The CIA Assesses the Power of French Post-Modern Philosophers: Read a Newly Declassified CIA Report from 1985

We might assume that phi­los­o­phy is an ivory tow­er dis­ci­pline that has lit­tle effect on the unlove­ly oper­a­tions of gov­ern­ment, dri­ven as they are by the con­cerns of mid­dle class wal­lets, upper class stock port­fo­lios, and the ever-present prob­lem of pover­ty. But we would be wrong. In times when pres­i­dents, cab­i­net mem­bers, or sen­a­tors have been thought­ful and well-read, the ideas of thinkers like Fran­cis Fukuya­ma, Leo Strauss, Jur­gen Haber­mas, and John Rawls—a favorite of the pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent—have exer­cised con­sid­er­able sway. Few philoso­phers have been as his­tor­i­cal­ly influ­en­tial as the Ger­man thinker Carl Schmitt, though in a thor­ough­ly destruc­tive way. Then there’s John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Aris­to­tle… even Socrates, who made him­self a thorn in the side of the pow­er­ful.

But when it comes to the most­ly French school of thinkers we asso­ciate with postmodernism—Michel Fou­cault, Roland Barthes, the Jacques Lacan and Der­ri­da, and many others—such influ­ence is far less direct. The work of these writ­ers has been often dis­missed as friv­o­lous and incon­se­quen­tial, speak­ing a lan­guage no one under­stands to out of touch coastal elites on the left edge of the spec­trum. Per­haps this is so in the Unit­ed States, where pow­er is often the­o­rized but rarely rad­i­cal­ly cri­tiqued in main­stream pub­li­ca­tions. But it has not been so in France. At least not accord­ing to the CIA, who close­ly mon­i­tored the effects of French phi­los­o­phy on the coun­try’s domes­tic and for­eign pol­i­cy dur­ing their long-run­ning cul­ture war against Com­mu­nism and “anti-Amer­i­can­ism,” and who, in 1985, com­piled a research paper to doc­u­ment their inves­ti­ga­tions. (See a sam­ple page above.)

Recent­ly made avail­able to the pub­lic in a “san­i­tized copy” through a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request, the doc­u­ment, titled “France: Defec­tion of the Left­ist Intel­lec­tu­als,” shows itself sur­pris­ing­ly approv­ing of the polit­i­cal direc­tion post-struc­tural­ist thinkers had tak­en. Vil­lano­va Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and author of Rad­i­cal His­to­ry and the Pol­i­tics of Art Gabriel Rock­hill sum­ma­rizes the tenor of the agency’s assess­ment in the L.A. Review of Books’ Philo­soph­i­cal Salon:

…the under­cov­er cul­tur­al war­riors applaud what they see as a dou­ble move­ment that has con­tributed to the intel­li­gentsia shift­ing its crit­i­cal focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a grad­ual intel­lec­tu­al dis­af­fec­tion with Stal­in­ism and Marx­ism, a pro­gres­sive with­draw­al of rad­i­cal intel­lec­tu­als from pub­lic debate, and a the­o­ret­i­cal move away from social­ism and the social­ist par­ty. Fur­ther to the right, the ide­o­log­i­cal oppor­tunists referred to as the New Philoso­phers and the New Right intel­lec­tu­als launched a high-pro­file media smear cam­paign against Marx­ism.

The “spir­it of anti-Marx­ism and anti-Sovi­etism,” write the agents in their report, “will make it dif­fi­cult for any­one to mobi­lize sig­nif­i­cant intel­lec­tu­al oppo­si­tion to US poli­cies.” The influ­ence of “New Left intel­lec­tu­als” over French cul­ture and gov­ern­ment was such, they sur­mised, that “Pres­i­dent [Fran­cois] Mitterrand’s notable cool­ness toward Moscow derives, at least in part, from this per­va­sive atti­tude.”

