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, this 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 ‘Stalinist’ 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 these Communists 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!”
The 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 carried on:
“Only those directly concerned can speak in a practical way on their own behalf."
“Only those directly concerned can speak in a practical way on their own behalf."
Why 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 political order.”
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 “neo-con” 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 for us.”
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, did that.
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”.
19th 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.