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Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy: The

Influence of Political Militancy in Michel
Foucault's Thought

Mads Peter Karlsen & Kaspar Villadsen


University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Published online: 26 Aug 2014.

To cite this article: Mads Peter Karlsen & Kaspar Villadsen (2014): Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy:
The Influence of Political Militancy in Michel Foucault's Thought, New Political Science, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07393148.2014.945251


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New Political Science, 2014


Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy: The Influence of Political

Militancy in Michel Foucaults Thought

Downloaded by [University of Patras] at 09:23 26 November 2014

Mads Peter Karlsen & Kaspar Villadsen

University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Abstract Foucaults inspiration from Nietzsche in terms of writing critical histories is
difficult to overestimate. However, this article advances an interpretation of Foucaults
approach to history which focuses on another, less readily evident, dialogue partner,
namely the Marxist tradition and, more precisely, French Maoism. The first part of the
article details Foucaults involvement in the Maoist-inspired activist group, Groupe
dinformation sur les prisons (GIP). It is argued that Foucaults practical experience
from GIP left crucial marks on his contemporaneous statements on the genealogical
method and his critique of totalizing institutions, uniform discourse and juridical
universality. The second part of the article offers a close reading of Foucaults reflections
on genealogy in his 1976 lecture series which demonstrates how the Maoist activist
principles noticeably resonate in these statements. The aim of the article is threefold. First,
to bring attention to largely neglected sources of inspiration for Foucaults genealogical
approach, which complement those represented by Nietzsche. Second, it seeks to obtain a
better understanding of Foucaults relationship to Marxism, a relationship often portrayed
as unambiguously negative. And third, the goal is to demonstrate how principles
developed in Maoist political activism are not only realized in Foucaults activities within
the GIP, but also in his lecture-hall formulations of genealogy, power, and critique.

The notion of genealogy, so central to Michel Foucaults critical histories of our
present, has so far been predominantly ascribed to Foucaults decisive inspiration
from Nietzsche. In light of the advancing research into Foucaults life and
intellectual itinerary, including his diverse political engagements, we wish to
reopen this interpretative consensus. This article thus aims to contribute to a
specific areathe relationship between Foucaults political militancy and his
intellectual development which has been the subject of some recent studies.1
We wish to warmly thank the two anonymous reviewers for their detailed and helpful
comments to an earlier version of the article.
Marcelo Hoffman, Foucault and the Lesson of the Prisoner Support Movement,
New Political Science: A Journal of Politics and Culture 34:1 (2012), pp. 21 36; Thomas
Biebricher, The Practices of Theorists: Habermas and Foucault as Public Intellectuals,
Philosophy & Social Criticism 37:6 (2011), pp.709 734; Alain Beaulieu, Towards a Liberal
Utopia: The Connection between Foucaults Reporting on the Iranian Revolution and the
Ethical Turn, Philosophy & Social Criticism 36:7 (2010), pp. 801 818; Marcelo Hoffman,
q 2014 Caucus for a New Political Science

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2 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

To begin addressing this issue, let us consider the prevailing consensus
concerning Foucaults notable displacement of terminology in the early 1970s.
At that time, he would increasingly describe his histories of the systems of
thought as genealogies, hereby replacing his earlier preferred designator,
archaeology. This methodological displacement is conventionally related to
another significant modification in Foucaults authorship, that is, the
replacement of the analysis of discourse (knowledge) with an analytics of
power (practices and institutions). When accounting for these two developments, scholars of Foucault often refer to Foucaults statements about his
indebtedness to Nietzsche. Hence, in the final interview prior to his death in
1984, Foucault states, I am simply a Nietzschean.2 Apparently, it is Nietzsche,
and particularly his concept of the will to truth, that provides Foucault with a
stronger sense that the sudden disruptions in the forms of knowledge that he
had previously studied (psychiatry, medicine, and the human sciences) had to
be strictly related to transformations in the mechanisms of power occurring
during the same historical junctures. It is also easy to foreground Nietzsche,
particularly his key work On the Genealogy of Morals, as the main methodological
inspiration which led Foucault to rethink the relationship between knowledge
and the exercise of power.3
On this account, it is hardly surprising that a major interpretive tendency
among Foucault commentators is to conceive of Foucaults genealogical approach
as a kind of Nietzschean historiography.4 Indeed, Nietzsches influence on
Foucault, particularly his approach to history, was certainly considerable.
We would like to suggest, however, that the emphasis on the obvious and
important connection to Nietzsche, close to an interpretative orthodoxy, might
have prevented recognition of other significant connections and sources of
inspiration for Foucaults formulations of the genealogical approach.
This article will advance an interpretation of Foucaults approach to history
that focuses on another, less readily evident, source of influence on his
authorship: the Marxist tradition and in particular French Maoism. Most
references to Marxism in relation to Foucault typically emphasize Foucaults
dismissal of Marxism, which is certainly not unwarranted. It does not take much
reading of Foucault, especially if one focuses on the later and most popular
works such as Discipline and Punish, The Will to Knowledge, and the collection of
articles Power/Knowledge, to be convinced that Marxism is discussed in largely
pejorative terms. This animosity toward Marxism is supported by both
Footnote 1 continued

Foucaults Politics and Bellicosity as a Matrix for Power Relations, Philosophy & Social
Criticism 33:6 (2007), pp. 756 778; Julian Bourg, The Red Guards of Paris: French Student
Maoism of the 1960s, History of European Ideas 31:4 (2005), pp. 472 490.
Michel Foucault, The Return of Morality, in Lawrence D. Kritzman (ed.), Politics,
Philosophy and CultureInterviews and Other Writings 1977 1984 (New York: Routledge,
1990), p. 251.
Indicative in this regard is Foucaults comparison between Discipline and Punish and
On the Genealogy of Morals on the dustcover of the French version of the prison book.
For instance, Jeffrey P. Minson, Genealogies of Morals: Nietzsche, Foucault, Donzelot and
the Eccentricity of Ethics (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1986); Michael Mahon, Foucaults
Nietzschean Genealogy: Truth, Power, and the Subject (Albany: State University of New York
Press, 1992); David Owen, Maturity and modernity: Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault, and the
ambivalence of reason (London, UK: Routledge, 1994).

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Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 3

established Foucauldian commentators5 and by the Marxist reception of
Foucault.6 However, as is the case with so many other aspects of Foucaults
work, one should be careful about jumping to conclusions.7 In fact, a number of
recent contributions suggest that Foucaults relation to the Marxist tradition is far
more complicated than what is immediately revealed by his criticism of
theoretical Marxism (targeting especially the Marxian anthropology of alienation,
and conceptions of the state and of ideology) and by his rejection of dogmatic
forms of Marxist-inspired politics (the French Communist Party as well as
In the following, we take inspiration from the more complex picture of
Foucaults relationship to the Marxist tradition offered by recent research when
we examine two aspects of this relationship. In the first part of the article, we
examine a relatively neglected and under-researched part of Foucaults life and
academic trajectory, namely his involvement in the Maoist-inspired activist group,
GIP. We shall argue that Foucaults practical experience from the GIP left visible
marks on his formulations of the genealogical method and his rendering of the
power knowledge nexus.9 As a prelude to this, it is first necessary to look more
closely at the events leading up to Foucaults entry into the GIP, namely what he
calls his political experience in 1968. In the last part of the article, we
demonstrate, through a close reading of Foucaults most explicit reflections on his
genealogical approach in the 1976 lectures at the Colle`ge de France, how activist
principles of the GIP are reflected in these considerations. In contrast to the

Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and
Hermeneutics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Barry Smart, Foucault,
Marxism and Critique (London, UK: Routledge, 1983).
Alex Callinicos, Against Post Modernism: A Marxist Critique (London, UK: Palgrave
MacMillan, 1990); Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London, UK: WileyBlackwell, 1991).
Foucault scholars tend to identify Nietzsche as the key figure who allowed Foucault
to free himself from the predominant Marxist and Hegelian thought of his contemporaries
and as the main source of critique of this tradition. However, this view is dismissed by
Foucault himself: The interest in Nietzsche and Bataille was not a way of distancing
ourselves from Marxism and communismit was the only path toward what we expected
from communism (Michel Foucault, Interview with Michel Foucault, in James
D. Faubion (ed.), Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954 1984 (London, UK: Penguin
Books, 2000), p. 249; cf. also Michel Foucault, Structuralism and Post Structuralism, in
Paul Rabinow (ed.), EthicsSubjectivity and Truth Essential Works of Foucault, 1954 1984
(New York: The New Press, 1997), p. 439).
Etienne Balibar, Foucault and Marx: The Question of Nominalism, in Timothy
J. Armstrong (ed.), Michel Foucault Philosopher (New York: Routledge. 1992), pp. 38 57;
Bradley J. Macdonald, Marx, Foucault, Genealogy, Polity XXXIV:3 (2000), pp. 259284;
Mark Olssen, Foucault and Marxism: Rewriting the Theory of Historical Materialism,
Policy Futures in Education 2:3 4 (2004), pp. 454 482.
Mark Kelly notes that: In terms of the development of the specifics of his political
thought, the most decisive event for Foucault was his leading involvement in the Groupe
dinformation sur les prisons [ . . . ] (Mark Kelly, The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault
(London, UK: Routledge, 2008), p. 18). While Kelly does not elaborate on this topic, other
commentators have focused more intensively on the theoretical importance of Foucaults
commitment to the GIP, including Richard Wolin and Marcelo Hoffman whom we draw
upon to some extent (Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural
Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010);
Hoffman, Foucault and the Lesson of the Prisoner Support Movement, pp. 21 36.

