dated July 5, 2010, slightly over a month prior to his death.

           But “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is no conventional book. Rather, it is an extended series of conversations between Judt and Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Twenty years younger than Judt, Snyder is the author of “Bloodlands,” a highly-acclaimed chronicle of mass killings in Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. Judt notes in his afterward that Snyder is one of the first Americans to rise to prominence as an historian of Eastern Europe. Previously, most distinguished Eastern European historians were refugees from that part of the world. Snyder interjects himself into the discussion, but is more like an interviewer, or at least close to it. His portion of the conversation is plainly overshadowed by that of Judt, almost certainly deliberately so.

           The two scholars range widely but, as the title suggests, their focus is what to make of the murderous 20th century in Europe. Their reflections center on Europe’s multiple 20th century ordeals, including two devastating world wars, the rise and fall of authoritarian ideologies – communism, fascism, Nazism – and, above all, the Holocaust, the still unfathomable destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. Interspersed with the authors’ conversations on these ponderous themes are Judt’s touching and poignant personal reminiscences of aspects of his life. Judt undoubtedly knew that this was likely among his last opportunities to speak publicly about himself and the ideas he cared about.

           The reason for the title Judt and Synder chose for their book does not become clear until about the half way point, where they indicate that thinking the 20th century requires a capacity to set aside traditional Enlightenment notions like the primacy of reason and the inevitability of progress. In their place, we must imagine conspiracies, plots and the “grotesquely unthinkable,” and treat them as real (p.194). They cite Koestler, Orwell and Kakfa as among the few thinkers who were “able to imagine a world for which there was no precedent” (p.194). To be able to think the twentieth century in this way, Judt says:

was extraordinarily difficult for contemporaries. For the same reason, many people reassured themselves that the Holocaust could not be happening, simply because it made no sense. . . [I]t made no sense for the [non Jewish] Germans. . .Since they wanted to win their war surely the Nazis would exploit the Jews, rather than kill them at great expense. This application to human behavior of a perfectly reasonable moral and political calculus, self-evident to men raised in the nineteenth century, simply did not work in the twentieth (p.194).

           The Holocaust thus hovers over the European 20th century, it hovers over this book, and it hovered over Judt as a Jew. The “Jewish question was never at the center of my own intellectual life, or indeed my historical work,” he says. But as he grew older, he found it intruding, “inevitably, and with ever greater force” (p.12). For Judt, thinking Europe’s 20th century unavoidably requires trying to account in some manner for the Holocaust, an exercise for which our normal processes of reasoning and empirically based critical thinking are likely to prove insufficient.

           Judt’s insights into the 20th century’s totalitarian impulses –fascism, Nazism and communism — by themselves, make the book worth reading. Communists and fascists after 1917 shared, Judt contends, a “profound attraction to mortal struggle and its beneficial social or aesthetic outcomes” (p.102), along with distaste for modernist culture — both were “extraordinarily wary of innovation or imagination” (p.165). In Italy, fascism was not so much a doctrine as a “symptomatic political style” (p.65), which appealed by its contrast to liberal bourgeois democracy. Fascists don’t have concepts like leftists, he asserts. Rather, they have “attitudes. . . distinctive responses to war, depression and backwardness” (p.159). Without the threat of Bolshevikism, there would have been “far less space for fascists to offer themselves as a guarantee of traditional order” (p.163).

          Judt also argues that Nazism differed from Fascism in that it was purely German, based upon a “set of claims which made Germans unique,” whereas there was an outward looking side of fascism, in which fascist intellectuals often believed that they were “espousing universal truths and categories” (p.104). In some senses, fascism captured the early 20th century notion of distinctly European values:

The European idea, as we tend to forget, was then a right-wing idea. It was counter to Bolshevism, obviously, but also to Americanization, to the coming of industrial America with its ‘materialist values’ and its heartless and ostensibly Jewish-dominated finance capitalism (p.177).

