Can democratic governments contend with communist governments?, Firing Line, entretien de J.F. Revel avec William Frank Buckley Jr et l’institut Hoover, 15 novembre 1984 (en anglais)
Translation of the book La Grande Parade
Back cover presentation
Here is a tasty paradox: How did the Leftist legions regroup after history delivered its fatal blow to the Soviet system? Simple, argues Jean-Francois Revel: the Left retreated to the impregnable fortress of the Utopian ideal. After all, socialism incarnate was always vulnerable to criticism. Utopia, on the other hand, lies by definition beyond reproach. With the demise of the Soviet system, there is no longer a vast and flailing embodiment of their vision, and Utopia’s haughty champions can again rage boundlessly.
In Last Exit to Utopia, the latest English language translation of one of Europe’s most controversial intellectuals, Jean-Francois Revel takes aim at socialist apologists who have attempted to erase or invert the manifest failures of socialist ideology. As the tide of Big Government rises in America, Revel’s forewarnings here are as prescient as they are frightening.
Maidenly moderation, Colin Welch, Spectator, August 4th, 1984
Commentaire d’Henri Astier sur l’article :
Cet article du Spectator rend compte des bonnes feuilles de la traduction anglaise de Comment les démocraties finissent, parues dans Commentary en juin 1984.
L’auteur, Colin Welch, n’analyse pas en profondeur la pensée de Revel, mais reprend à son compte ses avertissements sur les tendances suicidaires de la démocratie, en les appliquant à l’actualité britannique de 1984: le combat sans merci que se livrent Arthur Scargill, syndicaliste marxiste qui veut faire tomber le gouvernement, et le Premier ministre Margaret Thatcher – aisément réélue un an auparavant – qui estime que c’est à elle, et non pas à des mineurs en grève, de diriger le pays. Il y allait de la démocratie.
Or de nombreux observateurs estimaient que la justice démocratique était du côté de Scargill. A mesure que le conflit s’envenimait, Thatcher était même contestée par certains Conservateurs, qui renvoyaient dos à dos son intransigeance et celle des grévistes.
C’est contre cette idée que Welch s’insurge: donner raison, ou à moitié raison, à Scargill serait suicidaire. Il souligne que Thatcher n’est pas une extrémiste, et que si elle perd le combat, ce sont les extrémistes – de droite ou de gauche – qui auront gagné la partie. Pour lui, Thatcher incarne la modération – une “maidenly moderation”. L’adjectif n’a ici rien de péjoratif: il se réfère simplement au fait que Thatcher est une femme.
Published in Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France (2004).
I can remember with great clarity the book that more than any other haunted the years of my adolescence: the French journalist/ philosopher Jean-Francois Revel’s How Democracies Perish (1983). It was a frightening and foreboding work, whose central thesis-that Western liberal democracies, with their tradition of internal dissent and self-doubt, were probably enjoying the briefest of historical appearances before their eventual fall to Communism-seemed all too plausible to a young man who had come to political consciousness amid the trauma and defeatism of the 1970s. I can still recall driving my old sedan along the byways of suburban Detroit, a copy of Revel’s book fading in the back window, thinking, with that peculiar strain of youthful conceit, that I had been let in on a terrible secret, a tortured, penetrating insight into the fall of civilizations.
The worst of Revel’s fears, of course, never came to pass. Soviet Communism melted before Western courage and resolve (not to mention Reaganite optimism); the bloodiest century on record, instead of succumbing to the dark night intimated by Revel, unveiled a wholly unexpected surprise. Still, it must be acknowledged that How Democracies Perish, despite its flaws of prognostication, did play an important part in framing the intellectual arguments against detente (i.e. appeasement); and in its influence on such figures as Jeanne Kirkpatrick it played a role in the ultimate victory of the West.
The story of the reception of Revel’s book not only reveals much about those final enigmatic years of the Cold War, it stands as a testament to the frequently complex, unpredictable interplay between ideas, individuals, and history. It also demonstrates the inherent difficulties in any attempt to divine the future impact and importance of a single work. As such, it serves to illuminate the inadequacies of books like Richard Posner’s well-meaning Public Intellectuals, which, for all its efforts to explain, evaluate, and pass judgment on the current state of public intellectual life in the United States, ultimately fails to appreciate the subtleties and expansiveness of its subject.
Posner is, of course, one of our most serious and versatile thinkers. His wide-ranging mind and measured judgment have made for him a well-deserved reputation as a neoconservative eminence. As a former professor of law at the University of Chicago (and currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Seventh Circuit), Posner has shown an abiding interest in the world of ideas, particularly in the overlap between economics, literature, philosophy, and the law. Yet his personal scholarly interest in the idea of the public intellectual (and his impetus for writing this book) is relatively recent, growing out of his profound disappointment in what he saw as the scandalously low quality of the public debate surrounding both the Clinton impeachment scandal, about which he has ably written, and the Microsoft case, which he oversaw for the justice Department.
In Posner’s view, these two events not only set in high relief the worst sins of the modern intellectual-the partisan posturing, the willful inaccuracies, and the sloppy thinking-they symbolize the very decline of the institution of the American public intellectual. For Posner, men like Edmund Wilson, John Dewey, and Lionel Trilling, who once bestrode the cultural landscape like colossi, are now nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, in his zeal to get on with the true focus of his work-a number-crunching analysis of the state of the American public intellectual “market”-Posner offers no evidence, empirical of otherwise, that the quality of public intellectual output is appreciably lower today than it was half a century ago. Aside from his passing mention of the stock trio of Dewey, Wilson, and Trilling, he presents no historical perspective on the question. In fact, no meaningful contrast between intellectuals past and present is ever proffered. Posner has no qualms, however, in taking to task Robert Bork, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Robert Putnam for their own declinist assertions, most specifically with what he sees as their fallacious construction of an implausibly rosy pre-1960s past from which we have fallen. While this may or may not be a valid criticism, it certainly does not release him from his obligation to prove, or at least explain in detail, the “decline” upon which his argument rests.
Perhaps Posner believes that no real proof is necessary; indeed, few (on either the Left or the Right) would disagree that we live in an era of impoverished intellectual discourse. But while there may be few giants now among us, one has only to consult works like Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2001) or Hilton Kramer’s Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War (1999) to recall how woolly-headed and even criminal were so many intellectual lights of bygone decades. To be sure, many of today’s intellectuals remain firmly in the thrall of contemporary gender and racial politics, yet few-thank God-seem as positively disposed toward, or even interested in (as they once were), the politics and projects of the great Communist butchers of the previous century. Where, one might ask, have all the Maoists gone?
Posner’s central mistake, however, is his attempt to analyze the world of the public intellectuals as a market, as a basic interplay between supply and demand. To this end, he has amassed lists of intellectuals that go on for pages, breaking thinkers down into numerous categories (male, female, living, dead, black, white, academic, non-academic, Jewish, non-Jewish, etc.). One particularly long list ranks them according to the number of mentions they receive on the internet. There are graphs and charts, coefficients, t-statistics, and independent variables. Yet what conclusions are to be drawn from this mess of confusing data-and how it all furthers Posner’s argument-is unclear; it should have been left it out.
Such data certainly does nothing to support Posner’s further claim that the “decline” of the public intellectual in America is the result of an “inefficient market,” i.e. a market that fails to produce what the public demands. The main problem, as he sees it, is a lack of accountability. In his view, contemporary intellectuals-an increasing number of whom are over-specialized and politically polarized academics-have little incentive (or ability) to provide responsible, cogent commentary when they leave their ivory towers for the public spotlight. Opining on subjects outside their areas of expertise, they are rarely held to any recognizable standards and are therefore freed to indulge their personal or political prejudices-as well as make predictions that suffer a demonstrably high “failure rate.” Admittedly, this accountability problem may help to explain many sub-par performances, but Posner’s suggestions for reform-encouraging universities to post their faculty’s public intellectual work on web pages, asking individuals to disclose their income from public intellectual work, insisting that books not be reviewed by those criticized within-are remarkable in their tepidness and have little chance of bringing about real change. (Posner admits as much.) They surely will do nothing to discourage people from making predictions about the future. And why would we want to discourage them? The George Orwells, Aldous Huxleys, and Jean-Francois Revels have always known that while predictions (like so much speculative thought) may suffer from a “high failure rate,” they may also uncover serious and altogether unforeseen truths.
In the end, it is hard to disagree with Posner’s basic indictment of the academy for much of the follies and errors of American intellectual life. Granted, in the post-Cold War era, our universities may seem less like bastions of subversion than the repositories of the banal and the ludicrous. Still, this lack of profundity has its costs-to both students and society. But no system of constraints on behavior or social-scientific analysis can offer any real hope for amelioration, for the problems themselves are not external in nature. The true measure of any intellectual culture lies not in its dynamism or technical virtuosity but in the soundness and moral temper of the ideas which undergird it. Any tangible improvement in such a culture can only come from two sources: from those welcome, yet rare, paradigm-changing works which reset our ethical compasses-Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Gulag Archipelago, etc.-or, on a humbler scale, from the good faith exertions of individuals, who, over the course of their careers, endeavor to infuse their work and their teaching with the full promise of the humanistic ideal.
With a title like this, and a French author, many readers will assume that this is yet another anti-American diatribe fueled by the war in Iraq. However, Revel (Without Marx or Jesus; Democracy Against Itself), a longtime eloquent advocate of American power and policies, has sounded a consistent three-part theme: liberalism will turn out to be the greatest revolution of the 20th century, “the principle function of anti-Americanism has always been . . . to discredit liberalism,” and the United States has usurped Europe as the leader of the world but is not an evil empire. In this new book, written and published in France in 2002, Revel provides more examples of the “intrinsically contradictory character of passionate anti-Americanism” as practiced in Europe before and after the September 11 attacks. Revel skillfully dismantles false assumptions, outmoded theories, and outright lies-from both the political Left and the Right throughout the world. Besides his persuasive defense of the United States, he is highly critical of European policies, past and present. He concludes with a grim analysis of “hyperterrorist” activity, whose ultimate target is “democratic, secular, multi-denominational civilization.” This sobering and eye-opening book is highly recommended for all libraries.
Karel, Thomas A., Library Journal, 03630277, 12/15/2003, Vol. 128, Edition 20
The National Interest
No. 18 (Winter 1989/90), pp. 99-103
Published by: Center for the National Interest
Revel’s Uncommon Insight
by Apoorva Shah, Thursday, April 1, 2010
On La Grande Parade / Last Exit to Utopia
OpenDemocracy, 4 May 2006
Jean-François Revel, who died on Sunday 30 April at the age of 82, was not just the grand old man of French political literature; he was a leading exponent of freedom in the tradition of Raymond Aron, Alexis de Tocqueville and Montesquieu.
Revel, initially a philosopher, made his name in 1957 with a critique of the intellectual fashions of the time, Pourquoi les Philosophes? (Why Philosophers?). The book contended that philosophy, having spawned a host of disciplines – mathematics, physics, biology, history and the social sciences, as well as the scientific method itself – was itself no longer a creative force. Revel’s argument that since the late 18th century, philosophy had ceased to be responsible for intellectual breakthroughs provoked the disgust of both the Sorbonne establishment and the newfangled Nietzschean-Heideggerian school.
In the 1960s Revel continued to contribute to the history of ideas, with a book on Proust and a history of western philosophy. He ventured into politics at the end of the decade with his first international bestseller, Without Marx or Jesus (1970). The book, written after an eye-opening encounter with a United States in the midst of a cultural revolution, argued that today’s true progressive force was not Marxist collectivism but US-style individualism. “The 20th-century revolution will take place in the United States”, Revel wrote. “It can only unfold there, and it has started to do so. It will spread to the rest of the world only if it succeeds in North America.”
Revel continued to define himself as a socialist throughout the next decade, but his defence of freedom and human rights as absolutes brought him head-to-head with the emerging Marxist left. In The Totalitarian Temptation (1976) and How Democracies Perish (1983), Revel noted that western capitalism, which carried with it an unprecedented degree of wealth and freedom, was rejected by “progressives” as odious, while communism, which produced only misery and tyranny, was regarded as attractive.
The communist danger, as he saw it, was as much moral as military. Democrats, especially on the left, no longer believed in their own values, and even adopted the mental reflexes of totalitarianism (character assassination, doublethink, wilful disregard for facts, and propaganda). Revel deplored what he regarded as an intellectual surrender, and concluded that the west was hopeless at exploiting its own strengths. Democracies, he feared, were bent more on rushing to their own enemy’s rescue than on self-preservation: in the end the law of political evolution might lead to the “survival of the least fit”.
Liberalism vs communism
Revel’s anti-communism, coupled with his robust polemical style, led many to regard him as a conservative. The influential London journal the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), in its review of How Democracies Perish, linked Revel to the “Nouvelle droite”, as France’s intellectual far-right was known at the time. Such judgments were and are based on a deep intellectual misunderstanding that is grounded on the idea – long promoted by the Soviet Union and its admirers – that only a fascist could oppose communism.
Furthermore, Revel’s dire warnings in the 1980s led after the cold war to a charge that stuck to the end of his life: that he was wrong about the supposed invincibility of communism and the vulnerability of the west. But the “Revel-was-wrong-about-the-strength-of-communism” virus is proving so prolific that I have to inject more antibodies into the meme pool.
Revel never argued that communism could not be vanquished. He said it was irreversible only insofar as it could not be reformed. Ever since Without Marx or Jesus he had always argued that the Soviet Union was an unmitigated disaster. As he wrote in The Totalitarian Temptation: “The only way to improve communism is to remove it.”
How could Revel, the arch-defender of liberty, have regarded freedom as doomed? To imagine so is to miss the crucial distinction between warning and prophesying; pointing out the mortality of democracy, after all, is not the same as predicting its certain death.
The purpose of How Democracies Perish was to urge the west to stand up for its own values. The book sought to show that communist totalitarianism was beyond redemption and should not be placated, and that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics owed its continued survival to its repressive apparatus and the complacent help of democracies.
In Democracy Against Itself (1992) Revel lambasts the idea – fashionable at the time – that communism had always been headed for the dustbin of history and that alarm had been misplaced: “It is a little bit as if someone said: ‘You can see there was no reason to be worried in 1805 about Napoleon because in 1815 he was in St Helena.’ The whole point is that he ended up there as a result of actions by leaders and peoples, not because in 1805 Napoleon was not dangerous or was bound to go out.”
It is particularly disconcerting to hear Revel being accused of false prophecy by those who, for fear of losing their progressive credentials, waited until the fall of the Berlin Wall to criticise communism in a burst of (as he put it) “retrospective iconoclasm”. Revel clinched the point: “‘An anti-communist is a dog’, Sartre said. But there are two kinds of dogs: there are those who bark when the dangerous enemy is standing tall, and those who do it when he is down.”
To the very end, Revel remained true to the doctrine that gives his whole work strength and coherence: classical liberalism, i.e. a belief in individual rights and markets underpinned by the rule of law.
It was not him, but his fellow socialists who changed. Until around 1970, the phrase “anti-communist left” did not sound like an oxymoron. No one accused Albert Camus or John F Kennedy of being reactionaries. In the US, the trade-union movement and the Democratic Party were dominated by “cold-war liberals”. So was France’s mainstream left. “The communists belong neither to the right nor the left, but to the east”, said Socialist prime minister Guy Mollet in the 1950s. Anti-communism was most virulent in the libertarian left. In 1968 student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit famously poured scorn on “crapules staliniennes” (Stalinist scum).
Then the mood on the political and intellectual left shifted throughout the western world. I have not studied the resurgence of Marxism in detail, but I suspect it originated in the United States. The anti-war movement – originally a libertarian one – led to questioning of the cold war mentality and ultimately sympathy with the enemy, or at least a feeling that a deal could be reached with it.
I have not tested this hypothesis – it is entirely possible that the switch began in Europe. Be it as it may, on both sides of the Atlantic a feeling arose among left-wing political and intellectual elites that communists were no longer beyond the pale and could be brought into the democratic fold. In France, this led in 1971 to an electoral alliance between a rejuvenated Socialist Party under François Mitterrand and a strongly pro-Moscow French Communist Party (PCF). The deal, in essence, was: you embrace our democratic politics, we embrace your collectivist economics.
Revel saw this alliance as unnatural. He felt communism was no more compatible with democracy than wholesale nationalisations, and urged socialists not to compromise their liberal roots. He became, in short, irrelevant to the left, and as a result was treated as a reactionary renegade.
