Friday, December 12, 2014

Tony Judt's Postwar Europe, with another side trip to Brazill

I've resumed reading Tony Judt's magisterial, awesome, sweeping, magnificent Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, wrapping up the book's third section, "Recessional: 1971-1989," and beginning its final part, "After the Fall: 1989-2005."

Here's a favorite bit from that third section, Judt summing up Margaret Thatcher and her successor:
"Riding on Thatcher's coat-tails, Tony Blair shared many of her prejudices, albeit in a less abrasive key. Like her, he intensely disliked the old political vocabulary. In his case this meant avoiding all talk of `class,' an antiquated social category displaces in New Labour's rhetorical boilerplate by `race' or `gender.' Like Mrs. Thatcher, Blair showed very little tolerance for decentralized decision-making or internal dissent. Like her, she preferred to surround himself with private-sector businessmen. And although New Labour remained vaguely committed to `society,' its Blairite leadership group was a viscerally suspicious of `the state' as the most doctrinaire of Thatcherites."
His jabs at "rhetorical boilerplate" ought to give pause to anyone tempted to write Judt off as a leftist) (though I think even conservatives have been cowed into using gender as if it were anything other than a grammatical category).    Elsewhere, Judt's respect for Thatcher's accomplishment shines through, whatever horror he may feel at its effect (A publisher's blurb sums up another of his books, Ill Fares the Land, this way: "As the economic collapse of 2008 made clear, the social contract that defined postwar life in Europe and America--the guarantee of security, stability, and fairness--is no longer guaranteed; in fact, it's no longer part of the common discourse.")

Judt wrote with a zest that lets his sympathies shine through, but without ever letting the historian in him degenerate into partisan polemics. But my favorite passage so far is his Gibbonlike footnote to the above observation about Blair's and Thatcher's shared propensity for surrounding themselves with business people:
"With perhaps this difference: whereas Margaret Thatcher believed in privatizaion as something akin to a moral good, Tony Blair just likes rich people."
Who says history can't be fun? (Read all my Postwar posts at
Here's a bit more from Paul D. Brazill's Guns of Brixton,  discussed in this space earlier this week, about a feel-good euphemism so widespread that even people older than 30 use it without blushing:
"‘You see, they call them issues these days,’ said Bilko, as he fiddled with an unlit cigarette. ‘Not like issues of comics like The Beano or Shoot or Whizzer and Chips or Razzle, though. Naw, these are things like anger management issues, relationship issues, substance abuse issues. What that means is that these issues are stuff that’s wrong with you. Stuff that fucks you up. And fucked-up people are called people with issues. See?’"
Finally, a thumbs-up to Brazill for knowing that that long chair on which you might relax in sunny weather is a chaise longue.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Unknown said...

"Judt wrote with a zest that lets his sympathies shine through, but without ever letting the historian in him degenerate into partisan polemics."

I would argue that a better historian would be more objective by presenting the historical narrative without coloring it with his or her sympathies. The objective facts can be assessed by the reader; they should not be skewed by the historian's sympathies. If skewed, the written history becomes instead a creative nonfiction.

But what the hell do I know? I was a history major only for two semesters. Then I moved on to even less promising majors: theater and English.

December 12, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know; I find Judt's appreciation of Thatcher's accomplishments all the more impressive given that I suspect some of them horrified him. Granted that even such a large book as this offers just a sketch of the 1980s UK, never will you find a condemnation of Thatcher of Thatcherism. Nor will you find any teary expressions of sympathy for the workers. I should shut up and let you read the book and see what you think.

December 12, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I think Thatcher was rather ambivalent re the 'state', depending upon how the term was conceived. At bottom, it's hardly more than a delineated area of land with a polity. Far more crucial to understanding her is her startling statement to an interviewer in 1988 that "You see, there is no such thing as society". Her supporters treated this as a profound understanding, her opponents as nonsense. I certainly didn't think it was profound, but otherwise I kept an open mind as to her meaning, or perhaps a suspicious one, and some years later it was apparent to me that her statement was true, though clearer if reworded thus: "There is no such thing as British society because I've destroyed it." She hadn't quite, but Blair was in the offing and he finished the job.

Society is, at bottom, the biggest community within the parameters of a state. But there can be no community without things shared, a sense of belonging, concern for other members, etc., and it was when privatization went that step too far that society was doomed. We have only to wait a little longer, and the health service and education system, both already half-privatized, will be completely so. Natural resources are already controlled by private interests by more than half. Prisons are increasingly privatized, and so goes on a long, long list. I write elliptically, for this is a huge subject, but at bottom all this presages an absence of common concerns, common values, common interests in even a moor or a river, and without such as these Thatcher was right -- there is no such thing as society. There is alientation, though, and increasing anomie. It must be stressed there is no society because she set about its destruction and Blair had enough time in office to bring the process close to completion.

Tony Judt never wrote as nor pretended to be a conventional academic historian, and he wrote many frankly 'opinion' pieces. What I found weak and disappointing in this work stems from its scope, which is simply too great to allow much meaningful analysis and makes it unbalanced in random ways. One may assess certain actions in Thatcher's first few years as, perhaps, necessary, but the measure of her is the condition of Britain when she left, and that vital assessment is missing.

December 13, 2014  
Blogger Paul D Brazill said...

I actually remember once being offered the chance of going on an 'issues awareness' course. i had issues with that.

December 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I did find interesting Judt's reference to Thatcher's and Blair's common antipathy toward decentralized decision-making. Centralization of decision-making sounds pretty characteristic of states, or at least the ones that were about to fall apart to the East just as Thatcher came to power.

I have recently come across a slew of references to the new Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The horsemen vary, but privatization is always one of them.

I also remember a critique from about 25 years back, around the time that running government like a business was a mantra. No, protested the commentator, it's not, and here's why: A corporation arguably has a duty, to its officers, to its shareholders, to shed unprofitable divisions. A government, on the other hand, cannot simply shed unprofitable citizens, or at least did think of doing so until the 1980s.

I have yet to read the final section of Postwar, but I think Judt offers at least an assessment of Thatcher, if not one of the Britain she left behind. He says somewhere that privatization was the entire conception of her policy, and elsewhere that, lacking both a coherent policy and Thatcher's personality, her successors as Conservative leader foundered.

I don't know to what extent this would apply in the UK, but I read a criticism here recently (perhaps one that cited Judt that maintained that privatization amounted simply to corporations that take over formerly public industries enjoying profits without assuming risk (because their industries are too big to be allowed to fail)--a perversion of capitalism, that is.


December 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should say, too, that weaknesses such as the ones you cite may be inevitable in a work of this scope. I'd like to have read more about some of the tantalizing differences between the way Communism fell in various former Eastern European countries. That is one reason the suggestions for further reading might be more valuable for Postwar than for other books.

December 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, if "issues awareness" means what "current events" used to, then it is a non-euphemistic, if pompous use of issues. In any case, I often change issues to problems in my newspaper work, so I appreciated the relevant passage in GOB.

The current usage of "issues" is just so weirdly a feel-good word--"issues" is so much less judgmental than "problems." I was interested to note that the usage has apparently spread to the UK (and Poand?)

December 13, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


The trap of course is believing that there any neutral perspectives free of prejudice. Every perspective comes with baggage and every interpretive stance comes with a whole bunch of prejudices that the author might or might not be aware of. The good historian however at least tries to be disinterested and that I think is what Judt does very well.

And he's a hell of a writer. The reason people still read Gibbon or Thucydides isnt because they are up to date to with the facts...

December 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or, as Philip said in a comment otherwise critical of Postwar. Judt never pretended to be a conventional academic historian. And, again, it's not as if Judt expends political invective on on Thatcher or Blair.

Needless to say, Adrian's comments do not imply, straw man fashion, that all points of view are equal. I;d hate to think of, say, Macaulay or Herodotus without a viewpoint--without a starting set of assumptions about what was important, what was the tendency and motivating force history, why it was important to write this stuff down. Perhaps the shrill name calling that passes for political discussion these days has scared people off from the very idea that a historian has point of view.

December 13, 2014  

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