Debray: ‘Revolution’ Without the Workers?
Published in Labour Worker, November 1967.
The next Vietnam will very probably be in Latin America. In his recent book The Bitter Heritage, A. M. Schlesinger Jr. goes so far as to assert that “Western Europe and Latin America are far more significant to American security than South East Asia.” And yet the complex realities of Latin America are little understood among sections of the British left.
Monthly Review, probably the best of English-language journals for reporting on Latin American revolutionary movements, has done us a service by its recent publication of the book Revolution in the Revolution? by the young French intellectual Régis Debray, now on trial in Bolivia.
The basic theme of Debray’s book is that it is not enough to call oneself a revolutionary; one must constantly revolutionise one’s assumptions about the tactics and strategy of revolution. Just as the Paris Commune and the October Revolution are no longer models to be faithfully imitated, so too the guerrilla struggles of Vietnam and China cannot be transplanted to Latin America. In particular, Debray challenges two traditional features of Latin American revolutions: the idea of setting up liberated zones, and the separation of military and political leadership.
Debray is able to show how strategic considerations affect political policy. He explains the failures of the Bolivian tin-miners, despite their courage and their high political awareness: “The houses are laid out in rows, an easy and conspicuous target for the bombers. The mines are ten or 20 or more miles apart. It is easy for the army to isolate them one by one.”
Similarly, conduct that is irreproachably democratic may be no less wrong: “To promote public assemblies of the people in an Indian village, or open union meetings, is simply to denounce the inhabitants to the forces of repression and the political cadres of the police.”
Yet for all its insights, Revolution in the Revolution? invites serious criticisms. Above all, it seems to lack a sociological and economic dimension. Debray continually devalues the revolutionary potential of the urban working class, quoting Castro’s “the city is a cemetery of revolutionaries and resources.” He even falls into the woolly habit of treating class as something subjective, independent of social relations.
“The mountain proletarianises the bourgeois and peasant elements, and the city can bourgeoisify the proletarians.” Debray is right to point out the weaknesses of working-class organisation. But this must be balanced by the Marxist view that the working class is the only social force capable of reaching socialist consciousness.
Similarly, the question of imperialism is not adequately dealt with. The Latin American revolution can only succeed as part of a global revolution. The Bolivian tin-miners owe their defeats, not only to military factors, but to the price of tin on the world market. And so the working class in the advanced countries must be seen as the essential ally of Latin American workers and peasants.
Thirdly, Debray identifies very closely with Cuba; his attitude is one of “all the way with Fidel.” Certainly the Cuban position has become more clearly anti-imperialist than either the Russian or Chinese blocs. Nonetheless the wisdom of excessive dependence on Cuba must be doubted.
All the same, this book will be read throughout Latin America. It should also be read in Europe. It will open a wave of critical and revolutionary ideas. For the Bolivian dictatorship to imagine that the murder of Debray will stop this reveals only the pathetic bankruptcy of their ideology.