«Last summer the Iranians said: ‘We are ready to die by the thousands in order to get the Shah to go.’ Today, it is the Ayatollah who says: ‘Let Iran bleed so that the revolution may be strong.’ There is a strange echo between these phrases which link them to one another. Does the horror of the second condemn the ecstasy of the first? While revolts take place in history, they also escape it in a certain manner. Some movements are irreducible: those in which a single man, a group, a minority or a complete people asserts that it will no longer obey and risks its life before a power which is considered unjust. There is no power which is capable of making such a movement impossible. Warsaw will always have the ghetto which revolted and those insurgents who filled its sewers. In the end, there is no explanation for the man who revolts. His action is necessarily a tearing that breaks the thread of history and its long chains of reasons so that a man can genuinely give preference to the risk of death over the certitude of having to obey.
All the forms of liberty, acquired or claimed, all the rights which one values, even those involving the least important of matters, doubtlessly find in revolt a last point on which to anchor themselves, one that is more solid and near than ‘natural rights’. If there are societies which hold firm and live, that is to say, if there are powers that are not ‘absolutely absolute’, it is due to the fact that behind all the submissions and the coercions, and beyond the menace, the violence, the persuasion, there is the possibility of that moment when life will no longer barter itself, when the powers can no longer do anything, and when, before the gallows and the machine guns, men revolt. Since the man who revolts is, thus, ‘outside of history’ as well as in it, and since life and death are at stake, we can understand why revolts have easily been able to find their expression and their mode of performance in religious themes: the promises of the beyond, the return of time, the waiting for the saviour or the empire of the last days, the indisputable reign of good. When the particular religion has permitted, these themes have furnished throughout the centuries not an ideological cloak but the very way to live revolts.
The age of revolution has arrived. That realisation has hung over history for two centuries, organizing our perception of time and polarizing our hopes. It has shaped a colossal effort to become accustomed to revolt as interior to a history that is regarded as both rational and controllable. It has granted revolt a legitimacy, while sorting out its good from its bad forms. It has fixed its preliminary conditions, established its objectives and the ways in which they will be realised. Even the profession of the revolutionary has been defined. In repatriating revolt, one has claimed to have manifested its truth and to have brought it to its real issue. A marvelous and formidable promise. Certain people will say that revolt has found itself colonized in Realpolitik. Others will claim that the dimension of rational history has opened for it. I prefer the question that Horkheimer posed at another time, a question which is both naïve and a little feverish: ‘But is this revolution so desirable?’
The enigma of revolt. There was a striking discovery for the person who searched in Iran not for the profound reasons behind the movement but for the manner in which it was being lived, and who tried to comprehend what went on in the minds of the men and women who were risking their lives. Their hunger, their humiliations, their hatred of the regime and their will to overthrow it were registered on the borders of heaven and earth in a history which was dreamt of as being as much religious as political. They met the Pahlavis face to face in a conflict where it was a matter of life and death for each, but where it was also a question of sacrifice and the promises of the millennium. The famous demonstrations, which played such an important role, could genuinely respond to the menace of the army (to the point of paralyzing it), and proceed with the rhythm of religious ceremony and, finally, return to a timeless mode of performance where power is always cursed. It was in this striking superimposition that there appeared at the height of the twentieth century a movement so strong that it could overthrow a regime which seemed to be among the best armed in the world. It did this while staying so close to those old dreams which the West had known at another time, when it wanted to inscribe the figures of spirituality on the earth of politics.
After years of censorship and persecution, years of marginality for the political class and of prohibition against parties, years of decimation for revolutionary groups, what else but religion could provide support for the distress and then the revolt of a population which had been traumatized by ‘development’, ‘reform’, ‘urbanisation’ and all the other failures of the regime? It is true. Is it, however, to be expected that this religious element will fade away quickly for the sake of more realistic forces and less archaic ideologies? Certainly not, and this for many reasons.
