Élie Halévy Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Élie Halévy 1870-1937

French historian and philosopher.

Halévy was a noted twentieth-century historian whose six-volume Histoire du peuple anglais au XIXesiècle (1912-47; A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century) is considered one of the most influential studies of modern English social history. In this work, Halévy forwarded the thesis that England was spared from the violent revolutions in France of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to the intercession of Methodism as a socially stabilizing force. Among his many other contributions as a philosopher and historian, Halévy produced a notable examination of English Utilitarianism, and substantial assessments of twentieth-century liberalism, socialism, and totalitarianism.

Biographical Information

Halévy was born in Etretat on 6 September 1870, the son of Ludovic Halévy, a playwright. He was educated in Paris at the Lycée Condorcet and later attended the Ecole Normale Supérieure. In 1892 Halévy was invited to lecture on English politics at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques, and maintained a professorship at the school for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, he co-founded and co-edited the scholarly journal Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale in 1893 and received his doctorate of philosophy in 1901 after submitting the first volume of his La Formation du radicalisme philosophique: La Revolution et la doctrine de l'utilité (1789-1815) (1900; The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism) as his thesis. After making frequent visits to Great Britain as part of his professional activities, Halévy began in 1901 the work that was to occupy the majority of his career, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, the first volume of which was published in 1912. The ensuing years were devoted to teaching, to scholarship, and to this and other works of history and philosophy. Halévy died at Sucy-en-Brie in August of 1937, having completed five more volumes of his masterwork.

Major Works

The multiple volumes of Halévy's A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century feature a thorough study of English social history focusing on the years to 1815 to 1852 and 1895 to 1914. In the first volume of the work, subtitled L'Angleterre on 1815, Halévy considers English political and social institutions of the eighteenth century and proposes the controversial thesis that England avoided revolutionary chaos during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to the balancing presence of religious nonconformity in the form of evangelical Protestantism. Halévy's Epilogue to the History deals with England in the years leading up to World War I, and offers an interpretation of British nationalism and socialism, which Halévy contrasts with the more conservative and authoritarian varieties practiced by the major nations of continental Europe. Among Halévy's other works, his early Growth of Philosophic Radicalism studies British utilitarian thought, principally the philosophical and economic theories of Jeremy Bentham and his followers. In the work, Halévy traces lines of development in economics and constitutionalism from their origins in the Enlightenment to nineteenth and twentieth century tensions between personal liberty and heightened social organization. L'Ére des tyrannies: Études sur le socialisme et la guerre (1938; The Era of Tyrannies: Essays on Socialism and War) focuses on changes in European political organization following World War I. In these essays, Halévy emphasizes increases in state power and nationalistic furor at the expense of personal liberty. Although he uses the term tyranny in this volume, Halévy's analysis of the rise of fascism and Bolshevism in the twentieth century remains one of earliest explorations of totalitarianism.

Critical Reception

The areas of principal critical interest in regard to Halévy's historical works lie in the contemporary estimation of his A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century and the so-called “Halévy thesis” it contains. On one end of the spectrum, Myrna Chase has suggested that the thesis can be viewed as a viable alternative to Marxist materialist history in the case of English industrial, social, and political development. Other, more highly critical views have also been forwarded, as the thesis has sparked considerable contention among historians, many of whom have found considerable flaws in Halévy's historical conclusions. Despite reassessments since Halévy's death, however, scholars continue to perceive A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century as a masterpiece of English history. Likewise, Halévy's other works, including Growth of Philosophic Radicalism and The Era of Tyrannies: Essays on Socialism and War, have been praised as significant and enduring contributions to modern European social, economic, and intellectual history.