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Rethinking Tony Judt's account of the 20th century
on 18 March 2013
An idea put forward in this book is that even when historians are dealing with material with which readers are unfamiliar, the latter can detect a level of plausibility, or its absence, sufficient to form a judgement of the work. One consistent thread running through these essays on 20th-century history is the author's hostility to socialism in any but its milk-and-water social-democratic guise. However, his case against the Marxist socialist tradition is seldom argued with anything approaching clarity; a curious omission which inevitably reflects on the plausibility and persuasiveness of his account.
This is the more remarkable because for much of his professional career Tony Judt was engaged with the history of socialist movements and practice, notably in France and in eastern Europe. What Rudolf Bahro famously defined as the "actually existing socialism" of the eastern bloc is summarily dismissed by Judt, with no attempt made (as one might reasonably expect) to place its shortcomings within an explanatory historical framework.
No one, therefore, who does not know it already will learn the following from this book: that the Bolsheviks launched the 1917 revolution in the expectation that their war-torn and backward country would receive much needed economic aid from subsequent successful revolutionary movements in highly-developed western European countries such as Germany. In the event the Bolshevik revolution found itself so isolated as to be forced to the desperate expedient of attempting to construct "socialism in one country", in the teeth of the unremitting hostility of the world's capitalist powers. Nor are readers reminded by Judt of the wars of intervention: invasions of Russia by troops from fourteen nations in an attempt to overthrow the 1917 revolution - attempts which further weakened an already war-ravaged country. It's almost as if in Postwar, Judt's history of Europe from 1945 onwards, he had condemned the political consequences of the austerity policies imposed on their populations after 1945 by western European governments without mentioning the unparalleled destruction of human and material resources by the Second World War as the source of those policies.
What Judt does do is to accuse Lenin (p.64) of a "hubristic willingness to accelerate history". This is odd and unconvincing at various levels. Firstly, since Judt rejects a Marxist approach to history, from his point of view there is no historical process to be either accelerated or held back. Secondly, the rebuke of hubris could be levelled, especially with the benefit of hindsight, against any political leader one cares to name who embarks on a wide-ranging political initiative which, for that very reason, must entail that its outcomes are largely unpredictable. Thirdly, Judt's term of censure hardly seems appropriate to Lenin as the founder of a state which in the event, despite everything, endured for over 70 years.
While Judt's not uncritical alignment with social democracy is clear throughout the book, as was stated earlier the grounds for his rejection of Marxism (leaving aside his strong reaction against his father's Trotskyism, and the career advantages for a professor of history at a string of US universities of adopting an anti-Marxist stance) are nowhere fully set out. In effect, Judt appears to assume throughout that the case for a non-capitalist society has been so comprehensively and irretrievably destroyed by the excesses of Stalinism and by the collapse of the Soviet Union that there is no necessity to put forward any arguments against it except in the most allusive and fragmentary form. For example, he recalls (p.101) undergraduate debates at Cambridge over whether the immediate terrible sufferings of workers caught up in the early Industrial Revolution in Britain were comparable to the sufferings of Russian workers whose labour was exploited after the Bolshevik revolution to produce the surplus necessary to build an advanced industrial economy capable (as the Second World War proved to be necessary) of defeating renewed attack. For Tony Judt the decisive distinction is that the Industrial Revolution was unplanned, whereas the industrialisation of the Soviet Union was consciously planned by the Communist Party, and illegitimately entailed imposing sacrifices on ordinary people for the sake of future gains.
It is by no means self-evident either that the former proposition is true (no evidence is adduced by Judt) or that, as the Industrial Revolution in Britain, whether planned in some measure by an informal cabal of capitalists or otherwise, was indisputably driven by the collective self-interest of the propertied class in enriching and empowering itself it deserves, as Judt seems to suppose, to occupy higher moral ground than the Soviet industrialisation process, which was aimed both at strengthening the state against further foreign military attack (which of course materialised in the Nazi invasion of 1941), and at establishing the economic base for constructing a socialist order of society.
It does not appear to suit Tony Judt's ideological stance to point out here that Russian workers' and peasants' sufferings were in fact traceable partly to the urgent need to repair the devastation caused by the First World War (famously described by Lenin with withering accuracy as a war of imperialist banditry), partly to the further devastation visited on the country by the armies of intervention, and partly to the West's refusal to give material assistance to the Soviets, leaving them with no alternative to making heroic but in human terms appallingly costly attempts to pull themselves up by their bootstraps from being trapped as an impoverished society with an industrially backward economy, vulnerable to clearly-identifiable waiting predators. It is also very arguable (but of course is not argued by Judt) that the blame for both the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union and the repressive aspects of the post-war regimes in eastern Europe rests at least partly with the West, for its paranoia-inducing relentless hostility to and repeated attempts to undermine the inherently humane project of constructing a civilisation not founded on capitalist social relationships.
