Anti-Utopian: Jean-François Revel

Utopia is not under the slightest obligation to produce results: its sole function is to allow its devotees to condemn what exists in the name of what does not.—Jean-François Revel

My acquaintance with French political philosopher Jean-François Revel (1934-2006) began with a recent issue of Policy Review. It seems that this member of the distinguished  L’Académie française started life as a leftist and emerged as an outspoken supporter of America and the free enterprise system, defying the formidable conformity and animosity of his peers. Near the end of his life, Revel made a noted defense of Stéphane Courtois’ Black Book of Communism—the first comprehensive history of Marxist atrocities in the twentieth century—against absurd charges of “fascist” bias.  In this respect he reminds me of another important anti-Marxist French writer, Raymond Aron who, it turns out, was Revel’s mentor.

Revel was refreshingly realistic and pithy. It would be enough to quote him at length, as for example: “It is unlikely that we will ever be capable of building a world that is qualitatively better than we ourselves are.” He also observed that while Western sympathizers with Communism “have no blood on their hands…. their pens are dripping with it.” That said, I am prompted to share some thoughts on Apoorva Shah’s article on Revel.

Shah makes the excellent point that neither capitalism nor conservatism should attempt to mimic the social dogma of progressives. “It is a lesson not only for the left but also the right” he says, that we avoid “falling into this ideological trap, believing that the natural give-and-take of free markets is in fact a rigid, predestined pathway for the global economy in direct and equal opposition to the communist path.” Free market viewpoints should avoid a priori assumptions. At the same time, in examining the etymology of the French idea of laissez-faire, Shah finds it means something more than careless economic abandonment. Nor should social empiricism be equated with relativism. Revel was deeply committed to traditional Western philosophy, as seen in his respectful but firm dispute with his Buddhist son. This intellectual dissenter on the right was driven less by contrariety, says Shah, than his deep “desire for consistency and cohesion.”

There are some points that bear further discussion, not least of which is the fragility of democracy. Revel became increasingly skeptical of the West’s political future. He said that although self-criticism is “one of the vital springs of democratic civilization,” when taken to an extreme it ceases to be “a harmless luxury” and condemns our society’s very existence. Shah optimistically states that such predictions have turned out to be “incorrect,” yet current events seem to substantiate Revel’s worst fears about popular government undermined by those who take the most advantage of its freedoms.

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