The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century

by Francois Furet

(University of Chicago Press, 596 pp., $35)


Ten years on, it is apparent that we misunderstood the meaning of 1989 then and we misunderstand it now. Loose talk about the end of history is to blame. It led us to think that communism was over. Ten years on, it obviously is not over. Slobodan Milosevic's regime remains communist in essence, if authoritarian-populist in form. Milosevic created a playground zone of media freedom and a facade of political pluralism in order to conceal the unregenerately communist character of his regime: the Leninist-conspiratorial approach to politics itself; the corrupt appropriation of the economy by the ruling elite; the predatory role of the secret police; the anemic dependency of civil society; the chauvinistic paranoia of public discourse. It is all there--bombed, defeated, but still standing, the last living example of what communism did to politics in Europe.

But how can they be otherwise? Despite Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Akhmatova, and all the heroic witnesses, the Soviet past remains unmastered by the society at large. For most Russians of a certain age, the horror of the gulag is not structural but incidental. They remember the health care, and forget the terror; they remember the universal education and the factory holidays in Crimea, and forget the torture and the disappearance of their friends. These illusions of memory are tenacious and highly dangerous. The West continues to be faced with a powerful society, equipped with nuclear weapons and incapable of democracy as long as it equates democracy with the loss of Father Stalin.

Democracy does not stand a chance in Russia unless this vile nostalgia is disgraced. Since the society is never likely to de-Stalinize, or to establish a Truth Commission to complete official atonement and public recognition, the generation with living memories of Stalin will have to die off before Russia can lay communism to rest. And these considerations mean that Francois Furet's book is not quite about an illusion whose time has passed. Its real subject is an illusion that refuses to die.

This powerful book first appeared in Paris in 1995, before Furet's death, and it is now published in a fluent and convincing translation by his American widow. Furet was one of the great barons of French academic life, witty, worldly-wise, and cynical as only an ex-Communist could be. In his introduction, Furet refers obliquely to his own membership in the Communist Party, saying only that it began in 1949 and ended in 1956 with the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He looks upon his youthful illusions with serenity:

"Forty years later I judge my erstwhile blindness with neither indulgence nor acrimony... That unfortunate engagement taught me something. I came away from Communism with a curiosity about the revolutionary passion and with an immunity to pseudo-religious investment in political action."

At the time of his death in 1997, Furet was a member of the Academie Francaise, a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and a professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes; but he was not a narrowly French figure. He was free of the anti-Americanism and the Anglophobia that impoverishes French intellectual life, and taught regularly at the University of Chicago. In France, he enjoyed popular success--and academic respect--for his Interpreting the French Revolution, a briskly iconoclastic essay on the idea of the French Revolution that challenged the soporific pieties of socialism and republicanism alike. Furet argued boldly that the French revolutionary tradition was over; that it had lost its capacity to divide France and to inspire change with a re-commitment to its ideals. And The Passing of an Illusion continues Furet's rigorous autopsy on the corpse of Enlightenment dreams. In his account, the October Revolution of 1917 was an attempt to complete the work of 1789. Viewed in this light, the question is how the promise of liberation--common to both revolutions--was so thoroughly betrayed in the twentieth century, and why so many left intellectuals should have been so blind to the unfolding catastrophe.

It should be said at once that this is a great book: passionate yet Olympian mordant yet humane. It is not a history of communism, but of communism's central illusions. Furet rightly argues that these were a force in their own right, and that the "fascination that ideas exert on passions is a more reliable guide than an analysis of interests." Communism was never just the vehicle of the interests of the workers, any more than liberalism is the vehicle of the bourgeoisie or fascism the creature of "Big Capital." Indeed, the illusions of twentieth-century totalitarianism might have been less destructive had they been more instrumental. But it was their total independence of interests, and of practical calculation, and finally of rationality itself, that made them ruinous. They inspired men and women to betray their instincts, to denounce their friends, to lay down their lives.

