Bernard-Henri Lévy’s first appearance on the French television program Apostrophes in May 1977 set the tone for his career. Responding to left-wing critics of his fellow “New Philosophers,” a group of young thinkers who denounced communism and socialism, the 29-year-old Lévy galvanized viewers with his signature décolleté—the bare chest displayed through his unbuttoned shirt—his elegant mane, and his smirking dismissal of his interlocutors’ leftist pieties. It was the first time, but not the last, that he fixed in France’s national consciousness the traits of his personal image and flair for shifting debates from their ostensible subject to his own scintillating persona.

For nearly half a century, Lévy has been one of the most visible public intellectuals in France and a master at manipulating philosophical and political controversy. With his good looks and outsized ego, Lévy is a compelling performer. He is also an irresistible target for critics from the left, right, and center. The inaccuracies and incoherencies of his voluminous body of work have been exposed in a number of unflattering biographies, of which the best is Philippe Cohen’s 2005 book BHL. The media’s tendency to thus refer to Lévy by his initials, BHL, suggests that he is, like LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), an iconic national brand—and perhaps nothing more than a label. Since the earliest days of Lévy’s career, rivals have denounced him as a cynical, vacuous pseudo-philosopher who puts intellectual culture in the service of self-aggrandizing spectacle.

France’s media, however, increasingly treats Lévy less as a star than as a scapegoat. These days, he most often appears on television, radio, or podcasts to defend his high-profile advocacy of the West’s 2011 intervention in the Libyan civil war. Lévy was a key influence on then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to participate in strikes against the Libyan regime. As the country has fallen into further conflict and destabilization in the following decade, Lévy has assigned himself premier apologist for Muammar al-Qaddafi’s overthrow. Indeed, he has continued to call for greater Western involvement to support what he sees as moderate forces in the region—and for the West to topple Bashar al-Assad, doing to his regime in Syria what it did to Qaddafi’s Libya. His decadeslong career thus seems to have culminated in a new role as an incarnation of the West’s imperial hubris, while the French media he once mesmerized turns against him.

The English-speaking press has been no kinder, generally treating Lévy as an arrogant buffoon or sinister villain. In a 2003 profile for the Guardian, Gaby Wood described him as an image-obsessed celebrity at great length, before superciliously conceding that, “It would be churlish only to laugh at him.” His best-selling works of philosophy received no more than a brief mention in the profile. Two years ago, in the New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner turned an interview with Lévy into an exercise in moral posturing. Chotiner ended the conversation by insinuating that Lévy, who had supported French Muslim women’s right to veil themselves in schools and other public spaces in the 1980s and ’90s before changing his position, had no standing to discuss the issue, given his support for Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former convicted of rape and the latter accused of sexual assault.

Such mockery and moralizing, however, fail to account for Lévy’s prominence in French intellectual and political life over the past half-century. Although not an erudite or original philosopher like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, or Emmanuel Levinas (names that Lévy cites throughout his work), Lévy, like them, played a pivotal role in the transformation of contemporary French thought. He popularized and gave practical import to some of the most critical concepts of this set of thinkers usually identified in the Anglophone world as part of “postmodern French theory.”

While French theory is usually associated in the United States with political radicalism, Lévy adapted it to the defense of capitalist liberal democracy. This form of regime, from his postmodern perspective, is best secured without either grand narratives about historical progress or collective identities tied to class and nation. Lévy attempts to ground his support for the form of government characteristic of the modern West not through reference to any particular community or program for social change but rather through resistance to abuses of human rights.

Suspicious of party politics, common identities, and utopian schemes, Lévy argues that resistance must spring from ethically motivated indignation to oppression. Early in his career, in his writings of the 1970s and ’80s, he shared with many figures on the post-Marxist and increasingly liberal French left, such as Foucault, the sense that such resistance was to be found among marginalized and oppressed groups throughout the world. Dissidents in Soviet gulags, workers striking in Poland, and immigrants in Western Europe all appeared to the New Philosophers as replacements for the proletariat guided by a political vanguard that, in the imagination of the old left, had been the protagonist of modern political history. By the late ’80s, however, Lévy began to emphasize his own indignation as much as that of oppressed groups. In his pamphlet In Praise of Intellectuals, he argued that thinkers like himself, aligned with mass media (and therefore, he insisted, independent of political parties and academic institutions), were the front-line defenders of human rights. He thus justified his flamboyant television performances and hunger for stardom as necessary elements of his struggle for human rights.

