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Biography & Memoirs

How to Get it Right: In Memory of Tony Judt

by Mario Clemens

When the Nazis gained power in Germany in 1933, the real shock for Hannah Arendt and others was not the seizure of power as such (awful as this was), but how many non-Jewish friends responded to those events. Intellectuals in particular often not only acted opportunistically but were capable of inventing theories that enabled them to justify and even praise Nazism: “The worst part was that they really believed in it”, Arendt noted. This experience instilled a lifelong scepticism against abstract thinking in Arendt, who, for a while, even considered turning away from intellectual matters altogether.

The problem is well known. Hans Blumenberg (2000) collected stories of philosophers – from the ancient Greeks to the modern days – who were ‘seduced’ by their own systems of thought and subsequently failed in ethical or political terms. From the memoirs of ex-communists, we know of the seductive power arising from the affiliation with a community that thought it possessed superior knowledge (cf. Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 242). And Julien Bender (2011) famously polemicized against the “treason of the intellectuals”, referring to French interwar intellectuals of the Right, who, in Bender’s eyes, neglected their duty to preserve the political independence necessary to fulfil their proper role as seekers of truth.

While all this suggests an increased susceptibility on the part of the thinking-trade to getting it wrong, it also points to the critical role of the intellectual – namely, to get it right. In democratic societies, we need people who offer both critique and plausible interpretation of political matters. We need intellectuals able to provide sober political judgment. But how do we recognize a capable intellectual if we see one? What are vices regularly found in intellectuals, and what are the virtues, we should want them to strive for?

Tony Judt (1948-2010), caricature by LouisBrendel (used with permission)

Tony Judt, who died ten years ago, is a superb companion for thinking about the prerequisites for sensible political judgment. Because he not only exercised such judgment in his capacity as a public intellectual, but also reflected on and critically engaged with the views expressed by others. In what follows, I will present and discuss some of the features accounting for sober political judgment, as I found them described in the writings of Judt. Especially in Thinking the Twentieth Century, a book that resulted from a series of conversations between (the then already completely physically paralyzed) Judt and his younger colleague Timothy Snyder. While the question of what accounts for a virtuous intellectual capable of sober political judgment is present in almost all of Judt’s writings, this book addresses the issue head on.

A first precondition for sober political judgment worth mentioning is the ability to consider political realities while at the same time avoiding cynicism. Jennifer Homans, Judt’s widow and herself a historian, describes Judt as both a “clear-eyed realist” and an “idealist who aimed at nothing less than the well-lived life; not just for himself, but for society” (Judt 2015, p. 4). Both his sceptical realism and his idealism can be traced back to Judt’s early socialization.

Judt grew up in a lower-middle-class family in a worker’s district in post-WW II London. He was born into a secular Jewish-Marxist family. At the age of 16 – when he had already started to familiarize himself with Marx –, his father gave him Isaak Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky. His father was disillusioned with Soviet communism, but clang to Marxism on the grounds that the communist project had lost track with Stalin, but could have gone right had it followed Trotsky. This was a view held by many, among them Hannah Arendt, but it was an outlook that would soon strike Judt himself as illusory (cf. Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 76, 156-157). While his upbringing made Judt immune against communist illusions, it also implanted a lifelong obsession with the politics of the Left. One question implicit in all of his books until the 1980s, at least, was the question: “what had gone wrong with the revolutionary Left?” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 157). Judt’s dissertation, “Socialism in Provence, 1871-1914: A Study in the Origins of the Modern French Left”, can be seen as an attempt to come to terms with the fact that the socialist project had lost track. To recognize the idealism behind the realism of his unsentimental analysis, one needs to note that the only way for doing better the second time is to understand what had gone wrong the first time around.

Judt wrote his dissertation under Annie Kriegel, “the French historian who was first a Stalinist and then later an anti-communist” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 99). As Judt reports, Kriegel’s “insistence on studying communism historically – the movement rather than the abstraction – exercised a great influence” on him (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 143). So, while Judt, like another big name among his patrons – Georg Lichtheim – was to become a historian with a particular interest in ideas, he had no appetite for abstract systems but always wanted to know how ideas played out in reality.

