What Have We Learned? What Have We Forgotten?

By Stan Persky | June 7, 2008

Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2008)

Historian Tony Judt’s telling use of the biblical phrase, “the years the locusts ate,” which he employs to describe the years since the fall of communism in 1989, can pretty well be applied, as he demonstrates, 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, as some readers will recall, 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.

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.”

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 neocolonial 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 right both about American geopolitical rashness and about the George W. Bush administration’s doctrine of “pre-emptive war,” but the one reservation I would offer here concerns his declaration that war is a “last option” for the rest of the world (to be fair, Judt qualifies that as the “developed” world). Still, I didn’t notice much restraint when it came to violence in the European civil wars of the 1990s in the former (more-or-less-developed) Yugoslavia, nor have various governments and militias in the (unevenly developed) Middle East hesitated about taking up arms, to say nothing of even less developed regions of Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union. But that’s about my only caveat when it comes to Judt’s large introductory generalizations, which are about war, followed by considerations of the state, and the place of politics in our time.

Judt is 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, from the redrawing of national boundaries and the invention of new states in the wake of World War I, to the independence of India, Pakistan, Israel and many former colonies in Africa at mid-century, to such recent events as the emergence of autonomous states in regions of the former Soviet Union or the contested declaration of independence in Kosovo.

Judt, however, is appropriately more focused on the diminution of state power “at the hands of multinational corporations, transnational institutions, and the accelerated movement of people, money and goods outside their control.” While there’s little dispute that the process of globalization is an unfolding juggernaut, Judt warns that “those who regard the outcome as both desirable and inevitable may be in for a surprise.”

In exploring what is perhaps the central underlying theme of his reappraisals, Judt notes that “the twentieth century state acquired unprecedented capacities and resources. In their benevolent form these became what we now call the ‘welfare state’… Malevolently, these same centralized resources formed the basis of authoritarian and totalitarian states in Germany, Russia, and beyond.”

One of Judt’s worries is about the diminishing allegiance to the notion of the state during the course of the last century. During 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.

The result is that “when now we speak of economic ‘reform’ or the need to render social services more ‘efficient,’ we mean that the state’s part in the affair should be reduced… The state, it is conventionally assumed on all sides, is an impediment to the smooth running of human affairs.” Judt returns to this theme in a core section of his book called “Lost in Transition,” a series of essays about England, Belgium, Romania and Israel.

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-“you can also have too little.”

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.”

Paradoxically, “the very success of the mixed-economy welfare state… has led a younger political generation to take that same stability and ideological quiescence for granted and demand the elimination of the ‘impediments’ of the taxing, regulating, and generally interfering state.” The striking result of this is “how far we have lost the capacity even to conceive of public policy beyond a narrowly constructed economism.” This is what Judt means by the notion of forgetting how to think politically.

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 Unconsciousness 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.”

If it’s true that we’ve forgotten how to think politically, then it’s only natural for Judt to worry about the ominous disappearance of intellectuals from the present public forum, and to turn to recollections of specific thinkers of the recent past, which is precisely what he does in the succeeding sections of his book.

Most of Judt’s essays are occasioned by, and are a response to, recently published books he’s reviewing. Often, the books are biographies, as in the instances of his essays about Arthur Koestler and Primo Levi, or occasioned by the reappearance of works by writers like Hannah Arendt, Manes Sperber and Edward Said, and in one case, that of Albert Camus, it’s the belated, posthumous publication of Camus’ unfinished last novel, The First Man, that inspires Judt’s reflections.

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 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, Koestler or Levi or Sperber, 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.

Just to take one example of Judt’s method, it’s worth a quick look at his essay on Arthur Koestler (1905-1983), a now somewhat forgotten Central European writer of the mid-20th century. Koestler lived through and wrote about the major European crises, movements and events of his time: communism, Zionism, the Spanish Civil War, World War II and its internment camps, existentialism, and eventually took a turn toward anti-communism, before fizzing out in his last decades in a brew of paranormal speculations. It was his disillusionment with the communist dream that resulted in both Darkness at Noon (1940), the bestselling political novel about the ideological horror of Soviet communism, and his memoir of The God That Failed (1949), books that provided intelligent companionship to the work of his great contemporary, George Orwell.

“Insofar as Arthur Koestler had a profession, it was journalism…and at his best he was one of the greatest reporters of the century,” Judt proclaims. One product of Koestler’s extended stay in Palestine in the 1920s was Promise and Fulfillment: Palestine 1917-1949, “still one of the best pieces of writing on its subject, despite its author’s prejudices and because of them. Spanish Testament (1937) ranks with the Civil War reporting of Orwell. The Scum of the Earth (1941) is not just a riveting description of Koestler’s experience in the French internment camps of Gurs and Le Vernet, it is also one of the most convincing and thoughtful accounts of the rotting, vengeful atmosphere in France as it entered the abyss. And Koestler’s autobiographies Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing… afford an insight into the life and the opinions of a true child of the century. One day they will be required reading for every historian of our age.”

That’s high praise for a half dozen or so memorable books that very few people have read today. And Judt is only warming up to his assessment of a tendentious biography of Koestler that had just appeared and which provides the occasion for Judt’s reminder of Koestler’s worth. What’s more, we can be sure that Judt will come around, once he’s dispensed with his critical chores, to Koestler’s famous Darkness at Noon and say something about it that’s both novel and perceptive. Repeatedly, the reader comes away from Judt’s reappraisals thinking, Yes, I’ve got to give Edward Said, or historian Eric Hobsbawm or philosopher Leszek Kolakowski another look (or maybe even a first look). The strength of Judt’s essays is that they’re persuasive invitations to the life of the mind.

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, about England’s Tony Blair, circa 2001, just as the British New Labour prime minister was securing his first re-election, is perhaps representative.

Judt argues that Blair was not so much the creator of a “third way” of politics as the grateful inheritor of former PM Margaret Thatcher’s extremely conservative politics, a politics which destroyed the old Labour Party as well as fracturing her own Tory ranks for the next decade-a politics which Blair was quite content to continue under the guise of something much more moderate. Above all, Thatcher “‘normalized’ the radical dismantling of the public sector in industry and services and its replacement with the ‘privatized’ Britain whose praises Blair enthusiastically” sang.

British-born and knowledgeably steeped in the Cambridge that educated him, Judt nails the phoniness of the former prime minister. “What seems to grate most is the ersatz quality of Tony Blair and his politics,” Judt notes. “He doesn’t exactly believe in privatization (but nor is he against it…), he just likes rich people. He talks the talk of devolution, but as prime minister he is notoriously obsessed with control… He conveys an air of deep belief, but no one knows in quite what. He is not so much sincere as Sincere.” Judt thinks he can identify the British nerve that Blair touched. “The English capacity simultaneously to invoke and to deny the past-to feel genuine nostalgia-for fake heritage-is, I think, unique… The remarkable alacrity with which industry, poverty, and class conflicts have been officially forgotten and paved over, such that… even the most recent and contested past is available only in nostalgic plastic reproduction, is what makes Tony Blair credible. He is 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.”

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 service as a teenager on an Israeli kibbutz in the mid-1960s. His Marxism eventually was tempered toward left liberalism of the variety made respectable by one of Judt’s intellectual heroes, the French writer Raymond Aron, and it’s a liberalism that he continues to advocate and lament in his essay about “the strange death of Liberal America.” 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 belligerance, wounded amour propre and its assertion that it can do what it wants. And at one time, Israel, with its rootedness 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.

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.

As a pluralist, Judt doesn’t believe that “any single set of political or economic rules or principles is universally applicable.” What interests him is why, “in continental Europe the state will continue to play the major role in public life.” Judt cites three general reasons.

“The first is cultural,” he says. “People expect the state-the government, the administration, the executive offices-to take the initiative or at least pick up the pieces… Thus, although the state has had a bad press… there has been little loss of faith in the importance of the things it can do, properly led. Only a state can provide the services and conditions through which its citizens may aspire to lead a good or fulfilling life.” Coincidentally echoing John Ralston Saul once more, Judt says, “Most important, only the state can represent a shared consensus about which goods are positional and can be obtained only in prosperity and which are basic and must be provided to everyone in all circumstances.”

Judt warns against “the idealization of the market, with the attendant assumption that anything is possible in principle, with market forces determining which possibilities will emerge.” He calls that idealization “the latest (if not the last) modernist illusion: that we live in a world of infinite potential where we are masters of our destiny (while somehow simultaneously dependent on the unpredictable outcome of forces over which we have no control).” Though we may cling to the illusion, it is, argues Judt, contradictory.

The second reason for preserving the state today is pragmatic, Judt suggests. “Because global markets do exist… there is greater need than ever to hold on to the sorts of intermediate institutions that make possible normal civilized life.” What we need to recognize is that the state is such an intermediate institution. Judt calls it “the only institution that can effectively interpose itself between those [global] forces and the unprotected individual in the national state.” Indeed, such states are “all that can stand between their citizens and the unrestricted, unprepresentative, unlegitimated capacities of markets.”

Finally, the need for representative democracy “is also the best argument for the traditional state… Just as political democracy is all that stands between individuals and an overmighty government, so the regulatory, providential state is all that stands between its citizens and the unpredictable forces of economic change. Far from being an impediment to progress, the recalcitrant state, embodying the expectations and demands of its citizenry, is the only safeguard of progress to date.”

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.


Berlin, June 7, 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).


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in:

More from Stan Persky: