The Last Tocquevillian

The French historian François Furet sought to to discredit the revolutionary tradition. Since then, history has been busy discrediting him.

A Deck of Cards Dating Back to the French Revolution Where Kings Have Been Replaced With Wise Men (Solo, Plato, Cato, & Brutus), and Queens With Virtues (Justice, Union, Prudence, & Force). Leo S. Olschki,La Bibliofilia, Firenze : Giuseppe Boffito, 1906

François Furet, who passed away twenty years ago this year, was a central figure in late twentieth-century intellectual life. Historian of the French Revolution, he challenged the social interpretation that presented the uprising as an expression of class struggle, a symptom of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Instead, Furet’s political interpretation portrayed the revolution as the triumph of a Manichaean ideology that almost inevitably led to the violence that followed.

Furet first advanced this perspective in Interpreting the French Revolution (1978), which mobilized the then-ascendant French critique of totalitarianism to paint the event as proto-totalitarian and thereby discredit the revolutionary tradition. In the bicentennial year of 1989, he elaborated this version of events in a narrative history and critical dictionary. His interpretation largely prevailed in the French media and among the public, even as many historians remained critical of it. Haunted by his youthful engagement with revolutionary politics, Furet’s last major project was a quasi-autobiographical history of the communist “illusion,” which sought to explain the ideology’s appeal.

The guiding thread of Furet’s oeuvre in his last twenty years was his effort to bring an end to the revolutionary tradition in France. He worked to facilitate a centrist, liberal turn in French politics and intellectual life. Intellectually, he advocated in favor of a rehabilitation of nineteenth-century French liberal thinkers, most notably Alexis de Tocqueville, who, he thought, could illuminate the path forward.

Furet also advanced the liberal agenda by building institutions devoted to it. In 1982, he helped found the Fondation Saint-Simon, which brought together centrist intellectuals, business leaders, politicians, and civil servants. Two years later, he created the Institut Raymond Aron within the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), where he gathered like-minded intellectuals, many of whom had joined the EHESS faculty while Furet served as its president between 1977 and 1985.

As his interpretation of the French Revolution gained traction, Furet became an important political commentator with the press regularly soliciting his opinions. Among his signature contributions to French political life was La République du centre: La fin de l’exception française (1988), co-authored with Jacques Julliard and Pierre Rosanvallon. This text announced the end of left-right polarization in French politics and the arrival of a new centrism.

Citing the eclipse of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Catholic right’s reconciliation with the republic, Furet argued that French voters had agreed on a moderate governance model that would protect essential liberties, maintain prosperity in a market economy, and care for the least fortunate through redistribution. He welcomed this development: both in this book and elsewhere, his commentary was as much analysis as it was advocacy.

A new center’s victory in 2017 invites us to revisit Furet’s thought. Concerns specific to the late twentieth century led him to his conclusions but also blinded him to processes already at work during his lifetime that have only become more important today. Understanding Furet’s ideas and their shortcomings clarifies the challenges we confront in the present crisis.

The Centrist Republic

Written in the aftermath of François Mitterrand’s 1988 presidential victory, Furet’s contribution to La République du centre sought to explain why centrism had taken hold of French politics.

On the Right, he cited the waning of Gaullism and the resolution of the conflict between church and state, which enabled Mitterrand’s first victory in 1981 when his Socialist Party (PS) captured a significant portion of the Catholic vote. On the Left, he noted that the PCF had declined as a result of the discrediting of the Soviet model and the crisis of Jacobin political culture.

Further, Furet believed that the trente glorieuses, France’s postwar economic boom, transformed the nation. He explained that France had experienced “the fastest collective embourgeoisement of its history” over those decades, making society “at the same time more individualistic and more uniform — or to put it negatively, less aristocratic and less revolutionary.”

In the Tocquevillian terms that underlay Furet’s analysis, France had passed from a revolutionary to a democratic social state. Voters wanted neither socialism nor neoliberalism; 75 percent — in other words, everyone except Communists and National Front supporters — agreed that the center should govern.

