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Levinas and the Right


Levinas and the Right

Itʼs amazing what can pass for a ʻradicalʼ philosophy nowadays. Howard Caygillʼs article, ʻLevinasʼs Political Judgement: The Esprit Articles 1934–1983ʼ in RP 104 raises a number of questions about Caygillʼs own political judgement, and, indeed, about the judgement of the RP collective.

Caygill tells us that ʻit is necessary first to recover the specific political conditions to which [Levinasʼs] ethics was a responseʼ and then proceeds to misrepresent those ʻspecific political conditionsʼ throughout. What, for instance, are we to make of Caygillʼs claim that ʻOf all the twentieth-century philosophers Levinas was the most directly touched by the violent events of the centuryʼs political historyʼ? It is not to diminish Levinasʼs time as a POW or, indeed, the death of his close relatives in the Shoah, to seek to remind RP readers of Antonio Gramsciʼs death in 1937 during incarceration in a Fascist jail, or of Walter Benjaminʼs suicide upon fleeing occupied France and being refused entry to Spain. Levinas, though, Caygill tells us, ʻtaught students from North Africa and the Middle East during the decolonization struggles … and at the height of the student movement in 1968 was teaching at Nanterre.ʼ Is it perhaps necessary to remark here on Sartreʼs wartime imprisonment and his explicit commitment to the struggle for liberation in Algeria and opposition to US imperialism in Vietnam, or Antonio Negriʼs imprisonment at the hands of the Italian state in the crackdown on the Autonomia? The point, I should make clear, is not to score points, but simply to suggest that the extent to which ʻphilosophersʼ are ʻtouchedʼ by political history might have something to do with the extent to which their thought and actions seek to interrupt that history and to challenge the ʻofficialʼ makers of the history of their time.

Perhaps most surprising, in an article on Levinasʼs involvement with Emmanuel Mounierʼs journal Esprit, is Caygillʼs uncritical acquiescence to Levinasʼs description of Esprit as ʻrepresenting progressive, avant-garde Catholicismʼ and his further suggestion that Mounier ʻaspired to combine the insights of Marx and Kierkegaardʼ in a ʻmoral and political anticapitalismʼ which was ʻpolitically committedʼ and was ʻagainst Hitlerismʼ. We are told that Mounier flirted with Vichy, as did Ricoeur, and we are given Ricoeurʼs explanation for this dalliance, as rooted in the ʻintense propagandaʼ of the day and ʻthe feeling that a new, stronger France had to be formedʼ. All very noble. Except that what Caygill omits is that Mounier, who was indeed a vigorous opponent of what he called the ʻestablished disorderʼ, listed as his enemies ʻindividualism, capitalism, liberalism, Marxist determinism, democratic “disorder” and bourgeois mediocrityʼ. In May 1935 Mounier accepted an invitation to attend a congress at the Institute of Fascist Culture, as part of a delegation including Robert Aron of LʼOrdre Nouveau and a representative of the Jeune Droite. In a report in Esprit following the conference, Mounier paid tribute to the ʻauthentic anticapitalist elanʼ of the ʻactive fraction of the fascist worldʼ. Mounier described the difference between fascism and personalism as being between fascismʼs assertion of the primacy of the state and personalismʼs ʻpluralisticʼ view of the state. He made a point of making clear, though, that the two philosophies shared a rejection of ʻfalse libertiesʼ. Esprit, in the 1930s, carried articles by Otto Strasser, and Mounier had his ʻWhat is Personalism?ʼ translated for publication in a journal edited by the Nazi Party propagandist Otto Abetz. Under Occupation, Mounier worked for more than a year uncritically with the Vichy regime. His follower Jean-Marie Domenach wrote that ʻMounier is not sorry to see bourgeois liberalism come to grief. The situation is open: beyond the disaster he hopes a new world will come into being.ʼ Mounier, to be fair, was not a fascist, but he, as also Ricoeur, saw opportunities for dialogue between the ʻleftʼ currents within fascism and those elements around Esprit seeking a ʻthird wayʼ between capitalism and Marxism. What they all had in common was a rejection of ʻbourgeois individualismʼ, materialism and the ʻleft wing mythosʼ of democratic socialism. In the decade leading up to the establishment of the Vichy regime, France was polarized between an increasingly militant working class and a Right that deployed pro-fascist and pro-royalist organization against workers in pursuit of a Bonapartist project that manifested itself first in the mobilization that led to the 1934 Doumergue government and finally the rule of Pétain himself. Mounierʼs critique of the ʻestablished disorderʼ could only have found realization either in support for the working class or support for the fascist project of ʻcritiquingʼ democracy by suppressing it. His alliances up to 1940 suggest clearly his orientation towards the latter. Even a cursory reading of Sternhell, or of Winockʼs Historie politique de la revue ʻEspritʼ (Editions du Seuil, 1975) would have brought all of this to light.