Revel was always uncomfortable with the conservative label that was attached to him from the late 1970s. Many of the libertarian values he had always championed had indeed migrated to the intellectual right. But he was never close to the Gaullists, whom he knew to be worshippers of the state. Revel’s natural political home was the shrinking space in the centre, where France’s liberal misfits from both the right and the left tend to converge.
As editor of the newsweekly L’Express between 1978 and 1981 he resisted efforts by the new owner, Franco-British magnate James Goldsmith, to extend unwavering support to President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Revel fought hard to keep left-wingers on his staff, and quit when one of them, deputy editor Olivier Todd, was sacked for an anti-Giscardian offence.
The French Orwell
Revel never founded a school – an early dalliance with the Gurdjieff crowd inoculated him against the guru pose. But he did spawn disciples, and these had nothing to do with the fascists of the Nouvelle droite (who were just as anti-American and illiberal as the Marxoid left.) The movement he inspired was the anti-totalitarian left that emerged in the late 1970s, and is still a major intellectual force in France. His – now orphaned – spiritual children are the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Pascal Bruckner, and André Glucksmann.
The 20th-century thinker Revel was closest to was George Orwell – who also blamed his contemporaries for ignoring the mortality of democracy and for siding with its Nazi and communist enemies (I have explored the kinship between the two writers in an earlier article).
Revel’s most Orwellian work – and perhaps his most profound – was The Flight from Truth (1988; one may find the French title more telling: La Connaissance inutile). The book dissects with clinical precision the flexibility of the human mind, its ability to sift information to suit our prejudices:
“The tragedy of our societies is not that we lack the data we need to make informed choices, but that we choose to ignore them. It is true that technology and science are thriving, and we have learned to think rationally on specific projects, like building planes or setting up unit-trust funds. But outside our speciality, we are as prone to superstition and illogical thinking as Neolithic men.”
Revel, who has researched the subject thoroughly, traces a catalogue of fallacies peddled from America to Zimbabwe by “opinion makers” who are in fact slaves to humanity’s primeval preference for mental comfort over knowledge. The main point of Flight from Truth, however, is not that humans are unredeemable liars. On the contrary, just like Orwell, Revel exhorts us to make use of our capacity to take in reality and see what is in front of our noses. “This is important to democratic civilisation, because freedom thrives as much on truth and honesty as tyranny does on lying and cheating.”
French commentators often portrayed Revel as a misanthrope, but that was never the way imagined him. I delighted in his pamphleteering style, often laughing out loud, and pictured him like the jolly narrator of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones – a benevolent, liberal host inviting others to share in his intellectual and gastronomical feats.
I was an admirer, not a friend, of Revel’s but I did meet him half-a-dozen times and he was as I had imagined. The first occasion was fourteen years ago. I had sent him the review of Democracy Against Itself I had written for the TLS, and he had liked it enough to invite me to lunch. As I walked into a restaurant in Montpartnasse I felt I was entering hallowed ground. “I have come to see Monsieur Revel”, I said shyly, and was taken to the best table where my host was chatting with the patron. He gave me a big smile, as if he had been as much looking forward to the meeting as I had.
Revel the man was remarkably similar to the writer: he spoke with the same breezy erudition, common sense and vividness that imbued his books. In October 1992, I put it to him that most reviewers seemed to have missed the point of his latest book. He said:
“I noticed that very early on, after Pourquoi les philosophes. People accused me of putting forward arguments I had never held. They were only looking at the few pages in which I mentioned French academics – while my point was much broader than that! The pattern would be repeated with my other books: they were extremely popular, people from all over the world wrote to encourage me, but journalists and reviewers rounded on me for the wrong reasons.”
Although Revel was largely misunderstood by the intelligentsia, his books were indeed huge successes. He was arguably the most powerful and influential of all 20th-century anti-totalitarian writers. Liberty has lost an irreplaceable champion.
Jean-Francois Revel was born in 1924 in Marseilles.
He was a French politician, journalist, author, prolific philosopher and member of the Académie française since June 1998.
He was born Jean-François Ricard, but adopted his pseudonym Revel as his legal surname in 1958 after the success of his first essay, Pourquoi des philosophes.
He studied in Marseilles then at the Lycée du Parc in Lyon, and finally was accepted at the prestigious École normale supérieure in Paris where he studied philosophy.
During the German occupation of France in WWII, Revel participated in the French Resistance.
He began his career as a philosophy professor, and taught in French Algeria, Mexico and Italy, before settling in Lille.
He stopped teaching in 1963 and embarked on his career as an essayist and writer, as well as directing various publications.
At the end of the 70’s, he became the editor for many years of the influential political weekly L’Express.
A socialist until the end of the 1960’s, (he ran as a socialist candidate in parliamentary elections in 1967 but lost), he was known during the Cold War as a champion of the western version of values such as liberty and democracy at a time when the majority of European intellectuals praised Communism or Maoism. The publication of his 1970 book, Without Marx or Jesus signalled the transition of his views to liberal “philosopher of freedom in the tradition of Raymond Aron.”
He was best known for his books Without Marx or Jesus, The Totalitarian Temptation, The Flight from Truth and his 2002 book Anti-Americanism.
He is survived by his second wife, Claude Sarraute, a journalist, and has 3 sons from two marriages. His first marriage to painter Yahne le Toumelin ended in divorce.
One of his sons, Matthieu Ricard, is a well known Buddhist monk who studied molecular biology at the Pasteur Institute before converting to Tibetan Buddhism. Father and son jointly authored a book Le moine et le philosophe (The Monk and the Philosopher) about the son’s conversion and Buddhism.
(Source : Wikipedia)
Cunning like a heldgehog. In memory of Jean-François Revel, man of letters, man of integrity, friend
Par Simon Leys
The Australian Literary Review, 1 August 2007
G K. CHESTERTON, whose formidable mind drew inspiration from a vast culture – literary, political, poetical, historical and philosophical – once received the naive praise of a lady: “Oh, Mr Chesterton, you know so many things!” He suavely replied: “Madam, I know nothing: I am a journalist.”
The many enemies of French philosopher Jean-François Revel (1924-2006) often attempted to dismiss him as a mere journalist which, of course, he was among many other things, and very much in the Chestertonian fashion.
At first he may seem odd to associate these two names: what could there be in common between the great Christian apologist and the staunch atheist, between the mystical poet and the strict rationalist, between the huge, benevolent man mountain and the short, fiery, nimble and pugnacious intellectual athlete (and, should we also add, between the devoted husband and the irrepressible ladies’ man)? One could multiply the contrasts, yet, on a deeper level, the essence of their genius was very much alike.
Revel was an extrovert who took daily delight in the company of his friends:
I am the most sociable creature; other people’s society is my joy. Though, for me, a happy day should have a part of solitude, it must also afford a few hours of the most intense of all the pleasures of the mind: conversation. Friendship has always occupied a central place in my life, as well as the keen desire to make new acquaintances, to hear them, to question them, to test their reactions to my own views.
Always sparring with his interlocutors, he was passionately commited to is ideas, but if he took his own beliefs with utter seriousness, he did not take his own person seriously. Again, one could apply to him what Chesterton’s brother said of his famous sibling: “He had a passionate need to express his opinions, but he would express them as readily and well to a man he met on a bus.”
Revel’s capacity for self-irony is the crowning grace of his memoirs, The Thief in an Empty House. Personal records can be a dangerous exercice, but in his case it eventuated in a triumphant masterpiece.
His humour enchanted his readers, but kept disconcerting the more pompous pundits. The French greatly value wit, which they display in profusion, but humour often makes them uneasy, especially when it is applied to important subjects; they do not have a word for it, they do not know the thing.
Whereas wit is a form of duelling – it aims to wound or to kill – the essence of humour is self-deprecatory. Once again, a Chestertonian saying could be apposite: “My critics think that I am not serious, but only funny, because they think that ‘funny’ is the opposite of ‘serious’. But ‘funny’ is the opposite of ‘not funny’ and nothing else. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or in short jokes is analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German.”
What compounded the dismay of Revel’s pretentious critics was his implacable clarity. One of his close friends and collaborators said he doubted if Revel, in his entire career, had written a single sentence that was obscure. In the Parisian intellectual world such a habit can easily ruin a writer’s credit, for simple souls and solemn mediocrities are impressed only by what is couched in opaque jargon. And, in their eyes, how could one possibly say something important if one is not self-important?
With the accuracy of his information and the sharpness of his irony, Revel deflated the huge balloons of cant that elevate the chattering classes. They felt utterly threatened, for he was exposing the puffery of the latest intellectual fashions upon which their livehood depended. At times they could not hide their panic; for instance, the great guru of the intelligentsia, Jacques Lacan, during one of his psychoanalytical seminars at the Sorbonne, performed in front of his devotees a voodoo-like exorcism.
He frantically trampled underfoot and destroyed a copy of Revel’s book Why Philosophers?, in which Lacan’s charlatanism was analysed.
Yet such outbursts weere mere circus acts; far more vicious was the invisible conspiracy that surrounded Revel with a wall of silence, well documented in Pierre Boncenne’s Pour Jean-François Revel: Un esprit libre (Plon, Paris, 2006), a timely and perceptive book that takes the full measure of Revel’s intellectual, literary and human stature.
A paradoxical situation developed: Revel’s weekly newspaper columns were avidly read, nearly every one of his 30-odd books was an instant bestseller, and yet the most influential “progressive” critics studiously ignored his existence. His books were not reviewed, his ideas were not discussed, if his name was mentioned at all it was with a patronising sneer, if not downright slander.
Revel was quintessentially French in his literary tastes and sensitivity (his pages on Michel de Montaigne, Francois Rabelais and Marcel Proust marry intelligence with love; his anthology of French poetry mirrors his original appreciation of the poetic language), in his art of living (his great book on gastronomy is truly a “feast in words”) and in his conviviality (he truly cared for his friends).
And yet what strikingly set him apart from most other intellectuals of his generation was his genuinely cosmopolitan outlook.
He had spent abroad the best part of his formative and early creative years, mostly in Mexico and Italy. In addition to English (spoken by few educated Fench of his time) he was fluent in Italian, Spanish and German; until the end of his life he retained the healthy habit to start every day (he rose at 5am) by listening to he BBC news and reading six foreign newspapers.
On international affairs, on literature, art and ideas, he had universal perspectives that broke completely from the suffocating provincialism of the contemporary Parisian elites. In the 18th century, French was the common language of the leading minds of continental Europe; 20th-century French intellectuals hardly noticed that times had changed in this respect; they retained the dangerous belief that whatever was not expressed in French could hardly matter.
Revel never had enough sarcasm to denounce this sort of self-indulgence; on the bogus notion of le rayonnement français, he was scathing: “French culture has radiated for so long, it’s a wonder mankind has not died from sunstroke.” He fiercely fought against chauvinist cultural blindness, and especially against its most cretinous expression: irrational anti-Americanism. At the root of this attitude he detected a subconscious resentment: the french feel that when Americans are playing a leading role in the political-cultural world they are usurping what is by birthright a French prerogative.
By vocation and academic training Revel was originally a philosopher (he entered at an exceptionally early age the Ecole Normale Superieure, the apex of the French higher education system). He taught philosophy and eventually wrote a history of Western philosophy (eschewing all technical jargon, it is a model of lucid synthesis).
However, he became disenchanted with the contemporary philosophers who, he flet, had betrayed their calling by turning philosophy into a professional career and a mere literary genre. “Philosophy,” he wrote “ought to return to its original and fundamental question: How should I live?” he preferred simply to call himslef “a man of letters”.
Ancient Greek poet Archilochus famously said: “The fow knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Revel was the archetypical fox, but at the same time he held with all the determination of a hedgehog to one central idea that inspires, pervades and motivates all his endeavours:
The belief that each individual destiny, as well as the destiny of mankind, depends upon the accuracy – or the falsity – of the information at their disposal, and upon the way in which they put this information to use.
He devoted one of his books specifically to this issue, La Connaissance Inutile (Useless Knowledge), but this theme runs through nearly all his writings.
Politics naturally absorbed a great amount of his attention. From the outset he showed his willingness to commit himself personaly, and at great risk: as a young man in occupied France he joined the Resistance against the Nazis. After the war, his basic political allegiance was, and always remainded, to the Left and the principles of liberal democracy. He was sharply critical of Charles de Gaulle and of all saviours and providential leaders in military uniforms.
Yet, like George Orwell before him, he always believed that only an uncompromising denunciation of all forms of Stalinist totalitarianism can ensure the ultimate victory of socialism. Thus – again, like Orwell – he earned for himself the hostility of his starry-eyed comrades.
Revel’s attempt at entering into active politics was short-lived, but the experience gave him an invaluable insight into the essential intellectual dishonesty that is unavoidably attached to partisan politicking. He was briefly a Socialist Party candidate at the 1967 national elections, which put him in close contact with François Mitterrand (then leader of the Opposition). The portrait he paints of Mitterrand in his memoirs is hilarious and horrifying.
Mitterrand was the purest type of political animal: he had no politics at all. He had a brilliant intelligence, but for him ideas were neither right or wrong, they were only useful or useless in the pursuit of power. The object of power was not a possibility to enact certain policies; the object of all policies was simply attain and retain power.
Revel, having drafted a speech for his own electoral campaign, was invited by Mitterrand to read it to him. The speech started, “Although I cannot deny some of my opponent’s achievements…” Mitterand interrupted him at once, screaming: “No! Never, never! In politics never acknowledge that your opponent has any merit. This is the basic rule of the game.”
Revel understood once and for all that this game was not for him and it was the end of his political ambition. Which proved to be a blessing: had politics swallowed him at that early stage in his life how much poorer the world of ideas and letters would have been. (And one could have said exactly the same about his close friend Mario Vargas Llosa, who – luckily for literature – was defeated in presidential elections in Peru.)
Dead writers who were also friends never leave us: whenever we open their books, we hear again their very personal voices and our old exchanges are suddenly revived. I had many conversations (and discussions: different opinions are the memorable spices of friendship) with Revel; yet what I wish to record here is not something he said, but a silence that had slightly puzzled me at the time. The matter is trifling and frivolous (for which I apologise), but what touches me is that I found the answer many years later, in his writings.
A long time ago, as we were walking along a street in Paris, chatting as we went, he asked me about a film I had seen the night before, Federico Fellini’s Casanova (which he had not seen). I told him that one scene had impressed me, by its acute psychological insight into the truth that love-making without love is but a very grim sort of gymnastics. He stopped abruptly and gave me a long quizzical look, as if he was trying to find out whether I really believed that, or was merely pulling his leg.
Unable to decide, he said, “Hmmm” and we resumed our walk, chatting of other things.
Many years later, reading his autobiography, I suddenly understood. When he was a precocious adolescent of 15, at school in Marseilles, he was quite brilliant in all humanities subjects but hopeless in mathematics. Every Thursday, pretending to his mother that he was receiving extra tuition in maths, he used to go to a little brothel. He would first do his school work in the common lounge and, after that, go upstairs with one of the girls. The madam granted him a “beginner’s rebate”, and the tuition fee generously advanced by his mother covered the rest.
One Thursday, however, as he was walking up the stairs his maths teacher came down. The young man froze, but the teacher passed impassively, merely muttering between clenched teeth: “You will always get passing marks in maths.” The schoolboy kept their secret and the teacher honoured his part of the bargain; Revel’s mother was delighted by the sudden improvement in his school results.
I belatedly realised that, from a rather early age, Revel had acquired a fairly different perspective on the subject of our chat.
At the time of Revel’s death in April last year, Vargas Llosa concluded the eloquent and deeply felt obituary he wrote for our friend in Spanish newspaper El pais: “Jean-François Revel, we are going to miss you so much.” How true.
Paru dans le Times Literary Supplement le 30 novembre 2001, by Henri Astier.