Furet argued that, when France voted for Mitterrand and the PS in 1981, they were not voting for the Left’s Common Program, whose radical measures were designed to spark the socialist transition. Indeed, Mitterrand and his party erred between 1981 and 1984 when they nationalized large sectors of the economy and tried to roll back Catholic schools. Likewise, after winning the 1986 legislative elections, the Right erred by flirting with Hayekian neoliberalism. Centrist France wanted neither full-blown socialism nor the reign of the market, Furet asserted.

Thus Furet believed French voters turned to the center in 1988 because socioeconomic development had made them more individualistic and more equal. While France had certainly moved in this egalitarian direction during the postwar boom, Furet paid little attention to the economic crisis that began in the latter half of the 1970s. Surprisingly, he identified the beginning of the center’s triumph at the very moment that its purported cause — prosperity — was no longer fully operative.

Though individualism had hardly disappeared, France was becoming less equal. Furet did not acknowledge that the first Mitterrand government had attempted to respond to this crisis. In fact, he only recognized the economy’s political importance in his discussion of the National Front’s rise, which he partially attributed to “insecurity.”

A more robust understanding of the period shows that the centrist turn in the late 1980s was as much a result of a specific politico-economic conjuncture as of the longer socioeconomic transformation Furet cited. Notably, the socialist government’s failure between 1981 and 1983 to implement “Keynesianism in one country” and Mitterrand’s subsequent turn to European integration played key roles in this process. After gaining power for the first time since the 1930s Popular Front, the Left had failed, allowing the new center to rise from the rubble.

Can the Center Hold?

The recent victory of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! might initially appear as the culmination of the centrist turn Furet identified three decades earlier.

One element of continuity is that the new center emerged from the collapse of the old center, namely Mitterrand’s center-left PS and the center-right Les Républicains (LR). As Perry Anderson argues, both center-right president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-12) and center-left president François Hollande (2012-17) failed to resolve the current crisis: they could neither fully embrace neoliberalism nor satisfy the elements of their constituencies opposed to it.

Both the PS and the LR were shellacked in this summer’s elections. Neither party’s presidential candidate made it to the second round, and both fared miserably in the legislative elections. Standing in their ruins, Macron promised disinterested, quasi-providential leadership that could finally lead France out of its economic doldrums. Rallying the upper middle class, from which his party’s deputies are overwhelmingly drawn, Macron gathered enough support to win, but his victory seems rather more precarious than that of the 1980s center.

For one, both the far right and the “Left of the Left” — as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called it — did well. Over 40 percent of the electorate voted for either Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. Le Pen made it to the second round with 21.5 percent of the vote; Mélenchon trailed her by less than two points, winning the largest share of any presidential candidate to the socialists’ left since Jacques Duclos’s 21.3 percent in 1969.

Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s parties — the National Front and France Insoumise, respectively — did less well in the legislative elections, and the electoral cycle ended with the far right in crisis. Nevertheless, their relative success, not to mention the high rate of abstention and invalid ballots, indicates that French opinion remains divided: Macron has not won over the electorate.

If he fails, the center’s victory will likely be temporary. In that case, the most remarkable development of the 2017 elections will likely be Mélenchon’s breakthrough, which could launch a revival of the socialist project. In any case, the success of both the Left and the extreme right indicate that Furet’s triumph of the center was, at best, a medium-term phenomenon.

Equality in Moderation

In his later years, Furet considered himself a Tocquevillian, explaining that the nineteenth-century liberal “gave me the principal inspiration of my research” and that “his idea of democracy as the inevitable condition of modern man offered me the best help I could find to understand our present.”

From Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Furet derived an understanding of democracy as a principle or norm that can never be fully realized. The inevitable gap between aspiration and social reality feeds a passion for equality that only grows stronger as the degree of actual parity increases. Unchecked, this egalitarian impulse threatens liberty and can result in revolution. Furet, haunted by his youthful flirtation with communism, believed that France must reject this tendency before it could fully embrace a centrist government.

Focused on the threat posed by the passion for equality, Furet played up its manifestations to better denounce them. One particular focus of Furet’s ire was American political correctness. Furet had been directly exposed to it beginning in the mid-1980s as a member of the University of Chicago’s faculty where he became friends with its premier American critic, Allan Bloom.

