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The history of French liberalism is undergoing a renaissance. For much of the twentieth century, it was viewed with disdain, as insufficiently “engaged,” as too tentative in its demands for social reform, as overly optimistic concerning the progress of reason and science. Scholarship during the past three decades has challenged these views, though it is notable that there is still, to my knowledge, no general history of French liberalism that goes past the consolidation of the Third Republic in the late 1870s. Part of the ongoing reassessment has been the consequence 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. Another element contributing to this reassessment has been the emergence of more nuanced definitions of “liberalism,” ones that are not limited to legal (civil liberties), political (constitutionalism), and/or economic (free trade) dimensions. Equally important, scholars are insisting, are conceptions of science, of religion, of the role of the state, of solidarity, of sociability, of moeurs, of identity, of gender, of the self.

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1 Halévy, Elie, La formation du radicalism philosophique, 3 vols., nouvelle édition dirigée par Monique Canto-Sperber (Paris, 1995; first published 1901–4); Halévy, Histoire du peuple Anglais au XIXe siècle, 6 vols. (Paris, 1912–46). There are English translations of all of these volumes.

2 A version of these lectures was published posthumously: Halévy, Elie, Histoire du socialisme européen, de Raymond Aron, préface (Paris, 1948).

3 Halévy, Elie, L’ère des tyrannies, préface de Célestin Bouglé (Paris, 1938).

4 Elie Halévy, La théorie Platonicienne des sciences (Paris, 1896); see the discussion by Ludovic Frobert in the essay below.

5 Emile Durkheim, Henri Bergson, Vilfredo Pareto, Georges Sorel, to name a few.

6 In addition to the histories noted above, Halévy wrote a book on Hodgskin, Thomas (Halévy, Elie, Thomas Hodgskin, précurseur anglais de Marx (Paris, 1903)) and another on the British empire (Halévy, L’Angleterre et son Empire (Paris, 1905)).

7 In 1936, when Halévy looked back on his political stance before the war, he stated, “I was not a socialist. I was a ‘liberal’ in the sense that I was anticlerical, democrat, republican; to employ a single word that was heavy with meaning: a ‘Dreyfusard’.” Halévy, L’ère des tyrannies, 216.

8 In 1906 Halévy wrote, “Universalized liberty is democracy; and universalized democracy, when it is extended from the political field to the economic field, is only socialism.” Elie Halévy, “Les principes de la distribution des richesses,” Revue de métaphysique et de morale (1906), 545–95, 594.

9 Many of the early lectures have been preserved. “Papiers Elie Halévy,” Ecole normale supérieure (Paris).

10 After World War I, Halévy became more critical of socialism, expressing concern about the expansion of state power, the burgeoning faith in bureaucracies and technocrats, and the frequent intrusions into the public sphere of private interests and mass movements—in short, in the convergence of socialism and nationalism.

11 Halévy, Elie to Bouglé, Célestin, 7 May 1895, Correspondance (1891–1937), textes réunis et présenté par Henriette Guy-Loë (Paris, 1996), 156.

12 Halévy argued that the market is “a political institution . . . it is necessary that there are rules, a police, in brief an intervention of the state.” Elie Halévy, “Les principes de la distribution des richesses,” 567.

13 Elie Halévy, “La doctrine économique Saint-Simonienne,” in Halévy, L’ère des tyrannies, 30–94, 90. This was originally published in La Revue de Mois (1908), 641–76.

14 Earlier versions of these papers were presented at a conference entitled Elie Halévy and the Politics of the Third Republic held at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University, 20 Oct. 2013. It was sponsored by the Triangle Intellectual History Seminar, the Duke Center for European Studies, and the History Department of North Carolina State University. Other participants who presented papers and formal comments included Julian Wright, Vincent Duclert, Michael Behrent, Melvin Richter, and Malachi Hacohen.

15 There is a vast literature on the competing strains of earlier French liberalism. See, among others, Rosanvallon, Pierre, Le moment Guizot (Paris, 1980); Jardin, André, Histoire du libéralisme politique de la crise de l’absolutisme à la constitution de 1875 (Paris, 1985); Jaume, Lucien, L’individu effacé: Ou le paradoxe du libéralisme français (Paris, 1998); Craiutu, Aurelian, Liberalism under Siege: The Political Thought of the French Doctrinaires (Lanham, MD, 2003); Vincent, K. Steven, Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism (New York, 2011); Geenens, Raf and Rosenblatt, Helena, eds., French Liberalism from Montesquieu to the Present Day (Cambridge, 2012).

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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