# 43 | The Passions as Enigmas | Christophe Prochasson

How does the historian think passion?  It was in the late 1970s that François Furet, the author of the already famous book Penser la Révolution française (Interpreting the French Revolution), introduced the notions of sentiment and affect in relation to his nineteenth-century predecessors, and in particular Alexis de Tocqueville.  While for Furet it was never to be a matter of images, art historians will once again be passionately fascinated by a discourse on politics, which is nonetheless played out to a great extent in terms of “representations.”
Christophe Prochasson generously offers us his initial observations from his new Furet project.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

The Passions as Enigmas:
History, Politics, and Society
in the Work of François Furet

Christophe Prochasson

Penetrating into political history of the postrevolutionary era by placing the study of the passions at the center of one’s investigations does not go without saying for a historian like François Furet, whose immediate historiographical environment was pushing for recognition of politics as the site where, in the main, ideas and interests combine.  Had not two great traditions dominated the second half of the last century, each one as reductive as the other?  The first, derived from Marxism, denounced politics as an illusion that masks the play of interests; the second, idealist in nature, was convinced that ideas ruled the world.  A great reader of the giants of the nineteenth century, of whom he was a faithful son, Furet added to interests and ideas a third dimension, the passions, concerning which he was not far from thinking that they have constituted the indispensable, and perhaps principal, fuel for politics since the time of the French Revolution.

Passions, Sentiments, Emotions, Illusions

The great topic that continually belabored Furet’s thinking is none other than that of the conditions for the exercise of democracy.  Without any letup, he inquired about the repertoire of passions that feed democracy.
In Furet’s work, “passions” and “sentiments” are often equivalent expressions.  The nuances between these terms are imperceptible and the two often seem interchangeable.  Thus did he make of fear and resentment two political passions, the former dominating the emotional repertoire of the Right, the latter that of the Left. 1 In The Passing of an Illusion, Furet speaks of the “the patriotic feelings [sentiments de patriotisme] that led soldiers to the front in August 1914” (p. 56), deals with “Communist passion” (p. 2), and mentions the “passion for the universal”); elsewhere, he speaks of the  “sentiments” of “nationalism” (p. 37), which are quite closely related to “national passion” (ibid.), that powerful component of “democratic passion” (p. 5). 2 Following Alexis de Tocqueville and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he included in the ranks of the “democratic passions” envy and jealousy, both born in societies that make of the equality of men their very foundation, though at the same time they run up against the inevitable social differentiations produced by the freedom to enrich oneself.
Is there thus no distinction to be established between these two notions?  One sometimes gets the impression that passion is one category of political sentiment among others.  This hypothesis is the most likely one, for the spectrum of sentiments is much larger than that of the passions.  Furet’s repertoire of sentiments is vast and its horizon ill defined: “sentiment of progress,” “religious feeling,” “national feeling,” “modern democratic sentiment,” “class feeling,” “modern sense of belonging to a class,” and so on.
Much less frequent is his recourse to “emotion.”  In relation to “sentiment,” such recourse seems to mark an additional stage on the path to a psychological approach to the social realm.  Unlike “sentiment,” which expresses stable states, “emotion” tips toward intensity and sudden appearance.  When Furet makes reference to “messianic emotions” or to the emotion one feels when faced with injustices, he is describing strong and sudden psychological phenomena.
The term Furet opts for most insistently, doing so in such a way that it regularly punctuates the whole of his work, is very much passion, which, despite whatever proximity he might indicate or the lack of any apparent distinctions in usage, is to be distinguished from the prior two terms.  The use of the word passion offers two advantages.  One advantage boils down to the ability to distinguish clearly Furet’s approach from a “history of mentalities”—the latter still being, in Furet’s view, more or less imbued with Structuralism, which misses a lot about historical dynamics.  The passions fit into the social dimension of history, to which Furet, whatever one might say about him, always remained faithful, though in his own way.  In Furet’s work, the passions are, in the main, always collective.  The second advantage of this usage is that it aims at enriching the level of affects by giving it political depth.  The passions are about sentiment and ideology, as ideology, moreover, is composed of ideas and passion; indeed, it is on account of this complex alchemy that ideology is at the origin of what Furet calls “illusions,” using this last term with a Freudian connotation that, in the case of his last work, The Passing of an Illusion,  is explicit.
Illusion is a matter of passions, since it is defined as a very powerful “psychological investment” (p. ix) that forever masks reality for people.  Ideology, for its part, seems to lie on the side of reason and to target intellectuals more than the masses.  Not completely, though, for “ideological passions” exist, too: indeed, ideologies are liable to create “enthusiasm” in “the popular masses but also [in] the educated classes” (p. 2). From this standpoint, moreover, National Socialism, “that fuzzy, autodidactic amalgam,” wins out over Leninism, which “had at least a philosophical pedigree” (p. 3).  But both are presented in light of ideology and passion.
The perimeter of the passions is thus less wide than that of the sentiments or the emotions.  Without quite closing out the list, it is possible to reduce the number of democratic passions, the only ones Furet truly treats, to a few that are of equal intensity.  One would no doubt have to distinguish parent or primary passions from derivative or second-order passions.  The first of them all, the one from which all others derive, is the passion for equality.  From that passion follows “the revolutionary passion” (p. 1), indeed “the French passion for permanent revolution,” 3 the passion for politics, the “ideological passions,” and, in particular, the “communist passion” (p. 2) but also the “fascist passions” (p. 304), both of them filled with the fear of their adversary yet sharing the same “hatred of the bourgeoisie” (p. 4), “the nationalistic passion” (p. 23), but also the social passions like hatred of the bourgeoisie, the anti-aristocratic passion that anticipates it at the time of the Revolution, money being, as Furet tells us, the great passion of the bourgeoisie, and the passion for well-being, which is “constitutive of modern societies.” 4

