Intellectuals and ideology in the anti-totalitarian explanation of French Revolution
from Edmund Burke to Francoise Furet
The study below aims at briefly analyzing some of the most interesting views concerning the French Revolution of 1789 focusing mainly on the examination provided by I.G.A. Pocock in the introduction of Edmond Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” and also on Michel Scott Christofferson’s article “An Anti-totalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furet’s <Penser la Revolution francaise> in the intellectual politics of the late 1970’s.” In this sense, the paper will be centered on the reveal of two of the most interesting and influential approaches towards the French revolution – that of Burke and that of Furet highly emphasizing the resemblances and differences between them. The inquiry will be structured in two main parts out of which the first one will be a general presentation of the main issues that the two texts refer to – especially to political conservatism as advocated by Burke, whereas the latter will deal with comparing and contrasting Burke’s and Furet’s views as seen from Pocock and Christofferson’s perspectives. Nevertheless, in search of a high degree of clearance, each text will be analyzed separately starting with that of Pocock, the parallel between them being made afterwards.
It is impossible to reject
the fact that the French Revolution was one of the great defining events of modern times managing to reshape the map
of Europe, to leave an ineradicable mark
on the history of France and many other countries. It favored a general context
wherein some of the most essential fundamentals of modern politics were invented
or redefined: universal manhood suffrage, human
rights, civil equality, direct democracy, ideological dictatorship,
nationalism, women's liberation, and revolution itself. For hundreds or even
thousands of years the dominant political system in
“Political conservatism is an orientation which holds that Man being fallible, tradition is an important transmitter of wisdom, and that maintenance of the established order with moderate reform is preferable to utopian idealism and revolutionary change.” Conservatism is sometimes mischaracterized as mere resistance to change or modernity. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica definition states 'Conservatism: Political philosophy that emphasizes conserving as much as possible of the present economic, social, and political order.' “It must be said that this advance is stated in contrast to radical ones, in which the very principles or institutions conservatives assume to underlie a society are attacked. In practical political terms, conservatives may actually advocate substantial changes in policy or outlook to preserve such institutions or principles, although the specific positions held by the conservative party will vary from time to time and place to place”. Therefore, conservatism refers to a view of politics and society which finds much value in the traditions of a society and is especially aware of the risks of reforms which could bring unforeseen adverse consequences despite the reformer’s best intentions. In this sense, the conservative supposition is in support of tradition and the established order. Conservatives value the wisdom of the past and are generally opposed to widespread reform.
Conservatism, by definition, is rather skeptical of plans to new-model human society after an ideological model. It can be said that is more a habit of mind than a doctrine. As such, it is much easier to define conservatives in reference to what they oppose than what they support. Conservatives are not opposed to progress per se, although they are often more suspicious about it than followers of many other creeds. Conservatives do not reject reason completely, but they place much more emphasis on tradition or faith than is common in other schools of political thought. At this point it can be added that the most important belief of conservatives is 'its emphasis on tradition as a source of wisdom that goes beyond what can be demonstrated or even explicitly stated' .
Another very important aspect in the realm of political conservatism is morality. Conservatives attempt to remain vigilant against the possibility of moral hazards. They strongly believe in the virtues of institutions, virtues that cannot possible be seized neither by single individuals nor by any interest group. “An attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society for the sake of some doctrine or theory runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences.” Furthermore, the conservatives are against any attempt of sudden remaking of the existing society in the service of any ideology or doctrine. They perceive history as being full of disastrous efforts that did only seemed like good ideas at that time. Human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster. Also they emphasize traditional views of institutions such as the family and the church. The feeling of piety for the social order, the mistrust of harebrained reformers with a one-shot plan, the organic conception of social growth, these were the foundations of the conservative faith.
