The Treason of the Clerics

The Treason of the Clerics

Foucault and the Iranian Revolution details the story of Foucault’s induction into journalism as a political correspondent in Iran.


Unlike some other stars of Parisian intellectual life, Michel Foucault was always reluctant to air his opinions about big political issues. It was not that he was uninterested in politics or indifferent to human suffering, just that he was suspicious of the sort of thinkers–“universal intellectuals,” he called them–who consider it their privilege and duty to set the world to rights, as if history had appointed them to speak on its behalf, or morality had summoned them to be the conscience of the human race.

Anyone who has read his books–from Madness and Civilization and Birth of the Clinic, published in the early 1960s, to the multivolume History of Sexuality, which he was still working on when he died in 1984 at the age of 57–will understand why Foucault would not presume to speak in the name of others. He was in his way a hands-on historian, who spent half his life peering at brittle old documents in the Bibliothèque Nationale. He was also a social theorist with a special interest in small-scale processes, or in the “micro-power,” as he called it, that travels through the “capillaries” of the institutions by which we live. On top of that he was an accomplished writer in a particular French tradition, and an admirer of the “radiant uncertainties” of the Surrealist poet Raymond Roussel. There is a Surrealist exuberance in all of Foucault’s works, and he was constantly on the lookout for themes that refused to align themselves with the normal ways of the world–tales of oddballs, fantasists and fanatics, or idiosyncrasies, exceptions and discrepancies. He was, you might say, a poet of the uncommonplace: a philosopher of the unphilosophical, a historian of the unhistorical and a politician of the unpolitical.

As a student in Paris in the early 1950s, Foucault had a three-year fling with the Communist Party. It ended badly on both sides, and though he remained on the left, he became an unforgiving critic of leftist conservatism, sentimentality and nostalgia. His political activism would from then on be confined to supporting scattered groups of prisoners, psychiatric patients and young unemployed immigrants, and encouraging them to organize themselves on their own terms, without reference to warders, nurses or social workers, let alone political parties or, for that matter, Surrealistic littérateurs like himself.

It goes without saying that he did not blame his misfits, lunatics, delinquents and eccentrics for deviating from conventional norms; his originality was that he did not praise them either. He was perhaps the first thinker to identify the perversity of the kind of progressive thinking that expects the oppressed to conform to a preconceived model of resistance or revolt. According to the progressive norm, genuine victims of injustice will be ennobled by adversities, strengthened by misery and purified by suffering. They will bear witness to their authenticity by playing a starring role in the good old drama of democratic resistance to oppression. And they will gratify their patrons by bringing new vigor and militancy to the part, and perhaps a dash of cathartic revolutionary violence, not to mention unimpeachable moral authority. If Foucault had a mission in life, it was to discredit the progressive model of the perfect rebel.

The main argument of his never-to-be-completed work on the history of sexuality was that the cheerleaders of “sexual liberation” could be as pompous, despotic and self-deceiving as the repressive prudes they took pride in defying. The ideas of the self-appointed liberators could, as Foucault noted, be traced to the Freudo-Marxism of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, but he regarded them as part of something far larger. Speaking in Tokyo in April 1978, he went so far as to suggest that the bogus mantras of sexual liberation could be heard throughout the entire history of “the West.” We Europeans, Foucault said–or rather, cutely correcting himself, “we others”–have been engaged for millennia in a quixotic adventure unparalleled in the rest of the world: an earnest quest for the truth about ourselves in the form of “the truth about our sexuality.” Throughout the twentieth century, moreover, we “European others” have been regaling ourselves with a tale about how Freud eventually exploded the age-old hypocrisies, allowing sexuality to be “released from its fetters” at last:

First movement: Greek and Roman antiquity, where sexuality was free, and capable of expressing itself without hindrance…. Next, there was Christianity, which–for the first time in the history of the West–imposed a great prohibition on sexuality, saying “no” to pleasure and to sex…. But then, beginning in the sixteenth century, the bourgeoisie found itself in a situation…of economic domination and cultural hegemony; it took over the…Christian rejection of sexuality and made it its own, enforcing it with unprecedented rigor and severity, and perpetuating it into the nineteenth century, until at last…the veil began to be lifted by Freud.

