Tony Judt, 1948-2010

British historian and essayist dies.

Several news sources, including New York magazine, are reporting that the English historian and essayist Tony Judt has died. In November 2008, Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, a neuro-degenerative condition that very quickly left him paralysed from the neck down. He continued to write almost until the end, however, even delivering the 2009 Remarque Lecture at New York University (where he had taught for many years) in a wheelchair and from inside the prison of a body that permitted him to do little else but speak and breathe (and this only with the help of a machine).

That lecture, entitled "What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy", was turned (with astonishing speed, bearing in mind his condition) into a book, Ill Fares the Land, in which Judt offered -- for the benefit, he said, of "young people on both sides of the Atlantic" -- both an account of what he saw as the corruption of our moral sentiments (he borrowed the phrase from Adam Smith, whom he rightly took to have abhorred the "uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake") and a vision of what political discourse used to be like -- not in the distant past, but in his own lifetime, during the postwar heyday of social democracy.

It was a period, Judt wrote, in which there was a "moralised quality to policy debates", when questions such as unemployment and inflation were regarded not just as economic issues, but also as "tests of the ethical coherence of the community".

Ill Fares the Land was both a threnody (for a language of the common good that Judt thought we had carelessly misplaced) and the expression of a certain kind of political temperament:

Social democrats are characteristically modest -- a political quality whose virtues are overestimated. We need to apologise a little less for our shortcomings and speak more assertively of achievements. That these were always incomplete should not trouble us.

If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unravelling and destablising them: this should make us much angrier than we are . . .

Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us today, it is better than anything else to hand. (Ill Fares the Land, pp. 224-25)

Much of the scholarly work with which Judt made his academic reputation (books such as Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 and The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century), before gaining wider acclaim (and, it has to be said, notoriety) on the strength of his literary journalism for the New York Review of Books, was devoted to the terrible seductions of the "perfect answer" in politics and to the irresponsibility (and irrelevance) of intellectuals who insist that nothing less than perfection will do.

What that passage from his last book shows, however, is that Judt also knew that a sober recognition of the limits of politics is not the same as a quietistic and defeated abandonment of them. He will be greatly missed.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The Brocialist’s Dilemma: joining the revolution inevitably leaves others behind

We have to remember that other people have priorities, which might clash with our hero-worshipping of politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

It was Tony Blair who got me used to compromising my values for the sake of party unity and electoral success. After I voted for him in 2005, I knew in my heart that I could talk myself into voting for anybody if it kept the Tories out. Sure he’d planned and waged a war of aggression with disastrous consequences for millions of people, but he hadn’t privatised the railways. I’m not an Iraqi, I’m a guy who travels by train.

Having taken the Blair masterclass in compromising ideals, watching Jeremy Corbyn getting dragged over the coals for his various missteps all feels rather trivial. I found myself wondering just what it was going to take for Corbyn, who I don't dislike and will vote for, to outrage me to the extent that I’d want him gone.

Hell, I voted for the man who brought in university fees. I voted for him, and I knew as I did it that –had I been born just a few years later – there’s no way I’d have been able to go to university. I don’t know what Corbyn might do that would be a compromise too far given those I’ve already had to make over the years.

Left wing politics will always come with compromises, but what is telling is who has to make the biggest ones. We all want a unified and functional opposition, maybe one day a shot at government, but can we expect Jewish party members to simply ignore the failure to handle antisemitism in the party, or women to ignore so much about recent Labour selections?

It seems, at times, that what matters in Corbyn’s Labour is the new found sense of ideological purpose, rather than the trickier practical business of ensuring everybody is fairly treated and properly represented.

This brings us to the titular Brocialist Dilemma, because this is something that many of the men in the party will face whether they realise it or not. “Brocialist” is a generally pejorative term that tends to be applied to pugnacious white men piling into left wing or radical politics with earnestly held good intentions but little empathy and experience – and even less awareness of their lack thereof.

The Brocialist Dilemma is one born of coming into politics by choice looking to Fight the Good Fight, rather than having the Good Fight thrust upon you.

The dilemma is that if you are engaging with politics because you are an idealist looking to solve problems, which problems do you solve first? And whose problems do you push to one side in order to solve those problems? Where do you make your compromises?

You have to figure out who you’re willing to go to bat for and who you’ll let fall behind. There is no guide book for this, no master list of all the things that need to be fixed in left wing politics before it can be wheeled out like a massive cake to bring about global utopia.

We are all raised on stories of heroes leaping to the aid of the downtrodden for altruistic reasons. Plenty of us want to be that hero, but the shock of finding out that our personal intervention is not the tipping point in the struggle that we hoped it might be can be disheartening.

Nobody expects to answer the call to action only to be told to take a seat while the beneficiary of your munificence tries to find you something that you are qualified to help with.

More importantly than the disheartening effect on the enthusiastic would-be hero is the potential damage that can be done to the body politic itself. When thousands of energetic crusaders rally to the cause – intent on saving the world – but decide that your particular issues within that are less important, that your insistence on pursuing the agenda you got into politics to pursue is damaging, then we can see all kinds of unpleasantness.

It is not a coincidence that when you get huge numbers of highly engaged new people piling into a political cause that they bring with them what can charitably be called complications. I choose that word carefully because I’m still optimistic enough to believe that – for all the bile and spite being hurled around the Labour party in recent months – everybody is still, on a fundamental level, trying to do right.

Jeremy Corbyn is a huge draw for brocialists in much the same way as Bernie Sanders was in the US. This isn’t a complaint; you do want a leader who can motivate people, who can draw people into politics. Corbyn comes across like the wise old shaman who turns up in stories to guide the hero on the start of his journey to greatness. He is Obi-Wan Kenobi to a generation of left wing men who can see the world is an unjust place but don’t know exactly what they need to do to change it other than joining The Rebellion.

If there is a solution to the Brocialist Dilemma, perhaps it lies with Corbyn. What lesson can we take from the man himself? Is it to never compromise, to stick to your principles against all the odds? Perhaps. But also, and I would say more importantly, it is patience. Corbyn has spent decades campaigning for the causes he believes in, standing on picket lines, going on demonstrations – not always popular, though often right in hindsight.

At no point in his long and storied history of activism did Corbyn read the first volume of Das Kapital on his phone before getting bored and calling somebody a Blairite on Twitter.

If people can find the patience to learn, and the patience to teach, then perhaps we might all make it through this period in Labour’s history in a spirit of mutual respect. Otherwise we’ll be spending the rest of our lives calling each other names.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture