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.
Fidel Castro knew—and knows—that the most serious feeling of young people in Latin America is their love of country; he knew, and still knows, that what has kept the democratic reformist parties in our countries from gaining the support of young people are the close relations between their governing officials and the United States. Latin American reformist leaders have identified themselves as pro-American; the youth are anti-American; and the United States is the embodiment of militant anti-communism. In Fidel Castro’s opinion, therefore, the Latin American revolution will bring communists and nationalists together, no matter what the latter’s political ideas might be. Out of this union there will arise a nationalist communism or a communist nationalism. For Fidel Castro—although it is Debray who says so—the union of communists and nationalists will come about through guerrilla action. This is how it happened in Cuba, and Castro himself is the best example of it. Speaking of the Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese experiences, Debray goes on to say (p. 100): “The class struggle took the form of a patriotic war, and the establishment of socialism corresponded to the restoration of national independence: the two are linked.” (In the Spanish-language edition [p. 84], this sentence is in the present tense, which gives it greater propaganda value and brings it closer to the Cuban example.)
The intellectual interest of Régis Debray’s book is unquestionable. It is of political importance because it expresses the opinions of Fidel Castro. A leader of Castro’s type does not limit his opinions to the abstract field of ideas; he converts them into action. Only if we understand this can we appreciate the links between the formulations of Debray’s book and certain significant features of Castro’s Cuba, such as the increasing emphasis in Cuba on the heroes of Latin American independence, especially on the historical image of Simón Bolívar; and the growing disengagement of Cuba from Russia and China as the war in Vietnam escalates and becomes the center of increasing attention. Castro knows that every bombing raid in Vietnam—in the South or in the North—and every Vietnamese killed by napalm will increase the hatred of the United States among Latin American youth. These young people have been the victims of power for generations and are particularly sensitive to its abuses. At the same time they have become alienated from their democratic reformist leaders who have yet to speak up about the bombings, as if the victims dying in Vietnam were cattle and not human beings, the people of a poor and weak country, like those of Latin America.
Debray’s book is, as we have said, a tool in the struggle to create a union of communism and nationalism in Latin America, which seems to be Fidel Castro’s aim. As such a tool, it might have been more useful had it been written in less elevated prose, in language more accessible to the masses. But the young European writer could not free himself from his own experience; he wrote as Frenchmen are taught to write, with brilliance, elegance, and sharpness. It does not help matters that the title is cast in the form of a question; although this can be taken as a sign of intellectual honesty, it is vague and it denotes insecurity. (In the English version there are some cases of free translation that on occasion do not render the exact meaning of a phrase, but this occurs only in some unimportant details and does not affect the whole.)
Debray falls into some contradictions: In the course of the chapter entitled “Armed Propaganda” (pp. 47-58), for example, he writes, on page 47, “the first nucleus of fighters will be divided into small propaganda patrols…in order to explain the social goals of the revolution”; yet on page 51 he affirms that the “unassailability [of a soldier] cannot be challenged by words but by showing that a soldier and a policeman are no more bullet-proof than anyone else.” On page 54 he writes that “during two years of warfare Fidel did not hold a single political rally.” The last two statements would seem to be confirmed as a basic principle when he assures us, on page 56, that “the main point is that under present conditions the most important form of propaganda is successful military action.” These contradictions are probably owing to Debray’s failure to understand fully the kind of political propaganda that guerrillas should undertake. This type of propaganda is not what he describes on page 47, but of another kind: propaganda to be made not by speeches but by political means—by decisions and acts that win the confidence, affection, and even the gratitude of the people who live in the zone where the guerrillas operate.
At the same time Debray suggests themes that might turn out to be quite startling if they were further developed: for example, in his discussion of the indissoluble relationship between revolutionary strategy and tactics (p. 60), he argues that tactical considerations must precede questions of over-all strategy. Even though he may be expounding this argument as a general concept, it will, when applied, turn out to be of inestimable—and perhaps indispensable—value in understanding what underlies revolutionary agitation in Latin America and what its future must be.
AS ONE FINISHES these pages, one finds two questions unresolved: Does Fidel Castro feel that a socialist regime—through the dictatorship of the proletariat—can be established in Latin America without the collaboration of a Communist party?; and why does Fidel Castro wish to create a Latin American union of communism and nationalism?
