Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on Foucault on Iran: On Revolution and Revolt

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

Foucault was not fond of the concept of Revolution, Daniel Defert reminded us in his opening presentation at the Uprising 6/13 seminar on Revolt: Foucault on Iran. Nor did Foucault identify a Revolution in the streets of Teheran in the Fall of 1978 during his two visits to Iran. Instead, Foucault described an “uprising”—an important distinction underscored at the seminar by Judith Revel and Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi as well.

At the time, as Daniel Defert suggested and John Rajchman discussed, Foucault had already transitioned—at the philosophical level—from the paradigm of civil war as the matrix to understand relations of power (which he began to develop and refined from his lectures at the Collège de France in 1972 and ‘73, through Discipline and Punish in 1975, to his lectures in 1976 on “Society Must Be Defended” and the first volume of his History of Sexuality) to a model of pastoral power as a form of governmentality, and to religious or spiritual resistance as a type of counter-conduct. On the idea of counter-conduct, Foucault found telling traces in the English dissidents—in the Puritans and the Quakers, whom he had studied extensively in his 1973 lectures on The Punitive Society (curiously minimized in Discipline and Punish), but who would become increasingly important as he analyzed pastoral power in his genealogy of the state and forms of governing others.

What so fascinated Foucault in Iran—and inspired him—was precisely the Islamic collective uprising: a religiously-inspired mass mobilization that took the form of spiritual dissidence from the secular authoritarianism of the Shah’s regime. In this sense, Foucault identified a particular modality of uprising that we might call “revolt,” or perhaps “dissidence,” or what Foucault himself referred to as an Islamic movement or, more simply, as “political spirituality.”

I would like to suggest in this epilogue, though, that Foucault had an even more nuanced or tense—and in this sense paradoxical—relationship to Revolution and uprising. The tension and critical interstices between the revolutionary uprising and the Revolution itself is actually the key to understanding Foucault’s critical theory of revolt, and it helps make sense of his larger political views. In essence, Foucault identifies in the moment of uprising the potential for a collectivity to form a collective will and invent new ideas for political governance, and that this is foreclosed the moment the uprising takes on the character of an accomplished Revolution. It is in the moment of revolt that possibilities and ideas open up, only to be closed with the arrival of the social transformation or change symbolized by the Revolution.

Oddly, the Iranian Revolution satisfied all the criteria of Koselleck’s concept of the modern Revolution in the singular: not just a political revolution, which perhaps occurred when the Shah left in exile on January 16, 1979, but a full-fledged social revolution that transformed Iranian society entirely. Foucault seemed to recognize this, referring to the radical change in “ways of being, relationships with others, with things, with eternity, with God, etc.” that marked the true revolution. (L’esprit d’un monde sans esprit, D&E #259) The kind of collective Islamic uprising that Foucault identified and valorized in his writings on Iran was linked to Revolution—historically linked, as I will show—but, and this is the key, its political value was only at its apex during the revolt. It founders as soon as the Revolution has taken place. Let me spell this out.

The tension or paradox arises because Foucault theorized the Iranian uprising in a self-consciously post-revolutionary age, while at the same time folding the Iranian uprising into the historical paradigm that gave birth to the very idea of the modern concept of Revolution. That tension, that paradox, I would argue, is extremely productive. It is what gives birth to new political ideas.

So, on the one hand, Foucault inscribed the Iranian uprising into a historical tradition of religious movements that date back to the twelfth century and that laid the foundation for the modern concept of Revolution. Foucault frames the events in Iran within the theoretical structure of Ernst Bloch’s multi-volume book The Principle of Hope—within Bloch’s thesis that, beginning in the Middle Ages, in the West, there emerged a belief in the possibility of a better world on earth. Foucault, like Bloch, traces this idea to religious origins, but at the same time notes that it is “the point of departure of the very idea of Revolution.” (Sassine interview) Let me emphasize this, because it is important: the religious idea that it might be possible to create a just world in the here and now, as opposed to a heavenly future, is what makes possible the modern idea of Revolution.

