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College Quarterly
Winter 2012 - Volume 15 Number 1
Staunch Liberals: The Case of Tony Judt—1948–2010
Howard A. Doughty

Books discussed:

  • Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on Our Present Discontents
    Tony Judt
    London: Penguin, 2010
  • The Memory Chalet
    Tony Judt
    London: Penguin, 2010
  • Thinking the Twentieth Century
    Tony Judt
    London: Penguin, 2012

"In every American community there are various shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals—an outspoken group on many subjects … ten degrees to the left of centre in good times, ten degrees to the right of centre if it affects them personally."

So said Phil Ochs in the familiar introduction to his satirical song, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." Performed in the mid-1960s, it was advanced notice that liberalism, as a label or as an ideology was in trouble.

Phil Ochs didn't object to liberals because of what they believed. They were generally in favour of human rights, social welfare, international peace and economic development. They could be counted on to be sorry for starving children and the wrongly executed. They were in favour of health care and education. They were nice people. What bothered Ochs was that they vacillated. They did not believe in these things enough.

They were often hypocrites:
"I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes
As long as they don't move next door."

They were existentially disengaged:
"I'll send all the money you ask for
But don't ask me to come on along"

They certainly didn't understand that poverty, racism, misogyny and the like were structural problems that simply could not be resolved by holding hands with Republicans and singing "Kumbaya."

In an emergency, they would reverse themselves:
"But when it comes to times like Korea
There's no one as red, white and blue"

And, when pressed, they were as likely to endorse repression as anyone:

"Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal"

Today, there isn't much left of liberalism. Some public sector unions remain. Lots of people express "concern" about the environment, unless jobs are endangered. People certainly dislike "bullying." Gay and lesbian rights and marijuana possession are no longer the conversation-enders they once were. Persistent members of the "Occupy" movement seem willing to apply CPR to the tired body of American liberalism, but it is only the paranoid right which still fancies itself to be victimized by the liberal (corporate) media and "elitists" who want sex education and evolution in the classroom. There is not, however, a large contingent of politically involved people who are eager to wear the liberal label or to be clear about what a liberal viewpoint would be, if it existed.

Criticism of liberals has shifted from the left to the right and it is no longer satirical but venomous. Anyone who listens to talk radio or watches the Fox News Network would imagine that liberalism was the ideology of Satan himself, and to many religiously minded people—particularly those who style themselves born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist Christians—it probably is. It is hard to imagine, then, why this term which, we should recall, betokens a preference for personal liberty and is regularly attached to much-praised political systems that go by the name of "liberal democracies" has now become a term of abuse.

For sceptics like Phil Ochs, the trouble with liberals was that they "talked the talk, but didn't walk the walk." Their high-minded principles were too quickly and easily compromised. They would espouse progressive social change, but flee from the reality of social conflict. They were nice guys who wanted to finish first.

As Nosipho Majeke (also known as Dora Taylor, an anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa) put it: liberals play the role of conciliator between the oppressor and the oppressed. In the USA, the Republicans represent the oppressors and no one represents the oppressed; so, the Democrats (being liberals) are forced to play with themselves.

To contemporary (and paradoxically named) "neoliberal" government leaders and pressure groups from Britain's David Cameron and Canada's Stephen Harper to the American "Tea Party," liberals are weak and sentimental idealists or, worse, part of a reprehensible conspiracy of atheists, socialists and radical environmentalists eager to enfeeble private enterprise, corrupt the youth, demoralize the military at a time of vulnerability to terrorism and preach the "lie" of global warming in order to sap the energies of the free market and leave the gooey Alberta bitumen sleeping uselessly in the soil.

Nowhere on any side is there much talk of liberalism as virtuous. The idea of a tough-minded, gutsy and occasionally cranky liberal is almost oxymoronic. Then, there was Tony Judt.

The business of political labelling is very tricky. Today's "conservatives," for example, do not seem very interested in "conservation," and are instead the champions of private corporations as they seek to depress wages and render job security obsolete—not at all the posture of old aristocracies which, for all their commitment to so-called "natural" inequality, at least understood the importance of noblesse oblige. Constant war against the middle and working classes, they recognized, was not only morally unsound, but it was also imprudent to push the peasants and slaves beyond their limit—lest they revolt. Contemporary "conservatives" seem less inhibited by such restraint.

