OBITUARY: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Jean-François Revel (1924-2006)
, May 27, 2006
France's great champion of freedom dies, reports John Ballantyne.
Scarcely a ripple has appeared in the Australian media to mark the passing of one of the West's greatest intellectual defenders, the great French writer Jean-François Revel.
Revel, who died on April 30 this year, aged 82, made his name during the Cold War as a brilliant author, journalist and polemicist. Against the malice of the West's foes he mobilised a massive artillery of facts and sheer common sense. The pure zest with which he set about this task made his books a joy to read.
On the central issue of the second half of the 20th century - the struggle for global supremacy between the American-led Free World and Soviet-backed communism - Revel showed himself to be more clear-sighted than most Western statesmen. In the 1970s, the likes of Henry Kissinger, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Willy Brandt, Olof Palme and Gough Whitlam thought that lasting world peace could be achieved by the West making concessions to Moscow and according legitimacy to the Soviet Union's enslavement of half of Europe. But Revel would have none of this.Moral equivalence
He particularly attacked the received wisdom, popular in university common-rooms, that any Third World regime that was less than perfectly democratic (such as pre-1975 South Vietnam and Cambodia) was morally equivalent to a totalitarian dictatorship and so lost its right to defend itself against communism.
Revel was born in Marseilles on January 19, 1924. In 1940, when the Germans invaded France, he became active in the Resistance.
After World War II, he studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, and began a career teaching philosophy in French Algeria, Italy and Mexico, before returning to France.
From 1963, he turned to journalism. Originally a left-winger, he wrote a book forthrightly criticising General de Gaulle's semi-monarchical style of rule as President of France.
In 1966, Revel became literary editor of France's first weekly news magazine, L'Express
(which was modelled on America's Time
In 1970 came his first international bestseller, Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution
. In this book, to the consternation of the anti-American left-intelligentsia, Revel declared that he had found in the United States freedom of expression and of dissent without parallel, and political leaders subjected to the closest possible public scrutiny.
In 1977, at the height of the period of East-West rivalry - misnamed détente
- Revel dropped a bombshell with his timely masterpiece, The Totalitarian Temptation
In it, he blasted the left intelligentsia for its infatuation with communism. He wrote: "Because of its fears of the sin of anti-communism, the goals of the liberal Left become so modest that it deceives itself into thinking it is conducting a fruitful 'dialogue' with the Communists when all it is doing is avoiding their anathema by practising preventive self-censorship."
Tom Wolfe praised this book as one of the most important of the decade and described Revel as "the George Orwell of the 1970s".
In 1983 came Revel's How Democracies Perish
in which he exposed the helplessness of democracies when confronted by a military aggressor such as the Soviet Union. He observed: "Democratic civilisation is the first in history to blame itself because another power is working to destroy it."
Even after the end of the Cold War, Revel returned repeatedly to his theme of people's endless capacity for self-delusion. In his 1992 book, The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information
, he said that even the cleverest modern man was "as prone to superstition as Neolithic man".
In Democracy Against Itself
(1993), Revel attacked the notion, which was popular after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that communism had never really been a threat, since it was always destined for the dustbin of history.
To this idea that Western alarm about Soviet aggression had been misplaced, Revel responded:
"It is a little bit as if someone said: 'You can see there was no reason to be worried in 1805 about Napoleon because in 1815 he was in St Helena.' The whole point is that he ended up there as a result of actions by leaders and peoples, not because in 1805 Napoleon was not dangerous or was bound to go out."
In 2003, Revel launched his last great polemic, Anti-Americanism
, in which he mocked European intellectuals who believed that America provoked the 9/11 terrorist attacks on itself. Slogans such as "No to terrorism. No to war", Revel wrote, were "about as intelligent as 'No to illness. No to medicine'."
Few people have defended the Western cause as wisely, wittily and courageously as did Revel.
How fitting that this great champion of freedom was admitted, in 1997, to the pantheon of "Immortals" when he was elected to the prestigious Académie Française.