The following will appear as an Afterword to Jean-François Revel’s Without Marx or Jesus, to be published by Doubleday.
Listen to the first sentence. “The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States.” Pow!!! The French reader is already seeing stars when the second sentence hits him. “It can take place nowhere else.” Americans may feel bewildered, skeptical, glad, or sorry to hear the news, curious to know more. But you have to be French to get the full impact, the “visceral reaction.” Ever since you could count up to ten or spell c-h-a-t, you have been secure in the thought that the US is the citadel of imperialism, racism, vulgarity, conformism, and now a Frenchman returns from a voyage of discovery to say it is a hotbed of revolution.
Blandly, with a straight face, the enormity emerges, buttressed by figures and arguments, precedents, citations. Is it a joke? No and yes. It may have started out as a hardy quip or demolishing retort, and somewhere behind these pages Jean-François Revel is still suppressing an inadvertent smile. We, his readers, not required to school our features, laugh out loud in delight. At what exactly? At the French, of course, and their starchy preconceptions, which are being shaken, jostled, disarrayed, like a matron in some old slapstick comedy. But also at the author himself, that expressionless comedian, swinging from a precipice, teetering on a tightrope. We laugh at his imperturbability in the presence of his imminent danger, at his reckless aplomb in courting ridicule—the reverse of sympathetic chuckles. He is serious, he protests: “Why are you laughing?”
All Jean-François Revel’s books are cliff-hangers. He is a pamphleteer, and his first necessity therefore is to boldly secure attention. Characteristically, in his opening pages he risks being removed from the scene in a strait jacket. His pamphlets are heresies and they generally result from prolonged exposure to piety. He is restive, like a schoolboy in a church, surrounded by hushed worshipers and prompted to commit a sacrilege—stand up and prove to them that the Bible cannot be true. His anticlerical nostrils are quick to detect the slightest smell of incense, and misfortune—or good luck—has placed him in a variety of churches, chapels, oratories, cenacles. He has passed most of his life among the devout.
Gaullist France itself is one huge basilica, consecrated to Glory. The Sorbonne is a monastery from which pilgrims set out for the wayside shrines of the national lycée system or go on foreign missions, spreading French culture. Revel started off in clerical disguise. He was an agrégé in philosophy and taught, first abroad—at the University of Mexico and the University of Florence and at the local French Institutes—later in lycées at Lille and Paris: history of philosophy, history of art, French literature, geography.
His first published blasphemy or tale-told-out-of-school was Pourquoi les philosophes, an attack on the then reigning gods of French philosophy. Next came Pour l’Italie, a tract against Italy—for Revel a natural by-product of four years as a lecturer in Florentine classrooms. A simple corrective, he would have said, of Italophilia, a healthy explosion of the whole bag of myths about Italian art, Italian culture, Italian virility, Italian gaiety, good looks, liveliness, all of which he found nonexistent, and backed up the verdict with real-life anecdotes and observations, many true, many funny, some brutal, such as the one, which gave much offense to feminine readers of Epoca, that Italian women have hair on their legs.
Not a word, I am sure, was invented, and yet the book was biased to a point that someone who loved Italy could have considered almost insane. Or the result of some personal grievance—an idea that was aired in the Italian press at the time and that I rather subscribed to myself simply from reading the book, which has many complaints about the unavailability of Italian girls. Knowing Revel, as I now do, I no longer think that explanation can have been right. There is something wonderfully disinterested about Revel’s biases, a joy in bias itself as an artistic form, embracing hyperbole and conducing, finally, to laughter. He has a Falstaffian side and only cares that his “slant” should run counter to respectable culture and received opinion. If he has a personal grievance, it is a long-standing, deeply nurtured one against the immovable forces of entrenched beliefs that insult his sense of the self-evident.
There followed one of his most charming and persuasive works, Sur Proust. It is not so much controversial as, again, heretical. Revel loves Proust, which means that he is against orthodox Proustians, including Proust himself at certain moments. He makes the convincing argument that what is good in A la recherche du temps perdu is the wordly social side, the human comedy, whereas the “deeper” parts, the philosophy of time and memory, the madeleine and so on, are simply commonplaces of French philosophy already out of date at the time Proust wrote and often at variance with the book’s real story. I.e., what is considered “superficial” in Proust is profound, and vice versa.
