Daniel Rey

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Damascene conversion to liberalism

Shocked by the authoritarianism of Cuba and the USSR, the Peruvian writer turned his back on communism in the 1960s, influenced by seven liberal European thinkers

Mario Vargas Llosa. [Getty Images]

Mario Vargas Llosa wasn’t always a liberal. From his youth until his early thirties the Peruvian writer, born in 1936, was enthused by the utopian promises of socialism. He joined a communist cell at university, and in the 1950s spent half his salary on a subscription to Les Temps Modernes, the leftist journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Vargas Llosa’s world view changed radically in the late 1960s, as he watched the Cuban revolution silence local writers and put homosexuals in forced labour camps. During a visit to the USSR in 1968, he realised that had he been a Soviet citizen his disregard for authority would have condemned him to the gulag. After a reflective period studying the canon of political science he concluded that the best alternative to socialism was European liberalism.

He is chiefly known as a novelist, but he has long dedicated himself to non-fiction as a literary critic and essayist. In The Call of the Tribe, translated by John King, he explores the seven thinkers who most influenced his ‘intellectual process of opting for liberalism’. Devoting a chapter each to Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin and Jean-François Revel, the book is a history of what the author considers the best of liberal thought. This is classical liberalism – which is to say Vargas Llosa is liberal in the way the Economist is liberal.

His liberalism begins with humanising values – tolerance rather than narrow-mindedness and pragmatism rather than ideology. It is belief in progress, electoral democracy, free trade, a small state, the rights of the individual and an independent press. When well-meaning principles clash (such as press freedom and the right to privacy), liberalism must intercede to ensure that as much liberty as possible prevails.

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