Volume 32, No. 4 - Winter 1986
Editor of this issue: Antanas Dundzila
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1986 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



Half a century ago, democracy was not a preeminent concern for the Baltic peoples. Together with every other East European state — except Czechoslovakia — during the period between the two world wars, the Baltic republics had slid from the giddy heights of democracy to the somber plain of authoritarianism. Democracy had proven to be a system of government that was too demanding and requiring too much political maturity for the nations of East Europe to handle at that time. As the war clouds gathered on the European horizon again, democracy was held to be a luxury that need await more tranquil days. Protection of national sovereignty was all that really mattered to worried East European leaders.

Today democracy is more important than ever to the inhabitants of East Europe, precisely because it holds out the promise of that which is most completely denied them — individual and national freedom. The democratic ideal offers a peaceful realization of their cherished goal that, through the God-given right to suffrage, the East European peoples express their will to reconstitute their independent nation-states. They could accomplish this without bloodshed if the international community and, especially, the Soviet Union allowed it. Of course, barring a miracle, this will not happen any time soon. Such a scenario is presented not as an exercise in political naivetι, but to demonstrate the attractiveness of the democratic ideal for the peoples of East Europe and to emphasize its significance for them as an alternative to the communist reality.

It is a great misfortune that East European democracy has been frozen in an embryonic state for so long. Still more disturbing is the fact that democracy remains the exception rather than the rule in a world where tyrants, fanatics, and totalitarians lord over the majority of nation-states. And now there is a prophet who warns that not only is democracy failing to expand throughout the world; it is actually being slowly strangled.

That prophet is Jean-Francois Revel and his Koran is the remarkable How Democracies Perish. A French journalist, philosopher, and author of such works as Without Marx or Jesus and The Totalitarian Temptation, he is a master of aphorisms, a craftsman whose beautiful writing style beckons the reader to give careful consideration to each of his arguments, even those that at first glance appear unpalatable or outlandish.

The thesis of How Democracies Perish is that democracy is an historical accident about to be destroyed by a combination of internal and external forces. Democracy's greatest enemy is communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular. Revel warns that, although communism's victory is not inevitable, it is probable. The aim of his book is to analyze the process whereby democracy is destroyed.

According to the author, democracy is on the path to destruction as a result of the communist movement's expansionist policy and because the West, in numerous ways, helps to shore up its enemy's fortifications while weakening its own. Soviet expansionism is fueled by two forces. One is communist ideology, which preaches a policy of conquest through violence. The other is the Nomenklatura — the Soviet bureaucracy — which is concerned first and foremost with ensuring its own survival.

Revel contends that the Soviet Union is a failed society. The Nomenklatura recognizes this and believes that the only way to stave off the system's collapse is to pursue an expansionist policy.

Communism cannot allow itself to stop. It expands or it dies, since it cannot solve any of the internal problems of the societies it creates. What indeed, would the state do in a Communist society if it did not expand? The Nomenklatura would die of boredom, because its need for action could not be assuaged by the drab management of an economy indissolubly wedded to failure.1

Expansion thus provides the Nomenklatura with its raison d'etre. It also diverts the Soviet populace's attention from the system's moral bankruptcy and economic paralysis. The Nomenklatura's policy goes far beyond mere diversionary tactics, however. It seeks to eliminate the very frame of reference by which the Soviet man in the street can recognize the extent of his own system's shortcomings. That frame of reference is Western democratic society, with its political pluralism and high standards of living. The Nomenklatura cannot tolerate non-communist states because it knows that its subjects dream of escaping to them. As Revel states with simple eloquence, "So long as in all the waters of the earth there is a single rock where socialism does not reign, there will be boat people."2 That is why, in the short run, the Soviet masters erect barriers to keep their subjects from fleeing and why, in the long run, the Nomenklatura is determined to make each and every rock in the ocean its own.