At this point in Revel’s career, it might have been said that the man was simply an attention-seeker, moving lightly from field to field, in search of provocative positions to occupy and abandon, a journalistic enfant terrible or disgruntled academic whose formula was to assert the opposite of what “everybody” was saying. This would have been to ignore the solidity and breadth of his learning but, more than that, to mistake the impetus behind his contrariness, the irrepressible spirit of contradiction that guides him, like a dowser, in the hope of striking truth.
Self-dramatization, eagerness for the spotlight must count very low among Revel’s motivations. He has some traits in common with Shaw (he was once meditating a book against Shakespeare) but he totally lacks Shaw’s theatrical vanity and Irish flair for personal publicity. Unlike Shaw, Revel does not play the sage, ready for consultation by newsmen on all manner of subjects; no Isadora Duncans, so far as I know, have been asking to have babies by him. He is not a highly advertised “brain,” in fact makes no pretensions to having anything more than common garden intelligence; if he is different from the majority, he would say, it is only because he is not ashamed to be caught using that very ordinary faculty—the natural light of reason.
Far from being a star or aspiring to prominence, Revel is very much the citizen, a bourgeois in the old Enlightenment sense of the term—a townsman, fond of domestic tranquility and the arts of peace and commerce. His nature appears placid, benevolent, easygoing, sentimental, that of a private householder going about his business, reading his newspaper without the expectation of finding his own name in it, an urban Cincinnatus. He has a round, flat “Dutch” face (though he is of pure French blood) that looks as if it had seen service in the battles of William the Silent against the Spanish oppressor. It is a moon face; indeed there seem to be several moons perspicaciously turning in its dial, like in one of those grandfather clocks that keep track of astronomical time. He is a better and likes to go to the races, wears a gray suit and carries a briefcase.
Despite the stir of indignation excited by some of his broadsides, his person does not inspire fear nor cause a swift turning of heads in a restaurant. His picture, in L’Express every week over his column, has something bullish about it, the broad-browed, head-lowered promise of some intransigent charge into the arena, and yet it is a good bull, scarcely more than a rambunctious steer. He is occasionally seen on television and once ran for office (Cincinnatus called from the plow) on the Federated Left ticket in the suburban district of Neuilly—not his natural territory. He came in a bad third, behind the Gaullist and the Communist. Notwithstanding the weekly photo in a mass circulation magazine, his “image” somehow, as if from modesty, retires from circulation; if polled, fewer Parisians could identify J.-F. Revel in the rogue’s gallery of current celebrities than could identify Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Roland Barthes, Michel Rocard, Alain Krivine, or the man, “La Reynière,” who writes the restaurant column in Le Monde. Not to mention J.-P. Sartre, J.-J. Servan-Schreiber, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Luc Godard, etc.
Yet in terms of meritorious service in the combat against General de Gaulle and Gaullism, the outstanding antagonist was surely not any of the above-named opinion leaders, left or center, nor François Mitterand, nor Lecanuet, but Jean-François Revel. His spirit of contrariety found in the General its absurd predestined windmill to tilt at indefatigably. Three brilliant pamphlets sprang from his pen: Le style du Général, En France: la fin de l’opposition, Lettre ouverte à la droite. He slew de Gaulle again and again, and if the General had more lives than a cat and more heads than a hydra, that did not really daunt Jean-François, though he publicly confessed to battle weariness. In fact, like the deathless General himself, he came back refreshed, reinvigorated, having found a new point of attack, new weapons, generally captured from the enemy camp.
He is still fighting, this time on the left flank. Ni Marx ni Jésus, where the old Gaullist bugbear, the United States, is tenderly embraced as an ally, suddenly discovered, in the struggle, is another engagement with the adversary, resurgent in the form of Georges Pompidou, and that adversary’s eternal cohorts, as Revel sees them, of the French Communist Party and the splinter grouplets of the left. If the emphasis here is more on the vacuities of the left, old and new, than it was in some of the preceding pamphlets, it is only a shift of emphasis.
From start to finish, Revel has seen the so-called left as the right’s accomplice, and vice versa, two sides of the same worn coin—an agreement to perpetuate the status quo. What he holds against both right and left is their joint blocking the way to any real social advance. I am not sure whether Revel, like Shaw, believes in a theory of socialism, but at least during his short electoral career he was running on a socialist ticket. Certainly he is a democrat and egalitarian. To him, plainly, right-left in France is a symbiosis mutually advantageous to both parties and deathly to human liberty. Or as de Gaulle is supposed to have said of Jean-Paul Sartre: “Sartre, c’est aussi la France.”
