Philosophical thoughts on Totalitarian states and regimes
by professor em. R. Burggraeve
(Bruges June 2017)

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who was born in Kaunas in 1906, poses the question on how we can concretely see to it that no single regime can ever get the final word on justice and humanity. As an answer to this question he states that a ‘state’ – every socio-political order – has be to developed as a “liberal state” (EN 167), as an ‘open system’. Therefore it should not only be transcended by “an always better justice”, but also by human rights, to be understood as the rights of the vulnerable other. It is indeed characteristic how “in a totalitarian state, a mockery is made of the rights of man, and the promise of an ultimate return to the rights of man is postponed indefinitely” (OS 12). For that reason it is important to affirm the prophetic extra-territoriality of human rights: “The concern of the rights of man is not a function of the state, it is an institution in the state which is not of the state” (IRB 68).

Stalinism and Hitlerism, all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, tyranny and terrorism… cannot be allowed to pass without hindrance. Standing up for the vulnerable and injured other – the ‘for-the-other’ – likewise implies on the economic, social and political levels that the struggle against totalitarianism and terror, whatever its persuasion may be, must be carried out.

The responsibility by-and-for-the-other also acknowledges the possibility and factual choice for the irresponsibility of humans, namely the evil and the aggression against other humans. As for-the-other, the responsible subject is exceptionally alert for the evil that is legitimized in the name of the social and political Good as the goal of history, i.e. as the ultimate victory.

Situations of terror and totalitarian repression are, in other words, ‘intolerable’ and form the boundary with tolerance (‘intolerance towards intolerance’), in the awareness that absolute and generalized non-violence abandon the victims of those forms of terror or totalitarianism to their fate.
Here we arrive at the insight that the violence of the state against injustice and terror can be necessary and justified. But as ‘unrelenting struggle against unrelenting terror’, this struggle accords itself a good conscience and likewise a risk that it no longer questions itself (IRB 68). Then the hardness of violence is cladded with reason and plausibility, whereby one’s own violence is barely seen as violence unless as acceptable ‘collateral damage’. In this regard, the good conscience of justified violence-against-violence is a conscience that is too much at ease, and thus often a conscience that appeases itself.

Hence Levinas time and again warns that the war against war – even the so-called ‘just war’ (better: ‘the to be justified war’) – should never lose its unease, i.e. its ‘scruple or remorse’ (OB 6), literally ‘a pebble in the shoe’…
In this regard, he also points out how history all too often, and with manifest obviousness, recounts particularly the story of the winners where there is little or no room for the losers unless ‘as losers’. Don’t the victims in historiography become even more victims since they again function according to how the ‘survivors’ interpret the ‘works of the dead’ (TI 56)? “Historiography recounts the way the survivors appropriate the works of dead wills to themselves; it rests on the usurpation carried out by the conquerors, that is, by the survivors; it recounts enslavement; forgetting the life that struggles against slavery” (TI 22). Hence the violence against violence should never acquire an ultimate significance. It remains, or rather it must remain, a struggle with a bad conscience with the intention of also questioning and surpassing itself. The bad conscience of the struggle ‘with all violence’ against violence should never be suppressed or ridiculed as weakness.

This bad conscience is the space for the little goodness that arises in the heart – or in the soul – of people during the most impossible and horrible conditions. Within and beyond every struggle, however historically unavoidable or necessary it eventually may be, from within the ‘soul’ – the longing-beyond-every-need – it breaks out without reaching completion in a world ‘where everything is fine’. It is precisely its smallness and vulnerability that makes it dynamic, namely it lures it into an ‘infinitising’, an infiniteness that is never infinite enough. Levinas makes a radical distinction between the “judgement of history” and the ‘judgement about history’. According to the Hegelian concept of the ‘judgement of [by] history’ history itself and especially its end or fulfilment acquires the last word on all that has taken place (‘die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht’). But this “virile judgement of history, the virile judgement of ‘pure reason,’ is cruel” (TI 243), for its totalising method imposes silence on the unique and transcendent one who is responsible for the other. Precisely on account of this injustice a ‘judgement about history’ is needed.


Based on a talk and a presentation of prof. em. Burggraeve in May 2017 (Leuven) & June 2017 (Bruges)

The cited studies of Levinas are listed below in alphabetical order. References and citations in the text are indicated with an abbreviation of the available English translation, along with the cited pages: EN: Entre nous. Thinking-of-the-Other, London/New York, Continuum, 2006; IRB: Is It Righteous to Be. Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, edited by J. Robbins, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2001; OB: Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, The Hague/Boston/London, Nijhoff, 1981; TI: Totality and Infinity An Essay on Exteriority, The Hague/Boston/London, Nijhoff, 1979; TO: Time and the Other, Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1987.