"WRING THE NECK of optimism with its smiling rationality, arm ourselves with pessimism, dazzle ourselves with despair." So speaks Bernard-Henri Levy, philosopher, journalist, editor. "Life is a lost cause, and happiness an outmoded idea."

If all this sounds like the melodrama of a young man recently jilted, it is. Levy was only 20 in May 1968, when the French Left rose up briefly and ingloriously against Gaullist technocracy. He played his part, and was active later as a radical theorist and publicist. "I wished to and sometimes did get involved in politics," he confesses, "howling with the wolves and singing in the chorus. I can do so no longer...." His days as a Marxist chorus boy are indeed done. Still not 30, he stirred France in 1977 with La barbarie a visage humain , a book that sold more than 100,000 copies and is now available in a sinewy English translation by George Holoch.

As a representative of the "new philosophers" who today wage war in France against Marxism, Levy is in some ways the classic disappointed lover, or the raging apostate more intolerant than any life-long unbeliever. His contrived youthful gloom will cost him many an Anglo-Saxon reader, but he will be consulted eagerly by the enemies of the Left, always in search of fresh ideological ammunition.

Not everything that Levy has to say is fresh. Much of his book is almost a replay of the wrangles of the intellectuals reported in 1954 by Simone de Beauvoir in The Mandarins , and especially the conflict between Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Neither man receives more than a curt nod of acknowledgement from Leby. He prefers to make heroes of Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn. But it is the mature Camus, and Sartre himself before his entanglement in Marxism, whom Levy most closely resembles. His insistence on the death of happiness, the immorality of hope, and the purposelessness of history belong to vintage existentialism. When he proclaims "the simple thesis that the intolerable also exists, and that we must resist it with every breath," it is Camus all over again, pledging relentless rebellion against the absurd. And it is the Camus of L'homme revolte who undergirds Levy's impassioned indictment of totalitarianism.

The argument of Barbarism with a Human Face opens in the realm of political theory. Levy insists, against all modern utopographers, that human society is impossible without politics and power. The tighter the social bond, the more power there must be,because power organizes society. Whenever power is overthrown, it immediately resurrects itself, since it flows not from the bad will of rulers or exploiters but from man's nature as a social anima. It follows that true revolution is impossible, and that the state stands outside history, as a grim necessity whose rigors can sometimes be softened by resistance, but never eliminated.

The real horror of modern times, in Levy's analysis, and our only "revolution," is the concentration of power in the hands of totalizing dictators and bureaucrats, made possible by the false religion of progress. This ugly heresy goads men with the mad dreams of unlimited happiness and freedom. To make such dreams come true, men are willing to surrender all their power to revolutionary leaders, who promptly become gods. Material progress occurs, but the stateless millennium is still a dream, and the new gods turn out to be tyrants.

Levy remains too much the Leftist, however, to exculpate capitalism. On the contrary, he finds capital at the very core of the barbarism in modern history. Capital takes psychic nourishment from the religion of progress. It promises happiness. It makes the gratification of desire the highest good and enlists all men in the struggle for wealth at any cost. It must also bear the full responsibility for socialism, "a programmed resistance that has been organized and instigated from the highest fortresses and offices of power." In short, Levy sees Marxism as an advanced form of capitalism, and Stalinism -- the model of the coming totalitarian technocracy -- as advanced Marxism.

His argument deserves a careful hearing, but of course Levy goes too far. One might as well blame Jesus for the tyrannies of late Rome. The tragedy of Karl Marx is that his thought was too successful too soon. Marx worked in the relatively early days of capitalism as a world system, earlier than he himself knew. Impatient Marxists have been forecasting its imminent doom ever since. Regimes allegedly Marxist have arisen to flog pre-modern societies into the toils of the world system by force and terror. None of them is Marxist, or could be. Capitalism remains strong, with or without resort to totalitarian politics.

But adolescent despair is the last thing we need. Only the hope of better times, which is no less human than power, can fuel the fierce resistance to tyranny that Levy enjoins. If he and his colleagues ever manage to put behind them the May Days of 1968, perhaps they will also find the strength to shake off the baleful incubus of Schopenhauer.