Blog author: mvandermaas
by on Friday, April 30, 2010

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 would be impossible for fallen humanity 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 the very 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.

Revel was no stranger to this type of clear thinking; indeed, as early as 1970 (in an earlier work, Without Marx or Jesus) he was willing to completely dismiss the argument that Stalin had hijacked and warped the course of Lenin’s revolution by noting that “…Neither Lenin, if he had lived, nor Trotsky, if he had remained in power, would have acted any differently from Stalin.” He understood that the problems in socialist systems were not caused by people corrupting the system, but stemmed from the design of the system itself. He restates that 1970 argument in 2000 – this time with the benefit of retrospect – in Utopia, describing the state of affairs after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989:

We had long been accustomed to the disasters of socialism, since it had never managed to produce anything but disasters anywhere. What had now become obvious was that it could not produce anything else. A liberating truth had emerged: Marxism had suffered from defective DNA all along.

The question remains: if that “liberating truth” was so evident to all, how is it possible that the left still insisted (and continues to insist) on defending the ideas of socialism? Revel finds an answer in the fact that the left is guided by ideology:

As an a priori construction, formulated without regard to facts or ethics, ideology is distinct from science and philosophy on the one hand, and from religion and ethics on the other. Ideology is not science – which it pretends to be. Science accepts the results of the experiments it devises, whereas ideology systematically rejects empirical evidence. It is not moral philosophy – which it claims to have a monopoly on, while striving furiously to destroy the source and necessary condition of morality: the free will of the individual. The basis of morality is respect for the person, whereas ideology invariably tramples on the person wherever it reigns. Ideology is not religion – to which it is often, and mistakenly, compared; for religion draws its meaning from faith in a transcendent reality, while ideology aims to perfect the world here below.

Revel then makes a clear distinction between the ideology guiding intellectuals on the left and the classical liberal approach that he preferred:

Liberalism is not upside-down socialism; it is not a totalizing ideology governed by intellectual rules equivalent to those it criticizes… I for one have never fought against Communism in the name of liberalism alone, but for the sake of human rights and human dignity…

When you stand before a combination prison, lunatic asylum and base of operations for a gang of murderers, you don’t ask yourself whether it should be destroyed in the name of liberalism, or social democracy, or the Third Way, or market socialism, or “anarcho-capitalism.” Pettifogging of this sort would be unconscionable. Only in a free society can there even be debate between liberalism and statism. For my part, I took up arms against Communism inspired by the same “obsession” that years ago made me battle against Nazism: a “visceral” idée fixe of respect for the human person. Who wins the economic policy debates – Margaret Thatcher or Jacques Delors, Alain Madelin or Lionel Jospin, Ronald Reagan or Olaf Palme – is a secondary issue that presupposes the re-establishment of a free civilization.

While a devotion to ideology helps to explain at least part of the continued fixation of leftist thinkers with socialist ideas, one still has to ask – how is it possible, after the experience of the 20th century, that anyone could still defend the ideas that brought us the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields? Perhaps the answer lies in the very brutality of actually-existing Communism itself. For those intellectuals who bought in to the ideas of Marx and defended those who tried to implement them, it was inconceivable that those ideas – applied properly – could lead to the inhuman results seen in communist nations. Confronted with such awful real-world results, it became imperative for them to make a distinction between the theory of socialism and the practice, so as to absolve them from any complicity with the crimes of the regimes they had so faithfully supported. Revel notes that in this sense, the fall of communism was a boon for socialist thought:

Here is a tasty paradox: The ferocity of the Marxist legions redoubled in the very same year when history had finally put paid to the object of their sacred cult. Marx’s disciples, betraying their master’s analysis, refused to bow down before the criterion of praxis, choosing instead to retreat into the impregnable fortress of the ideal…once the Soviet system had disappeared, the mirage of a reformable Communism vanished along with the object to be reformed, and so too did the painful servitude of having to argue the cause in terms of tangible successes and failures…

…After all, socialism incarnate was always vulnerable to criticism. Utopia, on the other hand, lies by definition beyond criticism. Hence the rage of Utopia’s haughty champions could again become boundless, since there was no longer, anywhere, any embodiment of their vision.

I would argue that Revel, being atheist in outlook, is off the mark in aspects of his analysis. For instance, when he speaks of the basis of morality being found in respect for the person, I wonder upon what foundation he grounds the idea that persons deserve respect. But at the same time, I can’t help but appreciate his devotion to individual liberty and believe that his perspective provides a welcome and necessary antidote to the statist surge currently underway here in the United States (and around the world). Goodness knows this book is (unfortunately) on very few shelves among the current cadre of Washington “leaders.” Perhaps an electoral corrective in November will help restore a focus among our governing class on the dignity of the individual and the dangers of the collective.