Francois Furet was one of France's leading thinkers to emerge from the tumult of the 1960s, and the most influential contemporary historian of the French Revolution. Furet along with Raymond Aron, Jean-Francois Revel and others helped move the French intellectual community away from Marxism and its fashionable academic counterparts, towards acceptance of democratic liberalism. Furet's final consideration of communism, written before his death in 1997, is therefore worth serious attention.
The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century is not a history of communism, much less a history of the Soviet Union. Rather, Furet explains, "it is a history of the illusion of Communism during the time in which the USSR lent it consistency and vitality." The Communist illusion was based on "the religion of history" the idea of historical necessity, which supposedly pointed towards utopia based simultaneously on radical human freedom and radical human unity. Such historical necessity appealed to intellectuals who no longer looked to God or nature for meaning. Furet himself experienced the illusion as a member of the French Communist Party from 1949 to 1956. "My subject is thus inseparable from my existence," he writes, "and I experienced firsthand the illusion I am attempting to trace back."
The Rise of the Illusion
Why did the Communist illusion develop and persist? First, says Furet, communism was above all a reaction against liberal democracy. Critics of liberal democracy argued that bourgeois "society" is by definition detached from any notion of the common good. The bourgeois are individuals, not citizens, and they are confined to their own property and interests. Bourgeois society is said to be animated by an agitation that constantly drives it forward the inequality of property and wealth produced by the competition of its members, belying the principle of its own legitimacy (the universality and equality of man). The self-doubt characteristic of modern democracy the self-hatred of the bourgeois produced offspring who detested the social and political regime into which they were born.
World War I was the second major factor that helped promote the Communist illusion. Furet notes that the peoples of Europe who had survived this horror began with the urge to fashion a new dawn. Millions of soldiers who returned to civilian life were caught up in collective remorse for their active or passive roles in the war. This was particularly true of those who had voted socialist because the socialists had abandoned their program of preventing war through the international workers movement, and embraced their respective national war efforts. The October Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent withdrawal of Russia from the war against Germany offered the socialists a chance to redeem themselves from the position they had taken in 1914.
With Lenin, Furet argues, the idea of revolution was returned to the center of European politics. The October Revolution claimed the legacy of the French Revolution specifically the Jacobin period, including the dictatorship of the Committee on Public Safety in 1793-94. The true center of the French Revolution was no longer 1789, with the rights of man and a constitution, but 1793, with dictatorship and the emancipation of man. Lenin's Soviet Union took the reins of human progress and assumed the spot that revolutionary France had held since the late 18th century. The revolutionary idea was inseparable since 1789 with the notion of democracy. Victorious Bolshevism would lend it the added prestige of international peace and fraternity.
The third element fueling the Communist illusion, Furet writes, was the Great Depression of the 1930s, which plunged the democracies into a vast collective anxiety. In Europe, the Depression seemed to confirm the national pessimism about the market's ability to serve as the foundation for real society. By contrast, the idea of planning, bolstered by heady statistics from the Soviet Union, offered the promise of "a chicken in every pot."
Fourth, the Communist illusion fed on its opposition to Fascism. Fascism was born in part as a reaction against Communism but, as Furet writes, the Fascists also shared the Marxist critique of modern individualism and democracy. But in order to break with bourgeois individualism, Fascism appealed only to fractions of humanity, the nation or the race. Hitler and his allies were thus at war with the rest of the world. In many countries the movement to stop Hitler gave Communism its most glorious moment. Through anti-Fascism, the Communists recovered the trophy of democracy without renouncing any of their basic convictions. By demonizing Communism and branding it as the main enemy, Hitler designated it for democratic goodwill, and his hatred earned Communism a democratic certificate of merit. This made it possible for Communists to say that fighting Hitler was inseparable from promoting the USSR.
