The ideas of Michel Foucault have now permeated so many academic disciplines, from international relations to "queer theory", that it is easy to forget that Foucault's influence stems from a simple but penetrating insight, developed early in his career: that the history of western civilisation is also the history of what that civilisation despises and excludes. Foucault was far from being the first historian to realise this, or to construct a version of the past upon it. But he was a leading figure in the generation that, in the wake of the convulsions of May 1968, sought to change contemporary society by interrogating it as "a construction".
Ironically enough, since his death in 1984, Foucault has become a mainstream figure in French intellectual life. These days, he is principally regarded not as a "radical philosopher", but as a scholar of history - albeit one in the dissenting, occasionally heretical tradition of Michelet and, in our own period, Jacques Le Goff. Foucault shares with Le Goff an inexhaustible appetite for the telling detail that reveals the conflicts and tensions of a given era. This appetite, which is also a kind of method, is diametrically opposed to the pursuit of "objective truth" (a "phantom", in Foucault's terms), which merely places people and events on the linear storyboard that we arbitrarily call history.
For Foucault, it is by diagnosing the "diseases" of an era (such as Stalinism and fascism in the 20th century) that we can approach something like the "truth". The lectures in this book (which are skilfully translated for the first time into English by Foucault's best biographer, David Macey) were first delivered in 1976 at the College de France, the very heart of the French intellectual establishment. Foucault's aim is systematically to take apart the illusory nature of what Europeans have, for more than 2,000 years, called society. His central argument is that "society" has always been an artificial nexus of institutions - legal, political and financial - that is imposed on peoples or races who are constantly in conflict.
The title of the book is misleading: Foucault does not believe in society as a force for good. Rather, it is the impulse to defend society at all costs that has been the defining force in the evolution of civilisation. Always and everywhere, Foucault suggests, this impulse has masked the "silent war" between the powerful and the powerless.
Foucault ranges over a variety of historical periods, swooping elegantly down on to early England and France to show how the formation of these fledgling countries depended as much on the sustaining myths of power as upon the physical domination of territory. The Frankish nation that was born with Clovis, for example, was not just an administrative instrument, but an active engine of war, dedicated to the subjugation of the French people as they emerged from the wreckage of the Roman empire. Ever since, Foucault argues, the French state has been no more or less the sublimation of this master-slave relationship.
While such ideas may have been radical in the 1970s, they are hardly news in a world where the language of psycho-analysis is overused in daily life. This is, however, a timely and prescient book, mainly because of what it says about the way in which war is necessary as a means of control. More precisely, Foucault suggests that war is required as a perpetual, quasi-religious sacrifice without which no society could hold together for long.
Two years after giving these lectures, Foucault travelled to Iran, where he saw the truth of this theory in practice. He described the revolution there as "politics with spirituality . . . the most insane and modern form of revolt". He was no apologist for the Ayatollah Khomeini, but he did understand the singular nature of what was happening. He saw that, in its deeply held contempt for all ethical constructs other than its own, Islamic fundamentalism posed a greater threat to the west than at any time since the Renaissance.
Unfortunately, we cannot know what Foucault would say about the conflict in Iraq or the rise of al-Qaeda, nor what he would make of the "war against terror" or modern battlefield techniques. However, it is possible to read these lectures as a dreadful warning to an age in which, once again, history is being made as a war without end.
Andrew Hussey is the author of The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord (Pimlico)