Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era, by Jean-Francois Revel, (Encounter, 300 pp., $23.95)
French public intellectuals have a reputation—well-deserved—for being socialists, Marxists, or Trotskyists. One thinks in this regard of popular figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, and Simone de Beauvoir, all with fan clubs on American campuses. Some French thinkers, however, have carried forward another intellectual tradition, that of classical liberalism—pro-democracy and pro-market—and running from the work of Alexis de Tocqueville to Albert Camus to the philosopher and journalist Jean-François Revel, who died at 82 in 2006.
Revel, as demonstrated in the newly translated edition of his 1999 book, Last Exit to Utopia, hated all utopias, and always put reality first. For him, the plain facts showed that capitalism worked better than socialism. Yet self-proclaimed intellectuals stuck to socialism even after it had clearly failed. Throughout his career, Revel would attack, with vivacity and much humor, the blindness of these leftist thinkers. In Last Exit to Utopia, Revel systematically contrasted the indisputable realities with the stubborn leftist commitment to dubious social experiments.
Revel’s books are always a joy to read: his literary skill is in the vein of Voltaire or Moliere. He could never solve the ultimate puzzle of the Left’s blindness, however: why would educated scholars elevate utopian fantasy above reality? The failures of the Soviet Union, its mass cruelties, had been known in the West since the 1930s: André Gide had denounced them in his book, Return from the USSR. Scholars and journalists in the West did not need to wait for Solzhenitsyn to learn about the existence of the Gulag. Yet these truths had little consequence. Leftist intellectuals rationalized any bad news by explaining that the Soviet Union did not practice “real socialism.” After the Berlin Wall came down, many on the left took the event not as a rejection of socialism but as an opportunity at last to build true socialism, free of Russian perversion.
Revel tried to explain this utopian yearning through Rousseau’s influential doctrine: man was inherently good, society bad. Therefore, as Rousseau had it, reforming society—starting with the suppression of private property—would allow man’s fundamentally good nature to shine forth. Another source of the utopian fantasy, he believed, came from the European Catholic canon: good intentions count most. Even after learning that the Soviet Union and the Third Reich killed approximately the same number of their own citizens, leftist intellectuals rejected any comparison between the two regimes; after all, the Soviets’ intentions were better than the Nazis’, and intentions trump results. Revel could barely contain his ire at leftist scholars who refused to discuss the matter honestly.
In the final book he published before his death, Anti-Americanism, Revel deconstructed anti-American discourse—raging at the time, in the first year of the Iraq War—and showed that anti-Americanism was little more than an ideology, scarcely related to the actual United States. Always lenient with his adversaries—Paris being a relatively small city, where all intellectuals eventually meet on a regular basis—Revel was kind enough not to mention that anti-American intellectuals in France usually can’t speak English and never travel to the United States. For them, hating the mythical America is more satisfying than discovering the real one.
In Last Exit to Utopia, just as in his former books, Revel refused to apply the Marxist methodology to his enemies: he could have accused them of being lackeys in the service of the state, from which most received their incomes. Socialism doesn’t work for ordinary people, but it often increases the status and power of committed intellectuals. But Revel, a strong believer in reason, disdained ad hominem arguments. He believed, with excessive optimism, that reasoning could eventually persuade socialists that they were wrong. His philosophical superiority was rooted in this commitment to reason, but his political weakness was to underestimate the power of myths, ideologies, and religions in shaping (and hardening) people’s views.
Revel’s books are thus deeply relevant to the current American debate on the future role of government: should good intentions (like “health care for all”) take precedence over the predictable bad results of such measures? Should political myths (the benevolent state) be fought with facts, or by promoting counter-myths (like the libertarian utopia)? America’s loud and disgruntled demonstrators, from universal health-care activists to Tea Partiers, would benefit from an encounter with this great defender of the free society.