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4 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

relatively few existing contributions on the role played by the GIP and Maoism in
Foucaults thought,10 the present article pays special attention to the importance of
French Maoism for Foucaults conceptualization of the genealogical method.
In particular, we focus on how the French Maoists practice of investigation
(enquete) constituted a key source of inspiration for Foucault.
The aim of the article is threefold. First, to bring attention to (largely neglected)
sources of inspiration for Foucaults rendering of genealogy that supplement his
reading of Nietzsche. Second, we seek to obtain a more balanced understanding of
Foucaults relationship to Marxism, a relationship often portrayed as unambiguously negative. And our third goal is to demonstrate how specific principles
originating in French Maoist political activism are not only realized in Foucaults
political activities within the GIP, but also in his lecture-hall ideas of genealogy.
In short, we wish to shed light on Foucaults so far comparatively underresearched Maoist moment, politically and intellectually, in the first half of the
March 1968
Although Foucault, who was born in 1926, does not belong to the 68 generation,
the protests of 1968 did have, as he repeatedly emphasizes, a crucial importance
for him, not only personally but also intellectually. If it had not been for the events
of 1968, as he explains, he would not have been capable of carrying out his
subsequent studies of crime and sexuality.11 This close link between personal
experience and theoretical practice, between life and work, is stressed by Foucault
in an interview from 1978: I have not written a single book that is not, at least in
part, inspired by a direct personal experience.12 Before looking more closely at
his 1968 experienceincluding the question of the role of Marxismwe need to
clarify how Foucault viewed the connection between experience and thought.
In the aforementioned interview from 1978, Foucault describes his books as
experience books, a term with several connotations. First, his books are rooted
in a personal experience. Second, they have been produced as a result of an
experimental exploration of a certain issue or problem (linked to a personal
experience) instead of serving as a means of communicating an already
established idea. Third, Foucault emphasizes that his books constitute or bring
about an experience, in the sense that the books seek to provoke a transformation
of both the author and the reader. Foucaults idea of writing experience books, as
he himself points out, has its methodological implications for his historiographical
Hoffman, Foucault and the Lesson of the Prisoner Support Movement, pp. 21 36;
Biebricher, The Practices of Theorists, pp. 709 734; Wolin, The Wind from the East; Michael
Welch, Pastoral Power as Penal Resistance: Foucault and the Groupe dInformation sur les
Prisons, Punishment & Society 12:1 (2010), pp. 47 63; Cecile Brich, The Groupe
dInformation sur les Prisons: The Voice of Prisoners? Or Foucaults? Foucault Studies 5
(2008), pp. 26 47.
Foucault, Interview with Michel Foucault, p. 282; Michel Foucault, Truth and
Power, in Colin Gordon (ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972
1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), pp. 111, 116.
Ibid., 239 246. It is worth noting that the French word experience can mean both
experience and experiment. Both meanings seem to operate in Foucaults use of the
word here.

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Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 5

practice: When I begin a book, not only do I not know what Ill be thinking at the
end, but its not very clear to me what method I will employ. Each of my books is a
way of carving out an object and of fabricating a method of analysis.13 Foucault
also mentions a number of other implications of this view, including questions
about the truth of his books, but what is essential for us in this context is to
emphasize the close relationship between Foucaults personal experience and his
theoretical practice.
In the French context, the year 1968 is best known for the student riots that
broke out on the so-called night of the barricades in Paris on May 10, which led
to a series of demonstrations and a general strike. However, at the time of the riots,
Foucault found himself not in France but in Tunisia, where, since 1966, he had
been a visiting professor at the University of Tunis. In March 1968, Foucault
experienced how his Tunisian students, with significant risk of life and limb,
rebelled against the Tunisian regime.14 These events, in which Foucault himself
participated to a limited extent, affected him profoundly: I was deeply impressed
by these young women and men who exposed themselves to terrible risks by
drafting a leaflet, distributing it, or calling for a strike. It was a real political
experience for me.15 The question, however, is what more precisely this political
experience consists of, given that Foucault tells us that we should understand
experience as something that confronts us with our own limits?
We can approach this question in several ways. First, Foucault experienced, on
a practical level, how the Tunisian students political activism involved a kind of
personal passion and devotion, of which he himself was not familiar (and which
obviously fascinated him): In todays world, what can prompt in an individual
the desire, the ability, and the possibility for an absolute sacrifice, without there
being any reason to suspect in their action the least ambition or desire for power
and profit? That was what I saw in Tunisia.16 One of the consequences of this
experience seemed to be that from this point on, Foucault would consider genuine
political activism to necessarily entail an element of risk and self-sacrifice. Second,
Foucaults political experience had implications at a more theoretical level. This
is where the issue of Marxism comes into the picture. The Tunisian student revolt,
according to Foucault, had helped him to break from a certain conception of Marx:
I remember those cold academic discussions of Marxism in which I participated in
France at the beginning of the sixties. In Tunisia, by contrast, everyone appealed to
Marxism with a radical vehemence and intensity and with an impressive
enthusiasm. For those young people, Marxism didnt just represent a better way of
analyzing reality: at the same time, it was a kind of moral energy, a kind of
existential act that was quite remarkable.17

Foucault has an unmistakable sympathy for this existential, activist use of

Marx. And indeed, there are strong indications that the enthusiasm represented
by his Tunisian students had a lasting effect on Foucault. Thus, one of Foucaults
biographers, James Miller, describes how Foucault, in the wake of the events in



6 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

Tunisia, began to read Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky again.18
Third, Foucaults political experience constitutes a break with what he describes
as the speculative skepticism in political affairs which had come from his
disappointing youth romance with the French Communist Party in 1950 1952.19
To characterize Foucaults experience with the Tunisian student rebellion as his
political baptism of fire20 is perhaps an overstatement. Nevertheless, the events
in Tunisia unquestionably became the linchpin for an active political engagement
in French political life upon his return to France in the autumn of 1968, when he
took up the position of head of the Department of Philosophy at the experimental
University of Vincennes in Paris.

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French Maoism and Gauche Proletarienne

When Foucault returned to France, the atmosphere was strongly affected by the
events of May 1968. Strikes and other political protests were taking place around
the country. Many of these activities were organized by various Maoist groups.21
Despite the widespread influence of Maoism in Foucaults milieu in Vincennes
and in French left-wing intellectual life during 1966 1974, the impact of Maoism
on Foucaults thought is still largely unexplored.22 In the next two sections, we
examine how Foucaults encounter with the French Maoist environment (first of
all the GP), and especially his strong commitment to the GIP, constituted an
experience that left clear traces in his analytical thinking.
French Maoism has a rather complex history. It originated in the early 1960s
out of an interest in China in the Parti communiste franc ais (French Communist

James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2000), p. 171. Eric Paras notes that from 1969, a Marxist terminology suddenly begins
to appear in Foucaults discourse, though it completely disappears around 1975. See Eric
Paras, Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2006), pp. 57 62.
Foucault, Interview with Michel Foucault, p. 279.
David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault (New York: Vintage Press, 2004), p. 209.
The largest and most prominent of these was the Gauche Proletarienne (GP), which
was also supported by prominent intellectuals such as Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Paul Sartre,
Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Clavel. Among the leading figures in these Maoist groups
were a number of Louis Althussers former students from the Ecole normale superieure.
Several of these young, politically active philosophers, notably Alain Badiou, Jacques
Rancie`re, Judith Miller and Jacques-Alain Miller, were hired by Foucault to teach at
Vincennes. Foucaults partner, Daniel Defert, who also held a position at Vincennes, was
actively involved in the GP (Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, pp. 217 218).
Besides David Maceys biographical study we know of only two detailed academic
studies on this issue, namely Julian Bourgs From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and
Contemporary French Thought (Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007)
and Wolins The Wind from the East. In general, remarkably few of Foucaults interpreters
have tried to elucidate the relationship between his political experiences and his theoretical
development, despite their affirmation of the importance of his involvement in a number of
political issues through the 1970s. Exceptions include Janet Afray and Kevin B. Andersons
book Foucault and the Iranian Revolution and Brady Thomas Heiners article Foucault and
the Black Panthers, City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 11:3 (2007),
pp. 313 356, as well as some recent articles on Foucaults commitment to the GIP. See Brich,
The Groupe dInformation sur les Prisons, pp. 26 47; Welch, Pastoral Power as Penal
Resistance, pp. 47 63.; Hofmann, Foucault and the Lesson of the Prisoner Support
Movement, pp. 21 36; Biebricher, The Practices of Theorists, pp. 709 734.

