Bernard-Henri Lévy, or “BHL,” as he is known in France, is the closest thing there is to a rock star intellectual. While he is the author of many books and writes a weekly column in Le Point, one is far likelier to see Lévy — debonair and photogenic — than read him. On the nightly news, he is reporting from a war zone, dressed in a flak jacket while intoning against the latest form of “barbarism;” in the lifestyle magazines, he is lounging poolside at his villa in Marrakesh or glad-handing with presidents; and in the tabloids he is undergoing a messy divorce from a leading French actress. Though it is tempting to write off Lévy as an attention-hungry opportunist, his celebrity reveals something essential about the role of the intellectual in the neoliberal era. Thus, it is worth recalling how he rose to prominence, and how he has acted as a key power broker.
Anti-Marxism With a Human Face
Lévy was born in 1948 to a Sephardic Jewish family in Oran, Algeria. The Lévys, one of the richest families in France, made their fortune in the lumber business after World War II. When Lévy’s father died, the company was estimated to have sold for seven hundred fifty million francs (more than a hundred million euros), resulting in a huge windfall for Bernard-Henri.
With this kind of wealth, he is able, for example, to charter his own planes when necessary. In his youth, Lévy attended France’s most prestigious academies, and studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), where he was taught by Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida. Lévy was caught up in the student radicalism of the late 1960s, and though he never joined a political organization, he sympathized with the Maoist currents running through the ENS and the gauchiste movements more broadly.
While still a student, Lévy met François Mitterrand, who had just been elected secretary of the reconstituted Parti Socialiste (PS). Sensing in the young philosopher “the great writer he would be,” Mitterrand asked Lévy to advise him on the question of “self-management,” a movement for workplace democracy that developed during the ’68 struggles and became a key issue for younger members of the PS. Lévy accepted the post but was soon bored by it. When an aging André Malraux declared that he wanted to lead an international brigade in Bangladesh to help freedom fighters establish independence from Pakistan, Lévy saw a more tempting opportunity and departed for South Asia in 1971.
Two years later came his first book, Bangladesh: Nationalism in the Revolution, published by France’s premier left-wing press, Maspero. Filled with vaguely Maoist analyses of the nationalist movement, it established for BHL a role he would reprise many times throughout his career, that of warrior-reporter. Is he covering the war, or fighting it? Is it the pen or the sword?
It was Lévy’s second book, however, Barbarism with a Human Face (1977), that catapulted him into celebrity. Adopting the tone of world-weary philosopher, Lévy made a spectacular turn against his socialist brethren and composed one of the great reactionary texts of the era. The first lines gave a clear signal of his intentions (and distinctive style): “I am the bastard child of an unholy union between fascism and Stalinism. I am the contemporary of a strange twilight when the clouds above are dissolving amid the clash of arms and the cries of the tortured.”
All forms of power, for Lévy, were corrupt and tyrannical; and thus any attempt to change the world would accelerate the journey toward totalitarianism. Socialism was just as bad as fascism in this respect: “When it promises, it lies; when it interprets, it is wrong; it is not and cannot be the alternative it says it is.” Nazis had the concentration camps, Soviets had the Gulag, hence they were two different faces of the same “radical evil.”
Fortunately, for Lévy, there was capitalism, which never attempted to impose its will on the world and which was only interested in “pacifying war and domesticating struggle.” He claimed that “Capitalism is the first social formation . . . to recognize no territory not included within its space; the first to no longer fantasize about a nature before the law.” The genius of capitalism was its pragmatism: it had no better world to offer, and wished only to oversee a frictionless and borderless world of trade. Capitalism, moreover, was not imperialist or power motivated; it simply had a propensity to expand. In this sense, it was, for Lévy, the natural destination of the West, and “the end of history.”
These ideas were far from original. The sociologist Daniel Bell had posited a version of the “end of history” thesis in 1960, and Hannah Arendt and others had been arguing that fascism and Soviet communism shared an inner totalitarian unity since the 1950s. What made Lévy’s intervention noteworthy was the context in which it was made. For the first time since World War II, France’s two main parties of the Left, the PS and the French Communist Party (PCF), laid aside their differences and forged an electoral pact known as the Union of the Left.
