michel foucault answers two questions on march 17, 1976


At the end of the final lecture of Michel Foucault’s fascinating 1976 Collège de France course entitled «Il faut défendre la société» [“Society must be defended”], he responds to two questions asked by an audience member. Normally there were no question sessions following the lectures, and in this case Foucault sounds like he doesn’t much want to respond. His replies were not included the published transcripts, but the audio of the courses has now been made available online at Free Foucault by some good Samaritan pirates (finally!). In the final lecture, Foucault introduces the idea of biopolitics as a new regime of state power that he sees emerging in the late 19th century, which surpasses and reconfigures both the old logic of classical sovereignty as well as more recent (since the 18th century) disciplinary regimes. It also subsumes and transforms the radical historical discourse that Foucault has been studying throughout the course, that of a war of the races.

Biopower, Foucault explains, makes people live and lets them die, rather than letting them live and making them die, as classical sovereignty had. Death goes from being a matter of open and well-nigh universally observed public spectacle to almost a matter of indifference to the state, which instead concentrates on manufacturing and optimizing the life of its subjects. Foucault returns to the historical discourse of a war of the races that he earlier elaborated in intriguing detail, attempting to explain how the transition to a biopolitical regime through the French Revolution and its aftermaths more or less amounted to the effacement of such a war and the essentially partisan perspective it implies. At the same time such a transition triggers and necessitates the emergence of a novel kind of biologically-constructed racism as an essential instrument of state power. This new kind of racism doesn’t focus on an external enemy that must be defeated as in the old discourse of warring races or nations, as that mode of war has been eclipsed. Instead it is organized around the preservation and advance of the race and the nation (both now in the singular) through its purification and management at the level of the population. Within the parameters of the new biopolitical regime, Foucault argues, racism is the sole means by which states can now exercise their sovereign right over the death of their subjects, and as such it becomes a fundamental technology or mechanism of the biopolitical state.

He concludes his account of this transition with a comment on Nazism as the limit extrapolation of this dual logic of biopolitical life management and racist extermination that he believes is inherent to all modern states. He then makes another comment about socialism, arguing that socialist states never questioned any of the premises of biopolitics, it is just that their ‘racism’ was evolutionary rather than ethnic. They were still more or less eugenic, still always trying to weed out class enemies, undesirables, the mentally ill and the infirm, and were confidently engaged in the optimizing the health, life expectancy and productivity of their own populations. Then in his very final comments, he claims that even prior to the existence of socialist states, socialism was fundamentally racist, not so much in its attempts to understand a socialist transition theoretically as in the way that it conceived the war with the class enemy that was necessary to bringing it about. This entails a reversion to the historical discourse of a war of the races that the new biopolitical state claims to have ended. In his view, the most racist kinds of socialism were those most centred on the intensification of direct insurrectionary violence, and the examples he provides are Auguste Blanqui, the Paris Commune, and anarchism. He contrasts them with the ‘less racist’ social democracy and Marxism and concludes that socialism’s racism only ends with the Dreyfus Affair and the ascendance of social democracy.

What is startling about this is not so much the accusation that socialist states were racist, this is uncontroversial, particularly given the sense Foucault has given to the terms race and racism in his lectures (he has deliberately used them to refer to forms of group identification, hostility and conflict that existed prior to the invention of the modern category of race and have more or less nothing to do with ethnicity), nor his view that racism is the only recourse biopolitical regimes have if they are to exert their sovereign right to kill, which has been otherwise ruled out by their thorough-going assumption of the logic of forcing people to live rather than die.

What is startling is his allegation that the kinds of radicals most hostile to the state as such, and most resistant to its usurpation and neutralization of the historical discourse of the war of the races, are the precursors of the racist socialist state that they surely would have virulently spurned, and likely been willing to take up arms against, had they lived to see it. Foucault claims that like all socialists these anti-state radicals never questioned the logic of biopower, leaving them with its mode of racism as the sole means to access the form of war needed to overthrow capitalist power. But what these radicals were trying to do was to revive the logic of war against the state’s own usurpation and neutering of it.

