Tony Judt – difficult to forget

The 26 April 2012 issue of the London Review of Books contains a fascinating one-page piece on Tony Judt by Eric Hobsbawm. Amid the many remembrances, criticisms, and encomiums, Hobsbawm finds something different to say about Judt. Likening Judt to a crusading attorney or a bruising intellectual barrister, Hobsbawm’s characterization situates Judt’s intellectual journey. It also tells of also something about Hobsbawm and his understanding of the possible roles an intellectual might take. Further, the memorial also illustrates Hobsbawm’s high self regard, his generosity, and his idealism.

An historian with broad interests, tremendous intellect and a Marxist perspective, Hobsbawm is considered one of the most important historians of our times. He writes brilliantly; his analysis scope carves paths and sets historical understandings that the rest of the field – and many outside of the field – wrestle with for years. Hobsbawm’s writing on  nations and nationalism, for example, has been extraordinarily influential. Yet amid the vast corpus of his writing, it is but one theme tucked among many.

Hobsbawm emphasizes his commonalities with Judt: their interests, their Jewishness, their passions. “Tony was easy to like,” Hobsbawm states, and that Judt’s roman grandeur facing death is deserving of boundless admiration. Hobsbawm also notes Judt’s criticism of his Marxism and his support for the Communist Party, an attack he found “implacable.” Hobsbawm does not believe that Judt is another Orwell; their times and targets are too different. He also does not find the early Judt, who focused on France, to be an especially influential historian. “His default position was forensic: not the judge’s but the barrister’s,” Hobsbawm writes. He believes that when Judt moved to the United States and widened his interests and concerns, he grew into something more than this historical barrister. Citing Postwar as his major and most influential work, Hobsbawm believes that Judt began to write “what he really knew, felt and thought.” 

It is an accurate portrayal of Judt, who was fearless in following facts and analysis where ever they would take him. I have no doubt Judt really knew, felt and thought Postwar. But I do not believe that Judt ever wrote, felt or thought anything that he did not believe. That was one of his greatest strength, his consistent and rigorous intellectual courage. He did not seek broad truths; he was no abstract philosopher and he was not deeply interested in philosophy as a means of understanding history – at least he was not in the late 1980s when we talked about it. Instead, Judt was interested in what he could discern and piece together from evidence, rigorously looked at through the most critical of lenses.

This, then, is the critical difference between Hobsbawm and Judt. Hobsbawn regularly reaches for the the broader. His thinking is Marxist; it is the lens with which he refracts and makes sense of the world. For Judt, knowledge was grasped and tested through empiricism. Theories were less interesting to Judt than arguments. I am thankful that this aspect of Judt’s work – his aggressive pursuit of what is and what was – was consistent throughout his life. His is a harder path, but one that rests on a rock solid foundation.



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