In Cuba Fidel Castro secured the collaboration of the Communists by organizing a broad front, bringing together revolutionaries of all types within an organization in which the Communists—as a party—had no monopoly of power. And what is this, indeed, if not a kind of union of nationalists and Communists? If one carefully analyzes the Cuban experience and Fidel Castro’s present situation, it is difficult to avoid this conclusion: Castro hopes that in Latin America the Cuban strategy will be reproduced.
Castro’s situation is similar to Stalin’s. The astute Georgian dictator spent several years waiting for a foreign attack on Russia, and he prepared for this aggression by infusing the Communist Party of the USSR with ardent nationalism; at the same time, he attempted to extend this nationalism to all the Russian people and all the Communist parties of the world. His argument was that Russia was the homeland of all Communists and must be defended by each one of them, by the French and Swedish, Algerian and Chilean, Mexican and North American.
Fidel Castro is waiting for an attack by the United States. He waits for it day after day and fears that when it occurs Russia will not fight for Cuba. Fidel Castro does not hope to make fervent Cuban nationalists of world Communists, and perhaps does not entirely trust the nationalism of Cuban Communists. Fidel Castro, according to what can be deduced from what he says and does, seems to depend more on the nationalist youth of Latin America than on the Communist parties of the region. He sees that the Communist parties are withholding support from the guerrillas organizing all over the continent, and no doubt fears that these parties, formed during the Stalinist days of loyalty to Russia, may follow the Russian line of coexistence with the United States. If the North American attack occurs, they will make no serious effort to prevent a Cuban defeat.
How can Fidel Castro prevent this?
By leading the Latin American youth to guerrilla warfare. The Communist parties of the area may adhere to Russia’s international policy, not Castro’s, but the nationalist youth will follow Castro, not Russia. If the nationalist youth take to guerrilla warfare and are successful, Castro’s power in Latin America will be greater than Russia’s and the Communist parties will eventually have to follow the Cuban line. In this case the force of events will produce the union—or, better still, the synthesis—of nationalism and communism, which is to say, the synthesis of nationalist aggressiveness and Communist organizing capabilities. After this union, economic, technical, political, and military support from the Communist countries will inevitably follow. This is what happened in Cuba. The young nationalists fought in the mountains for two years and, once they were in power, the Cuban and world Communist organization gave them the support necessary to make a socialist revolution.
One can see, then, that the strategy of the guerrillas, on the continental level, has its origin in North American aggression toward Cuba, just as the iron-willed dictatorship of Stalin and his international policy had its origin in the aggressive threat of the capitalist countries toward Russia. Something similar may be occurring in the case of the Chinese cultural revolution, a movement that can be interpreted as an attempt to reinforce the union of all China in order to face an expected attack by the United States.
Régis Debray does not say this. But it is easy to see that his book must be considered as a chapter of propaganda in a much larger book, the really important chapters of which would contain the long-range thinking of Fidel Castro. One has to see Régis Debray’s book as a part of such a scheme.
At the moment that the English translation of his book appeared, the young French writer was undergoing a typical Latin American feudal ordeal. He faces a trial for crimes of which it would be an honor to be guilty, although he may not in fact have committed them. Having written Revolution in the Revolution? and; no doubt, inspired by a curiosity typical of European intellectuals, he decided to see with his own eyes and experience, personally, the things that he dealt with abstractly. He went to Bolivia as a correspondent for a Mexican magazine, fell into the hands of troops searching for Bolivian guerrillas, and had the fabulous luck not to be killed. Probably the soldiers who caught him thought Debray was North American. Nothing else can explain their failure to kill him. Sartre has said he was jailed for having written Revolution in the Revolution?, but it would seem the contrary must be true: he is alive because he wrote this book. It gave him worldwide notoriety, and by the time the Bolivian military leaders realized whom they held prisoner, the scandal produced in Europe and America was such that it would have been dangerous to eliminate the young writer.
Until now it has been impossible to prove that Debray was a guerrilla. And in reality he could not be one. He was—and is—an intellectual, a writer who wanted to see in action what he had known as ideas. This may be a crime in dependent territories but not in those parts of the world that can be called civilized. In any case, sentencing Debray would harm his enemies more than the guerrilla movement. About this no one should have any doubt.
(Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rebassa and Jose Yglesias.)
October 26, 1967