Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi | Foucault and the Islamic Revolution

By Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi


The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security;

it’s the loss of the capacity to imagine that things could be different.

Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope


Revolutionary moments, like a thunderbolt from the blue, tear open the world of possibilities–possibilities that are articulated, albeit in ambiguous terms, in public imaginations of the good life. Revolutionary moments, from the time of the French revolution to the recent Arab uprisings, have also been stifled by institutional restrictions and the demands of the postrevolutionary Realpolitik. Such demands often compel revolutionary subjects to abandon their essential desire for possible realities and instead become content, as Robert Musil lamented in The Man Without Qualities, with a pragmatic sensibility of real possibilities. Where do we stand today? Are we losing the ability to imagine that another world is possible? Are we losing the ability to imagine what that other world might look like? Are we witnessing today the realization of what Rousseau feared in the mid-eighteenth century about the emergence of a particular form of authority that penetrates mankind’s innermost thoughts and desires?

Much has been said about the paradoxical core of the Enlightenment: its substantive emancipatory outlook and its instrumental oppressive practice. Enlightenment thought advocated a secular eschatology that promoted the pursuit of worldly happiness against the Christian submission to Divine providence. Yet, from its inception, revolutionary politics has repeatedly generated a perversion of its utopian core and has increasingly become associated with terror and totalitarianism, rather than with hope and emancipation. Such a perversion turned the end of history from a highbrow philosophical assertion into an everyday reality that colonized the very essence of public imagination. The ability to transcend present and to think of the world anew appeared to be a story the end of which we already knew, so we told ourselves, as the first act was unfolding. Despite restoring faith in the possibility of change, every revolution that once stood at the threshold of a novelty, failed to realize the kind of imaginations and desires that had given rise to them. In every instance, the Realpolitik of existing possibilities colonized the imaginative spirit through which the demands for change were articulated.

Revolutions express a public desire to make history, rather than reproducing it along the same prescribed futures. Revolutions open moments of possibilities to enact historical transformations without predetermined goals. But since the dawn of the age of revolutions, they have always been understood as “that transitional phase” that bridges one stage of history to another. Even Marx, the theorist of revolution, and his successors believed that revolution was a moment of transition, thus limiting the significance of politics to the realization of a predestined future. The evolutionary core of this radical ideology rendered public imagination as mere utopianism, thus confining politics in the prison house of a particular historical telos.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 puzzled western pundits and intellectuals who understood revolutionary movements only with reference to the European experiences. They were confounded by the religious character of a historical movement that was hitherto understood as the most secular expression of social change. European political philosophers, who understood revolutions to be, à la Hannah Arendt, the ultimate manifestation of the incessant expansion of the secular realm, saw in Iran only a counter-revolution, a momentary pause in the otherwise progressive March of History.

Iranians were dreaming, as Michel Foucault wrote in an essay during his visit to Iran in 1978. It was true, he observed, that there were economic difficulties, political repression, and corrupt administrations. It was also true that they knew that they needed to change the whole country, its economic order, and political system. But, above all, they told themselves that we have to change ourselves. “Our way of being, our relationship with others, with things, with eternity, with God, etc., must be changed, and there will only be a true revolution if this radical change in our experience takes place” (Foucault, Iran the Spirit of the Spiritless World, 1978). Foucault’s Parisian friends and foes found his enthusiasm for the revolution in its religious expression hilarious. They ridiculed the transformative power of a political spirituality that Foucault identified in the Iranian uprising.

In Iran, the revolution spread as a phenomenon of history and, at the same time, as a phenomenon that defied it. With all the ambiguities associated with their political discourse and religious expressions, Iranians intended to think of their future anew and refused to turn themselves into subjects of the discursive authority of a world that is perpetuated in tired conceptions of “History.” The Iranian revolution unfolded without closing the window of possibilities, without subjecting the revolutionary movement to the logic of historical inevitabilities.

Foucault visited Iran twice during the revolutionary movement in 1978. His first visit happened only a few days after a massacre that occurred on the heels of the declaration of martial law in Tehran. In his first dispatch he wrote that: “I said to myself that I was going to find a terrorized city […] Now I can’t say that I found happy people, but there was an absence of fear and an intensity of courage.” Commenting on the unprecedented presence of the masses on the streets—men, women, young, old, children, and the disabled, “the uprising of the whole population”—Foucault writes that in Tehran and throughout Iran he witnessed a concrete manifestation of an old abstract concept, a myth in French political philosophy: “The collective will of a people.”