Such is the ambiguity and frequent contradiction in the definition of political terms that Tony Judt himself attempted to explain why the label of liberal ought not to be applied to him, especially when resident in the United States. Let him speak for himself:

"I wrote my book Ill Fares the Land for young people on both sides of the Atlantic. American readers may be struck by the frequent references to social democracy. Here in the United States, such references are uncommon. When journalists and commentators advocate public expenditure on social objectives, they are more likely to describe themselves—and be described by their critics—as ‘liberals.' But this is confusing. ‘Liberal' is a venerable and respectable label and we should all be proud to wear it. But like a well-designed outer coat, it conceals more than it displays."1

Judt has more historical awareness than most Americans (and most other people). He appreciates that the word derives from the Latin liber meaning "free." Liberalism was the revolutionary ideology that emerged to oppose the ossified beliefs of the decaying aristocracy. The first thing early liberals wanted to free was their capital. They disliked monarchical control over how money could and should be used. By the late eighteenth century, they included American colonial merchants and plantation owners who chafed under the mercantile system. They admired Adam Smith—though many of his followers today are embarrassed to learn that Smith also supported public education and a progressive income tax. Who knows? If he were alive today, he'd probably endorse universal, publicly funded health care.

The important point is that freedom came to the economic marketplace well before democracy came to the selection of our governors. In fact, economic liberalism came well before the abolition of slavery. Classical liberalism was all about allowing the rising bourgeoisie to displace the landed aristocracy. It was not about free elections, civil liberties or equity for the economically disadvantaged, women or anyone who lacked the wit or the wherewithal to take advantage of preindustrial or early industrial capitalism. It is worth remembering that the American Declaration of Independence was largely written by a slave-owner and that the Constitution of the United States of America, composed thirteen years later, makes it plain that slaves counted as precisely 60% of a human being. The notion that capitalism and democracy are twins of the same political mother is plainly false. Democracy is, at best, the unexpected and probably unwanted younger child.

As Judt says, a "liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others: who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behavior." A nice way to encapsulate the disposition of liberals is to use the title of C. B. Macpherson's greatest book; liberalism combines an economic and a political dimension. It is The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.2

Social democrats, in the alternative, are happy endorse the notion of personal liberties, tolerance of dissent and civil rights broadly defined. At the same time, adds Tony Judt, they also "believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good. Like most liberals, social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves; but whereas many liberals might see such taxation or public provision as a necessary evil, a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector." Neoliberals and libertarians, on the contrary, regard all taxes, except perhaps for those necessary to provide armies, law enforcement officers and prisons to be theft.

Americans, of course, have trouble with the concept of "socialism" or "social democracy." Some think that it is tantamount to a Stalinist dictatorship. That is as may be, but I tend to classify Tony Judt as a liberal despite his fondness for the kind of welfare state that has not yet been entirely betrayed in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and much of continental Europe. That, however, has mainly to do with matters of fiscal policy, the promotion of public services and the regulation of the market. What I wish to highlight are his explicitly political views—assuming for the sake of argument only that the two can be separated.

At a minimum, political liberalism entails the rule of law, free elections, majority rule and minority rights. Such institutional provisions do not, however, fully explore the concept as a living philosophy of politics and governance. To do justice to liberalism requires that we take seriously an informed and engaged electorate. This is where matters in the economically advanced and largely Western democracies begin to come undone.

The rule of law may generally apply; but, in the post-9/11 world, it is undermined by from systemic technological intrusion into personal privacy, acquiescence in torture, pre-emptive wars and pervasive surveillance of citizens.

Free elections are commonly held; but, from the US Supreme Court's awarding the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 to the infamous Citizens United case that has allowed the plutocracy to purchase elections, conduct  routine voter suppression and engage in sundry "dirty tricks" in the USA, the integrity of electoral systems has been increasingly compromised.

Majority rule is in greatest peril in multi-party parliamentary systems such as Canada's wherein artificial electoral majorities are regularly created and prime ministers are allowed to impose their will as crudely as they choose despite having 60% of the voters reject them.

As for well-informed and engaged electorates, basic political knowledge escapes far too many voters, turn-outs at elections are poor, and a general cynicism or an inchoate fanaticism often accelerated by racial or religious intolerance help bring about what is euphemistically called a "democratic deficit."

