Bernard-Henri Levy
Bernard-Henri Levy; drawing by David Levine

“Almost two thousand years, and no new god!”

Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Voltaire said that if God did not exist, man would have to invent Him. If we are to believe the French press, 1979 may be remembered as the year when two very different Parisian intellectuals applied for their respective patents on their own brand of deity.

With Le testament de Dieu, Bernard-Henri Lévy, thirty-one years old, ex-Maoist, ex-journalist, and self-proclaimed “New Philosopher,” has become the latter-day prophet of a God who, though now deceased, was kind enough to leave behind His last will and testament, the Bible, as a bulwark against totalitarianism. With Les idées à l’endroit Alain de Benoist, ex-Catholic, ex-reactionary, and self-proclaimed “theoretical journalist,” has presented a compendium of essays that attempts to lay the sociobiological foundations for a new paganism, a new aristocrat, and what is called the “New Right.” “The debate between monotheism and polytheism,” de Benoist writes, “is a truly essential discussion.” But strangely enough, neither man actually believes in the deity or deities he proposes: they are merely convenient foils to help man muddle through the mess of the modern world. Nietzsche was right after all. You can take your pick: the barren heights of Mount Sinai with Lévy, or the misty haunts of Celtic forests with de Benoist—a dead Yahweh or a vitalistic Wotan. In either case, to adapt a phrase from James Joyce, these are very posthumous gods.

For all their differences, Lévy and de Benoist have a lot in common. Each declares himself a moralist in philosophy, a nominalist in world view, and an antitotalitarian in politics. Both are skillful Parisian publicists (Lévy is an editor at Grasset, de Benoist at Copernic), and both have written much-acclaimed books (Barbarism with a Human Face won the 1977 Prix d’Honneur de l’essai, and Vu de droite won the 1978 Grand Prix de l’essai from the Académie française). Each has set flame to his recent past (for Lévy, Maoism, for de Benoist, the “Old Right”) and risen like a Phoenix from the ashes to go on to condemn Marxism and modern liberalism, the Gulag and Coca-Cola, fascism of the left and right, the Inquisition, the Enlightenment, and the rule of the masses.

Yet as we might expect from these heralds of monotheism and polytheism, they have spent much energy excommunicating each other. There they were last July in the offices of France-Soir for a round-table discussion, glaring at each other uncivilly from their respective worlds, only a few days after Sartre and Aron had managed to shake hands over the issue of the Vietnamese boat-people. In the course of the exchange Lévy declared himself “shocked by the ideological and theoretical poverty” of de Benoist’s writings, while de Benoist found Lévy’s books “not worth a trifle.” “I am filled with hatred for you,” Lévy hissed. “I hate no one,” de Benoist replied, for the sixteenth maxim of his code of aristocratic ethics (Les idées…, p. 52) enjoins: “Never hate, but despise often.” It was the best show since Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley went after each other on television over a decade ago. The nouveau philosophe and the nouveau droitier, the prophet and the druid, seemed to deserve each other.

It is not easy to place Lévy and de Benoist in recent French philosophy, not least of all because it is stretching the word to call either of them a “philosopher.” To be sure, Lévy studied under the Marxist Louis Althusser at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and claims to be a Lacanian. De Benoist, who studied law and letters at the Sorbonne, is an autodidact in the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The range of books that they cite is immense (but de Benoist, unlike Lévy, seems actually to read them), and the urgency with which they press their points would have you believe that the fate of the West hangs on the result of their debate.

Lévy, unlike de Benoist, is a child of the student revolution of 1968. After structuralism’s Gang of Four—Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan, and Althusser—had “displaced” the human “subject”—the individual thinking consciousness—in favor of the linguistic code, and that subject’s alleged history-making in favor of invariant structures,the revolt of May 1968 was a made-to-order structuralist’s delight. More a cultural than a political crisis, more a synchronic liturgy than a diachronic historical event, it could be seen as reenacting the myths of the French tribe (1848, the 1870 Commune) around a transpersonal hero (the Eternal Child, le révolté) within neat classical unities of time and place (the Left Bank, May 3 through June 16). Although its political consequences were practically nil, this modern ritual did appear to prove what the structuralists had argued at some length: the supremacy of the code—in this case, the media—over the message to be codified. As cameramen freely crossed the barricades, ministering to both sides like priests in medieval wars, the essential point became clear: it is more important to faire la une (“make page one”) than to win. The coverage of the event is the event.


