Archive for September, 2015

David Macey – Foucault, the French Communist Party, and the Doctor’s Plot (1993)

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.

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R.J. Lambrose – “Chomsky Unplugged” (1996)

As recently as the 1980s, the farthest an academic could make it in the world of popular culture would have been a brief appearance on the Today show to flog a new book. But cultural studies has changed all that. Now that professors have been churning out books and articles about rap, Elvis, and Madonna, the bemused performers are beginning to scratch the occasional academic back, or better, blurb the occasional academic book. Consider, for example, the quotes on the back cover of Michael Eric Dyson’s recent Making Malcolm, from Oxford University Press. In addition to the more predictable endorsements from Cornel West, Angela Davis, Jesse Jackson, and Carol Moseley-Braun, we also hear from Chuck D of Public Enemy: “With the situation getting more hectic, the real troopers come far and few. And with misinformation spreading, it is a necessity to follow Michael Eric Dyson. He’s a bad brother. Check out his new book Making Malcolm by all means.”R-468022-1118177447.jpg

The rappers’ reverence for cultural studies scholars hardly comes as a big surprise; Dyson, after all, testified on behalf of rap music at a congressional hearing in 1994. More startling, however, was the recent report that MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky is a major fave with top rock musicians. Rock & Rap Confidential magazine describes Chomsky—the embodiment, we had always thought, of old-fashioned leftist rectitude—as “a quote machine with all the rockers.” Chomsky’s anarchism has also made him a hero to punkers: Bad Religion put an entire Chomsky lecture on the B-side of one of their seven inch singles. And Maximum Rock’n’Roll, a leading fanzine with a circulation of 10,000, reprints Chomsky’s speeches for its Generation X readership. Other tributes abound: In 1994 an Austin-based band called The Horsies did a single they titled “Noam Chomsky.” U2’s Bono has called Chomsky a “rebel without a pause” and “the Elvis of academia.” And Peter Garrett, shaven-headed lead singer for the Australian rockers Midnight Oil, launched into a song called “My Country” at a Boston-area concert by invoking the following trinity: “Thoreau, Noam Chomsky, and…the Hulk!”

The Chomsky connection appears all the more remarkable when one learns more about the linguist’s own rather unusual relationship to mass culture. Because Chomsky can speed-read any document, he apparently grows impatient with the slowness of the fast-forward mode on a VCR. A friend who sought out a Chomsky blurb for a radical video was told by a go-between that the professor might consider wiring an endorsement after he read the script, but he refuses to screen films. He even declined to watch Manufacturing Consent, the documentary about him, and instead insisted the producers give him a transcript. (Unfortunately, he’ll never see Pulp Diction, Quentin Tarantino’s soon-to-be-released homage to Chomsky’s 1965 best-seller, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.)

All of this raises the intriguing question of whether Chomsky has vetted the rock encomiums to his work. If he has, we would guess that this means that there are now two people who actually read rock lyrics: Noam Chomsky and Tipper Gore.

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Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, May/June 1996, page 10.

“Billy Graham Invites Unabomber To Sacramento Crusade” (1995)

Associated Press, October 17, 1995

(Sacramento, California) — Evangelist Billy Graham is inviting the elusive Unabomber to his Christian crusade beginning tomorrow in Sacramento, California.

Graham says he believes violent crime is part of increasing evil in society. But he says spirituality and goodness also are on the increase. The evangelist said yesterday he believes people should pray for the bomber and that he hopes the man will seek salvation.

Law enforcement investigators believe the terrorist, responsible for a string of sometimes deadly bombings, may live in the Sacramento area.