Wednesday, 1 September 1999


Paul Anderson, review of The Passing of an Illusion by Francois Furet (University of Chicago Press, £24.50), New Times, September 1999

In the 25 years before his death in 1997, the historian Francois Furet was one of the most influential intellectuals in France. His reinterpretation of the French revolution, based on a critique of the Marxist explanations put forward by the previous generation of French historians, played an extraordinary role in changing French perceptions of the past.

There was always a strong contemporary political thrust to his work. Most of the historians against whom he developed his reading of the French revolution were members of (or close to) the French Communist Party (PCF), to which Furet himself had belonged between 1949 and 1956. They celebrated the events of 1789-93 as an historically inevitable bourgeois revolution, excusing the Jacobins' use of terror on the grounds that the revolution was threatened from without – in line with the PCF's revolutionary ideology, its Marxist philosophy of history and its defence of the Soviet Union. Furet's arguments that the revolution was not 'bourgeois' and that terror was an integral part of the Jacobin ideology of revolution were direct assaults on the PCF's core beliefs.

So it was hardly surprising that, in his 60s, Furet turned directly to what Eric Hobsbawm describes as the 'short 20th century' – the period between the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 and the collapse of the communist regime in the Soviet Union in 1991. The Passing of an Illusion, published in France in 1995 but only now translated into English (by his wife Deborah), is the monumental result.

Furet explains in his preface that this is not a history of the Soviet Union or even of communism but 'a history of the illusion of communism during the time in which the USSR lent it consistency and vitality'. The 'illusion' was the notion, widely accepted in western Europe, that communism, as instituted in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, was a higher stage of civilisation than capitalism and one that was historically bound to prevail. 'It was a different type of illusion from one based on a calculation of means and ends or issuing simply from belief in a just cause,' he writes. 'For people lost in history, an illusion of this kind not only gives life meaning but offers them the comforts of certainty. Unlike an error of judgment, which, with the aid of experience, can be discovered, appraised and corrected, the communist illusion involved a psychological investment, somewhat like a religious faith even though its object was historical.'

This is a perfectly legitimate intellectual project. How the Soviet Union came to be seen as the salvation of humanity by a significant section of the western left – in some countries, by nearly everyone who was of the left – is one of the great puzzles of our century.

The Bolsheviks' contempt for democratic decision-making and working-class self-organisation was apparent to anyone who cared to take an interest long before Lenin came to power. By 1920, it was clear to astute left observers (including Bertrand Russell and the British Labour delegation with which he visited the country that summer) that Soviet Russia had become an extremely unpleasant police state.

Yet, somehow, by the mid-1930s – despite the regime in Russia becoming ever more brutal after Stalin's accession to power – the myth of the Soviet Union as the pioneer of the fate that history had laid down for the world was one of the core beliefs of much of the left throughout western Europe and north America. The myth retained its potency until well into the 1960s, despite the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Stalinist take-over in eastern Europe after 1945, Stalin's split with Tito, the 1953 Berlin uprising, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 . . .

Furet's attempts to explain all this are fascinating but flawed. His account of the way that many in the west rallied to the Bolshevik revolution as the legitimate heir of 1789 is brilliant. So too is much of his discussion of the symbiotic yet antagonistic relationship between communism and fascism. On the Popular Front in France, the Spanish civil war, the Hitler-Stalin pact and a lot more besides, Furet has extraordinary insight.

Yet there are also all sorts of bizarre omissions. Furet has little to say about the 'illusion of communism' in Italy, Britain or the United States and nothing at all to say about its role in anti-colonialism. In France, he ignores Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most influential postwar propagators of the illusion. There is little on the appeal of Soviet planning and industrialisation in the 1930s.

But the biggest problem is that Furet cannot resist going over the top. Time and again, he exaggerates the similarities of communist and fascist ideologies and regimes. Worst of all, he ruins a convincing argument that communism in the west really prospered only under the banner of anti-fascism by suggesting that anti-fascism 'was little more than a ploy by which communism cynically won itself credit in the eyes of gullible western liberals'. Tell that to the Russian survivors of Stalingrad or the veterans of the Resistance.