The first part of this edited collection reflected on Foucault as a reader of Marx. In the book’s second part, five essays respond to the various Marxisms of the 19th-20th centuries and how Foucault situated his own research in relation to them. The first essay maps Foucault’s writings alongside developments in Marxian theory. The second to fourth essays juxtapose Foucault to the specific claims of Sartre, Althusser and Burckhardt, respectively, and the last (my personal favorite) examines the double chiasm of history and subjectivity in Foucault’s writings and pushes back—successfully in my view—on the ludicrous claim that Foucault ‘became’ a liberal individualist in his last years.
It has to be said that writing of any kind is difficult and strange right now, as protests raging against the police murder of George Floyd are crowding streets and highways and pressing up against the edges of the White House lawn, and as sister protests have erupted all over the world against US police-supported racism and police violence. One way to understand Foucault’s shifting citations and orientations toward Marx and Marxism is precisely through his question of what is ‘the political’ and what might enable social change.
Jean-François Bert’s essay, “Cartographier les marxismes avec Foucault: les années 1950 et 1960” scans Foucault’s interviews during the 1950s for what he says about Marx and the communist party. Foucault’s short membership in the French Communist Party ended over the Lyssenko affair and in general over the USSR’s undue influence on French intellectual thought (p. 106). Bert notes that Foucault’s peripatetic teaching positions in Sweden and Warsaw exposed him to forms of Marxism that were less academic and more directly political (p. 107-109), and he sees Foucault thinking through different theoretical possibilities in these years, combining Marxism with phenomenology, for example, or Marxism with structuralism (p. 100). After his establishment in the Collège de France in the late 1960s, Foucault actively criticizes academic (“soft”) Marxism, humanist Marxism, and “summary” Marxists, the latter including thinkers who don’t engage Marx’s writings but leverage a vulgar image of Marx and Marxism for their own purposes. In these years Foucault also clearly separates his use of Marx from Althusser’s. Bert’s pithy summary is that reading Foucault on Marxism from 1950-1980 not only gives us a clear picture of the developments of Marxism in France over that period, but also demonstrates that Marx cannot be collapsed into Marxism and that, in fact, “Marx doesn’t exist,” because an author is a function and not a coherent entity.
Bert doesn’t discuss the matter this way, but to me his “Cartography” of Foucault and Marxisms demonstrate Foucault’s intense interest in the writings and legacies of Marx, but with a persistent refusal to be pulled into any particular “school” of thought. Instead of signing up for one reading of Marx versus another, Foucault kept side-stepping the pressures to normalize Marx by picking up threads of his work (concepts, events, questions) and directing them into unexpected fabrics (problematics).
Sartre stands as a gap in my expertise, so Hervé Oulc’hen’s essay, “L’intelligibilité des luttes. Foucault et Sartre lecteurs des enquêtes historiques de Marx” was not as accessible to me. As Oulc’hen’s title notes, both Foucault and Sartre turn to Marx’s writings on specific historical events, such as the 18th Brumaire and the civil war in France as a way to consider what Marx is saying about the strategies of power, the torque of power on particular bodies, and the possibilities of directing power toward social transformation (p. 114-117). Oulc’hen sees Marx’s writings on historical events as functioning differently from his writings on the development of factory capitalism by exposing the fluidity of possibilities that surge amid the erupting of events on the street, and how these events catch up bodies and constellate them toward different political strategies. I think Oulc’hen sees Foucault’s concern with the reification of production (and the subject-producer) in Marx as answered by Sartre’s theory of the subject as a dialectical project burdened by authenticity (p. 122). He ends by suggesting that Sartre’s foregrounding of knowledge and Foucault’s Nietzschean foregrounding of the will are both theoretical attempts to account for struggle (p. 127), and he suggests that Sartre really does answer Foucault’s complaint that struggle remains in the shadows of human activity and untheorized by philosophers with his notion of dialectical reason (p. 128).
I remain neutral on Oulc’hen’s conclusions but I do think Foucault remained fascinated by events that show up the gauzy fragility of civil society. As we have seen in recent weeks of BLM protests and rallys, rupturing events decisively arise from the somewhere of history but also demonstrate what Ashon Crawley might term the otherwise possibilities of our shared history and our just-over-the-horizon tomorrows (see his The Lonely Letters, Duke UP 2020). The political, for Foucault, is found both in the slow social susurrus of crafting discursive, bodily (practical) and institutional normativity and also in the rapid transversal wounding of that normativity by words and actions that seek and speak refusal.
Julien Pallotta offers a compelling essay, “L’effet Althusser sur Foucault: de la société punitive à la théorie de la reproduction.” Althusser’s essay on ideological state apparatuses which was published in June 1970, became the clear backdrop to Foucault’s The Punitive Society, the Collège lectures that were preparatory to Discipline and Punish. After summarizing Althusser’s article—the primary focus of which is the reproduction of the conditions of production, including the reproduction of the worker, or the subjectivated body ready to slide into capitalist labor—Pallotta turns to Foucault’s response in PS (p. 129-132). Foucault notes that power doesn’t reproduce relations of production, but “constitutes” them. To this end, the distinction Althusser (through Marx) draws between productive forces and relations of production is not real (p. 132). More, focusing merely on the worker’s subjectivation is insufficient; we need also to examine disciplinary habits and incentives that accommodate workers to the capitalist system. Foucault’s example is the rise of practices and surveillance surrounding worker savings books and savings accounts. Pallotta sees this attention to the moralization of the laboring classes as an incipient theory of biopower, here still at the level of the body and not of the population (p. 133-136). Finally, instead of focusing on ideological state apparatuses, Foucault attends to habits and expectations that enact and mandate a temporal and spatial sequestration of the worker’s body and attention away from “the time of life.”. Foucault was influenced here, Pallotta notes, by a 1967 article by E. P. Thompson, titled “Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism” and also by the writings of the Methodist theologian, John Wesley (136-137). Both Althusser and Foucault are circling the question of social transformation, but where Althusser sees worker struggle as aiming toward social overhaul, Foucault attends to the ongoing civil war of daily life and the local and partial changes possible within it. But the point of view matters. As Balibar notes (on Althusser’s behalf), the worker wants to abolish work altogether while the capitalist wants to maintain it with as little effort as possible.
