Tony Judt

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Tony Robert Judt (2 January 19486 August 2010) was a British historian, essayist, and university professor who specialized in European history.


  • Some people, myself included, advocated foreign intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo while opposing our adventure in Iraq. Sam Moyn might find this inconsistent, but (on this occasion at least) it is the world that is inconsistent, not us. During the Balkan wars individuals’ rights were under ascertainable threat in real time. Outside intervention could make a difference, and it did. This was not the case in Iraq. We should always be suspicious of the invocation of universal “rights” as a cover for sectional interests. But it doesn’t follow from this that talk of rights is “really” always about something else. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. How, then, should we adjust our response? Well, there is a serviceable Keynesian answer to that: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
    • "Double-Entry Moral Bookkeeping", The Nation (April 25, 2007)
  • My concern tonight is the following: Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?
  • What, then, is to be done? We have to begin with the state: as the incarnation of collective interests, collective purposes, and collective goods. If we cannot learn to “think the state” once again, we shall not get very far. But what precisely should the state do? Minimally, it should not duplicate unnecessarily: as Keynes wrote, “The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.” And we know from the bitter experience of the past century that there are some things that states should most certainly not be doing.
  • We don’t live in a world of fixed historical laws that says the—as you describe it—liberal state was born at a particular time, lived and died, and that’s what we’re stuck with. But there are reasons why some things are much harder to retain, to invent, to reinvent than others.
    • quoted in "Talking With Tony Judt", The Nation (April 29, 2010) by Christine Smallwood
  •  What’s missing from public conversation and public policy conversation is precisely a sort of moral underpinning, a sense of the moral purposes that bind people together in functional societies. And part of the attraction of someone who otherwise didn’t appeal to me in the least—like, say, Pope John Paul II—was how he managed to connect with young people. Whether it was in Eastern Europe or Latin America or wherever, his was the sense of an absolutely, unambiguously, morally noncompromising view about what is right and what is wrong. It seems to me that we need to reintroduce some of that. We need to reintroduce confidently and unashamedly that kind of language into the public realm. And not expel it, so to speak, into church for Sunday. It’s not only on Sunday that some things are right and some things are wrong.
    • quoted in "Talking With Tony Judt", The Nation (April 29, 2010) by Christine Smallwood
  • One of the very few things that I know I believe strongly is that we must learn how to make a better world out of usable pasts rather than dreaming of infinite futures. It’s a very late-Enlightenment view that says that the only way to make a better future is to believe that the future will be better. Smarter people than me used to believe very differently and I think it is time to listen to them once again.
  • Where does that leave me? Trying, as usual, to square general truths with particular circumstances. That’s the difference between pure ethics and political theory; but it isn’t resolved by simply abandoning the tension and sliding to one end of the pole.
  • God knows I can think of enough things that I did wrong both personally and as part of my cohort. But I never abandoned what I thought of as the benefits of the postwar consensus in favour of sectional advantage. Actually, I was always a bit awkward in this as other respects. As you know, I was against root-and-branch school comprehensivization on the grounds that the postwar arrangements combining meritocracy with opportunity, while imperfect and logically indefensible, were better than the radical schemes on offer – which have trashed much of the pedagogical gains of the early postwar decades.
  • I hate publicity, celebrity, fame, and notoriety, all of which are associated with controversy in its public form. But, in fairness, all my life I've been rather upfront with my opinions and never hidden them on grounds of conformity or (I fear) politesse. However, until the wretched Polish consulate affair, I don't think I was ever controversial—I was certainly not known outside of the hermetic little world of the academy, and my contrarian scholarly writings aroused no great fuss.
    • quoted in Evan R. Goldstein, "The Trials of Tony Judt", The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 06, 2010)
  • I am, I discover in late middle age, a work in progress.
    • quoted in Samuel Moyn, "Intellectuals, Reason, and History: In Memory of Tony Judt", H-France Salon (2012)

Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 (1992)[edit]

  • In practice, the writer or scholar who aspires to that public position which defines intellectuals and distinguishes them from mere scribblers has always had to choose between being the apologist for rulers or an advisor to the people; the tragedy of the twentieth century is that these two functions have ceased to exist independently of one another, and intellectuals like Sartre who thought they were fulfilling one role were inevitably drawn to play both. If their successors, in France or elsewhere, are truly to put this past behind them, it will not be enough to recognize past mistakes. It will also be necessary to accept that entailed in the very meaning for modern society of the term intellectual are a number of roles that writers and scholars today may no longer wish to fulfill; indeed, a refusal to occupy the post of the (engaged) intellectual may be the most positive of the steps modern thinkers can take in any serious effort to come to terms with their own responsibility for our common recent past.
    • p. 319

