Hi folks,

Today we’ll be discussing:

Revolution in the Revolution - Régis Debray

Today’s discussion is:

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

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?

  • What has he missed? Is he wrong about anything?

  • 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?

Next Discussion

Next week will be:

  • 1/25 - “Make Way for Winged Eros” - Alexandra Kollontai


Next Title

If you would like to suggest the title for 2/1 , 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! :)

Submission suggestion.

@AgreeableLandscape@lemmygrad.ml suggested a book, The Red Deal.

My copy arrived and having a quick skim through, it could be a good text for NEBulae. Short chapters, short book, written for the public, focuses on a narrow enough topic/region, and there’s a PDF. (I can’t find the PDF, atm, though. Will have to do some digging if we go with this one.)

As AL suggests, this might be mandatory for people in settler colonies, but that’s something we could discuss and I don’t think it’s a well known text.

non-diegetic screams

Great idea! We’ll start this on 2/1. It’s one I’ve been aware of, and I’m interested!

non-diegetic screams

Submission suggestion: “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor”.


The ‘Principal Lessons for the Present’ are interesting.

The chapter begins again with questions. What is more important, the party or the guerrillas? ‘Which is the decisive link? Where should the principal effort be made?’

The orthodox answer would have revolutionaries rely on the party. Debray rejects this. He cites Castro favourably, as saying that a vanguard is necessary to make a revolution, but the vanguard does not have to be Marxist-Leninist:

There is … no metaphysical equation in which vanguard = Marxist-Leninist party; there are merely dialectical conjunctions between a given function—that of the vanguard in history—and a given form of organization—that of the Marxist-Leninist party.

In the run up to this quote, Debray notes that the guerrilla organ can have a political and military leadership, as in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh and Giap), China (Mao and Chu Teh) and the USSR (Lenin and Trotsky). But in Cuba, both functions fell to Castro.

Debray argues that the dialectic of vanguard/party and of it’s leadership depends on how it arises, it’s material preconditions.

In China, the revolutionaries arose alongside Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang and found support from the Soviet Union. They soon faced disaster an urban revolutionary war. The third international’s line was to hold the line, but under Mao’s self criticism, they withdraw to the countryside.

The Vietnamese revolutionaries organised peasant insurrections in rural areas. These failed, to begin with, so the line was revised. Ho Chi Minh turned towards ‘armed mass struggle’. It was the peasants who ‘establish[ed] soviet power’, according to Giap.

In China and Vietnam, revolutionaries transformed themselves

into vanguard parties, each one with its own political line, elaborated independently of international social forces, and each profoundly linked to its people.

In these examples and with the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary

anti-feudal revolt was … transformed into an anti-imperialist revolt, the latter giving impetus to the former. 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.

The people involved in this organisation ‘achieved in practice the alliance of the majority class and the vanguard class: the worker-peasant alliance’. It would be tempting to read this as suggesting that the vanguard/guerrillas should be a spontaneous organisation. But we know from the earlier chapters that Debray argues against spontaneity.

So what is Debray saying? He seems to be arguing that although the vanguard (responsible for armed military struggle) should be organised, its work should not be determined by a separate political party. Although, so long as committees, commissions, etc, etc, are avoided (so as to allow the military organ the capacity to respond to things quickly), political representatives can join the guerrillas, because what is needed is a ‘new organisation’.

Exact forms of organisation must depend on the circumstances, even if this contradicts orthodox theory. Indeed, the vanguard needs a ‘new style of leadership’ and a ‘perfect Marxist education is not, at the outset, an imperative condition’.

Debray seems to use guerilla, vanguard, revolutionaries, etc as interchangeable in places, but I’m unsure if I’ve missed a subtlety here.

non-diegetic screams

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I really like the way you read and think about this.

I’ll confess that I’m a little confused as to what Debray’s offering as a solution, but I do find his criticisms compelling. Thank you for bringing in his earlier criticisms against spontaneity here!


Thank you, too.

I’ll try to have another read through tomorrow and see if I can work that out. His final message seems to be a little spread out, so I agree it’s hard to pin down his solution in a single sentence. I wonder if a couple of his main arguments is simply to reject dogmatism, promote independent and effective organisation, and to argue in favour of letting-things-develop-as-necessary-depending-on-the circumstances?

Edit: another thought, reading back over that Castro quote. Is he saying that the vanguard need not be ML? Or is he only arguing that it need not be an ML party? Would that change the argument? (He still makes the other points about Marxist education….)

non-diegetic screams

It sounded to me like he’s arguing against organizing around solely political lines (an ML party) and arguing for organizing towards specific material goals (i.e. freeing Cuba).

