Many of Francois Furet’s judgements in The Passing of an Illusion: the idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century are deeply perceptive, particularly the complex connection between the French and the October Revolutions. In other ways, it seems very French: in love with generalising abstraction; showing a poor grasp of the profound differences between the American and French Revolutions; suffering at times an over-emphasis on the importance of the French Revolution (whose influence in the Anglosphere, apart from sections of the intelligentsia, is negligible), though this improves notably as the book progresses – Furet is aware Anglo-America has a democratic history completely independent of the French Revolution. His description of Great Britain as more liberal than democratic (p. 268) is judicious.
The book is a major intellectual achievement. Furet has a very sophisticated understanding of how the Fascists/Nazis and the Communists fed off each other: in many countries, the movement to stop Hitler gave Communism its most glorious moment and whatever nobility illusion could bestow (p.223). Soon, of course, to be completely, but in the end temporarily, betrayed by the Nazi-Soviet pact.
The book concentrates on the period from World War One, which Furet correctly sees as the great, tragic break in modern history, to the death of Stalin. He sees what followed after Stalin as a prolonged thrashing around within ultimately fatally constrained possibilities – some of Beria’s moves immediately after Stalin’s death prefigured Gorbachev, for example. Furet is excellent at teasing out the ambiguities and paradoxes of history, the complexities of the interwar period. He charts how the concept of totalitarianism pre-dates the Cold War, how early the continuing patterns of criticism and analysis of the Soviet experience were established. And how ignored they were for so long.
One of the major themes of the book is how easy so many intellectuals are to fool, how prone to comforting illusions. Furet makes it particularly clear how dominated the Western Left has been by the illusions of 1793, most of all the glittering illusion of the revolutionary resolution of the problems of modernity.
There were those who were clear about Hitler (typically, the socialist Left). There were those who were clear about Stalin (typically, the pacifist Left). There were very few who were clear about both. Furet is a perceptive admirer of Raymond Aron, and George Orwell, always a sign of intellectual health. But they, like Churchill, were lonely figures.
The book provokes questions. Values are supposed to be a guide to action in the world: but what if the world merely becomes a backdrop for one’s values? The debate over Fascism was no better informed than the debate over Communism, and for the same reason: real observation played a very limited role (p.307). What are facts compared to values, illusion and convenience? Thus the Soviets refused specific mention of Jews in the monument to Nazi mass murder: so the Jews lost everything, even their misfortune (p.353). Furet is very powerful on the post-Holocaust plight of the Jews, whose horror lacked even a name as yet. No-one wanted to concede to the Jews number-one place on Hitler’s hate list. After Auschwitz and Treblinka, Jewish survivors continue to pay the heavy price of statelessness (p.383).
Furet is very good at quietly, without fanfare, exposing the madness of seeing Leninism as any sort of liberation, or of failing to see the underlying deep structural affinities between Leninism and Nazism (and, to a lesser degree) Fascism. Of exposing how inadequate it is to see either Fascism and Nazism as mere reactions to Leninism, what a mistake not to see that they were social movements in their own right. Fascism originated as a hostile sibling of Communism (p.303). He is very aware of the differences between Fascism, as a nationalist project, and Nazism, as a racial one.
But Furet has his blindnesses. Furet continues the tradition of not understanding Edmund Burke, of treating this life-long Whig and defender of liberty as if he were a Tory: hence comments such as Burke spoke only of traditional society (p.278). Burke was the first modern partisan of liberty to confront the reality that fellow-partisans in that camp could be liberty’s worst enemies.
Furet’s dissection of the 1930s and 1940s is deeply penetrating, an intellectual tour de force. He demonstrates what a brilliant strategy "anti-Fascism" was, creating a two-dimensional political matrix where Communism was at the forefront of the camp of democracy and liberty. He notes the extraordinary discipline of the Communist movement in September 1939 in following Stalin’s new line of working with Hitler at once impressive and terrifying (p.325). He marks how devastating the Nazi-Soviet pact was for France internally as well as geo-politically, as the mediocrity of public life contrasted with the texture of ideological passion (p.327). Nationalism having been discredited by the slaughter of the trenches, anti-Fascism was fatally compromised by Stalin’s defection just as the War started. Stalin’s defection destroyed the democratic credibility of Communism (that it had any was a mark of the comfort of illusions), at once territorially reversing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk while following Lenin’s original strategy – aid German expansionism so as to expand Soviet power.
