Historian at the End of His Tether

The Era of Tyrannies

by Elie Halévy, translated by R.K. Webb
Anchor Books, 324 pp., $1.45

The reputation of Elie Halévy rests firmly on his history of the English people in the nineteenth century, a work with which, in scope and concept, only Franz Schnabel’s history of Germany in the same period (still, unaccountably, untranslated) can compare. But there was another Halévy as well, which this volume of essays and lectures, put together after his death, admirably illustrates; and although the translator, Professor R.K. Webb, is right in saying that, for readers already acquainted with Halévy’s other work, these papers reflect the “remarkable unity” of his “intellectual concern,” it is also true that they carry him, significantly, out of the ranks of the great narrative historians and range him among the notable speculative sociologists of his day. Here, one immediately recognizes, is a man whose processes of thought entitle him to the same respectful attention as his better known German contemporary, Max Weber.

Halévy’s life-long concern with English history in the first half of the nineteenth century was not accidental or incidental. It expressed, as he was well aware, his own inherent bent of mind, an essential liberalism and an instinctive horror of the encroaching state which reflected both his temperament and his family tradition. “I was a liberal in the sense that I was an anticlerical, a democrat and a republican,” he wrote, recalling his youth, in 1936; and he commented on the strange accident that, if he had been five years younger and a student after 1895, instead of after 1889, he would almost certainly have been a socialist, “free to develop in a direction it is impossible for me to imagine.”

If Halévy’s work centered around Bentham, the English Utilitarians, and the social and political structure of Benthamite England, it was, in the last analysis, because it was here that he found a confirmation of the individualist tendencies imprinted in his own temperament. It was also because he believed—until doubt overtook him in the last decade of his life—that England in those years had found an equilibrium which, though it could not solve, might provide a means of avoiding what he regarded as the central problem of his age: the “internal contradiction” within socialism between the liberal and the authoritarian. Halévy’s own intellectual history is the story of an evolution from an early belief in the efficacy of the “English miracle” to a final, resigned and regretful acceptance of a new “era of tyrannies.” As Professor Webb says, there was no sudden disillusion:

The classically calm propositions of “The Era of Tyrannies” are the utterances of the Greek chorus, recognizing what it foresaw but could not prevent.

For Halévy, though no socialist, was well aware that socialism in its broadest sense, as a complete philosophy of history opposed to the liberal conception of society, was a creed destined to mould the future. Socialism, he wrote as early as 1888, is “a great, powerful, and formidable doctrine which we in France cannot appreciate”; and it is characteristic of the seriousness with which…

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