book cover imageLies, Passions and Illusions: The Democratic Imagination in the Twentieth Century
by François Furet.
Chicago University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 128 pages, $20.

By his own admission François Furet was a Tocquevillian. The label is important and elusive and, for a historian (and Furet was a leading French historian), a peculiar challenge when confronting the historical rise of a “passion for the universal.” He must confront the causes and sources of this passion, explain the resulting evil of “democratic universalism,” and do this without slipping into his own species of universalism. The historian brings to subjects like this a skepticism and sense of limits borne of his devotion to a granulated account of the past. To be Tocquevillian, however, is to find persuasive a rather sweeping and theoretical claim about a turn in human history—a transformation in the governing assumptions and desires of the West, if not of humanity. The democratic “passion for the universal” marked a new era.

A great many people in both France and America wear Tocqueville’s badge while legions more strip-mine his work for useful epigrams. In America particularly, our civic discourse is littered with Tocqueville’s quotations of a sort that conceal his ominous claims about the direction of history. For an American the dark prognostications of democratic universalism might look like another species of the Continental penchant for grand synthesis—even, perhaps, a gnostic claim about the end of history.

From the post-Communist French perspective, however, Tocqueville’s historical argument about the triumph of democratic universalism looks more self-evident—the real interpretive dividing line being between those who treat Tocqueville’s fears as issuing from aristocratic alienation and those who see in his warnings the defining characteristics of modern totalitarianism. Furet has belonged to both sides of this divide, but he died on the right side.

Lies, Passions, and Illusions: The Democratic Imagination in the Twentieth Century is a slim volume published seventeen years after Furet’s death. He is probably best known for his magisterial works on the French Revolution and for his sharp critique of the Annales School of history. He began his adult life and his professional career as a Marxist who saw historical development in terms of material conditions and class struggle. His break with Marxism meant a break with materialism and a new career devoted to understanding the imagination, ideas, passions, and human experiences that shape and give direction to history.

Edited by Christophe Prochasson, Lies, Passions, and Illusions is both elusive and dense, rich with insights not developed fully. It is difficult to know exactly how the editor put together the volume—it originates from an exchange with Paul Ricoeur and it appears that Prochasson had to construct or knit together the small chapters from material originally delivered orally. We do not have Ricoeur’s side of this conversation, and while the volume might have itssource in a conversation between a historian and a philosopher, Prochasson sees it as a reflection on Furet’s last great book, The Passing of an Illusion, which explored the life and death of Communism in the twentieth century. Serious, or should I say profound, questions remained open about the empire of illusions and lies that so effectively captured the moral imagination of two or three generations of European intellectuals. This bookis a powerful reflection on the reasons for and meaning of the tragic story of Communism and, more generally, of the rise of democratic universalism, which remains with us even after Communism has withered.

Thinkers in the Anglosphere have long explored the moral seduction of Communism in ways that the French largely ignored or dismissed. For the most perceptive American scholars (including a healthy dose of German immigrants) the threat to the diverse species of order and liberty that have sprung from Western civilization did not come in the form of any ideology. Rather, the threat came from a deep human desire to be enchanted. For de-spiritualized European intellectuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nothing enchanted (re-spiritualized) as much as a universalist vision (ideology) of a truly just world. Ideologies—Communist or otherwise—have no appeal to people who experience their lives as part of a cosmic story in which their participation is meaningful. But those who are spiritually unscripted because the old gods have died yearn for both an ideology that supplies an ordered account of the world they experience as well as a tangible agenda or purpose that satisfies their moral urgency to end the chaos. The ferocity of their energy to change the world serves as an index of their need of being enchanted.

Furet’s exploration of the “illusion” of Communism fits well within this discourse. It is not inappropriate to suggest that Furet saw in Communism a deeper spiritual problem. The systematic “lie” of Communism, Furet notes, ought to be understood in light of the deeper illusion. He writes: “An illusion comes from an unfounded belief engendered by the play of passions on the imagination.” This is a rich definition that warrants a much more detailed analysis than is possible in a review, but we ought to note the centrality of passions and imagination. The unfounded belief emerges from this interplay of passions and imagination, and failure to understand this dynamic must lead to misunderstanding of the historical phenomenon.

Illusion, understood this way, is prior to the lie or lies of Communism. Lies are about deceit and they serve the interest of the illusion, but they do not create the illusion. The deep, systemic, and almost laughable lies of the Soviet Union do not suggest that the leaders didn’t believe the illusion but only that the illusion was so powerful that true communists had to lie to express the “truth”—the truth that was not yet expressed fully in history and therefore not visible to those who were not enchanted by the ideology. To lie is to work for a deeper truth of history, still to be realized in time—the near future. Lying, therefore, is a primary weapon of truth-telling for those who inhabit the illusion. Ideological liars are caught in the furious circularity of their own beliefs.

