Is Freedom a Fatal Flaw?


How Democracies Perish, by Jean-François Revel, New York: Doubleday, 376 pp., $17.95

French political analyst Jean-François Revel's latest book, How Democracies Perish, is a work of embittered pessimism. It is a lengthy and detailed expression of his belief that democracy, as exemplified by the nations of the Atlantic community, is almost certainly doomed. These democracies are being subjected to continuous pressure and assault, of a predominantly psychological and ideological nature, by the Soviet Union, its agents, and its dupes. This assault, although powerful, is not in itself irresistible. But the democracies are unwilling to make the necessary mobilization in their own defense. Thus, there are two sides to Revel's story about how democracies perish. The first points to the reality and relentlessness of the Soviet threat; the second points to the fatal weaknesses of the democracies.

Revel presents the Soviet Union as needing and seeking expansion and domination. This imperialism clearly dates from at least the Soviet alliance with Hitler and extends into its aggressive takeover of Eastern Europe after World War II, its support of Asian communists in the '50s and '60s, and its renewed expansion into Africa in the '70s and '80s. For many episodes within each of these expansionist phases, Revel provides plausible evidence for such a Cold Warrior interpretation. For instance, against the revisionist view that the Soviet Union only clamped down on Eastern Europe in the later '40s reluctantly and defensively, Revel cites Stalin speaking in April 1945: "This war is not like those of the past; whoever occupies a territory imposes his own social system on it. Everyone imposes his system as far as his army can advance. That is how it has to be."

Revel's concern, though, is not so much to prove the reality of the Soviet assault as it is to document the refusal of Western intellectuals and statesmen to recognize and responsibly react to it. This willful and irresponsible refusal is part of the second story Revel has to tell—the story of the moral and structural weakness of the democracies. Here Revel reveals a history of moral and intellectual cowardice and hypocrisy. Here are a few choice examples:

No Western official seems to have seen anything unfortunate or unseemly in the Soviet Union's postwar control of the territory and peoples granted to it through its pact with the Nazis. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his entourage believed it was crucial that the West demonstrate to Stalin its good faith even though Stalin had been faithful only to Hitler. In the spring of 1945, the French newspaper Le Monde eagerly excused a Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, claiming, "The clock of history has struck the Slavic hour.…Only those who, consciously or not, are playing Germany's game will deplore this or be alarmed by it.…It was great Russia which saved the Slavs from servitude and destruction, and it is normal that they now show their gratitude toward it by grouping under its aegis."

There is the vanity with which various European leaders such as French president Charles de Gaulle and West German chancellor Willy Brandt sought the role of ambassadors to the East—eagerly seeking a pat on the head from Moscow in exchange for biting the hand that fed or protected them. And there is the great absurd Western ritual of clamoring for concessions and good faith gestures by the West whenever new rulers appear in the Soviet Union, in order either to placate them or to provide support for the new "liberal" ruler against his domestic, "conservative" competitors.

Revel convincingly portrays the strand of continual self-condemnation and moral apology that characterizes Western political thought and language. One part of this strand consists of a deeply embedded conversational convention that the reader can test for himself. Introduce into a conversation with any proper-thinking intellectual a mention of some atrocity committed by the Soviets or one of their agents—for example, the destruction of some Afghan village. The proper-thinking intellectual will almost always acknowledge the occurrence of the horror through some sort of nodding gesture but will then quickly cite some (real or imagined) Western atrocity, say the killing of blacks in South Africa or US support for the Shah of Iran's torture squads. Indeed, once you run this test a couple of times, you will feel that mentioning an Afghan village is like pulling a puppet string. That same intellectual, you will notice, will feel no need to mention Afghan villages if the topic you introduce is, for example, the killing of blacks in South Africa.

In our political culture it is conversationally obligatory to counteract immediately any suggestion that "they" may be worse than "us." Common political etiquette, however, does not at all demand that citations about "our" moral faults be balanced against "theirs." Revel's point is not that "we" are blameless. But it is striking that built into our very conversational norms is the idea that, no matter how horribly the Soviets act, they are no worse than on a moral par with "us."

The political and cultural self-condemnation of the democracies is only part of Revel's story about the weakness of the democracies. The other part turns on the inherent, systematic incapacity of the democracies to wage a protracted global struggle against the Soviet Union and its allies. Here, many familiar themes are discussed—often in quite illuminating ways. There are the problems of maintaining military and diplomatic unity among genuinely sovereign states jealous of their independence. There are the problems of maintaining long-term and costly strategies in the face of competing political interests and personalities and an open, free, and adversarial press. There are the problems of the inherently peaceful nature of the capitalist social order, its innate distrust of strong and demanding leadership, and the natural naiveté and misplaced goodwill of bourgeois civilization.

All of this, for Revel, adds up to a picture of the democracies as a group of free, culturally and economically fruitful, but politically weak, silly, short-sighted, and back-biting personalities who are pretty much destined to be bullied and subjugated by the politically strong, serious, far-sighted, and united Soviets. Revel ends his book with a call for a real "cold war"—as opposed to the too-timid policy of containment. But, on his own analysis, this itself must be a futile call. What, then, should one think of Revel's case for pessimism?

