Why Foucault is worth discussing
Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Fri Aug 30 06:22:01 MDT 1996
Vladimir, the labor movement of today does not look like the labor
movement of the 1930s.
I just came back from a United Auto Workers picket line at Barnard
College where my friend Catherine is one of the strike leaders. The
UAW represents clerical and administrative workers at the college,
most of whom are African-American and female. The college decided
to make union members pay for part of their medical insurance. Their
leaflet says, "Our membership is the lowest paid employee group on
campus and our union health care plan cost far less than the
management plan the College wanted to force on us. Yet Barnard
wants to cut basic health benefits we depend upon for ourselves and
our families! The College is demanding an immediate ten percent cut
in its health care costs and is refusing to pay any more over the life or
our out entire contract. Under these conditions, the plan would not
work. We would be forced to accept benefit cuts or make up the
difference in cost ourselves."
Now Catherine is not African-American. She is a graduate of Barnard
College in fact and has been working there for seven years, because,
like a large number of people her age, there are no better jobs to be
found. In my department down the hall there is a recent Columbia
graduate who works full time in the business office processing
purchase orders and invoices. She has a degree in Literature.
All through the United States, there are thousands of people like
Catherine who have become deeply involved in strikes of university
workers. Out in New Haven, Connecticut there has been fierce labor
resistance to the efforts of Yale administrators to phase out full-time
jobs with contract labor. I was out at a big labor rally there a couple of
months ago and was amazed by the broad support these workers had
won, including a substantial delegation of coal miners from
Now Catherine is somebody who is very steeped in poststructuralism
and post-Marxism. When I first met her four years ago, she talked
about nothing except Derrida. Lately, under the impact of my own
steady prompting and her experiences on the picket-line, she has
begun to study Marxist ideas. Part of the impetus for this has been
Derrida's own call for a return to Marxism. His latest book, while
specious in many respects, is a rejection of the political conservatism
of many postmodernists.
Is Catherine an anomaly? Not at all. The AFL-CIO has embarked on a
Union Summer Organizing drive involving thousands of young people
just like Catherine. Any recent college graduate is likely to have their
heads stuffed full with this "postmodernist" crap. "Postmodernism" is
bourgeois ideology that has been crafted to appear radical. It has been
one of the main ideological obstacles to the advance of Marxism over
the past twenty years.
The Monthly Review, in whose pages you have been published, thought it an
important enough topic to deal with (and defeat) that it devoted a special
issue to it several months ago.
When we discuss "identity" politics in the USA, we are looking at the
political consequences of Foucault's theories. Instead of having people
organize on the basis of class, we find that each group--Gay, feminist,
black, etc.--defends its own special interests. This is an approach
Foucault *fought for* in opposition to the class-based approach of
It is absolutely incumbent upon Marxists to understand these ideas in
order to fight them. This is not just the specialized turf of academics
either. Did you pick up on Zeynep's description of the workers school
in Turkey she works with? The workers don't only discuss the class
struggle, they actually have discussions about postmodernism. I
thought that was terrific.
Workers need to have all of their intellectual and cultural needs
addressed. They are not one-dimensional. Perhaps Jon Flanders can
recount some stories from his workplace that show the broad interests
that rail workers have.
There is evidence by the way that workers from the days of Marx also
had these types of intellectual longings. One of the books I want to
discuss in the seminar/list I have proposed is EP Thompson's study of
the making of the English working-class.
I want to conclude with Eva Broido's description of the Petersburg
workers' clubs of the Russian Social Democracy which is found in her
"Memoirs of a Revolutionary".
"The most important centers of party work were our clubs. In them we
concentrated all of our propaganda activities: our propaganda was
distributed from them, and there workers came to hear lectures on
current affairs. There, too, our members of the Duma came to report
on their work. Virtually all the organizational work was centered on
these clubs--general and special party meetings were held there, party
publications were distributed from there, there were the 'addresses' of
the local district and sub-district branches, there all local news was
collected, from there speakers were sent to factory meetings. And these
were also the places where enlightened workers--men and women--
could meet for friendly exchange of ideas and to read books and
newspapers. All clubs aimed at having good libraries. And eventually
they also encouraged art, there were music and song groups and the
At first clubs were exclusively political, but soon their character
changed. Propaganda meetings gave place to lectures and discussions
of a more general nature, the clubs became 'colleges' of Marxism.
Representatives of all club committees combined to work out
systematic courses of lectures, to provide and distribute the necessary
books and to supply book catalogues. And already in the winter of
1906-7 the programs included physics, mathematics and technology
alongside economics, historical materialism and the history of
socialism and the labor movement..."
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