History may not have come to a stop in 1989, but the public is still under the spell of the counterpoint in Francis Fukuyama’s famous exercise in propaganda: Capitalism is eternal because there is no alternative. While the evil empire can no longer be painted as a hell from which there is no exit, we in the West–and indeed in the world at large–can be described as permanent prisoners of our capitalist system. If doubts are creeping in and some inmates may even be dreaming of escape, our keepers can turn to a Frenchman with a shrewder message: Hope is not necessarily banned forever, it is just ruled out for our historical period.
François Furet is thus a sort of rich man’s Fukuyama. A Communist and then a radical socialist in his younger days, this historian is now a pillar of the French intellectual establishment. In the United States he is a professor at the University of Chicago and former co-chairman of its Committee on Social Thought, which is linked to the reactionary Olin Foundation–more closely associated with profits and lethal weapons than with Rosa Luxemburg. His recently published book, Le Passé d’une illusion (“The Past of an Illusion”), praised in publications from the conservative right to the respectful left, has topped the nonfiction best-seller list in France for several weeks. It will be published in the United States next year by the Free Press, and if It does not seem too French and too sophisticated, it may prove a convenient intellectual weapon in the struggle for capitalist consolidation.
This French gravedigger goes in for funeral orations. A specialist in the French Revolution, he produced two books during the celebrations of its bicentennial, both asserting that the revolution was over and done with. The main one argued that it came to an end In 1880, when July 14, Bastille Day, became the national holiday, and after the massacre of the Communards had exorcised its spirit. As if himself unconvinced, Furet wrote another essay, in which the revolution comes to a full stop a century later, with the Stalinist mythology dissolved, the Communist Party reduced to a shadow of its former self and Mitterrand bringing France into the Western fold thanks to the politics of consensus [see Singer, “Dancing on the Grave of Revolution,” February 6, 1989]. His passionate battle was actually waged against colleagues for whom the revolution was unfinished by definition because Its egalitarian ideals could not be fulfilled without the abolition of capitalism. The collapse of the post-Stalinist empire gives Furet an opportunity to settle accounts.
But what did the crumbling of the Berlin wall or the dissolution of the Soviet Union actually bring to an end? Is the illusion buried here the one that identified socialism with Stalin’s tyranny? Or is it the end of a deeper Marxist tragedy, which began with Lenin’s optimistic assumption that the October Revolution would spread westward and, when it did not, produced the terrible contradiction between a system conceived for the advanced capitalist world but isolated to the backwardness of Mother Russia? Or, finally, does it condemn Marx’s own vision of capitalism’s doom?
In fact, Furet is throwing Stalin, Lenin and Marx into the dustbin of history. Even if he does not do it as crudely as the new philosophers, who painted the bearded prophet as the builder of barbed wire around concentration camps, Furet’s message is the same. He delivers it partly explicitly, equating Lenin with Stalin despite their admitted differences. He also does it implicitly through a juggling of loosely defined concepts. Stalinism, Leninism, Marxism and Marxism-Leninism are all synonyms for him; the reader is surprised to discover Bolsheviks all over Europe after the Second World War; and Marxism is finally condemned, together with “all the versions of communism,” without even an attempt at examination.