Books: Cultural Amnesia — François Furet |
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François Furet (1927–1997) was one of the most valuable liberal voices in France, where they were in short supply. As a general rule, the liberalism of ex-Communists always needs to be searched with a careful eye for any signs of the original extremism’s having been transferred to a new domicile, but Furet passes that test well. One of the first attempts to treat the effect of Communist ideology on a global basis, his book Le Passé d’une illusion: Essai sur l’idée communiste au vingtième siècle (1995) is a touchstone, and partly because he himself had once been caught up in the illusion. Apart from his powers of realistic observation, one of the forces that shook him loose from his first allegiance was the conclusion he drew from his studies of the French Revolution that its dogmatism was not just incidentally lethal, but necessarily so. New students can get the essence of his two-volume La Révolution française (1965, written with Denis Richet) in the sheaf of articles he wrote subsequently in defence of his view, published posthumously as La Révolution en débat (1999). His views needed defending because almost everyone on the established left attacked them. For gauchiste thinkers, Furet’s position on the Revolution required that he be discredited, but it was hard to do: he wrote too well. The most accessible evidence of his journalistic brilliance is the lifetime collection of articles put together after his death by Mona Ozouf: Un Itinéraire intellectuel (1999). Admirers of Jean-François Revel will find that Furet, as both thinker and writer, was in the same league, with something of the same sardonic tone. But they will usually remember that Revel, before he championed liberation, had no illiberal position to repudiate. Furet had; and whether his personal history gave him the advantage of experience is an abiding question, for him as for other lapsed believers.

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In this clinically pure fascism, reduced to its own cultural elements, the central point is racism, and the idea of race, impossible to think about clearly, is made up from an anti-image, that of the Jew... . Constituted at this level of psychological depth, the fascist ideology is completely impermeable to historical experience.


THE AUTHOR OF the best book in French about the history of Communism was part of the history. François Furet had been a Party member himself. Jean-François Revel has many times warned us about the tendency of belatedly reformed gauchiste intellectuals to high-hat those who never fell for the drug in the first place. Furet, however, was too fine an analyst to flaunt his superior experience. He could, had he wished, have flaunted his superior insight. In recent times France has been blessed by the presence of a gifted plain-language philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, who writes almost full-time on the problem posed by the anti-Semitic heritage of modern France. But part of France’s recent run of good luck—it needed some, in view of what the past was like—is that a philosopher like Finkielkraut has been accompanied, abetted and often preceded by older journalists, commentators and historians who were forced to some of his conclusions by the weight of events. Furet never sat down to argue in a systematic way about nationalism and racism, but he had a knack for turning in the remark that opened the subject up. Talking about the noxious collaborator Lucien Rebatet, who managed to blame the Jews for their own deportation, Furet said that the right-wing ideologue has nationalism in order to legitimize racism. It is always useful to be reminded that if an ideology contains a prejudice, the prejudice is likely to have been there first, like the splinter in the fester, if not the speck of grit in the pearl.

Furet would have attracted far less opprobrium if he had stuck to criticizing the right. But his criticism of the left was too uncomfortable to bear. His most irritating device, from the viewpoint of progressive orthodoxy, was to pick out the big lies of the past that were still resonating in the present. Talking about the Stalinist terror in the late 1930s, Furet noted how Stalin made use of Hitler. Because Hitler was anti-Communist, Stalin was able to say that anybody else who was anti-Communist must be a fascist. He could intimidate his liberal adversaries “en répandant le soupçon que l’antisoviétisme est L’antichambre du fascisme” (by spreading the suspicion that anti-Sovietism was the antechamber to fascism) (Le Passé d’une illusion, p. 266). Such a point from Furet put his gauchiste contemporaries on the spot, because they were still using the same tactic, calling anyone who opposed left-wing orthodoxy an enemy of “democracy,” a word they employed only as a decoy. They inherited the usage from Stalin. The Soviet Constitution of 1936 proclaimed the Soviet Union as the only true democracy. The proclamation was a musical prelude to the grinding of machinery, as the Great Terror was put into gear.

For Stalin, liberal democracy was always the chief enemy, with Nazism coming a distant second. Stalin never cared what crimes Hitler committed, as long as they were committed against the democracies. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was designed to keep the Soviet Union safe while Hitler wiped out the democracies in the west. Furet is particularly good (i.e., subversive) about the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945. The Soviets said nothing about what they had found there, and when they were finally obliged by British pressure to make an announcement in August, the Jews didn’t get a mention. Stalin didn’t think they mattered. It was a perfect example of how the two totalitarianisms were aspects of each other. Furet’s most important book, the book about the passing of an illusion that still hasn’t passed, is crammed from beginning to end with such unsettling perceptions. But making it even richer is his answer to your question of why anyone was ever fooled. He was. How? Not just because he was young and clueless, but because he cared so much about humanity that he couldn’t believe that the destruction of innocent millions could be without a constructive result. Having grown older and learned better, he put his finger on the reason otherwise decent and compassionate thinkers could stick with a discredited ideology so long: their reluctance to accept that so much suffering could be wasted.