Last Exit to Utopia
The Survival of Socialism
in a Post-Soviet Era
by Jean-François Revel
translated by Diarmid V. C. Cammell
Encounter, 300 pp., $23.95
The French philosopher and author Jean-François Revel, who died in 2006 at the age of 82, had strong feelings about Sincerity, Hunger for Justice, Hope, and Change. They were not, however, the usual feelings. “None of these vapid platitudes,” he wrote, “excuses anything, especially not in the mouths of intellectuals.”
This insight motivated his whole writing life. Revel joined the French Resistance as a teenager. He taught philosophy in Algeria, Mexico, and Italy; edited both of France’s leading newsmagazines; and wrote books on Baudelaire, Proust, Descartes, Western philosophy, Buddhism, and French cuisine. He was elected to the Académie Française, the country’s highest cultural honor.
For the whole of that varied career, though, anti-Communism was what motivated Revel most. He wanted to figure out how “noble intentions” flow into barbarous acts. Were the perpetrators of Communism cynical and cruel? Or
idealistic and naïve? One mystery, in particular, preoccupied him in his final years: Why we understand Nazism as evil, but Communism as merely misguided, and even nobly misguided. Europe was obsessed with understanding and atoning for the Nazi Holocaust—and rightly, Revel felt. But Communism labored under no such moral stain, as if it were the beneficiary of some kind of (in Revel’s words) “Most Favored Totalitarianism” clause. His thoughts on the subject make up the bulk of his final book, Last Exit to Utopia, which has just been translated into English a decade after its publication in France.
Revel was a materialist. The Marxism that interested him was what Raymond Aron called “the Marxism of Marx.” Revel felt, as Marx himself did, that you ought to judge social systems by their results, not by the sentimental bourgeois myths that get garlanded on them. Where he was bold was in his assertion that Communism itself had such bourgeois myths. Stripped of the rhetoric of “caring,” Communism looks like a run-of-the-mill system for producing prison camps, censorship, and mass executions.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, everyone—Communists themselves very much included—would admit that certain Communist regimes had gone badly astray. But few intellectuals would entertain the possibility that the evils of Communism were systematic. A good gauge of the mood, Revel believes, came with the publication of two books in the mid-1990s.
The historian François Furet’s amply documented account of Communism’s grip on Western intellectuals, The Passing of an Illusion (1995), was well-received by France’s largely left-leaning intelligentsia—it treated Communism as an intellectual error. Although Revel and Furet were friends, they differed on this point. Revel’s views are closer to those in The Black Book of Communism, an equally well-documented account published by a committee of historians two years after Furet’s. The Black Book treated Western intellectuals’ infatuation with Communism over the decades not as a misunderstanding but as collaboration in a crime. That is one reason why the book was almost universally condemned by French reviewers upon publication. Two of its contributors, Revel writes, were compelled by the universities they worked for to renounce their contributions. But there is another reason for the differing reputation of the two books. Furet, a former Communist himself, was thought of as a “man of the left,” plausibly or not.
“One of the symptoms of how intellectual debate has degenerated in France,” Revel writes, “is that ‘where you’re coming from’ (to use that horrible expression) counts for more than what you are actually saying.”