Having pointed out some of the main characteristics
essential to political conservatism, it is necessary to underline the fact that
it was Edmund Burke the first to develop conservatism as a new school of
political thought in his work “Reflections on the Revolution in
Pocock’s approach towards
“Reflections on the Revolution in
It is very important to notice that, then, Burke chose
to stress not the French Revolution but 'The Revolution in
As the article of Pocock is actually the introduction of Burke’s paper, it is natural for it to contain many pieces of information on Burke’s biography. Pocock considers that Burke’s career is to be taken as very important for the general understanding of his beliefs and he emphasizes on the difference between Burke and thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Addison and Swift. What Pocock considers to be relevant in characterizing Burke’s theory is a certain ambivalence towards the Whig aristocrats of his day. This has come to be understood as ambivalence between aristocracy and “bourgeoisie” underlying both the “fragility of his own personality and the fragility of the aristocracy’s political and historical position”. It is to be emphasized the fact that Burke did not necessarily feared the independent power of men of wealth, but the uncontrolled energy of men of talent – he was alarmed by the possible rise of a revolutionary intelligentsia. In this fear, it probably stands the rejection of ideology as a basis for reshaping a society which was much later took over by philosophers such as Habermas and Popper.
Furthermore, when analyzing
Burke’s view, it is relevant to take into consideration the historical
background of the political regime he served and defended in
Another important aspect
related to the intellectual and professional background of Edmund Burke is the
American Revolution. In this sense, it is necessary to underline the fact that
Burke had been parliamentary agent for the colony of
In order to better understand the standpoint of Burke’s affirmations, Pocock offers a brief summary of the main ideas of Tucker which are very close to that of Burke. Consequently, he points out some of the fundamental characteristics of the Whig aristocracy of which both Tucker and also Burke can be said to be members of.. Tucker thoroughly criticizes Price, s theories for his insistence on the primacy of natural rights which could very well destroy both the moral as well as the commercial bonds that keep society together. Unlike Burke, who never mentions Locke in his works, Tucker also criticizes Locke. He considered that the American colonists and their English sympathizers were acting like Locke’s disciples. As a clergyman, Tucker also insisted on the importance of the Anglican Church rejecting the idea that the Church could be a mere voluntary association among individuals that share the same views for the Church is an important traditional element within the society.
Just like Tucker, Burke was also a defender of the Whig aristocratic order admiring it as a political system, political economy with some very well defined characteristics. It is true, nevertheless, that Burke accepted in the same way that Hume, Smith, and Tucker did, that there existed the need for a modern commercial economy, but he thought that it could have been “rendered more dynamic through control by a landed aristocracy who knew their business” but when he analyzed the French Revolution he could only see “a monstrous paper-money despotism being installed on the ruins of the Church.”
Actually, more than that he
perceived the revolution in
The French Revolution meant to Burke the vanishing of
a great period in history: “the age of chivalry”.
When describing the way in which queen Marie Antoinette was treated, Burke
actually exposed his greatest regret that:” the age of chivalry is gone. That
of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of
Francois Furet’s “Penser la Revolution Francaise” is another very prominent text in the realm of the totalitarian critique. Michael Scott Christofferson wrote an interesting article analyzing both Furet’s views and also the context in which these views were born. In general terms Furet’s text is actually an analysis of Jacobinism in light of totalitarianism; accordingly Christofferson tries to connect Furet’s opinions with his intellectual background. At first sight the article seems to concentrate solely on Furet’s analysis, nevertheless it manages to offer a general view of the beliefs and intellectual evolution of an entire generation of French political thinkers. Christofferson claims that his interpretation of Furet’s work can be connected with those of Khilnani and Steven L. Kaplan especially- as far as the latter is concerned- when referring to its ‘conclusions, its critical perspective on Furet and his work, and its attentiveness to the relationship between Furet’s history writing, his political consciousness, and trends in intellectual politics” .
Christofferson starts with an account of the history
of the critique of totalitarianism dating its origins in a reaction of leftist
intellectuals. Furthermore he offers a detailed description of the evolution of
the noncommunist left in
The year 1968 was an extremely important one for the
emergence of the intellectuals of the noncommunist Left in favor of the
adoption of direct-democratic anti-institutional, and anti-authoritarian
political alternatives. This stream in thinking was probably influenced by the
events that occurred in the Communist Europe – the Spring of Prague and the
violent intervention of
The French intellectuals that argued against totalitarianism started to analyze the entire French history in search for an a prior tendency of the French people towards totalitarianism. In this sense, the French Revolution was the moment that could have easily been interpreted in terms of totalitarianism. The main tendency was to celebrate the political symbols that could be appropriated by the Russian revolution in the XX century. Furet made no exception in this regard. Christofferson argues that his “Penser la Revolution Francaise” contributed to the critique of totalitarianism on three levels: rhetoric, interpretation, and transformation of the political consciousness of French intellectuals. As a rhetorician, Furet was able to combine political and historical perspectives using the “opprobrium cast on Marxism, communism, and the revolutionary project to discredit his opponents and advance his thesis”. Thus, he made a parallel between the evolution of the French revolution with the evolution of the xx century Russian Revolution. Chrisofferson finds a fault in Furet’s interpretation considering that the author of “Penser la revolution francaise” offers a contemporary understanding of revolutionary politics. the reasons for which Furet saw in the French Revolution a source of totalitarianism stand, as far as Christofferson argues, not only in the intellectual mainstream of his generation but also in Furet’s own biography.
