France: The Case for Pessimism

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Revel blames the one-sidedness of the contest on the nature of democratic pluralism. "To totalitarianism, an opponent is by definition subversive," he writes, while democracy "treats subversives as mere opponents for fear of betraying its principles." The fundamental difference between the systems renders democracies inherently less capable than totalitarian regimes of defending themselves against internal enemies. That fact, he says, is ruthlessly exploited by the Soviets in their covert encouragement of global terrorism.

Externally, Revel argues, pluralism engenders a far more fatal tendency: "Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is needed to counter them." In other words, democracy instinctively resorts to appeasement, usually justified as the encouragement of totalitarian "moderates" over "hard-liners." A French diplomat shortly after Munich, Revel notes, described Hitler as caught between Goebbels and Himmler [hard] and Goring [moderate]; Stalin wheedled concessions out of the Roosevelt Administration by warning that his liberal tendencies were under attack in the Politburo.

In much the same way, democracies view history with selective amnesia. "As things are now . . . only the West's failures, crimes and weaknesses deserve to be recorded by history," says Revel, while totalitarian reality "is what Soviet leaders are preparing to do now" in the way of promised reforms or concessions. Memories of capitalism's Great Depression endure, while the deaths of millions during forced Soviet collectivization in the same period do not. Viet Nam remains fresh in the mind; the Marxist bloodbaths of Lieut. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia during the late 1970s do not.

Finally, Revel points to the rise within Western democracies of an "industry of blame," bent on fostering a one-sided notion of historical guilt. According to those who hold this view, everything that is bad, especially in the Third World, results from forces in the "rich" — meaning capitalist —democracies. Thus any Western attempt to resist Communist aggression, as in Angola or Viet Nam, arouses intellectual confusion and paralysis. Says Revel: "There was a time when you were an imperialist if you invaded an alien territory and imposed on independent peoples an authority they rejected. Today, you are an imperialist if you oppose such aggression."

Revel offers disappointingly few cures for democracy's failing condition. Instead, he quotes Demosthenes' advice to the Athenians: "Don't do what you are doing now." Revel then tersely suggests "genuine detente," which amounts to meeting the reality of the implacable contest with Communism. Such a posture would require, he admits, "almost total Western intellectual reconversion" and "unprecedented" coordination among the democracies. Small wonder, then, that he does not expect it to happen.

— By George Russell

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