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Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 7

PartyPCF) and had its heyday from 1968 to 1972. We cannot offer a detailed
presentation of this history here. But as a context for our discussion of Foucaults
involvement with French Maoism we will provide a short overview.23 Maoism in
France had, to use the words of A. Belden Fields, two distinct points of origin.24
First, in 1967 Maoist sympathizers from the PCF formed, after two years of
mobilization, the Maoist organization Parti communiste marxiste leniniste de France
(PCMLF) followed. Second, in 1966 Maoists sympathizers from PCFs student
branch, Union des etudiants communistes (UEC), many of whom were students of
Louis Althusser at the Ecole normale superieure (ENS), broke with the UEC and
formed Union des jeunesses communistes marxiste leniniste (UJCML).25 After
opposing the May 1968 uprisings, arguing that only the workers, not the students,
could make a true revolution, the UJCML collapsed, and a number of its members
joined the PCMLF. It was some of the remaining members, including many of the
ENS students, who decided to establish the Gauche Proletarienne (GP).26 These two
Maoist organizations survived until the mid-1970s.
In light of our present concerns, two things are particularly noteworthy with
respect to these three camps of French Maoism.27 First, two of these groups, the
UJCML and the GP, implemented the practices of investigation introduced by
Mao in 1927 in order to ground Marxist theory in direct experiences of the local
conditions of the workers.28 Second, it is worth noticing the different positions
that these three organizations took in regard to the Leninist party structure. As the
last part of their names indicates, the PCMLF and the UJCML both adopted the
Leninist conception of the party as a hierarchically organized avant garde.
However, in the case of UJCML this structure collided with the emphasis that this
fraction gave to the practice of investigation as an instrument to align the party
with the ideas of the people. For this reason, the UJCML only accepted the Leninist
party structure as appropriate at a particular stage of the revolutionary struggle.29
By contrast, the GP completely rejected the Leninist party structure in favor of
what Fields calls an anti-hierarchal organizational model. We shall now turn to
Foucaults relationship to French Maoism.
In this context, we are merely interested in certain aspects of French Maoism,
principally the practice of investigation. French Maoism is the general designation used
by researchers to encapsulate the different organizations and fractions in France that from
the beginning of the 1960s until the mid-1970s in various ways took inspiration from ideas
originating in Chinese Maoism. See A. Belden Fields, French Maoism, Social Text 9:10
(1984), pp. 148 177; Bourg, The Red Guards of Paris, pp. 472490; and Wolin, The Wind
from the East. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore Chinese Maoism and the exact
relationship between Chinese and French Maoism, which would furthermore involve
clarifying the complex relationship between (Chinese and French) Maoism and Soviet
communism. For a study of the relationship between Maoism and Marxism, see James
Gregor and Maria Hsia Chang, Maoism and Marxism in Comparative Perspective, The
Review of Politics 40:3 (1978), pp. 307 327.
Fields, French Maoism, p. 151.
Ibid., 152154; Bourg, The Red Guards of Paris, pp. 476 486.
Ibid., 154, 489.
The post-1968 years saw various factions inspired by Maoism (for example the Union
des communistes de France marxiste-leniniste founded by amongst others Alain Badiou), but
the three mentioned were the largest and most influential.
Fields, French Maoism, p. 164; Bourg, The Red Guards of Paris, p. 588; Bourg,
From Revolution to Ethics, p. 52.
Ibid., 154.

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8 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

In his study of French intellectuals and the May 1968 events, The Wind from the
East, Richard Wolin offers a comprehensive account of how Foucault, upon his
return from Tunisia, began to take an interest in the Maoist groups, principally the
GP, who played a central role in the Parisian student environment in the years
following the 1968 events. In Wolins estimation, this interest was particularly
rooted in Foucaults Tunisian experience. Or, as he puts it: Foucault was
profoundly impressed by the gepistes, or GP members, who seemed to embody the
same ultra qualities that he had admired in his Tunisian students.30 Although he
does not mention the Tunisian experience, Miller similarly notes how Foucaults
awakening political interest was directed at the GP: Like Defert, Foucault was also
now keen to explore for himself new forms of political action, and he too, had been
drawn, for this reason, to the Gauche proletarienne.31 However, matters are
somewhat more complicated than these statements suggest. Foucault was never an
official member of the GP and his stance toward the group was ambivalent to say
the least. On the one hand, Foucault was connected to quite a few people who were
involved in the GP, and he was, at least sometimes, quite enthusiastic about the
organization.32 On the other hand, Foucault expressed unmistaken skepticism
toward the GP on several occasions. This was the case in his most substantial
engagements with the GP, namely in his discussion of the issue of popular justice
with two leading members of the GP in 1972, in this involvement in the so-called
Bruay-en-Artois affair later the same year and in this work with the GIP. In his
debate with two prominent gepistes, Gilles and Victor (whose real names were
Benny Levi and Andre Glucksmann), Foucault repeatedly criticized their idea of
setting up peoples courts modeled on the practices that Mao had encouraged
during Cultural Revolution.33 His critique concerned the risk of merely
reproducing the juridical apparatus and ideology of the bourgeois court.
As Wolin observes, Foucault here outdid the GP members in revolutionary zeal:
Thus, on the one hand, like Victor, Foucault favoured the summary elimination of
bourgeois legality. On the other hand, he argued vigorously against the creation of
the peoples tribunals favoured by Victor, Sartre and other GP activists. Such organs,
he believed, represented too much of a formal constraint on the spontaneity of the
popular will.34

We shall return to Foucaults relationship with the GP as manifest in his work with
the GIP in a moment. First, however, we examine more closely the methods and
principles of political militancy in the GP.
Wolin, The Wind from the East, p. 301. David Macey makes a similar connection:
Organized Trotskyism was of no interest to Foucault, but gauchisme certainly had its
attractions. He had been politicized by what he had seen and experienced in Tunisia, and
Daniel Defert was already moving in gauchiste circles, Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault,
p. 217.
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, p. 186.
Ibid.; Wolin, The Wind from the East, p. 301; Peter Dews, The Nouvelle Philosophie and
Foucault, in Mike Gane (ed.), Towards a Critique of Foucault (London, UK: Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1986), p. 74.
Michel Foucault, On Popular Justice: A Discussion with Maoists, in Colin Gordon
(ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972 1977 (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1980), pp. 1 36.
Wolin, The Wind from the East, p. 30.

Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 9

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The Political Militancy of the GP

Like French Maoism in general, the GP understood themselves as bearers of the
Marxist tradition, but also as a corrective to and further development of this
tradition.35 The French Maoists shared the overall objectives of traditional Marxism
to which the French Communist Party also adheredthat is, to mobilize the
proletariat for a revolution against capitalist society. However, many Maoists, and
especially the GP, were skeptical of key aspects of the Leninist vanguard strategy of
revolution, advocated by not only the PCF, but also to some extent by the PCMLF.36
Their critique had several elements which can be summarized in four points.
First, in contrast to a Leninist view, the GP stressed the role of the masses in
creating history in contrast to a party vanguard. One should therefore listen to and
allow the people themselves to speak out. In this regard, the GP adhered to an
ideology of anti-hierarchism and anti-authoritarianism and entailed a significant
critique of the mechanics of representation.37 Second, the Maoists rejected the
assumption that the revolution could be predicted or planned on the basis of
economic and historical analysis; instead, they held that it would always result
from a spontaneous mass action.38 Third, along with the standard rhetoric of an
alliance between students and workers, the Maoists emphasized that the
(intellectual) political activist should always have a practical grounding in
concrete situations, familiarizing themselves with the conditions of the workers,
as opposed to a mere theoretical understanding of these.39 Accordingly, the
Maoists were extremely critical of the Leninist idea of scientific Marxism, and
they displayed certain anti-intellectual tendencies. They displayed a distaste of
high-level theorizing, which resonates in Foucault, and denounced any totalizing
movement of reflection in favor of the spontaneous, the immediate and the
particular.40 Fourth, the Maoists were characterized by a fundamental mistrust of

For commentaries on GPs critique of the Leninist-Marxist tradition, see Dews, The
Nouvelle Philosophie and Foucault, p. 65; Gregor and Chang, Maoism and Marxism in
Comparative Perspective, pp. 307 327; Bourg, The Red Guards of Paris, pp. 472490;
Fields, French Maoism, pp. 148 177.
Foucault seems to have recognized this conflict: [T]hose who would become the
Marxist-Leninists or even the Maoists of the post-68 year. For them, Marx was the object of a
very important theoretical battle, directed against bourgeois ideology, of course, but also
against the [French] Communist Party, which they reproached for its theoretical inertia and
for not being able to convey anything but dogma (Foucault, Interview with Michel
Foucault, p. 269).
Dews, The Nouvelle Philosophie and Foucault, p. 65; Fields, French Maoism, p. 156;
Kristin Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010),
p. 112.
Dews, The Nouvelle Philosophie and Foucault, p. 65; Bourg, The Red Guards of
Paris, pp. 479 480; Wolin, The Wind from the East, p. 30.
Dews, The Nouvelle Philosophie and Foucault, p. 65; Bourg, The Red Guards of
Paris, p. 474; Wolin, The Wind from the East, pp. 128 132.
Dews, The Nouvelle Philosophie and Foucault, p. 63; Althusser, a prominent member
of the French Communist Party who contributed significantly to the theoretical renewal of
the Marxist-Leninist tradition in France, adopted a negative attitude toward the student
protest. He thus ended up in opposition to many of his former students, several of whom, in
the wake of the 1968 events, criticized their former teacher with inspiration from Maoism.
Both Jacques Rancie`re and Alain Badiou attacked Althusser for his distinction between
ideology and science, the crux of Althussers attempt to develop a scientific Marxism.