The point, we may imagine, was not lost on the then twenty-year-old Bernard-Henri Lévy, who followed the action not in the streets but in his room, by television and radio, with a map of Paris across his lap. Without his skillful use of the press and television some seven years later, the so-called “New Philosophers” would never have been launched. In fact, Lévy, who is dramatically handsome and remarkably fluent, seems to have been made for television from the start (he acted in a TV film between writing his two books), even if it took him some years to get there.

After the debacle of May 1968, Lévy, then a Maoist, heeded André Malraux’s call and went off to Bangladesh. There he awakened from his dogmatic slumber and discovered that there was no difference between “progressive” and “reactionary” corpses. After spending a week posing as a journalist in a group of lackadaisical “guerrillas” (they never fought), he took off to India where he got rolled by a junkie and, though the son of a millionaire, financed his way home by running booze between Bombay and Goa. Such enterprising skills, combined with his facility with words, served him well once he was back in Paris. One day he walked into Grasset publishing house, discussed some projects off the top of his head, and, mirabile dictu, got himself hired as an editor and, a few months later, was appointed the director of two new series of books. He corralled some manuscripts from old friends at the Ecole Normale, rushed them into print, and in 1976 took to the television screens to announce the birth of the “New Philosophers.” A year later he crowned these efforts by publishing his own Barbarism with a Human Face. At that point he had more requests for newspaper interviews and TV appearances than he could conveniently handle, and he earned himself the title pub-philosophe, “publicity philosopher.” Metaphysics, having long been dead and buried, was resurrected as a media hype.

The mood of the French press and public contributed to their success. The appearance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1974 severely undermined residual sympathies for the Soviet Union, just as the later revelations about communist behavior in Cambodia shook liberal sympathies for Third World socialism. Moreover, the emergence of France’s brand of Euro-communism—permitting the alliance of communist and socialist parties in the Union of the Left—made many Frenchmen uneasy. The Common Program of the two parties, for example, called for government control over banking and credit. Since newspapers had been suffering the burden of rising costs since 1974, this was seen as an implicit threat to an independent and critical press. The collapse of the Union of the Left before and during the elections of March 1978 seemed to point up the hypocrisy of this uneasy marriage. As the Left’s dominance of political discourse in France was increasingly shaken, the New Philosophers found a ready audience, not least among editors and television producers.

It is impossible to discuss the New Philosophers as if they represented a unified viewpoint on anything.1 While they were all deeply affected by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work, their only point in common may be that they have recently been issued by the same publisher. Some but not all were Maoists in 1968; one, Jean-Marie Benoist (not to be confused with Alain de Benoist), sat out the revolution as a diplomat in London, while another, Jean-Paul Dollé, fancies himself a Heideggerian. André Glucksmann, who publishes with Grasset but not in Lévy’s series, refuses even to be grouped with them. Therefore, in discussing Lévy’s two books (they have to be read together), I have no illusions that I am commenting on the other writers who are popularly associated with him.

Springtime, O. Henry once wrote, is the season when young men discover what young women have known all winter long. Lévy’s bitter springtime, his discovery of the Gulag that other intellectuals, including Sartre, had known about for over twenty years, has engendered the purple prose, alternately threnodic and dithyrambic, that we find in Barbarism with a Human Face and The Testament of God. “If I were a poet,” he writes, “I would sing of the horror of living and the new Gulags that tomorrow holds in store for us. If I were a musician, I would speak of the idiot laughter and impotent tears, the dreadful uproar made by the lost, camped in the ruins, awaiting their fate.” This is pretty heavy stuff, but, as Husserl observed at the turn of the century, one is most vehement against those errors that one recently held oneself. “If I were an encyclopedist, I would dream of writing in a dictionary of the year 2000: ‘Socialism, n., cultural style, born in Paris in 1848, died in Paris in 1968.’ ” But Lévy is no easier on his young self: he confesses, with a straight face, “I will soon be thirty, and I have betrayed the dream of my youth at least a hundred times.” Such earnestness is enough to make cynics weep, and it just might sustain some of them through the two hundred pages of narcissistic prose that one finds in his philosophical Bildungsroman called Barbarism with a Human Face.


