Revolution and Other Fantasies
Without Marx or Jesus, The New American Revolution Has Begun by Jean-Francois Revel Doubleday, 269 pp., $6.95
In Without Marx or Jesus, a Succes de scandale in France and a best seller stateside, Jean-Francois Revel proposes that America owns an exclusive option on the Age of Aquarius. But his flaccid prose, chaotic presentation, and unsupported generalizations fail to convince me. After rejecting the idea of America as a fascist and imperialist state, he ends up creating an equally far-fetched image. He tries to prove that the United States possess all the necessary preconditions for the world revolution: an obsession with modernity, unrestricted access to information, and an army of radical crusaders. Along the way he solemnly proclaims the true saving graces of mankind: world government, unlimited mass media, and technology, but he can't quite explain their unique significance. Unfortunately, he doesn't succeed in sustaining the rest of his argument either.
Mary McCarthy, grande dame of the old American left, assures us in the afterward that Revel is only a pamphleteer. Recognizing this we can all chuckle indulgently at his excesses and inadequacies. After all, he exploits them in the name of the polemic. But petty Gallic charm cannot substantiate his vision.
By defining revolution so that most countries are eliminated, he hurdles some of his arguments major inadequacies. First he dismisses ferment in the rest of the world with some biased sleight of hand. He rejects the African nations because they seek out their non-colonial heritage. Therefore they are inevitably counter-revolutionary. He discounts the People's Republic of China as an irrelevant agrarian nation. For Revel political democracy is absolutely essential, economic equality relatively unimportant. Socialist states, including anything from Sweden to the Soviet Union, disqualify themselves because they are anti-democratic one way streets. He considers Western Europe culturally unimaginative and ideologically misdirected.
Revel's elusive rhetorical techniques prohibit refutation of his conclusions. Because he claims his arguments are intuitively obvious, his sloppy syllogisms cannot support controversy. He has found a disconcerting way of stating his views at the start of a chapter, and then discussing whatever occurs to him. Suddenly the word "therefore" appears, and Revel blithely announces he has made his point and he claims only foolish French leftists would disagree. I suppose this tone is meant to be audacious and amusing, but I did not laugh.
As Revel rumbles on his major interest emerges: France is what concerns him, especially the complacent lethargy of her leftists. Revel devotes a third of the book to the radicals, alleging they wish to remain out of power. His references to the Pompidou-Poher presidential campaign point out a stunning disinterest in practical politics and constructive action on the part of the left. He also exposes the naivete with which French leftists view America. He ridicules students' surprise that auto-workers are not starving and berates a radical journalist who comments. "'In the United States Mr. Nixon's only serious rival, for the moment, is the racist Wallace."' Revel scores with each example, yet his inaccurate portrayal of America is so glaring I hesitate to accept his view of the French. I am wary of what he may have chosen to leave out.
Ironically his attack on simplistic French attitudes precedes his own incredibly facil analysis of the United States. Without Marx or Jesus hardly bothers with American society. It is relegated to a series of confused vignettes supposedly confirming Revel's thesis. Witness: Leonard Bernstein's Black Panther cocktail party demonstrates a great depth of revolutionary commitment; the opposition to the "no knock" search law shows the growth of civil libertarianism; the movie of The Strawberry Statement indicates artistic fervor; the Hare Krishna Society and the Jesus freaks glow with revolution; and so do all students, all women, all liberals, and all anti-Vietnam War demonstrators.
Revel's rose-colored glasses have thick distorting lenses through which he sees what he wishes, not what exists. He handles his analysis of the United States by waving the stars and stripes and bellowing. "See, I told you it's red." Everything he witnesses walks a leftist path. His inability to acknowledge the traditional strength of American conservatism ruins his argument. For him the country consists of the Black nation, the Woodstock nation, the Wallace nation, and the liberals. But Woodstock was not the radical political convention that Revel calls it. Nor have dissenters forced the United States out of Vietnam. Nor does the fight over bussing indicate increasing racial harmony. Nor is half the country anxious for even a gradualist liberal revolution. Revel has declared victory even when the few skirmishes he chooses to analyze remain in doubt.
Meanwhile the rest of America goes homeless. Revel neglects the plurality that elected Nixon president. In Revel's context Spiro Agnew is kept busy fighting a rear guard action against the massmedia. The compulsion to split the country neatly into left and right also ignores the middle class and its love of the status quo. American is not, as he says, "composed of two antagonistic camps of approximately equal size." The nation holds a spectrum of ideologies. Even a division into three parts would be more valid.
Yet if Revel uses extremes as a propaganda device, isn't he allowed some latitude in his descriptions? I might be tempted to accept his distortions, if only the book weren't so grindingly dull. In his efforts to sound like a political philosopher, Revel manages to make his startling premises excruciatingly boring. Without Marx or Jesus neither convincesnordelights. Revel displays so much pompous and artificial scholarship, I even find it difficult to be outraged by his phony ideological posturing. Absolutely rabid francophiles or phobes might be interested in this minor rhetorical gesture. The rest of us should forget it.