De Gaulle is France, Sartre is France, the CGT and the Communists are France. France, for Revel, is a suspended solution in which all these elements refuse either to precipitate or to dissolve. What Revel is fighting, singlehanded, is “France,” which has become to him the arch-symbol of all those forces of inertia that the original Adam in him felt bound to contradict when he still thought their locus might be Shakespeare or the obscurantist jargon of the Sorbonne chapel of philosophy. He is somewhat more indulgent toward the young Maoists, Trotskyites, and Castroites because they are young and the objects of a judicial campaign of terror, backed up by riot squads. But for him they too are “France,” in the unreality of their perspectives, doctrinaire slogans, and practical failure to get anything done.
Sometimes one feels that Revel, as an infant, was nurtured in a debating school where the training consisted of being obliged to take the negative of such seemingly unassailable propositions as: The earth is round; Proust was a snob; Fresh air is good for you; Travel broadens the mind. And where daily exercise in the gymnasium meant standing on their heads maxims like Klauswitz’s “War is a continuation of politics by other means” (Without Marx or Jesus, “Foreign policy is an initiation of war by other means”).
This would not be such a bad school for educating not mere mental contortionists versed in paradox but free minds. There is always the possibility that the exact opposite of what you think (or think you think) may be true. At least it is worth trying on for size, and experiment will show that the converse of many dogmas, once stated, appears to be just as plausible as the original. Moreover, anything repeated a sufficient number of times has a natural tendency to upend itself, as though obeying some physical law of balance, like a Cartesian devil or a Mexican jumping bean. E.g., if I hear often enough “Poverty is no crime,” I feel an urge to reply “Poverty is a crime,” meaning that it is against the laws of humanity or that to be poor is to be already two-thirds of a criminal in the eyes of the police.
In reality few propositions are entirely true and many are lucky if they contain a grain of truth. Thus automatically to take the opposite of any received idea, say, that Proust was a snob or that the United States is the citadel of world reaction, is almost bound to disclose unexpected evidence to the contrary. The danger in such operations is to mistake those grains of truth newly brought to light for the whole truth and to fall into a reverse orthodoxy, which will not long have the merit of being your own private opinion or stubborn form of dissent but will soon be on “everybody’s” lips. Far from being free to perceive what is there, outside, you are suddenly the captive of your own heresy and the adherents you have gained for it, many of whom have drawn near to listen not from an attachment to truth but from self-interested motives or simple love of novelty.
I do not think Revel has altogether escaped this danger in Without Marx or Jesus. Less than in his earlier polemics. The reason is that previously he stood virtually alone, his back to the wall, with not many more “voices” in his favor than he found to vote for him in Neuilly in 1967. But here the ally he has embraced in the shape of the United States is likely to smother him with warm moist grateful kisses. Even before US publication, you can already hear those smacks resounding from the pages of Time and Newsweek. And in the French press, surprisingly, there have been quite a few huzzas. Only on the ultra-right and the ultra-left has the book been savaged. The Communist press, though naturally critical of his un-Marxist approach, has been remarkably unvituperative, no doubt because Revel’s views, on some domestic issues, coincide with their own policy of parliamentary “opposition” and reprehension of extra-legal and guerrilla tactics. The fact that Revel is offering a happily distant, transatlantic alternative to the awful specter of helmeted local revolutionaries armed with Molotov cocktails and preaching a Maoist or Castroite gospel must appeal to readers of L’Humanité as much as to readers of Figaro and France-Soir.
That is not Revel’s fault, and if his thesis is true, it does not matter who takes comfort from it. Besides, if the French middle classes relax in the assurance that the revolution can only take place in America, they may get a surprise. More curious, and for Revel perhaps more disquieting, is that the French reviews paid almost exclusive attention to the “positive” sections of the book, those dealing with the United States, and virtually ignored the “negative” sections, those dealing with France. Yet to my mind these contain some of his most splendid tirades, his highest comedy, and most acute observations: e.g., Pompidou rebounding from rough American to deferential French newsmen is as good as a play.
Up to now, the complaint about Revel’s pamphleteering has been that it is “negative.” “Why does he have to tear down?” and so on. He answered the judgment at length in the final section of La Cabale des Dévots, where his defense rested on the commonsense argument, How can you expect me to be positive about a negative?—in that case the calamitous and self-satisfied state of French philosophy.
