BHL and the Zombie Left
By Diana Johnstone
PARIS — The most discussed political book in France this autumn is Ce grand cadavre à la renverse, literally, "this big corpse lying on its back"), by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Grasset, Paris, 2007). It is supposed to be a book about the French left. But oddly enough, it is not really about the left, and it is not even really a political book.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is by far the most notorious of the small coterie of propagandists who, some thirty years ago, under the label of "New Philosophers", began a highly publicized campaign to reverse the anti-imperialist sentiment that had become dominant worldwide in reaction to the U.S. war in Vietnam. The war was over, and the French left was weakened by sectarian fragmentation and the collapse of unrealistic "revolutionary" expectations. The Khmer Rouge, who took power in Cambodia in the wake of US bombing and a US-backed coup d'état, engaged in the sort of "bloodbath" that had been wrongly forecast to happen in Vietnam if the United States left. By a highly publicized and emotion-laden "discovery" of the Soviet gulag over twenty years after the death of Stalin, and by focusing on the murderous aberrations of the Khmer Rouge, the New Philosophers undertook to stigmatize all left aspirations toward radical social change as inevitably "totalitarian". Against the ever-present "totalitarian threat", the United States was restored as the necessary savior of democracy and defender of human rights.
It is hard to measure the real impact of this campaign. It fit into a general post-Nixon effort to rehabilitate U.S. imperialism under the banner of "human rights". They were certainly never taken seriously by academic philosophers, but won instant fame thanks to the eagerness of pro-U.S. media (starting with the supposedly left-leaning Nouvel Observateur) to saturate the public with their "new" and "philosophical" version of Cold War propaganda.
Nevertheless, thirty years later, for whatever reason, their mission suddenly appears to be accomplished. Although no philosopher, Nicolas Sarkozy embodies the "new" Europe as dreamed by Rumsfeld at the start of the conquest of Iraq — a Europe ready to follow the United States blindly into its wars of "civilization".
André Glucksmann, the most hysterical of the clan, lost no time in endorsing Sarkozy prior to the election, early on gaining the status of royal philosopher. Bernard Kouchner, the most worldly and ambitious of the humanitarian warriors, waited until Sarkozy was elected to join him as Foreign Minister.
More clever than the others, BHL refused to get lost in the victorious crowd. During the campaign, he gave himself the assignment of ideological advisor to Socialist Party candidate Segolénè Royal. After she lost, he preferred to linger on the political battlefield to make a grab for the fallen standard of the loser: the left. Or, to echo the title of his new book, to retrieve its dead body. The book pretends to give lessons to a revived left. BHL aspires to breath his words and ideas into the corpse, turning it into a sort of zombie to frighten Segolénè Royal away from the likes of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Rony Brauman, Alain Badiou, Régis Debray, Harold Pinter and all the many other purveyors of bad thoughts denounced by BHL as leading the left into a new "totalitarianism"[see endnote].
And what is this new totalitarianism? Why, "anti-Americanism" of course. And what is "anti-Americanism" exactly? According to BHL, "anti-Americanism is a metaphor for anti-Semitism" (p.265). Now we know.
And of course, "anti-Semitism" is the accusation that is supposed to make the opponent wither into a puff of smoke like the Wicked Witch of the West... Supposed to, but does the magic still work? BHL is worried that its potency may be weakening.
The World According to BHL
Although the label "philosopher" is overblown, the writer BHL does have, like anyone else, a personal philosophy. It starts with his view that ideas shape the world — for better or for worse (p.402). Mostly for the worse, it seems. Ideas can spring up virtually out of nothing, hence the need for constant vigilance. What he calls his "left" loyalty has nothing to do with socio-economic relations, much less with opposition to war. Rather, it is a matter of denunciation of crimes: the Dreyfus case, Vichy, various real or alleged "genocides"... It is based, as he points out in detail, on his own personal gallery of "images, events and reflexes". Never analysis. He proceeds as a sort of Isaiah crying out in the wilderness, who has no need for modern tools of research and analysis.
