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.

As François Dosse shows in his useful new study of structuralism, the movement had a lasting impact on French thought and intellectual politics, even though its doctrines were quickly misunderstood and misapplied in the next generation.1 For Lévi-Strauss, structuralism was a scientific method for studying differences between cultures, in the hope of one day achieving a more genuinely universal understanding of human nature. For the tiers-mondistes he inspired, and who were radicalized by the Algerian War, this scientific relativism degenerated into just another primitivism that neutralized any criticism of abuses within foreign cultures. (Not to mention the crimes of Communist totalitarianism, which now could be excused on culturalist rather than Stalinist grounds.) As the Sixties progressed, the children of structuralism came to forget Lévi-Strauss’s skepticism about the French revolutionary myth and began promoting the Other as an honorary sans culottes. All that was marginal within Western societies could now be justified and even celebrated philosophically. Some followed Michel Foucault in portraying the development of European civilization as a process of marginalizing domestic misfits—the mentally ill, sexual and political deviants—who were branded and kept under surveillance through the cooperation of social “power” and “knowledge.” Others turned to psychology, searching for the repressed Other in the libido or the unconscious.

By the mid-Seventies the structuralist idea had declined from a scientific method informed by political and cultural pessimism into a liberation anti-theology celebrating difference wherever it might be found. In one sense, then, little had changed since 1956. French intellectuals still thought of themselves on the Dreyfusard model, and philosophers continued to write thinly veiled political manifestoes. But the structuralist experience had changed the terms in which political engagements were conceived philosophically. It was no longer possible to appeal to a rational account of history, as Sartre had, to justify political action. It was not clear that one could appeal to reason at all, since language and social structure loomed so large. One could not even speak of man without putting the term in quotation marks. “Man” was now considered a site, a point where various social, cultural, economic, linguistic, and psychological forces happened to intersect. As Michel Foucault put it in the closing sentence of Les Mots et les choses (1966), man was a recent invention that would soon disappear, like a face drawn in the sand.

That surely was not what Lévi-Strauss had in mind when he spoke of creation outlasting man, but the die was already cast. What this radical antihumanism would mean for politics was not altogether clear. For if “man” was entirely a construct of language and social forces, then how was homo politicus to deliberate on and justify his actions? Whatever one thought of Sartre’s political engagements, he had an answer to that question. The structuralists did not.


François Dosse describes Jacques Derrida’s doctrine of deconstruction as an “ultrastructuralism.” This is accurate enough but does not tell the whole story. In France at least, the novelty of deconstruction in the Sixties was to have addressed the themes of structuralism—difference, the Other—with the philosophical concepts and categories of Martin Heidegger. Derrida’s early writing revived a querelle over the nature of humanism which had set Heidegger against Sartre back in the late Forties and had many political implications. Derrida sided with Heidegger, whom he only criticized for not having gone far enough. And it is to that decision in favor of Heidegger that all the political problems of deconstruction may be traced.

The Sartre-Heidegger dispute followed Sartre’s 1945 lecture on humanism, which Heidegger read as a travesty of his own intellectual position. Sartre had appropriated the Heideggerian language of anxiety, authenticity, existence, and resolution to make the case for man as “the future of man,” by which he meant that man’s autonomous self-development should replace transcendent ends as the aim of all our striving. In a long, and justly famous, “Letter on Humanism” (1946), Heidegger responded that his aim had always been to question the concept of man and perhaps free us from it. Ever since Plato, he wrote, Western philosophy had made unexamined metaphysical assumptions about man’s essence that disguised the fundamental question of Being—which is the meaning of Being apart from man’s comprehension of the being of natural entities—and placed man himself at the center of creation. All the scourges of modern life—science, technology, capitalism, communism—could be traced back to this original “anthropologization” of Being. This was a heavy burden, which could only be lifted through the dismantling (Destruktion) of the metaphysical tradition. Only then could man learn that he is not the master but rather the “shepherd” of Being.

