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Sunday, 9 February 2014
Michel Foucault's Critique of Marx
Marxist & Communist Power & Conformity
French Marxism & the French Communist
Party in the 1950/60s
Michel Foucault was born into a France – or
into an academic France – in which virtually all well-known academics and
teachers had extensive knowledge of Marx. It was also a society in which almost
all academics saw Marxism as being indispensable to most academic pursuits.
This wasn’t only the case with out-and-out Marxists like Louis Althusser and
Jean-Paul Sartre, but also academics and intellectuals who didn’t particularly
display their Marxism or knowledge of Marx.
The French Communist Party and
the Soviet Union were at the heart of academic-Marxist France. But in the 1950s
and before (as well as long after!), most leftist academics refused to criticise the
Soviet Union. Similarly, few of them criticised the French Communist Party.
Althusser, in particular, refused to make any public criticism of the Party or
of the actions and outrages of the Soviet Union. Sartre, up until the Soviet
invasion of Hungary, had also refused to criticise the actions of the Soviet
Union. (This was the case with millions of Communists throughout the world from
Cambridge University to the suburbs of New York.)
But there was a backlash – even from a few
Marxists. This backlash against Marxism and Communism didn’t begin with
Foucault himself; but before his writing career had begun when the
Soviet Union invaded
Hungary and installed its own subservient regime there. More relevantly,
blatant act of aggression and Communist imperialism was carried out on a
mainly socialist revolution. The invasion was supported by the French
Communist Party at the time. It was also
said that the French Communist Party of the 1950s was the most
party in the world.
Despite its Stalinism, the French Communist
Party of 1956, the time of the invasion of Hungary, had already begun
rationalising and justifying what had gone on in the Soviet Union from Stalin’s taking
control in 1925 to his death in 1953. The French Communist Party, and of course
Communists throughout the world (up until this very day), explained and
rationalised the purges, the famines and the general hellish totalitarianism,
in terms of “the cult of the personality of the general secretary” or even in
terms of the “violations of socialist legality”. (These are the sort of things
contemporary Trotskyists are especially keen to stress about the nature of the
Soviet Regime at the time of Stalin.)
The French Communist Party was
against the “bourgeois state”. That didn't mean that it wasn’t itself statist
– even well before any securing of power (which, of course, it never did).
Indeed the Party was deemed as “the force of order” by many anarchists and
libertarians (during the 1960s particularly). Many noted the similarities
between the “order” of the CP and the order of the French state.
In fact the authoritarianism of the French
Communist Party was so absolute, and still is in various Communist and
Trotskyist parties, that members “learned how to toe the party’s line on
everything from international affairs to reflex psychology” (James Miller). And like the
SWP/UAF, etc. positions on Islam and Muslim behaviour today, these Communists,
Foucault later recalled, were “obliged to stand behind… fact[s] that [were]
totally beyond credibility”. This Leftist self-abasement, this knowing
subversion of truth, “was part of that exercise of the ‘dissolution of the
self’…” It was a self-annihilation for the sake of the Party. It was also, in
fact, the contemporary Leftist position of “lying for Justice”.
Like contemporary Leftists, the Communists
of Foucault’s 1960s ejaculated soundbites and needless theoretical
technicalities about “freedom”, “revolution”, etc.; yet all the while
believed more or less the same thing as each other. (Most of the Leftist
schisms and off-shoot parties were a result of competing power blocks
masquerading under theoretical differences.) As with Leftists today,
there was a fantastic degree
of conformity within the Communist movement and not just in the French
Communist Party.And no doubt that utter
conformism, that extreme (“democratic”) centralism, and that mindless
self-abasement, were all needed to “secure the revolution”.
That unbelievable leftist conformism showed
itself, of course, in the fact that it was absolutely forbidden to criticise
any aspect of Marx’s thought. (This was a kind of Leftist sharia blasphemy law
on criticism of Marx.) Sartre even went so embarrassingly far as to say that
Marxism was “unsurpassable”. To which Foucault answered that this unsurpassable
ideology was in fact thoroughly 19th-century in nature – that is, dead:
“Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought
like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else.”
Of course when Marx, or Marxist ideas, are
criticised any in shape or form, Leftists rely on various ad hominems, such as
“racist”, "fascist", "neo-con", etc., to diminish the power of the critic or critique.
