Jean-François Revel, 1924-2006
France's defender of freedom.
May 15, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 33 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
JEAN-FRAN OIS REVEL, who died at 82 on April 30, was a rarity in the landscape of leftist intellectuals turned conservative. Revel became the first French neoconservative not over policy matters, but as a defender of intellectual nonconformity and of a radical vision of personal freedom.
I began following his work early on, and his open break with the left at the end of the 1960s was as stunning as that of the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate in literature Octavio Paz. Both men saw a direct progression from dissent within the left to denunciation of a left that believed it could survive without internal controversy and thus without accounting for the crimes committed in the name of socialism and liberation. In American terms, Revel more resembled the art critic Hilton Kramer than the journalist Whittaker Chambers. High modernism in culture, based on experiment and protest, was more important to him than the renewal of the political, religious, or social values of the past. But because liberty was paramount, he became a fierce anti-totalitarian.
In the full flight of '60s rebellion, I first saw Revel's name on a set of pamphlets he edited in Paris with the evergreen title Libertés ("Freedoms"). I remember one afternoon in 1968, when I sat in the attic at the headquarters of the Beat Generation, the City Lights Book Shop in San Francisco, where the latest shipment of little books from France had just shown up. The series, bound in brown wrapping paper and including polemics by the French surrealists André Breton and Benjamin Péret, caught my attention. The text by Breton, under the title Flagrante Delicto, blasted an alleged forgery of a poem by Rimbaud. Péret's work was a devastating attack on the French surrealists who turned into Stalinists, in a confrontational idiom that remains shocking today, since the writers Péret castigated--like the versifier Paul luard--have become icons of world poetry.
Revel possessed impressive credentials as a cultural revolutionary. He was among the most outspoken critics of Charles de Gaulle's semi-monarchical rule, beginning in 1958, and his name was included, alongside those of Breton and other surrealists, among the signers of a document still famous in France, the 1960 "Declaration of the 121 on the Right of Disobedience in the Algerian War." Written by the literary philosopher Maurice Blanchot and the cultural critic Claude Lanzmann, who became famous for his nine-and-a-half-hour documentary film on the Holocaust, Shoah, the declaration was also signed by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, the actress Simone Signoret, and a few other stars of the same magnitude. The "Declaration of the 121" was the last time the radical modernists, whose trajectory had begun in the 1920s, would play a leading role in French political life. But for Revel, it was an early step in a new journey.
I discovered, all those years ago, that two of Revel's books had come out in English--both of them wise and acidulous, both forgotten today. One, given the innocuous title The French when it was printed here in 1966, was a scarifying examination of political spinelessness in the face of Gaullism. An earlier and even more obscure work, As for Italy, had appeared in English in 1959 and was brutal in its demolition of the cultural and spiritual pretensions of the heirs to the Roman legacy.
But all changed completely in 1970, when Revel published Without Marx or Jesus, a tribute to "the new American revolution" that shocked his old comrades of the radical left. Without Marx or Jesus made Revel internationally famous, not least in the United States, and I met him on his book tour, when he spoke at a community college in San Francisco. Truth to tell, finding anything attractive about America made him too disturbing to be heard at the University of California at Berkeley or San Francisco State University, those centers of revived Stalinism. He seemed not to know the difference, and was pleased to have had the opportunity to see the West Coast.
His next incendiary device was a book called The Totalitarian Temptation, issued in French in 1976 and in English the year afterward. Therein he indicted the generation that produced the New Left. This new work was less provocative but was simply and grimly cautionary. He followed that seven years later with How Democracies Perish, in which he described democracy as
the first system in history which, confronted by a power that wants to destroy it, accuses itself. . . .