Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Foucault and Soviet Studies

What can Michele Foucault do for students of Soviet history? I’d say that you’d begin with an analysis of the links between Enlightenment thinking and Soviet ideology. The Enlightenment is clearly responsible for Marx’s optimism about human nature. Man is a blank slate, formed almost entirely by the social forces that surround him. (See the earlier post on Soviet conceptions of time to see how the Enlightenment got coupled with Soviet experimentalism to create the conditions in which human catastrophe were much more likely).

It’s only Soviet arrogance that took the Enlightenment assumption to ridiculous and destructive new extremes, assuming that political pressures could and should supersede all other potential social influences. Foucault’s central concept of the panopticon—invented by Jeremy Bentham as a method of policing prisoners by an intrusive, but labor-saving system of surveillance—is the best metaphor of the underside of Enlightenment thinking.

Jeremy Bentham

As Europe became more rational and scientific, it also became correspondingly more intrusive and regulatory. This was true of all European states throughout the 19th century, but Soviet Russia took the principle of the panopticon to unprecedented levels. Under Lenin and especially Stalin, private life became suspect, a threat to the primacy of the state and party. Anything that threatened to intrude in, or compete for, the hearts and minds of ordinary Soviet citizens was immoral.

The other obvious offering that Foucault to Soviet Studies is the way in which the Communist Superpower became the Western world’s alter ego, or, to use Foucault’s terminology, the Western world’s Other. It seems as if the human mind is constructed in such a way that it cannot embrace dichotomy. We define sanity by contrasting it with a definition of madness, we define freedom by contrasting with a definition of slavery, and we defined freedom by contrasting it with slavery. In this way, Western liberal democracies with capitalist economies created a sense of self by opposing their own identity with that of the Eastern neighbor.

In truth, the Soviet power was objectively antithetical to that which the West espoused. However, where this wasn’t the case, where the Soviet Union represented something more subtle than an alien enemy, the Soviet Union was demonized and characterized as the opposite of everything Western citizens valued. What damage this way of thinking did to democratic socialism in the West is difficult to say. But clearly, Right Wing politicians have used the Soviet bugbear to justify military budgets, foreign wars, and a variety of domestic policies that might otherwise have appeared to be too capitalistic to the Europeans and Americans.

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