Thursday, December 07, 2006

Tony Judt, EP Thompson & Leszek Kolakowski.

Ken MacLeod had an interesting post on the debate between EP Thompson and Leszek Kolakowski in the Socialist Register, as interpreted by Tony Judt, a while ago. He has followed it up with a link to an excellent, well-researched discussion by Reading The Maps.

To summarise, EP Thompson's open letter to Kolakowski, in which he demurred from the latter's increasing hostility to marxism and also various tendencies on the New Left, is discussed in the most unflattering and insulting terms by Judt, while Kolakowski's reply - by all means a superior instance of Stalinist polemicism - is discussed in glowing, adulatory terms. Reading The Maps has read the material, researched the documentary background, and finds Judt's characteristically banal interpretation of marxism wanting.

I raise it because Judt, as right-wing as he is (and he has always been on the right-wing 'anti-totalitarian' wing of liberalism), exemplifies a small but encouraging trend. Specifically, the New York Review of Books and various writers associated with it moved to the left, and from 2002 onwards took a hard political line on Bush, the war on terror and on Israel. Judt has written some of the most damning criticisms of imperialism, Bush and Zionism. The latter is particularly significant since support for Zionism has so often been a mediation to the right, and toward capitulation to imperialism. That route was shut off, and Judt has been pushed to the left precisely on this point, thus earning him the attention of the Anti-Defamation League among others.

Still, it pays to remember that Judt has always been on the wrong side of this argument. He has specialised in writing about Europe, and the French left in particular (about half of his published output so far), and - as Michael Scott Christofferson aptly puts it - reduces the entire story to an absence: an insufficiently robust tradition of liberalism, hence the susceptibility of intellectuals to the messianic promise of marxism. Adhering to the inane heuristic of 'totalitarianism', he can detect no important fissures within the marxist tradition, at least none that would induce him to abandon his cretinous, essentialising notion of marxism.