Reading History: Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

My first encounter with Tony Judt was brought about by my sister. One year for Christmas, I was given a book that, thrown at a person’s head and striking it with its full weight and the right angle, could probably knock them clean out. I mean of course Judt’s magnificent doorstop history of Europe from the end of the Second World War, PostwarPostwar, like all of Judt’s books, like any historian’s work indeed, is not above reproach. For many, Judt’s apostasy around the new left is particularly troubling, especially in his treatment of the various revolutions on either side of the Iron Curtain in 1968. Nonetheless, Postwar stands as a magnificent history of Europe after the end of the war. It is, in my view, as essential a  book of reference on the second half of the twentieth century as Hobsbawm’sThe Age of Extremes. But that is the not the book I want to use in this next post in my Reading History series as my jumping off point. Instead, I want to look at one of Judt’s last books instead – Ill Fares the Land.

ill fares the land

I began to really fully encounter the writing of Tony Judt just as his body was giving up on him. I was recommended the first book through which he challenges his illness: The Memory Chalet. This was followed up by Ill Fares the Land and Thinking the Twentieth Century, co-written with Timothy Snyder, chiefly famous for his history of post-Second World War eastern europe, Bloodlands. The last book to emerge from Judt – posthumously – was When the Facts Change. All of these later books, the last being a kind of collected essays, exhibited what I think is best about Judt’s writing style – the ability to mix the personal, political and the historical with clean, intelligent – but only rarely simplifying – prose. While The Memory Chalet is surely the most affecting of these four books, and Thinking the Twentieth Century the most intellectually engaging, I think that Ill Fares the Land may be the most useful, and the most important.

It is, in the words of one (of two) ungenerous Daily Telegraph reviewer’s words a cri de couer. The implication being in the review that such a cry from the heart is an irrational one: that the cold hard truths of the market are still a better guide to how to change and shape human life than the ideas which underpin social democracies. Another reviewer of the book at the time of it’s publication was scathing of the ‘trente glorieuses’ which are at the heart of Judt’s lament, the same ‘trente glorieuses’ which allowed Judt and many others born in the wake of the Second World War to achieve a great deal. This reviewer, writing for the Indpendent says that:

were the three post-war decades so glorious? There were wars galore. Europeans in east or Mediterranean nations lived under tyranny. There was more equality between workers and the middle classes but only for a limited number of men. Women, gays, immigrants benefited little from the patriarchal, trade-union, Fabian world that Judt so admires. In fact, in this book every quote is from a dead white English-writing male.

That may well be the case; but, as the world looks at the (limited though frighteningly real) prospect of a Trump presidency, Brexit, a continually resurgent right around Europe and a backlash against refugees in the wake of the war tearing Syria apart and the increased violent attacks in Europe from Brussels, to Paris, Nice and around Germany, for all its faults the kind of social democracy which is vaunted in Ill Fares the Land seems much preferable to the race to the bottom that has characterised the world not alone since 1979 but especially 2008. Judt notes in the book that ‘distant upheavals with disruptive local impact… are the threats chauvinist politicians will be best placed to exploit, precisely because they lead so readily to anger and humiliation.’ This follows a brief discussion of Sarah Palin’s Vice-Presidential bid in 2008, which 8 years on, seems the thin end of the wedge.

Undoubtedly the world from 1945-1975 or so tended to favour the white, hetro male but it is on the back of identity politics for women, LGBTQ people and more besides that first emerged in those decades that have provided the few good news stories of the past 10 years or more in terms of social progress. We are far from perfect, but I’ll take the vision of the world which Judt offers – and in truth this isn’t just nostalgia mongering – than that offered by any of the various demagogues currently flaunting their wares in Europe and America. He knew himself it was no panacaea writing ‘Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past.’

Writing almost aphoristically at times, it is nonetheless difficult to disagree with Judt when he notes for instance that ‘the discounting of the public sector has become the default political language in much of the developed world’. One of the most impassioned sections – and one of the best arguments ever against the excesses of privatisation of a public good – relates to trains. He writes that

If we cannot see the case for expending our collective resources on trains, it will not just be because we have all joined gated communities and no longer need anything but private cars to move around between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who do not know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss transcend the decline or demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life itself.

The merits of the book on the whole outweigh its negatives for me and were a powerful example to me as a PhD student that a historian is allowed also to engage with the present as well as the past.


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