Blogs > Liberty and Power > Jean-François Revel

May 6, 2006 3:46 am


Jean-François Revel




Jean-François Revel (1/19/1924-5/30/2006)was, as Henri Astier has correctly pointed out, was a European classical liberal admirer of American individualism. The more than thirty books, including Anti-Americanism, How Democracies Perish and, perhaps his best-known Without Marx or Jesus which he authored are often frustrating in their density, and frequently leaves one desiring that he not be, well, quite so"French" in his thinking, but he was a French writer in the best sense of the term. Astier says, he

was not just the grand old man of French political literature; he was a leading exponent of freedom in the tradition of Raymond Aron, Alexis de Tocqueville and Baron Montesquieu.

Revel, initially a philosopher, made his name in 1957 with a critique of the intellectual fashions of the time, Pourquoi les Philosophes? (Why Philosophers?). The book contended that philosophy, having spawned a host of disciplines – mathematics, physics, biology, history and the social sciences, as well as the scientific method itself – was itself no longer a creative force...

In the 1960s Revel continued to contribute to the history of ideas, with a book on Proust and a history of western philosophy. He ventured into politics at the end of the decade with his first international bestseller, Without Marx or Jesus (1970) [which].... argued that today’s true progressive force was not Marxist collectivism but US-style individualism. "The 20th-century revolution will take place in the United States", Revel wrote. "It can only unfold there, and it has started to do so. It will spread to the rest of the world only if it succeeds in North America."

...his defence of freedom and human rights as absolutes brought him head-to-head with the emerging Marxist left. In The Totalitarian Temptation (1976) and How Democracies Perish (1983), Revel noted that western capitalism, which carried with it an unprecedented degree of wealth and freedom, was rejected by"progressives" as odious, while communism, which produced only misery and tyranny, was regarded as attractive.

The communist danger, as he saw it, was as much moral as military. Democrats, especially on the left, no longer believed in their own values, and even adopted the mental reflexes of totalitarianism (character assassination, doublethink, wilful disregard for facts, and propaganda). Revel deplored what he regarded as an intellectual surrender, and concluded that the west was hopeless at exploiting its own strengths. Democracies, he feared, were bent more on rushing to their own enemy's rescue than on self-preservation: in the end the law of political evolution might lead to the"survival of the least fit"...

Revel never argued that communism could not be vanquished. He said it was irreversible only insofar as it could not be reformed. Ever since Without Marx or Jesus he had always argued that the Soviet Union was an unmitigated disaster. As he wrote in The Totalitarian Temptation:"The only way to improve communism is to remove it."

The purpose of How Democracies Perish was to urge the west to stand up for its own values. The book sought to show that communist totalitarianism was beyond redemption and should not be placated, and that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics owed its continued survival to its repressive apparatus and the complacent help of democracies.

In Democracy Against Itself (1992) Revel lambasts the idea – fashionable at the time – that communism had always been headed for the dustbin of history and that alarm had been misplaced: "It is a little bit as if someone said: 'You can see there was no reason to be worried in 1805 about Napoleon because in 1815 he was in St Helena.' The whole point is that he ended up there as a result of actions by leaders and peoples, not because in 1805 Napoleon was not dangerous or was bound to go out."

...To the very end, Revel remained true to the doctrine that gives his whole work strength and coherence: classical liberalism, i.e. a belief in individual rights and markets underpinned by the rule of law.

...Revel was always uncomfortable with the conservative label that was attached to him from the late 1970s. Many of the libertarian values he had always championed had indeed migrated to the intellectual right. But he was never close to the Gaullists, whom he knew to be worshippers of the state. Revel’s natural political home was the shrinking space in the centre, where France’s liberal misfits from both the right and the left tend to converge.

The 20th-century thinker Revel was closest to was George Orwell – who also blamed his contemporaries for ignoring the mortality of democracy and for siding with its Nazi and communist enemies....

Revel’s most Orwellian work – and perhaps his most profound – was The Flight from Truth (1988; one may find the French title more telling: La Connaissance inutile). The book dissects with clinical precision the flexibility of the human mind, its ability to sift information to suit our prejudices:

"The tragedy of our societies is not that we lack the data we need to make informed choices, but that we choose to ignore them. It is true that technology and science are thriving, and we have learned to think rationally on specific projects, like building planes or setting up unit-trust funds. But outside our speciality, we are as prone to superstition and illogical thinking as Neolithic men."

Revel, who has researched the subject thoroughly, traces a catalogue of fallacies peddled from America to Zimbabwe by"opinion makers" who are in fact slaves to humanity’s primeval preference for mental comfort over knowledge. The main point of Flight from Truth, however, is not that humans are unredeemable liars. On the contrary, just like Orwell, Revel exhorts us to make use of our capacity to take in reality and see what is in front of our noses. "This is important to democratic civilisation, because freedom thrives as much on truth and honesty as tyranny does on lying and cheating."

...Although Revel was largely misunderstood by the intelligentsia, his books were indeed huge successes. He was arguably the most powerful and influential of all 20th-century anti-totalitarian writers. Liberty has lost an irreplaceable champion.

Just a thought.
Just Ken
CLASSical Liberalism


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