François Furet’s death on July 11 in Toulouse at age 70 ended the career of a truly iconoclastic historian. Despite Furet’s association with the political left, as a youthful communist and middle-aged social democrat, his scholarship went against the grain of the French and American academic establishments. In Penser la Révolution and in other revisionist works, Furet questioned assumptions about the French Revolution that had been drummed into American as well as French university students for generations. As a graduate student in the mid-1960’s, I encountered those dogmas before Furet’s demythification, most of them drawn from the French Marxist Albert Mathiez and his American disciple Robert Palmer. Robespierre and the Jacobins were allegedly democratic heroes beset by counterrevolutionaries at home and abroad, and what had been called the Terror was reinterpreted as a series of countermeasures taken to protect French “democracy.” The same type of defensive scenario was then extended to Lenin’s revolution, which my classmates and professors presented as an updated form of the French Jacobin birth of freedom.

What Furet and others of his generation did (such as the Sorbonne historian Pierre Chaunu) was to reevaluate the encrusted academic beliefs that had formed around the Revolution. They took seriously what its critics accused it of doing, massacring well in excess of 100,000 of their presumed royalist countrymen, including babies, putting into practice a conspiratorial view of the world extracted from the Masons and Illuminati, and preaching what Burke called an “armed doctrine” against nonrevolutionized governments. Furet demonstrated that the radical revolutionaries who drove events forward in the early 1790’s were not merely responding to unexpected circumstances. They took advantage of the chaos they helped unleash to carry out a planned “purification.” Whether overthrowing a decrepit monarchy that had ultimately granted a liberal constitution or turning upon insufficiently “republican” colleagues, these revolutionaries, as seen by Furet, foreshadowed the Bolsheviks in their brutal practice and accusatory rhetoric. Those who compared the two groups were often right in their judgment, albeit for unintended reasons.

Significantly, this critical view of the Revolution has largely prevailed, and even the celebration in France of the bicentenary of its outbreak was accompanied by journalistic and scholarly attacks on the bloody course of events initiated in 1789. Such attacks went beyond what Furet wished others to think was his own measured judgment of the Revolution, exemplified by his distinction between its liberal and radical phrases. As both the Chicago Tribune and Le Figaro noted in obituaries, Furet traced his own postcommunist politics back to the early stages of the Revolution. Then it still represented a liberal European heritage culminating in what Professor Nathan Tarcov, a colleague of Furet’s at the University of Chicago, describes as “representative democracy, human rights, and a mixed economy.”

But this heritage is not a liberal European but a social democratic one, and it may be argued that Furet’s analysis disallows the kind of distinction he himself intermittently made for prudential reasons. Distinguishing among the phases of that upheaval ignores Furet’s real teaching, that “la Révolution fait bloc” was a self-radicalizing process driven by continuing ideological currents. The Rockford Institute might have acted on the basis of what it properly perceived as this analytic thrust of his work when it granted Furet an Ingersoll Prize three years ago. His longtime admirer, a descendant of Huguenots, and an authentic European liberal, Pierre Chaunu, observes the paradox of Furet’s relation to the Revolution. Moved by his own disillusionment with communist reconstructions of reality to investigate related falsifications of revolutionary events, Furet nonetheless stopped halfway in his own political development as a non-Marxist progressive. But he did achieve his revisionist goal as a professor and author on two continents more thoroughly than any explicitly conservative critic of his subject. Precisely because of where he stood, on the left (however moderately), Furet would be listened to, unlike the Catholic, anti-revolutionary sources he incorporated into his scholarship. By the time of his death, as a result of a fatal fall while playing tennis, Furet had discredited the adulatory approach to the Revolution which still flourished in the 1960’s. By now this achievement may be irreversible.