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! :)

To be honest I did not finish the last part of section 1 that was about the party and the guerillas buuuuuut I still feel the need to discuss lol.

Now first, when we talk about the difference between essentials and non essentials my take is reading theory is like a skill tree in a video game. At the trunk of the the tree we have the core theory: Marx/Engels, Lenin (Stalin), and a little Mao. After that we see branching off of: military theory, histories of colonialism, overshadowed oppressed groups, actual building of socialism, etc. It’s all essential, as in it is needed for a complex understanding of Marxism-Leninism, but some parts of the tree are prerequisites to bear fruit on others.

On the actual book, what was most eye opening was “Armed self defense”. My favorite line was “Guerrilla Warfare is to peasant uprising what Marx is to Sorel”. I haven’t really thought about the guerrillas being a separate embryo from the party, which makes sense.

I haven’t much to add that you guys haven’t already mentioned, but I do have this.

In the age of information and surveillance it is impossible to fully conceal your location. Whether through direct spying or some dickhead posting the position of liberation forces on twitter, the State will know. So instead of hiding, the option liberation forces have is the art of confusion. If you can’t be nowhere, then be everywhere. Use the information war to your advantage. Maybe have a team dedicated to uploading false locations of the fighters. Have pre-made pictures of fighters in certain areas. Hell some AI generated images. Completely made up people. Only when they doubt the information of everyday life can the secretive operations be successful.

That’s a good point about the necessity of hiding. Even if it were a war in the countryside, satellites and drones could give any insurgents away. The new technological age certainly throws up some challenges that Debray could not have thought about.

non-diegetic screams

I really like your tree metaphor!!

Ah thanks, but its probably just how my brain organizes things can’t take too much credit lol

non-diegetic screams

You should take all the credit for the things your brain does! 🙂

fair :)

It seems that the two copies in the links you provided are the same as my copy. Something worth noting from the Foreword and Introduction to the Spanish Edition…

The original was in French, and apparently his style in his native language is quite, let’s say, poetic. Apparently, the US (who also, apparently, through the CIA, interrogated Debray in his Bolivian prison, where he was allegedly tortured) took advantage of his sometimes ‘allusive and elliptical’ style. The US government Joint Publications Research Service published its own translation of the book:

which is not only completely unreliable but often grotesque in its errors and misunderstandings.

The Grove Press edition (my copy) is translated by Bobbye Ortiz, who worked with the original French and the Spanish translation (which had both been prepared by Debray). Debray did not get to see Ortiz’s translation before it was first published because he was imprisoned. It’s interesting to see the kinds of tactics that will be deployed to prevent radical messages being shared.

Debray had also ‘studied with’ Althusser, which is interesting. Whether they were students at the same time or Debray was Althusser’s students is not clear from the text.

The book’s purpose is set up by criticising the phrase, ‘The Cuban Revolution can no longer be repeated in Latin America’. This turns Cuba into a ‘golden legend’. Debray argues that the ‘inner workings’ of the Cuban revolution must be thoroughly analysed to understand ‘how’ and ‘why’ it succeeded.

He seems to imply that others, assuming the Cuban strategy and tactics could not be repeated, essentially started from scratch and made lots of mistakes.

When we come to the main text, it is clear that this is not going to be an academic critique of the ‘Latin activists’ on whose lips is this phrase. He provides what he says is missing: a careful examination of the Cuban revolution, but kind of in reverse. He analyses other, later, movements, finds their weaknesses, and then considers how the strategy / tactics might be improved by looking to the Cuban revolution. In this, he also compares Cuba with China (citing Mao, as Simply_Surprise noted).

For example he explains that a striking miners are at a disadvantage. ‘The government has money in the bank, North American loans …, commercial warehouses, access to a … port’.

It is a battle of the wills, but the government cuts off the road supplying the miners. They get hungry quickly, and both sides wait to see who can hold out the longest. Debray argues that a ‘spontaneous insurrection’ cannot defeat a well-trained, well-armed, logistically supported military. An independent guerilla army could raid a nearby warehouse, supporting the miners ‘for weeks’.

This example shows his process: finding a weakness in the revolutionary movements and considering how to overcome it. (I’m wondering whether Thatcher read Debray before she defeated the British miners, in part by stockpiling coal in advance.)

non-diegetic screams

This is a great analysis! Thanks for reading with me! 😊

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!

non-diegetic screams

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