Tony Judt worried about all these matters a great deal. I say worried in the past tense. For those who do not know his fate, his personal story was about as tragic as can be expected for a man who lived the life of an intellectual, a writer and a teacher. He also moved around some, landing in New York in 1987, where he would live and teach through his last years.

In 2008, at the age of 60 and at the absolute pinnacle of a successful career as one of the most admired historians of his time, Tony Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The decline was fast. Within months he was a quadriplegic, able to breathe only with the assistance of a machine. He lost control of his limbs and his bodily functions. His voice weakened.

In those two years of rapid and devastating physical deterioration, he wrote three books. Ill Fares the Land was the first, followed by The Memory Chalet and finally Writing the Twentieth Century, which he completed with the assistance of Timothy Snyder who took dictation, edited and provided a part of the conversation that became an oral narrative. It was completed on 5 July, 2010; Tony Judt died on 6 August, also 2010.

Some people come to liberalism the hard way, through disappointment and defeat. Tony Judt was one of them. At the age of thirteen his father gave him Isaac Deutscher's celebrated three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky. The lad was smitten. Not long after, he became a Zionist and removed to Israel to engage in the "Six-day War." In the cynicism that followed, he became increasingly vitriolic in his attacks on people who had not quite given up the faith. At the same time, he did not give up his belief in a civilized society. It's no wonder that one of his heroes was Baron William Henry Beveridge KCB, the architect of the post-World War II British welfare state.

This is where things get tricky. Tony Judt was harsh with those he regarded as romantic, unrealistic and therefore dangerous. This severity is something I cannot explain about Tony Judt, unless I choose to become harsh myself.

In 1973, Edward Thompson (arguably a more esteemed and more influential historian than even Tony Judt) carried on a public quarrel with Polish political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski about the meaning of Marxism and the possibility of progressive change. In 1974, Kolakowski replied with what I considered at the time to be an inept, distortive and unworthy reply. Over twenty years later and more than ten years after Thompson's death, Judt resuscitated the debate and engaged in some of the most excessive, ill-considered and just plain nasty talk that I've read in the intellectual press. I am unsure what was on Judt's mind when he unearthed the old squabble and, in trying to drive a stake through Thompson's long dead heart, succeeded mainly in making himself seem churlish and worse, for he assailed Thompson in words reminiscent of the worst red-baiting of his earliest years.

At the same time, however, he attacked (curiously using a famous Leninist phrase) George Bush's "useful idiots," the American liberals who supported the American attack on Iraq and the whole of what he called the United States' "catastrophic foreign policy." (High up on his list was Michael Ignatieff whose long-time residency in the USA did not deter him from trying and failing monumentally to become Prime Minister of Canada.)

Not content with lashing out at the left and the right, he began Ill Fares the Land with observations about the decline of American culture and values, the superficiality of public discourse, the decline of the intellectuals, the grotesque greed and materialism that began, he thought, in the 1980s and had corrupted and corroded fundamental American decency and civic mindedness. After Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" had perished in the jungles and the rice paddies of Vietnam, a terrible cancer invaded the United States of America—the cancer of isolated selfishness unimpeded, the culture of possessive individualism. "Something," he says, "is profoundly wrong with the way we live today." He was right.

For Judt, the symptom of the malaise can be easily seen in the obscene and growing inequality among individuals and social classes throughout the Western world and between the developed and the underdeveloped world. Having renounced Marx, Engels and Trotsky, he would not touch the notion that the fundamental problems are economic. The Marxists, he came to believe, combined the worst of romanticism with a grim determinism, a certain recipe for disaster.

So, unlike the ex-Trotskyists who became the core of American neoliberalism—Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and, a little later, President Reagan's Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeanne Kirkpatrick—and also unlike Edward Thompson and other leftist English historians such as Christopher Hill, John Saville and Ralph Miliband who declined to embrace apostasy, Tony Judt clung to his battered beliefs and wore the "venerable and respectable label" of liberalism, even if his colleagues and students at New York University found it a trifle confusing.

As he was dying, his widow, Jennifer A. Homans, explained: "In this time out of time, ideas were everything. Tony had always cared more about ideas than anything—more than friends; more in some ways than himself."

Ill Fares the Land is a passionate call for people to care, to relinquish the bestial selfishness that has dominated individual motivation in liberal democracies and taken us back to the days when the only thing that was truly liberated was the right of the already wealthy to make more and more money. Tony Judt would not have shied away from saying that (post)modern humanity has abandoned both humanity and spirituality for shallow material gain.

