TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

A Revivified Corpse: Left-Fascism in the Twenty-First Century

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French political philosopher and author of the book reviewed below, was the target of an assassination plot in Belgium in 2008, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. His name was alongside those of other prominent European Jews on a hit list found in a house being searched by Belgian authorities in the wake of the arrest of Abdelkader Belliraj, a Belgian of Moroccan background. Belliraj is to go on trial in early 2009 on charges of organizing the murders of six Belgians in the 1980s and of arms trafficking. The Haaretz report appeared on January 1, 2009, and cited the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure as its source.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. Trans. Benjamin Moser. New York: Random House, 2008. Pp. xviii + 233.

It’s certain that its only real function [of the concept of Empire] is to annihilate whole chapters of contemporary history, killing, one more time, millions of men and women, whose whole crime was being born and whose second was dying the wrong way. (p. 145)

Bernard-Henri Lévy’s new book is annoying as a memoir but, when carefully read and pieced together, devastating as an indictment. Getting there will require the reader’s determination. Take the time to get past stylistic self-indulgence, forgive some hyperbole, patch up a few logical gaps, and what’s left is still essential reading. It uncloaks the most disturbing political trend of our time: the rise of a new absolutist ideology, one that is global, anti-liberal, anti-American, anti-Semitic, and pro-Islamofascist, and despite being irreligious is also—and this will require explanation—anti-secular.

Oxymoronic Left, new barbarism, neoprogressivism, red fascism—Lévy does not keep to a single name for it. What he does make clear is that it is emerging from the cadaverous Left, the “backward falling corpse” (which was the book’s French title). Now revivified, the zombie Left stalks liberal society. It’s more than a patchwork of dead ideas. It’s an energized, totalitarian mass movement, marching stiffly, arms stretched forward, into the twenty-first century.

The book’s annoying parts take up the first few chapters and bits of the rest. Disconnected assertions and sentence fragments, many tailed by ellipses, are meant to represent Lévy’s tormented inner dialog. Their upshot is that he is pained by the new barbaric Left. He pines for the one-time Left’s heroic struggle against fascism and French colonialism, and for the anti-totalitarian spirit he attributes to May ’68, so much so that he still thinks, though ever more tentatively, of the Left as his family and cannot even bring himself to vote for his friend, then presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. In light of the overwhelming denunciation he levels against the Left, his political indecisiveness is more irritating than moving.

The Death of the Old Totalitarian Left

After the personal tribulation, the book’s argument comes into focus: the case for the Left’s degradation, death, and ugly reincarnation. One stab in its heart was Solzhenitsyn’s book. “No other book has ever, as far as I know, unleashed an explosion like The Gulag Archipelago” (p. 58). It was in the furnace of this book, he writes, that the communist dream dissolved.

The nail in the lid was Cambodia. If earlier revolutions had produced conditions worse than the ones the revolutionists hoped to defeat, well, that was because the victors merely grabbed means of production. They didn’t reform minds, so they couldn’t remove the last remnants of servitude. Radical professors at the Sorbonne and École Normale Supérieure taught that revolution had to be far more sweeping. After all, sexuality maintained the body’s bondage; language itself sustained hierarchies; and geography too inscribed injustice, so that the division between country and city had to be destroyed. Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, and Pol Pot—the future tormentors of Kampuchea—were good students who listened to their professors and returned from France to turn their country into a laboratory for mass human experimentation.

To manage sexuality, Pol Pot regulated the days on which copulation was authorized and prescribed death for illegal flirtation. To reform language, an act of 1977 caused “linguistic amnesia, the erasure of entire volumes of the dictionary, and the redefinition, according to a new standard, of an equivalent number of words” (p. 62). To eliminate the city-country distinction, on April 17, 1975, in a matter of few hours, the Khmer rulers emptied Phnom Penh, throwing two million people, including children and the infirm, onto the roads, to meet their fate from pillagers and starvation. The fullest of all revolutions, the one that reformed language, sexuality, and geography along with politics and economy, was “one of the greatest insanities humanity has ever known” (p. 63).

