The Totalitarian Temptation.
by Jean-François Revel.
Translated By David Hapgood. Doubleday. 311 pp. $8.95.
Jean-François Revel is in the Orwell tradition—a European socialist implacably opposed to Communism—and The Totalitarian Temptation is, accordingly, an essay in heresy. Indeed, so central is its challenge to the accepted wisdom of those European intellectuals who are now busily in the process of discovering that socialism and Communism are but differing sects of the same orthodoxy that Revel might seem to be expelling himself from the church altogether. Thus he declares, in the very first sentence of the book, that “the main obstacle to socialism is not capitalism but Communism,” and he proceeds to argue, in the teeth of all fashion, that the whole Communist world is—still, today—Stalinist at the core, and to explain why the advance of Communism meets with so little resistance.
The blame for the “docility toward Stalinism,” at least in Western Europe, is placed by Revel firmly on the shoulders of the non-Communist Left. He wastes little effort on disguising his contempt for those European socialists who make ritual disclaimers about Stalin himself but increasingly embrace the tradition, the world order, which he alone made possible. This, for Revel, is the meaning of the “pidgin Marxism” that goes by the name of Eurocommunism.
Revel (once but no longer a member of the French Socialist party) is particularly dismissive of François Mitterrand for cravenness toward the French Communists. He simply does not accept that the French Communist party has been “de-Russified,” and even if it were, he argues, the simple proclamation of “national roads” to Communism, roads unlinked to Moscow, changes nothing. China and Albania, which are even more totalitarian than the Soviet Union itself, have proved that. The key is not de-Russification, but rather democratization, and of this there seems precious little hope because any relaxation of “democratic centralism” would threaten the very existence of the Western Communist parties. And what is true of French Communism, according to Revel, is true of the Italian and Spanish varieties as well.
If Stalinism is on the march in Western Europe, then in much of the Third World, Revel finds, it has already arrived. He depicts many of the leaders of the less-developed nations as “history’s most remarkable herd of new rulers who are freebooters in their origins and authoritarian in their practices.” As against Daniel P. Moynihan, who in “The United States in Opposition” (COMMENTARY, March 1975) located the political ideology of those rulers in the tradition of Fabian socialism, Revel suggests rather that Third World leftism is a “Stalinist stew of reactionary statism and verbal socialism.”
In one sense, Revel is simply an old-fashioned 1950’s social democrat reacting to the new willingness of European socialists to work and enter into governing coalitions with the Communists. Yet what distinguishes Revel from the earlier generation of democratic (and therefore anti-Communist) socialists, and indeed from Orwell too, is his undeniable attraction to both capitalism and the United States. He is not only prepared to defend the United States against the more unbalanced and hysterical condemnations of the Left. He is actually pro-American—and not just by way of comparison with alternative systems. He believes that the United States represents the highest form of political civilization yet known to history, and believes too—as he argued in an earlier work, Without Marx or Jesus—that only in the United States can the next revolutionary advance take place. Revel, in effect, stands orthodox thinking on its head: he is a revolutionary who asserts that real change can only come out of a society that is open to change, that is not inert, bureaucratic, quasi-feudal, centralized, and dogmatized, as he believes all Communist societies to be.
As with the political system of the United States, so with its economic system. Capitalism, to the self-proclaimed socialist Revel, is the most materially abundant and morally acceptable economic system yet devised. He argues, like Marx, that socialism must take root within capitalism, but, unlike Marx, that it can only “develop by outgrowing—not destroying—capitalist civilization, while preserving its cornerstones: the capacity to produce, and political, individual, and cultural freedoms.” He is very certain that capitalism and political democracy go together. In fact, he asserts that political democracy “clings to its [capitalism’s] back” and that no other economic system has so far effectively carried democracy along with it.
All this points up a central ambiguity in Revel’s position. Believing as he does that capitalism is so attractive, that political democracy coexists with it as it coexists with no other economic system, that the United States is a force for good, and that the United States and its economic system are under challenge all over the planet from Stalinism, why should he continue calling himself a socialist?
“We have a surplus of definitions of socialism,” Revel writes; “what is lacking are examples of socialism.” And again: “There is no such thing as socialism, there is only evidence of socialism. And no such thing as democracy, only evidence of democracy.” Yet this finally begs the question. If indeed there are no examples of true socialism in practice; if, as Revel spends so much time proclaiming, all existing socialist systems have been twisted, distorted, and abused—then why bother with the term at all? Courageous as Revel is in taking on the myths of his contemporaries—and he is among the most courageous political intellectuals of our time—it may be that even he lacks the courage to risk a wholesale dissociation from the ruling socialist church. Be that as it may, however, Revel stands out as a shining force for reason and democracy amid a European intelligentsia which is rapidly rejecting both reason and the heritage of democratic freedom.