The following is an excerpt from Jean-Francois Revel's new book, Anti-Americanism, published by Encounter Books. You may purchase a copy here for $25.95.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the vast majority of French people willingly joined in the three minutes of silence observed throughout the country to honor the memory of the thousands killed. Among those who didn’t were the delegates and militants of the CGT (Conféderation Générale du Travail) trade union during the weekend L’Humanité celebrations of September 15 and 16. Then, during the following weekend, it was the turn of the followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, assembled for their traditional Bleu-Blanc-Rouge festival. So, gathered together under the banner of anti-Americanism, whatever their particular ideological mantras—and even, apparently, when antagonists—were all the xenophobes, all the partisans of backward and repressive regimes, not excluding the antiglobalists and pseudo-Greens.
In September 2001, the nadir of intellectual incoherence was achieved. (Let’s not bother with the moral dimensions; we’re too blasé for that.) After the first gushings of emotion and crocodile condolences, the murderous assaults were depicted as a justified retaliation for the evil done by the United States throughout the world. This was the reaction of most Muslim countries, but also of rulers and journalists in some sub-Saharan African countries, not all of which have Muslim majorities. Here we see the habitual escape hatch of societies suffering from chronic failure, societies that have completely messed up their evolution toward democracy and economic growth; instead of looking to their own incompetence and corruption as the cause, they finger the West in general and the United States in particular. Classic displays of voluntary blindness to one’s own shortcomings though these were, they were but overtures; even more remarkable performances were to come. After a discreet pause of a few days, the theory of American culpability surfaced in the European press—in France above all, it goes without saying—among intellectuals and politicians, of the Left and the Right.
Shouldn’t we interrogate ourselves about the underlying reasons, the “root causes” that had pushed the terrorists to their destructive acts? Wasn’t the United States in part responsible for what had happened? Shouldn’t we take into account the sufferings of the poor countries and the contrast between their impoverishment and America’s opulence?
This line of argument was not only made in countries whose populations, keyed up to fever pitch by jihad, instantly acclaimed the New York catastrophe as well-deserved punishment. It was also heard in the European democracies, where soon enough, insinuations were made that—with all due respect for the dead, of course—a careful look at the terrorists’ motives was called for.
Here are shades of elementary Marxist cant, parroted by the enemies of globalization, according to which the wealthy are eternally accruing more riches at the expense of the poor, who are mired ever more deeply in poverty. Thus Marx believed he could predict that, in the industrialized countries he studied, capital was destined to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-smaller class of super-rich proprietors, who would be confronted by ever-increasing hordes of impoverished proletarians.
Put to the test, the theory was revealed as incorrect, for class relations within the developed societies simply did not go that way; likewise for the relations between the developed and the so-called developing nations. But inability to explain the facts has never prevented a theory from prospering, provided it is sustained by ideology and shielded by ignorance. As usual, facts are trumped by psychological imperatives.
A further step was quickly taken in the direction of intellectual decline when declarations multiplied demanding that the United States not launch a war against terrorism that could cause the entire planet to suffer. A gang of suicidal fanatics, indoctrinated, trained and financed by a powerful and rich multinational terrorist organization—or organizations—had murdered three thousand people in the heart of Manhattan, yet it was the victim who had mysteriously become the aggressor.
America’s mistake was to try to defend herself and eradicate terrorism, according to the America-haters. Obsessed by their hatred and floundering in illogicality, these dupes forget that the United States, acting in her own self-interest, is also acting in the interest of us Europeans and in the interest of many other countries threatened, or already subverted and ruined, by terrorism.
Inevitably then, today as yesterday and yesterday as the day before, a book about the United States must be a book dealing with disinformation about the United States—a formidable and perhaps Sisyphean task of persuasion, doomed to failure, since the disinformation in question is not the result of pardonable, correctable mistakes, but rather of a profound psychological need. The mechanism of the Great Lie that fences in America on every front, and the rejection of everything that might refute it, evokes the equivalent lie that surrounded the Soviet Union ever since 1917—not to the detriment, but to the advantage of the Communist empire. Here again, among those who fed from the idealized and falsified images of “existing socialism,” a sort of mental flyswatter swiped away at facts that were too threateningly real.
During my time in the United States in 1969, I identified what I believed could fairly be called a revolution. In its narrow sense, “revolution” usually means the replacing of one political regime by another, usually by means of a violent coup d’état accompanied by insurrection—followed by purges, arrests and executions. Indeed, many a revolution conforming to this pattern has led to dictatorship and repression. As I stressed in Without Marx or Jesus, what I meant by “revolution” in the context of America was less a political phenomenon at the highest levels of power than a series of transformations spontaneously occurring within society at a deep level. These radical changes had been born, were evolving and would continue to evolve independently of political transitions at the national level. You can change the government without changing society; conversely, you can change society without changing the government. The American Free Speech Movement sprang forth and continued to grow as vigorously under Republican presidents as under Democrats; it was able to do so largely because it never—or very rarely—regressed into the backward ideologies of the nineteenth century or the Marxist pseudo-revolutionary theoretical straitjackets of the twentieth. In my book, I argued that a revolution in this sense is a phenomenon that had hitherto never taken place, an event that would develop along lines other than the known historical ones and that could not be thought about—or even perceived—in terms of the old categories. It was obvious to me that the real revolution was taking place not in Cuba, but in California.
