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Foucault and history

This article is over 16 years, 6 months old
The French historian Michel Foucault is enormously influential on the left. Colin Wilson takes a critical look at his ideas and his politics
Issue 2082
Prisoners Exercising (1890), by Vincent van Gogh
Prisoners Exercising (1890), by Vincent van Gogh

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was one of the most controversial and original historians of the 20th century. His ideas have been under constant attack from right wingers – but they have also been used to attack the revolutionary left.

For many, Foucault’s writings are opaque and confusing – yet others argue that they are full of useful insights for the left. So what should Marxists make of his work?

One reason why Foucault’s writings can be hard to grasp is that they undermine “common sense” notions about history. His work describes the history of things that are typically assumed not to have a “history” – madness, medicine, prisons or sexuality, to name a few examples.

It is typically accepted that people “go mad”, “develop mental health problems”, or “lose the use of their reason” – in all periods and all societies. Likewise, sex is often presented as a biological function, which suggests you can’t write a history of sex any more than you can write a history of breathing.

It follows that the historian can only describe attitudes to madness or sex. Mad people are put in chains, asked to talk about their dreams or given pills. Men who have sex with other men are hanged or allowed to marry.

Yet the lived experience of madness has also changed over time. In Shakespeare’s era, madness was believed to provide a fascinating opening into a different level of reality. Nowadays we treat it as an illness to be cured.

Sex and the social

Sex has changed as well. The idea that some people are homosexual and others heterosexual dates back to the 19th century. Sex is not the direct result of biology – it is, in Foucault’s famous phrase, “socially constructed”.

Foucault constantly stresses that accepted ideas change and that people in the past thought very differently from the way we do. It can be hard to describe people’s half-unconscious assumptions, which is another reason why his writing can be difficult to read. But it’s fascinating to see how fast and thorough-going these changes can be.

For example, at the start of Discipline and Punish, Foucault’s history of the prison, he quotes two historical sources. One describes the execution in 1757 of Damiens, a man who had tried to kill the king of France.

Damiens was slowly tortured to death in public. Lumps of his flesh were torn away with red-hot pincers, molten lead was poured into the wounds and his executioners used horses to try to pull his arms and legs off.

Just 80 years later, according to the second source, the rules for a model prison decreed an exact timetable for the inmates’ day. They must get up at 6am in winter and 5am in summer. On hearing one drum roll they must dress in silence, on hearing another they must go to morning prayer.

The grotesque violence of the public execution contrasts sharply with the ordered private world of the prison. Here Foucault argues against a second commonly held idea – that such changes are unambiguous examples of “progress”.

Foucault disagrees with the view that history shows humanity slowly and continuously moving from ignorance to understanding. He is sceptical of the idea that our perceptions were once obscured by irrational superstition, whereas now we have a rational understanding of the world, free of any preconceptions.

He points out that the creation of the modern prison system was typical of a comprehensive system of social control which developed in the 19th century.

The state kept detailed information about individuals in a way it never had before. Psychiatrists sought to define “abnormal” behaviour so as to manage those they judged dangerous.

For Foucault the great symbol of this development is the Panopticon, a prison designed by the English liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham, where guards can keep every prisoner under observation – without the prisoners being able to tell when they are being watched.

Foucault’s ideas include a great deal socialists will find valuable. He shows that even the most deeply accepted ideas can change, and change rapidly. He writes about the oppressed – prisoners, mad people, the sexually unorthodox – and can be assumed to be on their side.

And the questions he raises are important when our rulers contrast a supposedly “rational” Western society with “superstitious” Islam.

We can also recognise his historical account in our own society. The invisible guards of the Panopticon are updated as CCTV cameras. The state watches citizens ever more closely through biometric passports and ID cards. Psychiatrists assess troublesome children, diagnose them with “attention deficit disorder” and medicate them into conformity.

But there are also political problems with Foucault’s ideas. And to understand these we need to look at French political history from 1945 to the mid-1980s, the period when Foucault was writing.