The final major element supporting the Communist illusion was the Soviet triumph in World War II. The Communist idea was given the blessing of victory on the battlefield. Postwar Stalinist strategy relied on the ideas, passions, and forces released by the war in order to make military victory the springboard for new achievements that would be not only territorial but political. The USSR exemplified a historical short-circuit that promised the non-European world a rapid catching up. Marxism-Leninism was capable of attracting the most sophisticated minds, mainly drawn to Marxism, as well as the more primitive ones, more interested in Leninism. To both strains of politics, it furnished Western body of ideas capable of unifying anti-bourgeois emotions in Europe and beyond.
The Passing of the Illusion
Furet's diagnosis of the nature and course of the Communism illusion is detailed and persuasive. He spends considerably less time on its ultimate failure.
Furet points to Khrushchev's "secret speech" to the Twentieth Congress in 1956 as a turning point in the Communist illusion. The "cult of personality" had been a defining characteristic of the Stalinist regime, so Khrushchev's denunciation of that cult was particularly dramatic. Khrushchev implied the suspicion that the party, under Stalin, had been capable of misunderstanding, of misreading, the laws of history. Such explosive doubts had been raised not by Trotsky or Tito, but from within the Kremlin itself. Khrushchev needed de-Stalinization to consolidate his own political position in the Soviet leadership, but by choosing to realize the succession in a such a fashion, he brought the ideological foundations of the entire regime into question. Once raised, the questions emerged everywhere. With that speech, the Communist world lost its bearings.
Khrushchev's rule also marked the erosion of a second critical pillar of Stalinism: fear. When the political command set out to reform Stalin's regime, it sought to eliminate terror within the party and reduce its military commitments to encourage consumption. (The policy of military reductions was reversed in the 1960s, and later revived by Mikhail Gorbachev.) The Party became post-totalitarian: sufficiently repressive to fill the prisons and psychiatric hospitals, but no longer capable of inspiring the universal fear that was the condition of universal silence.
Furet admits that this hardly shook the system to its foundations at the time but slow changes were nevertheless discernable. Some dissent, or at least different voices, emerged, and through them, Russian society began to find its voice again. In Khrushchev's time, there were Boris Pasternak and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Many of Gorbachev's interlocutors during the 1980s, with Andrei Sakharov at the fore, had also been born into the opposition under Khrushchev. The brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 also dispelled the Communist illusion for significant number outside of Russia including Furet himself.
In Furet's account, the precise manner in which the Soviet Union and then its empire eventually fell apart remains mysterious. The objective factors for the end of the illusion are easiest to establish. The continually mounting price of world power, and especially the arms race, exhausted the Soviet economy. Furet writes that "perhaps historians one day will believe that President Reagan's policies were more generally efficacious than generally understood by the international press." But in any case, the internal decay of the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev years reached such a degree that not only the power of the state but also its physical and moral health, supplies, living conditions, and hospitals, were called into in question.
The role of subjective factors in the end of Communism human choice was more difficult for Furet to establish. Gorbachev, like his predecessors, sought to grab as much power as he could. But he did it in a new way. Before Gorbachev, the Party had been the sole means to power. Gorbachev took a different route to secure his position. He did more than remodel the upper levels of the Party; he also drew support from elements outside the Party. The liberation of Sakharov in 1986 indicated that Gorbachev had changed the rules of the regime. This was not unlike Mao's unleashing of the Red Guards against the party apparatus in China: it was intended both to reinvent Communist enthusiasm and to weaken the other Communist leaders, who were Gorbachev's open and potential rivals for leadership. But things came out differently. Everyone stopped responding to orders. By weakening his adversaries, Gorbachev weakened himself, destroying the source of his legitimacy, offering a new field to unexpected rivals. When he dispelled the fear of speaking out, he suppressed the principle of obedience.
As Furet argues, there could be no synthesis between the principles of Bolshevism and those of liberal-democratic pluralism. Bolshevism had no flexibility whatsoever in maters of ideology and political liberty. It could only hold sway through lies and fear.
