Foucault approached the final hurdle of the agrégation in spring 1950. This was also the year in which he finally joined the PCF. The Parti Communiste Français [PCF] had emerged from the war as the single most important political grouping in France, and was able to win five million votes in 1945. By the middle of 1947, its membership reached a high point of 900,000. Authoritarian, highly centralised and disciplined, the Party was a classic Stalinist formation, complete with a somewhat absurd personality cult dedicated to its secretary-general, Maurice Thorez. It was also highly patriotic and still enjoyed and exploited the reputation it had won in the wartime Resistance; this was le parti des fusillis—the party which had lost more members than any other to German repression. …
This was the party which Foucault chose to join in 1950. He took out his Party card at the urging of Althusser, who had taken the same decision two years earlier. In subjective terms, Foucault’s newfound commitment was largely a reaction to the apocalyptic despair he had felt as an adolescent living through a disastrous war. Politics had little meaning when the only choice available was one between Truman’s America and Stalin’s Russia. …
Many of those who joined the PCF at roughly the same time as Foucault left it after only a few years. Mass resignations followed the revelations about Stalin’s Russia made in Khrushchev’s ‘secret report’ to the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] in 1956, and Soviet intervention in Hungary that same year led to many more departures. In Foucault’s case, the disaffection set in earlier. At the beginning of 1953, Pravda announced the arrest of nine doctors on very serious charges. They had allegedly murdered Zhdanov, had planned to murder a number of Soviet marshals and had plotted against the life of Stalin himself. Immediately after Stalin’s death from natural causes on 3 March, Pravda announced that the nine had been released and rehabilitated; they had been the victims of a machination. Seven of the nine were Jewish. In. France, the PCF’s press covered the ‘doctors’ plot’ in slavishly pro-Soviet terms, commenting that the security services of the USSR had ‘picked off the murderers in white coats, the secret agents recruited among the Zionists and Jewish nationalists’ and implying that the entire plot had been hatched in Tel Aviv.
Foucault attended a meeting at which André Wurmser attempted to justify the arrest of the nine. Wurmser laid down the Party line, and his audience of normaliens did their best to believe the unbelievable. For Foucault, believing the unbelievable was a way of existing within the Party: continued membership was the source of such tension that it became an exercise in ‘dissolving the ego’. After the death of Stalin, the PCF let it be known that there had been no plot, that it had been pure invention. The ENS [École Normale Supérieure, where Foucault was a student] cell wrote to Wurmser to ask for an explanation, but received no reply. Shortly afterwards, Foucault quietly left the PCF. The incident left a ‘bitter taste’ in his mouth, and resulted in both a life-long loathing for the PCF and a distinctly jaundiced view of the USSR.
The ‘doctors’ plot’ had revealed the existence of an ugly strand of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. The French Party press was not to be outdone in the matter of anti-Semitism. According to Annie Besse, writing in Cahiers du communisme, ‘Hitler…refrained from harming the Jews of the big bourgeoisie… Who will ever forget that Leon Blum, his wife at his side, contemplated from the windows of his villa the smoke from the ovens of the crematoria!’ Zionism was ‘a mask behind which to conceal espionage operations against the Soviet Union’. Whether Foucault ever read these statements is not known, but in 1953 he was already denouncing the ‘odious’ attitude taken towards Israel by both the superpowers. His pro-Israeli sentiments were as unswerving as his dislike for the PCF, and it is difficult to believe that there was no connection between the two.
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from David Macey, The Lives of Michael Foucault: A Biography (NY: Pantheon Books, 1993), pages 37-38, 39-40.