François Furet looms large among the most influential intellectuals of late twentieth-century France. His work as a historian of the French Revolution was aimed squarely against the prevailing socio-economic, Marxian interpretation, with its celebration of the Jacobin Republic. This he replaced, in Penser la Révolution française (1978), with a narrative in which a Manichean revolutionary ideology led almost inevitably to the Terror, which was seen as a prelude to twentieth-century ‘totalitarianism’. Furet, who famously asserted that ‘the French Revolution is over’, wanted to put an end to the revolutionary culture of the French left, which he held responsible for its dalliance with Bolshevism. By the late 1980s he had largely succeeded in this goal, and was duly crowned by the media as ‘king’ of the Revolution’s bicentennial year.
Naturally, political developments—the Mitterrand government discarding any talk of a ‘rupture with capitalism’ and the collapse of the Soviet bloc—had a much greater role in determining France’s ideological trajectory than the work of any individual thinker. Yet Furet deserves as much credit as anyone for the move of French intellectuals away from revolutionary politics and towards liberal-democratic options. Not just a historian, Furet was a regular commentator on domestic and international politics in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur and other media platforms, and played a high-profile role as President of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (ehess) and founder of institutions such as the Fondation Saint-Simon and the Institut Raymond Aron. In 1995 his The Passing of an Illusion, celebrating the collapse of communism, became an instant bestseller.
Since his death in 1997, Furet’s influence has largely been naturalized in France. More recently there have been a handful of critical studies, including some from the Anglosphere. Christophe Prochasson’s François Furet: les chemins de la mélancolie, the most substantial study of his life and work to have appeared thus far, places the historian in a far warmer light. Prochasson himself, agrégé in history in 1983, worked alongside Furet at the ehess from 1991 and has been Director of Studies there since 1999. Like Furet, he has combined his position with frequent media appearances and has evolved politically from left-wing militancy—in the ceres current of the Socialist Party—to criticism of the French revolutionary tradition’s persistence in national politics. A measure of his integration into the establishment was his appointment by the Hollande government as Recteur of Caen, a prominent position in the educational administration.
In spite of its length—over five hundred pages—Prochasson’s biography makes no claim to exhaustivity. Many aspects of Furet’s life are deliberately avoided, notably his private affairs and his role as president of the ehess. The author’s stated goal is ‘to follow the thought of a historian confronted with his times’. Prochasson also seeks to burnish Furet’s image by responding to political and scholarly criticisms of his work, citing François Cusset’s La Décennie, Perry Anderson’s La Pensée Tiède and the present author’s work. Politically, Prochasson’s biography is a plea for Furet’s contemporary relevance to the French left—a camp with which he always identified, according to Prochasson, and which can now find ‘the elements of a renewed doctrine’ in his thought. On the historiographical front, Prochasson offers a defence of Furet’s highly polemical scholarship: although driven by anti-communism and often militant in tone, Furet’s historical work was, he claims, rigorous and enhanced, not intellectually compromised, by its political thrust.
To make this case, Prochasson organizes his material into two main sections. Part One, ‘History and Historians’, opens with a brief discussion of Furet’s early life and French Communist Party (pcf) membership. Subsequent chapters address his work on the French Revolution, his readings of Tocqueville, Marx and other thinkers, and his historical method. Part Two, ‘Politics’, concentrates on Furet’s political interventions and ideas, but also looks at his scholarly work on communism, his journalism, and his interest in the United States, Israel and Europe. As source materials, Prochasson has made use of Furet’s writings, his broadcast appearances, and his personal archives, the papers left in his office when he died. With a handful of exceptions, he has eschewed interviewing those who knew Furet, and his archival research is limited to the historian’s own files, ensuring that the book is heavily weighted towards his subject’s later years.
Prochasson’s preoccupations and his materials often bias the book away from deeper understanding. He says very little about Furet’s youth and early adulthood; information on this stage of his life is indeed sparse, but Prochasson makes little effort to overcome such barriers, claiming that ‘the work of the biographer cannot escape [Furet’s] silences, which it is appropriate to respect.’ Nevertheless, he has no objection as such to biographical insights: more than once, he refers to a near-fatal brush with tuberculosis in the 1950s to explain the historian’s sense of urgency (and his insolence). So why not consider other aspects of his early life? One obvious question would be a potential link between Furet’s work on the French Revolution and his family’s roots in the Vendée region, which rose up against that Revolution in 1793 and has been marked by it ever since. Furet’s father wrote a history of the Vendean city of Cholet, where Furet himself attended school for two years during the War. One would also have expected Furet’s experience in the Resistance, and a problematic stint in the French army, to receive more than a single paragraph of text. What connections are to be made between this youthful anti-fascism, Furet’s later communist phase, and the critique of anti-fascism in The Passing of an Illusion? Might Furet’s later antipathy to all forms of nationalism owe something to the fact that he was almost hauled before a military tribunal for desertion? Prochasson only mentions these episodes in passing, and does not refer back to them later in the book. He could have interviewed Furet’s older brother Marcel or his cousin Ménie Grégoire, and consulted his Resistance dossier in the Vincennes military archives for further information, but chose not to.
This approach extends to Furet’s early political engagement. Prochasson did not consult Furet’s file in the pcf archives, but he is obliged to address its evidence that Furet was a member of a planned student delegation to the ussr in 1952, since this is discussed in his entry in the biographical dictionary Le Maitron. Prochasson dismisses the visit—‘the trip seems not to have taken place’—on the grounds that Furet had not mentioned it to Mona Ozouf, a close associate and guardian of his image. The psychological dimensions of his engagement with the pcf go unexplored, though again, Prochasson does not reject the approach in principle; he notes, for example, that the historian Maurice Agulhon found a substitute family by joining the Party, but overlooks Furet’s statements to the same effect, though this might arguably explain why communism continued to weigh so heavily on his mind in later life. Although Prochasson examines Furet’s communist commitment in more detail than other aspects of his early life, he is reluctant to plumb its depths, claiming that we lack the information to measure the intensity of his engagement. But he fails to make use of the information we do have—referring, for example, to Furet’s one confirmed publication from this phase, a co-authored review of Louis Aragon’s novel Les Communistes, yet saying nothing about its content. If debates are analysed in social terms, it is merely to contrast Furet’s ‘ferociously independent spirit’ with the alleged sociological limitations of his adversaries, ‘subject to values which he did not share and products of much less favoured backgrounds’. Prochasson’s reluctance to situate his subject, socially and psychologically, makes this biography a rather lifeless life.