The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century
by François Furet
translated by Deborah Furet
Chicago. 600 pp. $35.00
Before his death in 1997 at the age of seventy, François Furet was director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, a recently-elected member of the “40 immortals” of the French Academy, and one of France’s leading historians of the revolution of 1789—not precisely a field lacking in competition. Born in 1927, Furet, like many French intellectuals of his generation, had passed through the Communist party before moving on to more liberal political sentiments; unlike many of them, however, he explicitly thought through the historical circumstances that had led to his own attraction to the Marxist faith. The result is this remarkable book.
A stimulating and challenging work, The Passing of an Illusion is nonetheless difficult to summarize. On one level it is a history of the Communist idea as that idea made its way from the French to the Russian revolutions, and from there into the heart of European culture and thought, before finally spreading to the most ragged edges of Western civilization and to those unfortunate areas that used to be called the third world. On another, it is a political history of 20th-century Europe, with obligatory stops at the major stations: the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Hitler-Stalin pact, World War II, and the cold war. On still another, it is a portrait gallery of individuals and causes around which Communism, and anti-Communism, swirled and surged: the French writer André Gide’s visit to the Soviet Union; the Moscow trials; the Cambridge spies in Great Britain; and so on.
Finally, it is a study of how Soviet Communism made effective use of fascism, or, rather, anti-fascism to mask its own true nature, and also to command the support and sympathy of men and women of good will in other countries. So useful was this sentiment, indeed, that even after fascist states as such had long since ceased to exist, the specter of fascism—now shamelessly said to be located in the United States—continued to be of use as late as the 1970’s.
But the originality of this book resides not so much in the subject matter, where after all it has many precursors, as in its rich analytical texture. That, combined with Furet’s gift for droll understatement, has yielded a long series of finely-filigreed sketches of events and personalities, casting them in an entirely new light. A man widely read in several languages, Furet clearly knew his way around 20th-century Europe, even unto the dark alleys that figure on no existing map.
If The Passing of an Illusion is the history of an idea, what is the content of that idea? It is, in Furet’s telling, hatred of the bourgeoisie and of the power of money—a sentiment that he traces to the French revolution but that, in one form or another, has enjoyed an extraordinarily long life ever after. Indeed, as Furet is careful to point out, the same sentiment was amply shared in Europe on the counterrevolutionary Right. Thus, for him, the French Revolution is the locus classicus of both Communism and fascism. Over time, the anti-bourgeois sentiment became the strongest single emotion in European politics, uniting “the prejudices of the aristocrats, the jealousy of the poor, the contempt of the intellectuals.” It was left to the 20th century to disarticulate these feelings into two families of totalitarian expression.
Furet is trenchant on the aftermath of World War I, that period of doubt and disillusionment in which so many political and intellectual developments occurred that proved fateful for the course of the century. One of these was the repudiation by war-weary Europeans of the idea of nationalism, preparing the way for a new notion of “internationalism.” Another was the revival of the revolutionary impulse through the triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia, which affirmed “the role of volition in history and man’s invention of himself.” Indeed, perhaps the strongest single tool in Lenin’s armory was his claim to represent history. So powerful was this claim that, for the first time, citizens of highly advanced societies like Germany and France looked to a profoundly backward and primitive country to point the way to the future.
At first, Furet writes, Moscow tried to export its version of “history” through local Communist putsches (Berlin, Hungary, Bavaria) or military conquest (Poland). Failing that, the Comintern turned to political methods: infiltration, espionage, and above all the manipulation of intellectual elites, particularly in England and France. There, in time, just as Lenin predicted, Communism came to enjoy a vast influence.
Furet writes about this influence with particular authority. How, he asks himself, echoing George Orwell, could intelligent people believe things that any ordinary person could easily see were false? His answer: a combination of vanity and necessity. Referring, for example, to the Moscow trials, he writes: “taking the mass of [forced] confessions for granted had less to do with rational conviction, based on a verification of their content, than with a more or less conscious wish to avoid casting doubt on the Soviet Revolution.” For, if Trotsky and the others were not guilty of the terrible crimes of which they stood accused by Stalin, then the Left would “no longer [hold] a monopoly on the morally correct.”
Soviet victory in World War II increased the “historicity” of the Communist regime in spades. “The war,” Furet writes, “allowed the socialist homeland alone to retain the greatest role of the democratic repertory: criticism of democracy in the name of democracy.” In Central and Eastern Europe, the expansion of the Soviet empire established “the truth of Communism”; in Western Europe, the same events “reinforced the Communist illusion.” The apparent universality of the Communist movement—now ratified by drastic changes in the political map of Europe—“caused a crack in European consciousness that has yet to finish manifesting its effects.”
In Furet’s estimation, actual Communist influence reached something of an apogee in Western Europe in 1955. The next year saw the Hungarian uprising and Khrushchev’s “secret speech” about the crimes of Stalin to the 20th congress of the Communist party. Characteristically, it was the latter, and not the brutal suppression of Hungarian workers, students, and intellectuals, that caused the first great fissure in Western belief. Tito and Mao followed, each with his own form of “revisionism,” and worse was to come with the affairs of Pasternak, Sakharov, and Solzhenitsyn.
Still, however shaken in their faith, many in the West continued to believe, if no longer in the inevitability of Communist triumph then in the basic truth of the Communist idea. Indeed, as late as the 1980’s, long after most people in the Communist world itself had ceased to place the slightest credence in the Marxist vision, that vision continued to cast its spell on intellectuals in Italy, Spain, and France—and, Furet might have added, in academic circles in Britain and the United States. The final act was the most bizarre: Mikhail Gorbachev, “despised in Russia, was adored by the West right up to the end.”
It is a troubling fact, writes Furet summarily, that “the Soviet Union left the scene of history before exhausting the patience of its foreign partisans. It left many orphans throughout the world.”
In many ways, The Passing of an Illusion reminds one of Hannah Arendt’s classic study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Both are dense, heavily-argued works built not only upon scholarship but upon a wealth of personal experience in European politics. Both need to be read at least twice—once for the footnotes. And both provide fresh interpretations of historical events that have already received more than their share of attention. In Furet’s case, this last virtue is particularly apparent in his treatment of the Spanish Civil War, where he provides perhaps the best single analysis yet written of Soviet intentions on the Iberian peninsula.
After this virtuoso performance, however, Furet does leave his readers somewhat stranded in the final pages. As a card-carrying French intellectual, even he, it seems, cannot quite part with the belief that an idea, some idea, must come forward to replace the discredited Communist illusion. And he makes it quite clear that neither democratic capitalism nor, more generally, Anglo-American pragmatism can hope to pass muster in the contest for men’s minds and hearts.
All the greater pity, then, that Furet did not live to comment on the emergence of the latest French version of Marxist-inspired Utopia: the 35-hour work week and retirement at age fifty-five for those lucky enough to find and keep their jobs, with mass unemployment as a permanent way of life for everyone else. This, the sum and substance of the economic program put forward by the current socialist government in Paris, is very thin gruel to nourish a country long used to richer ideological fare. But given the human cost exacted around the globe by less adulterated forms of the Communist idea—many of them stamped “Made in France”—perhaps we had best give thanks for small favors.