Frederic Raphael considers 'Le passé d'une illusion'-François Furet's meditation on the bewitching influence Soviet Marxism had on so many French intellectuals. The British and others may have been less susceptible, but can the millennarian impulse ever be finally extinguished?by Frederic Raphael / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Why should François Furet’s magnificent new book appear unimportant to English eyes? Le passé d’une illusion (Laffont, Calmann-Levy, 1995) made a great impact in France when it was published earlier this year, at roughly the same time as David Pryce-Jones’s The War That Never Was, a diligent and well-researched account of the implosion of the Soviet Union. By contrast, Furet’s 570-page essay deals not at all with recent politics or politicians. It is a rueful meditation on the claims of Marxism-and its supposed objective correlative, the Soviet Union-on the consciousness of those in the west, especially French intellectuals, who were for so long bewitched and stultified by its myth.
In an inversion of the Platonic case, those inside the communist cave were soon alert to the truth to which they were chained; only those in broad daylight gave credence to the flamboyant fabrications they swore they could see projected on its walls. Perjury was the art-form which united Paul Eluard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Roger Vailland, and countless others. Since Furet himself was in the Party from 1944 to 1956, his indictment of western Marxists’ ostentatious bad faith marries confessional rage to unblinkered assessment. His earlier desentimentalisations of the French Revolution make him particularly alert to the quasi-paternal pride-one of our boys!-which French intellectuals, especially admirers of Robespierre, could take in the incorruptible rigour of Stalin (our own AJP Taylor had the ferocious flippancy to call the murdering despot “endearing”).
Furet traces the dutiful docility of the French Communist Party (PCF) with regard to the Soviet leadership down the decades from the Congress at Tours, in 1920, when the French socialist “family” first divided into fr?es ennemis and the PCF was officially founded. The Communists aped Moscow from then until their last secretary-general, Georges Marchais, concluded-on the eve of the eclipse of the Soviet empire-that the achievement of the People’s Republics had been “globalement positif.”
Between 1920 and 1990, the influence of the PCF permeated French intellectual life; the vocabulary of Marxism was so inescapable that, for egregious instance, Sartre imagined it literally impossible not to “think Marx,” as Isaac Deutscher also maintained. Only Raymond Aron, once Sartre’s “petit camarade” at the Ecole Normale Superieure, disdained what he called “the opiate of the intellectuals,” but he was proved right at the price of being regarded as a reactionary renegade. Even today, Paul Veyne, once his prot?, offers an…