• Email
  • Print

François Furet (1927–1997)

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.1

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 de Tocqueville, Furet appreciated that the men of that era, especially the theorists and spokesmen of the first revolution, from 1789 to 1791—Antoine Barnave, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Jean-Joseph Mounier—were engaged in something dramatically new. Because they needed to justify and make legitimate not only the overthrow of an established authority but also their own claim to replace it, they were obliged to imagine and exploit a new version of the French past, the French state, and the French people, infusing each of these with characteristics appropriate to the ambitions of the new political class that had taken power in France. In short, they had to invent modern politics.

In Furet’s hands, then, the French Revolution became once again what it had been in the writings of Mignet, Thiers, Guizot, and the other great liberal historians of the early nineteenth century: a struggle between competing and often incompatible philosophical assertions and political arguments. In this struggle, the French failure by 1792 to secure and agree on a new form of institutional legitimacy gave birth not only to the unstable and self-consuming radicalism of the Jacobin years, but also to the cycle of dictatorship, counterrevolution, authoritarianism, restoration, revolution, and reaction that would characterize French history in the nineteenth century and divide the nation for almost two centuries.

Furet, like Marx, Tocqueville, and the other students of the French past whom he so much admired, stood in some awe of the French revolutionaries, whom they all saw as the founding fathers of modern politics; he refused to believe, however, that they or their followers were merely engaged in the local version of a conflict of classes, or interests, or sexes, whose broader story and meaning was somehow inscribed in History. As he noted in one of his last published essays:

The grandeur of their adventure, and the secret of its lasting reverberations, comes from their struggle—on the stage of history itself—with the classical philosophical question of their century: how to institute and secure the social contract.2

That is a remark that would have seemed obvious to François Guizot and other liberal historians of the Revolution whose reputation Furet did so much to rescue from unjustified neglect; it is a telling commentary on the historiography of a later age that Furet’s assertion, and his concerns, seemed so subversive.

In France, the appearance of Furet’s work coincided with the decline of Marxism as a dominant tendency in French intellectual and scholarly circles, and helped to complete that process. Moreover, by dismantling long-accepted clichés about the social-revolutionary origins of modern France, Furet helped his contemporaries learn to think about politics itself, and the ways in which France is governed now and might be governed in years to come. It was not inscribed in the genetic code of French history, he argued, that the nation must be indefinitely divided between an ideologically myopic left and an intransigently aggrieved right. This division no longer described anything real about France: the French Revolution was over. Furet’s recasting of our understanding of the French Revolution was itself a significant factor in helping to displace the hitherto omnipresent revolutionary heritage in French political debates. As a result, it is once again possible in France to discuss politics, political philosophy, and the place of the state in society without constant recourse to the old categories: the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, class conflict, the “historical process,” revolution versus reform, and so forth.

It should not be inferred from these remarks that François Furet was some kind of political reactionary, exacting revenge upon France’s revolutionary inheritance and its scholarly avatars. Unlike the politics of many former Communists, his became and remained resolutely liberal in the classical sense. Like the men of 1791, he thought that a limited state, well-secured rights to property and liberty, and agreement among citizens on the proper nature and place of the institutions of government were not just desirable ends but the best that could prudently be hoped for. And unlike many Frenchmen of later generations, he understood the damage that had been done to his country and its public affairs by the absence of such agreements and such institutions. For Furet, the “revolutionary catechism” was sustained by the dream of an ultimate revolution, a revolution that had been left unfinished by the unhappy events of 1794, the Terror and the Thermidorian reaction. This conception, he thought, was not just a scholarly mistake but a civic handicap, and one he strove to help overcome.

Whatever now happens in our understanding of the French past, or in the French present itself, François Furet’s achievement is incontrovertible. Nothing will ever be as it was before he came along. If he had just stopped there, Furet would already have made a huge contribution to the study of the European past and to the political culture of his own country.3 But he did not stop there. For eight years, from 1977 to 1985, Furet was the president of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Under his presidency the school was intellectually renewed, with many imaginative younger scholars and writers taking their place at the center of French academic and cultural life. Furet also played the leading part in establishing the Institut Raymond Aron. This institute, dedicated to the memory of the country’s greatest contemporary social theorist, a man who was much neglected by his French peers during his lifetime, has become the focal point for the rebirth of French liberal thought today.

In recent years Furet’s interests had moved further still into the present, and in 1995 he published Le Passé d’une illusion, a book-length essay on the twentieth century in the form of a history of the myth of communism.4 This polemical tour de force took France by storm. As an account of the Communist mirage in our century Furet’s book was not particularly original: he himself acknowledged that Boris Souvarine, Hannah Arendt, and a school of brilliant German refugee scholars such as Franz Borkenau and Franz Neumann before him had said many of the same things. But Furet’s genius lay in combining a scholarly survey of contested pasts with a polemical, reasoned argument directed toward the present. Leninism, he argued, transferred to our century the fable of revolutionary renewal and transcendence that the myth of the Great Revolution had bequeathed to France. It was a pathological distortion of Western universalist aspirations; and the voluntary intellectual servitude of its admirers in the West wrought deep and lasting harm to their own societies no less than to those further east where it flourished for so long.

Furet was an effective and economical stylist, and part of the appeal of his book lay in its skillful demolition of the shibboleths of progressive thought in our time. Of postwar intellectual enthusiasm for Tito’s Yugoslavia (given a free ride in most histories of communism), Furet noted: “Here was the exotic land indispensable for imaginative indulgence—after the Russia of the October revolution, now it was the turn of the unfortunate Balkans to be rebaptized as the avant-garde of European society.” Of early cold war propaganda that tried to mobilize anti-fascist sentiment against De Gaulle, Adenauer, and successive US presidents by hinting at their “proto-fascist” leanings, Furet remarked ruefully that “never has a dishonored regime been accorded so many posthumous incarnations in the imagination of its conquerors.”

