Benny Lévy

Secretary to Sartre and scholar of Judaism

Benny Lévy, philosopher, writer and scholar of Judaism: born Cairo 28 August 1945; married (two sons, three daughters); died Jerusalem 15 October 2003.

Benny Levy was an ex-Maoist revolutionary who became secretary to Jean-Paul Sartre until his death in 1980 and later a specialist in the study of Judaism. He was often described as the militant who moved from Mao to Moses.

Lévy was born into a French-speaking Jewish family in Cairo in 1945. In 1957, in the wake of the Suez débâcle, together with his mother and his brother Tony, he left Egypt for Europe. After attending secondary school in Brussels, Benny followed his brother Tony to Paris. There he attended the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where, studying under Louis Althusser, a member of the French Communist Party and an authority on Marxism, Benny Lévy played an active role in the pro-Chinese revolutionary group the Union des Jeunesses Marxistes-Léninistes (UJCM-L).

After the "events" of May 1968, Lévy pioneered the fusion between a minority of the UJCM-L and members of another revolutionary group, Le Mouvement du 22 mars (the 22 March Movement), to form the Gauche Prolétarienne (the Proletarian Left), and was instrumental in devising the Gauche Prolétarienne's new form of revolutionary politics.

Rejecting the Leninist model of organisation and committed to following "the masses", the Gauche Prolétarienne engaged in (non-terrorist) direct action aimed at encouraging revolt and building a mass revolutionary movement. As a non-French national, Lévy risked being deported and was therefore obliged to operate clandestinely, working under a number of pseudonyms that included Pierre Victor.

In April 1970, following the arrest of two of the editors of the Gauche Prolétarienne's newspaper, La Cause du Peuple, the French philosopher, playwright and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre agreed to take responsibility for the publication, and thus began his relationship with Lévy, who already had a deep and sophisticated knowledge of Sartre's work. In May 1970, the Gauche Prolétarienne was banned, but the Maoists continued to function as a potent political force on the revolutionary left, and Lévy's relationship with Sartre was unaffected.

Indeed, as Alain Geismar, another leading Maoist, observed, Sartre was involved, "in a non-stop process of philosophical reflection with leading members of the Maoist organisation, especially Benny Lévy". In the autumn of 1973, Lévy and the other members of the ex-GP leadership took the decision to dissolve the Maoist organisation and, while Lévy found himself denounced as a traitor by some militants who wished to "continue the struggle", his relationship with Sartre went from strength to strength.

In 1974 came the publication of On a raison de se révolter ("It is Right to Rebel"), a series of discussions between Lévy and Sartre and the journalist Philippe Gavi on national and international political issues and Sartre's own political history that revealed, among other things, how informal and undeferential was the rapport between Lévy and Sartre.

In the autumn of the same year Lévy, who had been employed to help Sartre complete his study of Gustave Flaubert, became his secretary, and President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing granted Sartre's request that Lévy should become a naturalised French citizen. Since 1973, Sartre had been almost totally blind and, as his general health deteriorated, his relationship with Lévy became increasingly important. From 1975, both worked on a project, "Pouvoir et Liberté" ("Power and Freedom"), through which they set out to explore these two notions.

From the mid-1970s Lévy was also immersing himself in the study of Judaism and in the work of the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In February 1978, he and Sartre visited Israel for five days and in March 1979 Lévy organised an international colloquium on the Arab-Israeli conflict in Paris. In March 1980, a month before Sartre's death, the issue of Lévy's influence over Sartre came to a head, when the text of dialogues between Lévy and Sartre was submitted for publication in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

A large part of the dialogues dealt with Jewishness and Judaism, and concluded with Sartre emphasising the importance to non-Jews like himself of the idea of the coming of the Messiah. In other parts of the discussion Sartre appeared to be rejecting his own philosophical ideas. Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre's lifelong companion and other long-standing members of Sartre's circle were appalled and, convinced that Lévy had manipulated Sartre, called for publication to be halted. Sartre, however, urged the editor to publish, which he duly did. The dialogues subsequently appeared in book form in 1991 as L'Espoir maintenant (Hope Now) with a forward and conclusion by Lévy. Lévy also published a number of philosophical works in his own right and his latest book Etre juif ("Being Jewish") is due to appear later this month.

Lévy's own interest in Judaism was to take him to Israel in 1995 where, in 2000, he founded the Institute of Levinas Studies in Jerusalem that aimed to create an overseas link with Paris University VII (Diderot) where Lévy still held a post as professor of philosophy. He intended that the Institute would offer Francophone students living in Israel the possibility of following postgraduate studies related to the work of Levinas.

Whatever cause he was defending, whatever intellectual interests he was pursuing, Lévy did so with total, some would say fanatical, commitment and belief. He was also committed to sharing his thoughts and discoveries with others and no one who met him could be unaware of the depth and breadth of his knowledge, of his charismatic air of authority and of his skills as a communicator. As he once said of himself, "I have many faults, but I have one quality: I know how to teach."

David Drake

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