A culturally conservative streak in Tony Judt

Tony Judt was a remarkable historian of the twentieth century and a sparkling public intellectual. In most dimensions he was a progressive force within the space of commentators on recent history and contemporary politics. However, in a number of instances he was a bit tone-deaf in his version of American progressive values. This tendency is most evident in Ill Fares the Land (2010). 

Most evidently, he seems excessively bothered by “identity politics” in US universities. He tends to portray the generation of young people in the 1980s as solipsistic, self-interested, and trivial.

The narcissism of student movements, new Left ideologues and the popular culture of the ’60s generation invited a conservative backlash. (94)

When I began university teaching, in 1971, students spoke obsessively of socialism, revolution, class conflict and the like—usually with reference to what was then called ‘the third world’: nearer to home, these matters appeared largely resolved. Over the course of the next two decades, the conversation retreated to more self-referential concerns: feminism, gay rights and identity politics. Among the more politically sophisticated, there emerged an interest in human rights and the resurgent language of ‘civil society’. For a brief moment around 1989, young people in western universities were drawn to liberation efforts not only in eastern Europe and China but also in Latin America and South Africa: liberty— from enslavement, coercion, repression and atrocity—was the great theme of the day. (235)

Students frequently tell me that they only know and care about a highly specialized subset of news items and public events. Some may read of environmental catastrophes and climate change. Others are taken up by national political debates but quite ignorant of foreign developments. In the past, thanks to the newspaper they browsed or the television reports they took in over dinner, they would at least have been ‘exposed’ to other matters. Today, such extraneous concerns are kept at bay. (120)

The new Left, as it began to call itself in those years, was something very different. To a younger generation, ‘change’ was not to be brought about by disciplined mass action defined and led by authorized spokesmen. Change itself appeared to have moved on from the industrial West into the developing or ‘third’ world. Communism and capitalism alike were charged with stagnation and ‘repression’. The initiative for radical innovation and action now lay either with distant peasants or else with a new set of revolutionary constituents. In place of the male proletariat there were now posited the candidacies of ‘blacks’, ‘students’, ‘women’ and, a little later, homosexuals. (86)

In these passages and other similar ones, he sounds a bit curmudgeonly, as though the struggles against racism, patriarchy, sexism, and gender discrimination were trivial. But they are not, and curiously enough, Judt sometimes inadvertently illustrates this fact through his own comments about women in other writings. (His excuses in Reappraisals for the sexual predations of Arthur Koestler are far too forgiving.)

Moreover, Judt’s offhand remarks about the egoism and materialism of the current generation of young people in the United States (people in their 20s in 2010) are unfair to the generation. Having met many students at public universities and in public service programs like City Year and AmeriCorps, I know first hand that a great many of these young people are moved by “practical idealism” and engagement in community service and partnership. These are not self-interested “wolflings of Wall Street” just looking out for the gold ring; many young men and women in this generation are deeply interested in changing the world and making a better future.

Also of interest is Judt’s complete silence on populist authoritarianism. This was a social development that he simply could not anticipate. He assumes that liberal democracy has prevailed (as of 2010), and the remaining disputes have to do with the scope of the state, the level of economic intervention that is justified for state agencies, and the characteristics required in an adequate “social-democratic” state ensuring a decent level of wellbeing for all citizens. In a sense, he suggests that there is no powerful agenda left for the left.

Social democracy, in one form or another, is the prose of contemporary European politics. There are very few European politicians, and fewer still in positions of influence, who would dissent from core social democratic assumptions about the duties of the state, however much they might differ as to their scope. Consequently, social democrats in today’s Europe have nothing distinctive to offer: in France, for example, even their disposition to favor state ownership hardly distinguishes them from the Colbertian instincts of the Gaullist right. The problem today lies not in social democratic policies, but in their exhausted language. Since the authoritarian challenge from the left has lapsed, the emphasis upon “democracy” is largely redundant. We are all democrats today. (143)

But Judt missed completely the emergence of a virulent, powerful, and politically persuasive conservative populist reaction, founded on racism, anti-immigrant hatred, and misogyny. The Front National is not mentioned once in the book, nor are its near-fascist leaders. Even the term “racism” appears only once in the book. Western democracies suffer from “dilapidated public conversation” — and yet here we are, just over a decade later, involved in a life-and-death struggle for the survival of liberal democracy with the forces of reaction — the Orbans of Europe, Asia, and the United States.

I suppose all this shows is that no historian or social commentator, can see through the crystal ball with precision. But some of Judt’s assumptions seem to have led him to be especially unreceptive to the signs of racism, authoritarianism, and populist extremism that were already present in the world in 2010. In this respect his friend and colleague Timothy Snyder has proven to be a more insightful commentator on the current moment.


Judt describes the land grant colleges and specifically mentions the University of California, the University of Indiana, and the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan was not a land grant university — it was established decades before the land grant program (the Morrill Act) was envisioned in 1863. There is no “University of Indiana”, but rather “Indiana University”. Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, was the only land grant university in the state of Michigan, and it continues to carry out the mission of public service envisioned by the Morrill Act. 

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