Foucault, Anti-Communism & the Global Theory Industry: A Reply to Critics

My article in The Philosophical Salon, “Foucault: The Faux Radical,” has been praised in certain circles for its political clarity, while in others it has generated some heated debate, as well as requests for further clarifications.[i] Its translation into Turkish sparked an exchange with Can Uğur, which synthesizes a number of the concerns that have been addressed to me (including in an interview with Dag Eivind Undheim Larsen that served as the basis for an article he wrote in Klassekampen on my critique of Foucault).[ii] In the interest of further elucidating the relationship between Foucault, anti-communism and the global theory industry, I have divided these concerns into distinct issues and replied to each of them in turn.

The Role of the Intellectual

The starting point for any discussion of the role of career intellectuals in a system like the one we live in, meaning global capitalism, should be the recognition that they are the products of this very system, rather than sui generis individuals freely pursuing the life of the mind. Their primary function is to reproduce the social relations of production by providing the worldviews and assorted forms of technical expertise—or diversionary ideologies—necessary for the renewal of the workforce and the global division of labor. They are thus instruments of socioeconomic triage that serve to reproduce inequality. The professional intelligentsia under capitalism is, in other words, composed of instrumentalized intellectuals who play an important political and socio-economic role, regardless of whether or not they are aware of it.

It is true, however, that there is some margin of maneuver within the reigning apparatus of knowledge production, which is largely the unintended consequence of the ideology of intellectual autonomy. Since higher education is presented, within the dominant ideology, as somehow being autonomous from other spheres like economics and politics, a certain amount of intellectual freedom is sometimes permitted. It is in the space of this contradiction—between the primary social function of professional intellectuals and the dominant ideology that attempts to mask this—that there is room to drive a wedge and carve out space for intellectual work that is not simply an instrument of class power.

If we restrict ourselves to the case of the professional intelligentsia, what we might refer to as interventionist intellectuals are those that seek to take advantage of this contradiction in order to do at least two types of work: mapping and intervening. The former consists in providing materialist maps of social, political and economic relations that contest the dominant ideology and allow people to see what is actually going on. They can also, and this is the second task, identify optimal sites of potential intervention and outline the most coherent tactics and strategies for social transformation. Both of these undertakings are, of course, collective through and through, and they require working with others in working-class parties and organizations, as well as the development of militant research collectives and educational counter-institutions in order to build real power (projects which, for me, have always been an essential part of my intellectual labor).

Model Intellectuals: Sartre against Foucault?

Sartre is a complex figure who took some positions with which I disagree. However, he was nonetheless a longstanding defender of certain crucial elements from the historical materialist tradition, such as the investment in anti-capitalist organizing, women’s liberation, racial emancipation and anti-imperialism. This is one of the reasons why the U.S. National Security State identified him as an enemy, as I’ve discovered through my archival research and Freedom of Information Act Requests: he was widely recognized as a serious threat to the intellectual consensus that its case officers wanted to impose.

Foucault rose to great prominence in 1966 with the bombshell publication of The Order of Things, which was an intellectual best-seller. This book, as well as the interviews that took place in its wake, were explicitly anti-Marxist. ‘Out with the old, in with the new!’ was the marketing strategy, and Foucault went so far as to accuse Sartre of being a ‘man of the nineteenth century’ because he was a Marxist. We should recall that the Vietnam War was raging at the time, and that the Cuban Revolution and other Marxist-inspired anticolonial and anti-neocolonial struggles were in full swing around the world. In this context, it is quite extraordinary—or, rather, extraordinarily reactionary—to proclaim that Marxism is dead because it was a philosophy of the 19th century.

Moreover, Foucault knew little to nothing about the international history of Marxism, and he never seriously studied any of the countries where there were socialist revolutions or anti-colonial struggles. Instead of a reasoned critique based on reliable evidence, he resorted to a knee-jerk, Eurocentric rejection of Marxism at the time (he would later be briefly radicalized), which happened to perfectly line up with the anti-Communist ideology promoted most forcefully by the United States.

Just to be clear, though, I am not, strictly speaking, ‘for Sartre and against Foucault.’ I situate my work as an intellectual in a deep and rich international tradition of historical materialism that includes many figures and is best understood as a collective endeavor aimed at egalitarian social transformation. This heritage, as Sartre and Jose Carlos Mariátegui each explained in their own way, is a living and dynamic tradition of class struggle in theory, and self-critique is part of its life blood.

