Interviewed on Channel Four News last night Bernard-Henri Lévy, French ‘public intellectual’ is the latest in a long list of figures to have their say on the Labour Party ‘anti-Semitism’ controversy.
He solemnly declared, “something is rotten in the state of the Labour Party”.
The former New Philosopher expressed horror that there was backing for Hamas and Hezbollah – not something, he opined, we see much of in France.
Yes but….Er… (2014)
While awaiting further ex-Cathedra pronouncements, and the pie-throwing actions of Noël Godin here are some things worth recalling about Lévy relevant to the debate about anti-Semitism and the left. For those who wish an overview of the man and his works this, Wikipedia, is a good place to start, although the French version is much, much, better.
Casual attitude Towards Facts.
Lévy’s the Testament de Dieu (1979) is a lengthy, one might without condescension call it a rambling, disjointed diatribe (I have read it believe me) , which argues for the centrality of the Law of Moses at the foundation of human rights.
It was amongst the first of his books to be riddled with errors.
Pierre Vidal-Naquet pointed out (the list is too long to reproduce) that Lévy put the birth of ‘original sin’ on the 7th Day of after the world was created. That is on the day of rest (Monsieur Bernard-Henri Lévy place au « 7e jour » (p. 238) de la création le péché originel. Il faut croire qu’Adam et Ève ont profité du repos du Seigneur ; mais cette précision surprendra les lecteurs de la Genèse ).
More recently, Lévy was publicly embarrassed when his essay De la guerre en philosophie (2010) cited the writings of French “philosopher” Jean-Baptiste Botul.Botul’s writings are actually well-known spoofs, and Botul himself is the purely fictional creation of a living French journalist and philosopher, Frédéric Pagès.
Polemics as History.
L’Idéologie française (1981) is a ‘reading’ of French political history that discovers the origins of its specific form of Fascism in a wide, to say the least, sources. For the author these included most of the founders of French socialism, from Revolutionary Republicans, Marxists, Mutualists to anarchists, the pre-Great War anti-Parliamentary left, blasted for the tiny group known as the le Cercle Proudhon, uniting radicla Monarchists and syndicalists, the 1930s neo-socialist, modernising social democrats, the ‘personalist’ Christian review Esprit (better known today for its ‘anti-totalitarianism’), intellectuals, Bergson was an impulse to racism, and, above all French Communism, as well as better known sources, notably those which were actually fascists, such as Action française, Charles Maurras and company. All of France, to the author, was riddled with anti-antisemitism.
In other words French fascism, and Pétain’s ‘national revolution’ were the product of just about everybody who wrote or was politically active in the inter-war years.
Informed readers will immediately recognise that the book draws on the, also controversial, histories of the origin of the French far-right national revolutionary current by Zeev Sternhell. Sternhell has read the original literature, although amongst many critiques cast doubt on his arguments and sources : Un fascisme imaginaire Jean Sévillia).
It is far from clear that Lévy had more than glanced at the writings he cites. A leaf through the book last night revealed him citing Georges Sorel’s La révolution dreyfusienne (1908). He describes it as a virulent anti-Dreyfusarde tract, hinting at anti-Semitism. In fact the short pamphlet was about the end of the conservative ‘republican aristocracy’ whose unity was shattered by the Affair. This had led to the the political triumph of a ‘social’ republican wing that, Sorel believed, was the occasion for the working class to secure its own autonomous interests.
That aside Lévy may have skimmed one section. Sorel has some harsh words for literary figures (he included Zola in this list) who value more the effect of their literary positions (parti pris) than the positions themselves. These stray lines, we may conjecture, might have seriously rankled Lévy.
The book was roundly criticised, when not laughed at. Amongst those writing hostile reviews figured left-wing firebrands Raymond Aron, Pierre Nora, Immanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and others too numerous to list.
This might be some time back, but we expect this talent for anti-Semitic spotting will be put to use in his interventions about the Labour Party.
Backing for Islamists.
During the 1980s and 90s Bernard-Henri Lévy was more than a literary supporter of the Afghan Islamists’ fight against the Communists and their Soviet backers. His most celebrated, by himself and no doubt others (including President Chirac) was his involvement with ‘Commander’ Massoud’s faction of the Mujaheddin (the depth and reality of that acquaintance remains contested).
Massoud became an enemy of the Taliban, but was far from a liberal: his call to arms began against the Communist PDPA, well before the Soviet intervention. No doubt a case could be made that he was a “good Islamist’, but he was part of that mouvance, as the name of his original group, Jamiat-i Islam, indicates. (see Quand les djihadistes étaient nos amis. BHL en Afghanistan ou « Tintin au Congo » ?). He was, for those who backed the Mujahideen, above all anti-Soviet. It would be interesting, nevertheless, to know if Lévy asked his friend about the group’s attitude towards Israel….
A comparison might be made with those ‘anti-imperialists’ who suddenly found a great deal of virtue in the Islamic ‘resistance’ to the American occupation of Afghanistan.
Bernard-Henri Lévy and Human Rights
This question is often asked: Why Does Everyone Hate Bernard-Henri Lévy? ( )
Whole books have been dedicated to criticising the man, his works and his actions (Le B.A. BA du BHL, Enquête sur le plus grand intellectuel français, de la journaliste Jade Lindgaard. Une imposture française, ouvrage des journalistes Nicolas Beau et Olivier Toscer 2006. Un nouveau théologien de Daniel Bensaïd, 2008.)
Bernard-Henri Lévy is in short, often a figure of fun. Many of those who enjoy French language polemical literature are keenly aware of the pitfalls of taking his language too seriously. Sometimes the ‘public intellectual’s’ views are more widely shared – he is opposed to the nationalist enthusiasm for ‘sovereigntism’; he can – sometimes – make stirring speeches against racialism. Sometimes they are not: the claim that religious dogma is the bedrock of human rights cannot be sustained.
People are entitled to be wary of somebody whose chief object is more often to impress than to convince. His occasional ability to rise above phrase-mongering does not translate well – a quick look at Sartre: The Philosopher of the 20th Century by Bernard–Henri Levy (Le siècle de Sartre, 2000) may put people off the French political and intellectual pamphleteering for life. The contorted syntax faithfully reproduces the original – which just about lumbers along in French. The florid expressions could serve as a template for a factory of purple patches.
The contrast between his clumsy, hammering, style and the lucid writings of other modern French political essayists – I cite a few I’ve read recently, all from different political sides, Alain Finkielkraut, Emmanuel Todd, Jean Birnbaum – is startling.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is also politically – a rhetorician who aspires to the court of power. Sarkozy indulged him; Hollande appears to keep him at a distance. To the wider public he is often out to make a case effectively, to convince us with a skilful show, and less positively, a person who trades in bombast.
That his words may, to evoke Sartre’s images, serve as a sword, as pistols, is, post-Libya, possibly true. That these are used in the service of justice is less than clear.
A principled politics of human rights does not involve backing for groups like the Mujahidin, or, more recently, unbridled enthusiasm for Western interventions everywhere, from Syria to Libya. It means supporting people, not states and certainly not posing as a political player in armed efforts to impose rights.
It is our hope that we are not about to endure another bout of Lévy’s histrionics, at the expense of the British Labour Party.