Pillars of Totalitarian Thought

To Lévy, certain articles of faith form the pillars of such totalitarian experiments. One is the Good (a poorly chosen word, an insult to classical thinking about the good): the idea that here and now our troubled society can be upended to create a shining new and just society. It’s the end for which it’s worth sacrificing a generation to starvation, reeducation camps, and the police state (p. 66). The other is the Evil: that filth and corruption in which we are now trapped. Leading from one to the other is the “boulevard of history.” Driving us along it is that dialectical machine, that curative force, that “political medicalism” (Lévy quoting Foucault) that carries us from our miserable existence into this fabulous future, with such certainty that we need not fret about lives discarded along the way.

How far we have drifted from May ’68, Lévy mourns. It had seemed then that the Left had shorn itself of communism, devoted itself to anti-fascism and anti-racism, and agreed to work for human rights through imperfect liberal-democratic regimes. It is this non-Marxist Left that had Lévy’s allegiance. But after the collapse of communism and all the more so after 9/11, Lévy saw the coalescence of a new ideology, a new degenerate Left. It first seemed to him pointless, just something cobbled together from defunct ideologies. But then he understood that it was a revivified Left, which was once again acceding to totalitarian temptation. The outcome is today’s neoprogressivism.

It is here that Lévy’s outline of totalitarian articles of faith should come in handy: to explain the intellectual pillars of this new Left. Having put up with rather too much breathless and disjointed prose, we would expect as much. However, he aims against only one of the new barbarism’s pillars: its conception of Evil.

Anti-Liberal

Neoprogressivism’s Evil puts liberalism at the forefront (pp. 86–99). “Liberal” here refers to society built on private contract relations (Lévy is ginger about calling it the market), a system Lévy credits with civilizing effects. It abandons plunder and violence in favor of transactions, negotiations, and compromise. What is more, liberal society is built on mutual dependence between economic and political liberty. Liberal regimes that sustain private contract also protect man’s natural rights. Incapable of appreciating a world of free contracting, where decentralized choices generate disparate economic outcomes, the anti-liberals attribute the outcomes to networks and systems, or to the usual suspects (corporations, the media, etc.) among the empowered, or—among the lower orders of the new Left—to conspiracies.

The neoprogressives believe “liberalism is the source all the planet’s evils,” Lévy writes (p. 90), so they must declare innocent those Third World despots who “meddle with their citizens and treat them like cattle,” because in the neoprogressive dogma “the System, and the System alone, bears full responsibility.” They reject that the great revolutions, including the British and the American, were explicitly liberal, and used liberal thought in their struggle against absolutism (p. 92). The liberal market-based republics can more easily be portrayed as Evil, when liberty, which might be thought their finest aspect, disappears from view.

Lévy then offers the recent interest in the work of Carl Schmitt as an illustration of the fascist train in contemporary progressive though. To my understanding, however, many of those who have revived the study of Schmitt have done so for the very purpose of unraveling the nature of brutal ideologies, and are motivated by anti-totalitarian impulses similar to Lévy’s own, so the accusation strikes me as rash and unfair. Lévy does name names (pp. 95–99); it will be up to those better versed than I am to judge the accusations’ merits.

Anti-American

Lévy then takes on “the other socialism of the imbeciles,” namely, anti-Americanism. To the neoprogressives, America starves the world and floods it with goods; fights terrorism and incites it; has no culture and imposes its culture; worships materialism and succors spiritualism; and comes too late to fight Hitler and then uses Hitler’s methods. Arundhati Roy says Bin Laden is President Bush’s twin brother; journalist Robert Fisk, on the first day of the war on Afghanistan, says that “we are the real war criminals”; and Harold Pinter, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, says that the real problem is America’s gulag, meaning the vast prison system (p. 119). The same enlightened souls, Lévy says, never let out a squeak about the public stoning of adulteresses in Kabul or about Saddam’s myriad crimes.

The Europeans’ anti-Americanism is driven in part by historical resentment, Lévy writes. America is, after all, the Enlightenment success par excellence, the state built on multinational and many-hued immigrants, brought together in a compact and associated by contract, not by bloodlines or supposed rootedness in soil. While Europe was destroying its own Enlightenment heritage and obliterating its libraries, it was the allegedly soulless and materialist upstart across the Atlantic that provided asylum and rescued the Western patrimony from the nihilist flames (p. 120). For the neoprogressives now as for Heidegger and Hitler in their time, “the main, radical, and, in a matter of speaking metaphysical enemy—the one with which no truce or pact was possible—was not the Soviet Union but the United States of America.” America is Evil because it exemplifies the triumph of liberalism; and liberalism is evil because it is American.

Anti-Empire

Among the neoprogressives’ tenets, the most characteristic is that Evil is a planet-wide Empire. To cruder neoprogressives, America is the “command post, the nerve center, of a system of power that imposes a regime of unequal exchange on the planet, along with planned injustices and secret massacres . . . ” (p. 132). In Negri and Hardt’s Empire, Lévy finds the more sophisticated version, a “headless, decapitated, decapitalized empire,” whose nuclei include states, big labor, corporations, and the media (p. 135). Converted to the creed of Empire-loathing, John le Carre tells in one novel of pharmaceutical firms scheming to perpetrate genocide in Africa; Le Monde Diplomatique deploys fantastically fragile evidence to claim that Nestlé kills a million and a half infants a year (p. 138).

Inevitably, this anti-imperialism degenerates into conspiracy theory. The same Le Monde Diplomatique posits a world synarchism, an omnipresent Triad that uses invisible sentinels to exercise global domination that is “diffuse, opaque, and almost unfathomable” (quoted by Lévy, p. 136). America’s foreign policy comes to be the product of a secret plot hatched by Jewish neoconservatives who have occult power over the president’s and vice-president’s minds. History’s motor is no longer class conflict or human passions, but masked powers, shadowy manipulators, and hidden worlds behind worlds.

The most remarkable feature of the cult of Empire-hatred is that it produces disdain for those whose suffering does not meet the cult’s attribution of global evil. Exhibit number one is Darfur. Though an “an ocean of indifference and cowardice” condemned the Darfuris, the anti-liberals, anti-imperialists, and anti-globalists “earned a special distinction” (p. 141).

It is this anti-imperial obsession that makes Rony Brauman, onetime president of Doctors Without Borders and author of the French postscript to Norman Finkelstein’s Holocaust Industry, “blind and deaf to the tragedy of the Darfuris” (p. 137). Brauman, Robert Nesbitt, Noam Chomsky, and other intellectuals turn strangely silent on Darfur or attribute the whole hullabaloo to an American or Zionist plot. The NGO anti-racism meeting in Durban in 2001 mustered the crowds to chant “One Jew, one bullet,” but cold-shouldered the Africans who wanted to spotlight Rwanda genocides; forgot the plight of the 260 million Dalit untouchables; ignored the cause of the Roma in Eastern Europe; and omitted from its final declaration the massacres in Chechnya and the Balkans.

If you’re a Nuba being exterminated in the Sudan, or Burmese, Syrian Kurd, or Liberian, well, “You’re out of luck,” Lévy writes. You’re not oppressed by the American/Zionist/Imperialist axis, so “you’re a hundred times less important, a thousand times less interesting to progressive consciences,” than is an Islamist so humiliated that he must resort to terrorism to heal his humiliation (p. 140). That “maniacal negationist” Noam Chomsky whitewashes the Cambodian genocide, lest the world comes to be revolted by a crime America could not be accused of; and then rewrites the history of ethnic cleansing in Serbia to place it after the NATO air strikes, and hence makes it a response to Imperial aggression, once again to give Empire no quarter (pp. 141–42).

It is noteworthy to add here that Lévy, who presumably knows how to read French, confirms the accusation, virulently contested by Chomsky’s acolytes, that Chomsky did more than merely introduce Robert Faurisson’s book denying the existence of the gas chambers. According to Lévy, Chomsky wrote “not merely a preface but a defense as well” (p. 39) and depicted this Holocaust denier as a “relatively apolitical liberal” (p. 141).

If you’re Fidel Castro and manage the true gulag in the Caribbean, but are on the right side of the Empire/Anti-Empire divide, Lévy writes, you get the honor of closing the Durban conference. And if you’re Hugo Chavez you get, from the neoprogressive intellectuals, free pass to clamp down on the free press, to attempt to become life-president, and to declare that the world economy is under the thrall of descendants of Christ-killers. For Brauman, Chomsky, and other anti-teachers, as Lévy calls them, the theorem of Empire has sets the barbaric norm, to which the epigraph to this review refers: “to choose the side of the perpetrators and not of the victims; to tell the victims that they’re bad victims and their destinies don’t matter to the world; to impose silence, in a word, on oppressed people who disturb the [Empire/Anti-Empire] conceptual order of the world” (p. 145).

Anti-Semitic, Pro-Islamofascist

The neoprogressives’ Evil is, of course, also Zionist. There was early anti-Semitism against alleged killers of Christ; enlightenment anti-Semitism for Jews’ having given birth to Christianity; nationalist anti-Semitism for Jews’ statelessness; social anti-Semitism for their being capitalist blood-suckers; and racist anti-Semitism for their being the anti-race. Now the hatred is against the Jew who brazenly monopolize the world’s limited stock of victimhood, the better to pursue his Zionist-Imperialist conquest (pp. 147–66).

It is all too drearily familiar to be worth repeating here, except for the conclusion that Lévy shares with Pierre André Taguieff: that when the neoprogressive NGO’s joined in the Jew-hatred at Durban, they killed antifascism. Just a year later, the Movement against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples—a group apparently well regarded at the United Nations—confirmed the death at a protest marked by the chant “Death to the Jews” (p. 174). The neoprogressives kidnapped the heroic symbols of anti-Nazism for their furious, merciless crusade against Israel, turning anti-racism into a Stalinist instrument (p. 165).

In the same process, the traditions of empathy for the humble and unfortunate have given way to indulgence for theocratic fascism. The Syrian Ba’ath party was modeled on Hitlerism, as was Saddam’s party, as was the Muslim Brotherhood; and the Brotherhood’s enemy, Nasser, was no less sympathetic to the Nazis. And there was Haj Amin al-Husseini, Arafat’s uncle, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who wrote after his visit to Auschwitz, “I’ll go peacefully to my grave knowing that five million Jews have been exterminated” (quoted by Lévy on p. 170).

Nazism is woven into the Muslim Brotherhood’s, Hezbullah’s, and Hamas’s genealogy. Citing Paul Berman, he writes that their “mythology of pure blood, their taste for suicide missions, their hatred of the West, their phobia of a Jewish plot aiming at world domination, their detestation of America and of freedom, comes from European fascist ideologies” (p. 183).

The word “Islamofascism” (or rather his silly variant “Fascislamism”) is essential, Lévy says, precisely because it makes the point that there is more than one Islam. Lévy does recognize that that the term has also escaped the lips of George Bush, someone for whom he evidently has little regard. “Just because a fool, in the middle of the day, says ‘it’s daytime,'” Lévy writes, referring to an aphorism by Spinoza, “doesn’t mean he’s wrong and that it’s the middle of the night” (p. 165). We must differentiate Muslims who signed up for Waffen SS and for the Einsatzgruppe Ägypten, which prepared for the mission to eliminate Palestine’s 500,000 Jews (its mission foiled because Montgomery won at El Alamein), from Muslims who were themselves murdered by Nazis (pp. 176, 185). We need the term to distinguish men like Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan fighter against both the Soviets and the Taliban, from his murderers. We also need it to be able to differentiate righteous Muslims from the followers of the murderous revolutionary movement that the New Barbarian luminaries now embrace (pp. 170–72).

Anti-Secular

Lévy is running out of steam by the time he gets to the neoprogressives’ abandonment of secularism. To make the point, he contrasts multicultural nihilism (he uses “tolerance,” a word that is incomprehensible in this context) with secularism, arguing that the neoprogressives defend the former but are hostile to, or at least unprotective of, the latter. The murder of Theo van Gogh, the marches featuring the banner “Get ready for the real Holocaust,” the threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the violence in response to the Danish cartoons, the muzzling of the teacher Robert Redeker—they have brought out the worst in progressive reflexes.

Secular society does not give one group the right to threaten others on the claim that others are offensive to it. Secularism gives precedence to human rights; nihilistic multiculturalism gives it to group sentiments. “The secular society brings books into dialogue, all books, beginning with holy books.” Nihilistic multiculturalism, taken to its logical conclusion, “brings about autos-da-fé” (p. 180). As neoprogressives have smeared liberalism as a front for global evil, their multicultural nihilists have also abandoned that essential product of liberalism, the secular realm, the very one on which progressive dissent has always depended. It is of course in this context that we must also interpret the alleged assassination plot, uncovered in Belgium in late 2008, against Lévy himself.

