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Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 Paperback – May 1, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Swept up in the vortex of communism, French postwar intellectuals developed a blind spot to Stalinist tyranny. Albert Camus, who had been an authentic moral voice of the Resistance, pretended not to know about the crimes and terrors of the Soviet Union. Jean-Paul Sartre perverted logic to make an apologia for the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Simone de Beauvoir called for social change to be brought about in a single convulsion, or else not at all. Foolish French thinkers, suffering "self-imposed moral anesthesia," defended the credibility of the show trials in Stalinized Eastern Europe. In a devastating study, Judt, a professor of European studies at New York University, argues that the belief system of postwar intellectuals, propped up by faith in communism, reflected fatal weaknesses in French culture such as the fragility of the liberal tradition and the penchant for grand theory. He also strips away the postwar myth that the small, fighting French Resistance was assisted by the mass of the nation.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Judt argues that while most intellectuals were not Communists, they did act as apologists for a system that terrorized the very masses it purported to liberate. Judt's thesis is based on the indifference of French intellectuals toward the atrocities committed primarily by Stalin's Soviet Union under the guise of communism. Anti-Semitism, colonialism, capitalism, existentialism, and fascism are analyzed in their relation to communism and placed into historical context. The infighting and power struggles among the intellectuals (i.e, established writers, artists, philosophers) are also discussed at length. The concluding chapter, exploring the role of the intellectual in modern society, includes some harsh words about the influence of French intellectualism on American academics. Biased but convincing; strongly recommended for academic libraries.
- Janice Braun, Oakland, Cal.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 348 pages
  • Publisher: NYU Press (May 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0814743560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814743560
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,091,940 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tony Judt was born in London in 1948. He was educated at King's College, Cambridge and the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, and has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley and New York University, where he is currently the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies and Director of the Remarque Institute, which is dedicated to the study of Europe and which he founded in 1995. The author or editor of twelve books, he is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The New York Times and many other journals in Europe and the US. Professor Judt is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a Permanent Fellow of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Vienna). He is the author of "Reappraisals: Reflections On The Forgotten Twentieth Century"" and Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945," which was one of the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2005, the winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 54 people found the following review helpful By S. Matthews on July 23, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a decent book, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I had expected: Tony Judt's writing is usually crisper and more analytic. Alas, in this case he may have set out to write a book, but what he delivered has more than a whiff of sermon: too many sonorous phrases and not enough clinical analysis. Interestingly, I had exactly the same problem with Furet's 'The Passing of an Illusion', though I thought at the time that that was just a case of Academicianitis. Something about this subject seems to provoke reasonable people to clamber onto a pulpit to deliver an argument that should really be a slam dunk.

Sartre didn't just look like a wall-eyed toad, he was a wall-eyed toad all the way through, but Judt can't quite bring himself to say so. In fact he shows quite a bit of residual indulgence in the way, e.g., he describes Sartre's writing in the sixties as 'silly' when the proper word is 'disgusting'. (Deep in his heart, Judt seems to think his subjects should, in spite of everything, be granted more respect than the current generation and, in particular, more respect than Bernard-Henri Levy, but I don't see why - at least BHL has never endorsed the murder of people he doesn't like). Judt doesn't really in the end manage to explain to me why the little cacomorph and his friends were so indulged for so long.

The best bit is the discussion of the French relationship to liberalism (or why there isn't one), which is unqualifiedly good, together with the remarks on the sociology of postwar Parisian intellectual culture - not surprising, since this is the stuff Judt really knows. On the other hand, the one page summaries, analyses, and dismissals of philosophical positions are slightly embarassing.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By B. Boeke on April 26, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Credit goes to Judt for persuasively arguing his point of view on French intellectuals - Sartre above all - and their softness on communism and the Soviet Union in the post-World War II context. It is at once an interesting and clearly written
book, and yet quite irritating in its tone, which tends towards the supercilious. Judt rarely has any doubts about his judgments about people or events, and a bit more modesty would do him greater credit as an historian. It would be all the more engaging if
he allowed the possibility that there are other viewpoints which have merit. That type of concession is found in his much finer volume on Aron, Camus and Blum, but not here. His polemical style and tone are not endearing, but this book is
still worth the read, and his viewpoint needs to be heard and considered, even if it is very one-sided. Judt is not the person to consult for a balanced, unbiased understanding of Sartre's politics, and he is, as usual, too much the apologist for Camus,
whose position on the Algerian war for independence never receives the critical analysis from Judt that is required. But Judt is just the person to consult as a corrective for those unaware of some of the absurdities which, indeed, were part of Sartre's
political engagements in the turbulence of the postwar world. Ironically, Judt somewhat resembles Sartre in his inability to listen to the opposite viewpoint! Still, no one in English has argued better than Judt this critique of French intellectuals'
seduction by the ideology of communism following the war. Strongly recommended, but with major reservations.
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33 of 45 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 5, 1999
Format: Paperback
After reading Tony Judt's relentless ripping apart of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other post-war French intellectual fellow-travelers, one might be forgiven for wondering whether the author actually likes France. I am sure he does; it is just the unbelievable pig-headedness and irresponsibility of some of France's most acclaimed "thinkers" in the 1940s and 1950s that he cannot stand. The question that nags at the reader as he progresses through this book is: Just why did anyone take Sartre and co. seriously? Tony Judt not only has the answer, he issues a very pertinent warning about the current French fashion for deriding the intellectual perversions of the immediate post-war era. Putting it bluntly, a certain type of bone-headed universalism and a penchant for meaningless abstract riddles that seem peculiar to French intellectuals have by no means disappeared.
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