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What Comes After the Age of Ideology?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in the TLS, looks back on the life and work of Tony Judt. He was the historian par excellence of ideology’s failure and the not altogether admirable world that has emerged from the collapse of grand narratives of all kinds:

Zionism might not quite have been Judt’s god that failed, but it was plainly his “end of ideology”, a phrase Raymond Aron was perhaps the first to use. The age covered by Postwar saw “the withering away of the ‘master narratives’ of European history”, not only the narrative of Christendom but also the narratives of national greatness and of dialectical materialism. By the later decades of the century, organized religion was in precipitous decline, but then any apparent life still flickering in the creeds of the revolutionary Left was illusory.

…. By the end of the century, “A 180-year cycle of ideological politics in Europe was drawing to a close”. In that respect, the book on the politics of ideas Judt never lived to write would have been something of an archaeological treatise. What we have in Thinking the Twentieth Century can be seen as notes for that treatise, although it is best enjoyed as a commonplace book, sparkling with memorable and valuable insights. Jewish themes still resonate. “Odd as it may sound today, democracy was a catastrophe for the Jews, who thrived in liberal autocracies”, Judt says, and he looks at the conflict between the idealistic though maybe deluded Central European proponents who saw Zionism “as the story of progress in which everyone can find a place, and where progress itself assures space and autonomy for all”, and on the other side clear-headed Russian radicals like Vladimir Jabotinsky, who said that what the Jews were seeking in Palestine was not progress but a state. When you build a state you make a revolution. And in a revolution there can only ever be winners and losers. This time around we Jews are going to be the winners.

What makes the Zionist project in particular difficult to sustain in the 21st century is that the nation-state itself is coming to look less “national” and more “imperial” in the lands of its origin, the West—that is, the dream of attaining political unity for a self-consciously distinct people is giving way to a greater sense that politics is irreducibly sectarian, regional, multicultural, and fragmented. This is not a new development, exactly: such divisions have always been present. But whereas once they seemed like mere shadows of a solid nation, now they are coming to feel like the reality of which the nation, as it was understood in the 20th century, was only the shade.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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