There was first of all the rapid success of the movement, confirming it in the form that it had taken. It had the institutional solidity of a clergy whose hold on the people was strong and whose political ambitions were intense. It took place completely in the context of an Islamic movement. Surrounding Iran, this Islamic movement constituted an intense and complex reality as a result of its strategic position, the economic keys held by the Muslim countries and its expansive force on two continents. The consequences was that the imaginative content immediately transposed itself on to a political stage which seemed completely disposed to accept it, but which was, in fact, of an entirely different nature. On this stage the most important realities mingled with the most atrocious; on this stage met the formidable hope to make Islam once again a great, living civilization with types of virulent xenophobia; world stakes mingled with regional rivalries. And then there was the problem of imperialism and that of the subjugation of women.
The Iranian movement has not submitted to this ‘law’ of revolutions according to which the tyranny, already dwelling secretly within them, is brought forth by blind enthusiasm. The most interior and intensely experienced element in the revolt directly touches a politically charged chessboard. But this contact is not an identity. The spirituality appealed to by those who went to die lacks a common measure with the bloody government of a reactionary clergy. Religious Iranians want to authenticate their regime with meanings that the revolt possessed. This is something completely different from those who disqualify the revolt because there is a government of mullahs. In one case as in the other, there is a fear: fear of that which took place last autumn in Iran, an example which world has not given for a long time. It is exactly due to this that there is the necessity to bring out the irreducible element in such a movement. It is an element that is profoundly threatening for every despotism, today’s as it was for yesterday’s. There is certainly no disgrace involved in changing one’s opinion; but there is no reason to say that one’s opinion is changing when one is against the punishments today, when one was against the tortures of the Savak yesterday.
There is no right to say: ‘Revolt for me, there is a final liberation coming for every man.’ But I am not in agreement with someone who would say: ‘It is useless to revolt; it will always be the same thing.’ One does not make the law for the person who risks his life before power. Is there or is there not a reason to revolt? Let’s leave the question open. There are revolts and that is a fact. It is through revolt that subjectivity (not that of great men but that of whomever) introduces itself into history and gives it the breath of life. A delinquent puts his life into the balance against absurd punishments; a madman can no longer accept confinement and the forfeiture of his rights; a people refuses the regime which oppresses it. This does not make the rebel in the first case innocent, nor does it cure in the second, and it does not assure the third rebel of the promised tomorrow. One does not have to be in solidarity with them. One does not have to maintain that these confused voices sound better than the others and express the ultimate truth. For there to be a sense in listening to them and in searching for what they want to say, it is sufficient that they exist and that they have against them so much, which is set up to silence them. A question of morality? Perhaps. A question of reality? Certainly. All the disenchantments of history amount to nothing: it is due to such voices that the time of men does not have the form of an evolution, but precisely that of a history.
This perspective is inseparable from another principle: the power that one man exercises over another is always perilous. I am not saying that power is evil by nature, I am saying that, owing to its mechanisms, power is infinite (which does not mean to say that it is all powerful; quite to the contrary). In order to limit power, the rules are never sufficiently rigorous. In order to displace it from all the opportunities which it fails upon, universal principles are never strict enough. Against power it is always necessary to oppose unbreakable law and unabridgeable rights.
These days intellectuals do not have a very good ‘press’. I believe that I can employ the word in a rather precise sense. Thus, this is not the time to say that one is not an intellectual. If I were to do so, I would provoke smiles. I am an intellectual. If someone asked me how I conceive what I am doing, I would respond with a contrast.
The strategist is the man who says: ‘What does it matter? Such death, such a cry, such a revolt in the context of the great necessity of the whole? Or, on the other hand, what difference does such a general principle make for the particular situation in which we find ourselves?’ I am totally indifferent to whether the strategist is a politician, an historian, a revolutionary, a partisan of the Shah or of the Ayatollah.
My ethic is the inverse of the one suggested by these questions. It is ‘anti-strategic’: to be respectful when something singular arises, to be intransigent when power offends against the universal. A simple choice, but a difficult work. It is always necessary to watch out for something, a little beneath history, that breaks with it, that agitates it; it is necessary to look, a little beneath history, that breaks with it, that agitates it; it is necessary to look, a little behind politics, for that which ought to limit it, unconditionally. After all, it is my work. I am neither the first nor the only one to be doing it. But I have chosen to do it.»
– Foucault, Michel, “Is it useless to revolt?” (1979), in Religion and Culture, Selected and edited by Jeremy R. Carrette, Manchester University Press, 1999, p 131-134.