About the Book by Mario Vargas Llosa Titled “The Call of the Tribe”

From a Wall Street Journal review by David Pryce-Jones of the book by Mario Vargas Llosa titled “The Call of the Tribe”:

Almost elected president of his native Peru and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa combines politics and the written word with a distinction that makes him a Grand Old Man, of whom there are far too few left in the world. As befits this status, he is a liberal in the classic sense that derives from the biblical injunction to do to others what you would have them do to you.

He was not always a liberal. As Mr. Vargas Llosa recalls in the beautifully and carefully written opening chapter of “The Call of the Tribe,” he had been a communist in the 1950s.

For his generation, he says, Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution was “a heroic and generous adventure.” Mr. Vargas Llosa joined clandestine study groups and believed everything the standard Marxist textbooks told him to believe. On behalf of a communist front organization, in the 1960s he traveled five times to Cuba and visited the Soviet Union in 1968, the year the Red Army invaded and reoccupied Czechoslovakia. Mr. Vargas Llosa looks back on all this in a tone of mild surprise.

Peru in the mid-20th century was a country where it was quite right to say that a privileged minority was exploiting the vast majority, so how could a man of Mr. Vargas Llosa’s intelligence fail to see that the Soviet Union was repeating this injustice? In Russia and the Soviet satellites, a communist minority always used force to keep every sort of public and private privilege in its hands. Mr. Vargas Llosa explains that Jean-Paul Sartre and the contributors to the periodical Sartre co-founded in 1945, Les Temps Modernes, had convinced him that the Soviet Union represented progress and the future. But how was it possible to listen in good conscience to Sartre, who thought it just to murder whoever made people feel inferior for reasons to do with colonialism, race or color?

A similar fusion of guilt and violence drove Che Guevara, the archetypal poor little rich comrade, to dismiss moral considerations as bourgeois. It is greatly to the credit of Mr. Vargas Llosa that he might well have gone down the Guevara route to perdition, but didn’t.

Instead he discovered liberal democracy. “The Call of the Tribe” consists of seven essays, each devoted to a political theorist chosen because he had something important to say about liberal democracy. Their ideas and doctrines had made these men famous; today those ideas are being tested once again all over the place. For Mr. Vargas Llosa, the chosen seven are keepers of the shrine. All have written books whose persistent subject is freedom, its nature and how best to maintain it. None of the seven has promoted any kind of utopia, whether autocratic or totalitarian. Pragmatism, how to get things done as fairly as possible, is now the end purpose of democracy and connects to all seven.

The only one of the seven with whom Mr. Vargas Llosa could not have been in touch is the 18th-century economist and philosopher Adam Smith. He was at the center of a brilliant group of liberal intellectuals (or “men of letters,” to use the older term) during the Scottish Enlightenment. His analysis of markets and morals remains as relevant as ever. The insight that there is no freedom without wealth to defend it did more for democracy than any writing by, say, Karl Marx.

José Ortega y Gasset is introduced as “one of the most intelligent and elegant liberal philosophers of the twentieth century.” The centurieslong decline of Spain led him to call his country “invertebrate.” The titles of some of his books—“The Revolt of the Masses,” “The Dehumanization of Art”—seem to confirm that his liberal elegance covered a steely conservatism. Ortega y Gasset believed that if the masses were allowed to set the aesthetic and intellectual standards, then, in Mr. Vargas Llosa’s words, there would be “a brutal impoverishment of cultural life.”

Ortega rejected the Spanish monarchy, accusing it of serving “the conservative classes.” During and after the Spanish Civil Car, Ortega made one or two ambiguous remarks about Franco that gave the left a chance to write him off as a fascist. Conceding that Ortega may have been naive, Mr. Vargas Llosa goes on to sign off this chapter with a personal ex cathedra statement: “Liberalism is above all an attitude toward life and society based on tolerance and respect, a love for culture, a desire to coexist with others and a firm defense of freedom as a supreme value.”

Each of the nations comprising the Habsburg Empire needed political thinkers and constitutional lawyers to put forward its case for independence and freedom. Friedrich Hayek’s influence was wide and deep. Austrian by birth, he settled in London before World War II. He was a refugee with a job at the London School of Economics, then an intellectual powerhouse. Hayek’s book “The Road to Serfdom” was published in 1944 but Margaret Thatcher, who read it as a student at Oxford, seems to have delayed until she was prime minister before making it compulsory reading for anyone with a sense of politics. She had found an authority for her conviction that central planning was incompatible with freedom.

The competition is extremely close when it comes to deciding which is the key book of modern democratic and liberal thought. Mr. Vargas Llosa settles on Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” Born in Vienna in 1902, Popper had participated in demonstrations for the new post-Habsburg Republic and then against the Nazis before finding refuge from Hitler’s world war in New Zealand. He would say of himself, “I am an anti-Marxist and a liberal.” For Popper, definitions and theories in politics, history and the sciences were true only for as long as they could be verified and nothing had turned up to falsify them. Truth, then, is merely a fact for the moment.

Mr. Vargas Llosa praises Isaiah Berlin, the man and all his works, without reserve. There was something phenomenal about the way Berlin and his parents had left revolutionary Russia and then anglicized themselves. He had received a fellowship at Oxford with a proposal to write a history of Russian thinkers in however many volumes that might take. After Berlin died in 1997, a scholarly editor gathered from various sources enough to put together the book “Russian Thinkers,” but this fell far short of the series that had been anticipated. Berlin’s production was choice but small; he was in the habit of making more promises than he could keep. He had become an institution.

His conversation was always entertaining, gossipy, up to date about the latest misfortune to fall on those who deserved it. But there was more to it. Time and energy were spent keeping ideological enemies out of influential jobs. He dearly loved a grievance and had a vindictive side. At a dinner in a private house for 10 guests, of whom I was one, he refused to sit next to Lady Falkender, at the time the personal assistant to the prime minister, Harold Wilson. An extract from her diary had been published, in which she questioned whether Berlin might be a charlatan. She duly had to endure the rearrangement of the seating and soon left the party.

Lecturing was apparently a chore from which Berlin could not escape. He would arch his neck, locate some spot on the ceiling and speak at it as if confiding some secret. Which of the many offers to speak or to write he would accept was unpredictable. No sooner had his mother died than squatters occupied her house. He let them stay. Although he was a Zionist who liked to spend Christmas in Israel, the Holocaust was a closed subject. Stalin, he thought, was worse than Hitler, but this too could not be said in public. Given his talents, he could have spoken for the West and perhaps become a world-historical figure. Either he lacked the necessary courage or he was backing into the limelight. Star-struck Mr. Vargas Llosa has the last word when he says that Berlin’s modesty was “a wily strategy.”

“The Call of the Tribe,” translated from the Spanish by John King, includes a chapter on Raymond Aron, author of “The Opium of the Intellectuals,” and another on Jean-François Revel, who wrote “The Totalitarian Temptation,” among at least a dozen other books. For a number of years, the two edited the French weekly magazine L’Express, holding the line for an Anglo-American version of liberal democracy. Aron was among the first to enlist in 1940 under Gen. de Gaulle and yet years later wrote a polemic against the general’s anti-Semitism.

Neither Aron nor Revel suffered fools. They rubbished the left and shrank Sartre to the deranged personality that he was, but their real enemy was stupidity. Human beings like to believe that it is possible to build a collective society where everyone will be happy. The duty of intellectuals is to show the world as it really is—what is to be hoped for, and what is to be feared. Mario Vargas Llosa does his duty very well.

David Pryce-Jones is the author, most recently, of “Openings & Outings: An Anthology.”

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