Reflections on a HOWTO

I have been reading Curzio Malaparte’s Technique of the Coup d’état this weekend. It’s a fascinating document – the basic argument is that the October Revolution represented an exportable, universally applicable technology for taking control of the state, quite independent of ideological motivation or broader strategic situation. It was already fairly well-known at the time that Russia in 1917 really wasn’t the environment Marxists imagined would lead to a revolution and that Lenin had essentially retconned the whole thing to provide for giving history a little push. Malaparte’s unique contribution was to argue that it was more fundamental than that – the Bolshevik seizure of power could in reality have been carried out almost anywhere, for whatever reason. It wasn’t a strategic or ideological question, but one of operational art and tactics.

So, what’s this open-source putsch kit consist of? Basically you need a small force of determined rebels. Small is important – you want quality not quantity as secrecy, unanimity, and common understanding good enough to permit independent action are required. You want as much chaos as possible in advance of the coup, although not so much that everything’s shut. And then you occupy key infrastructures and command-and-control targets. Don’t, whatever you do, go after ministries or similar grand institutional buildings – get the stuff that would really cause trouble if it blew up.

Ideally, you do this by just floaking in through the front door as if you were in the railway station to catch a train rather than to seize the signalling centre. You’ll probably need, once you’ve got control of the real instruments of power, to stage some sort of symbolic overthrow of the government, but this is really only in order to get the message across to everybody else. Then, induce whatever authority is meant to be in charge after the head of government has been incapacitated to legitimise your action after the fact. It doesn’t matter much what state it’s in – a pro tip is to keep the parliament but get rid of enough opposition members to rig the vote.

Bada bing, bada boom, you are now the dictator.

From the other side, Malaparte argues that the worst thing that can go wrong is a general strike. There’s no point occupying key points if you can’t make the machine work yourself, as you’ll just be master of a lot of dark, cold buildings. The second worst thing that can go wrong is that you start to fall behind schedule. The whole trick relies on missing out as many people as possible, and the longer it takes, the more people have time to recover their orientation and get angry.

Interestingly, he comes up with something very like the 70s “historic compromise” concept in relation to this.

So you need either to get the support or at least the neutrality of the unions, or else render them unable to act in advance, which will mean fighting a civil war before you get to bring off the coup. And once you start, you’ve got to move quickly and keep moving.

Interestingly, he doesn’t say much about how you’re going to keep power once you’ve got it, if you can’t rely on calling everyone out on strike. After all, two can play at this game. This is a weakness in the whole concept, and quite an illuminating one.

Malaparte was a deeply odd character, a border-nationalist of German origins, an Italian first world war hero, later a diplomat and journalist and a fascist of the first hour who went on to fall out with fascism and get locked up. This is probably why he is read at all now. Having been released, he reported the Eastern Front of 1941 for the Italian papers until he fell out with the Germans, covered the Finnish sector until something similar happened, ended up back in Italy in time to take part in his second Italian coup (he had already managed to invade Russia twice, once as an attaché with the Poles in 1920 and again with the Germans as a journo in 1941, and live to tell the tale), served in the pro-Allied Italian army, and claimed to have become a communist.

He was also an almost joyously unreliable source, a self-mythologising war junkie who made Hemingway look sensible, and to be frank, if he fell out with the fascists it wasn’t because he was going soft or anything. I’ve read his dispatches from the Eastern Front (The Volga Rises in Europe) and found it hard to make out what the Germans objected to – obviously my standards aren't those of a Wehrmacht press officer, but there's a lot of hardboiled combat reporting, quite a bit of gratuitous fine writing, and nothing much critical of the war or Germany.

He also had an Ernst Röhm gay-fascist streak you could have landed a fleet of Savoia-Marchetti flying boats on, across it. Or at least his style did. The Volga… is just full of dashing blond Finnish officers and casually hunky, rough-trade Nazi recovery mechanics track-bashing in the Ukrainian sun, although there are a fair few fair country girls whose hearts and minds don’t seem to need much winning in there as well. (By the time it all got stuck in a ditch outside Rostov-on-Don he’d long since been ghosted by the German spin doctors.)

Anyway, a fascinating, utterly mad, and often deeply creepy writer. Back to the steps of the telephone exchange.

I think his coup technique is quite telling. Fascism always had an odd central contradiction in that it insisted it believed in hardcore political realism but also in romantic activism. Power, and specifically either firepower or horsepower, was all that mattered, but with enough will it would always be possible to change the power realities. Marxists offered inevitability; fascists opportunity. Rapid shock action directed at the key installations will give us the state, and that will give us everything else. Speed, style, ruthlessness, and cheek are everything. It’s the hope of audacity – get the right people together and a list of oil refineries, and everything is possible.

This may not sound very convincing, but it’s certainly true that many, many coups have been carried out following this rough plan.

Malaparte makes a complex distinction between the seizure of power in a parliamentary state and just using the parliamentary institutions to go legit later. He’s agin the first. I’m not so sure – two of the most successful coups of the 20th century were carried out in France, Petain’s parliamentary coup and de Gaulle’s rather less parliamentary one in 1958.

I think what’s happening here is that his residual fascist is showing.

Another thing that runs through the book is the idea, very common in extreme politics since 1918, that the military tactics of the late first world war – infiltration, independent action, surprise attack – can just be ported straight into politics. Malaparte actually goes so far as to make this explicit. It’s a great historical irony that the world experts of decentralised command were the Prussians, of course.

As always, though, it all makes for great tactics but lousy strategy.


  1. ajay

    Another thing that runs through the book is the idea, very common in extreme politics since 1918, that the military tactics of the late first world war – infiltration, independent action, surprise attack – can just be ported straight into politics.

    Interesting article to be written here discussing the parallels between other styles of politics and tactics. Is a mass-mobilisation civil disobedience campaign the equivalent of the Somme? Is astroturf activism and coopted journalism the continuation of COIN by other means?

  2. You really must read Edward Luttwak’s “Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook.”




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