Michel Foucault: friend or foe of the left

Issue: 118

Colin Wilson

The French historian, activist and intellectual Michel Foucault remains politically significant some 20 years after his death. Antonio Hardt and Michael Negri’s book Empire, one of most influential works of the anti-capitalism movement, argues that “the work of Michel Foucault has prepared the terrain for…an investigation of the material functioning of imperial rule”. On the pro-war left, Nick Cohen cites Foucault as a crucial source of the malaise affecting the rest of the left—the gutless relativism which, he argues, prevents us from attacking Islamists.1

Foucault’s ideas have also gained considerable authority in history and the social sciences, particularly in areas such as cultural studies and sexuality. His work is enormously influential in the recently developed academic field of queer studies: one American academic has gone so far as to write a book entitled Saint Foucault, arguing that Foucault should be seen as the exemplary gay intellectual.2

Foucault is, then, both influential and perceived to be a radical of the left. How should we assess his ideas?

Foucault’s life and ideas

Foucault was born into a prosperous family in 1926, and so went to university just after France’s liberation from the Nazis. He achieved growing fame through a series of books from 1961, when his Madness and Civilisation was published, until his death in 1984. His books were mostly works of history, dealing with madness, psychiatry, medicine, prisons, criminology and sexuality. One of Foucault’s biographers has written, “We might even say that the topic of ‘abnormality’, of the historical construction of the ‘abnormal’ individual, was the central theme around all of which Foucault’s work was organised”.3

Foucault spent his life at the pinnacle of French academia. In 1946 he gained entrance to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, a deeply elitist institution designed to produce teaching staff for the French state, and attended or taught at by major intellectual figures including Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan.

After graduating, Foucault spent much of the 1950s as a French cultural attaché abroad, before returning to France in 1960 to become an academic. From 1970 until his death he was a professor at the Collège de France, another highly prestigious institution. Lectures he gave there are now published in book form, and often form a more accessible introduction to his ideas than some of his books. As well as his books and lectures he wrote articles, gave interviews and so forth. Altogether a large volume of writing is available. Foucault was gay, which for much of his life was far less acceptable than it is today. At times he experienced great mental distress and sought help from psychiatry. He died of Aids at a time when the disease killed many gay men in the developed world.

Foucault writes history, often of things that might seem not to have a history. For example, a common idea about sexuality is that it is essentially a biological drive, that once superficial cultural attitudes have been disregarded sex is the same in all places and periods. A history of sex would be as banal as a history of breathing: one can only write a history of attitudes to sex. Yet Foucault demonstrates that concepts we might assume to be biologically rooted, such as homosexuality and heterosexuality, are no older than the second half of the 19th century. Sexuality is not outside history, rather it is, in Foucault’s famous phrase, “socially constructed”—varying from one period and society to another. In the past anyone might be tempted to commit the “sinful” act of sodomy. Now condemnation has moved from certain acts to a certain kind of person:

As defined by the ancient canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The 19th century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood… Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality… It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature… The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.4

In a similar way, Foucault describes a history of madness. This begins with the Renaissance view that madness offered a fascinating opening into a different level of reality, followed by a period when mad people were confined, typically chained, which is in turn followed by apparently more enlightened attitudes. As ideas in each period changed so too did the social reality, the lived experience of madness.

Finally, in one of the most memorable passages in his writing, Foucault describes changes in the punishment of prisoners. At the start of his book Discipline and Punish he quotes from two texts. The first describes the execution in 1757 of Robert François Damiens, who had attempted to kill the king of France. On a public scaffold, lumps of Damien’s flesh were torn off with red-hot pincers and a mixture of molten lead, resin, oil, wax and sulphur poured into the wounds. The executioners then roped a horse to each of his limbs so they could pull off an arm or leg each. But the horses were unused to doing this—after quarter of an hour of failure the horses were made to pull in different directions, which broke the arms but did not pull them off. Two more horses were then roped to Damiens’ legs, still without success. Then the two executioners cut the flesh at the thighs almost to the bone, after which the horses managed to pull off Damien’s legs. They then cut the flesh at the shoulders and his arms were pulled off. Finally the body—possibly still alive, sources disagree—was burnt.