The CIA, French Theory & Marxism

It is very helpful, when discussing organizations like the CIA, to distinguish between common sense and good sense, by drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci. The common-sense approach, which is largely a result of the culture industries and the mass media, presents the CIA as a group of 007 agents or shady backroom manipulators. Good sense, by contrast, scientifically examines the material record in order to establish coherent explanatory models. For instance, it reveals how the common-sense approach to the CIA that I just mentioned is largely the result of the Agency itself and its extensive involvement in culture industries and the mass media. In other words, the image that most people have of the CIA is due in no small part to the CIA itself.

Regarding its anti-Marxism, the Agency undertook a complex and multi-faceted intellectual world war against not only the practice, but also the very idea, of communism. I discussed this in one of my earlier articles in The Philosophical Salon, “The CIA Reads French Theory,” which has since grown into a book project.[iii] There are too many features of this to highlight here, but one that is important, and that CIA operative Thomas W. Braden publicly pointed out, is that the Company—as the CIA is known internally—funded, supported and promoted the non-Communist Left in Europe.[iv] This tactic aimed at dividing the Left by severing and isolating the communists as ‘beyond the pale,’ and it ultimately sought to redefine the legitimate Left as non-communist.

In the case of Foucault, he was never, to my knowledge, a witting agent of the CIA (an “agent,” in Company parlance, is not an employee of the CIA but rather someone in the field who is instrumentalized by CIA officers). Michael Josselson, who headed up the Congress for Cultural Freedom that was based in Paris, was a witting agent, and many of the intellectuals involved in the Congress’s circle and their publications, including Preuves in France, must have surely known they were being funded by the Agency for what amounted to anti-communist propaganda (some have admitted as much). However, the CIA also mobilizes what are referred to as unwitting agents, meaning individuals who are operationalized but are unaware of the full extent of what’s going on. In certain cases, this can simply amount to someone toeing the Company line and advancing their agenda, whether they know it or not.

In the case of Foucault, we know that the Agency identified him in one of its research papers as “France’s most profound and influential thinker.”[v] In the same paper, he is presented as being an asset for at least two reasons: i) he praised the New Right and reminded philosophers of the bloody consequences of revolutionary organizing ii) he made one of the most influential contributions to the traditions referred to as structuralism and the Annales School, which the Agency applauded for their “critical demolition of Marxist influence in the social sciences.”[vi] This does not somehow mean, though, that Foucault was under contract with the CIA, nor does it imply that the Agency necessarily had the best or most reliable account of his work or of the intellectual movements with which he was—sometimes begrudgingly—affiliated. It does mean, however, that from its vantage point, and with its precise interests in mind, the CIA understood that he was an asset and clearly took the position of ‘Foucault against Sartre.’

Identity Politics & the Left

There are many different understandings of what ‘identity politics’ is, but the most coherent account, from the point of view of materialist analysis, is that it is a reactionary political project developed as an ideological supplement to neoliberalism as capital went global beginning around the 1970s.[vii]  This has a number of different aspects, but here are a few:

  1. Identity politics disingenuously misrepresents the internationalist tradition of historical materialism as somehow not concerned with racial emancipation, women’s liberation, sexual emancipation, and so forth. As anyone who has actually read this tradition knows, this is categorically false: Engels’ asserted that women’s emancipation should be the measure of general emancipation; Marx forcefully advocated for the abolition of slavery in the U.S.; Lenin was deeply committed to national liberation and was the leader of a revolution that introduced unprecedented advances for women; Clara Zetkin maintained that women’s liberation required material empowerment through a socialist revolution; Daniel Guérin advocated for a convergence between queer liberation and proletarian revolution; Thomas Sankara clearly linked national liberation, anti-racism and women’s liberation; etc. The list could go on and on, but in the interest of space, I will simply recommend that every vulgar and reductive critic of Marxism—and everyone else—read Domenico Losurdo’s Class Struggle.
  2. It presents itself as a radically new and improved social project, which consists in recognizing underrepresented identities, while castigating as ‘old school,’ ‘vulgar’ or ‘reductionist’ any serious concern with the material forces that produce and then maintain certain groups in subordinate socioeconomic positions.
  3. It tends to reify and essentialize racial and cultural identities that are actually the historical products of the system of colonial-racial capitalism, acting as if the best that we could possibly do would be to recognize, cherish and even fetishize identities that are themselves ideological constructs.
  4. It seeks to redefine the very nature of ‘critique’ and even politics, by severing it from collective anti-capitalist organizing, and transforming it into interpersonal practices that are nowise a threat to the capitalist system. This includes accommodations within racial liberalism, corporate multiculturalism, and the vaunting of symbolic gestures over material transformations.
  5. It has been a successful weapon in the hands of the ruling class for separating struggles against certain forms of oppression from the endeavors to transform the material systems that enable the perpetuation of those oppressions (the ‘antiracism’ of the democrats in the US is a particularly crass example in this regard). It has also been a powerful force in dividing the Left, siloing its activism in discrete identity group formations, and co-opting insurgent social movements through corporate-funded NGOs.