The side-by-side comparison I had carried out, a stark confrontation between what was everywhere said about the United States and what one actually encountered upon going there, inspired my frontline report, which apparently resonated with many people throughout the world. Without Marx or Jesus was a bestseller in France and in the United States, taking off spectacularly before it came to the notice of the critics and continuing to stay aloft even after lukewarm, even hostile reviews; it was translated into at least twenty languages. This landslide revealed the gulf between the desire to know on the part of the “silent majorities” and the desire not to know on the part of the intellectual and media elites, not only in countries like France, Italy and Greece that were under overt Communist influence, but in social democracies like Sweden that were theoretically opposed to totalitarianism.
My Swedish publisher, a bon vivant and crawfish connoisseur, invited me to help with the book’s launching in Stockholm. He wasn’t able to get a single television appearance for me, which evidently didn’t hurt sales in the slightest. In Finland, I was confronted by two delegations of apparatchiks—psychologically rigid Communist “intellectuals”—one from Romania, the other from Poland. The German author Hans-Magnus Enzenberger, trying to maintain the debate at a civilized level, spoke supportively on my behalf, even though his own contributions were violent critiques of American “imperialism.” My Greek publisher was masochistic enough to compose (without, by the way, consulting or notifying me) a preface in which he begged pardon from his compatriots for having published in their language such a farrago of errors and imbecilities. When I ventured a timid protest, he called me a bigot. The Corriere della sera, while bestowing qualified approval on me, reported on the indignant brouhaha in France and Italy that my thesis, so outrageously unfashionable as it was, had caused. And my Italian translator sprinkled his version with footnotes reproving my ideas. I had fun congratulating him in an article I titled Il traduttore bollente (“The Enraged Translator”). To judge from the international success of my book, one must conclude that some attacks seem calculated to win readers rather than frighten them off. Their curiosity aroused, readers say to themselves that the author must be getting something right or he could never have provoked such a panicked, over-the-top response.
The Left saw clearly what was at issue: my book was less about America and anti-Americanism than about the epic twentieth-century struggle between socialism and liberal democracy, and they feared that chances for victory might be starting to lean in liberalism’s favor. The principal function of anti-Americanism has always been, and still is, to discredit liberalism by discrediting its supreme incarnation. To travesty the United States as a repressive, unjust, racist—even fascist—society was a way of proclaiming: Look what happens when liberalism is implemented! And when I described the United States as not only a classical democratic system that worked rather better than any other, but as a society undergoing a revolutionary mutation upsetting its traditional values, the message was interpreted as an annoying wake-up call for the elites as they slumbered in their ideological easy chair—including those in the United States, where anti-Americanism continues to flourish in university, journalistic and literary circles. The Blame America First reflex to each and every problem has for long been instinctive among the cultural upper echelons.
When, on November 7, 1972, Richard Nixon was reelected president, crushing George McGovern, his left-of-center, “liberal” Democrat opponent, I became the target for various sneers: This triumph of a Republican—reputed to be of the Right—didn’t it make my entire thesis utterly ridiculous? So much for my American revolution. Yet the central thesis of Without Marx or Jesus is this: The great revolution of the twentieth century will turn out to be the liberal revolution—by 1970 it was already patently obvious that the socialist revolution had failed everywhere. A series of chapters in the book establishes this failure in the countries of “actually existing” socialism (only too actual, alas); in Third World countries, which had believed that the key to development lay in socialist/interventionist recipes; and in the industrial democracies, where state control over the economy, under the pressure of reality, was being rolled back as the century closed and beyond.
The American liberal revolution was becoming the driving force behind what was to become known as “globalization” (or in French, mondialisation, which in my opinion is the more accurate term). Indeed, the subtitle of the French edition of Without Marx or Jesus is From the Second American Revolution to the Second Global Revolution. This liberal invasion of the world, which would triumph resoundingly above all after 1990 and the disintegration of Communism, is what Francis Fukuyama would call the End of History, an expression that has come in for some criticism because it has been poorly understood, especially by people who think they have read a book when they have only read its title.
So Without Marx or Jesus focused chiefly on the United States as a laboratory for the liberal-democratic solution. In each period, or at least in each period that is marked by progress, there exists what one might call a “laboratory society” where civilization’s great inventions are tested. Not all are necessarily blessings, but they irresistibly prevail. Other nations have to adapt to these innovations, whether they like it or not. Athens, Rome, Renaissance Italy, eighteenth-century England and France—all were societies of this type, not as a result of some abstract “process,” but because of human deeds. In the twentieth century, it was the turn of the United States. Hence it is not without reason, even if obviously overblown, that for billions of people the spread of the liberal economy is synonymous with Americanization.
It is the advent of this historical development that I attempted to describe in Without Marx or Jesus. To what extent is its flowering attributable only to America and her “hyperpower”? Was her role as “laboratory society” voluntarily or involuntarily assumed? Does she owe it to her “imperialism,” her “unilateralism,” or her vigorous capacity for innovation? Has the American solution created—or at least to an equal extent been created by—a universal need? These are the questions I shall try to answer.
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