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Revel against the Machine

by David Pryce-Jones
Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era, by Jean-François Revel (Encounter, 300 pp., $23.95)

Jean-François Revel was marvelously intelligent, witty, no respecter of persons, a lover of the good life, cosmopolitan with a bias in favor of Italy, up to date with the news and the gossip and the latest books in several languages — in short, the kind of Frenchman everyone hopes to meet but hardly ever does. He and Raymond Aron were editors and columnists for L’Express, the weekly magazine that used to have a readership of 3 million, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that in their day they were the two commentators in Paris most worth reading.

Born in 1924, Revel describes in his autobiography, memorably titled Thief in an Empty House, how he was educated first by the Jesuits and then at one of the famous institutions of higher learning that groom the country’s elite. This gave him the grounding afterwards to write polemics knocking the stuffing out of assorted charlatans like Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Teilhard de Chardin, Heidegger, and Husserl. Aged 16 when France collapsed under the German blitzkrieg of 1940, he had some experience of totalitarianism in action. However menacing the Nazi occupation might be, the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain seemed to him more comic than anything else. It fell to Revel in 1945 to escort to prison the preposterous and anti-Semitic publicist Charles Maurras, and he loved to laugh remembering how Maurras had said of his arrest, “This is the revenge of Dreyfus.” For years Revel mocked General de Gaulle as an operetta-style dictator and perpetual fountain of purple prose. President Mitterrand’s pretensions were equally dismissed.

But it was the hold that Communism acquired over French intellectual life that really set Revel’s adrenaline racing. He was influenced by Raymond Aron’s masterpiece The Opium of the Intellectuals, published in 1955, and the first fully informed and sustained demolition of Marxism by a Frenchman. In one carefully argued book after another, Revel took to pieces the ideology of Communism and exposed the misconceptions, contradictions, illusions, and group-thought of those who adhered to it. This was in a country where Picasso could say on behalf of influential artists, “I went to Communism as one goes to a fresh spring of water,” and Sartre could say on behalf of influential writers, “An anti-Communist is a dog.” Following leads of that kind, Communism had acquired a mind-numbing hold on public opinion. The irrationality of it was like some tidal wave swamping everything. About a third of the electorate voted for the Communists at the height of the party’s success. To expose French Communist-party leaders and propagandists as crooks, dupes, and paid agents of Moscow was not enough. Georges Marchais, a long-standing general secretary of the party, even got away with having volunteered during the war to work in Nazi Germany in an armaments factory. At the outset of the Cold War, leading Communists trooped into a courtroom to testify that the Gulag was the slanderous invention of a Soviet defector, and that slave labor was unknown in the Soviet Union. From 1945 to as late as the 1980s, governments were taking Communists into coalition and giving them important ministries. Again, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Revel was obliging people to understand that crime, degradation, and failure of intellect and morality are inherent in Communism. This was to change the terms of public debate.

Sheer force of character propelled Revel to become the anti-Communist spokesman of choice on television programs, in prestigious publications, and even in the Académie Française, of which he eventually became an honored member. In the absence of a more effective reply, the Left portrayed him as a “visceral” enemy, in other words someone motivated purely by prejudice. Actually a man with an open and humorous mind, he was only seizing on the Left’s suppression of truth and suggestions of falsehood, and at one level Last Exit to Utopia is an anthology of the Leftist idiocy current in France in the 1990s. Literary storms are part of the weather in Paris, and one was set off in 1995 by François Furet, a serious historian of the French revolution and as such a friend of Revel’s. A Marxist and longtime Communist-party member, Furet published The Passing of an Illusion, a memoir examining why he had become a Communist, and not exactly apologizing but up to a point recanting for years of just being wrong. Trained and eminent historian as he was, he had been unable to open his mind to the indisputable evidence that was readily available about Communism, and that first-hand witnesses like Solzhenitsyn were now presenting with a truthfulness that everyone had to recognize. Put simply, he’d been unable to recognize reality. Furet continued to describe himself as a man of the Left, and for that reason, as Revel concludes here, this confessional book was very well received. In other words, Furet’s illusion didn’t quite pass away, and he still hadn’t quite come to terms with reality. French intellectuals who collaborated with the Germans are rightly condemned for it. Why is it that those who collaborated with the Soviets are allowed some special dispensation? In both cases, people who should have known better made shameful compromises, quite obviously in the hope of ending up on the winning side.

A couple of years after Furet’s book, six equally reputable scholars published The Black Book of Communism, detailing how the experiment of Communism had cost about a hundred million helpless people their lives. It fascinated and appalled Revel that this book, in contrast to Furet’s, was not well received but criticized as unnecessary, “visceral” again, somehow too much. Revel’s conclusion from this strange example of double standards was that freedom is too demanding for some people and they will hanker after Communism even though it has irrefutably demonstrated its moral, political, and economic bankruptcy. The Left, in short, still refuses to treat centralization, a command economy, and equality of social outcomes as the impediments to freedom that they are.

Last Exit to Utopia recapitulates some of the themes tried and tested in Revel’s previous books. First and foremost among these is that Communism and Nazism are two of a kind. Communists claim to be in direct opposition to Nazis, but this is specious and based on misrepresentation of events. Between the wars it was possible to speculate whether the future would belong to Communism or Nazism. Hitler and Stalin respected each other, and their pact in 1939 to divide the spoils was a revelation of the totalitarianism common to both. Communism and Nazism have the extermination of enemies as the end that defines them; it is a relatively minor detail that they employ different means to kill people. What matters are the camps and the graves they leave in their wake, and in this respect Auschwitz and Gulag are equal. Everywhere and anywhere that Nazism and Communism have been practiced, the state-ordered execution of enemies is the rule, and there are no exceptions to it, as demonstrated in out-of-the-way places like the Baltic states, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ethiopia.

Leftists have to explain why they enforce uniformity of thought and conduct. Countries affected by what Revel liked to call “unofficial Stalinism” invariably regressed to a system of unlawful privilege for the nomenklatura minority and persecution and immiseration for everyone else. Of course, unofficial Stalinists claim that they meant well and were on the side of progress and humanity, and this really differentiates them from Nazis, who meant ill. For Revel, this line of argument boils down to saying that the Left may have been wrong, but at least it was wrong for the right reasons. Nonsensical logic of this sort only serves to obscure the fact that “unofficial Stalinism” depended on turning a blind eye to the mass extermination inherent in the ideology. It is worse than useless for the keepers of that ideology to be always professing good intentions when their actions are inhuman, and outright murderous.

Throughout this book, Revel defends the free market openly or by implication. Leftists are making another egregious mistake when they treat capitalism as the opposing ideology to Communism, when it is nothing of the kind: It’s not an ideology at all, but merely a way to get things done to the benefit of the many. This false analysis is a residue from the Cold War, and it now serves to extend the widespread animus against the United States. Where the United States acts to liberate, as in Iraq or Kosovo, European national pride is wounded. In a final chapter Revel says point-blank, “If you take away anti-Americanism there is nothing left of French political thought.” He goes further. Totalitarianism is Europe’s great modern innovation, its gift to the world, and Europeans consciously or unconsciously resent that the United States has been preventing them from fully developing this great modern innovation of theirs. Europe is on its own, but in the absence of aptitude for self-governance “its spinelessness stands revealed.”

What a badge of courage it is to have stood out so lucidly and forcefully against the Nazis, the Communists, and the pygmies who succeeded them and now run Europe. Revel was a free spirit in a time when this was rare.