Saturday, 22 January 2011

A ''Socialist Historian''? Ian Birchall on Tony Judt

Judt out to the right
From LSHG Newsletter # 41 (Spring 2011)

LSHG Newsletter No. 40 contains an obituary by one “KF” of Tony Judt, twice described as a “socialist historian”. The LSHG has always had a commendably eclectic view of what constitutes socialist history, and it would be absurd to split hairs about who is or is not a socialist. But lines have to be drawn somewhere, and I think that to describe Judt as a “socialist historian” may cause unnecessary confusion. Indeed, I do not think Judt himself would have welcomed the description.

Judt wrote prolifically on a range of subjects, and it is certainly not my intention to deny that there may be much to be learnt from his works. In a short polemic it is impossible to cover all his writings, and I shall confine my attention to the area on which I have some competence: the French left in the twentieth century. Here, I believe, Judt’s work is often misleading if not positively pernicious.

KF recommends to us Judt’s article “A Clown in Regal Purple” [History Workshop 7, 1979]. It is indeed an interesting and thought-provoking article. But I was struck by a paragraph in which Judt refers to those who refuse to criticise current trends in social history because they don’t want to cause divisions among practitioners of the discipline. He compares this to “the response of Jean- Paul Sartre to the news of Stalin’s crimes. Keep it under wraps, he counselled – “il ne faut pas désespérer Billancourt”. [We must not make Billancourt despair]. A footnote explains that Billancourt was a large car-factory in the Paris suburbs, but gives no source for the quotation.

Thirteen years later, in his book Past Imperfect, Judt again referred to Sartre’s “famous warning ‘Il ne faut pas désespérer Billancourt’”. [PI 211] Again, in a book otherwise drowning in footnotes, Judt gives no source. He was a busy man, but one might have thought that in thirteen years he could have found time to check whether Sartre actually said any such thing (he didn’t).

Judt might claim that it was one of those things that “everybody” knows, just as we all know that King Alfred burned the cakes and that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake”. As I understand it current scholarship holds that the French queen did not say this (presumably because she was too stupid, not because she was too kind-hearted). I’m not aware of recent research on Alfred and the cakes.

A conscientious historian, let alone a “socialist” one, might well have queried whether Sartre said anything so implausible. It is, after all, akin to a doctor telling a patient: “I won’t tell you you’ve got cancer because it would depress you”. But Judt never bothered to check. In praising Lichtheim’s mediocre Marxism in Modern France he stated that it “made no concessions to intellectual indolence”. [MFL viii] But “intellectual indolence" is precisely what Judt is guilty of here.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one bogus quotation doesn’t make a rogue. But it is a symptom of Judt’s compulsive need, by any means necessary, to attack Sartre and the French left. Past Imperfect is a sustained exercise in moralising vituperation against French left intellectuals in the post-1945 period for their failure to denounce Stalinism.

This is a pity, because Judt had half a point. Stalinism did indeed have a pernicious influence on the French left in this period. But Judt seems quite unable to deal with the complexities, contradictions and inconsistencies which characterised his subject matter. Any inconvenient facts that failed to fit into his interminable diatribe were remorselessly ignored. Like the director of a third-rate movie, Judt wants nothing
but heroes (Camus, Raymond Aron) and villains (just about everybody else).

Many French left intellectuals were insufficiently critical of Stalinism. (Many, not all – but names like Daniel Guérin, Maurice Nadeau, Pierre Naville are absent from Judt’s index, blotted out of the historical record 1984-style because they do not fit the thesis.) Judt makes no effort to analyse the reasons for this – like John Major, he is concerned to condemn, not to understand.

Despite his apparent display of erudition, Judt prefers the sweeping generalisation to the study of contradictions. Thus he thunders that Sartre and most French Marxists never “batted a public eyelid when confronted with socio-economic data, reports of concentration camps, news of show trials, and so forth”. [MFL 208] Actually in the course of Past Imperfect Judt was obliged to note that Sartre and Merleau-Ponty had written in 1950 that the concentration camps meant that there was no reason to call Russia socialist, and that in 1953 Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes had published a highly critical account of the Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia. But why should mere facts stand in the way of a good sound-bite?