The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (1998)[edit]

  • History is not written as it was experienced, nor should it be. The inhabitants of the past know better than we do what it was like to live there, but they were not well placed, most of them, to understand what was happening to them and why.
    • Introduction: The Misjudgment of Paris
  • From the end of World War I until the middle of the middle of the 1970s, French public life was shaped and misshaped by three overlapping and intersecting forms of collective and individual irresponsibility. The first of these was political. Reading the history of interwar France, one is struck again and again by the incompetence, the insouciance and the culpable negligence of the men who governed the country and represented its citizens. This is not a political observation, in the partisan sense, but rather a cultural one.
    • Introduction: The Misjudgment of Paris
  • If the era of political irresponsibility in France lasted from 1918 to 1958, the age of moral irresponsibility may be said to have begun in the mid-thirties and endured for the best part of four decades.
    • Introduction: The Misjudgment of Paris
  • This book is about three Frenchmen who lived and wrote against the grain of these three ages of irresponsibility. They were very different men and would have been surprised to think of themselves as a group, yet they have something rather distinctive in common. All three played an important role in the France of their lifetime but lived at a slightly awkward tangent to their contemporaries. For much of his adult life each was an object of dislike, suspicion, contempt, or hatred for many of his peers and contemporaries; only at the end of their long lives were Léon Blum and Raymond Aron, for quite different reasons, able to relax into the comfort of near-universal admiration, respect, and, in some quarters, adulation. Camus, who had experienced all three by the age of thirty-five, died twelve years later an insecure and much-maligned figure; it would be thirty years before his reputation would recover.
    • Introduction: The Misjudgment of Paris

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005)[edit]

  • Europe is the smallest continent. It is not really even a continent—just a subcontinental annexe to Asia. The whole of Europe (excluding Russia and Turkey) comprises just five and a half million square kilometers: less than two thirds the area of Brazil, not much more than half the size of China or the US. It is dwarfed by Russia, which covers seventeen million square kilometers. But in the intensity of its internal differences and contrasts, Europe is unique.
    • Preface & Acknowledgements
  • Europe is not re-entering its troubled wartime past—on the contrary, it is leaving it. Germany today, like the rest of Europe, is more conscious of its twentieth-century history than at any time in the past fifty years. But this does not mean that it is being drawn back into it. For that history never went away.
    • Introduction
  • Sixty years after Hitler's death, his war and its consequences are entering history. Postwar in Europe lasted a very long time, but it is finally coming to a close.
    • Introduction

Ill Fares the Land (2010)[edit]


  • Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
  • We have entered an age of insecurity—economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity. The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the utter collapse of their world and the economic and political catastrophes that followed. Insecurity breeds fear. And fear—fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world—is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest.
  • All change is disruptive. We have seen that the specter of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil. Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences. Men and women will be thrown back upon the resources of the state. They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for ‘security’. The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state. It is thus incumbent upon us to re-conceive the role of government. If we do not, others will.

Ch. 1 : The Way We Live Now[edit]

  • Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice towards those on the lower ranks of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.
  • The ‘false precision’ of which Maynard Keynes accused his economist critics is with us still. Worse: we have smuggled in a misleadingly ‘ethical’ vocabulary to bolster our economic arguments, furnishing us with a self-satisfied gloss upon crassly utilitarian calculations. When imposing welfare cuts on the poor, for example, legislators in the UK and US alike have taken a singular pride in the ‘hard choices’ they have had to make.

Ch. 2 : The World We Have Lost[edit]

  • The past was neither as good nor as bad as we suppose: it was just different. If we tell ourselves nostalgic stories, we shall never engage the problems that face us in the present—and the same is true if we fondly suppose that our own world is better in every way. The past really is another country: we cannot go back. However, there is something worse than idealizing the past—or presenting it to ourselves and our children as a chamber of horrors: forgetting it.
  • What did trust, cooperation, progressive taxation and the interventionist state bequeath to western societies in the decades following 1945? The short answer is, in varying degrees, security, prosperity, social services and greater equality. We have grown accustomed in recent years to the assertion that the price paid for these benefits—in economic inefficiency, insufficient innovation, stifled entrepreneurship, public debt and a loss of private initiative—was too high. Most of these criticisms are demonstrably false.