The central illusion was the idea that communism was a science of history, capable of revealing Time's hidden logic; and that the Communist Party was the agent of this science, helping Time to unfold as it must, in the inevitable triumph of the proletariat. This illusion, Furet writes, did not " accompany Communist history: it made it." Without this illusion, the full nightmare of Communist power would never have been achieved. Only the very faithful, the very credulous, could continue in the service of a God that failed from the very beginning. The moral message of Furet's essay is clear enough. If communism's root illusion was the idea of historical necessity-- which justified every crime and excused every mistake--it follows that "a true understanding of our time is possible only when we free ourselves from the illusion of necessity." And, it might be added, from the necessity of illusion.

Why did generations of intelligent people succumb? Why did so many intellectuals voluntarily put on the chains? Communism, Furet argues, should be properly understood as a chapter in the history of European bourgeois self- hatred. It appealed primarily to discontented bourgeois because it diagnosed central contradictions in bourgeois life. The bourgeoisie was committed to the universalistic ideals of 1789, but it knew that it was living a lie.

"Bourgeois society is thus animated by a corpuscular agitation, constantly driving it forward. Yet this agitation tends to deepen the contradictions in that society's very existence; for not only does the bourgeoisie consist of associates who care little for the public interest, but the idea of universality and the equality of man, which it claims as its foundation and its primary innovation, is constantly negated by the inequality of property and wealth produced by the competition of its members. Its development belies its principle, and its dynamic undercuts its legitimacy....They detested revolution, while owing it everything."

And so they began also to detest themselves. "Far from incarnating what is universal, the bourgeoisie had but one obsession, their own interests, and but one symbol, money."

Communism's accomplishment, and the source of its appeal, was to formalize the terms of the bourgeoisie's guilty conscience, its remorse at its failure to practice what it preached. And communism expressed also the aesthetic self- loathing of the bourgeoisie, its secret belief that money twisted the soul and that it knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. In this sense, the rise of communism was inseparable from the rise of Romanticism, the artistic rejection of all that was narrow, miserly, and vulgar about bourgeois capitalism.

Rage, self-loathing, and aesthetic disdain combined to generate an eschatological longing for an escape from what Marx called the "narrow horizon of bourgeois right." Though it purported to be a science of history, communism actually promised its believers an escape from history, a leap beyond the flat horizon of bourgeois life into a realm of justice and equality, abundance and fraternity. This vision of communist paradise may have been wholly unrealistic, but it certainly mobilized the emotions of true believers and sustained their abiding hatred of the world as it was.

Fascism shared the same furious hatred of the bourgeoisie, the same loathing for bourgeois civility and order and profit and prudence, the same intoxication with political violence and ideological extremism. Furet treats communism as fascism's brother- enemy. He observes that Hitler never stinted in his respect for Bolshevik fanaticism. As he told Herman Rauschning in 1934, "there is more that binds us to Bolshevism than separates us from it... The petit bourgeois Social Democrat and the trade-union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the communist always will." But whereas communism saw itself as the self-conscious bearer of the universal values of 1789, fascism explicitly rejected the universal in favor of the nation and the individual. If communism was, in Furet's phrase, "the pathology of the universal," fascism was "the pathology of the national." Both ideologies hated each other, in Furet's words, "not only for what separated them but also for what made them alike."

They also shared a similar eschatology. Both conceived the public sphere as a place deserted by religion, "as a pure creation of human will." Fascism filled the public square with a ranting demagogue, communism with the tramping feet of the workers. Both wanted to turn the public sphere from the realm of politics into the realm of spectacle, from the deliberative sphere of citizens into the circus of true belonging. Both fascism and communism loathed mere democracy as much as they loathed mere accumulation. Both hated moral and political individualism: the idea that a nation's destiny should depend on the sovereign judgment of separate individuals. For the fascists, this meant that national destiny would be decided by Jews, by individuals lacking a truly organic, racial connection to the national interest. For the communists, political individualism and popular sovereignty meant democracy rigged in favor of the bourgeoisie.

Furet lays bare an unintended consequence of the European reckoning with the Holocaust: that it gave renewed intellectual and moral validity to communism. By turning Nazism into the unique moral abomination of the century, liberal thought inadvertently allowed the Soviet experiment a further lease on life. A good deal of communism's moral credit after 1945 was owed to the Soviet Union's decisive role in defeating Hitler. In the process, of course, a concentration camp universe stretching from the Urals to the Pacific was hidden from view. By treating fascism and communism as twin monsters, however, Furet breaks decisively with the tradition that continued to defend the Soviet Union, even after its crimes were known, simply because it had helped to defeat fascism. And by insisting that communism shared with Nazism the same loathing for liberal democracy and liberal decency, he helps also to dismantle the idea of Nazism as either a specially German--or a specially insane--form of the politics of hatred.

Furet also helps one to understand why it remains difficult for bourgeois liberals to concede that communism was just as terrible a tyranny as Nazism. For the pathology of the universal always seems more pardonable to children of 1789 than the pathology of the national. Communist brethren always claimed that they defended the same universals as liberals did; and because liberals were uneasily aware of the failure of liberal societies to live up to these ideals, many were indulgent--criminally so--toward the Soviet failure to do so. Furet's analysis leads to the disturbing thought that universalistic rhetoric--"mankind," "the human race," "workers of the world," and so on--is probably responsible for more corpses than the particularistic rhetoric associated with "nation" and "race."

Neither communism nor fascism would ever have become ruling creeds in the twentieth century, moreover, if bourgeois society had not thrown itself into the abyss in 1914. It was World War I that transformed them both into beliefs that spoke to the resentment, the exhaustion, and the disgust of the men who returned from the trenches. Twentieth-century democracy was a creation of war, and war gave democracy a totalitarian inflection. The fascist rhetoric of the enemy race and the communist rhetoric of the enemy class both derive from the moral imagination of the trenches. As Furet writes, "the masses erupted onto the European public scene, constituting a political civilization in which the fragile mechanisms of constitutional regimes were short-circuited by primitive forms of popular participation and of parliamentary representation by the identification with a single leader." Without the trenches, neither Hitler nor Lenin.

By locating the roots of the totalitarian temptation in the catastrophe of war, Furet goes a long way toward explaining why the twentieth century witnessed two such determined assaults on liberal democratic principles. For those principles seemed disgraced in 1918. In Furet's words, "Lenin's Soviet Union took the reins of human progress and assumed the spot that revolutionary France had been keeping warm for it since the late eighteenth century." The October Revolution exerted a universal spell over Western European intellectuals--the Eastern intellectuals learned the harsh realities more quickly--because it seemed to rescue 1789 from the ashes of 1918. It seemed to restore faith in the power of human agency at a moment when the carnage on the Western Front seemed to prove that human beings were the helpless playthings of historical forces. Thanks to the association of 1917 with 1789, October could be seen as something more exalted than a coup d'etat in a war-ravaged country far away in the East. For the whole European left, it symbolized the resumption of History's forward march. And so it was seen, through thick and mostly through thin, until 1989.

To be sure, Soviet reality soon made this mythology look absurd. And the contradictions were apparent to a few early observers, such as Bertrand Russell in 1920. He came away from a visit to Moscow with scorn for the Soviet regime's weak-minded defenders in the West, who supposed that the dictatorship of the proletariat was merely a new form of representative government. If the nature of Soviet tyranny was apparent to Russell, why was it not apparent to the European intellectuals--to Wells, to Shaw, to the Webbs--who made pilgrimages to Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s? These were founder figures of the British social democratic tradition, and their credulity about the Soviet Union casts the whole social democratic tradition's understanding of democracy into doubt. If these founding fathers and mothers could have been so wrong about Russia, could they have been right about anything else? The whole story is a dolorous case study in the psychology of self-deception. As Saul Bellow once remarked, "A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."

In order to unravel the psychology of self-deception, Furet makes a close study of the Hungarian philosopher Georg LukAcs. LukAcs was the son of a liberal Jewish businessman, and both his Judaism and his bourgeois origins became, for him, a source of shame. As Furet observes, intellectuals often find escape from self-hatred in the pursuit of the universal. For LukAcs, communism offered the grandest universalism there was, a science of History that would lift him above his Judaism and his bourgeois origins and associate his life with the redemptive and cleansing force of the proletariat.

Instead of redemption, though, he got humiliation. After serving as deputy commissar for public education in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of Bela Kun, Lukacs escaped to Moscow, where his History and Class Consciousness, completed in 1923, was suppressed by the very regime whose advent it celebrated. After the war, he returned to Hungary and agreed to serve as minister of culture in the government of Imre Nagy, a few days before the arrival of the Soviet tanks. How are we to explain a man who continued to worship an illusion that blighted his life? Furet argues that LukAcs was held captive by "an idea of the Soviet Union so potent that it had annulled his knowledge of its history."

Secular faiths such as Marxism left much less room for doubt than religion. Religion knows all about doubt. Since God's ways are unknowable, religion can endure only if it finds a place for self-questioning. Prayer itself is a questioning dialogue with God. But what is Marxism's equivalent of prayer? Since the theory had to be correct, a believer had to disavow the testimony of his own senses; and if reality failed to live up to the promise of theory, then the reality was deficient. In embracing Marxism, a Jewish bourgeois such as LukAcs escaped self-hatred at the price of eternal theoretical self- accusation.

Furet's chronicle leaves disturbing questions behind. For he insists that the story of our temptation by utopia is never over. "Democracy, by virtue of its existence, creates the need for a world beyond the bourgeoisie and beyond Capital, a world in which a genuine human community can flourish." What this actually means, if it means anything at all, is unclear. But there is no doubting the meaning of Furet's declaration that "the idea of another society has become almost impossible to conceive of... Here we are condemned to live in the world as it is."

Certainly, the escape hatches into political fantasy have been closed with the demise of communism. And certainly there will always be those who long for a radical otherness, as vague as it is seductive. But for others, freer perhaps of bourgeois self-hatred, the real task of the political imagination is to be genuinely reconciled to what is, and to achieve reconciliation that is not resignation. The virtue of liberalism is--or should be--its deep attachment to what has been achieved already, combined with a conviction that it can be better. Complacency, in any event, is not really a possibility, because liberal society's central commitments--to individual rights and to markets--are in contradiction, and this contradiction stimulates an unending dynamic of change.

All this Furet sees with admirable clarity; but the liberal rhythm of change is not enough for him. Like many one-time communists, he seems to lament the end of communism as a vision of paradise, fearing that when liberal democracy loses its systemic rival, it will cease to feel the impetus to change and to renew. His pessimism is ungrounded, I think, except in his own experience of eschatological disappointment. In his rueful anxiety about the vitality of liberalism, Furet drastically underestimates the forces of discontent within liberal society. Marxism itself was never guilty of such an underestimation of bourgeois discontent; but Furet should have thought more of the productive future of these contradictions. They guarantee liberal democracy a long if bumpy ride into the future.

Furet seems similarly nostalgic for the metaphysical consolations of communism. He is right to observe that if the core of communism's appeal was essentially religious--it appeared to explain the purpose of Time itself-- then the longings that it addressed do not disappear simply because the doctrine is discredited. Furet expresses an odd melancholy at the collapse of the science of history:

"Once again, history has become a tunnel that we enter in darkness, not knowing where our actions will lead, uncertain of our destiny, stripped of the illusory security of a science of what we do. At the end of the twentieth century, deprived of God, we have seen the foundations of deified history crumbling--a disaster that must somehow be averted."

Why should we avert this disaster? Why should we not welcome it? The disaster that Furet has described is surely no disaster at all. The moral of his story, surely, is humility. Marxism disgraced science and religion alike, because it disdained the patience and the modesty appropriate to both. Marxism was a form of Promethean hubris, and all our mythologies, pagan and religious, rightly tell us that human overreaching is justly punished. If we must live within the horizon of bourgeois life, and we must, let us do so without the delusion of faith and the fantasy of false deliverance.

Michael Ignatieff is the author, most recently, of

By Michael Ignatieff