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10 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

traditional Leninist forms of organization (that is, the party-state), which was
expressed in their fierce polemics against the trade unions and the PCF.41
It is against this background that we must understand three types of activities
that were central to the work of the GP: active participation in the factory work of
the masses (etablissement), investigations of the everyday conditions of the people
(enquete) and the attempt to establish popular justice in the form of peoples
courts (tribunal populaire).42 As we shall see, it is possible to identify several key
features of French Maoism in Foucaults GIP. This is hardly accidental, since the
GIP was formed in the context of a GP campaign and since its principal way of
gathering information about prisoners was modeled on the Maoist investigation (enquete).
In 1970 the GP was banned by the French government, and a number of its
members were imprisoned, including the editor of the GP newspaper La Cause du
Peuple, Jean-Pierre Le Dantec. However, the GP members who were arrested just
moved their political activities with them into prison, and in September 1970 a
group of prisoners, organized by the GPs, began a hunger strike demanding to be
awarded the status of political prisoners. The prisoners never had their
demands fulfilled nor did they get the media attention that they had hoped for
and thus the campaign only lasted for a month. But in early 1971 the GP initiated a
wave of more carefully organized hunger strikes and this time they demanded
that all prisoners (not only those who had been convicted under the laws which
were directed against the GP) be recognized as political prisoners, since any
infringement of the laws instituted by the bourgeoisie was now considered a
political act.43 This second wave of hunger strikes caught Foucaults attention as
he explains in an interview conducted later the same year.44 At the same time he
was urged by the GP to get involved in the prison campaign.45 This occasion
inspired Foucaulttogether with contemporaries such as Gilles Deleuzeto
launch at a press conference in February 1971 the GIP, which had as its main
objective to collect and disseminate information about the conditions in French
prisons. Thus, as Defert notes, the GIP originated neither directly from the GP, nor
from Foucault, but from somewhere in between them.46 Although the GIP
certainly did not identify itself with the GP, it was nevertheless decisively
influenced by the Maoists, and there were evident parallels between the two
groups. In his deliberation on Foucault and the GIP, Peter Dews observes:
Although in discussion with the Maoists Foucault always prudently put the
question of China in brackets, there was undoubtedly a convergence between their
politics and his own, precisely to the extent that the GP were abandoning the classic
Marxist strategies in favour of forms of anti-authoritarian struggle not directly
related to the traditional field of action of the organized working class.47

Ibid., 65; Wolin, The Wind from the East, pp. 118, 129; Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives,

p. 96.


Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives, p. 109.

Wolin, The Wind from the East, pp. 199 203.
Michel Foucault, Je perc ois lintolerable, in Daniel Defert and Francois Ewald (eds),
Dits et ecrits: 1954 1988 Tome II (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), p. 204.
Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics, p. 79.
Ibid., 80.
Dews, The Nouvelle Philosophie and Foucault, p. 74. In 1971 the GP and the GIP
worked together on a report on prison conditions; however, the relationship between the

Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 11

Addressing the same relationship, Wolin suggests that traces of Maoist inspiration
are also evident in Foucaults academic work:

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Foucaults period of Maoist-inspired political militancy has been very little

scrutinized. However, if one seeks to gain insight into the gestation of Foucaultian
concepts such as genealogy, biopower and discipline society, an
understanding of this period is crucial, for it was as a result of his work with the
Maoists that Foucault arrived at the notion of microphysics of power, which
would become the hallmark of his later work.48

Foucault himself does not use the term inspiration in his reference to the French
Maoists activities, but he describes the work of the GIP as an experience/
experiment49 thereby signaling his commitment to GIP as having both a personal
and a transformative element.50 Similarly, on several occasions, Foucault explicitly
relates this personal political experience to his theoretical and analytical work.
In his introduction to Discipline and Punish, for example, he states That
punishment in general and the prison in particular belong to a political technology
of the body is a lesson that I have learnt not so much from history as from the
present.51 We shall now explore this relationship by looking at the connection
between Foucaults activist experience with the GIP and his theoretical
GIPs Investigation (Enquete)
Besides the fact that the GIP was established at least partly at the request of the GP,
the Maoist inspiration reveals itself most visibly in the GIPs practice of
investigation, one of the key elements of French Maoist political activism.52 As
already mentioned it was Mao himself who, in a text from 1930, entitled Oppose
Book Worship, introduced the practice of investigation as a prerequisite for
theoretical reflection and the exercise of political authority. The slogan was:
Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to
Footnote 47 continued

two groups seems to have been of a more ambivalent character than the quote by Dews
implies (see Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics, p. 82). As Macey points out: While the
emphasis [of the GIP] on spontaneity may have evoked memories of the wartime resistance
for Domenach, it was also very much in keeping with the ethos of the Gauche Proletarienne.
The GP was not always united in its support for Foucaults group. [ . . . ] The possibility of
manipulation by the Gauche Proletarienne was always present, and as Danie`le Rancie`re
recalls Foucault having to insist again and again: This is GIP, not Secours Rouge, and not
the Gauche Proletarienne (Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, p. 264). See also Deleuzes
comment on this matter (Gilles Deleuze, The Intellectual and Politics: Foucault and
Prison, History of the Present 2 (1986), p. 1).
Wolin, The Wind from the East, p. 18; cf. also Hoffman, Foucault and the Lesson of
the Prisoner Support Movement, p. 22.
Foucault, Interview with Michel Foucault, p. 281.
Foucault, Je perc ois lintolerable, p. 1072.
Michel Foucault, Questions of Method, in Gordon Burchell, Colin Gordon and
Peter Miller (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press, 1991), p. 30.
Wolin, The Wind from the East, p. 18. See also Bourg, The Red Guards of Paris,
pp. 475 476; Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives, pp. 109 113; Hoffman, Foucault and the
Lesson of the Prisoner Support Movement, p. 26.

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12 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

speak on it.53 Or, as he explains in the preface to his report on an investigation of
the peasant movement in Hunan: Everyone engaged in practical work must
investigate conditions at the lower levels. Such investigation is particularly
indispensable for those who know theory but do not know the actual social
conditions, since otherwise they will not be able to connect theory to practice.54
In Oppose Book Worship, Mao outlines what he calls the technique of
investigation, that is, a set of concrete guidelines for how an investigation is to
be conducted. This technique, or certain key elements of it (particularly the
principle of using questionnaires) becomes the GIPs most important and
frequently used instrument in their efforts to collect and provide information to
the public about the living conditions of French prisoners.55 How, then, was this
Maoist investigation technique distinct from other ways of producing knowledge?
While both Wolin and Bourg allude to the practice of investigation in their
discussion of French Maoism, a more systematic treatment of the matter is offered
in Kristin Ross May 68 and its Afterlives. Ross describes the investigation in a way
that resonates well with the above outlined general features of French Maoism.
The investigation is, first, a technique designed to circumvent or short-circuit the
systems of representation through which the masses are depicted on the
bourgeoisies terms, which means that this system serves repressive functions.56
Second, the investigation is a technique which, due to its implicit requirement of
direct and personal commitment, places greater emphasis on local conditions
and historical circumstances than on the doctrines of canonical and theoretical
texts.57 The investigation is thus in opposition to traditional theoretical forms of
knowledge, such as the sociology of work or political science.58 Third, the
investigation implies that the intellectual takes up a particular role, more like a
channel for the masses than the detailed study of the specialist:
Immersing oneself in the school of the masses, the intellectuals role would not be
that of sociologist, hygienist, teacher, or Leninist vanguard leader, but at best that of
midwife: drawing out revolutionary aspirations existing in a latent state,
encouraging their expression, then synthesizing them and returning them in the
form of political propositions. Sans enquetes, pas de droit a` la parole [No
investigation, no right to speak]. Gather the news of the struggle, write it up, give it
back in a new form, circulate it, reproduce it, become the vehicle.59

A fourth feature of the investigation, also implicit in the quote above, and
emphasized by Bourg,60 is that the knowledge produced through the investigation
should be regarded in strategic terms as an intervention into a political struggle.
Furthermore, as several commentators have noted, the investigation turned out to
Mao Tse-Tung, Oppose Book Worship, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/
Quoted in Bruno Bosteels, Post-Maoism: Badiou and Politics, Positions: East Asia
Cultures Critique 13:3 (2005), p. 579.
Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics, p. 52; Wolin, The Wind from the East, pp. 303 306;
Hoffman, Foucault and the Lesson of the Prisoner Support Movement, p. 26.
Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives, p. 109.
Ibid., 111 112.
Ibid., 110.
Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics, pp. 52, 86.

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Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 13

be a key instrument in the confrontation with traditional Marxism at the time:
The Maoist strategy of the investigation [enquetes ] found new prominence at
this time. It was to be crucial in the mobilizations around the prisons and,
unintentionally, in the surpassing of French Marxism-Leninism.61 But how did
the GIP elaborate the practice of investigation?
First, the investigation that the GIP carried out was based largely on
questionnaires about prison conditions distributed (illegally) to the prisoners by
their families, ex-prisoners, lawyers and social workers. The information gathered
from these questionnaires then served as the basis for publications. During the
period 1971 1973, the GIP issued four such publications under the title
Intolerance studies (Enquetes-Intolerable).62 In the preface to the first published
investigation (Preface a` Enquete dans vingt prisons), written by Foucault himself, the
objectives of GIPs investigations were outlined, with a stress on the investigations
as both political acts and as part of a social struggle.63 As Bourg notes: the GIP
was doing much to advocate investigation itself as a form of struggle.64
Second, GIPs investigations always had specific objectives in so far as they were
embedded in concrete and local problems instead of addressing an abstract
system of production. Third, the investigations were never to be conducted by
specialists or technicians imposed from outside, but only by the involved
individuals themselves. This last requirement is stressed on the back cover of the
first GIP pamphlet: The GIP (Information Group on Prisons) does not propose to
speak for the prisoners of different prisons: it proposes, on the contrary, to give
them the possibility to speak themselves and to say what is happening in the
There has been considerable debate regarding the extent to which the GIPs
campaign achieved its declared objectives. The campaign successfully spurred a
series of actions for improving prisoners rights through the 1970s, including a
wave of rooftop protests organized by prisoners and the creation of two important
prisoner organizations, the Prisoners Action Committee (Comite daction des
prisonniers, CAP) and the Association for the Rights of the Detained (Association
pour la Defense des Droits des Detenus, ADDD).66 Concrete improvements of
prisoners conditions were also achieved in France in the early 1970s. The French
government granted prisoners the right to unlimited access to newspapers and
radio (both hitherto forbidden), more liberal visitation rights, reduction of the
maximum period of solitary confinement from ninety to forty-five days, and the
abolition of censorship of prisoners mail.67 David Macey assesses the impact of
the GIP thusly: Largely as a result of the work of the GIP, the prison issue had
Ibid., 79; see also Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives, p. 110; Wolin, The Wind from the East,
p. 131.
Wolin, The Wind from the East, p. 306; Hoffman, Foucault and the Lesson of the
Prisoner Support Movement, p. 26.
Michel Foucault, Preface a` Enquete dans vingt prisons, in Daniel Defert and
Francois Ewald (eds), Dits et ecrits: 1954 1988 Tome II (Paris, France: Gallimard, 2001),
pp. 195 198.
Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics, p. 48.
Le Groupe dInformation sur les Prisons, Enquete dans vingt prisons (Paris, France: Champ
Libre, 1971). Quoted from Hoffman, Foucault and the Lesson of the Prisoner Support
Movement, p. 25.
Hoffman, Foucault and the Lesson of the Prisoner Support Movement, p. 30.
Wolin, The Wind from the East, pp. 315 316.

