France: The Case for Pessimism

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A distinguished author sees little hope for the future of the West

Modern democracy may be nothing more than an "accident" whose time on the stage of world history is almost over. Its survival in the face of relentless Communist success is highly unlikely, and will be decided before the end of the century. The West will have no one but itself to blame for its demise.

Those bleak observations are not the distilled fantasies of the Kremlin. They are the benchmarks of reality, according to Jean-François Revel, 60, the distinguished journalist, iconoclastic philosopher and persistent gadfly of French politics. In his profoundly pessimistic view, the West is on the verge of losing its prolonged struggle for coexistence with Communism. But, Revel argues, "it's the case that's pessimistic, not the person stating it."

The inevitable defeat of Western democracy is the subject of Revel's newly translated work How Democracies Perish (Doubleday; $17.95), which sold 200,000 copies after it was first published in France last year and remained on the bestseller list for 24 weeks. Historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie compared the significance of Revel's warnings about the Soviet Union to the alarms sounded by Demosthenes about the perils facing Athenian democracy. U.S. neoconservatives lauded publication of a condensation in the monthly Commentary last June; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick quoted from the work in her speech to the Republican National Convention.

Such attention is nothing new for Revel, a literary editor and columnist for the newsmagazine L 'Express and its editor in chief from 1978 to 1981. His 1970 book in praise of American freedom of dissent, Without Marx or Jesus, outraged nationalistic French intellectuals of both the left and right. In 1976 he created another furor with The Totalitarian Temptation, a blistering condemnation of French Socialist tolerance of "vintage Stalinism."

In essence, How Democracies Perish takes up where Temptation left off. Revel now charges Western democracy as a whole with failing to recognize the reality of Communist, particularly Soviet, expansion since 1917. According to Revel, Western "victories" in that struggle (the 1948 Berlin airlift, Korea) have never been more than temporary impediments to Communist aggression; totalitarian achievements (the Berlin Wall, hegemony in Eastern Europe) have been permanent. As Revel puts it, "The confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West [has] resembled a football game in which one of the teams, the West, disqualified itself from going beyond the 50-yard line."

Revel then asks a disturbing question: "Could Communism's expansionist strategy have succeeded so well unless the West was predisposed to succumb to it?" His answer: the success of Communism can be explained only because "the democracies themselves have adopted the Communists' image of the world and their perspective on history."

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