Manlio Iofrida’s essay, “Michel Foucault entre Marx et Burckhardt: esthétique, jeu et travail,” posits that an aspect of late 19th century intellectual history is repeated by Foucault in the late 20th century. Noting the German influence on French culture after France’s 1870 loss to Prussian forces, Iofrida reminds us that the French were the first non-German culture to take up Nietzsche, and it was in light of this philosophical reception that the Germanist Charles Andler, who published six volumes on Nietzsche, produced a critical translation of Marx’s Communist Manifesto (144). Influenced also by Proudhon, Andler bent his translation of Marx toward a peculiarly liberal and individualist reading by arguing that a new, socialist society requires a new worker, and this new worker-subjectivity necessitates self-renovation or Bildung (144-145). Through Andler, Iofrida links Nietzsche and Proudhon with the cultural historian, Jacob Burkhardt. Iofrida links the young Foucault with this individualist reading of the socialist legacy in two ways. First, he points to Foucault’s early theoretical investments in transgression and excess, found especially in Foucault’s enthusiastic readings of Bataille (145-146). Second, he holds up Proudhon’s “autogovernmnet of producers” and Burkhardt’s aesthetics of existence (Bildung) as instrumental to Foucault’s late notion of “the care of the self” (150-151). Andler and Burkhardt’s aesthetic and individualizing reception of German socialist thought in the late 19th century, he posits, is repeated in Foucault’s aestheticizing response to Marx in his last works (153).
Judith Revel’s “Michel Foucault, marxiste hérétique? Histoire, subjectivation et liberté” is by far my favorite essay of this section (and the book). It merits its own blog post, really, or (better) a translation. Writing in direct opposition to the kind of liberal and individualizing interpretations of Foucault exemplified by Iofrida, Revel begins with Foucault’s 1984 assertion that “There can be truth only in the form of the other world and of the other life (de la vie autre)” (154). She hooks this foregrounding of otherness to Foucault’s late notion of critique, a kind of Kant-beyond-Kant critique that deploys Marx’s sensitivity to power not only to recognize our limits (as in Kant) but also to discern ways to not abide them (not-abiding limits is not the same as a futile attempt to push beyond limits) (155). Foucault’s work can be read for its heresy, then, along the lines of Yirmiyahu Yovel’s “heretical Spinoza”—attending not so much to what counts as heretical with respect to the religious institutions of his day (thought that too) but to the dominant thought (norms, power-knowledge) of his time. Yovel says of Spinoza that his apostasy contains a “spiritual hatching” that doesn’t align with his historical precedents. To be heretical is thus “to be of this time and of another time” (156). This insistence in Foucault of theorizing discourse (e.g., historiography) and its unthought or its ruptures led to his impatience and rejection of Marxists committed to continuous, dialectical and teleological history. He refused the problem of either the subject makes history or history makes the subject: both so-called choices belong to the same system of thought (156-157). Revel here turns to Lukács to explicate Foucault. Just as Lukács sought “totality” as the product of all the preceding forces of history but rejected a mythical “all” as the teleologically determined and ultimate state of affairs, so Foucault accepts historical materialism but rejects “totality” (in Lukács’s sense of “all”) as the telos of humanity. Revel stresses that both Lukács and Foucault embrace history as a source of possible change and difference, not determination or telos (159-161). Merleau-Ponty takes up Lukács in his notion of the open dialectic or “hyperdialectic,” a move that Revel sees Foucault also embracing in a sense of history that is “chiasmatic,” always “both determined and determining, stratified and inaugural, sedimented and suspended” (163-164).
I’m skipping and condensing much elegant theorization here, but one arc I see is something like this:
Revel gives the example of Foucault’s account in Discipline and Punish of the birth of the liberal and sociological “individual” in the 19th century (165). This determination by historical process—that is, the way in which bodies are captured as docile, useful bodies that can be trained, marked, studied, and normalized as individuals—is supplemented by Foucault’s “critical attitude” that seeks moments when bodies forced into the vices of individuality open to historical creativity, to a politics of the “invention of the self” (168-170). This resistance to individuality is no more “individual” than is the production of individuals. Revel ends her essay with a quotation from Foucault’s interviews with Trombadori (translated by a semiotext(e) volume titled Remarks on Marx), where Foucault turns to Marx’s poignant phrase, “man produces man” (l’homme produit l’homme). As Revel notes, this assertion doesn’t only mean the production of values, wealth, and economic practice, but also the production of what has never been, of a totally ‘other’ thing, of a complete invention (170).
We see this today, in our youth, standing up against the machinations of historical process and demanding an “other” world.