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Élie Halévy

In this densely contextualized biography, K. Steven Vincent describes how Élie Halévy (1870-1937), one of the most respected and influential intellectuals of the French Third Republic, confronted the Dreyfus Affair, World War I, and the rise of interwar totalitarianism while defending a distinctively French version of liberalism.

Élie Halévy
Republican Liberalism Confronts the Era of Tyranny

K. Steven Vincent

2020 | 368 pages | Cloth $89.95
Political Science
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Table of Contents


Part I. Neo-Kantianism and British Radicalism
Chapter 1. The Early Years
Chapter 2. Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale
Chapter 3. British Utilitarianism (1896-1904)

Part II. French Politics, European Socialism, and British History
Chapter 4. The Dreyfus Affair (1897-1901)
Chapter 5. L'École Libre des Sciences Politiques and Socialism (1902-1914)
Chapter 6. British Affairs: Empire, Methodism, and English Socialists (1905-1914)

Part III. World War I and the State of Europe in the Era of Tyrannies
Chapter 7. World War I (1914-1918)
Chapter 8. Post War (1918-1924)
Chapter 9. "The World Crisis" Reconsidered (1924-1932)
Chapter 10. The Era of Tyrannies (1932-1937)



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Élie Halévy (1870-1937) was a highly respected intellectual of his era, and he has remained among the most famous and well-regarded liberal French historians. In the Anglo-American world, he is best known for his three-volume history of British Utilitarianism and for his multi-volume history of nineteenth-century England. In his native France, his reputation rests on his association with the Revue de métaphysique et de morale, a philosophical journal that he founded in 1893 with his friends Xavier Léon, Léon Brunschvicg, and Alain (Émile Chartier); on his participation in the defense of Alfred Dreyfus; and on his lectures on the history of European socialism given every other year between 1902 and 1937 at the École libre des sciences politiques (henceforth, Sciences Po). He is famous in both contexts for his post-World War I analyses of the growth of radical movements on the Left and the Right, during what he labeled "the era of tyrannies."

This intellectual biography examines the entire range of Halévy's works, as well as the contexts within which these works were written: his neo-Kantian philosophical orientation; his incisive analysis of British Utilitarianism (an analysis still debated by historians of political thought); his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair; his stance of "socialist liberalism" in the years before World War I; his thesis about the importance of religion and mores in modern England (the so-called "Halévy thesis"); his principled stance during World War I; his new views of socialism and nationalism after the war; his arguments concerning the era of tyrannies.

As this list indicates, Halévy was intimately involved with a wide range of philosophical, political, economic, and historical issues of his era. He provides an entry, for example, into the neo-Kantianism that animated the Revue de métaphysique et de morale and, more broadly, that informed much of the philosophy produced in France during the 1890s. His neo-Kantianism, however, was inflected with a dialectical form of Platonism, which he analyzed in his thesis published in 1896, La théorie Platonicienne des sciences. In Part I of the book, after introducing the Halévy family, I examine how his modified neo-Kantian perspective remained an important framework: for his early articles about epistemology and education; for his stance toward the new disciplines of psychology and sociology; for his thinking about British Utilitarianism. Halévy began his professional career as a philosopher, and the first section of my book argues that this is an essential framework for understanding the distinctiveness of his thought, and the disagreements he expressed with contemporaries like Henri Bergson, Émile Durkheim, Théodile-Armand Ribot, Vilfredo Pareto, and others.

Unlike many of his contemporaries who remained closely attached to investigations in philosophy and science, however, Halévy turned as a young man in his twenties to history, economic theory, and the wider problems of socio-political justice. He continued to participate in debates with the major philosophers and sociologists of his era at sessions of the Société française de philosophie, but his primary attention turned to the history of England and to the history of European socialism. He lectured on both at Sciences Po, and wrote dense histories of English thought and institutions. The themes that he explored in his histories of England drew from a rich French tradition (that includes Voltaire, Germaine de Staël, Hippolyte Taine, Émile Boutmy, among others) but also reflected the influence of his close associates in England, where he spent several months every year (thinkers like Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Graham Wallas). His focus on England influenced his views of France and, beyond this, his views of modern politics and the rise of modern tyranny.

Halévy's move from philosophy to history is analyzed in Part II. This part opens with an account of an important event—the Dreyfus Affair—that deeply affected Halévy and overlapped with the shift in his intellectual orientation. The Affair reinforced his commitment to study not just philosophy but also socio-political ideas and movements, and to analyze the complex nature of historical change. It also drew Halévy into politics. His activities during the Dreyfus Affair demonstrated his strong commitment to the constitutional and juridical institutions of the Third Republic, even as they also revealed his impatience with many of the politicians who led it. He became more concerned with the fragility of modern liberal democracies.

