Hi folks,

Today we’ll be discussing:

Revolution in the Revolution - Régis Debray

Today’s discussion is:

  • 1/11 - Discussion 1 - Preface and Chapter 1 “To Free the Present from the Past”. pp 1-91 in my edition.

I’m reading the Grove press edition translated by Bobbye Ortiz. These seem to be some digital copies, but please share if you find a better one!



Discussion Prompts

These are some ideas to address while considering this work. None of them are essential, and any of your own thoughts are very much welcome! I’ll be adding my own thoughts later today.

  • What is Debray saying and how is he saying it?

  • Is he persuasive?

  • What has he missed?

  • What would you say the theme of this work is?

  • Did anything surprise you?

  • Is this work applicable outside of the conditions of Latin America in the '60s? What parts are universally applicable?

  • Is this really a “nonessential” or would it be good for any communist to read it?

  • Does the book seem cool? Would you go camping in the mountains with it and share a wistful glance over the flickering embers of a dimming campfire?

Next Discussion

Next week will be:

  • 1/18 - Discussion 2 - “The Principle Lesson for the Present”, “Some Consequences for the Future”, summary discussion on the whole book.

Next Title

If you would like to suggest the next title, please put in a separate comment with the words “submission suggestion”. I think the highest voted title should win.

Books should be:

  • not suggested for beginners.
  • not overly technical or philosophical (I’m just not smart enough to lead those discussions).
  • relatively short (so as not to lose too much momentum).
  • regionally or subject specific (like Che’s Guerilla Warfare is topically specific, or Decolonization is Not a Metaphor is regionally specific?).
  • readily available.

Thanks for your time! :)

non-diegetic screams

I’ll start by saying that this is a much, much, more radical work than I was expecting. Debray seems to be trying to write a primer for how to engage in a guerilla war in Latin America; he goes a bit farther than Che’s “On guerilla warfare”.

A specific recommendation jumped out to me: that guerillas should engage police forces to destroy their “bluster” in the eyes of the people.

He seems to want to be writing a primer on how to start a guerilla war.

He uses a lot of material from Che and Castro in the Cuban war, and based a lot of the work on that. Specific quotes from Giap and Mao show up as well. He seems to have done quite a bit of primary research when writing this.

The theme: Seems to me to be that guerillas at the time took the wrong lessons from Cuba, and thus were unsuccessful. He’s adamant that a guerilla force should be separate from and not subordinated to a regular political party (though he does call guerilla war primarily political - he’s not trying to remove that element).

What surprised me: He spends a couple of pages critiquing the Trot labor movements in Latin America at the time as ineffective, self-serving, and dangerous to the people. No argument meant with trotskyists here, I just wasn’t expecting that.

He basically glosses over guerilla war in cities or suburbs, agreeing with Che that it should be subborned to the countryside “people’s war”. I was a little surprised at how much he talks about how the guerillas shouldn’t be under control of political parties. I guess that’s true of Cuba, but I hadn’t thought of it. He makes a point that “political cadre should be military cadre as well” which I thought was interesting.

Is this work applicable outside the conditions it’s written for: I think so, but not entirely. Any military struggle will need to study lessons learned from previous ones, and there’s a lot of that here. He mentions modern technology and paratroopers removing the possibility of holding territory like Mao, and I think that’s very salient still.

Is this really non-essential: I won’t call it essential for every communist, but it’s certainly useful and has interesting bits.

What I didn’t like: He mentions “bourgeoisified proletarians” a bit, which is hard for me to digest. It didn’t feel like his class terms aligned with ownership of means of production? But maybe I just didn’t get his point.

He does write pretty, I’ve enjoyed reading this.

I think our impressions of the book were quite similar.

I was also surprised at how militant it was and how much he criticises Trotskyists (and he does not hold back on that front, either).

He does write well. Although I had to go slowly through some pages / paras because he discusses a range of events in Latin America that I was unaware of. I had to piece these together with what I already knew before moving on. He’s clearly talking to the revolutionaries of the time, expecting them to know what and who he is talking about (similar to Lenin, Marx, et al), and hoping they’ll improve their strategy.

No wonder he was arrested following the book’s publication. Imagine writing this guide on how to destroy the state’s military, then getting a flight for a spot of ‘tourism’ in the region! Brave guy.

non-diegetic screams

I’m glad I’m on the right track! There definitely was a lot about specific events I’m unfamiliar with; it probably bears more research!

It’s interesting to see that he was arrested for this radical book and his radical work, and then ended up as part of the French political apparatus. Interesting guy.

I’ve been meaning to look that up. My copy doesn’t say what happened to him, only that at the time of printing he was ‘under arrest in Bolivia awaiting trial and a sentence that could be death before the firing squad’.

non-diegetic screams

His wiki page said there was a campaign for his release, and he got out within about a year. My copy said the same!

I’m glad I’ve started to read it. It’s a good one and I’m glad you prompted me to open it.

I’m still a little shocked at how much he criticises the Trotskyists. I know there are some big theoretical differences with Marxism-Leninism, but Debray gets right into the detail and argues that LatAm Trotskyists failed at every hurdle.

In the chapter on self-defence, for example, almost half the chapter is a direct attack on Trotskyists. That was unexpected, but I suppose on reflection it’s not too surprising: if Trotskyism was the main revolutionary thought in LatAm outside Cuba at the time, then it makes sense that Debray would look to the problems of their organising and the theory that underpinned their approach, i.e. Trotskyism.

I wonder whether ML organisers would have had more success, given that Debray starts his critique by saying that nobody had properly studied Cuba. Would MLs have made the same mistakes as the Trotskyists? Or would they have studied Cuba more carefully? Is the lack of study of Cuba the real difference, or is it adherence to the ML line? And why was Trotskyism so dominant? Were LatAm revolutionaries so purist that they rejected MLs after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech?

Generally, it seems strange that so many leftists rejected Marxism-Leninism after that Secret Speech. Even if it was correct, surely the better line was to follow ML praxis to win the revolution, then do something else after succeeding (i.e. avoiding what Stalin was accused of).

I suppose this is missing (so far) from Revolution in the Revolution, unless I’ve missed it. On the one had this extra analysis would make the book (which is pamphlet-sized) bulkier and more academic. But if ML ‘insurgents’ would have made similar mistakes as Trotskyists, I’d have thought that would be quite a significant conclusion. Which makes me think that Debray really did put the blame on Trotskyism, not just a lack of analysis of Cuba. Unless he implies that ML insurgents would have studied Cuba. Lenin probably would have, but would ML activists? If so, why was Debray’s book needed?

Further to the point about the chapter on self-defence, I thought @DankZedong@lemmygrad.ml might be interested in Debray’s argument as it touches on revolutionary violence.


Thanks for the tip. I’ll add this to my reading list!

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