The French Communist Party (the PCF) was a hugely influential force. It gained great credibility in the Second World War as part of the Resistance, and by the late 1940s had hundreds of thousands of members.

The Communists had influence in workplaces and unions, they got credible votes in elections, and their ideas were taken seriously by most intellectuals.

Shifting positions

But the PCF sided uncritically with the Russians during the Cold War. This meant that the party promoted a horribly distorted version of Marxism. Its leadership followed Russia’s shifting positions on every issue – including even philosophy. No culture of democratic discussion existed inside the party.

This distorted political theory went along with a political practice as hidebound as that of any mainstream parliamentary party. Fighting oppression often simply dropped out of the picture.

Foucault had been a PCF member in the early 1950s, but by the mid-1960s he was a member of a government commission on higher education. He was close to leading members of the French establishment all his life and was initially seen as a right wing technocrat.

In the mid-1960s Foucault worked in Tunisia. He was impressed by his students’ anti-imperialist commitment and moved to the left. In autumn 1968 he returned to France, further radicalised by the immense struggles of that year.

In 1971 Foucault took part in setting up a prisoners’ rights group. He was involved in running the office, answering the phone and so on. He took part in protests – on one occasion he got into a fight with the police and was arrested. But as the struggle declined through the 1970s, Foucault became less active.

His own activity and ideas moved left or right, towards activity or inaction, depending on the times. But he was consistent about two things. He rejected the liberal capitalist view of the world, which claimed that society was constantly improving, and denied there were any fundamental social conflicts.

He also rejected the PCF’s version of history, which he identified with Marxism. In fact much of his work can be understood as an argument against the PCF’s vision of the world, which he often criticised from the left.

Marxist minority

Foucault’s ideas are radical but not Marxist, which helps explain his current prominence. His ideas fit a time when Marxists are a minority and non-Marxist radicals such as Noam Chomsky are greatly respected.

Foucault’s approach leads to some serious problems. He rightly rejected both capitalism and Stalinism. This was a necessary first step, but he never explained how ideas relate to the material reality of society – where ideas come from, or what role radical ideas can play in changing the world.

The closest he comes to an overall explanation of society is in his writings from the 1980s about “power”.

By “power” Foucault means all non-economic forms of social domination. But he describes power as existing everywhere – so you cannot say that one group of people has it and another does not. Foucault was right to stress the importance of non-economic factors, but his explanation is too vague to be useful.

In practice Foucault’s politics were a blend of more or less radical versions of liberalism and anarchism.

This is why Foucault’s ideas can be used by both the left and the right. He gained huge prominence in the early 1980s, a period when the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s had just been defeated. Some people joined the Labour Party, while others looked to separate struggles of oppressed groups such as women, black people or lesbians and gays.

Foucault’s ideas were used to justify these shifts to the right and away from a unified movement. Marxism was portrayed as old-fashioned and crude. If power was everywhere, resistance could be everywhere – in isolated struggles by women or black people, for example.

Another example of Foucault’s political ambiguity is his response to the Iranian revolution of 1979-80. He visited Iran and saw thousands becoming radicalised by fighting against the Shah, a dictator backed by the West.

Foucault understood that those events were a real revolution, even if they didn’t fit the way parties like the PCF talked about social change. He compared the revolt to the anti-­colonial struggles he had seen in Tunisia.

He referred to Karl Marx’s comment that religion could be the “heart of a heartless world”. He saw that women might wear headscarfs to show their opposition to a corrupt US-supported regime. And because Foucault took these positions, he is today attacked by pro-war writers such as Nick Cohen.

Foucault was enthusiastic about what he called the “non-Marxist” Iranian revolution. But he didn’t discriminate between the different political forces involved – between the workers and the clerics, for example.

There are serious political weaknesses in Foucault’s work. But many people are inspired by the radical side of his writing. He may not be easy to read – but what he does have to say is almost always thought provoking.

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault


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