Lévy’s intellectual and political trajectory reveals the insights, and inadequacies, of this style of politics. His career shows that a postmodern, anti-totalitarian liberalism motivated by a desire to prevent the repetition of the 20th century’s worst episodes of mass violence risks drawing foreign policy into imprudent conflicts even as it deprives domestic policy of the economic instruments and cultural identifications by which conflicts might be overcome. This form of self-defeating liberalism is linked to the figure of the celebrity-intellectual, whose media campaigns, driven by ethical appeals on behalf of victims, seem to replace policy instruments of the state and affective bonds of the nation. Taking Lévy’s public image and philosophy seriously allows for a more insightful critique not just of his personal missteps, but of the kind of liberalism he represents.

Lévy takes part in a demonstration in Paris on May 15, 1978, in support of the nuclear physicist and human rights activist Yuri Orlov, who was imprisoned in a Siberian gulag for political reasons from 1977 to 1986.
Bernard-Henri Lévy takes part in a demonstration in Paris on May 15, 1978, in support of the nuclear physicist and human rights activist Yuri Orlov, who was imprisoned in a Siberian gulag for political reasons from 1977 to 1986. Photo: Jean-Louis Atlan
Bernard-Henri Lévy during a demonstration in support of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in front of the Soviet Embassy in Paris on Dec. 7, 1981.
Bernard-Henri Lévy during a demonstration in support of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in front of the Soviet Embassy in Paris on Dec. 7, 1981. Photo: Laurent Maous

Lévy first made a name for himself in the French intellectual scene as an editor at the Grasset publishing house, responsible for publishing books by a group of young thinkers whom he promoted as the New Philosophers. At their head was André Glucksmann, a former left-wing radical converted to anti-Marxism. Glucksmann and Lévy were inspired by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago had been published in France in 1973. Solzhenitsyn, they argued, revealed the Soviet Union to have become a totalitarian state because Marxist ideology, with its utopian ambitions and claims to foresee the next stage of history, is incompatible with respect for human freedom. Their attacks were aimed not so much at the Soviet Union itself but at the French left and its intellectuals, who had long refused to face the truth about the horrors of communist rule and their connection to Marxist theory.

Lévy extended this critique in 1977 with his first major philosophical text, Barbarism With a Human Face. He argued that any political theory aiming to explain the world and improve society risked committing systematic violations of human rights. Political claims to epistemic authority—to know what human beings essentially are and need, and how the best sort of society can be achieved—are themselves a kind of violence. They contain insuperable temptations to silence, oppress, and eliminate those who resist their supposed truth. The danger of totalitarianism, in this analysis, arises from the totalizing and intolerant potential inherent to the connection between knowledge and politics.

This argument owed much to Foucault, whom Lévy praised as his “teacher” in Barbarism With a Human Face. In such works as Madness and Civilization (1961), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), and Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault had claimed that in Western liberal democracies, apparently benign and progressive projects of psychiatric, medical, and penal reform, legitimated oppression on the basis of supposedly scientific expertise. Liberal democracies’ claims to respect universal human rights, he warned, were belied by their characteristic institutions, such as asylums and prisons.

Taking Foucault’s logic a step further, Lévy insisted that experts dismissive of individual rights were the logical consequence of progressivism, just as the gulags and commissars were the logical consequence of Marxism. He warned that any kind of political organization aspiring to emancipate humanity and rationalize society is in fact a mechanism of “Power,” a vague but ubiquitous force Lévy saw as flowing through all political regimes. The best one can do to resist this Power, he concluded, is to remain vigilant against abuses of human rights, which are not to be recognized by comparison to some definite ideal of a good life or a specific list of universal norms, but by a sort of primordial instinct for revolt.

