Comment on Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

Three Way Fight


The Philosopher and the Ayatollah: “A Perplexing Affinity” 

A comment on Foucault and the Iranian Revolution 

by Kristian Williams

If we want to defeat fascism, we need to understand its attraction. Sometimes an exceptional case can be as revealing, in its own way, as the typical one. And an indirect approach, precisely by leading us away from the object of study, may bring us to a better vantage point, revealing features that had previously escaped our view. I want to look, therefore, at a case that may not directly connect to fascism in its narrow conception, but from which we may be able to discern a relevant pattern and draw applicable lessons.

Newpaper photo of Michel Foucault speaking at press conference
Michel Foucault

In a series of articles and interviews, Michel Foucault, the icon of politically engaged post-structuralism, voiced his support for the revolution then unfolding in Iran and expressed his admiration for the Ayatollah Khomeini. In Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson argue that this attitude, surprising at first glance, in fact grew out of deep features of Foucault’s thinking, and perhaps the very nature of his philosophical project:

“There was a perplexing affinity between this post-structuralist philosopher, this European critic of modernity, and the antimodernist Islamist radicals in the streets of Iran. Both were searching for a new form of political spirituality as a counterdiscourse to a thoroughly materialistic world; both clung to idealized notions of premodern social orders; both were disdainful of modern liberal judicial systems; and both admired individuals who risked death in attempts to reach a more authentic existence.”[1]

Foucault himself provides the best evidence for this argument, in his journalism and commentary on the revolution.[2] In an interview with Claire Brière and Pierre Blanchet, dated 1979, he announced:

“Among the things that characterize this revolutionary event, there is the fact that it has brought out — and few peoples in history have had this — an absolutely collective will…. Furthermore (and here one can speak of Khomeini’s political sense), this collective will has been given one object, one target and one only, namely, the departure of the Shah…. [The] national sentiment has been extremely vigorous: the rejection of submission to foreigners, disgust at the looting of national resources, the rejection of a dependent foreign policy…. But national feeling has, in my opinion, been only one of the elements of a still more radical rejection: the rejection by a people, not only of foreigners, but of everything that had constituted for years, for centuries, its political destiny.”[3]

Newspaper photo of Ayatollah Khomeini speaking at microphones
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

There is no need to enter into the briar patch of questions about the definition of fascism, and how that definition might be applied to Iran, or whether it can be. (Personally, I am agnostic on the subject.) Rather than try to assign Iran (then or now) a precise place on the fascist spectrum, what concerns us here is specifically Foucault’s thinking on the subject; and, whatever one may think of the Iranian revolution as such, the terms of Foucault’s praise sound worryingly fascistic: a “national sentiment” combining grievance and triumph; revolution as both a rupture in history and the affirmation of a particular identity; a celebration of will as an expression of power and the source of its legitimacy; the “rejection … of foreigners” and all alien influences; and finally, an “absolute” collective will directed at a single objective under the tutelage of an exalted authority. One leader, one people, one will.

The above elegy cannot be explained as a momentary rhetorical lapse or a slip of the tongue, the result of speaking spontaneously and without rehearsal. It is instead a concise encapsulation of the points developed at greater length in Foucault’s articles. Elsewhere, for instance, he refers to “this almost mythical leader, Khomeini” as “the focal point of a collective will.”[4] He describes the revolution as both “belong[ing] to history” and “escap[ing] it.”[5] Most poetically, he argues that the events in Iran were “not a revolution” on the French or Russian model, but a rebellion that promised freedom, not merely from imperialism, but from modernity, from all totalizing systems, and even from rationality itself:

“It is the insurrection of men with bare hands who want to lift the fearful weight, the weight of the entire world order that bears down on each of us, but more specifically on them, these oil workers and peasants at the frontiers of empires. It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.”[6]

Naturally, Foucault could not have known precisely what the revolution would produce. He did not foresee the religious intolerance, the persecution of ethnic minorities, the summary execution of homosexuals, and the total subjugation of women. Nevertheless, in the interview with Brière and Blanchet, he argued that the dynamism of the movement depended on a cultural specificity “based in traditions, institutions that carry a charge of chauvinism, nationalism, exclusiveness, which have a very powerful attraction for individuals.”[7]

We can trust that Foucault did not set out to justify oppression. And he was neither so foolish nor so calculating as to believe that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Instead, he was able to persuade himself that the Islamist program represented a kind of freedom — though of course a different freedom than we might pursue in the West. Indeed, it was that very sense of difference that made Iran so alluring.

Afary and Anderson argue that Foucault’s support for the authoritarian theocracy was facilitated by several elements of his thought, including his anti-imperialism, his relative ignorance about Iran and naiveté about Islam, his longing for authenticity and a spiritualizing politics, and his indifference, bordering on disdain, for the concerns or even the existence of women. Most centrally, his attitude toward Iran also constituted a logical continuation of his rejection of modernity, and in particular his critique of the Enlightenment project of using reason to discover universal truths. For Foucault, such grand narratives were always something of a boondoggle, but abandoning them left him intellectually defenseless when confronted with the particularistic claims of a society forcibly rejecting the yoke of Western dominance.

