Jean-François Revel

Review of “La Grande Parade”

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?

Jean-François Revel, a long-time critic of the left’s fascination with Marxism, tackles these questions in La grande parade – the French word here primarily means “parry”, as in boxing. What progressives have successfully dodged, he argues, is the reality check that the end of communism should have brought about. At the time, most observers drew two main lessons. One was that communism was beyond redemption. The other was that liberal capitalism – markets underpinned by the rule of law — was the only way forward. But by the mid-1990s the left had launched a counter-offensive on both fronts. Liberalism was again denounced as fundamentally iniquitous, and the hope for a good, non-capitalist order was revived. Revel contends that the end of communism actually galvanised the radicals: “Now they were free,” he writes, “to idolize unreservedly a socialism restored to its pristine condition – utopia.”

A prime example of this flight from reality, according to Revel, is the battle over the Black Book of Communism. When it was published in France in 1997, the book was condemned by many on the left as an attempt to exculpate the Nazis and legitimise right-wing extremism. Le Monde noted that the publication coincided with a meeting of the far-right National Front. But Revel’s interpretation of the Black Book controversy turns the tables: politically motivated progressives, he says, were engaged in a posthumous defence of communism, designed to gloss over its crimes.

One might object that the Black Book’s critics were not defending communists: they were only denying that you could equate them with Nazis. Regardless of the undisputed crimes committed in its name, communism meant well. But such an objection only bolsters Revel’s basic claim: the “ultraleft”, as he calls it, is intent on rescuing communist ideals from the Soviet wreckage. Revel notes wrily that this is inconsistent with praxis – reality, as Marx insisted, should never be confused with the professed intentions of social actors. Since communism, everywhere and at all times, has resulted in political repression, the argument that it was at heart a good idea must be based on a complete retreat from observable reality. A Black Book-style body count, Revel persuasively concludes, is abhorrent to those who refuse to judge communism on the evidence only.

Revel also shows that reluctance to take stock of communism is not confined to the “ultraleft”. In 1997 Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a moderate socialist, jumped into the fray over the Black Book by praising the French Communist Party as a force for progress. President Jacques Chirac, in a 1999 speech commemorating the killing of villagers by Nazis at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944, condemned “all” atrocities down the ages – from the massacres of Huguenots to the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. In his otherwise comprehensive overview of man’s inhumanity, Chirac did not mention a single communist crime.

Revel identifies a “most favoured totalitarianism” clause: remembering the Nazis is rightly considered a duty, but those trying to keep the memory of communist crimes alive are dismissed as reactionary holdovers from the Cold War. Denying the Holocaust is a crime in many countries, known as “negationism” in France. “Pronazi negationists are only a handful,” Revel notes. “Procommunist negationists are legion.”
Deying the criminal nature of communism is just phase one of “opération grande parade”; phase two consists in affirming the criminal nature of capitalism. Economic liberalism, Revel writes, is “universally” reviled. “Hold on!” one might say. “Governments all over the world are falling over themselves to open their markets!” True, Revel replies, but few preach what they practice. In France, a reluctant convert to market discipline, politicians of all stripes avoid the L-word like the plague. “Non, nous ne sommes pas libéraux!” protested Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former socialist minister. Alain Juppé, a former conservative prime minister, once described liberalism as a “jungle”.

Liberalism, Revel goes on, is now routinely blamed for many social ills – from the adjustment problems of former communist economies, to child labour in developing countries and environmental damage everywhere. The eco-warriors, street-reclaimers and sundry anti-capitalists who recently demonstrated in Seattle, Washington and London are not the only, or even the most eloquent, exponents of such views. In a famous 1997 article for the Atlantic Monthly the financier George Soros argued that the spread of market values endangered democracy and fostered inequality. The British public apparently agrees. In May 2000 Channel 4 television aired a programme entitled “New Labour on Trial”, in which Tony Blair’s government was being prosecuted from an Old Labour, anti-liberal perspective; by a margin of almost two to one, a jury of 250 people, said to be representative of the population, pronounced the Prime Minister guilty of being a control freak and turning his back on the poor.

Revel points out that critics attribute to capitalism the characteristics of totalitarianism. John Gray, in his 1998 book False Dawn, described “liberal ideology” as a utopia. Economic liberalism is also often said to be a dictatorship: governments are no longer accountable to people but to corporations. France’s leading anti-capitalist author, Vivianne Forrester, whose new book is entitled Une étrange dictature, told a recent television show that “we are experiencing a form of totalitarianism”.

The widespread idea that behind capitalism’s benign surface lurks a monster is rarely challenged – even in market-friendly Britain. A recent remark by the left-wing politician Ken Livingstone that “every year the international financial system kills more people than Hitler” drew mostly mild rebuke. Britain’s leading liberal publication, The Economist, commented that Mr Livingstone “still allows his wild mouth to get the better of him.” Londoners took the remark even less seriously and elected him mayor of a city that contains Europe’s main financial centre. Compare this with the international furore over the Black Book’s (much better documented) contention that communism killed more people than Hitler.

Revel observes that the debate between liberals and their critics is warped by a basic misunderstanding. Capitalism is often viewed as an ideology, a socialism in reverse. Markets, it’s often said, are not the answer to everything – as if anyone had ever made such a silly claim. “Since socialism was conceived in the delusion that it could resolve all problems,” Revel writes, “its supporters attribute the same conceit to their contradictors.” But unlike socialism, capitalism was never a blueprint for an ideal society: it evolved by trial and error down the centuries. Capitalism is not so much a doctrine as it is a process by which new arrangements are being tested. Anti-capitalism, Revel concludes, boils down to a hatred of progress.

La grande parade is not just a passionate defence of classical liberalism and an attempt to puncture the enduring appeal of the socialist utopia. Like all of Revel’s earlier work, it’s above all a reflection on people’s capacity for dismissing the evidence before them. Mario Vargas-Llosa once compared Revel to another great anti-totalitarian thinker, George Orwell. This powerfully sensible book could indeed have been prefaced with a sentence from Orwell’s 1946 article, In Front of your Nose: “The point is that 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.”