François Furet, who died on July 12 this year at the age of seventy, was one of the most influential men in contemporary France. This may seem a strange observation to make of someone who spent much of his life teaching in universities and whose writings consisted for the most part of a series of scholarly studies of the French Revolution. It is a tribute to Furet, and an illustration of the enduring place of the intellectual in modern French culture, that his influence was so very great.
But François Furet was no ordinary intellectual, and no ordinary historian. In his younger days, like so many other French historians and writers of his generation, he was a member of the French Communist Party. He left the Party in 1956, resigning in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary; as he would later acknowledge, “It was the most intelligent thing I have ever done.” Furet’s experience in the French Communist Party shaped his personal and scholarly concerns for the rest of his life. After graduating from the Sorbonne, Furet devoted his academic work to the study of the Revolution of 1789, publishing in 1965 The French Revolution, a widely reviewed two-volume general study of the era, written with the late Denis Richet. In this book, Furet approached the history of revolutionary France from the then-fashionable perspective of the Annales school, emphasizing continuities with the French past, especially long-term social and economic processes.
This new study of the revolutionary era was already a radical departure from the accepted contemporary interpretation. In the tradition of Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel, the Annales approach, addressing long-lasting underlyingstructures and paying scant attention to political upheavals, was having a marked impact on the historiography of medieval and early modern France. Interpretation of the events of 1789-1799, however, was heavily influenced by the Marxists who dominated the study of the national revolutionary past after World War II. But in the following two decades, Furet was to go on to publish a series of utterly original essays, quite unlike anything he or others had written before, that have transformed our understanding of France’s revolutionary past. In a remarkable series of books, beginning with Penser la Révolution française (1978) and culminating in La Révolution 1770-1880 (1988) Furet destroyed what he himself called the “revolutionary catechism”: the Marxist and neo-Marxist account of France’s revolution as the model and forerunner of bourgeois revolutions everywhere, based on an interpretation of the years 1789-1794 as the classic instance of class conflict.
Furet’s signal contribution to the interpretation of the French Revolution was this: he removed from the center of our historical concerns the old insistence upon social categories and conflicts, and replaced it with an emphasis upon the political and intellectual debates and outcomes of France’s revolutionary past, reminding his readers that the Revolution was above all a radical shift in the balance of philosophical and political power, not of economic class interests. Like Alexis …