Revel’s Cause

Reviewed by Claire Berlinski

by Jean-Francois Revel
Encounter, 176 pages.

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orn in Marseille in 1924, French philosopher and essayist Jean-Francois Revel has led a quintessentially French intellectual life: A graduate of the Ecole Normale and a member of the Resistance, he began his career in the French cabinet, serving in the undersecretary’s Department of Arts and Letters. Thereafter he became a distinguished professor and lecturer at a series of elite French universities, abandoning teaching in the 1960s to edit the influential weekly LExpress. After a prolific writing career attacking sterile academism and defending Western democracies—his books include the best-selling The Totalitarian Temptation (1977) and How Democracies Perish (1984)—he was elected in 1997 to the French Academy. He is one of France’s best-known pundits, with a schedule of travel and television appearances that would exhaust a younger man.
Now, at the age of 80, Revel has issued Anti-Americanism, a mordant denunciation of the United States’ most full-throated critics. The book has been a best-seller in France, indicating that the French, however inclined they may appear toward animus toward the United States, are at least willing to consider the opposing case. This must be reckoned good news.
Revel’s career has been most notable for his revival of a neglected literary form, the political pamphlet. The genre had met with disfavor in France, associated as it was with the right-wing tracts of the 1930s, but it is Revel’s natural medium: His short, punchy essays feature pyrotechnic polemics, vigorous mockery of his opponents, and a delightful willingness to offend. They are not, however, serious endeavors to convert the nonbeliever, nor do they attempt to be. Anti-Americanism is a pamphlet in this style, a short, sharp, delicious, but ultimately insubstantial essay in which Revel explores anti-American sentiment and endeavors to demonstrate that it has few rational or objective foundations. Observing the anti-American passion that has swept the globe since September 11, he finds it to be a miasma of fantasy, internal contradiction, and self-righteousness.
Anti-Americanism is a sequel, published thirty years after Without Marx or Jesus, in which Revel reported with astonishment, having visited America, that contrary to all expectation and belief, the place would not be best described as violent, uncultivated, materialistic, puritanical, racist, or anti-democratic. Indeed, Revel observed, the events of the late 1960s in the United States—the antiwar protests, the Free Speech movement, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution—constituted the birth of a new form of revolution, one in unexpected contraposition to then-fashionable Marxist predictions. Thus did Revel conclude that the great revolution of the century would be not Marxist, but liberal, and that multiparty democracy and the free market, not communism, would come to dominate the globe. In Anti-Americanism,Revel expands these themes, arguing that the United States is the preponderantly benevolent agent of this liberal revolution.
If, as Revel argues, the United States is not an illegitimate and terminally hypocritical world actor, why do so many believe it to be? Revel’s answer: To affirm the anti-American position is to attack liberalism itself; modern anti-Americanism, he holds, is the socially acceptable avatar of illiberal belief systems—Marxist ones, chiefly—discredited by history. Anti-globalists, in his view, are synonymous with the anti-Americans.
This is a distinction he might have drawn more finely. The emotional and ideological roots of anti-Americanism encompass a wide spectrum; the anti-Americanism of an Osama bin Laden—or, for that matter, a Gwyneth Paltrow—is something different from that of the scrofulous hoodlums of Seattle and Genoa, although the various anti-Americanisms are mutually reinforcing and comforting.
He might also have drawn more subtle distinctions among the antiglobalists. He is surely correct in asserting that many of the protesters are the direct legatees of fascists and Stalinists. To take just one example, the Soviet-created World Peace Council’s secretariat boasts that it “participated in or co-organized” the worldwide anti-American demonstrations prior to the United States’ military action in Iraq. The WPC’s honorary chairman is former KGB asset Romesh Chandra, who in the 1970s led the WPC’s frantic efforts to combat American anti-communist maneuvers. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking intelligence officer ever to have defected from the former Soviet bloc, managed Romania’s WPC operations. He has affirmed that “The new anti-American Axis of Beijing-Moscow-Berlin-Paris is indeed a farcical effort to revive the anti-Americanism created by the WPC and its sponsors during the Cold War era.”
But not all anti-globalists are unreconstructed cold warriors, and not all criticism of the modern economic order is crude. If it was Revel’s aim to dismantle their arguments conclusively, he does not succeed. To do so, he would have had to engage with the anti-globalists’ best arguments rather than their worst ones. The most sophisticated critics of the American-led economic order contend, for example, that the advantages of free trade posited by Adam Smith can accrue only in the context of other liberal freedoms, most notably free movement of labor. The decreasing regulation of trade has in the past half-century been accompanied by increasing regulation of migration. In this context, critics charge, the assumption that all nations will by means of the Invisible Hand take their rightful and prosperous place among the community of nations fails to obtain. It is the lack of freedom—the lack of liberalism’s benefits—suffered by those structurally excluded by the gatt and various multilateral agreements on investment to which these critics address themselves, not always absurdly. Anti-globalists charge that these agreements effectively remove power from accountable bodies such as parliaments and repose it in unaccountable corporations, a criticism that is ideologically compatible with classical liberalism. It may not be correct, but it is not anti-liberal.

Claire Berlinski is a writer who lives in Paris. She is the author of Loose Lips (Random House, 2003) and is currently working on a study of the challenges facing the European political order.

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