Further to Ian Birchall's reflections on the late Tony Judt, the latest issue of New Left Review carries an article by Dylan Riley entitled 'Tony Judt: A Cooler Look', which reinforces the basic thrust of Birchall's argument. Riley's article concludes as follows:
How do the accolades for Judt as a ‘great historian’, ‘fearless critic’ and ‘brilliant political commentator’ stand up against a cool examination of his work? As historiography, even his earliest, most substantial scholarly works on France—Reconstruction of the Socialist Party and Socialism in Provence—were weakened by the aggressive tendentiousness of his approach. Marxism and the French Left and Past Imperfect were avowedly selective and polemical. Judt lacked the most basic requirement for any student of intellectual history: the ability to grasp and reconstruct an idea with philological precision. His lack of interest in ideas is borne out in extenso throughout his copious writings on intellectuals: there were never any serious attempts to reconstruct a thinker’s position, so as to probe and question it. Even summaries of figures to whom he was well-disposed were slapdash; writers to whom he was hostile were regularly excoriated for views they did not hold. Judged as an intellectual historian, the verdict on Judt must be negative. His magnum opus, Postwar, is regularly listed for undergraduate European History courses. But its 900 pages produced little new by way of evidence or interpretation—a weakness underlined by the absence of even the most minimal scholarly apparatus, beyond a ‘general bibliography’ available from NYU.
Judt himself confessed in his final interview that at school he had been considered ‘better at literature than history’; also bragging, ‘I was—and knew I was—among the best speakers and writers of my age cohort. I don’t mean I was the best historian’. In effect, it was his talent, limited but real, as a polemicist and a pamphleteer that disqualified Judt as a historian of ideas, much as he liked to claim the loftier calling. His range as a polemicist was relatively narrow: there is a limit to what can be got from attacking the French left or lauding fellow defenders of the Free World. His negative judgements on political leaders—Thatcher, Bush, Clinton, Blair—carried little analytical heft; his belated criticism of Israel’s West Bank settlements never explained at what point the Zionist project had gone wrong. Nevertheless, judged as a polemicist, the verdict can be more favourable, exonerating Judt of the heedless inconsistencies, both conceptual and analytic, that marred his work as historian of Europe and latter-day champion of neo-social democracy. A pamphleteer may be allowed—even expected—to change his views more or less at the drop of a hat. If the eu is now a moral beacon to the world, now a sad example of failed leadership; or the welfare state now the legacy of organized labour, now the common sense of capitalist politicians—so what? All grist to the mill. A historian will be held to different standards.