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.”
Revel’s book is an inventory of political correctness as it stood in France a decade or two ago. There are a couple of problems with bringing out such a book now. First, no matter how important and revelatory these episodes may have seemed back then, it looks like nitpicking to care overmuch today about, say, the reaction of various leftists to remarks Octavio Paz made about the Sandinistas during a speech in Frankfurt in 1987. A second problem, naturally enough, is that some of Revel’s judgments have been falsified by time. When he wrote, it appeared obvious to everyone that China’s combination of partially open markets and political authoritarianism was on the verge of collapsing of its own contradictions. But China’s economic syncretism has, like capitalism before it, proved more flexible than its doomsayers suspected. Revel belittles the view of Lionel Jospin, France’s prime minister at the turn of the century, that the 1998 ruble crisis in Russia was caused by “the abuse of ultraliberal [i.e., ultra-capitalist] ‘gadgets.’ ” For Revel, the ruble collapse had everything to do with kleptocracy and nothing to do with international finance. With the wisdom of hindsight, we would probably say it had a bit to do with both. Financial gadgets have turned out to be more dangerous than we thought.
Revel shows that Communism introduces intellectual corruption in certain predictable ways. He seems keen to extend this point to political ideologies in general. There was always an asymmetry between Communists and anti-Communists; they were not simply opposite views of the same question. But ideologues act as if, because they believe x, their opponents believe the opposite of x. So, for instance, leftists scold their opponents that “the market is not a solution to every problem,” as if their opponents believed it were.
“Who has ever maintained such an absurdity?” Revel asks. “But since socialism was conceived in the delusion of being able to resolve every problem, its partisans project the same ambition onto their opponents.” And this is what makes it particularly dangerous when “ideals” and “convictions” become a legitimate criterion for judging political theories. Once they do, ideologues can impute all resistance to their behavior as resistance to their ideals.
“I always feel a little uneasy,” Revel writes, “when I hear someone eulogize a political figure with the vague phrase, ‘He (or she) is a person of conviction.’ What conviction, exactly?” An opponent of Stalin can be recast as an opponent of “a fair shake for the working man,” and if Communism itself fails to give the working man a fair shake—well, then, it is by definition not Communism. Thus, when the Communist regime of Pol Pot committed genocide in Cambodia, the historian and biographer Jean Lacouture opined that it wasn’t Communism that was responsible, but “tropical fascism” or “rice-paddy social nationalism.”
In the 1990s, when historians began to explore the links between the two midcentury totalitarian ideologies, anti-anti-Communists would make the implausible claim that to do so would hearten the right. Revel engages this argument with gusto. The one indisputably good thing Communism did, he admits, was to fight Nazism. But that tells us nothing.
The argument that Communism was essentially democratic because it warred against fascists is no more acceptable than its obverse: that Nazism was democratic because it joined the fight against Stalinism.
Moreover, it is built on a misrepresentation. When the European socialist left made its big lurch towards Marxism it did so in the 1960s and ’70s, “in the absence of any serious fascist threat in Europe and when Francoist and Salazarist remnants were fading.”
If carping at the politics of the 1990s were all Revel had to offer, Last Exit to Utopia would be interesting only as a historical document. But Revel was a widely read and immensely witty man, with a glorious prose style, and he is capable of discussing trivial matters in ways that illuminate general principles. In this, Last Exit bears a resemblance to Albert O. Hirschman’s great short study, The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991). In each case, the thinking transcends the narrow ideological aims of its author—social democratic in Hirschman’s case, anti-Communist in Revel’s—and winds up a study of how human beings argue, no matter what they happen to be arguing about.
Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, is the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe.