The Last True Leftist

Reviewed by James Kirchick

Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism
by Bernard-Henri Levy
Random House, 2008, 214 pages

In the summer of 2007, Bernard-Henri Lévy appeared on a radio program hosted by Alain Finkielkraut, his comrade on the French intellectual left. The subject under discussion was the genocide in Darfur. Lévy’s sparring partner was Rony Brauman, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. Brauman had traveled in some of the same rarefied intellectual circles as Lévy and Finkielkraut, though, as Lévy soon discovered, he had not wound up in exactly the same place.
During the debate, Lévy referred to Brauman as a “former humanitarian.” It was an ominous description, and Brauman certainly did not seem overly concerned by the carnage in Darfur. In fact, he found the use of the term “genocide” itself sensationalistic, because the death rate had decreased since the early years of the conflict. What really disturbed Lévy, however, was Brauman’s assertion that, “This war, anyway, is a war among the Sudanese”—precisely the same rationale adopted by many Europeans in response to those who called for intervention against ethnic cleansing during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, a cause near and dear to Lévy’s heart. Indeed, his was one of the earliest voices calling for military action to stop the slaughter.
It was even more painful for Lévy to hear such things from Brauman, because the two had shared a decades-long cooperative relationship. Among other worthy endeavors, they had formed an anti-famine organization together, advocated on behalf of Cambodian genocide victims, and helped raise awareness of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s human rights abuses. Given Brauman’s personal history, Lévy was shocked by his erstwhile partner’s decision to “sit out Darfur,” the first genocide of the twenty-first century.
Brauman’s passivity worried Lévy so much because he suspected that Brauman would support coercive actions against the Sudanese government but for the fact that Darfur had attracted a huge groundswell of concern in the United States, which in turn could lead to American military intervention against the regime in Khartoum, which is responsible for equipping and arming the janjaweed murderers. As Lévy explains, Brauman sees America as “the nerve center of a system of power that imposes a regime of unequal exchange on the planet” and the perpetrator of manifold crimes against innocent people. Therefore, good “anti-imperialist” that he is, he refused to fall into the “vulgar trap” of siding with the United States to stop a crime against humanity he would otherwise condemn.
Brauman’s journey from impassioned left-wing humanitarian to anti-American ideologue downplaying the tragedy in Darfur is one that more than a few left-wing intellectuals have made over the past several years. Lévy thoroughly examines this disturbing phenomenon in his latest book Left in Dark Times, which is dedicated to explaining what “makes a man like Rony Brauman blind and deaf to the tragedy of the Darfuris.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy is uniquely well suited to the subject. The quintessential “public intellectual,” he belongs to a small but celebrated group of prominent French thinkers who blur the roles of academic, journalist, and activist. Their status is very much a unique product of French culture, which glamorizes its intellectuals to the extent that some of them enjoy the type of celebrity usually reserved for pop stars. Even by this standard, however, Lévy—heir to a huge lumber fortune, film director, married to a famous actress, always with his shirt suggestively unbuttoned halfway down his chest—is in a class by himself, and has earned the rare distinction of being known by an acronym: BHL.
Lévy is not just an intellectual celebrity, however. He is also an important and lifelong critic of both left- and right-wing totalitarianism. His first major work, Barbarism with a Human Face, published when he was just 29 years old, denounced Marxism as doctrinally irreconcilable with democracy and, as a result, caused an uproar among left-wing European intellectuals. It also launched the movement of young French thinkers known as the New Philosophers, who dissented from the political orthodoxy embodied in the global New Left with their strident critiques of the Soviet Union and its founding principles.
Left in Dark Times is well in keeping with Lévy’s iconoclastic past. Something, he believes, has gone seriously, perhaps dangerously wrong with today’s left. The noble tradition of anti-fascism, which once firmly distinguished the left from the right, has transformed into an unthinking “anti-imperialism” that places itself in opposition to the United States and its allies and sees third world thugs and terrorist groups as nuisances at best—that is, when it does not embrace them as modish guerilla heroes. Radical Islam, despite its reactionary principles, doesn’t anger people on the left to the extent that George W. Bush does, if it angers them at all. While the war in Iraq drew millions of people across the world into the streets in protest, countless acts of intimidation and brutality perpetrated by radical Muslims, from the violent reaction to the cartoons depicting Mohammed in a Danish newspaper to the crime of 9/11 itself, have never drawn more than a tiny number of protesters. Tracing the history of the left over the last century, Lévy tries to explain how so many people purporting to hold “progressive” views have come to see American policies and actions as the “root cause” of radical Islamic terror and, more generally, the greatest force of evil in the world.