Deconstruction was conceived in the spirit of Heidegger’s Destruktion, though Derrida had no intention of making man the shepherd of anything. In a remarkable lecture in 1968, “The Ends of Man,” Derrida pointed out that by anointing man the “shepherd of Being,” Heidegger had returned to humanism “as if by magnetic attraction.” He then claimed that the metaphysical tradition could only really be overcome if the very language of philosophy was “deconstructed,” a language in which even Heidegger was snared. At the root of the metaphysical tradition was a naive notion of language as a transparent medium, a “logocentrism,” as Derrida dubbed it. The Greek term logos means word or language, but it can also mean reason or principle—an equation of speech with intentionality that Derrida considered highly questionable. What was needed was a radical “decentering” of the implicit hierarchies imbedded in this language that encourage us to place speech above writing, the author above the reader, or the signified above the signifier. Deconstruction thus was described as a prolegomenon to—or perhaps even a substitute for—philosophy as traditionally conceived. It would be an activity allowing the aporias, or paradoxes, imbedded in every philosophical text to emerge without forcing a “violent” consistency upon them. The end of logocentrism would then mean the end of every other wicked “centrism”: androcentrism, phallocentrism, phallologocentrism, carnophallologocentrism, and the rest. (All these terms appear in the books under review.)

As a specimen of normalien cleverness, Derrida’s attack on his intellectual forefathers could hardly be bettered. He accused both structuralists and Heidegger of not having pushed their own fundamental insights far enough. Structuralists destabilized our picture of man by placing him in a web of social and linguistic relations, but then assumed that web of relations—structures—to have a stable center. Heidegger’s blindness to his own language led from the Destruktion of metaphysics to the promotion of man as the “shepherd of Being.” Derrida’s contribution, if that is the correct term, was to have seen that by pressing further the antihumanism latent in both these intellectual traditions, he could make them seem compatible ways of addressing logocentrism.

But having done that, Derrida then found himself bound to follow the linguistic principles he had discovered in his campaign against logocentrism, especially the hard doctrine that since all texts contain ambiguities and can be read in different ways (la différence), exhaustive interpretation must be forever deferred (la différance). That raised the obvious question: How then are we to understand deconstruction’s own propositions? As more than one critic has pointed out, there is an unresolvable paradox in using language to claim that language cannot make unambiguous claims.2 For Derrida coping with such evident paradoxes is utterly beside the point. As he has repeatedly explained, he conceives of deconstruction less as a philosophical doctrine than as a “practice” aimed at casting suspicion on the entire philosophical tradition and robbing it of self-confidence.

Anyone who has heard him lecture in French knows that he is more performance artist than logician. His flamboyant style—using free association, rhymes and near-rhymes, puns, and maddening digressions—is not just a vain pose (though it is surely that). It reflects what he calls a self-conscious “acommunicative strategy” for combating logocentrism. As he puts it in the interview published in Moscou aller-retour:

What I try to do through the neutralization of communication, theses, and stability of content, through a microstructure of signification, is to provoke, not only in the reader but also in oneself, a new tremor or a new shock of the body that opens a new space of experience. That might explain the reaction of not a few readers when they say that, in the end, one doesn’t understand anything, there’s no conclusion drawn, it’s too sophisticated, we don’t know if you are for or against Nietzsche, where you stand on the woman question….

It also might explain the reaction of those readers who suspect that the neutralization of communication means the neutralization of all standards of judgment—logical, scientific, aesthetic, moral, political—and leaves these fields of thought open to the winds of force and caprice. Derrida always brushed aside such worries as childish, and in the atmosphere of the Sixties and Seventies few questions were asked. But the Eighties proved to be trying times for deconstruction. In 1987 a Chilean writer named Victor Farías published a superficial book on Martin Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis and its alleged roots in his philosophy. While the book contained no revelations, it was taken in France and Germany to confirm the suspicion that, to the extent that philosophy in the Sixties and Seventies was Heideggerian, it was politically irresponsible. Jacques Derrida rejected these associations out of hand, as readers of this paper will recall.3

But that same year it was also revealed that the late Yale professor Paul de Man, a leading champion of deconstruction and close friend of Derrida’s, had published collaborationist and anti-Semitic articles in two Belgian newspapers in the early Forties. These might have been dismissed as youthful errors had Derrida and some of his American followers not then interpreted away the offending passages, denying their evident meaning, leaving the impression that deconstruction means you never have to say you’re sorry.4 It now appeared that deconstruction had, at the very least, a public relations problem, and that the questions of politics it so playfully left in suspension would now have to be answered.

