We Need This Map: Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder’s ‘Thinking the Twentieth Century’

[29 March 2012]

By Robert Loss

Thinking the Twentieth Century is a three-dimensional map of intellectual terrain, marked hastily but with enormous detail and vividness in the course of a conversation between two well-regarded historians . They have spread the map out on the hood of your car—or perhaps, in honor of Tony Judt, who died a year after his discussions with Timothy Snyder ended, the map has been handed to you in a train station.

Robust, personal, and written in plain language, this atlas is encyclopedic, but not an encyclopedia; historical, but not a straight history filled with footnotes and references; opinionated, but not polemical. The legends point to various strains of political, economic, philosophical and historical thought of a century captured neatly in our rearview mirror. If you read closely enough, you can see the path from Marx (a necessary 19th-century topic) to John Maynard Keynes to the Affordable Care Act with more veracity and truthful complexity than anything you’ll get from the 24-hour news channels. But where we go with it—what work we make of it—is up to us.

Judt did his work, and did it superbly, over the course of a too-short career in academics and public opinion, before his life was ended by complications of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease) in August 2010. In the roughly two years between his diagnosis and death, the historian published three books—Ill Fares the Land, a jeremiad; The Memory Chalet, a memoir; and this one—that amount to more than some have achieved in their entire careers. He wrote as his body failed, as he became a quadriplegic increasingly reliant on a breathing apparatus and a vocal amplifier. He had to rely on dictation instead of writing.

Thus the form of Thinking the Twentieth Century makes sense; practically, it was achievable, and aesthetically it calls forth the best of Judt’s qualities: his ability to talk clearly and powerfully about two continents’ worth of themes, subjects, and ideas. His wife Jennifer Homans wrote recently in The New York Review of Books that, “To retrieve a memory, [Judt] didn’t have to ask anything of anyone: it was just there, in his mind, and as long as he could still talk, he could use his memory at will.” (“Tony Judt: A Final Victory”.)

Indeed, the book is an improvised analysis of 20th-century thinkers and their thoughts, and what we ought to make of them now. Snyder’s conversations with Judt, conducted between winter and summer 2009, followed a rough outline organized around Judt’s previous work, his own intellectual development—these are captured in brief, biographical essays preceding each chapter—and Judt’s existing plans for a book on the same subject.

I stress a description of this book’s method for a few reasons. It’s a complicated work combining elements not often woven together with such breadth and intelligence: memory, history, autobiography, conversation, and professional reflection on career and field of study. The more pressing reason—not just in my mind, but in Snyder’s and Judt’s as well—is our contemporary perception of history. Few agree about the purposes of such a ‘map’ in the first place, and increasingly, public culture doesn’t care about the map or the territory it illuminates.

Those of us in intellectual fields have our own specialties, our own fine drawings; we feel little need to make broad connections, and take for granted that the broader picture is either impossible to draw, fated to disingenuousness and manipulation—there is a track record of this, after all—or neatly agreed upon. In his Foreword, Snyder identifies this as a commonplace, apathetic pluralism that historians should replace with a rigorous pluralism which is “not a synonym of relativism, but rather an antonym,” one that “accepts the moral reality of different kinds of truths, but rejects the idea that they can all be placed on a single scale, measured by a single value.”

That is the challenge Judt and Snyder took on as they talked their way through the 20th century: to draw the terrain of Western history for a public with little to no interest in the subject, and an academic and intellectual profession that has become increasingly myopic and disinterested in the public’s disinterest. The conversational strategy of the book may seem ripe for easy agreement or ambiguous resolutions, but Judt never settles for either, and to his credit, Snyder pushes Judt to clearer arguments.

Relying on a shared mental library, they banter, occasionally bicker, and sometimes complete each other’s sentences. The result is not only dynamic, it’s touching. Seeing the book for its form and subtle narrative—not Judt’s life, per se, but the ongoing mission the two share here for getting things right—ought to give some readers a way into its dense, impressive ambition, and it ought to remind intellectuals, especially those in historical fields, of their obligation to speak honestly about what they know and what they believe. Or as Judt says in the final chapter’s essay, “The time has come to write about more than just the things one understands; it is just as important if not more so to write about the things one cares about”.

This Map Marks the Dangers of Subjective History

To say I understand every topic discussed in this book would be an outright lie, but I’ll take Judt’s advice and plunge in head-first. Indeed, reading two of the middle chapters, “Paris, California: French Intellectual” and “Generation of Understanding: East European Liberal”, was like being dropped by helicopter into the middle of the ocean. If there are two threads to follow throughout all of the chapters they are, first, the reasoning and motivation driving the few as they made decisions for the many, be it the Bolshevik Revolution, the Zionist movement, Romanian fascists or American liberalism. The second is neatly summed up by Judt late in the final chapter, “The Banality of Good: Social Democrat”:

“The twentieth century was not necessarily as we have been taught to see it. It was not, or not only, the great battle between democracy and fascism, or communism versus fascism, or left versus right, or freedom versus totalitarianism. My own sense is that for much of the century we were engaged in implicit or explicit debates over the rise of the state. What sort of state did free people want? What were they willing to pay for it and what purposes did they wish it to serve?”

You can agree or disagree with Judt’s opinions, but perhaps his most important contribution, the one that will be sadly and sorely missed, was a rich, impassioned, intellectual engagement with the issues that matter to everyday people.

Judt endorsed social democracy, so it’s not a surprise that here he immediately notes the success of “strong, high-taxing and actively interventionist democratic and constitutional states” like those found in postwar, democratic Europe and the United States. Good history complicates before it coheres, however, and Judt does just that. He suggests that Keynes’ economic theories, crucial to social democracy’s robust state, ought to be reconsidered outside of a purely post-Depression context in order to see it not as a reactionary philosophy—or a panicked one, to borrow the tone of many a contemporary conservative pundit—but a sober recognition of capitalism’s limits.

On the flip side, the influential conservative economist Friedrich Hayek’s theories need to be judged less universally, tied as they were to the specific instances of Austria’s collapse into Nazi totalitarianism, which influenced his assertion that a strong reliance on the state inevitably leads to authoritarian rule. It has happened, Judt admits, but if we understand history we see the similarities and the critical differences.

As Snyder notes and Judt demonstrates time and again, the latter was no blind-faith champion of leftist politics; the rise of fascism and National Socialism in interwar central and southern Europe, Judt notes, owe more than a little to the failures of the Left, which gave “fascists… a free hand, at liberty to propose radical economic measures” and attracted to fascism “promising left-wing professionals” who “abandoned socialism in disgust at its failure to respond imaginatively to the economic catastrophe”.

Later in Thinking the Twentieth Century, he castigates contemporary leftist pundits who blithely supported the Bush war in Iraq, and what he calls “the soft cultural Left” which has been “kneecapped” by “the problem of ethical insecurity”. The marked divisions we have seen in the past four years in the conservative right are nothing compared to the historical in-fighting between socialists, communists, classical liberalists, and social democrats, and this incoherence, along with the Left’s obsessions with identity politics, has presented and continues to present a problem.

One of those problems: Israel. Judt spoke adamantly about the dangers of Zionism and an apologetic Western relationship with Israel, and for this he took his critical lumps. (Even today, reading the comments of other reviews about this book, I’ve come across disgusting diatribes against his supposedly self-loathing anti-Semitism.) He was excoriated for a New York Review of Books essay, “Israel: The Alternative” in which he called for a single-state solution to the conflict in Israel, and he doesn’t back away from this in Thinking the Twentieth Century.

A little personal background is in order. In the chapter “King’s and Kibbutzim: Cambridge Zionist”, Judt relates his experiences on kibbutz in ‘60s Israel, his small part in the Six-Day War of 1967, and his ultimate disillusion with a collectivism built around ethnic and religious specificity. Judt notes that “[his] own experience as a Zionist allowed [him] to identify the same fanaticism and myopic, exclusivist tunnel vision in others—most notably the community of American cheerleaders for Israel”.

The importance of Jews and the Jewish experience in the 20th century is not glossed over or dismissed by Judt’s experience; two chapters are devoted to it, and the topic pervades throughout the book. However, Judt seems most critical of the way Russian socialist thinking, typified by Vladimir Jabotinsky, has informed an Israel which, today, “resembles the small nationalist states that emerged in Eastern Europe after the end of the Russian Empire”. This thought sees liberal compromise and progress as impossibilities, and trades them in for a “winner take all” mentality which, Judt says, leans on the Holocaust for the “political exploitation of a victim narrative”. This is the hawkish Israeli Right, which relies on the peculiar way American Jews and American culture-at-large relate to their connections and disconnections with the events of 1935-1945.