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14 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

been placed on the public and political agenda, much more so than in Britain or
the US, where comparable groups never succeeded in organizing large-scale
actions outside the walls of prison. In their different ways, the ADDD and the CAP
continued their work, but as Le Monde noted, Foucaults leadership was sorely
On the other hand, the GIPs attempt at a non-representational political
practice that was to allow the prisoners irreducible experiences to resound had
limited success. As mentioned, the core idea of the questionnaires was to avoid
subsuming the prisoners under moral and judicial categories or representing
them as a social type in order to, instead, turn them into speakers with their own
voice. However, the use of the questionnaire format arguably posed several
constraints on the prisoners voice.69 It turned the prisoners into passive objects
(respondents) rather than active speakers. The questionnaire invoked the genre of
social science and inevitably elevated its authors into the position of scientists.
Privileging of the written medium constituted a severe challenge for illiterate
prisoners and non-French speakers, who were probably under-represented in the
investigations. The questionnaire format certainly tended to constrain the
prisoners testimonies to pre-formatted answers and factual accounts. Indeed,
Birch concludes that by responding to the questionnaire, the prisoner had to
submit to the conventions of a genre outside of his ordinary communicative
repertoire.70 The organizers themselves, including Deleuze and Foucault,
admitted that the attempt to avoid speaking on behalf of the prisoners was not
successful. Deleuze, in a conversation from 1972, lamented: We ridiculed
representation and said it was finished, but we failed to draw the consequences of
this theoretical conversionto appreciate the theoretical fact that only those
directly concerned can speak in a practical way.71
In this context, however, our principal concern is to trace the influence of the
Maoists activist principles of which several are clearly recognizable: The GIP
invoked a key idea on the French Left of the time: conventional politics was a mere
epiphenomenon masking the real mechanisms of oppression. Furthermore, the
GIP emphasized the close link between knowledge and struggle; the local and
concrete as starting point (as opposed to universal assumptions); the perils of
representational thinking and particularly of the idea that theoretical specialists
can act as representatives of the people or of particular oppressed groups. These
principles certainly presage a number of Foucaults subsequent tenets on power
and critical practice, including his statement on the mutual relationship between
knowledge and power, his skepticism about global theories, his concept of the
micro-physics of power in mundane practices and everyday life; and his contrast
between the universal and the specific intellectual.72 Foucault himself explicitly

Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, p. 289.

Discussed in detail in Cecile Brich, The Groupe dInformation sur les Prisons,
pp. 26 47.
Ibid., 43.
Michel Foucault, Intellectuals and Power, in Donald Bouchard (ed.), Language,
Counter-Memory, Practice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), p. 209.
Bourg and Wolin argue that prison psychiatrist Edith Rose, who during the prison
riots in Toul in December 1971 sent an open, critical letter to the prison administration,
became a major source of inspiration for Foucaults rethinking of the role of the intellectual
(Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics, p. 48; Wolin, The Wind from the East, pp. 308, 316). As Bourg

Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 15

confirms this impression of a direct link between activist experience and
conceptual elaboration, specifically in relation to his revision of the concept of
power during the 1970s. Hence, in 1977 he states:

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There came a time when this struck me as inadequate. It was during the course of a
concrete experience that I had with prisons, starting in 1971 1972. The case of the
penal system convinced me that the question of power needed to be formulated not
so much in terms of justice as in those of technology, of tactics and strategy, and it
was this substitution for a judicial and negative grid of a technical and strategic one
that I tried to effect in Discipline and Punish and then to exploit in The History of

The break between these two books, Discipline and Punishment and The History of
Sexuality, vol. 1 occurred during a period when Foucault was intensely concerned
with the concept of power. The lecture series Society Must Be Defended, held at the
Colle`ge de France in 1976 bears strong evidence of this concern. These lecturesin
particular the first twoalso contain Foucaults most explicit considerations on
the genealogical approach to writing history and the intrinsic connection between
genealogy and contemporary social and political struggles. In the remainder of the
article, we demonstrate how several of the Maoist principles resonate in
Foucaults 1976 lectures.
Society Must be Defended has been discussed extensively,74 but to our
knowledge only one study provides an explicit focus on Foucaults previous
political experiences.75 In Marcelo Hoffmans analysis, Foucaults approach to the
textual sources is considered from an autobiographical perspective which leads
Hoffman to suggest that Foucault began to embrace the war model in 1976 and in
the previous years precisely because he began to engage in political struggles
during this very same period.76 This helps explain Foucaults extensive analysis
of race-war writers with whom Foucault seemingly intertwines his voice.
Hoffman presents evidence from the lectures of Foucaults barely veiled personal
identification with race-war writers, especially Boulainvilliers.77 That the
discourse of race war was born out of real struggle, together with a number of
clear parallels to Nietzsches historicism, was the key motive for Foucaults
Footnote 72 continued

puts it: Her [Edith Roses] revelations of the psychiatric mistreatment and the correlations
between criminalization and pathologization within the justice system served as a model
for Foucault and Deleuzes later conversation (March 4, 1972) on what they called the
specific intellectual. (Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics, p. 48).
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, in Colin Gordon (ed.), Power/Knowledge:
Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972 1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 184.
Alain Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy (New York: Verso, 2012), pp. 90 100;
Mark Kelly, Racism, Nationalism and Biopolitics: Foucaults Society Must Be Defended,
Contretemps 4 (2004), pp. 58 70; John Marks, Foucault, Franks, Gauls: Il Faut deFendre la
Societe: The 1976 Lectures at the Colle`ge de France, Theory, Culture & Society 17:5 (2000),
pp. 127 147; Stephen S. Elden, The War of Races and the Constitution of the State:
Foucaults Il faut defendre la societe and the Politics of Calculation, Boundary 2:29 (2002),
pp. 125 151.
Marcelo Hoffman, Foucaults Politics and Bellicosity as a Matrix for Power
Relations, Philosophy & Social Criticism 33:6 (2007), pp. 756 778.
Ibid., 771.
Ibid., 769771.

16 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

embrace of it. In the following we take a slightly different approach by seeking to
demonstrate in more detail what kind of practical experiences with struggles,
especially activist principles, resonate in the 1976 lectures.

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Society Must be Defended

The 1976 lecture series, Society Must Be Defended, is renowned for being the context
where Foucault uses war as a register for understanding politics and state
formation. Standing Clausewitz on his head, Foucault suggests that politics is the
continuation of war by other means.78 These lectures are also the context of
Foucaults provocative claims that biological racism constitutes an element
internal to not only Stalinism and National Socialism but inscribed into the
workings of all modern states.79 However, we will attempt to demonstrate that
these lectures bear the impact of Foucaults Maoist moment in terms of
noticeable theoretical-methodical parallels with the activist principles championed by the French Maoists. In addition, Foucault gives both critical comments
to the contemporary theoretical Marxism and harsh assessments of actually
existing socialism. In his critique of Stalinism and his warning against centralized
and unitary discourse, these lectures comprise a multifaceted dialogue with both
socialist praxis and theoretical Marxism.
As a prelude to the historical interrogations (lectures 3 11), Foucault discusses
how to approach the problem of state power at some length. At the time of the
1976 lecture series, Foucault was apparently facing demands from critics who
urged him to raise his previous analysis up to a more general level and to theorize
the role of the state.80 These circumstances must be taken into account when
reading Foucaults surprisingly self-critical comments in the introduction to the
1976 lectures. There, Foucault describes his work during the previous years with
apparent dissatisfaction, as fragmented pieces of research that never formed a
coherent body of work. He had studied the rise of theories of and knowledge
about insanity, psychiatry, and the rehabilitation of criminals and related
techniques without these studies leading to any integrated theory of state
institutions: Its all repetitive and doesnt add up.81 Despite these seemingly
self-critical evaluations, Foucault never fulfills the demand for theorizing the role
of the state. In fact, the idea of synthesizing his previous fragmented analyses
into a global theory, a theoretical crown which would unify them remained
alien to Foucault.82 Instead, he spends considerable time during the first lectures
on explicating the problematic aspects of using uniform and totalizing scientific
and juridical discourse to grasp power. First of all, this kind of discourse runs
parallel to, and is interconnected with, state institutions which normalize,
discipline, and carry out a medicalization of society. However, the unifying
discourse also has parallels with abstract, university Marxism, which, according
to Foucault, narrows the terrain of the political, assuming that everyday life falls
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Colle`ge de France, 1975 76 (New
York: Picador, 2003), p. 16.
Ibid., 260.
Foucault, Questions of Method, p. 85.
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 4.
Ibid., 12.

