The Sound and the Furet

The Sound and the Furet

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 i


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.

The Stalinist is not the only school of falsification. One can, with greater subtlety, give the facts and twist their interpretation. Furet admits that “within the Party the time of debates and open disagreements” came to an end when Stalin took over. He himself draws a contrast between the Bolshevik Party, which saw itself as “the vanguard detachment of world revolution and nothing more,” and Stalin, for whom the international movement was merely an instrument of Soviet policy. But this does not prevent him from equating Lenin with Stalin, a vital task if you want to prevent the “rehabilitation of October.”

Furet also recognizes that for Lenin the revolution’s only chance of genuine survival was to spread westward. But though he loves to speculate–thus history would have been, for him, altogether different if Lenin had not been in Russia in 1917–he does not ponder what would have happened if the revolution had spread to Germany and beyond. A pity, because it keeps us from finding out whether the author hates only the ugly oriental distortion of socialism or any version threatening bourgeois rule. The same ambiguity surrounds his treatment of the outbreak of the First World War. The author, rightly, attributes many subsequent barbarian developments to the savage slaughter of that conflict. He also recognizes that most socialist leaders, having promised to wage war against war, betrayed their pledges at the crucial moment in 1914–one key to the tremendous popularity of the Russian Revolution in war-weary Europe. Does Furet side, for once, with the Bolsheviks and their friends in 1914? He is too busy explaining the betrayal of the leaders by the mood of the rank and file.

The double standard is, indeed, his favorite method. Throughout the book the author treats one side with the ruthlessness of a prosecutor and the other with the sympathy of a defense counsel. Take the Spanish Civil War: The Soviet Union is scathingly attacked for trying to take over the Republic, but the Western policy that brought about Russian supremacy on the Republican side–nonintervention–is treated with great indulgence. Furet sympathizes not only with Léon Blum, the French Socialist prime minister, but even with the British conservatives “who are not wrong, In the absolute, to be anti- communist.” Or, to take another example, he considers the Nazi-Soviet pact to be proof of a permanent complicity between Bolshevism and Nazism. Munich does not cast such retrospective shadow on the Western side. Actually, Munich gets very little space in the book and the bulk of it is devoted to arguing that it was not the principal reason for the Nazi-Soviet pact.

Bias is present on every page and it sometimes reaches ridiculous proportions. The seizure by the U.S.S.R. of its neighbors’ territory in 1939-40 is described as “carried in Hitlerite fashion, i.e., in terms of superiority of big powers over the small,” because as every professional historian knows, nothing of the kind had ever been perpetrated by capitalist states–or to use the appropriate language, by Western democracies. Indeed, special pleading becomes second nature. Thus, in a potted history of the Polish C.P. we learn, say, that it was led by “internationalist Jewish activists” but not that it was illegal, driven underground after 1919. M. Furet may wish to whitewash Washington, but he has no reason to spare Marshal Pilsudski and the Polish colonels.

Yet the author’s real passion is spent denying fascism’s capitalist connection. Communist writers may have described fascism crudely as a puppet of big business (rather than a Frankenstein unleashed by it), but Furet goes to extremes in the opposite direction. The fact that Mussolini climbed to power “thanks to a tactical compromise with Italy’s traditional elites,” that Hitler was similarly helped in his rise by potentates of industry and finance, that both regimes allowed scope for private enterprise–all this is dismissed as hardly relevant and unimportant. What matters is to stress the anti-capitalist nature of fascism. You may recall that Stalin, in his most sectarian period, called socialists and fascists “not antipodes but twins.” Furet, borrowing from Hannah Arendt, describes Bolsheviks and Nazis as totalitarian twins, conflicting yet united.

For this thesis to stick, anti-capitalism must be the fundamental feature of fascism, and Furet goes far in trying to prove it. I had to read a passage several times to realize Furet is saying that if we were “antibourgeois and anticapitalist” after the war, we were “sharing representations and passions with the vanquished and detested enemy”–that is, with the Nazis. When an author is so obsessed by the anticommunist passion, it is not surprising that he abhors the principle proclaimed by the Frankfurt School (“He who has nothing to say about capitalism must also shut up about fascism”) but is full of respect for the German revisionist historian Ernst Nolte. (In fairness, it must be added at once that Furet rejects the latter’s suggestion that the Jews contributed to their fate by rallying to Germany’s enemy. The ravages of the recent European rewriting of history through anti-Red glasses is a subject for separate treatment.)

Let there be no misunderstanding. We must probe the past with uncompromising honesty, study the totalitarian aspects of the Stalinist structure and the crimes committed in the name of socialism, examine whether Leninism did not contain the seeds of future tyranny. But we must do so in a historical and social context. The main weakness of this book–some will say its clever device–is to treat an idea abstracted from the social forces that helped shape it. Thus, while fascism is at the heart of this story, you get nothing about the trauma created by the galloping inflation after the First World War that wiped out lifelong savings, or about the Great Depression, which brought millions of its victims to a state of frenzy. Without these severe dislocations, you cannot grasp why a civilized country like Germany ran amok. The author strips dictatorships of their social environment and then declares that they are not suitable for Marxist analysis.

The same objection applies to the handling of the Soviet Union. One can, and should, condemn, say, the conduct of collectivization as bloodthirsty, but one must treat it as a mad response to a real problem–getting food supplies to the towns. Depriving the story of its social background, you reduce a real drama to the level of grand guignol, with everything explained by the evil of three villains: Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin (a latter-day Lenin, only more so).

But the Soviet Union cannot be explained by the gulag alone. It is unfair, when describing the tremendous Soviet contribution to the war effort, not to mention the industrialization that made it possible. It is impossible to understand the hopes, illusions and beliefs of the population without taking into account the spread of mass education and the social advance of the children of the downtrodden. If one does not connect the dictatorship with the social upheaval it set in motion, one is in no position to grasp why the economy slackened pace, why Stalin’s heirs were unable to carry out a democratic transformation and why, In defense of their privileges, they were finally driven to opt for the private property of classical capitalism.

Similarly, the relationship between the Soviet Union and its foreign supporters cannot be explained in terms of clichés, even if these may be partially accurate. It is true that all Communist parties were obedient tools of the Kremlin (on the grounds that they were detachments in a revolutionary army and the main front was in Russia). But the truth was complicated. They were both puppets and genuine actors In the dramas of their own countries. In the case of France, this involved exploitation and oppression, colonial conflict and, pace Furet, a bourgeoisie highly sympathetic to the slogan “rather Hitler than the popular front.” And it is equally absurd to examine the admittedly diminishing Soviet success in the post-war period without mentioning strikes, struggles, socialist betrayals, Indochina, Algeria and all. Yes, it was very difficult to be a member of the anti–Stalinist left at the time of the Moscow trials in the thirties or their repeat performance in Eastern Europe after the war. Yes, a big section of the Western left turned a blind eye to the crimes committed in Its name. But so as not to repeat mistakes it is necessary to understand how they happened, and we shall learn nothing if we study them not In their real context but against the idealized setting of “Western democracies.”

All this does not mean that we do not have tremendous problems on our own agenda. Even people who, like myself, dismiss as ridiculous the suggestion that the fall of the Berlin wall was the final funeral of socialism–for the simple reason that socialism never lived in Eastern Europe–have a lot of questions to answer. They have, as we saw, to draw ruthless lessons from the past, notably about the danger of suspending democracy, for no matter how apparently valid reasons. But the problems also concern the present and the future. Can one say that the whole period between 1917 and 1989 is merely a historical bracket, as Furet seems to suggest with his elegant formulation that Lenin, unlike Napoleon, has no heirs, and as the current discrediting of socialism In Eastern Europe seems to confirm? It may be better to wait and see whether the ideas preached, though never applied in practice, do have an impact on the course of events in that area.

But the main questions are inevitably connected with what I consider the key to the Marxist tragedy–the failure of the revolution to make progress in the advanced capitalist countries. Was the project inadequate? Was the situation unripe to begin with and then badly affected by the impact of Stalinism? Does capitalism have to conquer the globe to reach the end of its tether? These and similar questions have to be tackled and answered fast because the triumph of capitalism is full of forebodings and not euphoric as it appears in the Furet version. The contradiction between our technological genius and the absurdity of our social organization spells unemployment and foreshadows new horrors on the horizon if progressive solutions are not found in the meantime. (Fukuyama and Furet have one valid point. The left is not at all up to the task at this time.)

But this debate, I f one may say so, concerns people for whom the French and the American revolutions did not come to a full stop with the consolidation of the bourgeois order. In other words, Furet could only join in as an intruder. His book is not only distorted but occasionally distasteful. In many passages–when he attacks H.G. Wells, Shaw and the Webbs as visitors to the Soviet Union, when he defends the POUM In Spain or Victor Serge-he seems to echo the anti-Stalinist left. The argument, however, is used by a writer who is now clearly committed to the rule of capital, especially as practiced by the United States (which he curiously defines as a country “which has had no bourgeoisie, only a bourgeois people”). The duplicity appears early in the book when the author cites Rosa Luxemburg as a critic of the Bolsheviks in the name of democracy, but forgets to add that in the very same text of 1918 she hailed “Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades” for saving “the honor of international socialism.” (Incidentally, she also made this gloomy and prophetic prediction: “Under such fatal conditions even the most gigantic idealism and the most storm-tested revolutionary energy are incapable of realizing democracy and socialism but only distorted attempts at either.”) To say that it is indecent to plead with Rosa and then march with her murderers is not just rhetoric, since, later in the book, Furet justifies the alliance between Germany’s Social Democrats and army officers as a defense against Bolshevism.

A distinguished professor does not venture outside his field, forcing himself to depend on second- or third-hand sources, simply to fortify Fukuyama. One explanation is, obviously, the desire to justify one’s own itinerary. A significant omission gives the game away. At the end of the preface, Furet apologizes with dignity for the period between 1949 and 1956, when he was a card-carrying member of the French C.P. Yet If Stalin equals Lenin equals Marx, and if even the very search for socialism, as this book suggests, is an delusion, he should be apologizing for the years that followed, when, writing under the pen name Delcroix in France-Observateur or playing a role in the very leftish Parti Socialiste Unifié, he still must have believed in the radical transformation of society. But he does not. Maybe this Freudian slip is the revenge of the younger man, unworthy of the Olin Foundation, who thus challenges the established figure in terms always used by rebels, however heretic, when ad- dressing turncoats, the famous words of Shelley to Wordsworth:
“Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.”

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