The God That Flails

Bernard-Henri Lévy takes on the rudderless European left.


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.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at reason.

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  1. European left has traded its principles of human rights for a cheap anti-Americanism and an inconsistent and often incoherent anti-imperialism.

    The European left had principles of human rights? When was that? I always thought of the European left as the loony HQ for America’s left.

  2. The European left has never indulged in anything as remotely insane as the market worship of cultish American right-wing libertarians (nothing personal).

  3. I’m with Warren; I thought that the Euro left traded whatever principles it had for frothing anti-Americanism and selective anti-imperialism decades ago.

  4. R C Dean

    That’s because, like Warren, you’re a reflexive right-ring nimrod who long ago traded thinking for sloganeering. It does keep things simple, though.

  5. I didn’t know that Terry Jones was French.

  6. There is nothing insane about ‘market worship’, it is the closest man has come to real freedom and liberty. But there sure as hell is something insane about government/ cult of personality worship, which is what the left-wing progressives are all about. As if we just would put the ‘right’ leaders in charge of everything (no conservatives nor libertarians need apply) all will be peachy keen. That is insanity.

  7. Imperialism burns me up as much as the next guy. But I still talk to people who think that American “Defense” (read: world police, fuck yeah!) spending needs to be maintained or increased.

    As if the English, French and Dutch had nothing to do with Imperialism, and America need hundreds of military bases on foreign soil.

  8. doubled

    You’re a fucking moron.

  9. Leave it up to Lefiti to raise the level of intellectual debate.

    Well, Lefiti my friend, you are a POOPY HEAD of the tallest order.

  10. In any case, thank you for this article, it’s sometimes hard in the US media to get an in-depth view of politics from across the pond

  11. I think Lefiti is Edward.

  12. Lefiti,

    Maybe not, but there are more libertarians in office in Switzerland (to say nothing of EU member states and the EU itself) than in the US.

    I mean, if you want to get pissy on Libertarianism, you should start over there.

    Just say’n

  13. A moron I may be lefiti, but it would help if you used argument to reveal this weakness of mine, as opposed to a singular ad-hominem attack.

    It is just that it amazes me that people such as yourself seem to belive in the inherent ‘evil’ of mankind, but only when it is displayed/pointed out on the opposite side of the political spectrum from you. I personally believe there are ‘evil’ people in all spectrums of society, and the best way to mitigate their adverse affect on others is to give as little power to politicians (who then parcel out the power to ‘groups’,’corporations’, insiders, ‘buddies’ as if they were Santa Claus) as possible and give it instead to the individual. Which is what a free market does, gives one the abilty to make their own choices as to what is important and therefor worth pursuing or avoiding. The nanny state dreams of progressives is the exact opposite of this thinking. That the inherent ‘evil’ in people requires a ruling class to ‘teach’ the masses how to live correctly,what they have to pursue nad what they have to avoid, and to use coercion when the masses resist their obvious superior ‘intellect’.

  14. I’m with Warren; I thought that the Euro left traded whatever principles it had for frothing anti-Americanism and selective anti-imperialism decades ago.

    Please name me two non-british European political parties without googling, mister expert. Or are you just engaging in instinctive Euro-bashing? Because that would be more than a little ironic.

  15. Right wingers still bitter that France was right about Iraq, news at 11.

  16. 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.

    Good grief, it’s the Bob Barr vs. Ron Paul argument again.

    In the end, L?vy tells us what to do (stop genocide, stop denying genocide) but neglects to inform us just how this is to be achieved.

    Note well, Reason writers and readers. Note well.

  17. The only way to be truly free is to let the government make all your decisions for you. Freedom is embodied by casting a ballot once every four years for one of two candidates, not by spending money on mindless consumer goods. Everyone who doesn’t understand this is a moron.

  18. Lefiti said: ‘The only way to be truly free is to let the government make all your decisions for you.’

    I must be a moron as I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before, to be perfectly free, one has to be told what to do. Genius at work there.

  19. If you don’t think Lefiti was trolling you with that last statement, you’d probably believe me when I tell you I can save your soul from sin.

  20. Left wing: Gulags and concentrations camps.


    Right wing: Believing in supply-side economics.

  21. BTW: that previous post of mine was merely an observation of where our favorite troll seemed to be going.

  22. One find Europe’s left and far right agreeing on many issues. Obama’s victory will get them even closer, as liberals will soon become disappointed, and fascists in conservative or even libertarian guise will have no reason to be pro-American anymore (they’ve always been, except for a short spell during Bush presidency, a right-wing socialist). Even local divas are singing to the Old Continent’s decadence:

  23. I wonder if Msr. Levy would take up Desmond Tutu’s suggestion that we need to invade Zimbabwe to get rid of Mugabe!
    Remember this is the same Tutu who called Pres. Bush a war criminal for invading Iraq!
    Of course Tutu wants AFRICAN troops to stop the Zimbabwe “genocide” as if this legitimises the pre-emptive action he found so loathsome when practised by US troops.
    Msr Levy is on the journey every sensible thinking man must make, from Left to Right. I just hope, for his sake, he gets there before his head explodes!

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