IT IS not every novelist who sits down to write a serious work of political philosophy. But Mario Vargas Llosa has always been as much a political as a literary animal. He describes “La Llamada de la Tribu” (“The Call of the Tribe”), published in February as its author turned 82, as an account of his own intellectual history. That is a journey from youthful flirtation with communism and existentialism; enthusiasm for and then disenchantment with the Cuban revolution; followed by a conversion to liberalism in the British sense. This stance makes him exceptional among Latin American intellectuals, many of whom are still bewitched by anti-imperialism and socialism.

The book is an account of the lives and thought of seven liberal philosophers. Apart from Adam Smith, they include Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, both of whom the author met (as he did Margaret Thatcher, who impressed him too) while living in London in the 1970s. Also on the list are France’s Raymond Aron and José Ortega y Gasset of Spain. Some readers might query the absence of John Stuart Mill or John Rawls. The book is not “a history of liberalism” but rather a “personal account of writers who made the biggest impression on me”, he explains in an interview at his home in Madrid.

For the reader, it all makes for an enjoyable return to university. Mr Vargas Llosa has read nearly everything his heroes wrote, and his exposition of their thought is lucid and balanced. He says what he thinks they got wrong, such as Friedrich von Hayek’s praise for Chile’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, Popper’s disregard for clear writing and Ortega’s elitist view of culture. The book’s title comes from Popper, who saw the “spirit of the tribe”—a longing for a collective world free from individual responsibilities—as the source of nationalism and religious fanaticism.

Mr Vargas Llosa’s liberalism is not without inner tensions. Some of his newspaper columns seem to espouse anti-state libertarianism, others liberal social democracy. In the book he stresses core liberal beliefs: economic, political and cultural freedom, which he sees as indivisible, but also tolerance of disagreement and equality of opportunity—and thus the importance of education. He is particularly critical of those who would reduce liberalism simply to the free market, though that is an integral element of it. Liberalism has been traduced and distorted, he says, by being presented as identical to reactionary conservatism when it is, rather “the most advanced, progressive, form of democracy”.

This “ignorance” of liberalism is one reason the liberal tradition is so weak in Latin America, says Mr Vargas Llosa, who is Peruvian. Others are the region’s deep inequality, the fact that its 19th-century liberals “did not believe in the free market” and the more recent misappropriation of the term by dictatorships such as Pinochet’s.

He spies today “a big opportunity” for liberalism in Latin America because its rivals, from military dictatorships to Cuban and Venezuelan socialism, have failed so completely. That has destroyed “the Utopian, socialist, collectivist model”, he says. “Who wants their country to be a second Venezuela? Nobody in their right mind.” He thinks that the corruption scandals linked to Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm, have “rendered a great service” and will help cleanse the region’s democracies of corruption by exposing it.

“La Llamada de la Tribu” is a reminder that ideas matter. Its author has put that belief into practice. In 1990 he ran for president in Peru. It was a quixotic venture that ended in defeat at the hands of Alberto Fujimori, who went on to rule as an autocrat for ten years (and who is a particular bête noire for Mr Vargas Llosa). But he writes that “many of the ideas we defended…and which are in this book, far from disappearing…constitute part of today’s political agenda in Peru.” Recently Mr Vargas Llosa spoke at mass rallies in Barcelona against Catalan separatism. He did so, he says, because “the great danger in our time is nationalism.” While fascism and communism are outdated, nationalism is still alive, “available at times of crisis for exploitation by demagogues”.

Many Latin Americans who call themselves liberals are in fact conservatives or libertarians. They either bless a status quo that embodies inherited injustice or oppose state action to remedy it. Too many other Latin Americans remain in thrall to populism or archaic versions of socialism. That makes Mr Vargas Llosa’s book relevant. The challenge is to make its ideas attractive to the Latin American masses.

Read the full interview with Mario Vargas Llosa