           Judt saw no serious prospect for contemporary fascism. With the “coming of television (and a fortitori the internet), the masses disaggregate into ever-smaller units. Consequently, for all its demagogic and populist appeal, traditional fascism has been handicapped: the one thing that fascists do supremely well – transforming angry minorities into large groups, and large groups into crowds – is now extra ordinarily difficult to accomplish” (p.166).

            Judt considered the 20th century’s struggles — between democracy and fascism, communism and capitalism, freedom and totalitarianism — as, at bottom, “implicit or explicit debates over the rise of the state. What sort of state did free people want? What are they willing to pay for it and what purposes did they wish it to serve?” (p.386). Judt found his own answers in the rise of social democracies in much of Northern and Western Europe — democratic governments which tax at relatively high rates, provide significant welfare benefits, embrace capitalism and maintain free but extensively regulated markets, while respecting individual rights and the rule of law (my definition, not Judt’s). For Judt, social democracies refute the hypothesis of the economist Friedrich Hayek, who argued in his famous 1944 work, “The Road to Serfdom,” that any attempt to intervene in the natural processes of the free market is “guaranteed to produce authoritarian political outcomes” (p.343). Judt contends that European social democracies are “among the wealthiest societies in the world today, and not one of them has moved remotely in the direction of anything resembling a return to the German-style authoritarianism that Hayek saw as the price they would pay for handing initiative to the state” (p.383; Hayek, it’s worth pointing out, retains significant appeal in conservative and Republican circles in the United States).

           Interspersed with these macro-reflections on 20th century Europe are Judt’s micro-reflections on his personal life, his academic wanderings, and his two failed marriages — he gets in some digs against his ex-spouses, for instance. The macro and micro come together as he describes the movement of his own intellectual center of gravity from France and Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Particularly through two key Polish thinkers, Leszak Kolakowski and Jan Gross, Eastern Europe in the 1980s offered Judt a “fresh start” (p.207). Kolakowski was expelled from Warsaw University in 1968 for the flagrantly heretical view that Marxism itself, not simply the way it was practiced in Soviet regimes, was “bereft of political prospects or moral value” (p.197), a view which Judt ultimately adopted as his own. Gross was a contemporary of Judt. The two met in the mid-1980s when both were teaching in the United States. Through Gross, Eastern Europe began to offer Judt “an alternative social life” at a time of “renewed and redirected intellectual existence” (p.201). At the apex of Judt’s career, Eastern Europe “ceased to be just a place; its history was now for me a direct and personal frame of reference” (p.204).

           Judt made his reputation through studies addressing the very French notion of a “public intellectual,” a macro, big picture thinker who analyzes and comments upon public affairs, while standing outside of official structures (again, my definition, not Judt’s). One of his first works to gain widespread public attention, “The Burden of Responsibility,” was a treatment of three French intellectuals, Léon Blum, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, whom he describes as “genuinely independent thinkers in a time and a place where being independent placed you in real danger, as well as consigning you to the margins of your community and to the disdain of your fellow intellectuals” (p.330).

           Thus, it was ironic that Judt became, during his time in New York, somewhat of an American public intellectual of the type he had written about. Judt contended that “no scholar, historian or anyone else is – merely by being a scholar – ethically excused from their own circumstances. We are also participants in our own time and place and cannot retreat from it” (p.285). After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Judt became “increasingly and polemically engaged in American public affairs” (p.286), in particular as a vociferous and highly-visible critic of the Bush Administration’s Iraq war and Israel’s Palestinian policies.

           This dialogue between two exceptionally sharp minds has a rambling quality. Like good dinner table conversation, the two shift ground frequently and often suddenly, and themes do not always follow one another with Cartesian or other logic. But having a last look into Tony Judt’s prodigious mind is an opportunity to be seized. We may not see such nimble and versatile thinking on Europe’s grotesquely unthinkable 20th century any time soon.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
July 30, 2013

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Filed under European History, Intellectual History