Tony Judt died on Friday, August 6. I learned that the next day as I was finishing this review of Ill Fares the Land.

Published last spring, it was in effect his final testament. Almost without exception, reviewers termed it a cri de coeur, a jeremiad, a passionate polemic. Almost without exception, they described the author and the extraordinary circumstances in which the book was written.

An outstanding historian, a political controversialist and maverick left-wing intellectual, the director of the Remarque Institute for European studies at New York University, Tony Judt was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He lived imprisoned in his body “without parole,” as he said—paralyzed from the neck down, breathing with a pump, speaking with an amplifier, and spending frustrating nights in alternating bouts of drowsing and hours of reflection on past, present, and future. His body immobile but his brain whirring, he arranged and stored his thoughts in a personal version (an imagined Swiss chateau) of Matteo Ricci’s “memory palace.” From that storehouse he dictated both this book and the poignant fragments of memoir that have appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Not all the reviewers stopped with this description. Some, unhappy with his book, also banished him to the fantasy land of pointy-headed ideologists. In the New York Times Book Review Josef Joffe raised some reasonable criticisms, but they were hard to register after the opening cliché sneering at “the Europhile liberal left, who would rather sell their Prius than forgo their New York Review of Books.”

Give these critics points for not being intimidated by the man’s illness. Unfortunately, they radically mistook the tenor of Judt’s mind. His studies of French left-wing intellectuals—Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 (1994) and The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century (1998)—were, if anything, severe. He had no patience with utopian or authoritarian fantasies. Postwar, his massive 2005 history of Europe’s political and economic rebound from the devastation of World War II and the stalemate of the Cold War, is a tour de force of nuance and almost too heavy with hard data about budgets, babies, calories, cars, and how many refrigerators Italy manufactured in 1951 (18,500) compared with 1971 (5,247,000).

It matters that the protest sounding through Ill Fares the Land came from a mind so disabused and sensitive to fact as Judt’s. His protest, essentially, was against the gross inequalities of wealth and security that in the past thirty years reversed a long ascent in Europe and North America toward equality and self-respect. “Over the past thirty years we have thrown all this away,” he lamented.

Judt had the nerve to declare that something was gone badly awry when, as in 2005, the top 1 percent of American earners pocketed over 20 percent of national income; when “the CEO of Wal-Mart earns nine hundred times the wages of his average employee” (in 1968 the CEO of General Motors earned about sixty-six times the amount of the average GM employee); and when, indeed, “the wealth of the Wal-Mart founders’ family was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population.”

The cost of this inequality, he argued, included declines in social mobility and increases in physical and mental illness, crime, and mistrust among citizens. “Inequality is corrosive,” Judt wrote. “It rots societies from within.” The loss is psychological and moral as well as material. Judt deplored a growing obsession with riches, pursuit of self-interest, and breakdown of collective responsibility. Thus the book’s title, part of a couplet in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1770 “The Deserted Village”:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Judt, like the French intellectuals he studied, was a moralist, but unlike many of them he was not a revolutionary. Born to a lower-middle-class secular Jewish family in London’s East End, Judt waded in student New Leftism but never in the Castroite, Maoist, or other revolutionary doctrines, never mind old-fashioned Stalinism, that filled the air at Cambridge or the École Normale Supérieure where he studied. His youthful dreams of a transformative Zionist socialism did not survive his three kibbutz summers and service as a volunteer in the Israeli army during the Six-Day War.

Instead, here and in other writings, Judt insisted on the lasting value of what leftist radicals have so often disdained, the stolid social democracy of postwar Europe and the New Deal liberalism from FDR to LBJ in the United States. For Judt, postwar social democracy was the down-to-earth, unglamorous, compromising form of government that made the difference, with its twin commitments to moderate egalitarianism and actively managing the economy, between the tragic chaos of Europe between the two world wars and the recovery and prosperity of the post-1945 West.

Much of Ill Fares the Land constitutes a defense of state action against the relentless stream of attacks on government that Judt traced to the free-market ideology of Friedrich von Hayek and other Austrian thinkers traumatized by the rise of left- and right-wing dictatorships. (Plugged by Glenn Beck, Hayek’s 1944 tract, The Road to Serfdom is enjoying a revival in Tea Party ranks.) “This discounting of the public sector has become the default political language in much of the developed world,” Judt wrote. Yet without active, disciplined government, we cannot confront poverty, preserve the environment, address climate change, assure justice and a measure of security in an economically turbulent world, or protect markets against their own self-destructive excesses. It was delusion, Judt wrote, to imagine that globalization rendered nation-states obsolete. On the contrary, they have become more critical than ever.

As Judt’s New York Review recollections about coming to America showed, he had a deep enthusiasm for this country. For better or worse, however, Ill Fares the Land is the work of a European mind. Judt recognized that social democracy, for example, was a term alien to most American ears. He discussed “the state” where most Americans, taking our federalism and localism for granted, think of “government” or sometimes “Washington.” He stretched the frame of his analysis to embrace in the same historical story Scandinavia, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States; unavoidably, this account underplays national differences—the deep seated hostility to government in American culture, for example, or the political earthquake of the civil rights struggle. (Anyone looking for a more textured analysis, country by country, of faltering support for Europe’s social democracy can find it in Chapter XVII, “The New Realism,” in Postwar.)

But this is not a book of political strategy, although Judt emphasizes the crucial importance of middle-class support to buttress the old left-of-center constituencies of workers, unions, and public employees. Nor is it a recipe for public policy, although he urged intellectuals not to shy away from the nuts-and-bolts details of devising government programs. It is a plea for a renewed public conversation and a transfusion of our political discourse with both imagination and morality.

Many of Judt’s observations about the moral underpinnings of our politics are eloquent and trenchant. “We cannot hope to reconstruct our dilapidated public conversation—no less than our crumbling physical infrastructure—unless we become sufficiently angry at our present condition,” he wrote. Our politics need a new moral narrative that would begin with a refusal to accept the current endemic and grotesque inequality but that would not hold out some dream of utopia, on the one hand, or simply the quest for endless economic growth, on the other.

In Ill Fares the Land, Judt the moralist touched the topic of religion but usually to quickly back away. He was well aware that the postwar consensus in Europe was the creation of Christian Democrats as much as of Social Democrats. He took a swipe at sophisticated dismissals of religion and noted that the appeal of John Paul II to young people, even beyond the bounds of faith, indicated that “humans need a language in which to express their moral instincts.” To argue convincingly about right and wrong “we need a language of ends, not means.” Can we hope for such a language in what Judt, still the European, assumed were “postreligious societies like our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives”? He believed so but without advancing much of a case.

Of course, this slim book can no more be a comprehensive treatise on political morality than a map for political strategy or public policy. It is what it is: a heartfelt call for a new conversation about the scandal of inequality and the essential role of national government. Judt knew that he could only open that conversation. It is up to others to carry it on.


Related: John McGreevy's review of Judt's Postwar.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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