Ever anxious to put blood on the hands of Sartre and his friends, Judt insists that at the time of installation of Stalin’s Eastern European satellites, “what was said and done in France served directly to bolster and justify the practices of the regimes newly in place”. [MFL 236-7] Actually in 1948 Sartre and many of his associates were involved in the Rassemblement démocratiqe révolutionnaire, whose founding statement deplored “the limitation of Communism to its Stalinist form”. This infuriated the French Communist Party, and was doubtless little reported in Prague or Budapest. Again, Judt simply ignored inconvenient facts.

Between 1946 and 1962 France was involved in two bitter and bloody colonial wars. Some French leftists, like the courageous journalist Claude Bourdet (whom Judt hated almost as much as he hated Sartre) decided that fighting French imperialism should be their main priority, and considered this more important than denouncing Stalinism. Such a position belonged to an honourable tradition, summed up in Liebknecht’s famous phrase: “The main enemy is at home”.

Judt was unwilling to admit that this might be an arguable case. Judt dismisses concern for the fate of the colonised as “hyperopia” (an eye condition leading to inability to focus of near objects: at least I’ve learned a new word from reading Judt). He claims that this “may occasionally have been beneficial for Algerians, for Chilean refugees, or for Guinean peasants. But in France itself it served only to accentuate
still further an unconcern with daily local politics and to widen the distance between marxist discourse and the real needs and concerns of workers”. [MFL 237]

On the few occasions when he refers to the Algerian war, Judt seems singularly ill-informed. Until 1962 Algeria was constitutionally an integral part of French territory, so this was not some remote “Third World” struggle but a civil war, whose violence often erupted onto the streets of Paris and other mainland cities. A great many French people had a conscript soldier (or an Algerian settler) in the family: Algeria was very much part of “daily local politics”. And like George Bush, Judt seems to have thought that torture was nothing to make a fuss about – unless, of course, it was being done by Russians.

In fact, Judt showed precious little interest in the French working class. He became apoplectic with rage at the “obscenity” of Emmanuel Mounier comparing the living conditions of French workers to those in a Russian labour camp. Perhaps it was an unwise comparison. But Judt’s conclusion seems to be that French workers had no reason to be concerned at low wages, poor working conditions, etc. They should have been congratulating themselves on not being in the gulag. As for the argument of some French intellectuals that, since the French Communist Party had the electoral and trade-union support of millions of workers, it could not be simply bypassed or denounced, that seems to have been far too subtle for Judt to even discuss it.

Finally, while in these difficult times we have to take our funding where we can get it, I wonder whether taking generous grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Nuffield Foundation in order to vilify the French left is quite the conduct of a “socialist historian”.

Judt might have claimed that his sympathies were with reformist, not marxist, socialism. In 1986 he observed in Mitterrand’s France “worrying signs” of trends towards the right and political disengagement. This he saw as “the major medium term achievement of thirty years of marxist conversation in Paris”. [MFL 238] To blame disaffection with Mitterrand on Marxist intellectuals, rather than on the President’s austerity programme and his flirtation with the far right for electoral advantage, shows a distinct lack of any political understanding.

Very briefly, I would note that Judt’s defects seem to reappear when he is dealing with other periods. Thus he cites “the dictatorial and repressive instincts of the Jacobins and Babouvists”. [MFL 107] In fact there was a vigorous debate within Babouvist ranks about democracy and dictatorship. But that would have meant looking at the question in a bit more detail; Judt’s inability to spell Buonarroti [MFL 108] suggests a lack of interest in the documentation. Why let it stand in the way of a good sound-bite?

And it was not only the French left that Judt hated. Thus he tells us that Edward Thompson is “priggish” and a “Little Englander”, and that Kolakowski’s insipid polemic in the 1974 Socialist Register means that “No one who reads it will ever take E.P. Thompson seriously again”. [R 136] (Curiously, he is rather more friendly towards Eric Hobsbawm, apparently because he never involved himself in Party activity. [R 120])

There is more to be said about Judt, and it will have to be said by others more competent than I am. But if I had to choose a single description to sum him up, it would not be “socialist historian”; it would be “charlatan”.

MFL: Marxism and the French Left, Oxford, 1986
PI: Past Imperfect, Berkeley/LA 1992
R: Reappraisals, Penguin, 2008.

Ian Birchall

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. And even though it was a throwaway remark, as an Anglo-Saxonist I must comment on King Alfred's cakes. Virtually everyone now agrees this is one of those marvellous anecdotes ancient and medieval writers (Asser, in this case) invented to make complex historical characters and events relatable and understandable (like Cincinnatus at his plough and Constantine's in hoc signo vinces).