How did the European left rationalize communism’s crimes and transform itself into a viable political force after the fall of the Soviet Union? It’s all explained in “Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era.”
First published in 2000, the book by the late French intellectual Jean-Francois Revel is only now available in English. But given Revel’s insights into today’s leftist movements, it couldn’t be more timely.
The old left’s attempt to “excommunicate” modernity, as Revel describes it, is as alive today as it ever was. He traces the left’s ideological rejection of modern civilization and the idea of progress back to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in the 18th century launched the Romantic rebellion against the Age of Reason.
Revel explains how Rousseau’s “primitivism” and denial of reason manifested itself in the utopian ideologies of communism and fascism.
These ideologies are often mistakenly associated with rationalism, progress and science. But their deeper motivation was the irrational impulse to eliminate all the uncertainties of the human condition — to create, in short, an earthly paradise. Revel calls this the “totalitarian temptation” because mankind is tempted into thinking that the only obstacle to creating the good society is a lack of will and power.
Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany were the most extreme examples of this idea. But Revel notes there were softer versions, ranging from socialism to the progressive movements in the United States. Yes, some versions were violent while others were not. But, Revel stresses, all shared the idea that their noble cause to create an ideal society morally justified the means, and the means of choice was state power – sometimes grossly violent and sometimes not.
Hitler’s creation is long gone, and so, too, is the Soviet Union. But the legacy of Rousseau’s assault on civilization and progress lives on in three modern political movements.
The first is environmentalism. By this I don’t mean the mere desire to have a clean environment, but rather the messianic mission to create a new ecological order through the application of state power. Environmentalism, particularly in its more radical forms, has inherited all of the old left’s habits of mind, only on a far grander scale. It seeks to transform not just civilization, but the physical planet as well.
As with the old left, new left environmentalists view capitalism and the free market as enemies. But so, too, is reason. The lengths to which some scientists will go to stifle dissent reveal not only a disrespect for the scientific method, but also contempt for using reason to understand reality. If truly understanding climate change were the main goal, there would be no hesitation to look at all the evidence of global warming. In the minds of many climate-change scientists, however, the top goal is not to understand the planet but to “save” it. The cause transcends the science.
Another new left movement is dedicated to “global governance” — the creation of supranational institutions to control societies. Manifested in the United Nations, the European Union, and other international institutions, the ostensible aim is more happiness for more people, but the means is the same old centralization of power in ever larger governing institutions — in this case, regional and global ones.
The enemies here are also familiar, namely, the nation-state and the free market. The United Nations and the European Union seek to bypass and control both, empowering bureaucratic elites who are unaccountable to the democratic process. In the old days, the nation-state was to be the engine of socialism; today, it is supranational institutions.
Unsurprisingly, this movement exhibits all the traits of the old left. Dissent from the received ideal is tolerated no more than the fat-cat bourgeois was by old-school socialists. For example, EU advocates in the European Parliament are boycotting its new European Conservative and Reform Group because it questions some aspects of integration. Its sin is apostasy from the creed of European integration, which EU advocates equate with wanting a return to the bad old days of suicidal wars. The same advocates never explain how regulating the size and shape of bananas and cucumbers or the noise that tires make serves such a noble cause.
Another great utopian movement of our era, militant Islamism, differs in origin from these secular leftist movements, but it shares some of their mental habits. The Muslim Brotherhood rejects capitalism and freedom no less than the most ardent environmentalists. It matters little whether advocates want to create a religious caliphate or an ecological nirvana. They share the utopian’s disregard for progress and civilization, and see few if any limits on the means to stop them.
Though written about the past, Revel’s book is a window into the future. Read it and you understand why, as the French say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation and author of “Liberty’s Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century.”