Ch. 3 : The Unbearable Lightness of Politics[edit]

  • We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals—fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers—are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this.

Ch. 4 : Goodbye to All That?[edit]

  • Unfortunately, pragmatism is not always good politics. The greatest asset of mid-20th century social democracy—its willingness to compromise its own core beliefs in the name of balance, tolerance, fairness and freedom—now looks more like weakness: a loss of nerve in the face of changed circumstances. We find it hard to look past those compromises to recall the qualities that informed progressive thought in the first place: what the early 20th century syndicalist Edouard Berth termed “a revolt of the spirit against . . . a world in which man was threatened by a monstrous moral and metaphysical materialism”.

Ch. 5 : What Is to be Done?[edit]

  • We face today two practical dilemmas. The first can be succinctly described as the return of the ‘social question’. For Victorian reformers—or American activists of the pre-1914 age of reform—the challenge posed by the social question of their time was straightforward: how was a liberal society to respond to the poverty, overcrowding, dirt, malnutrition and ill health of the new industrial cities? How were the working masses to be brought into the community—as voters, as citizens, as participants—without upheaval, protest and even revolution? What should be done to alleviate the suffering and injustices to which the urban working masses were now exposed and how was the ruling elite of the day to be brought to see the need for change?
    The history of the 20th century West is in large measure the history of efforts to answer these questions. The responses proved spectacularly successful: not only was revolution avoided but the industrial proletariat was integrated to a remarkable degree. Only in countries where any liberal reform was prevented by authoritarian rulers did the social question rephrase itself as a political challenge, typically ending in violent confrontation. In the middle of the 19th century, sharp-eyed observers like Karl Marx had taken it for granted that the only way the inequities of industrial capitalism could be overcome was by revolution. The idea that they could be dissolved peacefully into New Deals, Great Societies and welfare states simply never would have occurred to him.
  • Political skepticism is the source of so many of our dilemmas. Even if free markets worked as advertised, it would be hard to claim that they constituted a sufficient basis for the well-lived life. So what precisely is it that we find lacking in unrestrained financial capitalism, or ‘commercial society’ as the 18th century had it? What do we find instinctively amiss in our present arrangements and what can we do about them? What is it that offends our sense of propriety when faced with unfettered lobbying by the wealthy at the expense of everyone else? What have we lost?
    We are all children of the Greeks. We intuitively grasp the need for a sense of moral direction: it is not necessary to be familiar with Socrates to feel that the unexamined life is not worth much. Natural Aristotelians, we assume that a just society is one in which justice is habitually practiced; a good society one in which people behave well. But in order for such an implicitly circular account to convince, we need to agree on the meaning of ‘just’ or ‘well’.

Ch. 6 : The Shape of Things to Come[edit]

  • The case for reviving the state does not rest uniquely upon its contributions to modern society as a collective project; there is a more urgent consideration. We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the 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 our 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 also lost control, to forces beyond their reach.
  • It would seem to follow that the ‘invisible hand’ is not much help when it comes to practical legislation. There are too many areas of life where we cannot be relied upon to advance our collective interests merely by doing what we think is best for each of us. Today, when the market and the free play of private interests so obviously do not come together to collective advantage, we need to know when to intervene.

Conclusion: What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?[edit]

  • Even in Scandinavia, where social democratic institutions were far more culturally ingrained, membership of the EU—or even just participation in the World Trade Organization and other international agencies—appeared to constrain locally-initiated legislation. In short, social democracy seemed doomed by that same internationalization which its early theorists had so enthusiastically adumbrated as the future of capitalism.
    From this perspective, social democracy—like liberalism—was a byproduct of the rise of the European nation-state: a political idea keyed to the social challenges of industrialization in developed societies. Not only was there no ‘socialism’ in America, but social democracy as a working compromise between radical goals and liberal traditions lacked widespread support in any other continent. There was no shortage of enthusiasm for revolutionary socialism in much of the non-Western world, but the distinctively European compromise did not export well.
  • In writing this book, I hope I have offered some guidance to those—the young especially—trying to articulate their objections to our way of life. However, this is not enough. As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Quotes about Judt[edit]

  • As right-wing politicians and pundits call us stooges for Osama bin Laden, Tony Judt charges, in a widely discussed and heatedly debated essay in the London Review of Books, that American liberals -- without distinction -- have "acquiesced in President Bush's catastrophic foreign policy." Both claims are nonsense on stilts.

