As we go to press, Régis Debray is about to stand trial in Bolivia. The military authorities who claim to try him have announced him in advance ‘guilty’ of the fabricated charges against him. The story of his arrest, torture and imprisonment when on a journalistic mission to interview Che Guevara is by now known all over the world. Debray’s revenge, however, is one that the Bolivian military dictatorship have themselves prepared. The Barrientos régime has imprisoned him for his ideas; yet his imprisonment has now given an unprecedented international fame to these very ideas.
Régis Debray has written three closely linked studies of the Latin American revolution. Together, they unquestionably constitute one of the most brilliant examples of Marxist-Leninist analysis to have appeared in many years. What above all distinguishes Debray’s writings is their relentlessly Leninist focus on making the revolution, as a political, technical and military problem. This is what gives them their inner unity and their unmistakable tone—a tone of burning urgency that recalls the insurrectionary debates and manifestoes of 1917. All setbacks and difficulties are seen in the perspective of the means to overcome them. They can, indeed, be welcomed if the lessons they offer are learnt. Revolution is on the order of the day here and now, even if a prodigious and costly effort will be needed to achieve it. The task of a commentator is to clarify revolutionary practice through a theoretical transformation of revolutionary experience.
In Cuba, Debray’s most recent essay Revolution in the Revolution? has sold over 200,000 copies. Based on long discussions with Fidel, it sets out the new Cuban guerrilla tactics in Latin America. The essay appears to present an explosive, unfamiliar combination of an utterly intransigent revolutionary ethics and an extraordinarily detailed and concrete technics of insurrection. On the one hand, the whole study is written under the sign of the new categorical imperative proclaimed in Havana: ‘The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution.’ This absolute moral duty inspires every page. At the same time, the reader of Revolution in the Revolution? is immediately plunged into the encircled world of the practical needs and tasks of small guerrilla bands operating in the mountains and jungles of Latin America. Much of the study is
The distinctive combination of revolutionary ethics and technics which characterizes Revolution in the Revolution? undoubtedly owes much to the specific cultural traditions which have fused in Cuba. The unyielding moral imperative to make the revolution, regardless of the dangers to the revolutionary, is very much in the tradition of Hispanic thought and feeling—its indifference to hardship and death. At the same time, the intense practicality of Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare and Debray’s sequel to it—the concern for the daily, concrete details of action—is visibly American in its inspiration. Revolution in the Revolution? is in this sense a faithful mirror of Cuban Marxism. To European or Asian readers, it is precisely this combination which may initially be disconcerting. Marxism has historically not only been an ethics and a technics: it has been a politics—that is, a theory of the social structure and the contradictions within it which objectively found the revolutionary movement which aims to overthrow it. Where is the political analysis which should englobe the technical programme and the moral summons of the guerrilla movement?
The answer is that Debray’s first two essays, Latin America: The Long March (published in nlr 33) and Problems of Revolutionary Strategy in Latin America (published below) provide precisely this. They are the indispensable complement, the theoretical-political premises of the call to arms in Revolution in the Revolution?
In Latin America: The Long March, Debray undertook a vast survey of the first post-1959 wave of insurrectionary initiatives in Latin America, and the reasons for their temporary arrest or defeat. He points out the novelty of the concept of the insurrectionary foco by contrast with the mechanical opposition of adventurist ‘putschism’ and quiescent ‘mass action’ which had traditionally dominated Left politics in Latin America. Debray then sketches a vivid analysis of the impossibility of permanent urban guerrillas (based on the experience of the battle of Caracas in 1963) and the unviability of any dual command of rural guerrillas (military leaders in the country and political leaders in the towns). Calling for a unified politico-military force of insurrection in the country, he stresses that military action must always be commanded by politics. ‘Armed struggle understood as an art is meaningless except in the framework of politics understood as a science.’
Debray next proceeds to the fundamental theoretical axiom which governs the whole of his subsequent writings. The Latin American Left has always been divided in an interminable debate about the nature of the revolution to come: was it merely ‘bourgeois-democratic’ or would it be ‘socialist’? The answer given to this question, of course, determined the programme of the revolutionary party, and its alliances with other social forces. Controversy was unending on these issues. Debray cut right through this whole theoretical impasse with the