So too did Sartre. He accused Foucault of being “bourgeois” – the 1960s version
of today’s “racist” or “Islamophobe”. More precisely, Foucault work was
castigated, by Sartre, as being “the last barricade the bourgeoisie can still erect against
Marx” . To which Foucault wittily responded:
“Poor bourgeoisie. If they needed me as a
‘barricade’, then they have already lost power!”
State, the Communist/Trotskyist Party & Power
Perhaps the most important criticism of
Marxists by Foucault was/is their obsessive focus on the state – that is, on the
power of the state. Outside the state, it seems, there is no (real) political power
– at least not according to Marxists. According to Foucault, and perhaps also
according to certain more sophisticated Marxists, political power is dispersed
everywhere. But if political power is everywhere; then it may be a mistake – a
big mistake – for the Marxist to assume that all “political power can be
seized” when the state is seized (by Communists or Trotskyists).
Foucault, as I said, saw power everywhere:
in factories, living quarters, the family, hospitals, schools and in
Communist/Trotskyist parties. More relevantly, not only would power reproduce
itself in a Communist or a Trotskyist state; power would be embedded in
Marxist revolutionary parties and organisations right from the start.
It is well known that Foucault equated
knowledge with power and power with knowledge. That would also include
communist-party power – well before any “seizing of the state”.
Communist/Trotskyist parties have power both over their own versions of what is
true (or over knowledge); but also over their members.
So why not rewrite a passage from Foucault
with the simple addition of the word ‘Communist’. Thus:
“[Communist/Marxist] [p]ower produces
[Communist/Marxist] knowledge… Power and knowledge imply one another… There is
no [Communist/Marxist] power relation without the correlative constitution of a
field of [Communist/Marxist] knowledge, nor any [Communist/Marxist] knowledge
that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”
That communist-power also manifests itself
in the way Communists/Marxists “speak against power” but which does not
“necessarily mean that they speak with those who suffer” or for those who are
“oppressed”. The main way Communists miss the mark is when it comes to their
speaking for, rather than with, the working class. That is, the varied and
various individuals who make up the working class are “totalised” into an
eternal and abstract platonic form – [the working class].
In contemporary terms, the SWP/UAF,
Counterfire, etc. don’t seem to realise the big and patronising mistake of
confusing “speaking for others” (being “committed to
justice” for them) and letting others speak for themselves. As the admittedly
often-pretentious and unfathomable French philosopher Gilles Deleuze put it, there
is an “indignity [in] speaking for others”. Only the working class can truly speak for their own concerns. And because the vast
majority of Marxist Trotskyists are middle-class professionals (apart from
students before they become middle-class professionals), they simply cannot – or must not – speak for others. As Deleuze
“Only those directly concerned can speak in a practical way on
their own behalf."
Marxism & Communism Failed
Of course contemporary Communists, not just
Trotskyists, emphasise the unique evil of Stalin (or his love of power) as the
real reason for the purges, totalitarianism, racism, etc. (In fact there are
many retrospective Marxist theories about the failures of Russian – and other -
communisms; all of which exonerate Marxism and Communism from any culpability.)
But the systematic failures of all socialist/Marxists systems can’t all be
blamed on Stalin – clearly. Neither, has the Right has it, is it all
necessarily about collectivisation versus private property. Instead the problem
is inherent in Marxism, or revolutionary Marxism, itself. That’s what Foucault
came to believe. He once wrote:
“In the Gulag one sees not the consequences
of any unhappy mistake, but the effects of the ‘truest’ of theories in the
In other words, we are mistaken to look
elsewhere for the fault (e.g., to “the cult of the leader”, the “invading
white armies”, etc.). In light of the Gulag, the purges, Year Zero, the Cultural Revolution, etc., instead of looking away from
revolutionary Marxism as an ideal, we should look at the ideal itself. That is
where the problem is. Indeed it is very odd to look elsewhere after all this
time and all these mistakes; which is perhaps why only Marxists have look
elsewhere for the heart of the problem.
