François Furet

Last updated

François Furet (French:  [fʁɑ̃swa fyʁɛ] ; 27 March 1927 – 12 July 1997) was a French historian and president of the Saint-Simon Foundation, best known for his books on the French Revolution.


Furet was elected to the Académie française in March 1997, just three months before he died in July.


Born in Paris on 27 March 1927 into a wealthy family, Furet was a brilliant student who graduated from the Sorbonne with the highest honors and soon decided on a life of research, teaching and writing. [1] He received his education at the Lycée Janson de Sailly and at the faculty of art and law of Paris. In 1949, Furet entered the French Communist Party, but he left the party in 1956 following the Soviet invasion of Hungary. [2] After beginning his studies at the University of Letters and Law in his native Paris, Furet was forced to leave university in 1950 due to a case of tuberculosis. After recovering, he sat for the agrégation and passed the highly competitive exams with a focus in History in 1954. After a stint teaching in high schools, he began work on the French Revolution at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, supporting himself with a job at the France Observateur between 1956–1964 and Nouvel Observateur between 1964–1966. In 1966, Furet began work at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, where he would later be president (from 1977 to 1985). [3] Furet served as Director of Studies at the EHESS in Paris and as a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. In March 1997, he was elected to the Académie française. He died in July 1997 in a Toulouse hospital while being treated for head injuries he incurred in an accident on a tennis court. He was survived by his wife Deborah, daughter Charlotte and son Antoine from a previous marriage. [4] There is now a François Furet school in the suburbs of Paris as well as a François Furet prize given out every year.

Furet's major interest was the French Revolution. Furet's early work was a social history of the 18th century bourgeoisie, but after 1961 his focus shifted to the Revolution. While initially a Marxist and supporter of the Annales School, he later separated himself from the Annales and undertook a critical re-evaluation of the way the French Revolution is interpreted by Marxist historians. He became the leader of the revisionist school of historians who challenged the Marxist account of the French Revolution as a form of class struggle. As other French historians of his generation like Jacques Godechot or Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Furet was open to ideas of English language historians, especially Alfred Cobban. Likewise, Furet frequently lectured at American universities and from 1985 onwards taught at the University of Chicago. In his first work on the Revolution, 1966's La Révolution, Furet argued that the early years of the Revolution had a benign character, but after 1792 the Revolution had skidded off into the blood lust and cruelty of the Reign of Terror. The cause of the Revolution going off course was the outbreak of war in 1792 which Furet controversially argued was intrinsic to the Revolution itself, rather than being an unrelated event as most French historians had argued until then.

The other major theme of Furet's writings was its focus on the political history of the Revolution and its relative lack of interest in the Revolution's social and economic history. Other than a study of Lire et écrire (1977), a study co-edited with Jacques Ozouf concerning the growth of literacy in 18th century France, Furet's writings on the Revolution tended to focus on its historiography. In a 1970 article in Annales, Furet attacked "the revolutionary catechism" of Marxist historians. Furet was especially critical of the "Marxist line" of Albert Soboul which Furet maintained was actually more Jacobin than Marxist. Furet argued that Karl Marx was not especially interested in the Revolution and that most of the views credited to him were really the recycling of Jacobinism. [3]

Furet considered Bolshevism and fascism were totalitarian twins in terms of violence and repression. [5]

From 1995 until his death on 12 July 1997 in Figeac, Furet’s views about totalitarianism led to a debate via a series of letters with the German philosopher Ernst Nolte. The debate had been started by a footnote in Furet's Le passé d'une illusion criticising Nolte's views over the relationship between Bolshevism and fascism, leading Nolte to write a letter of protest. Furet defended his view about totalitarian twins sharing the same origins while Nolte argued that fascism was a response to Bolshevism.

French Revolution

Furet was the leading figure in the rejection of the classic or Marxist interpretation. Desan (2000) concluded he "seemed to emerge the victor from the bicentennial, both in the media and in historiographic debates". [6]

Furet, an ex-French Communist Party member, published his classic[ citation needed ]La Révolution Française in 1965–1966. It marked his transition from revolutionary left-wing politics to liberal centre-left position and reflected his ties to the social-science-oriented Annales School. [7]

