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Foucault and Splits in the Radical Left

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I’m reading some of Michel Foucault’s works in Power: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, Volume III along with Foucault: A Very Short Introduction by Gary Gutting and was struck by a particular passage in Gutting’s book:

[Foucault] rejected ‘the dilema of being either for or against’ and went on to argue that even reformist projects (within a system) require ‘criticism (and radical criticism)’…(29)

I think this is an important insight for those of us on the radical/revolutionary left and of various Marxist political thinking.  One of the things that characterizes the radical left (at least in the U.S.) is its ability to constantly split and form breakaway groups in order to “correct” a current and “wrong” political line or revisionist tendency.

This can be seen in the communist movement in the U.S. from the very beginning with splits from the Socialist Party which turned into the Communist Party and then the Communist Workers Party and then latter the Communist Party USA which then split into a formation of different groups which in turn split again, such as the Maoist International Movement which split into various other groups; there are splits in the FRSO, splits forming in the RCP, splits in the 4th International, and so on and so on.

All in the name of upholding a “correct” line of thought.  Shit, there are even splits within my movement; the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a few other unions split from the AFL-CIO and formed their own labor umbrella organization (“Workers of the world disunite!”).

I’m not saying that all splits are necessarily bad; sometimes it is necessary, sometimes, not all the time.  But more often than not a split ends up weakening the movement and one of the groups normally ends up dieing completely.

Michael Clifford comments on this criticism by Foucault as well:

If our task it to change [society/a movement, etc.], or even some portion of it, we have to “set aside” our political identifications.  We have to suspend this power that binds us to an arbitrary political identity committed to defending ideological principles.  As Foucault notes, “One must pass to the other side…by trying to turn off these mechanisms which cause the appearance of two separate sides…”  Yet modern political subjectivity has been invested through and through with this necessity of taking sides.

It is important to understand that when Foucault says we need to abandon this dilemma of taking, he is not calling for some humanistic “laying down of arms” after which we become united in an international brotherhood…[1]

That last part is very important to note.  There are differences in society that can’t possibly be reconciled just through dialouge.  As a shop steward for my union I recognize that I am indeed on the side of the workers and against management; but this isn’t a crippling ideology of blind adherence in going against management all the time but a recognition of the ideological necessity of the capitalist to exploit the worker as much as possible.  Nor does this mean that radical leftists and Marxists aren’t in opposition to pro-capitalist forces, for indeed we are.  What this means, for us on the radical left, is to be careful in simply viewing this world in a Western sense of duality, of “good” and “bad” and “pro-capitalist” and “anti-capitalist.”  This type of thinking causes harmful splits within the radical left.

Overall the anti-capitalist radical left has a lot in common with some sharp differences in detail.  And these sharp differences end up causing splits.  The problem we (by the way Foucault would hate that I’m using “we” here, but fuck that shit) must face is not automatically attacking our fellow leftists’ views (that differ from ours) as automatically “revisionist” or “pro-capitalist” or “off-line,” etc.  It would serve the movement better if these differences were hammered out in a patient concrete way (but not to the point of subsuming the movement were it begins to ignore mass-political work).

As Foucault says, “reformist projects (within a [movement]) require ‘criticism (and radical criticism)’.  I think it would serve an organization better if certain folks within an organization who disagree with what is being done in that organization not split from it but rather take the time to mobilize a broad base of support in order to get their views heard and in turn challenge those whom they disagree with (but being aware to “turn off these mechanisms which cause the appearance of two separate sides”).  If certain folks do not take to this criticism well and decide to leave it won’t be an overall loss, as a few people leaving an organization is nothing compared to an all out polemical civil war which ends up tearing apart the organization itself.

Ideas need to be exchanged freely and in a responsible way.

This is not to ignore the fact that different organizations are necessary within the movement and different strategies are required for organizing different peoples, areas, and sectors; but within umbrella organizations that encompass many different radical leftist parties and grass-roots organizations there should be the tendency to not automatically classify others as “enemies” which in turn leads to splits.

With organizations in where splits have already happened (such as my union) there should be dialogue between the two sides as more often then not we have an overall agreement in almost every major political and philosophical line there is.  These agreements must be emphasized and the sharp differences must be openly talked about and hammered out without the poisonous language of dualistic thought of “us” versus “them.”


  1. Michael Clifford, Political Genealogy After Foucault (New York: Routledge, 2001),163
One Comment
  1. Thursday, December 25, 2008 1:17 am

    Great post. Just discovered this blog, will add it to my roll.

    Foucault is always interesting, though I have preferred to read interviews with him and commentaries on his work as I’ve struggled with his own works. His comments here are no doubt informed by the political culture of France in the 60s and 70s, with much friction between Maoists, Trotskyists and the offical CP. The friend/enemy distinction is disastrous for the working class movement, but the problem for Marxists is our practice of democratic centralism is often very misguided.

    Good decisions can’t be made unless there is completely frank and open debate, differences of opinion should be recognised, not disguised, because secrecy leads to a lack of trust and sometimes bitterness. Honest politics, in my experience, reduces the bitterness and allows comrades of different political tendencies to work together on what they do agree on – and this makes it more likely for people to act on the decisions that have been agreed democratically, even if there is slight disagreement, because the political culture is such that people know if their view didn’t win out this time, it can in future.

    Anyway, thanks for giving me pause for thought on this day. I’ll leave you with a thought of English socialist politican of the early 20thcentury, George Lansbury:

    “Keep in mind the fact that the Son of Man, the Christ who lived and was executed by the government of His day, was a great leader, and leader of the common people. It was his great message of Love and Brotherhood which brought him to his death. He knew the poor of the earth were oppressed by the rich and wealthy, and in scathing terms denounced the money changers and all those who defiled the Temple and brought suffering to starving humanity.”

    Hope you have a joyful time and best wishes for the new year.

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