The Politics of Jacques Derrida


June 25, 1998 New York Review of Books


History of Structuralism

by Francois Dosse and translated by Deborah Glassman

two volumes, 458 and 517 pages, $85.00 (hardcover)

published by University of Minnesota Press,

The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe

by Jacques Derrida, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault, and

Michael B. Naas

129 pages, $19.95 (hardcover)

published by Indiana University Press,

Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of

Mourning, and the New International

by Jacques Derrida and translated by Peggy Kamuf

198 pages, $18.99 (paperback)

published by Routledge

Force de loi

by Jacques Derrida

146 pages, 135 FF (paperback)

published by Paris: Editions Galilée

Moscou aller-retour

by Jacques Derrida

157 pages, 89 FF (paperback)

published by La Tour d'Aigues: Editions de l'Aube

Politics of Friendship

by Jacques Derrida and translated by George Collins

308 pages, $20.00 (paperback)

published by Verso

Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!

by Jacques Derrida

58 pages, 66 FF (paperback)

published by Paris: Editions Galilée

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-Francois

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


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


As Francois 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...

1 This next generation is usually called "poststructuralist" in English to mark the

break with structuralism's original scientific program. This term is not used

in French, however, and Dosse employs "structuralism" to refer to the entire

movement. I follow him in this.

. 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.


Francois 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


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


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:

2 See, for example,

John Searle, "The

World Turned Upside

Down," The New York

Review, October 27,

1983. (back)

" 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

3 See Thomas

Sheehan, "A Normal

Nazi," The New York

Review, January 14,

1993, as well as letters

from Derrida, Richard

Wolin, and others in

The New York

Review, February 11,

March 4, and March

25, 1993. (back)

4 For a full account,

with references, see

Louis Menand, "The

Politics of

Deconstruction," The

New York Review,

November 21, 1991.


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-

5 In case the reader

failed to grasp the real

target of Derrida's

campaign against the

idea of fraternité, in

Politics of Friendship

he emphasizes that

"this book set itself

up to work and be

worked relentlessly,

close to the thing

called France. And

close to the singular

alliance linking

nothing less than the

history of

fraternization to this

thing, France--to the

State, the nation, the

politics, the culture,

literature and

language." (back)

6 On Schmitt's

concept of politics,

see my article, "The

Enemy of Liberalism,"

The New York

Review, May 15, 1997.


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


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


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

7 The original lecture

appears in Drucilla

Cornell, et al., editors,

Deconstruction and

the Possibility of

Justice (Routledge,


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

8 Derrida has had a

long-standing interest

in Lévinas, to whom

he recently devoted a

short volume called

Adieu (Paris: Editions

Galilée, 1997). On


messianism, see my

article, "The Riddle of

Walter Benjamin," The

New York Review,

May 25, 1995.

9 "Remarks on

Deconstruction and

Pragmatism," in

Chantal Mouffe,


Deconstruction and


(Routledge, 1996), pp.


being choked with emotion whenever he hears the


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


" 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


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


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.