JEAN-FRANCOIS REVEL is a French political philosopher who has always stood against the tide of intellectual fashion in his own country, and his latest book is a defense of liberal democracy against various forms of Marxism which are almost as fashionable nowadays in the English-speaking world as they are in France.
A key question he poses is: why are people who count themselves as democrats so unwilling today to be considered anticommunist? Why do they seek so strenuously to find as many faults in capitalism as they see in communism? Why is the prevailing trend towards a soft, uncritical Leftism which is alert only to the evils of the Right? In part, Revel sees this as the work of the Communists' own cunning. He makes the point (which cannot easily be refuted) that the Soviet Communists have not really ceased to be Stalinists since they made "Stalinist" a dirty word; their means remain ruthlessly totalitarian, their end is the same advancement of Russian power in the world. They have only become more subtle and Machiavellian. Detente and even Eurocommunism can be seen as part of this neo-Stalinist design.
In the Western world, communism is required in the present international context to wear a human face, to look as moderate and reformist as possible in order to reassure the Western public, and subdue their fears while communism secures its grip on the Third World. Thus the most powerful Communist party in the West, that of Italy, is encouraged to act meekly towards the Christian Democrats and to proclaim the ideals of law and order. Even in a "revolutionary" situation, such as recently occured in Portugal, the local Communists are called upon to restrain themselves and dissimulate their revolutionary zeal lest the Western bourgeoisie should be alarmed.
In France, the Communists enact an even more paradoxical role, for while they have been prompted to join the Socialist Party under Mitterrand in an alliance against the centrist and vaguely pro-American Giscard, Moscow's old preference for Gaullism (a force far better able to diminish NATO's strength than any French Left coalition), has caused the French Communist Party in effect to sabotage the success of Mitterrand, and so promote the electoral chances of the new rightwing anti-NATO Gaullist leader, Jacques Chirac. The new Stalinism is every bit as cynical as the old.
Yet such is the fear of becoming, or of being thought to be "anticommunist," that the French Socialists seem to forgive every act of disloyalty by their partners of the Left. They are like the proverbial husband in a French farce who cannot believe that his own wife can be unfaithful. As for the working class, Revel points out that the Communist-controlled trade unions of Southern Europe gain far fewer material advantages for their members than do the noncommunist unions of Northern Europe; what they do provide is a more intense ideological satisfaction, a sense of being at war with capitalism itself.
Revel goes on to argue that the ideological basis of communism is one thing which is most wrong about it. He claims that communism is not only totalitarian, but deeply reactionary, as is that other fashionable ideology of our times, nationalism. We must admit that both communism and nationalism are ideologies that emerged in the 19th century, in the heyday of European imperialism and industrialization, and both were largely reactions against those developments.
Revel says more than this: he thinks that the age of the nation-state is over, and that in the global village of today more universal juridical and political structures are called for, but that both communism and nationalism, fossilized in their 19th-century perceptions of the world, distort men's understanding of their present predicament, and are thus, in effect, counterrevolutionary.
The reader may nevertheless ask, is not this "reactionary" character of our fashionable ideologies one secret of their success? If ideology in the modern world has won its fight against religion, does not that mean that ideology must exercise the role that was once performed by religion, and make people feel that the world is moving in directions which providence intended, and therefore that there is no need to be anxious?
Revel's stimulating and disturbing book carries us beyond the field of political theory to raise more fundamental questions about the human condition or what used to be called "human nature."