The article below was written in October 1968, when I was a militant of the Vanguardia Popular Revoludonaria (VPR). It was an effort to criticize and surpass the theses of Régis Debray expressed in Revolution in the Revolution? Initially published in the clandestine review America Latina—then the theoretical organ of the Commandos of National Liberation (COLINA) and of the VPR—it was later reproduced in Les Temps Modernes of Paris in May 1969.
In February 1969, I and a number of other comrades were excluded from the VPR, after a purge which consecrated the victory of a militarist current within the organisation. In August, while emphasizing our agreement with the VPR on some fundamental questions (adherence to the OLAS Resolutions, armed struggle and others), I wrote in a letter: ‘I hope I will prove to be mistaken in detecting certain limitations in the VPR which could seriously brake its development as a leading force in the liberation of the Brazilian people.’ Only three months have passed since then. Yet today I find only too many reasons for believing that I was not in error. In the interim, armed struggle in Brazil has won international notoriety, with the kidnapping of the American ambassador in Rio de Janeiro in September 1969. It was not so much this action itself as its successful political resonance, that made it a decisive advance in the development of armed struggle in the present phase. The ALN (Action for National Liberation) and MR-8 (Revolutionary Movement of October 8th), which executed the seizure of the ambassador, in effect succeeded in showing how
For I am convinced that—unfortunately—weapons command politics in the the VPR today. In its first year of existence, from January 1968 to January 1969, the contradiction between those who wanted to subordinate weapons to politics and those who wanted subordinate politics to weapons had only limited significance, given the purely tactical character of the majority of ‘direct actions’ in this phase. It was only towards the end of 1968 that this contradiction became a properly political one, as an internal struggle between a militarist current and a Leninist current. The VPR was now no longer a small group with the historic merit of having begun revolutionary warfare in Sao Paulo: it had formed links with sections of the popular masses, it sought to make political pronouncements on all national problems, it was assuming responsibilities which left behind the limited horizons of a small urban armed nucleus. The hour had come for it to determine a strategy and to put it into practice as a Marxist-Leninist line. The abandonment of Debrayism, in effect, threatened to give rise to a pure empiricism in which ‘urban actions’ became ends in themselves and guerrilla war a sort of organized anarchism. The VPR had thus arrived at a point where its absence of strategy multiplied the checks which its practice encountered. This naturally only aggravated the internal conflict between militarists and Leninists. Towards January 1969, the military current became predominant after a series of episodes which it would be too long to describe here. The last of these was a plan for the expropriation of arms in the Fourth Infantry Regiment of the Brazilian Second Army, stationed in a suburb of Sao Paulo near the working-class town of Osasco. The objectives of this action were purely tactical, since the VPR already disposed of a large number of automatic weapons for the level of struggle it had reached. It was prepared in a virtually suicidal manner. In spite of the vigorous protests of a handful of militants, the organization decided to seize a whole barracks and mobilized for this purpose cadres belonging to the most diverse sectors of work, in particular from the ‘foco sector’ which on paper was considered the priority target. Executed with such irresponsibility, the project inevitably failed. The discovery of members of a cell who were painting a truck in Army colours to infiltrate it into the Fourth Infantry Regiment compound alerted the whole repressive apparatus of the ruling class. Brutally tortured, the four militants who were caught ended by confessing everything: the police and the army were able to make dozens of arrests. The vicious circle: arreststorture-confession-new arrests rapidly threatened the very survival of the organisation. The VPR found itself on the edge of the abyss. Lucidly, it escaped it. By the month of April 1969, it was reborn from its ashes. It was no longer, however, the same. Stunned by the consequences of a disaster which they had nevertheless provoked themselves, the representatives of the militarist current were unable to grasp the political nature of their errors—the fact that their practice had not applied the principle that guerrilla war is a protracted war,
