The French historian François Furet died almost 20 years ago, but the fights over his legacy are as savage as everby Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins / March 10, 2014 / Leave a comment
“Does anything remain of the left’s longstanding love affair with the French Revolutionary tradition?” ©WM Commons
In September 2004, over two consecutive issues of the London Review of Books, the Marxist historian Perry Anderson issued forth a 20,000-word diagnosis of what, in his view, was ailing France. Unlike most British commentators, Anderson rooted French decline not in the country’s attachment to socialist dirigisme, but rather in an Anglo-American neoliberal incursion that had undermined the very things that had once made France great: its culture (producing the finest literature and films), politics (playing the lead role in European integration) and intellectual accomplishments (boasting some of the best philosophy, history and sociology departments in the world).
Why, Anderson asked, had no contemporary French intellectual acquired an international reputation equal to that of the great French thinkers of the not-too-distant past, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida? Anderson argued that institutional reasons were primarily to blame. By the early 1980s intellectual life in France had been hijacked by neoliberal financial and political interest groups that backed those scholars who were determined to enthrone “liberalism as an all-encompassing paradigm of French public life.” Of all the intellectuals involved in this liberal takeover, Anderson singled out one in particular: the historian François Furet. Yet according to Christophe Prochasson’s recent biography of Furet, Les chemins de la mélancolie, published in France last year, Anderson and his allies have committed an egregious error of misinterpretation. Furet was really on their side. He never left the left, he simply sought to reform it.
From the 1960s until his death in 1997, Furet developed a highly critical interpretation of the French Revolution that enraged his opponents on the left in France. For them, the Revolution continues to be pivotal to any understanding of the relationship between the country’s past, present and future. Furet’s heresy was to challenge the idea that the Revolution remains a source of viable political and social alternatives to the status quo. He believed that since there was now a universal acceptance of the French Republic, it was no longer necessary to keep fighting the old revolutionary battles.
Born into a wealthy Parisian banking family, Furet joined the French Communist Party as a student in 1949. He resigned from the Party in protest over its political failures in…