Revolution in the Revolution? Armed Struggle and Political Struggle in Latin America November(128 pp., $.95))
This book by Régis Debray is a public judgment handed down against the Communist parties in the poor countries of the world. In it Debray plays the role of prosecutor, speaking in the name of the people, of the socialist revolution, and of history; but it is clear that he is expressing the opinions of Fidel Castro.
For that reason, his book is of tremendous importance. If it were simply a work by a young European writer endowed with an exceptional talent for extracting certain essential facts from the historical process and putting them into a language that is typically French in its brilliance, Revolution in the Revolution? would be an acute intellectual exercise but little more. It would also, of course, be of interest because of its author’s recent arrest in Bolivia for taking part in guerrilla activities, a charge that he denies. But there is something more to the book.
What is that “something more”? It consists of two elements. First, this book charges that all of the Communist parties in Latin America lack the courage to think about a seizure of power. At the same time, Revolution in the Revolution? is a weapon in Fidel Castro’s struggle to bring about a union of communism and nationalism in Latin America.
Debray’s main accusation against Communist parties in Latin America raises others which may be even more serious, because they are based on moral judgments rather than those of tactical capacity. In view of the inclination of Latin American youth to value moral considerations above all others, these charges could have serious consequences for present-day Communist parties in Latin America. The most important of these charges is that, because they need to maintain a political position which will allow them to deal with the middle classes and the oligarchies in their countries, the Communist parties are sabotaging guerrilla movements.
DEBRAY IS RIGHT in his main charge. The Communist parties of Latin America have easily degenerated into bureaucratic machines, better organized and more disciplined than the traditional political parties of any capitalist or colonial country but basically no different from them. It is quite clear now that if Fidel Castro could lead a few hundred guerrilla fighters to political power in Cuba, an island ninety miles from the United States, Communist leaders in countries much further from Washington—Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, for example—could have seized power earlier. The famous march across Brazil by the Prestes column more than thirty years ago does not have now—after Castro’s seizure of power—the revolutionary significance which Latin American Communists formerly attributed to it.
There is, however, one question which Debray does not take into account. Fidel Castro was able to seize power without the help of the Cuban Communist Party, but could he have done all he did without its collaboration? Could Fidel Castro have gained total control of the life of the country so rapidly had he continued to rely on groups of people from different social classes, led by young middle- and lower-middle-class revolutionaries who were without any well-defined ideology or any party discipline—as was true of the 26th of July Movement? The answer would seem to be No. The existence of a Cuban Communist Party, with its rigidly disciplined cadres and followers, was without a doubt a factor of prime importance, not in the seizure of power, but in the transition from the type of revolution that Castro had preached to the type of revolution that he finally installed.
If what we have just said is true, we must then consider two different phases of Latin American revolution. The first is the seizure of power, in which the Communist parties play no role, as, indeed, happened in Cuba. Until my departure from Cuba in April, 1958, the Cuban Communist Party had opposed Fidel Castro’s guerrilla bands, whom it accused of being “putschists.” That month some Communist leaders including Carlos Rafael Rodriguez had been assigned by the party to go to the Sierra Maestra to establish contact with Castro; that same month, however, the Communist Party of Cuba refused to take part in the general strike organized by the 26th of July Movement.
Up to the end of that first phase, the Cuban experience seems to support Debray’s thesis. We could sum up what the young French writer says in this way: It is not necessary for Communist parties to participate in making the revolution and in the seizure of power. (Debray will accept such participation, but on the condition that Communist parties change their outlook and therefore their conduct—in other words, that they cease being what they are today.) But can the second phase, that of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat and installing a socialist regime, be achieved without the help of a well-organized and disciplined Communist party with its capable and faithful cadres—as was true of the Cuban Communist Party?
Debray does not answer this question, nor does he even raise it. Yet the question arises from the history of Latin American revolutions. Cuba needed newspaper and magazine editors, television and radio writers, schoolteachers, engineers, agronomists, doctors, civil servants at all levels, administrators and accountants in any number of industries, banks, and commercial establishments, labor leaders, and military men to bring it into the socialist sphere. Could all of this have been supplied by some 800 or 1000 guerrilla fighters? Undoubtedly not. On the other hand, the Cuban Communist Party had on its rolls thousands of men and women working at many different jobs all over the country. Those men and women were able to hold various positions in the government and in the life of the country, which allowed the guerrilla fighters from the Sierra Maestra to devote their time to organizing the army, the police, the militia, and to specialized functions in the military and police sectors. If we were to follow Cuba’s example literally, we would conclude that although the Communist party is not necessary in the seizure of power, it becomes indispensable to continue the revolution once power has been seized.