In the 1974 presidential election, Mitterrand, heading the alliance, came within a fraction of beating the liberal-conservative Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and the joint slate was positioned to make big gains in the 1978 legislative elections. Lévy, whose commitment to the Left was perhaps never that strong or sincere, sensed an opportunity: not since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 had a left-wing party won a parliamentary majority, and the prospect of this sent a shiver of panic through sections of the French bourgeoisie.
Still, Lévy might not have followed through with his attack had it not already been anticipated by André Glucksmann’s 1975 missile against the Left, The Cook and the Man-eater, which Lévy reviewed favorably in the pages of Le Nouvel observateur. Glucksmann had been a former leader of the Gauche prolétarienne, a Maoist group that emerged out of ’68. Bypassing the traditional parties, it sent its militants into the factories to make direct contact with the working masses, and often conducted illegal actions on their behalf (like raiding luxury markets and redistributing the goods to slum dwellers).
The group had a fraught relationship with Marxism, and this turned to outright hostility in Glucksmann’s book. The subtitle was telling: “Essay on the Relationship between the State, Marxism, and the Concentration Camps.” Relying heavily on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (published in French in 1974), Glucksmann argued that Marxism was just as much responsible for the Soviet Union’s concentration camps as fascism was for Auschwitz. Whereas Marxism had once been a philosophy of the masses, it had become the science of intellectuals and party elites. In Russia, men were made to sign their own death warrants in the name of revolution.
A few days after the publication of BHL’s Barbarism with a Human Face, Glucksmann and Lévy appeared together on the popular French literary TV show, Apostrophes, to discuss their work. To watch the episode today, Glucksmann comes off as the sharper and more charismatic figure, but it was Lévy – attractive and stylish with his shirt unbuttoned practically to his waist – who charmed the French public.
Through this televisual baptism, Lévy became “BHL,” the voice of a generation and the herald of a “New Philosophy,” as it was then called. Not just viewers, but journalists and intellectuals remarked on the brilliance of the dandyish figure. Roland Barthes, the greatest literary critic of his era, and a meticulous stylist found Lévy’s prose to be “enchanting” and thanked him, in a public letter, for writing Barbarism.
A Reactionary Maoist
The New Philosophy had its share of critics too. Lévy targeted the philosopher Gilles Deleuze in Barbarism, arguing that his book Anti-Oedipus (cowritten with Félix Guattari) was a plea for amoral individualism (and the pursuit of gratification), and as such an enabling condition for fascism. Deleuze delivered a stinging reply, which he had printed and distributed in bookshops for free: “I think that their thought is worthless. [. . .] They have constituted a stifling, asphyxiating space where a little air used to get through. It is the negation of all politics, all experimentation.” Deleuze sensed that a new moment had arrived in French intellectual life, when publicity triumphed over ideas; media access over reason. The philosopher Régis Debray came to a similar conclusion, observing that this was not so much a “new philosophy” as a “new logistics (in that it is not known to have any specific theoretical essence or even ever to have needed one).”
It would be naïve, however, to claim that Lévy and the New Philosophers were solely a creation of the media. Their ascendancy might not have been so meteoric had they not theorized in a way that sounded familiar and legitimate. To a large extent, their success derived from their ability to imitate the thought and style of France’s leading thinkers. They made constant reference to Jacques Lacan’s ideas, and toyed with Derridean ideas of deconstruction, though without reading any texts closely.
The figure to whom they owed the most was Michel Foucault. Lévy and Glucksmann paid frequent tribute to the philosopher in their texts from the mid-1970s, and found useful Foucault’s idea that power is diffuse and disciplinary. This served as the basis of their denunciation of socialism in all its forms: power could never be eliminated from society, and it was a dangerous fantasy to think that it could. When Glucksmann traced the Gulag back to the prisons and asylums of the eighteenth century, or dismissed Marxism as a revolutionary ideology stuck in the nineteenth century, he made arguments that were recognizably Foucauldian. Lévy, for his part, has never ceased to cite him as a figure of inspiration: the first chapter of his book on the COVID-19 pandemic is “Come Back, Michel Foucault — We Need You!”