Less discussed, but equally provocative, are Judt’s views on classical liberalism’s alliance with identity politics from the ‘60s through today. The issues of inequality which they address—for African-Americans, for women, for the LGBT community—are real and worthy, Judt says, but we risk losing a sense of common ground. The key to understanding Judt’s disdain for identity politics is exemplified by the story he tells about how a colleague’s Russian history course was taught as a series of readings from opposing viewpoints without a single text that established a narrative, historical through-line. It’s a very postmodern approach, and as Judt wisely points out, it’s an interrogative approach, which is fine…except that students in this course, undergrads, had no base understanding and thus, no way of really interrogating.

The problem of relying on a fractured series of viewpoints is not that one gets the “wrong” idea, but instead, “no idea”, and that history becomes entirely subjective. We can debate the truthfulness of absolute objectivity outside of the hard sciences all we want, but is there even such a thing as absolute subjectivity? In other words, we can verify some things.

The danger of even the most theoretical aspects of postmodernism—the school of late 20th century thought accompanying identity politics, and sometimes defining it—is subjectivity’s tendency toward fragmentation: I see things my way, you see them yours. What, then, are we to do? Scream at each other on CNN? In a perverse way, the liberal individualism of the Left undercuts its calls for social programs in a way that, politically, has yet to be adequately resolved or articulated. As Judt says later in the book, “American social thought altogether avoids the problem of economically determined social divisions”—read: a Marxist understanding, lest one be called a socialist—“because Americans find it more comfortable and politically uncontentious to focus on usable divisions of another kind”. Doing so, we find little common ground in the past or present, and the idea of a common good evaporates.

Say the words “common good” these days in the United States, and someone will likely accuse you of being a Marxist/socialist/communist and maybe even a fascist. That person could likely stand a history lesson on all of those movements, beginning with Marxism. Specializing in European history, Judt unsurprisingly gives a master class on Marxism, breaking down its earliest inspirations from the rubble of early industrialization, its surprising echoes of religious eschatology (i.e., “things must get worse before they get better”), and Engels’ transformation of Marxist economic and political analysis into “little short of a theory of the universe”. The ethical shortcomings of the movements and governments which built themselves on Marxism have clouded its basis and subtle realities in daily life. Snyder notes that Lenin first saw Marx as a “scientist of history”, then rather became an engineer of history, resulting in what Judt calls the “intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it…”. From history we might understand, then, where the applications of Marxism went wrong, and better understand what about it could be used correctly.

I’m pessimistic anyone will listen; my final sense after reading Thinking the Twentieth Century is not simply an all-too-easy judgment about average, ordinary people who have been inculcated with a fear of ideas. Where are the informed, accessible debates about these ideas, and who among the intellectual circles is leading them? You can agree or disagree with Judt’s opinions, but perhaps his most important contribution, the one that will be sadly and sorely missed, was a rich, impassioned, intellectual engagement with the issues that matter to everyday people.

He was able to do this by being something of an outsider in his own fields, both the academic historical and the public intellectual. As Homans wrote in her New York Review of Books essay, “Tony’s idea of what it meant to be an intellectual was rooted in his sense of aloneness, of staying apart from the intellectual crowd, of keeping one’s own counsel and not belonging to any group or club—but also of evaluating an event or problem alone, on its own facts, and not according to any blueprint (he was for intervention in Bosnia but against it in Iraq)”.

In the Foreword to the Thinking the Twentieth Century, Snyder describes Judt in the same way, noting that “[t]he outsider implicitly accepts the terms of a given dispute, and then tries very hard to be right: to dismount the old guard and penetrate the sanctuaries of the insider.” The result, Snyder implies, was one of Judt’s strengths: his vigorous pluralism grounded in knowledge, as much objectivity as possible, an honest admission of subjectivity, and discourse.

In an age of doctrinaire specialization and opinions left unquestioned, the outsider, it would seem, by necessity or interest, is the only one capable of discussing the arguments of discrete communities who possess no interest in talking to one another. That is no longer a challenge Judt has to face. It is ours.

Robert Loss teaches writing and literature at Columbus College of Art and Design. His critical writing about music and comics has appeared in such publications as The Comics Journal, Ghettoblaster, and Heavy Feather Review. His short fiction has been published in Filigree and Mayday.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/156577-we-need-this-map/