The years between the Dreyfus Affair and the outbreak of World War I were immensely productive for Halévy. He published on English history and European socialism, and presented famous lectures on both. He became a historian-philosopher, widely respected in both England and France, and developed an orientation—one that informed all of his subsequent work—that viewed thought and politics as historically conditioned. Different societies, he argued, because of the curiosities of their historical development and the distinctiveness of their cultural traditions, confronted the problems of liberty, equity, and justice differently. There was no uniform program of action that was universally applicable; politics and culture were each a "sedimentation of practices," to borrow a phrase from Françoise Mélonio, and they needed to be approached comparatively. In his subsequent writings Halévy demonstrated that he believed that only historically informed analysis would offer insight into the complexity of economic developments, social changes, intellectual movements, and cultural traditions, and hence only such historical sensitivity could provide the understanding needed for prudent and progressive action. As Raymond Aron has pointed out, Halévy continued the tradition of Montesquieu and Tocqueville, but updated to encompass the profound changes of the late nineteenth century and World War I.

The Great War was a transformative experience for Halévy, as it was for most Europeans of his generation. He stopped teaching and put aside his scholarship during the war, and worked in hospitals that attended to the wounded and dying. When he returned to his scholarship after the war, he remained interested in British developments and in the broader issue of the tension between liberalism and socialism, but the chronological focus shifted to events that had led to war, and to the changes that were a consequence of the war and its attendant revolutions. This is the focus of Part III of the book. He remained a supporter of liberal democracy, but was deeply concerned about the increased vulnerability of European countries as they confronted the diplomatic and economic challenges of the postwar era, faced the impatient expectations of popular movements, and were challenged by the emergence of authoritarian figures. This is the period when he wrote his famous essay on the era of tyrannies. He feared that liberal democracies, in this new era created by war and revolution, and inhabiting a world order populated by charismatic leaders able to "organize enthusiasm," would be forced, if they were to survive at all, to change in unfortunate ways.

Élie Halévy has been difficult to classify on the spectrum of modern French ideologies. He always referred to himself as a "liberal," which he certainly was, though it is necessary to add the qualification, as did François Furet in 1996, that Halévy was a liberal "in the widest sense of this term . . . which is to say that [he] belonged in thought to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and in politics to the Left." Like all liberals, he stoutly defended the civil and political principles identified with the French Revolution—civil equality and popular sovereignty—but he was extremely sensitive to the problems and inequities created by industrialization and its attendant social effects. A strong defender of individualism, he did not believe, as did Frédéric Bastiat or British Manchester Liberals, that the market was naturally self-regulating or produced an equitable distribution of riches. Political institutions and social organizations were necessary to ensure the protection of liberties and to rectify economic injustices. He seriously confronted, in short, the conflicts at the heart of modern industrial democracies: how to safeguard precious individual liberties while at the same time addressing socio-economic needs; how to foster individualism while at the same time recognizing the broadening administrative responsibilities of the state; how to balance individual emancipation, one the one hand, with political and socio-economic organization, on the other. It is the argument of this book that Halévy belongs to a distinctively French tradition of liberalism that first emerged during the French Revolution but that evolved as it confronted the dislocations of modernity.

What is unusual about Halévy—and one of the main reasons that it has been difficult for French scholars to categorize him—is that he approached these issues as a historian, not as a political theorist or political activist. Moreover, he was a historian not of France but of Britain. Though his lectures on the history of socialism encompassed French thinkers and movements, and though his correspondence demonstrates a deep concern for French and more broadly European affairs, his primary scholarly focus was Britain. Halévy began a serious study of things British in 1896, which led to the publication of his three-volume La formation du radicalisme philosophique in the early years of the new century. Subsequently, he devoted much of his scholarly attention to his multi volume history of England in the nineteenth century, though en route he wrote articles about British Methodism and books about Thomas Hodgskin and the British Empire. Even after the war, when he turned to analyze the troubled state of world politics, England and British developments remained one of his central concerns, and were used comparatively to assess developments in other countries, including France. It is perhaps not surprising, given this scholarly focus, that his reputation is greater in the English-speaking world than in France. The marginal, quasi-oppositional stance Halévy adopted toward his own country is elegantly captured by François Furet: "He constantly remained on the margins of the French scene, and even indefinable in his relationship with it: professor who deliberately held back from grand institutions, like the Sorbonne; intellectual who was passionate about public affairs without loving French politics; democratic republican who became the adopted son of a semi-aristocratic monarchy [England]; grand bourgeois who was touched by the socialist idea while refusing Marx and Jaurès; French patriot who hated French nationalism."

Though Halévy is primarily known as a historian and intellectual, his actions during the Dreyfus Affair and after World War I demonstrated his commitment to moral responsibility and political engagement. How his liberalism evolved to address the social and economic problems thrown up by industrialization, and to address the international and domestic issues thrown up by war, revolution, and interwar instability, are central themes considered in part III of this book. The subtitle of the book—"Republican Liberalism Confronts the Era of Tyranny"—highlights this interwar era. Equally significant, however, were Halévy's contributions to philosophy and history, topics addressed in parts I and II. Another subtitle, considered but ultimately rejected, yet nonetheless equally accurate, would be "Socialist Liberal Historian During the French Third Republic."