These obser­va­tions stand in con­trast to the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of “left-lean­ing intel­lec­tu­als of the imme­di­ate post­war peri­od,” writes Rock­hill, who “had been open­ly crit­i­cal of US impe­ri­al­ism” and active­ly worked against the machi­na­tions of Amer­i­can oper­a­tives. Jean-Paul Sartre even played a role in “blow­ing the cov­er of the CIA sta­tion offi­cer in Paris and dozens of under­cov­er oper­a­tives,” and as a result was “close­ly mon­i­tored by the Agency and con­sid­ered a very seri­ous prob­lem.” By the mid-eight­ies, the Agency stat­ed, tri­umphant­ly, “there are no more Sartres, no more Gides.” The “last clique of Com­mu­nist savants,” they write, “came under fire from their for­mer pro­teges, but none had any stom­ach for fight­ing a rear­guard defense of Marx­ism.” As such, the late Cold War peri­od saw a “broad­er retreat from ide­ol­o­gy among intel­lec­tu­als of all polit­i­cal col­ors.”

A cer­tain weari­ness had tak­en hold, brought about by the inde­fen­si­ble total­i­tar­i­an abus­es of the “cult of Stal­in­ism” and the seem­ing inescapa­bil­i­ty of the Wash­ing­ton Con­sen­sus and the multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ratism engen­dered by it. By the time of Communism’s col­lapse, U.S. philoso­phers waxed apoc­a­lyp­tic, even as they cel­e­brat­ed the tri­umph of what Fran­cis Fukuya­ma called “lib­er­al democ­ra­cy” over social­ism. Fukuyama’s book The End of His­to­ry and the Last Man made its star­tling the­sis plain in the title. There would be no more rev­o­lu­tions. Har­vard thinker Samuel Hunt­ing­ton declared it the era of “endism,” amidst a rash of hyper­bol­ic argu­ments about “the end of art,” the “end of nature,” and so on. And, in France, in the years just pri­or to the fall of the Berlin wall, the pre­vi­ous­ly vig­or­ous philo­soph­i­cal left, the CIA believed, had “suc­cumbed to a kind of list­less­ness.”

While the agency cred­it­ed the dif­fi­dence of post-struc­tural­ist philoso­phers with sway­ing pop­u­lar opin­ion away from social­ism and “hard­en­ing pub­lic atti­tudes toward Marx­ism and the Sovi­et Union,” it also wrote that “their influ­ence appears to be wan­ing, and they are unlike­ly to have much direct impact on polit­i­cal affairs any time soon.” Is this true? If we take seri­ous­ly crit­ics of so-called “Iden­ti­ty Pol­i­tics,” the answer is a resound­ing No. As those who close­ly iden­ti­fy post­mod­ern phi­los­o­phy with sev­er­al recent waves of left­ist thought and activism might argue, the CIA was short­sight­ed in its con­clu­sions. Per­haps, bound to a Manichean view fos­tered by decades of Cold War maneu­ver­ing, they could not con­ceive of a pol­i­tics that opposed both Amer­i­can and Sovi­et empire at once.

And yet, the retreat from ide­ol­o­gy was hard­ly a retreat from pol­i­tics. We might say, over thir­ty years since this curi­ous research essay cir­cu­lat­ed among intel­li­gence gath­er­ers, that con­cepts like Foucault’s biopow­er or Derrida’s skep­ti­cal inter­ro­ga­tions of iden­ti­ty have more cur­ren­cy and rel­e­vance than ever, even if we don’t always under­stand, or read, their work. But while the agency may not have fore­seen the per­va­sive impact of post­mod­ern thought, they nev­er dis­missed it as obscu­ran­tist or incon­se­quen­tial sophistry. Their new­ly-released report, writes Rock­hill, “should be a cogent reminder that if some pre­sume that intel­lec­tu­als are pow­er­less, and that our polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions do not mat­ter, the orga­ni­za­tion that has been one of the most potent pow­er bro­kers in con­tem­po­rary world pol­i­tics does not agree.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

12 Mil­lion Declas­si­fied CIA Doc­u­ments Now Free Online: Secret Tun­nels, UFOs, Psy­chic Exper­i­ments & More

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Michel Fou­cault: Free Lec­tures on Truth, Dis­course & The Self (UC Berke­ley, 1980–1983)

Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Yale Course

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.