Vacarme 29 / Contextes

«Enigma of the Uprising» Foucault and Iran


When he commented in 1979 on the fall of the Shah, Foucault was not greeting the accession of a regime, but examining the phenomenon of a revolt. Against critics, who, from very far away, believed they were reading a blindness born of "68 thinking" in these texts, a flashback allows us to take the measure of the relevance of Foucault’s analyses: the acuity of his perception applied to Iranian society, the attempt to seize in all its novelty, possibilities, and dangers, a rupture the imprint of which the contemporary world still bears.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.

"The problem of Islam as a political force is an essential problem for our age and for the years to come. The first condition for tackling it with a modicum of intelligence is to begin without hatred."
"Michel Foucault’s response to an Iranian reader" Le Nouvel Observateur, number 731, 13-19 November 1978.

Michel Foucault has been much reproached for his enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution and his description of a unanimous people, united behind the charismatic figure of Ayatollah Khomeini. When a philosopher who meditates on the operation of power leaves the world of archives to analyze a real movement, one may fear two things: that he should be looking for an illustration for his theses without concerning himself with the specificity of the phenomenon, or that he should be naively prisoner to the event, promoted to the status of the Second Coming of History, joining the ranks of the long list of those who convince themselves they’ve written the last book possible, the book about the End of History. Between the choices of crypto-Marxist and naive fellow traveler, Parisian salons have quite preferred the latter. [1] It’s true that expressions such as "the uprising of an entire society," "a virtually unanimous clear will," or even "a perfectly unified collective will" raise some doubt: how could things be so simple?

However, an attentive reading of Foucault’s writings on the Iranian revolution - composed moreover in a journalistic framework (which is not neutral) - shows that we’re really talking about unfounded perceptions. [2] Foucault doesn’t enthuse over a new order that will be established following the revolution, but rather over the revolt itself, for itself, over the complete and generalized rejection of the power in place, as well as of its possible appendages and substitutions. Foucault is no naïf, no fellow traveler, no sycophant for utopian tomorrows. It’s the event that interests him as a rupture with established order and not as an indicator of the meaning of history.

Is Foucault’s Iran imaginary? In spite of the brevity of his stays there, he grasped a great many things. Far from appeasement, his attitude highlights the profoundly nationalistic, even xenophobic character of the revolution (and of the population): he notes that among the foreigners the Iranians want to see leave, there are not only Americans, but also Afghan immigrant workers (p. 711). He knew perfectly well that Khomeini had a political program (even if he disputes it several pages later), and that social tensions existed, even though they were not the source of the revolution. He notes that for Iran, one must talk about Shi’ism before talking about Islam, that Shi’ism and not ethnicity is the foundation of the national identity and consequently of the legitimacy of all power. His remarks on the modernity of the Shah as a form of archaism to the extent it was imposed by brute force are very relevant: the Shah didn’t understand a thing about social control (but perhaps that’s why a revolution was possible, which leaves many fine days ahead for modern and subtle governments). What interested Foucault was not Iran, was not Islam, was not the mullahs, it was the experience, the experiment of an event: revolution.

Political Revolution or Revolution Against Politics?

To speak of revolution in 1978, was, of course, for all the readers of the time, to enroll oneself in either a Marxist or Hegelian philosophy of history, one that believes in a meaning to history and that assumes that a new order must emerge from a society’s contradictions. One referred to 1789, 1917, the Maoist Cultural Revolution, Che Guevara, the struggle against American imperialism, etc. Now that’s certainly the first misunderstanding. Foucault rejects any philosophy of history. What fascinated him about Iran was specifically that it was a religious revolution; he explicitly mentions Savonarola’s Florence, Thomas Munzer’s Anabaptists and Cromwell’s Presbyterians (ibid., p. 686). He insists on two points that undermine any comparisons with the political revolutions of yesteryear: the unanimity of society (no civil war, no class struggle as the engine of the revolution), and the absence of ideology and political program which open the question of the regime to come ("It’s because there’s no program of government (...) that there can be a clear, stubborn, nearly unanimous will," p. 702). As far as Foucault was concerned, the revolution made sense in itself, as a rejection and refusal of power, of government, and not as the carrier of a new order, a new government, and a more just society. The intention ascribed to Foucault of complacency towards the Islamic regime makes no sense; still, one may wonder about his indifference towards the form of regime the revolution would give birth to.

