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  • Europe After Utopianism
  • François Furet (bio)

That we were unable to predict or even imagine the collapse of communism gives us some indication of what an enormous upheaval our political universe has undergone. It is not surprising that we should have difficulty coming to grips with the implications of this upheaval and that we might tend to concentrate exclusively on how it will affect international relations. If we wish to understand the full consequences of communism’s demise, however, we must look beyond what is immediately before us.

The force and popularity of the communist idea in the twentieth century—its surpassing of the frontiers of the Soviet Union to become the Soviet myth in the West as well as in the developing world—derives from its embodiment of the notion of the universality of humankind. This notion descends directly from Christian and democratic ideals but in its communist version is free of any historical association with capitalism. Communism was supposed to bring about the true universality of humankind, something promised by bourgeois democracy but ceaselessly adjourned by the division of labor and class conflict. The communist idea, in other words, has always been inseparable from modern democracy. It has functioned as its double, its opposite, its court of appeals, and its future, as is shown by European history since the end of the French Revolution. Communism is essentially—in spite of Marx’s efforts to impart to it an air of scientific necessity—a credo, a [End Page 79] moral vision of the future. This explains why the communist idea survived as long as it did—in countries where the communists did not hold power, it is true—despite its improbable incarnation in that most eccentric country of all, the old Russia of the czars reinvented as the Soviet Union.

One measure of the strength of the communist idea is the extent to which it could be modified by those who were possessed by it so as to survive the lessons of experience or observation. There is an interesting history to be written of the series of “revisionisms” that intellectuals devised with the sole end of saving Marxism from the real-world tragedies that compromised it. France alone has harbored a profusion of incarnations of the communist idea since Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956. And after all, we need not look very far back in French history to find a persistent echo of the idea of a radical rupture with capitalism: the common Communist-Socialist platform of 1981 is hardly a distant memory.

What is new about the situation that has prevailed in Central Europe since 1989 and in the former Soviet Union since 1991 is that the collapse of communism in its various forms has now precluded all revisionism. Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubček presented himself as the advocate of a better form of communism in 1968, whereas Václav Havel came to the fore in 1989 in part because he was unequivocally anticommunist. While Mikhail Gorbachev managed to maintain a certain ambiguity in Moscow, it has disappeared with the ascent of Boris Yeltsin. Out of the ruins of the communist regimes has emerged the familiar repertoire of liberal democracy; the very meaning of communism has thus been transformed, even for those who were its enemies. Instead of representing an exploration of the future, the Soviet experience has turned out to be a mere detour in the forward march of liberal democracy. Twentieth-century history itself takes on a different hue once fascism and communism are rightly inscribed there together as tragedies, comparable in their determination to oppose that forward march.

Another consequence of the collapse of communism is that henceforth we must live in a closed political universe, with nothing beyond the horizon. This is something completely new, considering that for the last two hundred years the ideas and passions of European politics have been unceasingly fueled by radical critiques of capitalism and liberal democracy made in the name of a more organized or more fraternal society—a utopian vision manifested on the right in a nostalgia for hierarchies, and on the left in the hope of socialism. Today, both are dead and we...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 79-89
Launched on MUSE
1995-01-01
Open Access
No
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