Of course his defense was right. The insistence on “constructive criticism” has no place in intellectual discussion. According to that notion, one could never “damn” a play, a picture, or a poem without putting in its place another play, picture, or poem, as though it were a question of an inventory and the withdrawal of one article from the common stock demanded immediate replenishment to maintain a constant level. A false equation is made with the necessities of practical life, where if I declare that the doctor treating a patient is a quack, I am under some slight obligation to try to find a more reliable man to speed to the bedside or the operating table. The idea that all doctors are quacks, true or not, is insupportable to a sick person, but quite supportable in argument.
Without Marx or Jesus, however, breaks with Revel’s critical habit by offering a positive model, the United States, to offset the otherwise gloomy picture he draws of mankind’s revolutionary perspectives. If it were not for the United States, he is at pains to show, they would be nil. No hope. But why, one might ask, is a revolution called for? Why not gradual evolution? It is true that to the emotions the world situation appears so grim that only a revolution seems capable of altering it for the better; we hope for a revolution as desperate peoples in the past hoped for a miracle to save them when all other resources had run out—battalions of angels flying in from the sky, manna flowering in the desert. A revolution is a sort of miracle, a widening crack in the social crust that is finally perceived to be an earthquake, and, like a miracle, it is outside the laws of prediction, except from the point of view of hindsight.
Given the common desperation, Revel can be excused for foreseeing a revolution in the US, since he cannot see one in the offing anywhere else. But to argue it is something different. At the risk of being destructive myself, I would say that his “revolution” is only a metaphor, a play on words. If he means that the US is different from the stereotype of it in French thought and that some changes are taking place there whose repercussions are already being felt elsewhere (the Berkeley Free Speech uprising anticipating “May” in Paris by nearly four years), then he is not saying anything very revolutionary, except perhaps to French ears.
I agree that draft refusal, dropping out, Woodstock, the drug culture, the Panthers, Women’s Lib, the Yippies, concern about the environment, the back-to-Nature movement, open admissions to universities show that the US is “ahead” of all its partners in the West, if that can be taken as a value-free term rather than a blanket endorsement, for we are also “ahead” in sophisticated weaponry. I agree too that all this diverse effervescence may add up to some kind of transformation already as alarming to most people over forty as a universal bomb threat.
Very likely, as Revel says, American traditions embodied in the Bill of Rights and an old history of civil disobedience going back to 1776 have favored these developments, although the very rootedness of those traditions or folkways could suggest the opposite of his conclusion, suggest, that is, that they are not very exportable. It seems to be easier to transplant Coca-Cola than hominy grits or habeas corpus. But in any case to propose that these changes are a revolution is to detonate images of the taking of the Bastille, the Carmagnole, Trees of Liberty, the storming of the Winter Palace, the shot-heard-round-the-world. The reader sometimes feels that he is poring over a rosy positive print of the negative that met Martha Mitchell’s eyes when she looked out her Washington window and saw a mob of “the very liberal Communists”—the Mobilization marchers—and thought she was in St. Petersburg in October, 1917.
Revel is of course careful to explain that he does not mean what everybody else means by a revolution, that most of what we call revolutions were really aborted revolts, e.g., the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Hungarian Revolution, which were either totally defeated or failed to achieve their ends and bogged down in tyranny. He believes that up to now there has been only one revolution—that which effectively took place in France, England, and the American colonies in the latter half of the eighteenth century (having originated in England in the seventeenth) and which, despite many setbacks, eventually replaced the old order by new democratic institutions.
One wonders, though, whether by his own strict criteria that protracted spasm was not also an aborted revolt, since many of its objectives have failed to this day to be realized, not only on a world-wide basis but in the countries where the whole thing started: The Rights of Man remain in large part on paper, like the Soviet Constitution, and equality is still a dream. So far as I can see, if one accepts Revel’s definitions, the only successful revolution, up to now, has been the Industrial Revolution….
If Revel does not mean what everybody else means by the word, why use it, unless to startle and amuse? Why not find another word, such as reform? Reform, in its root sense, is what Jean-François is actually talking about: a reshaping of society. He does not have in mind a violent overturn but a renovation brought about largely by legal means, such as strikes, marches, and boycotts, with little bloodshed and with a strong dose of voluntarism. Possibly this gradual evolution will take place in America. The trouble is, Revel does not say how in political terms, and that is what counts for us Americans.
Perhaps he expects politics to wither away. If in the future the young dropouts of the counterculture did not vote, then voting would become a mainly ceremonial activity (which it is now, in a sense), engaged in by oldsters until they die off, and the Nixons of the future would be something like constitutional monarchs, useful for meeting their opposite numbers at airports, signing bills, redecorating the White House, throwing the first baseball of the year into the Washington stadium…. The Agnews would preside over the slumbrous Senate, another honorific body, like the House of Lords, and give employment to jokesters and makers of hate-dolls. Meanwhile the real majority life of revolutionized America would proceed undisturbed in communes and on campuses in a polyracial, polysexual ambiance.