The first problematical point here is the notion of "unanimous society," of collective will. Foucault rejects any Marxist explanation for the revolution. He notes that all social classes were involved in the revolt and that no one was advancing economic or social demands. He mentions the regime’s well-paid privileged few (Iran Air personnel, oil workers) whose demands were satisfied after the slightest strike, who nonetheless demanded the departure of the Shah before anything else. And when Claire Brière (an ex-Maoist journalist then covering Iran) launched him on a comparison with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he ruled it out by pointing out that in China, it was a real civil war, while in Iran, it was a matter of a "strike against politics" conducted by a whole people. Social classes existed, but were not relevant. They all wanted the Shah to leave. The revolution was purely political, but against politics itself.

So Foucault counters all sociological explanations for the Iranian Revolution, in this case, the famous alliance of the Mostazafin (the socially excluded), the bazaaris, progressive intellectuals and the clergy, provisionally united against an accelerated modernization that had thrown the Mostazafin into the cities, increased the number of bazaaris without offering them any future, and marginalized the progressive intellectuals and the clergy. That thesis, which one finds, for example, in the work of Saïd Arjomand or Gilles Kepel, doesn’t work. [3] First of all, and Foucault is right about this; there was real unanimity in the revolt: everyone wanted the Shah to leave. [4] Moreover, those categories (Mostazafin, bazaari, clergy, intellectuals) are poorly defined in sociological terms and politically divided (the clergy were far from unanimous behind Khomeini to establish an Islamic state). A more in-depth study, for example, shows that the Mostazafin played hardly any role in the revolution. [5] There is a real limit to political sociology for explaining revolutionary phenomena; political philosophy reclaims its place.

Unanimity, so be it, but Foucault isn’t fooled by that unanimity: it exists in rejection only and not in the aspiration for another society. There was a unanimous will (in a highly diversified and very heterogeneous country) on one - negative - point: the Shah had to go, which Khomeini repeated by rejecting any political compromise from his exile in Neauphle-le-Château. Beyond that, a chasm divided the religious who were in a millenarian expectation of an Islamic society that would bring justice and happiness and the others who believed that the revolution’s religious dimension was only for a time, was even a tactic, and that politics would reclaim its place as soon as the Shah was gone (these included secular liberals who wanted elections, as well as all the Marxists who thought there would be a second revolutionary stage after the Shah’s departure). Foucault was not unaware of those debates: moreover, he despised the mullahs and denounced the new regime’s exactions early on, but, in fact, the revolution’s tomorrows barely interested him ("I don’t know how to write the history of the future," p. 714). When he criticized the regime’s aberrations later, he didn’t feel he was contradicting himself because he had never written that an Islamic Republic was inevitable or desirable.

And that’s where the second problematic point arises. What is the point of a revolution if it doesn’t give birth to a new society, whether that be a Utopia or a nightmare? It was solely the "enigma of the uprising&" (p. 792), and it alone, that was the focus of Foucault’s interest.

The "movement" (that’s the term he uses) interested Foucault not because it would carry the future, but because it negated politics, because it deconstructed, ignored, rejected, undermined, invalidated, delegitimized government and power. The movement of revolt deprived the government of the discourse it maintained about itself, in which it boasted of representing the collective will: the movement properly depicted itself as the collective will. Even more, the revolution also broke the relays of power, the micro-powers, the chain that allows the government to irrigate society and impose itself other than by brute force. The revolt bared the government as raw power. That’s why it was a "strike against politics." Foucault’s problem was not such an ideology or such a political system, but power in itself. "In the expression ’Islamic government,’ why immediately throw suspicion on the adjective ’Islamic?’ The word ’government’ suffices all by itself to arouse vigilance." (p. 781).

The government is the fruit of a history; the uprising is timeless; it is the rupture in the chain of causalities and determinations; consequently, it is the product neither of a history nor of a class strategy. But in this sense, it can be phenomenon only. Foucault rehabilitates the event, the phenomenon, as freedom, a rupture with determinisms, a rupture with history. Incidentally, that may be a possible reason for his choice of the reportorial register, based on the primacy of the event, the phenomenon, usually so decried by intellectuals.

It’s because the uprising is timeless, contentless, and "negative" that it expresses freedom (in the Sartrian sense of freedom). Freedom with respect to the government, the powers-that-be, but also with respect to oneself, one’s being in the world, one’s class and one’s history. A subjective and individual freedom that can only be in the moment, since politics will necessarily make its comeback, as we shall see. The people that rises up is like the criminal or the madman: it doesn’t play the game; it reflects back to power the nakedness of its force alone. Here we rediscover subjects that fascinated Foucault, the madman and the criminal (p. 793), who are not harbingers of a new order (unlike the working class for Marxists), but who speak truth to power, or rather, who force power to expose itself as power.