Ironically, Soviet Communism's last leader was adored in the West until the very end. Westerners had a hard time accepting Gorbachev's fall, since it necessarily spelled the end of an illusion that had filled the twentieth century. Communism had never conceived of any tribunal other than history, which has now rendered its verdict. This is not the end of the story for Furet, however. Democracy, by virtue of its existence, created the need for a world beyond the bourgeoisie and beyond Capital, a world in which a genuine human community could flourish. The end of the Soviet world in no way altered the democratic call for another type society. The Communist idea will not rise again in the form in which it died this ended with the Soviet Union. But Furet argues that the disappearance of this particular illusion is not the end of the democratic repertory.
Furet wisely rejects historical necessity, of whatever stripe. The most common historicist argument today is based on the inevitable triumph of democracy and free markets (the "end of history," for some). Furet writes instead: "I do not merely regard it [the Communist illusion] merely as something overtaken by liberal democracy; I see no good reason to substitute one philosophy of history for another." The utopian illusion of a new humanity radically free and radically united predates Soviet Communism, and will undoubtedly survive it in other forms. Circumstances such as depressions or wars can activate and give full force to the self-loathing that seems to be inherent in democracies, especially their European variants. Vigilance, rather than self-satisfaction, should be the correct attitude of those concerned with the preservation and promotion of civil and religious liberty in the next century.
Furet's account of the origin, course, and conclusion of the Communist illusion, while extensive and impressive, must be supplemented and qualified. For one thing, the United States plays a minor role in Furet's story. At one level, this is understandable. Furet focuses on the illusion of communism the intellectual appeal of Marxism-Leninism which had relatively little direct political cachet in the United States beyond certain academics. Furet correctly distinguishes between the character of the American and French Revolutions, and the differences in democratic regimes that this has entailed historically. But on those occasions when he considers the United States, he often lapses into typical world-weary European assessments of American policy. In discussing the United States' reaction to the Soviet threat after World War II, for instance, Furet writes: "Americans were unaccustomed to being engaged in world affairs. They reacted and overreacted to the new situation with ambivalence and excess, with the fear of subversion and the arrogance of power." Furet acknowledges that Americans had an accurate intuition about the nature of their Soviet enemy, but he pays relatively little attention to what the United States did about it.
Indeed, Furet suggests that the Communist illusion ended primarily because of its own internal contradictions and failures, some foolish decisions by those who sought to perpetuate it, and perhaps sheer boredom. Communism, he writes, "was an illusion from which we are only just emerging, thanks more to the force of circumstance than to intellectual virtue."
But surely there is more to the story. What about political virtue, even if the intellectuals failed us? In fact, Communism was opposed actively by statesmen, writers, religious figures, artists, labor leaders, and just plain ordinary folk. To be sure, the resistance to Communism was by no means always democratic in character the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, for instance, were hardly Jeffersonians. But the greatest opposition to Soviet Communism, certainly after World War II, came from democrats, who were active, serious, and not filled with self-loathing. The United States, for all its faults, formulated and implemented a strategy designed not only to halt Soviet expansionism, but also to weaken and ultimately bring down the Communist regime. This strategy cost trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives in places like Korea and Vietnam, and accepted the risk of nuclear devastation. Much of the world, however cautiously, signed on to this strategy including the majority of West Europeans.
The Communist illusion of historical necessity, in Furet's formulation, "passed." Ronald Reagan thought somewhat differently, even before Gorbachev accepted his challenge to "tear down this wall." In 1981, Reagan said that history would "dismiss [communism] as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now written." For this reason, Reagan said, "the West won't contain communism, it will transcend communism." To help history along, Reagan laid out a program (most notably in his 1982 speech to the British Parliament) to strengthen the forces of democracy engaged in the struggle with totalitarianism. The ultimate political success of the West against the communist illusion whatever the intellectuals of the time might have thought should give us hope that the democracies have within them the strength to recognize, resist, and overcome the next great challenge to human freedom and decency. Because Furet is correct; this challenge is sure to emerge.