Foucault spelled this out clearly in the Iranian context—in fact, he generalized from the Iranian uprising to suggest the importance of spirituality or religion to revolt. Foucault identified, in religious belief, the seeds of uprising; and it is precisely because the spiritual dimension maps so well on revolt that religious belief is, so often, a source of resistance and revolutionary action: “precisely because everyone is playing with life and death, this explains why uprisings have so easily found their expression and their dramaturgy in religious forms. The promises of the hereafter, the renewal of time, awaiting the savior or the kingdom of ends, the reign of the absolute good, all that constituted for centuries, wherever religious form lent itself to such possibilities, not just an ideological cloak, but the very way of living uprisings.” (Inutile de se soulever? D&E3 #269, 791). In other words, for centuries after the Middle Ages—and in Iran in 1978—religious belief was both the source and mode of expression of uprisings, but also the seed of the modern concept of Revolution.

On the other hand, Foucault recognizes well that, among respectable critical thinkers and historians, Revolution has been exposed as a conceptual construct and no longer operates or functions as before. We live today in a post-revolutionary age. The concept of Revolution has effectively been deconstructed—meaning that we are now aware how it organizes our thought and how it affects our understanding of temporality. It is impossible today to speak of Revolution in an innocent way.

Like Reinhart Koselleck in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, and referring implicitly to him, Foucault underscores the normativity of the concept of Revolution: how it shapes our expectations, and defines what are right and wrong practices of revolt; how it privileges some and delegitimizes other forms of resistance; how it shapes our expectations. Like Koselleck, Foucault traces this to the last two centuries—from the French Revolution forward. Foucault writes, in Useless to Revolt?, with a wink and a nod, almost ironically:

Then came the age of “revolution.” For two hundred years this idea overshadowed history, organized our perception of time, and polarized people’s hopes. It constituted a gigantic effort to domesticate revolts within a rational and controllable history: it gave them a legitimacy, separated their good forms from their bad, and defined the laws of their unfolding; it set their prior conditions, objectives, and ways of being carried to completion.

One can almost hear Koselleck in these lines: the modern concept of Revolution redefines the past and future, and establishes the norms for uprisings.

Foucault draws on this shared theoretical understanding to describe the events in Iran—especially after the armed uprising of Islamic and Marxist insurgents in February 1979 following the triumphal return of Khomeini to Teheran. “On February 11, 1979, the Revolution took place in Iran,” Foucault declares, opening his essay titled “A Powder Keg Called Islam,” published on February 13, 1979: “a known figure finally appears,” and that “known figure” is, of course, the Revolution. (D&E3, #261, 759) “Today, we feel that we are in a more familiar world:” a world of barricades and arsenals, of stones shattering windows and mobs breaking doors down. “History has just imprinted the red seal that authenticates the Revolution on the bottom of the page.” (759) Yes, a “Revolution” had finally occurred—or could be identified.

But Foucault does not prize that moment. To the contrary, he writes about it, almost with disdain, adding at the end of that passage from Useless to Revolt?:

By thus repatriating revolt, people have aspired to make its truth manifest and to bring it to its real end. A marvelous and formidable promise. Some will say that the revolt was colonized in Realpolitik. Others that the dimension of a rational history has been opened to it. I prefer the naive and rather feverish question that Max Horkheimer once posed: “But is this revolution really such a desirable thing?”

How could it be that for Foucault, at one and the same time, the political spirituality that he identified in the Iranian uprising could have been modeled on the paradigm of religious movements that gave birth to the concept of Revolution on this earth and that the moment the Revolution appears on stage it is somehow exhausted and belittled? What is that pivot about? What does an uprising provide that its accomplishment in Revolution stultifies?

The answer: a brief moment of political creativity and reconceptualization. At the moment of insurrection there is a mass mobilization that comes together and unites, rather than divides, and invents, rather than imposes. After, there is division and oppression again. But during the moment of uprising, Foucault believed, there is a coming together that is unique—and that has unique potential. And it is that potential that we must explore, keeping distinct the uprising from the Revolution, since as Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi emphasizes, “Foucault saw the experience of the revolution and the way it was lived as distinct from its outcome, the establishment of the Islamic Republic.”