In order to avoid misunderstandings with his Japanese audience, Foucault spelled out his opinion that the Freudo-Marxist epic of sexual liberation was “misleading and untenable, for hundreds of reasons.” But in the History of Sexuality he simply presented a parade of awkward and bizarre case studies and left his readers to draw their own conclusions. His aim, after all, was not to replace our old smug certainties with new ones but to help us formulate some uncertainties of our own, as radiantly tentative as possible. Dogmatics and polemics could never be his style.

When Foucault’s Japanese hosts thanked him for the clarity of his exposition, he turned the compliment gracefully. Obscurity was unforgivable, he said; indeed it was “a form of despotism.” Yet he had to admit that his own elucidations sometimes had the effect of cafouillage, of messing things up and leaving them more confused than ever. But at least he could never be accused of false or factitious clarity. He never emulated the kind of Freudianism that confidently discovers vast unconscious realities behind the carnival of false consciousness in which the rest of us live our lives. Nor did he yearn for the Marxist self-assurance that scolds a benighted political present by the light of a glorious future that has not yet dawned on anyone else. Foucault was never going to sign on to an a priori separation between those who are in the know and those who are not, and his cafouillage was not a feckless abrogation of intellectual responsibility so much as a principled avoidance of the arrogance of authority. He simply wanted to radiate uncertainty.

Shortly after returning from Japan, Foucault got another chance to travel in the non-European world. Protests against the Shah’s regime in Iran had been intensifying since the beginning of the year, and by August 1978 millions of Iranians were participating in strikes and demonstrations. In September Foucault got himself a berth as special correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, and went off to spend ten days with strikers and demonstrators on the streets of Iran.

In one of his earliest reports, he dissected the standard Western take on the crisis in Iran: that the Shah, though not the most fragrant of statesmen, embodied the forces of “modernization” and “secularization,” and therefore had the future on his side, while the oppositionists were a rabble of backward peasants and religious fanatics who had yet to adjust to the reality of the modern world. Foucault’s informants in Iran saw things very differently: As far as they were concerned, their struggle was against corruption rather than modernization. The “honest people” of the West might turn a blind eye to the “speculation, corrupt practices, embezzlement, and swindling that constitute the veritable daily bread of our trade, our industry, and our finances,” but for the protesters that was no longer possible. Corruption in Iran was manifestly the “dynasty’s way of exercising power and a fundamental mechanism of the economy”; but it was a parasite that was beginning to destroy its host. The modernization that had once seemed unstoppable was being derailed by corruption: “As a political project and as a principle of social transformation,” Foucault wrote, modernization “is a thing of the past in Iran.”

In early October, Foucault was describing groups of unarmed demonstrators who were stopping government troops in their tracks with shouts of “Islam, Islam!” and “Come with us to save the Quran!”–a living refutation, as he observed, of the Marxist adage that “religion is the opium of the people.” He was at first surprised to find left-wing students clamoring for “Islamic government.” But then he realized that the Shiite clergy was nothing like a Catholic hierarchy. It had no popes or cardinals nor any centralized system of authority, and if the mullahs were galvanizing a popular revolt against corruption, it was not because they were in command but because they were giving ordinary Iranians exactly what they needed: “a way of being together, a way of speaking and listening, a means of understanding each other and sharing each other’s desires.”

The protesters who were calling for Islamic government explained themselves to Foucault by speaking about an “ideal” or “utopia” fashioned from Islamic values as they understood them: the dignity of labor, respect for minorities, equality before the law and government accountable to the people. Foucault confessed that he was embarrassed and disappointed by what they said:

It is often said that definitions of Islamic government are imprecise. To me, however, they seemed to have a clarity that was completely familiar and also, it must be said, far from reassuring. “These are simply the catchphrases of democracy–of bourgeois or revolutionary democracy,” I said. “We in the West have been repeating them to ourselves ever since the eighteenth century, and look where they have got us.” But they immediately replied: “These catchphrases were part of the Quran long before your philosophers adopted them; in the industrialized Christian West they may have lost their meaning, but Islam is going to restore their value and their force.”

