ALONG with self-congratulation and relief, the fall of the Soviet Union has stimulated an abundance of postmortems on communism and its place in the twentieth century. Though communism in its classic form may be extinct, we sometimes seem to be fighting it almost as fiercely today as we did when it threatened us.
Near the end of his life François Furet (1927-1997), one of the best historians of the French Revolution, turned his formidable intellect to the study of communism. In The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, his last book, Furet presents the Soviet experience as an illusion -- one that retained a fascination and an allegiance in the West far beyond the time when its essence should have been clear. Furet, like many other French intellectuals embued with a leftist activism and an ideological passion dating from the French revolutions of 1789, 1848, and 1871, turned for a time to communism. He was a member of the French Communist Party from 1949 to 1956. Although his text is not in the first person, it provides an implicit chronicle of his own illusion, and disillusion.
It was an illusion on several counts. First, for Furet, communism was based on an ultimately false linear philosophical view of history as Reason, in which a superior phase of historical development -- socialism -- was scientifically bound to follow "bourgeois" (Furet's term) liberal capitalism. The Passing of an Illusion is brilliant, and one would be hard pressed to find better writing of history than the first chapter, which traces the roots of modern political thinking back to the nineteenth century. The liberal bourgeois quest for competitive individualism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not appeal to those who valued social and economic equality, or to those seeking a sense of community that transcended the isolation of the individual. The conflict between individual and collective rights still motivates politics today, and Furet believed that these limits to the bourgeois ideal would provide breeding grounds for fascism and communism, both of which had egalitarian and collectivist appeal.
Second, the geopolitical accident of its alliance with the Western democracies against Hitler created a wartime illusion of the Soviet Union as a democracy. The universal revulsion for the Nazis enabled the Communists for many years to enjoy a reputation for anti-fascism and thereby evade close scrutiny or objective evaluation by Western intellectuals, who yearned for social justice, were made uncomfortable by capitalist materialism, and felt moral outrage against fascism.