Books by Jean-Francois Revel

book review score+4

Jean-François Revel
Encounter Books, 2003, 176 pages

Madeleine Albright, in her article in October 2003 Foreign Affairs, spoke for many of the bien pensants on the Left when she said that the renewed anti-Americanism in Europe over the past few years has been caused by George W. Bush's "unilateralist" approach to foreign policy and invasion of Iraq, and that the American government had "squandered the good will" that Europe supposedly felt for us after the 9/11 attacks. This book of European self-criticism by a French journalist and intellectual proves by its very existence that Europeans are not all as simple-minded as Albright would have you believe.

Most Americans, brought up to revere the great accomplishments and cultivation of the Europeans, think (or maybe hope) there must be some profound reason why so many of today's Europeans seem to hate us. Of course, there's no reason why American foreign policy should cater to Western European whims. As befits a country founded on idealistic principles, American policy should follow its own principles regardless of whose petticoats get ruffled and whose soufflés get flattened. Besides, Europeans are declining exponentially in number and in cultural and economic power, and are slowly but surely sacrificing their democratic traditions in an attempt to recover what is left of their international importance. This situation provokes, on the American side, more anxiety than anger, as Americans remember their 20th-century history of involvement in two large-scale European quagmires. From this side of the Atlantic, Europeans seem to have become more and more detached from the real world. Their tendency to believe the distorted picture of America promoted by Hollywood and the American Loony Left, whose arguments resonate in a Europe drifting deeper into socialism, is a case in point. The reaction of many sensible Americans is to simply write off Western Europe as a lost cause.

Still, we may be curious why their leadership is unable to adapt positively to the contemporary realities that forced President Bush to abandon the ABM treaty and introduce democracy to the Middle East. How can their population be so caught up in an ideology that causes, by some accounts, 20% of the enlightened citizens of Germany (and 31% of Germans below age 30) to believe that the American president deliberately orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and a book echoing the same slanderous theme titled L'effroyable Imposture to become a runaway bestseller in France? As Revel says, "The mystery of anti-Americanism is not the disinformation ... but people's willingness to be disinformed."

The differences between America and Europe are most clearly shown in their different approaches to government. Europe's has always been top-down -- first with monarchies and imperialism, then with the spectacularly unsuccessful collectivist ideologies (fascism and communism) that were invented in Europe. Now at the dawn of the post-nation-state era, Europe is again reverting to a top-down style of government with its international super-bureaucracies and a self-appointed aristocratic class. Americans, in contrast, consider power to rightfully reside in the exercise of individual free will. To the extent we fail at this and betray our own principles (sometimes with the aid of such noble institutions as the Supreme Court), we become more European. It may well be that the great Second Cold War of the 21st century will revolve around this divergence of views, which will define the form of the post-nation-state world order.

Many in Europe, thanks to their news media, says Revel, are shockingly ignorant about America. Much anti-Americanism results from the same envy that powered and sustained Communism: if I only have one cow, I must make sure my neighbor can only get one cow, otherwise there is inequality. Of course, there is no rational basis for this envy. The number of cows your neighbor has has no effect on your standard of living. But like anti-Americanism itself, it is based on emotion, not logic.

Revel's conclusion that Anti-Americanism springs from European small-mindedness, emotionality, and ignorance may not satisfy readers who crave an understanding of the European psyche or a Kagan-style political explanation. Still, in a small way, it's reassuring to know that there is at least one person in Europe who has not been taken over by the naïiveté and hypocrisy of the government, press, and intelligentsia of Old Europe, and who is capable of intelligent self-criticism. Revel is witty, sarcastic, and intellectually courageous. Perhaps if he has lots and lots of children, before it is too late ....

January 11, 2004

book review score+4

Last Exit to Utopia:
The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era
Jean-François Revel
Encounter Books, 2003, 348 pages

The collapse of the Soviet Union had a surprising side-effect in the West: it actually made it easier for academics to pretend that socialism was not a malevolent force. That's because, as our memories of Stalin, the gulags, and the Cold War faded, communism once again became an abstraction, where Utopia always resides, and they could once again pretend that “true socialism” had never been tried. Revel says that its crimes were not just an unfortunate coincidence, but part of its DNA.

Even though Revel (who died in 2006) wrote this book way back in 2000, it's particularly appropriate for Americans today, because we are only now experiencing what the French went through 15 years ago. In this country socialists dare not call themselves that, but the beliefs genetically derived from those mustachioed revolutionaries whose images are emblazoned on T-shirts and anti-capitalist banners reign supreme across our college campuses. Socialism, suitably re-branded with smiley faces, still has an undeniable appeal to the ignorant and the naïvely idealistic that must be confronted and understood if we are to have any chance of avoiding the terrible fate of the Russians, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, and Cambodians who suffered and died under the banner of “equality.”

“Danièle Sallenave was among the choristers who intoned this De profundis, developing the theme with such tearful brio and shattering effect that she could almost have inspired a group of former gulag zeks to pool their resources and buy her a consolatory gift.” [p.17]

Those arguments—“equality,” “fairness,” “social justice,” and the triumph of wishful thinking over common sense—have not changed in a hundred years. Revel argued that they provide a cover for a hatred of freedom: a desire to have someone else tell them what to do, based on fear of competition and of responsibility.

This book wittily explains why apologists for socialism (in the spirit of today's toxic political environment we should perhaps call them “gulag deniers”) still exist, but to become fully acquainted with the horrifying truths about socialism you have to read The Black Book of Communism. Only those with a heart of stone can read it without shedding tears. It is against this background of the unmitigated evil of the ideology they espouse that those intellectuals who still openly defend socialism—and those irony-impaired individuals who use subterfuge to push us toward it—must contend.

January 20, 2014