Bernard E. Harcourt | Introducing Uprising 2/13: A Guide to the Readings

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The epilogue to Uprising 1/13 serves as a useful pivot from Marx to Mao and to a different modality of uprising that might be called insurrection or insurgency: a pivot from the modern concept of revolution deeply in conversation with the writings of Marx and Koselleck to the form of insurrection inspired, in large part, by the writings and thought of Mao Zedong. The first modality—revolution—retains a certain attachment to modern notions of sovereignty and citizenship, to working class struggle, and to a Marxist philosophy of history; the second modality reaches beyond the industrialized worker and raises questions about the reproduction of power through social institutions, about the place of subjectivity, and about possibilities of transforming oneself, others, and communities. The second, in perhaps a somewhat paradoxical sense, is more infused with psychological insight, however much it may resist the discipline; recall that Mao’s early strategies for insurgency were interpreted and understood as combining guerilla and psychological warfare, and that winning the hearts and minds of the passive masses played a crucial role in Mao’s early writings. Different philosophies of history and different political and historical situations gave way to different modalities of revolt.

The turn from Marx to Mao resonates well with the intense debates and internecine battles between different student organizations and worker syndicates during the heated months of the May ’68 uprisings across the globe. The clash fueled new ways of thinking about power in the 1970s—and continues to offer a useful heuristic to explore more contemporary political movements today, represented for instance in the thought and publications of the Invisible Committee.

There are several ways of proceeding in order to engage the writings and influence of Mao Zedong in the context of our exploration of modalities of uprising:

  1. We could focus, first, on the young texts of Mao Zedong in order to analyze and unearth the logic and modes of rationality of Mao’s early revolutionary thought and theories of insurgency. Along these lines, we would study closely the younger revolutionary writings that fomented the Chinese insurgency, fueled the civil war, and ultimately led to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party over Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Much of these writings are military and strategic—though the central intervention is to show that warfare is political, and in that sense, the early writings are clear precursors of the political debates of the late 1960s.
  2. Alternatively, we could focus on the later writings of Mao that brought about and accompanied the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to, well, about 1969, or even through 1976. These later writings offer novel models of political action and would be important lenses through which to contextualize the student debates and political uprisings of May 68.
  3. We could focus, instead, on the reception of Mao’s writings and ideas of “protracted people’s war” during the late 1960s and 1970s, either in the East (e.g. Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea), in the South (e.g. Algeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Bolivia) especially in the struggles for independence or during new post-colonial formations, or in the West (e.g. France, Italy, US). Along these lines, we could investigate how Mao was read and translated; how those receptions disrupted other Marxist or leftist political strategies; and explore cases such as Guevarism or focoist insurgencies.
  4. We could focus, fourth, on the reaction against Mao and Maoism during the anti-colonial struggles. This might entail studying how Mao’s thought influenced the production of counterinsurgency theory and practice among French commanders like David Galula or Roger Trinquier in Algeria, among British counterinsurgency experts like Sir Robert Thompson, or among American commanders during the Vietnam War—or even, more recently, on US General David Petraeus and his 2006 counterinsurgency field manual. Along these lines, we might find it interesting to explore how Maoism continues to have ripple effects on our own contemporary forms of governing.
  5. Or we could focus, finally, on the most recent uptake of Mao’s thought in the ongoing writings, for instance, of the Invisible Committee and Tiquun—the most recent intellectual developments that draw on a Maoist inspiration.

The selection of readings for Uprising 2/13 touch on four of these approaches and cover a range of these problematics. The first two readings, Mao’s Report on an Investigation on the Peasant Movement in Hunan (1927) and On Contradiction (1937), represent early writings of Mao that articulate some of the main themes of early Maoist insurgency—the kind of strategic warfare theory that would inspire revolutionary anti-colonial movements in Indochina, Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere around the world in the post-WWII period.

The second set of Mao’s writings, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People (1957) and Talk on Questions of Philosophy (1964), as well as Alessandro Russo’s essay and translation, The Conclusive Scene: Mao and the Red Guards in July 1968, take us to the heart of theorizing the Cultural Revolution and its implications for revolutionary action in the late 1960s.

Third, Claire Fontaine’s essay on “1977: The Year that is Never Commemorated,” as well as the original underlying primary materials by A/traverso (translated from the Italian by Francesco Guercio, forthcoming) and the screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) on October 4, 2017 at the Maison Française, go to the heart of the reception of Maoist thought in Italy and France in the 1970s—at and around the time of May ’68. As the epilogue to Uprising 1/13 suggests, this reception represented a significant turning point in our later understanding of revolutionary action and power; note that, if we were to actualize all this further today, we might need to examine more closely the way that power now circulates in our expository society in the digital age. We will be doing that on October 27, 2017, at our workshop on “Infopower and Expository Power: The Digital Age” with Tung-Hui Hu, University of Michigan, Colin Koopman, University of Oregon, and Natasha Schüll, New York University.