According to Foucault’s own logic, their hostility to the state directly implies a hostility to its implementation of biopolitical regimes, its use of population management in place of war, its statistical overcoming of the aleatory, its singular ‘race’ and singular ‘nation’ and its attempt to construct and purify both of these by medical and scientific rationality, its use of social Darwinism to manage groups of people as a singular ‘population’ in order to extract a maximum of labour and value from them, and to not just ‘defeat’ an enemy but to now completely exterminate groups deemed harmful to the ‘health’ of the whole. Their attempts to revive the historical discourse of a war of the races (which more or less equates to a refusal of the end of history), their willingness to understand their position as necessitating violent conflict against the classes (or ‘races’ in Foucault’s foregoing parlance) oppressing them, is a total rejection of the whole scam the modern state has played on everyone from the French Revolution to the Commune and since, its application of an administrative, demographic logic leading to both soul-destroying statistical optimizations of the living at home and genocidal murder in the colonies. Reviving the war of the races directly implies the refusal of biopolitical racism; it is unclear how Foucault can claim that they engage in both.

Blanqui, Communards and anarchists were all direct victims of extreme and paranoid state repression (in sovereign, disciplinary and biopolitical form), and Foucault completely fails to consider the possibility that their warfare could be waged in the name of anything other than a (racist, biopolitical) ‘socialist’ state, or anything other than the kind of state that was or would soon be murdering them for refusing to be made to live as it demanded. It would be far more reasonable, given the context established by Foucault at this point, to tax social democracy and Marxism, both of which involved explicit state-building projects, with the racism engendered by biopower, and place the other figures on the other side of the distinction between biopolitical racism and the war of the races. Those figures are rather the persistence of the latter as the former assumes hegemony, in line with this they would be expected to understand any biopolitical state project as merely another weapon wielded by one ‘race’ against another. Whether or not they were free of prejudice, their insurrecionary virulence would be better grasped as operating against a biopolitical state racism that had stolen their violence from them and perverted its form.

This dubious elision between a racist ‘socialism’ and Blanqui, the Paris Commune, and anarchism strikes me as so strained that Foucault must have been aware of what he was doing. Not because it is so self-evident that those groups were free of antisemitic or any other prejudice, but because of the specificity of their relationship to the state. This elision is also what one of the audience members queries Foucault about as soon as he ends his lecture. The audio is often difficult to understand, and the microphone is directed at Foucault not the audience, so there are still various lapses in my transcription, placed in square brackets. If you listen to the lecture and can offer any corrections, feel free to contact me. On the recording, the lecture proper ends at around 74:30. You can listen to a crop of just the questions here.

This question is followed by another, less controversial and less interesting one asked by someone else, which Foucault responds to by simply reiterating that, strictly from the point of view of the analysis of biopolitics, there was no difference between capitalist and socialist states, as they both pursue it wholeheartedly. Although fair in the sense in which he delimits his claim, this still leaves us in need of an account of the real differences in the nature of administrative population domination (and therefore of racism) in authoritarian, liberal and socialist states, which are surely significant. But again this would probably best be done by investigating the different ways in which the ruling ‘races’ (power-wielding clans) have wielded the modern state apparatus as a weapon. It would also be interesting to actually see the pre-Commune texts Foucault refers to in justifying himself at the end of his answer.

The following transcription really needs to be read in the context of the lecture preceding it. I recommend reading or listening to the whole course, especially as Foucault’s idea of a war of the races, which is essentially a polemical form of historiography originally used by a jilted nobility against an ever more absolute monarchy, is elaborated in engrossing detail.


question: «Pourquoi la Commune?»

MF: «Pardon?»

question: «Pourquoi la Commune?»

MF: «Comment ça, pourquoi la Commune?»

question: «Le racisme de la… La Commune […]» [something like “why was the Commune racist?”]

