Étienne Balibar on the Trace of Althusser in Foucault’s Penal Theories and Institutions (1971-1972)

By Étienne Balibar

Translated by Raphaëlle Jean Burns

By way of preparation for the second seminar, I would like to make a few remarks on the trace of Althusser in these lectures, Penal Theories and Institutions (1971-1972). Naturally, I cannot claim that I am absolutely objective, nor that my memory is utterly reliable, but I hope that you will read what I write with benevolence and discernment.

Of course, it is somewhat unfortunate that these published lectures, like the first series, are entirely made up of preparatory notes. But while these notes contain only dry “theses” and supporting documents, I am convinced that Foucault went into much more detail orally; it is clear from his other lectures that he relied a great deal on oral elaboration.

Nonetheless, I will say—although I recognize that it is a somewhat impressionistic hypothesis—that upon reading Foucault’s lectures on “Society Must Be Defended,” The Punitive Society, and now these, Penal Theories and Institutions in the order of their publication, that is, in reverse chronological order (1997, 2013, and 2015), I get the sense that Foucault proceeded in three stages to a great settling of scores with Marxism. Needless to say, this reckoning was predicated upon contemporaneous debates, and was in a sense arbitrated by the youths of my own generation—Maoists he rubbed shoulders with particularly within the GIP, and others as well. In the first stage (1971-1972), Foucault gives us a critique of the “Marxist” theory of the state (or what was discussed under this name). And it is no accident that his critique focuses on the question of the absolute (French) monarchy’s invention of the modern “class” state, for this thesis was a point of honor for both historical and philosophical Marxism (including for Althusser to whom I will return). In the second stage (1972-1973), Foucault offers an alternative theory of the “reproduction” of the conditions of capitalism, and in particular of the proletariat. This is the most impressive stage for any Marxist (or post-Marxist like me). It is also in some respects a rectification of his previous dismissal (1971-1972) of the idea of reproduction: he now puts the idea to another use. The third stage takes place much later, in 1975-1976, after a completely different series of enquiries into psychiatric power and the abnormal which I believe profoundly modify his methodology. In this third stage, Foucault delivers a devastating refutation of the very idea of the “primacy of the class struggle.” He does so by way of a brilliant, although in my view contestable, genealogy of the notion of class struggle that begins with the “counter-history” of the war of races and arrives at another conception of the political, one that competes with Marxism (and moves closer to a Schmittian view, although that is another matter). We are faced with the same disqualification of Marxism that Foucault had laid out in The Order of Things in 1966, but this time on a politico-historical rather than an epistemological ground.

Throughout this critique, and particularly in the first two stages (the lectures of 1971-1972 and those of 1972-1973), Foucault’s confrontation with Marxism constantly redoubles as a confrontation with Althusser. This is as apparent in Foucault’s choice of themes and sources as it is in his direct references to Althusser. While it is a delicate point, I believe it is a crucial and multifaceted one. On the one hand, Foucault pretty much systematically attributes to Althusser the theory of ideology that Althusser had precisely sought to rectify and replace within Marxism. This is the greatest point of friction and incompatibility between them. Tensions were no doubt exacerbated by discussions with disciples, a group to which I belonged in the preceding period, up until the foundation of Vincennes, or with former disciples, like most of the Maoists (although the question of intellectual hegemony was not completely resolved in 1971-1972). It must be said that by then Althusser had already published several texts that diverged significantly from the idea of an “epistemological break” by politicizing the relationship of ideology to history. But it must also be said that these texts were fragmentary and contradictory, and that Foucault takes advantage of this to systematically choose the most scientistic interpretation and then attribute it to Althusser. On the other hand, and this is what I find the most interesting today, Foucault focuses on the question of the constitution of the “repressive apparatus of the state”—an utterly Marxist and dare I say Althusserian expression—already in order to propose an alternative to Althusser. Whereas the latter had stated in his article on ideological state apparatuses that the repressive state apparatus is a simple and well-known thing and that one should focus on the “missing piece” of the puzzle, namely the ideological apparatus, Foucault shows that the “repressive” apparatus is a complex thing, that it has a differential structure and is the site of internal and external struggles. Foucault’s arguments resonate with those of Poulantzas,[1] whom he had surely read and who disagreed precisely with Althusser’s rigid Leninism on this point. Foucault called for a detailed historical genealogy of the repressive apparatus—a genealogy that could also serve to interpret contemporary phenomena, insofar as “repression” was, as the editors rightly point out in the Situation, of the order of the day. Of course, as they have also noted, this is the approach that Foucault would later abandon, along with “leftism,” when he begins to criticize the “repressive hypothesis,” and flesh out the idea that power is not “repressive” but “productive.”