Foucault compares this account with the rules for a model prison published in 1838:

The prisoners’ day will begin at six in the morning in winter and five in summer. They will work for nine hours a day throughout the year. Two hours a day will be devoted to instruction. Work and the day will end at nine o’clock in winter and at eight in summer… Rising: at the first drum roll the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors. At the second drum roll, they must be dressed and make their beds. At the third, they must line up and proceed to the chapel for morning prayer. There is a five minute interval between each drum-roll.5

The difference between the chaotic public torture and the regulated private world of the prison could hardly be greater.

These accounts of the history of madness, sexuality and the treatment of criminals have several things in common. They illustrate that accepted ideas can change dramatically, implicitly calling into question present day “common sense”. They stress that the past is different and strange—unlike more conventional histories which present the past as colourful but essentially reassuring, sharing basic values with our own society.

Accepted ideas can change rapidly: only 80 years divided the execution of Damiens and the prison timetable. The second half of the 17th century marked what Foucault calls “The Great Confinement”, as mad people across Europe were interned in various institutions such as workhouses and hôpitaux généraux. He writes that “more than one out of every 100 inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined there, within several months”.

Such changes in ideas and practices, Foucault argues, do not constitute ever advancing “progress”. He disagrees with the accepted view that we have moved from ignorance to understanding, from irrationality to reason, from superstition to science. He is deeply sceptical about the idea that our perceptions were once, as it were, shrouded in fog, while now we have a direct perception of clearly illuminated reality. (Ideas about light, enlightenment, seeing and “the gaze” recur throughout Foucault’s work.)

Rather than seeing modern society as rational and our ideas as free of preconceptions, Foucault sees the creation of modern society as involving the development of a whole number of constraints and ideas meant to control our behaviour. You might think that abandoning public torture, or freeing mad people from their chains, are steps forward. Foucault thinks that even these changes are ambiguous.

For example, he documents that techniques for the care of the mad changed in the early 19th century—people were freed from their chains but only on condition that they now disciplined their own behaviour, accepting the standards of their keepers and internalising them. Modern prisons, he argues, discipline people far more closely than the medieval state did.

A key image here is the “panopticon”, a proposed prison design made by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. A panopticon is a cell block of several storeys, each consisting of a ring of cells about a central courtyard. Each cell has a window at the back and the front. In the centre of the courtyard stands a tower. A guard in the tower can watch each of the prisoners through the cell’s front window: light shines through the back window so the whole cell is illuminated. The tower is constructed in such a way that the prisoners cannot see the guard, so they must always behave as if the guard is watching them. Indeed, at any time there may not even be a guard.

Foucault is not claiming that many prisons were built to this design. Rather, he argues that the panopticon typifies a new conception of society and social control. In previous societies, details of a person’s life were more likely to be recorded if they were a member of the elite, forming a monument to their power. Now detailed descriptions are written of such people as children, patients, madmen and prisoners to document their behaviour and so control them. More subtle categories of unacceptable behaviour than crime or madness are developed: disciplines such as psychiatry develop that identify the “abnormal”, a grouping that includes people as various (to our eyes) as delinquents, maniacs and children who masturbate.6

There is much in these ideas that socialists may find attractive. Foucault claims that social practices and ideas can change in radical ways, sometimes quickly. He is interested in oppressed groups such as prisoners, mad people and homosexuals, and can be assumed to be on their side.

Particularly relevant today is Foucault’s critique of liberal democracy. It is claimed, for example by enthusiasts for the “war on terror”, that democracy is modern, rational and transparent. Foucault suggests that liberal democracy is actually characterised by all kinds of methods of controlling people’s behaviour, particularly subtle methods that do not involve force. This is an account that fits very well with a world in which children are medicated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, the state keeps track of citizens through biometric passports and the panopticon guard takes the form of city centre CCTV cameras.

More generally, it is certainly true that the development of capitalism meant an enormous increase in the power and reach of the state compared with feudalism—a standing army, a police force, a civil service and so on. This power is not generally exercised through force (though the ruling class can always fall back on this), but through consent, and that consent depends on “common sense” ideas about what is acceptable and what is abnormal.

However, if there is much in Foucault that can appeal to the left, there are also real problems with his ideas and their implications for political practice. But to make a full assessment of Foucault we first need to establish the context he operated in as an intellectual and a political activist.

The French left from liberation to the 1980s

The French left in this period was dominated by the Communist Party (the Parti Communiste Français or PCF) in a way completely unlike the left in many advanced capitalist countries.

The PCF emerged from the Second World War with great credibility, largely the result of its role in the resistance. The party claimed that 75,000 of its members had been shot in the conflict. It had a mass membership, estimated at 300,000, which included many workers. In the elections of November 1946 the PCF won more votes than any other party, and it spent a brief period as part of the government, and continued to get about a quarter of the vote in elections until the 1970s.7

The PCF described itself as Marxist, but in fact it was an uncritical supporter of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. In 1956, for example, the PCF supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary, where 20,000 people were killed in putting down a rising which threatened Soviet dominance of the country.8 When it came to French politics the PCF was not a revolutionary party, nor even at most times particularly left wing. It promoted a nationalist distortion of Marxism that identified the Russian Revolution of 1917 with the French Revolution of 1789, and claimed that the key concepts of Marxism were essentially French.9

By using Marxism in an attempt to justify the Soviet dictatorship, the PCF distorted Marx’s theory on every topic, even the most abstract. In addition, the PCF loyally reflected changes of position on all issues as decreed by Moscow. For example, one leading PCF intellectual wrote a book called The Materialist Theory of Knowledge, which on publication was hailed as a “major addition to Marxist philosophy”—within three years the line had changed and he had disowned the book, refusing to allow it to be reprinted.10

The most destructive of the PCF’s ideas was that Marxism was a science in a mechanical, 19th century sense. Scientific “laws” meant that social developments—transitions like those from feudalism to capitalism, or from capitalism to socialism—were inevitable, and driven by impersonal economic changes. Class struggle and human activity in general were not what drove history. This made the PCF’s Marxism all but useless as a tool for examining history, and also had dire consequences for day to day political activity. Human liberation disappeared from their socialism and fighting oppression dropped out of the picture. So the PCF took no interest in fighting women’s oppression, condemning Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex when it was first published. Similarly, the party voted to support the government in fighting Algerian independence, and expelled party members who supported the Algerian nationalists.11

That the PCF was internally undemocratic perhaps goes without saying. It is worth mentioning, however, the party’s attitude to intellectuals. They were encouraged to join, but worked in their own party structures, separate from those of workers. In 1953, for example, the party organised two “national study days for communist intellectuals”, which 600 people attended.12

All of these factors meant that the PCF’s domination of the French left was continually contested and gradually declined. Thousands left the party in 1956 over the invasion of Hungary. The PCF opposed the enormous student and worker struggles of 1968, leading many of the new generation of militants to conclude that the party could not even be considered part of the left. Despite this, for any socialist seeking to influence the working class, the PCF, with a mass working class membership and control of the CGT union federation, could not be ignored. It should be added that until 1968, there was no successful attempt to build an alternative organisation of any size—including attempts led by as prestigious a figure as Jean-Paul Sartre.

Foucault in context

Foucault’s own political commitments shifted through his life. He joined the PCF briefly in his youth and then left again. By the mid-1960s he had become a member of a government commission that recommended changes to French higher education, some of which helped provoke the student struggles of 1968—he was seen as a Tory technocrat.13

But from the mid-1960s he began to radicalise. He worked in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968 and was impressed by his students’ commitment to political activity in spite of the risk of arrest. He even helped one left group by hiding their duplicator in his garden. He later commented, “What on earth is it that can set off in an individual the desire, the capacity and the possibility of an absolute sacrifice without our being able to recognise or suspect the slightest ambition or desire for power and profit? This was what I saw in Tunisia”.14

Foucault returned to France in the autumn of 1968, and was further radicalised by the student struggles of the time. In 1971 he was one of the founders of the Group for Information on Prisons, a prisoners’ rights group. He was involved in running the office, answered the phone, went on protests and on one occasion was arrested during a fight with police. But, as the tide of struggle ebbed, Foucault too ceased to be politically active.