It is worth noting in passing that as identity politics rose to prominence in the American academy, it received its intellectual nourishment in many circles from French theory (by which I mean the product of the global theory industry identified with the likes of Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Deleuze, Lacan, and co.). French theory’s turn away from historical materialism in favor of discourse analysis and a purportedly ethical concern with difference provided a patina of intellectual sophistication—or at times even a radical flair generated out of the smoke and mirrors of discursive pyrotechnics—to this reactionary politics.

The widespread promotion of identity politics and French theory within the dominant apparatus of knowledge under global capitalism should serve as a clear indication to anyone who’s paying even scant attention that they are not a threat to the system. On the contrary, they are some of the primary intellectual forces driving what I’ve referred to as radical recuperation. By this I mean the tactic of producing the appearance of radicality—including symbolic systems of signification that are so inordinately intricate that many have trouble seeing how unmoored they are from actual socioeconomic struggles—in order to better recuperate insurgent forces within the extant system. ‘All symbol, no substance’ is their mantra, and they have made an enormous contribution to the intellectual world war against the very idea of communism.

Liberalism & Fascism

I have provided a detailed account of this relationship in a series of four articles on the topic, which happened to come out at the same time as my article on Foucault.[viii] In a nutshell, they demonstrate that liberalism does not constitute a bulwark against fascism. On the contrary, what is referred to as ‘classical fascism,’ meaning the political projects developed in Italy and Germany in the early part of the 20th century, rose to power within the system of bourgeois democratic rule. With the financial backing of big industrial capital, Mussolini and Hitler used modern forms of propaganda to mobilize a petty-bourgeois base around a nationalist, colonial and anti-communist platform. They both came to power according to the legal norms of their respective countries, and it was only later that they set about doing the job they were hired for by crushing working-class organizations and launching colonial wars of conquest beneficial to big industrial capital, the most important of which was against the Bolsheviks in the ‘Far East.’

In these articles, I also explain how the Nazis and fascists were not simply defeated at the end of the war. The U.S. National Security State—which was operating under the cover of a purportedly liberal representative democracy—actually hired and redeployed thousands of fascists after the war in its international world war against communism.

Overall, this is the historical context within which we should understand Foucault’s work. Postwar France was one of the most important ideological battlegrounds for the U.S. as it emerged as the global hegemon. Due to France’s collaboration with the Nazis, the Right had been largely discredited, and the communist defeat of Nazism contributed to the postwar French intelligentsia’s embrace of Marxism. One of the tasks taken on by the American National Security State was to discretely but forcefully intervene, at numerous different levels and with various methods, in order to drive the Western European intelligentsia—particularly in France and Italy—away from Marxism. Foucault, along with other intellectuals of his generation identified with French theory, played a prominent role in this process. The fact that they were marketed by the global theory industry as ‘radical’ thinkers and the intellectual avant-garde that every theorist in the world needed to read, should thus come as no surprise. Their form of discursive ‘critique’ devoid of a revolutionary project was a useful antidote to that dangerous form of theory that was actually in the process of changing the world. 

Equality & Freedom

The opposition between equality and freedom is the result of an ideology of false antagonisms. It has largely been driven by the Cold War, which is of course the Old War between capitalism and communism. Since the latter is invested in socioeconomic equality, whereas the former obviously is not, pro-capitalist intellectuals have been tasked with doing the impossible: finding a value that could be brandished as a flag for the capitalist system. They came up with ‘freedom’ since it was clear that socialism was dedicated to curtailing the freedom of free enterprise in the precise sense of the freedom of the ruling class to dispossess, to enslave, to exploit, and to destroy the conditions of possibility for life in the name of profit. Moreover, in relation to the working and toiling masses, the ideological campaign of the ruling class’s media, cultural and educational apparatus has been remarkably consistent and straightforward: it consists in repeatedly telling them that they are free (in principle), while denying them the material resources necessary to enact that freedom in any meaningful way.

What this false antagonism masks, then, is that freedom simply has no meaning without power and the material resources necessary to make one’s formal freedom into a concrete reality. For instance, I am in principle free to become the President of the United States. However, since I am not a millionaire with deep connections to the ruling class and its political elite, this ‘freedom’ is utterly meaningless because I will never be able to enact it. This would require a greater amount of socioeconomic equality. Walter Rodney expressed this fact with remarkable clarity when he wrote: “There was an enlargement of freedom in the Soviet Union after 1917 because real freedom is a function of cultural and economic equality.”[ix]

Notes:

[i] See Gabriel Rockhill, “Foucault: The Faux Radical,” The Philosophical Salon of the Los Angeles Review of Books (October 12, 2020): http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/foucault-the-faux-radical/?fbclid=IwAR3RA_8YDdIAHl77HUQf5YPz-6Tlfja2MH9KJc1Vut_026GzA2oroxel3BA (accessed on 11/26/20).

