Slow death of a pseudo religion

The Passing of an Illusion

June 4, 1999

Le Passé d'une Illusion was the last major work which François Furet published before his sudden death in 1997. It is a spiritedly political offering from an ambitious, learned and immensely effective historian, who crowned his career by entering the Academie Francaise after an influential period straddling the Atlantic on the Committee for Social Thought in Chicago and the Fondation Saint-Simon in Paris.

The historiography of the French Revolution has been at the centre of the politics of French intellectual life since at least the days of Mme de Sta l and François Guizot. Its great modern exemplars, from Alphonse Aulard, Jean Jaures and Albert Mathiez to Georges Lefebvre, placed their mark on the political mind of France and trained generations of France's political class to see both their state and their nation as global pioneers of political enlightenment. Furet's ambition was in a sense to be the last of this great line: not to praise the revolution, but at long last to bury it and return it safely to the history within which it had so long refused to be imprisoned. This was less a task of historical clarification than of political rebuttal. It was conducted in the classic manner, by crushing mastery of sources, the training and deployment of a mass of able pupils, by fluent, endless and imposing exposition of the current state of historical knowledge. But it was won in the end, rapidly and with astonishing completeness, by the intellectual equivalent of the skills of the political street fighter, by fierce and often brutal polemic, by a sustained display of political animosity and contempt. It was a very French victory on an ancient French battlefield.

Furet was not a patient thinker, and was at his least patient in face of phenomena of which he strongly disapproved. But he was a wonderfully energetic and clever analyst of political vice and folly on any scale you choose to pick, and a buoyant and engaging intellectual companion for those who shared enough of his tastes not to find themselves too often in the firing line. The subtitle of Le Passé d'une Illusion is Essai sur l'Idée Communiste au XXe Siècle ; and both title and subtitle illuminate the book's style and objectives. Well over 500 pages is long for an essay. But the specified genre accurately conveys the freshness, informality and pace at which Furet was aiming. It also underlines the centrality of his preoccupation with the vicissitudes of communism as a political idea. The title itself, Le Passé d'une Illusion , is less than happily translated as The Passing of an Illusion , since most of the book is taken up not with the sudden collapse in political credibility or impact of communism as an idea, but with its bemusingly insistent forward and outward movement throughout most of the 20th century.

For Furet the most striking feature of these was the gross implausibility of its explicit intellectual presuppositions and the evident odiousness of the political forms and practices that these were held to licence. As a young man, as he points out in his preface, he had lived his own relationship to his subject matter. To recapture the past of this illusion he had only to return to the years of his communist youth from 1949 to 1956, when he had experienced it from within. Should he regret this extended passage of (it now seemed to him) blindness? With little obvious propensity for spiritual regret, his answer is unsurprising but instructive. From 1995 he viewed his condition in these years sternly but without acrimony - sternly because ignorance and presumption are not excused merely by good intentions, but without bitterness because it was the lessons of this experience that furnished him with the materials for the rest of his intellectual and political life: prompting four decades of vigorous inquiry into the sources of revolutionary passion, and vaccinating him effectively against what he now saw as a "pseudo-religious investment in political action".

The Passing of an Illusion is very much the work of the mature Furet: imperious and stunningly confident, grand in conception and expansive in manner, packed with fascinating detail and often incisive judgments. What is less clear is how much it really benefits from the lived experience of the Furet whose more juvenile errors are being protractedly abjured. To write the history of communism as an idea in the 20th century is an exceptionally exacting assignment; and it is a nice point how far it really gains on balance from the advantages of hindsight. A huge weight of horror, folly and mendacity that had either never come to light or been effectively denied even 25 years ago is now an open secret across the world. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the despondent discovery across most of the once-communist world that the worst thing about communism may well prove to be post-communism have certainly made it easier to judge the political merit of the communist adventure fast and confidently. They have shown beyond reasonable doubt that, whatever the practical and imaginative pressures that drove large areas of the world into these experiments over the last century, there was always a vast weight of political reasons against undertaking them. But the relative ease of political judgment with benefit of hindsight is not matched by any equivalent gain in historical comprehension of the reasons and motives that led so many millions to choose to speed this nebulous, treacherous but often exhilarating idea on its way across time and space. If anything, the ease and confidence of retrospective political judgement presses sharply in the opposite direction, setting a premium on disgust and suspicion, and penalising sympathy and imaginative patience. Who genuinely wants to understand why so very many not unmistakably more cowardly, brutal or selfish than themselves should have joined in, sooner or later, in the unspeakable doings of the Third Reich? There will always be a great deal of politics we prefer not to understand too well, because to do so would clash too painfully with how we care to think of ourselves.