Revel describes the methods used by the Soviets to expand their empire, which range from pressure and intimidation to terrorism and outright war. The more brutal tactics tend to be reserved for such small nation-states as the Baltic States and Afghanistan, the less overtly violent ones to large- and medium-sized states. What appears to rankle.

Revel is not so much the Soviet Union's absorption of its small neighbors through outright conquest — a move the West could not easily prevent or reverse — as its illicit gains at the expense of the United States and Western Europe, which they could have blocked by adopting a tough, united stand.

Instead, the vehicle of Western foreign policy seems to be equipped with but one gear — reverse. While the reasons for Soviet aggressiveness are, in Revel's view, few and simple, he recites a litany of causes behind the West's repeated retreats. They include the following: political fragmentation; an obsession with short-term domestic concerns and "quick fixes" to the detriment of long-term foreign policy concerns; a dependency on the communist world as a trading partner; a numbing ignorance of the Soviet system; and deep-seated feelings of insecurity bordering on masochism.

As Revel makes clear, some of these causes are at once strengths and weaknesses of democracy. For instance, Western leaders' scrupulous attention to short-term domestic concerns means that the desires of their constituents are addressed promptly. Revel does not suggest that the nature of democracy be changed, only that Westerners fully recognize all of its implications, acknowledge its weaknesses, and ponder ways to reduce or eliminate those weaknesses.

Writing 150 years ago, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville warned that democracy could eventually lead to a tyranny of the majority. Equality of status would lead to uniformity of thought, thereby eliminating diversity. De Tocqueville's vision has not come to pass, says Revel, because the French aristocrat did not understand that democracy is based not just on a passion for equality, but "also rests on a passion for liberty, which fosters diversity, fragmentation, unorthodoxy."3 Today, Western governments struggle to satisfy the competing and sometimes contradictory claims of various interest groups, whom Revel characterizes as "each battling for advantage and caring little for the interests of others or society as a whole."4 Revel asserts that the vitality of democracy is a blessed thing, but urges the reader to consider what the lack of consensus means for a government that is challenged daily by a totalitarian foe.

Fragmentation within a democratic state seems to concern Revel less, however, than lack of unity among democratic allies. He uncovers compelling reasons for diversity within a single society, but can find none for the backbiting that goes on among Western allies. In Revel's eyes, the major culprits reside in Western Europe. The author unleashes a barrage of scathing criticism of West European policies that undercut U.S. efforts to counter Soviet advances. U.S. policy-makers do not escape Revel's critical gaze either, but they are treated with greater circumspection, perhaps in part because Revel has not been positioned to study them as closely as he has their European counterparts.

Revel asserts that intense resentment of the United States covers the spectrum of European public opinion, from extreme left to radical right: "In Europe, fear both hidden and open of the United States is so violent that, deep down, some Europeans are prepared to accept Soviet domination just to see the Americans destroyed."5 He quotes a theoretician of France's New Right saying that the prospect "of having to wear a Red Army cap some day" is less objectionable than having to live in an Americanized West where "we will eventually have to spend the rest of our lives eating hamburgers in Brooklyn."6

The roots of this type of resentment appear to be cultural and economic. Revel traces the political resentment of the United States by Western Europe to De Gaulle. Revel assails De Gaulle for promoting the fallacious idea that the United States and the Soviet Union agreed at Yalta to establish a condominium of Europe. Building on this myth, De Gaulle and various European politicians who followed in his footsteps have attempted to adopt a neutralist position between the two superpowers and sometimes to act as "conciliators" between the two. Revel demolishes the myth of Yalta and wonders aloud how European leaders can seriously advocate a policy that treats the force trying to protect their freedom and the force wanting to subjugate them as equals, each to be kept at arm's length. When Western European leaders attempt to interpose themselves as mediators between the two superpowers, democracy is the loser because all the pressure to make concessions is placed on the United States alone.

