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Revelling in the End of Utopia

Vive la Résistance Gourmande! Jean-François Revel sporting the sword of the Academie Française. Image by GETTY IMAGES

Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era
By Jean-François Revel, Translated by Diarmid V.C. Cammell
Encounter Books, 300 pages, $23.95.

Jean-François Revel, who died three years ago this past spring, was America’s most intellectual supporter in France. He was a philosopher and writer, a Resistance fighter during the war (born Ricard, Revel was his nom de guerre), a conflicted socialist before 1968, later a converted “liberal” (in French, libérale means “conservative”) and a member of the Académie Française. A bald, plump gourmand — Revel was also the author of books on gastronomy and poetry — he was often invited on French radio and television, where he was as witty and quotable as Bernard-Henri Lévy or any other nouveau philosophe of the 1970s (André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut), though unlike them, he was a practicing journalist and not Jewish.

Revel was also a reveler in the French language who didn’t mind it being invaded by Anglo-Americanisms and becoming “Franglais.” He disliked George W. Bush but despised fundamentalist Islam, while making sure to remind his public that every Jew, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant born in France was French. He defended French Jewry and hated the Communist Party.

That last sentiment is where “La Grande Parade” begins (Revel uses parade in many senses: He means, he writes, to reference not only the English cognate “parade,” but also a fencing maneuver in which an attack is “parried”; a nautical parade, which is a tactic that allows a ship’s course to unnoticeably change, and, finally, in relation to the French parer, a chef’s trimming of a piece of meat or fish for consumption, with the goal of using as much flesh as possible). Published in 2000, that book has been translated now as “Last Exit to Utopia,” which is more poetic and less descriptive than its subtitle: “The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era.” But even this does not accurately describe La Grande Parade’s procession. Writing a book that examines the furtherance of socialism following the fall of the Wall, Revel was not attempting to produce a brief condemnation of impoverished Cuba, or oppressive China. Rather, Revel’s “survival” refers to the enduring socialism — the evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary socialism — of Western Europe, and its moral effect on philosophers, artists and citizens. That effect, if you haven’t guessed, has been deleterious, and to prove it, Revel’s Parade route takes us through a decade of the post-1989 left.

Revel begins his argument against socialism after the USSR by equating socialism with communism, the latter being just the implementation of the former — Marx providing the theory for Lenin, who practically planned for what, or whom, Stalin executed. Extending his mission of ideological equivalence, Revel proceeds to compare communism and Nazism (or National Socialism), and finds the two similar if not functionally the same: centralized power, submission to state reinforced by the elimination of undesirables, fealty to dogma. Ultimately, Revel maintains that communism differs from Nazism only by its intentions, its grandiose aspirations or purposefully unrealizable hopes, which render communism “mediatized by Utopia,” a phrase that Revel derives from Hegel (and that is mediatized for us by the book’s deft translator, Diarmid V.C. Cammell):

Communism differs from direct totalitarianisms in that it has recourse to ideological dissimulation: it is mediatized by Utopia. A detour via Utopia allows an ideology (and the power system it purports to legitimize) to proclaim one success after another without interruption, while in reality its results are diametrically opposed to the vaunted agenda. Communism promises abundance and engenders misery; it promises liberty and imposes servitude; it promises equality and ends up with the most inegalitarian of all societies…

It promises respect for human life and then perpetrates mass executions; it promises access to culture for all, only to lay waste to culture; it promises the creation of a “new man,” but instead it fossilizes him. Yet many believers will persist in accepting the contradictions because Utopia is always located in the future. The intellectual trap of a totalitarian ideology “mediatized” by Utopia is therefore much more difficult to foil than that of direct ideology because, to utopian believers, actually occurring events can never prove their ideology false.