Foucault was not persuaded, but as the students elaborated their “dreams” of Islamic government, it occurred to him that he was witnessing an outbreak of “political spirituality” similar to what swept through Europe in the time of Calvin or Cromwell. It might not amount to a political program, but still it was impressive in its way:

It impresses me as what you might call a “political will.” It also impresses me as an attempt, in response to current problems, to politicize structures that are both social and religious. And it impresses me as an attempt to open up a spiritual dimension in politics.

It was now October 1978. The streets were resounding with calls for “Islamic government,” but the Shah was still in his palace, and the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini was biding his time in Paris and keeping his options open. Back home, liberal commentators were doing their best to fit the new political possibilities into the old progressive narratives. But Iran did not present the familiar lineaments of a struggle between pure-hearted youthful rebels and dark-souled reactionaries, and it was difficult to see it as another China, Cuba or Vietnam, or a second edition of Paris in 1968. Meanwhile, the very idea of “political spirituality” seemed like an anachronism that could never get any traction in the modern world.

Foucault, who had just returned to Paris, was not so sure. He admitted that he “knew very little about Iran,” but it struck him that the entire Iranian population was acting like a massive political hedgehog with a single contradictory passion: the desire for a process that would somehow “prevent politics from gaining a foothold.” The movement was clearly unsustainable, but that did not make it aberrant or deplorable. The idea of Islamic government would settle down eventually; it would prove to be either “a reconciliation, a contradiction, or the threshold of something new,” but for the time being it was impossible to tell. “Let us admit,” Foucault concluded in the middle of October, “that we Westerners would be in a poor position to give advice to the Iranians on this matter.”

Two weeks later he was back in Iran. He was struck by the way the resistance was gaining ground not through military strength but through the power of information. Protests were sustained by a diffuse system of communication that the state could neither monitor nor control: Messages from unidentified sources were transmitted by telephones and sermons and above all by “the tool par excellence of counter-information”: the audiocassette recorder. “If the shah is about to fall,” he said, “it will be due above all to the cassette tape.”

Everyone he spoke to expected Khomeini to come back soon, but Foucault was assured that “there will not be a Khomeini party; there will not be a Khomeini government.” What the protesters wanted was not even a revolution as Westerners understood it: “Everybody is quite aware that they want something completely different,” something whose consequences would come as a surprise to the political cognoscenti. The only certainty was that the new revolt of Islam was “irreducible” and unpredictable–“the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.”

Foucault’s experiment in political journalism earned him rebukes in the French press from the very beginning. Maxime Rodinson, a venerable Marxist scholar of Islam, informed him wearily that an Islamic government was bound to usher in some kind of “archaic fascism.” And an exiled Iranian feminist claimed that Foucault’s interest in “political spirituality” was blinding him, like many other Westerners, to the inherent injustice of Islam, especially toward women. For the time being, Foucault refused to respond, but events seemed to be vindicating his critics. The Shah fled Iran in the early weeks of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned in triumph and at the end of March an Islamic republic was ratified in a popular referendum: a classic case, it would seem, of a resurgence of reactionary authoritarian populism. Many of the possibilities that Foucault had canvassed were coming to nothing, and in April he published an open letter to the new Iranian Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, expressing dismay at the abridgment of rights under the incoming “government of mullahs.”

But while he remonstrated with his friends in Iran, Foucault never yielded an inch to his critics in Paris. Despite their accusations, he had not taken it upon himself to advocate Islamic government: He had simply recorded some of the aspirations of the protesters, while trying to dismantle the stale and defensive notions that filled the heads of Western observers. “The problem of Islam as a political force is an essential one for our time and for the years to come,” he wrote, “and we cannot approach it with a modicum of intelligence if we start out from a position of hatred.” At the end of March, when the veteran leftists Claudie and Jacques Broyelle called on him to confess his “mistake,” he blew his top. He was appalled by the peremptory summons to confess his “errors,” saying that it “remind[s] me of something, and of many things, against which I have fought.” And if things were indeed turning out badly in Iran, that did not invalidate his remarks about how they might have been different; nor did it show that events were bound to revert to a familiar pattern and lose their capacity to surprise us. But Foucault was wounded by the taunts of his critics, and at the end of May 1979 he retired from the conflict. His adventure as a contrarian political journalist was at an end.

