Jean-François Revel. Last Exit to Utopia. Encounter. 300 Pages. $23.95
Throughout his long life, French political theorist and commentator Jean-François Revel was seldom a stranger to controversy. He opined on, among other things, the beauty of Italian women (overrated), the glories of France (very overrated), and even his own vocation, philosophy (in his view, no longer a serious subject). But most of all, Revel was an ardent anti-communist who despised communist regimes and fulminated against their historical record of criminality and poverty. And while his closest colleagues were often hardcore Marxists and visceral America-bashers, Revel — who was himself a self-professed man of the left — relished in his defense of the free market, liberal democracy, and even the United States. From his 1970Without Marx or Jesus to his final book Anti-Americanism, Revel championed America’s status as a superpower and assailed his anti-American compatriots, many of whom, from the comfort of their French villas, fabricated knee-jerk critiques of every American action at home and abroad.
In fact, among the many French public intellectuals who purportedly understood the United States, Revel was one of the few who actually spent time in America. Between 1970 and 1990, he traveled the U.S. often, traversing the country and speaking to “politicians, journalists, businessmen, students and university professors, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives, liberals and radicals, and people [he] met in passing from every walk of life.” His Tocquevillian style provided American readers a unique perspective on their country in the midst of the Cold War and also reassured them that Europe’s anti-Americans were merely insecure about their own continent’s declining power.
Yet Revel also worried that American complacency toward communism in the wake of events such as the Vietnam War could lead to the demise of Western democracy. In his 1984 book How Democracies Perish, he wrote, “Self-criticism is, of course, one of the vital springs of democratic civilization. But constant self-condemnation, often with little or no foundation, is a source of weakness and inferiority in dealing with . . . a power that has dispensed with such scruples. Exaggerated self-criticism would be a harmless luxury of civilization if there were no enemy at the gate condemning democracy’s very existence.”
While Revel’s prophesy of democracy’s demise proved incorrect, he continued to argue that the fall of communism was much less due to the efforts of the West than to the dysfunctional and criminal nature of communism itself. In Last Exit to Utopia, published seven years before his death in 2006 and recently translated to English, Revel re-indicts the communist left, which, having lost the responsibility of governance following the collapse of the Soviet Union, retreated to the castle of utopianism, from where it lobbed critiques at the easy targets of capitalism, globalization, and democracy while, in the name of “good intentions,” evading accountability and criticism of its own record.
Revel calls this maneuver La Grande Parade, which is also the original French title of Last Exit to Utopia. As Revel explains in his opening chapter, not only is the definition of une parade shared with the literal English word “parade,” as in a public procession or attention-grabbing display, but it is also a fencing term for parrying an attack with the circular motion of a sword. Revel observes that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the performance of leftists “served a dual purpose, allowing them, on the one hand, to deflect the sword of history that was threatening to cut down their doctrine for good; and on the other, to remain players in the pageant of culture and politics, still marching at the head of the procession.” But he goes further: Une parade is also a nautical term for changing course without being too obvious and a culinary term for dressing meat or fish before cooking it — “removing the unusable parts while saving as much of the original as possible.” Revel finally asks: “Is the left just serving up the same old ideological hash, but now relabeled as nouvelle cuisine?”
In many ways, Jean-François Revel lived and died as a pure cold warrior. Equal parts intellectual firebrand and witty aphorist, he called out colleagues who failed to see the resemblance between the totalitarianism of Stalin and Mao and the right-wing totalitarianism of the Third Reich; dared to defend Western capitalism by praising the “ground-beef hamburgers, French fries and salads” at McDonald’s; and, at the same time, coined adages that could quickly enter the lexicon of any right-thinking person. For example, on Western intellectual apologists of communism, Revel quips, “It’s true that [Western intellectuals], whether Communists or sympathizers, have no blood on their hands; but their pens are dripping with it.” On utopianism, he notes, “Utopia is not under the slightest obligation to produce results: its sole function is to allow its devotees to condemn what exists in the name of what does not.” And on the Soviet “new man,” Revel observes, “The abolition of the individual is tantamount to the abolition of the human being, whom no one has ever encountered other than as an individual.”
