Halévy, Élie

views updated May 29 2018

Halévy, Élie



Élie Halévy (1870–1937), French historian, pro duced a monumental history of England and also wrote about socialism and other modern political ideas. He was born into a family known for its contributions to the arts. Its founder, a Bavarian cantor, came to Paris at the end of the eighteenth century. He believed in the possibility of combining the moral principles of Judaism with the political program of the French Revolution, which had emancipated his people from their ancient disabilities. This faith found its way into the title of the review L’lsraélite français, which he founded during the Bourbon restoration. His two sons were soon assimilated into Parisian intellectual and musical circles. Jacques Fromental became a prominent composer, professor at the Conservatory, the first Jewish member and, ultimately, the secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts. His wife was a member of the Rodrigues family. Like so many other Saint-Simonians, members of this family came to be bankers and entrepreneurs during the Second Empire. Fromental’s daughter Genevieve married Bizet. She was a friend of Proust and was among his models for the Duchesse de Guermantes.

Léon Halévy, Fromental’s brother, succeeded Comte as Saint-Simon’s secretary. Léon himself wrote extensively, but he was most notable for having two sons who were elected to the Academie Française. Lucien Anatole Prévost-Paradol, an illegitimate son, was a brilliant essayist and a critic of the Second Empire. His ideas greatly influenced the authors of the Third Republic’s constitution. Leon’s other son, Ludovic Halévy, was a prolific and successful author as well as a librettist for Offenbach and Bizet. Although brought up as a Catholic, his mother’s faith, Ludovic married Louise Breguet, whose Protestant family of artisan inventors had gone from watchmaking to the position of France’s leading constructors of precision in struments. Breguets were among the pioneers of telegraphy and aviation.

Ludovic’s sons, Élie and Daniel, were raised as Protestants. Their home was the center of a brilliant set, which included their uncle, Marcellin Berthelot, the great chemist, as well as the painter Degas. Both sons were ardent supporters of Drey fus and helped organize the famous “Manifesto of the Intellectuals.” Daniel, who collaborated with Peguy on the Cahiers de la quinzaine, later supported Georges Sorel, contributed to the foundation of L’Humanité and the universités populaires (what the English call workingmen’s colleges). His name was prominent for more than half a century as historian, journalist, and editor.

Élie was more ascetic and brilliant, placing first in the national philosophy examination he took before entering the École Normale Supérieure. There philosophy continued to be his main concern, as it was of such life-long friends as Xavier Leon, Alain [E. Chartier], Celestin Bougié, Léon Brunschvicg, and Dominique Parodi. Committed to a secular and rationalist individualism, passionately concerned to unite theory and practice, Élie Halévy helped found the Revue de métaphysique et de morale and the Société Francaise de Philosophic, associations he maintained until his death. Like Max Weber and Durkheim, Halévy gained much from participation in a great journal that brought him into contact with the pivotal works and authors of his time. Even after he turned from philos ophy to the history of ideas and thence to general history, his analytical method still marked every thing he wrote.

In his first book, La théorie platonicienne des sciences (1896), Halévy carefully demonstrated Plato’s apparent contradictions before establishing their ultimate congruity. This way of proceeding stemmed from Halévy’s belief that if “one has the courage to go to the very end of a ‘negative dialec tic,’ he then perceives that such criticism prepares the way for a ‘progressive dialectic’ By distinguishing levels, this positive dialectic leads to the discernment of values in terms of a conception of the world and of life that is at once hierarchical and constructive, that not only founds and justifies but also fulfils the no less essential function of con demning what does not meet its standards” (Brun schvicg 1937, p. 680). Plato served as an example of a thinker who had made his way from criticism of others to positive construction of his own. His standards were rational and self-conscious; he used them to pass judgment on the institutions of his society.

As a historian of ideas, Halévy made extensive use of “negative dialectic” as a means of penetrating to the real, if often contradictory, values and motives underlying a school of thought. In addition, he sought to chart and explain the discrepant actual effects of a doctrine. In The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (1901–1904), Halévy used his method to order the results of his extraordinarily thorough research on Benthamism. Its political and economic aspects could not, he thought, be logically reconciled. In his political theory, Bentham as sumed that only by a legislator can conflicts of interest be reconciled in such a way as to secure the greatest good of the greatest number; in his economic theory, he assumed that individual interests are harmonized naturally by some sort of invisible hand. Thus, utilitarianism could produce either faith in bureaucratic paternalism based on legislative intervention or belief in anarchical in dividualism and laissez-faire. Both conclusions were in fact drawn by Bentham’s disciples; both had important effects upon political theory and public policy.