Revel, besides being a persuasive stylist adept at parallelisms and euphonious phrasemaking, has the unfortunate talent of being correct: Communism, being an ideal, can never be defined as pernicious, because its process is, and will be, forever, ongoing. Universal brotherhood will be realized, without doubt, eventually, but only once X is purged and Y is neutralized, after Z is resettled and A, B and C are educated anew. All Revel is doing here is elucidating the problem of reification, and it’s curious that he never mentions Marx’s “Verdinglichung,” his “making of an idea into a thing.” Marx held that reification was a function of the market economy: It alienated subjects, or people, into objects, while transmuting objects, as if in modern alchemy, into subjects with “meanings,” or, speaking contemporarily, brand identities (to feel differently about different brands of the same product speaks to the workings of reification). In a Revelian system, socialism itself is reified because it should always have remained an idea and never a thing — never communism. Revel might also have argued that Nazism was the initial reification of the socialist impulse, and this despite socialist antifascism.

Revel chose to warn about socialism’s dangers after the fall of the Soviet apparatus because he was appalled. Not only by his government’s continuing socialist policies by way of the European Union, but also by the left’s apologia for communist crimes, and their blaming the deficiencies of Eastern Europe’s newest democracies on capitalism, which is to say, on America. In Revel’s account, according to the French left, the reason that Romania and Bulgaria weren’t growing as quickly as Western Europe had wanted was not their barely industrialized economies nor their decades of repressive communism, but the newly introduced free market. Bucharest suffered not because of Moscow but thanks to Washington, D.C.

The latter portion of this book excoriates the French left for its memory failure and defends America from charges of abusive imperialism (Revel insists that globalization is inherently global, not American). Revel’s arguments are convincing only if read economically, or culturally, however, not in terms of military power or diplomacy. Recent debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq are not part of the argument. Indeed, Bush is absent from these pages; Revel’s book was published in France a year before 9/11. And of course, Revel did not live to witness the Obama age, and the “obaminations” — as characterized by the American right — of collectivist proposals like central banking and universal health care.

America’s far right dissent, broadcast and financed by Fox News and impelled by philosophical conviction as much as by economic woes and racism toward the President, maintains that Obama’s socialist rhetoric — and it is rhetoric far more than it is policy — is but a lockstep down the road to communism, which is fascism, and Revel, infinitely smarter and saner, would agree. But Revel would not participate in a tea party, nor would he “Sieg heil” during a speech.

Revel is correct in saying that communism is a Utopian ethos, but it should be noted that nobody in America today is a Utopian. No American politicians dream of the future, they hope. Even the so-called “revolutionaries” on the far right, who tune into Glenn Beck and are said to be laying in guns and ammo for impending civil war, are only “mediatized revolutionaries”: Though motivated by rage, they have

not acted yet, and one realizes that while the media helps to focus their anger, it also may help to defuse, and diffuse, it. One channel is the news, but other channels have game shows and nudity. Unlike in communist countries, the state doesn’t control our airwaves and Internet, and so every agenda can find its parochial frequency.

Nobody in America, whether on the left or right, is prepared for totalitarianism, for the simple reason that we’re all uninspired. We are not lucubrating adolescents, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka around a kitchen table in St. Petersburg at the turn of the 20th century. We are not true believers, but distracted schizophrenics — entertained by political philosophies that advocate action, but politically neutralized by entertainment options that encourage our sloth.

Socialism — call it social welfare legislation, if that more safely reifies theory — would not lead this country to gulag as much as it would provide health care to all. Indeed, it’s in health policy, that most personal of policies ever decided by the public, that Revel’s support of the freest of markets begins to seem fetishistic, and even insane. European social merits are best ignored from the safety of European welfare.

American healthcare is the responsibility of employers, leaving 46 million and me uncovered. Two years ago, as the literary critic for my beloved Forward, I wrote three reviews a month but, as an independent contractor, even the American socialist paper of Abraham Cahan couldn’t provide my health insurance. When I became sick, not only were the bills crushing, but I missed deadlines and lost money. It was only then, fevered amid a bankrupting bronchitis, needing to visit a doctor I could afford, that I considered moving — X-rays costing the same as a plane ticket — to Germany, to France.

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