You may not have ever heard of Jean Francois Revel, but you would do well to make his posthumous acquaintance. Revel was (he died four years ago) a French intellectual who was perhaps the greatest French defender of American democracy and capitalism since Tocqueville.
In a century in which it was fashionable for French intellectuals like Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida to embrace socialism and disdain the bourgois capitalism of the United States, and indeed to disdain the United States itself, Revel stood stout against the wooly-headed utopianisms of his leftist peers. His books included How Democracies Perish, The Totalitarian Temptation, Anti-Americanism, Without Marx or Jesus, and The Last Exit to Utopia.
This last work, written in 1999, has recently been translated into English and is reviewed in City Journal by Guy Sorman. Sorman writes:
[Revel] 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: Andr� 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.
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.
The utopian impulse is very much alive in the contemporary edition of the Democratic party, but we must not forget that such impulses have invariably led to the loss of freedom and not infrequently to oppression. It was Revel's great contribution to western civilization that he would not allow the Left to promote their collectivist, dehumanizing schemes unchallenged.RLC