Wednesday, February 20, 2008


While I quarrel with some of Tony Judt's historical interpretations and find him too eager to see in the contemporary world a 'post-ideological age' (contra Judt, I see one ideology--corporatism--achieving hegemony), I still found Postwar a wonderfully informative, engaging, educational book. In short (please!), it taught me some things: the consummate cynicism of Mitterrand, the dual-culture tension inside Belgium between now-prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders and now-poorer francophone Wallonia, the left-wing officers' coup that overthrew the fascist Portuguese dictatorship in the 1970's, the ease with which former Communist strongmen repositioned themselves after 1989 as nationalist leaders (Milosevic was the best-known example, but the trend was international), and much more. I even experienced a permissible amount of Judt's proscibed nostalgia as I read about the fall of the Eastern European dictatorships in 1989, a moment that seems ever more magical as it recedes in time and that great moment of optimism is drowned in the rhetoric of the demogogues, Western toadies and corporate tools who quickly rushed in to fill the Soviet void. What happened to the spirit of 89? It was shot by a sniper in the Sarajevo market.

One major problem with the book (which Judt only addresses in passing) is his frequent--one might almost say 'kneejerk'--conflation of the Western left (a heterogeneous enough group) with Stalinism or Soviet-style Communism. With some hardline exceptions (so powerless that they only hurt themselves), Western, non-Soviet leftism was an altogether different, more libertarian thing, tending toward anarchism. As these tendencies would have been anathema to any Soviet leader (and given that the hardline PCF turned its back on the Left Bank during Mai 68), greater distinctions must be drawn between Western democratic and Soviet totalitarian leftism. Philosophically, it may be the difference between humanistic Marxism and its authoritarian Leninist perversion. (Marxism is a philosophy of revolution from below misinterpreted by Lenin as a justification for terror from above.) In any event, Judt's frequent hamfisted lumping of the 'Western left' into a single group plays along with a very contemporary right-wing tune: the attempt by rightist ideologues around the world to tar the entire 20th-century left with the black brush of Stalinism. This is a cynical distortion of the history of Western political idealism, and it cannot stand. (Because most people know nothing of the nuances of history, however, this particular 'big lie' appears to be headed for the collective mental trashheap labelled 'received ideas', the mental dunghill of cultural decline...Okay, I'll go easy on the metaphors.)

Despite these reservations (or because of them, for history lives by informed argument), I enthusiastically recommend Postwar--especially to American readers, most of whose acquaintance with European history ends where this book begins.

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