Whenever a major issue of confrontation arises between East and West in which Western firmness is vital, the Europeans rush to beg — indeed, to summon — the United States to show restraint and goodwill toward the Soviets, and they hasten to assure the Soviets that, thanks to Europe's mediation, American aggressiveness will be defused. Moscow skillfully cultivates European vanity, persuading one or another country of moderate importance that it enjoys a 'special relationship' with the Soviet Union and can rise 'above blocs.' Wholly imbued with this very ambition, the country courted by Moscow thenceforth tends to view the United States as a treacherous saboteur of its global influence.7

Western Europe's eagerness to assert itself politically by standing apart from the United States and the West's perception that it needs the Warsaw Pact states for the markets they provide its goods are two of the causes that contributed to what Revel describes as the West's "cowardice" in failing to react in any meaningful way to the imposition of martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981. Revel uses this event as a case study to illustrate the West's problems in dealing with the totalitarian threat. Foremost among them is the policy of detente. Economically, Revel argues, detente was a "trap" for the West, particularly for West Germany, because it committed large sums of money, in the form of economic aid and loans, to the East. The Soviets were free to continue their political adventurism throughout the world unopposed by the West, which could not retaliate using economic sanctions without losing the money it had lent the East and experiencing other negative economic consequences, such as increased unemployment and lower living standards. One negative aspect of detente, then, was that the West sought to protect its own economic advantage at the cost of its political independence.

According to Revel, detente was a victory for the East and a disappointment for the West because the West incorrectly perceive the intentions of the Soviets. Detente failed "because to Westerners it meant the Soviets had suspended their aggressiveness, while to the Soviets it meant that the West had suspended all reaction to that aggressiveness."8

If Revel is highly critical of detente, he is not enamored of the West's policy which preceded it either. Revel turns the theories of Western revisionist historians, who see the Cold War era as a period of Western (read U.S.) aggressiveness against the East, on their head. He calls the Cold War a "phony" war in which the West failed to press its advantage over the East.

At no time during the cold war, as we know, did the democracies try to exploit the internal illnesses of the Soviet system, certainly not the uprisings of the subjugated people in East Berlin in 1953 and Budapest in 1956. In what way were Eisenhower's administration (including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who was called the traveling salesman of anticommunism') or the strongly anti-communist governments of the French Fourth Republic or the conservative governments of Churchill and Anthony Eden in Britain more intransigent than the zealots of detente in the 1970s? I see only one difference between them: the former refrained from making capital of the totalitarian empire's internal problems, the moderns have gone so far as to help the empire's masters surmount these problems by overwhelming them with money, food and understanding.9

To Revel, detente was not an aberration from the West's previous policy; it was just another step backward in the West's retreat before the East.

Revel seeks to demonstrate that the problem of perception has been a constant in Western foreign policy. Wishful thinking was not born on the eve of detente. The West had long before failed to recognize the Soviet system for what it was, to misinterpret the intentions of its leaders, and even to misperceive its own defeats at the hands of the Kremlin. Revel cites the example of General Eisenhower who, notwithstanding his blunders as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe which allowed the Red Army to seize Central Europe in the latter stages of World War II, was elected to the presidency of the United States, twice!

One source of Western mis-perception is the tendency of Westerners to project their own system of government on to other societies. Thus, for example, "the idea that conflicts in the Politburo are of the same nature as the quarrels in a majority party or within a government in the democracies is always paired with a mirage of a Soviet 'moderate' who must be backed by the West in his stern and perilous fight for detente because he is trying to liberalize his own society."10

If the two systems of government — democracy and totalitarianism — are perceived as essentially the same, the next step in this fallacy of moral equivalency is to draw parallels between their respective leaders. Therefore former KGB chief Andropov is magically transformed into a liberal with a taste for Western culture and ludicrous comparisons between JFK and Mikhail Gorbachev are circulated in the Western world.

