The Charms of Certitude

How Democracies Perish

by Jean-François Revel, with the assistance of Branko Lazitch, translated by William Byron
Doubleday, 376 pp., $17.95

Jean-Francois Revel
Jean-Francois Revel; drawing by David Levine

Jean-François Revel believes that the democracies are in imminent danger of collapse, because of a failure of will, and of intelligence. According to him, the democracies neither understand the nature of the Soviet threat nor possess the will to resist it. The Soviet system, as represented by this author, combines the grossest incompetence, in the management of its own economy, with the most farsighted logic in the conduct of its foreign policy. The democracies, on the other hand, have combined great success, in economic affairs, with abject failure in the domain of foreign policy. So the Soviet system is doomed through its internal failures, but before it collapses, the logical continuity of its foreign policy is likely to destroy the democracies. As M. Revel puts it, in the concluding words of his fourth chapter, “Survival of the Least Fit”: “Communism may be a ‘spent force,’ as Milovan Djilas has repeatedly said. Some might even call it a corpse. But it is a corpse that can drag us with it into the grave.”

Much of How Democracies Perish consists of peremptory (and repetitious) affirmations studded with striking images, like the bit about the corpse. As a writer, M. Revel is an heir to Rousseau, that master of “seismic slogans” (J.H. Huizinga’s phrase). Still, also like Rousseau, M. Revel does argue, part of the time, and even produces evidence; although the ratio of evidence to affirmation and phrase making is quite low, and the quality of the evidence not always high.

M. Revel’s best chapter, the one that contains the most argument, and is the core of his reasoned case, is Chapter 6, “After Poland: An Autopsy.” The chapter begins with a Western summit held at Versailles, in June 1982, six months after the declaration of martial law in Poland. At that June summit, the Americans asked the Europeans to raise their interest rates to the Soviet Union, denying them the preferential rate usually accorded to poor countries. The Europeans refused, arguing that higher interest rates would not improve Soviet behavior in international relations. M. Revel goes on:

So, after a dozen years of pleading that economic aid to the East bloc would pacify the Soviet Union, the Europeans in 1982 declined to reduce that aid because it would not make the Russians less belligerent. Incoherence on a grand scale! Economic cooperation did not bring the hoped-for détente, but neither would non-cooperation. That’s a fine, blind maze we’ve shut ourselves into; appeasement and reprisal, we find, are equally incapable of making the Communists behave themselves and of slowing their aggressive drive. By this reasoning, our only choice is whether we’re going to pay to be rolled, and we are opting to die paying.

M. Revel reproaches the West for responding to martial law in Poland by showing their own “unshakable determination to live up unilaterally to their Helsinki commitments [of 1975]…

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