Lévy and Conservatism

There are many flaws in Lévy’s book, as his enemies will gleefully point out. Most derive from hopscotch narration, cavalier references to sources, and conceptual disorganization. Other reviews attribute this to some sort of French penchant. I suspect the better explanation may be haste and intellectual hubris. Given the subject’s overwhelming importance, he should have made a better job of it. Still, this would be a valid blurb on the book: Anyone who wishes to be an intelligent observer of contemporary world politics should be informed about Lévy argument. That having been said, I will elaborate here on two of my concerns.

The first is Lévy’s failure to comprehend mainstream Anglo-American conservatism. To him, conservatism brings to mind those martinets who persecuted Dreyfus: those whose highest values were Authority, Order, Nation, State, Tradition, and Social Body (his capitalizations) as against intellectuals, freedom, democracy, parliament, and rights of man (p. 24). Unable to extricate himself from hoary Left-Right dichotomy, even as he reveals its bankruptcy, Lévy claims the parliamentarian Edmund Burke, whose sin was to be a conservative, as one of the origins of the historical path to Nazism (p. 92).

The irony is that Lévy himself has taken a Burkean turn. Lévy identifies the essence of the anti-totalitarian spirit as one that conceives of politics “as a world of indecision, indetermination, which takes into account the complexity of human affairs, the need for deliberation and compromise” (p. 70). Those who have recently read Burke, and don’t stand on remote prejudice about him, would recognize that Lévy’s assertion stands as a pretty good summary of Burke’s thought, or rather of the part that appeals to many American conservatives.

American conservatives aren’t interested in Burke because he admired the French queen but because he formulated a powerful argument for incremental reform in light of society’s overwhelming complexity, an argument not so far removed from Lévy’s own. As merely a misreading of one figure in political thought, this matter is hardly worth commenting on. What’s disturbing is that the mistake appears repeatedly in his conflations of conservatism with the anti-liberal movements he has powerfully excoriated.

Caught up in memories of the revanchist Right, Lévy is by no means the only European intellectual to make this error, so let’s set the record straight: Most versions of American conservative thought look for inspiration and tradition not to an ancien régime, but to the American revolution, the Founding Fathers, the constitution, Lincoln’s reforms, and incremental development of America as the original liberal, anti-absolutist state.

It’s of course easy even for Americans, observing the testy conservative-liberal debate (“liberal” now meant in the ordinary American sense of the word) to think that these debating partners are enemies. But more tolerantly understood, American conservatism and American liberalism both fall under the liberal umbrella (“liberal” in the political-philosophic sense). Had Lévy been able to take just one more step beyond the dichotomy in which he is still stuck, he would be defending these mutually dependent interlocutors against the new barbarism that wants to shut down their debate.

Neoprogressive Purity

What’s most disappointing in Lévy’s book is that it lacks an explanation for the rise of neoprogressive barbarism. Despite much intellectual name-dropping, the book is short on theory. Yet, his initial outline of totalitarian articles of faith gives a hint. The new totalitarians must envision a Good as well as an Evil, only Lévy is silent on what their Good might be.

Clues can be garnered from the motley sects that Lévy identifies as making up the neoprogressive church (p. 114). They include Third Worldists, pacifists, agri-terrorists, Zapatistas, friends of nature, anti-globalists, reds turned greens, greens turned Islamists, Islamo-leftists, groups touting themselves as anti-racists, and groups pretending to be humanitarians, along with a number of French radical outfits that don’t ring a bell on this side of the Atlantic.

What keeps them marching in step along the boulevard of history? It’s the vision of the Good toward which they march. It’s a multicultural, decentralized, non-chauvinist, earth-sustaining Purity. To the extent that it can be translated into a political regime, it may well turn out to be a regime run by grassroots participants within identity-communities and led by a visionary leader, one who can spare the assorted member communities from the troubles posed by laws and republican institutions. Lévy tells us nothing abut this red-green-brown utopia. His great achievement is that he teaches us what these Zombie leftists must do in their march toward it: they must struggle mercilessly against the Liberal-American-Secular-Zionist Empire of Evil that pollutes all humanity.

Comments are closed.