In this world of ideas, mere facts are secondary, if not irrelevant. BHL plays with them verbally as he plays with his malleable ideas. The facts must be made to fit the idea, not the other way around. Is the United States an empire? The concept empire may apply to China, Russia, the Turks, the Arabs, the Aztecs, the Persians and the Incas, he says, but it is inapplicable to "an America whose greatest tendency has always been isolationism and which, contrary to the major nations of old Europe, has never colonized anyone" (page 281).
This astounding statement clearly situates BHL above and beyond mere reality. His book has nothing to do with politics either, as generally understood. Rather it is the expression, as he states as clearly as he states anything, of a sort of Judaic religion without belief in God.
It may seem strange for a wealthy jet-set celebrity who lives a life of luxury, but BHL's role model is the Old Testament Jewish prophet, denouncing bad ideas that will lead the people to ruin. This is made explicit toward the end of his latest book (as in his much earlier book, Le Testament de Dieu). Indeed, if one starts at the end of the book instead of the beginning, one can see that the subject is really not the Socialist Party or the left, but a prophetic exhortation toward a sort of religious war, without any god.
In lyric passages concerning the Judeo-Christian genealogy of the ideas of democracy and human rights, BHL writes that "one may" find them too Greek, or too Roman, or too Christian ("Pauline").
"One may then, like Levinas, wish to make heard again those Jewish voices, that prophetic inspiration, which was smothered by Greco-Roman-Paulinism" (page 398).
The reference here is to the late Lithuanian-French-Israeli philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose metaphysical contortions over guilt and innocence have caused BHL and Alain Finkielkraut to recognize him as their own contemporary prophet. Together with Jean-Paul Sartre's influential secretary in his last days, Benny Lévy, who abandoned leadership of the "Gauche Prolétarienne" to return to traditional Judaism, BHL and Finkielkraut founded the Institute of Levinassian Studies in Jerusalem and Paris in 2000, dedicated (in the words of Benny Levy) to combating the "political vision of the world". The Talmud is their inexhaustible reference.
The prophetic style flies over facts and analysis to lament and admonish. It projects a mood of moral emergency that has no time to bother with clear, reasoned analysis based on scrupulous respect for facts and honest attention to unwelcome judgments.
The rejection of analysis is more than a rhetorical trick, it is at the very heart of the BHL world view. He is only one of the most sophisticated proponents of the present-day widespread conservative Jewish rejection of any attempt to explain historical events by material or political causes. This rejection of analysis is central to the religious attitude toward the Holocaust, or Shoah (that is, the Nazi massacre of the Jews understood in religious terms). For the defenders of this contemporary religion, it is wrong to seek material explanations for events that must remain "incomprehensible" in their magnitude. The mere attempt to explain the rise of Hitler by such factors as the shock of Germany's humiliating defeat in 1918, the loss of territories, ruinous inflation, and the great depression, is rejected as "making excuses". Any explanation other than eternal and recurrent hatred of the Jews may even be denounced as anti-Semitism.
This refusal to analyze material factors producing ideological phenomena extends to surrounding events. In explaining the recent loss of enthusiasm for the European Union, BHL makes no mention of the increasingly obvious reality that the EU is being used to impose an unpopular economic policy, notably forced privatization of public services, over the heads of national electorates. No, the main reason he sees for the decline of the European ideal is the "empty place left by six million assassinated Jews" (page 232).
"The crisis of Europe, its malaise, even its failure, are, in this perspective, words much too weak to express the heartfelt cry of a still-born Europe, or born when a part of her was dead, and which no longer knows how to live, on this account, other than the life of specters."
This "anti-political vision" of historical events is comparable to that of witch doctors prior to the development of modern medicine. The main concern of these Levinassians is clearly anti-Semitism, just as the Black Death was the concern of Europeans in the 14th century. Indeed, they are obsessed with it and with the probability of its resurgence. But their religious approach — even after openly acknowledging atheism (page 405) — prevents them from analyzing causes in a way that might help to prevent future recurrences.
War of Religion
In his chapter devoted to the "progressive" future of anti-Semitism, BHL treats the latter as a sort of demon that prowls through history taking different disguises. It is a "long cry of hatred" that pursues through the ages "the People of the Word". It is not possible to ask "why?" One must only ask "how?"