His conclusions are not reassuring. Today’s left, Lévy fears, has succumbed once again to the totalitarian temptation and in so doing has abandoned its pretensions to anti-fascism. Having “lost its moorings,” the left has begun to mimic some of the worst tendencies of reactionary conservatism. It has become, to use Lévy’s choice phrase, an “oxymoronic left.”
The inside jacket of Left in Dark Times describes it as “an unprecedented critique” of the contemporary left. This is somewhat overstated. There have been many such critiques in the years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A small yet vocal group of British writers has led the pack, exposing the moral equivocating, apologetics for radical Islam, and knee-jerk bashing of America and Israel that characterize much of today’s left-wing opinion. In 2007, Nick Cohen, a columnist for the Observer, published what was perhaps the angriest of these books, What’s Left? He was soon joined by Guardian writer Andrew Anthony, whose The Fallout documents “how a guilty liberal lost his innocence.” The majority of Christopher Hitchens’s work since September 12, 2001—excepting his vigorous campaign against belief in God—has been devoted to exposing the fecklessness of his former comrades. Nevertheless, Lévy’s contribution to this ongoing controversy is both welcome and, considering his previous work, inevitable.
He begins by explaining why he considers himself a man of the left, recounting a recent conversation with his friend Nicolas Sarkozy, then a candidate for the French presidency. With more than a little bit of pride, Sarkozy informs the author that several of Lévy’s comrades, including the influential New Philosopher André Glucksmann, have endorsed him over the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. Lévy demurs, informing Sarkozy that his support for Royal is a “familial obligation.” Sarkozy, however, is shocked that his friend could consider such people “family,” considering Lévy’s tortured history with the left over its reflexive anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, its lack of interest in the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, its casual denial of the Cambodian genocide, its apologetics for the Soviet Union, and its persistent dabbling in antisemitism. “These people who’ve spent thirty years telling you to go f—yourself?” Sarkozy asks incredulously.
For Lévy, however, being a man of the left means more than just sharing a set of views about a discrete range of issues. What it comes down to is “reflexes,” and his reflex has always been to stand with the downtrodden. This predisposition has led him to every godforsaken corner of the planet where people are starving, it’s what inspired him to start the civil rights group SOS Racisme, and it’s what makes him a democratic socialist today.
Lévy understands better than most, however, that the admirable impulse to side with the victims over the perpetrators, the rich over the poor, and the weak over the strong has often been perverted in leftist thinking. Before deciding which side to take on any particular issue, Lévy claims, people like MIT professor and left-wing guru Noam Chomsky first investigate which faction has established itself as anti-American or “anti-imperialist” and then put pen to paper. It does not matter if this impulse often leads Chomsky “to choose the side of the perpetrators and not of the victims,” as he has done countless times, from claiming that the Khmer Rouge slaughterhouse in Cambodia was a “New York Times creation” to his post-9/11 apologetics for al-Qaida’s terrorism. Today, it is the near-consensus view among left-wing intellectuals that the American “empire” was the cause of al-Qaida’s justified resentment.
The notion that America is an empire particularly angers Lévy. As a Frenchman born in the former French colony of Algeria, he knows exactly how baseless a claim it is. The United States—however one may wish to criticize it—has never been an “empire” in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, Lévy writes, America’s “main historical thrust has always been toward isolationism.” To compare American behavior, past or present, with what “China is doing today in Tibet; or what the Soviet Union used to do in its satellites, and what Putin’s Russia is still trying to do wherever it can; or what happened under older peoples at the peak of their power, like the Turks, the Arabs, the Aztecs, the Persians, the Incas,” is both historically erroneous and a form of moral equivalence that trivializes the suffering of people subjected to real imperialist rule. Lévy sets the record straight as only a fierce critic of European imperialism and world-weary journalist who has reported extensively on post-colonial societies can do, and his critique of voguish “anti-imperialist” anti-Americanism is nothing short of brilliant.
His passionate defense of America is likely inspired by the fact that, unlike many European intellectuals, Lévy has made a conscientious attempt to understand America and experience American life firsthand. In 2006, he published American Vertigo, a record of his nearly yearlong journey across the United States. The expedition was a latter-day recreation of the trail trod by a previous Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. While one can argue with Lévy’s conclusions about what America is—and many have—he does know what America is not, and it is most certainly not the demonic caricature of the anti-American imagination, insidiously controlling world events so that everything bad happens because of or in reaction to it.

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