The Coming Insurrection

In July this year, the Fox News presenter Glenn Beck, conceivably the stupidest man in America, warned his three million regular viewers of "a dangerous leftist book" that harboured the potential to launch a violent global revolution. "I am not calling to ban this book," Beck explained, "but you should read it to know what is coming and be ready when it does."

The book was The Coming Insurrection, a slim political pamphlet recently translated into English by the venerable left-wing publisher Semiotext(e), after first achieving notoriety through a terrorism trial in France. The details of this absurd and disturbing circus are now widely known.

In November last year, about 150 gendarmes, equipped with dogs and helicopters, swooped at dawn on the mountain village of Tarnac, central France, to arrest nine members of a locally based anarchist collective on charges of "criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity". The charges referred to the sabotage of some power lines, which several days earlier had caused minor disruption to a few hundred TGV passengers. The book, which explicitly advocates sabotage, but not terrorism, was then paraded before the media as prima facie evidence of guilt.

The book itself is in some ways a trial. The Coming Insurrection is an angry, florid text, grimly intent on a project of absolute condemnation. Its organising political vision is established in its opening chapter, in which the spectre of an evil Empire ("the mechanisms of power that preventively and surgically stifle any revolutionary potential in a situation") is contraposed to a noble "party of insurgents", dedicated to "the sketching out of a completely other composition, an other side of reality, which from Greece to the French banlieues is seeking its consistency".

These two sides soon simplify into their more basic components: "them" and "us". The authors suggest that a differential of joy divides these two camps. "We can but notice," eight members of the "Tarnac Nine" recently wrote for Le Monde, "that there is much more joy in our friendships and our 'company of miscreants' than in your offices and courthouses." But the text itself lacks joie de vivre, and comes across as dogmatic and sermonising.

The Coming Insurrection is made up of "seven circles" of analysis in which the authors indict a series of symptoms of contemporary decadence (excessive individualism, the cheapening of intimacy, generalised relativism, ubiquitous advertising . . .), followed by a final four chapters. Proposing prescriptions for how we might rid ourselves of "the corpse of civilisation", the advice boils down to forming more intense and adventurous friendships. But the language throughout is dyspeptic, macho and, at several points, troubling. "In a sense," states one passage, "the open hostility of certain gangs only expresses, in a slightly less muffled way, the poisonous atmosphere, the rotten spirit, the desire for a salvational destruction by which the country is consumed." This rhetoric strikes me as fascistic.

The Sorbonne criminologist Alain Bauer, the man who first brought the Tarnac group to the French government's attention by circulating copies of L'insurrection qui vient among the security forces in 2007, has argued that groups such as the Tarnac Nine herald the rebirth of a 1970s-style violent left. "With Action Directe and the Red Brigades," Bauer told the Observer in January, "there was a first intellectual phase, followed by a radicalisation and then a transition to physical action. Books like The Coming Insurrection are strongly reminiscent of the first phase." Bauer neglects to mention that in cases where this transition has previously occurred - as with the strategy of tension in Italy in the early 1970s, when elements of the Italian state carried out terrorist attacks against its own people in order to manipulate public opinion - it has been the forces of government that have provoked it.

No case was brought to trial in France following the November arrests. Instead, one of the Tarnac Nine, Julien Coupat, was held for six months before being released without charge. Between the context surrounding it and its own grave flaws, and a marketing campaign that has nakedly traded on figures of dissent, subversion and glamour, The Coming Insurrection is without a doubt the most thought-provoking radical text to be published in the past ten years. It deserves to be read and discussed.

Daniel Miller is a writer living in Berlin

The Coming Insurrection
Semiotext(e), 136pp, £9.95

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England