Democratic Passions and Revolutionary Passions

Because they harbor perpetual dissatisfactions and engender disappointments, the democratic passions produce “the revolutionary passions.”  According to Furet, revolutionary passion was for a long time in France a great national passion that seems to have almost died out by the end of the last century, following a slow agony and several historical stages that were expressed, for at the very least one of these stages, in Furet’s several-times-repeated and much-talked-about formula, “The Revolution is entering port.”
What is “the revolutionary passion”?  It manifests, first of all, a belief in the power of political will. The revolutionary passion drives men to change society from top to bottom over a brief period of time.  Because they want to change the world, they change it.  Yet, one must distinguish between the two main revolutions that held Furet’s attention: the French Revolution and the Bolshevik revolution.  For the former, the revolutionary passion was born of history itself.  It was, in a way, the revolutionary process itself that triggered the revolutionary passions or, if you prefer, it was the Revolution that manufactured revolutionaries.  On the eve of 1789, none of the great figures who were to act in the following years dreamed of “making the Revolution,” and still less did they yet define themselves as “revolutionaries.”  Both the fever and the fervor were born from the very shock of events, whose outbreak remains “enigmatic.”
Things proceeded in a wholly different manner for the Soviet Revolution, which thought a great deal about itself in the mirror of prior revolutionary experiences and, quite particularly, those of the Great Revolution.  Lenin and the Bolsheviks knew that they were going to make the Revolution and that there was no other solution if they wanted to change society.  With its share of passions and necessary violence, the Revolution constituted the sole realistic path to follow in order to fulfil the promises contained in the revolutionary message that had been formulated in the late eighteenth century.  Among the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary passion was innate; it was already there when the event suddenly arose.
Nevertheless, the expression revolutionary passion was hardly ever called upon before the 1990s,when Furet launched his study of the history of twentieth-century Communism.  Why?  Because, as it turns out, it is the French Revolution that invented “the revolutionary passion” and made of it one of the motive factors for the political dynamics of the nineteenth century.  Political cultures are governed by this passion that structures the political field, some arming themselves with it in order to bring down societies and regimes they find repugnant, others combating it by denouncing the devastation and the tyrannies it always more or less ends up bringing about.
The revolutionary passion, and not just the Communist one, has also made great use of a second-order democratic passion: the hatred of the bourgeoisie.  Furet wrote intensely about this in the first chapter of The Passing of an Illusion, the title of which, as a matter of fact, is “The Revolutionary Passion.”  This passion is an offspring of the passion for equality.  The passion for equality metamorphoses into an antibourgois passion.  Bourgeois man is divided within himself, since half of him is racked by criticism of the other half, accusing it of being unfaithful to its values—so much so, indeed, that the hatred of the bourgeoisie is not at all hatred of the other, as Furet remarks, but instead “self-hatred” (p. 14).
These social-psychological traits, drawn from the observation of political attitudes and the reading of the great literary, political, and philosophical works, end up having a major impact on the political history of contemporary Europe.  The bourgeoisies of various countries have given birth to individuals who “hat[e] the very air they breathe” (p. 16) and turn against themselves in support of regimes that aim at their own destruction.  The entire history of the twentieth century, even more than that of the nineteenth century (during which the aristocracy still possessed some good leftovers from what went before) provided an illustration of this point and became the object of Furet’s final book. The Passing of an Illusion is thus a major book on the democratic passions.


BÉTOURNÉ, Olivier and Aglaia HARTIG. Penser l’histoire de la Révolution. Deux siècles de passion française, Paris: La Découverte, 1989.

FURET, François. The French Revolution, 1770-1814. Trans. Antonia Nevill. Oxford, England and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

FURET, François. In the Workshop of History (1982). Trans. Jonathan Mandelbaum.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

FURET, François. The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century (1995). Trans. Deborah Furet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

FURET, François. Penser le XXe siècle. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2007.

HALÉVI, Ran. L’expérience du passé. François Furet dans l’atelier de l’histoire. Paris: Gallimard, 2007.

PROCHASSON, Christophe. “Sur une réception de l’Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française: François Furet lecteur de Jean Jaurès.” Cahiers Jaurès, 200 (April-June 2011): 49-68.

The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville. “François Furet et les Révolutions.” 29:2 (2008).

STATIUS, Pierre and Christophe MAILLARD. Eds. François Furet. Révolution française, Grande Guerre, communisme. Paris: Le Cerf, 2011.

Born in Paris in 1959, Christophe Prochasson, a historian, is a professor and thesis advisor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).  He has also taught at several universities abroad.  A member of the editorial committee of the reviews Le Mouvement Sociale and Mil Neuf Cent. Revue d’Histoire Intellectuelle, he is currently the editor of Éditions de l’EHESS.  He has published numerous articles and works on the cultural and political history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France.  Prochasson has focused his work in particular on the history of intellectuals, the sociocultural history of the French Third Republic, the sociocultural history of the Left and the cultural history of World War I.  His most recent published works are L’empire des émotions. Les historiens dans la mêlée (Demopolis, 2008), 14-18. Retours d’expériences (Tallandier, 2008) et La gauche est-elle morale? (Flammarion, 2010).  He is currently preparing a work on François Furet.





  1. Unpublished discussion (1996-1997) between François Furet and Paul Ricoeur. François Furet Archives, Centre d’études sociologiques et politiques Raymond Aron (CESPRA), EHESS, Paris.
  2. François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, trans. Deborah Furet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
  3. Interview with Roger Martelli, L’Humanité-Dimanche, March 27, 1995.
  4. Ibid.

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