Duke University Press
  • An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: François Furet’s Penser la Révolution française in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s

François Furet’s Penser la Révolution française was one of the most important works in the late 1970s’ critique of totalitarianism. Leading French intellectuals to see communism and revolution as totalitarian, this critique transformed Furet’s political consciousness and provided him with a new understanding of revolutionary politics that he used to reinterpret the French Revolution. Penser la Révolution française, in turn, played an important role in antitotalitarian politics and in Furet’s recasting of his memory of his past communist engagement. In projecting totalitarianism onto the French Revolution, Furet implicitly explained the communist engagement of his generation as a by-product of the supposed illiberalism of French political culture and confirmed antitotalitarian intellectuals in their belief that a threat of totalitarianism existed within the French Left.

A highly influential text in the historiography of the French Revolution, François Furet’s 1978 Penser la Révolution française was also part of the critique of totalitarianism in the late 1970s, a product of the intellectual politics of the time and an important contribution to that politics.1 Inaugurated in 1975, the critique of totalitarianism was the period when French intellectuals of the noncommunist Left came to view communism and revolution as totalitarian. Applying the contemporary understanding of totalitarianism to the French Revolution, Penser la Révolution française interpreted the Revolution in the shadow of the gulag. Offering an analysis of Jacobinism in light of totalitarianism and an implicit explanation of the extremist postwar politics of French intellectuals discredited by the critique of totalitarianism, Furet’s work resonated with contemporary political debates and played an important role in the collapse of the post-1945 French intellectual Left.

This article pursues the links between the critique of totalitarianism, Furet’s politics and memory of his past politics, and the evolution of his interpretation of the French Revolution. It seeks to explain why Furet was particularly well placed to marry the critique of totalitarianism [End Page 557] and the history of the French Revolution and how the antitotalitarian tide made it possible for Furet, who considered himself to be on the Left, to produce and gain acceptance for a work that revived a reactionary historiography of the most fundamental event in modern French history. Further, this essay endeavors to explain specifically what Furet’s interpretation of the French Revolution owes to the antitotalitarian moment in French intellectual life and conversely what Penser la Révolution française contributed to the critique of totalitarianism. After a brief analysis of this critique, this article explores Furet’s biography and political trajectory, focusing on his relationship with communism and the significance of his recasting of his memory of his past communist politics while under the influence of antitotalitarianism. Next, the essay analyzes the evolution of Furet as a historian of the French Revolution and in particular the place of the critique of totalitarianism in the making of his landmark text. Finally, the article concludes with a brief consideration of the legacy of the antitotalitarian cast that Penser la Révolution française gave the history of the French Revolution in Furet’s later work and the intellectual politics of the Revolution’s bicentennial.

The analysis offered here differs from the two most important efforts to write the history of Furet’s interpretation of the French Revolution: those of Sunil Khilnani and Steven L. Kaplan.2 Khilnani’s Arguing Revolution relies on a Furetian understanding of French political culture to explain French intellectual politics since the Liberation. Consequently, Khilnani’s chapter on Furet, although not inattentive to the relationship between Furet’s history of the Revolution and contemporary politics, lacks critical distance from its subject, fails to problematize Furet’s representation of his politics and work as a historian, and therefore sheds far too little light on the politics of Furet’s interpretation. This article is probably closer to Kaplan’s work in its conclusions, its critical perspective on Furet and his work, and its attentiveness to the relationship between Furet’s history writing, his political consciousness, and trends in intellectual politics. But, whereas Kaplan’s monumental history of the French Revolution’s bicentennial concentrates on the 1980s and says comparatively little about Furet’s seminal 1978 work and the relationship of its interpretive innovations to Furet’s trajectory and the intellectual politics of the 1970s, this article focuses [End Page 558] on that crucial, earlier period in Furet’s career and French intellectual politics. In short, for those interested primarily in French intellectual politics (like Khilnani), this essay offers a critical alternative to Khilnani’s reading of Furet’s place within those politics; and for those interested primarily in the historiography of the French Revolution and its politics (like Kaplan), this article offers a historical analysis of Furet’s insertion of the question of totalitarianism—which Kaplan has, without explaining its origins, identified as central to the bicentennial debates—into the interpretation of the French Revolution.


The critique of totalitarianism originated in a reaction of leftist intellectuals—notably those associated with the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, the journal Esprit, the Rocardian wing of the Socialist Party (PS), the Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT), and the 1968–74 adventure of the Maoist Gauche prolétarienne—to the Union of the Left of the 1970s.3 Founded in 1972 when the Socialist and Communist (PCF) parties allied on the basis of a Common Program of Government, the Union of the Left brought the Communist Party out of a quarter century of political isolation, giving the Left the prospect of coming to power for the first time in the Fifth Republic. The Common Program, the Union of the Left’s statist governmental program for one five-year legislature, promised to institute sweeping reforms and to open the “path to socialism” by nationalizing key sectors of the economy.4 Controversial at birth, the Union of the Left became with the approach of the March 1978 legislative elections, which it was expected to win but ultimately lost, a subject of intense and bitter debate.

The discomfort of intellectuals of the noncommunist Left with the Union of the Left can be traced back to the evolution of intellectual politics since 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s secret speech on Stalinism, the Hungarian revolution and its repression, the Suez expedition, and the voting (by the PCF among others) of special powers to prosecute the Algerian War to Guy Mollet’s government. Influenced by events in Eastern Europe and their own long-standing concern for liberty, intellectuals of the noncommunist Left became disillusioned with the Soviet Union and developed significant criticisms of “really existing socialism” in the 1950s and 1960s that informed a rethinking of [End Page 559] the socialist project around the need to secure democracy and liberty within it from its earliest phases. Combined with criticism of the PCF for its failure to de-Stalinize and disappointment with the conduct of the PCF and the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO, the PS’s predecessor) during the Algerian War, these new ideas on socialism led intellectuals, encouraged to assert themselves politically by their growing power in the mass media, to turn away from the parties of the Left. While the Parti socialiste unifié (PSU) founded in 1960 provided an initial refuge for dissident socialist and communist intellectuals, they increasingly abandoned party and electoral politics altogether in the latter half of the 1960s. The events of 1968 further discredited the PCF, accentuating the turn away from the mainstream parties, and brought state-centered politics into disrepute. More positively, the spontaneous self-organization of society in street demonstrations, action committees, general assemblies, and the like in 1968 inspired intellectuals of the noncommunist Left to adopt direct-democratic, anti-institutional, and antiauthoritarian political alternatives.

Exemplary of this post-1968 intellectual politics and the focus of the political aspirations of many noncommunist intellectuals in the 1970s was the direct-democratic offensive against the state’s repressive apparatus by the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (GIP). Formed in February 1971 out of the convergence of the Maoist Gauche prolétarienne and such intellectuals as the philosopher Michel Foucault, the editor of the journal Esprit, Jean-Marie Domenach, and the historian and left-wing activist Pierre Vidal-Naquet, GIP sought to make known the experience of prison by providing prisoners with an opportunity to express themselves.5 The work of GIP would ultimately, its leaders hoped, democratize knowledge, de-ghettoize prisoners, and lead to a transformation of the penal justice system by the prisoners themselves.6 True to its soixante-huitard mot d’ordre, “let the prisoners talk!” [la parole aux détenus!], GIP faded and ultimately dissolved after the Comité d’action des prisonniers, an organization run for and by prisoners, formed at the end of 1972.7 A seminal project in post-1968 [End Page 560] intellectual politics, GIP marked, as Philippe Meyer wrote in 1973, the emergence of an intellectual “militancy of the intolerable” according to which intellectuals refused to become an “enlightened and representative avant-garde”; rather, they sought to “create alliances with the ‘most oppressed’ that would allow them to once again give expression to their own problems.”8 Formulated in light of GIP and other post-1968 political experiences, the redefinitions of the intellectual’s political role in the early 1970s by Jean-Paul Sartre, Foucault, and Domenach concurred in their refusal of vanguardist politics, representation, and the intellectual’s pretension to universal knowledge.9 Leftist intellectuals failed to implement these direct-democratic ideals within the cultural institutions that gave them power.10 But they remained substantially loyal to their flawed autogestionnaire utopias when the revolutionary élan of 1968 dissipated and, in line with their enduring critiques of the state and the parties of the Left, embraced a late gauchiste politics marked by suspicion or, at the extreme, refusal of the exercise of political power. Consequently, many intellectuals of the noncommunist Left found themselves on a collision course with the parties of the Left as they approached electoral triumph.

In accordance with post-1968 intellectual politics, the initial reactions to the Union of the Left by intellectuals associated with forums such as the newspaper Libération (another product of the convergence of the Gauche prolétarienne and leading intellectuals like Foucault, Sartre, and Maurice Clavel), Esprit, and Le Nouvel Observateur ranged from the cautious to the contemptuous. Those most closely affiliated with the Gauche prolétarienne and Libération were actively hostile to [End Page 561] the Union of the Left. Pierre Victor (alias Benny Lévy), Alain Geismar, Serge July, and Sartre expressed their complete refusal of the Union of the Left on numerous occasions and argued vehemently against voting for François Mitterrand in the 1974 presidential election.11 Libération lobbied for the abortive protest presidential candidacy of Charles Piaget, the hero of the autogestionnaire struggle at Besançon’s Lip watch factory that captivated the extreme Left in 1973 and 1974. The newspaper refused to support Mitterrand, believing that real change could only come about through the development of the movement of contestation exemplified by Lip. Although a majority of the newspaper’s team voted for Mitterrand on the second round and leading leftist intellectuals signed a manifesto against revolutionary abstentions, these positions favorable to Mitterrand were negatively motivated, dictated by hostility to the Right.12

Intellectuals writing in Esprit, following the journal’s steadfast refusal of any alliance with the PCF as long as it failed to de-Stalinize, articulated criticisms of the politics of Left unity well before the Common Program was signed.13 Articles by Paul Thibaud, Michel Winock, Jacques Julliard, and Domenach argued that the Union of the Left would, because of the PCF’s failure to reform itself and break its attachment to Soviet socialism, be stillborn. Or, if it gained power, it would construct either nothing of lasting value or authoritarian socialism.14 [End Page 562] Failing to heed Esprit’s demand that the Left adopt an antiproductivist, autogestionnaire socialism that would provide firm guarantees for liberty and democracy, the Common Program was in the evaluation of Esprit-affiliated intellectuals both insufficiently innovative and potentially dangerous.15 Esprit’s criticisms of the Union of the Left remained strong even as the journal’s intellectuals became more interested in the political possibilities opened up by the Union in 1973 and 1974.16 Despite publishing (for reasons that go to the extent of its audience) a broader spectrum of political opinion than Esprit, the leading Left intellectual and political weekly Le Nouvel Observateur adopted a similar, if more flexible and realistic, political line.17 A refuge for intellectuals who had abandoned the PCF and the SFIO in the 1950s and 1960s, Le Nouvel Observateur, although at first generally supportive of the Union of the Left, was not short of criticisms of it that went to the PCF’s role within the Union and the statist nature of its program. Shortly after the Union was formed, Jean Daniel, Le Nouvel Observateur’s editor, and Michel Bosquet, a regular political commentator in its pages, urged the Union to become more autogestionnaire.18 In the analysis of the historian and CFDT-affiliated intellectual Julliard (whose prominence in both Esprit and Le Nouvel Observateur signals the close relations between the two publications), the PCF’s Leninism posed a limited risk to democracy, but it could be held in check by the “decentralizing and autogestionnaire tendencies of the socialist Left.” Likewise for Gilles Martinet, a leading figure of the independent Left and one of the founders of Le Nouvel Observateur’s predecessor, France-observateur, the Common Program had “many weaknesses,” but they needed to be corrected rather than denounced.19 That which was critical in Daniel’s “critical support” of Mitterrand’s candidacy in the 1974 presidential election directly reflected his weekly’s discomfort with the Common [End Page 563] Program.20 Although Daniel found that he had “much to support and little to criticize” after Mitterrand took the desired steps of distancing his campaign from the Common Program and the PCF, Daniel’s endorsement of Mitterrand in the election’s second round remained lukewarm, echoing Domenach’s less than enthusiastic statement that Mitterrand’s victory would open up a “space of freedom.”21

Encouraged by the distance that Mitterrand had placed between his candidacy and the Common Program, intellectuals at Esprit and Le Nouvel Observateur were at first hopeful that the Assises du socialisme of October 1974 might mark the Left’s reorientation around their ideas. Indeed, the Assises brought a significant part of the Christian and autogestionnaire soxiante-huitard Left into the PS (notably, militants from the CFDT and the PSU), integrated the new post-1968 movements into the PS’s definition of socialism, and made autogestion—labeled the “keystone of a democratic socialism”—central to the PS’s platform.22 For a brief moment Domenach, speaking in the name of the “leaders of Esprit,” argued in favor of working with the Union of the Left, that “actions undertaken outside of the terrain of classical politics must now link up with an effort to conquer power.” Daniel applauded the Assises, calling its Projet de société “a great text, a historic charter, a doctrinal turning point,” all the more precious that its principal authors were, he bragged, “our friends” Martinet and Julliard and that its ideas had almost all been developed in the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur.23

Changing the PS less than intellectuals like Domenach and Daniel had hoped it might, the Assises, rather than marking a reconciliation of intellectuals with the Union of the Left, only focused their critical attention on it. Beyond disappointment with the unfulfilled promise of the Assises, what worried intellectuals about the Union of the Left were the positions taken by the PCF in 1974 and 1975 and the PS’s less than forceful responses to them. In 1972 and 1973 the PCF had [End Page 564] avoided conflict with the socialists in the interest of consolidating the alliance. But already in early 1974 it reasserted itself brutally and awkwardly when it attacked the recently published Gulag Archipelago, impugned the credibility and motives of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his admirers, and, by blatantly defending the Soviet Union, reconfirmed its identification with the Soviet model of socialism. Reawakening fears of Stalinism within the PCF, the communists’ positions on The Gulag Archipelago heightened left-wing intellectuals’ sense that the Union of the Left posed a danger to liberty and inspired readings of the book in light of post-1968 intellectual politics that were highly influential in the development of the critique of totalitarianism: the populist, Foucauldian reading inspired by Lip of André Glucksmann, a former Gauche prolétarienne activist, and the libertarian exegesis of Claude Lefort, a founder and former member of the influential gauchiste journal and political group Socialisme ou barbarie.24 As a result less of what Solzhenitsyn said or wrote than of the PCF’s position on him and the appropriation of his moral authority by a late gauchiste critique of revolutionary politics, Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago became common reference points in the intellectual politics of the late 1970s.

After allowing itself to be eclipsed by Mitterrand during the 1974 presidential election campaign, the PCF reacted to the potential threat to the Union of the Left posed by the Assises and incontrovertible evidence that the PS was winning the competition within the Left for the vote by opening a polemical offensive against the PS in October 1974.25 Casting doubt on the PS’s commitment to the Common Program and targeting the Assises as evidence of the PS’s centrist inclination, the PCF charged that only a strong Communist Party could guarantee that the PS would not engage in the “injurious politics of class collaboration” and that the Union of the Left would remain on the Left.26 Lasting into the first months of 1975, the polemic within the Left was given new life by the PCF’s positions on the radicalization and crisis of the Portuguese Revolution that spring and summer. The PCF’s failure to recognize an infringement of the freedom of the press when gauchiste newspaper workers took over the República, the leading newspaper of Portuguese socialist opinion, and the PCF’s attempt to blame anticommunist riots by northern Portuguese peasants on fascists greatly troubled noncommunist [End Page 565] French intellectuals who feared a Leninist seizure of power by the Portuguese Communist Party. Although the PCF’s positions on the Portuguese Revolution were themselves enough to multiply fears that the communists would threaten liberty if they were to come to power in France, an acrimonious quarrel between the PCF and Le Nouvel Observateur over these issues gave these fears a new immediacy.

No less troubling to noncommunist intellectuals than the positions taken by the PCF was the reaction to them by the PS and some supporters of the Union of the Left. Instead of asserting the positions of the Assises against the PCF, the socialists initially, in fall 1974, met the communist polemic by protesting their loyalty to the Union of the Left and the Common Program. Although the PS responded more forcefully to the PCF in 1975 and firmly stated its opposition to the PCF’s stance on the Portuguese Revolution, its desire to keep the alliance alive so that it could continue to enjoy an electoral dynamic favorable to it kept the PS from launching a hard-hitting counterattack. Furthermore, within the PS the CERES (Centre d’études, de recherches et d’éducation socialiste) faction—critical of the Assises and favorable to an eventual fusion of the PS and the PCF that would erase the division of the Left at the 1920 Congress of Tours—echoed the positions of the PCF on both the Union of the Left and the Portuguese Revolution. Outside the PS, Le Monde, the paragon of French journalism, offered a relativist position on the freedom of the press in Portugal.27

The events of 1974–75 resulted in a crisis and radicalization of the relationship between intellectuals and the Union of the Left at the end of summer 1975. These events raised doubts in Daniel’s mind about the feasibility and desirability of the Union of the Left. His polemic with the PCF and Le Monde’s position on the República affair made Daniel increasingly obsessed by the question of liberty as the 1978 elections approached. He stressed that communist intimidation of Le Nouvel Observateur concerned “the very practice of democracy within the concrete struggle for socialism.”28 Likewise, for Martinet the Portuguese Revolution raised important questions about what the Left would do when it rose to power. Arguing that “to recover its credibility, the Left must have the courage to openly confront the problems that it has deliberately ignored until now,”29 Martinet joined others within the PS [End Page 566] to form Faire, a journal that brought together Mitterrandists and Rocardians (although it became increasingly Rocardian over time) and promised to assert the PS’s own independent, autogestionnaire identity. Rejecting “the negotiation of artificial compromises,” Faire became the vehicle for the critique of totalitarianism within the PS.30 Esprit moved quickly to cast the debate over the Left in terms of totalitarianism and the gulag. Three of its leading intellectuals—Domenach, Julliard, and Thibaud—were already doing so in July and August 1975. Thibaud, for example, emphasized in an exchange with Pierre Guidoni, a leading figure in CERES, the need for a critique of totalitarianism, an investigation of whether “the same causes produce the same effects, if the use of a certain corpus of concepts does not lead inescapably to totalitarianism.”31 Esprit inaugurated its antitotalitarian project with its September 1975 issue and a colloque politique in November 1975. When Thibaud took over the journal’s direction in January 1977, he dedicated it to an antitotalitarian crusade; for years thereafter every issue began with a title-page manifesto against totalitarianism.

The understanding of totalitarianism developed by antitotalitarian intellectuals, no less than the critique of totalitarianism itself, followed from a specific (and, in many regards, faulty) reading of the Union of the Left’s politics. For one, the critique of totalitarianism was predicated upon a rejection of the Mitterrandist understanding of the Left’s dynamic. In response to those who feared a communist threat to liberty, Mitterrand consistently argued that the PCF’s intentions (notably its commitment to democratic liberties) were of secondary importance because the Union would turn the relations of force within the Left in the PS’s favor and these power relations would ultimately determine the PCF’s behavior. In effect, the communists would be compelled to behave once the PS became the dominant political force in the Union. Mitterrand’s strategy of smothering the PCF in his embrace worked in both the short and long term. In the 1973 legislative elections the PCF’s share of the vote stagnated, while that of the PS progressed impressively relative to that of its predecessors in the 1967 and 1968 elections. The PS’s dominance within the Left increased as the 1978 elections approached, prompting the PCF, which hoped to tip the electoral balance back in its favor, to distance itself from the Soviet Union and to commit itself more firmly to the theme of liberty in late [End Page 567] 1975 and 1976.32 With Mitterrand’s resounding 1981 presidential election victory—made possible by communist voters who were won over during the years of the Union of the Left—and the PS’s winning of an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly in the subsequent legislative elections, the PCF had lost its control over the Left. As a consequence, it would play an entirely subordinate role in the second Mauroy government of 1981–84.

Hostile to the Common Program and frustrated in their efforts to gain acceptance of autogestionnaire ideas within the PS and the Union of the Left, many intellectuals of the noncommunist Left found little solace in Mitterrand’s position. The PS’s electoral success was of little import, they contended, because the communists ideologically dominated the Left, as evidenced by the PS’s measured responses to the PCF’s ideological offensive of 1974 and 1975, by the support lent to the PCF’s positions by CERES, and by Le Monde’s position on the República affair.33 To counter the communists’ putative ideological domination, budding antitotalitarian intellectuals focused on totalitarianism’s ideological origins, arguing that political projects inspired by Marxist or revolutionary ideology inevitably result in totalitarianism. Beyond minimizing the significance of the PS’s electoral predominance, this focus on ideological origins neutralized the argument that France’s long democratic tradition and advanced social structure made it an unlikely candidate for a totalitarian takeover. On the contrary, to emphasize the urgency of their concerns, antitotalitarians argued that France’s susceptibility to totalitarianism could be seen in its intellectuals’ past conduct: their disturbing accommodations with Stalinism in the first postwar decade and their supposed failure to confront the issue of repression under communism until the 1974 publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This revisionist reading of postwar intellectual politics suggested that totalitarianism was especially dangerous because its ideology blinded those under its influence to its reality.34 [End Page 568]

To better establish the relevancy of the question of totalitarianism to contemporary French politics, antitotalitarian intellectuals increasingly highlighted the supposed affiliation between totalitarianism and Jacobin revolutionary politics, suggesting that the French Left’s roots in this revolutionary tradition made it particularly susceptible to totalitarianism. Already in 1975, Glucksmann, angry that the French Left did not share his reading of Solzhenitsyn, railed against the West, which “now hesitates to recognize its own history in the Russian mirror. The open-minded who visited the Bolsheviks in the 1920s identified in them the inheritors of an old Europe—of its Platonism (Russell), of its Jacobinism (Mathiez), of its industrialization (Lenin who openly borrowed from the models of Rathenau and Taylor). Today, when the uncovered face of Bolshevism proves to be terrifying, we fear reading our own features in it.” Also in 1975 the sociologist Edgar Morin argued in his critique of Le Monde’s position on the República affair that France’s revolutionary tradition made the French all too willing to accept restrictions on liberty in the name of revolution. In his 1977 best-selling pamphlet La Barbarie à visage humain, the new philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy cited “the Robespierrist Terror and its dream of dechristianization” as proof of his thesis that “the totalitarian state . . . is the religion of the state.” Julliard, Pierre Rosanvallon, and Patrick Viveret—leading intellectuals of the Rocardian-CFDT second Left—analyzed at length the connection between totalitarianism and Jacobin and revolutionary politics in influential books published in late 1977 and early 1978. They concluded that the urgent task of creating a new political culture entailed breaking with the French Jacobin and revolutionary heritage, which they believed was fatally affiliated with totalitarianism.35

By 1978 a critique of totalitarianism that emphasized its origins in Marxist and revolutionary ideology and the danger of totalitarianism in France as a result of the Left’s Jacobin revolutionary tradition had become hegemonic among intellectuals of the noncommunist Left. Symptomatic of this hegemony was the failure of the communist historian Jean Elleinstein to garner support or sympathy for his historical analysis of Stalinism.36 Elleinstein’s emphasis (pregnant with implications for contemporary French politics) on the contribution of [End Page 569] prerevolutionary social and political structures (that is, Russian “backwardness”) and the deeds of actors other than the ideologically motivated revolutionary leadership to the Stalinist outcome of the Russian Revolution left noncommunist intellectuals, consumed by a fear of the threat of totalitarianism that they saw in the contemporary French Left, entirely unconvinced. Domenach, for example, considered Elleinstein’s discussion of the particularities of Russian and Soviet history to be irrelevant. He found “the principal characteristics of the Stalinist phenomenon . . . in all countries in which Marxism has become a state ideology, whatever the differences between their cultural tradition and that of Russia.” Domenach preferred an explanation of Soviet history by “a phenomenon of ideological overdetermination” “at the very heart of Marxism.”37 The hegemony of antitotalitarianism is also evident in the reception accorded to the phenomenon of “new philosophy” in 1977. Although few greeted Glucksmann’s Maîtres penseurs or Lévy’s Barbarie à visage humain without reservations,38 even fewer leading intellectuals rejected outright their simple equation of all radical political projects with totalitarianism or their use of this equation against the Union of the Left.39 Many intellectuals of the noncommunist Left, although considering new philosophy to be terribly simplistic, interpreted it as a symptom of the bankruptcy of the politics of the Union, tolerated it, and welcomed the opportunity that it gave them to discuss the affiliations between radical politics and totalitarianism. Daniel accordingly made the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur available for a debate on new philosophy, asserting that “the Left has the greatest interest in allowing itself to be questioned by a movement [End Page 570] that is rich, even in its excesses.” Later professing surprise at the extent of anti-Stalinism and anti-Marxism that new philosophy revealed among French intellectuals, Daniel argued that the debate on new philosophy would have served its purpose if “there remained only this unanimous profession of anti-totalitarian faith” when it ended.40

As it became hegemonic, the critique of totalitarianism induced a reevaluation of the past engagements of French intellectuals such that all past adhesions to or alliances with communism were seen as participating in a common intellectual blindness or naïveté with regard to their supposedly totalitarian consequences. For French intellectuals who had been deeply involved in revolutionary politics after the Liberation, a profound revision of their understanding and memory of their past politics accompanied the critique of totalitarianism. For those like Furet, who had been members of the PCF during its most sectarian years (broadly, 1947–56), this revision was necessarily great and posed troublesome questions. As accolades poured down on new heroes of intellectual politics—notably, Claude Lefort, Cornelius Castoriadis, and later Raymond Aron, praised for their intransigent opposition to the PCF and Stalinism in the late 1940s and early 1950s—it became imperative and, given the discrediting of any explanation by the political structures of the time, difficult for intellectuals like Furet to explain their involvement in “totalitarian” revolutionary politics. The flurry of memoirs by former communist intellectuals and the explosive growth in the number of polemical and scholarly historical works on intellectual engagement published in the late 1970s and 1980s attest to the sea change in the relationship between politics and intellectual legitimacy and the consequent urgency of efforts to comprehend or, in many cases, explain away discredited past political identities.41

Furet’s Penser la Révolution française drew from and contributed to this critique of totalitarianism on three levels: those of rhetoric, interpretation, and the transformation of the political consciousness of French intellectuals. As a rhetorician, Furet, already a master at integrating political with historical and interpretive criticism, skillfully [End Page 571] used the opprobrium cast on Marxism, communism, and the revolutionary project to discredit his opponents and advance his theses. As an interpreter of the French Revolution, Furet directly applied to the Revolution the contemporary understanding that revolutionary politics necessarily ends in totalitarianism as a result of its inevitably Manichaean ideological dynamics. More generally, Furet interpreted the Revolution in a manner that resonated with the contemporary transformation of the political consciousness and memory of French intellectuals, himself included. While Furet’s and other intellectuals’ reworking of their memory of past intellectual politics (notably, communist engagement) fueled and made conceivable Furet’s interpretation of the French Revolution along antitotalitarian lines, Furet’s Revolution—cast as the founding moment of a proto-totalitarian political culture—became for both contemporaries and later historians the origin, foundation, and explanation of the postwar political adventures of intellectuals with communism and revolutionary politics.42 By projecting totalitarianism onto the French Revolution, Furet was able to “explain” his generation’s engagement in a manner consonant with the reductionism of antitotalitarian thought—the illiberalism of French political culture was to blame—and, to a certain extent, absolve his cohort of ex-communist intellectuals of responsibility for its actions. Having with his peers rejected the possibility that revolution could be a viable and reasonable alternative to a world gone wrong, Furet wrote a history of the French Revolution that was the history of the illusion of revolutionary politics. In projecting his present consciousness onto the past, Furet wrote not only the Revolution’s history in the shadow of the gulag but also in light of the foundation myth of French antitotalitarianism. By locating the origins of totalitarianism in the foundational event of modern French history and giving intellectual credibility to the attempt to link French revolutionary and Jacobin political culture with totalitarianism, Furet confirmed antitotalitarian intellectuals in their belief that a threat of totalitarianism existed within the French Left and provided them with historical ammunition in domestic political struggles. In this manner, Furet’s Penser la Révolution française played a central role in the collapse of the postwar French intellectual Left.


Furet was born in 1927 into a laïc and republican Parisian grand bourgeois family.43 In his words, his “tradition is the Third Republic, that [End Page 572] of the bourgeois Left, hermetically separated from all religious culture.”44 His paternal grandfather was a highly cultured Dreyfusard doctor who practiced an integral anticlericalism, and his maternal grandfather was an opportunist republican senator from the Allier department in central France. His uncle Georges Monnet, first elected as a socialist deputy from the Aisne in 1932, became a minister in the Popular Front government of Léon Blum. Furet’s father was the director of the Banque des Pays de L’Europe Centrale. Although his father’s mother’s branch of the family was Catholic from the Vendée, both Furet and his parents were alien to that milieu. Indeed, when Furet spent two years at the family home in Cholet (Vendée) during World War II, it was out of the question for him to go to the Catholic collège where the local elite sent its children. Instead, he attended the local nonreligious collège, where he was the only bourgeois and, according to Furet, consequently gained an outsider’s perspective on his social class.

When not in the Vendée, Furet grew up in bourgeois Paris, attending the prestigious Lycée Jeanson-de-Sailly in the sixteenth arrondissement and obtaining his baccalauréat in 1944. From Jeanson-de-Sailly, he traveled across Paris to the elite Lycée Henri IV in the Latin Quarter, where he took the hypokhâgne and khâgne courses in preparation for the entrance exam to the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS). Admissible after the written exam, Furet failed the oral in 1946. Having decided not to retake the entrance exam, he entered a period of intellectual uncertainty, hesitating between pursuing studies in lettres or in law. He would complete a licence de lettres in 1949 and then a licence de droit in 1951 before settling on history, in which he finished a diplôme d’études supérieures in 1952 and passed the agrégation in 1954.

In addition to his disappointment at failing the ENS entrance exam, for Furet the years after the Liberation were “in all respects unhappy.” His mother died of cancer in 1945; with her death, family life ended. Furet did not like his life as a student and was undecided about his future. He “was neither comfortable in his epoch nor in his existence.”45 Increasingly opposed—apparently on political grounds—to his father, who had withdrawn into himself after his wife’s death, Furet [End Page 573] joined the PCF in February 1949, in the depths of the Cold War.46 Furet did not join the PCF earlier, despite an attraction to it that dates back to the Liberation, because, he said, he disliked its nationalism.47

Why did Furet join the party and what was the nature of his engagement? When asked this question since the mid-1970s, Furet characteristically responded that he joined the PCF out of conformism because “everybody” was in the party.48 Although most young intellectuals refrained from joining the party after World War II, the PCF’s postwar prestige among them was considerable.49 Furet, coming from a left-wing background, undoubtedly felt some pressure to become a communist. Once in the party, Furet recalled, he “found . . . a mythical link with the working class” and received “a global and exhaustive explanation of the society” in which he felt “rather ill at ease.”50 Furet obviously was swept up in the postwar cult of the Hegelian movement of history that the proletariat and, by proxy, the PCF were said to incarnate. For this very reason, his reading of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon led him, like many other intellectuals, closer to joining the party.51

Other evidence indicates that Furet also lived his party years as a rejection of his bourgeois upbringing. For example, when he learned of his success at the agrégation in history in 1954, Furet is said to have exclaimed as if he were a proletarian: “we [the communists] have left a few places for the bourgeois.”52 Furet’s utter scorn for the bourgeoisie, as well as the extremely sectarian nature of his engagement, appear clearly in his 1950 review of Les Communistes, the socialist-realist [End Page 574] novel of the party’s prize writer, Louis Aragon. Here Furet fully adopts Zhdanovist ideas on culture, according to which the greatness of works of art and artists is measured solely by their contribution to the communist cause. Presented as a response to the “bourgeois” critique of Les Communistes, the review dubbed the book as “one of the most authentic masterpieces of the French novel.”53 The article is worth quoting at length to give an idea of the era’s intellectual climate and the extremes to which Furet went in his communist engagement: “The richness and truth of its characters [those of Aragon’s novel] do not exist in spite of the political and social analysis in which he indulges; on the contrary, they are the direct effect of it. Consciously and lucidly, he strives to show us how the class struggle transforms individuals from the interior right into the most secret folds of their conscience and their private life; even more, how the rise and the action of the working class create a type of new man, qualitatively superior to the old, far richer, stronger, and more complex than the most ‘distinguished’ specimens of bourgeois humanity in decomposition.”54 In concluding the article, Furet contends that it is by adhering to the project of the Communist Party that one succeeds in making great works of art: “The human enrichment described by Aragon . . ., far from being autonomous, independent of the class struggle and of history, would not in fact be comprehensible without them; the content of this enrichment is of a new type, proletarian, and history is ever-present within it. And of this the particular case of Aragon is startling evidence because his rallying to the ideological positions of the working class, in permitting a full flowering of his genius, has made him the greatest of our contemporary poets and novelists.”55

If Furet was able to be so sectarian, it was only partly due to his belief that the party incarnated the movement of history.56 Furet also developed an affective link with the party, the importance of which was intensified by the fact that his family had become less central to his life after the death of his mother in 1945. In effect, the party dominated all aspects of Furet’s life, from the public to the most private, those related to sexuality and sickness. Furet married within the party, and when he was committed to student sanitariums while sick with tuberculosis [End Page 575] from 1950 to 1954, the party, he said, “created for us a kind of family. We, the invalids, drew from it the feeling of participating in the life of the world. In this sense, my passage through the Communist Party helped me greatly to heal myself because it gave me a point of attachment in life.”57 Having repudiated his bourgeois upbringing and forged his identity as a young adult in the crucible of the party, Furet’s later effort to distance himself from the PCF was probably difficult and painful. A bulwark against the return of his repressed bourgeois past, Furet’s adhesion to the Communist Party lasted, according to his friend and fellow historian and former communist Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, as late as 1958 or 1959, when “he held onto the party by a thread and kept his card, ‘not wanting, he said, to lay himself open to the ironic or hostile regards of the bourgeois adversary.’”58

Although conformism, a Hegelian view of history, and all of the previously mentioned factors culled from Furet’s statements after 1978 (that is, after the critique of totalitarianism) were undoubtedly important reasons for Furet’s initial adherence to the PCF and his continued engagement within it, one vital factor is largely absent from Furet’s retrospective presentation of his communist engagement: the concrete political issues that impassioned and mobilized him. An analysis of his writings in France-observateur in the late 1950s and early 1960s indicates, contrary to Furet’s own later memory, that he was engaged in more than “revolutionary gesticulation.”59 For example, decolonization was evidently very important to Furet; and since the PCF was the only political force that firmly supported it during the Indochinese war, Furet undoubtedly found some justification for his adherence to the party in its position.60 Antifascism was also central to Furet’s politics. Although the importance Furet accorded to antifascism may have reflected the Cold War’s Manichaean politics, it was nonetheless rooted in a real history and struggle, ten years of veritable civil war in France (1934–44), at the conclusion of which the PCF, the “parti des 75,000 fusillés,” had assumed with some justification the position of the premier antifascist force.61 Furet, who had fought in a maquis in the Cher in the summer [End Page 576] of 1944, would, despite his horror of the excesses of the Resistance, continue for some time to see politics as a battle between revolution and fascism or between communism and Gaullism—the only political choices he considered realistic at the Liberation.

Furet’s discussion of when he left the PCF and of the immediate aftermath of his withdrawal from the party elicit important and troublesome questions about the nature of ex-communist memory in the wake of the critique of totalitarianism. Furet implies in one interview that he left the party in 1954, but elsewhere he says that he left in 1956.62 Furthermore, as previously mentioned, Le Roy Ladurie claims that Furet remained in the party as late as 1958 or 1959. Although it is not currently possible to definitively determine when Furet left the party, his politics in the late 1950s and early 1960s can be traced, and they belie his memories of them that date to the second half of the 1970s and later years. According to Furet, the party’s spell over him was broken even before the June 1953 uprising in East Berlin. While claiming to have left the party “discreetly” in 1956, Furet related, “I became fundamentally anticommunist since that time [i.e., 1953]. In other words, I understood that I had made a complete error, and I have not tried any makeshift solutions [essayé de ravauder]. For me, it was like a vaccination. From then on I have been absolutely vaccinated against communism and all that resembles it, notably communist revisionism, which is at the core from the same family and springs in my opinion from the same error. So well, moreover, that I have not been involved in politics since that time, except with regard to the Algerian War.”63 Furthermore, Furet claims that upon leaving the party, his thought turned immediately to the problem of the relationship between democracy and totalitarianism.64

In fact, in the late 1950s, Furet was one of the leading members of the dissident communist group Tribune du communisme.65 Using the humorous pseudonym François Lelièvre, Furet served on the editorial committee of the group’s journal.66 When Tribune du communisme merged with other left-wing splinter groups on 3 April 1960 to form the PSU, Furet became a member of the new party’s comité directeur. Founded on 2 July 1958 by oppositional currents within the PCF, Tribune [End Page 577] du communisme was formed in reaction to the failure of the PCF to offer effective resistance either to the Algerian War or to General de Gaulle’s coup of May 1958. Its members had decided that the failure of the PCF to de-Stalinize and face the political and economic realities of France in 1958 made it necessary to work outside the party to rejuvenate the working-class movement.67 This would be accomplished by its reunification in a democratic, socialist party that would forge the path to a humane French socialism. Tribune du communisme would be the first step in that direction. In short, the group set out on a revisionist communist path.68

A survey of Furet’s articles in France-observateur, in which he began to publish under the pseudonym Jean Delcroix in February 1958,69 reveals that Furet was deeply involved in the politics of the Marxist left.70 His spin on French politics in the late 1950s was that de Gaulle’s arrival in power and the revival of the specter of fascism in May 1958 was due to the weakness of the Left (the PCF, but also the SFIO), itself a product of its inability to adapt to changing conditions (it was still stuck in the 1930s) and its demobilization of the masses.71 The Left had to modernize and de-Stalinize to offer a real Marxist socialist alternative. The PCF’s failure to evolve in this direction and to offer effective resistance to the Algerian War was a subject of considerable commentary and an evident disappointment for Furet. To be sure, Furet was open to new ideas outside of the Marxist tradition and was critical of the “sacralization” [End Page 578] of the Front de libération nationale (FLN) and third-world revolutions by Les Temps modernes, but he remained firmly attached to Marxism and socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s.72

Furet’s considerable interest in the history of the 1936–44 period in his journalistic output during 1958 through 1961 demonstrates the importance of the experience of these crisis years to his worldview. For Furet this history was dominated by two themes: the triumph of fascism, in which the French Right is entirely complicit, and the weakness of the Left, which had demobilized the masses and thereby made possible the victory of fascism.73 This analysis of the past mirrors Furet’s contemporary analysis of May 1958, demonstrating the continued centrality of the battle of his youth between fascism and socialism to his political thought in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In these articles, as well as in many of his other historical pieces in France-observateur, Furet wrote with the aim of illuminating current politics. In the 1950s, as in the 1970s, contemporary and historical battles were inseparable in Furet’s mind.

The inconsistencies of Furet’s statements about when he entered and left the PCF and the discrepancy between his memories and the reality of the 1958–62 period may be read as a conscious or unconscious effort on his part to place himself strategically in the ideological structures of the critique of totalitarianism, according to which remaining in the party after 1956 or engaging in revisionism signified a certain lack of wisdom. To maintain that the “magic” of the party had been broken and that one had been “vaccinated” from communism [End Page 579] at an early date (the earlier the better) became a source of political legitimacy in a French intellectual community haunted by totalitarianism. In particular, those who had been in the party and had come out of it “vaccinated” against totalitarianism could maintain that they were more objective observers of communism and contemporary politics. The claim by former communists that they were vaccinated against communism and extremist politics was widespread.74 Furet himself did not tire of repeating it.75 He would later claim that if he was able to understand communism, “it is because I went through the interior experience of communism, even if only on a minuscule level.”76

Furet’s discourse on his past also indicates that he globally repudiated his communist engagement such that his memory of it was distorted and his responsibility for it was denied. The coherence and the content of his politics in the party was lost to his memory, and adhesion to communism became a sign of immaturity and maladjustment. Furet spoke of his period in the party as a “late adolescence” and claimed that, because he was afraid of autonomy and liberty, his becoming a communist was “a search for security before the anguish of life.”77 In this discourse, communism was a disease of youth, a virus against which one is eventually vaccinated, not the informed, rational political choice of a mature adult. In short, Furet’s memory of his communist and revisionist politics became reductive and communism became nearly inexplicable as a historical phenomenon.

The type of relationship that Furet had to his communist past was not uncommon for others of his generation in the France of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, this attitude was so widespread that Furet’s friend, historical collaborator, and fellow former communist Denis Richet,78 by contrast, found himself at the end of 1978 protesting the fashion “among some of my former comrades to renounce their past, to vainly [End Page 580] try to exorcise the ghost of it, to have left communism only to enter an anticommunism forgetful of its origins.” Richet saw no reason to “renounce that which was the essential, the participation in the combat for decolonization, the insertion in a milieu of militants that opened me up to treasures of human qualities, practical knowledge of political action.”79 Although ex-communist memory has presented pitfalls for others in different places and times,80 the period of the critique of totalitarianism was hardly a propitious moment for a balanced recollection of past political engagements. The gulf between their experience in the 1940s and 1950s and their situation in the 1970s made it difficult for Furet and his colleagues to fully reconstruct or understand their youth in the party. While the discredit into which communism had fallen discouraged their identification with their communist past, the contrast between the relative placidity of the politics of the 1970s—the debate over the Union of the Left notwithstanding—and the intense Manichaean politics of the early Cold War made the latter opaque and mysterious, difficult for them to fathom. Furthermore, their ascension to the ranks of the intellectual elite favored their repudiation of a past in which, at least in retrospect, they willingly subordinated their intelligence to that of the party leadership and of which they now had “guilty memories.”81

This reductive ex-communist memory of communism became in the years of the critique of totalitarianism the dominant memory of communism as a consequence of the mutually reinforcing relationship of this memory with the critique of totalitarianism and the disproportionate influence of former communists in French intellectual politics.82 Former communists established with remarkable success that their political judgment was (because tempered by their experience of [End Page 581] communism) particularly acute. Having been through the experience of communism, ex-communists were supposedly no longer susceptible to the “illusions” of extremist politics. As a consequence, when Furet was asked in an interview regarding his work Penser la Révolution française whether he was immune to the reproaches he had made to Marxist historians of the French Revolution for investing the Revolution with their present-day concerns, he not only admitted that he too was “rooted in a present,” but also claimed that his rootedness, contrary to that of the Marxists, “leads to a disinvestment of this past rather than to its superposition onto current situations.”83 Furet had no pretense that his history was objective, but he apparently believed that his subjectivity was more objective than that of others. In the climate of the critique of totalitarianism, Furet’s position was easily accepted.


Furet’s interest in the French Revolution dates back to the early 1950s. Indeed, if Le Roy Ladurie is to be believed, Furet and his friend Jean Poperen were at the time already engaged in a polemic with Albert Soboul, attacking him on his left with the writings of the Trotskyist historian Daniel Guérin.84 After writing in 1952 a diplôme d’études supérieures directed by Ernest Labrousse on the night of 4 August 1789, Furet began his first serious historical research in the mid-1950s when Fernand Braudel offered him a position at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS).85 At the CNRS, Furet worked on a doctoral thesis inspired and directed by Labrousse on the eighteenth-century Parisian bourgeoisie. Labrousse, conscious of the lack of significant research on the bourgeoisie that was supposedly the key actor in the “bourgeois” French Revolution, had “launched a campaign to track the bourgeoisie to his hiding place in the archives” and Furet responded to the call.86 Doing his research within the framework of Labrousse’s working group at the sixth section of the Ecole pratique des hautes études, Furet used notarial records to study the social structure of eighteenth-century Paris, hoping, he would later say, to find [End Page 582] the Revolution’s origins within it. Apparently disappointed by the decreasingly interesting results of his research and apparently convinced that he would not be able to explain the origins of the Revolution through an analysis of social stratification, Furet wrote a small book with Adeline Daumard on the social structure of Old Regime Paris and then abandoned his thesis.87 This decision was very important for Furet. In France the state doctorate was the most significant sign of intellectual legitimacy. By failing to complete it, Furet condemned himself to a certain marginality within French academia.88 According to Furet, the decision not to finish his thesis was in part political: “it is true that my political history was not perhaps without import on the conversion of problems and orientations that was going on with me at this moment.”89

Marginality relative to the republican university could be advantageous in some respects. Relatively marginal in the 1950s and 1960s, the Annales school of historians to which Furet belonged was, as a consequence of its marginality, open to foreign influences. The critique of the prevailing “social interpretation” of the French Revolution by Anglo-American scholars such as George Taylor and Alfred Cobban certainly greatly influenced Furet’s attack on the dominant historiography, although his innovative reinterpretation of the dynamic of revolutionary politics owes relatively little to foreign sources.90 Furthermore, the marginality of the Annales school encouraged its members [End Page 583] to invest their energies in the mass media as an alternative circuit of legitimization. Here too Furet was representative of his generation of Annales historians. He was very much engaged in journalism, writing on the French Revolution and other historical and political issues first in France-observateur and then in its successor Le Nouvel Observateur,91 an experience that would help Furet elaborate and sell an interpretation of the Revolution wedded to contemporary politics.92

Furet’s first important intervention in the interpretation of the French Revolution as a whole came in 1965 when he and Richet published La Révolution française. The impetus for the book came from the publisher, Hachette, which wanted to publish an illustrated history of the Revolution. Furet and Richet took advantage of the opportunity, however, to write a book that challenged the prevailing orthodox view of the Revolution upheld by the communist historian Soboul, who was soon (in 1967) appointed to the top position in the field, the chair of history of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne.93

The book was key to the development of Furet’s views on the Revolution. While working on the manuscript, he discovered the nineteenth-century liberal historiography of the French Revolution, which led him to reconsider the diversity of the Revolution’s political forms and, in particular, the relationship between 1789 and the Jacobin dictatorship. The book also marked a shift in Furet’s professional orientation from the eighteenth century to the revolutionary period—two eras kept separate in French historical periodization and academic structures. This shift was, in turn, closely related to the success of Furet’s and Richet’s effort to inaugurate a polemical debate with their attack on the established marxisant interpretation of the Revolution.94 The responses to La Révolution française provoked Furet to “better define” [End Page 584] the questions that interested him.95 Indeed, Furet, who had suffered from not having a historical subject of his own, found one in the Revolution as a result of the controversy surrounding the book.96

The mid- and late 1960s was a period of transition for Furet. In addition to finding his historical subject, Furet started to move away from Marxism and the Marxist Left to embrace a more liberal politics, abandoning both the PSU and political activism in the process. He soon entered the anticommunist liberal circles that had welcomed his La Révolution française and published a few articles in their journal, Preuves, in the late 1960s.97 Furet also curtailed his journalistic activity at France-observateur, although he continued to play an important role at Le Nouvel Observateur, being at the center of the negotiations surrounding its creation in 1964, occasionally contributing to the magazine, and decisively influencing it to support the “new history.”98 Finally, on a personal level, Furet ended his long rebellion against his bourgeois upbringing by marrying the sister of the grand bourgeois intellectual Pierre Nora.99 Furet was now everything that his youth—except, of course, his experience in the PCF—had shaped him to be: a left-leaning reformist, bourgeois intellectual.

In La Révolution française, Furet and Richet’s interpretive innovations were essentially two.100 First, they questioned the interpretation most coherently developed by Georges Lefebvre, according to which the three revolutions of 1789 (those of the bourgeois Third Estate representatives, of the urban populace, and of the peasants) were, despite their different aims, a bloc in that the 1789 bourgeois revolution was made possible and affected in its content by the popular revolutions. They argued that “there is not one revolution of the summer of 1789, nor even successive revolutions. There is a telescoping of three autonomous and simultaneous revolutions that upset the calendar of enlightened reformism.”101 For them the “true” content of the Revolution was defined by the philosophy of Enlightenment: tolerance, liberty, [End Page 585] equality, the rights of man, and the critiques of despotism and of the Church. The popular intervention in 1789 “transforms the rhythms of revolution; it does not yet touch its content.”102

Because the popular revolutions are seen as almost totally independent of the 1789 bourgeois revolution and the content of the bourgeois revolution is defined exclusively by Enlightenment philosophy, the radicalization of politics after a “happy year” (the title of chapter 4) is considered accidental, a dérapage (skidding off course) of the Revolution. The “accidents” that led to the dérapage of the bourgeoisie’s “liberal revolution to which the eighteenth century gave birth” are the use of the assignat as money and the recourse to inflation, the division of the revolutionary elite, the flight of the king, and the war. Here, as in Furet’s later writings, the counterrevolution was not to blame. It was in fact powerless, although it could produce—presumably, accidentally—“the collective psychosis of a perpetual plot and thereby give rise to disorders.”103

Although Furet and Richet maintained that the Revolution was bourgeois, in the course of their exposition, they offered some challenges to the social interpretation of the Revolution. In addition to attacking unnamed historians for abusively reading 1793 as a precursor to 1871 or to 1917, they held that the Montagnards and Girondins did not differ in their social origins and that the Enlightenment was far from being uniquely bourgeois. They also tended to minimize the importance of the popular movement of 1793–94, proclaiming that it was an accident that announced nothing for the future. The sans-culottes militants were portrayed as a minority that imposed its will on the sections, and the motives of the revolutionary crowds were relegated to the irrational by gratuitous psychologizing.104 For example, Furet and Richet asked whether the fear of an aristocratic plot was not due to the “resurgence of the old terrors that periodically seize the unconsciousness of the humble” or whether “the adoration of the ‘holy pike’ (by the sans-culottes) does not mask a very old symbolism of sexual origin.” Furthermore, they contended that the forms taken by punitive action during the September massacres were “incontestably of sexual origin.”105

The most important immediate response to Furet and Richet by [End Page 586] the defenders of orthodoxy was that of Claude Mazauric, who gave their Révolution française an extended analysis in 1967 in the journal of the then dominant historiography, the Annales historiques de la Révolution française.106 Ever since Furet’s devastating critique of the “revolutionary catechism” of the communist historians of the Revolution, it has been easy to dismiss Mazauric’s review as nothing more than a call to political orthodoxy written in a “commissarial tone.”107 In fact, Mazauric offered an intelligent and not always irrelevant response to Furet and Richet, despite the political garb in which it was clothed. Indeed, by adding bibliographical references to and by deleting psychoanalytical references from the second edition (1973) of La Révolution française, Furet and Richet implicitly recognized the validity of two of Mazauric’s more minor critiques: that it is irresponsible not to include a scholarly apparatus in a book challenging existing interpretations and that their gratuitous psychoanalytical references were inappropriate.108

Mazauric’s principal criticism of the work was that its refusal to see the Revolution as a bloc and the corollary of this refusal, the thesis of dérapage, were simply wrong. The 1789 bourgeois revolution was possible only because the bourgeoisie accepted the support and demands of the popular classes. As for the dérapage thesis, it relied on wishful thinking: the supposition that the bourgeois revolution had to be liberal. In fact, during the period of the so-called dérapage, the bourgeoisie realized its major, illiberal goal: the extermination of the counterrevolution.109

Curiously, by virtue of its challenges to the connection that Furet and Richet made between the French Revolution and liberalism and its insistence on the Revolution’s inevitable radicalism, Mazauric’s interpretation of the Revolution has more in common with Furet’s analysis in Penser la Révolution française and his later works than does La Révolution française of 1965. For example, Mazauric’s contention that the Feuillants’ failure was a consequence of their “lack of audacity”110 runs contrary to La Révolution française, which holds Louis XVI’s inability to compromise responsible for the Feuillants’ fate, but it is strikingly [End Page 587] similar to the analysis offered in the 1988 Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française edited by Furet and Mona Ozouf.111 And while La Révolution française considers the war to have been an accident that led to a dérapage of the Revolution, Mazauric insists that it was not fortuitous. He asks, “Can one affirm that the war is at the origin of the so-called dérapage of the Revolution if it is almost a natural component of it?”112 Although Furet would ridicule Mazauric’s analysis of the war in his 1971 article “Le Catéchisme revolutionnaire,”113 by 1978 the war would become for Furet too a necessary consequence of the revolutionary dynamic established in 1789. If on these points Mazauric seems to anticipate the later Furet, it is not because Furet ever admitted that Mazauric was right—far from it; rather, it is because the later Furet, like Mazauric, came to see the Revolution as a bloc governed by a logic, ideological in Furet’s case, that largely determined its development from 1789 to 1794.

