Jean-François Revel on the tyranny of “political correctness”

by Matthieu Creson

Article originally published in French on the website of the Revue Politique et Parlementaire:

In this article, Matthieu Creson, lecturer and teacher in Paris, reminds us how this tireless tracker of falsehoods and destroyer of ideologies that was Jean-François Revel (1924-2006), was also prescient in warning against the dangers of the tyranny of political correctness, of which the current “woke” movement constitutes the latest manifestation.

The French essayist, philosopher and journalist Jean-François Revel has often been described as a “polemicist”, a term that Revel was generally reluctant to endorse, insofar as, for Revel, the good polemicist is above all the one who demonstrates a thesis in a convincing way by means of arguments, the polemical tone of a piece of writing being only a way for the author to further draw the attention and rouse the interest of the reader. For Revel, a good argument could not do without theses supported by solid arguments, which themselves had to be based on a rigorous preliminary investigation of the facts.

From Without Marx or Jesus (Doubleday, 1971) to Anti-Americanism (Encounter Books, 2003), Revel fought relentlessly against communist totalitarianism and the Marxist ideology, whose goal was nothing less than the annihilation of societies based on democratic and classical liberal capitalism. Yet, an essential aspect of Revel’s work has often been overlooked: Revel was not so much a “political scientist” as what could be termed a true psychologist of culture. His tendency to read voraciously, his habit of reading several French, English-speaking, Italian and Spanish newspapers every day in order to isolate the articles that most spoke to him, can be explained in particular by the fact that he was less interested in the content of the subjects dealt with than in the way the human mind functions – he often wrote this himself. And it was as a fine analyst of the psychology of the human being and of human societies that Revel understood that there is perhaps in each of us, in the depths of our being, what he called the “totalitarian temptation”, a feature of the human mind.

After the fall of the communist regimes at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Revel understood that if the politico-economic systems based on Marxism were dead and gone, the ideology that had once underpinned their functioning would no doubt survive for a long time to come, by taking on a more or less “renewed” form. Like the French journalist Christian Jelen – to whom Revel dedicated La Grande Parade (Plon, 2000, translated into English under the title Last Exit to Utopia – Encounter Books, 2009 – and subtitled “the survival of socialism in a post-Soviet era”), Revel saw in the emergence of the doctrine known as Third Worldism an attempt to dress up old Marxism as something supposedly new. Christian Jelen had indeed written in his book Les Casseurs de la République (Paris: Plon, 1997): “The failure of communism prompted progressives to transfer their “ideological imagination” to Third Worldist themes. Engendering in turn disenchantment, Third Worldism finally led its supporters to shift their doctrinal minds towards exalting differentialism. Since then, a multiculturalist oxthodoxy has tended to take over from the Marxist one” (p. 139).

Revel also made a similar observation in some of his articles published in the French news magazine Le Point, several of which were gathered by him in his book, Fin du Siècle des ombres (Paris: Fayard, 1999) – or literally in English “the end of the century of barbarism”, as the 20th century was for Revel in many respects the antithesis of the Age of Enlightenment.

Thus, in an article written for the issue of Le Point published on June 10, 1995, Revel denounced “the impostures of political correctness” – such was the title given to his column. Why speak of “impostures”? Because the righteous neo-Marxist souls come to practice intolerance towards their intellectual adversaries, in the very name of universal tolerance! Throughout the history of the USSR, Communists have overused the subterfuge consisting in making us believe that they defended a supreme form of “democracy”, whereas in the 20th century they were among the fiercest opponents of parliamentary and classical liberal democracy.

As a lucid observer of the inexhaustible tricks of which the human mind galvanized by ideology is capable, Revel perfectly understood that the mentalities of the most ardent supporters of political correctness hardly differ structurally from those of the former defenders of totalitarian Marxism. “The ruse of virtuous censors”, Revel writes, “consists in exercising intolerance in the name of just causes. If you dare protest, they retort to you in the name of justice. Should you object that they do not achieve any result in this area, they will answer it is precisely your criticisms that prevent them from achieving the results they are hoping for. Communists played this trick on us for seventy-five years; today, it is the apologists of “political correctness” who have taken the hammer into their own hands” (Ibid., p. 724).

Worshipping “diversity” in theory, militants of radical political correctness are in truth supporters of ideological censorship as soon as their adversaries have the audacity to want to contradict and refute their ideas. The new censors are in fact, to use the expression of the French philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff, “customs officers of thought”. Those who were once stopped at the border separating, on the one hand, what one should always say or think, and, on the other hand, what deserves to be silenced, were often accused in the past of being “fascists”. Today, in 2022, it is perhaps more the labels applied to the outcasts of acceptable thought that have changed, more so than the general attitudes of right-minded censors. For the world seems to be perceived by them as one essentially divided into two groups: that of the defenders of absolute Good (which, only them, evidently embody) and that of Evil, no less absolute in their eyes, and which would be composed only of “reactionaries”, “populists”, “conspirators”, ” chauvinists”, or “climate-change skeptics”, to quote only a few adjectives constantly repeated on the current politico-media scene.

Revel also wrote: “Everything that is not me is fascist! This is what we read on the signs that the drum majors of political correctness are proud to boast” (Ibid., p. 725). “Everything that is not me is conspiratorial, sexist, or colonialist! “: here is what we could read on the signs that the fierce defenders of absolute Good would exhibit today.

The tour de force of the most radical “woke” supporters of political correctness (who are in fact the spiritual orphans of defunct Marxism) is to have instilled the idea that they have the monopoly on the fight for justice and social good. If you dare to challenge their ideas, even with facts and arguments, you are necessarily an enemy of justice and social good in their eyes. It is therefore high time to understand, as Jean-François Revel had already pointed out, that what is involved here essentially boils down to intellectual imposture, which in fact does a disservice to the seemingly noble purposes allegedly defended by the new sectarians of the ideology of Good.

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