MF: «Pour des raisons de l’affrontement physique. Alors là si vous voulez, parmi les communards, le nombre de ceux qui ont été [??… oui] alors je parlais du racisme, j’aurais du dire, mais ça… On allais très loin et je ne m’en sortais pas. L’ennemi de classe, il a été pensé comme ennemi de race. Mais comme ennemi de race sous quelle forme? Essentiellement sous la forme de la race qui se trouve détenir, dans toutes les sociétés capitalistes, le pouvoir économique. C’est à dire les juifs. L’antisémitisme a été réinjecté, réactivé en Europe dans la second moitié du 19e siècle non pas du tout par les capitalistes, mais par les mouvements socialistes. Et c’est simplement avec Drumont, que l’on a, en France, le passage d’un antisémitisme qui était fondamentalement socialiste, on a son utilisation a des objectifs politiques de droite. Et alors avec l’Affaire Dreyfus ça va en […] [la suite].»

question: «Pourquoi la bourgeoisie […]?» [something like “why wasn’t it the bourgeoisie that was racist? Killing all those communards to purify the race and nation…”]

MF: «Ceci n’a rien à voir là-dedans.»

question: [… … … ] «… [??ils n’étaient pas à leur] place.»

MF: «Non, ça c’est des thèmes nationalistes. Encore une fois. Bon prenons si vous voulez des choses encore autrement. Vous avez eu, c’est surtout le socialisme français qui a été antisémite. Vous avez [eu] dans le socialisme français un… L’ennemi, il a été surtout pensé, perçu, non pas tellement comme le patron que comme celui auprès de qui on est endetté. L’ennemi c’est le financier. C’est celui qui a le pouvoir de l’argent. Et c’est en cette mesure là d’ailleurs, enfin la raison de cela était que le socialisme en France, depuis les années 1840–1848, s’était beaucoup développe dans la petite bourgeoisie, chez les artisans, employés, des choses comme ça, et chez les intellectuels aussi. Donc l’ennemi ce n’était pas tellement le patron de l’usine, c’était le financier. C’était le banquier, c’était celui auprès duquel on s’endettait. C’était celui qui donnait [???vous ceci/cessé]. Par conséquent, l’ennemi de classe était pensé physiquement comme le financier, et racialement s’était articulé comme le juif. Par conséquent, l’ennemi qu’il fallait détruire, celui qu’il fallait chasser, en espèce, dans sa totalité, c’était le juif. Et l’antisémitisme s’est développé dans des milieux socialistes à partir de cela. Et là vous le trouvez perpétuellement dès les années 18… enfin bon […] en gros. Chez ceux qui vont faire la Commune en 1870, vous le voyez déjà formulé dans les différents textes qui sont très intéressants et d’une extrême violence, dès les années 1865.»

question 2: «Á propos de l’état socialiste…»

MF: «Oui.»

question 2: «[…] la différence que [vous faîtes] entre l’état capitaliste et l’état socialiste… […] c’est exactement la même chose.»

MF: «Et bah, c’est exactement ce que je…»

question 2: «[??Y a pas d’] état socialiste!»

MF: [laughs] «C’est ce que je m’étais j’allais dire tué à expliquer!» [still laughing] «Pardon?»

question 2: «[…] salarié(e)s […] existent exactement de la même manière.»

MF: «Bah écoute, j’ai essayé de dire, sans doute je l’ai mal expliqué puisque tu n’as pas compris, j’ai essayé de dire que précisément les états socialistes fonctionnent avec les mêmes mécanismes de biopouvoir et de droit de souveraineté que l’on trouve dans les autres. Donc aucune différence de ce point de vue-là au moins. Voilà.»

question 2: [interjects]

MF: «Mais ça, c’est une autre question. Pour l’instant je suis en train de parler de biopouvoir, je ne parle pas des états socialistes en générale. Je parle des mécanismes de biopouvoir et des mécanismes de souveraineté, qu’ils fonctionnent de la même façon dans les états socialistes que dans les états non-socialistes. Voilà. Cela me paraît [?extrêmement] simple.»


À suivre.