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Saturday, March 1, 1986

A Reviewers Notebook: How Democracies Perish

The first thing to say about Jean Francois Revel’s How Democracies Perish (Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 376 pp., $17.95) is that it was written by a Frenchman. It represents a profound break with the neo-Marx- ism of the Paris intellectual community, the Gides and the Sartres who, even though they might differ with the Moscow line on some occasions, still considered Marxism-Leninism to be the wave of the future. The book is ably translated by William Byron.

Revel is something of a secular humanist (he likes the United States because it is willing, as he phrases it, to get along without either Marx or Jesus), but his values are Christian nonetheless. As a pragmatist he observes that democracy, with its capitalism, works, and he is certain that, in the long run, the Communist nations of the Eastern bloc are going to collapse. But what frightens him is the prospect that the democracies of the West will fall to pieces while Moscow still packs its ICBM nuclear lead that gives it blackmail power in spite of its own economic weaknesses.

The thesis is similar to that of Schumpeter, who thought that capitalism, though successful, would be fatally undermined by critics who insist on contrasting it to their dream of socialist perfectionism. In the real world, of course, the existing socialist bloc lives off what it can scrounge from nations that depend on market economies.

Revel goes back to Alexis de Tocqueville in order to make a running start. Tocqueville had been greatly im pressed by the democracy of the young United States, but he also noticed that when a society becomes richer it rebels against authority “in proportion as its needs are met.” The more that claims are satisfied, the greater the clamor for something better. In the third quarter of the Twentieth Century the democracies were more affluent than they had ever been. But, perversely, they tended to be “increasingly unstable, explosive, ungovernable.” It is not stagnation that breeds revolutions, says Revel, echoing Tocqueville, “but progress, because it has already created the wealth that makes revolution viable.”

The Communist societies don’t have this trouble. Says Revel, “Where the State is everything and civilian society is nothing, economic stagnation and social sclerosis foreclose all hope, and the absence of freedom blocks the spread of discontent.” The Communist dictators cover their weakness by a calculated military expansionism. What we get is the survival of the least fit. It would not be so if the democ racies only realized that they could bring about the collapse of Communism by matching it in military might and, at the same time, depriving it of access to western foodstuffs and western technology.

Revel gives us a long history of western failure to unite on a common anti-Communist policy that might have blocked Soviet ex-pansionism. We didn’t have to give Stalin the Kurile Islands and the southern half of Sakhalin Island in the Far East, for example. We might have let General Patron’s tank forces stay in Prague at the close of military operations in Europe in 1945, which would have given us the “Bohemian bastion” that Bismarck regarded as the key to the continent. We might have beaten the Russians to Berlin if Eisenhower hadn’t been ordered by Roosevelt to let the Soviets take Germany up to the Elbe River.

Revel is sarcastic about Roosevelt’s feeling that he could “handle” Uncle Joe Stalin by making him laugh and Truman’s statement that “old Joe” was a decent sort who couldn’t do what he wished “because he was the Politburo’s prisoner.” “I like old Joe,” said Truman a couple of years after Potsdam. But Truman, unlike Roosevelt, lived to make amends for his mistake about Stalin’s character, and about Marxism-Leninism in general.

Truman, with his aid to Greece, did manage to check the Soviet advances after World War II. But we never really fought the Cold War as it should have been fought. As for detente, it was a disaster.

The democracies, says Revel, have always failed to reckon with the constancy of the Soviet plan to take over the world by eating it leaf by leaf, like an artichoke. The Soviets never take a single defeat as final. They make tactical retreats, but only to renew their attacks elsewhere. When they were pursuing detente in eastern Europe, they were girding themselves for take-over in Asia, Africa and Central America.

Revel considers our handling of the Polish bankruptcy threat to be symptomatic of our general failure to use economics as a weapon. We were afraid that if we were to force Poland into the political equivalent of a receivership, we would panic all the Third World countries that owed us so much money. We could have handled this fear selectively by refinancing the loans to non-Communist nations while we were denying such favors to the Communists. The Third World would have been grateful, and Moscow would have had to like it or lump it.

Revel thinks it ridiculous that we made $70 billion in loans to the Soviet bloc in the decade of the Seventies. The Communists didn’t use this money to feed their own people. Instead, the money went into more and better ICBMs, and into financing subversion around the world.

The Western willingness to lend money at low rates to build the gas pipeline from Siberia to central Europe is another thing that outrages Revel. Looking back, he likes Jimmy Carter for one thing. Carter had enough spunk to embargo American grain sales to Russia.

There could be more of an argument about this than about most of Revel’s criticisms, as he himself rec ognizes. If the Soviets are forced to pay in gold or foreign exchange for wheat, it means that they will have to keep people digging for gold in Siberia. People who are employed in such digging won’t be manufacturing tanks and armored lorries to send to Angola or Nicaragua.

This is a first-rate book in spite of small objections to detail. It teaches us that Marxism has a plan for uni versal conquest, and that we must meet it if we are to live free.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.