The polemic launched by La Révolution française and Mazauric’s response to it became increasingly acrimonious. Soboul added fuel to the fire with his 1970 preface to a collection of Mazauric’s articles in which he lambasted “certain, in this case more publicists than historians, ungrateful sons or renegades of ‘our common mother’” who had brought the advances of a half a century of historiography into question.114 The exchange reached a vitriolic anticlimax when Richet publicly accused Soboul’s Crise de l’Ancien Régime, volume 1 of La Civilization de la Révolution française, of plagiarizing his work and used the occasion to ironically comment on Soboul’s use of authors on whom Soboul cast anathemas. While Soboul humbly apologized for his oversights and vowed to correct them in the second edition of his book, he found Richet’s attack to be confirmation of the correctness of his prefatory remarks in Mazauric’s book.115

As the content of this exchange hints, intellectual and ideological differences were only part of what separated Soboul from Furet; issues of temperament, personality, and identity were key. Soboul had been a war orphan, a ward of the state, and as a Pupille de la Nation, he had been ensured a free education. Owing his opportunities to the republic (and, by extension, the French Revolution), Soboul had worked hard [End Page 588] and, although he had failed to gain admittance to ENS (like Furet), he rose to the top of the academic hierarchy by virtue of his excellent state thesis on the sans-culottes. A man with a strong sense of loyalty, Soboul defended the meritocratic but hierarchical values of the French state and educational system just as he defended the Revolution. Consequently, Soboul was openly and bitterly hostile to the sixth section of the Ecole pratique des hautes études because, he believed, it competed “unfairly” with the university and allowed individuals to advance in the academic hierarchy without submitting to the difficult tests—notably, the state doctorate—that he had successfully endured. Soboul’s commitment to the PCF was also rooted in loyalty, in this case to his communist aunt who had raised him from age eight. At least according to Richard Cobb, Soboul was a far-from-orthodox communist who easily forgave the heresy of others, but he could not forgive those who failed to stick with the party.116 Similarly, Mazauric, who had known Furet from when they were both tubercular communist students in the early 1950s, received Furet’s abandonment of the party as an “unbearable break that was moreover more affective than political.”117

Furet, whom Soboul wrote off as an “ambitious young arriviste,”118 was everything that Soboul despised. He had abandoned his state doctorate and was making his way up the academic hierarchy through the back staircase, the “chapelle braudélienne.” He had also abandoned the PCF. When Furet began to attack the marxisant historiography of the French Revolution from the Right, Soboul undoubtedly found plenty of reason to hold Furet in contempt. In turn, Furet—exposed to Soboul’s disdain and indignant over the laxness and doctrinaire nature of Soboul’s more recent histories of the Revolution—was decidedly angry when he sat down to write his withering attack on Soboul’s “revolutionary catechism.”119

The rhetorical strategy of Furet’s 1971 article, “Le Catéchisme révolutionnaire,” reflected this anger. Rather than directly address the [End Page 589] criticisms made of La Révolution française, Furet went on the offensive. Indeed, he only half-heartedly defended his 1965 book, which he implicitly abandoned by admitting that he would not rewrite it the same way.120 Rather, Furet masterfully turned Mazauric’s political rhetoric against him in order to accuse him and Soboul of having produced a vulgate that, because it identified completely with the revolutionaries, commemorated and relived the Revolution rather than interpreted or analyzed it. Furet argued that, although the French Revolution has been read ever since the histories of Albert Mathiez as a bourgeois revolution and the precursor to the proletarian revolution to come, its historians have been more neo-Jacobin than Marxist. Consequently, Soboul’s analysis of the eighteenth century was little more than a rehashing of Emmanuel Sieyès’s pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? and the so-called Marxist interpretation of the Terror as a phase in the bourgeois revolution contradicted Marx’s own analysis of the Terror as a consequence of the state becoming its own end.

Furet’s critique was merciless, effective, and written with tremendous rhetorical force. His analysis of Mazauric’s and Soboul’s writings made them look ridiculous. They were “Marxists” who did not even know Marx and armchair revolutionaries who relived the Revolution rather than wrote its history. On two historiographical points Furet’s critique was decisive. First, the French Revolution’s origins were much more complicated than Soboul would have it. Second, the concept of “bourgeois revolution” had been abusively used to unite all elements of the Revolution into one total explanation. It was deemed to explain the Revolution’s economic, social, and politico-ideological course and outcome “as if the heart of the event, its most fundamental character, was of a social nature.”121 If the concept of bourgeois revolution were to be used, it would have to be controlled and limited.

In his article “Le Catéchisme révolutionnaire,” Furet offered a cogent synthesis of recent research that had been slowly bringing into question parts of the prevailing “social” or “Marxist” interpretation of the Revolution and drew out some of the conclusions implicit in this new research. The most difficult work remained to be done: the construction of an alternative interpretation of the revolutionary dynamic. To be sure, Furet concluded his essay with some suggestive comments on the importance of Jacobin ideology in fueling this dynamic, but a fully developed analysis emerged only with his 1978 Penser la Révolution française when French intellectuals were in the midst of their antitotalitarian moment. [End Page 590]

Between the publication of La Révolution française and that of Penser la Révolution française, French politics and intellectual life changed a great deal. The events of 1968 and post-1968 gauchisme came and went; de Gaulle departed from the scene; the PCF and the PS advanced close to political power; and, of course, the critique of totalitarianism began to occupy the center stage in French intellectual politics. How did Furet negotiate his way through this decade of change? On the one hand, he placed himself within the camp of the Aronians in the late 1960s, seemingly regretting that the political disillusionment of progressisme had led intellectuals to structuralism rather than the liberal and empirical critique of Marxism offered by Raymond Aron.122 Yet, on the other hand, in 1968, Furet did not follow Aron, who, enraged by the student movement, launched an appeal for the creation of a Comité d’action contre la conjuration de la lâcheté et du terrorisme [Action committee against the conspiracy of cowardice and terrorism] in early June 1968.123 In 1970 when Aron, Alain Besançon, and others founded the journal Contrepoint, which took a right-wing liberal position frankly hostile to the movements that emerged out of 1968, Furet refused to join them. According to Furet, “As opposed to someone like Raymond Aron, with whom I discussed it at the time, I did not live the event [May 1968] either in fear or in a state of tension.” Furet did not believe that the French university system deserved to be defended. He also never feared that extremists would take over, because “a certain wisdom told me that when the banks and the Communist Party are against something, it cannot work.”124

Furet’s reformist attitude and previous contacts with Edgar Faure, whom he had met in the late 1950s and had assisted with the research for Faure’s 1961 book La Disgrâce de Turgot, 12 mai 1776, which Furet subsequently reviewed in France-observateur,125 opened the door for him to become one of Faure’s counselors for his Loi d’orientation de l’enseignement supérieur of October 1968. This reorganized the French university system in response to the May 1968 crisis. Although Furet believed that a modernization and democratization of the educational system was important, he did not see the crisis as having its origin in [End Page 591] the university. Rather, the principal problem was the permanent adolescence to which French society condemned its youth because it was unwilling to allow for advancement by means other than seniority and diplomas. Although Furet saw the maintenance of an extended adolescence as the product of the actions of society as a whole, he had little patience with the post-1968 Gaullist state, which, instead of attacking the root cause of the problem, retreated into “the sterile cycle of police repression and moralizing homily.”126 Furet believed that he had experienced the trial of a “late adolescence” and the tyranny of the diploma, and he did not wish them on the younger generation.

When the decline of post-1968 radicalism came, Furet was well placed to take advantage of the conjuncture. He remained on the Left, albeit its reformist wing; and as a keen observer of intellectual and party politics, about which he occasionally wrote in Le Nouvel Observateur, he knew where the intellectual Left was going. Furet could address its concerns from within its political problematic. Not blinded by fear of student radicalism, he clearly saw that the surge in Marxism and revolutionary politics after 1968 was not as deep a current as some believed. Furet believed that student Marxism was more a sign of the rupture of youth with traditional channels of integration than a serious commitment. If the student revolutionary is most often Marxist, he wrote, it is “in order to better break with what he considers to be ‘established’ Marxism.” If the revolutionary venerates Mao, Guevara, or Castro, “it is in the exact measure that it is a matter not of real historic leaders, but of myths created by him for his exclusive use.” The student is less interested in third-world revolution than in “discrediting official communism, Soviet bureaucratism, and the conservatism of the communist parties.” In France, references to third-world revolutionaries are more signs of “student revolutionary amnesia” than “symbols of a true loyalty.”127

Whereas others saw a danger in the post-1968 revolutionary movements, Furet understood how weak they were—just as he understood how hyperbolic communist historians’ political rhetoric was regarding the French Revolution. The same year that Furet exposed the ambiguous nature of student Marxism, he commented in his response to Mazauric’s political interrogations that “this debate in its politico-theatrical aspect is in reality a farce or a shadow combat. On the political level, neither anything nor anyone in today’s France threatens the achievements of the French Revolution. . . . all historical debate regarding [End Page 592] it no longer has a real political stake.”128 As early as 1971, Furet saw the possibility of moving intellectual politics to the center.

After 1974, when the intellectual Left’s critique of totalitarianism emerged, Furet, although not among the critique’s originators and largely outside the direct-democratic politics that initially inspired it, was attentive to its development. In 1975 he wrote a hagiographic review of Solzhenitsyn’s Oak and the Calf and an article on the influence of Solzhenitsyn that discussed Elleinstein’s Phénomène stalinien and Glucksmann’s Cuisinière et le mangeur d’hommes.129 Furet believed that Solzhenitsyn had succeeded in making the link between Marxism and the Soviet Union “the unthinkable [impensable] of the Western Left” and that there would be “a before and an after Solzhenitsyn.” He clearly understood that Elleinstein, his back to the wall, had failed politically. Furet concluded that Elleinstein’s attempt to save Marxism from Stalinism by blaming Stalinism’s horrific features on the legacy of the Russian past was uninteresting because, even if one accepts that Elleinstein salvaged a “Marxism with clean hands,” it was still a “Marxism without hands.” But Furet was not, at least at this point, convinced by Glucksmann’s book, which he qualified as “a Parisian soapbox declamation in a rather empty season.” Nor did he believe that one should “put Marx on trial before the Russell tribunal . . . on the pretext that the Bolsheviks deified the most extraordinary mind of the nineteenth century.” For Furet, Glucksmann, the late gauchiste, had, through an abusive use of Foucault, done little more than “return to his camp after losing it: that which he detests in Soviet socialism is Western capitalism!”130

But Furet did not maintain his distance from the emerging critique of totalitarianism for long. By 1977 he too was willing to accept the gulag’s discrediting of Marxism. Discussing Louis Dumont’s Homo aequalis and Glucksmann’s Maitres penseurs, Furet wrote: “Today, Marx no longer escapes his heritage, and the boomerang effect is that much stronger for having been so long delayed.”131 Whatever reservations he may have had about Glucksmann’s Cuisinière, Furet had come to the conclusion that the gulag undermined the legitimacy of Marxism and revolution.132 Furthermore, the critique of totalitarianism also made [End Page 593] inroads into Furet’s ideas on politics such that for him, as for antitotalitarians like the new philosophers, politics itself became a dubious undertaking; only moral battles remained worthy causes. Asked in an interview occasioned by the publication of his Penser la Révolution française if there were any Bastilles left to take, Furet responded, “No, and for some time now: I want to say that there are no more battles in the twentieth century that are not dubious. And this explains why Sartre is far from being Voltaire!” Questioned about totalitarianism, torture, and racism, Furet continued: “Of course, those are decisive battles that are totally unambiguous. The novelty of this last quarter century is that they are not political but rather moral concerns.”133 This is a telling statement from someone who rejected and criticized revolutionary ideology for its reduction of politics to morality and a Manichaean battle between good and evil. Apparently, antitotalitarianism escaped from a similar critique because “totalitarianism” was evil.

In Penser la Révolution française, Furet—commenting on the conditions that make his reinterpretation of the French Revolution possible—recycled the boomerang image that he had previously used against Marxism to extend the “gulag effect” to the French Revolution:

Solzhenitsyn’s work has become the basic historical reference for the Soviet experience, ineluctably locating the issue of the gulag at the very core of the revolutionary endeavor. Once that happened, the Russian example was bound to turn around, like a boomerang, to strike its French “origin.” In 1920, Mathiez justified Bolshevik violence by the French precedent, in the name of comparable circumstances. Today the gulag is leading to a rethinking of the Terror by virtue of an identity in their projects. The two revolutions remain connected; but while fifty years ago they were systematically absolved on the basis of excuses related to “circumstances,” that is, external phenomena that had nothing to do with the nature of the two revolutions, they are today, by contrast, accused of being, consubstantially, systems of meticulous constraint over men’s bodies and minds.134

Furet clearly saw that that the critique of totalitarianism was leading the intellectual Left “to criticize its own ideology, interpretations, hopes, and rationalizations. It is in left-wing culture that the sense of distance between history and the Revolution is taking root, precisely because it was the Left that believed that all history was contained in the promises of the Revolution.”135 The critique of totalitarianism [End Page 594] made possible Furet’s new interpretation of the Revolution and gave it a significance that extended far beyond revolutionary historiography. Centering, as he would say in 1982, his own work around the problem “of the relations between democracy and totalitarianism, a problem that appears to me to be characteristic of the communist experience” and finding the French Revolution to be “the moment in which the continued ambiguities of the democratic phenomenon appear,” Furet was “led to propose a critical analysis of the French Revolution without which the entire experience of the twentieth century is unintelligible.”136

Furet’s political and interpretive maneuver was bold, a defining moment in his career. Much more than a marker of the circumstances in which his book was written, Furet’s reference to the gulag entailed a declaration of interpretive intent. Following Glucksmann’s example, Furet would use the discredit into which the Soviet Union had fallen to reverse the significance of the connection Mathiez made between Jacobinism and Bolshevism, discredit Jacobinism, and taint it with totalitarianism. Furet vertiginously substituted historiography for history and the politics of interpretation for interpretation itself, thereby lodging—as much as any historian before him—contemporary politics at the heart of the Revolution’s history. Furthermore, Furet’s rethinking of the French Revolution in light of contemporary condemnations of Marxism, revolution, and Jacobinism as totalitarian did not deviate from the terms of analysis offered by contemporary antitotalitarianism. Rather, in asserting that the dynamic of revolutionary ideology, most fully developed in Jacobinism, necessarily led to and was the sole cause of the Terror, Furet stuck to the path blazed by recent analyses of totalitarianism and marked by the failure of Elleinstein’s history of Stalinism. The result was politically explosive but intellectually suspect, a contravention of professional historians’ most basic admonitions against anachronism. With Penser la Révolution française, Furet wagered on politics and historiography, a bet that he would continue to make for the rest of his career.

That which was new in this book, and places it squarely within the critique of totalitarianism, is its emphasis on revolutionary ideology as the key to understanding the Revolution’s development from 1789 to 1794. Furet had not developed this argument before 1976. To be sure, he had already taken a tentative first step in this direction in the last pages of his article “Le Catéchisme révolutionnaire.” There he argued, contrary to the interpretation of La Révolution française, that it was necessary [End Page 595] to explain why the radicalization of the Revolution began as early as summer 1789. Furet suggested that Jacobin ideology could explain this radicalization as it functions largely independently of political and military circumstances as a “source of surenchère [escalation] all the more indefinite since politics is disguised as morality and the principle of reality has disappeared.” But Furet did not offer any further explanation and was unwilling to push his argument very far. He contended that the war and the invasion were not circumstances totally independent of the Revolution, as the Revolution had wanted the war, but suggested that only the Great Terror of 1794 could be understood independent of circumstances. “The first two terrorist eruptions, those of August 1792 and of the summer of 1793” were, he wrote, “evidently linked to the conjuncture of national emergency.”137 Furet went no further than this until 1976, when, under the influence of the critique of totalitarianism, he developed his ideas on revolutionary consciousness.138

Furet’s September 1976 Esprit article outlining the characteristics of revolutionary consciousness was directly a product of the critique of totalitarianism. Furet first presented his ideas in an Esprit-sponsored discussion on revolution in early 1976 and then developed them into publishable form in response to a request by Thibaud, who organized the critique of totalitarianism at the journal Esprit.139 Published in an issue titled “Revolution and Totalitarianism,” Furet’s article did not belie the rubric.

In his article, Furet argued that the French Revolution inaugurated the idea of Revolution—still “at the center of our political representations”—which radically divides the world into a before and after such that everything before the Revolution is evil and condemned to die while that which comes after is good. The revolutionary consciousness [End Page 596] makes a tremendous psychological and ideological investment in politics; all problems come to have political solutions. In dividing the world into good and bad, the revolutionary ideology shows its “essential intolerance.” It invests the objective universe with subjective wills “of leaders and scapegoats. . . . the action of the good and the plots of the bad. . . . In brief, for the revolutionary consciousness, action does not have objective limits; it only has adversaries.” These aspects of revolutionary consciousness are “at work in French revolutionary discourse right away, as if there had been a hole to cover or a vacuum to fill.” Not only is this revolutionary consciousness present in the discourse, but “society naturally lodges in it and immediately marries its logic.”140

Significantly, here and in all his later texts, Furet’s interpretation of the revolutionary dynamic is no less dependent on the revolutionary actors’ consciousness of their actions than the historiography Furet reviles. When he argues that the revolutionaries’ Manichaean ideology effectively guided their actions, Furet accepts that there was a total transparency between their discourse on the Revolution and their actions as revolutionaries. Even more, for Furet the history of the French Revolution is its discourse: “Read the speeches of Robespierre and Marat, and you will see that the revolutionary dynamic assumes and maintains with an incredible constancy the theme of the plot.”141

In his contemporary discussion of Furet’s 1976 article, the antitotalitarian and libertarian political philosopher Lefort cautioned Furet that his explanation oversimplified the experience of revolution and accepted the idea of Revolution at face value142: “One cannot problematize revolution in holding to its idea—or, more specifically, to the self-representation of actors who behave like missionaries of universal History and claim that the Revolution speaks from their mouths. [This idea of Revolution] . . . would not have been formed or would have remained deprived of efficacy if a mass uprising had been lacking.”143 Although Furet might not have disagreed with this point, Lefort carried the argument into areas that challenged the premises of Furet’s analysis. Lefort argued that revolutions begin without those who revolt having a clear notion of the new order. With the collapse [End Page 597] of the old order’s legitimacy, a vast space is opened up in which diverse collectivities reorganize society and politics. The revolutionary upheaval owes nothing to the idea of Revolution; indeed, the diversity of forms that the Revolution takes makes it hard to speak of Revolution in the singular. The idea of Revolution is the product of this revolutionary upheaval and consequently is neither the first nor the only force shaping the course of revolutions. Perhaps because he lacked Lefort’s libertarian perspective, Furet could find neither virtue nor agency in the revolutionary masses and remained convinced that they could only be their leaders’ tools. Heedless of Lefort’s warnings, Furet’s Penser la Revolution française reads like an extended discussion of the singular importance of revolutionary consciousness in determining the course of the French Revolution.

Penser la Révolution française is a curious book; it is neither a history of the French Revolution nor a book on the historiography of the Revolution, although it contains elements of both. A collection of essays united by a single problem, it is a programmatic statement and a provocation from beginning to end. Its title conveys both an implicit interpretation of the historiography and an imperative: although recent historians have supposedly only relived the French Revolution, Furet commands the reader to think about it and interpret it.

The book consists of two parts. The first, titled “La Révolution française est terminée,” presents a synthesis of Furet’s position in 1978. The second, “Trois histoires possibles de la Révolution française,” consists of three historiographical essays—the first two of which (“Le Catéchisme révolutionnaire” and an essay on Tocqueville) had previously been published—that trace the evolution of Furet’s historiographical musings. The book effectively starts where Furet had left his question in 1971. Then, in “Le Catéchisme révolutionnaire,” he had argued that the critique of the Soboulian interpretation of the Revolution opened up the question of the revolutionary dynamic. As for Tocqueville, Furet found him provocative and useful insofar as Tocqueville broke from the consciousness of the revolutionaries to develop an explanation of the Revolution. Tocqueville’s fundamental contribution was his observation that in revolutionary periods an ideological veil hides “the profound meaning of the events from the actors,” which in the case of the French Revolution was a continuation and acceleration of the processes of democratization and centralization.144 Although Tocqueville had momentary insights into the dynamic character of revolutionary ideology, he remained a prisoner of his thesis of continuity and failed [End Page 598] to develop these insights. Where Tocqueville fell short, Furet found an explanation of the revolutionary dynamic in the work of Augustin Cochin.