Lévy is like the man in Paddy Chayevsky’s film Network: he insists he is mad as hell, that he’s not going to take it any more. He has discovered, in a mood of “the darkest and most tragic pessimism,” that the Marxism he once believed in is a lie: “No socialism without camps, no classless society without its terrorist truth.” Not that capitalism is any better. No, socialism is the face and capitalism the body of the same inevitable nihilism toward which the West is stumbling like a drunken Dimitri Karamazov. In fact, reality itself is radically evil, held in the clutches of an impersonal Power or Master or Prince or State (all in capitals and all equal to each other), as Plato and Schopenhauer, those “melancholy experts in absolute evil,” knew. There is no Rousseauan nature that antedated the state and no revolutionary paradise to be found after the supposed “withering away” of the state. Nothing escapes the dread equation: World = Power = State = Barbarism. Misery will last as long as the social bond does, and that will go on forever. “Rebellion is unthinkable inside the real world.”

But that leaves the “unreal world” and “the impossible thought of a world freed from Mastery.” Thus, “the antibarbarian intellectual will be first of all a metaphysician, and when I say metaphysician I mean it in an angelic sense.” In Barbarism with a Human Face, however, we come to the end without being told just what that might mean. Enter: The Testament of God. Its first principle is that politics must be restricted to make room for ethics and for an individual who can resist barbarism. Second principle: such an individual can not be found in classical Greek thought, where the individual is subsumed by the general and where the notion of “conscience” was unknown. It can only (third principle) be found in classical Judaism’s “wager” on a Totally Other who is never incarnate in the world, in fact is now dead, although somehow goes on living, or partly living, in that “book of resistance” called the Bible.

The choice, then, is the same as it was for Tertullian in the third century: Athens or Jerusalem. Lévy’s response is “Forget Athens.” In place of its supposed humanism (which in fact is the root of totalitarianism insofar as it subsumes the individual under the general) Lévy proposes “seven new commandments.” 1. The Law (Lévy’s stand-in for God, but not to be confused with any specific laws) is outside time and more holy than History. 2. There is no eschatological future; rather, every moment is the right moment for manifesting the Good. 3. The future is none of your business: act now. 4. Undertake no act that cannot be universalized for all men. 5. Truth, one’s own truth, is extraneous to the political order. 6. Practice resistance, without a theory and without belonging to a revolutionary party. 7. In order to engage yourself you must first of all disengage yourself. If we ask Lévy what all this might entail for day-to-day politics, he comes down on the side of a “liberal-libertarian” state, which would govern best by governing least.

Little can be said about Lévy’s position precisely because so little of it is ever argued. He makes his points by rhetorical tropes, wide-ranging historical references (“Consider the Middle Ages,” he advises, or the span of history “from Epictetus to Malraux”), or by citations from books that he evidently hasn’t read or has poorly digested (a reference to a work by Stalin in the Russian, which Lévy does not read, a reference to all of Clement of Alexandria’s mammoth Protrepticus, which he has not studied, and so on).

He was taken to task in the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur last spring by Professor Pierre Vidal-Naquet of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales for gross factual and historical errors: claiming that in Genesis Adam and Eve committed their Original Sin on the seventh day of creation (when God was resting), placing the action of Sophocles’ Antigone in fifth-century Athens when in fact it deals with Thebes in the second millennium BC (“This,” says Vidal-Naquet, “would be like using Racine’s Phèdre as a document on Crete in the time of Louis XIV”), taking an 1818 text by Benjamin Constant as a commentary on an 1864 text by Fustel de Coulanges (Lévy in fact lifted both texts from a footnote in another work, but absolved himself of citing the source), and having Himmler stand trial at Nuremberg when in fact he had committed suicide on May 23, 1945. Lévy’s sense of history is, to say the least, vague. When asked what he meant by saying that “the West was Christian even when the Scriptures were not read in the countryside”—and analogously—“The Greek world was Homeric even if, outside the Mycenaean palaces, the Iliad and the Odyssey were literally dead letters,” Lévy confessed that he hadn’t known that the Greek epic poems were written some centuries after the events they recount.