    Clearly this is a moment for liberals to define ourselves. The important truth is that most liberals, including the undersigned, have stayed our course throughout these grim five years. We have consistently and publicly repudiated the ruinous policies of the Bush administration, and our diagnosis, alas, has been vindicated by events. The Bush debacle is a direct consequence of its repudiation of liberal principles. And if the country is to recover, we should begin by restating these principles.

  • Judt is at least clear about what our priorities should be. They are quite simply the traditional goals of social democracy: a pragmatic balance of freedom and fairness, of individual liberty and social cohesion. [...] Social democrats need to remember how they used to measure efficiency not only by means of spreadsheets, but in social result.

    These solutions are painted with the same broad brush that Judt often wields throughout the book. This sweep is the book’s strength and weakness. We need thinkers to stand back and capture the big picture. But real change requires hundreds of piecemeal, practical changes. That is not to diminish the importance of panoramic visions. Obama’s crusading “yes we can” seems a thousand miles from the tortuous negotiations behind the eventual passing of the healthcare bill. But without his campaign’s clear purpose and simple message, the bill would never have even got before Congress. Judt’s impassioned, often angry polemic is likewise sorely needed, but much more sober, practical thinking is needed too, if the land is to fare better.

  • His style is temperate rather than polemical, allusive rather than dogmatic. He is not easy to pin down. I suspect that, like Michael Oakeshott, he does not believe in conclusions, preferring conversation to meander according to the quality of those taking part. The reader is left with impressions and suggestions, jostling each other for attention. He avoids the catcalls and blazing generalities that pass for debate in today’s cyber world.
    • Bruce Grant, "A nimble mind: Offerings and jeremiads from the stoic Tony Judt", Australian Book Review (March 2011)
  • Even when he is wrong, however, Judt writes with fearless integrity and moral seriousness. Like Raymond Aron, the subtle and relentless French polemicist whose spirit breathes through these pages, Judt is a liberal thinker dedicated to demystifying liberal illusions.
  • Postwar tells the story of how that happened. The book is ambitiously organized to combine the whole of the postwar history of Europe—Western and Eastern—into a single conceptual framework. The result is not a work of dispassionate scholarship. In the preface, Judt describes his approach as an "avowedly personal interpretation" of the recent European past. "In a word that has acquired undeservedly pejorative connotations," he writes, Postwar is "opinionated." Judt's thesis, developed through 900 pages, is this: Europe remade itself by forgetting its past. "The first postwar Europe was built upon deliberate mis-memory—upon forgetting as a way of life." And there was much to forget: collaboration, genocide, extreme deprivation.
    • Evan R. Goldstein, "The Trials of Tony Judt", The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 06, 2010)
  • One of these pasts is the lost role of the public intellectual: well-informed but willing to range beyond the ghetto of expertise—who doesn’t just observe but also tries to intervene or provoke. The economic background to Ill Fares the Land might be incomplete but the reappraising anger is just. Tony’s willingness to take on this topic—to use his fast-depleting energies on this particular stage at this particular time—is yet another dramatic intervention, combining a personal voice with a knowledge of history and sense of occasion in a way that is both responsive and responsible, timely and moral.
  • The excellence of “Postwar” was no doubt hard to achieve—Judt says that he began planning the book in 1989—but it is easy to describe. The writing is vivid; the coverage—of little countries as well as of great ones—is virtually superhuman; and, above all, the book is smart. Every page contains unexpected data, or a fresh observation, or a familiar observation freshly turned. And there are more than eight hundred pages.
  • Of course, Judt still understands himself to be a committed liberal intellectual, at a time when he thinks practically all other liberals have disappeared. But not just the world has changed; he has too, and most strikingly in his acknowledgment that his old standard can hallow many causes.
    • Samuel Moyn, "On the Genealogy of Morals", The Nation (Mar 29, 2007)
  • Tony knew that the disappearance of social theory, our common fate today, is not to be remedied so easily. The programmatic alternative to the present Tony came to favor— imagining a different future—depends, as he saw, on a social theory underlying it. And in spite of the fact that Marxism towered over the modern landscape, there are other possibilities. Keynes—Tony’s apparent hero at the end—presupposed a social theory too, though so did Friedrich Hayek, and the point is not just to revive their dispute simply to take sides but rather to understand their contention as the clash of philosophical visions it was, both broadly about the nature of social life and more narrowly about the place of modernity in it.
    • Samuel Moyn, "Intellectuals, Reason, and History: In Memory of Tony Judt", H-France Salon (2012)

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