Cochin, whose reputation Furet sought to rehabilitate, was the historiographical linchpin of Furet’s new interpretation. Furet saw in Cochin someone like Tocqueville who eschewed explanation by narrative in favor of conceptual or critical history. It is essentially for this reason, argued Furet, and not because of his counterrevolutionary stance or the quality of his scholarship, that Mathiez and Alphonse Aulard—the dominant historians of the French Revolution of the first quarter of the twentieth century—rejected and failed to understand Cochin’s work. As historians who could only imagine explanation in the narrative mode and who were intent on reliving rather than analyzing the Revolution, Mathiez and Aulard could not comprehend Cochin. As a result of their rejection of Cochin and an essential continuity in the presuppositions of the leading historians of the Revolution, Cochin had never been taken seriously.145

Contrary to Furet’s picture of a Cochin who had been ignored and poorly understood, Cochin’s work had been given a fair hearing. Historians carefully evaluated his work and rejected it because Cochin failed to provide the evidence that would have been needed to support his conclusions. For example, Jean Egret, the premier expert of his generation on the prerevolution, analyzed Cochin’s most significant empirical study, Les Sociétiés de pensée et la Révolution en Bretagne (1788–1789), and concluded that “Augustin Cochin has constructed a seductive thesis that does not stand up to a close examination of the facts.” And if Mathiez rejected Cochin’s thesis and use of sociology in his review of the same book, it was not, as Furet implied, because Mathiez necessarily rejected sociology in general. Rather, Mathiez argued that Cochin had no evidence to support his argument and that his “sociological law” was consequently nothing more than a replacement for the role that providence had played in older counterrevolutionary histories.146

The implications of Furet’s contention that there had been a conspiracy of silence about Cochin’s work are important. It allowed Furet to treat Cochin’s theses as essentially correct because they were unrefuted. [End Page 599] Cochin, Furet implied, could be trusted because even though he had a “philosophical mind,” as a graduate of the Ecole des chartes, he had also “learned the rules of erudition.”147 That the evidence needed to seriously establish Cochin’s thesis—the archives of the Masonic and philosophical societies—had become available only after World War II did not bother Furet, who made no visible effort to consult them.148 Having established Cochin’s scholarly credentials and politically and epistemologically (because their epistemology was said to follow from their commemorative politics) discredited Cochin’s critics, Furet ignored the questions of evidence that were at the center of earlier objections to Cochin’s work and thereby cleared the way for his elaboration of an explanation of the revolutionary dynamic based on Cochin.

While the legitimacy of Furet’s use of Cochin was ensured by the ambient suspicion of communist intellectuals during the critique of totalitarianism, the vogue for oligarchic theories of democracy in the late 1970s in the wake of disappointment with hopes placed on direct democracy also contributed to it. Rosanvallon, a leading theorist of autogestion become antitotalitarian, revived the works of Moisei Ostrogorski and Robert Michels to criticize the functioning of political parties and elucidate the difficulties of autogestionnaire socialism. Likewise, the socialist intellectual Martinet, reflecting on the Portuguese Revolution, concluded that in Portugal direct democracy had proven to be dangerous because, as in the sections during the French Revolution, “spontaneous expression gave way to manipulation.” Other intellectuals, notably Furet’s friends and fellow former communists Alain Besançon and Annie Kriegel, were also drawn to Cochin in this period. Cochin’s work figured prominently in Besançon’s Origines intellectuelles du Léninisme and was well received by Kriegel who, like Besançon, believed that Cochin “illuminated the modes of action and organization of the Bolshevik party.” In 1979, Cochin’s Sociétés de pensée et la démocratie was republished with a laudatory preface by the sociologist Jean Baechler.149 [End Page 600]

Although his work was useful in 1978, Cochin proved to be less attractive over time. When in subsequent years Furet sought to consolidate the scholarly legitimacy of his new interpretation of the revolution, he dropped direct references to Cochin. For example, the section of his 1988 Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française on historians of the Revolution did not include an entry on Cochin. And, in their dictionary article “Clubs et sociétés populaires,” Furet’s students Patrice Gueniffey and Ran Halévi, although hanging onto Cochin’s “intuition,” admitted that Cochin’s historical practice was “occasionally rash and his erudition faltering.”150

Furet’s use of Cochin is also important for the politics that it entailed. Cochin’s work had been a staple of the twentieth-century right-wing historiography of the French Revolution because it was well adapted to the Right’s needs in an era of mass democracy. Instead of blaming the Revolution on the passionate masses as Hippolyte Taine had done in part, Cochin tried to demonstrate that popular sovereignty deceives the people. With Cochin, the Right could mobilize the masses and be against the Revolution in good faith. Indeed, Cochin proved to be a key influence on Pierre Gaxotte’s right-wing history of the Revolution. During Vichy, while Lefebvre’s Coming of the French Revolution was burned by the regime, Cochin’s thesis became through Gaxotte the quasi-official history of the Revolution.151 That Furet could adopt Cochin without even openly considering his politics and the politics of those who had used him was possible only because Furet had established an enormous distance between himself and the antifascism that had been the staple of his politics of the 1940s and 1950s. In arguing as he did that “the Revolution is over,” Furet contended that the battles of his youth were if not without significance then at least no longer relevant to the world of the 1970s. It mattered little to Furet if he drew from the counterrevolutionary tradition, as long as he brought an end to revolution as a model for political change.

According to Furet, Cochin’s thesis was that Jacobinism was a developed [End Page 601] form of the philosophical society of the second half of the eighteenth century.152 The members of these societies divested themselves of all social distinctions and interests. Comprised of abstractly equal individuals, these societies became machines to manufacture a democratic consensus. As precursors to the institution of a Rousseauian general will in society, they become the matrix upon which the political culture of the Revolution would be built. They become “a model for pure, not representative, democracy, in which the collective will always lays down the law.”153 But the sovereignty of the collective will is a fiction; pure democracy necessarily entails a machine or inner circle that manufactures and controls consensus. This machine is an objective force, the consequence of a sociological law of democracy. Because of this, those within the inner circle were as much manipulated as manipulators, and the transfer of the model of the philosophical societies to society as a whole was not—despite the key role of militant minorities—the product of a plot. The position of the leaders, sociologically necessary but illegitimate within the ideology of direct democracy, was precarious. As a consequence, there was a cascade of purges and usurpations of power. Jacobinism was merely the full development of this model. In 1793 it ruled in the name of le peuple on the basis of a fictitious consensus over a society imagined to be one with the state. Resistances to this fictitious consensus were crushed by a murderous application of the revolutionary ideology. Furet’s conclusion is provocative: “Through the general will, the people-king now corresponds mythically with power; this belief is the matrix of totalitarianism.” According to Furet, Cochin discovered a central feature of the French Revolution and revolutions that followed. Indeed, he described “in advance many of the features of Leninist Bolshevism.”154 Furet believed that he had found in Cochin’s work the explanation of the mechanism by which societies take up and follow the logic of revolutionary consciousness.

In accepting the bulk of Cochin’s analysis as if it were proven, Furet avoided the very questions that should have been addressed. Furet’s contention that Cochin had discovered a sociological law, or rather a sociological law relevant to the history of the French Revolution, is exactly what had to be demonstrated. Otherwise, Cochin’s [End Page 602] thin empirical work was nothing more than a paranoid effort to prove that the philosophical societies were behind every corner manipulating French public opinion—against its better judgment—into revolution. Indeed, before he discovered the virtues of “sociology,” Cochin was quite willing to argue that the Revolution of 1789 was the product of a conspiracy.155

Despite his willingness to accept Cochin’s primary thesis at face value, Furet was not entirely uncritical of Cochin. He found troublesome Cochin’s failure to explain the origin of the ideology of direct democracy. More important, he criticized Cochin for presupposing that direct democracy was the only model of politics available during the revolutionary years. Furet was not sure that Cochin’s analysis “does justice to the efforts made in 1790 to establish a representative democracy, and that it does not overemphasize a retrospective historical ‘necessity.’”156

Whatever reservations Furet had about Cochin’s analysis were abandoned in the first part of Penser la Révolution française, which presented Furet’s position in 1978. In this essay, “La Révolution française est terminée,” Furet elaborated on the interpretive shortcomings of the Jacobin-Marxist school, which, according to Furet, almost all derive from its identification with the consciousness of the actors in the Revolution. In addition, Furet developed his analysis of the revolutionary dynamic. As in his 1976 article, Furet contended that 1789 created revolutionary consciousness that is nothing other than the illusion of politics. Everything has a political solution; and if these political solutions fail, the revolutionary consciousness sees it to be not a result of objective obstacles but of the opposition of subjective wills or the enemy. Furet argued that the French Revolution invented democracy, but he defined the Revolution’s democratic politics as a system of beliefs and a new legitimacy according to which “the ‘people,’ to install liberty and equality, which are the finalities of collective action, must break the resistance of its enemies.” The Revolution also opened up society to “all its possibilities,” but these possibilities were hardly probable, as the Revolution from 1789 to 1794 was a “rapid drift from a compromise with the representative principle toward the absolute triumph of this rule of opinion: a logical evolution because from its origins the Revolution constituted power with opinion.” As with Cochin, for Furet “circumstances” explain nothing about the radicalization of [End Page 603] the Revolution; “ideological one-upmanship [surenchère] is the rule of the new system’s game.”157 The model of political sociability that had emerged in the philosophical societies of the eighteenth century became the model of political sociability for all of France. The Terror was a product of 1789, the delirious consequence of the application of the ideas of equality and direct democracy.

Contemporary French reviews of Penser la Révolution française demonstrate that Furet’s work was read in the context of the critique of totalitarianism. Jean Chesneaux, writing in Le Monde diplomatique, found Furet’s book to be no less politically motivated than those that Furet himself critiqued. Furet’s intervention [démarche] is, Chesneaux said, the same as that of the New Philosophers, the New History, and the Trilateral Commission. His book is a “rallying to the established order” that “hides behind an apparently unattackable approach—the rejection of the gulag and of totalitarianism.” Other critics also saw the affiliation of Furet’s work with antitotalitarianism but viewed it more favorably. Le Roy Ladurie believed that the great merit of Furet’s book was precisely that it had found in eighteenth-century philosophical societies “prodromes” of the communist parties of the twentieth century. Roger Chartier noted in his favorable review that Cochin’s model of the logic of functioning of democratic societies can, if used with care, “have a heuristic value for revolutionary situations other than the French and root in reason the comparisons that the reader of F. Furet cannot avoid making between the functioning of Jacobin pure democracy and that of more recent revolutionary and militant experiments.” Many reviewers of Furet’s book saw the connection it made between 1789 and totalitarianism, and two of the most prestigious of these critics found it plausible if not correct.158

The two most sophisticated French reviews of Furet, those by Lefort and Jean-Pierre Hirsch, also noticed the antitotalitarian thrust of the book, although Lefort argued that Furet did not mean to “find totalitarianism in the Jacobin ideal” or to “confuse the system of the gulag with that of the Terror.”159 In his 1980 review, as in his 1976 critique [End Page 604] of Furet’s ideas on revolutionary consciousness, Lefort tried to save Furet from himself and the innovations of the Revolution from Furet’s critique of its political illusions. Lefort regretted—although at the same time finding the omission understandable—that Furet had only mentioned that the French Revolution saw the invention of democratic politics and culture without indicating what this was or how it differed from “the phantasmagoria of popular power.” For essentially the same reason, Lefort questioned the wisdom of following Cochin.160 Finally, Lefort suggested that both the difficulty that representative democracy had in establishing itself and the “excesses” of the Revolution may have less to do with ideology than the fact that the Revolution opened up a vast space for the development of society and an infinite debate on the foundations of legitimacy.161 While generously giving Furet the benefit of the doubt, Lefort argued for an interpretation of the French Revolution that focused more on the birth of democratic politics than its negation in totalitarianism.


Furet’s work on the French Revolution in the 1980s closely followed the choices of Penser la Révolution française in favor of historiography and an interpretation of the Revolution, inscribed in contemporary politics, in terms of the dynamic of revolutionary ideology. Penser la Révolution française’s passing references to poststructuralist approaches to language and politics—which, as Mark Poster has shown, do not add up to a poststructuralist or postmodern interpretation of the Revolution—were not developed in Furet’s later work.162 Rather than explicitly engaging poststructuralist thought, developing a clear and unambiguous position on the relationship between language and politics, or returning to the archives, Furet devoted his energies to studying nineteenth-century historiography and its politics, believing that it held the key to a reconceptualization of the history of the French Revolution. Nineteenth-century historiography was the focus of Furet’s 1986 books on the interpretations of the Revolution by Edgar Quinet and Marx. [End Page 605] Especially in Furet’s contributions, this historiography pervades the Dictionnaire critique, eclipsing the twentieth-century “academic history” of the Revolution, which Furet criticized as comparatively less profound because it had abandoned earlier, nineteenth-century questions of philosophical inspiration about the politics and course of the Revolution.163 In his 1988 narrative La Révolution, Furet—uninterested in most recent scholarly research, dismissive of social history (the decline of which he connected to that of the PCF),164 and focused on reconceptualizing the Revolution in light of early “philosophical” commentaries on it (especially those of Burke, Tocqueville, Quinet, and Cochin)—offers what is in many regards an old-fashioned history of disincarnated ideas.165

In the 1980s, and especially as the bicentennial of the French Revolution approached, such conservatives as the historian Pierre Chaunu used Penser la Révolution française’s interpretation of the Revolution to better stigmatize the entire Revolution with its supposed totalitarian descendants. This appropriation of Furet’s work, as well as the historian Maurice Agulhon’s spirited defense of Jacobinism and critique of his use of comparisons between the French and Russian revolutions, eventually led Furet to defend 1789 from conservative attacks and state that he did not believe that 1789 or 1793 should be read in terms of 1917.166 But the distance that Furet took from his 1978 gulag analogy was primarily rhetorical; it did not entail a shift from the antitotalitarian interpretive framework of Penser la Révolution française. Although, for example, the preface to the Dictionnaire critique denounced the parallel between 1789 and 1917 as anachronistic, it still euphemistically justified interpreting the French Revolution in light of an antitotalitarian agenda, that is, “certain old questions” that “the late twentieth century has rediscovered, by force of circumstance.”167 [End Page 606] Although nuanced and sometimes qualified, the logic of revolutionary ideology remains in both the Dictionnaire critique and Furet’s narrative history the Revolution’s motor that drives it from 1789 to the Terror and explains its most notorious deeds (the repression in the Vendée) and radical legislation (the Maximum).168 If Furet’s work offered a “liberal” history of the French Revolution, its liberalism was one informed by an antitotalitarianism that viewed the Revolution as a distinctly illiberal event.169

Furet’s project in the 1980s was as much political and institutional as intellectual, aimed at solidifying his politico-intellectual credentials and securing a hegemonic position for his interpretation of the French Revolution. Institutionally, Furet’s project was one of building a power base in the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), intimately linked to the mass media and illuminated by the aura of the great antitotalitarian intellectual heroes who had been “right” about communism from an early date. Already enjoying friends and allies within the EHESS, such as Le Roy Ladurie, Richet, Besançon, Nora, and Lefort, Furet secured the election of others to positions as directeurs d’études within it, such as Castoriadis, Julliard, Marcel Gauchet, and Rosanvallon after becoming EHESS’s president in 1977, a position Furet held until 1985. Furet’s difficult but successful campaigns to elect Julliard in 1979 and, after a long struggle, Gauchet in 1990 reinforced his relations with Le Nouvel Observateur, in which Julliard played an increasingly important role, and the influential journal Le Débat, directed by Nora and edited by Gauchet.170 The election of Castoriadis in 1980, who joined Lefort elected in 1976, and then Furet’s founding of the Institut Raymond Aron in 1985 consolidated Furet’s association with the political legitimacy of venerable antitotalitarian icons.

In the 1980s, Furet, ever attentive to contemporary intellectual and civic debates, fixed his attention on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, determined to ensure that he and his interpretation prevail. Indeed, in 1982 and 1983, Furet and his collaborator Mona Ozouf fired the first shots in the debate on the bicentennial by questioning whether and, if so, how the Revolution should be commemorated. Worried that the communists and their sympathizers might gain control of the official celebrations, Furet asserted that “the bicentenary [End Page 607] of the Revolution will have to take into account the twentieth century. Reflecting on 1789 or 1793 from the perspective of this end of the twentieth century should lead to celebrations that are intellectually less simplistic than those held a hundred years ago.”171 To ensure that he and his interpretation would be at the forefront of the debate in 1989, Furet quit his position as president of EHESS in 1985 so that he could dedicate his energies to preparing his bicentennial works from the relative comfort of his position as director of the Institut Raymond Aron.172 Given his own extraordinary preparations for 1989, Furet considered it “unthinkable” that his principal rival, the communist historian of the Revolution Michel Vovelle, did not put out a bicentennial book aimed at a general intellectual audience.173

In 1989, Furet’s efforts as a historian and political animal were rewarded. Le Nouvel Observateur crowned him “king” of the bicentennial; his interpretation of the French Revolution and the connection between the Revolution and totalitarianism lay at the center of French debates. As Furet could have expected, Le Nouvel Observateur and Esprit, the vectors of antitotalitarianism in the 1970s, greatly contributed to the diffusion and triumph of his interpretation. Domenach and Julliard, for example, presented the French Revolution as affiliated with totalitarianism. They and others, like Jean-François Revel, who asserted that the Vendée was an example of genocide, opened the door to respectability for counterrevolutionaries like Chaunu, who, harking back to the debates of the 1970s, asked whether his fellow citizens would side with Stalin or Solzhenitsyn in the bicentennial debate. Thanks, no doubt, to Furet’s media presence and the widespread diffusion of antitotalitarianism, his interpretation of the Revolution made considerable inroads among the intellectual masses; a July 1989 poll by L’Express found that 42 percent of all secondary school history professors agreed that between the Terror and Stalinist totalitarianism “there are differences, but they are phenomena of the same order.”174

When one follows Furet’s career as a historian of the French Revolution from its beginnings until the 1980s, one conclusion clearly emerges: Furet always closely intertwined his historical work with contemporary politics. This was especially true after 1965, when the souring [End Page 608] of his relations with communist historians led Furet to orient his work toward a confrontation with them. This confrontation resulted in a historiographical landmark essay, “Le Catéchisme révolutionnaire,” after which Furet took his attack on their politicization of the history of the Revolution for an authorization of his repoliticization of it in an antitotalitarian key.

