• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Politics of Jacques Derrida

History of Structuralism

by François Dosse, translated by Deborah Glassman
University of Minnesota Press, two volumes, 458 and 517 pp., $85.00

The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe

by Jacques Derrida, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault, by Michael B. Naas
Indiana University Press,, 129 pp., $19.95

Force de loi

by Jacques Derrida
Paris: Editions Galilée, 146 pp., 135 FF (paper)

Moscou aller-retour

by Jacques Derrida
La Tour d’Aigues: Editions de l’Aube, 157 pp., 89 FF (paper)

Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!

by Jacques Derrida
Paris: Editions Galilée, 58 pp., 66 FF (paper)

The history of French philosophy in the three decades following the Second World War can be summed up in a phrase: politics dictated and philosophy wrote. After the Liberation, and thanks mainly to the example of Jean-Paul Sartre, the mantle of the Dreyfusard intellectual passed from the writer to the philosopher, who was now expected to pronounce on the events of the day. This development led to a blurring of the boundaries between pure philosophical inquiry, political philosophy, and political engagement, and these lines have only slowly been reestablished in France. As Vincent Descombes remarked in his superb short study of the period, Modern French Philosophy (1980), “taking a political position is and remains the decisive test in France; it is what should reveal the ultimate meaning of a philosophy.” Paradoxically, the politicizing of philosophy also meant the near extinction of political philosophy, understood as disciplined and informed reflection about a recognizable domain called politics. If everything is political, then strictly speaking nothing is. It is a striking fact about the postwar scene that France produced only one genuine political thinker of note: Raymond Aron.

The list of important French philosophers who protected their work from the political passions of the day is short but contains some significant figures. One thinks of the Jewish moral philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, the misanthropic essayist E.M. Cioran, both of whom have recently died, and the Protestant thinker Paul Ricoeur, now ninety-five, who are all being rediscovered today. One also thinks of Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, a claim that may surprise American readers, given the ideologically charged atmosphere in which Derrida and his work have been received on our side of the Atlantic. Unlike so many of his fellow students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the Fifties, Derrida kept clear of the Stalinized French Communist Party (PCF), and later adopted a skeptical attitude toward the events of May ‘68 and the short-lived hysteria for Mao. Over the next decade, as Michel Foucault became the great white hope of the post-‘68 left, Derrida frustrated all attempts to read a simple political program into deconstruction. He declared himself to be a man of the left but refused to elaborate, leaving more orthodox thinkers to wonder whether deconstruction reflected anything more than “libertarian pessimism,” as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton once charged.

As Derrida’s star began to fall in France in the 1980s, it was rising in the English-speaking world, where questions about his political commitments were raised anew. This must have been awkward for him on several counts. Derrida’s thought is extremely French in its themes and rhetoric, and is difficult to understand outside the context of long-standing Parisian disputes over the legacies of structuralism and Heideggerianism. In the United States, however, his ideas, which were first introduced into literary criticism, now circulate in the alien environment of academic postmodernism, which is a loosely structured constellation of ephemeral disciplines like cultural studies, feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, science studies, and postcolonial theory. Academic postmodernism is nothing if not syncretic, which makes it difficult to understand or even describe. It borrows notions freely from the (translated) works of Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva—and, as if that were not enough, also seeks inspiration from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and other figures from the German Frankfurt School. Given the impossibility of imposing any logical order on ideas as dissimilar as these, postmodernism is long on attitude and short on argument. What appears to hold it together is the conviction that promoting these very different thinkers somehow contributes to a shared emancipatory political end, which remains conveniently ill-defined.

In America, Derrida is considered a classic of the postmodern canon. But as recently as 1990 he still declined to explain the political implications of deconstruction. Occasionally a book would appear claiming to have cracked the code and discovered hidden affinities between deconstruction and, say, Marxism or feminism. The Sphinx just grinned. But now, at long last, he has spoken. During the past five years Jacques Derrida has published no fewer than six books on political themes. Some are no more than pamphlets and interviews, but three of them—a book on Marx, one on friendship and politics, another on law—are substantial treatises. Why Derrida has chosen this particular moment to make his political debut is a matter of speculation. His thoughts could not be more out of season in France, and his six books met bafflement when they appeared there. But given the continuing influence of postmodernism in the United States, where Derrida now spends much of his time teaching, his interventions could not be more timely. They give us plenty of material for reflection about the real political implications of deconstruction and whether American readers have quite grasped them.