A similar refusal of ʻspecific political conditionsʼ takes place in Caygillʼs dealings with Levinasʼs application of his ʻethicsʼ to the Palestinian question. Caygill remarks that Levinasʼs radio discussion with Alain Finkielkraut about the Sabra and Chatilla massacres reveals one of ʻits unacknowledged strengthsʼ. In the discussion Levinas clearly fudges the question of direct Israeli responsibility for the massacre and refers to ʻwhoeverʼ was responsible. The murders were carried out by Phalange militias armed and trained by Israel, who slaughtered Palestinian civilians under light provided by Israeli Defence Force flares. The explicitly fascist nature of the Phalange appears not to trouble Levinasʼs ʻethicsʼ. Levinasʼs ethical sense (which Caygill tells us ʻshows the link between his exercise of political judgement and the broader development of his philosophyʼ) is, in any event, a peculiar thing. Between 1967 and 1982, Palestinians were responsible for the deaths of 290 Israelis. Israeli-caused Arab casualties, though, stood at 20,000 for the period July–August 1982 alone – before the September 1982 Sabra and Chatilla massacres.

All of this represents for Levinas, as Caygill makes clear, ʻan adventureʼ by a ʻgreat Modern state … one that serves humanityʼ, which perhaps suggests that the Palestinians, for Levinas, are not part of that humanity-to-be-served. The point, really, is that behind Levinasʼs posturings about ʻa destiny confusedly feltʼ and his ʻunhated enemyʼ is an explicit defence of Zionist expansionism and of the Zionist state ʻproclaimed in the aftermath of Auschwitzʼ which for Levinas was ʻa religious eventʼ, albeit one built upon the bloody massacre and expulsion of the Palestinian people. Levinasʼs Esprit article ʻSpace is Not One-Dimensionalʼ is a justification in philosophy for the imperialist designs of the Israeli state, which puts what Caygill calls ʻ the messianic mission of Israel in Jewish sacred historyʼ above the right to a homeland for the dispossessed of the Middle East. Its ʻethicsʼ are an ethics shared by Moshe Dayan and Zionist expansionist settler groups such as the Whole Land of Israel Movement, Gush Emunim and Meir Kahaneʼs Kach movement. There can be no ambiguous reading of Levinasʼs writings on the ʻtruth and destinyʼ of Israel. Levinas, like the settler-extremists, believed Jews were am segula – a chosen people. From this flows the belief in the mitzvah: the religious duty to conquer, possess and settle the ʻPromised Land.ʼ

There is, in all of this, a wider point to be made, beyond the deficiencies of Caygillʼs article. Post-Marxist philosophy, in its ethical turn, has embraced a politics and philosophy which correspond almost exactly to personalismʼs rejection of ʻliberalism, Marxist determinism and materialismʼ. Alongside this has gone an attempt to demonstrate that, contra Lukács, all philosophy is, somehow, innocent. We have seen the whitewashing of Heidegger, the rehabilitation of Schmitt, and, now, Levinasʼs Zionism put forward as a ʻstrengthʼ of his linking of ethics and politics. Should not Radical Philosophy seek to stand against all this, to subject it to critique and rebuttal?

Nick stone

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Nick Stoneʼs response to ʻLevinasʼs Political Judgement: The Esprit Articles 1934–1983ʼ (RP 104) amounts to a sustained calumny on the life and work of Emmanuel Levinas. He attempts to put into question the anti-fascist motivation of Levinasʼs work by insinuating that (a) Levinas wrote for a journal with fascist inclinations, (b) he supported the Lebanese fascist Phalange, (c) he published in the alleged fascist journal ʻan explicit defence of Zionist expansionism and the Zionist stateʼ. Each of these charges is perverse and without foundation.

Stone devotes considerable effort to defaming the journal Esprit and its founder Emmanuel Mounier. His reference to Michel Winockʼs balanced history of the journal (usually referred to under the title of the second enlarged edition ʻEspritʼ Des intellectuels dans la cité 1930–1950, Seuil, 1995) in support of his one-dimensional condemnation shows a singular lack of scruple. Winock describes the Esprit of the 1930s as a journal of the Left with a consistently anti-fascist editorial policy. Winock sets Mounierʼs visit to Rome in 1935 in a quite different context to that of Stone, and situates the publication of Otto Strasser as part of a dossier documenting the dangers of Nazism, commenting ʻEsprit thus offered a rich dossier to the attention of the French who were still little aware of the realities of fascism and of national socialism.ʼ To insinuate that Esprit was sympathetic to fascism is unfair to a journal that defended the Spanish republic, defended the anti-Stalinist militant Victor Serge, and opposed the colonial adventure of the Italian Fascist regime.

Similarly unworthy is Stoneʼs suggestion that Levinas was sympathetic to the ideology and actions of the Phalange. There is no evidence whatsoever of this in the Finkielkraut broadcast. His description of the essay ʻSpace is Not One-Dimensionalʼ as a ʻjustification in philosophy of the imperialist designs of the Israeli stateʼ forgets that the prime concern of the essay is to confront the anti-Semitic canard of the ʻdouble allegianceʼ of Jewish citizens that had re-emerged in France following the Six Day War. Levinasʼs position on the State of Israel was in fact complex and tormented, and by no means a simple ʻphilosophical justificationʼ of its policies.

It is striking that at the outset of his response Stone refers approvingly to Sartre and at the end to Lukács. While he considered it ʻnecessaryʼ to mention Sartreʼs imprisonment and opposition to French and United Statesʼ imperialism, it was apparently not necessary to mention in his opening flourish Sartreʼs support for the State of Israel, nor at the end that Lukács too published in Esprit. Such details would have introduced precisely the element of complexity into the issue of political judgement that Stone resists but which should be respected by any responsible philosophical radicalism.

Howard caygill


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