An antitotalitarian logic pervades Furet’s Penser la Révolution française. Furet reasoned that if the French Revolution had such an attraction to communists as a precursor and justification of the Bolshevik Revolution, it must be because the French Revolution was totalitarian or protototalitarian. And if the “commemorative” historians had rejected Cochin, it could not have been because he was wrong, but rather because their politics blinded them to his nonidentificatory and “sociological” approach to the Revolution’s history. Obsessed by the politics of interpretation and the weight of the Revolution in contemporary French civic culture, Furet confused historiography with history and the discrediting of his enemies with an accreditation of an interpretation inverting the “revolutionary catechism” according to the principle that “the gulag leads to a rethinking of the Terror by virtue of an identity in the projects.”175 As a consequence of this inversion, it is hardly surprising to find that Furet’s 1978 interpretation of the Revolution has less in common with his 1965 interpretation than it does with Mazauric’s 1967 critique of Furet’s earlier work.

In the making of Penser la Révolution française and the success that it received, historical revisionism and the revision of the memory of communism are closely linked. The reduction of past communist engagement to a pathology of a late adolescence of which the principal symptom is a Manichaean politics without foundation in reality made it—for lack of any cause other than the maladjustment of individuals—nearly inexplicable. By projecting selected characteristics of French communist life during the Cold War (inflexible and unreal ideological discourse and party cells where decisions were made unanimously in a manipulated direct democracy) onto the French Revolution, Furet completed the circuit connecting his historical and memorial revisionisms, explaining the Revolution as the moment in which this Manichaean ideology emerged and explaining his communist engagement as the product of the continued influence of the Revolution’s political culture. The French Revolution had, said Furet, legitimized in the eyes of the communist militants the “most horrible episodes” of the Russian [End Page 609] Revolution, including the Stalinist terror.176 Certainly it is not a coincidence that the one great continuity in Furet’s work since 1965 is his effort to delegitimize 1793, first by making it a historical accident and later, while under the influence of antitotalitarianism, by making the Terror an inevitable consequence of revolutionary ideology. Fittingly, Furet’s last major work was, to cite its subtitle, an “essay on the communist idea in the twentieth century,” that, as Diana Pinto observed in her penetrating review, explains “gullibility towards the communist ‘illusion’” as a consequence of “the European culture of revolutionary democracy” that finds its origins in the French Revolution.177

Furet’s interpretation of the French Revolution was successful because, like Furet’s memory, it tapped into powerful currents in French intellectual life. An acute observer of and a participant in contemporary political and ideological debtes, Furet capitalized on the discrediting of communism and modulated his interpretation into a resonant key. And if Furet had ever faltered in this task, Nora, with whom Furet had worked closely in drafting the first part of Penser la Révolution française and who was ever attentive to intellectual politics, would have undoubtedly nudged Furet in the right direction.178 If Furet’s “boomerang” was accepted, it was because many other intellectuals had already come to the conclusion that the “excesses” of the Russian Revolution were a consequence of the revolutionary project and its ideology and in no way attributable to “circumstances.” As French intellectuals had begun to suspect revolution in general, Furet found it easy to gain acceptance of an extension of the supposed lessons of the gulag to the French Revolution. By interpreting the Revolution in accordance with the critique of totalitarianism that was then current, Furet grounded the critique in the heart of French political culture. For those seeking an antitotalitarian worldview or searching in the connection between French political tradition and totalitarianism for the key to the postwar follies of French intellectuals and the apparently dangerous politics of the Union of the Left, Furet presented a powerful and exciting argument.

Furthermore, one might argue that Furet’s reductionist memory of his communist experience, his insistence that “everyone” in his generation had been communist, and his suggestion that the reasons for the postwar enthusiasm of young intellectuals for communism should [End Page 610] be sought in the depths of the political culture of the French Revolution, demonstrate Furet’s inability to confront his own communist past in terms other than those of complete rejection that had been established by the critique of totalitarianism. As a consequence, the history of Furet’s history writing reads like a long effort to remove the weight of “guilty memories” from his shoulders. While Furet may have found in history writing a measure of catharsis for himself and his contemporaries, he followed a path that made Penser la Révolution française a book in conformity with the hegemonic ideology of its time.

Michael Scott Christofferson

Michael Scott Christofferson is assistant professor of history at The Pennsylvania State University at Erie, The Behrend College. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the critique of totalitarianism in French intellectual politics.


The author thanks the following individuals for comments, critiques, and suggestions related to this article: Gregory Brown, Thomas Christofferson, Victoria De Grazia, Paul Edison, Margaret Jacob, Nira Kaplan, James Miller, Robert Paxton, Anders Stephanson, Isser Woloch, the anonymous readers of French Historical Studies, and the participants in the dissertation workshop at the Institute on Western Europe at Columbia University.

1. François Furet, Penser la Révolution française, Collection Folio/Histoire (Paris, 1978), published in English as Interpreting the French Revolution, trans. Elborg Forster (New York, 1981). All translations in this article are, unless otherwise stated, mine. Forster’s 1981 text was consulted and some of its wording was used in my translations of Penser la Révolution française.

2. Sunil Khilnani, Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France (New Haven, Conn., 1993), 155–78; Steven L. Kaplan, Adieu 89, trans. André Charpentier and Rémy Labrechts (Paris, 1993), later published as two, slightly modified English works: Steven Laurence Kaplan, Farewell, Revolution: Disputed Legacies: France, 1789/1989 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1995), and Kaplan, Farewell, Revolution: The Historians’ Feud: France, 1789/1989 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1995).

3. The interpretation of the critique of totalitarianism offered here is a thumbnail sketch of that developed at length in Michael Scott Christofferson, “The Anti-totalitarian Moment in French Intellectual Politics, 1975–1984” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1998). Please refer to this thesis for further evidence in support of the conclusions suggested in this section of this article.

4. Programme commun de gouvernement du Parti communiste français et du Parti socialiste (27 juin 1972) (Paris, 1972), 112.

5. Written by Michel Foucault, the GIP Manifesto was signed and presented to the press by Foucault, Domenach, and Vidal-Naquet on 8 Feb. 1971. Foucault, “(Manifeste du GIP),” in 1970–1975, vol. 2 of Dits et écrits, ed. Daniel Defert and François Ewald (Paris, 1994), 174–75.

6. Foucault, the prime moving force behind GIP, presented its objectives in ibid.; “(Sur les prisons),” in 1970–1975, 175; “Enquêtes sur les prisons: Brisons les barreaux du silence,” in 1970–1975, 177–78; “Un Problème qui m’intéresse depuis longtemps, c’est celui du système pénal,” in 1970–1975, 207–8.

7. Michel Foucault, “Le Grand Enfermement,” in 1970–1975, 304; David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault (London, 1993), 288. Jean-Marie Domenach explained GIP’s demise in the following terms in a letter dated 25 June 1976: “GIP dissolved itself because, its goal being to make it possible for the prisoners themselves to talk, it did not want to substitute itself for the prisoners once some of them took on responsibilities” (Paris, Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine [hereafter IMEC], Esprit archives, folder ESP2 E4-01 .02).

8. Philippe Meyer, “Bilan provisoire d’une mission momantanée,” (fall 1973), Paris, IMEC, Esprit archives, folder ESP2 B3-04 .08.

9. Jean-Paul Sartre, “L’Ami du peuple,” in Situations VIII: Autour de 68 (Paris, 1972), 456–76; Sartre, un film réalisé par Alexandre Astruc et Michel Contat avec la participation de Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques-Laurent Bost, André Gorz, Jean Pouillon (Paris, 1974), 124–29; Michel Foucault, “Les Intellectuels et le pouvoir,” in 1970–1975, 306–15; idem, “L’Intellectuel sert à rassembler les idées mais son savoir est partiel par rapport au savoir ouvrier,” in 1970–1975, 421–23; Georges V. Santoni, “Les Intellectuels: Entretien avec Jean-Marie Domenach,” French Review 47 (1974): 701, an interview conducted in June 1972.

10. Domenach successfully opposed efforts to democratize Esprit. In a letter to Paul Thibaud explaining his opposition to the introduction of democratic practices and the division of power at Esprit, Domenach emphasized the importance of the feudal and military aspects of Esprit’s governance (letter from Domenach to Thibaud dated 14 Aug. 1973 in Paris, IMEC, Esprit archives, folder ESP 2 B4-02 .02). Jean Daniel, who defeated an effort to institute autogestion at Le Nouvel Observateur after 1968, believed that the weekly had to be run like a monarchy (Daniel, L’Ere des ruptures [Paris, 1979], 68–76). The newspaper Libération originally sought to implement radical direct-democratic principles in its governance but abandoned these when Serge July reorganized it in the summer and fall of 1974, installing the reign of competence, the division of labor, and professionalism (François-Marie Samuelson, Il était une fois “Libération”: Reportage historique [Paris, 1979]).

11. Alain Geismar, “Pourquoi nous ne voterons pas,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 30 Dec. 1972, 25; Ph. Gavi, J.-P. Sartre, and P. Victor, On a raison de se révolter (Paris, 1974), 252, 348–60; Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre [Victor], and Philippe [Gavi], Libération, 13–14 Apr. 1974, 4; Alain Geismar and Pierre Victor, “Aujourd’hui le risque c’est de perdre les acquis de mai 68,” Libération, 4–5 May 1974, 3; Serge July, “De l’éloge de François Mitterrand à celui de la bêtise,” Libération, 4 June 1974, 2.

12. “Piaget-Lip porte-parole du nouveau monde?” Libération, 6–7 Apr. 1974, 3; Libération, “Libé et les élections,” Libération, 15 May 1974, 1, 3. The manifesto “Contre l’abstention des révolutionnaires” called for voting “with those who want to drive the Right out of power” and said nothing about Mitterrand or the Union of the Left. Listed as signatories are Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Gixous [sic], Jean Chesneaux, Marguerite Duras, Michel Foucault, Daniel and Marie Guérin, Raymond and Geneviève Guglielmo, Pierre Halbwachs, Alain Jaubert, Raymond Jean, Julia Kristova [sic], Robert Lapoujade, Henri Leclerc, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Leiris, Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, Charles Malamoud, Dyonis Mascolo, Maurice Nadeau, Claudine Romeo Laudi, Philippe Sollers, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (Libération, 15 May 1974, 3).

13. The refusal began with Jean-Marie Domenach, “Le PC et le mal français,” Esprit 243 (Oct. 1956): 548–50.

14. Thibaud mentioned the prospect of a “drift towards an oriental model of socialism” were a united Left to come to power (“Sur place ou innovation?” Esprit 392 [May 1970]: 866), while Michel Winock argued that the union would break up before achieving power because the socialists would fear an outcome like the Prague coup of 1948 (“La Contradiction du PCF,” Esprit 392 [May 1970]: 884–97). Domenach held that a united Left could not win if the PCF did not de-Stalinize (“Notre affaire Tillon ou la vitrine et l’appareil,” Esprit 404 [June 1971]: 1253). In his reflections on a film on Czechoslovak history since World War II, Domenach also raised the specter of a Prague coup in France and concluded that “there will not be a solid Union of the Left” as long as this remained a possibility (“Le Bonheur dans vingt ans,” Esprit 410 [Jan. 1972]: 68–69). Julliard, in contrast to Domenach, found the Czechoslovak situation of 1948 to be substantially different from the contemporary French one, but he argued that as long as the PCF remained attached to existing socialist societies, any victory of the Left would be the result of an “electoral coalition without principles and without hope” that would be incapable of building a new society (“Le Socialisme à l’ordre du jour,” Esprit 412 [Mar. 1972]: 469).

15. Paul Thibaud, “Le Socialisme au programme,” Esprit 416 (Sept. 1972): 288–93; Daniel Mothé, Jean-Marie Domenach, Philippe Meyer, and Paul Thibaud, “Eléments pour un programme commun,” Esprit 421 (Feb. 1973): 570–79; Jean-Marie Domenach, “Les Idées et les mots,” Le Monde, 27 Sept. 1972, 10.

16. Paul Thibaud, “Avant les élections,” Esprit 420 (Jan. 1973): 205–13; Jacques Julliard, “Après Pompidou,” Esprit 435 (May 1974): 771–81.

17. According to Rémy Rieffel, Le Nouvel Observateur’s circulation was 308,366 and climbing in 1974 (La Tribu des clercs: Les Intellectuels sous la Ve République, 1958–1990 [Paris, 1993], 521).

18. Jean Daniel, “Des insatisfaits prospères,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 16 Oct. 1972, 30; Michel Bosquet (a.k.a. André Gorz), “Au-delà des élections,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 6 Nov. 1972, 38–39.

19. Jacques Julliard, “Faut-il redouter un Prague français?” Le Nouvel Observateur, 28 Aug. 1972, 13; Gilles Martinet, “Une Mauvaise Cible,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 7 Aug. 1972, 13.

20. Jean Daniel, “Un Mois pour changer la France,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 8 Apr. 1974, 20; idem., “Qui peut battre Mitterrand?” Le Nouvel Observateur, 15 Apr. 1974, 22.

21. Jean Daniel, “Le Nouveau ‘Plan Mitterrand’,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 22 Apr. 1974, 28; idem, “Un Espace de liberté,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 13 May 1974, 36–37, echoing Jean-Marie Domenach, “Ne pas se dérober,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 13 May 1974, 43.

22. “Projet de société: Pour le socialisme,” in Assises du socialisme, Pour le socialisme: Paris 12–13 octobre 1974 (Paris, 1974), 29.

23. Jean-Marie Domenach, “Les Assises du socialisme,” Esprit 440 (Nov. 1974): 676, 678; Jean Daniel, “La Chance du 12 Octobre,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 7 Oct. 1974, 38–39; idem, “Le Clan,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 14 Oct. 1974, 40. Libération, never believing that its autogestionnaire ideas on socialism could be realized within the PS, did not support the Assises (Serge July, “La Défaite de la gauche, III: L’Impossible ‘socialisme à la française,’” Libération, 29 May 1974, 2; “Libé et le débat sur le socialisme,” Libération, 15–16 June 1974, 1; and, from the running commentary on the Assises and the Union of the Left when Libération resumed publication in mid-Nov. after shutting down in late June, “Dis, p’pa, l’autogestion, ça commence quand?,” Libération, 26 Nov. 1974, 4).

24. André Glucksmann, La Cuisinière et le mangeur d’hommes: Essai sur les rapports entre l’Etat, le marxisme et les camps de concentration (Paris, 1975); Claude Lefort, Un Homme en trop: Réflexions sur “L’Archipel du goulag” (1976; rpt., Paris, 1986).

25. The six partial legislative elections of 29 Sept. and 6 Oct. 1974 clearly revealed that the PS was gaining votes at the expense of the PCF and surpassing it as the largest party on the Left.

26. Philippe Robrieux, 1972–1982, vol. 3 of Histoire intérieure du Parti communiste (Paris, 1982), 216.

27. “Révolution et liberté,” Le Monde, 21 June 1975, 1.

28. Jean Daniel, “Les Communistes portugais et la gauche française,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 18 Aug. 1975, 17; idem, L’Ere des ruptures, 302. “La Déroute de Jean Daniel” presents evidence, never refuted by Daniel or Le Nouvel Observateur, of Daniel’s questioning of the Union of the Left (L’Humanité, 2 Sept. 1975, 2).

29. Gilles Martinet, “Et si la France était le Portugal . . .,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 1 Sept. 1975, 35.

30. Editorial statement, Faire 1 (Oct. 1975): 2.

31. Jean-Marie Domenach, “Le Premier Front,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 25 Aug. 1975, 18; Jacques Julliard, “Les Inconvénients de l’union,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 12 July 1975, 18–19; Paul Thibaud, “D’où vient l’aveuglement?” Le Quotidien de Paris, 16 July 1975, in response to Pierre Guidoni, “La Nouvelle Trahison des clercs,” Le Quotidien de Paris, 8 July 1975.

32. Notably, by rallying to the campaigns for the liberation of the Soviet dissidents Leonid Plyushch and Vladimir Bukovsky, otherwise criticizing the Soviet Union’s human rights record and abandoning the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

33. Jean Daniel, for example, wrote: “What do electoral victories matter if on the ideological and constructive level these noncommunist forces become only secondary or obstructionist forces” (“Pour que la lutte soit claire,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 16 June 1975, 19). Similar sentiments were expressed in early 1975 by Paul Thibaud (in “Crise, gestion de la crise, autogestion . . .,” Esprit 442 [Jan. 1975]: 3–4) and Michel Winock (in “Table ronde,” Esprit 443 [Feb. 1975]: 188, 189).

34. Glucksmann, La Cuisinière et le mangeur d’hommes and Lefort, Un Homme en trop were the key texts establishing this argument within the Left. Jean-François Revel, La Tentation totalitaire (Paris, 1976), although often dismissed (unlike the books of Glucksmann and Lefort) as a right-wing pamphlet, also contributed to the establishment of some of these arguments.

35. Glucksmann, La Cuisinière et le mangeur d’hommes, 212–13; Edgar Morin, “La Liberté révolutionnaire,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 30 June 1975, 22–23; Bernard-Henri Lévy, La Barbarie à visage humain (Paris, 1977), 150; Jacques Julliard, Contre la politique professionnelle (Paris, 1978); Pierre Rosanvallon and Patrick Viveret, Pour une nouvelle culture politique (Paris, 1977). Rosanvallon edited the CDFT’s intellectual journal, CFDT aujourd’hui, between 1973 and 1977, and Viveret edited Faire from its inception in 1975.

