Last Exit To Utopia

On April 10, 2010, in Culture, Economics, History, Politics, by marc

U·to·pi·a [yoo-toh-pee-uh]- noun - an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. The opposite of dystopia.
ORIGIN based on Greek ou not + tóp(os) a place

Last Exit to Utopia

Last Exit to Utopia by Jean-François Revel

Note, dear reader, the origin of the term “utopia”: the Greek root indicates that utopia is, literally, nowhere.  It is not a place.  It does not exist.  Sir Thomas More, who first used the term, certainly never considered such a place to be realistically possible.  And the truth of the matter is that anyone remotely acquainted with the reality of human nature and history must admit that we do not live in a perfect world, and that such a place is impossible to create.

Anyone, that is, besides leftist intellectuals and politicians, who continue to insist – against the overwhelming evidence of history – that socialism can work, that indeed it must work!  They argue, in spite of all the plain evidence against them, that socialist solutions are more efficient and equitable than market solutions, and that the classical liberal system that has created the most vibrant societies and powerful economies in world history should be at least reined in and subjected to strict scrutiny, and at most outright replaced by a “more humane” socialist system.

Jean-François Revel was a French intellectual, a member of the Académie française, and one of the greatest French political philosophers of the 20th century, at least in the seemingly small branch of 20th century French political philosophy that wasn’t completely enamored of totalitarian schemes.  Prior to his death in 2006, he penned a book called Le Grande Parade, which has now been translated into English and re-titled Last Exit to Utopia, in which he exposes the intellectual and moral failure of leftist intellectuals who have served as apologists for the brutal communist regimes that brought misery and death to millions in the last century, and examines the project that was undertaken by the left after the fall of communism to rehabilitate Marxist and socialist ideas.

Anthony Daniels – AKA Theodore Dalrymple – contributes a fantastic preface to the English edition of the work.  An excerpt:

As Jean-François Revel establishes very clearly in this book, the left-leaning intelligentsia’s long infatuation with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries was not merely an intellectual error but, if not quite a criem itself, at the very least complicity with crime; and moreover crime on a scale virtually unparalleled in human history before the Nazis came on the scene.  With very few honorable exceptions, the whole of the left-leaning intelligentsia devoted a great deal of its formidable powers of sophistry to denying or exculpating the crimes of Communism, thus siding with the mass executioners rather than with the victims in the mass graves.

When the moral, economic, social and philosophical failure of Communism was admitted in the land of its birth, the Western left-leaning intelligentsia found itself with a serious and embarrassing problem.  It stood revealed for all to see as having, for many years, been morally not very different from, and not any better than, M. Le Pen of the French National Front, who once famously (or infamously) declared that the Holocaust was nothing but a detail of history.  While it is relatively easy, especially as one grows older, to admit to having been in error, even in gross error, it is very difficult to admit to having been a willing accomplice to evil, and evil of the most obvious and evident kind.  As M. Ravel convincingly explains, this accounts for the difference in the reception in France of two magisterial books about Communism by French scholars, François Furet’s Le passé d’une illusion, and Stephane Courtois’s Le Livre noir du communisme.

The first deals with what might be called the fashion for Communism as an intellectual error.  Anyone can be mistaken in his philosophy, and few people never change their philosophy in the light of experience and further reflection.  (An unchanging person would be suffering from what a medical friend of mine once called “a hardening of the concepts.”)  Therefore, however preposterous Marxism-Leninism might be as an intellectual system – “a farrago of nonsense,” as Professor Acton once called it – those who adhered to it do not stand convicted of wickedness or defect of character.  Hence Furet’s book, whose exposure of the errors of Communist doctrine could hardly be denied, was received respectfully and even with acclimation.

It was quite otherwise with Livre noir.  This book showed implacably that evil was implicit in both the theory and the practice of Communism, and that everywhere and anywhere it was tried, it resulted in the same appalling conduct of affairs, differing only as to scale.  Evil was in Communism’s DNA, as it were; and the crimes of Communist polities were not the result of a perversion of noble ideals, but were caused by the adoption of evil ideals.

Thus, those who espoused or sympathized with Communist ideals were convicted of harboring evil within themselves; and this is not an easy thing for people, especially those without a belief in original sin, to accept.  Courtois’s book was roundly condemned, therefore, by France’s left-leaning intelligentsia; and since it could not actually point to any serious factual errors contained in this massive work of scholarship, it resorted to defamation and the raising of smokescreens, such as that the book would bring relief and confort to the Front National.

Revel’s perspective seems to me a necessary antidote to the statist surge currently underway here in the United States.  Goodness knows this book is (unfortunately) on very few shelves among the current cadre of Washington “leaders.”  One can only hope the an electoral corrective is on the way, and that those who assume positions of power after the coming vote will take Ravel’s message to heart.

I was made aware of this book via a book review in the Wall Street Journal.  You can read it here.