“The idea of Europe is in peril,” claims a group of leading intellectuals led by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Malevolent populists have seized control by appealing to ideas of a “national soul” and “lost identity.”
“Never mind that abstractions such as “soul” and “identity” often exist only in the imagination of demagogues,” the authors write. Are we to conclude that the “idea of Europe” is not an abstraction and is shared, in a coherent form, across the continent?
From the letter, one would think that European institutions were innocent victims of a hostile takeover. There are vague references to mistakes and lapses, but there is no mention of the Eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, or the sclerotic behavior of the European Union. There is rhapsodizing about the intellectuals’ “faith…in the great idea that we inherited,” but no sense that the idea might have enabled hubris and recklessness.
What the idea even is remains mysterious. One presumes that it is Enlightenment liberalism promoted through the European Union, but its substance is vague. There is a reference to “the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe and Comenius.” But how, for example, the Catholic Dante and the anti-Catholic Comenius can be synthesized is unexplored. All that is left are exhortations about the need to “rediscover the spirit of activism,” without any sign of who these activists will be and what their campaigns will demand and deliver.
The letter has sunk beneath the pages of The Guardian. After years of hopping round the world, from cause to cause, Bernard-Henri Lévy has returned home to find himself a vieux philosophe without an audience.
In a speech in Bangladesh, Lévy spoke of hearing, in his youth, “the ardent, raspy voice of an old writer speaking to the young people of France about a country not yet born but already dying.” The country was Bangladesh; the writer was André Malraux. “As in Spain in 1936,“ Lévy went on, “the voice was urging the formation of International Brigades.” “A handful of us answered that call,” Lévy mused. “In me that call has abided all my life, resurfacing in every commitment I have made since then.”
Calling Lévy a philosopher is like calling David Icke a sports personality. It might have been true once, but that was another life for the aging provocateur. BHL, as he is known, has spent the last few decades gallivanting around the globe in search of causes. He began his career in Bangladesh, covering the Liberation War, and after a few years of intellectualizing in France, he bounded his way between Bosnia, Pakistan, Darfur, Georgia, Libya, Syria, and Kurdistan, demanding, more often than not, international intervention to end some conflict or unseat some dictator.
One can trace BHL’s intellectual lineage through Malraux to T.E. Lawrence. “Lawrence of Arabia,” despite his Francophobic reputation, was, in Denis Roak’s words in “Malraux and T.E. Lawrence,” an “exemplary figure” for Malraux, who provided not only “the model of the man of action” but the model of the self-mythologizer.
Lawrence was an intellectual, with a First Class history degree from Oxford, a passion for translating French literature, and an able grasp of seven languages. His insights into Arab politics were keen, such as when he predicted that if the Wahhabist sect prevailed it would lead to “fanaticism…intensified and swollen by success.” He was a brave, capable soldier, who was more at home in the midst of the Arab Revolt than in peacetime London. He was also a failure, at least on his own terms, who promised his Arab comrades independence if they fought beside him in the First World War and had his fond hopes for them demolished when he was informed of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Staying silent, lest he compromise the war effort, he grew so depressed he contemplated suicide. “We are calling them to fight for us on a lie,” he said in 1917, “and I can’t stand it.”
Lawrence’s life was full of courage and struggle. But he was nonetheless fond of embellishments. In Seven Pillars of Life, for example, he fictionalized a story about crossing the Sinai Peninsula without sleep. André Malraux was a far more energetic fabulist. In The Halls of Uselessness, Pierre Ryckmans pointed out that while Malraux had all but “pretended to the French public that he had been a people’s commissar in the Chinese revolution,” he had in fact been little more than “a mere tourist in transit.” His work on the Spanish Civil War, meanwhile, has the “hollow ring of café eloquence” compared to Orwell’s unsentimental writings.
Malraux’s admiration for Nietzsche preceded his admiration for Lawrence. Both the German and the Frenchman, Ronald Batchelor wrote, held that “the only redemptive act for the individual lies in the projection of self upon the world, so that it will be shaped in his own likeness.” Nietzsche had done so from his home, but Lawrence’s influence drove Malraux abroad. He went to Cambodia, where he was arrested by colonial authorities for trying to remove artifacts from a temple.