IS THIS CONCLUSION correct? It is not, because we have begun with a false premise. The Cuban Revolution, in all its aspects, will never be reproduced in the Americas. The revolution in Cuba began as a movement that aimed at establishing a reformist, democratic, and populist government. It declared itself socialist only after it had come to power. Debray does not propose that this process be repeated, for he knows this would be impossible. What he does propose are revolutions that are frankly socialist from the start. In his view, this frankly socialist character will determine beforehand the ideological position of the members of the guerrilla groups and of their civilian collaborators, as well as the type of opposition that the guerrilla movements will encounter. The opposition to guerrilla movements will follow the pattern established by the United States in Vietnam, with Latin American armies behaving in the same way as the South Vietnamese army. The opposition to the guerrilla movements will be directed and equipped by the United States and will undertake to exterminate everyone suspected of being a guerrilla fighter. As a consequence, the revolutions advocated by the young French writer will of necessity have to be anti-imperialist—i.e., anti-American—in which Latin American communists and nationalists will act in concert. If this happens, Fidel Castro will have succeeded in one of his major goals.
Latin American nationalists can, of course, be democratic socialists, they can be populists, they can even be emotionally anti-American although politically on the extreme right. Nationalism has room for many points of view. Furthermore, even after the Cuban Revolution, communists capable of seizing power in Latin America remain an extremely small group. The consequence of the union of communists and nationalists, therefore, would be a revolution similar to that of Vietnam or Algeria, but with one great difference: it would be directed by a guerrilla leader and not by the Communist party.
Moreover, this not only follows the example of the Cuban Revolution, but falls within the Latin American tradition. We find the leader who has both military and political strength—as Simón Bolívar had—not only in wars for independence, but also in the liberal and conservative movements of the caudillo wars—such as Guzmán Blanco in Venezuela, Alfaro in Ecuador, Díaz in Mexico. The exceptions are few—Cuba’s war against Spain in 1895, organized by José Martí’s Cuban Revolutionary Party, for example. I myself acted in this typically Latin American way during the first days of May, 1965. When I realized that the Americans would stop at nothing to prevent my return to Santo Domingo, I asked the Congress to elect Colonel Caamaño constitutional president, so that the Dominican Revolution would have a military chief who was, at the same time, its political leader.
Debray quotes a phrase of Fidel Castro’s (p. 98): “Who will make the revolution in Latin America? Who? The people, the revolutionaries, with or without a party.” In this phrase lies the core of the problem raised by this young French writer’s book: It expresses not only Fidel Castro’s opinion, but also a historical process that for years has been at work at the very heart of the Latin American Left.
THIS PROCESS has its origins in what we could call the congenital incapacity of Latin American communist parties to work for the seizure of power, and their tendency to preach communism while acting like reformists. This attitude has been shared by both party leaders and their following, who have been limited to pleading for reforms within the classic oligarchical systems of Latin America—with whose leaders they have always coexisted—on the pretext that in Latin American countries there have been no “objective conditions” for a seizure of power by the communists. Their followers have been willing to work along these lines, many of them at an enormous sacrifice and with fervent partisan feelings—without the slightest hope of ever coming to power. It was Fidel Castro who broke that spell. Castro, who was not a communist, brought the communists to power in Cuba. The Cuban Revolution inevitably created a crisis within the Communist parties elsewhere in Latin America, for many cadres and militants inevitably asked themselves why their leaders had not done what Castro had done.
Régis Debray brilliantly explains both the process of formation of the reformist superego among Latin American communist leaders and their difficulty in renouncing the social and economic advantages of their position. But Debray does not explain something that Castro himself understands: between 1930 and 1959, Latin American youths refused to become communists and even fought against communism precisely because they could not see nor feel in the communists any revolutionary drive. To these young people, the communists had even less fervor than the reformists. Leaders like Antonio Guiteras and Lázaro Cárdenas frightened the communists. Even in 1960 the opinion was widespread among Cuban communists that Fidel Castro was going too fast, that he was placing the gains of the revolution in jeopardy. In addition, nationalist youth were kept away from communism by the submission of Communist parties in Latin America to Stalin’s international policies.