All this may be unfair. There is a long tradition of young scholars carrying out their education in public—Schelling enriched nineteenth-century philosophy by doing so. But it can be annoying when, instead of arguing his case, the young Dr. Lévy invites us, as he constantly does, to correct our intellectual errors by “reading” or “rereading” one or another major figure of Western thought, a task we might undertake if we thought Lévy had done as much. A rough count of his ABC of Reading includes: Lenin, Blum, Jaurès, the early Sorel, Plato’s Republic, Marx’s Capital, “the rules of the medieval convents,” Rimbaud, Carl Schmidt, “the historians of the decline of the Hellenic world,” Mein Kampf, Augustine’s Retractiones, Nietzsche’s The Dawn, St. Just, and Ernst Jünger. We are also encouraged to “go and see The Night Porter, Sex O’clock, A Clockwork Orange, or more recently L’Ombre des anges” in order to understand what harm has been wrought by Deleuze and Guattari’s L’Anti-Oedipe. This makes one recall the quip attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” In France, however, Le testament de Dieu was at or near the top of the best-seller list throughout last summer.

Alain de Benoist is a better writer, a clearer thinker, and a much more dangerous figure. He followed the events of May 1968 in the streets, but he saw them not as ushering in Year One of the New Order of Things but as a futile spectacle that announced “the end of the postwar period.” While Lévy was off seeking adventure in Bangladesh, de Benoist stayed in Paris, tirelessly reviewing hundreds of books for the rightist publications Valeurs actuelles and Le Spectacle du monde (125 of these reviews were published in 1977 as Vu de droite) and seeing to the birth of the New Right.

De Benoist claims that the central issues of the traditional right, among them genetics, race, and inequality, have been discredited by their association with Nazism, and he tries to give them new life by grafting them on to such subsciences as sociobiology and ethnology. De Benoist is particularly attracted to sociobiology, which has recently gained an enthusiastic hearing in France. But he has a tendency to present the hypotheses of sociobiology as proven conclusions and then to extend these “conclusions” to far-ranging fields. For example, he writes, “all politics today implies a biopolitics.” And he cites with enthusiasm the words of Professor Robert Mallet, the chancellor of the Universities of Paris, that some day “the genetic code will help inform the civil codes.”

Although the French press and television woke up to the New Right only in March 1978, when Gilbert Comte ran a series of articles entitled “Une nouvelle droite?” in Le Monde, its origins reach back to March 1968, when the journal Nouvelle Ecole first appeared (de Benoist became its editor-in-chief in 1969) and to the founding, a few months later, of the study club called GRECE, an acronym for “Research and Study Group for European Civilization” (Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne).2

Although de Benoist heralds these events as the beginning of a “new culture of the right,” purged of the obscurantism, racism, individualism, and “father complex” of the reactionary right (“The Old Right is dead,” he writes, “and deserves to be”), nonetheless the rosters of GRECE and Nouvelle Ecole read like a high-school reunion of old reactionaries and fascists. Jean Mabire, alleged collaborator in World War II and former editor of the extremist magazine Europe Action (“the magazine of Western man”), is now on the editorial committee of GRECE’s newspaper Eléments. (De Benoist, who used to write for Europe Action, favorably quotes Mabire’s paean to kamikaze pilots on page 227 of Vu de droite.) The comité de patronage of Nouvelle Ecole includes—besides such notables as Mircea Eliade, Konrad Lorenz, and Arthur Koestler—half of the editorial staff of the racist Mankind Quarterly of Edinburgh (R. Gayre, Robert Kuttner, and the late Henry E. Garrett) and at least two members of its Honorary Advisory Board (Bertil Lundman, a former contributor to the Nazi racist journal Zeitschrift für Rassenkunde—as well as H. J. Eysenck3 ). De Benoist himself is on the Advisory Board (and Arthur R. Jensen is an “Honorary Adviser”) of the neo-fascist German magazine Neue Anthropologie, whose editor, Jürgen Rieger, has condemned the “bastardizing” of races and has announced, in all seriousness, “The white giants are coming!” Neue Anthropologie, Mankind Quarterly, and Nouvelle Ecole all carry advertisements for one another.