I won't spend time on The Memory Chalet. It is personal, and summed up nicely by British journalist Peter Preston: "Tony Judt," he wrote "was a mass of contradictions, a polemicist as well as a prophet, a philosopher as well as a pamphleteer." These essays, he continues, "were never intended for publication. He apologises to his nearest and dearest—those he would least like to hurt—because, in a way, they get the roughest treatment." In the end, this slim book provides "evidence of a mind whirring through long nights of the soul."3

Thinking the Twentieth Century, however, begs comment. It is not, after all, not quite like the elegiac memoir contained in The Memory Chalet, nor is it as openly didactic as Ill Fares the Land, but it is intensely personal and intended as a guide for others not yet ending their journey. It reprises a life of zealous passion and repentant disillusion. In it, those who were true believers, but who saw the error of their ways without necessarily turning a full 180 degrees on a dime, are celebrated.

So comes his affection for Kolakowski, though I'd argue that Thompson's break from communism was just as principled, much better considered and ultimately more virtuous than Kolakowski's, Arthur Koestler's or any other of Judt's heroes, for Thompson did not play the epic apostate in exchange for the embrace of Cold Warriors and the promise of Mammon; instead, he remained true to the working class for whom he spoke so eloquently.

Where I find Judt disturbing is in his exaltation of Albert Camus, whom he regards as his champion of unparalleled moral integrity. A comparison of the two is difficult: they were both moralists at heart, though Camus was a novelist-playwright-journalist-essayist-diarist, whereas Judt excelled in historical writing, but Judt carefully controlled his writing, seldom letting the first person singular intrude or even be implied. According to Jennifer Homans, in Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt was "letting all the barriers down."4 It was his last will and testament, a legacy and a therapy as well. Camus' heart was full-blooded on every page.

The parallels between Tony Judt and Albert Camus are superficially obvious, but I believe that they are intellectual—and intellectual only. Yes, Camus had briefly been a Communist and Judt displayed an early affection for Trotsky. And, yes, Camus had written brilliantly about the perils of ideology (and in the process had his friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre publicly and rather humiliatingly destroyed). And, it's true that they were both passionate and fervent spokesmen for the causes they espoused—even (or especially) when those causes were appeals for moderation.

Camus, however, was a man of imagination, while Judt reflected on historical details. Camus was consistent in his relations with the world, while Judt alternated between incessant craving for solidarity and inevitable disenchantment. Camus, above all, was a man of the theatre, while Judt sought the solace of historical accuracy and sceptical reflection. If their ideas converged, their styles did not. It is not an unimportant fact.

In the end, all three of these books are valuable in their respective ways. Ill Fares the Land offers a provocative symptomatology of what's ailing us since the neoliberals took control, exiled communitarian regard and invited military, political and economic policies that were doomed to fail and leave nothing but confusion and rancor in their wake. The Memory Chalet is an insightful look at memory and the man. And Thinking the Twentieth Century concludes, according to Ian Buruma, as a practical lesson in how to proceed from here. "Judt's great concern at the end of his life," writes Buruma, "was not just to ‘think the twentieth century' as a historian, but to think of a way back to the kind of society that made him."

That kind of society, of course, was a liberal democracy, a species not yet dead, but seriously torn between a distorted version of classical economics twisted by our toxic inheritance from some pre-World War II Austrian economists like F. A. Hayek on the one hand, and uncertain, timid, half-hearted exponents of pragmatism over principle at whom comedians like Phil Ochs could only sneer.

As a man who's life ought not to be defined by the circumstances of his death, Tony Judt has a voice to contribute to that restoration of confidence, the rebuilding of our shared public life and the mutuality that should properly accompany it. There are others, perhaps not so mercurial and abrasive to whom the torch must be passed. Their "morals" and "ideas" need to be just as worthy, and their analyses and strategies for the re-establishment of liberty, authenticity and empowerment must combine unprecedented imagination as well as a way to make reform possible in a mass society gone viral in the threatening technological age.


1. Tony Judt, "Ill Fares the Land," New York Review of Books (April 29, 2010), available online at

2. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

3. Peter Preston, "The Memory Chalet," review," The Guardian (November 21, 2010), available on line at

4. Jennifer A. Homans, "Tony Judt: A Final Victory," The New York Review of Books, March 22, 2012, pp. 4-7.

Howard A. Doughty, teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at