Martin Glaberman 1968

Regis Debray: Revolution Without a Revolution

Source: Speak Out, (April 1968).
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg, with thanks to Ian Birchall.

The importance of Regis Debray in relation to the Latin American revolution stems from several things. He has broken from the rigid confines of European Communism, even to the extent of rejecting the Communist Parties of Latin America as the automatic vanguard of the coming revolutions. He has taken from Che and Fidel and incorporated into his own thinking the fundamental conception of the Latin American revolution as an international revolution, that is, as a continental revolution. He has proven his own courage and devotion in the great risks he has taken to make personal contact with the guerrilla movements, risks which ultimately subjected him to the criminal vengeance of the Bolivian military and the CIA. He has seemed to be the theoretical embodiment of the Cuban Revolution and his writings are an attempt to develop a theory of the Latin American Revolution based on the Cuban Experience.

It is with this last that we have to concern ourselves primarily because it is an essential need of the movement to draw the theoretical conclusions of the Cuban experience and to apply them to Latin America generally.

In 1965 there appeared Debray’s article, “Latin America: the Long March,” which began his break with official Stalinism. (In 1967, there appeared an article, “Marxist Strategy in Latin America,” which was written in 1965 and rarely supplements the earlier article. Both appeared in New Left Review, Nos. 33 and 45.) Essentially he interprets the Cuban revolution to mean that the revolutionary “foco,” that is, guerrilla center, must be substituted for the vanguard party. He lists the many revolutionary experiences that were made in many South American countries, he describes the defeats and the victories, and he draws certain conclusions. In two years tha realities of the struggle destroyed his analysis and he proceeded to rewrite the analysis. This is what has appeared as Revolution In the Revolution? A comparison of the two works provides a valuable critique of Debray and an introduction to a theory of revolution for South America.

In “The Long March,” Debray puts forward for the first time the revolutionary foco as the alternative, in Latin America, to the traditional (that is, Communist) vanguard party. However, it is within a broad framework involving a relation between classes, between political and military struggles, between vanguard party and revolutionary foco. After two years, all of this is abandoned, social analysis is rejected, even strategy is rejected, and the foco becomes the beginning and end of revolutionary wisdom, completely self-contained, responsible to nothing and to no one. Compare:

From “The Long March”: “ is already clear that armed struggle is act in itself a panacea.” (NLR, No. 33, p. 33.) “... the foco cannot constitute a strategy in itself without condemning itself to failure: it is a moment of struggle whose place can only be defined within an overall integrating strategy.” (P. 35). “The necessary subordination of armed struggle to central political leadership must not be the cause of a division between the political and military movement.” (P. 42.) “Because a rural guerrilla movement requires a high degree of revolutionary maturity before it can become effective, self-defense has first to be organized in the large towns.” (P. 43.) ‘Paradoxically, it is almost impossible that a foco, the embryo of a popular army, should develop a militarist tendency; the tendency to believe that everything can be reduced to echar balas, to “firing off,” and that only military success is important.” (P. 45.)

From Revolution: “That an intellectual, especially if he is a bourgeois, should speak of strategy before all else, is normal. Unfortunately, however, the right road, the only feasible one, sets out from tactical data, rising gradually toward the definition of strategy.... This slow climb from tactics to surrounding and corresponding strategy, along with the experience gained at all intermediate stages, is to some extent the history of the Cuban Revolution. It is a good methodological rule for practical apprenticeship.” (Monthly Review, July-Aug. 1967, p. 60.) It comes as something of surprise that a Marxist theoretician (or any theoretician, for that matter) should reject all theory and insist on the continual application of trial and error. “Whether or not to provide the popular forces with an armed detachment, organically independent of the civilian population, freed from the tasks of civil defense, and with the goal of winning political power – such is the decisive criterion for distinguishing revolutionary phraseology from revolutionary theory.” (P. 36.) The winning of “political power” by a force “organically independent of the civilian population” – is that not the classical definition of putschism? Does that not violate every conception of a social revolution that ever existed in the Marxist movement? In a two page diatribe (pp. 68-9) entitled, ‘The Descent to the City,” Debray rejects not only dependence on the large towns for defense, but any significant contact with the city as the source of weakness, betrayal, corruption, etc. This also relates to a complete rejection of the concept of class that is first made evident in “The Long March” but reaches full flower in Revolution. “As we know, the mountain proletarianizes the bourgeois and peasant elements, and the city can bourgeoisify the proletarians.” (P. 76.) A completely romantic and idealist concept of class which forms an essential basis for the whole book. Instead of the military struggle being subordinate to politics, it now is politics. “Under certain conditions, the political and the military are not separate, but form one organic whole, consisting of the people’s army, whose nucleus is the guerrilla army. The vanguard party can exist in the form of the guerrilla foco itself. The guerilla force is the party in embryo.” (P. 106.) Debray makes it quite clear that he means this literally: he rejects the democratic centralism or anything else that reduces the military effectiveness of the embryonic party. (P. 103.) Debray rejects the Stalinist party – but he remains a vanguardist of the purest type. The vanguard has been refined from party to foco and from foco to chief. Which, of course, settles the matter. Under these circumstances, what need is there for theory or strategy. The military struggle settles all problems – one way or another.