GRECE and de Benoist have a strange penchant for the demimonde of right extremism. On May 28, 1978, the Washington Post reported that representatives of Nouvelle Ecole participated in the eleventh annual conference of the allegedly anti-Semitic World Anti-Communist League in Washington DC (its chairman, Roger Pearson, was formerly on the comité de patronage of Nouvelle Ecole) and met with William Pierce, a former spokesman of the American Nazi Party.4 The Spring 1979 issue of Nouveile Ecole carried an article on pages 62-69 by one “Robert de Herte” (a collective pseudonym) on the inherited nature of musical talent. Footnote three on page 65 and footnotes six and eight at the end cite some thirteen works published in Nazi Germany on the topics of the “physical type” of great musicians and the relation between music and heredity. On May 29, 1973, GRECE sponsored a lecture on the theme of Europe by the self-declared fascist writer Maurice Bardèche, and de Benoist, in a chilling essay on “Les corps d’élite” in Vu de droite, approvingly cites Bardèche’s remarks on “the exaltation of courage and energy” in Spartan education, followed by a rhapsodic description of the US Marines by the rightist François d’Orcival.

The very powerful French publisher Robert Hersant—a former Pétainist who is currently the owner of one-fifth of France’s newspapers—got into the picture when he bought up Le Figaro in 1975. He appointed Louis Pauwels—a well-known conservative editor who wrote an admiring book on Gurdjieff and was identified with the Gurdjieff movement—as the director of the spin-off weekly, Le Figaro Magazine, and Pauwels hired de Benoist to write a regular column on “the movement of ideas.” Pauwels is also on the comité de patronage of Nouvelle Ecole.

Just what this all amounts to so far as de Benoist is concerned is still something of a mystery. Raymond Aron, himself Jewish, cautiously affirms that “Alain de Benoist defends himself from being [an anti-Semite], if not from having been one,”5 but others have detected more than a whiff of racism in Nouvelle Ecole’s fascination with the purity and strength of the Indo-European race. De Benoist, for example, finds it hard to conceal his enthusiasm for the French theorist of racial determination Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), whose Essay on the Inequality of Human Races asserted that different races have “very unequal destinies.” Gobineau warned that Aryan society should resist mixing with the black or yellow races lest it lose its vitality and sink into corruption. De Benoist tries to salvage the Essay, which deeply influenced such French rightists as Charles Maurras, by calling it a work on the “diversity” rather than the inequality of races.

This much is sure: the one thing Alain de Benoist does not like is egalitarianism—not equality, which he takes to be an impossibility, but the myth of equality, the very idea that men should be equal and should build societies on that notion. Not that he wants inequality per se. Rather, he wants diversity, “the right to difference,” especially in racial matters, and with that a hierarchy, an elite, and a corresponding order, and, inevitably, then, relative inequality.

De Benoist does not believe, as Bossuet did not, that “some men are more men than other men,” but he does agree with his colleague Pauwels that “equality is an injustice done to the capable.” Nor is he a racist: all races, he says, are superior, and he is willing to go so far as to say that “all men of quality are brothers, regardless of race, country, or time.” Although it is a fact, he says, that relative inequality comes with diversity, not all inequalities, especially of an economic sort, are just. De Benoist favors equality of chances (Nixon’s Olympic metaphor of “an equal shot at the starting line”), and after that everyone is on his own.

Reading de Benoist’s works, I had the clear impression that he did not arrive at his notion of inegalitarianism by induction from the data but that he began with it and then started collecting all the information that could support his conviction and attacking everything that might militate against it. The French have a pun: Dis-moi que tu aimes, et je dirai qui tu es (hais): “Tell me what you love, and I’ll tell you who you are (whom you hate).” According to the sixteenth maxim of his code of ethics, de Benoist is not allowed to hate, only to despise (even though he delivers himself of the opinion that “one learns to love to the degree one learns to hate“).

