Posts Tagged '#foucault'

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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Foucault on the Frankfurt School (1978)

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.