Foucault, Fanon, Intellectuals, Revolutions



[Cover of the Turkish translation of “Foucault and the Iranian Revolution.” Image provided by author.]

by Anthony Alessandrini
[This article is the final in a three-part Jadaliyya series that looks at Foucault’s work in relationship to the legacy of French colonialism in North Africa. Read the first and second installments here: “The Dangers of Liberalism: Foucault and Postcoloniality in France” by Diren Valayden and “Justifications of Power”: Neoliberalism and the Role of Empire by Muriam Haleh Davis.]

My theoretical ethic is…“antistrategic”: to be respectful when a singularity revolts, intransigent as soon as power violates the universal. A simple choice, a difficult job: for one must at the same time look closely, a bit beneath history, at what cleaves it and stirs it, and keep watch, a bit behind politics, over what must unconditionally limit it. – Michel Foucault, “Useless to Revolt?”[1]

In their invaluable contributions to this series, Diren Valayden and Muriam Haleh Davis note, rightly, that Michel Foucault had relatively little to say about colonialism, in any direct way, throughout most of his body of work. I have nothing to add to this more general point regarding the Eurocentrism of Foucault’s work, except perhaps a proposal to place it within two larger contexts. The first is the general (and continuing) lack of engagement with postcolonial studies within French scholarship more generally; Achille Mbembe, among others, has described this as a form of provincialism within French thought from which we might, at last, begin to break away today. The second context is the complex history, still being told, of the interconnections between poststructuralist thought and French colonialism in North Africa, so well analyzed by Muriam Haleh Davis in a previous article.
In my own contribution to this discussion regarding Foucault and North Africa—which, to my mind, also means thinking Foucault together with the revolutions and popular revolts of the past several years—I propose to revisit the body of work that addresses Foucault’s occasional writings on Iran and the Iranian Revolution, a period referred to by hostile critics as Foucault’s “Iranian adventure.” The key text here is Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson’s 2005 book Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Afary and Anderson’s book provided the first complete English translation of Foucault’s journalistic writings and interviews on Iran from 1978 and 1979, as well as responses (mostly hostile) from other French commentators. As for Afary and Anderson’s own analysis of Foucault’s writings on Iran, the subtitle “the seductions of Islamism” reveals a great deal about their larger approach. Babak Rahimi, reviewing the book, sums it up nicely: “the book misleadingly presents Foucault as an educated (but stupid) white man who was naively seduced by the obscurantist features of Khomeini and Islamism.”[2]
Space does not permit me to pursue anything like a full reading of the book here; in any case, Jonathan Rée, Richard Lynch, and, especially, Rahimi have provided thorough critiques of Afary and Anderson’s simplified and partial readings of Foucault’s work, as well as of the authors’ own deep-seated Eurocentric attitude towards what they interchangeably describe as “Islam” and “Islamism.”[3] Overall, however, their book’s general attitude towards Foucault’s writings on the Iranian Revolution has taken hold to such an extent that when Slavoj Zizek makes reference to these writings in In Defense of Lost Causes, he feels unconstrained in referring simply to Foucault’s “mistake” on Iran, and in subsequently comparing Foucault’s relationship to the Iranian Revolution to Heidegger’s affiliation with the Nazi Party (thereby echoing Afary and Anderson’s tendency to equate “Islamism” with fascism).[4]
I will return to this question of Foucault’s “mistake” regarding the Iranian Revolution, and how a different reading of his writings on Iran can, paradoxically, teach us something about approaching the revolutions of North Africa today. But in fact, the full lesson for us lies not only in Foucault’s writings, but also in their reception by his critics. We might begin with the particular tone of the dismissals of Foucault on Iran inspired by Afary and Anderson’s book. It is also a tone I find in a more recent book (one that deserves a more thorough analysis than I can provide here), Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, which presents itself as a broadside against the limitations of postcolonial theory, although Chibber’s specific target is the Subaltern Studies school, and even more specifically, the work of Partha Chatterjee. What is so striking about the tone of such books is their dismissive attitude towards the theorists and texts upon which they lavish their attention, combined with a sense of ill-disguised glee when they find “errors” that support their dismissiveness. Reading such books is a strange experience, since these authors have clearly spent years undertaking a close study of texts that they often appear to abhor (as Rée puts it, “Although Afary and Anderson have spent ten years working on their book, it has not been a labor of love”[5]). Not surprisingly, the readings that they produce, in addition to being consistently hostile, can most charitably be described as selective, since their goal is not to enlighten these texts, but to dismiss them.
