Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism
By Bernard-Henri Lévy
Random House, 233 pages, $25
Yes, he’s a celebrity who wears expensive suits. But he’s a real-deal philosopher, too, so let’s put on our thinking caps and review the principles of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s political thought as presented in Left in Dark Times, a manifesto with a subtitle suitable for the barricades, A Stand Against the New Barbarism.
Beware the four pillars of totalitarianism—the Absolute, History, the Dialectic and Disease. The Absolute, Mr. Lévy explains, is the dream of a utopian society emptied of politics and conflict; History is the one-way path to utopian salvation; the Dialectic is the final arbiter of the meaning of events and experience in the light of History’s goal; and the idea of Disease is what, in totalitarian regimes, substitutes for the idea of Evil, replacing that old, religiously rooted notion with a clinical, materialistic image of noxious bacteria or a virus that must be purged from an infected body.
Mr. Lévy’s principles translate into support for Israel (like all nations imperfect, but that’s the nature of politics sans messianism); engaged solidarity with political causes of the oppressed around the world (“there is no economy of pity,” Mr. Lévy declares); and a righteous brief against censorship for the sake of appeasing Islamic theocrats (because using the doctrine of “tolerance” to justify the curtailment of free speech reneges on the republican promise of a political sphere absolutely separate from the realm of faith—and the messianism that never trails far behind).
THOSE PRINCIPLES LED Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president who was at the time still running for office, to wonder aloud why his friend Bernard-Henri Lévy refused to endorse his candidacy. Mr. Sarkozy was, after all, the first “post-ideological” French politician, cut more from the cloth of the centrist American politics that Mr. Lévy prefers.
It’s a good question, and Left in Dark Times is Mr. Lévy’s alternately ponderous, angry and impassioned answer—an attempt to hold tight to the left, a left Mr. Lévy considers himself bound to “almost genetically.” It’s no wonder, then, that he writes with such urgency about the need for his “family” to reconsider its ideals and orthodoxies in the light of shifting global politics and the frequent intramural clashes between committed leftists. Take, for example, the question of humanitarian intervention: Mr. Lévy is staunchly in favor, rejecting the notion that “foreign” cultures are inviolable, “unknowable,” deserving of respect simply for their otherness.
Indeed, Mr. Lévy is withering toward the bien-pensant notion that societies are ecosystems whose balance the West disturbs at its own peril. “The idea that cultures are as inevitable as climates or soils,” he writes “… is no less hateful when it warns us against the devastating effects that the abolition of the burqa or the outlawing of the genital mutilation of young girls might have on the local culture than when it’s telling us that human rights expire once they are removed from the places that bred them.” As evidence, he points to the abolition of capital punishment in France in 1981, under the presidency of François Mitterrand—it was the end of the guillotine’s 200-year reign, but “[n]either the West, nor philosophy, nor France, fell to pieces when the ‘keystone’ was shattered.”
To those who counter that France legislated the change for itself, Mr. Lévy deals his trump card: “Are we more worried about the destabilizing effects of an overly brutal infusion of human rights—or about the effects, destructive in another way, of the massive, high-dosage infusions of pure fascism that are the Arab, Hindu, Khmer, and other fundamentalisms?” The liberal piety of respect for the other, Mr. Lévy argues, is based on a false premise: The drive toward “purity” in Islamic culture grows from the same ideological root as the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini; it is, in fact, not “other” at all.
FOR THE GENERATION OF Americans who associate French philosophy with Jacques Derrida’s clever evasions, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s decisiveness risks seeming almost gratuitously un-French. But in fact he emerges from a strain of French thought that’s had far less play in college classrooms, one that includes the philosopher (and, like Mr. Lévy, prolific journalist) Raymond Aron, who insisted that any political philosophy worth its salt had to address the practical question “What should the minister do?”; and Julien Benda, who wrote in The Treason of the Intellectuals (1927) that in the decades leading up to World War I, Europe’s thinkers and writers, “who for centuries had exhorted men, at least theoretically, to deaden the feeling of their differences, have now come to praise them, according to where the sermon is given, for their ‘fidelity to the French soul,’ ‘the immutability of their German consciousness,’ for the ‘fervor of their Italian hearts.’” Mr. Lévy sees in the progressivism that emphasizes the inviolable nature of indigenous cultures and identities the same inversion of intellectual values Benda saw in Nietzsche, deceptively updated in the form of liberal “tolerance for difference.”
This puts Mr. Lévy squarely at odds with radical left critics of imperialism such as Noam Chomsky. And it leaves him lonely, too. Mr. Sarkozy’s personal charm and moderate politics make him an agreeable conversation partner, but his attitude toward the two things Mr. Lévy holds most dear—the importance of ideas, of straight thinking about the global situation, and a corollary sense of France’s continuing responsibility toward its own past (“not dwelling on the crime,” Mr. Lévy writes, “but creating a constructed, well-informed, organized memory of it”)—is a deal-breaker. “Our first memory-free president,” Mr. Lévy teases. “The first of our presidents to wish all ideas well, because he really is indifferent to them.”
Mr. Lévy counterposes his own fever dream of 20th-century French history, delivered in the rhetorical mode of prophecy. But neatly ordered prophecy: Mr. Lévy (a Frenchman after all) prefers his idea-trees to follow evenly numbered, rationally divisible paths. He highlights four historical events, each linked to a facet of the leftism Mr. Lévy wants to separate, once and for all, from what he believes to be the soft-headed liberalism of “tolerance” on one side, and from the proto-fascist, incipiently anti-Semitic radicalism of thinkers like Slavoj Žižek on the other: The May ’68 uprising of workers and students against Gaullist social conservatism, which teaches anti-authoritarianism; the atrocities committed by France in Algeria, which teach anti-colonialism; the depredations of Vichy collaboration, which teach anti-fascism; and finally, at the bottom of it all, the legacy of the Dreyfus Affair, the false conviction of the French army lieutenant Alfred Dreyfus for treason. The subsequent outcry and his eventual exoneration split French society cleanly in two: clerical, anti-Semitic, statist vs. secular, universalist, individualist. “And France, a century later, returns there,” Mr. Lévy writes, “every time one side starts to prefer injustice to disorder; every time the other side stands up against the injustice—no matter how minor, or apparently harmless, or costly to repair.”
These memories interlace with reflections on his long career of political activism (most recently in Darfur) and are studded with passionately held positions on every issue current on the world stage. Whether or not you agree with him on Mr. Sarkozy’s neoliberalism, or the Palestinians, or the nature of terrorism, you will be convinced of this: Ideas matter to him, even more than a sharp suit.
Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.