In his subsequent book, The Testament of God (1979), Lévy attempted to support his defense of individual freedom with appeals to religion, offering an alternative to the secular ideologies of Marxism and progressivism. In a series of seven “commandments” that purportedly updated Jewish law for the contemporary struggle against totalitarianism, Lévy held that resistance must not take the form of “prospective, strategy, and eventually accommodation, but immediacy, immanence and inexhaustible indignation.” Intellectuals and activists should focus on the micro-politics of the given moment’s conflicts, rather than trying to map and predict larger trends at work in their society. Indeed, Lévy insisted, “the future is none of your business.” Trying to locate the struggles of the present within a longer historical trajectory or trace the evolution of social and economic forces would generate violent political agendas.

Stealing a page from the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (whom he had vehemently criticized as advocates of drug use, sexual perversion, and racism in Barbarism With a Human Face), Lévy called for the abandonment not only of political ideology and claims to foresee the course of history but also of top-down parties and movements. In their book Anti-Oedipus (1972), Deleuze and Guattari had valorized “rhizomatic,” fluid and contingent resistance, condemning the supposedly oppressive traditional structure of mainstream political organizations. In similar fashion, Lévy insisted that the latter “could only ever become the weaponry” of totalitarianism. Just as political theory, or a philosophy of a history, leads to violence and oppression, so too does hierarchical organization. Instead, he urged, resistance to authority must be pursued through “apolitical” and relatively unstructured groups like Amnesty International, then at the height of its global influence. Over the following years, Lévy would push this logic of unstructured resistance further, emphasizing the importance of mass media and ostensibly independent writers like himself. Their appeal to audiences’ outrage at violations of human rights was to improve on, and perhaps render obsolete, political organizations’ organized struggles on behalf of particular interest groups and visions of the future.

Bernard-Henri Lévy among the crowd at a demonstration for SOS Racisme in Paris on Nov. 7, 1985.
Bernard-Henri Lévy among the crowd at a demonstration for SOS Racisme in Paris on Nov. 7, 1985. Photo: Michel Philippot
Lévy with SOS Racisme president Harlem Désir in Paris on Dec. 6, 1986.
Bernard-Henri Lévy with SOS Racisme president Harlem Désir in Paris on Dec. 6, 1986. Photo: Patrick Aventurier

From his vantage of ostensibly apolitical and post-ideological concern for individual freedom, Lévy observed with terror the two major trends of the early 1980s in French politics. First, after decades in opposition, the François Mitterrand-led Socialist Party came to power in 1981, allied with the declining but still relatively powerful Communist Party. As America’s Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher led the English-speaking world into a new era of economic liberalism, the French left promised to pursue a radical alternative, transforming the economy through far-ranging nationalizations of industry and banking. At the same time, the far-right National Front, led by the gleefully xenophobic and anti-Semitic Jean-Marie Le Pen, seemed to be capturing an ever-larger segment of French public opinion. The center of French politics, long dominated by Gaullism, appeared to Lévy to be imperiled by the victory of the left and ascent of the far-right.

An observer who had not jettisoned Marxist concerns with material conditions might have pointed to rising unemployment and inflation afflicting the French economy since the oil shocks of the 1970s. The boom of the “Thirty Glorious Years” following the end of World War II, which had seemed to guarantee full employment paired with a rising GDP, was now over, leaving elites and the electorate bewildered by new economic realities. Instead of identifying the possibilities of permanent financial precarity, class stratification, and social atomization as the chief threats to liberal democracy in a post-austerity France, however, Lévy was convinced, and worked to convince the French public, that the real problem was the return of totalitarianism.

Socialists’ plans to seize the commanding heights of the national economy to resist unemployment, inflation, and deindustrialization appeared to Lévy not as a possible solution to growing social tension but as a first step toward the gulags. Lévy’s analysis was not essentially different from what Friedrich Hayek described in 1944 as the “road to serfdom” that led from social democracy to Soviet-style totalitarianism, but he was able to make it seem to be both philosophically novel and ethically compelling to much of the French center and the emerging post-Marxist left. He combined postmodern theory’s sophisticated critique of ideology with an emotion-laden emphasis on the victims of totalitarianism, taking as touchstones the writings of Solzhenitsyn and the emerging culture of Holocaust memory, giving intellectual and affective heft to his defense of economic liberalism.

