Political engagement was a central issue in Foucault's life and career. Because so much of his work destabilized accepted principles of authority and power (notably those surrounding prisons and restricted sexuality), Foucault’s involvement in any cause whatsoever was eventually placed under a public microscope. Especially in his later life, Foucault was continually looked to for advice or support and often excoriated for inaction (or for mistaken action). To this day, a central issue in the debate surrounding Foucault’s work is whether or not it allows for true, active political change.

Foucault grew up partly during World War II and worked in the climate of its after-effects throughout much of his life. He maintained an ambivalent relationship to the various communist, socialist, and Maoist movements that swept Europe in the 1950’s and 60’s, supporting their aims but resisting their sometimes oppressive and totalitarian tone and effects. He remained a committed leftist for his entire life, supporting causes that he thought might stand to question or subvert restrictive power regimes.

In this context, Foucault's life as a gay man played a role that was not always public but was often significant. His support, in the early 1950’s, of the French Communist Party was tempered in large part by that party's condemnation of homosexuality. His participation in the various Paris uprisings of the late 1960’s was also partly in the context of gay rights movements, though he distrusted even these when they threatened to “ghettoize” gay people by forcing them into a single identity.

Foucault’s participation in political causes and events peaked in the late 1960's and early 1970's, primarily in Paris but also in Tunis and Poland. These were years when he was periodically arrested, and was sometimes engaged in active, physical rioting. He was also beginning to focus his engagement to some degree, founding an activist watchdog society for prisons and generally attending to conditions of incarceration in Europe and the U.S. The intertwining themes of institutional power, issues of selfhood, and sexuality were apparent both in Foucault's work and in his political engagement from this point onwards.

The historical events that drew Foucault into active politics later in his life tended to be somewhat scattered, albeit generally leftist. He was involved in brief protests against Franco’s regime in Spain in 1975; with American debates about sex, censorship, and rape a few years later; and with the early supporters of the Iranian revolution in 1978. Some of these activities turned out well, while others (like the new Iranian dictatorship) were embarrassments. In any case, until his death, Foucault continued to engage with contemporary issues in direct relation to the historical issues he pursued in his academic work.

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