Furet then re-examined the Revolution from the perspective of 20th-century totalitarianism as exemplified by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. His Penser la Révolution Française (1978; translated as Interpreting the French Revolution, 1981) was a breakthrough book that led many intellectuals to reevaluate Bolshevism and the Revolution as inherently totalitarian and anti-democratic. [8] Looking at modern French communism, he stressed the close resemblance between the 1960s and 1790s, with both favoring the inflexible and rote ideological discourse in party cells where decisions were made unanimously in a manipulated direct democracy. Furet further suggested that popularity of the far left to many French intellectuals was itself a result of their commitment to the ideals of the Revolution. Furet set about to imagine the Revolution less as the result of social and class conflict and more a conflict over the meaning and application of egalitarian and democratic ideas. He saw Revolutionary France as located ideologically between two revolutions, namely the first egalitarian one that began in 1789 and the second the authoritarian coup that brought about Napoleon's empire in 1799. The egalitarian origins of the Revolution were not undone by the Empire and were resurrected in the July Revolution of 1830, the 1848 Revolution and the Commune of Paris in 1871. [9]

Working much of the year at the University of Chicago after 1979, Furet also rejected the Annales School with its emphasis on very long-term structural factors and emphasized intellectual history. Influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville and Augustin Cochin, Furet argues that Frenchmen must stop seeing the Revolution as the key to all aspects of modern French history. [10] His works include Interpreting the French Revolution (1981), a historiographical overview of what has preceded him and A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989). [11] [12]

Because of his influence in history and historiography, Furet was granted some of the field's most prestigious awards,[ citation needed ] among them:


Furet's concerns were not only historical, but historiographical as well. He attempted particularly to address distinctions between history as grand narrative and history as a set of problems that must be dealt with in a purely chronological manner.



  1. Riding, Alan (16 July 1997). "Francois Furet, Historian, 70; Studied the French Revolution". The New York Times.
  2. François Furet (2004). Francouzská revoluce, díl 1., Prague: Argo ISBN   80-7203-452-9.
  3. 1 2 David Robin Watson (1999). "Furet, François", The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 1, Chicago Fitzroy Dearborn, p. 426-427.
  4. "François Furet".
  5. Federico Finchelstein (2017). From Fascism to Populism in History. Univ of California Press. p. 47. ISBN   9780520295193.
  6. Suzanne Desan, "What's after Political Culture? Recent French Revolutionary Historiography," French Historical Studies, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2000, pp. 163–196 in Project MUSE
  7. Michael Scott Christofferson, "François Furet between History and Journalism, 1958–1965." French History, Dec 2001, Vol. 15 Issue 4, pp 421–447
  8. Michael Scott Christofferson (2004). French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s. Berghahn Books. p. 257. ISBN   9781782389743.
  9. Michael Scott Christofferson, "An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution: Francois Furet's Penser la Revolution francaise in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s," French Historical Studies, (1999) 22#4 pp. 557-611
  10. James Friguglietti and Barry Rothaus, "Interpreting vs. Understanding the Revolution: François Furet and Albert Soboul," Consortium on Revolutionary Europe 1750-1850: Proceedings, 1987, (1987) Vol. 17, pp 23–36
  11. Claude Langlois, "Furet's Revolution," French Historical Studies, Fall 1990, Vol. 16 Issue 4, pp 766-776
  12. Donals Sutherland, "An Assessment of the Writings of François Furet," French Historical Studies, Fall 1990, Vol. 16 Issue 4, pp 784–91

Further reading

Related Research Articles

<i>Annales</i> school Group of historians

The Annales school is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century to stress long-term social history. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and monographs. The school has been highly influential in setting the agenda for historiography in France and numerous other countries, especially regarding the use of social scientific methods by historians, emphasizing social and economic rather than political or diplomatic themes.

François Victor Alphonse Aulard was the first professional French historian of the French Revolution and of Napoleon. His major achievement was to institutionalise and professionalise the practice of history in France. He argued:

Hippolyte Taine French critic and historian

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine was a French critic and historian. He was the chief theoretical influence of French naturalism, a major proponent of sociological positivism and one of the first practitioners of historicist criticism. Literary historicism as a critical movement has been said to originate with him. Taine is also remembered for his attempts to provide a scientific account of literature.

<i>Action Française</i> French royalist movement

Action française is a French far-right monarchist political movement. The name was also given to a journal associated with the movement.

Louis Blanc French politician and historian

Louis Jean Joseph Charles Blanc was a French politician and historian. A socialist who favored reforms, he called for the creation of cooperatives in order to guarantee employment for the urban poor. Although Blanc's ideas of the workers' cooperatives were never realized, his political and social ideas greatly contributed to the development of socialism in France.

