By the time of his death in July 1997, at the age of 70 and just three months after being elected to the French Academy, François Furet had become one of the world’s leading historians of revolution. Much of his writing focused on the French Revolution, which he viewed, at least in its frenzied Jacobin period, as proto-totalitarian, foreshadowing the political fanaticisms of the 20th century. Furet’s careful scholarship, displayed in Interpreting the French Revolution (1981) and other books, countered the then-dominant Marxist reading of 1789 as an economically determined clash between a rising urban bourgeoisie and a decaying, agriculture-based ancien régime, marking the latest stage in an inexorable historical process that would culminate in a radiant classless society. In Furet’s Tocquevillian optic, political life wasn’t simply an automatic manifestation of the dynamics of class conflict, as the Marxists believed: Ideas and emotions mattered, and helped to shape history.
Furet presents the French Revolution as based on utopian hopes of a humanity fully democratized and equal, liberated from the past, and master of its destiny — hopes that no political regime could ever completely fulfill. His revisionist take on the revolution largely won the day in his native country, influencing a generation of historians — and made this former Marxist and lifelong man of the Left his share of left-wing enemies.
Furet, who taught at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and other prestigious institutions, turned his attention to the 20th century in the last major work he published during his life. Released in 1995, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century is Furet’s masterpiece. A sober, nuanced obituary of Communism that seeks to understand its long-lived appeal, despite the murderousness and dysfunctionality of every regime that embodied it, Furet’s “interpretive essay,” ranging freely across intellectual milieus and conversant with seemingly everything ever written on Marxism, set off a Europe-wide controversy and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The English translation, running to 600 pages, appeared in 1999, winning the author another round of critical attention.
For readers daunted by that book’s length and density of detail, the posthumously published Lies, Passions, and Illusions, ably translated by the author’s widow, Deborah Furet, provides a brisk overview of the earlier book’s key themes. Lies originated in a 1997 conversation between Furet and philosopher Paul Ricoeur on the 20th century’s totalitarian projects and what we can learn from them. Sadly, only Furet’s part of the dialogue is included; Ricoeur was working on his half when the historian died, and he didn’t want it to appear without his interlocutor’s approval. But editor Christophe Prochasson has smoothed Furet’s sections so that they read coherently, indeed elegantly. The book is a fitting coda to a remarkable intellectual career.
Communism’s power to seduce, Furet begins, was partly based on the mendacity of Marxist regimes and their followers. “Communism was certainly the object of a systematic lie,” he writes, “as testified to, for example, by the trips organized for naïve tourists and, more generally, by the extreme attention the Soviet regime and the Communist parties paid to propaganda and brainwashing.” Yet these lies were exposed quickly and often, almost from October 1917 on. They wouldn’t have remained so effective for so long without the emotional pull of the grand illusions that they served: that the Bolsheviks were the carriers of history’s true meaning, and that Communism in power would bring about true human emancipation. One can find little evidence that the Communists, right up to Mikhail Gorbachev, were ever purely cynical, even when they were lying; they continued to believe, or at least seemed to believe, in the illusions. Describing Communism as a secular religion isn’t an exaggeration.
Still, once opened to even a little bit of liberty, “real” socialism “collapsed like a house of cards,” Furet observes. Marxist regimes proved ultimately incapable of competing with democratic-capitalist societies in achieving human happiness and unleashing productive might. But the Communist idea could survive, at least as an abstract hope for some kind of post-capitalist world, Furet argues, because it was born from the frustrations “inseparable” from liberal democracy. What were those frustrations? The French Revolution introduced a demand for human equality that free societies, with their room for divergent talents and fates, can never cease undermining. And liberal democracy — the “bourgeois city,” as Furet calls it in The Passing of an Illusion — is, for many, unsatisfying in its refusal to recognize any strong notion of the common good or shared transcendent values, basing itself instead on the sovereign individual and his rights. Division is our destiny, something many modern citizens find “intolerable,” says Furet. We’re “constantly searching for unity among ourselves,” though we can never find it. For millions of misguided people during the last century, Communism answered both of these problems.
Communism also exploited the deep current of anti-bourgeois sentiment that runs through the modern age — a kind of bourgeois self-loathing. This attitude “is as old as the bourgeoisie itself,” notes Furet. It has inspired artists and writers and thinkers for two centuries, and continues to do so today, as one can see in many Hollywood and other cultural productions. During the 20th century, it was as much a right-wing as a left-wing phenomenon, Furet reminds us, finding in fascist movements a second revolutionary critique of liberal democracy, this one aspiring not to human universality but to the thick communities of nation and blood. Anything but grubby commerce.
Unlike many on the left, Furet, following conservative German historian Ernst Nolte in this regard, was willing to explore the commonalities of Communist and fascist regimes — not only their anti-bourgeois ire but also their crushing will-to-power, totalizing desire to obliterate civil society, and centralized organization of political enthusiasm — while also recognizing what separated them. Furet was struck, too, by how the “political chemistry” that had fueled the French Revolution at the beginnings of modern democracy — an unstable mixture of claims for universal rights and an assertive sense of French national destiny — had “reconstituted its two poles” in the 20th century, “this time, like sparks across Europe, with Russia the country of internationalism and Germany the country of nationalism.”
Lies, Passions, and Illusions is filled with similarly arresting observations, though many of them aren’t fully developed, given the work’s brevity. One hopes that readers of this book will seek out Furet’s greater works, if they haven’t already encountered them. Furet’s last reflection, in this text and in his life, was a defense of the humble reality of our liberal democracies. “We must accept living in an amputated, damaged state,” he writes, “living in finitude and division.” The temptation to transcend such a condition — to seek “salvation in history” — has been ruinous time and again, but we’re unlikely to be done with it. Sometimes, we’re not satisfied with decent, even if in politics the alternatives tend to be a lot worse.
– Mr. Anderson is the editor of City Journal and the author of Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents and other books.