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Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 17

below the appropriate terms of political struggle. This kind of discourse is
connected to the party organization, with its hierarchies, formalism, and tendency
toward dogmatism and monopolizing of power.
It is on this background that we may understand Foucaults distinct
formulations of his genealogical method in Society Must Be Defended which put
a remarkable emphasis on local, marginalized, excluded, and subjugated
knowledge. In these first lectures, Foucault repeatedly states that a fundamental
task for genealogy is to produce knowledge which cannot easily be appropriated
by global and unifying forms of theorizing, since it must oppose and struggle
against the coercion of a unitary, formal, and scientific theoretical discourse.83 In
this context, Foucault advances the objection to theoretical Marxism that it
privileges its own position as scientific and disqualifies alternative knowledge as
ideology. The claim of theoretical Marxism to constitute a science is, in
Foucaults view, a discursive strategy which validates its own axioms, claims to be
the true representation of the mechanisms of oppression, and hence in effect
excludes other, presumably inferior forms of knowledge. A key objection to
what Foucault termed university Marxism is indeed that it assumes a
hierarchical relationship between theoretical truth and peoples everyday
practice.84 In opposition to this kind of centralized and institutionalized
knowledge, Foucault invokes a more autonomous, localized knowledge which
was made possible by the increasing local critique that had emerged at that
time, a term which most likely includes Foucaults activism in the GIP.85
The French Maoists key strategy of exerting forms of struggle that cannot be
immediately appropriated by a political party dogma is paralleled at the
analytical level in Foucaults explanation of the genealogical approach.86 Thus, he
speaks about disrupting the tyranny of the unitary discourse by mobilizing local,
disqualified, and lower-level knowledge against it. This goal resonates with that
of the French Maoists, who were striving to avoid practices (and producing the
kind of knowledge) that could lead to the reinstallation of precisely those power
structures (hierarchical party-organization) and discourses (authorized science)
against which the political activism was directed in the first place. Foucault says:
I think that the essentially local character of critique in fact indicates something
resembling a sort of autonomous, non-centralized theoretical production, or in
other words, a theoretical production that does not need a visa from some
common regime to establish its validity.87
Throughout the first of the 1976 lectures, Foucault repeatedly warns against
the risk that knowledge becomes conquered, enrolled and re-utilized by a
centralizing institutionthe state, the scientific institution, or the party. The
genealogist must constantly be attentive to the risk of such an annexation and
must resist the centralizing power-effects that are bound up with the
institutionalization of and workings of any scientific discourse.88 According to
Foucault, this resistance can be sustained when the historian mobilizes localized,


10 13.
9 19.

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18 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

subjugated knowledge so as to produce a knowledge that does not easily lend
itself to being subsumed within centralizing, uniform institutions.89 At this
moment, Foucaults parlance echoes the Maoists critique of the institutionalized
sciencesthe sociology of work, political science, jurisprudenceas tools
deemed inadequate for a critical practice, which aims to facilitate the selfrepresentation of the marginalized and oppressed.90
Foucaults critical comments on centralizing and uniform discourse
should also be seen in light of his assessment of French Marxist intellectuals as
being preoccupied with winning the acceptance of the established scientific
institutionsa task that was also of great concern to the French Communist Party.
Hence, Foucault asserts, the problem of the Marxist intellectuals was that they
were preoccupied with gaining for themselves the recognition of the university
institutions and the establishment. Consequently, they found it necessary to pose
the same theoretical questions as the academic establishment.91 In their pursuit
of recognition, the Marxist intellectuals would adopt models and themes derived
from the more noble positivist sciences. The result, according to Foucault, was a
blindness to the ignoble questions of institutionalized power and knowledge
production, such as the power effects of psychiatry or the political functioning of
medicine.92 In his reading of eighteenth- and seventeenth-century writers, many
of whom belonged, somewhat ironically, to the nobility, Foucault could challenge
university Marxism and refocus the intellectual project on the practices of
power and struggle.
For Foucault, analyzing social upheavals and state formation through the
register of war provides a strategy against the institutionalized sciences effects
of power and monopoly of representation. This register places perpetual social
struggles as fundamental to any society and its history.93 Foucault asserts that it is
a discourse that seeks to demonstrate how social struggles, dominance, and
temporarily fixated conflicts are concealed beneath the apparent naturalness and
functional necessity of the state and its constitution. The importance of this
vocabulary is the primacy it gives to war in deciphering and rendering intelligible
all political relations. Apart from providing a critical intelligibility on the juridical
order of the state, this war-perspective also resonates clearly with Nietzsches
historical ontology. They share the view that society is not regulated by natural
laws or by functional mechanisms, but by rival forces and their ceaseless interplay
throughout history. The genealogist must reveal that
beneath the formal facade of the State, there were other forces and that they were
precisely not forces of the State, but the forces of a particular group with its own

Ibid., 7, 9 12.
Although the stated goal was to allow prisoners and other oppressed people to
speak for themselves instead of speaking on behalf of them, it is debatable to what extent
the GIP achieved this aim in reality. Hence, Brich directs attention to a series of
circumstances in the GIPs work hindering the prisoners own voice to be heard, including
the use of the questionnaire format with pre-given formulations and the underrepresentation of illiterate prisoners and non-French-speakers (Brich, The Groupe
dInformation sur les Prisons, pp. 26 47).
Foucault, Truth and Power, p. 110.
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, pp. 156, 162.

Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 19

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history, its own relationship with the past, its own victories, its own blood, and its
own relations of domination.94

Foucault expresses enthusiasm for what he terms the historical-political

discoursea group of historians and chroniclers, who viewed struggles between
rivaling social groups, race-wars, as the foundation for the formation and
dissolution of states.95 The historical political discourse develops in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries as a counter-discourse to the model of juridical
sovereignty.96 Foucault investigates two variants of it: one arose in England at the
time of the bourgeois revolution, and another in France around the establishment
the absolute-administrative monarchy in the late seventeenth century.97 This
discourse hence comprises the Puritans, the Levellers, and the Diggers in
England, and is represented by reactionary French aristocrats who fought against
the monarchy. Foucault hence spends considerable time in discussing the writing
of a reactionary French nobleman, Henri de Boulainvilliers, who wrote to defend
the aristocracy.98
In these writers, Foucault rediscovers a forgotten discourse that challenges
claims for a reconciliatory juridical order by displaying how the universal
presumptions of the state rest upon contingent struggles and hegemonic attempts
at universalization. Underneath allegedly natural rights, it would find conquests,
invasions, and institutionalized dominance. The critical potential of this discourse
is, Foucault says, that it discovers beneath the stability of the law or the truth, the
indefiniteness of history.99 In such formulations it is hard not to note the echo
from Nietzsche in so far as they display an attack against universal truth and
claims for a final reconciliation.100 Foucaults rather explicit Nietzschean reading
of the race-war writers locates the source of juridical universality in ignoble
origins struggles, accidents, and temporary victories. The key resonance with
Nietzsche is Foucaults insistence that the universal values of freedom and justice
do not reconcile rivaling forces but rather come to solidify the victory of one over
the other and hence serve as tools in a permanent struggle for domination.

Ibid., 224.
Foucault uses race wars repeatedlya term from the textual archivewhich
extends beyond ethnic conflict to designate struggles between rival social groups for
control over territories. Hoffman observes that Foucault did not distinguish race from
nation in his account of the discourse of race war (Hoffman, Foucaults Politics and
Bellicosity as a Matrix for Power Relations, p. 768). The reason for this apparent conflation
is, we believe, that Foucault wished to demonstrate how constructions of nations indeed
rely upon myths and narratives about the purity of blood, heritage, and blood-sealed
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 111.
Ibid., 49.
Foucault has been criticized for his sympathies for decidedly illiberal historicist
writers whose style of polemics and persuasion can act as a weapon for just about any
political position. Badious critique of Foucaults embrace of the war-model concerns the
lack of criteria for identifying progressive politics and the lack of any institutional
mechanisms for securing that the scholarly knowledge is brought into connect with social
struggles: For lack of a concept of politics that is truly disjoined from a theory of power,
genealogy alone cannot safeguard the sought-after communication between scholarly
knowledge and actual tactics of struggle, Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy, p. 98.
Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 56.
Marks, Foucault, Franks, Gauls, pp. 130 133.

20 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

But in the discourse of race wars, Foucault also seems to find certain
resonances with urgent political problems in his own context, where the
capillary mechanisms of domination were silenced by the states formal legality
and seemingly necessary institutions. Foucault who lived struggle at the same
time that he posited it101 found an immediate appeal in a discourse which
foregrounds the petty social struggles played out beneath any formal constitution:
Beneath the lies that would have us to believe that the social body is governed by
either natural necessities or functional demands, we must rediscover the war that
is still going on, war with all its accidents and incidents.102

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The Problem of Representation

Foucaults emphasis on the race-war rhetoric is that it fundamentally challenges
the institutionalized sciences which take as points of departure constitutions,
formal legality, and state institutionsthe formal fac ade of the statewhen
addressing questions of power. By doing so, they not only neglect interrogating
concrete social struggles and micro-practices of power underneath the formal
constitution, they also risk annexing and re-codifying the local, critical knowledge
so as to fit it into their own categories of the law, policies, and institutions.
Whereas the juridical discourse of sovereignty masks the element of real
domination in practice, Foucault connects the totalizing claims to scientificity of
the human sciences with forms of domination inherent to the legal and political
order of the state. Foucaults enthusiasm for the historical political discourse and
its excavations from beneath the constitution has its parallel in the Maoists
skepticism toward bourgeois institutions, which could neither represent the
oppressed nor protect them. This skepticism was emblematically expressed in the
Maoists above-mentioned demands for the establishment of popular courts as a
substitute for bourgeois legal institutions.103
Echoing the Maoists strategy of using local investigations as the basis for
political activism, Foucault asserts that power should be examined in micropractices, at the points where it becomes capillary and transgresses the rules of
right.104 The concept of micro-power advanced by Foucault has often been
interpreted as a methodological principle that urges the researcher to replace
abstract theorizing about power (the state form, ideology) with attention to the
concrete organization of power (techniques, practices). However, it becomes
evident that in 1976 this principle also had an acute practical-political meaning.
This follows from Foucaults assertion that against forms of domination organized
in relays of micro-power, recourse to the sovereign law is obsolete and
inadequate.105 Inasmuch as power has superseded the framework of the law and
is not limited by it, specific studies of the practical exercise of power are
requireda tenet congruent with the principles of the Maoist investigation into
the everyday, mundane mechanisms of oppression.

