What does Foucault mean when he says “do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth … use political practice as an intensifier of thought”?

The passage reads in full:

Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.

The quotation is taken from Foucault’s preface to the American translation of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which appeared in 1977.

Although the preface purports to be (and to some extent is) a summary of the ethical and political “message” of Anti-Oedipus, it’s really a statement of Foucault’s own attitude at the time. And it’s an elegant bit of prose, all the more effective for being so much more intelligible than the book that follows. I’m willing to bet that most readers recall Foucault’s preface more clearly than anything else in Anti-Oedipus.

As for what it means, that’s best seen in contrast to the view Foucault opposes.

Before the “five brief, impassioned, jubilant, enigmatic years” of 1965–70, Foucault writes, political thought on the left in France was dominated by Marx and, to a lesser extent, Freud. But the self-proclaimed liberators of humanity inspired by these figures turned out to be disasters. They were the “sad militants” of the Communist Party (“bureaucrats of the revolution and civil servants of the truth”), the “technicians of desire” (psycho-analysts and psychiatrists who wanted to get everyone’s desires back to “normal”), and the fascists – not the “historical” fascists but rather “the fascism in us all, the fascism that causes us to love power.”

What the sad militants and the technicians of desire had in common was the belief that the world must be brought in line with their vision of how it ought to be. For them, thought came first, establishing a theoretical model of the liberated society, and political action was the instrument by which the theory was to be realized in practice. This approach, Foucault says, inspires a love of power – the power to shape the world to one’s liking – and indeed assimilates political action to the acquisition and exercise of power.

Foucault suggested that political activists adopt a different attitude, one that he believed was exhibited from time to time during the five jubilant years. Instead of trying to impose your vision on the world, get involved in it, see what comes up, and concentrate on what seems both desirable and doable. Let your thinking be inspired by what you find in the world, rather than insisting that the world conform to your thoughts. At the same time, don’t dismiss utopian thinking on the ground that it’s politically impractical; let it inspire an experimental attitude – but be as ready to drop what doesn’t work as to follow up on what does. Above all, don’t be driven by resentment against things as they are. Instead, cultivate the joy of acting as an end in itself.

Below, politics as fun: Yippies at Disneyland, August 6, 1970.

That’s me at lower right.

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