Throughout his political development, Foucault consistently rejected the dominant ideology of the West, which claimed that science and rationality meant things were constantly improving, and which denied that there were any fundamental conflicts in society. He was also consistent in his opposition to the political practice and theory of the PCF and the Soviet Union. Since he identified these with socialism and Marxism, he believed that he was also refuting Marxism. For example, in one lecture he makes the general assertion that when Marxists claim their ideas are scientific they are in fact making a dubious claim for political power—and then seeks to justify that assertion by referring to the Soviet Union’s use of psychiatry to silence opponents of the regime.15

If Foucault had not had the opportunity to discover non-Stalinist varieties of Marxism this might be understandable. But, while the PCF dominated French Marxism in this period, alternatives existed: Trotskyist organisations grew after 1968, for example, and Sartre consistently attempted to build a Marxist current outside the PCF. Foucault never engaged with such ideas. Nor did he seriously engage with the writings of Marx himself, dismissing them in an offhand and deliberately provocative way: “Marxism exists in 19th century thought like a fish in water: that is, unable to breathe anywhere else”.16

Such an approach perhaps explains Foucault’s popularity on the left today. His ideas are radical in that they question our own society’s common sense and suggest that very different ways of living are possible, but he dismisses Marxism out of hand as a philosophy of human liberation since he sees it as implicated in the mass murders of Stalinism and the bureaucratic manoeuvring of the PCF. His perspective makes sense for those who reject capitalism, but identify Marxism with the failed regimes of the Soviet Empire.

Writers in International Socialism have repeatedly made the case that Stalinism constituted a betrayal of the genuine revolutionary tradition, the emancipatory character of which was most clearly demonstrated in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. I do not propose to repeat those arguments here. Rather I want to examine the ideas that Foucault puts forward as an alternative. To what extent do they explain the past, or act as a reliable guide to action?

While Foucault argues against the ideas of both the capitalist West and “Communist” East, he also deliberately rejects any attempt to develop a coherent alternative account of the world. He makes little reference, for example, to those aspects of society—class, workplace struggles, economics, the state, parliamentary politics—with which the PCF concerned itself. In general, he claimed:

From the 16th century on it has always been considered that the development of the forms and contents of knowledge was one of the greatest guarantees of the liberation of humanity… It is a fact, however…that the formation of the great systems of knowledge has also had effects and functions of subjection and rule.17

According to this view, any attempt to give an overall account of human society will lead to oppression, not liberation. Such a position perhaps reflects disgust at the Cold War—as Foucault remarked on his own attitude at the end of the Second World War, “What on earth could politics represent when it was a matter of choosing between the America of Truman or the USSR of Stalin?” Foucault’s position also reflects the influence of the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that history is an unending sequence of struggles for power between human beings, and that human ideas, including scientific rationality, reflect these struggles, rather than achieving a disinterested perception of reality.18

Foucault’s writing is, therefore, deliberately fragmented, a series of studies, each of narrow scope, which critique by implication the crimes of Stalinism but do not seek to form an alternative picture of society. This is the Foucault who rejects calls that he formulate demands for particular reforms: “I absolutely will not play the part of one who prescribes solutions”; who regards each of his books as an experiment that changes his opinions as he writes it, so that no one should expect his views to be consistent; who states, “I don’t construct a general method of definitive value for myself or others.” By this account, Foucault’s ideas have no political utility, because it was never meant that they should have.19

In this context, it is worth considering how Foucault understood the value of his ideas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was most politically active. Foucault was aware that his writings had a political resonance. While he never intended Madness and Civilisation, for example, to be a book with a campaigning agenda when it was first published in 1961, by the end of the decade it had found an audience among mental health activists. Foucault published Discipline and Punish, his history of the creation of the modern prison, in 1975, shortly after his campaigning work with the Group for Information on Prisons.