For Furet, political correctness represented a dangerous outbreak of revolutionary egalitarianism. He believed that behind it lay “the classic revolutionary idea that ‘all is political,’ that there are no natural inequalities but only social injustices.” Similarly, he argued that multiculturalism had become “the most important social movement of the last quarter century” and that the Clinton administration’s embrace of it led to the Democratic Party’s loss in the 1994 congressional elections.

This strange conclusion overlooked the campaign’s dominant issue: the failed universal health care initiative, which the Republican Party relentlessly attacked as “big government.” A more sober appraisal might have recognized that the bill’s failure and the subsequent conservative victory indicated that the United States was struggling to address rising inequality. But, because Furet focused less on actual equality in favor of the desire for equality, all of this escaped him.

Furet’s obsession with the egalitarian impulse also dominated his commentary on French politics. He supported the death of the revolutionary tradition he had analyzed in La République du centre, writing that, after the collapse of Soviet Communism, we are condemned “to live in the world as it is,” at least for the foreseeable future.

He welcomed political disengagement, seeing it as a product of the pursuit of well-being, and he agreed with political philosopher Pierre Manent “that one must live democratic modernity in moderation.” Communism’s collapse led him to believe that capitalism and democracy could not be separated and that “socialism can henceforth be thought about only within (and as a corrective to) the laws of the market.”

Though he explicitly rejected the neoliberal reduction of society to the market and supported redistributive policies to partially correct economic inequality, he presented the choices facing France as technical questions and found the public’s refusal to accept liberalizing reforms irresponsible.

The 1995 strikes in response to social security and pension reforms as well as the Left’s 1997 victory in the legislative elections angered Furet. In his analysis, the strikes were anachronistic because their goals were “incompatible with the demands of productivity in an open economy as well as with the age pyramid.” The 1997 election showed that French politics had been “overrun by demagogy” and a “narcissistic ignorance of the economy.”

The more society refused economic liberalization, the more pessimistic for democracy’s future Furet became. In a 1997 interview, he claimed that leftist economic critique came from “an egalitarian sentiment dangerous for liberties,” and, in a speech that same year, he explained:

Democratic society is never democratic enough, and its supporters are more numerous and more dangerous critics of democracy than its adversaries. Democracy’s promises of liberty and equality are, in fact, unlimited. In a society of individuals, it is impossible to make liberty and equality reign in a lasting way.

Furet’s analysis depended entirely on his assertion that an egalitarian impulse drove democratic politics. However, partly because he believed this passion could never be satisfied, he offered little analysis of actual economic conditions: he asserted that reducing the gap between rich and poor only made the desire for complete equity stronger. Furet invoked concrete economic realities only in order to condemn the 1995 strikers for their selfishness, pitting the interests of unionized workers against the unemployed.

Class conflict hardly existed in Furet’s analysis. He believed France faced only technical questions, and the only relevant social conflicts existed between different sectors of the working class, such as the employed and the unemployed or young and old. In short, Furet demanded that the French submit to the demands of the neoliberal economy or enter “very quickly into a cycle of irreversible decadence,” as he prophesied in a 1996 interview.

He never examined his central premise that a passion for equality was primarily responsible for opposition to this agenda, and he swept the problem of real inequality under the rug. Indeed, Furet wanted nothing more than to prevent the return of the twentieth century’s revolutionary utopias that still haunted him.

A Clearer View

Furet’s Tocquevillian analysis of equality suffered from a fatal defect that both hindered its explanatory power at the time and continues to confuse issues today. It allowed Furet to avoid confronting capitalism’s structural transformation, which began in the 1970s and resulted in the widening economic inequality that has become the fundamental issue of our time. When we include this economic shift in our analyses, the center’s triumph in the late 1980s begins to look more like a stopgap solution that collapsed with the defeat of the center-left and center-right in 2017.

Likewise, Furet’s turn to the Tocquevillian concept of “egalitarian passion” in the 1990s effectively served as an alibi for neoliberal policies because it allowed him to ignore rising inequality. He argued that the real challenge facing France was the egalitarian impulse, which he located in the foundation of democratic societies rather than in the concrete, economic crises of his time.

One might decide that Furet belongs to another era, one obsessed with the specter of communism, but his attack on the opponents of neoliberalism as “demagogues” sounds all too familiar. Today, as yesterday, this rhetoric serves to derail substantial discussions of inequality and the role neoliberal policies play in producing it.