This relationship between lying and inhabiting the illusion seems to be part of Furet’s answer to a historical problem—why did these regimes foster such intense emotional support and yet collapse so quickly? This was not the pattern with prior, non-ideological, empires, which died slowly. But for the Communist empire of the Soviet Union, the ferocity depended on the illusion and at some point the lies no longer pointed to the truth, of the illusion. At that point, there is nothing worth defending, no emotional or moral energy that can be marshaled since it all depended on the illusion.

But Furet entitled his now-famous book The Passing of an Illusion—not the illusion. The end of the Soviet Union and of Communism as an illusion does not signify the end of history or even the end of the engendering illusion. And so we are back to Tocqueville. Furet writes: “I think modern democracy contains a constitutive illusion born of the demand for autonomy and equality that we have lived with for several centuries.” Furet does not see the effective origins in the American Revolution, but in the French.

Democracy leads to the idea of Humanity and to a defining ambition—“the emancipation of universal man and woman.” This passion for the universal problematizes community, particularly political community. Logically, Democratic Person (in contrast to Aristocratic Man) is defined by her universal characteristics, with particular emphasis on her rights. To be a member of Humanity is to de-legitimize the particular and often eccentric expression of community and solidarity created by citizens engaging each other as citizens of a comprehensible place. Democratic Humanity sweeps away impediments to commerce and exchange but is a bulwark against any particularized political community. The larger the democratic sphere the less political and more administrative it becomes. The virtue of this democratized human environment is that it emancipates the individual from the vast array of social, communal, and even familial obligations and empowers that individual to be sovereign in one’s life. The problem is that this sovereign life is small, petty, and alienating.

Furet’s exploration of the responses to the problem of community and solidarity produced by this democratic ambition is suggestive and thoughtful but frustratingly elliptical. Clearly the “nation as community” has been a potent and complicating seduction for the modern world. The communist ideal of universal solidarity in equality is hardly the only response, leaving us in a post-communist age without having solved the deeper problem created by the “constitutive illusion born of the demand for autonomy and equality.”

And it is here—at this well-articulated problem of democracy—that an American Tocquevillian must confront his French counterpart. “Western political science,” writes Furet, “seems impermeable to the Tocquevillian idea of democracy—the idea that the equality of individuals opens the way not only to liberty but to despotism. And there is always a tendency to associate political liberty with the word democracy.” Furet has pointed to a huge challenge for modern discourse. After decades of “democratization” efforts and successes, the world is entering a democratic recession—perhaps something much darker. What has been lost, at least in America, is the complex understanding of—and differentiated language to describe—self-rule. The linguistic dominance of “democracy” and “democratization” has produced a severely restricted conception of ordered liberty and the art of self-government that produces it.

More challenging for the American Tocquevillian, however, is Tocqueville’s universalism. Furet: “What is magnificent about Tocqueville is his conviction that a new era of humanity had begun the moment when people, meeting together, considered themselves as equals. Equality of conditions does not mean that people are equals, but it does signify anthropologically that a modern human being, when encountering a fellow human being, believes him or herself to be equal to that person. And Tocqueville understood this to be a revolution in the history of humanity.”

Having, I believe, accurately expressed Tocqueville’s teaching on this subject, we are left with the question of whether he was right. Americans seem to have solved the universalizing tendency of democracy by checking it with political andsocial arts that turned local governments into opportunities to create political community rather than democratic administration; by strong religious beliefs that turned the individual back to communal needs; by dedication to the particular and non-universalized sources of our most cherished laws, customs, and ways of living; and by self-interest rightly understood. We might wonder if the European development of democratic universalism isn’t truer to Tocqueville’s concerns about this new age of humanity, with itsdistinctive passions that play against a democratic imagination dedicated to the universal. And even if we conclude that the nineteenth-century Frenchman’s prognostications have largely worked through European societies, should we consider the analysis of the late twentieth-century Frenchman about the dangers of the democratic illusion as still part of our future as Americans trade their heritage of self-rule for the promise of emancipation proffered by democratic universalism?

There has been no better time in American history to examine the interplay of our passions and our moral imagination. The seduction of democratic universalism is stronger than most of us realize and the price for failing to understand this is our patrimony of self-rule.  

Ted McAllister holds the Edward L. Gaylord Chair and is an associate professor at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.