In 2006 Bernard-Henri Lévy addressed an open letter to the American left in the pages of The Nation. He had recently toured the country while writing a book called American Vertigo and mentioned, in passing, that he had lost count of “how many times I was told there has never been an authentic ‘left’ in the United States, in the European sense.” With a command of dialectical contradiction perhaps acquired during his days as a Maoist ’68er, Lévy proved generous with advice for his “progressive friends” in the United States, despite our virtual nonexistence.
He described the left here as suffering from a sublime desolation. We were trapped in “a desert of sorts, a deafening silence, a cosmic ideological void.” But this was a wasteland of our own making, it seemed. We did not call for abolition of the death penalty, or speak out against creationism, or Guantánamo Bay. Nor was there any passion in the opposition to George Bush, who was denounced “mechanically” and “ritualistically.” Worse still–and Lévy was really very shocked by this–American progressives had somehow overlooked “the sheer scale of the outrageous poverty blighting American cities.” Evidently it went unnoticed by the left until Hurricane Katrina.
The essay offered much to chew on, once you picked your jaw up off the floor. It raised important questions. Subtle questions. Questions verging on the metaphysical. Did Bernard-Henri Lévy comprehend that “the American left” and “the Charlie Rose television program” are, in fact, distinct entities? Might there be aspects of social and political life that do not impinge upon the consciousness of Sharon Stone or Warren Beatty (who, to judge by American Vertigo, are among the American left’s most important figures)? Can a thing be, and yet not be, well publicized?
I frame these questions with all due seriousness, for they touch on something one must always keep in mind while reading Lévy’s work–his new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (Random House, $25), most emphatically included. For BHL (as he is known in France and, increasingly, the United States) is not simply another pundit. He brings to current affairs a certain philosophical method, which he succinctly unpacked not many years ago in his book War, Evil, and the End of History. There Lévy explained that he found it impossible to recognize as valid any political movement “about which I could not have the feeling, even if illusory, that it began, ended, and found its reasoning in me alone.” And so while “the American left” may or may not exist, what Charlie Rose so lovingly calls “this table” certainly does–for BHL has sat at it. Hence certain rigorous deductions are possible.
The interest of Lévy’s latest book comes from watching him apply his version of phenomenology to something grander than our provincial struggle between being and nothingness. Published in France following the election of Nicolas Sarkozy last year, the book opens with BHL receiving a phone call from the candidate. We eavesdrop on Sarko angling for an endorsement and are given a quick tour of the grounds for abundant mutual admiration between philosopher and politician. But, hélas, Lévy must withhold his support, for, as he says, “the Left is my family”–a remark that surprises, not to say unhinges, Sarko.
The naïve reader, too, and perhaps even an American one, may find this claim of leftist affiliation coming out of nowhere. Thirty years ago, Lévy was the coordinator and chief publicist for the New Philosophy–a school of thought, largely staffed by ex-Maoists, that argued that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had not been such a boon to humanity (in all, a reasonable thesis) and so any radical critique of capitalism would lead to the Gulag Archipelago (a judgment that does not seem beyond all argument).
BHL and his cronies never had much influence in the United States, where their work seemed like braised chunks of Karl Popper served in heavy sauce. And serious thinkers of the anti-Stalinist left in France tended to regard the whole episode as an embarrassment, with Cornelius Castoriadis wryly describing New Philosophy as a rare example of double antiphrasis. Still, the movement had its effects on public life–quite like American neoconservativism, for which Lévy has expressed such profound ambivalence. Among the most poignant episodes in American Vertigo is the meeting with William Kristol, whom Lévy finds to be rather less than a serious intellectual and even something of a partisan hack. BHL’s sad astonishment at this realization is itself rather sad and astonishing.
Lévy still regards himself, despite everything, as a man of the left, yet the left is not consubstantial with his ego–an intriguing paradox that demands thorough exploration. The title of Lévy’s book in French refers to the left as “This Big Corpse on Its Back,” which may imply some polemical intent. That is subordinate, however, to the main task of developing an ideology that begins, ends and finds its raison d’être in BHL alone. The author poses himself long rhetorical questions (and often repeats them for clarification, sometimes more than once). He pauses to itemize all the things he is not thinking about, or must ignore–then goes ahead and tells you what he might have to say if he decided to think about them.
We witness a historical re-enactment of the New Philosophical argument that Pol Pot’s regime was the logical culmination of the Marxist revolutionary vision at its purest. Here, the benighted American leftist reader may want to interrupt–to ask if, say, the destabilization of Cambodia by years of carpet bombing during the Vietnam War might be just as germane to understanding the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power as even the most nuanced appreciation of Louis Althusser’s structuralism. (Ideas have consequences, but so do B-52s.)
Such an objection would not be welcome, for one of the two very worst forces in the world, by Lévy’s account, is anti-Americanism. The other is anti-Semitism, which, it seems to BHL, is well on the way to becoming the ideological core of a new, global totalitarian movement. Sooner or later all those kids with Che T-shirts and Noam Chomsky lectures on their iPods are going to discover the Protocols of Zion–and then what happens? Nothing good.
To swim against this sinister tide, it is necessary to insist upon “the correct notion of Islamofascism, or, better, of Fascislamism” (why the latter should be preferable is not clear) and revitalize old leftist commitments to secular society. The good, true, BHLian left will be generously cosmopolitan. “You won’t find me denying that non-European civilizations have produced wonders, and whole worlds, that it would be disastrous to ignore, and even more disastrous to crush beneath the wheel of a lazy, brutal, eradicating Universal,” proclaims Lévy.
That last part is a relief, to be sure. But it places us right back in front of certain problems that are not so readily solved–not in theory and certainly not in practice. For there is a long history of particular societies coming to regard themselves as “concrete Universals” (to borrow from a certain idiom apropos here)–in short, as the fullest possible manifestation of the proper essence of humanity, given the world’s conditions. People in other societies tend not to take this well, at least not when it becomes a foreign policy enforced by B-52s. It makes them resentful, and worse than resentful, and being patted on the head for their colorful history and folkways may not soothe them. Meanwhile, coining expressions that connote a profound link between their civilization and fascism will not promote concord, no matter how carefully you explain the nuances intended. Signifiers can impose their own logic.
Alas, declaring oneself cosmopolitan and open and nonbrutal may not prove helpful, either, however heartfelt the claim. Too often, being “on the left” means being merely well-meaning (particularly so in the United States, where we remain all too uncorrupted by power); but there must be more to it than that, beginning with, as Marx put it, “the ruthless critique of everything existing.” Lévy wants to lay claim to the legacy of antitotalitarian radicalism. He treats it almost like a family heirloom. But he avoids embracing that tradition’s hostility to capitalism–the fundamental sense that there is something deranged and profoundly intolerable about a system in which grain is dumped into the ocean to sustain high prices on the international market while people around the world are rioting for food or finding themselves obliged to eat cakes made of mud.
Lévy sees the future menaced by the prospect of barbarism. He is right to worry. But amid his soliloquies, he makes gestures of warning in the wrong direction. A few years ago, Terry Eagleton wrote that it would take a transformation of the political economy of the entire planet just to make sure everyone on it had access to clean drinking water. I dare say that insight, or something like it (as opposed to, say, an irresistible hankering to go on the road to Cambodia Year Zero), is what drives most people on the left. At least some of us in the United States think that way, when not contemplating the abyss.