As a result of this, a truly open thinker
will obviously reject the harsh rigidities, diktats and totalitarianism of
Marxism. So it will be no surprise to know that Foucault even went so outrageously far as to
advice his students to open their minds (something a Marxist professor would
never genuinely do) and read, of all things, the works of Frederick Hayek –
whom contemporary Leftist automatons would regard as one of the granddaddies of
today’s “neo-conservatism” or “neo-liberalism”.This alone would make contemporary Trotskyists and Communists
reject Foucault completely. Indeed he would certainly be classed as a
for such academic openness.
Regardless of the tragic consequences of
the free market, these economists and thinkers were true libertarians – the
exact opposite of all Communists and Trotskyists (from Foucault’s day to our own).
These people dared to make a blasphemous connection between the free market and
individual liberty.They argued that economic
freedom (but not only economic freedom) severely limited the power of the
state. But because all Communists and Trotskyites adore the state (their own
state; not the ones they are fighting against) as much as any Nazi, they
similarly hate the free market and libertarians as much as the average Nazi.
Marx the Metaphysical Moralist
Marx the Metaphysician
What Foucault noted most about Marx was
that he was, despite the hype, a typical
nineteenth-century “bourgeois thinker”. This was a period when just about every
thinker believed that history, or the state, or society, or the race, etc. was
heading in a forward direction to something much better – to Utopia, to the master
(super) race, to economic liberation and its abundances, to complete freedom or
whatever. The Darwinians, the (Herbert) Spencerians , the racial theorists (scientists),
the Marxists, etc. all took a thoroughly teleological view on whatever factor it
was they focused on.
Not only was Marx a typical 19th century
teleologist; he was also a typical German
metaphysician. Despite all his talk about “philosophers only interpreting
the world”, not “changing it” (which was never the case anyway), as well as his
materialism (which was not entirely original), or his materialist inversion of
idealism, he was still a German metaphysician through and through.
This is Foucault himself on the 19th-century
nature of Marxism:
“At the deepest level of Western knowledge,
Marxism introduced no real discontinuity; it found its place without
difficulty… Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought like a fish in water:
that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else.”
For example, take his “turning Hegel on his
head”. That is, Marx’s turning of Hegelian idealism on its head to get his own
(Marxist) materialism. For a start, he was still turning Hegel on his head. He wasn’t turning someone else on his head. He wasn’t even rejecting Hegel out of
hand. And he certainly wasn’t ignoring the prior German philosopher. And
because of that, not only was he stuck in the philosophical rut that Hegel
himself was stuck in (various competing German idealisms): he was also stuck in
a very particular rut – the Hegelian rut (which Marxists were stuck in
throughout most of the 20th century). Indeed Foucault not only
thought that Marx was stuck in a Hegelian rut; he once thought he was too. (At
least at one point in his career.) What Foucault said about Hegel and himself;
could equally be said about Marx. Foucault talked about
“the extent to which Hegel, insidiously
perhaps, is close to us… to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his
tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting
Marx the Moralist
Not only was Marx an old-style
metaphysician, he was also an old-style moralist. But of course he was a
moralist who never used the word “morality” for his own work because, according
to Marx himself, “morality is a bourgeois phenomenon”. In just the same way,
Marx was also a Utopian (which was squared with his moralism) who never
promised Utopia because only “socialist Utopians”, not Marxist revolutionaries,
Again Foucault noted Marx’s moral
metaphysics too. He believed that for a “humanism of the Marxist type” (1978)
it was imperative
“to recover our ‘lost’ identity, to
liberate our imprisoned nature, our truth at bottom”.
And the social and political Utopianism?
When class societies were dissolved, when the workers were no longer
“alienated” and true Communism reigned, then, and only then, could “the real
individual” be himself and thrive.
This metaphysical moralism (without, of
course, any use of the words “morality”, “metaphysics” and “Utopia” within the
Marxist scheme) showed itself in the close similarity, which very many have
noted, between Marxism/Communism and religion. More specifically, Foucault
noted the similarity between Marxism and 16th-century Protestantism. According
to Foucault, they shared a “manner of being” and were addicted to revolutionary
“hope”. Both Marxism and Protestantism, if only at that time, wanted to utterly
change both society and the very mind of man itself.
However, the most remarkable thing about
Marx’s persistent Hegelianism, right to the end, is that it is most manifest in
Marx’s economic theories – of all things! How can dry economics and its dreary
“fetishisation of the facts” be Hegelian at all? Well, I will later discuss Marx’s
vitally important theory of “surplus value”.