– Régis Debray, L’Emprise, Gallimard, 146p, FF75, ISBN 2-07-075861-3
– Régis Debray, I.F. suite et fin, Gallimard, 190p, FF85, ISBN 2-07-076069-3
– Tzvetan Todorov, Mémoire du mal, Tentation du bien, Enquête sur le siècle, Robert Laffont, 356p, FF149, ISBN 2-221-09079-9
– Jean-François Revel, Les Plats de saison, Seuil, 442p., FF135, ISBN 2-02-037137-5
Non-French people can be forgiven for wondering how the French intellectual sees the world these days. He was last seen planning the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in a Paris café in 1972, and apart from gnomic utterances about post-modern society little has been heard from him since then. What happened was that by the 1980s the French intellectual had lost his trademark faith in Marxism and become a believer in democracy, civil liberties, the rights of minorities, and relief for the wretched of the earth. In short he was just like other western intellectuals; he had ceased to be an object of study or curiosity. In many ways this was good news. Humanitarianism is a nice sort of doctrine; you can’t get things spectacularly wrong by preaching it. Surely it is better for young idealists to dream of building clinics in Africa than blowing up their parents’ home. So have French intellectuals put their support for collectivist monstrosities behind them? Has the rise of humanitarianism led to a new age of responsibility and maturity in France’s public debate? The authors of the books under review beg to differ.
Régis Debray, a 1960s radical turned champion of the nation-state, formally broke with humanitarianism during the Kosovo conflict. He made himself thoroughly unpopular by travelling to Serbia, dodging the bombs, and writing on his return that the NATO campaign was doing more harm than good. The humanitarian Left rounded on Debray, lambasting him as naïve at best and a closet supporter of Milosevic at worst. The debate raged briefly in Le Monde in May 1999, and ended with Debray’s discomfiture. France’s smart opinion, like the public at large, applauded the bombing of Yugoslavia.
After a spell away from public view, Debray responded by publishing two short books. His aim was not to revive old disputes over Kosovo, but to expose what he viewed as the biases of his critics. The first book, L’Emprise takes on journalists. This is not a new departure for Debray, who has elevated the art of deconstructing newspeak into a new academic discipline, “médiologie”. L’Emprise (“The Hold”) compares the French press of today to the Roman Catholic church of old. The new religion, Debray contends, has its articles of faith (human rights), its charitable orders (French doctors and the like), and its crusading knights (NATO). The role of the media, as the new clergy, is to uphold the faith and keep people to the straight and narrow. “Major excommunication used to be fulminated ex cathedra by bishops in dark churches,” Debray writes. Now dissenters like himself are confronted by new inquisitors: “Heavyweight commentators (…) , foes of totalitarianism entrenched in all the weeklies, channels, and dailies without exception.”
The second book, I.F. suite et fin, takes on intellectuals. Again, Debray is on familiar territory: in 1979 he published a broadside against Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: the Intellectuals of Modern France (Le Pouvoir intellectuel en France) His latest book contends that the intellectuel français, the “I.F.” of the title, is a pale imitation of the 1900 model (the noun “intellectual” originated during the Dreyfus affair). Émile Zola was an international celebrity, unlike his parochial heirs. The original “I.F.” was an advocate for unpopular causes; today’s is a prosecutor bent on bringing evil-doers to book. Above all, he is a moralist: his mind is programmed to tell Right from Wrong, rather than truth from error. As Debray remarks, the opposite was true of Dreyfus’s defenders. The question they asked was: “Is he guilty or innocent?”, and not: “Is it better to be for or against the accused captain?” Debray argues that because French intellectuals are more interested in moral correctness than in factual accuracy, they are condemned to irrelevance. The “I.F.”, he says, is on the verge of extinction.
Debray’s main merit is that he does not go for easy targets. Human rights groups and relief agencies are so obviously well meaning that we readily take them at their own estimation of selfless keepers of the public interest. But as Debray reminds us, good people are vulnerable to self-righteousness: their very goodness leads them to regard opponents as morally tainted, rather than intellectually wrong, and public debate is stifled as a result. Ultimately self-righteousness does not work: there may be excellent arguments for cancelling Third World debt or ending child labour, just as there might have been good reasons to bomb Serbia — a point Debray concedes. But only through reasoned discussion can a point of view lastingly prevail.
But to hit hard target you need to focus your sights. Debray does not, and wastes much ammunition as a result. He is reluctant to quote, or even name, his opponents, and prefers to inveigh against the intellectual media-hounds in general. Debray’s bugbears seem to be Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann, but one gets the impression that he cannot bring himself to confront them head on. Unfortunately for Debray, a biting irony and a zest for metaphorical pyrotechnics are no substitutes for clarity and attention to detail.
When he does give specifics, he is sloppy with his examples. While making a point about the tendency of those who support armed intervention to exaggerate atrocities, Debray dismissively mentions estimates of 100,000 dead in Kosovo and one million in Rwanda, suggesting that both figures were plucked out of the air to stir up international outrage. This may have been true regarding Kosovo: in the end, the number of ethnic Albanian pronounced dead or missing after the war was just over 6,300 — a terrible crime, but hardly a case of genocide. In the case of Rwanda the one-million figure is close to the truth, the word “genocide” was justified and the rest of the world let it happen. One can argue that the international community disgraced itself in both Kosovo and Rwanda, but not in the same way.
Even in his basic contentions, Debray gets carried away. He offers no evidence that French intellectuals are a dying breed. And has their quality really declined in recent decades? It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but few in France lament the passing of Marxoid structuralism as a model for social sciences (although the old deconstructionist flame is being kept alive in American universities). No French intellectual today would affirm a duty to lie for a good cause, as Sartre did, or sing the praises of Iran’s Ayatollahs, as Foucault did, and that must be an improvement. Of course, the fact that intellectuals have embraced human rights, arguably a worthier cause than the class struggle, does not entitle them to feel smug. Anyone claiming superior wisdom in the name of modernity is bound to be judged harshly by future generations. Ideologies may change, but basic attitudes remain: the combination of naïveté and arrogance that has characterised France’s intellectual life for centuries shows no sign of disappearing. That charge is damning enough. Debray would have made his job easier by concentrating on documenting it, rather than stating a dubious law of intellectual decline.
Tzvetan Todorov in Mémoire du Mal, Tentation du Bien offers much more thorough and effective critique of political Manicheism than Debray does. A Bulgarian-born linguist and guru of 1970s structuralism, Todorov turned to the history of ideas late in his career. His latest book is an intellectual survey of the Twentieth century that draws many of its illustrations from his country of adoption, France. Todorov argues that the most fateful innovation of the past hundred years — the “mal du siècle”, as he puts it — has been the introduction of moralism into the heart of politics. As morality ceased to place strict demands on private conduct, public life became shot through with it.
The transformation of politics into a struggle between good and evil was carried out to its deadliest extremes by totalitarian regimes. What characterised Nazism or Communism was the mass murder of large sections of the population for the good of mankind. Tororov makes clear that both variants of totalitarianism can, and should, be understood rationally, a point controversially made about the Nazis by the German historian Ernst Nolte in his 1986 book The European Civil War (whose French translation last year triggered a local version of Germany’s “historians’ debate” of the 1980s). The word “rational”, as used by both Todorov and Nolte, is not meant as justification, but suggests that both systems have their internal logic. Stalin or Hitler did not kill millions out of sheer bloodlust. Kulaks had to be exterminated because private property was the root of all evil; for the Nazis, a healthy nation had to be rid of Jews and other parasites. “The Chekist or SS who kills ‘enemies’,” Todorov writes, “believes he is working for the benefit of others and acting rationally.”
This idea is hardly new — “Who does not view his own cause as just?” Erasmus asked — but it seems to have been neglected in the twentieth century. The Nazis and their racist ideology are justly condemned as evil; but many westerners find it difficult to judge communists as harshly because their ideals of peace and brotherhood are generous. Todorov is not for a moment suggesting that we should judge regimes either on their own terms or not at all. Some are clearly wicked, he says, but we must not pass judgment on the basis of self-proclaimed intentions. Almost by definition, these are admirable. What makes distinguishes good from evil systems is the means they are ready to use to reach their ideals.
Todorov’s central point is that totalitarian regimes do not have a monopoly on oppressive self-righteousness. “Totalitarianism may sometimes be seen, with justification, as the evil empire,” he writes, “but it does not follow that democracy embodies, in all places and at all times, the kingdom of virtue.” Like Debray, Todorov considers the war over Kosovo as a raw affirmation of western power: NATO was spoiling for a fight with an enemy conveniently cast as a new Hitler. One does not need to agree with him on this to accept his wider point: by presenting the war as a combat against pure evil waged on behalf of pure victims, the allies justified a ruthless use of their firepower.
Similarly, one does not need to share Todorov’s dim view of the United Nations International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a poodle of the Security Council to express concern about the Tribunal’s independence. The indictment of Slobodan Milosevic on charges of crimes against humanity at the height of the Kosovo conflict is disturbing: one may support NATO and the Tribunal, but any suggestion that they may be working hand in hand undermines the authority of both. The most worrying thing in all this is the position of those who, in France and elsewhere, traditionally stand for impartial justice. The press, human rights advocates, and intellectuals are squarely behind the Chief Prosecutor in The Hague and assume that defendants are guilty. The prevailing attitude among them seems to be: “We are the good guys, so we cannot be suspected of abuse of power.”
If current conflicts can be staged as morality plays, so can past ones. Slaying the beast once the danger has passed is a safe way of being right, and one that is particularly prevalent in France. Todorov notes that the French are obsessed by the German occupation: they go over the same ground, not to analyse events dispassionately but to pass judgement. In the late 1980s and 1990s a proclaimed devoir de mémoire (“duty to remember”) was exercised through the trials of dying men called upon to answer for the crimes of the Gestapo and the Vichy regime. As Todorov observes, trials are based on the clash of sharply opposing points of view, and are therefore not the best way to shed light on a complex past. Anyone wishing to have an idea of the moral maze experienced by collaborationists and resistance fighters will learn more from reading, say, the novels of Patrick Modiano than the transcripts of any trial.
Mémoire du Mal, Tentation du Bien contains a number of short essays on writers, such as Primo Levi and Vasily Grossman, who rejected moral posturing despite their first-hand experience of the century’s worst systems. What is striking in Todorov’s selection is how obscure the French authors are: who, in France or elsewhere, remembers David Rousset or Germaine Tillon? Even in their time these Nazi camp survivors who became critics of the totalitarian system that survived the war had no intellectual influence. Despite Todorov’s best efforts, they will remain footnotes in what Bernard-Henri Lévy has called “le Siècle de Sartre”. Culturally, France is stuck in the darkest twentieth century.
This is also the conclusion reached by Jean-François Revel in Les Plats de Saison. This book is not a full-blown political essay, but a diary for the year 2000 where Revel, a philosopher, and best-selling political writer, jots down his daily gripes and reflections on everything from tasteless radishes to France’s awkward constitution. Anyone who enjoys Revel’s acerbic style and lucid thought will feast on such a diverse menu (the title, meaning “seasonal dishes”, reflects both this variety and the author’s gastronomic interests).
Despite the necessarily broken structure of the book, bit-by-bit Revel paints a vivid picture of France’s intellectual landscape. In his previous book, La Grande parade, he had shown how, perversely, the death of the Soviet Union had led to a revival of anti-capitalism in the West. It was now possible to dream of an alternative to economic liberalism without being made to face the fact of life under “real socialism”. As capitalism became universally practised it was increasingly reviled. But while in most western countries this condemnation merely brought together vocal minorities — the hard Left, the far Right, and trade unions– in France it is the majority view.
Les Plats de saison provides many weird and wonderful illustrations of this. At a leaving party thrown last year for the outgoing Employment Minister, Martine Aubry, her staff broke into the Internationale, the original Soviet anthem – a song, Revel notes, that is as relevant to modern France as Maréchal, nous voilà, the hymn to the leader of Vichy France, Marshall Pétain. This incident is more than a drunken outburst by pseudo-revolutionaries: it is indicative of a deep hostility to market forces shared by French people of all persuasions. President Chirac, a conservative, said last year that globalisation was a cause of world poverty. Prime Minister Jospin, a socialist, has been fighting a rearguard battle with his European counterparts against the Blairite Third Way.
The most popular public figure in France last year was undoubtedly José Bové, peasant leader, globaphobe extraordinaire, and enemy of junk food. The nation was shocked when a court gave him a light prison sentence for trashing a McDonald’s restaurant. Union leaders and politicians rushed to condemn the verdict, explaining that farmers, truck-drivers and other groups often express their grievances through “direct action” without getting punished for it — so why should Bové? As Revel observes, those leaders make no distinction between legal and illegal protest: destroying property and blocking roads are regarded as legitimate forms of political action in France. Violent protest can even be encouraged: when anti-capitalists in December demanded free train rides to Nice, where they were planning to disrupt a European summit, the Transport Minister met them half-way and offered a 50% reduction. “It’s the Revolution subsidised by those against whom it is directed,” Revel comments.
Intellectuals on the whole reflect rather than combat popular feelings against to “ultra-liberalism”, as faith in markets is known in France. This is partly because in the twentieth century, the intellectual has defined himself as an opponent to the “system”, and nowadays the only system to oppose is a capitalist one. To be sure, there is no shortage of books analysing the ills of France’s bloated and unrestructured public sector or making the case for globalisation — but they are mostly written by sociologists and economists who have no meaningful impact. The intellectuals who matter, the talk-show commentators and leader writers, expand on the ravages of global capitalism as if no-one had ever make a serious case for free trade. As a result public discussion is divorced from facts and knowledge available to any first-year economics student.
Revel concludes that democratic capitalism may have triumphed over communist totalitarianism in the real world –something to be thankful for — but not in the minds of many people, and not in the minds of the French people. The idea that totalitarianism is not just a system of government but also a mindset that can flourish under a democracy has underpinned Revel’s whole work. Mental habits inherited from totalitarianism can therefore survive its destruction as a geo-political entity. “The victory of democracy will not be complete as long as lying continues to appear natural in the world of politics as in that of thought,” he writes. “As long as betraying truth, denying elementary facts (…) and attempting to destroy rather that refute those who contradict you continue to prevail in public debate, we cannot claim, whatever the calendar says, that we have left the twentieth century and entered the third millennium.”
Critique parue dans le Times Literary Supplement le 5 février 1993, par Henri Astier.
– Bernard Lacroix, Jacques Lagroye, eds, Le président de la République, usages et genèses d’une institution, Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 416p., 180F, ISBN 2 7246-0613-2.
– Jean-François Revel, L’Absolutisme inefficace, ou contre le présidentialisme à la française, Paris: Plon, 190p., 95F, ISBN 2-259-02478-5.
If, as the philosopher Alain wrote, “power deeply transforms those who wield it”, it is no wonder François Mitterrand seems to have changed so much in his dozen years as France’s president. The socialist who in the 1960s denounced de Gaulle’s “permanent coup d’État”, and whose 1981 victory over a king-like Giscard was hailed as a repeat of Bastille Day, has, according to critics, turned into an absolute monarch himself. His image now tarnished by a spate of scandals, Mitterrand is as unpopular as any French Head of State since Louis XVI. As the right is expected to win the legislative elections in March, which means that a conservative prime minister will be in for another bout of “cohabitation” with a hostile chief executive, no serious political discussion in France is complete without a debate on the president’s powers.
The two books under review cover the main points at issue. They agree on the symptoms (presidential hypertrophy) but disagree on the nature of the disease and on the implied cure. Le président de la République, usages et genèses d’une institution, a collection of essays by various constitutional experts, argues that the presidency was not shaped once for all in 1958 but over time by the political actors of the day. The institution, one of the editors writes, “should not be seen as a reality which exists independently from those who hold it”.
True, the 1958 constitution was designed to put an end to the “régime des partis” — the parliamentary root of all political evils according to de Gaulle. A strong president nominates the prime minister and has the power to dissolve the Assembly. The presidency, however, did not fully eclipse Parliament until the 1960s, with the direct election of the president and the repeated use of referendums.
The taming of the prime minister illustrates this evolution. The constitution gives the “Chef du gouvernement”, whose authority rests on Parliament, a central role in the executive. It does not give the president the right to dismiss him/her at will. But de Gaulle and Pompidou demanded undated resignation letters before nominating their prime ministers. Today, there is so little doubt about the president’s right to sack them (except during cohabitation), that no such stratagems are needed.
Public-speaking is a key aspect of the modern French presidency. Presidents are under no obligation to explain their policies: they choose the time, the place, and the format of their addresses; when they wish to be interviewed they handpick the journalists. Thanks to this complete control over communication, they have developed a tendency to speak in bombastic generalities and sidestep hard questions.