Another source of mis-perception is a consequence of the communist system. When Westerners try to gain a better understanding of the Soviet Union, they are often stymied by totalitarianism's obsession with controlling the facts. The Western press is not allowed to travel freely within the Soviet Union or other communist countries. Thus, for example, the media and, by extension, the free world were kept in the dark about Stalin's crimes until Krushchev decided to make them public knowledge. By then, Revel notes, the murder of millions was old news, the West's indignation muted, and the lasting impression on the Western psyche less powerful than the Nazis' barbarism against the Jews.

A third source of misperception relates to what Revel calls Westerners' "fear of knowing." Some in the West refuse to recognize the reality of Soviet expansionism because it is at odds with their optimistic outlook. They fear that this knowledge would of necessity lead them to adopt a tougher policy, one that was less conciliatory toward the Soviets and which required more self-sacrifice on the part of the democracies.

Because their systems slant inward, the democracies minimize danger from outside for fear of having to turn away from their domestic preoccupation of prosperity, unity, sociability, knowledge, culture. Sensing that the totalitarian threat cannot be dispelled by compromise, at least by the kind of compromise standard in classic diplomacy, democrats prefer to deny the danger exists. They are even outraged by those who dare to see and name it.11

The fourth source of misperception springs from the West's negative self-image. Revel laments that so many intellectuals and opinion molders "have always, openly or secretly, maintained that our civilization is 'fundamentally bad."12

Consequently, the West has adopted the image of itself as being more aggressive, more reactionary, and more of a threat to the Third World than the USSR. Such an attitude, according to Revel, is not merely wrong; it positively endangers the survival of democracy.

This masochism forces the West to impose on itself unattainable high standards of conduct. To some in the West, this includes the idea that democracies must not "debase" themselves by making alliances with countries that are undemocratic. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means that the West can support and defend from communist aggression only democratic states. These stringent rules, says Revel, put the West at a strategic disadvantage that can only lead to the total defeat of democracy at the hands of totalitarianism.

Sprinkled throughout How Democracies Perish are Revel's cautionary reminders to the reader that the Western democracies are not innocents, that they too engage in acts which are wrong, and that they share responsibility for the world's ills. Yet, the totalitarian state cannot bear comparison with the democratic state: when the two are placed side by side, the democracy does indeed appear immaculate, so dark and evil is its rival. In defending itself against this menacing rival, Revel says the democracy must take care not to adopt courses of action that contradict its spirit of freedom and pluralism. To do so, he warns, would be suicidal.

What then, must be done to ensure that democracies shall not perish? Revel's answer is a simple one: Adopt a hard-line policy toward the Soviets. This policy would be based on three principles: an effective nuclear deterrent; immediate reprisals (mostly economic) for Soviet transgressions; and no concessions without equivalent counterconcessions by the Soviets. Unlike those in the West who call for nuclear disarmament, Revel believes that the West's nuclear deterrent is the guarantor of peace. Without it, he argues, the Soviets would turn to conventional warfare to expand their empire.

Revel characterizes his policy as one of genuine detente. He distinguishes this from detente as it has heretofore been applied, saying the latter has worked only to the benefit of the Soviets, whereas the new, improved version would "work both ways." Actually, his policy of "genuine" detente would deprive the Nomenklatura of its life force.

The non-communist countries' revised foreign policy must and can have a precise objective: to make the Soviets understand once and for all that the irrevocable prior condition for resumption of negotiations and the granting of concessions of any kind is a definitive halt to communist imperialism everywhere in the world.13

Given Revel's statement, cited earlier, that communism must expand or die, his prescription for genuine detente, far from "working both ways" would, if strictly applied, sound the death knell for communism. Thus, the Nomenklatura could be expected to oppose such a detente with all the forces at its disposal.

Without this genuine detente policy, however, and barring a nuclear war, Western democracy, says Revel, will be doomed. To Revel's way of thinking, both democracy and totalitarianism cannot survive. We are witnessing a race to the death between the two: either democracy will be destroyed by communism or communism will die of its own cancer. The latter, however, will not happen in the near future. If the West does nothing and waits for communism to collapse, it will have waited too long because democracy will have been subverted first. Only by halting the spread of Soviet imperialism through severe sanctions that exacerbate the USSR's internal problems can the democratic West outlive the communist East. (Nuclear warfare might bring a similar result, but Revel does not consider that a desirable option, only a threat which remains potent so long as the West does not abandon the determination to use it in self-defense.)