How ideas are shaped by reality and thus need to be understood in their context was something Judt could learn from his teachers at Cambridge. On John Dunn and Quentin Skinner – two key representatives of the Cambridge school of intellectual history, which emphasizes the importance of studying texts in their original (in this case intellectual) context – Judt writes: “I give them full credit for my interest in thinking seriously about what it means to interrogate ideas initially developed and expounded in another time or place” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 148). While Judt was thus alert to the importance of the context of ideas, the context he was most interested in was the social and the political (as opposed to the context comprised of other texts).

A key to Judt’s writing and, as I would like to suggest, a necessary ingredient for responsible intellectual interventions is a belief in the power of ideas combined with an interest in finding out how they interact with social reality. Ideas are powerful, and they really can inspire political projects. Yet they can also be misused as a cover for cynical realpolitik. Moreover, ideas originating in one time and place get re-interpreted in other times and other places – with unforeseeable consequences.

The idea of Zionism is exemplary for all the features of ideas, mentioned above. It had the power to motivate people and, leading to Israel’s foundation, undoubtedly shaped reality. It had a different meaning at different times. Thus, people like Hannah Arendt, who had supported Zionism in the face of Nazism, later turned away from it on the ground that a once excellent idea no longer deserved their support under new political circumstances, where it now helped to justify a repressive politics against Palestinians.

The misuse of Zionism as an ideology in the negative sense of the term, was also what turned Judt from an ardent supporter of Zionism in his youth, into a disillusioned observer. In 1963 Judt spent the summer in Israel, working at the Kibbutz Hakuk. He recalls being charmed by the whole experience that involved the encounter with “straightforward boys”, “attractive girls,” and the very idea of the Kibbutz movement: A promise to participate in establishing an egalitarian, left-leaning democratic society, where people lived in harmony with nature and each other. “I saw Israel”, Judt reports, “through a rose-tinted lens: a uniquely left-of-center land, where everyone I knew was affiliated with a Kibbutz and where I could project onto the whole Jewish population a peculiarly Jewish social democratic idealism” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 107). In 1966, Judt spent another summer in a different Kibbutz, making somewhat more ambivalent experiences, but remaining a committed Zionist for the time being (cf. Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 110-111). In 1967, at the eve of what is now known as the Six-Day War, Judt followed a call for volunteers that were supposed to replace young men and women who were expected to prepare for the anticipated battle. After a few days in which Judt once more worked on a farm, and a short intermezzo where he helped with post-war tasks, Judt served as an “interpreter between young Israeli officers and French and English-speaking auxiliaries” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 116). It was there that he learned “that Israel was not a social-democratic paradise of peace-loving, farm-dwelling Jews who just happened to be Israelis but where otherwise like me.” Although he returned to Israel once more in 1969, this experience had left him disillusioned, convinced that “the dream of rural socialism was just that” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 117). Having gone from the stage of an uncritical and enthusiastic believer in the idea of Zionism to that of a disappointed ex-Zionist was a formative experience for Judt, as it instilled in him a lifelong resistance against uncritical loyalty towards any idea or movement.

Judt’s upbringing, his personal experiences, and his education all instilled in him a sensibility for the political. When one engages in the political realm, it is not enough to be morally righteous, to possess good intentions, or to be true to one’s principles. A sense of political realities is needed, as well. This conviction of Judt also coloured his judgment of intellectuals and political personalities. After praising Kurt Schumacher for his moral integrity, Judt, for instance, concludes that Schumacher, “for all his many qualities, was curiously slow to grasp the new international regime in Europe” (Judt 2007, p. 268).

If Judt was thus a political person, used to granting political realities a place in any broader calculation, he was at the same time deeply concerned about ethical matters. A realism that declares the political realm to an amoral zone where moral standards do not apply was alien to him. Thus, moral questions are implicitly present in all of his writings, and in many of them, he deals explicitly with ethical considerations. Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956, the book that turned him overnight into a public person, is for example concerned with questions such as: “How, in the face of all this literary evidence, not to mention the testimony of their own eyes, could intelligent people [like Sartre, Beauvoir, or Merleau-Ponty] willfully defend communism as the hope of the future and Stalin as the solution to the riddle of History?” (Judt 2011, p. 3).