The contributor, however, does not address the substance of presidential pronouncements. It would be interesting to study, say, ritual references to the world’s freedom-lovers turning their gazes towards Paris, waiting for a ray of hope to shine. Their anxious expectation is usually rewarded after the advent of a new president: “Le monde enfin désire… nous voir jouer un rôle qui nous revient, parce qu’il sent que sera à l’avantage de tous les hommes” (De Gaulle, 13 June 1958); “Des centaines de millions d’hommes sur la terre sauront ce soir que la France est prête à leur parler le langage qu’ils ont appris à aimer d’elle” (Mitterrand, 11 May 1981), etc.
One contributor helpfully uses Weber’s notion of charisma — the leader’s access to “essential truths that are inaccessible to common men.” While charisma is initially an individual quality, it can become the attribute of an institution. Since Pompidou succeeded de Gaulle in 1969, whoever was president has dealt with eternal verities while ordinary politicians have been mired in the world of day-to-day contingencies. This “routinization of charisma” has enabled the Elys‚e to take on new powers: de Gaulle’s once controversial “domaine r‚serv‚” doctrine (foreign policy as a presidential preserve) is now widely accepted.
But despite many sharp analyses, the book doesn’t convince. Forget about the often atrocious jargon — the writers are after all legal scholars. The central emphasis on an ever-evolving practice suggests that the written constitution doesn’t matter — a peculiar idea for a Roman law country. And to argue, as a one expert does, that “law is fact that has imposed itself” simply means that France has no constitution, customary or otherwise.
Far more convincing is Jean-François Revel’s idea that French “présidentocratie” was “written in the genetic code” of the Fifth Republic. In L’Absolutisme inefficace, an enormously entertaining book which should be required reading for anyone interested in French politics, Revel argues that the main flaw is not in men but in the system. “The misuse of some tools derives so obviously from the instruction manual that it is criminal to put them into the hands of even a saint.”
Revel starts with the fact that the 1958 constitution sets no meaningful check to presidential powers. The main control — an election every seven years — comes too rarely to be effective. With the president free to dissolve an Assembly which cannot vote him out, Parliament was bound to turn into the rubber-stamp body it has become. The judiciary, kept on a short leash since the Revolution, has never been under tighter political control. The president heads and nominates all nine members of the council that promotes judges. “In the logic of the régime”, Revel writes, “the great interests of the nation are only discussed at the Elysée palace among a narrow circle of unelected advisers and ultimately within the presidential brain itself.”
Nothing is more alien to the Fifth Republic than Montesquieu’s theory of checks and balances. Separation of powers was explicitly rejected by de Gaulle in a famous 1964 press conference: “the indivisible authority of the State is wholly conferred on the president by the people. All others, whether ministerial, civilian, military or judicial, are delegated and maintained by him.”
According to Revel the result of this imbalance is not action, but paralysis. Like any omnipotent institution, the French presidency “does not work and prevents everything else from working”. Given the lack of public debate, the main way for people to make their displeasure felt is to take to the street. This invariably leads the government to cave in to special interests. Last summer’s disastrous showdown with lorry drivers is only the latest illustration of France’s ineffective absolutism.
The other main feature of the 1958 constitution is the two-headed executive. The Head of State is flanked by a prime minister whose authority nominally derives from Parliament but who predictably became the president’s creature. This was obvious in 1972, when president Pompidou sacked Chaban-Delmas, who had just won a massive vote of confidence in the Assembly. Chirac’s resignation in 1976 illustrates the same point: when French prime ministers leave before their terms run out, this is not due, as in Britain, to a disagreement with their Parliamentary base, but to a clash with the president.
Not only does the president pick the prime minister, but also the cabinet. Pierre Mauroy, Mitterrand’s first prime minister, complained that he had chosen only one member of his government. But this does not make France’s executive similar to America’s. The White House, of course, must deal with a powerful Congress and judicial busybodies. More importantly, the US president — like the British PM — is clearly accountable for his actions, while in France the fiction of an independent government shields the president in times of trouble. The division of labour in the French executive is simple: the president takes the decisions and the prime minister takes the blame.
Immunity from scandal is a striking fact of French political life in the past decade. Revel points out that Mitterrand never had to answer for illegal arm-sales to Iran (“Luchaire”), the embezzlement of foreign aid by cabinet officials (“Carrefour du d‚veloppement”), attempts to block a corruption inquiry (“Urba”), or for the use of blood known to be AIDS-contaminated, leading to the infection of more than a thousand haemophiliacs.
Revel notes that immunity extends downwards to a crowd of minions who owe their careers to the protection of an unimpeachable president. Scandals that elsewhere would have triggered top-level investigations resulted in the prosecution of mere underlings, and at worst in the resignation of a minister (after the bombing of a Greenpeace ship in 1985). “In France”, concludes Revel, “the person responsible is not the one who gives orders, but the one who receives them.”
Not only is French presidentialism troublesome but it spreads its trouble wide. Across the political spectrum, men waste their talents pursuing the only job that matters. Paralysis extends to the whole body politic as the potential candidate “joins others in a special waiting room, a VIP lounge, where one had better tend to one’s image rather than public affairs, while of course pretending not to care about the former and think only of the latter”. Again and agains, Revel traces France’s problems — fear of reform, lack of discussion, waste of public funds, nepotism, mob rule, corruption, etc. — to a presidential institution which combines omnipotence and inaction.
There is more to the debate on the presidency than an argument about the impact of the 1958 constitution. Those who say that the system changes as the balance of political power shifts will stress that the Assembly recovers its prerogatives in times of “cohabitation”, when the cabinet’s parliamentary basis is made obvious. The constitution clearly works, and the government should take this opportunity to chip away at the presidency. France has known too many constitutional upheavals: it now needs small reforms, like the shortening of the presidential term.
The others will deny that cohabitation works. “It is silly to think that a country can be governed by two mutually hostile leaders”, Revel writes. He points out that the 1986-88 period, when the president was both in power and in the opposition, only paved the way for Mitterrand’s re-election. Tinkering with the system will achieve little, Revel argues, as long as no choice is made between US-style presidentialism and British-style parliamentarianism. In either case, there must be limits to what the executive can do and accountability for what it has done.
What are the chances of reform? Some see the very seriousness of the situation as an encouraging sign. As Revel is fond of saying (quoting Proust): “the disease is the best doctor — it forces the patient to cure himself.”
Critique du Regain démocratique, paru dans le Times Literary Supplement le 28 août 1992, par Henri Astier.
Half-a-dozen essays written in the 1970s and 1980s established Jean-François Revel, a philosopher/journalist with a zest for anti-Gaullist pamphleteering, as France’s leading anti-communist intellectual. In best-sellers with dire titles like The Totalitarian Temptation or How Democracies Perish, Revel noted that capitalist democracy, which carried with it an unprecedented degree of wealth and freedom, was widely seen as repressive, while communism, a demonstrably failed system, was considered even by Westerners as progressive. He concluded that the West was hopeless at exploiting its own strengths, and often more bent on rushing to its enemy’s rescue than on self-preservation. In the end, he speculated, the law of political evolution might be the survival of the least fit. Now that the Soviet empire has collapsed and capitalism is acclaimed from Managua to Ulan Bator, Revel’s ideas look even more unfashionable and irrelevant than they did a decade ago. In Le Regain Démocratique, he proves that they are as thought-provoking as ever.
The first half of the book deals with the end of the “cold war”. Revel stresses that he never argued democracies were doomed — there is a big difference between warning and predicting. In his previous books he merely described what might happen if democracies kept looking the other way while the Soviets pursued aggressive policies. As it happened, the Soviet ran out of ammunition. The victory of the West, Revel says, had little to do with a principled determination to stand up for its own interest and ideals.
Indeed, he points out that between 1985 and 90, democracies were at their appeasing best. In June 1990, for example, as the Soviet Union was about to collapse and the West had never looked so strong, Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated in Washington from a position of strength to obtain financial and political support from Westerners, who ignored the desperate appeals of independence-seeking Balts. The prevailing idea at the time was: “We must help Gorbachev in order to encourage reform.” The lessons of détente — that to reform communism you must start by ditching it and that aid only delays the process — had not been learnt. The West, Revel concludes, “never believed in its own superiority” and “was rescued almost against its will, not because it defended itself but because the forces which sought to destroy it unexpectedly disintegrated.”
Revel gives three reasons for this disintegration. First, from 1980 to 1985 democracies did show a rare readiness to support attempts to reverse Soviet conquests (notably in Poland and Afghanistan). Second, Communism became ideologically bankrupt — by the 1980s, Soviet leaders had stopped viewing themselves as saviours of mankind and had lost their political will to survive. Third, Gorbachev played a crucial role by seeking to replace the old apparatus with a new breed of officials who he thought would purge communism of Stalinist oppression and lead it into the next century. As could be expected, ordinary Soviets used their new-found freedom to relegate Marxism-Leninism, not just Stalinism, to the dustbin of history.
This analysis leads Revel to adopt an original position in the “end-of-history” debate. He shares Francis Fukuyama’s faith that capitalist democracy, as the best form of social system ever invented, will ultimately replace the others. But in the short term at least, he points out that history is made of men’s actions — it is up to them to move ahead or backwards. “A political analyst might, with solid arguments, say to a condemned man on whose neck the guillotine is about to fall: ‘Don’t worry, this execution belongs to an obsolete moment in history’. But in doing so he only confirms that nine tenths of what happens to us is made of the dregs of an earlier era.” The Chinese students might well one day be free, but not the ones who were crushed in Tiananmen Square. “Of course in the long run, it is probable that China will take a liberal course. But in politics I care about the short run, because life is short.”
The second half of the book analyses current challenges to the democratic resurgence. Despite growing awareness in developing countries that political and economic freedoms are vital pre-conditions, not by-products, of development, it will take a cultural revolution for those freedoms to take root in the Third World. As long as most Muslims reject the separation of Church and State, for instance, Arab countries will remain in the grip of tyranny and poverty. In the Eastern bloc, dealing with the psychological after-shocks of communism will be an especially daunting task. Even in the developed world, the growth of corruption and apathy threatens to undermine the moral foundation of free societies.
Democracy and human rights, Revel concludes, will prevail only if people believe in them and take actions to defend them. He stresses in particular the moral duty of international intervention: dictators should not be allowed a free reign of terror within their own borders.
Le Regain démocratique is a major political essay written in the razor-sharp style of a born pamphleteer. As was the case with Revel’s previous works, the aficionados will relish the clarity, the trenchant metaphors and the crushing wit; the others, after gritting their teeth through the first few chapters, will probably throw away the book and conclude that the author is a hopeless conservative.
Revel, in fact, is an uncompromising liberal — in the old European sense of the word and in the American “cold-war liberal” tradition. The American columnist George Will once elegantly defined the conservative as “a pessimist who goes though life hoping to be proven wrong.” Only by that standard could Revel be called a conservative.
Critique de L’Histoire de la philosophie occidentale, à l’occasion de sa réédition, parue dans le Times Literary Supplement le 13 mai 1994, par Henri Astier.
This one-volume edition of Jean-Francois Revel’s two-part Histoire de la philosophie occidentale (first published in the late 1960s) covers thinkers from the pre-Socratics to Kant. It is a jargon-free narrative intended for general readers, not a treatise for philosophy students — “Histoire” is meant as “story” rather than “history”. But neither is it a bland “Western-civ-for-infants” manual — Revel has a serious point, which he makes with both gusto and erudition: philosophy is dead.
In a nutshell, philosophy arose from men’s desire to make sense of the world around them without resorting to religion. Early Ionian thinkers (notably Thales and Herodotus) had a passion for observing nature and founded philosophy on the rejection of myth. But the search for hidden truths, and the discarding of outward phenomena, made a comeback with Plato. For the next two mellenia, philosophers oscillated between two conceptions of knowledge, one emphasizing concrete observation and the other general theories of a deeper reality.
This, Revel argues, changed with the birth of modern science as a separate branch of inquiry. Philosophers faced a difficult choice: they could either focus on their core metaphysical activities and drift towards brainy triviality (Descartes), or embrace empiricism, which meant winding up the business (Kant). The irrelevance of modern philosophy is not argued with any hostility — the author used to teach the subject. Incidentally, the book marked the end of philosophy for Revel, who focused on politics after the success of Without Marx or Jesus in 1970. His central message, however, remained the same: men achieve knowledge by trying hard to look at reality as it is, not as they would like it to be.
By Henri Astier
Pierre Boncenne, Pour Jean-François Revel: Un esprit libre
Plon, 343 pages, 21 euros, ISBN 2-259-19920-8
Pierre Boncenne has written the first book ever about Jean-François Revel. The fact that it was published after his death goes a long way towards proving its main point – the greatest French thinker of his age was also the most misunderstood.
Hommage à Jean-François Revel dans l’émission Du Grain à moudre du 2 janvier 2007.
Les invités sont:
– Pierre Boncenne.
– Jean-François Sirinelli.
– Alain Besancon.
– Jacques Julliard.
Présentation par Brice Couturier.
Durée de l’émission: 55 minutes
Critiques de l’émission:
- Par Hoplite
First published in The Times Literary Supplement in September 1st, 2000 and untitled «Worse than Hitler».
Jean François Revel, La grande parade, Essai sur la survie de l’utopie socialiste. Paris: Plon, 346p., F129 (€19,66) 2-259-19056-1
Reviewed by: Henri Astier
Before the collapse of communism many people on the left in the west took a bleak view of the world. Capitalism, which puts profits before people and fosters inequality, was bad; in communist countries bureaucrats had hijacked the revolution, and that was bad too. After the Berlin Wall fell, however, few radicals celebrated. Their worldview, if anything, is now bleaker than before. The peoples of the world don’t even have two evils to choose from; capitalism reigns unchecked, making the world safe for corporate plunder. Why does an increasing body of opinion believe this? What assumptions are these ideas based on? How influential are they?
Par Henri Astier
First time published in the Times Literary Supplement on the 18th of March, 2005
Version augmentée par rapport à celle publiée dans le TLS.
- Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization, New York, Oxford University Press, 308p, $28, £19.99, ISBN 0-19-517025-3
- Martin Wolf, Why Globalization Works, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 398p, £19.99, ISBN 0-300-10252-6
- Jean-François Bayart, Le gouvernement du monde. Une critique politique de la globalisation, Paris, Fayard , 448p., €24, ISBN 2-213-61653-1
- Daniel Cohen, La mondialisation et ses ennemis, Paris, Grasset, 264p., €18, ISBN 2-246-66401-2
The debate over globalization in most countries is reminiscent of the debate over Darwinism in America. In both cases there is a yawning gap between basic knowledge and public discussion. That life is billions of years old and has evolved though natural selection is among the best-established facts in science. It is supported by rigorous theory and overwhelming evidence. Biologists disagree on many things, but they agree on this. Yet in US politics evolution is hugely controversial. American newspapers routinely describe the Darwinian orthodoxy as an idea under fire.
The storm over globalization also has a baffling dynamic of its own. That trade brings wealth and that a country hurts itself by blocking imports is among the best-established ideas in the social sciences. It is supported by rigorous theory and overwhelming evidence. Yet all over the world this idea is regarded as hugely controversial. Rich countries view cheap foreign goods as a threat to jobs and living-standards. The growing tendency of Western companies to move production and administrative tasks overseas — “outsourcing” — is seen as doubly destructive: capital is being sucked out of decent domestic industries, to help set up sweatshops in poor countries.
The media describe the free-trade orthodoxy as an idea under fire. But the bedrock of this idea, David Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage (which shows why it makes sense even for countries with no natural advantage to specialise and exchange), has never been credibly challenged. You would not suspect this from reading newspapers, which tend to misrepresent academic debates on trade. Sceptics like Nobel laureates Paul Samuelson and Joseph Stiglitz are routinely billed as representatives of a surging anti-globalization movement among economists. But the argument is over the size of the benefits from trade, not their existence. Neither Samuelson nor Stiglitz has set out to refute Ricardo; both condemn protectionism.
What we have is a case of “wasted knowledge”, as the French philosopher Jean-François Revel called the failure of known facts to inform public debate (1). Faced with this muddle, what should economists do? Most let the world rant and focus on serious campus work, in the hope that some students will remember the basics beyond graduation. But for thick-skinned academics, joining the fray has its attractions. Those who rubbish trade have such weak arguments are so weak that intellectual supremacy is assured. This is not enough to win in the public sphere, of course, but an economist who writes with wit can help set the record straight and become famous in the process, as Paul Krugman did in the mid-1990s (2).