A Note on Sources

When I began working on this project in 2011, it was necessary to use a variety of dated editions of Halévy's writings and to work with the Halévy papers located in the archive at the École normale supérieure in Paris. I expected and hoped that these extensive papers—there are ninety-five cartons of them—would offer new insights into Halévy's published works and help provide a framework for understanding the chronological development of Halévy's thought. To be sure, there was important earlier scholarship: biographies by Michèle Bo Bramsen and Myrna Chase; critical analyses by Raymond Aron, Charles Gillispie, Melvin Richter, and François Bédarida. Also available was newer scholarship on Halévy that reflected, in part, the increased interest in French liberalism consequent of the decline of revolutionary illusions and of marxisant frameworks of analysis following 1968, reinforced by the more general decline of the Left following the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1995, a critical edition of La formation du radicalisme philosophique was published. This was followed, in 1996, by a valuable volume of Halévy's correspondence, with a superb introduction by François Furet. In the same year a volume devoted to the Halévy family appeared, one that grew out of an exposition organized by the Musée d'Orsay. More recently, works by Ludovic Frobert, Stephan Soulié, Vincent Duclert, and Marie Scot (to name some of the most important) were published. Even more recently, there were conferences devoted to his thought that led to new analyses of various aspects of Halévy's oeuvre.

The most significant new development for scholars, however, was the publication in 2016 of the first three volumes of a new critical edition of Halévy's Oeuvres complètes. Under the direction of Vincent Duclert and Marie Scot, and published by Les Belles Lettres, the volumes of the Oeuvres complètes promise to assist significantly future scholarship on Halévy. This is especially evident in the volumes that focus on his posthumously published works. Volume 2 of the Oeuvres complètes is devoted to the L'ère de tyrannies, originally published in 1938. The earlier volume had been brought together by Halévy's widow, Florence, and his close friend Célestin Bouglé, and it contained not only the famous 1936 discussion of "L'ère de tyrannies," but also important articles written by Halévy about socialism, war, and problems facing post-World War I Europe. The new critical edition supplements these original articles with extensive critical notes and with other writings, conference presentations, and correspondence that touch on these issues. It also includes scholarly reflections about Halévy and his contributions written after his death, many of them relevant to themes he raised.

Volume 3 of the Oeuvres complètes is devoted to the Histoire du socialisme européen, originally published in 1948. The new critical edition analyzes how the editors (the group included, most importantly, Florence Halévy, Célestin Bouglé, and Raymond Aron) constructed the original volume from handwritten lectures and student notes. Again, the new critical edition includes extensive notes and other writings by Halévy related to the issues raised. Perhaps most important of all, it dates the various chapters of the 1948 publication, helping one to interpret the evolution of his thought. Other scholars will wish to join me in expressing gratitude to the editors Vincent Duclert and Marie Scot. Having personally spent many months with the Halévy papers, I found it a luxury (and a relief) to have so many of the manuscript lectures and notes chronologically identified and published.

A Note on Methodology

The ensuing chapters offer a densely contextualized intellectual biography of Élie Halévy. While wider socioeconomic and cultural factors are considered, especially as they exerted an influence on Halévy, the focus is on the development of his thought and his life. This distinctive focus inevitably involves trade-offs. Most obviously, it frames broader historical issues in relationship to the life of one individual and his immediate milieu. I make no apology for this but wish to note that I have attempted to provide sufficiently "thick" contextual analyses to avoid the subordination of issues to Halévy's distinctive perspective.

In defense of contextual intellectual biography, perhaps a few comments are not inappropriate. While structural and institutional forces obviously merit the close attention of historians, and have been weighed in what follows, I believe the best historical accounts include considerations of personal agency, motivation, ideology, actions, and the wider impact of these on society. The natural way to provide such an account is to look at men and women, their backgrounds, their temperaments, and their thoughts, and to give attention to how these unfolded in broader historical contexts—intellectual, cultural, political, social, and economic.

I've come to view historical scholarship—better, my own historical work—as a deep sort of "reflective travel" (the best metaphor I can think of). It is the type of study that offers, I believe, a salutary form of learning. In an obvious sense, of course, we are always in and of our own culture. But reflective travel pushes against this embeddedness—minimally providing a pleasurable respite from our own culture (the result, perhaps, of any deeply absorbing work) but, more significantly, encouraging a receptivity to another culture, another historical era, and their broader significance. On the rebound, moreover, it is able to foster a fresh view of one's own historical situatedness, with all its assumptions and peculiarities. It offers, in its best moments, a useful comparative perspective. I believe that this is especially useful when considering the familiar but fraught issues that occupied Halévy's attention—liberalism, socialism, war, revolution, liberty, and justice—issues that are central to the intellectual biography that follows. It goes without saying that they remain relevant today. In the conclusion of the book, I offer some reflections on the history of French socialism and liberalism.

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