Michael Scott Christofferson, May 1968’s Black Sheep, Interview with Daniel Zamora, Jacobin, 26 December 2015
André Glucksmann died last month. Why did he and so many other French intellectuals turn to the right after May 1968?
DZ: You underline in your book the strange episode of Michel Foucault’s review of Glucksmann’s The Master Thinkers. This gushing review does not correspond with the idea that one has of Foucault today. The book was violently anticommunist and anti-revolutionary — even anti-Keynesian one could say. It seems astonishing that Foucault, that one classifies as on the Left, could support such a book. Foucault apparently said that Glucksmann’s earlier The Cook and the Cannibal was a “very important” book. How do you explain this?
MSC: First, I think it is important to understand that the 1970s was a decade in which the very definition of the “Left” was in debate. Foucault was no less hostile than Glucksmann to the traditional Left of the French Communist Party and the Union of the Left.
Foucault had concluded that the old idea of revolution as a seizure of state power was misguided because it did not address the disciplining micro-powers that constituted the subject and were at the origins of abhorrent institutions like the prison system. Fundamental change had to begin at this level of reality, Foucault believed.
These were ideas embraced by Glucksmann in the mid-1970s. More than that, they were ideas developed by Foucault during his association with the Maoist Gauche prolétarienne and the Prison Information Group that began as a Maoist initiative. Some of Foucault’s notions from this period, like the value he placed on plebian resistance, may indeed have been borrowed from Glucksmann and the Maoists.
In short, Foucault was no ivory tower theorist; rather he was in the midst of “the movement” alongside the Maoists and participated in many of the era’s preoccupations and illusions. Among the latter is his dismissal of the state, an institution that he saw as doing no good.
But, Foucault was a subtle thinker, and Glucksmann’s polemical The Master Thinkers was not. The Master Thinkers denounced the coercive state and, like The Cook and the Cannibal, argued that plebian resistance was the only viable politics.
The book went beyond his earlier condemnation of Marxism to argue that Western philosophy was essentially a philosophy of the state that justifies its power and thereby squashes plebian protest at its inception by making it inconceivable. Intellectuals, science, and reason are all complicit in the project of state domination. Against it, revolution is not an option because it only reinforces state power. The French Union of the Left was little more than a ruse of the state to increase its domination. The only defensible politics was the unreflective, self-interested action of plebian resistance.
Why would Foucault endorse this? One reason, most certainly, is his own dismissal of state-based politics and of the Union of the Left. Foucault, like Glucksmann, believed that the state was the enemy, and that the Union of the Left failed to understand that a progressive (a term the Foucault, the Nietzschean, did not use) politics could not be based on state power. Also, like Glucksmann, Foucault believed that the masses, acting on their own, would challenge disciplinary institutions and thereby bring about real, consequential change that would never come from the state, no matter who controlled it.
So, there were important convergences between Foucault and Glucksmann that reflected the period’s presuppositions and, in my view at least, point to important weaknesses in Foucault’s thought. If Glucksmann was rather more simplistic than Foucault, Foucault probably felt that The Master Thinkers, which praised him to the skies, was still useful as a vulgarization of his ideas in the intense ideological battle of 1977.