Malraux’s experiences turned him against colonialism and towards communism. In France, he built his reputation on a series of novels that drew on his Indochinese experiences, but he still scratched his itch for engagement. An unsystematic thinker, his attitude was summed up in the words with which he described a character in his novel The Conquerors:
Systems were nothing to him. He was ready to adopt any that circumstances might impose on him. It was an atmosphere more than anything else, and the hopes that a general upheaval held out, that attracted him…
In the Spanish Civil War, he led a quixotic air campaign on behalf of the Republicans. Unlike Orwell, he sided with the Soviet-backed communists. Somehow, he had convinced himself that the Soviet Union represented the breeding grounds for individual talent. “The enormous strength of the Soviet force,” he said, according to his biographer Olivier Todd, “is that it is the type of civilization from which Shakespeares emerge.”
After the war, in which he belatedly joined the French resistance, he became an apostate from communism and gravitated towards De Gaulle. The General made him the Minister of Culture. “Malraux encouraged de Gaulle to think that he was penning the national epic; de Gaulle encouraged Malraux to believe that he was an actor on the world stage,” Stefan Collini wrote. Still hungry for action, Malraux interviewed Chairman Mao a year before the Cultural Revolution was unleashed. Despite clear signals of the dictator’s intentions, Malraux remained blissfully unaware of the scale of his radicalism.
Bangladesh was Malraux’s last act of engagement and Lévy’s first. For all that he has earned his reputation for attention-seeking, this was a rather brave act of solidarity. When the young philosopher returned to France, however, he sought the limelight. Like Andre Glucksmann and Alain Finkelkraut, Lévy was welcomed as a “new philosopher,” with his passionate defense of liberalism against leftist power worship. There was nothing very new about French anti-communism, but the nouveaux philosophes garnered significant attention, not least because of how much they annoyed French leftists.
With his Byronic appearance and urgent style, Lévy became especially famous. French leftist historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet complained that Lévy was “sculpting, with the help of the media, his own statue.” His next book, The French Ideology, was a dark account of French history that saw Pétainism behind every cupboard and in every corner. Raymond Aron, the grandfather of French anti-totalitarians, was unimpressed. “An author who readily employs infamous or obscene adjectives to describe men and ideas,” he began, “invites a critic to reciprocate.” He accused the young philosopher of exaggerating the fascistic trends in French culture, and of encouraging paranoia among French Jews. “What does this book say to them?” he asked:
That the peril is everywhere, that the French ideology condemns them to a fight of every moment against an enemy installed in the unconscious of millions of their fellow citizens.
Antisemitism did return to French in earnest—from the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, to the guns of jihadists who have massacred Jews in Toulouse, Montauban, and Porte de Vincennes. But this trend has not had much to do with French ideology.
France could not contain Lévy for long. During the Bosnian War, Lévy traveled to Sarajevo, and wrote and filmed to attract international attention to the Bosnians’ plight. For Lévy, the conflict represented not just a war of aggression against the Bosnians, but a campaign of genocidal terror on the part of the Serbs, inflicted on a nation that epitomized moderate, liberal Islam and harmonious multiculturalism. His efforts, though arguably valuable in promoting peace, established his grandiose Manicheanism and his talent for romanticizing his role in events. As Stephen Chan wrote in “Regarding the pain of Susan Sontag,” some doubted that Lévy was quite as immersed in the action as it appeared:
When Bernard-Henri Levy flew in for one of his visits of solidarity, fleeting but photographed, and feigned the need for taking cover, as if bullets had been aimed at home—while just out of camera-shot UN troops were casually smoking cigarettes—this was a traducing of solidarity.
Lévy’s Malrauxian tendencies emerged more than a decade later when he traveled to Georgia during the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. “It is not too difficult to spot [him],” said a fellow guest at the hotel he stayed in. “[He is] lounging around in the foyer puffing out clouds of smoke and gesticulating meaningfully.” Some raised questions about the veracity of the reports Lévy filed from Georgia. He wrote of seeing the city of Gori “burned” and “pillaged,” despite the fact that it still stood and he had never even been there.
On Lévy went. Buoyed by the Arab Spring, he campaigned for intervention in Libya, which, after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, became a home for warlords and jihadis and a conduit for migrants traveling to Europe. Undeterred, Lévy took up the cause of the Kurds, whose fight for independence he praises not just on its own terms but as signifying the promise of a liberal Islam. Much of Lévy’s new book, The Empire and the Five Kings, is devoted to championing the cause of the embattled Kurds.
Lévy is easy to mock, with his flowing hair, his unbuttoned shirt, his numerous wives, and his airy pronouncements. He is easy to dismiss as a narcissist, and as a fabricator. All of this is true. Yet there is a certain seriousness to him, as well.
First, he is not without self-awareness. Reflecting, once, on philosophy and commitment, he identified temptations in the public intellectual: the temptation to see conflict as “a big theatre in order to deploy or unravel literature, concepts, ideas and so on” and the temptation to see it as “a sort of aesthetic show.”