This brings us to the sense of glee. Here I will risk a simplification of my own, for I believe that the tone of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution shares something with a number of texts produced in the last few years, whose overall mission has been to ask, impatiently: Can we please be done with the “posties”?—that is, those thinkers variously described in such texts as poststructuralists, postcolonialists, or postmodernists. Dismissing Foucault’s writings on Iran, or postcolonial theory, or the work of the Subaltern Studies Group, is in such cases carried out in the name of a return to ideas or principles that are alleged to be under attack or endangered by such “posty” thinkers. For Afary and Anderson, these principles include secularism, modernity, democracy, and feminism (the latter is understood to encompass the first three principles—that is, feminism for them must be by its nature secular); Chibber would endorse these, and would include the enlightenment and class analysis. Their understanding of the subjects about which their theoretical opponents write—whether it is the Iranian Revolution or postcolonial Indian historiography—are, needless to say, framed by their allegiance to these principles. The glee found in these books, then, results from a sense of a job well done; having exposed the errors of the posties, they can happily return to what Chibber describes in his Preface as “more pressing subjects.”[6]
It is striking to me that in these attacks upon “posty” figures such as Foucault, a figure often mobilized as an ally is Frantz Fanon. Both Afary and Anderson and Chibber, in their respective books, reach for claims regarding Fanon and his work in order to bolster their own arguments. Afary and Anderson, in calling for “a more porous, fluid, and hybrid interchange between the East and the West” than they find in Foucault’s work (I cannot resist pointing out the taken-for-grantedness of the categories “East” and “West” in such a formulation), cite the work of Fanon as an alternative; later, describing the forms of “Islamism” that they see Foucault as supposedly espousing, they describe it as “far closer to fascism than to the socially progressive politics of a Sandino, a Fanon, a Lumumba, a Mandela, or even a Gandhi.”[7] Chibber, on the other hand, arrays Fanon against postcolonial theorists by grouping him in with “important leader[s] in the anticolonial tradition” such as Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, and posits him, together with Cabral and Nkrumah, as inheritors of “the socialism of Lenin or Marx.”[8] The fact that Fanon can be placed among such a diverse company (from Gandhi to Ho Chi Minh to Lenin), and for such varied reasons, suggests something very disturbing about such appropriations. In such instances, it seems, there is no need to actually read and engage with Fanon’s work; rather, he can simply be invoked as the “authentic” voice of Third World revolution against one’s theoretical foes, especially when such a foe is a white European thinker such as Foucault.
Elsewhere, I have written at some length about the productive possibilities in thinking Fanon and Foucault together, and about some of the surprising parallels between them and their work. This connection might begin from the fact that they were almost exact contemporaries, continuing through some striking similarities in their intellectual and political itineraries: for example, they nearly crossed paths at the University of Tunis, where Fanon was a lecturer from 1959 to 1960 and Foucault from 1966 to 1968 (this was of course after Fanon’s untimely death in 1961). But one unexpected connection between them might be made around the “errors” that each made in their readings of the revolutions about which they wrote in the midst of their unfolding. For Fanon certainly fell into “error” more than once in his engagement with what he named and imagined as the African Revolution. He was badly mistaken in believing that Guinea under Sekou Touré would “crystallize the revolutionary potential” of its neighboring countries; he was even more disastrously mistaken in backing an uprising in Angola that was crushed by the Portuguese army, resulting in the deaths of twenty to thirty thousand people; he failed to anticipate the forces arrayed against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo before Lumumba’s assassination in January 1961.[9]
But even listing the things that Fanon and Foucault, in their different contexts, got “wrong” in their attempts to think through ongoing revolutions (not to mention the many things that they got right) acts as a rebuke to critics such as Afary and Anderson and Chibber who write with a nostalgia for the categories and principles that they see as having preceded “posty” thinking. For what we find in Fanon’s and Foucault’s respective engagements with ongoing revolutions in Algeria and Iran is an attempt to write what Foucault famously called “the history of the present” without relying upon already-existing categories to define the new events unfolding before them.[10] And here, I think, is where these writings hold such value for us today, in the midst of the still-unfolding revolutions of North Africa (however one defines “North Africa”—the category itself is one that Fanon contested as part of his critique of the colonial division between “l’Afrique Blanche” and “l’Afrique Noire”). Foucault makes this clear in one of his articles on Iran, published in late November 1978:

I cannot write the history of the future, and I am also rather clumsy at foreseeing the past. However, I would like to try to grasp what is happening right now, because these days nothing is finished, and the dice are still being rolled. It is perhaps this that is the work of a journalist, but it is true that I am nothing but a neophyte.[11]

Embedded in such work is a deep sense of intellectual responsibility, coupled with a tone of humility.[12] It is a very particular form of humility, however, one that often seems to take the form of its opposite, since it involves insisting that existing frameworks of understanding cannot be applied in any simple or straightforward ways to unfolding revolutions. In Fanon, this can be readily identified in his life-long “stretching,” to use his term, of psychoanalysis and psychology, Marxism, existentialism, and other forms of analysis in order to engage with the depredations of racism and colonialism, as well as the revolutionary efforts to overthrow them.[13] Foucault expresses this in terms of the need to respect the “singularity” of the revolts with which he engaged throughout his own life and work; the quote with which I began suggests how central this is to his body of work as a whole.