One of Lévy’s principal targets was Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a minister in Mitterrand’s government known for his support for nationalization, whom Lévy attacked in a series of articles for Le Matin in 1982. Chevènement’s views, he argued, were nearly indistinguishable from “national socialism.” He compared various statements that Chevènement had made in praise of patriotism and the military, and in opposition to the financial sector, to similar-sounding remarks made generations before by thinkers on the far-right.

The following year, in the introduction to his collection of essays Questions of Principle, Lévy insisted that Mitterrand’s program of nationalizations was “unintelligible … without reference to Édouard Drumont,” a 19th-century anti-Semite. Lévy invoked the “almost irrational hatred of cosmopolitan monopolies” that supposedly motivated both Drumont and contemporary socialist advocates of nationalization. This analysis, resting on Lévy’s psychological intuitions about the motivations of his political enemies, suggested that any policies that aimed at putting industry and finance under greater state control expressed a pathological “obsession” linked to hatred of Jews.

Just as Lévy published Questions of Principle, Chevènement resigned his post, protesting against Mitterrand’s reversal of many of the nationalizations carried out over the previous two years. The communists, too, left Mitterrand’s government. By presenting advocates of nationalization as fascists and anti-Semites, Lévy helped to pave the way not only for this volte-face in Mitterrand’s economic policy but also for a larger and longer-lasting transformation in the economic philosophy of French leaders and policymakers, the influence of which persists to this day. He had contributed to a new sense on the French left that economic nationalism, once an ideological staple, was now politically dangerous and morally unacceptable.

After giving intellectual cover to the liberal coup within the Socialist Party, Lévy turned his attention to the National Front. He was one of the main figures associated with the emergence of SOS Racisme, an anti-racist organization founded in 1984. With SOS Racisme, Lévy championed a series of high-profile campaigns to denounce the National Front as an expression of xenophobic hatred. These campaigns, drawing heavily on memories of the Holocaust, centered on fears that the worst disasters of Europe’s modern history could return at any time. They also rested on the assumption that such catastrophes were best prevented through the moral indignation of post-ideological intellectuals allied with media-friendly nongovernmental organizations rather than by parties with agendas of economic and social reform.

In retrospect, such campaigns seem naive and counterproductive. The National Front has continued its rise in French politics and now represents more than a third of the electorate. Racial inequalities and tensions in France were not improved by Lévy’s brand of moralizing media spectacles that saw in every incident of racism the menace of genocide. In response, many on the French left have broken in recent years with Lévy’s style of anti-racism. They have taken up a postcolonial or decolonial form of activism centered on identity politics and inspired by social justice movements in the United States. Their advocates trace the origins of their more confrontational approach to the failure of SOS Racisme and the view of politics that it expressed.

Houria Bouteldja, one of the most polemical of these postcolonial activists, known for her attacks on “whiteness” and “state philo-Semitism,” describes SOS Racisme as “a moral anti-racism” with no ability to comprehend inequality and conflict as the products of historical power relations. Obsessed with the supposed fascist threat that lurked in the hearts of “Mr. and Mrs. Dupont” (i.e., average French people), those associated with SOS Racisme could not see that the “real racism” to be addressed was perpetrated by political and economic elites who controlled the police, banks, and other engines of inequality. Bouteldja’s critique of SOS Racisme might indeed be taken a degree further. Lévy and his allies distract attention from the material causes and effects of racism by directing media attention to the supposedly hateful feelings of electors who had voted for the National Front. Moreover, his anti-totalitarian paranoia contributed to those material conditions.