To begin with, one must have some doubts about Revel's omniscience as a historian and policy analyst. I presume that I can challenge Revel in this regard without thereby proving myself a "Commie sympathizer." Consider two brief examples. First, Revel's central claim about Vietnam is that "all the United States was trying to do there was to prevent the North Vietnamese Communists from taking over South Vietnam in violation of the 1954 Geneva agreement guaranteeing each country's independence." But my amateur recollection is that there was no agreement at all to guarantee "each country's independence," since the core of the agreement, for better or for worse, was to hold elections leading to a united national government. As a second example, the reader might mull over Revel's extremely puzzling policy claim that, during the 1948 Berlin blockade, President Truman should have sent "an armored train from West Germany to Berlin to see if the Soviets would dare to attack it. Whether they did or not, they were beaten and the United States could have capitalized on their blunder to demand clarification of the German situation."

In terms of broader policy analysis, it is remarkable that Revel never asks himself whether the absence of smooth and effective cooperation among the democracies might be due to real divergences of interest. He never asks, for example, whether the Western Europeans' substantial reluctance to defend themselves in a manner that we see fit for them might be owing to our commitment to defend them by subjecting ourselves to the threat of global nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He never asks whether European resentment about US "domination" might be owing to our insistence that they play the role of grateful and loyal dependents in our strategic endeavors.

Ultimately, whether we should join Revel in his requiem and whether we should do so with regret depend upon what is meant by democracy. It is an astonishing fact about How Democracies Perish that it contains no clear discussion of what is meant by the word and, therefore, no clear indication of what Revel thinks must perish. He constantly contrasts democracy with socialism (which he, in turn, identifies with communism). Revel, the former social democrat, is now quite willing to condemn socialism itself as inherently tyrannical and brutal. Yet while socialism is an economic system, democracy is a type of political structure. What should be placed in opposition to socialism is capitalism, not democracy. Unfortunately, however, Revel has even less to say about the nature of capitalism than he does about democracy.

What Revel seems, essentially, to mean by democracy is the sort of complex of political structures and forces that exist in majoritarian, mixed-economy, welfare states. Such states are not primarily oriented toward the protection of their citizens against predation and subjugation. Indeed, within such states, such a function is largely displaced by various competing agenda of social engineering, coercive paternalism, and coercive wealth redistribution. In other words, the democratic state is primarily concerned with preying upon and subjugating its own citizens.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, to discover that such states lack (or at least usually appear to lack) the moral rectitude, the will, and the interest necessary firmly to resist a much more self-confident and determined predator. Such states and their supporters will always be on the moral defensive with respect to their more radically egalitarian, more radically collectivist, or more radically anticapitalist critics. Within such states, those with "enlightened" opinions hate the still-remaining individualist and capitalist elements of their societies. And even the relatively uncorrupt man on the street, having become convinced that all good things in life must come from the state, cannot bear to surrender his (or others') "entitlements" for the sake of defending that archaic value—individual liberty.

Revel's whole analysis thus leaves two groups of intriguing questions unasked. First, might not the political institutions appropriate to a society of truly free individuals possess a clearer will and capacity to resist totalitarian threats and incursions than do the democratic welfare states? Might not governments reoriented to their classical liberal function of protecting individual rights be less apt to deny the importance of and need for defense?

Second, might not the dynamic nonpolitical forces of such a society more powerfully extend their (peaceful) influence into the Third World and even into the Soviet's current sphere of influence than any Revelian cold war scheme? Might not the nonpolitical features of free societies have enormous power for (unintended) self-preservation and countersubversion? Consider, for example, the eternal reappearance of black markets and underground economies and the marvelous capacity of the allure of Western freedom and prosperity for "corrupting" traditional authoritarian societies and, perhaps, even the less well guarded outposts of the Soviet empire.

A work that pursued such questions and did not so automatically address only the standard questions, categories, and alternatives in foreign-policy debate would have been more welcome. Of course, to point out that there are other, less conventional questions hardly shows that a solid case for optimism can be built. Besides, we do live in the world Revel discusses—a world of self-doubting, confused, and uncoordinated welfare-state democracies.

But before we join Revel in his prognosis for these democracies, we should ask ourselves a simple question. During the 40-year postwar onslaught by the Soviet Union, how many democracies have in fact perished? And has their demise always been irreversible? One might cite the demise of democracy in a number of Third World nations, including Chile, Uruguay, the Philippines, Iran (in 1953), Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. But this hardly looks like a list of fearful Soviet victories. What is striking is the simple fact that no democracies within the Atlantic community have perished. So perhaps the dreaded collapse of these querulous and effete regimes is not so near.

Eric Mack teaches philosophy at Tulane University. He is the author of numerous articles, including "The Moral Basis of National Defense," a chapter in Defending a Free Society.