Krugman, now a celebrity columnist, has spawned a new genre: books by economically-literate writers refuting misconceptions about globalization. Three of the books under review fall into that category. The fourth, a brave attempt to challenge the critics without resorting to economics, raises interesting issues of its own.
At this point, some clarification is needed. The word “globalization” means many things — from the freer flow of goods, to falling communication costs, increasing ease of travel and cultural cross-pollination. “Anti-globalists” have nothing against many of these. They thrive on communication technology and laudably embrace other cultures. Moreover, their creed is rooted in Marxism, an internationalist doctrine. What they oppose is market-driven, or liberal, globalization. A world united under benevolent guardians apportioning resources would suit them fine. French activists call themselves altermondialistes, signalling not their opposition to globalization, but their wish for a different kind. English equivalents, such as “anti-globalist”, should be used with this proviso in mind.
Jagdish Bhagwati, a top-notch economist who teaches at New York’s Columbia University, has long sought to enlighten the public debate. He writes regularly for newspaper to explain the benefits of globalization. His latest book pulls together the various aspects of the case in a compact volume aimed at the general reader. The point of In Defense of Globalization is two-fold: to uphold the orthodoxy on trade and to warn against dangerous new trends in global policy.
The orthodoxy on trade is based on a simple idea. We would be much poorer if we tried to grow our own food, build our own homes, and generally produce all the things we consume. It makes more sense to focus on specific jobs and buy what we need from other specialists. The same wealth-maximising logic applies to groups. “If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry,” Adam Smith wrote.
This is as true now as it was in the eighteenth century. Bhagwati reviews a wealth of studies showing that economies sheltered by high tariffs – which remain the norm in Africa — have paid the expected costs in efficiency. East Asian countries, by contrast, opened up and grew spectacularly from the 1960s. The same has been happening more recently to Bhagwati’s native India.
Growth, crucially, helps the poor. The widespread myth of rising inequality is an update on Marx’s prediction that capitalism would bring wealth to the few and misery to the many. As it happened, growth swelled the ranks of the middle-class and dramatically reduced poverty across the West. Asia’s developing countries are rapidly travelling down the same route. In the early 1970s 11% of the world’s poor lived in Africa and 76% in Asia. Those figures are now almost reversed. The most glaring cases of the privileged growing fat while masses starve are found in such militant non-globalizers as North Korea and Zimbabwe.
Bhagwati’s survey of the gains from globalization is eloquent but hardly groundbreaking. He is, after all, reminding us of Economics 101. But his warnings against new trends in policy are more original. Trade talks, he notes, are increasingly concerned with non-trade issues. Child labour is a case in point. It is a serious problem but one that has nothing to do with globalization – 95% of working children produce goods that are not for export.
Globalization is in fact part of the cure, as it helps remove the real cause, poverty. This is why trade restrictions are dangerous. In the early 1990s many Bangladeshi garment factories closed down when the US threatened sanctions over child labour. The children laid off did not stop working: they ended up in illegal sweatshops and in brothels. Rich countries can help relieve child labour – through, say, building schools — but trade action is worse than useless.
The same applies to the environment. Some export activities are dirty, but so are many protectionist policies, such as Europe’s notorious farming system. Environmental concerns, Bhagwati argues, should be tackled in their own right. In general, he argues, mixing trade with other issues – as is increasingly the norm – is never a good idea, and provides an excuse for special interests in rich countries to keep foreign goods out.
Bhagwati is often accused of “market-fundamentalism” – a handy charge levelled at anyone who questions any type of state intervention. It is particularly unfair in the case of Bhagwati, who made his name by warning against some harmful effects of trade. His latest book has a chapter on globalization’s downsides, notably increased volatility, and ways to cope with them. If anything, Bhagwati is too inclined to give anti-globalists the benefit of the doubt. He distinguishes between thuggish zealots and NGOs that “are susceptible to, and indeed invite, reasoned argument”. Sadly, he provides no evidence of such open-mindedness.
For a systematic, no-holds-barred demolition of anti-globalism, turn to Martin Wolf, a British economist-turned-journalist. In Why Globalization Works, he covers much of the same ground as Bhagwati. But where the latter – who is perhaps eager not to intimidate the reader with his science – gives us the big picture, Wolf piles on the evidence, tracking down every fallacy, every deceit, every half-truth that confuse the public debate.
Take the inequality question. Anti-globalists are fond of saying that the income gap between the richest and poorest countries is growing. And so it is: Spain was quite a lot richer than Kenya 50 years ago, and is immensely more so now. Does it mean that global equality is growing? Not at all. Looking at the extremes is deceiving. The Taiwanese were as poor as Kenyans in the 1950s, and are now as rich as Spaniards. More significantly, billions in China and India have been lifted out of poverty.
People, not countries, are what matters. The proportion of extremely poor people (living on one dollar a day or less) has been falling for decades – from half the world population in 1950 to a fifth now. Absolute numbers began declining in 1980. Every other indicator of well-being – health, life-expectancy, child mortality, education, food consumption – shows a narrowing, not a widening, of the gap between North and South.
This, however, can be concealed though various statistical sleights of hand exposed by Wolf. One of involves measuring dollar incomes at official exchange rates – as if what mattered most to Malians was what they could buy while on holiday in New York rather than on the Bamako market. True assessments of living standards, based on Purchasing Power Parity, show a dramatic reduction in global inequality.
Another trick consists in measuring gaps in absolute, rather than relative terms. Consider a hypothetical case: incomes in rich country A double every twenty years, and rise five-fold in developing country B. Thus incomes in A have gone from $20,000 to $40,000 since 1985, and from $1,000 to $5,000 in B (a fair approximation of Asian growth). People in B will say, correctly: “We used to earn 5% of incomes in A and now we are earning 12%: at this rate we will be level with A by mid-century!” But Western doomsters will say, speciously: “The wage differential between A and B is rising all the time: it has grown from $19,000 to $35,000 in just two decades!” QED: globalization is not working.
We swallow this not just because we are bad at maths, but we do not understand the very point of trade. Imports are seen as bad, and exports good. Economists have long shown that this mercantilist view is false: the benefits of trade are the things foreigners bring, and our exports help pay for them. This is where the notion of terms of trade comes in – the relative prices of a country’s imports and exports. People usually grasp this notion in relation to developing countries. If the price of cocoa falls, Ivorians can afford fewer Finnish phones. They are worse off. When oil goes up, Arab rulers can buy more jets. They are better off.
But we lose sight of this in relation to developed countries. When Koreans sell us cheap cars we do not thank our good fortune, or the Koreans; we view them as unfair competitors. But as Wolf notes, they have made us more competitive by improving our terms of trade: “The paradox of the popular debate is that improvements in competitiveness, thus defined, are generally seen as a deterioration instead… The reason for that is that, as usual, people are confusing the fate of the particular import-export sectors with that of the economy as a whole.”
Does trade depress wages in the North? Do multinationals exploit workers in the South? Does globalization restrict policy choices? Are unfettered financial flows dangerous? Are rich countries not being outrageously protectionist? Wolf provides careful answers to every question raised by globalization (the answers to the above are: no, no, no, up to a point, yes). No complaint is too far-fetched for him to consider. He even bothers to consider Naomi Klein’s “tyranny of brands”, and George Monbiot’s fears of a subverted democracy.
Wolf does more than answer complaints: he goes to the heart of ideological anti-globalism, which he identifies as a resurgence of the collectivist utopia. If only the profit motive was removed, we would all be so happy! Today’s protesters have the same mental reflexes as collectivists of old. All the problems found in capitalist societies, from pollution to inane TV programmes, disqualifies capitalism itself, which is compared to a perfect system that does not exist.
The book has one shortcoming: Wolf devotes the first 130 pages to a disquisition on the efficiency and virtue of markets. This is logically correct, as trade is the international dimension of markets, but tactically unhelpful. Pro-trade views are rarely derived from first principles. Many of the leaders who have opened up their countries in the past twenty years have not been right-wing doctrinaires, as is commonly claimed, but pragmatic left-of-centre polititians such as New Zealand’s David Lange or Brazil’s Fernando Enrique Cardoso (not to mention Chinese or Vietnamese leaders). The US economist Ronald Coase, one of the past century’s great advocates for trade, insisted the case should be made the case on utilitarian grounds only. Wolf does precisely that in the body of his book, which is why he might have cut down on the (admittedly brilliant) liberal manifesto.
This quibble aside, this is a terrific book. If the anti-globalist chatter you hear on television or at dinner parties irritates you, buy Why Globalization Works. You will get enough ammunition to refute the most opinionated ignoramus (although you may get fewer dinner party invitations).
While Bhagwati and Wolf go back to economic basics, Jean-François Bayart, the French sociologist who wrote Le gouvernement du monde, (“World Government”) undertakes to study globalization from his vantage point exclusively. Economists will be “infuriated by my ignorance”, he boasts. To see things properly, “it is necessary – urgent? — to return to the foundation of social sciences”.
Bayart, it must be stressed, is no friend of the anti-globalists: his aim is to counter their claims that economic forces are undermining the state and threatening the fabric of society. He rightly ridicules the idea that consuming Coca-Cola, or the products of any multinational, amounts to a relinquishment of cultural identity.
Bayart may be a pro-globalization – or at least anti-anti-globalization – sociologist but he remains a sociologist above all. His heavy use of jargon makes him hard to take seriously. When he writes that international hotels have “extended to the nodal points of the globalization process a homogenization of the material framework for certain bodily functions” (meaning you can be fairly sure you’ll get a clean bathroom at the Kuala Lumpur Sheraton), you wonder if he is not being funny.
Another occupational hazard for sociologists is guru worship. Bayart’s hero is Michel Foucault. You might have thought that a philosopher who expounded on the repressive nature of Western society makes an unlikely critic of modern anti-globalism. But Bayart rises to the challenge, showing that the free flow of goods has gone hand in hand with a gigantic Foucaldian locking-up of people – whether in airport transit halls or refugee centres. We are all being penned in, to the extent that the US prison at Guantanamo Bay prison is a “microcosm of globalization”, writes Bayart – who throughout the book regales us with anecdotes from his travels around the world.
Sociology may or may not be able to shed light on globalization. But what this book brilliantly demonstrates is that discussing an economic fact without referring to economics is futile. It is like trying to analyse the evolution of life by relying on metaphysics rather than science (as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin did). Again, you do not need a PhD to make a meaningful contribution to the globalization debate. Many brilliant writers on trade have been only amateur economists – such as Frédéric Bastiat or his talented modern heir, the Swedish author Johan Norberg (3).
Daniel Cohen, unlike his countryman Bayart, has a firm grasp of his subject. He is an economics professor and clearly accepts the orthodoxy on trade. However his book, La mondialisation et ses ennemis (“Globalization and its Enemies”) chooses not to dwell on economic basics – as though it was not polite to do so.
Cohen has no time for the theory that globalization leads to exploitation of poor countries: “If anything, they are suffering from not being exploited enough,” he writes. He shows why a Vietnamese worker being paid $2.75 to make a Nike shoe that sells for $70 in the West is not a case of gouging – we must not forget about the huge non-labour costs, the iron link between wages and productivity, and the fact that Nike is not particularly profitable.
But no sooner has Cohen made the orthodox case than he reassures us that the world is unfair after all: powerful forces are preventing the poorest countries from joining the wealth-creating process of globalization.
To make this point, Cohen seeks theoretical support outside economics. He draws, for instance, on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, a groundbreaking study of the influence of geography on the development of societies. This book is a model of enlightening social science. It explains how agriculture arose in Eurasia, why explorers from Europe came to America rather than the other way around, and why that contact was so devastating for native Americans. But, pace Cohen, Diamond tells us nothing about contacts between modern nations. Pizza Hut opening an outlet in Lima is not the modern equivalent of Pizarro descending on the Incas.
The evidence used by Cohen to support his claim that trade will widen the gap between rich and poor countries is as shaky as his theory. He makes much of the fact that the colonial relationship between Britain and India failed to enrich the latter. But far from being an example of “the purest free trade”, as Cohen claims, the Raj was a textbook example of managed trade. India was barred from exploiting its comparative advantage by selling textiles to Britain.
Nineteenth-century imperialism was indeed a form of globalization, but certainly not a liberal one. Free traders have always defended liberty, and condemned empire as an extension of protectionism. Bastiat called colonialism “reciprocal monopoly”.
Cohen has the cause and effect backwards: developed countries do not trade because they are rich, they are rich because they trade. Eighteenth-century Europe was poorer than most of Africa is today. Not so long ago hunger stalked Asia. There is no reason why Africa, given the right policies, should not also escape poverty and hunger.
Cohen is an interesting case of “wasted knowledge”, an intelligent analyst who neglects his own expertise. He is like a doctor who knows that a medicine works but is reluctant to prescribe it to the worst-affected patients, having convinced himself that it will do little good to them.
One reason for Cohen’s ambivalence could be the politics of his audience. Cohen himself is close to the modernising Left – a trend that combines market-friendliness with distrust of “unbridled capitalism” and takes a cautiously positive view of globalization (4). While modernisers are dominant among European socialists, they are very much in the minority in France.
Since the French Right and Left are equally hostile to markets, Cohen’s tepid endorsement is as strong a defence of globalization as you can mount in France without being branded a “neo-liberal” crackpot. The subtext of his book seems to be: the case for trade is difficult to make as it is, it would be counterproductive to antagonise people more than I have to.
Such an attitude amounts to an admission of semi-impotence. It accepts that knowledge can be of only limited use in the politics of trade. But the effectiveness of the orthodox case must not be underestimated. Free traders have scored decisive victories, from the repeal of Britain’s Corn Laws to the establishment of the post-war liberal order a century later. Public opinion is not doomed to remain in the dark, and the bright light shone by Wolf and Bhagwati is more likely to help than Cohen’s dimmed beam.
(1) Jean-François Revel, La Connaissance inutile, Grasset, 1988.
(2) Paul Krugman, Pop Internationalism, MIT Press, 1996.
(3) Norberg wrote In Defence of Global Capitalism, Timbro, 2001.
(4)A British representative of this trend is Charles Leadbeater, author of a sensible book on globalization Up The Down Escalator, Viking, 2002.
A study by reviewing three books on this topic, by Henri Astier.
This article was published by the Times Literary Supplement on January 10, 2003 under the title “La maladie française”.
Jean-François Revel, L’Obsession antiaméricaine, Son fonctionnement, ses causes, ses inconséquences
Plon, 302 p, 20 euros, ISBN 2-259-19449-4.
(English version: Anti-Americanism)
Philippe Roger, L’Ennemi américain, Généalogie de l’antiaméricanisme français
Seuil, 602 p, 26 euros, ISBN 2-02-040643-8.
Emmanuel Todd, Après l’empire, Essai sur la décomposition du système américain
Gallimard, 237 p, 18.50 euros, ISBN 2-07-076710-8.
America’s “war on terrorism” and threats against Iraq are often said to have alienated its friends abroad, and squandered the initial sympathy triggered by the September 11th attacks. This may be so – but it is unclear how many friends America had to begin with and how deep the sympathy ever ran. Across four continents, including “friendly” Europe, millions regarded the attacks as a fantasy come true. Jean Baudrillard exaggerated only a little when he wrote that “everyone without exception had dreamt” of such a cataclysm – adding that al Qaeda “did it, but we willed it”.
Among French intellectuals, in particular, such wishing of death and destruction on the United States is common, and pre-dates its emergence as a superpower. “Let faraway America and its white buildings come crashing down,” Louis Aragon wrote in 1925.
Why do so many people hate the United States so much?
One common answer is that it does hateful things. America is the world’s biggest polluter, it refuses to curb greenhouse emissions, monopolises wealth and does nothing to help poor countries, it insists on free trade for the benefit of its corporations, it supports Israeli oppression of Palestinians, humiliates Muslims, and generally wields its cultural, economic and military might with wanton arrogance.
The naysayers insist they oppose the US for what it does, not for what it is, and reject accusations of anti-Americanism. “I do not know what the word means,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, one of most vitriolic French critic of post-war America. For many, the epithet “anti-American” is both meaningless and pernicious: it is used to silence any objection to US policies.