The whole of Foucault’s Iranian journalism–a total of fifteen articles and interviews–was republished in France in 1994 as part of a four-volume anthology of his occasional writings. Ever since then, French critics have made the most of his “error” over Islamism, and some of them sought to implicate him in the attacks on Washington and New York in 2001. In the English-speaking world, however, the Iranian writings have hitherto been ignored; but the anomaly is now being put right with some authority by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson. In Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, they tell the full story of Foucault’s sudden induction into the journalist’s trade and his contacts with exiles in Paris and rebels in Iran, concluding with an appendix of 100 pages comprising translations of Foucault’s articles, together with some of the reactions they provoked, copiously annotated and explained. (The translations are sound, though I have amended some of them here.) One could hardly have asked for more.

One might have asked for less, however. Although Afary and Anderson have spent ten years working on their book, it has not been a labor of love, and their summaries of Foucault’s achievements are consistently hostile and tendentious. Noting that he was skeptical about self-congratulatory Western narratives of progress and modernization, they make the preposterous assertion that “Foucault privileged premodern social relations over modern ones.” Turning to sexuality, they quote his Japanese lecture about the Freudo-Marxist epic of sexual liberation but interpret it as a solemn declaration of faith rather than an exercise in delicate satire, thus demonstrating not only a spectacular impermeability to irony but also an inability to turn the page and read Foucault’s reminder that the story was, in his opinion, “misleading and untenable, for hundreds of reasons.” After that it is no surprise that they misunderstand Foucault’s histories of asylums, hospitals and schools, which, pace Afary and Anderson, were not celebrations of the self-affirming inner subjectivity of the oppressed but arguments for seeing subjectivity as a complex byproduct of systems of discipline. Finally, they seek to give philosophical depth to their indictment by suggesting that Foucault was influenced by Heidegger’s notion of “being towards death,” which may be true for all I know, though Foucault could have told them that Heidegger was trying to explain the difference between our sense of the future and our sense of the past, rather than advocating some reckless dicing with “limit situations.”

Having constructed an imaginary Foucault intoxicated by “authenticity,” “creativity” and “living dangerously”–notions that have no place in his work except as butts of his teasing paradoxes–Afary and Anderson offer their readers the astonishing assurance that “Foucault’s concept of authenticity meant looking at situations where people lived dangerously and flirted with death, the site where creativity originated.” And having transformed the gentle apostle of radiant uncertainty into a philosophical version of Charles Manson, they credit him with an “uncritical enthusiasm for the Islamist movement of Iran.” Foucault’s quizzical mixture of excitement and disappointment over Iran, together with his perceptive remarks about corruption as a political issue and the recrudescence of political spirituality in the Muslim world, are passed over in silence as Afary and Anderson condemn him for an “uncritical embrace” of Islamism and try to explain it in terms of a kinky fascination with “limit experiences,” “new forms of creativity” and even (yes, they are serious) the “transgressive powers” of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Noting that Foucault sometimes described the Iranian rebellion as “irreducible,” Afary and Anderson suggest that the French word irréductible had a peculiar significance for him, conveying a blanket justification for every form of “opposition to Western modernity.” But there is no great mystery about the word: Go into any French nursery and you will find that Astérix and the other valiant Gauls in the classic children’s books are known as irréductibles Gaulois on account of their refusal to obey the well-established laws of history and bow to the might of the Roman empire. Whatever else you may think about them, the Iranian revolutionaries were as irreducible as Astérix, Obélix and Panoramix; and so too was the philosophical historian who did his best to listen to what they had to say.

On the one occasion that I met Foucault, in his immaculate white apartment in Paris in 1976, he expressed uneasiness about his works being translated into English. They were all written, he said, in opposition to the know-it-all leftism of the Communist Party, and without that framework, there was no telling what effect they might have. I tried to reassure him as I gulped at my big tumbler of whiskey, while he leaned back and smiled and sipped his mineral water. All these years later, Afary and Anderson seem to have proved him right: His skeptical radicalism is not easily transplanted. I am reminded that Foucault had a serene way of rising above captious criticisms: He would simply invoke the most elementary axiom of political existence, not to mention Some Like It Hot: “Nothing’s perfect.”

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