In turn, Foucault was a leading champion of the New Philosophers, and helped legitimize their standing in the eyes of the public. The same month they appeared on Apostrophes, Foucault wrote a glowing endorsement of Glucksmann’s book — a work of “brilliance” and “beauty.” He did interviews and roundtable discussions with Lévy and Glucksmann, where they collectively discussed the importance of moving beyond “revolution” as a desirable concept. Foucault had undergone a radical Maoist phase in the early 1970s, but then, like the New Philosophers, came to regard the social democracy of the joint Left with a jaundiced eye. His analysis of power as a disciplinary mechanism led him to see state-run social welfare programs as normative and coercive.
In an interview from 1983, Foucault claimed, “Our systems of social security impose a particular way of life to which individuals are subjected, and any person or group that, for one reason or another, will not or cannot embrace that way of life is marginalized by the very operation of the institutions.” On some level, Foucault must have recognized the derivative and opportunistic quality of the New Philosophers’ thought, but he sympathized with their critique of socialism and revolution, and was moved to endorse their ideas.
Following his media coup on Apostrophes, Lévy had a large audience to satisfy, and produced a quick sequel to Barbarism with The Testament of God in 1979. Even though the Union of the Left had failed to win a majority in the 1978 legislative elections, BHL continued his onslaught against socialism. It was not enough to say that Marxism was like fascism. Rather, he now claimed that the Nazi Party had been built by “heart-felt Bolsheviks” and “admirers of the Soviet Union.” He extended his attack on the institutions of the Left: unions were instruments of control; worker self-management was nothing but “a generalized system of vigilance [and] surveillance;” and Eurocommunism (the electoral strategy of communist parties to participate in government) was a “monstrous” hybrid of fascism and Stalinism.
If there was any residual Maoist sympathy for the “masses” in Lévy, this was now expunged: “Mass is the name the baker gives to unformed dough. It is the name the metalworker gives to the boiling liquid he is about to pour into the mold. It is the term in physics which designates what in bodies has no quality and is nothing but simple density.” A more reliable steward of the political order was the individual, or, more specifically, the property-owning individual.
For Lévy, “There has never been a great anti-totalitarian rebellion that was not the act of ‘property owners,’ fighters for inwardness, highwaymen of solitude, heroic partisans of the fortresses of personal will.” Here, the otherwise dull protagonist of liberalism — the individual tending to his own material interests — is romanticized to the point of caricature, and becomes a kind of desperado who saves the world from totalitarianism.
When it came to global politics, Lévy argued nations could not be counted on to maintain a peaceable international order. Therefore, power should be entrusted to nongovernmental institutions like Amnesty International, “precisely because it is apolitical and completely indifferent to changing man, life, or the world, it is satisfied, by saving bodies, all bodies, and nothing but bodies.”
With other notable French intellectuals, Lévy founded Action contre la faim (Action Against Hunger) in 1979, a humanitarian group that now exists in several countries. As Samuel Moyn has argued in The Last Utopia, human rights discourse emerged as a force of its own in the 1970s due to the failures of utopian social movements in the 1960s. If politics was inherently corrupt, as Lévy believed, then it was necessary to find frameworks that depoliticized the social field. Human rights achieved this by validating the rights of individuals against states. In doing so, it helped delegitimize social movements.
While most commentators on the Left were outraged by Lévy and the New Philosophers, they had trouble locating the thinkers politically. François Aubral and Xavier Delcourt, journalists who wrote the first book on the New Philosophers, saw them as a new conservative movement with “fascist” qualities. The literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak thought this was off the mark, and argued that they were better understood as “libertarian leftists” based on their suspicion of the state and all forms of political authority. Along similar lines, the political theorist Jacques Rancière and the English philosopher Peter Dews concluded that the New Philosophers were a logical culmination of the Maoist activism that erupted during 1968. It was only a short step, in their view, from thinking that all institutions are instruments of domination to believing that liberation and revolution are dangerous and irresponsible.
All of these positions were correct to the extent that they registered a violent swing in France’s intellectual life, captured here by Dews: “Ten years after events, which many saw at the time as heralding a new era of intensified class conflict, the French intelligentsia is predominantly composed of anti-Marxists (Lévy and associates), non-Marxists (Foucault, Deleuze), and ex-Marxists.” France was in this respect ahead of the curve, experiencing a Cold War thaw ten years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and ironically, just as a Socialist president was stepping into office.