Yet how would that be possible? Derrida’s radical interpretations of structuralism and Heideggerianism had rendered the traditional vocabulary of politics unusable and nothing could be put in its place. The subjects considered in traditional political philosophy—individual human beings and nations—were declared to be artifices of language, and dangerous ones at that. The object of political philosophy—a distinct realm of political action—was seen as part of a general system of relations that itself had no center. And as for the method of political philosophy—rational inquiry toward a practical end—Derrida had succeeded in casting suspicion on its logocentrism. An intellectually consistent deconstruction would therefore seem to entail silence on political matters. Or, if silence proved unbearable, it would at least require a serious reconsideration of the antihumanist dogmas of the structuralist and Heideggerian traditions. To his credit, Michel Foucault began such a reconsideration in the decade before his death. Jacques Derrida never has.


The most we are ever likely to learn about Derrida’s understanding of strictly political relations is contained in his most recently translated work, Politics of Friendship—the only one of his books with the word “politics” in the title. It is based on a seminar given in Paris in 1988-1989, just as Europe was being shaken to its foundation by the rapid collapse of the Eastern Bloc. As it happens, I attended this seminar and, like most of the participants I met, had difficulty understanding what Derrida was driving at. Each session would begin with the same citation from Montaigne—“O mes amis, il n’y a nul ami” (“O my friends, there is no friend”)—and then veer off into a rambling discussion of its possible sources and meanings. The published text is much reworked and gives a clearer picture of what Derrida has in mind.

His aim is to show that the entire Western tradition of thinking about politics has been distorted by our philosophy’s peccatum originarium, the concept of identity. Because our metaphysical tradition teaches that man is identical to himself, a coherent personality free from internal difference, we have been encouraged to seek our identities through membership in undifferentiated, homogenizing groups such as families, friendships, classes, and nations. From Aristotle to the French Revolution, the good republic has therefore been thought to require fraternité, which is idealized as a natural blood tie making separate individuals somehow one.5 But there is no such thing as natural fraternity, Derrida asserts, just as there is no natural maternity (sic). All such natural categories, as well as the derivative concepts of community, culture, nation, and borders, are dependent on language and therefore are conventions. The problem with these conventions is not simply that they cover up differences within the presumably identical entities. It is that they also establish hierarchies among them: between brothers and sisters, citizens and foreigners, and eventually friends and enemies. In the book’s most reasoned chapters, Derrida examines Carl Schmitt’s conception of politics, which portrays the political relation as an essentially hostile one between friends and enemies.6 Derrida sees Schmitt not as a mere Nazi apologist with a thirst for conflict, but as a deep thinker who made explicit the implicit assumptions of all Western political philosophy.

From this point of view it would seem that all Western political ideologies—fascism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism—would be equally unacceptable. That is the logical implication of Derrida’s attack on logocentrism, and sometimes he appears to accept it. In Specters of Marx and The Other Heading he denounces the new liberal consensus he sees as having ruled the West since 1989, lashing out hysterically, and unoriginally, at the “New International” of global capitalism and media conglomerates that have established world hegemony by means of an “unprecedented form of war.” He is less critical of Marxism (for reasons we will examine), though he does believe that communism became totalitarian when it tried to realize the eschatological program laid out by Marx himself. Marx’s problem was that he did not carry out fully his own critique of ideology and remained within the logocentrist tradition. That is what explains the Gulag, the genocides, and the terror carried out in his name by the Soviet Union. “If I had the time,” Derrida tells his undoubtedly stupefied Russian interviewers in Moscou aller-retour, “I could show that Stalin was ‘logocentrist,”‘ though he admits that “that would demand a long development.”

It probably would. For it would mean showing that the real source of tyranny is not tyrants, or guns, or wicked institutions. Tyranny begins in the language of tyranny, which derives ultimately from philosophy. If that were transformed, or “neutralized” as he says in Politics of Friendship, so eventually would our politics be. He proves to be extremely open-minded about what this might entail. He asks rhetorically whether “it would still make sense to speak of democracy when there would be no more speaking of country, nation, even state and citizen.” He also considers whether the abandonment of Western humanism would mean that concepts of human rights, humanitarianism, even crimes against humanity would have to be forsworn.

But then what remains? If deconstruction throws doubt on every political principle of the Western philosophical tradition—Derrida mentions propriety, intentionality, will, liberty, conscience, self- consciousness, the subject, the self, the person, and community—are judgments about political matters still possible? Can one still distinguish rights from wrongs, justice from injustice? Or are these terms, too, so infected with logocentrism that they must be abandoned? Can it really be that deconstruction condemns us to silence on political matters, or can it find a linguistic escape from the trap of language?


Readers of Derrida’s early works can be forgiven for assuming that he believes there can be no escape from language, and therefore no escape from deconstruction for any of our concepts. His achievement, after all, was to have established this hard truth, which was the only truth he did not question. But now Jacques Derrida has changed his mind, and in a major way. It turns out that there is a concept—though only one—resilient enough to withstand the acids of deconstruction. That concept is justice.

In the fall of 1989 Derrida was invited to address a symposium in New York on the theme “deconstruction and the possibility of justice.” His lecture has now been expanded in a French edition and published along with an essay on Walter Benjamin.7 Derrida’s aim in the lecture is to demonstrate that although deconstruction can and should be applied to the law, it cannot and should not be taken to undercut the notion of justice. The problem with law, in his view, is that it is founded and promulgated on the basis of authority, and therefore, he asserts (with typical exaggeration), depends on violence. Law is affected by economic and political forces, is changed by calculation and compromise, and therefore differs from place to place. Law is written into texts and must be interpreted, which complicates things further.

Of course, none of this is news. Our whole tradition of thinking about law, beginning in Greek philosophy and passing through Roman law, canon law, and modern constitutionalism, is based on the recognition that laws are a conventional device. The only controversial issue is whether there is a higher law, or right, by which the conventional laws of nations can be judged, and, if so, whether it is grounded in nature, reason, or revelation. This distinction between law and right is the foundation of continental jurisprudence, which discriminates carefully between loi/droit, Gesetz/Recht, legge/diritto, and so forth. Derrida conflates loi and droit for the simple reason that he recognizes neither nature nor reason as standards for anything. In his view, both are caught up in the structures of language, and therefore may be deconstructed.

Now, however, he also wishes to claim that there is a concept called justice, and that it stands “outside and beyond the law.” But since this justice cannot be understood through nature or reason, that only leaves one possible means of access to its meaning: revelation. Derrida studiously avoids this term but it is what he is talking about. In Force de loi he speaks of an “idea of justice” as “an experience of the impossible,” something that exists beyond all experience and therefore cannot be articulated. And what cannot be articulated cannot be deconstructed; it can only be experienced in a mystical way. This is how he puts it:

If there is deconstruction of all determining presumption of a present justice, it operates from an infinite “idea of justice,” infinitely irreducible. It is irreducible because due to the other—due to the other before any contract, because this idea has arrived, the arrival of the other as a singularity always other. Invincible to all skepticism…this “idea of justice” appears indestructible…. One can recognize, and even accuse it of madness. And perhaps another sort of mysticism. Deconstruction is mad about this justice, mad with the desire for justice.

Or again in Specters of Marx:

What remains irreducible to any deconstruction, what remains as undeconstructible as the possibility itself of deconstruction, is, perhaps, a certain experience of the emancipatory promise; it is perhaps even the formality of a structural messianism, a messianism without religion, even a messianic without messianism, an idea of justice—which we distinguish from law or right and even from human rights—and an idea of democracy—which we distinguish from its current concept and from its determined predicates today.

There is no justice present anywhere in the world. There is, however, as Derrida puts it, an “infinite idea of justice,” though it cannot and does not penetrate our world. Yet this necessary absence of justice does not relieve us of the obligation to await its arrival, for the Messiah may come at any moment, through any city gate. We must therefore learn to wait, to defer gratifying our desire for justice. And what better training in deferral than deconstruction? If deconstruction questions the claim of any law or institution to embody absolute justice, it does so in the very name of justice—a justice it refuses to name or define, an “infinite justice that can take on a ‘mystical’ aspect.” Which leads us, without surprise, to the conclusion that “deconstruction is justice.”

Socrates equated justice with philosophy, on the grounds that only philosophy could see things as they truly are, and therefore judge truly. Jacques Derrida, mustering all the chutzpah at his disposal, equates justice with deconstruction, on the grounds that only the undoing of rational discourse about justice will prepare the advent of justice as Messiah.


How seriously are we meant to take all this? As always with Derrida it is difficult to know. In the books under review he borrows freely from the modern messianic writings of Emmanuel Lévinas and Walter Benjamin.8 But whatever one makes of these two thinkers, they had too much respect for theological concepts like promise, covenant, Messiah, and anticipation to throw these words about cavalierly. Derrida’s turn to them in these new political writings bears all the signs of intellectual desperation. He clearly wants deconstruction to serve some political program, and to give hope to the dispirited left. He also wants to correct the impression that his own thought, like that of Heidegger, leads inevitably to a blind “resolve,” an assertion of will that could take any political form. As he remarked not long ago, “My hope as a man of the left, is that certain elements of deconstruction will have served or—because the struggle continues, particularly in the United States—will serve to politicize or repoliticize the left with regard to positions which are not simply academic.”9 Yet the logic of his own philosophical arguments, such as they are, proves stronger than Derrida. He simply cannot find a way of specifying the nature of the justice to be sought through left-wing politics without opening himself to the very deconstruction he so gleefully applies to others. Unless, of course, he places the “idea of justice” in the eternal, messianic beyond where it cannot be reached by argument, and assumes that his ideologically sympathetic readers won’t ask too many questions.

But politics on the left, no less than on the right, is not a matter of passive expectation. It envisages action. And if the idea of justice cannot be articulated, it cannot provide any aim for political action. According to Derrida’s argument, all that remains to guide us is decision, pure and simple: a decision for justice or democracy, and for a particular understanding of both. Derrida places enormous trust in the ideological goodwill or prejudices of his readers, for he cannot tell them why he chooses justice over injustice, or democracy over tyranny, only that he does. Nor can he offer the uncommitted any reasons for thinking that the left has a monopoly on the correct understanding of these ideas. He can only offer impressions, as in the little memoir he has published in Moscou aller-retour, where he confesses to still being choked with emotion whenever he hears the Internationale.

This nostalgic note is struck time and again in Specters of Marx and Moscou aller-retour, which deserve permanent places in the crowded pantheon of bizarre Marxist apologetics. In the latter book Derrida declares that “deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.” Not, of course, that he wishes to defend anything Marx himself actually wrote or believed. He declares Marx’s economics to be rubbish and his philosophy of history a dangerous myth. But all that is beside the point. The “spirit” of Marxism gave rise to a great heritage of messianic yearning, and deserves respect for that reason. Indeed, in a certain sense, we are all Marxists now simply because Marxism, well, happened.

Whether they wish it or know it or not, all men and women, all over the earth, are today to a certain extent the heirs of Marx and Marxism. That is, as we were saying a moment ago, they are heirs of the absolute singularity of a project—or of a promise—which has a philosophical and scientific form. This form is in principle non-religious, in the sense of a positive religion; it is not mythological; it is therefore not national—for beyond even the alliance with a chosen people, there is no nationality or nationalism that is not religious or mythological, let us say “mystical” in the broad sense. The form of this promise or of this project remains absolutely unique….

Whatever one may think of this event, of the sometimes terrifying failure of that which was thus begun, of the techno-economic or ecological disasters, and the totalitarian perversions to which it gave rise,…whatever one may think also of the trauma in human memory that may follow, this unique attempt took place. A messianic promise, even if it was not fulfilled, at least in the form in which it was uttered, even if it rushed headlong toward an ontological content, will have imprinted an inaugural and unique mark in history. And whether we like it or not, whatever consciousness we have of it, we cannot not be its heirs.

With statements like these Jacques Derrida risks giving bad faith a bad name. The simple truth is that his thinking has nothing to do with Marx or Marxism. Derrida is some vague sort of left democrat who values “difference” and, as his recent short pamphlet on cosmopolitanism shows, he is committed to seeing Europe become a more open, hospitable place, not least for immigrants. These are not remarkable ideas, nor are they contemptible. But like so many among the structuralist generation, Derrida is convinced that the only way to extend the democratic values he himself holds is to destroy the language in which the West has always conceived of them, in the mistaken belief that it is language, not reality, that keeps our democracies imperfect. Only by erasing the vocabulary of Western political thought can we hope for a “repoliticization” or a “new concept of politics.” But once that point is achieved, what we discover is that the democracy we want cannot be described or defended; it can only be treated as an article of irrational faith, a messianic dream. That is the wistful conclusion of Politics of Friendship:

For democracy remains to come; this is its essence in so far as it remains: not only will it remain indefinitely perfectible, hence always insufficient and future, but, belonging to the time of the promise, it will always remain, in each of its future times, to come: even when there is democracy, it never exists.


