Commentary Magazine


Democracy Against Itself, by Jean-Francois Revel

Uncharted Waters

Democracy Against Itself: The Future of the Democratic Impulse.
by Jean-François Revel.
Translated by Roger Kaplan. Free Press. 288 pp. $24.95.

By the end of the cold war, conservatives had developed a strong body of theory on what might be seen as the two main issues of the struggle: deterrence and democracy. Jean-François Revel, the distinguished French writer, was an important contributor to both strands of reflection—notably with his compelling and widely touted 1984 book, How Democracies Perish.

With regard to deterrence, conservatives had always understood that the liberal penchant for conciliation was the wrong recipe for dealing with tyrants and aggressors. Over time, this instinctive insight about the threat and use of force came to be supported by a large body of theoretical and historical writing, including Revel’s, criticizing the liberal vision of international conflict and in particular the liberal idol of arms control.

With regard to democracy, conservative intellectuals—again prominently including Revel—similarly elaborated a theoretical edifice to support what most conservatives were already inclined to accept: that democracy was an inherently peaceable form of government, the victim rather than the aggressor in the cold-war struggle, a decent and defensible type of political order, albeit with certain characteristic flaws and weaknesses.

Now that the cold war is gone, however, one can discern a certain intellectual complacency in the conservative camp, a strong tendency to rest on one’s laurels and merely point to history as vindication of conservative dogma. This is unfortunate, because the new problems we face in the post-cold-war era clearly require fresh reflection, adaptation, and perhaps correction of basic insights.

Revel is to be congratulated for taking up this challenge in his new book, Democracy Against Itself, an important attempt to chart the unfamiliar political waters in which we now sail. The book, ably translated by Roger Kaplan, is both intermittently brilliant and generally disappointing—and perhaps in that sense not untypical of what we can expect from such efforts genuinely to confront the new.

Revel asks all the right questions, even if his answers are not always completely satisfying. He asks why Soviet Communism failed, and wonders why he and (especially) others did not clearly foresee its demise. He offers his own perfectly sensible, if not always entirely convincing, explanation for the conundrum that was Mikhail Gorbachev. He observes the extraordinary difficulties facing ex-Communist states in the transition away from Communism, and asks what they must do to return to normality. He wonders intelligently about the relation between democracy and markets (which must come first in development—capitalism or political freedom?). He examines the dilemma posed when democratic elections yield undemocratic results. And he asks whether Islam may not be inherently incompatible with democracy (Turkey is the great counterexample here), recognizing the special international threat posed today by Islamic fundamentalism.

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Since Revel is above all a theorist, it is not surprising that his best chapter, the third, is also his most theoretical one. Here he offers his own concept of regimes or political orders, a cogent and very simple formula that provides a good antidote to the narrow democrato-centrism embraced by many American conservatives.

The distinction between democracy and totalitarianism, Revel argues, is less fundamental than the distinction between what might be called normal and abnormal governments. There are forms of government—notably certain kinds of monarchy and even empire (e.g., Rome)—which, though not democratic, are still normal, in the sense both of seeming legitimate to their citizens and protecting a range of civil liberties and rights. Such regimes permit, even nurture, the civil societies over which they hold sway. They govern, however imperfectly, by law.

Elections per se, Revel stresses, are not the crucial test. There can be democracies based on universal suffrage in which rights are less well protected than in traditional monarchies, and vice versa. “The president of Mexico,” he writes, “though elected by universal suffrage (at least in theory), has powers that can directly infringe upon the life of an ordinary citizen in ways that no viceroy would have dreamed possible.”

The distinguishing feature of abnormal states, by contrast, is their internal lawlessness, their wholesale violation of rights, and—in the extreme case of Communism—the destruction they visit on the civil society over which they so intrusively preside. According to Revel, the reason that Europe’s ex-Communist states face a more difficult path to democracy and economic freedom than, say, Pinochet’s Chile is precisely that both civil society and the economy were mutilated under Communist rule.

True, Revel points out, fascism and Nazism also wreaked violence through the abrogation of rights and especially through war-making, but the damage done by fascism to civil society in Germany or Italy was never so extreme: hence the relative ease of reconstruction and democratization after the regimes were displaced.

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If there is an overriding theme that emerges in this book, it is one that American conservatives will find congenial: the inherent dangers of state power. The more power that accrues to the state, argues Revel, whether in a democracy or in any other political order, the greater the danger to liberty and individual rights. “The more state, the less law,” as he puts it.

One can see that Revel is quarreling here with the French Socialists, who have come a long way in the direction of accepting certain conservative insights without forsaking their essential statism. “When intellectuals revise their views, they do not necessarily get to the bottom of their initial error,” he writes. It is toward such partial converts that his often polemical line of argument seems mainly directed.

This focus on a European audience explains why American conservative thinkers are likely to find less intellectual nourishment than they might hope for in Revel’s central chapters, which for the most part reprise arguments about development, democracy, and economic liberalism that are the familiar fare of the best American conservative writing on the subject. He draws more than once, for example, on the pathbreaking work of Michael Novak on capitalism and democracy, unfamiliar to many European readers but well established as part of the American conservative canon.

The European, and especially French, emphasis may also explain the book’s sometimes defensive tone. At the end of the cold war, Revel came in for much criticism, both here and in France, for his excessively pessimistic view of the West’s future in How Democracies Perish. Like almost everybody else, he failed to foresee the Communist collapse. Unfortunately, his defense of his earlier position is made less persuasive by his unwillingness to forsake the Continental intellectual’s pose of omniscience and to acknowledge fallibility.

By refusing to admit error freely, Revel neglects to highlight sufficiently where he was correct. He was wrong about the future, to be sure, but he was all too right about what we needed to do. In general, those who promoted the tough policies that proved successful tended to overestimate Soviet strength, while those who recognized the underlying weaknesses of the Soviet system advocated conciliatory policies which, paradoxically, would have prolonged Communist rule there. Few were those who hit upon the almost magical combination of toughness and optimism about the West’s relative power. Fortunately for all of us, Ronald Reagan appears to have been among them.

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Revel’s defense of his cold-war analysis necessitates a revisiting of the Gorbachev years. His explanation of Gorbachev as a Communist naïf seeking an untenable middle ground—reformed Communism or “socialism with a human face”—is plausible enough, and now very current among Western conservatives. But in the end, Revel’s portrait of the Communist leader acting rationally on the basis of his empire’s interests fails to do justice to what even Andrei Sakharov—who dealt with Gorbachev at close quarters—recognized as the inherent mystery of this contradictory, epochal figure. In particular, Revel’s contention that the West’s détente “helped Gorbachev lengthen an unacceptable situation” is hard to accept (even if many of us argued the same thing at the time). As Ronald Reagan—and even that arch-enemy of appeasement, Winston Churchill—recognized, toughness, while crucial, sometimes needs to be modulated. Given the potential for violence, would we really have desired the Soviet empire to collapse more quickly or precipitously than it did under Gorbachev? Whether through the hands of men or God, it is hard to imagine a smoother transition from 75 years of brutal totalitarian rule. (The future of democracy in Russia, as Revel fully recognizes, is another issue.)

In his last long chapter, Revel is once again at his best, brilliantly cataloguing the forces that continue to threaten contemporary democracy from within. Not the least of these is the simple corruption of public officials, which is apparently even more rampant in Europe than here, and which Revel links, again, to the state’s growing control over society’s resources.

In the end, amid many familiar, and some tired, arguments, Revel offers enough insight in Democracy Against Itself to make it more than worthwhile, a useful stepping-stone on the way to a refreshed vision.

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