Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Colin Wilson on Michel Foucault

This book would make an ideal X-mas present for Conrad Black...

Good short intro to Foucault's philosophy of history here

Foucault’s ideas are radical but not Marxist, which helps explain his current prominence. His ideas fit a time when Marxists are a minority and non-Marxist radicals such as Noam Chomsky are greatly respected.

Foucault’s approach leads to some serious problems. He rightly rejected both capitalism and Stalinism. This was a necessary first step, but he never explained how ideas relate to the material reality of society – where ideas come from, or what role radical ideas can play in changing the world.

The closest he comes to an overall explanation of society is in his writings from the 1980s about “power”.

By “power” Foucault means all non-economic forms of social domination. But he describes power as existing everywhere – so you cannot say that one group of people has it and another does not. Foucault was right to stress the importance of non-economic factors, but his explanation is too vague to be useful.

In practice Foucault’s politics were a blend of more or less radical versions of liberalism and anarchism.

This is why Foucault’s ideas can be used by both the left and the right. He gained huge prominence in the early 1980s, a period when the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s had just been defeated. Some people joined the Labour Party, while others looked to separate struggles of oppressed groups such as women, black people or lesbians and gays.

Foucault’s ideas were used to justify these shifts to the right and away from a unified movement. Marxism was portrayed as old-fashioned and crude. If power was everywhere, resistance could be everywhere – in isolated struggles by women or black people, for example.

Instead of a Foucauldian focus on the fragment, Marxists need to defend the validity of total history, and of revolutionary history that understands the centrality of class struggle to changing the world.

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At 12:00 pm, Anonymous Sean said...

Hi Snowball. How's it going? Keep up the good work. I've been reading you now for about a year. I set up a blog about History and Politics that you might interest you. I'm hoping to focus on the Americas in general and soon stuff on Brazil where I live.

I'm a long-time member of the IS tendency, first in Canada and now in Brazil where we have a small group called Revolutas. We're struggling, but starting to build something in Sao Paulo and Rio.

Saudações socialistas, Sean

At 9:41 pm, Blogger Philip said...

Well, Colin Wilson's come a good long way since Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs.

At 9:48 pm, Blogger Rob said...

The first thing I would say about this article is that it does the PCF (and its Marxism) a great disservice. Theoretically, the PCF always remained a fairly broad church, with (at least) two broad theoretical approaches being detectable - Althusserians and the rest. This is further complicated by the fact that the fellow travellers of the PCF were also pretty philosophically diverse - Sartre, Merleau Ponty to name but a few.

In terms of Foucault, I think that our relationship with him should be a considered, nuanced one. Firstly, despite his explicit disavowal of Marxism, it strikes me that in a lot of his works his historical periodisation is a Marxisant one. In Discipline and Punish (for instance) there is a very detectable Marxist periodisation, with Foucault locating the emergence of discipline with capitalism.

On this basis I find it pretty difficult to say that Foucault doesn't explain how 'ideas relate to the material reality of society'. He may not precisely adopt a Marxist account of 'base and superstructure', but I think it's obvious that he sees 'ideas' as being produced by social reality.

In terms of power. Well, the first point to note is that (as far as I can discern) Foucault doesn't deny there can be economic forms of power (he often talks about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat), and often he locates social power in economic relations.

This being said, it's pretty clear that he does see power as being 'everywhere'. By consequence he does tend to argue against a centralised revolutionary party etc. But I don't see this as a necessary consequence of adopting such an analysis. One might easily adopt a Gramscian analysis, which understands the non-economic as a component of hegemony, but also understands that political parties are necessary to establish hegemony.

At 4:17 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for comments -

Sean - your blog looks cool - I will add your link to the blogroll when I get round to it.

Rob - interesting points - my knowledge of French left philosophy is well, weak, but look at the state of the PCF today. You don't end up looking like that without some serious flaws in your Marxism somewhere. I read, for example, that the PCF this year barely even mentioned the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution...

At 5:26 pm, Blogger Rob said...

I think my point is largely that it is difficult to ever say that the PCF was characterised by a particular brand of 'Marxism', which you can then say caused their current decay. I'd also argue that the PCF's Marxism can't take primary responsibility for their current malaise, if anything what is responsible is (somewhat conversely) their popularity. Participating in bougeois governments and bourgeois coalitions (and the possibility of doing say) basically turned the PCF into a social democrat party.

At 12:05 pm, Anonymous MichaelRosen said...

The issue that Foucault didn't address (and perhaps this was going to come later, or that he forgot (joke)) is what power is for and where it comes from. In the end this makes power 'abstract', it's not attached to any material reality. What this means is that we can think of him as right about how power is wielded but scratch our heads wondering why. That said, he is absolutely stunning on that 'how'. Hooray for that.

At 4:33 pm, Blogger Phil BC said...

Thanks Rob for your comments, I was going to write something similar. The problem with Foucault is as brother Rosen states, he's good with the how and not with the why. The reason for this is located in his Nietzscheanism, his scepticism toward 'total' explanations because of their power/knowledge implications. This is frustrating, as his refusal to elaborate on the connections between the emergence of biopower and capitalism testify. Also, such a theorisation would be impossible unless the conceptual tools Foucault developed were purged of their Nietzschean assumptions. I tried to do something on reconciling Foucault and Marxism in an old MA dissertation, but feel I more or less pointed out what needed to be done rather than actually doing it. Hopefully I'll get round to tidying them up and publishing some fragments online in the new year.

I did realise this project was hampered by not being able to get old of the small Semiotext(e) Foucault book, Remarks on Marx. Has anyone read it?

At 12:15 am, Anonymous MichaelRosen said...

phil bc, if you're still looking for Remarks on Marx then this might help?



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