Hoffman, Foucaults Politics and Bellicosity as a Matrix for Power Relations, p. 760.
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 51.
Foucault, Truth and Power, pp. 109 133; Wolin, The Wind from the East, pp. 28 31;
Bourg, From Revolution to Ethics, pp. 68 78.
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 28.
Ibid., 38.

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Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 21

A reading of Society Must Be Defended reveals another noteworthy parallel to
the Maoists principles for tackling the problem of representation. Instead of
taking up a position as author and critic himself, Foucault lets the historical
writers speak for themselves, thus providing a discourse that Foucault says that
he would not merely like to trace historically but also to praise.106 What is
decisive for Foucault is not if these historical writers represent historical events
truthfully but rather that they provide a grid of intelligibility, an alternative
prism for understanding state formation and constitutions as resting upon bloodsealed victories, justificatory myths, and silenced division lines.107 However,
Foucaults analysis takes the issue of representation one step further, in so far as
the historical political discourse reveals that there can be no neutral position from
where history and society can be represented. On the contrary, the narrator of
history is recognized as being an inevitable participant in struggles over the
narration of the states history, accounting for a particular groups righteous
victory, representing the legitimate inheritors of the nation and asserting the
legitimacy of the constitution.108 The historical political writers recognize that
there is no universal position from where it is possible to rise above the partisan
interests and establish a conciliatory order of state. The historian becomes, in brief,
a subject who is fighting a war.109
Extending this point somewhat, the 1976 lectures reveal a critical observer who
avoids taking as his point of departure the oppressed as a stable, self-evident
category or treating the working class/the bourgeoisie as a fundamental, a priori
opposition. Instead, categories of class, the people, and the nation appear as
non-unified, fluctuating, and contestable, just as social segregation and forms of
domination appear as mobile and non-foundational. As mentioned, Foucaults
enthusiasm for this perspective on history as permeated by struggle between rival
forces and rationalities has been commonly ascribed to his inspiration from
Nietzsches historicism. At times this inspiration is certainly evident. However,
comparing Foucaults activism with the Maoists directly to his methodological
reflections in the 1976 lectures reveals an alternative source of inspiration for his
formulation of the genealogical approach, namely, reflected political experiences
situated in a particular historical context.
We are not arguing that the key inspiration for Foucaults concept of genealogy
should be relocated in his relationship to the Maoists instead of his reading of
Nietzsche. Nor are we asserting that Nietzsche, Genealogy, History should be
replaced as a foundational text for Foucaults genealogical method by our
recovered urtext, Society Must Be Defended. In fact, a comparison between the
two texts reveals very similar ideas being expressed.110 The differences between
Foucaults formulation of genealogy in the Nietzsche essay and in the 1976 lecture
series particularly hinge on who the audiences and interlocutors of his two
statements on genealogy are. The 1976 lectures represent a formulation of
Foucaults genealogical method which takes place in connection with a quite

Ibid., 111.
Ibid., 163.
Ibid., 52 54, 164
Ibid., 54.
Hoffman, Foucaults Politics and Bellicosity as a Matrix for Power Relations,
pp. 762 765; Marks, Foucault, Franks, Gauls, pp. 130 133.

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22 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

explicit dialog with its own social and political present. Here, genealogy displays
particularly clearly its fundamental embeddedness in contemporary social and
intellectual struggles. By comparison, Foucaults essay Nietzsche, Genealogy,
History represents one of his (rare) interpretations of the work of another thinker,
even if it is a rather fragmented commentary on Nietzsches approach to history.111
In this essay, Foucault discovered in Nietzsche a conception of genealogy as a
concerted attack on any metaphysical idea of original, immobile forms that could
reassure us of a permanent identity in the face of messy historical accidents and
incidents. By tracing the discontinuous events and conflicting interpretations
which crisscross any identity, genealogy seeks to shatter the assertion of the
unitary and self-coherent subject which historians offer this confused European
who no longer knows himself or what name he should adopt.112 This
foregrounding of genealogy as directed against identity, as a means of dissipating
the transcendental subject, distinguishes the Nietzsche essay from the 1976
lectures. The more lofty character of the essay is also evident in its concept of
power which was formulated generally and abstractly. Hence, Hoffman observes
instructively that the Nietzschean hypothesis amounted to a means of
understanding power in the abstract, without any necessary reference to this or
that modality of power.113
In comparing the two contexts, then, differences remain in terms of the
limitations that genealogy addresses. The Nietzsche essay emphasizes problematizing of the metaphysical assumption of transcendental instances, whereas Society
Must Be Defended stresses how genealogical knowledge can play into
contemporary institutional, political, and cultural conflicts. Finally, Foucaults
emphasis, in 1976, on the necessity of generating a knowledge that resists
institutional annexation and control represents a difference from the Nietzsche
essay, being a clear echo of Maoist principles of activism. The emphasis on
producing insurrectionary knowledge that is not easily assimilated into
centralizing institutions is a distinct feature of Foucaults 1976 statement on
To conjure up, Foucaults famous 1976 notion of genealogy was shaped by both
his experience of reading Nietzsche and from his experience with politics and
Maoist-inspired activism. The 1976 lectures should be viewed as a point of
encounter between Foucaults enthusiasm for localized political activism, the
more lofty Nietzschean strategy of rendering history as a battlefield, and the
examination of a particular textual archive.

Mitchell Dean, Critical and Effective Histories: Foucaults Methods and Historical
Sociology (London, UK: Routledge 1994), pp. 14 20.
Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The
Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 93.
Hoffman, Foucaults Politics and Bellicosity as a Matrix for Power Relations, p. 765.
Foucaults emphasis on producing an insurrectionary and not easily appropriable
knowledge may also be understood in light of his explicit attempt to eschew those who
would identify his work as belonging to one or another political-intellectual camp. The
diffusion of the Soviet model through the French intellectual milieu in the 1970s created,
according to Foucault, a politicization of human relationships where the key problem
was to find out to whom one had allegiance in a system of rigid divisions, suspicions, and
hostilities. See Michel Foucault, Colin Gordon, and Paul Patton, Considerations on
Marxism, Phenomenology and Power. Interview with Michel Foucault; Recorded on 3rd
April 1978, Foucault Studies 14 (September 2012), p. 107.

Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 23

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A Lasting Influence on Foucaults Thought?

Did Foucaults involvement in Maoist-inspired militancy have a lasting influence
on his thought? Or was his activism nothing more than an interlude? There are
certainly grounds to conclude that after 1976, Foucault left behind both his
practical engagement with the French Maoists and his analytical use of the war
model. In this reading, three incidences can be invoked to mark Foucaults fast
distancing from left-wing political militancy. First, there was Foucaults turn away
from the idea of popular justice in the form of a peoples tribune. Emblematic here
is Foucaults involvement in the Bruay-en-Artois affair where members of the GP
tried to establish a peoples tribune in response to the murder of a miners young
daughter who was presumably killed by a young lawyer from a bourgeois family.
Initially, Foucault showed great interest in the case and traveled to the town of the
event, Bruay-en-Artois in Normandy, along with other intellectuals like Sartre and
Althusser, and leading members of the GP.115 However, Foucaults interest and
advocacy of popular justice soon turned into repulsion: (I)n Bruay, having
observed the phenomenon from up close, he was revolted by what he saw. In his
view, the Bruay protests risked degenerating at any moment into the crudest form
of unthinking mob violence.116 Hence, the demands for the castration of the
accused bourgeois lawyer by the local working-class and intellectual Maoists
left Foucault disturbed and became a reference point in his retreat from the Maoist
idea of peoples courts.117
Second, Foucault also seemed to turn hastily away from the war model that
he first praised in Society Must Be Defended. At the end of the lecture series,
Foucault addressed the disturbing affinities between the modern rhetoric of
class war and pre-scientific, aristocratic theories of race. According to Miller,
Foucault sent a thinly veiled message to the French extreme Left that he found
the model of violent conflict dissatisfactory and that he wished to warn against
militant revolt.118 Taking this suggestion even further, Hoffman argues that
Foucaults closing statements addressed his target audience, namely the
inheritors of a revolutionary violence with whom Foucault was quite familiar
through his own political activities.119 Extending his assessment of the racist
nature of political persecutions from the socialist states to socialist militants,
Foucault apparently cautioned that the militants risked copying the stateracist practice of murderous elimination.120 He thus took a more sober
political attitude than has been the case during the early 1970s.121 Other
subsequent statements display a Foucault who is worried about the kind of
polemics characteristic of the race-war discourse, including his cautioning in
1978: Never engage in polemics122 and his emphasis on differentiating

Wolin, The Wind from the East, pp. 25 38.