Others – notably in the United States – regard the whole argument as a giant misunderstanding. America, according to this view, has an image problem. It is a force for good that is bad at communicating. If Washington can show that it always works towards compromise between Israel and Palestinians, that it is against Arab dictators, not Arab people, that America helps poor countries through trade and investments, that it has pioneered successful environmental strategies, that it is the most open society on earth, surely the doubters will change their minds.
Despite President Bush’s reputation for “unilateralism”, this sanguine view is official policy in Washington. The administration has launched a drive to improve America’s image abroad, complete with PR consultants, focus groups, and broadcasts to Muslim countries. As part of the campaign, the State Department in September 2003 invited academics for a conference on how to tackle anti-American feelings around the world.
Although the two sides disagree on just about everything, they share one key premise: attitudes towards America tend to be rational – i.e. based on the information available. Critics, in other words, are potential non-critics. But what if that if the premise was wrong? What if there was nothing the US could do to pacify its enemies?
A similar conclusion, in the context of the Cold War, was reached by George Kennan in his famous “Mr X” article published by Foreign Affairs in 1947. Kennan showed with remarkable clarity that Moscow’s hostility towards the United States did not stem from a classic conflict of interest between big powers: this hostility was written in the genetic code of the USSR. Short of becoming a communist country, there was nothing the United States could do to gain the Kremlin’s trust. The Soviets could not be appeased, only contained. The article brought about a new understanding of Soviet conduct – which had baffled observers until then – and a paradigm shift in US foreign policy.
Jean-François Revel in his latest book says much the same thing about present-day anti-American feelings — although he has no illusions about influencing foreign policy, least of all that of his native France.
Revel achieved international renown with his 1970 best-seller, Without Marx or Jesus.
In it, he argued that the United States, far from being the den of social iniquity and militaristic oppression described by many Europeans, was in fact a vibrant nation where a new, anti-authoritarian model of society was emerging which would inspire the rest of the world. Despite its success, the book was slated by most intellectuals in Europe and elsewhere. For them, the Revolution could only be Marxist; it could not come from the arch-capitalist enemy.
Three decades later, Revel finds that the world’s view of America is still obscured by ideological blinkers.
In L’Obsession antiaméricaine, he relentlessly exposes instances of US-bashing culled from newspaper articles, radio interviews and political speeches by the great and the good from Cape Town to Copenhagen, and from Sao Paulo to Seoul. Revel makes three main points: most – though by no means all – criticism of US diplomacy or society does not make logical sense; its purpose is to provide psychological comfort; it is self-defeating.
The self-contradictory nature of anti-Americanism is something many of us unthinkingly accept.
We are happy viewing American society as both utterly materialistic and insufferably religious; it is predominantly racist and absurdly politically correct; Americans are boring conformists and reckless individualists; US corporations can do whatever they want and are stifled by asinine liability laws, etc. Revel makes us stop and consider the incoherence of views we have heard time and time again.
Take the word “hyperpower”, coined by former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine to characterise US domination of our “unipolar” world. This interpretation, Revel notes, “assumes that American preponderance seemed more justified previously, both because it was exercised over fewer nations and because it was needed to counter Soviet imperialism”.
But in the 1980s Mr Védrine was a senior member of a socialist administration that blamed America all the time. France’s official anti-Americanism was no less virulent when the Soviet threat loomed over Western Europe than it is now.
There were further signs that Mr Védrine’s objections to America were of the obsessive, rather than rational, sort when he insisted that the word “hyperpower” was not pejorative – it merely described reality. In the same breath, he added: “We cannot accept a unipolar and culturally uniform world, any more than we can accept the unilateralism of a single power.” The logic of this non-sequitur is that a word can both be free of any negative connotation and describe an unacceptable reality.
Similarly, the Bush administration has been successively accused of “unilateralism” – i.e. acting on its own as the world’s policeman – and, when it turned out it was less inclined to intervene abroad than the previous one, of shirking its international duties, notably in the Middle East. The general pattern seems to be: America is blamed for intervening everywhere, and expected to save Mexico from default, protect Taiwan from China, mediate between Indian and Pakistan, pressure Belgrade into giving up Milosevic, get the two Koreas talking, etc.
September 11th and the war on terrorism triggered an avalanche of adverse comment – America brought the attacks on itself, it created bin Laden in the first place, the Afghan campaign was “an act of aggression”, etc. Revel rebuts these charges, focusing on their logical flaws – “I do not mention moral ignominy, which should surprise no-one,” he writes.
He also has a field day with criticisms of the United States’ society and economy. The first sign that the anti-American obsession is at work is the wilful ignorance of available information. America’s strengths and weaknesses are analysed in countless books and articles published every year.
But these balanced analyses are absent from the accounts of America’s social and economic health routinely found in European papers. Instead you find blanket condemnation: America is said to be plagued by horrendous inequality and poverty. The fact that US unemployment is chronically low by European standards is ignored, or dismissed by the myth that the extra jobs are menial.
But if America is so sick, Revel asks, why are we so worried about its wealth, its technological supremacy and its cultural model? “That unfortunate America should generate pity and commiseration, not animus.”
These instances of doublethink, he argues, can only be explained in psychological terms.
Anti-American recriminations stroke a society’s collective ego by drawing attention away from its own failures. Such weapons of mass distraction are at work, for instance, when a muzzled Arab press spreads the belief that the war on terrorism has placed draconian curbs on the US media.
Likewise, Africa’s elites like to blame all their continent’s ills on the United States, to avoid facing up to their own responsibility.
In 2001 the Organisation for African Unity called for a “Marshall Plan for Africa”. But as Revel observes, Africa has received the equivalent of four Marshall Plans in as many decades – and all of it has been wasted, stolen, or sunk in wars.
The purpose of European anti-Americanism is to find a reassuring explanation for the continent’s catastrophic loss of status. Europe tried to commit suicide in the 20th century and American preponderance is a direct consequence of its self-inflicted wounds. In the space of thirty years, the Europeans triggered two world wars and spawned the worst two regimes ever devised by human folly – from which the Americans had to come and rescue them. But rather than face up to this sorry history, Europeans prefer to pose as victims of America’s drive for world domination.
American “unilateralism”, Revel explains, “is the consequence, not the cause, of power failures in the rest of the world.” One striking confirmation of this came in July, when Morocco sent troops to Perejil, a disputed rock in the Mediterranean which is formally owned by Spain and home to a few dozen goats. Worried by looming hostilities between a member country and an associate state, the European Union tried to resolve the crisis – but failed, despite the fact that its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, is Spanish. The two sides did not come to their senses until US Secretary of State Colin Powell personally telephoned Morocco’s king and Spain’s prime minister. The Americans had to deal with this minor, faraway crisis only because Europe was powerless.
Another major function of anti-Americanism identified by Revel is to comfort opposition to economic liberalism. Those who object to liberalism – i.e. markets tamed by the rule of law – also object to the country that is its supreme embodiment. For them portraying the United States as a repressive, racist, almost fascist society, is a way of saying: look what happens when you implement liberalism! Any evidence that democracy in America, although far from perfect (no system is), works rather better than in other places, must be countered with all the more passion as the observable evidence is strong.
The latest stage in this battle – in the literal sense of the word, as it often involves street fights – is the anti-capitalist movement. Although it appeals to many young people, it is ideologically ancient. Anti-capitalists view globalisation as a US-inspired plot to maximise profits for American corporations and make poor countries poorer. This is an international version of Marx’s predictions for the industrial world, which have long been proven wrong. Modern anti-capitalism is equally disconnected from reality: world exports have risen 17-fold between 1948 and 1998; as a result world poverty has receded, not increased, and America’s share of world output has plummeted, not risen. Freer trade helps the poor, which is why third world countries queued up to join the World Trade Organisation.
Globalisation, Revel shows, is not a product of American arrogance. Its main causes are the disasters of the 1930s, under closed systems; the proven inability of socialism to deliver; and the obvious benefits millions have derived from economic openness. Anti-Americanism is ready way for those who cling to bankrupt economic models to dismiss those awkward facts from their minds.
Revel does not argue that all condemnations of US society or policies are wrong. Criticism of America, he insists, is legitimate and necessary. America, the ultimate open society, thrives on the confrontation of opinions. Revel himself condemns the Bush administration’s recent steel tariffs and farm bill. But what he is saying is that in order to be effective, criticism must be rational.
This is where the self-defeating nature of obsessive anti-Americanism comes in. “By criticising the Americans whatever they do, even when they are right, we Europeans lead them to ignore our objections, even when they are well-founded,” Revel writes.
The dispute over the 2002 farm bill is a case in point. The measure deserved censure – but coming from Europe, the criticism lacked credibility. The French, in particular, have been doggedly resisting cuts in subsidies to EU farmers, which even after Mr Bush’s farm bill are still higher than US subsidies. Moreover, European intellectuals, protestors, and media over the years have been arguing that free-trade is bad.
If these Europeans had been consistent they would have welcomed the farm bill.
As Revel write, from such conflicting condemnations an American can only draw one conclusion:
“What Europeans hate is neither free trade nor protectionism, it is America.”
Anti-Americanism, Revel concludes, encourages the US unilateralism it decries. By indulging in blind prejudice and systematic hostility, most governments dealing with America condemn themselves to impotence, and consequently increase American superpower.
L’Obsession antiaméricaine is an intellectual tour de force and a joy to read.
It will enlighten those with an open mind, although Revel’s biting style is unlikely to win over the others. But as Jonathan Swift remarked, it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
While Revel tracks down America-bashers around the world today, Philippe Roger focuses on one country – France – and takes the long, historical view.
French anti-Americanism, he shows in L’Ennemi américain, goes back to the 18th century.
The opening salvos against America were fired by scientists, who were keen to portray nature in the New World as inferior and vitiated.
America’s climate was foul, its rivers poisonous, its vegetation stunted; its animals were pale shadows of their European counterparts, and its natives sub-human. Even an eminent naturalist like Buffon popularised the myth of America’s inferior life forms. This myth may have been a reaction to the rival belief in the Noble Savage.
Or it may have been an early case of national ego-nursing: the “degenerate nature” view of America triumphed in the mid-1760s – after France had been expelled from its possessions there.
One of Roger’s central themes is the persistence of extraordinary ideas.
An early “scientific” critic of America, Cornelius de Pauw, wrote in a 1768 book that America’s dogs, being poor relations of Europe’s full-throated canines, never barked. This piece of folklore (of “mytheme”, as Roget puts it) proved remarkably sturdy, surviving the advent of reliable transatlantic travel and mass communication, to find its way into the diaries of Paul Claudel, who describes reports of America’s silent dogs as “perfectly true” in a 1933 entry.
The French Revolution did not bring the two young republics closer together. The men of 1789 – even moderates like Brissot, who visited the United States – found the American Revolution a timid affair.
To this day, most French people share this view: real progress in human civilisation, it seems, can only be achieved through wholesale killings and terror.
The 19th century brought another theme that was to stand the test of time: the United States as a cultural desert and a land without history.
In the early decades of the century, the French did not resent America, a marginal nation of industrious philistines – they felt superior to it.
Nothing great could be achieved there. This assumption was shared by progressives and reactionaries alike, from the radical Stendhal (“No opera there”) to the arch-monarchist Joseph de Maistre (“One can bet 1,000 to one that the city will not be built, that it will not be called Washington, or that Congress will not reside there”).
Of course, the New World had its nineteenth century admirers, but their influence was limited. Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America remained virtually unread in France for a century after the author’s death in 1859.
America’s civil war marks a milestone in the history of anti-Americanism.
Suddenly the United States, now a major industrial power, was no longer an object of contempt, but one of hostility.
French journalists and writers passionately rallied behind the South. Even the Republican opposition – initially sympathetic to the North – soon wept for southern planters, who were seen as innocent victims of Yankee oppression.
But what about the South’s “peculiar institution”? To claim the moral high ground, French commentators introduced a technique that was to become a staple of the anti-American mindset: the conflict was analysed in purely economic terms. Slavery was a smokescreen to obscure the real point of the civil war: the Northern takeover of the South’s wealth.
America’s wars of the 20th century were seen in the same light. Washington used lofty principles to justify greed.
Fighting the Nazis was a handy excuse to ensure that Europe’s industrial heartland remained in capitalist hands; the coming war with Iraq is not about international law but about Arab oil, as was the last one.
Another defining moment was the war of 1898, in which the United States defeated Spain and seized its colonies. This drew torrents of condemnation by French commentators, who described America as an imperialist monster extending its tentacles to the four corners of the world. “Never have such faraway military events, in which France was not directly involved, generated such outrage”, Roger writes.
One paper published in 1899-1900 a highly successful serial entitled “The Billionaires’ Conspiracy”, about a cabal of American plutocrats undertaking to enslave Europe with an army of robots.
One remarkable aspect of this episode is that at no point did the French stop to question their own empire-building, which was being carried out on a scale US jingoes could only dream of. Even more remarkable was the unanimity it brought among the French. At a time when the country was in the throes of the Dreyfus affair, when brother was pitted against brother, the nation spoke as one to revile America.
French anti-Americanism was at its most vehement in the inter-war period. Any gratitude over the US intervention in 1917 evaporated rapidly.
Pundits and politicians from Clémenceau down explained that no thanks were due by the French, who had done all the work and suffered appalling casualties, to the Johnny-come-latelies who were trying to impose hypocritical pieties and unacceptable peace terms on their former allies.
The big innovation of post-first-world-war anti-Americanism was the weighing in of top-notch intellectuals.
In 1919 Charles Maurras wrote a Philippic against Woodrow Wilson. Like Maurras, most of the prominent Americanophobes of the day were conservatives: Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Paul Morand, Paul Bourget, André Maurois, Georges Duhamel, François Mauriac, Paul Valéry, etc.
They used their considerable authority (some of them had actually been there) to portray the United States as materialistic and inhuman, a soulless world of mass-produced oppression.
The Catholic writer Georges Bernanos in a passage heralding what Ayn Rand in the 1960s was to call “Anti-Industrial Revolution”, described American civilisation as the “civilisation of machines”, “without meaning to offend anyone.”
On the next page he compares this “monstrous alliance of speculation and machines” to the invasions of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. No offence meant, of course.
But the Golden Age of French anti-Americanism was the 1930s, when a fresh generation of right-wing young Turks, the “anticonformistes”, burst onto the scene. The most eloquent were Arnaud Dandieu and Robert Aron (no relation, biological or ideological, to Raymond), who co-wrote The American Cancer, a vehement call for Europe’s colonised peoples to rise against their Yankee masters. As the lights were going out on a continent overrun by dictatorships, the anticonformistes focused their anger on the one country where the flame of freedom was still burning bright. In this they were the forerunners of the left-wing intellectuals of the post-war period, who urged Europeans to look west, not east, for the ferocious enemy waiting to pounce on them.
After 1945, Roger says, French anti-Americanism no longer breaks new ground. It still boasts big-name intellectuals, but they have mostly recycled themes pioneered in the previous decades. Here Roger may be unkind to several inspired critics. “America has rabies. Let us sever all our links with her, or else we shall get bitten and become rabid,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in a classic 1953 article that puts the anti-conformistes in the shade.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Régis Debray gave anti-Americanism a fresh twist by popularising the moderate-sounding idea of equivalence between two superpowers equally bent on dominating Europe.
Throughout L’ennemi américain, Roger highlights a key aspect of French anti-Americanism: it manifests itself through words rather than deeds. American tourists are not targeted for attacks; France is the only big power that has never been at war with the United States. Being above all a “discourse”, as Roger puts it, anti-Americanism tends to be confined to intellectual and political elites. Opinion polls regularly show that ordinary Frenchmen feel positively towards America. They certainly consume its music, movies, food, and clothes, with gusto. Most crucially, anti-Americanism goes back a long way, and Roger does an impressive job of unravelling its various strands and tracing their ancestry.
Emmanuel Todd’s Après l’Empire is equally illuminating about the French intelligentsia’s “discourse” on America.
A prominent demographer with a taste for geo-strategic analysis, Todd argues that the United States, far from being in rude health and the master of all it surveys as is assumed by both friends and foes, is in fact foundering economically, politically, and militarily. Not only is America in trouble, but it is spreading its trouble wide. “The United States is becoming a problem for the world,” Todd writes. It acts as “a factor of international disorder, fostering uncertainty and conflict wherever it can.”
How does Todd arrive at such a startling conclusion?
The international order, he contends, now hinges on the Eurasian landmass, an area that holds the vast majority of the world’s resources and carries high potential for growth. Todd’s Eurasia, in the absence of outside meddling, it will go its own peaceful way towards development and democracy for all.