Historiography of the French Revolution Wikimedia list article

The historiography of the French Revolution stretches back over two hundred years, as commentators and historians have sought to answer questions regarding the origins of the Revolution, and its meaning and effects. By the year 2000, many historians were saying that the field of the French Revolution was in intellectual disarray. The old model or paradigm focusing on class conflict has been challenged but no new explanatory model had gained widespread support. Nevertheless, there persists a very widespread agreement to the effect that the French Revolution was the watershed between the premodern and modern eras of Western history.

Cultural history combines the approaches of anthropology and history to look at popular cultural traditions and cultural interpretations of historical experience. It examines the records and narrative descriptions of past matter, encompassing the continuum of events pertaining to a culture.

Albert Marius Soboul was a historian of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. A professor at the Sorbonne, he was Chair of the History of the French Revolution and author of numerous influential works of history and historical interpretation. In his lifetime, he was internationally recognized as the foremost French authority on the Revolutionary era.

The Enragés were a small number of firebrands known for defending the lower class and expressing the demands of the radical sans-culottes during the French Revolution. They played an active role in the 31 May 31 – 2 June 1793 Paris uprisings that forced the expulsion of the Girondins from the National Convention, allowing the Montagnards to assume full control. The Enragés became associated with this term for their angry rhetoric appealing to the National Convention to take more measures that would benefit the poor. Jacques Roux, Jean-François Varlet, Jean Théophile Victor Leclerc and Claire Lacombe, the primary leaders of the Enragés, were strident critics of the National Convention for failing to carry out the promises of the French Revolution.

Albert Mathiez was a French historian, best known for his Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution. Mathiez emphasized class conflict. He argued that 1789 pitted the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy and then the Revolution pitted the bourgeoisie against the sans-culottes, who were a proletariat-in-the-making. Mathiez greatly influenced Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul in forming what came to be known as the orthodox Marxist interpretation of the Revolution. Mathiez admired Maximilien Robespierre, praised the Reign of Terror and did not extend complete sympathy to the struggle of the proletariat.

Stéphane Courtois French historian

Stéphane Courtois is a French historian and university professor, a Director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Professor at the Catholic Institute of Higher Studies (ICES) in La Roche-sur-Yon, and Director of a collection specialized in the history of communist movements and regimes.

Ernst Nolte was a German historian and philosopher. Nolte's major interest was the comparative studies of fascism and communism. Originally trained in philosophy, he was professor emeritus of modern history at the Free University of Berlin, where he taught from 1973 until his 1991 retirement. He was previously a professor at the University of Marburg from 1965 to 1973. He was best known for his seminal work Fascism in Its Epoch, which received widespread acclaim when it was published in 1963. Nolte was a prominent conservative academic from the early 1960s and was involved in many controversies related to the interpretation of the history of fascism and communism, including the Historikerstreit in the late 1980s. In recent years, Nolte focused on Islamism and "Islamic fascism".

Alfred Cobban was an English historian and professor of French history at University College, London, who along with prominent French historian François Furet advocated a classical liberal view of the French Revolution.

Camille-Ernest Labrousse was a French historian specializing in social and economic history.

Pierre Nora French historian

Pierre Nora is a French historian elected to the Académie française on 7 June 2001. He is known for his work on French identity and memory. His name is associated with the study of new history. He is the brother of the late Simon Nora, former French officer.

Augustin Cochin (historian) French historian

Augustin Cochin was a French historian of the French Revolution. Much of his work was posthumously published in an incomplete state after he was killed in action in World War I.

Red fascism is a term equating Marxist–Leninist ideologies such as Stalinism and Maoism with fascism. Accusations that the leaders of the Soviet Union during the Stalin era acted as "Red fascists" were commonly stated by anarchists, left communists, social democrats and other democratic socialists as well as liberals and among right-wing circles.

<i>Fascism in Its Epoch</i> book by Ernst Nolte

Fascism in Its Epoch, also known in English as The Three Faces of Fascism, is a 1963 book by historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte. It is widely regarded as his magnum opus and a seminal work on the history of fascism.

Le Débat is a bi-monthly French periodical founded in 1980 by Pierre Nora and Marcel Gauchet. It has been characterised as the "single most influential intellectual periodical" of late-twentieth-century France.

Mona Ozouf French historian and philosopher

Mona Ozouf née Mona Annig Sohier is a French historian and philosopher. Born into a family of schoolteachers keen on preserving the language and culture of Brittany, she graduated as a teacher of philosophy from the École normale supérieure de jeunes filles. After teaching philosophy, she joined the CNRS as a historian. Her research and writings are centred on the French Revolution and on the French secular education system. Notable publications include L'École, l'Église et la République, 1871–1914 (1963) and La fête révolutionnaire, 1789–1799 (1976), published in English as Festivals and the French Revolution (1988).