The Religious: Transcendence or the Return of Politics?

That’s why such a revolt may only be religious: more in form than in content. The content is dogma, as it was converted into a political ideology by the Islamists. But the form is rite. The ritual of the demonstration struck Foucault forcibly, as it did all those who covered the revolution: martyrdom, mourning, the repetition of mourning following the paradigm of Hussein’s passion. Ritual is theater; the people direct themselves, remove themselves from sociological determinations. The people make themselves an actor, in the two meanings of the term, theatrical and political. The uprising does not take place in history’s temporality, but in that of ritual, consequently, of repetition; ritual reflects a transcendence that the government cannot cut or reduce, but which puts the government back in its place, that is, highlights its limits, its finitude. The uprising liberates because it is possible at any moment. The uprising restores freedom to people, but also their tragic dimension, death and finitude, since there are neither better tomorrows nor future generations redeemed by the revolutionary gesture. Foucault goes so far as to say there will be no real revolution except on the condition that we "radically change our experience": "It is necessary that our way of being, our relationship to others, to things, to eternity, to God, etc., be completely changed" (p. 749), as though individual (not necessarily religious) conversion were the key to change in the world order. Fundamentally, there is no revolution but religious revolution, but not in the sense accepted up to now, that is, every revolution is religious because it is millennialist, because it wants to realize paradise on earth. In short, for Foucault, the Iranian revolution is no more an avatar of Marxism than the latter is an avatar of religious millennialism.

The religious dimension also characterizes the charismatic leader. From his exile, Khomeini repeated an incantatory formula: "Chah bayad raft" [the Shah must go]. It is he, Khomeini, that is the movement’s "cohesion point." The uniqueness comes from a "lieu," from a virtual point, from a pole that works because it is empty. One brings him love; he is sacred. For Foucault, Khomeini’s connection with the people may be explained by three things: "Khomeini is not there (...) ; Khomeini says nothing (...) ; Khomeini is not a politician" (p. 716). Here one is reminded of Pierre Clastres’ analyses in "Society Against the State": the leader is the virtual point where the image a primitive society has of itself focuses in the negation of political power. It’s altogether a society against the state that Foucault describes. Of course, here Foucault is evoking the Khomeini myth, the function he played, but certainly not the personality he actually was. Khomeini’s silence was political: he sought to delegitimize not only the Shah, but all other alternatives to the Islamic state, which was certainly his objective. But it’s not Khomeini’s program that interested Foucault, because, as far as Foucault was concerned, that program didn’t interest anyone. On the contrary, it was the absence of program that allowed unanimity. It was necessary that people think there was no program.

"There will be no Khomeini Party; there will be no Khomeini government" (p. 716). Here’s the rub. Of course there was no Khomeini party stricto sensu, and the Party of the Islamic Revolution, which, by the way, was quickly dissolved, was never the equivalent of a Communist Party. But Khomeini certainly was a political leader whose power was based on networks and groups the rivalries of which the Imam specifically exploited. He certainly had an idea of what an Islamic state should be. He certainly had an Islamist ideology. There were certainly power networks, micro-powers already in place within Iranian society and within the revolutionary movement itself.

Foucault did not see it, first of all because he didn’t have time to immerse himself in Khomeini’s writings, then because the denial of any Islamist plan was broadly shared among Iranian actors, except for the Imam’s intimates and networks. The misunderstanding was based on that denial: the debate over the Islamic state would certainly have divided the movement and it was necessary to make it disappear. But Khomeini was, in fact, a politician, as Foucault noted himself when he remarked that Khomeini’s proposal to hold a referendum on the "Islamic government" put the opposition parties in an impossible position: get out of the game or endorse the Imam’s (p. 703). In fact, what Foucault did not see is that Islamism, that is, a rereading of the religious in terms of a political ideology, reinserted the Iranian revolution in a broader revolutionary tradition and one that is, in fact, millennialist. [6]

The mistake here is not one of naïveté: Foucault knew perfectly well that the revolution was but a moment and that politics would make a comeback, not as the realization (or betrayal) of the revolution’s promises (which is the same thing, since one was in the same space-time dimension), but as the negation of the act of revolt, the peculiarity of which is not to create a new government or power, but to utterly expose all power. This act of revolt pertains to another space-time dimension than that of power.

But if the revolution is "a strike against politics" (p. 703), one must obviously know how to end a strike. Consequently, the key question is "when and how will the will of everyone yield to politics; the question is to know whether it wants to and whether it must" (p. 704). But does this truly pertain to the order of will and requirement? The return to politics, that is, to the game of power, is inescapable, at least in the absence of this mysterious change in our relationship to ourselves, to others and to God, that Foucault mentions.