In his On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin, reminded his Marxist friends that fine and spiritual things “are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which fall to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach back into the mists of time […] To this most inconspicuous of all transformations the historical materialist must pay heed.” Similar to Benjamin, Foucault understood the inexplicability of the man in revolt, courage, the absence of fear, and the ambiguity with which the revolution unfolded in Iran as a critique of teleological history. He saw Iranians engaged in a seemingly paradoxical act of rising up to be included in history in order to exit it. He reads the Islamic revolution as a moment when historical subjects refuse to subject themselves to any form of inner logics of History.

Foucault considered that refusal to be a moment of spirituality. He saw spirituality as a desire to liberate the body from the prison house of the soul. In this typically Foucauldian inversion, he intended to highlight the ways the body seceded from the normative docility of the technologies of the self. This was not new territory for Foucault. As Jeremy Carrette has argued, he grappled with the concept of spirituality years before he encountered the Iranian revolution. By giving spirituality a corporeal meaning, he directly links it to the care of the self in his later writings and lectures.

In the Iranian revolution, Foucault observed a “displacement (and a rescue at the same time) of the tradition of modernity.” He predicted that his enthusiasm would scandalize the French whose commitment to laïcité was fundamental to their intellectual expression. Even his friends ridiculed him. One of them, Claude Mauriac, who had been influenced by Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in the early 1970s to retreat from his earlier Gaullist politics, recalled a private conversation on November 23, 1978, in which he had expressed reservations to Foucault about his support of a political spirituality. He recounted their conversation in his memoirs:

Mauriac: I read your paper in Nouvel Observateur, but not without surprise, I must say.

Foucault: And you laughed? You are among those that I could already hear laughing.

Mauriac: No … I only said to myself that as to spirituality and politics, we have see what that gave us.

Foucault: And politics without spirituality, my dear Claude.

Foucault saw the experience of the revolution and the way it was lived as distinct from its outcome, the establishment of the Islamic Republic. He reminded his detractors who accused him of supporting the Islamic government, that he did not need to “cast immediate suspicion on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ suffices, in itself, to awaken vigilance. No adjective—whether democratic, socialist, liberal, or people’s—frees it from its obligations.” In perhaps one of the most moving passages about the Iranian revolution, in response to a chorus of critics who demanded an apology from the chastised philosopher for defending a revolution whose objective was the establishment of an Islamic government, Foucault wrote:

“Uprisings belong to history, but in a certain way, they escape it. The movement through which a lone man, a group, a minority, or an entire people say, ‘I will no longer obey,’ and are willing to risk their lives in the face of a power that they believe to be unjust, seems to me to be irreducible. This is because no power is capable of making it absolutely impossible. Warsaw will always have its ghetto in revolt and its sewers populated with insurgents. The man in revolt is ultimately inexplicable. There must be an uprooting that interrupts the unfolding of history, and its long series of reasons why, for a man ‘really’ to prefer the risk of death over the certainty of having to obey […] If societies persist and survive, that is to say, if power in these societies is not ‘absolutely absolute,’[1] it is because behind all the consent and the coercion, beyond the threats, the violence, and the persuasion, there is the possibility of this moment where life cannot be exchanged, where power becomes powerless, and where, in front of the gallows and the machine guns, men rise up!”



[1] Foucault is borrowing the concept of “absolutely absolute” from Amir Parviz Pouyan, one of the leaders of a communist urban guerilla group called the Fada’iyane Khalq (The Devotes of People), which was established in 1970. Pouyan advanced a theory that came to be known as the thesis of “two absolutes”: “the absolute domination of the regime, which finds its reflection in the minds of the workers as their absolute inability to change the established order.” In his 1969 manifesto on the necessity of armed struggle, On the Refutation of the Theory of Survival, Pouyan identified the two chief causes that prevented the working class from rising against their oppression. ‘[Workers] presume,’ he wrote, ‘the power of their enemy to be absolute and their own inability to emancipate themselves [to be] absolute.’ And then he asked, ‘How can one think of emancipation while confronting absolute power with absolute weakness?’ (p. 4).