Book Review: Tony Judt's The Burden of Responsibility

Late historian Tony Judt’s study of three rogue French thinkers who dared to defy their own

Justin McCauley
Feb 11, 2011

The Opium of the Intellectuals

Tony Judt was first and foremost a historian. And although his encyclopedic tour de force, Postwar, is likely to remain the most prominent text of his legacy, it is important to remember that for decades Judt was, rather obscurely, a historian of French intellectualism.

Every first year history student learns to ask him or herself – what is history?  In modern times, questions of historiography are at the heart of the discipline, creating new and important avenues of historical investigation. The body of Judt’s work lies in the realm of intellectual history – the history of ideas and the men and women who dealt in them.

In The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century, Judt analyzes the thought of three Frenchmen who courageously defended their political convictions in the face of vilification by their peers in the bien-pensant intelligentsia. All three were men of the Left, however they held views on Communism, the Soviet Union and revolutionary violence that were strikingly contrary to that that of their contemporaries.

In many ways, Blum, Aron and Camus were very different men, but what connects them historically was their insurgent defiance to the dogmatic views of a French Left resigned to proffering an apologist defense of Stalinism and Soviet repression. These men, for somewhat different reasons, refused to conform, and were castigated and ostracized for it.

Léon Blum was a product of fin de siècle France. A republican Dreyfusard, jurist (he prepared the defense for Emile Zola’s 1898 trial), literary critic and socialist theoretician, Blum has often been characterized as a sort of Renaissance man. However, it is Blum’s earnest political struggles as the successor of Socialist Party leader Jean Jaurès and as prime minister during the brief but significant Popular Front government that interest Judt. The French Left was profoundly torn after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; despite Blum’s moderating efforts, the Socialist Party split in 1920, with the pro-Bolshevik faction forming the French Communist Party.

As a consequence, Blum became the de facto voice of the non-Communist Left. He was the subject of vicious derision from the Communists and their intellectual fellow travelers – everything from his Jewishness to his lack of Marxist orthodoxy to his apparently feminine demeanor were relentlessly assaulted. But Blum stood strong as an ardent believer in French republican virtue. It was in this that he held a distinctively French socialist position – that the Republic had already secured the political form of socialist society by achieving political and civil justice – all that needed to be done was to apply reason and morality to attain the required social justice.

Blum’s synthesis of republicanism and socialism, his parliamentarism and his rather un-socialist views on capitalism, are for Judt essentially an early realization of what would become post-war social democratic thought. But in an era of radicalism, Blum’s calls for moderation and compromise were intensely unpopular.

The story of Albert Camus is one of an insider scorned and cast out. Long mislabeled an existentialist, Camus’s intellectual terrain was more appropriately that of a moralist. His early expressions of absurdist philosophy in novels like L’Etranger and La Peste earned him a seat at the tables of Café de Flore with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and the other Parisian intellectual mandarins of the day.

However, the publication of L’Homme révolté, an extended essay that articulated his opposition to revolutionary violence, communism and nihilism, resulted in vicious blowback. Although he was not the only thinker proffering a critique of the violent extremism of communism (Raymond Aron was much more damning in his L’Opium des intellectuels) Camus suffered from a comparative lack of philosophical prowess which, to quote Judt, "exposed him to a cruel and painful riposte from Sartre."

Camus’s moral universality and opposition to the historicism, which existentialists employed to disregard the human costs of political choices, left him with few friends. His lack of a Grande école education further alienated him, and his refusal to take a position on the Algerian question undermined his moralist credentials. But this is a telling controversy – Camus, as a Frenchman of Algerian origin, experienced a moral-political conundrum.

Camus’s bravery in not participating illustrates his reluctance as a public intellectual, but also displays the virtue in not commenting on something for which you don’t have clarity of thought. But as Judt reveals, Camus’s percipience, honesty and sense of justice were always more akin to the wandering cosmopolitan intellectuals of the day – Arthur Koestler, Czesław Miłosz, Hannah Arendt and George Orwell – than to his bien-pensant Parisian colleagues. His humanism was so instinctive and sincere it led Arendt to declare in 1952, "Yesterday I saw Camus: he is, undoubtedly, the best man now in France."

But of the three men presented, it is Raymond Aron who most embodies the thesis of Judt’s study – that of the inherent responsibility of public intellectualism. Aron, an academic, journalist, essayist, and public intellectual, was a titan of the French mandarin elite. A classmate of Sartre’s at the École normale supérieure, Aron’s philosophical prowess was such that he could easily match and often best his longtime friend.

Despite their agreement on the epistemological flaws of historical positivism, Aron and Sartre were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide. For Aron, "matters of high theory spoke directly to real, and in his view urgent, political worries." His critique of Marxism was laced with distaste for grand theory and an antagonism to what he called "secular religions." For Aron, what he saw as the French intelligentsia’s disregard for the real implications of their theoretical pronouncements signified the height of irresponsibility.

Aron’s opposition to Marxism is ironic in that he was a thorough reader of Marx – indeed, he was better read in Marx that most French Marxists, which often made for embarrassing debates.  Raymond Aron, in short, simply outclassed most thinkers of his time. Although at times despised, he could never be, unlike Blum or Camus, marginalized or disregarded. In light of posterity, Judt affirmed, "upon the funeral pyre of Sartrean radicalism a new generation of French intellectuals began to erect a monument to Aronian reason."

It is fairly clear that these men were heroes for Judt, but his professionalism as an academic never falters. Much like the absence of polemicism in his highly critical writings on Israel, The Burden of Responsibility is a work of considerable historical analysis and high scholarship, and though his reverence is palpable, Judt never plays the role of sycophant.

For new readers to Judt, who passed away last August, it’s best to start elsewhere; but for seasoned fans and French history enthusiasts, this book is a delight. For those familiar with Judt’s political thought, certain characteristics highlighted here will shed some insight as to the origins of the positions highlighted in his treatise Ill Fares the Land. Judt’s goal was the preservation of ideas, long fearful that the lessons of the last century will be forgotten at our peril. His work has been vital in guaranteeing that we all understand the importance of remembering 20th Century Europe’s intellectuals both revered and reviled, its prodigious men of letters, its – to turn an Arendtian phrase – "men in dark times."


The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century

by Tony Judt

University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1998