Todd acknowledges that Eurasia has its problems, such as low population growth and terrorism – but these are not as serious as they appear. Plummeting birth rates in Western Europe and Russia mean that big regional powers no longer need fear each other. Militancy is only a transition phase modernising Muslim societies are going through – Europe too was a violent, intolerant place when birth rates began to fall and literacy rise between the 16th and 18th centuries.
But a contented and stable Eurasia means a marginalised United States, and the Americans will do anything to prevent this. Keeping access to Eurasia’s wealth is all the more important as the United States produces less and less, relying on a massive influx of cash to maintain its voracious consumption. It needs its daily fix of foreign capital to take what the rest of the world produces. The world, in short, needs America less and less, and America needs the world more and more.
“America has turned from a protective to a predatory force,” Todd writes. “As its political and military usefulness ceases to be obvious, it realises that it cannot live without the goods produced by the rest of the planet.”
This is where the danger lies. The United States is not strong enough to build an empire, but it can stir up trouble, invent bogus threats and evil axes, to justify its military presence and keep foreign clients in line. Instability also keeps the cash of a frightened world flowing towards America’s shores. Hence what Todd calls “theatrical militarism”, the constant picking on minor regimes that are cheap and safe to bully. Ultimately, Todd concludes, America is doomed to sink into irrelevance, but in the short run it is making the world a worrying place.
Some of Todd’s arguments are interesting – such as the link between low birth-rates, literacy and democracy. Others points do not pass the laughing test – e.g. Japan as “the most effective economy in the world”. Many are plain bizarre. If Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is “insignificant as a military power”, why is the United Nations so keen to send weapons inspectors?
Todd also contends that in the future a powerful, democratic Russia is bound to dominate Eurasia. But surely that depends on what Russia does. Seven decades of communism, followed by one of kleptocracy, turned a medium power into a basket case. Russia has now graduated to mere backwardness – an improvement due not to historical or geographic necessity, but to the fact that Vladimir Putin has restored a modicum of lawfulness and promoted property rights. Russia may one day move towards greatness, but this will only happen when it starts building a healthy system and stop depending on the right strongman.
Todd’s world is one of underlying trends and deep dynamics that bears little resemblance to the world as we see it. If observation of reality does not guide him, what does? Todd denies any anti-American bias. He praises the United States’ role during the Cold War and scoffs at “structural anti-Americans” like Noam Chomsky. But despite these denials, the book displays all the classic features of anti-Americanism.
One well-worn technique consists in presenting US military action as the start of hostilities.
Todd, like many irrational critics of Washington’s war on terror, begins by removing it from its context – the attacks on the United States and all Qaeda’s worldwide call on Muslims to kill Americans and Jews. This enables him to describe Washington’s campaign as an act of unprovoked aggression, and the notion of international terrorism as “only useful to America if it wants an Old World inflamed by a permanent state of war”.
Todd uses the same sophistry with respect to Iraq: he makes no mention of weapons of mass destructions. The Bush’s administration policy on Iraq may be open to criticism. But all reasonable critics, unlike Todd, acknowledge that Baghdad presents a threat – the argument is over how to deal with it. For Todd, however, America is the only danger and it needs to be restrained. This is in essence is a softer, less brilliant version of Sartre’s warning about rabid America.
Todd also offers a grossly distorted picture American society. Racial discrimination, for instance, is said to be on the rise – or as Todd puts it, America is no longer “universalist”. Blacks and Latinos lead increasingly separate lives, away from the mainstream. The only evidence he provides to support this claim is statistics on mixed marriages, which remain relatively rare in both communities. The picture of America as hopelessly divided along ethnic lines may reassure many Europeans at a time when far-right xenophobes appeal to voters across their own continent, but it does not stand up. Everywhere you go in America you see signs of the spectacular rise of black and Hispanic middle-classes.
Another common feature of anti-American literature is the reference to American scholars – but only the ones that have been proven wrong. Todd sides squarely with the US “declinist” tradition, revived in its geo-political version by Paul Kennedy in the 1980s. Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which argued that the American empire was hopelessly overstretched and about to go way of Babylon and Rome, in fact described perfectly the situation of the Soviet Union at the time. America continued to thrive and was soon condemned as the only bully left on the block.
Academic declinism did not give up: it turned to economics. In the early and mid-1990s, a spate of popular books portrayed America as the victim of globalization. The US economy was plagued by profound problems – a shrinking industrial base, stagnating wages, rising inequality – and competition from low-wage countries was responsible. These ideas were brilliantly refuted by Paul Krugman, a mainstream trade economist, but it was the boom of the late 1990s that silenced the doomsters. More recently the bursting of the internet bubble and America’s corporate scandals gave them another excuse to describe the US economy as being in terminal decline.
What lies behind all this, of course, is good old-fashioned mistrust of economic liberalism. Todd, a thorough anti-liberal, neatly synthesises the various strands of America’s dubious declinist scholarship.
Après l’Empire will not tell you much about the United States’ strengths and weaknesses. But it eloquently confirms that French anti-Americanism is as robust as ever.
Spilling the Beans in Paris and London
by Henri Astier.
First time published in the Contemporary Review, in June 1994.
Anglo-saxon readers don’t need to be reminded who George Orwell is, but a few words of introduction might help in the case of Jean-Francois Revel.
A philosopher turned journalist, Revel has been one of France’s most influential political analysts for the past two decades. In a number of essays published in the 1970s and 1980s – notably (1970), (1976), and (1983) – he argued that although democracy is patently superior to other forms of human organisation, Western democracies have been reluctant to acknowledge, let alone exploit, their advantages; this reluctance has led them to favour appeasement toward inherently inferior but more determined enemies.
Revel’s admirers regard him as a most eloquent advocate of freedom, others dismiss him as an obsessive reactionary whose irrelevance was proven once and for all by the fall of communism.
The parallel with Orwell was first drawn by Marie Vargas-Llosa. In a 1979 article, the Peruvian novelist credited Revel with a “courage in challenging intellectual fashion” and defending liberty “wherever it is negated or distorted” which made him “the Orwell of our time”. There are also similarities in the two men’s careers. Both started as non-political writers with left-leaning views; both were drawn to politics after travelling abroad and testifying about a historical event (the Spanish Civil War for Orwell, upheavals in the United States in the 1960s for Revel); and both, as Vargas-Llosa observed, ended up denouncing the left’s “inferiority complex” toward the communists.
The biographical parallel, of course, shouldn’t be stretched too far.
After writing best-selling essays which earned him early in life a secure place among Parisian opinion-makers, Revel became the editor of France’s biggest newsweekly, L’Express, which he left in 1981 to write more best-sellers and enjoy the perks of well-deserved punditry, complete with regular television appearances and travels all over the world. The contrast with the careworn recluse eking a living from his chicken farm and coughing his way to an early grave is striking.
Even as authors, Revel and Orwell differ. They belong to the same genus and species (writers – political), but not to the same sub-species. Orwell is a brilliant essayist, but what distinguishes him most is his ability to express ideas through tales. Since Stendhal decided that politics in a novel had the effect of “gunfire in the middle of a concert”, fiction has been neglected as a vehicle for anything but the vaguest form of social message.
But political satire – which can be defined as tracts in fiction form – has a prestigious ancestry in England, into which Orwell was able to tap. He came to the conclusion that politics had given his later works focus and value. “This is a political age”, he reflected in 1948. “War, Fascism, concentration camps, rubber truncheons, atomic bombs, etc. are what we daily think about … We cannot help this. When you are on a sinking ship, your thoughts will be about sinking ships.” It is a cliche to make much of Orwell’s admiration for Swift, but some platitudes are worth stressing: Orwell’s best works are his satires and it is doubtful that A Clergyman’s Daughter would still be in print if it hadn’t been written by the author of .
While Orwell used the old techniques of satire to analyse the upheavals of the century, Revel revived another style of political writing — pamphleteering. The genre had been discredited in France by the spate of right-wing tracts published in the thirties; its hallmarks – ruthless polemics and vivid imagery aimed at crushing opponents rather than winning over waverers – have been associated with the ravings of rabid anti-semites. Revel, however, combines hard-biting prose with solid common sense, encyclopaedic knowledge, hard logic and devotion to fact. The result is intellectually stimulating, as well as vastly entertaining – if you happen to agree more or less in the first place.
Although an essential ingredient of good pamphleteering is a readiness to offend, the broadside must not be personal or gratuitous. Take this passage, in , where Revel punctures the bombastic conclusions reached by a conference of Nobel Prize-winners, most of them scientists, invited to Paris by President Mitterrand in 1988, to ponder on “threats and promises at the dawn of the twenty-first century”:
“I recognize that the Paris conference was above all publicity exercise for Francois Mitterrand; as a French taxpayer, I am glad to have contributed my modest share to the travel expenses of these luminaries, who do need to be entertained … But what were the conclusions of that august assembly? First that “all forms of life must be treated as part of the basic heritage of humanity” and that the environment should be protected. Wonderful! Later, that “mankind is one, and each individual has the same rights”… The audacity and novelty of these aphorisms are positively astounding.”
Revel’s irony is not just aimed at the celebrities regularly wined, dined and paraded by French governments. The main idea is that scientists can abuse their prestige by propounding unscientific banalities outside their field (a point also made by Orwell in a 1945 essay, entitled ““).
No two people agree on everything — and authors write books precisely because they think they have something new to say. Establishing intellectual kinship, therefore, means sorting out values which underpin a writer’s work and might be shared by others, from the combination of obsessions, idiosyncrasies, and assumptions arising from either personal experience or the spirit of the age, which makes that writer unique.
A literary critic or biographer must stress the latter, but someone writing on intellectual trends must dwell on the former. The rest of this essay seeks to bear out Vargas-Llosa’s contention by showing that Orwell-the-satirist and Revel-the-pamphleteer stressed the same ideas and shared the same values.
Most of Orwell’s writings, including his pre-war novels, are concerned with the passing of an old civilization and the rise of mechanized barbarity. Orwell came to associate the dying order with old English values such as mild manners, toleration, and defence of the underdog. Britain is of course riddled with class snobbery and archaic humbug, he wrote in “England your England”, but its people are still able to live private lives and can expect justice to be done. They are free, but for how long? The point is, the new cult of raw power and mass hysteria can only be resisted by holding on to a fading past of cherished quaintness, as Winston Smith tries to do in .
Orwell repeatedly blamed his contemporaries for ignoring the mortality of democracy, and for siding with its enemies, Nazism and communism. English right-wingers who mistook Hitler for a conservative failed to see that National Socialism “is emphatically revolutionary” and, like the other sort of socialism, is moving towards “a form of oligarchical collectivism”. As for left-wing intellectuals who opposed Hitler “only at the price of accepting Stalin”, he wrote in 1944, most are “perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, the falsification of history, etc. so long as they feel that it is on “our” side”.
Revel too makes blindness to the transience of democratic civilization a key theme – as can be expected from the author of . “Democracy”, the opening sentence proclaims with Orwellian portentousness, “may turn out to have been an historical accident, a brief parenthesis which is being closed before our very eyes”.
Although the West is reasonably healthy and rich, “Revel says, it acts as if it were sick and bankrupt. Through exercises in doublethink and self-delusion described in detail by Revel, democracies are fatally prone to questioning their own motives and giving their opponents the benefit of the doubt. Haunted by the death of Athenian democracy, Revel recalls Demosthenes’ vain attempts to convince his fellow citizens that they must resist Macedonian imperialism, instead of falling for the “peace campaigns” staged by Philip II’s proxies in Athens.
The similarity between Orwell’s warnings and Revel’s is further highlighted by a common charge levelled at them – their dire prophecies, critics say, were simply wrong. The real world of 1984 was very different from the one Winston Smith lived in. Democracies have triumphed over their Nazi and Soviet enemies, the argument goes, confounding the Cassandras obsessed with Western surrender. Even Francis Fukuyama, a liberal (in the continental sense) with much in common with Revel, includes the author of among the “deep historical pessimists” who had failed to see that communism was not invincible after all.
This line of criticism ignores the crucial distinction – made by both Orwell and Revel – between warning and prophesying. Pointing out the mortality of democracy is not the same as predicting its certain death.
Orwell, in fact, explicitly rejected the idea that totalitarianism would inevitably wipe out freedom. In an essay on James Burnham’s seminal analysis of the modern state, The Managerial Revolution, Orwell accepted that the advent of a new elite of planners and engineers meant that a centralized society was arising and that “capitalism is obviously doomed”; but he resisted Burnham’s idea that freedom would necessarily vanish in the process, with managers forming an almighty class ruling a small number of oligarchical superstates. In other words, Orwell did not see the world of as the most likely outcome. Burnham, he wrote, is guilty of the common illusion that present trends (in this case towards ever greater concentration of power) are irresistible. This illusion, Orwell goes on, leads Burnham to neglect “the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country”.
The main purpose of is not to show the shape of things to come, but to expose the logic of power worship (which Orwell elsewhere calls “the new religion of Europe”). In order to survive, a totalitarian state must try to get inside people’s minds, and control their deepest thoughts and feelings. Whether or not Orwell believed that this attempt was doomed matters little – although one may doubt that a man who thought power-driven technocrats would soon be able to control reality itself could have the energy to spend his last years writing about it. The question is whether totalitarianism must be actively resisted or whether we should be content to let the forces of history take care of its destruction. Orwell believed the latter.
The same is true of Revel, who never said that the USSR was bound to win or that the West is unfit for survival. On the contrary, he wrote over and over again that communism was a basket-case from the start. His point is that a civilisation is not protected by its mere superiority, but by concrete actions to take advantage of it. In the short term, a lost cause can imprison, maim, kill, and gobble up half of Europe. “History concerns particular individuals, not abstract processes”, Revel wrote in 1992. For the Chinese students crushed in June 1989 and millions of victims of repression since then, he goes on, the triumph of democracy as the ultimate stage in human government is not a glaring reality. “It is wrong to reply that someday it might be, because it will be for other men, and this is precisely the odious proof through the future which was used and is still used to justify so many totalitarian atrocities.”
Orwell and Revel focused on the power struggles affecting millions of men and women in their own time. They did not regard the outcome of these struggles as foregone conclusions, which is why they wrote fighting books, rather than cold analyses of long-term historical trends. The point was to try to influence the result; was indeed not a true prophecy, but it provided many Western readers with insights into life under totalitarianism; Revel was alarmist, but he contributed more to discrediting communism than those who, after the event, casually view its downfall as a matter of historical necessity.
Some may object that, politically, Orwell and Revel are poles apart.
It is disingenuous, the argument goes, to infer any deep sympathy from a purely negative common point. Only in a century which has bred monsters like the USSR can they appear as fighting on the same side.
This objection rests on the premise that Orwell and Revel embody two radically opposed lines of resistance to communism – from the left (Orwell) and from the right (Revel). The point is well taken, but only as far as it goes. Revel is a strong advocate of capitalism. He has always questioned the concept of a “mixed economy”, or middle course between a centrally-run and a market-based system. “In any mixed economy one element must prevail”, he wrote, “which means that there is no such thing as a truly mixed economy”. A key idea in is that the aims of socialism (equality, justice, freedom, solidarity, etc.) cannot be served by smothering private enterprise.
Orwell, on the other hand, felt that the profit motive had no place in the world of brotherhood he was dreaming of. He defined himself as a “democratic socialist”, opposed to both collectivism and laissez-faire. In a review of (1944), Orwell blamed Hayek for ignoring that “free” competition “means for the great mass of the people a tyranny probably worse . . . than that of the state”.
All this is true, but should not lead to the conclusion that Revel and Orwell objected to communism for fundamentally different reasons. First, their views on the merits of private enterprise were probably shaped by the times in which they lived. In the 1930s and 1940s, equating capitalism with dole queues may have come more naturally to an honest observer than it does after decades which brought growth and social progress in most places where freeish markets have been set up and shortages and oppression elsewhere. Admittedly, it is dishonest to co-opt Orwell posthumously into the Adam Smith fan club by speculating on how he would have analysed the emergence of Asian “tigers” or debt reduction schemes in Latin America; but the point is, neither he nor Revel has based his case against communism primarily on technical, economic grounds.
