Book Review: The Totalitarian Temptation

This book review was originally published in the July 18, 1977 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Joseph Stalin Lives

THE TOTALITARIAN TEMPTATION by JEAN-FRANCOIS REVEL 311 pages. Doubleday. $8.95.

The pattern has become classic: a nation emerges from the colonial yoke, lustily declares its independence—and then succumbs to the totalitarian mode. French Philosopher Jean-Francis Revel, author of Without Marx or Jesus, tries to analyze this alarming trend in a book filled with mordant wit and intensity. As a kind of historical prosecuting attorney, Revel puts Joseph Stalin in the dock, then offers witnesses to the crime of totalitarianism. It was the murderous Russian dictator who showed the 20th century how to construct a hermetically sealed tyranny, says Revel. It is the Stalinist model that is being sedulously imitated around the globe.

When Revel’s book was first published in France last year, many outraged intellectuals accused him of reviving the cold war. To Revel, a man of the non-Communist left, that accusation is a radical illusion; the war has never ceased. Stalinism, he insists, is no aberration, but the very essence of Communism. Without the kind of terror and oppression perfected in Moscow, every Communist government would collapse. Thus when any radical leftist regime comes to power, it suspends individual rights and forbids a genuine opposition.

Occasionally, Stalinism shows a sunnier face. But that is merely tactical, says Revel, because the frown is sure to follow. Party Leader Leonid Brezhnev is “simply a button-down Stalin without the old man’s dementia.” He has not emptied the Gulag of its millions of prisoners nor have any of the lesser Gulags in all the other Communist nations been dismantled. In fact, when Russia relaxes its grip on nations like Rumania and Albania, their societies tend to become even harsher and more restrictive. “De-Russification,” writes Revel, “does not mean democratization.”

Revel’s survey of Communist behavior persuades him that there is no such thing as Euro-Communism. It is just Stalinism decorated with new promises. As proof, Revel offers the damning evidence of the French and Italian Communist parties. If they mean what they say about permitting a democratic opposition when they come to power, inquires the prosecutor, why do they not allow any dissent within their organizations today? Revel bitterly acknowledges that “doubting their honesty is viewed in the West as being in poor taste.”

According to The Totalitarian Temptation, Communist regimes are judged by what they promise to do; oth er states are rated on their deeds. The denial of freedom in Communist-dominated Peru, for example, is excused by many leftists as a historical necessity on the road to the socialist paradise. The same behavior in Chile is denounced as fascist repression. Revel makes the pro vocative point that while many fascist regimes have come and gone, and a few have even been liberalized, not a single orthodox Communist regime has disappeared in this century.

Murky Impulse. For all of his close analyses of geopolitics, Revel offers a kind of sociobiological conclusion: people may prate of doing good for mankind but deep down they crave power. Others have an “unacknowledged desire to live under Stalinism, not in spite of what it is, but because of what it is.” In other words, some need to rule, others to be ruled — a “murky impulse from which none of us is free.”

Nevertheless, Revel is free enough to be a champion of pluralism. It is the co piousness of choice, the diversity of life in America that he held up as a model in his seminal Without Marx or Jesus. Stalinism is just the opposite: a retreat from modernity into a hard shell of suspicion and ignorance. Despite its grim tone, Revel’s ebulliently argued book is meant to be a reminder of how best to combat Stalinism: with at least two — if not three — cheers for democracy.

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