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20 October 2021updated 24 Oct 2022 4:07pm

Bernard-Henri Lévy: “Defining oneself by an identity is an impoverishment of what you are”

The French intellectual on culture wars and global crises.

By Freddie Hayward

Bernard-Henri Lévy has been visiting the Connaught Hotel in London for 50 years. When we met there for lunch one recent afternoon, the French philosopher and public intellectual was dressed in his signature unbuttoned shirt and black jacket. He ordered an egg-white omelette with tomatoes alongside a bottle of Coca-Cola Zero, with added ice. He had ordered the same the day before. Lévy, 72, was laconic at the start of lunch – perhaps because he was at the end of a media blitz for his new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, which collects his 2020 reports from conflict zones such as the Donbass in Ukraine, Libya and Somalia.

The final chapter, entitled “Massoud Lives!”, prefigures recent events in Afghanistan. It recounts Lévy’s September 2020 meeting with Ahmad Massoud, who has since become the leader of the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front based in the Panjshir valley. Lévy was a friend of Massoud’s father, Ahmad Shah Massoud – a legendary commander who fought the Soviets in the 1980s – and invited him to Paris a few months before al-Qaeda assassinated him in 2001. Information on the activities of the resistance has been scant, with conflicting reports about Massoud’s whereabouts. “He’s alive, he’s in and out of Panjshir, and he’s not decided to surrender,” Lévy said – having spoken to Massoud a few days before we met. “The resistance is in the process of building itself.”

Many viewed the fall of Kabul to the Taliban as an indictment of the hubristic American-led interventionism of recent decades. But for Lévy, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was a tragic betrayal and he’s adamant that “there was no reason to withdraw”. The “cost of the withdrawal will be much higher than the cost of remaining in the country”, he argued. “It was a big mistake – a moral mistake for sure, but a political mistake as well.”

[See also: Michael Sandel interview: “Joe Biden has broken with neoliberalism”]

Lévy believes the anti-Taliban resistance is viable, despite its apparent lack of international support. His confidence remains unshakeable in the causes he champions. “I have not changed in 50 years,” he told me. “I just keep being an internationalist.” (When I asked whether he’s made any mistakes of political judgement over the years, there was a pause before he replied: “I did not commit so many mistakes, honestly.”)

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Lévy’s support for Massoud’s fledgling resistance fits into a long history of personal involvement with democratic causes. Known as BHL in France, Lévy – born in Algeria to a wealthy timber magnate from whom he inherited a fortune – came to prominence as a leading member of the Nouveaux Philosophes movement, a generation of thinkers such as Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann who broke with Marxism in the 1970s and attacked the post-structuralism of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Eventually, Lévy left academic philosophy and turned to film-making and writing, charting his travels to war zones in Bosnia, Kurdistan and Libya. He takes inspiration from the Orwellian lineage of intellectuals who put their ideas into action – but in a manner informed by French history and culture. He sees his father as a hero for fighting with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War in 1938, and then for the French Resistance in the Second World War. He writes that when he travels to countries in crisis, he goes to “plead for liberté, égalité, and fraternité” – the watchwords of the Republic.

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Lévy’s activism has attracted criticism for relying on media attention to galvanise political action and for neglecting the long-term impact of intervention. In a review of Lévy’s American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (2006), the US author Garrison Keillor wrote that it was a “sort of book” that had the “grandiosity of a college sophomore”, and that it was “short on facts” but “long on conclusions”. “The clothes are precise but are his ideas?” asked one French critic. The British historian Perry Anderson has written of Lévy’s “bizarre prominence” in French culture, describing him as a “crass booby” and a “grotesque” indictment of the modern intellectual.

Lévy has also acted as a form of plenipotentiary for France. In 2002, then-president Jacques Chirac appointed him as a special envoy for Afghanistan. Nine years later, he was credited with convincing Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in Libya to help end the civil war, while in Syrian Kurdistan last year he offered his iPhone to the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish army for a conversation with Emmanuel Macron.

Lévy’s involvement in French politics means he’s worked with politicians on both the left and right. With the campaign for the 2022 French election intensifying, what does he make of Macron’s premiership? “Exactly as I expected. I never expect a perfect leader… I’m too democratic to believe that, to expect that. This being said, Macron has done rather well.”

While Lévy has indicated that he is closer ideologically to Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and the Socialist Party candidate for president, he says he will vote to prevent a candidate from the extreme left or right becoming president, which is highly unlikely in any event.

Lévy maintains that public intellectuals unbound to a party or tribe are central pillars of democracy. “I give my voice to no one,” he told me. “This is the luck of being what I am: a free man and public intellectual. I’m faithful to ideas, not to people.” Nevertheless, Lévy will “probably” endorse Macron, but “we will see”.

A fierce debate is under way in France about the apparent threat posed to society by what many politicians and intellectuals regard as American ideas on race, gender and post-colonialism. In an interview in July, Macron criticised “woke culture” for what he described as the reduction of “everyone to their identity or their particularity” – a position Lévy shares. He worries that “liberals” who embrace “woke theory, the theory of the safe spaces” are “turning their back to the best of the liberal tradition”.

[See also: How Raymond Williams redefined culture]

Lévy rejects identity-based politics because “any decision to define oneself by an identity or by two identities or by an intersectional identity is an impoverishment of what you are”. He is animated now. “A real being is always richer, more sophisticated, more complicated than any identity. So this will to reduce the singularity of an individual to an identity is a pity. What is interesting in your life is not your identity, but the escape out of your identity. This is what is interesting. You are a free woman or man if you rebel against your identity, not if you are cocooned in your identity. I am convinced of that.”

Lévy believes the emphasis on identity in politics is a reaction to our “age of fear”. People look to identity to provide comfort: “When you are panicked, you try to find some safe world and identity is a safe world.” His argument implies that the rush towards identity is an accident of our times rather than an intrinsic part of human nature.

But doesn’t Lévy’s internationalism, his nationality, his Jewishness constitute his identity? “No, my Jewishness is not an identity, it is a component of myself. I am always in the process of being a Jew, not settled in my Jewishness. It moves, it changes, it deepens. It’s not a jail. It’s an opening.

“What surprises me, what charms me, what seems to me to add something to the wealth of the world, to the moral wealth of the world, is when someone is different than himself. When someone disappoints his own identity,” he said, sipping an English breakfast tea, “that is marvellous.”

[See also: Tom Nairn: The prophet of post-Britain]

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West