Combining his sensibilities for both political realism and morality, Judt suggests, that anyone faced with a political decision, should consider three questions (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 318-319): We first need to ask, what will be the results of an action (or inaction) taken? “Are we sure that the consequences of a given choice are not dangerous – either directly or as examples and precedents?” We then need to consider what we will gain or lose by choosing a particular path? “What’s in it for us? This has to be part of any political decision because politics is, after all, about governance, and it’s about creating outcomes which are presumptively in the interest of those who undertook the action.” And finally, we need to ask: What ethical considerations do we have to take into account? Is what we plan to do “a good, a right, or just thing to do – independent of both my previous considerations?”.

Cover (b/w) of Judt’s 2007 book Postwar. (Fair use)

A second principle to be considered when engaged in political interpretation and criticism becomes apparent when we look at one of the critical functions of intellectuals. They are supposed to “speak truth to power”. But if this will have any effect, then not because those in power care about what the intellectuals have to say, but because intellectuals manage to influence public opinion. And this means that they need to be understood so they can get their views across: “Intellectual obfuscation is self-defeating” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 328). This might sound like a truism. To see that it isn’t, one only needs to think about how many readers will easily understand texts written by Michael Walzer or Tony Judt, who have been inspired by George Orwell’s call for clear prose. And how comparatively fewer people will be capable (and willing) to work their way through books by Heidegger or Adorno, to only name two of the more extreme examples of a widespread tendency to confuse deep thoughts with inaccessibility. Let’s call this the principle of clarity, the virtue of using a simple (yet elegant) style, even when expressing complex thoughts.

The clarity rule needs to be accompanied by a principle of resonance. Whether his audience will understand an intellectual also depends on whether what he says resonates with the experiences and discourses of the people he addresses. And since there is, as Judt notes, “no such thing as a global audience”, this means that what the intellectual says must be comprehensible to local audiences. This also implies that intellectuals should confine themselves to those areas they are familiar with and resist the temptation to comment on everything. “There is,” Judt puts it laconically, “no such thing as a ‘global intellectual’: Slavoj Žižek does not exist” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 298).

While intellectuals must thus be familiar with the contexts they comment on, they, at the same time, need to step back, lest they reproduce the parochial views they are surrounded by. Sound political judgments are thus created from a position neither too close nor too distanced from the people whose political affairs the intellectual seeks to comment on: “critical distance is measured in inches” (Walzer 1993, p. 61).

While the degree to which an intellectual can have an influence on public discourse and subsequently on politics is a crucial measure, most important for Judt is “to get it right” (Judt and Snyder, p. 268), that is, to provide an accurate account of reality. And this – trivial as it may sound – requires knowing the facts as they form the basis of any plausible interpretation of events and, therefore, understanding. The claim that sincere political judgment is dependent on accurate accounts on what is and what happened seems so obvious that no more needed to be said about it were we not to live in times of “post-truth politics”. There seems to be a tendency – and indeed, deliberate efforts – to level the difference between facts and opinions. And although one can, in many instances, see the shabby political motives behind it, there seems to be a more real confusion accompanying that tendency. The idea that people are not only entitled to their own opinion but also to their own facts can be framed in a somewhat less bizarre version than the one U.S. Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway offered with her talk of “alternative facts.” Isn’t reality, the reasoning goes, invariably the result of contingent interpretations and don’t these interpretations always privilege some people over others. Why then be so concerned about the raw material of interpretations in the first place?

Hannah Arendt paraphrases this concern nicely when she asked, rhetorically, whether

“facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?” (Arendt 2006, p. 238).

Answering her own question, Arendt speaks of “brutally elementary data […] whose indestructibility has been taken for granted even by the most extreme and most sophisticated believers in historicism.” That in August 1914, Germany invaded Belgium, and not the other way around, is such a fact for Arendt (Arendt 2006, p. 339). So, the observation that interpretations of historical events are changing – both in the light of new findings and as a result of reinterpretations – provides no ground for doubting the existence of basic facts.