36. Jean Elleinstein, Histoire du phénomène stalinien (Paris, 1975).

37. Jean-Marie Domenach in “Entretien avec Jean Elleinstein sur le phénomène stalinien, la démocratie et le socialisme,” Esprit 454 (Feb. 1976): 256–57. For similar evaluations of Elleinstein’s history, see Jacques Julliard, “La Gauche et ses intellectuels,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 6 June 1977, 50; Pierre Rosanvallon, “Les Avatars de l’idéalisme,” Faire 3 (Dec. 1975): 39; Pierre Rosanvallon, “Une Nouvelle Culture politique,” Faire 13 (Nov. 1976): 26; Illios Yannakakis, cited approvingly by Jean Daniel, “Le Matin des dissidents,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 21 Nov. 1977, 45.

38. Lévy, La Barbarie à visage humain; André Glucksmann, Les Maîtres penseurs (Paris, 1977). The most prominent, uncritical champions of Les Maîtres penseurs were Maurice Clavel (“L’Ouragon Glucksmann,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 28 Mar. 1977, 17) and Michel Foucault (“La Grande Colère des faits,” in 1976–1979, vol. 3 of Dits et écrits, ed. Daniel Defert and François Ewald [Paris, 1994], 277–81, originally published in Le Nouvel Observateur). Philippe Sollers gave La Barbarie à visage humain his complete approval (“La Révolution impossible,” Le Monde, 5 Apr. 1977, 19, 24).

39. Even the leading attacks on new philosophy—those of Claude Mauriac and Cornelius Castoriadis—were equivocal. Mauriac believed that the “crusade against the gulag” was just; he only rejected the new philosophers’ use of it against the Union of the Left (“Il ne faut pas tuer l’espérance,” Le Monde, 7 July 1977, 1). Castoriadis, who continued to support a modest form of revolutionary politics, held that new philosophy was a diversionary operation put on by the parties of the Left to discredit any and all challenges that the gulag question might pose to their politics by associating them with the impoverished ideas of Glucksmann and Lévy (“Les Divertisseurs,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 20 June 1977, 50–51). Although widely debated, Mauriac’s argument received little support; Castoriadis found few takers for his effort to reinvent revolutionary politics.

40. Jean Daniel, editorial note, Le Nouvel Observateur, 30 May 1977, 41, and “Plaidoyer pour quelques mythes,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 27 June 1977, 21. Statements appreciative of the impact of the new philosophy debate were made by Julliard (“La Gauche et ses intellectuels”), Edgar Morin (“Le Bruit et le message,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 27 June 1977, 38), Paul Thibaud (“Changer la politique,” Esprit 9 [Sept. 1977]: 7–9), Olivier Mongin (“D’une vulgate à l’autre, à propos de la nouvelle philosophie,” Esprit 12 [Dec. 1977]: 62–78), and Claude Lefort (préface in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie [Paris, 1979], 21–23).

41. The emergence of a significant historiography of French intellectual politics dates to this period. Examples of these memoirs include Dominique Desanti, Les Staliniens: Une Expérience politique, 1944–1956 (Paris, 1975); Pierre Daix, J’ai cru au matin (Paris, 1976); Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier, PC-PSU, 1945–1963 (Paris, 1982); and Alain Besançon, Une Génération (Paris, 1987).

42. Implicit in Furet’s work, this interpretation of postwar French intellectual politics is explicitly developed by Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 (Berkeley, Calif., 1992); and Khilnani, Arguing Revolution.

43. According to Kaplan, Furet viewed himself as belonging to the moyenne bourgeoisie (Historians’ Feud, 50). Information on Furet’s trajectory is drawn primarily from the following sources: Kaplan, Adieu 89, 673–75; François Furet, “La Révolution et ses fantômes,” in De Sartre à Foucault: Vingt Ans de grands entretiens dans Le Nouvel Observateur (Paris, 1984), first published in Le Nouvel Observateur, 20 Nov. 1978; Furet interviewed by François Ewald, “Penser la Révolution,” Le Magazine littéraire 228 (Mar. 1986): 92–97; Jean-Maurice de Montrémy, “La Révolution couronne François Furet,” L’Histoire 120 (Mar. 1989): 74–77; Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier; Rieffel, La Tribu des clercs; Furet interviewed by Mona Ozouf, Jacques Revel, and Pierre Rosanvallon, Histoire de la Révolution et la révolution dans l’histoire, Savoir et mémoire, 5 (Abbeville, France, 1994).

44. Furet cited in Montrémy, “La Révolution couronne François Furet,” 75.

45. Ibid.

46. In “La Révolution et ses fantômes,” 239, Furet asserts that he entered the PCF in 1947, yet in all other interviews he says 1949. The significance of his contradictory statements on the dates in which he entered and left the party is discussed later in this article.

47. François Furet, interview with author, Paris, 10 Feb. 1994. Kaplan reports that “the postwar nationalist climate and the ‘surenchères’ of the Resistance cooled Furet’s militant ardor” after the war (Historians’ Feud, 52). While always present, the nationalism of the PCF—at its height after the Liberation—was a less important part of its political rhetoric during the Cold War.

48. Furet, interview with author, Paris, 10 Feb. 1994; Kaplan, Adieu 89, 674.

49. Even in the late 1940s, at the height of the PCF’s influence, only 15 percent of the students at the Ecole normale supérieure were card-carrying communists, according to Jean-François Sirinelli, “Les Normaliens de la rue d’Ulm après 1945: Une Génération communiste?” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 32 (1986): 574.

50. Furet, “La Révolution et ses fantômes,” 239.

51. For confirmation that Furet was not alone in this reading of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (which appeared in French under the more ambiguous title Zéro et l’infini), see Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, Au service du parti: Le Parti communiste, les intellectuels et la culture (1944–1956) (Paris, 1983), 80, and the remarks of Jean Chaintron in Staline à Paris, ed. Natacha Dioujeva and François George (Paris, 1982), 195. Le Roy Ladurie believed that “Rubashov was right to sacrifice his life and especially his revolutionary honor so that the best of all possible regimes could be established one day” (Paris-Montpellier, 96). The Gaullist Claude Mauriac recognized the power of the procommunist reading of Koestler by noting that he was not “converted” by Rubashov’s sacrifice (Mauriac cited in Kerry H. Whiteside, Merleau-Ponty and the Foundation of Existential Politics [Princeton, N.J., 1988], 170).

52. Kaplan, Adieu 89, 674.

53. François Furet, Alex Matheron, Michel Verret, “Psychologie et lutte de classes: Sur ‘Les Communistes’ d’Aragon,” La Nouvelle Critique 13 (Feb. 1950): 108.

54. Ibid., 109.

55. Ibid., 118.

56. For further confirmation of the sectarian nature of Furet’s engagement in the party, see Le Roy Ladurie’s memoirs where he speaks of Furet as being in a “full Stalinist transformation” in 1949 or 1950, undertaken with “an energy comparable to mine, but with an attractive and brilliant appearance” (Paris-Montpellier, 235).

57. Furet cited in Montrémy, “La Révolution couronne François Furet,” 75. According to Annie Kriegel, Furet was at one point the spokesman of the postcures (students who had left the sanitariums and took classes in Paris but were still given medical treatment for tuberculosis) within the Union nationale des étudiants de France (Ce que j’ai cru comprendre [Paris, 1991], 419).

58. Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier, 198.

59. Furet, Histoire de la Révolution et la révolution dans l’histoire, 4.

60. According to Le Roy Ladurie, Furet hid a Vietnamese activist and partisan of Ho Chi Minh in the late 1950s (Paris-Montpellier, 233).

61. Furet mentions antifascism as a factor in his adherence to communism in an early 1982 interview, but he immediately qualifies his antifascist engagement as masochistic (Furet interviewed by Emile Malet, “L’Election du 10 mai: Un Cas de figure exceptionnel dans notre histoire,” in Malet, Socrate et la rose: Les Intellectuels face au pouvoir socialiste [Mayenne, 1983], 189).

62. Furet, “La Révolution et ses fantômes,” 239.

63. Furet, Histoire de la Révolution et la révolution dans l’histoire, 7.

64. Furet interviewed by Malet, “L’Election du 10 mai,” 190.

65. Tribune du communisme was first known as the Comité provisoire de liaison pour la réunification du mouvement ouvrier.

66. Lièvre translates as hare and furet as ferret.

67. Although, according to Guy Nania, Tribune du communisme also continued to work within the PCF for some time (Le PSU avant Rocard [Paris, 1973], 66).

68. Nania, Le PSU avant Rocard, 64–66; Michel Dreyfus, PCF: Crises et dissidences: De 1920 à nos jours (Brussels, 1990), 123–26; Jean-François Kesler, De la gauche dissidente au nouveau Parti socialiste: Les Minorités qui ont rénové le PS (Toulouse, 1990), 265–66; Rieffel, La Tribu des clercs, 134. Also see its declaration at its founding, “Un Appel de l’opposition communiste,” France-observateur, 24 July 1958, 4.

69. Beginning on 8 May 1958, Furet started using the pseudonym André Delcroix.

70. Furet claims that he began writing in France-observateur in 1956, but I have found no trace of writings by him before 8 Feb. 1958. The principal subjects of Furet’s articles from 1958 to 1961 are history (with an emphasis on the French Revolution, the period 1936–44, and such periods as the first and second Empires, which allow Furet to make comparisons with the Gaullist Fifth Republic), the Left’s intellectual and party politics, and electoral analysis. After June 1960, when Furet became a member of the editorial committee of France-observateur, he began to write more in general and more varied articles on politics.

71. In his article “Pourquoi la deuxième vague a presque tout submergé,” Furet made the connection between Gaullism and fascism (France-observateur, 4 Dec. 1958, 3); and in “La France ‘gaulliste’ de 1944,” he blamed de Gaulle’s success in 1958 on the demobilization of the masses (France-observateur, 25 June 1959, 19). In “Le Congrès de Maurice Thorez,” Furet reveals the hope that he still had in 1958 in the PCF leadership of the working class when he writes of the “verdict of the spring of 1958” on the PCF: “We all remember with sadness that Monday in May on which only a small minority of the Parisian working class stopped working” (France-observateur, 2 July 1959, 3). In “Qui a repondu non,” Furet explains communist electoral losses as a reflection of the “maladjustment of the French workers’ movement to the problem of the modern wage-earning class” (France-observateur, 2 Oct. 1958, 13). All of Furet’s France-observateur articles cited in this and other footnotes are signed A. Delcroix, André Delcroix, or A. D.

72. In “L’Echec de l’UNR est-il celui de Gaulle?” Furet clearly states his belief that the Left must be socialist (France-observateur, 12 Mar. 1959, 4). In “La Gauche française et le FLN,” Furet criticizes the Left’s “consecration” of the FLN, but largely because he does not want it to be distracted from its goals: “the liquidation of Gaullism and a socialist France” (France-observateur, 19 May 1960, 7). For Furet’s Marxism, see his critical review of Roger Garaudy’s Perspectives de l’homme, in which he proclaims that “it is urgent that the Marxism of the French communists ceases to be a voluntarist idealism in order to rediscover the path of historical materialism” (France-observateur, 17 Dec. 1959, 19). As for Furet’s opening to Raymond Aron, see his sympathetic portrait “Raymond Aron, professeur d’une droite qui ne l’écoute pas” (France-observateur, 22 Oct. 1959, 24). But, contrary to his later memory, Furet was hardly Aronian in this period. In his “Plaidoyer pour Benjamin Constant,” he qualifies all French liberal thought, including Aron’s, as undemocratic (France-observateur, 19 Oct. 1961, 17).

73. For example, in his article on Léon Blum, “L’Homme que la bourgeoisie française a la plus haï,” Furet speaks of the Right as “openly complicit” with foreign fascism (France-observateur, 26 May 1959, 14); and in “Il y a vingt ans: Munich,” the acceptance of Munich is portrayed as the consequence of a demobilization of the masses due mainly to the abandonment of the Popular Front and the policy of nonintervention in Spain (France-observateur, 25 Sept. 1958, 16). Other lengthy articles written by Furet on this period of French history are “La Fin de la IIIe République,” France-observateur, 14 July 1960, 14–15; “Défaite militaire et victoire de ‘l’ordre,’” France-observateur, 16 June 1960, 14–15; “Hitler, l’Allemagne et la presse,” France-observateur, 18 Feb. 1960, 18; “Le Mémorial de Colombey,” France-observateur, 12 Nov. 1959, 7–8; and A. Delcroix and Roger Paret, “L’Eté 39: Le Pacte germano-soviètique,” France-observateur, 20 Aug. 1959, 10–12. A. Delcroix and Michèle Christophe, “L’Eté 39,” France-observateur, 13 Aug. 1959, 9–11.

74. See, for example, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie cited in Michel Labro and Jacques Roure, “Les ‘Ex’ du PC,” L’Express, 16 Feb. 1980, 14; and Maurice Agulhon, “Vu des coulisses,” in Essais d’ego-histoire, ed. Pierre Nora (Paris, 1987), 59.

75. In addition to Furet, Histoire de la Révolution et la révolution dans l’histoire, 7, see François Furet, L’Atelier de l’histoire (Paris, 1982), 7, and Le Passé d’une illusion: Essai sur l’idée communiste au XXe siècle (Paris, 1995), 16. In an interview with the author, Furet stated that “leaving communism, I was vaccinated against the totalitarian experience” (Paris, 10 Feb. 1994). Kaplan writes of Furet saying about his exit from the PCF that he “‘got out in good shape,’ . . . in contrast to others who either remained because of a ‘weakness of character’ or who left, sooner or later, but ‘understood nothing’” (Historians’ Feud, 53).

76. Furet interviewed by Jean Daniel, “L’Irruption totalitaire,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 2 Mar. 1995, 57. Alain Besançon, a historian of the Russian Revolution and friend of Furet, made the same claim for himself in Labro and Roure, “Les ‘Ex’ du PC,” 75.

77. Furet, L’Atelier de l’histoire, 7; Furet interviewed by Daniel, “L’Irruption totalitaire,” 58.

78. They wrote François Furet and Denis Richet, La Révolution française, 2 vols. (Paris, 1965), analyzed later in this article.

79. Denis Richet, “Pourquoi j’aime l’histoire? Essai d’autobiographie intellectuelle,” in De la Réforme à la Révolution: Etudes sur la France moderne (Paris, 1991), 547–48.

80. Koestler wrote the following of ex-communist memory of communism: “As a rule, our memories romanticize the past. But when one has renounced a creed or been betrayed by a friend, the opposite mechanism sets to work. In the light of that later knowledge, the original experience loses its innocence, becomes tainted and rancid in recollection. . . . Irony, anger, and shame kept intruding; the passions of that time seem transformed into perversions, its inner certitude into the closed universe of the drug addict; the shadow of barbed wire lies across the condemned playground of memory” (Koestler, “Arthur Koestler,” in The God That Failed, ed. Richard Crossman [New York, 1949], 55).

81. See Furet, L’Atelier de l’histoire, 7, for Furet’s reference to “guilty memories” that he shares with his former communist colleagues.

82. Their influence followed in part from their turn to political and cultural journalism after leaving the PCF in the 1950s. The emergence in the 1960s of the mass media as a factor in intellectual legitimization gave these former communists-turned–mass media mandarins a privileged place in the debates of the 1970s. On the mass media and intellectual legitimization in this period, see Niilo Kauppi, French Intellectual Nobility: Institutional and Symbolic Transformations of the Post-Sartrian Era (Albany, N.Y., 1996).

83. Furet, “La Révolution et ses fantômes,” 233.

84. Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier, 48; Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, “Eclaireur de la Révolution,” Libération, 17 July 1997, 4. The following article indicates that at least Jean Poperen attacked Soboul in the early 1950s: Poperen, “Albert Soboul: La Révolution française (1789–1799),” Cahiers du communisme 29:2 (1952): 203–10. Whatever Furet’s position in the early 1950s, in 1959, in a review of Soboul’s thesis on the sans-culottes, he found Soboul’s analysis more convincing than that of Daniel Guérin (“Du pain et des têtes,” France-observateur, 29 Jan. 1959, 19).

85. Braudel’s support proved to be an important asset for Furet. He held his position at the CNRS until 1960 or 1961, when Braudel again pushed Furet’s career forward, this time by having him appointed to the position of chef de travaux at the sixth section of the Ecole pratique des hautes études.

86. Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1985), 111.

87. Adeline Daumard and François Furet, Structures et relations sociales à Paris au milieu du XVIIIe siècle, Cahiers des Annales, 18 (Paris, 1961).

88. According to R. Emmet Kennedy, Furet said in 1978 that because he had not completed his state doctorate, “they used to take me as a little boy, hardly seriously” (“François Furet: Post-Patriot Historian of the French Revolution,” in Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History, 3–5 November 1983, Riverside, California, ed. John F. Sweets [Lawrence, Kans., 1984], 197

89. Furet interviewed by François Ewald, “Penser la Révolution,” 93.

90. In his address before an audience of American historians, Furet acknowledged his debt to Alfred Cobban, George Taylor, and Robert Palmer in the following terms: “The first showed before I did the inconsistencies of the Jacobin history of the French Revolution, the second has decisively demonstrated the noncapitalist character of the French bourgeoisie of the Old Regime, and the third has rediscovered the value of the concept of democracy in his comparative history” (Furet, “A Commentary,” French Historical Studies 16 [1990]: 792). As this citation indicates, Penser la Révolution française drew on Taylor and especially Cobban in its critique of the Jacobin “social interpretation.” Whatever its later impact on Furet, Palmer’s work appears to have had little influence on Furet through the 1970s. Although Taylor and Cobban both pointed toward a political interpretation of the Revolution, they did not develop it, nor did they abandon a social perspective on the Revolution. Consequently, Furet’s political and ideological interpretation of the revolutionary dynamic necessarily found its inspiration in other sources. For the work of Cobban and Taylor, see, above all, Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (New York, 1964), and Aspects of the French Revolution (New York, 1968); George V. Taylor, “Noncapitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution,” American Historical Review 72 (1967): 469–96, and “The Bourgeoisie at the Beginning of and during the Revolution,” in Die Französische Revolution—zufälliges oder notwendiges Ereignis? Akten des internationalen Symposions an der Universtät Bamberg, vom 4.–7. Juni 1979, ed. Eberhard Schmitt and Rolf Reichardt (Munich, 1983), 1:41–61.

91. The longer articles are François Furet, “Les Historiens et Robespierre,” France-observateur, 8 May 1958, 11; “Du pain et des têtes;” “La Nuit du 4 août: Légende et réalité,” France-observateur, 3 Aug. 1960, 6–7; “‘La Contre-Révolution, 1789–1804,’ de Jacques Godechot,” France-observateur, 8 June 1961, 17; “Turgot sous l’œil d’Edgar Faure,” France-observateur, 21 Sept. 1961, 15–16.

92. For a general discussion of these issues, see François Dosse, L’Histoire en miettes: Les “Annales” à la “nouvelle histoire” (Paris, 1987); and Troian Stoianovich, French Historical Method: The Annales Paradigm (Ithaca, N.Y., 1976).

93. Richet claims that he was the one who led the fight against the orthodoxy at the time. See Kaplan, Adieu 89, 681. This is essentially confirmed by Furet in Histoire de la Révolution et la révolution dans l’histoire, 9. Richet was also a fils de famille of the Parisian bourgeoisie who, having rejected his family and bourgeois life, joined the party in 1949 (after long conversations with Furet) only to leave it after 1956. He was also Furet’s brother-in-law (“Pourquoi j’aime l’histoire? Essai d’autobiographie intellectuelle,” 543–51).

94. Furet said of the book that “in writing it, we played with provoking a small scandal by calculating in advance the hostile reactions of the canonical historiography” (Histoire de la Révolution et la révolution dans l’histoire, 23). This statement contradicts Furet’s strategic declaration in the controversy before the bicentennial that he did not expect the hostility that their history encountered (Libération, 20 Oct. 1988, 2).

95. Furet interviewed by Ewald, “Penser la Révolution,” 93.

96. Furet, Histoire de la Révolution et la révolution dans l’histoire, 21, 28.

97. Excerpts from the book were published in Preuves 188 (Oct. 1966): 11–21.

98. Rieffel, La Tribu des clercs, 519, 579.

99. Furet divorced his first wife in the late 1950s. On Pierre Nora’s background, see Rieffel, La Tribu des clercs, 476.

100. Although Furet and Richet accepted collective responsibility for the book, it should be noted regarding the authorship of part one (covering the Revolution until Thermidor) that Furet wrote the sections on the Old Regime, the pre-Revolution, and the Revolution through summer 1789, and that Richet wrote the most controversial parts, those on the history of the Revolution from summer 1789 to the fall of Robespierre.

101. For Lefebvre’s interpretation, see his Coming of the French Revolution, trans. R. R. Palmer (Princeton, N.J., 1947), 212–13, first published in French in 1939. François Furet and Denis Richet, La Révolution française, 2d ed. (Paris, 1973), 101.

102. Furet and Richet, La Révolution française (1973), 102.

103. Ibid., 127. See pages 125–29 for the “thesis of accidents.”

104. Ibid., 203–4; 65, 163; 207.

105. François Furet and Denis Richet, La Révolution: Des Etats généraux au 9 thermidor, vol. 1 of La Révolution française (Paris, 1965), 240, 249, 300. To be fair, psychoanalytical references are not reserved for the popular classes; the importance of Marie-Antoinette’s conjugal frustrations are pondered on page 46 of volume 1. All of these references were removed in the 1973 edition.

106. Claude Mazauric, “Sur une nouvelle conception de la Révolution,” republished with some additions in Sur la Révolution française: Contributions à l’histoire de la révolution bourgeoise (Paris, 1970), 21–61. A few years later, Michel Vovelle offered a point-by-point refutation of Richet and Furet (La Chute de la monarchie, 1787–1792 [Paris, 1972]).

107. Furet, “Le Catéchisme révolutionnaire,” in Penser la Révolution française, 133–207. For Mazauric as a political commissar, see Khilnani, Arguing Revolution, 164.

108. Although in their preface to the second edition they did not reject their psychoanalytical references in principle; rather, they noted that “they would require an immense amount of work that is beyond our ambitions” (Furet and Richet, La Révolution française [1973]: 10).

109. Mazauric, “Sur une nouvelle conception de la Révolution,” 28–29.

110. Ibid., 31–32.

111. Ran Halévi, “Feuillants,” in François Furet, Mona Ozouf, and collaborators, Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française: Acteurs (Paris, 1992), 341–53.

112. Mazauric, “Sur une nouvelle conception de la Révolution,” 57.

113. Furet, Penser la Révolution française, 198.

114. Albert Soboul, “Avant-propos,” in Mazauric, Sur la Révolution française, 5.

115. The entire exchange is in “Correspondance,” Annales ESC 25 (1970): 1494–96. Although the exchange was nominally between Richet and Soboul, Furet was obviously implicated in it as indicated by the header given to the section, “F. Furet, D. Richet et A. Soboul.”

116. Richard Cobb, “Albert-Marius Soboul: A Tribute,” in People and Places (New York, 1985), 46–92; James Friguglietti, “The French Revolution Seen from the Left: Albert Soboul as a Historian,” in Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History, 24–27 October 1984, Albuquerque, New Mexico, ed. John F. Sweets (Lawrence, Kans., 1985), 100–107; Antoine de Baecque, “Soboul (Albert),” in Dictionnaire des intellectuels français: Les Personnes, les lieux, les moments, ed. Jacques Julliard and Michel Winock (Paris, 1996), 1066–67. At least from the perspective of his 1951 articles in praise of Maurice Thorez, Soboul appears considerably more orthodox than Cobb would have us believe (“Chronique historique,” La Pensée 37 [July–Aug. 1951]: 119–22, and “L’Histoire du Parti communiste et du peuple français à travers les œuvres de Maurice Thorez (juin 1931–février 1932),” La Pensée 35 [Mar.–Apr. 1951]: 127–30).

117. Claude Mazauric, “Penser l’œuvre de François Furet,” L’Humanité, 16 July 1997, 7.

118. Cobb, “Albert-Marius Soboul,” 68. Although Cobb names no one, this citation of Soboul obviously refers to Furet.

119. For Furet’s anger, see Furet, Histoire de la Révolution et la révolution dans l’histoire, 27.

120. Furet, Penser la Révolution française, 185.

121. Ibid., 187.

122. François Furet, “Les Intellectuels français et le structuralisme,” in L’Atelier de l’histoire, 37–52, originally published in Preuves 92 (Feb. 1967).

123. Raymond Aron, Le Spectateur engagé: Entretiens avec Jean-Louis Missika et Dominique Wolton (Paris, 1981), 263.

124. Furet interviewed by Ewald, “Penser la Révolution,” 93. In a 13 June 1968 letter to Aron, Furet criticized right-wing demagogy and argued against Aron that there was, given the PCF’s position, no immediate danger of subversion and that the student movement should not be reduced to its manipulation by revolutionary groups (Nicolas Baverez, Raymond Aron: Un Moraliste au temps des idéologies [Paris, 1993], 397).

125. Furet, “Turgot sous l’œil d’Edgar Faure.”

126. François Furet, “L’Adolescence permanente,” La Nef 43 (July–Sept. 1971): 39.

127. Ibid., 24.

128. Furet, “Le Catéchisme révolutionnaire,” 134–35.

129. François Furet, “Le Moteur inusable de Soljénitsyne,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 21 Apr. 1975, 76–77; François Furet, “Faut-il brûler Marx?” Le Nouvel Observateur, 28 July 1975, 52–53.

130. Furet, “Faut-il brûler Marx?” 52–53. As for Glucksmann’s response to the question of whether one should burn Marx: “At the price of domestic fuel, clever, my dear!” (“Réponses,” Tel quel 64 [winter 1975]: 71).

131. François Furet, “L’Enfance de l’individu,” Le Nouvel Observateur, 4 July 1977, 55.

132. In 1994, Furet said that he was divided in his opinion of Glucksmann at the time. He did not find Glucksmann’s work very good, but he believed that Glucksmann was performing a useful task (interview with author, Paris, 10 Feb. 1994).

133. Furet, “La Révolution et ses fantômes,” 245.

134. Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, 12, translation modified.

135. Ibid., 11, translation modified.

136. Furet interviewed by Malet, “L’Election du 10 mai,” 190.

137. Furet, Penser la Révolution française, 202.

138. See, for example, Furet’s “Tocqueville et le problème de la Révolution française,” originally published in 1971, in Penser la Révolution française, 209–56; “Ancien Régime et Révolution: Réinterprétations,” Annales ESC 29 (1974): 3–5; “Les Etats généraux de 1789: Deux baillages élisent leurs députés,” in Conjoncture économique structures sociales: Hommage à Ernest Labrousse, Civilisations et sociétés, 47 (Paris, 1974), 433–48; “Les Elections de 1789 à Paris: Le Tiers Etat et la naissance d’une classe dirigeante,” in Vom Ancien Régime zur Französischen Revolution: Forschungen und Perspektiven, ed. Ernst Hinrichs, Eberhard Schmitt, and Rudolf Vierhaus, Veröffentlichungen des Max-Plank-Institut für Geschichte, 55 (Göttingen, Germany, 1978), 188–206 (a paper given in a May 1975 colloquium); and “Mentalité des révolutions,” dialogue by E. Le Roy Ladurie and François Furet, Dialogues de France-Culture, Paris, Radio France, 10 Apr. 1973, sound recording.

139. In a letter of 6 Feb. 1976, Thibaud asked Furet if it would be possible for him “to put on paper the essential of what you said in the rue Cabanis debate the other evening on the idea of revolution? It seems to me that, without lingering on the details, this debate went directly to the essential questions and that it was for this reason particularly stimulating.” In his response of 9 Feb. 1976, Furet agreed to Thibaud’s request and notified Thibaud that he would need “a little time to flesh out this talk” (Paris, IMEC, Esprit archives, folder ESP2.S16-08.01).

140. François Furet, “Au centre de nos représentations politiques,” Esprit 460 (Sept. 1976): 172–78.

141. Furet, “La Révolution et ses fantômes,” 241.

142. Lefort defined “libertarian” in a 1977 interview as “the critique of all constraining authority from wherever it comes and, at the core, the demand in relation to all power, whatever the nature, of one’s liberty, of liberty itself as soon as it is menaced.” Interview of Claude Lefort by Gilbert Grand, Le Devoir (Montreal), 19 Nov. 1977.

143. Claude Lefort, “La Question de la révolution,” in L’Invention démocratique: Les Limites de la domination totalitaire (Paris, 1981), 196. First published in Esprit 460 (Sept. 1976).

144. Furet, Penser la Révolution française, 250.

145. Ibid., 262–63, 302–3.

146. Jean Egret, “Les Origines de la Révolution en Bretagne,” Revue historique 213 (Apr.–June 1955): 212, cited in Charles Porset, “Les Francs-Maçons et la Révolution (autour de la “Machine” de Cochin),” Annales historiques de la Révolution française 279 (Jan.–Mar. 1990): 23; Albert Mathiez, review of Les Sociétés de pensée et la Révolution en Bretagne (1788–1789), by Augustin Cochin, Annales historiques de la Révolution française 4:19 (1927): 80–82, reproduced in Porset, “Les Francs-Maçons,” 26–28. Furet mentions neither Egret’s article nor Mathiez’s review in his essay on Cochin.

147. Furet, Penser la Révolution française, 258.

148. The author thanks Margaret Jacob for bringing this to his attention. Jacob’s recent book on Freemasonry vigorously contests Furet’s reading of the relationship between Enlightenment sociability and the Terror. According to her, the Freemasons never practiced direct democracy and never sought to impose ideological purity within their lodges. Furthermore, Furet’s link of Freemasonry and Jacobinism is brought into question by the failure of Jacobinism to appear in such cities as Amsterdam, Brussels, and Philadelphia, despite the similarity of Freemasonry in these areas to that in France (Margaret C. Jacob, Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe [New York, 1991], 14–18).

149. Moisei Ostrogorski, La Démocratie et les partis politiques: Textes choisis et présentés par Pierre Rosanvallon (Paris, 1979); Pierre Rosanvallon, “Avancer avec Michels,” Faire 17 (Mar. 1977): 31–34 (Michels’s Political Parties was the focal point of interest in his work); Alain Besançon, Les Origines intellectuelles du léninisme (Paris, 1977); Gilles Martinet, “En France que ferions nous?” Faire 2 (Nov. 1975): 35; Kriegel, Ce que j’ai cru comprendre, 615, which suggests that Kriegel was the one who introduced Furet to Cochin’s writings; Augustin Cochin, L’Esprit du jacobinisme: Une Intépretation sociologique de la Révolution (Paris, 1979).

150. Patrice Gueniffey and Ran Halévi, “Clubs et sociétés populaires,” in François Furet, Mona Ozouf, and collaborators, Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française: Institutions et créations (Paris, 1992), 109. In his 1988 narrative history Furet still follows Cochin in his analysis of the elections to the Estates General in 1789 (1770–1814, vol. 1 of La Révolution [Paris, 1988], 109).

151. On these issues see Alice Gérard, La Révolution française, mythes et interprétations (1789–1970) (Paris, 1970); and P. Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins: Social Politics and Historical Opinion in the Third Republic (1944; rpt., New York, 1963), esp. 83 and 111.

152. The correctness of Furet’s presentation of Cochin’s work may be questioned. In particular, it is not clear that Cochin ever distinguished between representative and pure democracy, saving the former from his critiques of the latter (Olivier Bétourné and Aglaia I. Hartig, Penser l’histoire de la Revolution: Deux Siècles de passion française [Paris, 1989], 20–26).

153. Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, 176.

154. Furet, Penser la Révolution française, 281–82, 314.

155. Augustin Cochin, “La Campagne électorale de 1789 en Bourgogne,” in L’Esprit du jacobinisme, 50. This piece was originally published as a book in 1904.

156. Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, 202.

157. Ibid., 51, 80, 84, 94.

158. Jean Chesneaux, “‘Penser la Révolution française’ à l’âge de la Commission trilatérale,” Le Monde diplomatique (Mar. 1979): 2; Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier, 48; Roger Chartier, “Une Relecture politique de la Révolution française,” Critique 35 (1979): 270. Le Roy Ladurie wrote essentially the same thing in his Le Monde review of 1 Jan. 1979 but added that Jim Jones, the leader of the Guyana mass suicide, should be included among the imitators of Robespierre and Saint-Just. Chartier later distanced himself from Furet’s interpretation of the Revolution, notably in Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Durham, N.C., 1991).

159. Claude Lefort, “Penser la révolution dans la Révolution française,” in Essais sur le politique (XIXe–XXe siècles) (Paris, 1986), 117. Originally published in Annales ESC 35 (Mar.–Apr. 1980). Jean-Pierre Hirsch, “Pensons la Révolution française,” Annales ESC 35 (1980): 331.

160. Lefort, “Penser la révolution dans la Révolution française,” 129. Lynn Hunt developed an interpretation along these lines suggested by Lefort. Indeed, her interpretation is influenced by Lefort’s critique of Furet (Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution [Berkeley, Calif., 1984], 49, n. 86).

161. Lefort, “Penser la révolution dans la Révolution française,” 138–39.

162. Lynn Hunt, review of Interpreting the French Revolution by François Furet, History and Theory 20 (1981): 313; Khilnani, Arguing Revolution, 170–73; Mark Poster, Cultural History and Postmodernity: Disciplinary Readings and Challenges (New York, 1997), 72–107, esp. 88–90. Furet denied any connection between his work and that of Derrida. Of Derrida, Furet said, “I detest what he does” (interview with author, Paris, 10 Feb. 1994).

163. François Furet, Marx et la Révolution française (Paris, 1986); François Furet, La Gauche et la Révolution française au milieu du XIXe siècle: Edgar Quinet et la question du jacobinisme (1865–1870) (Paris, 1986); Furet and Ozouf, Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française.

164. Kaplan, Adieu 89, 736.

165. Furet, 1770–1814.

166. Maurice Agulhon, “Plaidoyer pour les Jacobins. La Gauche, l’Etat et la région dans la tradition historique française,” Le Débat 13 (June 1981): 55–65; Maurice Agulhon, “Faut-il avoir peur de 1989?” Le Débat 30 (May 1984): 27–37; François Furet, “Réponse à Maurice Agulhon,” Le Débat 30 (May 1984): 38–43; François Furet, “1789–1917: Aller et retour,” Le Débat 57 (Nov.–Dec. 1989): 4–16.

167. These questions are identified as “the tension in revolutionary politics between the will of the majority and the general will; . . . the anonymity of sovereign power, all the more constraining for being more neutral; . . . the permanent possibility that sovereignty will be usurped by a faction; and . . . the lack of any recourse for the opposition in a system in which the representation of the sovereign people is conceived as being indivisible and omnipotent” (François Furet and Mona Ozouf, preface to A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, trans. Arthur Goldhammer [Cambridge, Mass., 1989], xix).

168. For details see Kaplan, Adieu 89, esp. 691–97 and 742–44.

169. Isser Woloch, “On the Latent Illiberalism of the French Revolution,” American Historical Review 95 (1990): 1452–70. Alternatively, a liberal might view the French Revolution, as Anne Sa’adah does, as the moment in which liberal politics is born in France (Sa’adah, The Shaping of Liberal Politics in Revolutionary France: A Comparative Perspective [Princeton, N.J., 1990]).

170. Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Les Intellocrates: Expédition en haute intelligentsia (Brussels, 1985), 45–46; Kaplan, Adieu 89, 679, 804.

171. Furet interviewed by Malet, “L’Election du 10 mai,” 192; Furet’s comments are from winter 1982. See also François Furet, “Faut-il célébrer le bicentenaire de la Révolution?” Histoire 52 (1983): 71–77; and Mona Ozouf, “Peut-on commémorer la Révolution française?” in L’Ecole de la France: Essais sur la Révolution, l’utopie et l’enseignement (Paris, 1984), 142–57, first published in Le Débat 26 (1983).

172. Furet, interview with author, Paris, 10 Feb. 1994.

173. Kaplan, Adieu 89, 844.

174. Ibid., 38, 80–81, 217, 662, 682.

175. Furet, Penser la Révolution française, 29.

176. Furet, “La Révolution et ses fantômes,” 240.

177. Furet, Le Passé d’une illusion; Diana Pinto, “Light at Midnight?” French Politics and Society 13 (spring 1995): 85.

178. Furet mentioned his close collaboration with his editor, Nora, in the writing of Penser la Révolution française in Furet, interview with author, Paris, 10 Feb. 1994.

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