Indeed, against the Foucault who is so often caricatured as a simple pessimist regarding the possibilities for revolutionary social change, we find throughout his work an insistence on close attention to the particular forms of revolt that again and again arise in history. This is an ethos captured in “Useless to Revolt?,” an article written in May 1979, often described as his “last word” on the Iranian Revolution:
People do revolt; that is a fact. And that is how subjectivity…is brought into history, breathing life into it. A convict risks his life to protest unjust punishments; a madman can no longer bear being confined and humiliated; a people refuses the regime that oppresses it. That doesn’t make the first innocent, doesn’t cure the second, and doesn’t ensure for the third the tomorrow it was promised. Moreover, no one is obliged to stand in solidarity with them….It is enough that they exist and that they have against them everything that is dead set on shutting them up for there to be a reason to listen to them and to see what they mean to say.[14]
The second half of this quote is particularly noteworthy, since it provides a strong response to those (like Afary and Anderson) who suggest that Foucault is somehow an “advocate” for the Iranian Revolution and, thus, for “Islamism.” To attend to the coming of particular kinds of subjectivity into history is not to advocate for those particular forms of subjectivity. But it is to insist that a full respect for the singularity of such moments demands new forms of thinking. This is true even in those moments when the position of the analyst moves from documentation to ethical response. Afary and Anderson take Foucault to task for his refusal to denounce “Islamic government” in and of itself. But an open letter to Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, written in April 1979, shows that Foucault’s critique of power delves deeper than they might care to go, striking at the very nature of traditional notions of “government” in and of itself (something he does throughout his work): “Concerning the expression ‘Islamic government,’ why cast immediate suspicion on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ suffices, in itself, to awaken vigilance.”[15]
In short, the great lesson that Foucault and Fanon have to teach those of us working to understand the unfolding revolutions of North Africa is simply: revolutions change things, and among the things that they change, or should change, are the categories through which we view such changes. New subjectivities and new singularities demand new frameworks, both of understanding and of solidarity. Afary and Anderson, reading “Useless to Revolt?” as the culmination of Foucault’s writings on Iran, can only conclude that what they describe as “Foucault’s support for the new wave of Islamic uprisings that started in Iran in 1978” was part of “his aim…to set out a new theory of revolution that could be widely embraced.” Consequently, they see this alleged project as “an utter failure,” since “it gained him no followers.”[16] This is a strange—one might even say perverse—standard of “success” for revolutionary thought. Far from using the Iranian Revolution as an opportunity to develop new frameworks of analysis, the Revolution, for Afary and Anderson, does nothing but affirm those things that they already believe to be true. Not finding a single, “correct,” “new theory of revolution” in Foucault’s work, they offer no response but a simple return to older theories.
Revolutionary times demand better than nostalgia for older, and ostensibly simpler, forms of analysis. In an article published soon after the climactic events of February 1979, Foucault provides a brilliant caricature of one version of the history that might be told using already-existing categories of what a revolution looks like (or should look like) to describe the unfolding events in Iran:
On February 11, 1979, the Iranian Revolution took place. I have the impression that I will read this sentence in tomorrow’s newspapers and in the history books of the future….This long succession of festivities and mourning, these millions of men in the street invoking Allah…it was difficult for us to call all this a “revolution.” Today, we feel as though we are in a more familiar world….History just placed on the bottom of the page the red seal that authenticates a revolution….The first act is going to begin: that of the struggle of the classes, of the armed vanguards, and of the party that organizes the masses, and so forth.