Yet even in this period Foucault rejected links between his intellectual work as a historian and his political activism. In conversation with a militant worker from Renault, he stated:

The workers have no need of intellectuals to know what it is they do. They know this perfectly well themselves. An intellectual, for me, is a guy hooked into the system of information rather than into the system of production. He is able to make himself heard. He can write in papers, give his point of view.20

This idealises workers, while reducing the role of intellectuals to a public prominence that means they can get articles published in newspapers. There is no conception that a historian can increase workers’ confidence by giving a wider context to their everyday lives and struggles, or by showing that bourgeois ideas have a historical beginning and so can come to an end.

Yet if Foucault at times sought to deny that his work had political applications, he is also associated with a quite well defined set of politics, which give an account of society in terms of power. By “power” he meant any form of domination in society, but in particular he was interested in forms of domination other than those that rely on economic power or the power of the state. Indeed, he remarked that his own work, charting as it did the development of non-economic forms of “discipline” in fields such as madness and medicine, was nothing other than a history of power. For many in the 1980s, as we shall see later, this was understood to mean that Foucault’s central concern was oppression.21

Foucault’s concept of power is, however, much more ambiguous. On the one hand, it seems clear from his historical studies that doctors, courts and psychiatrists have power over patients, criminals and mad people. Foucault analyses the ideas of the people with power and undermines their grand claims to represent the progress of reason. He acknowledges disparities of power and seeks to subvert them. Indeed, at times he seems to object to any manifestation of power. In 1972 he debated with the Maoist Pierre Victor about the establishment of a “people’s court”. Foucault opposed any such idea: he argued that the judicial apparatus is a crucial part of the power of the state, so that the revolution must eliminate it entirely and resist the reintroduction of anything resembling it. He did not accept that, in a revolutionary context, the social meaning of a court could change. He claimed, rather, that the physical arrangement of the court itself—a supposedly impartial judge behind a table, litigants on either side—inevitably reflected the ideals of bourgeois justice. Such a determined rejection of any state apparatus suggests an anarchist perspective, though Foucault never used the word to describe his politics.22

Yet, while he portrays power as inevitably damaging, he also writes:

By domination I do not mean the brute fact of the domination of the one over the many, or of one group over another, but the multiple forms of domination that can be exercised in society…unless we are looking at it from a great height and a very great distance, power is not something that is divided between those who have it and hold it exclusively, and those who do not have it and are subject to it… It is never localised here or there, it is never in the hands of some.23

Power here is something that, to some extent, we all have. Towards the end of his life Foucault stressed that power is not necessarily repressive, but can rather be creative. He cited the way in which “the machinery of power” defined and so created a whole range of sexual perversions in the 19th century. And he went further:

Pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap and reinforce one another. They are linked together by complex mechanisms and devices of excitation and incitement.24

This striking change in Foucault’s conception of power, from subversion to celebration, is connected, perhaps, with his assertion that the whole of human subjectivity is socially constructed. He begins The History of Sexuality, for example, by rejecting at length the idea that Victorian society repressed sexuality. After all, if there is no such thing as an essential, natural sexuality, one cannot speak of a society repressing it. Likewise, if there is no fixed human nature as a yardstick by which to judge, how can we tell which uses of power are repressive and which not? Certainly, it is hard to see, if we reject any idea of speaking about sex in terms of repression, how we can continue to assert that LGBT people are oppressed—an odd position for the patron saint of queer studies. In any case, since everyone is situated within the network of power, a general challenge to existing society is hard to conceive. All that is possible is a series of particular struggles:

Points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network. Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.25

This plurality of resistances implies plural revolutions:

I would say that the state consists in the codification of a whole number of power relations…and that revolution is a different type of codification of the same relations. This implies that there are many different kinds of revolution, roughly speaking, as many kinds as there are possible subversive recodifications of power relations, and further that one can perfectly well conceive of revolutions which leave untouched the power relations which form the basis for the functioning of the state.26

Yet Foucault gives no examples of such revolutionary processes, or explanations of how they occur. Rather than increasing our understanding of the world, he does little more than dilute the term “revolution” until it can refer to any kind of social change—or even change in the life of an individual. This political weakness is well described by the British gay academic Jeffrey Weeks, who is in general sympathetic towards Foucault:

It is surely evident that some forms of power act as greater “restraints” and limits, or have greater productive possibilities, than others. The state, for example, does have a monopoly of legal violence. The media is monopolistic. Capitalists do have more power than workers. Of course Foucault recognises this, while he rightly refuses to say that one form of oppression is better or worse, more or less severe, than any other. But some powers are more resistant to struggle than others and what is left vague in Foucault’s work is any notion of the political strategies, in the conventional sense, needed to transform those powers.27

If Foucault’s ideas do little to provide political guidance for the future, there are also real problems in his account of the past. It is striking that, while he devoted his intellectual life to documenting in enormous detail how ideas change, he spends almost no time examining why they do so. How do the dominant ideas in society come to dominate? Why do they change at particular points? Why are many mad people locked up in the mid-17th century, and not at some other period? Why does the idea that certain people are homosexual gain a hearing in the late 19th century and not before?

Marxists have often sought to explain such changes in ideas by demonstrating that they relate to wider changes in society, such as the development of capitalism, of the bourgeoisie and the working class, or of the state or the family. The Stalinist politics of the PCF involved a crude caricature of this method, which claimed that all social change could be more or less simply reduced to economic questions. Foucault rightly rejects this as too crude to explain historical events in all their complexity. Yet he offers little by way of an alternative. Nor is this simply an academic problem. Anyone who wants to challenge ideas which are prevalent in society must be interested in what has caused ideas to change in the past.

We are left therefore with detailed, static accounts of each system of thought. Sartre commented that Foucault describes the “conditions of possibility” of certain types of thought in each period. However:

Foucault does not tell us the thing that would be the most interesting, that is, how each thought is constructed on the basis of these conditions, or how mankind passes from one thought to another. To do so he would have to bring in praxis, and therefore history, which is precisely what he refuses to do. Of course his perspective remains historical. He distinguishes between periods, a before and an after. But he replaces cinema with the magic lantern, motion with a succession of motionless moments.28

In the absence of any worked out account of why ideas change, as Jeffrey Weeks points out, crude determinism tends to creep in through the back door. At the end of Foucault’s analysis of changing ideas about sex in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, he suggests that such changes were originally the result of “the need to form a ‘labour force’…and to ensure its reproduction”. This is the beginning of an explanation, yet he does nothing to analyse how these features of capitalist society are linked to the changes in ideas about sexuality which he documents. In the absence of such an analysis, his reference to the reproduction of the labour force is no less crude as an explanation than those of the Stalinists he so despised.29

These weaknesses in Foucault’s account of history and analysis of the present lead to real difficulties in the application of his ideas to politics. The results can be simply confused, or can lend support to the right.

Foucault visited Iran twice in 1978, witnessing the growth of a movement that would lead to the fall of the Shah and eventually to the proclamation of the Islamic Republic. He wrote eight articles about these developments in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. The history of the Iranian Revolution is now little known. It began with widespread revolt against the Shah, a Western backed dictator with a huge secret police. There was significant working class involvement in the movement—a crucial stage in the fall of the Shah’s regime was an oil workers’ strike. Foucault’s reports evoke the exhilaration of this mass involvement, of the poor in a developing country opposing imperialism:

It is an uprising of men with their bare hands who want to lift the tremendous weight pressing each of us down, pressing them down in particular, these oil workers and peasants on the frontiers of empires.30