Lévy’s critiques of the progressive welfare state and opposition to left-wing economic policy delegitimated the sort of measures that might have ameliorated the mass unemployment that has ravaged France since the 1980s. Particularly affected are African and Arab immigrants in the French suburbs and the white working class in former industrial cities—precisely the communities set against each other by Le Pen’s xenophobia and Bouteldja’s decolonial identity politics. Rather than seeing economic conditions as catalysts to these competing strands of illiberal protest politics, Lévy myopically denounces both as inexplicable forms of fascism, seeming to obsess over the symptoms instead of the disease.

Such a crude misdiagnosis can lend itself to prescribing counterproductive treatments that may make the disease worse. Lévy has called in recent years for denying the right to vote to those who support right-wing populism, and he has offered cautious support for the Macron government’s recent measures to drive social justice movements, described by its ministers as “Islamo-leftism” and “intersectional theses,” out of French universities. Lévy, however, does not consider that if both anti-racism and nationalism take increasingly disturbing forms in contemporary France, it is in no small part as a result of his own interventions in politics. He has discredited his own brand of universalist anti-racism and anti-nationalism by using it as an alibi for a form of economic liberalism that, for four decades, has made unemployment the inescapable condition of a large minority of the French working class.

Lévy waits for the arrival of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Libyan National Transitional Council leaders at the Tripoli Medical Center on Sept. 15, 2011.
Bernard-Henri Lévy waits for the arrival of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Libyan National Transitional Council leaders at the Tripoli Medical Center on Sept. 15, 2011. Photo: Eric Feferberg
Lévy in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Dec. 28, 1993.
Bernard-Henri Lévy in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Dec. 28, 1993. Photo: Alexis Duclos

In the sphere of domestic policy, Lévy offers laissez-faire economics couched in the language of anti-totalitarianism. Yet, as Eyal Weizman noted in his 2011 book The Least of All Possible Evils, in spite of its apparently humble theoretical foundations and limited domestic agenda, Lévy’s politics leads to immoderate advocacy for military interventions throughout the world. Writing just as Lévy was beginning to call for the overthrow of Qaddafi, Weizman warned that anti-totalitarian, post-ideological political thinking risks seeing all authoritarian regimes as intolerably, and equally, evil—and seeing undoing them as irresistibly urgent, no matter what the practical consequences. Without a substantive project or collective identity around which to organize political life, and with no other mission than stopping violations of human rights, every violation of the latter seems like a call to immediate action.

Even before gaining notoriety as a critic of the left in the late ’70s, Lévy had already experimented with media-driven adventures as an advocate of Western intervention. During the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, the country then known as East Pakistan fought for its independence against the government in Islamabad, the young Lévy and the 69-year-old author André Malraux drew up plans for an “International Brigade” to support  the revolution. Malraux, who had participated in the International Brigades in defense of Republican Spain during the late 1930s, thus tried to present the movement for the independence of Bangladesh as a continuation of anti-fascist struggle. Ultimately, the effort failed, but Lévy developed a lifelong interest in presenting conflicts in the Islamic world through interpretive frameworks derived from European history. In the 1980s, he traveled to Pakistan in support of the mujahideen fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, he staged media performances in Sarajevo to bring attention to the Bosnian cause—and to critique the Mitterrand government’s reluctance to intervene against Serbia.

The dramatic gestures on behalf of victimized Muslim communities in Afghanistan and the Balkans aligned with the foreign policy of the United States. (His  intervention on behalf of Bangladesh was a stark exception to that trend.) While offering criticism of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and particularly of the presidency of Donald Trump, Lévy sees the military power and moral authority of the United States as critical to the defense of human rights. In his 2019 book, The Empire and the Five Kings, he defends America’s “empire,” arguing that it is the only alternative to the power of authoritarian states such as China and Russia.