At the same time, the selection of available data (or facts), on which an account of events is based, is indeed bound to be contingent. There is usually more than one plausible account of events in circulation, and we already know today, that later generations will challenge the readings of events that dominate our contemporary understanding. But this doesn’t render the interpretation of events arbitrary in the sense that all accounts of events appear equally plausible. The requirement to stick to the facts sets limits on what will count as a serious proposal. And even among those stories that respect the facts, there will be accounts that those familiar with the topic will easily recognize as inferior; in much the same way that the existence of theory pluralism in the social sciences does not hinder the scholarly community from excluding some proposed theories as insufficient.

While this points to the importance of public debate as a mechanism to ensure that erroneous political judgments get at least publicly challenged, it is not yet clear how the intellectual (or anyone else) can get to a reasonable judgment of political reality.  

Arendt, on whom Judt wrote “(mostly) nice things” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 252), and who not incidentally appears as a reference point in many of his writings, can be credited with having placed the problem of political judgment on the agenda of political theory (cf. Arendt 1982). She points out that the search for a sensible political judgment is different from the search for truth. Whether a certain policy deserves our support or should be opposed, whether politician X did the right thing in the given circumstances, and so forth – all this cannot be answered in the way that empirical questions can. But this does not mean that all judgments are equally good or bad. The person who sets out to judge an event, a policy, or the like, needs to make an effort to look at the matter from the perspectives of all those affected by the issue at hand. The aim is not a picture that incorporates a little bit of each view, but a judgment that has taken the various perspectives into account – incorporating some, deliberately ignoring others if this appears reasonable. The result will never be perfect. Not only because political judgment can never be objective in a way that scientific observation can, but because fallible beings with limited horizons exercise it. The crucial point is that the intellectual makes an earnest effort to engage with all stakeholders’ perspectives and that she exercises her judgment in good faith.

“‘In good faith’ may have been Tony’s favorite phrase and highest standard”, Homans observes. “What he meant by it”, she writes, “was writing that is free of calculation and maneuver, intellectual and otherwise” (Judt 2015, p. 1). Acting in bad faith, in turn, can take many forms. Pretending to know something, although one doesn’t and thus deceiving one’s audience is one form. An intellectual needs to know what she is talking about. And since no one can be familiar with every topic, Judt is highly sceptical of “all-purpose intellectuals” (Snyder and Judt 2012, 160).

Intellectuals neglect the good faith principle as well if they subordinate their critical thinking and their willingness to criticize, to what Bernard Williams has called “higher truth”. Examples of higher truth are “the certainty of a coming revolution, as with some Marxists”, or “the apparent national interest, as with French government during the Dreyfus Affair or the Bush administration during the Iraq War” (Snyder and Judt 2012, xvi). Judt’s favourite example of an intellectual ignoring the good faith maxim in this way is Jean-Paul Sartre. Why, Judt askes, did Sartre refuse to “discuss the crimes of communism, even to the extent of remaining conspicuously silent about anti-Semitism in Stalin’s last years” (Snyder and Judt 2012, p. 36). Judt is here, of course, not trying to say that Sartre harboured anti-Semitic sentiments. He criticizes Sartre’s decision to buy into the “higher truth” of progressivism and by that sacrifice his ability to “to tell it as it is” (Snyder and Judt 2012, p. 287). Thus, getting it right depends on the intellectual’s willingness to give an accurate account of reality, even if this means saying things that undermine one’s cherished beliefs, or run contrary to the common wisdom of one’s peers or allies.

A final example of exercising bad faith is the thoughtless propagation of ideas presumed to be radical; the adopting of revolutionary poses where no risk for oneself is involved. A sin eloquently captured in a quote by Judt’s primary example of good faith, Albert Camus: “Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed, but in every case it is someone else’s blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say just about everything” (Judt 2011, p. xv). Judt, in line with Camus’s reasoning, found it, for instance, disgraceful that in the late sixties, young Western intellectuals engaged in risk-free agitation against the “bourgeoisie” (to whom most of them belonged), while at that very moment their contemporaries in the East were persecuted on the very basis of their (alleged or real) belonging to that very class (Snyder and Judt 2012, p. 54).