For a long period of time Furet was a member of the
French Communist Party. Christofferson claims that Furet’s membership in PCF
was due to a series of failures in his career and also a rejection of his
bourgeoisie origins. The author of the article offers a detailed exposition of
Furet’s biography emphasizing on some events he believes are psychologically
relevant in the evolution of Furet’s thought. In the late 50’s a clash between
Furet and PCF occurred. It was then when Furet adopted a Hegelian view of
history and started discrediting PCF and the
Furet began his inquiry into the French Revolution in the early 50’s when according to Le Roy Ladurie, Furet and Jean Poperen were engaged in a polemic with Albert Soboul. Nevertheless, what is considered to be Furet’s first important intervention in the interpretation of the French Revolution is in 1965 when he and Richet published “La Revolution francaise”. According to Christofferson, “the book was a key to the development of Furet’s views on the Revolution”. The work was innovatory for it suggested that the three revolutions of 1789(those of the bourgeois Third estate representatives, the urban populace, and of the peasants) were actually distinct, they contradicted Lefebvre’s thesis that there was only one revolution. Also Furet and Richet argued that the Enlightenment was far from being solely bourgeois and that the popular movement of 1793 1794 was not of great importance. Claude Mazauric intensely criticized Furet’s and Richet’s paper mainly because they refused to see the three revolutions as a bloc. Nevertheless, Mazauric’s interpretations of the French Revolution and “La Revolution francaise” have important common points such as the insistence on the Revolution’s inevitable radicalism.
It is important to underline the fact that between the publication of “La Revolution francaise” and that of “Penser la Revolution francaise”, French political and intellectual life suffered important transformations. Intellectual were mainly led towards structuralism (Michel Foucault) rather than liberal and empirical critique of Marxism (Raymond Aron). Furet used at in the 60’s to support Aron, but in the 70’s when Aron, Alain Besancon, and others founded the journal “Contrepoint” Furet refused to join them. Furet in “Penser la Revolution francaise”, gave much credit to Solzhenitsyn considering that “today the gulag is leading to a rethinking of the Terror by virtue of an identity in their projects” . Furet’s new interpretation of the French Revolution gave it a significance that extended beyond revolutionary historiography. In other words his interpretation of the French Revolution is extremely subjective, it is also very speculative. Nevertheless the book is important for it is representative to the French intellectual trend of the moment and its emphasis on revolutionary ideology as “the key to understanding the Revolution’s development from 1789 to 1794” . In this critique of ideology the theory resembles somehow that of Popper but also, to some extent, that of Habermas.
Christofferson believes the book “Penser la Revolution
francaise” to be “a provocation from beginning to end” for it is neither a
history of the French Revolution nor its historiography, nevertheless it
contains elements of both. Through his work, Furet also tried to rehabilitate
Trying to draw a parallel between Burke’s views
concerning the French revolution and those of Furet’s one would discover that
even though they are both against totalitarianism there are more differences than
resemblances between them. First of all there is the different context in which
the two authors wrote their essays. Burke developed his anti-totalitarian view
when the French revolution was at the beginning managing to predict the
following events, while Furet created his theory 150 years later. Nonetheless
it can be said that both of them wrote in the intellectual mainstream of their
time. Burke is the classical example of English conservatism whereas Furet
fitted in the French intellectual trend against totalitarianism of the middle
of xx century. Even so, the value of Burke’s thesis is of greater importance
constituting the beginning of political conservatism and being highly grounded
on empirical facts. Furet’s analysis of the French Revolution is very important
but only for understanding the proportions reached in
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