Things have changed in Paris. The days when intellectuals turned to philosophers to get their political bearings, and the public turned to intellectuals, are all but over. The figure of the philosophe engagé promoted by Sartre has been badly tarnished by the political experiences of the past several decades, beginning with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s books, then the Cambodian horrors, the rise of Solidarity, and finally the events of 1989. For structuralism in all its forms, it was the disappointments of le tiers monde that did most to call into question the philosophers’ notion that cultures are irreducibly different and men simply products of those cultures. To their credit, some of the French intellectuals who became structuralists in the Fifties began to see that the vocabulary they had once used to defend colonial peoples against Western tyranny was now being used to excuse crimes committed against those peoples by homegrown, postcolonial tyrants.

Their abandonment of structuralism and deconstruction was not philosophically motivated, at least at first; it was inspired by moral repugnance. But this repugnance had the hygienic effect of reestablishing the distinctions between, on the one hand, pure philosophy and political philosophy and, on the other, committed engagement. There is today a new French interest in rigorous moral philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and even cognitive science. The tradition of political philosophy, ancient and modern, is also being studied intensively for the first time in many years, and there is some original theoretical work being done by younger French political thinkers who are no longer contemptuous of politicians or the state. This all could change tomorrow, of course. But it is difficult to imagine the French stepping into the structuralist river twice.

The persistent American fascination with Derrida and deconstruction has nothing to do with his current status in French philosophy, which is marginal at best. This raises a number of interesting questions about how and why his work has been received with open arms by American postmodernists, and what they think they are embracing. Derrida is often asked about his American success and always responds with the same joke: “La déconstruction, c’est l’Amérique.” By which he apparently means that America has something of the decentered, democratic swirl he tries to reproduce in his own thought. He may be on to something here, for if deconstruction is not America, it has certainly become an Americanism.

When continental Europeans think about questions of cultural difference and the Other, they are thinking about many deep and disturbing things in their own past: colonialism, nationalism, fascism, the Holocaust. What makes these historical events so difficult for them to grapple with is that there is no moderate liberal intellectual tradition in Europe that addresses them, or at least not a vigorous and continuous one. The continental philosophical tradition makes it difficult to think about toleration, for example, except in the illiberal terms of Herder’s Romantic theory of national spirit, the rigid French model of uniform republican citizenship, and now, most improbably, the Heideggerian messianism of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction.

When Americans think about these issues of cultural difference they feel both pride and shame: pride in our capacity to absorb immigration and shame in the legacy of slavery that has kept black Americans a caste apart. The intellectual problem we face is not that of convincing ourselves that cultural variety can be good, or that differences should be respected, or that liberal political principles are basically sound. These we absorb fairly easily. The problem is in understanding why the American promise has only been imperfectly fulfilled, and how we should respond. About this we are clearly divided. But the fact that some political groups, such as those claiming to represent women and homosexuals, portray their moral enfranchisement as the logical extension of the social enfranchisement given to immigrants and promised, but never delivered, to American blacks, speaks volumes about the social consensus that exists in this country about how to think and argue about such questions.

In light of these contrasting experiences, it is a little easier to understand why the political reckoning structuralism faced in France during the Seventies and Eighties never took place in the United States. The souring of the postcolonial experiments in Africa and Asia and the collapse of Communist regimes nearby induced enormous self-doubt in Europe about the ideas that reigned in the postwar period. These same events have had no appreciable effect on American intellectual life, for the simple reason that they pose no challenge to our own self-understanding. When Americans read works in the structuralist tradition today, even in its most radicalized Heideggerian form in deconstruction, they find it difficult to imagine any moral and political implications they might have. People who believe it is possible to “get a new life” will not be overly concerned by the suggestion that all truth is socially constructed, or think that accepting it means relinquishing one’s moral compass. That the antihumanism and politics of pure will latent in structuralism and deconstruction, not to mention the strange theological overtones that Derrida has recently added, are philosophically and practically incompatible with liberal principles sounds like an annoying prejudice.

No wonder a tour through the post-modernist section of any American bookshop is such a disconcerting experience. The most illiberal, anti-enlightenment notions are put forward with a smile and the assurance that, followed out to their logical conclusion, they could only lead us into the democratic promised land, where all God’s children will join hands in singing the national anthem. It is an uplifting vision and Americans believe in uplift. That so many of them seem to have found it in the dark and forbidding works of Jacques Derrida attests to the strength of Americans’ self-confidence and their awesome capacity to think well of anyone and any idea. Not for nothing do the French still call us les grands enfants.

This Issue

June 25, 1998