Tag Archives: Bolivia

Régis Debray on the Revolution in the Revolution

Régis Debray is both French philosopher and revolutionary. In the contemporary words of Martin Glaberman in Speak Out, (April 1968):

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.

Andrew Joscelyne with slightly more temporal distance, wrote for an article in Wired in 1995:

Twenty-seven years ago, French radical theoretician Régis Debray was sentenced by a Bolivian military tribunal to 30 years in jail. He had been captured with the guerrilla band led by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro’s legendary lieutenant. Released after three years, largely because of the intervention of compatriots such as President Charles de Gaulle, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Debray returned to writing. (His 1967 Revolution in the Revolution is considered a primer for guerrilla insurrection.)

I’m not sure it is a primer for guerilla insurrection, or at least not now. It is brilliant as something of its time — and who knows, perhaps its time will come again. But it has a few passages that I loved. Could anything ring truer than this?

Fidel once blamed certain failures of the guerillas on a purely intellectual attitude towards war. The reason is understandable: aside from his physical weakness and lack of adjustment to rural life, the intellectual will try to grasp the present through preconceived ideological constructs and live it through books. He will be less able than others to invent, improvise, make do with available resources, decide instantly on bold moves when he is in a tight spot. Thinking that he already knows, he will learn more slowly, display less flexibility (21).

He may well be right that it is an irony of history that in Latin America it was students and intellectuals ‘had to unleash, or rather initiate, the highest forms of class struggle‘ (21). There has a been a price.

Any line that claims to be revolutionary must give a concrete answer to the question: How to overthrow the power of the capitalist state? In other words, how to break its backbone, the army, continuously reinforced by North American military mission? (25)

He grapples with the issue of peasants, as massive for Latin America as for Russia or China even though people continue to flock to the city. Even today this ongoing somewhat artificial divide of urban and rural is perhaps the deeper and more relevant question. Debray looks to develop dual power between them and factory workers…and what a one-liner.

Today self-defence as a system and as a reality has been liquidated by the march of events (26)…Guerilla warfare is to peasant uprisings what Marx is to Sorel (28).

There is a little here on (neo)colonialism, and related to this my favourite bit was probably the brilliantly damning indictment of Trotskyism, which somehow comes close to nailing my own experience of it here in the UK in many ways:

At bottom Trotskeyism is a metaphysic paved with good intentions…In space–everywhere the same: the same analyses and perspectives serve equally well for Peru and Belgium. In time — immutable: Trotskeyism has nothing to learn from history. It already has the key to it: the proletariat, essentially wholesome and unfailingly socialist… (39) And they come not to participate in a liberation movement nor to serve it, but to lead and control it by using its weaknesses…An abstract metaphysic, a concept with no grasp of history…the Trotskyist ideology can only be applied from outside. Since it is not appropriate anywhere, it must be applied by force everywhere (40)

More on the limitations of the educated:

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 towards the definition of strategy (59)

Just a few other short notes. The key lesson he feels we can take from Bolivar? Tenacity. He notes the politicised used of the Peace Corps to infiltrate and spy. And because of his time in Bolivia, he writes with more detail about its struggle, mining in particular. I’ve been thinking a lot about mining lately, so will end with a rather long extract that few will find as interesting as I did.

Bolivia: an analogous situation in a workers’ milieu, takes on the aspects of tragedy. Twenty-six thousand miners in the big nationalized tin mines are spread over the entire altiplano, but the principal mining stronghold is concentrated in a belt of land some 91/2 miles long by 6 wide, where the “Siglo Veinte,” “Huanuni,” and “Catavi” mines are located. In 1952 the miners destroyed the oligarchy’s army, established a liberal government, received arms and a semblance of power. The revolution turned bourgeois; the miners gradually severed connections. They had arms, militias, radios, a strong union, dynamite and detonators – their everyday work tools-plus control of the country’s basic wealth, tin – “the devil’s metal.” In retreat, semi-impotent, apathetic, they allowed the national bourgeoisie to reconstitute an army, and they interrupted their reign of strikes, skirmishes, and battles: in short, they were surviving.Then, as is natural, the army swallowed up the national bourgeoisie which had created it; and the order arrived from the United States to crush the workers’ movement.The military junta provoked the workers in cold blood, arresting their old union leader Lechin. The unlimited general strike proposed by the Trotskyists was decreed in May, 1965. The army’s elite corps, the Rangers, special parachute troops, and the classic infantry surrounded the mines and unleashed a frontal attack against the miners’ militia. Its aviation bombed amine near La Paz and machine-gunned another. Result: hundreds of dead on the miners’ side and dozens among the soldiers; occupation of the mines by the army; doors broken down by soldiers, and families machine-gunned indiscriminately; union leaders and the more militant miners outlawed, jailed, killed. (33-34)

The mines are also cities, immense grey windowless barracks, located at some distance from the pits, where the families live. On a freezing high land plateau, with not a tree or a shrub, an expanse of red earth as far as the eye can see, an intense glare. The houses are laid out in rows, an easy and conspicuous target for the bombers. Bombardments threaten not production but population, since the mines are underground and surface installations few. The smelters are in England and the United States. Another weakness: the mines are ten or twenty or more miles apart.It is easy for the army to isolate them one by one, and difficult for the miners to get together to coordinate resistance: without a plan, without a centralized military command, without military training, without means of transport. Furthermore, the militia units can only move at night. (34)