Many of Revel’s arguments — in defense of the Western liberal tradition or questioning Marxist determinism, for example — can appear self-evident to the American reader, who is generally skeptical of communism and refuses to fall into dirigiste traps. But in France, especially among intellectuals, his ideas were provocative and aberrant, and Revel made a name for himself as a frequent commentator (and contrarian) on television talk shows and in literary discussions. For instance, when Revel defended editor Stéphane Courtois’s Black Book of Communism, an authoritative compendium of communist crimes that attributed 94 million deaths to its regimes across the world, other participants on the show Bouillon de culture accused him and the Black Book’s authors of being “ultraliberals” and worse — reactionary fascists.
Revel often dared to articulate ideas that even staunch conservatives, in fear of backlash, have difficulty expressing. For example, among the many critiques of American foreign policy is that of its support of the Afghan mujahideen resistance during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the Cold War, which, according to the critics, backfired on the United States on September 11. While many on the right remained mute about this point, Revel, one year after 9/11, simply asked, “But what was extraordinary or reprehensible about Ronald Reagan’s accepting the services of all those willing to oppose the Soviet Union? Imagine for a moment what it would have meant . . . if the Soviets had been able to achieve a permanent takeover of Afghanistan. There would have been no Gorbachev, no glasnost, no perestroika.” It was the no-nonsense, unapologetic approach that characterized much of his work.
Yet during his career, Revel felt equally as comfortable contemplating metaphysics and eternal questions about God and human nature as he did sparring with intellectual rivals on talk shows. Along with his son Matthieu Ricard — a Buddhist monk who was dubbed “the happiest man in the world” by American neuroscientists — Revel wroteThe Monk and the Philosopher, an extensive dialogue on the meaning of life and the nature of human consciousness. During their conversation, Revel challenges point-by-point the Buddhist philosophy espoused by his son, providing not only a sense of the contrast between Revel the skeptic and Ricard the devotee, but also between Western and Eastern philosophical traditions.
Indeed, Revel was at his best when he operated on such different intellectual levels at once, going beyond the subject at hand to address broader questions about recurring philosophical debates and to clarify thinking about present-day challenges. It’s difficult to contemplate what exactly Revel — the perennial contrarian — would have said about today’s economic crisis, the subprime mortgage bubble, and subsequent debates about the government’s role in resolving the crisis, but in Last Exit to Utopia, he presents an argument that provides guidance for better understanding and diagnosing such uncertain times. Revel deconstructs the claim that free-market liberalism is an ideology that is as committed as socialism and communism to creating a perfect society. He retorts that while Marxist theory presents a deterministic Weltanschauung of societal progress, liberalism “is a set of observations on facts” that “do not constitute a global doctrine aspiring to comprehensiveness, but rather a series of interpretive hypotheses concerning real-world events.” It is a lesson not only for the left but also the right, which has often made the mistake of falling into this ideological trap, believing that the natural give-and-take of free markets is in fact a rigid, predestined pathway for the global economy in direct and equal opposition to the communist path.
Consider the following exchange — between Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, during a Congressional hearing in October 2008, just weeks after the collapse of financial giant Lehman Brothers and the start of the current financial crisis:
Chairman Waxman: Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?
Mr. Greenspan: Well, remember, though, ideology is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to. To exist, you need an ideology. The question is, whether it is accurate or not. What I am saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw, I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I have been very distressed by that fact.
Chairman Waxman: You found a flaw?
Mr. Greenspan: I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.
Chairman Waxman: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working.
Mr. Greenspan: Precisely.
Alan Greenspan believed that the “functioning structure” of the world economy was rigid, ideological, and universal — that everyone lived by such unwavering beliefs. In fact, Revel argued that quite the opposite is true — Western capitalism is a process of guess, check, and learn. It is where entrepreneurial “creative destruction” thrives and where the state serves as a moderator, not a director. It is a system based not on ideology but rather experience.
Take the term laissez-faire. Revel reminds the reader that while the words “laissez faire, laissez passer” are synonymous with free trade and free enterprise, “they are imperatives with an active connotation, quite unlike the indifferent apathy of a substantivized infinitive linked by a hyphen. Laissez-faire soon degenerates to laisser-aller” (unconstraint, abandon, carelessness). In fact, Revel notes that in its original instance, laissez-faire may have been laissez-nous faire: let us do it.