[ii] The exchange with Can Uğur was for this journal: http://solsiyaset.org/ (accessed on 10/25/20). Dag Eivind Undheim Larsen’s article was entitled “Kaller Foucault ‘falsk radikal’” and was published in Klassekampen on November 22, 2020: https://klassekampen.no/utgave/2020-11-23/kaller-foucault-falsk-radikal?fbclid=IwAR0N3DW033H2Q0uMlsSi6b2GCf-YPkY8m1H84K7Xv8UPZgngItZhyNEsuAg (accessed on 10/25/20). The latter article is available in English under the title “Gabriel Rockhill Talks to Dag Eivind Undheim Larsen: Foucault ‘a Faux Radical.’” Trans. Anders M. Gullestad. Philosophy World Democracy (December 22, 2020): https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/foucault (accessed on 1/25/21).

[iii] Gabriel Rockhill, “The CIA Reads French Theory: On the Intellectual Labor of Dismantling the Cultural Left,” The Philosophical Salon of the Los Angeles Review of Books (February 28, 2017): http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-cia-reads-french-theory-on-the-intellectual-labor-of-dismantling-the-cultural-left/ (accessed on 10/25/20).

[iv] See Thomas W. Braden, “I’m Glad the CIA Is ‘Immoral,’” Saturday Evening Post (May 20, 1967).

[v] Directorate of Intelligence, “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals” (December, 1985), CIA-RDP86S00588R000300380001-5: https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp86s00588r000300380001-5 (accessed on 10/25/20).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] For some of the best accounts of identity politics, which sometimes masquerades under other names, see the work of thinkers like Barbara and Karen Fields, Barbara Foley, Adolph Reed Jr., and William I. Robinson. The latter writes, for instance: “A key part of the story is the betrayal of the intellectuals, for no struggle of the oppressed can be without its organic intellectuals. The mass struggles of the 1960s and 1970s opened up space for representatives from the oppressed groups and others who had earlier identified with the radical agenda of those mass struggles to join the ranks of the professional strata and of the elite. In academia, it opened up space for a new intellectual petty bourgeoisie whose class aspirations became expressed in postmodern narratives and identitarian politics. Sidelining class and pushing identitarian politics was a class project of this intellectual petty bourgeoisie, yet it came to infest many social movements, especially in the Global North. These narratives shaped the consciousness and understanding of a whole generation of young people, alienating them from embracing a desperately needed Marxist critique of capitalism at the moment of its globalization” (William I. Robinson, “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals,” a contribution to the forum Planetize the Movement!, Great Transition Initiative (April 2020), https://greattransition.org/gti-forum/planetize-movement-robinson).

[viii] In order, these articles are the following: “Fascism: Now You See It, Now You Don’t!,” CounterPunch (October 12, 2020): https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/10/12/fascism-now-you-see-it-now-you-dont/; “Liberalism and Fascism: Partners in Crime,” CounterPunch (October 14, 2020): https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/10/14/liberalism-and-fascism-partners-in-crime/; “The U.S. Did Not Defeat Fascism in WWII, It Discretely Internationalized It” CounterPunch (October 16, 2020): https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/10/16/the-u-s-did-not-defeat-fascism-in-wwii-it-discretely-internationalized-it/; “Liberalism & Fascism: The Good Cop & Bad Cop of Capitalism,” Black Agenda Report (October 21, 2020): https://www.blackagendareport.com/liberalism-fascism-good-cop-bad-cop-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR08vI0WPWWeLlv6Bc2hze67hvuy-w1vBXcVI_EDRnwH0XyShDfbaupPe3Y (all accessed on 10/25/20). A brief overview of these articles is available in this interview on Chris Hedges’ On Contact: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNd1yvz71_4&t=834s (accessed on 1/25/21).

[ix] Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World (London: Verso, 2018), p. 184.

Gabriel Rockhill is a philosopher, cultural critic and political theorist. He teaches at Villanova University and Graterford Prison, and he directs the Critical Theory Workshop at the Sorbonne. His recent books include Counter-History of the Present (2017), Interventions in Contemporary Thought (2016) and Radical History & the Politics of Art (2014). Follow on twitter: @GabrielRockhill. For more information: https://gabrielrockhill.com