Our last set of readings from the Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (2007), is perhaps the most current manifestation of Maoist-inflected political thought. Highly influenced by Mao’s notions of insurgency, as well as Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, Giorgio Agamben’s ideas about the coming community, and Guy Debord’s notion of the society of the spectacle, the Invisible Committee calls for liberating the multiplicity of forms-of-life. Their writings tend to reject class-based politics, and instead argue that our political struggles are mainly over our very subjectivities. For the Committee, it may be fair to say, “revolutionary change lies in the radical transformation of everyday life … which would make the world of labor simply fade into oblivion.”[1]

The Invisible Committee has published several books at La Fabrique (a French publishing house) under the editorial supervision of Eric Hazan, including The Coming Insurrection in 2007, and, in 2014, To Our Friends. (Hazan has vociferously resisted the state of emergency in France). More recently, this year, 2017, the Invisible Committee published Maintenant, which it describes in the following terms:

Maintenant est un texte d’intervention. Il peut se lire comme un chapitre supplémentaire d’À nos amis, commandé au Comité Invisible par une actualité écartelée entre attentats, rhétorique antiterroriste, mouvement contre la loi « travaille !», répression féroce, fin de la sociale-démocratie et rumeurs de « guerre civile ». Maintenant vient à la suite d’un mouvement qui a vérifié l’essentiel des conjectures du Comité Invisible – détestation sans appel de la police, expérience et lassitude des AG, centralité du blocage, retour du thème de la Commune, dépassement de l’opposition entre radicaux et citoyens, refus de se laisser gouverner, etc. -, et au début d’une année dont l’enjeu sera, pour le pouvoir, de faire rentrer dans le cadre délabré de la politique classique, au prétexte d’une campagne présidentielle, tout ce qui, d’ores et déjà, la déborde, lui échappe et ne veut plus entendre parler d’elle. Maintenant propose une bifurcation, esquisse un autre chemin que l’étouffoir prescrit, avance une autre hypothèse que celle des élections : celle de la destitution. Une hypothèse où il est question de prise sur le monde et non de prise de pouvoir, de nouvelles formes de vie et non de nouvelle constitution, de désertion et de silence plutôt que de proclamations et de fracas. Où il est question d’un communisme inouï, aussi – un communisme plus fort que la métropole.[2]

A closely affiliated philosophical review, Tiqqun, published from 1999 to 2001, reflected similar themes and was influenced by the Situationists and the squat and movements for autonomy. The members and editors of Tiqqun included Fulvia Carnevale, Julien Coupat, Julien Boudart, and others. (Julien Coupat was notoriously suspected and accused of anarchistic violence, as part of the Tarnac Nine). Fulvia Carnevale is a collaborator in the Claire Fontaine artist collaborative and joins us for this Uprising 2/13.

This leaves for later an exploration of the reaction again Maoist insurgency theory during the anti-colonial struggles and the invention of counter-insurgency theory and practice—the fourth way of engaging Mao’s influence—and we will indeed turn to this in the final session of Uprising 13/13 on the counterrevolution.

Let me suggest here, for the time being, by way of a preview of 13/13, the following: Etienne Balibar raised the specter of “preemptive counter-revolution” in his essay and discussion at Uprising 1/13, drawing on the famous passage in Reinhart Koselleck’s chapter, in which Koselleck writes that the modern concept of revolution “rested on the existence of its contrary, ‘reaction’ or ‘counterrevolution.’ While revolution was initially induced by its opponents as well as its proponents, once established in its legitimacy, it proceeded to continually reproduce its foe [counterrevolution] as a means through which it could remain permanent” (Koselleck 1968:56).

As you will recall, Balibar suggested that the modern concept of revolution produces an even more significant “pre-emptive counterrevolution.” At the last seminar, I raised the possibility that, today, it is no more the specter of revolution, but instead these various forms of uprising—insurgency, insurrection, occupation, disobedience, standing ground—that may be responsible for preemptive counterresistance.

Perhaps, though, we can further. Post 9/11, we have possibly entered an age where there is neither need of a revolution nor even Maoist insurgency to motivate preemptive counterrevolution. With hyper-militarized policing and the renewed sale of counterinsurgency military vehicles and equipment to local police forces, ICE deportations that resemble “military operations,” a Muslim Ban and continued talk of the “Wall” on our Southern border to exclude the demonized minorities—with all their ancillary ripples and “administrative processing” purgatories—we now experience counterrevolutionary governmentality in its purest form: a counterrevolution without the shadow of a revolution. At least, I will suggest as much in the last seminar and I argue as much in my forthcoming book, The Counterrevolution.


[1] de Bloois, J. “Review of: Comité Invisible (2007) L’insurrection qui vient; S. Hottner (1999) Tiqqun.-1: Exercices de métaphysique critique; S. Hottner (2001) Tiqqun.-2: Zone d’opacité offensive; (2000) Théorie du Bloom; (2009) Contributions à la guerre en cours; (2009) Tout a failli, vive le communisme!” Historical Materialism 22 (2014): 129-147, at page 132.

[2] Comité invisible, Maintenant (Paris: Éditions La Fabrique, 2017), passage here: