The God That Flails
Bernard-Henri Lévy takes on the rudderless European left.
Michael C. Moynihan | January 2009 Print Edition of Reason Online
Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, by Bernard-Henri Lévy, New York: Random House, 214 pages, $25
Few on the American left will today defend the Iraq war on moral grounds or suggest that the long-term retention of U.S. troops in that country is necessary. Right-wing pundits and intellectuals, by contrast, have fractured over Iraq. Paleoconservatives still battle neocons; national greatness conservatives duke it out with traditionalists and the Robert Taft fan club.
The political battle lines have been drawn in Europe too, with Iraq again a litmus test. There, however, the loudest arguments are on the left side of the spectrum. In England, it was public intellectuals such as Guardian columnists David Aaronovitch, Andrew Anthony, and Nick Cohen; Times writer Oliver Kamm; and former New Left Review Editor Norman Geras who accused their own side of being more interested in Bush bashing than in overthrowing a hideous dictator. In France the philosopher André Glucksmann and Doctors Without Borders founder (and current foreign minister) Bernard Kouchner did the same. In Germany, it was the singer, poet, and former dissident Wolf Biermann. A similar debate took place in America a few years ago, with liberal pundits such as Jacob Weisberg, Thomas Friedman, George Packer, and Peter Beinart taking the pro-war position. But the stateside battle has receded in recent years, with most liberal hawks abandoning their previous enthusiasm for the Iraq project.
None of the continental left-wing interventionists consider themselves converts to a new ideology. They’re orphans, they say: The left has left me, they argue, not the other way around. They almost uniformly reject the label neoconservative as a term designed more to insult than to illuminate, though many acknowledge trundling down a path very similar to that of the American liberal who has been “mugged by reality.”
Standing near them, but not exactly among them, is Bernard-Henri Lévy. In 1976 Lévy, a telegenic ex-Maoist famous for his unbuttoned shirts, declared himself a “new philosopher,” becoming, Time noted at the time, an “overnight celebrity” plastered on magazine covers (including reason’s) and on TV talk shows. The following year Lévy would publish Barbarism With a Human Face, his stinging attack on the Sovietophilia of his fellow intellectuals. “No socialism without camps,” he declared. “No classless society without its terrorist truth.”
The left, he still insists, remains “his family,” but it is a clan that continues to disappoint. In Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, Lévy eagerly rejoins the family feud, fiercely criticizing the current state of the European left, an intellectual movement that has been “led astray.” But while many of his diagnoses overlap with those of his hawkish liberal friends, there are plenty of issues, he reminds readers, on which he differs with them. Unlike the hawks, he opposed the invasion of Iraq. But he agrees with them that the European left has traded its principles of human rights for a cheap anti-Americanism and an inconsistent, often incoherent anti-imperialism.
Lévy appears to take great joy in cataloging his countless apostasies from the left. “Socialism is totalitarianism,” he told reason in 1978. “As long as you are a Marxist, you will justify no matter what horror and no matter what evil in the name of historical providence.” But he was, and still is, a reliable social democrat, grumbling in Left in Dark Times about “the ultraconservative enemies of the welfare state” and offering digressions about the massacre at Virginia Tech—in a state, he frets, where “it is every citizen’s inalienable right to possess assault rifles.” As the 40th anniversary of France’s 1968 student rebellion approached in May, French media outlets were filled with misty-eyed remembrances, and Lévy didn’t deviate from that nostalgia. L’esprit soixante-huitard, he repeatedly writes, was “anti-authoritarian,” “anti-totalitarian,” “pro-human rights,” “anti-Stalinist,” even “libertarian.”
Today’s European left, by contrast, is a “creaky ruin” and a “corpse.” It is obsessed with “anti-Americanism,” and it tolerates a remarkable amount of anti-Semitism in the name of anti-Zionism. It embraces illiberal leaders like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela but scorns the “neo-liberalism” of Western Europe and America. For the American reader who pays little attention to the machinations and shifting orthodoxies of European intellectuals, such complaints may seem odd. But our left is different from their left. For Americans, wars among socialist sects are primarily of interest to academics and octogenarian readers of The Nation. We needn’t worry that a coalition government will have to appease a rump Communist Party, nor do any major newspapers, television networks, or high-circulation journals of opinion plump for green, socialist, or syndicalist candidates.
Before unloading on those he accuses of perverting the French left, Lévy engages in an odd spasm of moral accounting, a tabulation of who got what right and when. There’s a certain excessive self-regard here, a bit like the Chris Rock riff in which a father boasts that “I take care of my kids,” hoping for validation, not realizing that for most people this is a normal instinct. Lévy praises a now-defunct newspaper with which he was involved, bragging that “we defended Vaclav Havel, poet and politician!” He pats himself on the back because he “preach[ed] against [the] terror” of the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist group of the 1970s.
The publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973, he writes, “shook our generation to its core.” Well, it shouldn’t have. Reliable information had long existed outlining the brutality and barbarism of both Leninism and Stalinism. (The God That Failed was published in 1949, for instance, and reliable information about the Great Purge of the 1930s had long been available.) The Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia, which began in 1975, is also presented as a turning point. “Cambodia is when everything unravels,” Lévy writes, “and the age finally realizes what’s what.” And while “not everyone believes it at first”—because they simply have no desire to believe—“the news is verified and spread, it comes as a shock.” Again, one wonders why, this late in the game, mass killings by dictatorships of the proletariat would provoke any surprise.
Lévy denounces left-wing activists such as the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, who advised Westerners to support the insurgency in Iraq, as members of “the fake left”—because, he argues, the real left would never excuse barbarism. The conspiratorial view of Western governments’ foreign policy motives, the warnings of impending fascism, and the insistence on viewing all world events through the lens of anti-imperialism, Lévy argues, are handcuffing the anti-totalitarian left. He is doubtless right that shoehorning most every geopolitical dispute into a reductionist argument about the appetites of the Empire (and to his opponents, there is only one empire) “is no longer analysis but magic.” Anti-imperialism, a cause he clearly associates himself with, risks descending into “conspiracy-mongering.” For Lévy, it is difficult to divine imperialist intent in NATO’s intervention in Serbia (which many on the European left opposed, to his irritation) or to view Israel’s war with Lebanon as a quest for territorial expansion, without even a mention of its theocratic enemies.
In his 2007 book What’s Left, a cri de coeur against what he sees as the left’s abandonment of human rights, former Guardian columnist Nick Cohen asked a question clearly on Lévy’s mind, an issue that they both brush against time and again: Why, in so many European capitals, do activists of the left carry signs proclaiming that “we are all Hezbollah now”? It is clearly alarming for Jewish intellectuals such as Cohen and Lévy to see so many old comrades comingling with religious extremists. In Germany, France, and Scandinavia, the parties of the far right are vigorous in their denunciations of American capitalism and American imperialism, and they naturally profess a deep distaste for Israel. The two radical poles are not the same, of course, but in recent years they have frequently overlapped; this in an era when Horst Mahler, the former far-left lawyer-activist and Baader-Meinhof coconspirator, can become counsel and chief ideologue for Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD party. For Lévy, it is time to worry about Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, and potential “‘Red-Brown’ syntheses” of those who view liberalism as a common enemy.
Such concerns are overblown. The radical right has made serious electoral inroads in only a few European countries, its parties are generally excluded from the larger media debate, and there is a mutual skepticism, if not hostility, between it and the left. But Lévy is correct to observe the merging of fringe left and right anti-capitalism, and their common cause in extreme anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism.
Lévy devotes a good deal of attention to the threat of radical Islam, which is the focus of much more debate these days in Western Europe than in the United States. (France is home to roughly 4 million Muslims.) To Lévy, an outspoken atheist, the “most effective tool against Islamism is not the concept of tolerance,” which he rightly sees as an amorphous, vague, and ultimately indulgent strategy, “but the concept of a secular society.” He forcefully denounces the sickening displays of acquiescence seen in “tolerant” countries like Sweden, which seized the Web servers of a right-wing website that republished the now-infamous Mohammad cartoons, a total surrender to those who demand that religion not be mocked.
While much of Left in Dark Times is intellectual score settling, Lévy is also interested in promoting the politics of virtue: He wants to stanch the bloodshed in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Saddam’s Iraq, and Chechnya, and to punish the politics of anti-imperialism for focusing its attention exclusively on the foreign policy of the United States. He is right that those who deny the massacres at Srebrenica, claim that a free press exists in Russia, or disbelieved the accounts of genocide in Cambodia are not reliable allies. But he does not explain how to achieve a “moral” foreign policy, short of engaging the French military in every world hot spot.
This omission is the main difficulty with Left in Dark Times. Lévy predictably suffers from the solipsism and insularity of the public intellectual. As he joined splinter parties, presided over schisms, and denounced heresies, the world barreled forward, globalized, and oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet empire. He is right to criticize his friend Nicolas Sarkozy for his overly cordial relationships with such sinister leaders as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. But he is wrong to presume that the strict morality of a philosopher applies to the everyday business of world affairs. This is the separation between the open-shirted intellectual—who, with a well-worded essay denouncing totalitarianism or imperialism, can easily position himself on the right side of history—and the statesman, who is often forced to engage in realpolitik with unsavory characters. In the end, Lévy tells us what to do (stop genocide, stop denying genocide) but neglects to inform us just how this is to be achieved.
These are doubtlessly admirable goals, but without any coherent suggestions of just how to purge the illiberal elements of the social democratic left, the reader can only assume that Lévy is channeling his inner Marxist: It is the public intellectual—and his moral outrage—that will be the vanguard of the counter-revolution.