Sunday, 10 October 2010

In memorium: Tony Judt 1948-2010

From LSHG Newsletter No. 40, Autumn 2010

Tony Judt: 1948-2010
In place of an obituary
The socialist historian Tony Judt died in August, aged just 61. He was perhaps the most well known socialist historian currently writing, his books actually appearing in bookshops and selling large number of copies. Obituaries appeared in a range of places dealing with his career and key historical works. This piece however is about something else he wrote: an article which appeared over 30 years ago in a low circulation radical history journal  ['A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians', History Workshop Journal No. 7,].
Yet I would argue that it was this 1979 article, and perhaps particularly the reaction to it, ‘A Clown in Regal Purple’ that shaped Judt’s historical work for the remainder of his historical career. At the same time the piece (now so forgotten that it did not merit a mention in any of his obituaries except in a letter from the author in the Guardian) retains an importance that is worth revisiting as a tribute to Judt.
The overriding irony of the piece was that while Judt attacked a range of developments in social history from a left and broadly Marxist perspective, the reaction from the left drove him away from an overtly socialist standpoint and towards being the more mainstream historian who was to become a well known public intellectual.
With a small number of exceptions such as his criticism of Charles Tilly it is not worth revisiting the specific points Judt makes about individual pieces, mostly now long since forgotten. However, his general approach still has a relevance which needs to be seen in the context of what the left was like in 1979.
The Stalinist States of Eastern Europe were still in place and the Communist Parties a considerable force to be reckoned with. That formed one boundary or obstacle to developing an orthodox Marxist approach. The flowering of left ideas after 1968 was still a strong presence which in the academy led to a range of often obscure positions. In this sense Judt was constrained in arguing for a Marxist history and frustrated by those who claimed to be following that approach wandering into areas sometimes far removed from it in practice.
His article noted that social history was ‘suffering a severe case of pollution’. It had become a ‘gathering place for the unscholarly, historians bereft of ideas and subtlety’. He complained that ‘stereotyped’ models were often to be found where ‘theoretical insight or careful research’ was required.
In his sights was the modernisation theory of Charles Tilly, but what he was getting at was a mechanical approach to history that left out the point that it developed and progressed through a series of messy struggles involving real people rather than by some pre-defined pattern. Judt sees social history 30 years ago as obsessed with numbers and models whereas he urges that historical research should ‘begin with problems’.
He also argues that economic history had been by-passed allowing ‘social historians to construct historical
explanations from their own experience’. The point that Judt is making and in criticism of sections of the late 1970s left is that instead of trying to understand historical problems in their own context, they take the ‘enlightened’ perspectives of the moment as a given and apply these retrospectively as a given.
Again Charles Tilly is particularly in Judt’s frame here. He is described as an ‘intellectual magpie’. Tilly later hit back, in essence arguing that Judt was obsessed with historical detail at the expense of a bigger picture and was rather robust in his language to boot ['Linkers, Diggers and Glossers' in Social History 1986]. Tilly had a point but Judt’s insistence on historical research before not after conclusions are reached is as valid and important now as it was 30 years ago.
KF

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