The anti-Soviet camp included many bedfellows – Trotskyists, Socialists, Christian Democrats, Royalists, Fascists, and many people with no particular ideological commitment, but who felt that the USSR was a nasty place. All these opposed Moscow with various degrees of intensity and for different reasons; but the ultimate distinction among them was between those who did so on principle and those who didn’t. Revel and Orwell did, and the precepts of political morality they raised were the same. They are the tenets of liberal democracy set forth by Enlightenment thinkers – governments derive their legitimacy from the people, they must respect freedom of the press, of assembly, etc. – and later put into practice, in a piecemeal but effective way, in North America and Europe. For Orwell these principles are traditionally English. Here is a country, he writes in “England your England”, where “the liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century”. During the war, he hoped that “the liberal tradition will be strong enough within the Anglo-American section of the world to make life tolerable and even offer some hope of progress”.
Orwell’s attachment to Enlightenment liberalism is particularly obvious in his insistence on the rule of law.
Liberty, Orwell wrote, can only survive in countries like England, where “the totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root”. The Oceanian Society in is tyrannical not because its rules are too strict but because it is not governed by a clear set of rules. Orwell’s most explicit refutation of the “anarchist utopia” is found in a passage from the article “Politics vs Literature” which could have been written by Montesquieu or Madison: ‘In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law”.
Looking for liberal values in Revel’s work is like trying to focus on sexual themes in the Marquis de Sade.
Every page is so fraught with the stuff, one is not sure where to begin. Revel, for instance, constantly upholds individual rights over state might. This leads him to debunk the notion of national sovereignty, and blame the United Nations and other international bodies for neglecting the declarations of human rights that grace their charters. The principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other states, Revel wrote, “in effect sanctifies among nations the reign of pure force and the law of the jungle”. The Totalitarian Temptation is not just a refutation of communism: it points to the nation-state as the other major obstacle on the ‘way to a better world order. This is also a major theme in Democracy Against Itself (1992), which stresses a moral duty of international intervention on humanitarian grounds: tyrants must not be given a free hand within their own borders.
A related Revelian theme is the need to control state power domestically. If unchecked, all governments tend to use their monopoly on force for its own sake.
Revel has repeatedly criticized the French constitution: the president’s powers, he holds, are not balanced by proper safeguards against arbitrariness; Parliament is mostly a talk-shop where important issues are not discussed and the judiciary cowers under the overextended wing of the executive. French ‘presidentocracy’, he argues in L’absolutisme inefficace (1992), leads to paralysis and mob rule. “Dismissing constitutional checks and balances, which cannot resist it or deflect its course, the presidential pachyderm is spurred only by forces that stand outside institutions – the media and the street.”
To retort that French presidents derive their legitimacy from direct mandate misses the point.
Revel’s definition of freedom, like Orwell’s, is typically liberal: the way power is exercised (in an absolute way or otherwise), matters more than the way it is derived (by popular vote or otherwise). “What determines the amount of liberty in a society”, he writes, “is the number of individuals who feel relatively autonomous, and the number of fields where they can operate according to their own initiative”.
Of course, he says, the ideal is for individual rights to be combined with democracy, i.e. popular mandate. But democracy, either direct or elective, is not in itself a guarantee that the individual sphere will be respected (witness ancient Greece); and societies whose leaders are not chosen democratically (such as imperial Rome) can preserve the rights of individuals and local bodies.
But doesn’t the emphasis on such rights reveal a smug Western bias? Isn’t it indecent for people living comfortably in the North to lecture those starving in the South about “the sanctity of the individual” and other luxuries? Surely, private values are irrelevant to societies based on community solidarity. This line of criticism boils down to the charge of “cultural absolutism” – which, incidentally, is more likely to be raised in North America or Europe than in cultures which do not worship “relativism” as absolutely as Western intellectuals do.
To the charge of “absolutism”, Revel and Orwell give the same replies: first, universal standards are valid because humans share a number of basic needs. In all societies, most people seek to achieve status for themselves and their families, and expect to be treated justly, etc. A Hutu from Burundi values life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as much as any resident of Massachusetts.
Human rights, Revel writes, are not demands arising from prosperity:
“The right not to be arrested … exiled, enslaved or robbed of your property; … not to be condemned without trial; put to death or jailed because of your opinions; … to leave your country or any other country freely; the right to free association or peaceful assembly, or, conversely, the right not to be forced to join an association to earn a living — all these can be put into effect immediately, anywhere. They are not linked to any level of economic development. They do not assume any bank loan.” (Democracy Against Itself.)
The idea that only Westerners cherish individual rights because they can afford to is akin to an attitude denounced by Orwell in a famous passage in T.
From his passing train, Orwell glimpses the hopeless expression on the face of a woman unblocking a drain-pipe in her dirty backyard:
“It struck me that we are mistaken when we say “It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us” and that people bred in the slums can imagine only the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She … understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”
The need stressed here is perhaps less universal than those listed by Revel – for many human beings, there may be worse fates than living in a poor Merseyside tenement.
But both passages raise the same point: people, whether male or female, rich or poor, black or white, generally aspire to human dignity. True, this is an elastic concept (a Westerner may find life without running water degrading), but nowhere, at any time, has it included the routine acceptance of persecutions and hardship at the hand of a brutal authority.
Another point is simply that the stress on universal values is NOT “absolutist”. Revel observes that true relativism, as it was pioneered by Plato, Aristotle and Enlightenment philosophers:
“…did not imply that all customs were equivalent, but that all should be impartially judged, including ours. We must not be more lenient towards ourselves than we are towards others, but we must not be more lenient towards others than we are towards ourselves either … When Montaigne castigated the crimes committed by Europeans during the conquest of the New World, he did so in the name of a universal principle to which, in his eyes, the Indians themselves were to be held.” (.)
Relativism, Revel writes, has come to mean the opposite of impartial judgement. It holds that others should not be held to Western standards; but since “cultural judgementalism” is fine when it comes to showing what is wrong with us, modern relativism means that Westerners should refrain from criticizing any culture but their own.
Orwell too denounced this tendency to accept from abroad forms of bigotry which are condemned at home. After quoting an excerpt of Sean O’Casey’s autobiography which is brimming with nationalist sentimentality, Orwell points out that:
“…if one substitutes ‘Britannia’ for ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ in these and similar passages … they can be seen at a glance for the bombast that they are. But why is it that the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman? Why is a statement like “my country right or wrong” reprehensible if applied to England and worthy of respect if applied to Ireland (or for that matter to India)?”
Revel and Orwell based their stand against totalitarianism on the premise that all human beings share basic expectations, and that all regimes can be judged on this basis. Few writers have so consistently stressed private values over collective ones and rejected the assumption — fashionable until the 1980’s – that people are what society makes them. The recognition that we all belong to a group, Revel wrote, should not obscure the “only verifiable fact in the history of mankind: everything we go through ultimately takes the form of an individual experience”.
All this, one may say, is now unexceptionable. Collectivism has been discredited as a political model; in the social sciences, Michel Foucault’s dictum that “Man is dead” has ceased to mean anything much. At a time when individual rights are seen as the cornerstone of democracy, shouldn’t liberal old-hats like Orwell or Revel be thanked for services rendered and consigned to the museum of political prehistory?
Neither Revel nor Orwell, it is important to note, focused on a purely military or even political threat. They are much more than “cold war” thinkers. Both use the word “totalitarian” to refer not just to tyrannical superpowers in Europe, but also to anti-liberal tendencies inside the human mind.
Orwell’s emphasis on precise language was bound up with his defence of freedom. In a reply to a 1946 article by the Marxist physicist J. D. Bernall – an assault both on Orwell’s ideas and on clear English – Orwell drew attention to “the connection between totalitarian habits of thought and the corruption of language”. This connection is explored at length in the essay “” and in . Likewise, in (an answer to the latter-day Bernals who blasted without discussing its ideas) Revel warns against “the creation of a totalitarian mentality”. The adjective is not bandied about as a vague term of political abuse (in the way that, say, “fascist” is often used); it refers to specific mental reflexes which, according to Revel and Orwell, undermine democracy.
The most basic of these is our ability to ignore facts which we find uncomfortable. The idea which underpins all of Revel’s works is this: we use our minds to perform all kinds of functions besides seeking knowledge – buttressing faith, helping us feel better about ourselves, finding solace, asserting authority, making friends, influencing people, etc. Many of these functions are perfectly respectable, but they are useless when we try to see and understand the world as it is.
For one thing, the ability of the mind to discard reality makes rational discussion extremely difficult.
In an early book, , Revel exposed what he called “devotion”, or “argument through consequences”:
We often judge other people’s ideas not on the strength of the logic and evidence presented, but by first looking at the conclusions. What matters is not whether what we hear is true or false, but whether it supports the right cause or the wrong one.
Intellectual debate tends not to be about proving our opponents wrong, but bludgeoning them with moral reproof.
The supremacy of “devotion”, Revel says, is evident in the common dismissal of science as an inferior form of knowledge.
Poets or mystics, we are told, are not just better at turning out odes or writing sermons – they have access to a wisdom which is higher than that of scientists, who are notoriously prone to putting mankind at risk by playing Dr. Frankenstein. At the core of this disparagement of science is an age-old tendency to value faith over observation: just because we believe something to be true, means it is true. Immediate “consciousness” can be a more reliable guide to understanding the world than the patient compiling and checking of facts.
The point that such ideas, despite their enduring trendiness, are in fact retrograde is the unifying theme of Revel’s philosophical books, , , and .
Greek philosophy, Revel argues, developed along two lines: one tradition, pioneered by Ionian thinkers, was dedicated to observing the natural world and understanding it through cumulative knowledge.
The other was based on the debasing of tangible reality and on the search for a “deeper” truth. This tradition, which in Greece found its most eloquent advocate in Plato, turned the clocks back to a stage where mythical thinking prevailed.
According to Revel, the struggle between these trends continued within western philosophy until the empiricists defected to found science as a separate branch of human activity, leaving the philosophical field to the spiritualists.
Incidentally, Revel argues that Descartes, who is presented as a founding father of rationalism, is in fact a quintessential metaphysician: his arguments are purely deductive — particular details are derived from a general principle posited as self-evident – and rest on the existence of God. In abandoning the painstaking search for truth, modern philosophy has become as much of a dead-end as medieval scholasticism.
More is at stake than the corruption of intellectual debate and the sinking of philosophy into futility. Revel’s political books highlight the wider threats posed by our readiness to ignore reality – variously called “will to believe”, “fear of knowing”, or “resistance to information”. During the “Cold War”, he points out in , some Western opinion was quick to take Moscow’s peacefulness for granted and to blame any rise in tensions on American “aggressiveness”, seeking refuge in an ideal world where there was no enemy. As sweet dreams were treated as truth, hard facts were dismissed as fantasy: those who pointed to massive evidence of Soviet aggression were derided as obsessive cold-warriors.
Likewise, domestic policies are often guided by beliefs which fly in the face of basic evidence. exposes the idea trumpeted by French socialists in the early 1980s that the country’s problems were due to private ownership of banks and big industrial groups. “Devotion” ruled supreme: those who pointed out that nationalisations and massive reflation had never reduced unemployment were condemned as “right-wingers”, a rebuff summed up in an ironical formula – “facts are reactionary”.
In book after book, editorial after editorial, Revel has denounced the ambition of governments of all political hues to ignore well-known economic principles, in a vain attempt to legislate prosperity.
is Revel’s most thorough expose of modern wishful thinking and “devotion”.
“The tragedy of our societies, he argues, is not that we lack the data we need to make informed choices, but that we choose to ignore them. True, technology and science are thriving, and we have learned to think rationally on specific projects, like building planes or setting up unit-trust funds. But outside our speciality, we are as prone to superstition and illogical thinking as Neolithic men.” “When they have a choice, Revel writes, people today are no more nor less rational than they were in times defined as pre-scientific.”
Revel goes through a catalogue of conventional half-truths, cosy hypocrisies and downright lies which pervade public life in developed societies. These are conveyed by church and civic leaders, politicians, journalists, etc. – but the so-called “opinion makers” are in fact slaves to men’s primaeval preference for mental comfort over knowledge; they tell us what we want to hear. is a powerful, dark book, but its aim is not to present man as a compulsive liar. It exhorts us to open our eyes, and make better use of our capacity for taking in reality. “This is important to democratic civilization, Revel says, because freedom thrives as much on truth and honesty as tyranny does on lying and cheating.”
No theme is more Orwellian than the flight from truth. In “Why I Write”, Orwell explained that he knew at an early age that he had “a power of facing unpleasant facts” which set him apart from most people.
This capacity for deriving his convictions from his observations rather than the reverse is perhaps Orwell’s trademark as a writer. The human mind left on its own, he always reminds us, is a malleable thing, capable of holding two contradictory beliefs at once, or adjusting its memories to its own warped purposes. “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proven wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right”, Orwell wrote. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
Orwell too warned against the political consequences of the bendable nature of our minds.
In his nightmare world, a fully fledged totalitarian regime traps people inside an almighty mind that answers to nothing but its own dictates.
This extreme form of idealism – in which truth is forever recreated by an abstract, collective consciousness – is most explicitly stated by O’Brien, Winston Smith’s torturer in :
You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you.
But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind … only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal.
Orwell’s emphasis on concrete observation is also bound up with his attachment to honest discussion. He tirelessly exposed the argument that one should refrain from attacking ‘X’ (the goodies) because this ‘objectively’ helps ‘Y’ (the baddies). This common argument – which is in essence what Revel calls devotion – is “only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist”, Orwell wrote.
“It is a tempting manoeuvre and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest”.
What’s more, it doesn’t work: “if you lie to people, their reaction is all the more violent when the truth leaks out, as it is apt to do in the end”.
Like Revel, Orwell defended “a conception of right and wrong, and of intellectual decency, which has been responsible for all true progress for centuries past, and without which the very continuance of civilised life is by no means certain”.
And like Revel, Orwell did not think that the battle was lost: he found comfort in the fact that in England, at least, “such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in”. The relevance of this message has not passed with the Cold War: it is as enduring as man’s tendency to sacrifice factual observation to self-righteous belief.
Indeed, we live in a time when intellectuals of themselves actively defend devotion. The old sophism that there is no such thing as truth is held up as a novel idea; among journalists, whose very job it is to inform, the cliche that “objectivity does not exist” is still an article of faith; on American campuses, racial separatism and censorship increasingly prevail over neutral standards and open discussion.
In an age like this, Orwell and Revel’s insistence on the reality principle as the basis of tolerance and freedom is as valid as ever.
Revel probes the origins of the notion that America is the source of all evil: imperialistic, greedy, ruthlessly competitive–a hyperpower whose riches are acquired at the expense of the Third World.
In collaboration with Jean-François’ son Matthieu Ricard.
Jean Francois-Revel, a pillar of French intellectual life in our time, became world famous for his challenges to both Communism and Christianity. Twenty-seven years ago, his son, Matthieu Ricard, gave up a promising career as a scientist to study Tibetan Buddhism — not as a detached observer but by immersing himself in its practice under the guidance of its greatest living masters.
Meeting in an inn overlooking Katmandu, these two profoundly thoughtful men explored the questions that have occupied humankind throughout its history. Does life have meaning? What is consciousness? Is man free? What is the value of scientific and material progress? Why is there suffering, war, and hatred? Their conversation is not merely abstract: they ask each other questions about ethics, rights, and responsibilities, about knowledge and belief, and they discuss frankly the differences in the way each has tried to make sense of his life.
Utterly absorbing, inspiring, and accessible, this remarkable dialogue engages East with West, ideas with life, and science with the humanities, providing wisdom on how to enrich the way we live our lives.
- Maidenly moderation, sur Comment les démocraties finissent
- Can the Democracies Survive?
- How Democracies Perish, by Eric Chenoweth
- Review: Anxiety and Ideology (limited access), by Stephen Sestanovich, 1985, The University of Chicago Law Review
- France: The Case for Pessimism, par George Russell pour Time, 03.12 1984
Translation of the book Ni Marx ni Jésus
- goodreads page and reviews
- Without Marx or Jesus, By Alfred Kazin, New-York Times, Sept. 26, 1971
- Without Marx or Jesus, by Jean-Francois Revel, by Edward Grossman for Commentary, February 1972
- Without Marx or Jesus, by Phoebe Lou Adams for The Atlantic, October 1971
- Neither Marx Nor Jesus, Christianity Today, October 8, 1971 (paywall)