The militarist current is not lacking in firmness or courage. Indeed it has succeeded in healing the wounds of January and resuming the struggle. The VPR has survived and has not ceased to grow organizationally. It has undoubtedly learnt the technical military lessons of its setbacks. At the same time, it has won a notoriety which assures it virtually inehaustible possibilities of recruitment among the younger generation of revolutionaries in Brazil. But as the development of armed struggle itself poses new problems and tasks, armed organizations engaged in it become increasingly differentiated and fixed in their merits and demerits. It is, of course, too early to assign the different revolutionary organisations in Brazil a definite place in the whole process of revolutionary war. The fundamental question of people’s war in the countryside remains posed, and no organization can claim to have surpassed Debray until it has solved it. Nevertheless, the first two years of armed struggle have now passed and a certain political line has already materialized in practice. The deviations of any political organization can be assessed by its relationship to this line. As far as the VPR is concerned, I feel in a position to say that the primacy of weapons over politics is an objective fact within it, whose immediate consequences were indicated above. The most recent evolution of the VPR has consolidated militarist conceptions of its work: refusal to work systematically in the mass movement, reduction of party organization to armed nuclei (to ‘avoid the danger of the military apparatus becoming an arm of the party’), and so on. There is nothing surprising about this evolution. On the contrary, in the concrete historical conditions of Brazil it was difficult to avoid (which does not mean that it was ineluctable). In 1967 the most important revolutionary task was the creation of minimum conditions for the unleashing of a revolutionary war. In 1969, armed struggle was already an objective element of the Brazilian political conjuncture: the principal problem was no longer to unleash it but to conduct it with a correct political line. The fact that in Brazil it had not been unleashed by pre-existing political organizations (the different armed organisations, whether ALN, MR-8, MK-26, COLINA, or VPR, were all formed in the course of the action itself) explains this temporal disjuncture between the problem of armed struggle and the problem of political line. Some organizations then became arrested at the problematic of 1967. As Debray says: ‘We are never completely contemporary with our present’: at the moment when armed struggle became an objective and fundamental dimension of Brazilian politics, the problem of the relationship between clandestine actions of vanguard detachments and political leadership of the popular movement became central. The strategic aim of the ruling classes is to isolate the armed vanguard. Any militarist underestimation of politics only facilitates this manoeuvre of the oligarchy. The seizure of the US ambassador in Rio showed that the ALN and the MR-8 had grasped the danger of political isolation and that they conceived armed struggle not as an alternative to political struggle, but as a true ‘continuation of politics by other means. . .’ Whatever reservations may be made about the federation of organizations which rallied to the name of Marighella, it must be said that in the new conditions created in Brazil by the combined development of revolutionary war and a political crisis of the ruling class, they have succeeded in giving a political dimension to armed actions and have thus helped armed struggle out of isolation. In making public our differences with the VPR in this rapid sketch of the present problematic of armed struggle in Brazil, I want not only to express the position of the
For these reasons, I believe that my article remains topical, as a contribution to the critique of militarist deviations in revolutionary theory and practice in Latin America. It no longer represents the dominant position within the VPR (which does not mean that the latter has become Debrayist). But it sums up a certain moment in the strategic debate on revolutionary war in the countryside and in this sense may be a useful instrument for criticizing and surpassing the problematic of Revolution in the Revolution? The text acquires its true dimensions in the light of the most recent development of urban armed struggle in Brazil. For in effect, in spite of the political limitations of Debray’s theory of the foco, in spite of the unilateral character of most of his analyses and conclusions, the problems which he raises—armed struggle and power, peasantry and countryside, class and ‘strategic terrain’—remain posed. Is the countryside, as Guevara argued, the fundamental terrain of armed struggle because the peasantry as a class is more revolutionary than the proletariat, or is it because the countryside as a strategic terrain is more propitious than the town to armed struggle? Is the main aim of guerrilla warfare to demoralize the repressive apparatus of the ruling class or to accumulate forces within the exploited masses? All these questions can only be resolved by constant analysis of revolutionary practice.
Perhaps in spite of himself, Debray was much more important by the questions he raised than by the solutions he gave to them. However critical one may be of his ideas, it is impossible to deny that the problems he posed (even though I do not think he always posed them correctly) are the decisive ones. The vanguard of the Brazilian Revolution will only be forged in a protracted war of which the countryside remains the principal terrain in the phase of strategic defence. As bourgeois nationalism is reborn in new forms in ‘progressive’ sectors of the Army, with the failure of the Alliance of Progress (only the power of the USA has ‘progressed’ in Latin America), the problem of the revolutionary alliance of workers, peasants and all the toiling masses for a people’s war in the countryside is more than ever on the agenda. This is why the writings of Debray, and those concerned with them, remain topical.
J. Q. October 1969