Revel's pessimism is sobering. He has little faith in Western leaders' resolve to formulate and implement a program of genuine detente. Consequently, he predicts that communism will triumph over democracy. But this prediction is also based on the premise that the Soviet edifice will not be pulled down by inner tremors alone. It is a premise that should be questioned. His argument that communism's internal collapse will occur so far into the future that democracy will have become extinct before then is not persuasive. Revel does not analyze the internal workings of the Soviet system; that is not the purpose of his book. Instead, he asks the reader to accept a set of assumptions and broad generalizations. In generalizing about the Soviet Union, he glosses over one of the central challenges that it will face in the coming years: the nationalities question.

By the turn of the century, the Russian nationality group will become a minority within the USSR. The birthrates of the non-Russian ethnic groups in the southern part of the USSR far surpass the birthrates of the Russian nation, and there is no sign that this trend will be reversed any time soon. The people living in the southern half of the USSR are set apart from the Russian Kremlin not only by geography and a different ethnic heritage; they are alienated from Moscow by their Muslim faith as well, which flourishes despite the state's campaign to eradicate religion. The situation in the southern USSR is made more volatile by the influence of radical Shiite fundamentalism from neighboring Iran. Moreover, even if the Soviets succeed in murdering sufficient numbers of Muslim partisans in Afghanistan so that the Red Army can effectively occupy the entire country, the spirit of resistance among Afghanistan's inhabitants probably will have an unsettling (for the Soviets) effect on the Muslim populace of the USSR for years to come.

Then there are the ethnic groups in the western USSR — the Ukrainians and the Baits — to consider. Given the right set of circumstances, such as a worsening Soviet economy, intensified Russification, growing persecution of religious believers, it is possible to imagine a scenario where an eruption against the Kremlin, sparked by a relatively minor event, could spread quickly throughout the western and southern regions of the USSR. The traditional docility of the Russian nation and its capacity to quietly endure extraordinary abuse at the hands of its leaders make it unlikely that the eruption would originate in ethnic Russia. Once the USSR was thrown into turmoil, however, the suppressed frustration of the Russian people might be released with the kind of anarchic fury that was last seen in 1917 revolutionary Russia. Revel's mistake is to ascribe to the non-Russian peoples the same quiet resignation that is characteristic of the Russian people.

Revel is guilty in another instance of failing to take into account the nationalities question. He flatly condemns the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, signed in the summer of 1975 in Helsinki. To Revel, the Helsinki agreement was an unmitigated disaster for the West, one in a series of defeats at the hands of the Soviet Union. The West offered its recognition of the legitimacy of the Soviets' control over Eastern Europe in exchange for a more "civil" domestic and foreign policy by the Soviets. The Soviets, of course, quickly violated their promise, but the West compounded its error by following up the Helsinki conference with another "vain farce" in Madrid and refusing to renounce the accord. Such is Revel's analysis of the Helsinki agreement.

What Revel ignores is the impact the Helsinki agreement had upon dissidents in the USSR. As one scholar who has followed the opposition movement in Lithuania closely notes,

In the 1970s, the ideology of human rights began receiving increasing global recognition. The human rights provisions of the Helsinki accords, for example, unexpectedly emerged as the most significant political consequences of the agreement, providing an ideology for the opposition and stimulating human rights activity.14

Revel says that the Soviet response to this was to stamp out the human rights movement. On the surface, it would appear that his point is well taken: The West falsely raised the hopes of liberal elements in the USSR and then stood by helpless as they were crushed. As Revel sees it, the human rights provisions agreed to at Helsinki had no lasting impact on Soviet society.

This may be true for Russia, but it is far from certain whether such a statement could be applied to any of the Baltic States or the Ukraine. In Russia, a wide gulf, in fact a chasm, continues to separate the intellectuals, a minority of whom constituted the driving force behind the Russian human rights movement, from the masses. When Soviet officials arrested the Russian intellectuals/dissidents, they effectively imprisoned the Russian human rights movement. In the Baltic States and the Ukraine, the drive for human rights was in no small part a national (and, especially in Lithuania, a religious) movement. The Helsinki agreement became for Baltic and Ukrainian nationalists a useful weapon — not very powerful, but more powerful than others at their disposal — for pressing national claims and for recruiting more fellow Baits and Ukrainians to their cause. Of course, these nationalists suffered the same fate as their Russian counterparts but, unlike the Russian human rights movement, the Baltic and Ukrainian nationalist groups survive. For example, samizdat continues to be published in Lithuania and the Ukraine, indicating that new leaders have replaced old ones, and that a broad base of support exists, in contrast to the Russian movement. The precise effect of the Helsinki agreement on the human rights/nationalist groups in the western republics of the Soviet Union is difficult to gauge. It is too early to say whether the agreement will have had any lasting impact. But one can say with certainty that Revel was wrong to write off the human rights movement so quickly and to ignore its implications for the nationalities question. One suspects that he tracked only the Russian branch of the Soviet human rights movement. When he saw how that withered, he assumed that the entire movement had died and concluded that the Helsinki agreement had been worthless as an agent for progress within the USSR.

Revel's assertion that the Helsinki agreement recognized the legitimacy of Soviet control over Eastern Europe should not go unchallenged either. That may have been what the Soviets thought they were getting when they signed the agreement. And it is certainly what much, if not most, of the Western media believed in 1975 and believes to this day. But if the West did indeed legitimize Soviet hegemony of Eastern Europe, why have U.S. leaders issued statements directly contradicting such legitimation? Both the Carter and Reagan administrations publicly reiterated the U.S. non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. Furthermore, they took concrete steps to bolster that policy, Carter by agreeing to provisions that rescued the Baltic diplomatic corps in the United States from extinction and the Lithuanian diplomatic corps from insolvency, and Reagan by enthusiastically signing a congressional resolution establishing Baltic Freedom Day. (At the same time, for domestic political reasons associated with the hunt for Nazi war criminals, the Reagan administration undermined the non-recognition policy, but this is another story.)

Since the signing of the Helsinki agreement, none of the Western signatories has repudiated the non-recognition policy; some have repeatedly reaffirmed it. Hence, it is an open question whether the West officially recognized Soviet control over Eastern Europe at Helsinki. Since the successor conferences to the Helsinki meeting have focused on general human rights issues, largely to the exclusion of the national self-determination question, it might be safely concluded that the West tacitly agreed at Helsinki not to press the Soviets on this point. Here one can only agree with Revel that the West made a serious mistake.

One hopes that Revel is wrong about his dire predictions on the fate of democracy. One may even wish that his warnings, spoken with the absolute moral clarity of a prophet, are proven to be nothing more than eloquent exaggerations. But one would be extremely foolish to ignore his message. Whether or not Revel's arguments are flawed, they serve a vital purpose: to shake the West out of its complacency and to prod it into standing firm against the Soviet Union. An alert and resolute West is the best guarantor of democracy.


1 Jean-Francois Revel, How Democracies Perish, trans. William Byron (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1983), p 106.
2 Ibid., p. 91.
3 Ibid., p. 14.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., p. 28
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., p. 138.
8 Ibid., p. 225.
9 Ibid., p. 244. 10 Ibid., p. 220-221.
10 Ibid., p. 220-221.
11 Ibid., p. 217.
12 Ibid,, p. 341.
13 Ibid., p. 359.
14 Thomas Remeikis, Opposition to Soviet Rule in Lithuania 1945-1980 (Chicago: Institute of Lithuanian Studies Press, 1980), p. 100.