How Black Panthers reignited French theory

Petra Carlsson 16/06/2020
For Michel Foucault, the meeting with the Black Panthers, born in response to the racist police discrimination and violence in the USA in the 1960s, was a political trigger. Indeed, today’s critical social analysis is indebted to the civil rights movement for several key ideas.

Tradotto da Fausto Giudice
Thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Hélène Cixous and Gilles Deleuze are the embodiment of 20th century French philosophy. Their names also testify to the critical power of thought and are still often cited in the social and human sciences. Power analysis, feminist criticism and critical social analysis today are not rarely indebted to them. However, how French critical philosophy is in turn indebted to the black civil rights movement in the USA is less well known.
Michel Foucault’s thinking changed radically around 1970. Formerly more focused on questions of the development of truth and knowledge throughout history, it became more political after 1970. From now on, Foucault is no longer content to describe history to show, for example, how the vision of mental health has changed over time, or to show how conceptions of knowledge and truth are born in our societies. After 1970, he understands power in a different way. Power is no longer just something held by the oppressor or by those assigned to formal power. Power, he now thinks, is knowledge and it is everywhere, a form of technology and strategy in everything that happens in a society. So the forces that change society can come from below and from above, they can grow from below or from places where people are stockpiled and stripped of power, influence and participation, such as prisons.
What happens in 1970? What causes him to change his understanding of power and knowledge to such an extent that this change is still being discussed today and is also being felt by his colleagues? Many say that a trip to the USA played an important role.
Foucault’s first trip across the Atlantic is already booked when he meets author and activist Jean Genet, a man with whom he will spend a lot of time in the years to come. Genet has just returned from the USA where he spent three months with members of the Black Panthers (BPP). The Black Panther Party was originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and the term self-defense reflects the origin of the movement: the need for self-defence against police violence against the black population.
The BPP was a socialist, Marxist and revolutionary movement with social programs for vulnerable African Americans, formed in 1966 and the most active until 1982. They motivated their activities with the idea that the African-American population in the USA was living in a war situation as an oppressed colony within the country’s borders and the US police were considered its occupying power. This image of reality was in turn based on statistics on the number of African-Americans who were victims of police violence as well as the number of black people imprisoned for dubious reasons. The statistics also justified their main activity: armed civilians patrolling black areas to protect the inhabitants from the police. In addition, free breakfast was offered to children, free clinics, delivery of clothes, free bus trips for children and women for prison visits to fathers and men, and much more.
In 1970, when Foucault made his trip to the United States, the organization was large and branched out with thousands of members and chapters in 68 cities. But the BPP is perceived as a threat by the head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, who creates a program, “Cointelpro”, to undermine its leadership and power. The methods are harsh because the BPP, according to Hoover, “undoubtedly poses the greatest threat to homeland security”. When key members of the movement are imprisoned – including George Jackson, Huey Newton and Angela Davis – prisons will play an increasingly important role in the organization and its ideology and philosophy. In prison, members have time to read and study. George Jackson wrote a letter shortly afterwards in book form, ‘Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson‘, to which Jean Genet wrote the introduction.
From prison, Jackson describes how they now want to see prisons as the place from which social transformation takes place. They want to transform the place that is supposed to marginalize them from society into a greenhouse for thinking, writing and deepening ideology. The prison must be the place where the “decolonization” of the black population begins. “The prisoner class”, he says, is the part of the black population that has been deprived of voice and influence by oppressive police power, but instead of accepting the police narrative of reality, he chooses to see the opposite. For Jackson, the prison class has the power to present another discourse on reality and therefore the power to build another society.
For Foucault, the stay in the United States has an awakening function. It reopens his eyes to the class struggle, to the contrast between wealth and misery, he says in an interview. Once back in France, this awakening will have tangible consequences. In 1971, with others, he created a militant movement, the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP), which wanted to spread information about the reality of French prisons.
All the thinkers I mentioned initially were part of it: Sartre, Cixous, Deleuze, Genet and soon thousands of others. They write brochures and a program, distribute questionnaires to prisoners via their family visitors and publish letters on the reality inside prisons. They translate and broadcast an interview in which George Jackson describes how he wants to give the prisons a key role in the liberation of the black population, and later also the story of his death. Like the BPP, they highlight the statistics: statistics showing that most prisoners in France are young sons of immigrants.
Media interest is great when the French intellectual elite reads its manifesto-type programme, written by Foucault: “These investigations are not made by anyone from outside, those who investigate are those who are investigated. It is up to them to speak up, to tear down the walls, to express what is unacceptable and no longer tolerate it. It is up to them to take responsibility for the struggle that will prevent further oppression.” Inspiration comes from many directions in the contemporary world, but despite the clear influences of the BPP’s rhetoric and ideology, this connection is rarely highlighted.
The GIP’s activities have rightly been criticised by thinkers such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Sophie Fuggle and Cecile Brich, among others, for their naive belief that oppressed people can be freed by being handed paper and pen in prison. The group seems to have ignored the layers of inhibitions, lack of self-confidence and lack of vocabulary that can accompany structural repression and that make it difficult to define one’s own reality and then take control over it. Rarely does it suffice to let the oppressed come and speak for power structures to change. Moreover, there was a crucial difference between GIP and BPP, namely that GIP was not run by the prisoners themselves. The power of GIP did not come – as in Jackson’s and later Foucault’s vision – from inside the prison, but from established academics in the best universities.
However, the movement gained importance for thinking far beyond its shortcomings. Militant actions influenced those who participated, reflections developed and were expressed in books that continue to mark new generations of thinkers. In 1972, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze discussed how the work of the GIP influenced their views on research and the relationship between theory and practice. Deleuze argues that it showed him that research can go beyond a logic of representation, that is, beyond the simplified notion that a theory can capture the diversity of reality. When reality appears in its own right, theoretical attempts to describe it fully prove imperfect, the very relationship between theory and practice appears fragmentary and the division between them becomes blurred. When prisoners began to speak out about their own reality, the reality of prison, for those who read it, it became transformed beyond the theories of what it was or should be, and the change took shape. The theory has been put into action, he summarizes.
In 1975, Foucault published ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,’ which is still discussed in the social and human sciences, where he develops the new understanding of power and the relationship between knowledge and power mentioned above. A few years earlier, he had written a text for an exhibition catalogue by the artist Paul Rebeyrolle. It was when I read it for my work on my book ‘Foucault, Art, and Radical Theology
The Mystery of Things’ (Routledge 2018), that my attention was drawn to the link with the black civil rights movement. One passage mentions a Jackson, and previous commentators had argued about what Jackson was referring to. Perhaps it was not obvious to think that the Black liberation movement would have left its mark in what is considered the archetypal white European philosophy? But a comparison between the GIP, the BPP and the statements that are preserved points unequivocally to George Jackson.”Jackson,” writes Foucault, “has himself shown that the prison today is a political place. A place where forces are born and take shape. A place where history is shaped and where the contemporary grows.”
Today, he might say the same thing about the streets of Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Houston, New York, Stockholm, London and every city where the wave of protests is breaking. Once again, we are fortunate to be influenced and challenged. George Floyd’s muffled cry became the starting point for a continuation of the struggle that has had to begin again and again in USAmerican and European history. Once again, images appear that can transform reality, the power of change emerges in the streets. Actions give birth to new images of reality, images that in turn give birth to action. Practice and theory transform each other or, as Barack Obama wrote on June 1, 2020: “The choice is not between protest and politics. We must do both.” [Obama politics? No, thanks. Translator’s Note].