His Concepts : Antiprogressivism

2 Couverture le testament de dieu055“Antiprogressivism”—opposition to the idea that history is the progressive unfolding of mind, spirit, reason, or another ideal—is not getting very good press. The neoradical essayists who are busy rehabilitating Stalin, proclaiming the merits of Pol Pot, decriminalizing the “Red-Brown” (communist and fascist) paths, and revising the chain of carnage that was the 20th century into a “subjective Iliad” (1), have no taste for any discursive universe but their own. Their warmed-over historical progressivism has persuaded them that antitotalitarian vigilance is a tricky use of “reactionary rhetoric.” (2) As if explorations of the central concept of twentieth-century philosophy—progress—were raising the threat of political and social regression. The manner in which Bernard-Henri Lévy, since his Barbarism with a Human Face (1977), has attacked the illusions of progressivism (going so far as to build it into the DNA of his philosophy) is a stinging refutation of this simplistic paranoia. It also diminishes the standing of a fashionable school of thought—that of “pseudo-progressivism.”

1976. Late in the spring of that year, the young Lévy was instrumental in the formation of a group whose purpose was to resist this bronze idol of a doctrine, which his friend André Glucksmann had termed “Marxism–nihilism.” With that group the “New Philosophy” was born. (4) The nimble, vibrant language of the group’s leading voice tore into the idea of the progress of history, mauling those who manipulated or magnified it. Not so much the idea of humanity advancing slowly up the immutable ladder of time, but the more pernicious central axiom of progressivism, according to which progress, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty said in a passage recently cited by Bernard-Henri Lévy, “drives history the way the steering wheel drives the engine” (5)—in short, the certainty that a new form of politics is all that is required to overcome evil. A stubborn and literally ineradicable conviction in response to which Bernard-Henri Lévy has perceived, since this fight began, a single outcome and a single urgent task: “to push optimism to the wall.” (6) The author of Barbarism with a Human Face, braving the hegemonic and mutually interlocking dogmas of the time, bet on the fact that, far from bringing on conservative retractions, as the clouds bring on the storm, theoretical antiprogressivism would be a long-term necessity—a regulating idea, a doctrinal test necessary for any renaissance of the Left. Thirty years later, he has not wavered from that position: His stand is the same. As he wrote in Left in Dark Times (2007), the only chance for the party of the Left to “give itself a future” is to hunt down the progressivist chimera whenever it raises its head, to push optimism even further to the wall.

The political blindness of progressivism

The young graduate of France’s top school stubbornly asserted his pessimistic views against the spontaneous providentialism that prevailed in political discourse. Nothing, he declared, no matter how ardently desired, “escapes the master’s eye.” As long as fringes of human reality remain outside the grip of power, Power itself is what is real. “Which means, concretely,” the author added, “that anchoring the idea of happiness in the order of things and of the world is, alas, a fantasy, a delusion about the nature of reality, and anchoring that fantasy in the order of history and progress is another fantasy, a deception and a self-deception, about time.” The “dialectic” had throbbed in the heaven of ideas since Hegel and Marx—Lévy brought it down to earth, pulling back the curtain on the shadow world. The result was a sudden end to revolutionary intoxication. No longer did alienation have a great beyond. It follows, the author wrote, that “the idea of a ‘realist’ or ‘progressivist’ policy is always reactionary,” and “from the real and from progress, from their oracles and nascent authorities, nothing good can come, nothing that can ever escape the ovens of power.” The author of Barbarism with a Human Face exposed, in a few sentences, the impotence of revolutionary providentialism, its inability to break the vicious cycle of domination: “It is not an accident that the socialist revolutions were never able to stamp out the old bourgeois principle of the separation of powers, of order through violence, and of the military organization of production: Thinking of themselves as rejects of capitalism, tracing their birth back to something older, despite breaks here and there, they could not help but inherit in large part the shaping forces of the old world. Socialism, too, is part of a progression, and that is how, I repeat, it foundered in barbarism.” (7).

The antiprogressivism of Bernard-Henri Lévy was already, at this stage, a decoder of atrocities that explained how promises of emancipation came to be converted into engines of servitude. The revolution of 1917 and those that imitated it could not be considered, as Trotsky believed, “betrayed revolutions,” because their ultimate philosophical inspiration, the belief system from which they sprang, was the same as that of bourgeois capitalism. Progress, in other words, was the mental cop inside the brain of the revolutionaries, the tie that bound them to the world they were supposedly bringing down. And, he wrote, “socialism may be the sinister reality embodied by the gulag, but that is not because it distorts, caricatures, or betrays, but rather because it is faithful, excessively faithful, to the very idea of progress as the West produced it.” (8)

So what is to be done? And what can we hope for? Beyond simple political oppression, the philosophical concept of “barbarism with a human face,” as Bernard-Henri Lévy used it then, raised a set of philosophical questions with which he has wrestled in his later work. From that point on, the various strata of his work have had one overarching concern: not simply to expose the “reactionary idea of progress” as a wheel on which to break men or as a toy in the hands of “the remodelers of the human species” to be used to force the consent of the multitudes, but also, and more important, to unmask progressivism as a “meaning machine” that was inherently implacable and homicidal.

In Le Testament de Dieu (9), inspired by his early readings of the masterpiece of Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (10), Lévy showed that the mechanism of progressivism had the property of casting in steel and rendering unassailable (unbreakable, unmodifiable) the incandescent core of the Hegelian dialectic.

In Testament, the theoretical antiprogressivism of Bernard-Henri Lévy was grounded explicitly in a rejection of the philosophies of history, including those that Rosenzweig, as a foot soldier in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army, stationed in a trench near the Dardanelles, pilloried in handwritten manuscripts that he mailed back to his family in small bundles.

Intersecting “ideas of return”: From the beginning, there were echoes of Rosenzweig’s new philosophy in the “New Philosophy” that Lévy led. Bernard-Henri Lévy set Rosenzweig’s “anxieties” against historicism, that doctrinal laboratory of all forms of progressivism, the chemical formula for which he provided in an essay: “Whatever the sufferings, whatever the horrors, through which History has passed, by virtue of a mechanism that I, Hegel, call the dialectic, by virtue of a supreme law that I, Hegel, call History, or the unfolding of spirit through time, these horrors, these sufferings, are borne tragically, are shot through with a fundamental good of which those who suffer are not aware but to which they will give birth without knowing it,” he declared in November 1979 to the twentieth colloquium of Jewish intellectuals. (11) He then added, “That allows the French Communist Party to say that on balance socialism’s record is positive; it allows the right to say that unemployment is in the order of things, the price of growth, even if it is always the same people who pay that price. All of these errors fit neatly together to form a harmonious tableau.” At this point, Lévy was already convinced that to lead a serious attack on the secular religions, to undermine their power to intimidate and seduce, to defeat the scenario of a defeat of democracy that had been gnawing at his friend Jean-François Revel, he had to be bolder and more radical than Raymond Aron and return to the author of that great “harmony”: Hegel.

At the dawn of the 1980s, Lévy knew not only that providentialism was linked with appalling politics but also that it culminated in a preposterous ontology, an absurd metaphysics. That was the first step in what he would later, adopting Rosenzweig’s terminology, describe as his “return to the world.”

The metaphysical illusion of progressivism

From the start, the antiprogressivism of Bernard-Henri Lévy has owed as much to Baudelaire as to Rosenzweig. The year is 1988, and Lévy has a new project, a new investigation—his first real novelistic investigation: Les derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire (12). A chance digression into literary criticism? Hardly. For the portrait that Lévy paints of the author of Les Fleurs du Mal, using the device of a narrator who comes for a visit (a narrator bearing an unmistakable resemblance to the young Stéphane Mallarmé) and, while also drilling into “the secret reaches of a man of genius during the painful process of creation,” as the literary magazine of Le Figaro put it, is first and foremost an exploration of Baudelaire’s seditious metaphysics, a refined war of position based on spleen and melancholy, those Baudelairian conditions of the soul that, like Walter Benjamin in Zentralpark, Lévy uses as levers in his arguments.

By this measure, progressivism, to paraphrase Georges Politzer in his critique of Bergson, proves to be a “philosophical parade.” In addition to its role as the auxiliary to the “modern Machiavellianisms” so dear to Raymond Aron (13), nor and in providing philosophical cover for and encouraging the “compassionate zeal” of activists of all stripes, progressivism is wrong, Lévy insists, because it dreams reality more than it transforms it—its adherents fantasize a “new world, cleansed of its faults and sorrows.” (14) And that, he adds, means closing off the dark realm of the human condition, which he would later describe as the “unbreakable core of darkness that no amount of politics can ever extract.” (15) For the time being, in his work on Baudelaire, he described as “incurable” that damned part of the human condition.

Regardless, the stage was now set for the metaphysical war games. Melancholy over the incurable versus the machinations of a definitive cure, a final solution to the human problem. (cf. notices « VOLONTE de PURETE » et « VOLONTE de GUERIR) An articulate, lucid axiom of responsibility (based on Baudelaire and Rosenzweig, and later on Emmanuel Levinas and Walter Benjamin) versus the grandiose visions of human regeneration that bewitched Robespierre, Marat, and, even more so, Victor Hugo, along with many other engineers of the soul who were to follow. (16)

Accompanying the poet in his final hours in the Brussels hotel in which he had sought refuge, the author of Les Derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire was not content to skewer the “folly of purity” of the “friends of the people.” Nor did he refrain, in adopting the view of his host on “rough and irreconcilable humanity,” from seeing “in the belief in progress, in the improvement of the human race, in the birth of a new world freed from its burden of faults and sorrows, the most effective way of feeding the guillotines.” No. When Lévy allows Baudelaire to testify to his ardent faith in original sin (“man is a vile beast” (17)), he added to his arsenal a decisive weapon, a counter to the underestimation of evil that forms the doctrinal substratum of totalitarianism. From then on, Lévy placed great emphasis on contesting “this new idea, proper to the age of totalitarianism and the cornerstone on which it built its three churches (Dialectics, History, and the Absolute)—this idea that magically looks like nothing at all, and even, at first glance, looks like a good idea and an excellent piece of news, a cause for celebration, the idea that Evil does not exist—that there is no evil, only illness, which can be cured.” (18) At bottom, therefore, antiprogressivism is a refined form of antitotalitarianism. It was already, for Lévy, the main theme of that tragic or melancholic Left that he kept hoping would appear. Because, “here, too, the logic is implacable. Either we believe in Evil (we are, after all, Judeo-Christians) (…) or we don’t, in which case we are anti-Christian, anti-Jew, hostile to that offense against His Majesty Man that is the idea of original sin, and we suspect—what am I saying?—we proclaim that these stupid theologians haven’t understood a thing, that they’ve mistaken the part for the whole, made a crude blunder in mistaking Piraeus for a man and ordinary human illnesses for their terrible, enormous, radical Evil. So let’s move forward! First, let’s diagnose the illness. What germ or virus is causing it? Where in the body is it dwelling? How do we go about operating on it? Let’s get on with reeducation, prophylaxis, the hunt for harmful insects, and other symptoms of inhumanity! (19) (cf. « VOLONTE de GUERIR »).

The intensity of this cry of alarm did not escape Benny Lévy. In connection with the publication of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (2003), Benny Lévy was introducing a lecture by Bernard-Henri Lévy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dedicated to the journalist executed by Pakistani jihadists. In his remarks, the former proletarian leader summarized the approach of his friend Bernard-Henri Lévy as an effort to unveil, to pull out of its hole, to excavate that which hides “under the guise of progressivism.” Benny Lévy explained: “In rereading Barbarism with a Human Face, I came across a sentence that encapsulates a most acute intellectual journey: “Hitler did not die in Berlin; he won the war; he conquered his conquerors—all by means of the stone-dark night into which he plunged Europe.” (20) He added, “the secret foundation of my friendship with Bernard is that our Jewishness must not be masked. The modern Jew has to stop hiding his Jewishness—we have to stop being Marranos.” By praising, before an emotionally moved audience, “the source of the glimmering light of his book on Daniel Pearl” (cf. notice JUDAÏSME), Benny Lévy aptly captured the philosophical program of his friend. He could not have described more accurately the boldness, the perseverance, with which, since his days in Bangladesh in the early 1970s, Bernard-Henri Lévy has consistently stood out as the conscience of the Left, a concerned observer of its shortcomings, like the faithful adviser who reminds it to think and think again in order to remain true to its history. A self-definition that now alternates, particularly since Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, with Lévy’s more metaphysical self-concept as one of “Hegel’s Jews,” a reference to those dissidents from historicism, who, from Kierkegaard to Lévinas and now Lévy himself have striven to deactivate the Hegelian fog machine. (21) (cf. la section « SES MAÎTRES »)

The Left’s buzz killer and “Hegel’s Jew”: In both roles the philosopher stands at the opposite pole of the providentialist optimism whose theorems he promised, as a very young man, to thwart. In 2008, before the lens of Eric Dahan, who was filming Unreason in History for the “Empreintes” collection of France 5, Lévy made this surprising and important statement: “I was born in France at a time when the very idea that there might be a positive side to being a Jew seemed literally unthinkable.” (22) The opening sequence, from the inauguration of the Institute of Levinas Studies in Jerusalem, shows Bernard-Henri Lévy with Benny Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut. Here Bernard-Henri Lévy appears more than ever to have returned. His return was not the same as that of Benny Lévy, the author of Le Meurtre du Pasteur. (23) Nor, most assuredly, was it the same as that of the “anti-contemporary” Finkielkraut of La Défaite de la pensée, whose animosity toward the Left has sharpened with the years. (24) But it has been a true and sincere return all the same, a return from the dead end of progressivism and the blind alleys of a purely political vision of the world. A slow and intimate turning that, as his colleagues realized as early as 2003, was for Bernard-Henri Lévy part and parcel of another urgent task—that of putting the Left back on the rails of its proud history, distancing it from the deceptive clarity of historical progressivism.

Traduit par Steven Kennedy

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(1) Alain Badiou, Le siècle, cited in Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Le siècle de Benny  Lévy,” Le Point, 24 February 2005.
(2) In the words of Albert O. Hirschman in The Rhetoric of Reaction, Belknap, 1991.
(3) cf. Une rage d’enfant, André Glucksmann, Plon, 2005.
(4) Bernard-Henri Lévy, Nouvelles littéraires, May 1976.
(5) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, cited in De la guerre en philosophie, Grasset, 2010.
(6) La Barbarie à visage humain, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Grasset, coll. Figures, 1977, p. 54. Published in English as Barbarism with a Human Face, Harper & Row, 1979.
(7) Ibid., p. 149.
(8) Ibid., p. 149.
(9) Le Testament de Dieu, Grasset, coll. Figures, June 1979.
(10) Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 1921. Published in French as L’Etoile de la Rédemption, Seuil, 1982.
(11) Exposé by Bernard-Henri Lévy in Politique et religion, Données et débats, Idées-Gallimard, 1981, p. 84.
(12) Les Derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Livre de Poche, 1988.
(13) Les machiavélismes modernes, Raymond Aron, de Fallois, 1994.
(14) Les Derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire, op. cit., p. 293
(15) Ce grand cadavre à la renverse, Grasset, 2007, p. 140. Published in English as Left in Dark Times, Random House, 2009.
(16) Les Derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire, op. cit., p. 292–293.
(17) Ibid., p. 293.
(18) Ce grand cadavre à la renverse, op. cit., p. 140.
(19) Ibid., p. 140–141.
(20) La Barbarie à visage humain, op. cit., p. 9.
(21) See Le siècle de Sartre (Grasset, 2010; published in English as Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, Polity, 2003), Réflexions sur la guerre, le Mal, et la fin de l’histoire (Grasset, 2001, reprinted by Biblio-essais, p. 265–267; published in English as War, Evil, and the End of History, Melville House, 2004), and Ce grand cadavre à la renverse, op. cit., p. 147.
(22) La déraison dans l’histoire (Unreason in History), a documentary film by Eric Dahan (2009).
(23) Le Meurtre du Pasteur, Benny Lévy, Verdier/Grasset, coll. Figures, 2002.
(24) La Défaite de la raison, Alain Finkielkraut, Gallimard, 1989.


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