Lévy’s advocacy of foreign intervention to protect human rights, in cooperation with the United States, had little resonance in France during the presidencies of Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who retained a Gaullist skepticism about American power. In Sarkozy, however, Lévy found a pro-American president eager to give France a more visible role on the world stage. After his bungled attempt to position France as a mediator in the Russo-Georgian War, Sarkozy was receptive to Lévy’s arguments that the 2011 crisis in Libya provided an opportunity to achieve his goal. The revolt against Qaddafi was also, of course, an opportunity for Lévy to achieve what had been denied to him since his youthful adventure in Bangladesh. No longer would he have to cheer mujahideen on from sidelines; he could inspire an international intervention against an authoritarian regime. Playing into Lévy’s performance as a kind of advisor-at-large on behalf of human rights, the press ascribed to him the primary role in Sarkozy’s decision to work with other NATO states on behalf of the Libyan rebels, culminating in Qaddafi’s overthrow. In a glowing endorsement of his supposed influence, the New Yorker noted at the time that Lévy at last had his “International Brigade,” not questioning whether the intellectual and political framework of 1930s anti-fascism had much value for making sense of the present-day Middle East.

Lévy’s anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism, in fact, are as disorienting in foreign policy as they are in domestic policy. If one sees everyone from Qaddafi to his French political foes as avatars of the same radical evil once embodied in Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, one cannot hear the voice of prudence or caution. Moreover, Lévy’s political vision, which defends liberal democracy on strictly negative grounds, as a defense against abuses of human rights, offers no sense of the conditions required to secure this form of regime. Liberalism appears to have no positive content or historical prerequisites. Nor does his notion of human rights offer practical guidance. These, too, are defined negatively, through denunciations of their abuses on behalf of victims. In the absence of positive criteria, Lévy apparently imagines that the oracular authority of media intellectuals like himself permits him to declare that a given country seems to be on a slippery slope to the horrors of the gulags and the Holocaust, and to demand military action, without having—as Lévy did not have for Libya—any plan for establishing a new political order.

Ironically, Lévy himself made these very points half a decade before the Libyan conflict. In his 2006 book American Vertigo, he criticized the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration who had planned the invasion of Iraq. Although he praised their intellectual acumen, and especially their allegiance to the philosopher Leo Strauss, he lamented that neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz had lost the virtue of moderation that was key to Strauss’s political philosophy. They had fallen into a messianic fantasy of “exporting democracy at the point of a bayonet.”

Invading Iraq in the name of creating a democratic Middle East, Lévy argued, was only an “inverted form of the permanent revolution” advocated by leftist radicals, and of the “historicism” that Strauss had critiqued. Like the communist parties of the past, the neoconservative clique directing American foreign policy were claiming to understand the laws of history and to be hastening the arrival of a new era when all the world would be ruled under the best form of government. Where Strauss had cautioned against the boundless ambition of modern politics, his disciples were now trying to remake their world in the image of their ideals, without respect for international law, the sovereignty of states, or even simple caution.

Lévy saw the invasion of Iraq as more than a chance policy error. It represented the failure of America’s conservative liberal intellectuals to maintain a skeptical stance both toward the totalizing theories that had inspired totalitarian regimes and toward the practical use of military power. He offered no account, however, of the failures of thought that enabled this political failure. While he sought explanation for the gulags of the Soviet Union or cruel penal systems of progressive democracies in the epistemological foundations of modern politics, he offered no such analysis of the role of anti-totalitarian ideas in the foreign-policy failures of the Bush administration.

This perhaps contributed to his inability—and indeed, the inability of many Western political leaders—to draw from their sense that the invasion of Iraq had been a disaster any lesson of how they might avoid similar errors in the future. During the Arab Spring, Lévy forcefully made the case for Western intervention in Libya. In the years after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, as Libya has fallen prey to civil wars, a refugee crisis, terrorism, and the slave trade, Lévy remains unchastened. He released a film, The Oath of Tobruk, in 2012 to dramatize his influence in the West’s intervention, and he has frequently traveled to Libya—to the growing outrage of Libyans—promoting greater military support for his preferred factions. He continues to argue that the problem is not that the West struck down Qaddafi but that it has not invested enough resources in rebuilding Libya—and he insists that Assad in Syria should share Qaddafi’s fate.