On or about November 4, 1956, the nature of French philosophy changed. That, in any case, is what the textbooks tell us. In the decade following the Liberation, the dominant presence in French philosophy was Jean-Paul Sartre and the dominant issue was communism. Sartre’s L’Etre et le néant (1943) had earned him a reputation as an existentialist during the Occupation, and his famous lecture of 1945, “L’Existentialisme est un humanisme,” brought his message that “man is the future of man” to a wide European audience at war’s end. Yet within a few years of having spoken out on behalf of absolute human liberty, Sartre became an obedient fellow traveler. In his infamous tract “Les Communistes et la paix,” which began to be serialized in 1952, he dismissed reports of the Gulag, and after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1954 declared in an interview that “the freedom to criticize is total in the USSR.” Having once extolled man’s unique capacity for free choice, Sartre announced a decade later that Marxism was the unsurpassable horizon of our time.

But in 1956 (so the story goes) the myth of the Soviet Union was shattered in France by Khrushchev’s secret speech to the Twentieth Party Conference in Moscow in November, and the suppression of the Hungarian revolt. This brought an end to many illusions: about Sartre, about communism, about history, about philosophy, and about the term “humanism.” It also established a break between the generation of French thinkers reared in the Thirties, who had seen the war as adults, and students who felt alien to those experiences and wished to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the cold war. The latter therefore turned from the “existential” political engagement recommended by Sartre toward a new social science called structuralism. And (the story ends) after this turn there would develop a new approach to philosophy, of which Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are perhaps the most distinguished representatives.

The problem with this textbook history is that it vastly overstates the degree to which French intellectuals stripped themselves of their Communist illusions in 1956. What it gets right is the role of structuralism in changing the terms in which political matters generally were discussed. Structuralism was a term coined by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to describe a method of applying models of linguistic structure to the study of society as a whole, in particular to customs and myths. Though Lévi-Strauss claimed inspiration from Marx, he interpreted Marxism to be a science of society, not a guide to political action.

Sartre’s engaged Marxist humanism rested on three basic presuppositions: that history’s movements can be understood rationally; that those movements are determined by class relations; and that the individual’s responsibility was to further human emancipation by assisting progressive class forces. Lévi- Strauss drew two very different principles from reading Marx in light of the French sociological tradition (especially the works of Emile Durkheim) and his own anthropological field work. They were that societies are structures of relatively stable relations among their elements, which develop in no rational historical pattern, and that class has no special status among them. As for man’s existential responsibilities, Lévi-Strauss had nothing to say. It was a provocative silence. For if societies were essentially stable structures whose metamorphoses were unpredictable, that left little room for man to shape his political future through action. Indeed, man seemed rather beside the point. As Lévi-Strauss put it in his masterpiece Tristes Tropiques (1955), “The world began without the human race, and it will end without it.”

Today it is somewhat difficult to understand how this austere doctrine could have appealed to young people caught up in the cold war atmosphere of the Fifties. It helps to realize how profoundly Lévi-Strauss was attacking the defining myth of modern French politics. Beginning in the Third Republic there developed a shaky political consensus in France, to the effect that the Declaration of the Rights of Man pronounced in 1789 reflected universal truths about the human condition which France had been anointed to promulgate to the world. After two world wars, the Occupation, and Vichy, this myth of universalism in one country struck many young Frenchmen as absurd. Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism cast doubt on the universality of any political rights or values, and also raised suspicions about the “man” who claimed them. Weren’t these concepts simply a cover for the West’s ethnocentrism, colonialism, and genocide, as Lévi-Strauss charged? And wasn’t Sartre’s Marxism polluted by the same ideas? Marxism spoke of each nation’s place in the general unfolding of history; structuralism spoke of each culture as autonomous. Marxism preached revolution and liberation for all peoples; structuralism spoke of cultural difference and the need to respect it. In the Paris of the late Fifties, the cool structuralism of Lévi-Strauss seemed at once more radically democratic and less naive than the engaged humanism of Sartre.

Besides, structuralist concern with “difference” and the “Other” also had a strong political effect in the decade of decolonization and the Algerian War. Lévi-Strauss’s most significant works were all published during the breakup of the French colonial empire and contributed enormously to the way it was understood by intellectuals. Sartre was much engaged in anticolonial politics and saw in Third World revolutions the birth of a “new man,” as he put it in his passionate preface to Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnées de la terre (1961). Lévi-Strauss never engaged in polemics over decolonization or the Algerian War. Nonetheless, his elegant writings worked an aesthetic transformation on his readers, who were subtly made to feel ashamed to be European. Using the rhetorical gifts he learned from Rousseau, he evoked the beauty, dignity, and irreducible strangeness of Third World cultures that were simply trying to preserve their difference. And though Lévi-Strauss may not have intended it, his writings would soon feed the suspicion among the new left that grew up in the Sixties that all the universal ideas to which Europe claimed allegiance—reason, science, progress, liberal democracy—were culturally specific weapons fashioned to rob the non-European Other of his difference.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print