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Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Jean-Francois Revel
May 3, 2006

As a rule, Europe has not been well-served by its public intellectuals. German philosopher Martin Heidegger was a Nazi apologist; French writer Jean-Paul Sartre was famously soft on Stalin; German novelist Günter Grass opposed German reunification; Portuguese novelist José Saramago supported an aborted Communist coup d'etat, and . . . well, it's a long list.

But an exception was Jean-Francois Revel, the French political theorist and commentator who died last week at the age of 82. Like so many post-World War II members of Europe's intelligentsia, Revel started out as a man of the left. But unlike many of his contemporaries, it didn't take the collapse of the Berlin Wall for him to understand the menace of the Soviet Union. Nor was he reluctant to defend the U.S. and its values, including capitalism, against those who said the Cold War superpowers represented equivalent threats to world peace.

In books such as "The Totalitarian Temptation," "How Democracies Perish," "Democracy Against Itself" and "Anti-Americanism," Revel dissected the psychological weaknesses of liberal-democratic culture that made it dangerously prone to self-destruction. "The totalitarian phenomenon," he wrote in National Review in 2000, "is not to be understood without making allowance for the thesis that some important part of every society consists of people who actively want tyranny: either to exercise it themselves or -- much more mysteriously -- to submit to it. Democracy will therefore always remain at risk."

Revel's judgments were not unfailing, and in retrospect he was overly pessimistic about the ability of Western democracies to muster the will and courage to defeat their existential enemies. But by sounding the right warnings about the nature of those enemies -- and the places where our defenses were weak -- he not only helped win the Cold War, but redeemed the reputation of public intellectuals everywhere. As they say in France, he was an "Immortal."

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