For a historian like Judt, failure to set out clear grounds for his own hostility to socialism is a remarkable omission, though it would in any case have been premature to offer any final judgement on the long-term viability of socialism as a political project. Whereas capitalism dates at least from the early 17th century, which entails that it is some four hundred years old, the history of societies organised on a socialist basis is far shorter - less than a single century, taking the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 as the base-line. Also they have so far been few in number, especially if we regard the postwar eastern European "people's democracies" as essentially local versions of the Stalinist model. Consequently it is far too early, as Chou En-Lai famously observed of the French Revolution, to judge Marxist socialism or pronounce it a failure, as Judt essentially does by claiming (p.68) that few of its predicted outcomes have transpired.
Nor is it a knock-down argument to urge, as Judt does on p.155, that Marxism appeared implausible once the "blue-collar proletariat [had] diminished in numbers throughout advanced societies" and "ceas[ed] to function as an engine of history". Not only has this engine of history, if that is what it turns out to be, survived in the form of the exploited working class of the countries of the Far East, notably China, to which capitalist industrial production has been largely transferred, but the validity of the Marxist critique of capitalism (and of its destructive and self-destructive tendencies, which have become very apparent to a very wide swathe of the world's population since the current economic crisis struck) is not dependent on the emergence of any particular constellation of forces as capitalism's decisive antagonist.
If anything, Judt would have been on safer ground in declaring social democracy to be a failure, given that there have to date been rather more examples of social-democratic than of Marxist socialist governments to provide a basis for drawing provisional conclusions. To his credit, he does urge notably modest claims on behalf of social democracy (p. 82), conceding that "its ethics [unspecified] are most of what remains of social-democracy". He might usefully have added to this account that social-democratic governments, well exemplified by the record in power of the British Labour Party, pursue a political project (if that is not too strong a formulation) which protects itself from accusations of failure by the transparent ruse of refusing to declare any precise long-term aims at all beyond an ill-defined and all-too-readily suspended project of general social improvement, but without committing itself to any core, inalienable principles which could distinguish it from yet more avowedly pro-capitalist parties. No serious attempt is made by social-democratic administrations to prevent the capitalist class (the latter being, incidentally, a word and an analytical category which Judt in general studiously avoids) from accumulating immense amounts of wealth and the class power this conveys, because the highly contestable assumption of social democrats is that only the private capitalists are competent efficiently to direct investment and run the economy. Social democracy's own self-assigned role importantly includes preserving so-called free market capitalism (the official mythology being that, unlike Marxist socialism, the system offers freedom in like measure to both capitalists and workers) from its own excesses and contradictions by dint of using taxation to redistribute sufficient of the wealth which the capitalists appropriate from labour to avoid such outbreaks of discontent as might otherwise threaten the system as a whole.
The political form which social democrats and conservatives alike favour is representative democracy on the parliamentary model, which notoriously provides a mere simulacrum of popular empowerment. Lenin's famous observation that every five years the working class is permitted to choose by which members of the ruling class it is to be oppressed is worth recalling here. Under a parliamentary system in what Ralph Miliband characterised as a capitalist democracy, corporate interests and agendas dominate most of the media, the overwhelming majority of the population are prevented from exercising any meaningful control over the decisive centres of economic, political and ideological power, or the essential terms on which they are to lead their lives, and the reins of government are held by alternating but barely distinguishable political elites which in practice do the bidding of the capitalist class, often under the guise of being attentive to supposedly ineluctable and sedulously mystified "market forces". Moreover, so far from opposing acts of military aggression by the world's leading imperialist power, the USA, social-democratic leaders typically assist its bid for global military and economic dominance, and the idea of making common cause instead with the global victims of US imperialism, or even of opposing it, is almost literally unthinkable.
From the standpoint of social democracy, the real enemy to be ideologically vanquished, or at least marginalized, traduced and demonised, is not international finance capital, not the class of the exploiters of others' labour, not US imperialism, but the inheritors of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary tradition, the members of the authentic anti-capitalist Left. Those, in other words, who point out, among other embarrassments for social democracy, that its role is not just to collude with the capitalist system but to function as its vital guarantor by ensuring above all other imperatives that power is kept out of the hands of its opponents, if necessary by embracing unambiguously reactionary political forces and policies. Negatively, social democracy recoils from admitting the obvious truth that capitalism can have no interest in general human flourishing, that it embodies forces which produce brutal wars of aggression, and that by its very nature it could not tolerate a meaningfully democratic system, as it would not survive the removal of decisive economic power from the wealthy elite that social democrats sustain in order to preserve their own ignominious role in the political economy of what is inherently a ruthlessly predatory, exploitative, epically wasteful and ecologically unsustainable system.
Much of what has been set out above is, however, the kind of thinking on the history of the twentieth century which Tony Judt seems at pains to avoid, and even to avoid taking clear issue with, at whatever cost to his own criterion of plausibility.