The Call of the Tribe, by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 276 pp., $28)
Now 86, Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. He has received all the honors to prove it: a Nobel Prize in literature, a Miguel de Cervantes Prize (the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary award), and election to the Académie Française. He is also, arguably, the most politically important novelist of the last half century. While others have cozied up to authoritarians of various stripes, Vargas Llosa has been a staunch defender of liberal democracy. He even ran for president of his native Peru in 1990. Unfortunately, he lost to Alberto Fujimori, who defeated the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas but went on to dissolve Congress, suspend the constitution, and purge the judiciary.
For at least the past 40 years, Vargas Llosa has been a compelling spokesman for liberalism. Not “liberalism” as the word is used in American politics—to designate someone left of center—but the broader outlook that champions representative democracy, free markets, limited government, and the protection of individual rights and constitutional procedures.
His latest book, The Call of the Tribe (first published in Spanish in 2018 as La llamada de la tribu and translated into English this year), offers a sort of intellectual autobiography. Through incisive portraits of seven thinkers—Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset, Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, and Jean-François Revel—Vargas Llosa documents his own “journey from the Marxism and Sartrean existentialism” of his youth to the “liberalism of [his] mature years.”
In 1953, Vargas Llosa enrolled in the popular, public University of San Marcos instead of the Catholic university his parents hoped he would attend. There, he joined a small Communist reading group, but his taste for orthodox Marxism faded. Nevertheless, throughout the 1950s, Vargas Llosa considered himself a socialist, cheered the triumph of Fidel Castro in Cuba, and remained a supporter of the Cuban Revolution during the 1960s. Living in Paris during that time, he read a host of Marxist writers, including György Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Régis Debray, and Louis Althusser.
However, a visit to the Soviet Union in 1968 and a brush with Cuban politics in 1970 (after which Castro wrote that Vargas Llosa would never again be allowed on Cuban soil) drove him to abandon socialism. Living in Britain in the 1970s and teaching at the University of London, Vargas Llosa began to engage deeply with the liberal tradition of political and economic thought. Reading Hayek and Popper in those years made him a moderate supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Throughout the 1980s, Vargas Llosa deepened his study of the liberal tradition, reflecting on the work of Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman as well as Latin American liberal thinkers Juan Bautista Alberdi (Argentina) and Carlos Rangel (Venezuela).
Despite changes in his political outlook, there is one constant in Vargas Llosa’s thought: his hatred of tyranny. He cites the 1948 military coup and eight-year dictatorship of General Manuel Apolinario Odría as his most formative political experience. It also became the basis for his third novel, Conversación en La Catedral (Conversation in the Cathedral). Another of his great novels, La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat), explores Rafael Trujillo’s rule in the Dominican Republic and should be ranked among the most penetrating novelistic treatments of the impact of tyranny on society and the tyrant himself.
The desire to concentrate political power, Vargas Llosa contends, owes to the “call of the tribe,” a phrase he adopts from Popper. It springs from the yearning for a world where men and women are subsumed in a collective—speaking the same language, worshiping the same gods, and hating outsiders—and subordinate to a charismatic leader who makes them feel safe. The call of the tribe is, in crucial respects, the source of the rejection of the modern world. This call can be heard from both sides of the political spectrum—from the nationalist Right to the socialist Left. Yet liberalism, broadly construed, provides the best antidote, Vargas Llosa maintains.
In treating the liberal thinkers that have inspired and influenced him, Vargas Llosa’s portraits are, not surprisingly, elegant and insightful. In addition to explicating their ideas, he makes sophisticated and informed judgments, defending thinkers where he believes they need defending and criticizing them where they’ve erred. Some readers will likely dissent from his conclusions about particular thinkers and ideas, but they are invited into an urbane and erudite conversation.
Vargas Llosa takes pains to distinguish liberalism from conservatism and at times defends particular thinkers—Ortega y Gasset, Hayek, and Revel for instance—from charges that they were conservatives in their day. If one defines the categories rigorously, he is undoubtedly right.
However, many of the core propositions of liberalism and the thinkers Vargas Llosa studies are today considered “conservative.” For instance, social democrats see the idea of limited government as conservative; treating people as individuals rather than as members of racial and ethnic groups is now considered conservative, too, according to diversity, equity, and inclusion advocates; social-justice activists deride the allocation of goods and services through markets as conservative “market fundamentalism”; and so on. Indeed, it is not too much to say that a portion of today’s conservatives are really just old liberals.
The larger issue is that liberalism today is embattled and under intense scrutiny. On the left, identity politics plays a siren song to various tribes. On the right, populist nationalism creates a chorus for still other tribes. If not outright hostile, neither side is particularly friendly to liberalism’s appreciation for individual rights, defense of markets and limited government, and epistemological skepticism. Liberalism has its theoretical and practical shortcomings, but the available alternatives pose considerable risks to human flourishing.
Therefore, we owe Vargas Llosa a debt of gratitude for his engagement in the battle of political ideas. This is so not only in Europe and North America but especially in Latin America, where proponents of liberalism have been fewer of late. His slim volume is a salutary contribution to what he calls an “indispensable task”: reminding us how liberalism alone can afford protection from the inextinguishable call of the tribe.
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