Jeffrey Herf teaches Modern European and German history at the University of Maryland. His recent books include The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust and Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. He is currently working on a history of Nazi Germany's propaganda campaigns in the Middle East during World War II. Jeffrey was one of the principal authors of 'American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto'. In this post he writes about François Furet's The Passing of an Illusion.
Jeffrey Herf on The Passing of an Illusion by François Furet
Were it not for his tragically premature death in 1997, François Furet would have been a major intellectual, scholarly and, for many of us also, personal presence in the past decade. Since the 1960s, he had been a leading voice in defence of liberal values and institutions. When he died at a very young seventy he was France's and the world's most eminent historian of the French Revolution, and a deeply engaged and serious intellectual, who played a key role in the revival of intellectual and political liberalism in the Tocquevillian tradition in France in recent decades. For those of us with the good fortune to know him, he was also a warm and fiercely loyal friend, with a wonderful capacity to enjoy life without flinching from a historian's responsibility to look at the grim era in the past.
Furet published Le passé d'une illusion, essai sur l'idée communiste au XXe siècle (The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century) in Paris in 1995. It was a major event then and has been translated into many languages. There is a good case to be made that it is now the finest and most important synthetic work on the connection between ideas and politics in European, including Soviet, Communism in the past century. It stands in a tradition with Albert Camus' The Rebel and Raymond Aron's, The Opium of the Intellectuals, two previous works by French liberals who cast a sceptical eye on the Jacobin tradition and its Communist successors. While Camus interrogated the key texts of modern political violence, and Aron challenged the Communists at the level of social theory, Furet offers a historian's preoccupation with the intersection of ideas, events and circumstances. The pleasure and edification of reading Furet is both to learn about the subject and to observe what the writing of history is at its very best.
Camus, and before him Leon Trotsky, had drawn attention to the impact of the French Revolution and the Jacobin tradition on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Furet does so as well but he reverses the causal arrows. For when the Bolsheviks practised political terror, formed a vanguard party, smashed liberal democratic institutions, denounced 'enemies of the people', all in the name of a revolution that would remake the world, they struck a chord in France and among European intellectuals influenced by the romance of the French Revolution. Enthusiasm for the revolutions in Paris in 1789 and St Petersburg and Moscow in 1917 became a mutually reinforcing process. Those who celebrated 1789 - and justified the Terror - also celebrated 1917 and offered apologetics for the Bolshevik regime's need to break eggs to cook the proverbial historical omelette of a world remade. In Furet's account, the long and prestigious shadow cast by the French Revolution over the political and intellectual elites in France and in Europe was one key factor in accounting for the support it received in those quarters.
Historians dwell in the realm of what the Marxist Karl Korsch called 'historical specificity'. That is, we think that an explanation of an event, say the emergence of Communism in 20th century Europe, requires an analysis of why it happened when and where it did. It is here that Furet’s superb historian's craft is evident. The role of World War I in the emergence of the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik coup d'etat of October 1917, and then of the failed Communist revolts in Central and Eastern Europe after the war, are familiar chapters in the history of the period. The Passing of an Illusion draws together those histories and reminds us how very much Lenin and Leninism were a product of the very contingent event of the Great War. Had it not taken place or had it lasted six months instead of into 1917, the chances are that Lenin and perhaps Communism as well would have remained a footnote in modern history. Yet, Lenin's political genius was to present the contingent event of the war as instead a result of the 'contradictions of imperialism', which was doomed to drag civilization back to barbarism and the slaughter of Verdun, the Somme and the terrible death toll on the Eastern Front. When anger over the death toll of the Great War was added to the anti-bourgeois impulse of Europe's intellectuals, the Communists could make what seemed to many an irrefutable argument: capitalism means war. If you want peace, make revolution. Yes, revolution calls for terror but is this not preferable to the slaughter of civilization? Some of the most brilliant minds of that era, such as George Lukacs, found the argument compelling.
In his discussion of the rise of Nazism, Stalinism and World War II, Furet pushes on to make an important and less familiar argument about war and Communism in 20th century Europe. The work offers a synthesis of the large scholarship on Communist debates about fascism and the emergence of anti-fascism. Anti-fascism extended well beyond the Communists. Unlike Stalin between 1939 and 1941, Churchill and de Gaulle, after all, never stopped fighting the Nazis. Yet Furet is right to remind us again of how important the contingent event of World War II was for legitimating the Communist cause. Some of the most provocative and interesting chapters of the book include his examination of the interaction of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. While Hitler's racist war on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union rallied Europe's anti-communists, so the accomplishments and sacrifices of the Red Army rallied Europe's left and liberals to the cause of the Soviet Union during the war. In these chapters, Furet is influenced by the Soviet journalist and author, Vasilii Grossman. Grossman was one of the finest of the Soviet Union's war correspondents. He wrote the first account of the death camp at Treblinka after the Soviet troops arrived there. His epic of the war, Life and Fate, explored the theme of two totalitarian regimes at war with one another, the hopes for freedom that the war raised in Russia and then the dashing of those hopes in the postwar years. Grossman's manuscript was seized by the KGB and he did not live to see it published. Yet it was published in French in the 1980s, where along with Solzhenitsyn's work on the Gulag it became part of the literature of Soviet dissidents that led to a reassessment of the Soviet Union as well as of the French Revolution. Furet was a key figure in both of those efforts.
Just as the Bolshevik coup of 1917 was made possible by the contingent catastrophes of World War I, so the survival of the Soviet regime during, and then for a six decades after, World War II was also enormously facilitated by its most deadly enemy, Nazi Germany. Furet's analysis of this dialectic between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin is important and original. Facing an enemy that Western democrats from Churchill and Roosevelt to the political left all viewed as the greater evil, Communism emerged from the war with unprecedented prestige. May 8, 1945 in Europe was what I have elsewhere called the ultimate Hegelian moment of 20th century European Communism, the moment at which Marxism-Leninism's scientific pretensions about the laws of history appeared to believers to be confirmed by the course of events. Here again, Furet is a master in what he called the workshop of history as he integrates the events of World War II, the circumstances of the war and its end, with the ideas with which the Communists interpreted and influenced events.
The Passing of an Illusion is a bold book written by a courageous and great historian. Furet did what all serious scholars who are also intellectuals aspire to do. He brought his moral and intellectual passions to bear on a key historical issue while at the same time writing a work of enduring scholarly importance. This is a book that has found, and I think will continue to find, its place as one of the most important works written about Communism in Europe's 20th century.