“If I am sincere with myself,” Lévy wrote, “I probably have a little of each of these attitudes in myself.” He has more than a little, but at least he knows it. Second, he is not without some loyalty to his causes. As well as the Kurds, he still takes a keen interest in the affairs of the Bosnians and the Bangladeshis.
Lévy is a liberal vitalist. He is not the kind of utopian who believes that liberalism can prevail across the world. Rather, he locates a certain élan vital in the struggle for human rights: an energizing force of quasi-spiritual significance. Like the young Malraux, his status as an intellectual depends less on ideas than on engagement, on being at the center of the hopes that any general upheaval might hold out.
Lévy’s vital and romantic image is key to his prominence and acceptance. “Great Man” figures are generally held in deep suspicion by liberal democratic institutions. Right-wing populist candidates like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, or Jair Bolsonaro are seen as demagogic, militaristic, and authoritarian. Left-wing outsiders such as Hugo Chavez, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, or Lula da Silva, have their own critics. They rely on charisma, legends, and personal loyalty to win, and they don’t share the interests of the institutions they take over. When individual leaders have been valued by political and media elites, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, it has not been as bold orators and decision-makers, but as smooth, articulate conveyors of information.
This follows from liberalism’s stance towards the individual. Rule of law, checks and balances, and constitutions are all established precisely to limit the role of any given individual over political life. In liberalism, the natural mode of engagement is to create value on the margin, from behind the curtain, and as an atom in mass movements, rather than carrying out large, daring plans as a public individual.
This can be a strength, to an extent. If political life is not about agentic and visionary individuals, then political life is not left in turmoil by individual failings, or by the vacuum left by a hyper-competent visionary founder. But it also becomes a stifling limit. When personal advancement depends on operating on the margin, talented individuals don’t have the freedom to experiment. High-risk, high-reward advances usually depend on facilitating that risk-taking. This bureaucratic mode then bakes in roughly the current system, as systemic change requires coordinated multi-step plans, which can only be the domain of individual judgement.
More broadly, the human desire for narrative and meaning is generally not satisfied with managerial technocracy. Cults of personality work because they take abstract ideals and embody them in a living, breathing, and acting human being. Instead of dreary policy proposals and philosophical criticisms, it generates an adventure shared in by the whole society and a sense of destiny. When an established political structure offers no fulfillment for this need, then rivals and outsiders will naturally take up the banner. The current populist wave owes at least as much to the death of mythos in neoliberal technocracy as to economic and social clashes.
When liberalism was a revolutionary creed, it was itself able to tap into these narratives. From American independence, to the French Revolution and the Italian Risorgimento, the slogans of liberation and dashing figures like Washington and Garibaldi were integral to the liberal mythos. Indeed, they remain so. But with liberalism having long-since established itself as an institutional order with global hegemony, their modern equivalents would represent a dire threat to the stability of that order—particularly to the all-too-human individuals who staff its institutions.
Lawrence and Malraux’s names have outlived those of the political elites that they served, despite having little or no influence on their decisions. Similarly, Lévy’s name will outlive those of the sad parade of politicians on whose service he has often called, but his actual values are those of the liberal establishment, and neither is he any threat to institutional interests. His work is as a private individual with a media platform. He cannot order troops, cut budgets, pass programs, or press charges against corruption. A cult of personality restrained to magazine columns, interviews, documentaries, and petitions is an ideal one for liberal politics. He drums up interest in peripheral conflicts without challenging the broad interests of finance and of statecraft.
Christopher Hitchens was another case. What a man of action he was, charging around the Middle East in opposition to theocrats and dictators as energetically as he charged around the Deep South debating God. What a character. What a contrarian. Yet no one can sensibly claim he challenged the establishment when his death was greeted with as much mourning from presidents and prime ministers as that of George H.W. Bush. Sure, he sniped from the sidelines, but no royal court is complete without a jester to voice the criticisms which might otherwise boil into plots. But the jester makes no decisions, bears no responsibility, and holds no power.
The romance of Lévy’s exaggerated war-hopping exploits has helped to lend a certain cinematic quality to liberal managerialism. He served as, in the words of Herman Lebovics describing Malraux, a “dashing model of the fighter-thinker” for desk-bound technocrats. He has lent his undeniable charisma and overblown imprimatur to a paradigm that depends, for the most part, on spiritually arid processes of global finance, technology, and diplomacy. The “man of action” has less of a place in a world where the man is being outstripped by the machine, and the institution has supplanted the individual.