Is this so certain?[17]
In this traditional mode of analysis, the true singularity of the popular uprisings in Iran, over a series of months and years, is thus subsumed into the same old narrative. And when things do not follow the necessary pattern, they can be attributed to a failed or inauthentic revolution; those seen to have promoted them can then be declared to have been in error. The nostalgia for older ways of seeing and doing things can then safely be asserted, and we can all happily return to Chibber’s “more pressing subjects.”
Like Foucault, Fanon asserted his sometimes savage irony against this nostalgic viewpoint, the very opposite of a revolutionary attention to singularity. Halfway through The Wretched of the Earth, the revolutionary struggle for decolonization that he documents has reached a point of deep confusion and uncertainty. At this point, even the division between colonizer and colonized cannot be trusted, since, in Fanon’s words, “some blacks can be whiter than the whites,” and, similarly, there are Europeans who have gone over to the “native” side. In this context, Fanon suggests, there can be no single, simple form of analysis, only a responsibility to the singularity of what is beginning to emerge, even though such realizations are “galling, painful, and sickening.” He represents the bewilderment of this situation with one of his many moments of irony: “and yet everything used to be so simple before: the bad people were on one side, and the good on the other.”[18] It is this nostalgia for a “simpler” time, and a simpler set of categories, that he, like Foucault, insistently refuses.
There is a lesson here, for those attempting to understand the unfolding revolutions of Tunisia, of Egypt, of Libya, and elsewhere throughout the region, even in the midst of developments that are too often “galling, painful, and sickening.” Their unfolding realities demand new categories of thought and new forms of analysis—precisely the opposite of the nostalgia for older categories espoused by those who stand against the “posties” (although in many cases, their political sympathies may in fact lie with these revolutions). Resisting the rush to judge the “errors” of Foucault and Fanon in their engagements with the Iranian and Algerian Revolutions in no way involves letting them off the hook for the consequences of some of their decisions and formulations. But it does involve admitting that intellectuals inserting themselves into struggles wherein “the dice are still being rolled” (as against simply using these struggles as testing grounds for one’s already-held beliefs) inevitably risk such mistakes.
True responsibility to the singularity of unfolding revolutions also involves asking difficult questions. The first question to ask might not be: Did such and such a revolution succeed or fail? but rather: What is the current state of this revolution, and how do we understand and respond to it? This includes the Iranian Revolution itself; given the power of the Green Revolution and the continuing popular movements in Iran, it may be premature to even say that the Iranian Revolution is over, never mind to adjudicate which analysis was “correct” or “in error.” We might more usefully include it among the revolutions of our age to whose singularity, following Foucault, we owe our respect.
[1] Michel Foucault, “Useless to Revolt?” in Michel Foucault, Volume 3: Power, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: New Press, 2000), 453. Foucault’s article first appeared in Le Monde in May 1979.
[2] Babak Rahimi, Review of Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. H-Gender-MidEast (October 2006): 3.
[3] For an excellent consideration of Foucault’s writings on Iran within the larger scope of his later work, see Corey McCall, “Ambivalent Modernities: Foucault’s Iranian Writings Reconsidered,” Foucault Studies 15 (2013), 27-51.
[4] Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes (New York: Verso, 2009), 117.
[5] Jonathan Rée, “The Treason of the Clerics,” The Nation (28 July 2005).
[6] Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (New York: Verso, 2013), xi.
[7] Afary and Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, 21, 169.
[8] Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, 153, 290.
[9] See David Macey, Frantz Fanon (New York: Picador, 2000), 383, 391, 435.
[10] For his discussion of writing “the history of the present,” see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977, p. 30-31.
[11] Michel Foucault, “The Mythical Leader of the Iranian Revolt,” in Afary and Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, 220. This article first appeared in Corriere della serra in November 1978.
[12] It is noteworthy that the most recent work of David Scott, a thinker influenced by both Fanon and Foucault, invokes these same two principles: humility and responsibility. Scott’s book, which is a careful reconsideration of the rise and downfall of the Grenada Revolution of 1979-1983—a period roughly contemporary to Foucault’s writings on the Iranian Revolution—provides another important intertext for analysts of the ongoing revolutions of today, albeit one beyond the bounds of this article. See David Scott, Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
[13] See, for example, his famous statement regarding class analysis in the colonial context: “In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue.” Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), p. 5.
[14] Foucault, “Useless to Revolt?” 452.
[15] Michel Foucault, “Open Letter to Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan,” in Afary and Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, 261. It was first published in Le Nouvel Observateur in April 1979.
[16] Afary and Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, 133.
[17] Michel Foucault, “A Powder Keg Called Islam,” in Afary and Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, 239. This article first appeared in Corriere della serra in February 1979.
[18] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 93-94.