Foucault pointed directly to this moment of collective coming together: “Among the things that characterize this revolutionary event, there is the fact that it makes appear […] an absolutely collective will.” Foucault was amazed and stunned to have experienced and witnessed this general will. “The collective will, that’s a political myth,” Foucault exclaimed, “and personally, I thought that the collective will, it is like God, like the soul, that you never encounter it. Well, I don’t know if you will agree with me, but we encountered, in Teheran and in all of Iran, the collective will of a people.” (The Spirit of a world without spirit, D&E3, #259, 746)

This is the magical moment of a coming together, which in Iran Foucault associated with political spirituality. It is a moment of creativity that generates a collective will. Foucault identified this moment not with the will of the imams or clerics, but with a more diffuse, religiously-inspired spirituality. It was not the will of Khomeini. What Foucault thought he saw and heard, and what he identified, was the general will of a people as a believing people, as a faith-driven people. It is, in fact, one of the few times that Foucault would ever speak in such terms, in terms of “the people”—le peuple.

It’s that moment of popular coming together that Foucault valorized and admired. A short-lived moment. Short-lived, because the minute it is identified, labeled, and institutionalized, it is lost. In sum, it is the critical passage from an uprising to a Revolution that creates the possibility of new ideas and ways of thinking. The minute we have identified the Revolution, we are past the point of greatest potential and have returned to the imposition of an order.

This reminds me of a key passage in an interview in the late seventies when Foucault, asked whether after critique there is “a stage at which we might propose something,” responds: “My position is that it is not up to us to propose. As soon as one ‘proposes’—one proposes a vocabulary, an ideology, which can only have effects of domination. . . . These effects of domination will return and we shall have other ideologies, functioning in the same way. It is simply in the struggle itself and through it that positive conditions emerge.” It is only by open contestation and struggle that, “in the end,” Foucault suggested, “possibilities open up.” The moment the Revolution is declared, we have already begun to impose a new structure of domination and social order. The creative potential has already dissipated.


As Daniele Lorenzini reminded us, Foucault’s overarching project—beyond the specificity of Iran in 1978—was to explore the emergence of new ideas in the context of unfolding political events, in order to identify the novel forms of governing, of power relations, and of resistance that lie ahead. That was the object of the larger project he had, working with the Corriere della sera: to bring together critical thinkers and journalists on current affairs in order to decipher the ideas that are today emerging. “We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force,” Foucault urged. “Not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them.” (Nov. 1978)

For Foucault, new ideas—active, strong, passionate ideas, in his words—were the antidote, or even more, the positive weapon against the forces of repression, of discipline, of moralizing. New emerging ideas are what make possible resistance to the politicians and leaders who tell us how we should behave and what we should want. The ambition of the larger project was precisely to search out and discover, and unpack, the future ways of critical thinking and emancipation. “This is the direction we want these ‘journalistic reports’ to take. An analysis of thought will be linked to an analysis of what is happening. Intellectuals will work together with journalists at the point where ideas and events intersect.” (Nov. 1978)

This was quite a remarkable project—and a pity that Foucault and the team he had preliminarily assembled were not able to pursue.

It is in large part the project that this Uprising 13/13 series continues: to explore the emerging ideas and to analyze recent uprisings in order to unearth and unpack new ways to think and to act out resistance, occupations, disobedience, etc. To find resources for a future future.

What Foucault identified in the Islamic popular movements in Iran in 1978 was a powerful spirituality that brought about a mass mobilization. Mass mobilizations are rare—extremely rare. I would argue that a type of spirituality also infused the Gandhian notion of satyagraha that also produced a mass mobilization.

Where Foucault was right and made no mistake was not to reduce the political spirituality of the Iranian revolutionaries to Khomeini. In other words, not to equate the religious spirituality of all protesters to the beliefs of the doctrinaire imams. That was what, in effect, he was faulted for—to our detriment. The reduction of any form of thought to its most offensive and terrorizing extreme is a rhetorical ploy that functions well, but undermines critical thought.