Ibid., 37.
Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, pp. 201 305.
Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, pp. 290 291.
Hoffman, Foucaults Politics and Bellicosity as a Matrix for Power Relations, p. 774.
Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 262.
Hoffman, Foucaults Politics and Bellicosity as a Matrix for Power Relations, p 759.
Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Colle`ge de France,
1977 78 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 4.

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24 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

dialogue from polemics and the strategies of elimination and persecution that
the latter may warrant.123
Third, in the second half of the 1970s many of Foucaults students and
interlocutors explicitly declared their lost faith in socialist revolution and in the
communist doxa. Some became explicit supporters of liberal values such as
Foucaults students Blandine Kriegel and Franc ois Ewald, or proclaimed
dissidents of the Marxist tradition, including members of the nouvelle philosophie.
Andre Glucksman, a former Maoist and leader of the GP, published works in
which he denounced the communist regime, one of which Foucault reviewed
positively in 1977.124 Glucksman published the first fundamental attack on
Marxism coming from dissidents of the radical left, and Foucault would in several
respects share the same intellectual and political trajectory as the militants who
became the nouveaux philosophes.125 Some commentators have found evidence that
Foucault in the late 1970s distanced himself further from both orthodox Marxism
and militant Maoism, especially in his 1978/1979 lectures. Alain Beaulieu
suggests that Foucault discovered neoliberalism as an environment which
contains better possibilities for transformation and the development of political
spirituality.126 Beaulieu even asserts that Foucault probably realized for
himself that he might be a more liberal thinker than we (or he) thought.127 All
of this could be seen as indicating Foucaults hurried dislodgement from his
Maoist inspirations of the early 1970s.
Complicating such a claim for a clear-cut discontinuity, on the other hand,
there is evidence from Foucaults late career of a lasting engagement withand
search forextra-party political techniques and knowledge production.
An interview from 1982 reveals how much Foucault valued the social movements
of the 1960s and 1970s for their ability to circumvent political parties as the vehicle
for the transformation of society, creating a new space for experimentation and
genuine politics:
Since the 19th century, great political institutions and great political parties have
confiscated the process of political creation; that is, they have tried to give political
creation the form of a political program in order to take over power. I think what
happened in the sixties and early seventies is something to be preserved. One of the
things that I think should be preserved, however, is the fact that there has been
political innovation, political creation, and political experimentation outside the
great political parties, and outside the normal or ordinary program.128

The fact that these movements engaged with issues such as sexuality, prisons, and
madness from an experimental approach, without a doctrine or program, had a
lasting impact on Foucault. His enthusiasm for forms of political struggle that
Michel Foucault, Polemics, Politics and Problematizations, in Paul Rabinow (ed.),
EthicsSubjectivity and Truth Essential Works of Foucault, 1954 1984 (New York: The New
Press, 1997), pp. 111 112.
Beaulieu, Towards a Liberal Utopia, p. 808; Paras, Foucault 2.0, pp. 88 90.
Dews, The Nouvelle Philosophie and Foucault, pp. 67 68, 73.
Beaulieu, Towards a Liberal Utopia, p. 806.
Ibid., 807.
Michel Foucault, Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity, in Paul Rabinow (ed.),
EthicsSubjectivity and Truth Essential Works of Foucault, 1954 1984 (New York: The New
Press, 1997), p. 172.

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Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 25

could contest the hierarchical and state-centered character of the major French
communist and socialist parties remained in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While
we cannot follow Foucaults itinerary in detail here, we wish to mention three
themes in Foucaults work during the late 1970s and early 1980s that arguably
indicate continuity with his grass-roots militancy.
First, it has been suggested that Foucaults interest in neoliberal thinkers
should be seen as part of his search for alternatives to the state-centered socialist
government in France at the time.129 During his 1979 lectures, Foucault indicates
that elements of neoliberal thought, particularly the thinness of its anthropological
assumptions, hold the potential for greater tolerance of minorities and for creating
more space for diversified self-formation. Beaulieu sees this tolerance granted to
minorities as a bridge connecting Foucaults interest in neoliberalism with his
prior militant activities, asserting that this liberal tolerance of minority practices
was always at the center of Foucaults militant involvement.130
Second, Foucaults engagement with the Iranian revolution and his interest in
the kind of political spirituality that he found here, could similarly be viewed as
being in continuity with his anti-institutional approach to politics. Wolin goes
further, arguing that Foucault in the late 1970s assumed the guise of a defender
of democratic values which made his support of the Iranian revolution appear as
a relapseand a serious one.131 In any event, the religiously articulated revolt
that did without an intellectual avant-garde and a party organization, and which
invoked a cause worth sacrificing ones life for, displays broad similarities with
principles in Maoist militancy.
Third, and finally, Foucaults adherence to ideals of open public debate and the
circulation of knowledge constitutes another possible link between his Maoist
activism and the liberal tradition.132 In this interpretation, the absolute value of
free communication and allowing suppressed knowledge to circulate in the public
sphere appears in both Foucaults involvement in the GIP and in his later reading
of liberal philosophers, notably Kant. Further comparisons could perhaps be
made between the GIPs techniques for disseminating knowledge about
prisoners real experiences and the techniques employed by the parrheisiast
who places himself at risk when telling the truth against those in power.
There is no doubt that Nietzsches historicism left very significant marks on
Foucaults formulations on social morality, the political body, and constitutional
institutions, but we have tried to demonstrate that this inspiration should not be
Micheal C. Berhrent, Liberalism without Humanism: Michel Foucault and the FreeMarked Creed 1976 1979, Modern Intellectual History 6:3 (2009), pp. 539 568.
Beaulieu, Towards a Liberal Utopia, p. 807.
Wolin, The Wind from the East, p. 244.
Biebricher, The Practices of Theorists, pp. 709 734. Biebricher interprets Foucaults
involvement in the GIP as an expression of his adherence to liberal values such as publicity,
access to public debate, and individual rights. He argues that Foucault displays a belief in
the emancipatory potential of (public) communication expressed in the GIP as
a commitment to an extended public sphere in which marginalized voices acquire the
power to speak (Ibid., 727). This interpretation requires, however, a considerable
downplaying of the radical militancy of the GIPs Maoist inspiration examined in this article.

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26 Mads Peter Karlsen and Kaspar Villadsen

viewed as exclusive. An equal source of inspiration was Foucaults engagement in
the early 1970s in radical activism oriented toward mundane, everyday forms of
oppression and struggle. In the light of our examination in the first part of this
article we may conclude that Maoists principles of political activism presaged
Foucaults academic principles for viewing the writing of history as an arena of
struggle. Whereas the Maoist investigator refuses to take the oppressed as a pregiven category or point of departure, choosing instead to study the concrete
practices of oppression, the genealogist similarly opposes a view of states, people,
and classes as fundamental categories, seeing these as created through discursive
practices. The Maoist challenges the unifying and exclusionary scientific discourse
by unveiling the specific conditions of the oppressed and by opening the circuits of
communication. In the lecture hall, Foucault gives space to the voices of historical
chroniclers who viewed social rivalries as fundamental for state formation and
who emphasized the implicit violence involved in any claim for representing the
nation, our heritage or the history of the state. Surprisingly, perhaps,
contemporary left-wing activists and aristocratic chroniclers could be united in
their attack on state universality. As Badiou observes, Foucault seemed to suggest
continuity in knowledge kept at the marginsbetween local knowledge of
contemporary struggles against oppression in prisons and in psychiatry and the
buried scholarly knowledge of the past.133 This continuity unexpectedly
connected radical activists investigating intolerable conditions of the marginalized with the counter-discourse of the reactionary French nobility, like Henri
de Boulainvilliers, who wrote to defend a privileged aristocracy.
We have sought to present an analysis situated somewhere between an
intellectual history and an interrogation of Foucaults methodological developments. In particular, we showed how the principles for Maoist investigation
adopted by the GIP contributed to shaping Foucaults thought on genealogy in the
mid 1970s and the fundamentally conflict-ridden nature of state universality. Our
argument has had its own genealogical component: seeking to complicate the
prevailing interpretative orthodoxy of Foucaults genealogical approach as being
fundamentally anti-Marxist and Nietzschean. When Wolin advanced the theses
that Foucaults genealogical studies of biopolitics, discipline, and governmentality
must be understood in the context of his concomitant political activism, he
indicated a largely unexplored research agenda. This article has begun the
exploration of Foucaults Maoist legacy. Many aspects merit further attention,
especially Foucaults critique of state institutions, of formal legality, of
conventional party organization, of the ways of knowing marginalized groups,
and of the risks incurred by any discourse which aspires to achieve the authority
of science.
Notes on Contributors
Kaspar Villadsen holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Copenhagen.
He is currently Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Politics
and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Villadsens current
research is on the concept of the state and state phobia in Michel Foucault and his
successors work. He has a forthcoming book on this subject (with Mitchell Dean)

Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy, p. 90.

Foucault, Maoism, Genealogy 27

from Stanford University Press. Villadsen has published extensively on the
application of concepts from Foucault and other post-structural theories on
studies of social policies and welfare organizations. His work has been published
in Constellations, Public Management Review, Social Theory and Health, and Journal of
Civil Society.

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Mads Peter Karlsen did his PhD thesis on Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek and is
currently a postdoc scholar at the Department of Systematic Theology, University
of Copenhagen, Denmark. He has published on a variety of subjects concerning
theology and philosophy, and in particular on Foucault, Badiou, and Zizek. His
current research is on the interrelationship between theology and psychoanalysis.
Karlsens research has appeared in Culture and Organization, Zizek Studies, and
Critical Research in Religion.