In the midst of all of this, it is Foucault’s use of Porchnev that strikes me as very important. The great “debate” of the time on the origins of the bourgeois state in the form of the absolute monarchy was taking place between the Marxists and Mousnier. The Marxists were using Porchnev, although with some reservations since he wasn’t entirely orthodox and was, above all, competing with French historians (even Marxist ones) on their home-ground. In contrast, Althusser admired Porchnev immensely and claimed him as a source of inspiration, particularly in his short book on Montesquieu.[2] Only the introductory part of Porchnev’s book had been translated into French at the time, but a full German translation existed that Althusser consulted at the library of the École Normale Supérieure. He may even have been the one to request the acquisition. This edition was Althusser’s great reference, and Foucault must have known this. Foucault, for his part, used SEVPEN’s French translation of the book that had been produced under the supervision of Mousnier himself. In this way, Foucault took the same source as Althusser and “turned” it in part against the latter…

A few more quick comments. First, the reference to Bourdieu and Passeron’s La Reproduction is important in the notes of the eleventh lesson.[3] In fact, the ideological relationship is triangular: Foucault, Althusser and the Althusserians, Bourdieu and Passeron. The dates should be double checked, but Baudelot and Establet’s L’école capitaliste en France appeared in 1972.[4] I do not know to what extent Foucault knew that it was a partial product (after the split among us…) of a broader Marxist theoretical project about the school as “ideological apparatus” that I had been working on with Macherey, Tort, Baudelot and Establet since 1969, but that was never completed. I think he must have known about this; it may even have been Tort or me who told him about it.

And then, in the thirteenth lecture on the “sur-savoir” and its “extraction”—a question that returns later—Foucault, interestingly, emulates not only the Marxists (among whom the Althusserians, but not specifically: Lefebvre and his collaborators propose the concept of “survaleur” only later, in the early 1980s), but also Lacan (here again there are “disciples” to be vied for…) who had introduced the concept of “plus-de-jouir” along Marxist lines in his 1968-1969 seminar “D’un Autre à l’autre.” Foucault takes this a step further…

Also, in this thirteenth lecture, on the triangular relationship between Althusser, Foucault and Canguilhem, we are faced with truly delicate questions. Canguilhem would surely not have been tender with Foucault’s propositions, in their outright “leftism” (I do not think that this was his last word on the subject however…). Finally, it is worth citing Foucault’s great text on Cuvier composed for the “Journées Cuvier” organized by Canguilhem at the Institut d’Histoire des Sciences in 1969.[5] There, in contrast, Foucault is in full epistemological mode: he really develops the notion of a “threshold of scientificity” though not so much that of an “epistemological break.”

I hope that these preliminary thoughts and impressions will help lay the foundation for a rich discussion at our seminar.



[1] N. Poulantzas, “À propos de la théorie marxiste du droit”, Archives de Philosophie du Droit, 1967, p. 145-147; Id., Pouvoir politique et classe sociale, Paris, Maspero, 1968.

[2] L. Althusser, Montesquieu, la politique et l’histoire, Paris, PUF, 1956.

[3] P. Bourdieu & J.-C. Passeron, La Reproduction. Éléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement, Paris, Minuit, 1970.

[4] C. Baudelot & R. Establet, L’École capitaliste en France, Paris, Maspero, 1972.

[5] M. Foucault, “La situation de Cuvier dans l’histoire de la biologie” (Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leur application, t. XXIII, no. 1, janvier-mars, 1971, p. 63-92). Dits et Écrits, II, no. 77, ed. 1994, p. 30-66/ “Quarto” vol. 1, p. 898-934.