To the degree that Foucault’s support for Khomeini grew out of his critique of modernity, it should certainly invite scrutiny to that critique and others like it; and to the degree that such critiques may inform our politics, the necessary scrutiny must also take the form of a self-scrutiny. The abandonment of the Enlightenment may, as Foucault would have it, produce new subjectivities; but it will not necessarily lead to new kinds of freedom. It may, instead, amplify existing oppressions or renew older forms of subjugation.

The cautionary lessons for a left that increasingly favors relativistic narratives and cultural specificity rather than claims of universality are, I think, obvious enough. It is not that post-modernism and cultural relativism inevitably lead to the rule of fundamentalist clerics and the stoning of adulteresses, but that is one form that the discontent with modernity can take, and absent other principles — that is, without Enlightenment-tinged notions of rationality and rights, to say nothing of Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité — we may find it hard to combat those tendencies, especially when they are presented as the authentic voice of marginalized people overturning the conceptual, as well as the political, structures that confine them.

Implicit in this disconcerting case study is also a challenge for the left. In terms of practical politics it is necessary to break out of the binary logic that so often shapes radical anti-imperialism and liberal anti-racism alike. We must develop a third pole that is neither Khomeini nor the Shah — or in our own society, one that equally opposes the insurgent right wing and refuses any defense of the neoliberal status quo. We must avoid Foucault’s mistake of siding with authoritarians in the name of anti-imperialism, but we must likewise avoid Christopher Hitchens’ mistake of reinforcing the existing power structure as a bulwark against “Islamo-fascism.”

Then there is the cultural dimension, the affective aspect: As George Orwell cautioned in his review of Mein Kampf, those fighting fascism would be wise not “to underrate its emotional appeal.” He argued that “Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life,” because “human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.”[8] These desires are, of course, merely the outward manifestation of a deep yearning for purpose, for meaning in one’s life, and for a sense of belonging.

Daniel Guérin, too, thought that an understanding of “the living reality” of the fascist movement as it was “reflected in the consciousness of men” required attention to more than the workers’ material needs.[9] Visiting Germany during the last days of the Weimar republic and the first period of Nazi rule, Guérin had the strange and enlightening opportunity to view the fascist revolution through the medium of nature hikes and youth hostels.[10] Based on that experience, he faulted the Marxists for “being interested only in the material factors,… [and thus] understand[ing] absolutely nothing of the way in which the privations suffered by the masses are transmuted into a religious aspiration.”[11]

Socialism, Guérin argued, cannot win by insisting on the material side of life and ignoring the emotional, idealistic, spiritual side. People could be turned away from “fascist mysticism,” he thought, but only if those same impulses could be directed toward a new “idealism,” specifically the “highly ‘spiritual’ purpose of ending man’s alienation.” In short, it is the struggle as much as the victory that provides a sense of purpose, and so: “Socialism can regain its attractive force only by saying to the masses that to win the ‘paradise on earth,’ its supreme goal, requires struggles and sacrifices.”[12]

The challenge for the left is to provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment, without replicating the logic of a death-cult; to create a feeling of belonging without chauvinism, and authenticity without essentializing identities. Our politics must learn to speak, simultaneously, the language of reason and the language of values. Without abandoning the Enlightenment, our movements must be ready, nevertheless, to address our deepest psychological, cultural, and even spiritual needs. Unless we can do so, we may find our demands for material security, social equality, and personal freedom continually outbid by those who promise only a life of sacrifice and a glorious death.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and the forthcoming Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde.

Images of Foucault and Khomeini are in public domain, available via Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 13. For a more sympathetic view of Foucault’s involvement, see: Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
[2] This material is collected in the appendix to Afary and Anderson’s book, along with cautions and counter-arguments from the philosopher’s contemporaries.
[3] Quoted in Claire Brière and Pierre Blanchet, “Iran: The Spirit of a World without Spirit,” in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, by Afary and Anderson, 252-3.
[4] Michel Foucault, “The Mythical Leader of the Iranian Revolt,” in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, by Afary and Anderson, 222.
[5] Michel Foucault, “Is It Useless to Revolt?” in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, by Afary and Anderson, 263.
[6] Foucault, “Mythical Leader,” 222.
[7] Quoted in Brière and Blanchet, “Iran,” 260.
[8] George Orwell, “Review: Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler (unabridged edition),” in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, volume II: My Country Right or Left, 1940 – 1943, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 14.
[9] Daniel Guérin, Fascism and Big Business (New York: Pathfinder, 2010), 88.
[10] Guérin records these experiences in a fascinating short book: Daniel Guérin, The Brown Plague: Travels in Late Weimar and Early Nazi Germany, trans. Robert Schwartzwald (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).
[11] Guérin, Fascism and Big Business, 88.
[12] Guérin, Fascism and Big Business, 88.

1 thought on “Comment on Foucault and the Iranian Revolution”

  1. Thank you for the reference to this upcoming book, exploring the interesting connection between some form of anarchism and some form of homosexuality:

    Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde
    Paperback – June 2, 2020
    by Kristian Williams (Author), Alan Moore (Foreword)


Leave a Comment