The Iranian movement echoed that in Tunisia that had inspired Foucault in the 1960s. Certainly it was a world away from the sterile formulas of the PCF, although this led Foucault to claim that the events were unconnected with class, and were instead the result of a general “collective will” to depose the Shah. His analysis of the appeal of religion in that situation was perceptive. Quoting Marx, he remarked that its appeal was that of “the spirit of a world without a spirit”. Yet he singularly failed to distinguish between the different political forces, such as the workers and the Islamists. On the subject of Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, history showed the inadequacy of Foucault’s assessment:

Khomeini is not a politician. There will be no Khomeini party, there will be no Khomeini government. Khomeini is the point of fixation for a collective will. 31

Perhaps the most enduring political use to which Foucault’s ideas have been put is in support of identity politics. It was as the theoretician behind these movements that Foucault first became politically significant in the early 1980s. This was a time when the radical movements of the 1960s and early 1970s had been defeated throughout the world: Margaret Thatcher was elected in Britain in 1979, followed by Ronald Reagan in the US in 1980. Many people who had been drawn to revolutionary ideas now looked to alternative strategies. Some turned to futile attempts to change the system from within, working through the Labour Party in Britain or the Democrats in the US. Others despaired of the possibility of building a united movement, and prioritised more or less separate struggles by oppressed groups such as women, black people or lesbians and gay men.

Foucault’s ideas worked well as a justification for such a shift. His belief in a plurality of struggles, a plurality of revolutions or a revolution that need not involve the destruction of the state—all of this lent a gloss of sophistication to the new pessimism. His rejection of Marx and his lack of interest in class were all too appropriate to a decade characterised by workers’ defeats, in which leading intellectuals of the left proclaimed the working class dead or incapable of fighting.

The present situation is quite different. The years since the 1999 Seattle protests and 9/11 have seen millions radicalised as part of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Yet in these movements Marxism is a minority voice, while the dominant politics in many ways builds on the movements of the 1980s and 1990s. A radical, non-Marxist viewpoint, like that now attributed to Foucault, fits the mood of the time.

Yet, if Foucault now speaks to people moving to the left, he has spoken in the recent past to people moving to the right. The fact that he can do both shows the ambiguity and lack of clarity in his ideas. And finally, this is what matters, because what people find appealing, even inspiring, in Foucault is not so much his detailed analysis of texts concerning particular topics, as his general approach. That approach, while giving rise to some fascinating and inspiring insights, remains fundamentally flawed.


1: Hardt and Negri, 2001, p22; Cohen, 2007, pp107-109.

2: Halperin, 1997. The title of Halperin’s book is a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Saint Genet.

3: Eribon, 2001, p36.

4: Foucault, 1971, p38; Foucault, 1981, p43.

5: Foucault, 1979, pp3-6.

6: Foucault, 1979, pp191-193; Foucault, 2003, p49.

7: Drake, 2002, pp12, 93, 11.

8: Drake, 2002, p93.

9: Kelly, 1982, pp53-54.

10: Kelly, 1982, p79.

11: Drake, 2002, p146; Christofferson, 2004, p40.

12: Kelly, 1982, p81.

13: Eribon, 1992, pp36, 56, 189.

14: Foucault, 1991, p136.

15: Foucault, 2003, p.12.

16: Foucault, 1974, p262.

17: Foucault, 1991, p165.

18: Foucault, 1991, p47; Foucault, 1984a, p85. See also Callinicos, 1989, pp64-65.

19: Foucault, 1991, pp157, 27-29.

20: Eribon, 2001, p253.

21: Foucault, 1991, p145.

22: Eribon, 2001, pp245-247.

23: Foucault, 2004, pp27-29.

24: Foucault, 2004, p30; Foucault 1981, pp44, 48.

25: Foucault, 1981, pp95-96.

26: Foucault, 1984b, p64.

27: Weeks, 2000, p119.

28: Eribon, 1992, p163.

29: Weeks, 2000, p115; Foucault, 1981, p114.

30: Eribon, 1992, p287.

31: Foucault, 1988, p215; Eribon, 1992, p287.


Callinicos, Alex, 1989, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (Polity).

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