From this model work in intellectual history, Halévy moved to a study of England that owed much to his teaching responsibilities at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques. The school was established after the defeat of 1871 and the Commune. Its founders sought to discover the sources of France’s political instability as well as her failure to develop an elite and institutions such as those of England, the pre-eminent example of a nation that combined national power with liberty. Halévy taught two courses at the “Sciences Po” alternately for over forty years: English history and European socialism. The first was the subject, the second the polemical target, of his life’s work, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century (1912–1932). In the first volume, England in 1815, he isolated his dominant theoretical concern: “Why [is] it that of all the countries of Europe England has been the most free from revolutions, violent crises, and sudden changes?” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 424). His answer was a sustained effort to demonstrate the inadequacy of Marxism as a monistic theory of historical explanation. But like Max Weber, Halévy respected Marx enough to accept his formulation of the problem: England, the first country to be dominated by the capitalist mode of production, should have been the first to experience a revolution produced by the internal contradictions of that economic system. It did not. What could explain this? Again like Weber, Halévy did not wish simply to replace Marxism by an idealist hypothesis asserting that ideas and beliefs cause events. Rather, he wished to show that this was an instance, and a crucial one, in which religion had exercised a force independent of the means of production. Weber emphasized the effects of religious movements upon economic activity; Halévy, their political consequences.

The decisive difference between British and French development stemmed from indirect and unanticipated consequences of the Methodist revival. In France religion had been identified with an established church, controlled by the same class that dominated the state. Consequently, radicals were forced to attack both institutions simultaneously. But in England, Wesleyanism, rejected by the Church of England, became associated with the Nonconformist tradition of the free churches and contributed to their reinvigoration. Thus, Nonconformity could act as a social control, disposing radicals to think in terms of piecemeal reforms. Because in every class Methodism had made converts who shared its philanthropic values, channels were created for communicating the grievances of the lower classes. Reforms from above moderated injustices unacknowledged by the Continental bourgeoisie.

Working-class leadership was likewise affected. The sects supplied many causes with men from the working class, who had learned organizational techniques and means of influencing opinion from their chapels and classes. Yet the teaching of these same sects imposed internal restraints upon any tendency to resort to violence. Thus, those members of the working class who led their fellows differed from the middle-class and atheist revolutionary elite on the Continent. Orderly change focused on specific measures, and abuses were attacked as violations of Christian morality. These elements of political style were discovered rather than invented by the Independent Labour party.

In seeking in the sociology of religion the expla nation for British stability, Halévy did not perform a speculative leap. Before discounting the signifi cance of explanations based on political institutions on the one hand and economic forces on the other, he subjected the evidence for both to the rigorous “negative dialectic” essential to his method. It was only after this that he passed to his own positive theory based on inquiry into “beliefs, emotions, and opinions, as well as [into] the institutions and sects in which these take a form suitable for scientific inquiry” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 383).

This hypothesis remained at the center of the following volumes in Halévy’s History, although as he approached his own time, he became more narrative and covered subjects essential to general history. Imperialism and the Rise of Labour and The Rule of Democracy, which took his account up to 1914, are more remarkable for their thorough ness and objectivity than for the analytical and sociological qualities that characterized England in 1815.

As his work progressed, Halévy became one of the intellectual symbols of the entente cordiale. Sequestered and indefatigable in France, he was more sociable during his frequent visits to Eng land, where he spent several months every year. Accompanied by his wife, who aided him in his research, he mingled freely with politicians of all parties, as well as with his university friends. The Webbs, Bertrand Russell, H. A. L. Fisher, Sir Ernest Barker, G. P. Gooch, and Graham Wallas were among his oldest and best friends. During World War i he voluntarily served in the medical service. When fighting ended, he was offered an important position in the League of Nations Secretariat. This he refused, as he did the offer of a chair at the Sorbonne, so that he could devote himself to the writing of his life work. Although he never ac cepted any of the French decorations offered him, he was touched by the honorary d.phil. awarded him by Oxford. Halévy played an important part in the commission charged with the publication of official French documents on the origins of World War I.