To that question, BHL has the answer. Anti-Semitism will make its next inevitable appearance by way of the left. On this subject, which interests him most keenly, he actually makes some observations that are not false. He implicitly recognizes one reality that many other commentators ignore, that is, that the Holocaust is the real functioning religion in Europe today. Or, as he puts it, the "religion of the epoch" is "ever more clearly founded on those three solid pillars which are the cult of the victim, the taste for memory and reprobation of the wicked (triumphant antifascism, love for victims and the duty of memory)." This being the case, he observes with alarm that a certain competition for victimhood is feeding resentment toward Jews for having "hoarded" for themselves, "human compassion" and "victim capital"... "Shoah business"... "What is left for the genocide of the American Indians? I was asked one day by the anti-Semitic Indian leader Russell Means", he writes. At this point, BHL even makes a rare mention of the Palestinians, whose main enemy is said by some to be "this uproar over the suffering of the Jewish people which drowns out their voices" (pp 316-318).
BHL's response is simply to reiterate that the Shoah is indeed unique in history, adding that the Muslims were on the side of Hitler and thus not innocent victims of Zionism, and that such complaints are manifestations of the new anti-Semitism. This is consistent with the position that there can be no explanations for anti-Semitism other than the eternal nature of anti-Semitism itself. Above all, there can be no causes for which Jews themselves, in this case the State of Israel, might be in some way responsible.
Instead of analyzing, BHL prophesies. He sees the threat of the next wave of anti-Semitism in the union of "negationism, anti-Zionism and victim competition". And what is to be done about it? More exhortations, and a new "fascist" enemy to combat: "Islamofascism" or, as he prefers to call it, "Fascislamism".
Exhortations to the Zombie Left
His exhortations are addressed to the zombie left he hopes to inspire with his prophecies.
Exhortation number one: stop talking about Israel and Palestine! Or, to be precise: "limit... the obsessional reference to Israel". Meaning: Talk instead about Darfour, Chechnya... but all this talk about the Palestinians is in reality a form of anti-Semitism.
Second exhortation: substitute laïcité (secularism, French style) for tolerance. Meaning: no tolerance for "Fascislamism" which he spots even in the relatively moderate positions of Tariq Ramadan, for instance, not to mention veiled women and Muslims who object to cartoons portraying the prophet Mohamed as a terrorist bomber.
Third exhortation: recognize Islamism as a form of fascism.
This programmed zombie is really all BHL has to offer either to the left or to the Jews.
And what can this possibly accomplish?
The silence of reviewers concerning the flagrantly judeocentric nature of BHL's book suggests that a certain intimidation is at work. But is making anything to do with Jews into a tabou-ridden religion really "good for the Jews"? BHL himself, in his mention of "victim competition", expresses doubts. And yet he persists.
It would obviously be better for the left, for Jews, for everyone, to overcome these religious inhibitions and look squarely at the reality of the world, including Israel, Iraq — invisible in BHL's book — Palestine, Iran and, yes, the United States and its uncontrolled military-industrial complex, which finds pretexts for the use of military force in the neoconservative hysteria over "Islamofascism". The prophetic approach fostered by Bernard-Henri Lévy is precisely an emotional irrationality not unlike anti-Semitism, various varieties of religious delirium and even "fascism". This is an ideological quarrel with no relation to any sensible notion of progressive politics.
Jean-Pierre Chevènement resigned as Defense Minister in 1991 in protest against President Mitterrand's decision to take France into the first U.S. war against Iraq; he ran as an independent candidate for President in 2002 and supported Segolénè Royal's candidacy in 2007, serving as an advisor. Born in Jerusalem, Rony Brauman was president of Médecins sans frontières from 1982 to 1994; he has become a sharp critic of Israel and of the Kouchner-BHL line on "humanitarian intervention" by military means. Philosopher Alain Badiou and writer Régis Debray are among the numerous other French intellectuals attacked by BHL for their views on international affairs.
Diana Johnstone is a widely-published essayist and columnist who has written extensively on European and international politics. She is the author of The Politics of Euromissiles: Europe's Role in America's World (Verso, 1985). Her writings have been published in many publications such as New Left Review, In These Times, The Nation, Counterpunch, and Covert Action Quarterly. Her latest book is Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions (Monthly Review Press, 2003; ISBN: 1-58367-084-X). She can be reached at email@example.com. (Compuserve, her old server, is discontinuing service in November.)