Glorious or Inglorious Tomorrows

One cannot escape the question "and afterwards?" in every sense of the term. We have seen Foucault had no interest in the political program and did not feel himself to have been refuted by the first fruits of a new dictatorship, since for Foucault the revolt is not responsible for the new post-revolutionary order. "There will come a moment when this phenomenon that we try to apprehend and that has so fascinated us - the revolutionary experience itself - will be extinguished. (...) There will be processes of another level, of another reality, in a way" (p. 750); in short, that no longer interests Michel Foucault. Once again, that is neither naïveté, nor complacency (he was to be one of the first to take up his pen to denounce the regime’s aberrations), simply, it’s all about the return of politics and the establishment of new forms of power. If the objective of the revolution is the eradication of politics, then all revolution is a failure.

The meaning of the revolt is not the realization of a Utopia, but the striking down of illusion and the illusions of power. It is insofar as it demystifies power that the revolt makes sense, since it then allows an understanding of the mechanisms of power, but also its profound vacuity. The uprising is the void at the center of power; it’s the finitude of power, always forced to renew itself, reinvent itself, and find intermediaries. The revolt is what allows people not to be duped, in the absence of an impossible institutionalization of freedom. It desacralizes power, all the more so when it claims its own share in the sacred.

That’s what explains the paradox that Foucault notes. In Iran, the uprising was uniquely political, since it obeyed no socioeconomic determination. But it was not embodied in a political party either. The opposition political parties (Tudeh, National Front) were overtaken. The incarnation of the revolt in a political form would be the end of the revolt. The essence of society is political; parties usurp the political field, but the genius of the Iranian revolution was to reject that illusion of alternation and political representation. Now the return of the political is inescapable and occurs from the very movement of revolt’s internal power networks: there is no pure revolt. But the inheritance of the uprising was undoubtedly to make power and the government more fragile and people more clear-sighted. "The spirituality to which those who were about to die referred is incommensurate with the bloody government of a fundamentalist clergy" (p. 793). That undoubtedly explains both the despair of the Iranian martyrs in the war against Iraq - who knew that the regime was no longer equal to their ideals and died of it, [7] and the movement of reformers, composed of former radical actors of the Islamic revolution. Figures such as Ayatollah Montazeri, the Guide’s dauphin, who publicly protested against the executions of prisoners and found himself under house arrest, an untouchable pariah, in the holy city of Qom (from whence he speaks and runs a seminary) are only possible in the framework of a religious revolution. In this sense indeed, the role that religion played in the uprising made the closing of the political field difficult, for despotism has trouble conjuring away the void that the sacred established at the center of power. And that was something Foucault had sensed.


Most notably, Olivier Roy has published "L’Islam Mondialisé" ["Globalized Islam"], Le Seuil 2002; "Iran: Comment sortir d’une révolution religieuse" [Iran: How to Emerge From a Religious Revolution"] (with Farhad Khosrokhavar), Le Seuil 1999.


[1See, for example, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, "Cendrillon au pays des mille et un jours"["Cinderella in the Country of the Thousand and One Nights"], Le Point, 5 décembre 2003: "Obviously, there’s a great deal to be said about the Shah’s regime, but I would not be so cruel as to recall the stupid things written at the time by Michel Foucault and some of our best intellectuals on the Khomeini revolution, statements that, through their circumlocutions, seemed to give support to the Pontii Pilates of the moment whose names we will not mention out of compassion."

[2Michel Foucault’s texts on Iran have been brought together in Dits et écrits, II, 1976-1988, Gallimard "Quarto," the pagination of which serves as the reference here.

[3Saïd Arjomand, "The Turban for the Crown," Oxford University Press, 1989; Gilles Kepel, "Jihad, Expansion et déclin de l’islamisme," Gallimard 2001.

[4I was in Iran for the summers of 1978 and 1979; the first time simply en route back from Afghanistan, the second time for a one-month visit from the Pakistani border in Kurdistan by way of Tehran. Speaking Persian, traveling by bus, staying at small hotels, I was able to measure both the massive rejection of the monarchy and all the ambivalences and expectations towards the revolution, fed by the calculated silence of the Imam in exile.

[5Asef Bayat, "Street Politics," Columbia University Press, 1997.

[6Olivier Roy, "L’échec de l’Islam politique," Le Seuil, 1991.

[7Farhad Khosrokhavar, "L’islamisme et la mort: Le martyre révolutionnaire en Iran," L’Harmattan, 1995.