Foucault's Critique of Marx's 'Surplus Value'
Century Economics in Relation to Marx
First a bit of economic history which also
shows that Marx was a traditionalist – even at his most “economically revolutionary”.
Foucault places Ricardo, not Marx, as the
true revolutionary economist of the 19th century. To Marx and most Marxists,
Ricardo was seen as a “transitional figure” between the “classical economists”
(e.g., Adam Smith) and Marx’s own theories. Foucault argues his case by arguing
that it was Ricardo, not Marx, who freed labour, or labour power, from being
secondary to monetary and other kinds of exchange. Labour power was the true
“measure of value”; not products or their monetary values (as measured in other
ways). Goods, all goods, gained value because of the labour power expended upon
them; not because of scarcity, or intrinsic value, or anything else. Labour was
at the very heart of economics and thus the determiner of value and exchange. (I can’t say if Foucault is right on all this.)
It follows from all this that if Marx’s
“theory of value” is basically that of Ricardo, the there was no actual break
at all between “bourgeois” and “socialist” economic theories (Marx’s own). More
specifically, then, Ricardo, the non-socialist, and Marx (the socialist)
belonged to the same “post-Classical episteme”. In fact, the disputes between
Marx (Marxists) and Ricardo (the “bourgeois economists”) were, according to
Foucault, mere “storms in a children’s paddling pool”.
More interestingly, as I mentioned earlier
and as I hinted at just now, it was Marx’s specific economic theory of “surplus
value” (basically derived from Ricardo’s emphasis on labour) which shows Marx
to have been the 19th century German metaphysician that he was.
The gist of Marx’s theory of surplus value
is that because the true measure of value is labour power, or the units of
labour involved in production, then that is reflected in the price the owner of
capital asks for when selling his products to others. However, in order for the
capitalist to make a profit, he must demand extra labour power to guarantee
that profit. That is, if he sold goods at to the value of their real labour
power, or the units of labour involved in production, he would not make a profit
because his labourers would be paid at the correct or fair price for their labour;
as expressed in the labour theory of value. Thus he must demand extra labour
from his workers, over and above what would generate the actual price of their
products, to guarantee a profit. That extra, that surplus value of labour, is
what generates his profits and which is, similarly, taken away from the workers
themselves who will not now receive a correct or fair price for their labour.
But all this is philosophical –
metaphysical – baloney. Even if the theory can be understood clearly, it still
involves incredible metaphysical assumptions. Who is to say there is even such
a thing as a "fair value" let alone a "correct value" of given labour? How can even
an economist decide what belongs to the labourer and what belongs to the
capitalist? The facts can’t decide this matter. The transference of value from
labour is either metaphorical or metaphysical (or both). Without arbitrary
stipulations, societal customs, norms, economic traditions, etc. none of Marx’s
theory is at all factual. It is metaphysical. In a sense it is not even
theoretical. It’s as if “real value” or “true price” etc. existed in the
ethereal air before any system of capitalist economics even began. Before
capitalism, and during, there was seen to be an absolute value of labour and
therefore an absolute value of produce. And even these things are absolute,
then surplus value will be an absolute too. It must be an economic fact that
the capitalist genuinely creams off surplus value from his workers. It must be
an economic fact that there is, or should be, a given price for products given
a certain amount of labour. But how could there be? These aren’t facts. Thus
they must be, as it were, metaphysical impositions on the economic facts or
realities. It’s like the distinction between fact and value. Marx imposed
values (literally and metaphorically) on certain economic facts and realities.
But that imposition is not itself factual. It must be metaphysical.
There is no determinate “value” for labour
and therefore for price and exchange. There are facts about how much labour was
involved in production. There are facts about how much the capitalist gets
compared to the average worker. There are facts about how long hours the
workers work compared to the few hours of the capitalist. But not of these
facts determine price and value; let alone facts about surplus value. All that
Marx has left is basically a metaphysical assumption about value which are
themselves basically determined by Marx’s hidden normative/moral position on
the status of the worker vis-à-vis the capitalist who employs him. Thus he goes
beyond economics, and even economic theory, into the realm of metaphysics and also
into the real of normative/moral economics.