Perhaps it is appropriate here to borrow from Irving Kristol, who characterized neoconservatism not as a “movement” but rather as a “persuasion.” Similarly, free-market liberalism can be thought of not as an ideology, but as a persuasion that, like neoconservatism, is founded on a skepticism of top-down dirigisme and on the belief that policy is best informed by observation, not hardened doctrine.
In his work, Revel often exhibits this sense of skepticism to actions justified by deterministic faith, whether it is in the realm of economic policy or one’s personal spirituality. It is what links his suspicion of the Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation and enlightenment that his son espouses to his wariness with idealistic “blueprints” of societal betterment furthered not only by communists but other do-gooders such as environmentalists and social activists.
Revel believes that this form of utopianism, which is justified by its benevolent intentions for a perfect world in the future, allows its practitioners to deflect criticism about their real record. In Last Exit to Utopia, he notes that “a detour via Utopia allows an ideology (and the power system it purports to legitimize) to proclaim one success after another without interruption, while in reality its results are diametrically opposed to the vaunted agenda.” In this case, he refers to the communists and their acolytes, who have retreated farther into the utopian world since the fall of the Soviet Union. But his reasoning is just as congruent in assessing other belief systems. In his book Anti-Americanism, for example, Revel observes that environmentalism “has long since been hijacked by a mendacious pseudo-environmentalism, a mask for stale Marxist cant colored in green. Note that ideological environmentalism sees nature menaced only in those nations where economic liberty reigns to a greater or lesser degree.” Revel believed that these green warriors were not fighting for a cleaner planet but rather a planet where their ideology held more sway. Utopianism, in Revel’s view, is a clever trick for amassing influence while still working in the lofty name of the environment, the poor, or the downtrodden.
Indeed, this form of utopianism is a grotesque revision of the utopianism characterized by E.H. Carr more than 70 years ago in his international relations primer The Twenty Years’ Crisis.. In Carr’s analysis of the utopian mindset, it was the disregard of power as a component of international politics that made utopianism ineffective and simply naïve. By contrast, today’s utopianism, according to Revel, has often become a subversive and, ironically, cynical tool for augmenting one’s power while absolving one of the need to use it responsibly and while preserving one’s saintly image.
Jean-françois revel struggled with modern philosophy and was often disillusioned by it because, unlike classical Western philosophy and the Eastern philosophy of his son, modern Western philosophes did not practice what they studied. Instead they worked as detached academics whose work was discrete from the trials of everyday life. This bothered Revel, and he admired that his son, like the classical Greek philosophers, attempted to implement in his lifestyle the Buddhist ideas that he grappled with intellectually, even though Revel may have not agreed on either the means or ends of this lifestyle.
Looking back at Revel’s career, it’s possible to see that his ideas and arguments were driven by this desire for consistency and cohesion. While he was a member in good standing of the intellectual elite, he was also a whistleblower who challenged preconceived notions about economics, politics, and human nature in France and across the West. He rejected the double standard that many leftists created by espousing prescriptions for the Third World while ensconced in the protections of Western democracy and capitalism. He cautioned these bien pensants, who avoided accountability by working under the guard of good intentions, by taking them to task for their own historical record.
However, Revel was equally as swift in cautioning the free-market faithful — warning them that they must not fall into the ideological trap of seeing capitalism as an equal but opposite force to communism. It is a trap that was easy to fall into before the Great Recession and that has muddled subsequent thinking about recovery. Indeed, Revel’s ideas are mirrored by British historian Paul Johnson, who notes that capitalism is in fact not an “ism,” a competing ideology, but “a process of nature, which at a certain state of human development — the rule of law and a measure of personal freedom being the most important ingredients — occurs spontaneously, as millions of ordinary people go about their business in as efficient a manner as they know how.” In this perspective, political economy is more complex and less easy to control, but that is precisely Revel’s point, for attempting to direct it from above has resulted in nothing but more failure below.
In 1997, Jean-François Revel was elected to Seat 24 in L’Académie française, 40 intellectuals who serve as the preeminent authorities on the French language and who, once elected, are known as “immortals.” Revel’s career and work also seem to befit this title of immortality. With his biting humor, incisive criticism, and fearless defense of the Western liberal tradition, he stood out among the mass of French intellectuals, blazing a unique path that will provide guidance to many more generations of students, skeptics, and defenders of liberty.