Furet himself, following French intellectual fashion of the preceding decade and a half, is at pains to press the comparison between fascist and communist regimes, and between intellectual susceptibility to fascism and communism as political ideologies, and certainly scores some palpable hits while doing so. But he does so, it is fair to say, more to denigrate both than to assist in understanding either from within, and not by methodological oversight but by steady authorial intention. The result is a formidable achievement: a work of great vitality by an immensely accomplished and politically alert historian still very much at the height of his powers on one of the great forces that have shaped the politics of the last century.

The form in which it reaches the anglophone reader has blemishes as well as embellishments. The translation itself, by his widow, Deborah Furet, may not be invariably reliable. (The second sentence on page 40, for example, has mislaid a negative and the text makes no sense as a result.) But unsurprisingly, it is rather successful at conveying the vivacity of the original. The University of Chicago Press has produced the book splendidly and with very natural pride. But, unaccountably, it has chosen not to indicate or explain some important elements of editorial choice. (Why, for example, should pages 84 to 93 of the French original disappear without comment from chapter three? But perhaps a belligerently politically didactic essay scarcely cries out for extremes of bibliographical piety.) For some time to come this will be the natural place to begin to try to take the measure of this bizarre and overwhelmingly important political experience. We can only be grateful for its being made so widely available.

How convincingly does it capture and explain its awesome subject matter? Here the requirements for capture and explanation clash more systematically than Furet acknowledges. To explain the passage of this idea through time and space in the 20th, unlike in earlier centuries, is to trace a process not merely of envisaging, but of constructing, deepening and defending power. In earlier centuries even the element of envisaging power could readily be suppressed, denied or ignored in telling communism's history as an idea. But in the 20th century the very scale of its impact has been a sustained exercise in demonstrating the fatuity of any such denial. The construction, deepening and defence of power always stand in an elusive and disturbing relation to the ideas that are supposed to inform and justify it. (What exactly do you suppose that our aeroplanes are doing in the skies over Kosovo or Serbia or Montenegro; and what exactly do you think makes this on balance appropriate or justifiable?) To explain the passage of the idea of communism across time and space in our century is to explain how that idea could pick out and draw together effective competitors for power, for well over half a century over ever-larger areas of the world. It would be to explain what exactly in the matrix of opportunities and constraints that makes up the political potentiality of every society, for so long and in so many places in this century, gave this idea in particular such a formidable competitive edge, even when the human consequences of the power that it won proved so deeply and rapidly dismaying in setting after setting as time went by. This sort of explanation would need to be realist and strongly objectifying. Even then, it could in principle reach only so far.

What it would miss, and the younger Furet might perhaps have added to it, would have been the view from within: the intrinsic human attractions of the idea itself, the power to elicit belief that has drawn human beings from many different cultures and over thousands of years to it, sometimes in appreciable numbers, even when it had little, if any, prospect of significant impact on the ways in which human life was organised on any scale at all. To write the intellectual history of communism in this sense would be no easier and no harder in the 20th than in any other century. There is merely more of it to write. Furet himself had a limited interest in intellectual history as such, even in a Gibbonian mode, except where he believed it to disclose an important political moral. By 1995 he had long been too hostile to communism as a political idea to have the patience to evoke just what made it seem so compelling to the many very different individuals who for a time found it so, across the history he wished to tell. This is a disillusioned history by a historian with restricted interest in, or insight into, the sources of illusion. It is a bracing beginning. But it also shows what a very long time it will be before we can finish writing the history of this illusion. Many, many illusions later - and some of them still very much yours and mine.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the 20th Century

Author - François Furet
ISBN - 0 226 340 7
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £.95
Pages - 561

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