Posted: July 14, 2014
A review of How Democracies Perish, by Jean-Francois Revel and translated by William Byron
s citizens we turn to Revel's book not to discover how we shall perish but rather how we shall survive. Revel's thesis is that modern democracy suffers from an internal illness which not only places it at a tactical disadvantage with Communist totalitarianism (as embodied most perfectly in the Soviet Union) but ultimately destroys our intellectual and moral will to resist it at all. Communism suffers from its own form of decay; however, it manifests that decay in a way that prevents our taking advantage of it. In a democratic world, our internal flaws would not be mortal; but in a world where democracy is rare and faced with a powerful challenger, democratic regimes may well be in danger of becoming "historical accidents." In Revel's view, we cannot blame our troubles on Communism, not because Communism is not evil or a great danger-it is both-but because Western democracies are "predisposed to succumb" (p. 215).
Revel structures his book to educate the reader to both the internal illness responsible for this predisposition and the true nature of the external threat. He divides his work into four parts and a conclusion: In part one he discusses the way democracy faces its enemy (chapters 1-5). In parts two and three, Revel analyzes the real Soviet threat and not merely the threat as the West is inclined to see it (chapters 6-9, 10-17). In part four he returns once more to democracy's "mentality of defeat" (chapters 18-26). The work concludes with a section entitled, "Neither War Nor Slavery."
Revel denies any intention to reeducate his readers: He claims merely to "lay bare a mechanism," or to describe the tendencies he observes. This pose contains a good bit of that familiar French decadence which we would all miss if Revel had not supplied it. Yet at several places the author betrays a more serious intention by identifying himself with Demosthenes (pp. 67-68, 159, 212, 356). The book is intended, it would seem, as a similar warning, if sufficient time and virtue remain.
Revel identifies Communist totalitarianism as the central political phenomenon of our time: "The real antithesis is not that of totalitarianism to democracy, or communism to capitalism, but of totalitarian communism to all the rest. Communism is the necrosis of economics, totalitarianism the necrosis of politics, of the body civic and of culture" (p. 343).
Revel argues that the long-term aims of Soviet foreign policy are clear: Communism, with the Soviet Union as the vanguard state, aims at "world conquest." A certain class of reader will conjure up images of the master plan and other bogey men of the McCarthy era. He will brand this view as "a reactionary notion." However, one of the aims of Revel's book is "to determine which of these two points of view is the less delusive" (p. 21). The democracies, he maintains, fall easily into an optimistic view or, worse, are afraid of acknowledging the facts for what they are.
Revel spends a great deal of the book discussing a wide variety of notions-which he calls myths-which govern our discussion of the Soviet Union in particular and totalitarianism in general: that the Soviet Union is nothing more than a "conservative empire" interested only in the status quo; or that Soviet expansionism is a sign of weakness; or that demographic and economic difficulties will limit Soviet freedom of action; or even that there are "hawks and doves" in the Politburo.
While Revel does not deny that there is some truth in each of these notions, he points to a systematic pattern of misuse which obscures the larger, if simpler, truths of Soviet behavior: the long history of expansionism, the unparalleled military build-up, the pursuit of a discernible overall strategy to weaken and, ultimately, to supplant the West.
It would be comforting if Revel were speaking only of a professional failure peculiar to a certain class of journalists, scholars, and Sovietologists, but in fact he describes a more general and widespread intellectual failure "in evaluating facts, gauging threats, choosing responses, and understanding the enemy's methods" (p. 215). At bottom, it is a failure to see ourselves as we are, and therefore to understand the Soviet challenge for what it is.
Revel chronicles a self-deceptive mood among our intellectuals. Some are little more than apologists for the Soviet regime. The arguments are by now familiar: Ignoring the Soviet military build-up, they accuse the West of squandering its wealth on armaments. Our prodigal sons and daughters have meditated profoundly upon "Western militarism," suggesting that it is the result of the unwarranted influence of greedy arms merchants, industrialists, and soldiers, or that we lack the imagination or reason to see how things could be different, or even that our infatuation with certain armaments can be attributed to their shape. That arms might be a necessary response to the tenacity of evil never occurs to them.
If they are confronted with the Soviet threat, they respond with a litany of democracy's imperfections which deprive us of the right to criticize. Revel offers an extreme but not uncommon illustration: "In Holland in 1981, a considerable share of public opinion, questioned about its feelings on Poland and Afghanistan, declared that the Dutch lacked the moral right to criticize Communist repression or Soviet imperialism as long as housing conditions in Amsterdam fail to meet the highest standards of modern comfort, as long as women remained exploited and the legal rights of heterosexual married couples are denied to 'homosexual married couples'" (p. 15). The oft-repeated pattern of famines, forced labor, and police terror in Communist lands has its counterpart in a Western pattern of denial, minimizing, and forgetting. Revel writes: "When it comes to mass extermination, communism has to polevault to prodigious heights to reach the threshold of Western perception. And even that threshold merely represents an average. Papandreou's threshold of perception, or Palme's, for example, is higher than any Communist vaulter could ever reach" (p. 328).
Of course, outright apologists for the Soviet Union are less common than previously. After all, we should expect that, willingly or unwillingly, intellectuals have learned something after nearly seventy years of Soviet rule. However, in place of the old apologist, we find someone who has adopted a "more enlightened" view: that both superpowers share an equal responsibility for failures to control nuclear weapons or to maintain detente.
But, as Revel points out, the equal responsibility thesis rests upon a supreme indifference to distinguishing right from wrong. Its adherents have chosen such a lofty perspective that they no longer see the obvious difference between our way of life, however imperfect, and Communist totalitarianism, however improved. They display only a profound weariness of the spirit which makes a choice by making no choice at all. Regardless of the intellectual or moral consequences of this view, it represents a palpable loss of that vigor which any system needs to survive.
The differences between representative and one-party institutions, a free and a planned economy, individual liberty and mass organization, are not simply the result of custom but of the long-standing quarrel over who man is and how he should live. No matter how hard some try to avoid the fact, the question of whether we survive is, if properly asked, inextricably linked to the question of how we should live.
For Revel, Western survival ultimately depends upon our dedication (or rededication) to the principles which first reconciled "governmental authority with individual freedom." To do this, we must adopt a way of reasoning about the world which is not alien from, but actually rooted in, the principles which underlie the everyday lives of free men and women.
Like Demosthenes, Revel reminds us that the contrast between our way of life and that of our adversary should be the foundation for more complicated reasonings about international intentions, methods, and goals. This contrast is at once both the greatest lesson we can learn and the one we seem to forget or willingly ignore at every turn. This is why Revel is convinced that democracy is the most beautiful and moral, yet fragile of regimes. But the citizen, spared the philosophe'sabstract way of looking at things, must continue to believe in "the recuperative power and virtue" which a free society husbands for dark times, as well as in the presence of those who know the joys and costs of freedom and love it above all other things.