What these commentators were unable to see, not having the benefit of hindsight, was the prefigurative quality of Lévy’s thought, how it anticipated the triangulations and rhetorical strategies of the post–Cold War centrists: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and, latterly, Emmanuel Macron. Lévy had discovered a golden formula: discredit the Left and its institutions, and break them of their collective power; defend capitalism and the interests of property; and support military interventions abroad in the name of humanitarianism.
“They Live off Corpses.”
The last-named plank in the program has been a specialty of Lévy’s later career. Bangladesh was his first attempt at political journalism, but it was his reporting on the Bosnian War that brought him new standing as a philosopher of military intervention. Lévy was a tireless advocate of Bosnians in their struggle against Serbian aggression, visiting Sarajevo multiple times, organizing conferences, directing a documentary, and calling for armed intervention against the Serbs (which Mitterrand ignored). Once NATO launched a series of operations in the region, Lévy cheered it on and shamed anyone who questioned the motives or the outcomes of its involvement.
In 2011, Lévy pulled off an incredible feat: acting on his own behalf, he flew to Libya, where the “Arab Spring” had triggered a civil war; he met with members of the rebel Libya Independent National Council; he arranged for them to meet the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy; and ahead of that meeting, announced, without the president’s say-so, that France would intervene in support of the rebels. Sarkozy acceded to the pressure, and a week later, a coalition led by the United States, the UK, and France opened fire in Libya and pummeled the country with air strikes. Few intellectuals have the distinction of helping orchestrate a war.
It is sometimes easy to forget that Lévy rose to celebrity as a critic of “power” and tyranny. The maxim proudly displayed on his website suggests that he lives by a different ethic: “The art of philosophy is of value only if it is an art of war.” Lévy has been a loyal friend to Israel and has continually justified its military operations against the Palestinian people. Upon accepting an honorary degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2008, he lavished praise on the Israel Defense Force, extolling its “Purity of Arms.” He has referred to the BDS movement as “fascist” and tied its origins to the Nazis; and in France, he has been quick to call leff-wing critics of Zionism “antisemites.” Lévy is also a great admirer of US foreign policy, and boasts that he has “never engaged in the sin against sense that is anti-Americanism. Never . . . have I thought that the United States was a force of evil busy building an empire of the type that all the true colonial powers built before and after it.”
Lévy supports these wars in the name of a vague humanitarianism and on behalf of ill-defined “victims.” This, remember, was a key component of the New Philosophy during its ascendancy, the idea that it represented the victims of the Gulag and Soviet totalitarianism. But Lévy can often sound callous when writing about marginalized groups. Just after the sentence about American empire quoted above, he adds:
There is, of course, the founding crime of the extermination of the American Indian, but that was taken to heart and has been duly mourned — in the process, the famous “political correctness” that, in other settings, has caused so much damage found one of its noblest applications. Likewise, there is the bloody shadow cast for so long by the smug practice of slavery — but then came Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Rosa Parks, MLK, and Barack Obama.
It is difficult to imagine a more dismissive and arrogant description of these groups’ histories. Deleuze picked up on this underlying cynicism in his text from 1977: “What I find disgusting is very simple: the new philosophers have invented a new martyrology. . . . They live off corpses.”
Lévy remains an influential commentator on the political affairs of France and Europe. He is one of the Ukrainian peoples’ staunchest advocates against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He has been instrumental in raising money and arms for the Ukrainian resistance, and has referred to Volodymyr Zelensky as a new Winston Churchill. On the domestic front, his anti-socialism has not abated. After the Left’s electoral coalition, the Nouvelle union populaire écologique et socialiste (NUPES), made a key breakthrough in the first round of the legislative elections in June, Lévy did not miss a beat, titling his column in Le Point: “It Is Necessary to Block Mélenchon.” The justification for this position will now appear achingly familiar: the Left is just as dangerous as the far right, and the legislative agenda of Jean-Luc Mélenchon — calling for a raise of the minimum wage and price controls on essential goods — will bring not liberation but tyranny. It was a plea for the centrism of Macron.
This has been Lévy’s stocked-in-trade since the 1970s, to denounce “power” and “politics” with one hand while defending the existing political order with the other. If Lévy were merely a creature of publicity and self-promotion, or, as Deleuze lamented, a saboteur in the world of philosophy, he could be more or less ignored. But his role has been much more pernicious: to legitimize and provide ideological cover for the West’s military interventions, and hence to make the world safe for armaments of all kinds. Lévy’s is the true face of barbarism.