Two other volumes of Halévy’s work were not published until after his death. The Histoire du socialisme européen (1948) consists largely of stu dents’ notes from his lectures. Halévy had planned to write such a book but died before he could do so. More valuable is the collection called L’ére des tyrannies (1938). The title address, given in 1936, summed up his views not only of socialism but also of the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. Halévy was among the first to assert that commu nism and fascism, as actually practiced, shared crucial characteristics:

In both cases the country is governed by an armed sect, which claims to rule in the interests of the com munity, and which is able to impose its will because all of its members are inspired by a common faith. {Ibid., p. 226)

On the one side and the other, the same mixture of a proletarian ideology with militarism. Labor camps. Labor front. Battles for this or that. As for the regime itself, it can be defined only as a permanent state of siege under the control of para-military formations united by a common faith. {Ibid., p. 245)

Because such regimes constitute a durable form of rule rather than a temporary expedient, Halévy called them “tyrannies” in preference to “dictator ships.” Despite his use of classical terms, he con sidered such governments to be unprecedented. Their rulers exercised political and intellectual con trols never before available. As for their origin, he attributed such tyrannies less to ideas than to cer tain means adopted by the belligerents during World War i: central economic planning, national ization, use of union leaders to eliminate strikes, “organization of enthusiasm” by propaganda, and suppression of all opinions judged by the regime as adverse to the national interest.

In The World Crisis of 1914-1918 (1930), Halévy examined the concepts of “revolution” and “war” to show their interrelation and cumulative effects during that period. Previously, historians had treated these two subjects in isolation from each other. Halévy found the causes of the war and the Russian Revolution not in decisions consciously taken by statesmen but in collective and anonymous forces, such as the beliefs in national self-determination and the reality of class struggle. As in his History, he turned to collective sentiments for explanation. He concluded that the waste of lives and resources in twentieth-century wars and revolutions was due to what men thought and believed. Only by transforming their ideas and emotions can international peace be attained, only by substituting compromise for fanaticism can there be an end to violence. No one knew better than Halévy how unlikely it was that such advice would be accepted. He died in 1937, believing that war was inevitable and that it would perpetuate tyranny throughout Europe.

Melvin Richter

[Directly related are the entriesLiberalism; Radical Ism; Utilitarianism. Other relevant material may be found inAnglo-american society; Dictator Ship; History, article onsocial history; and in the biographies ofBentham; Durkheim; Marx; Weber, Max.]


1896 La théorie ylatonicienne des sciences. Paris: Alcan.

(1901–1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber & Faber. → First published in French.

(1912–1932) 1961 A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century. 6 vols. 2d rev. ed. London: Benn. → Volume 1: England in 1815. Volume 2: The Liberal Awakening, 1815–1830. Volume 3: The Tri umph of Return, 1830–1841. Volume 4: Victorian Years, 1841–1895. Volume 5: Imperialism and the Rise of Labour, 1895–1905. Volume 6: The Rule of Democracy, 1905—1914. First published in French.

1930 The World Crisis of 1914-1918: An Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon.

1938 L’ére des tyrannies. Paris: Gallimard. → The trans lations of the extracts in the text were provided by Melvin Richter. A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Doubleday as The Era of Tyrannies: Essays on Socialism and War.

1948 Histoire du socialisme européen. Paris: Gallimard.


Beebner, J. Bartlet 1948 Halévy: Diagnostician of Modern Britain. Thought 23:101–113.

Brunschvicg, LÉon 1937 Élie Halévy. Revue de métaphysique et de morale 44:679–691. ℩ The translation of the extract in the text was provided by Melvin Richter.

[Chartier, Émile] 1958 Correspondance avec élie etFlorence Halévy, by Alain [pseud.]. Paris: Gallimard.

Gillispie, Charles C. 1950 The Work of Élie Halévy: A Critical Appreciation. Journal of Modern History 22:232–249. ℩ The best criticism and appraisal of Halévy.

Élie Halévy

views updated Jun 27 2018

Élie Halévy

The French philosopher and historian élie Halévy (1870-1937) wrote studies of the British utilitarians and a history of 19th-century England.

Elie Halévy was born on Sept. 6, 1870, at étretat, where his mother had fled as the German army marched on Paris. His father was the playwright Ludovic Halévy, and Élie grew up surrounded by musicians, scholars, and politicians. After studying at the école Normale, he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1901 with the theses The Platonic Theory of Knowledge and The Origins of Philosophical Radicalism. The latter formed the base of his first major study, The Formation of English Philosophical Radicalism (3 vols., 1901-1904).