One basic question is whether Debray truly reflects the experience of the

Cuban Revolution in his writings. Debray has the inestimable advantage that he wants the total defeat of American Imperialism in Latin America; he will not accept any reformist compromise. That is a very good place to start. But Debray tends from that point on to oversimplify a very complex process and to reduce the revolutionary struggle to military terms. As a result some very fundamental things are lost sight of, or never discovered.

Debray makes much of the methodology of the Cuban Revolution. To him it was essentially empirical, tactical trial and error leading to strategic trial and error. Since there is no revolutionary movement, military or political, that can live without constantly testing and refining its tactics and its strategy through trial and error, this gives Debray a grasp on a small piece of the truth. But he thereby ignores that the Cuban Revolution began with some basic strategic concepts, particularly on the need for a fundamental agricultural revolution, and the need to root its tactics in Cuban history, that is, the experience of earlier revolutionary struggles. It was these strategic, that is, theoretical , conceptions combined with Castro’s own fantastic sensitivity to the moods, the needs, the demands of the peasants, the agricultural laborers, the workers of Cuba which provided the necessary framework for trial and error, which made it possible for trial and error to lead to ultimate victory and net defeat. To ignore the fact that there were guiding theoretical conceptions in the Cuban Revolution that were rooted in the past history of Cuba, back beyond July 26, 1953 to the wars of independence against Spain, to insist that the theoretical lesson of the Cuban Revolution was trial and error, is to insist that the Cuban Revolution has no lessons whatever and should be ignored in the rest of Latin America.

The role of the foco is to mobilize the people. That is not always possible. After great defeats there tends to be a need for a period of regroupment and healing of wounds. Response to a newly organized guerrilla foco may take some time. That is a matter for tactical judgment. But the fundamental function must be clear. In some respects it resembles the way SNCC functioned in the South in its early years despite the apparent opposition between the military character of the guerrilla band and the formal nonviolence of SNCC. The point is that both forms exist in rural areas where a peasantry is relatively scattered and subject to a vicious military rule which seems invincible. The function of the foco as of the SNCC workers was to show that this power was not invincible, either by getting away with military opposition or by challenging its laws and customs openly and engaging the support of other sections of the country. The result, in each case, must be the transformation of the struggle, in the first case to a popular army based on the peasantry, in the second to an indigenous movement locally led.

In most countries of Latin America the revolution must be based on the peasantry. But that is a relative, not an absolute, construction. In most capital cities there are many workers who are in service trades, subordinating themselves to the tourists, demeaning themselves to the bureaucrats, bowing and scraping to the bourgeois. Undoubtedly, many are corrupted, as are similar workers in industrialized countries. But to say that the city bourgeois-ifies is arrant nonsense. In Cuba “The police and army killed 20,000 men from 1953 to 1959, and most of them in the last two years – l,000 in the Sierra in the ultimate battles; 19,303 in the cities.” (Sartre on Cuba , p.: 50.) What kind of theoretical conclusion does one draw from that? The oil workers of Venezuela and Trinidad, the tin miners of Bolivia, the industrial workers of Brazil and Argentina, they and their brothers all over the continent are as advanced as any workers anywhere in the world. To exclude them from revolutionary theory and tactics is to say that revolution can take place without the oppressed, that a new society can be built without the most advanced section of the old.

The peasants, too, are not an undifferentiated mass. The landless agricultural laborers of the Cuban sugar estates are not the same as the Indian peasants west of the Andes who practise subsistence or sub-subsistence farming and are almost totally outside of the national economy. Both of these have to be distinguished from areas of tiny peasant landholdings, or from the latifundia of the Brazilian Northeast. There can be no theory of revolution for Latin America which does not contain within it a conception of an agricultural revolution which is based, not on some abstract requirements of a “socialist” agriculture but on the concrete needs of particular peasants familiar with particular crops and with particular climatic, and topographical conditions. Cuba has shown the way. Where there is what amounts to an agricultural proletariat, as in the Cuban sugar estates, it is possible to base a policy on both the advanced character of the workers and the technically advanced nature of production and to build large cooperatives or state farms. Where agriculture is based on small peasant holdings it is necessary to expropriate large land-holdings to give to the peasants a reasonable minimum acreage and to assist them technically, through fertilizers and tools, in education for them and their children and in the development of cooperation, to develop agriculture above the meanest levels. Agriculture that is outside the national economy poses other problems: the need for substantial assistance in building roads and other means of communication, the ending of illiteracy, technical assistance to raise productivity to a level that will sustain decent living conditions. The fundamental common denominator is that in countries that are overwhelmingly agricultural the need is for an agricultural revolution, not the draining and exploitation of agriculture for some future industrial revolution. It is the people that count, not the products or the quantities.

What follows from this is that there is no abstract revolutionary foco. There is only a foco that must find its way and grow to the proportions of a revolutionary army in the context of a particular peasantry, a particular form of agriculture, a particular method of imperialist exploitation. Nowhere in Debray is there a sign of any understanding of this. Always the peasantry seems to be judged by the degree to which the revolutionaries can place their trust in it, rather than the other way around.

Debray’s methodology provides other difficulties, as in his, treatment of the tin miners of Bolivia. In “The Long March” he lists among the successes of the revolution in Latin America the struggles of the Bolivian miners on the basis of their armed defense of the mines. “The theory of the foco is thus in Bolivia, for reasons of historical formation which, are unique in America, if not inadequate at any rate secondary.” (pp. 26-7.) Since that time the Bolivian miners have suffered massive defeats at the hands, of the Bolivian military beefed up by the Pentagon and the CIA. (One of the tragic consequences of these defeats was the capture and murder of Che Guevara.)

In Revolution Debray does not refer at all to his earlier estimate of the Bolivian situation. Instead he launches into a bitter attack against Trotskyism, which had considerable influence in Bolivia, for being responsible, for these defeats. Debray stands the question on its head. The reason for these defeats, he says, is that Trotskyism is based on a belief in the natural goodness of the workers, which is always perverted by evil bureaucracies but never destroyed.” (P. 39.) One finds it difficult to believe one’s eyes. The revolutionary theoretician, Debray, denounces Trotskyism for its idealization of and dependence on – the workers! Not a word that Debray himself once thought the Bolivian struggle to be quite exemplary. No recognition of the fact that Lenin’s criticism of Trotsky (which he quotes) was the exact reverse of his own: “...his too far-reaching self-confidence and a disposition to be too much attracted to the purely administrative side of affairs,” that is, dependence on administration instead of on the self-activity of the working class.

He criticizes “Trotskyism” because he cannot criticize the miners. The miners occupied the mines and transformed Bolivian society and politics. Their strength was in their control of the mines, which they defended with arms. They bad no alternative, just as the Hungarian workers had no alternative when overwhelmed by Russian tanks. Workers cannot take to the hills like professional revolutionists. The logic of Debray’s criticism is that workers should never take possession of the means of production unless they are assured of victory. But what makes these times revolutionary is not that all struggles are victorious but that the attempt at power is constantly being made. When masses of workers move it is nonsense to believe that Trotskyism or Stalinism or any party can turn the movement on and off at will. The sign of a Marxist is not that he calls for revolution but that he recognizes it and supports it.

The fundamental difficulty with Debray’s latest work is that by reducing theory to tactics and tactics to military tactics in the narrowest sense he destroys the possibility of developing the necessary theory. That takes patience, but more than that it takes an understanding of what the source of revolutionary theory must be. Marx’s theory of the state was based on what the workers of Paris did in 1871. Lenin built on that basis and was able to add from the experience of Russian workers in 19)5 and 1917. But a view which cuts off the oppressed classes from the revolution, except as recipients, must, of necessity, cut the Latin American revolutionist off from his only source of theory: the revolutionary practice of the masses of peasants and workers in the countries of Latin America.