Presumably the greatest intellectual crime for Judt was to buy into what he called the “‘omelet’ thesis” (Judt 2011, p. 41), referring to Stalin’s dictum that ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’, which was supposed to justify sacrifices today for the sake of a better future. While Judt was by temperament and based on his historical knowledge a believer in reform rather than revolution, it was mainly the idea that others should suffer for their (and our) better future, which outraged him:

“It is one thing to say that I am willing to suffer now for an unknowable but possibly better future. It is quite another to authorize the suffering of others in the name of that same unverifiable hypothesis. This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 91)

Though this sort of thinking was emblematic for 20th-century intellectuals, it would be wrong, Judt warns, to treat it as a phenomenon of the past. Thus, in 2006 Condoleezza Rice, who then served as U.S. Secretary of State under George W. Bush, spoke of the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” when commenting on Israel’s invasion into southern Lebanon, that caused tremendous suffering among the civilian population (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 102).

A final virtue – in this necessarily incomplete list – that Judt suggests intellectuals should possess, is courage. Even where they do not need to fear state persecution, intellectuals might shy away from publicly uttering certain of their beliefs. For instance, they may fear being associated with the wrong people. In Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, Judt approvingly cites one of his favourite intellectuals, Arthur Koestler, who said: “You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons… This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence” (Judt 2007, p. 217). Another common reason for remaining silent contrary to better knowledge is the fear of falling out of favour with one’s own community. Judt himself proved free of that fear when publishing critical essays on Israel (republished in Judt 2015). Although written in good faith, those essays exposed him to fierce criticism, notably of the ad hominem kind and partly from people he had been working with closely.

Courage is strictly related to independence, a trait that all of Judt’s favourite thinkers show. Judt characterizes the three protagonists of his The Burden of Responsibility – Albert Camus, Leon Blum, and Raymond Aron – 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 own community” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 330).

Judt claims that he, in his privileged position, did not need to be particularly brave to say the things he felt needed to be said. If this is partially true, it only increased the burden of responsibility that he felt and which derived from the way he saw his social role. He held 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” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p 285). And: “Intellectuals with access to media and job security in a university carry a distinctive responsibility in politically troubled times” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p 286).

In autumn 2008, Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In the remaining two years until his death, he continued to give interviews, hold lectures, intervene in public debates and write – now dependent on others’ physical help – three more books. Apart from his sense of duty, he had felt a growing sense of urgency since the turn of the century; something his illness amplified. He “found himself”, as Homans reports, “turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (Judt 2015, p. 1). Thus he, for instance, held up the ideal of the welfare state against prevailing neoliberal wisdom (cf. Judt 2011). He kept thinking about a feasible solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. And last but not least, he engaged in a “conscious effort to both identify and save the core of what was good about intellectual life in the twentieth century” (Judt and Snyder 2012, p. 285). Tony Judt died ten years ago, on the 6th of August, 2010. What he would think of our current political affairs, we can only guess. But I know that I would love to read his sharp analysis and hear his pointed judgments.

Mario Clemens is a research associate at Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). He is currently doing research on commonalities and differences between the political theories of Hannah Arendt and Michael Walzer.


Arendt, H., & Kohn, J. (2006). Between Past and Future. Penguin.

Arendt, H. (1982). Critique of Judgement: Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. University of Chicago Press.

Benda, J. (2011). The Treason of the Intellectuals. Transaction Publishers.

Blumenberg, H. (2000). Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen. Surkamp.

Judt, T. (1998). The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press.

Judt, T. (2011). Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on our Present Discontents. Penguin U.K.

Judt, T. (2011). Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956. University of California Press.

Judt, T. (2007). Postwar: A History Since 1945. Pimlico.

Judt, T. (2015). When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010. Random House.

Judt, T. with Snyder, T. (2012). Thinking the Twentieth Century. Random House.

Walzer, M. (1993). Interpretation and Social Criticism (Vol. 1). Harvard University Press.

(c) 2020, The Berlin Review of Books


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