In an article of 1893 Halévy suggested that the great moral question of modern thought was how the abstract idea of duty could become a concrete aim of society. This question had first attracted him to the utilitarians, and he found at the core of their answer a fundamental contradiction. Utilitarianism, he said, was based on two principles:first, that the science of the legislator must bring together the naturally divergent interests of individuals in society; and, second, that social order comes about spontaneously through the harmony of individual interests. To Halévy this exemplified two fundamental human attitudes toward the universe:the contemplation of the astronomer and the intervention of the engineer.

In 1892 Émile Boutmy invited Halévy to lecture on English political ideas at the newly founded School of Political Science. After 1900 he alternated this course with another, on the history of socialism. At the same time he helped found the Revue de métaphysique et de morale, in which he retained an interest until his death.

Halévy's teaching led him to undertake annual trips to England, during which he became the intimate friend of many of the most important scholars and political figures of the age. He thoroughly explored the Jeremy Bentham manuscripts at Cambridge for his work on philosophical radicalism and over the years developed a deep and intensive knowledge of all the sources of 19th-century English history. In 1901 he began to work on the first volume of his masterpiece, the History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century (1912). In this book he described England in 1815 and sought to explain how England avoided violent social change. "If economic facts explain the course taken by the human race, " he wrote, "the England of the nineteenth century was surely, above all other countries, destined to revolution, both politically and religiously." Neither the British constitution nor the Established Church was strong enough to hold the country together. He found the answer in religious nonconformity:"Methodism was the antidote to Jacobinism."

The second and third volumes of this history (1923) carried the story up to 1841. Then Halévy, profoundly moved by World War I, turned his attention to the period form 1895 to 1914. The tow volumes on this period (1926-1930) were written with considerable detachment, considering the immediacy of the problems he discussed.

In lectures of 1929, revised in 1936 (published in 1938; The Era of Tyrannies), Halévy argued that the world war had increased national control over individual activities and opened the way for de facto socialism. In opposition to those who saw socialism as the last step in the French Revolution, he saw it as a new organization of constraint replacing those that the Revolution had destroyed. A liberal individualist to the last, Halévy died at Sucy-en-Brie on Aug. 21, 1937.

Further Reading

Halévy's The Era of Tyrannies:Essays on Socialism and War (1938; trans. 1965) has a useful biographical and critical introduction, a preface, and a "Note" by different historians. There is a chapter on Halévy in Bernadotte E. Schmitt, ed., Some Historians of Modern Europe:Essays in Historiography (1942). An essay on Halévy appears in Herman Ausubel and others, eds., Some Modern Historians of Britain:Essays in Honor of R. L. Schuyler (1951).

Additional Sources

Chase, Myrna, Élie Halévy, an intellectual biography, New York:Columbia University Press, 1980. □

Halévy, Élie

views updated May 21 2018


HALÉVY, ÉLIE (1870–1937), French philosopher and historian. He was the son of Ludovic and brother of Daniel (see *Halévy family). He was raised as a Protestant (his mother's religion). He became professor at the Ecole libre des Sciences politiques where he taught English history and European socialism. A Dreyfusard and a secular rationalist, he was a founder of the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale and the Société française de Philosophie. His first work, La Théorie platonicienne des sciences (1896), dealt with Plato's negative dialectic as a way to positive construction. He applied this theory in a basic study of the Benthamite movement, La formation du radicalisme philosophique, 3 vols. (1901–04; The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, 1928). His important Histoire du peuple anglais au xixe siècle, 5 vols. (1912–32; A History of the English People in the 19th Century, 1924–34) covering the periods 1815–41, and 1895–1914 (he died before completing the rest), was an anti-Marxist interpretation of English history, stressing the role of religious factors in English political stability. He also wrote The World Crisis of 191418 (1930), L'ère des tyrannies (1938) against fascism and communism, and Histoire du socialisme européen (1948; from his notes). Halévy favored transforming collective belief through compromise rather than fanaticism as the means to international peace. At the end of his life he was pessimistic, convinced that war was inevitable and that the fascist and communist tyrannies would be perpetuated. He played an important role in English as well as in French intellectual life.


Brunschvicg, in: Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 44 (1937), 679–91; C.C. Gillispie, Journal of Modern History, 22 (1950), 232–49; M. Richter, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 6 (1968), 307–10.

[Richard H. Popkin]