But Stalin was rescued from the full consequences of his actions by Hitler waging the true Nazi war, which started in June 22 1941: An ideological war, the Nazi war paid an ideological price (p.342), mobilising support for Stalin domestically as preferable to the Nazi exterminators and providing credibility internationally as the forefront of the camp of democracy against Nazism and Fascism. Furet brilliantly explores the ambiguities of the victory: of the Soviet Union as a member of the "democratic" camp and liberator which imposed its own satellite tyrannies on the liberated countries of Central Europe: that until 1941, Nazism had been far less murderous than Leninism, and Italian Fascism was never even remotely so, was blotted out. The war was a victory for democracy in Anglo-America. Elsewhere, it was a victory for anti-Fascism, a victory against a Fascism that had to be a mere puppet of capitalism, since otherwise anti-capitalism was implicated in Fascism and Nazism. (A dynamic that still lives, with all the nonsense linkings of George W. Bush with Fascism and Hitler, the refusal to examine the nature of Islamism and the attempts to deny George W. Bush democratic legitimacy.)
Furet points out that far more of Europe experienced Fascism/Nazism than Communism, though anti-Nazism gave Germans a collective "out". The differences in the experience of those occupied by the Soviets and those liberated by the Anglo-Americans was quite profound and still operates. Communism retained a "democratic", anti-Fascist credibility in the West it rapidly lost in the East. (In 1939 the Soviet Union "invaded" Poland, in 1944 it "liberated" it, on both occasions it occupied it.) As for Marxism-Leninism’s value elsewhere, this ideological bric-a-brac owed its spectacular success to the fact that it offered a univeralistic justification to absolute power (p.371).
With the banishment of Fascism/Nazism from history, anti-capitalism was given new life as purely left. The genuine victorious democracies, Anglo-America, were hopelessly mired in "guilty" capitalism. The paradox of postwar moral situation was that Western public opinion seems to have forgotten the Hitler-Soviet pact, remembering only the Munich Agreement (p.384). But with Churchill and de Gaulle, Western Europe had patent anti-Fascist icons to rescue anti-Fascism for anti-Communism.
Furet is very good a portraying the alienness and separateness of the US from Europe, from the nature of its democracy, to its unabashed free enterprise ethic and religiosity. American democracy was a social condition, whereas democracy in Europe was a subversive force, constantly at work in the fabric of history (p.365), a distinction still true.
Through Furet, I can see how compromised the democratic idea is in continental Europe. Democracy in France and Britain did not stop the slaughter of the trenches. Democracy in Germany gave Hitler a plurality of the vote. Democracy is the only acceptable source of political legitimacy yet has these unexorcised demons. (Demons Anglo-America does not share – or, at least in the British case, was expiated by honourable resistance and victory rather than being further damaged by defeat and collaboration – except in so far their intelligentsias have taken on the congenial role of would-be gatekeepers of democracy.) No wonder gatekeeping politics has such appeal in "Old Europe" – fearful of their own democracies, the European elite has adopted a global project of degrading other people’s democracies through exporting the democratic deficit via global governance, and of projecting their fearfulness on the most powerful of existing democracies. With all sorts of consequent absurdities – such as talking of American democracy as "primitive", using a term for the world’s most technologically dynamic society they would never use for indigenous folk, or deeming that the world’s most powerful state is a democracy as somehow the central problem of our time.
As for the Americans, if they say "but we are a democracy and you are democracies because of us". that is not a defence, that is precisely the problem – in Western Europe, democracy is neither a European achievement, nor a consolation. The blood-debt to the US, and the US’s self-confident, flagrant democratism, are precisely what bothers the European elites, and drives their antipathies and projects.