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  • Persecution Before Exploitation - A Non-Jewish Israel?
  • Simon Critchley (bio)

What is the relation between Judaism and Marxism in the work of Emmanuel Levinas? References to Marx and Marxism, often critical, appear intermittently in Levinas’s philosophical writings.2 But, for reasons that will soon hopefully become obvious, I will try and clarify this question by looking closely at one of Levinas’s Talmudic Readings, ‘Judaism and Revolution’.3 As was Levinas’s annual habit from 1957 onwards, this text was first delivered to one of the Colloques des intellectuels juifs de langue française in Paris, March 1969. As such, this text is interesting not only because it gives one of Levinas’s clearest responses to dramatic events of 1968 in France, in particular the student movement and the question of revolutionary Marxism, but also because it illuminates well the relation of his ethical thinking to politics and, in particular, Marxist politics. Indirectly, but not incidentally, Levinas’s qualified support for syndicalism, revolutionary action and Marxist humanism, troubles any attempted simple identification of his thinking with a conservative or liberal political philosophy, which is - to say the least - a risk in the contemporary reception of Levinas’s work.

This engagement with Marx can be seen from the way in which Levinas interprets the fragment of the Mishna (Tractate Baba Metsia, pp.83a–83b) with which he begins his reading and which is concerned with the responsibilities towards workers in one’s employ. The Mishna text runs:

‘He who hires workers and tells them to begin early and finish late cannot force them to it if beginning early and finishing late does not conform to the custom of the place.

Where the custom is that they be fed, he is obligated to feed them: where it is that they be served dessert, he must serve them dessert. Everything goes according to the custom of the place.’


Levinas makes two interesting opening moves in interpreting this text. First, the Mishna text is assimilated to materialism, where the material needs of my neighbour are my spiritual needs. This is what he calls ‘sublime materialism’, or, as we shall see presently, a materialism that is orientated towards the sublimity of the law, as that which refuses representation or adaequation. Second, this materialism is assimilated to the materialist humanism of Marxism, which is then qualified as ‘Marxist humanism’.

‘Our old text upholds the right of the person, as in our days Marxism upholds it. I refer to Marxist humanism, the one which continues to say that “man is the supreme good for man” and “in order that man be the supreme good for man he must be truly man”. (...) Let us underline one more detail of the context in which the Mishna places itself, which is typical of Jewish humanism: the man whose rights must be defended is in the first place the other man; it is not initially myself. It is not the concept “man” which is at the basis of this humanism, it is the other man.’


Note what has happened here: in assimilating the Mishna text to Marxist humanism, Levinas goes on to assimilate the latter to Jewish humanism, un humanisme de l’autre homme. Thus, Levinas assimilates Judaism to Marxism only to subordinate the latter to the former. This becomes clearer slightly later in the commentary,

‘While we recognize in Judaism, as in certain aspirations of the left, a defender of the human person - whose sacred rights are affirmed from the very first lines of our text, while we can admit that in extraordinary circumstances, violent action or a revolution imposes itself - we cannot identify the destiny of Judaism with the destiny of the proletariat. The Jewish cause is not exclusively a social cause.’


Thus - and this is absolutely essential for Levinas - Judaism is not reducible to Marxism or socialism, although it shares with the latter many common political aspirations with regard to what is due to the human being. Wherein lies the difference, then? It consists in an excess of persecution over exploitation. The proletariat are exploited; the Jews are persecuted. Levinas makes this clear with an allusion to the moment when...

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