The book was a great success. A best-seller in France and widely read throughout Europe, it is seen by many commentators as having driven the final nail into the coffin of Leninism (in a political culture where the corpse was still warm) by eviscerating a utopian illusion intimately dependent upon the more broadly disseminated idea of revolution in the West of the past two centuries. Furet’s reiterated insistence upon the relationship between the myth of the French Revolution and the credit misguidedly accorded its Russian successor offended some of his critics, who thought he had exaggerated his case. But he hadn’t. It was the impeccably French and unimpeachably republican Ligue des Droits de l’Homme that in 1936 established a commission to investigate the great Moscow trials of that year. The conclusion to its report perfectly illustrates Furet’s argument in Le Passé d’une illusion as well as the broader case he had argued for two decades: “It would be a denial [my italics] of the French Revolution…to refuse [the Russian] people the right to strike down the fomenters of civil war, or conspirators in liaison with foreigners.”

François Furet’s sad death comes shortly after his election to the Académie Française, establishing him as one of the “immortal” glories of his country. Many of the Academy’s members, past and present, have contributed rather less to the country’s glory than it has suited that august institution to acknowledge, and Furet was the first to be amused at the irony of his elevation.5 But to the extent that it recognized the distinction of his achievement and its lasting impact upon his country, it was an honor richly deserved. All the same nothing about François Furet bespoke the conventional image of the pompous, vainglorious academician. He remained, at the age of seventy, what he had been throughout his career: an accessible, engaged, and utterly driven scholar, as much at home in a grad-uate seminar at the University of Chicago as he was explaining his views to a mass public on French national television.

Furet had little tolerance for mediocrity or pretension and he abhorred time-wasting; the difficulties of his early life had made him “melancholic,” as his colleague Mona Ozouf described him in her funeral eulogy, and he had a world-weary sense of the passing of time and the evil that might lie ahead. If he took thought for the future, it was in order to work harder today. He had an awesome capacity for work and was a remarkably quick study, as his books attest. But he found time to be a courageous and outspoken advocate, and gave unstinting support to students, colleagues, and causes, from Algerian independence to civil liberties, even when (as on the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution) this made him enemies among scholars and others nostalgic for the simplistic past of which he had deprived them.6

François Furet left behind no theory of revolution, no textbook of historical method, no school of French historiography.7 His interests were too disparate for that. In any case, he was himself an enthusiastic member of an older school of social and historical investigation, that of Alexis de Tocqueville. Some have thought that Furet privately aspired to do for our time what Tocqueville did for his, and the two men certainly shared the intuition that past history and present politics were intimately connected and could only be understood, explained (and exorcised) in relation to one another. But as André Maurois once remarked of Raymond Aron’s half-acknowledged ambition to be the Montesquieu of his time, he might have come a lot closer to his goal had he taken a little more distance from the course of events. Furet, like Aron and to his credit, was incapable of remaining detached from contemporary politics, and the unity of his oeuvre perhaps suffered accordingly. But as he once wrote in these pages about Tocqueville, his “achievement…does not lie in any single doctrine but in the acute and sometimes ambivalent ways he confronted the questions of equality, democracy, and tyranny that arose in his time and that continue unresolved in our own.”8

  1. 1

    Penser la Révolution française (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), translated as Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1981); Marx et la Révolution française (Paris: Flammarion, 1986), translated as Marx and the French Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1988); La Gauche et la révolution française au milieu du XIXe siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1986); Dictionnaire Critique de la Révolution Française (Paris: Flammarion, 1988), edited with Mona Ozouf and translated as A Critical History of the French Revolution (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1989); La Révolution: de Turgot à Jules Ferry, 1770-1880 (Paris: Hachette, 1988), translated as Revolutionary France 1770-1880 (Blackwell, 1992).

  2. 2

    L’idée française de la révolution,” published posthumously in Le Débat, 96 (September-October 1996), pp. 13-33.

  3. 3

    Furet’s impact on the American scholarly community, in contrast, was rather muted. Indeed, he was and is resented by many specialists on the French Revolution. In part this is for the same reason that he was initially suspect among some in France: his rejection of the marxisant version of the French past, with its emphasis on social forces and processes, deprived conventional practitioners of the “old” social history of their primary interpretive crutch. But in recent years many partisans of the “new” cultural history have also held against him his attention to political argument and to ideas—and they were aggrieved by his caustic dismissal of their efforts to “deconstruct” the Revolution into a series of “representations.” Sometimes it is indeed in his own country that a prophet is honored.

  4. 4

    Le Passé d’une illusion: Essai sur l’idée communiste au XXe siècle (Paris: Robert Laffont; Calmann-Lévy, 1995).

  5. 5

    His election to the Académie was energetically opposed by its surviving Vichyite members, as well as by Gaullists and others who still remembered Furet’s engagement on the side of Algerian independence in the late Fifties.

  6. 6

    It was on the occasion of the 1989 bicentennial that certain US historians of early modern France, peeved at his extraordinary influence on France’s collective understanding of its past, distinguished themselves by ad hominem attacks on Furet.

  7. 7

    Having once been described by a French newspaper as an American member of the “school of Furet,” I suppose I should declare an interest. But however flattering, the description is misleading; the school does not exist.

  8. 8

    The Passions of Tocqueville,” The New York Review, June 27, 1985.

  • Email
  • Print