Nonetheless we can find out where his heart lies. De Benoist adores pagan polytheism because its many deities are made in man’s image, consecrate his diversity, and guarantee his freedom. De Benoist despises monotheism because “its intrinsic totalitarian character” has engendered reductionism (where all knowledge can be led back to unity) and egalitarianism (which declares all men equal before God). De Benoist loves the Indo-Europeans and especially the Celts for “their specific mental character,” their physical characteristics, and perhaps (he cites Ernst Renan on the point) “the purity of their blood and the inviolability of their character.” He despises Judaism (not Jews) for its intolerance and fanaticism, for consecrating a master-slave relationship before God, and for its “moral justification for killing the other.” He likes biology because it affirms the diversity of species, and he despises Christianity, that “bolshevism of antiquity,” which formed a counterculture of rootless slaves and Orientals who hated the very idea of fatherland, preached class warfare, and wrought “the progressive homogenization of the world” with their doctrine of universal love.

But fortunately for him the doctrine of equality has run through the three stages of its cycle—the mythic stage of Christianity, the philosophical stage of the Enlightenment, and the “scientific” one of Marxism—and the time is ripe to “raze the ground” and to start building the new myth of inegalitarianism. “We have something like a century in which to succeed,” he writes, “which means that there isn’t a moment to lose.”

Preparing the ground for the new inegalitarianism entails educating an aristocratic elite of “supermen,” not the muscular blond giants of Nazi fantasies, he says, but an elite of character. In a world that is intrinsically chaotic and meaningless and that gets its meaning only from the force of man’s will, what are needed are “heroic subjects” who can create themselves and their own laws and who will remain faithful to norms they set for themselves. He cites examples from the motto of the Marines, Semper fidelis, as well as that of the SS, Meine Ehre heisst Treue (“My honor is called fidelity”). Such heroes will neither offer nor demand reasons, but will stick to their pledge and “keep silent.” “Soldiers who, in order to fight, need to know why they are fighting are mediocre soldiers. And worse than them are soldiers who need to be convinced that their cause is good” (seventeenth maxim of the code of ethics).

In politics this translates into the “Organic State.” Whereas today the state is no more than the sum of its inhabitants, de Benoist imagines a state that would be more than such a sum, and this “more” is called the raison d’état and is the basis for what he calls the “transcendence of the principle of authority.” Precisely because America, dedicated as it is to “homogeneity” and “prosperous communism,” does not understand these concepts, it “submitted the executive to the judiciary” and toppled President Nixon. And no wonder! “The very word ‘fatherland’ does not exist in the American vocabulary.” No wonder, too, that America was defeated in Vietnam. “The moving force in politics is not morality or philanthropy, but only energy. The essence of politics is energy. The destiny of peoples is not shaped by ‘interesting’ cases or ‘just’ causes but by the energy and force that are put at the service of these causes—and at the service of others, to be sure.” What might motivate a nation to “serve others” is never specified.

It is not clear in de Benoist’s case what is “new” about the “New Right,” any more than it is clear in Lévy’s case what is “philosophical” about his “New Philosophy.” De Benoist tinkers here and there with the familiar model that calls for an elite based on the superiority of the white Europeans and is contemptuous of Christian tolerance and political democracy; but basically he serves up the same old stuff. He styles himself a “raciophile,” that is, one who wants each race to preserve its own heritage and purity, as contrasted with a “raciophobe,” one who wants to blend races into a hodgepodge. But behind this semantic subterfuge we still know who’s not coming to dinner. “We see some ideologues taking positions on respect for all races—except one: ours (which by the way is also theirs),” he writes. And citing Professor Raymond Ruyer of the University of Nancy, de Benoist writes, “If one denounces, correctly, the ethnocide of primitives by Europeans, then Europeans cannot be prohibited from protecting their own proper ethnicity (ethnies).”

Such protection has a long history in France, and it should not be surprising to find these sentiments coming to the surface at a time when the rich and poor nations of the third world may seem to impinge on Europe more ominously than ever before. What is troubling is to find de Benoist getting a serious hearing and being awarded a prize by the French Academy in the country of Montaigne, who said, “Every man bears in himself the whole human condition.”

This Issue

January 24, 1980