The drawback to this fantasy (my own improvisation on Revel’s theme) is that the intervening steps are not clear. Who arranges the transfer of power? What do we do in ’72? If there is nobody possible to vote for, which seems likely, what action do we take? While the occupant of the White House is gradually being defused, he still has his enfeebled hands on the levers of destruction. There still is such a thing as capitalism.
Revel bases much of his hope on the fact, indeed impressive, that the protest movement drove Johnson from office. Yes. But it did not end the war. The sad truth seems to be that whatever else the protest movement can accomplish—organizing marches and student strikes, draft-card burnings, moratoria, sending resisters to Canada and deserters to Sweden, blocking defense-research contracts in universities, promoting beards and long hair, the sale of love beads, pot consumption—what it cannot accomplish is the very purpose that brought it into being.
It looks as if nothing inside the country can do that, short of revolution (and not the gradual kind Jean-François means) or a massive economic depression. Or the second leading to the first. There, again, is the rub. One of the factors he considers essential for the renovation he postulates—a steady high growth rate—is the obstacle to even such a small step in a forward direction as withdrawal from Vietnam. On the one hand, the certainty of American technical superiority rules out, for the Presidential mind, the very thought of defeat or “surrender.” On the other, American prosperity makes the country feel it can tolerate the war as it can put up with taxes, airport congestion, smog—the cost argument, repeatedly made by the war’s critics, has never made the slightest impression, and as for morality, the scaling down of US casualties, the changing of the color of the body count have allowed Nixon to do practically as he pleases. * If, as Revel says, a large section of affluent youth is disgusted by the consumer society, the great majority of the country is not. Until something more than moral dissatisfaction with the ruling values is felt, the war will go on and expand.
Besides, Revel is too intelligent not to perceive and point out the flaw in his own argument, which in logic amounts to this: If turned-off youth drops out in increasing numbers, the growth rate will fall to zero, and one of his necessary preconditions for successful revolution will no longer be present. If its numbers fail to increase, then dropout youth will remain a marginal phenomenon, which present society can afford or else move to repress. Revel does not follow up on this reasoning, but the consequence, it seems to me, is to be driven back to one of the old Marxist models and trust that an upheaval leading to renovation will come out of a capitalist crisis and not as an accompaniment of steady capitalist growth.
Perhaps it will never come, by that route or any other. Yet I do not wish to be forced by Revel’s ineluctable logic into agreeing that if the revolution—whatever that is—does not take place in the United States, it will not take place anywhere. For an American, that is too discouraging a vista. And though Revel has proved to himself with dialectical relish that there can be no issue but that one, he is, again, too intelligent, too empirical, too in fact enamored of freedom not to be aware that any demonstration, no matter how rigorous, is only a demonstration.
If this little book is taken as a pamphlet, with all that connotes of provocation, surprise attack, deftness, rapidity, polemical sparkle, it will have done its work of disturbing—agit prop. But if American readers are led by it to believe that a Second Coming is materializing in the California desert, they will have misunderstood. They will be more right if they suspect that the America discovered by Columbus-Revel is an imagined and imaginary country, the antipodes of “France,” though having many points of coincidence, naturally, with the homeland they know.
Revel is a satirist in the tradition of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques sur les anglais, Gulliver’s Travels. Like these fabulists, he contrasts the institutions of his native country with institutions affirmed to exist among some ideal race of beings thought by the vulgar to be savages—the Persians, the English, or noble horses. There is something of Molière in him (Les Précieuses ridicules); the French sections of the book constitute a delicious comedy of manners. That was true too of En France and Lettre ouverte à la droite. For Americans, Without Marx or Jesus can be the occasion for a reciprocal discovery—of Jean-Francois Revel as a writer.
September 2, 1971
July 28, 1971. His tryst in Peking for May, 1972, if it materializes, may, of course, be followed by a new Geneva Conference setting terms for an American withdrawal from the area—not just the pseudo-withdrawal that is now proceeding as the combat troops come home. At such a conference, the US may sell Saigon down the river or the Chinese may sell Hanoi down the river, or a little of each. Meanwhile, as has been noticed, Nixon has once again bought time to continue the aerial war and “Vietnamization” undisturbed by domestic criticism. ↩