Duccio Trombadori: With the events of ’68, another theoretical current regained strength and was confirmed as a point of reference of notable importance in youth culture. I’m speaking of the Frankfurt School: Adorno, Horkheimer, and much more than them, Marcuse, found themselves with their works at the center of student ideological debates. The struggle against repression, the anti-authoritarianism, the escape from “civilization,” the radical denial of the “system”: all these were themes that with more or less intellectual confusion were debated as watchwords by masses of youths. I’d like to know how your thought is related to that theoretical current, also because you don’t seem to have dealt with it directly.
Michel Foucault: It would be necessary to understand better why, despite the work of many of its exponents in Paris after their expulsion from German universities by the Nazis, the Frankfurt School passed by unnoticed for a long time in France. It began to be discussed with a certain intensity and frequency only in relation to the thought of Marcuse and his Freudian-Marxism. In any case, I knew little about the Frankfurt School. I had read certain texts of Horkheimer’ s dedicated to an entire ensemble of discussions whose meaning I understood with difficulty, and in which I felt a certain laxness, above all concerning the historical materials analyzed. Then I recall having read a book on penal problems and the mechanisms of punishment that had been written in the U.S.A. by Kircheimer.
At that point I realized how the Frankfurt people had tried ahead of time to assert things that I too had been working for years to sustain. This even explains a certain irritation shown by some of them who saw that in France there were experiences that were- I won’t say identical but in some ways very similar. In effect, correctness and theoretical fecundity would have asked for a much more thorough acquaintance with and study of the Frankfurt School. As far as I’m concerned, I think that the Frankfurt School set problems that are still being worked on. Among others, the effects of power that are connected to a rationality that has been historically and geographically defined in the West, starting from the sixteenth century on. The West could never have attained the economic and cultural effects that are unique to it without the exercise of that specific form of rationality. Now, how are we to separate this rationality from the mechanisms, procedures, techniques, and effects of power that determine it, which we no longer accept and which we point to as the form of oppression typical of capitalist societies, and perhaps of socialist societies too? Couldn’t it be concluded that the promise of Aufklärung (Enlightenment), of attaining freedom through the exercise of reason, has been, on the contrary, overturned within the domain of Reason itself, that it is taking more and more space away from freedom? It’s a fundamental problem that we all debate, that is common to so many, whether Communists or not. And this problem, as we know, was singled out by Horkheimer before the others; and it was the Frankfurt School that measured its relationship with Marx on the basis of this hypothesis. Wasn’t it Horkheimer who sustained that in Marx there was the idea of a society as being like an immense factory?
Duccio Trombadori: You assign great importance to this current of thought. To what do you attribute the anticipations and the results attained by the Frankfurt School that you’ve briefly summarized?
Michel Foucault: I think that the Frankfurt School had a greater likelihood of knowing and analyzing early on with exact information what was happening in the U.S.S.R. And this was within the framework of an intense and dramatic political struggle, while Nazism was digging the grave of the Weimar Republic; this was set against the background in Germany, where Marxism and theoretical reflection on Marx had a robust tradition of more than fifty years.
When I recognize all these merits of the Frankfurt School, I do so with the bad conscience of one who should have known them and studied them much earlier than was the case. Perhaps if l had read those works earlier on, I would have saved useful time, surely: I wouldn’t have needed to write some things and I would have avoided certain errors. At any rate, if I had encountered the Frankfurt School while young, I would have been seduced to the point of doing nothing else in life but the job of commenting on them. Instead, their influence on me remains retrospective, a contribution reached when I was no longer at the age of intellectual “discoveries.” And I don’t even know whether to be glad or to feel sorry about it.
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From Michel Foucault, Remarks On Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori, trans. R. James Goldstein and James Cascaito (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991). Originally published in Italian in 1981, the interviews were conducted in 1978. From Section 4, “Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse: Who Is a ‘Negator of History’?,” pages 115–20.