Lévy was likewise troubled by, and similarly unable to learn from, the rise of what is now often called “identity politics” in the United States. In American Vertigo he described with horror what he saw as an emerging “logic of a competition for victimhood” in the United States, with different groups making political claims based on historical suffering. He feared that such a “war of memories and sufferings” would become an increasingly important part of American politics. These condemnations, however, ignore the role that both American neoconservatives and their French counterparts like Lévy have played in making violations of human rights and narratives of victimhood the most important source of moral and political capital.

Bernard-Henri Lévy's portraits over the years (from left) in 1978, 1994, and 1992.
Bernard-Henri Lévy over the years (from left) in 1978, 1994, and 1992. Photos: Daniel Simon/Alexis Duclos/Eric Fougere.

Thanks to Lévy’s intellectual and polemical interventions, appeals to the interest of the working class against finance or to one’s own nation against transnational capital have been rendered illegitimate in the French public sphere. Political actors, in consequence, have taken up the register through which they can make what seem to be compelling claims: moral indignation at victimization. If today’s social justice advocates in France, as in the United States, often seem to make self-aggrandizing claims in which apparently minor problems or verbal slights are construed as expressing dangerous hatreds comparable to the worst evils of modern history, it is because they learned this political rhetoric, at least in part, from Lévy and his allies. His defense of centrist liberalism, couched as a struggle on behalf of victims, has taught its enemies how to fight.

Disturbed by the interventionist hubris of neoconservatives, the xenophobic nationalism of the far-right, and the identity-centered rage of social justice activists, Lévy cannot recognize that these seemingly antagonistic political tendencies emerge from a common intellectual matrix. Were he to apply to his own worldview the method of philosophical critique he had applied to Marxism and progressivism 40 years ago, however, he might see the invasion of Iraq—and intervention in Libya—as well as the rise of identity politics in an economically hollowed-out France as consequences of his own post-ideological anti-totalitarianism.

Lévy’s worldview conceives of human rights in a monistic sense, not just as a universal good but as the only such universal good. It thus creates an ever-present temptation for moral and military crusades for the promotion of that good—and, in its intolerant, unrealistic extremism, it resembles the equally monistic totalitarian creeds Lévy detests. It lacks the internal motivation for self-restraint that might come from having to consider the relative weights of various competing values, such as cultural preservation or economic justice. Deliberately eschewing analysis of historical trends and material conditions, it is unable to consider either the social origins of domestic political illiberalism, or the realpolitik considerations that should shape foreign policy.

Aware that his postmodern philosophical project has not led to its intended political results, Lévy has taken to arguing that his brand of “French theory” is misunderstood. Foucault, he says, “was not ‘woke,’” and his critique of ideology, expertise, and progressivism ought to be a weapon against, rather than an instrument of, identity-based social justice movements. Lévy is perhaps right (and I have made similar claims myself elsewhere). But to meet the challenges facing them—identity-centered anti-racism, populist nationalism, and foreign-policy adventurism—postmodern centrist liberals like Lévy will have to undertake a radical critique of their own intellectual heritage. They will have to confront, in the first place, their own heroic self-presentation as independent-minded intellectuals eschewing affiliation with party, nation, or ideology.

This pose of cosmopolitan radicalism, which refuses the identities and institutions that structure everyday politics and the common sense of ordinary people, is far removed from the role of the intellectual defined by thinkers like Émile Durkheim during the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s. In his epochal essay “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” Durkheim argued that liberalism must be defended by thinkers who could make the case to their fellow citizens that individual rights were compatible with national traditions and collective self-interest. Lévy, in contrast, treats the latter pair as parochial concerns. His postmodern politics is in this sense not so much a skeptical liberalism as a kind of Nietzschean project of self-creation.

Discarding collective beliefs that restrain the individual authority of singular thinkers—and particularly of Lévy himself—he has made his own indignation appear to be an infallible means of understanding, and instrument for producing, historical events. But Lévy’s rise to intellectual stardom has accompanied disastrous trends for liberalism: the weakening of state economic power, disorientation of geopolitical thinking, and transformation of politics into an arena of rival claims to victimhood. If postmodern liberalism is to have any future, its intellectuals must renew its foundations and reimagine their role.

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