back to

The intellectual genealogy connecting Marx and Foucault


At the Verso blog, Razmig Keucheyan—author of The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today, a superb history of critical theory—discusses the intellectual genealogy connecting Marx and Foucault. Perhaps the two most influential critical theorists in the twentieth century, Marx and Foucault are nonetheless thought of as politically and methodologically divergent, with Marx concerned with class and state, and Foucault concerned with micropower. But Keucheyan shows how some of Marx’s concerns were later taken up by Foucault, via two intermediary thinkers: Antonio Gramsci and Nicos Poulantzas. Here’s an excerpt:

Here is another way of conceiving the link between Marx and Foucault … What took place between Marx and Foucault was the various Marxisms: and it is far from clear that we can indeed reflect on the link between the two authors if we jump past the “century of Marxisms.” We could, however, continue further with the analyses that this book has embarked upon, reflecting on the links between Marx, Foucault, Gramsci and Poulantzas. Why these two, as well?

In the 1920s and 1930s Gramsci anticipated a series of Foucauldian problematics, including everything that concerns the “non-state” element of power, or “micro-powers.” But he anticipated them from within Marxism, within the context of a reflection bearing on the evolutions of capitalism and the inability of the dominant Marxisms of his time to apprehend them. A reading of his twenty-second Prison Notebook, entitled “Americanism and Fordism,” is instructive in this respect. The concepts of “hegemony,” “integral state,” and “civil society” refer both to the strengthening of the modern state in the context of the crisis of the 1920s and 1930s, and the constitution of what Gramsci calls “private hegemonic apparatuses,” external to the state as strictly conceived. Among others, Bob Jessop has brought out the closeness between Gramsci and Foucault’s approaches in this regard …

Poulantzas, for his part, was the first Marxist to take Foucault seriously. In his State, Power, Socialism there is a whole book within a book, namely his discussion of Foucault’s theses. Poulantzas criticises some of these on the basis of Marxism, but also criticises certain Marxist ideas basing himself on Foucault. Poulantzas clearly himself adopts the idea of the “productivity of power” — the idea that power is not only coercive or repressive, but produces the social and individuals …

So the reference to Gramsci and Poulantzas is politically operative in today’s Europe. In the countries where neoliberal hegemony is being contested at the level of whole states, those leading the revolt principally claim the tradition of Gramsci and Poulantzas. We have to interrogate the reasons for this. It is partly explained by the fact that Gramsci and Poulantzas were theorists of the state, its capture and its radical transformation, and not simply of “resistance” to power. Whatever the case may be, as with Chakrabarty and the Anthropocene, conceiving of the Marx-Foucault relation starting from Gramsci and Poulantzas allows us to ensure that the interpretation of their ideas will be securely plugged into the political conjuncture of our moment.

Image of Foucault via