I do think I’ll get more from re-reading this, though!

non-diegetic screams

I thought this last section was very interesting, with a very persuasive argument for Debray’s vision for future revolution.

II. The principal lesson for the future:

He spends quite a bit of time arguing against making revolution through current parties, and for developing separate socialist guerilla movements. I thought this was a key quote:

"“Who will make the revolution in Latin America? Who? The people, the revolutionaries, with or without a party” (Fidel)
Fidel says simply that there is no revolution without a vanguard; that this vanguard is not necessarily the Marxist-Leninist party; and that those who want to make the revolution have the right and the duty to constitute themselves a vanguard without those parties. (p. 98)

He talks a bit about how vital a worker-peasant alliance is to making a revolution, and leaves me wondering what that looks like in the modern imperial core.

He talks about remaking the party into an “effective directive organism” involves putting an end to endless meetings and bureaucracy, but also says that will involve “suspending democratic centralism”. Which gives me pause. I understand the need for defined hierarchy in battle, but it feels like a core component.

He adds a rad quote from Che: “you are capable of creating cadres who can endure imprisonment and torture with silence, but not of training cadres who can capture a machine-gun nest”. (p. 103)

I liked another quote on party work from Debray: "Let us speak clearly. The time has passed for believing that it suffices to be “in the Party " to be a revolutionary. But the time has also come for putting to an end the acrimonious, obsessive, and sterile attitudes of those who think that in order to be a revolutionary one must only be “anti-party”…the value of a revolutionary, like that of a party, depends on his activity” (p. 104).

He calls the guerilla force “the party in embryo” and mentions that guerillas don’t want political commissars because their leaders hold that role. There’s quite a lot that I found thought provoking and interesting in this chapter, and I think a lot of use could be found here for revolution in the Americas still.

Consequences for the Future:

I’ll let the quotes speak for themselves in this section. I really think it’s a good read entirely:

"The setting up of military focos, not political focos, is decisive for the future. (p. 119)

In short, the political organization has become an end in itself. It will not pass over to armed struggle because it must first wait until it establishes itself solidly as the party of the vanguard, even though in reality it cannot expect recognition of its vanguard status except through armed struggle (p. 121).

The creation of one more political foco mobilizes only the mobilized: a number of militants and a handful of old leaders are siphoned off from one party to another, subtle internal adjustments are made within the profession; but that does not result in raising the level of the class struggle (p. 121)

sounds like a scathing critique of western parties

antibodies must be created at the base, at the level of the masses, by offering them a real alternative within their reach. (p. 121)

Let us indulge in a little sociology. Such splinter groups, “vanguardist” or otherwise, do not exist where an active guerilla movement is found…They really amount to something only in those countries that are remote from the armed struggle, where there is no clear-cut revolutionary vanguard in action. (p. 123)

No one can avoid seeing that in Latin America today the struggle against imperialism is decisive. If it is decisive, then all else is secondary (p. 125)

Summary on the work:

Debray has a lot of really great critiques of existing (at the time) forms of organization, and of making revolution. He does seem to suggest that to start a revolution, you just need to start “waging war against whichever agents of imperialism are closest to you”. I’m not sure I find that convincing, and I’m not sure that’s been born out as a fully successful strategy in the areas he’s speaking for either.

I thought this was a great work, and I’m happy I read it. I think any communist would do well to read it, and any communist in the Americas could find a lot of worth in it.

I’m glad I own a paper copy.

Great analysis! Debray writes so succinctly that it’s hard to pick out the most important parts. You’ve done that and highlighted something that I didn’t quite see, about the modern application in the imperial core. There’s definitely something in here for Marxist parties to think about. From Debray’s text, I suspect he would not be too impressed by many modern parties. Or rather, he might ask why they are claiming to be vanguard parties without doing what he deems to be the vanguard’s work (which may not even require strict adherence to theory).

Looks like that Castro quote stood out to us both (p. 98). It’s a good one. Seems a little outrageous at first, but it makes sense. I’ve heard people say that Castro (i) pretended not to be a Marxist to keep the CIA off his back long enough to have a revolution and (ii) eventually pretended to be a Marxist to lure in other Marxists to the Cuban cause. Debray’s analysis persuasively disputes both these options. He gives a whole new framing to the Cuban revolution, of its form and its leadership.

I agree with your assessment. It’s not the most essential work, theoretically. It may not all be relevant today, as technology has changed things and, at least in the imperial core, armed struggle does not seem to be on anyone’s mind (although it’s probably not the kind of thing that political parties will publicly state), but there are important lessons here.

He demonstrates the type of criticism that is required, showing (as we saw last week) that he’s not afraid to criticise those who don’t live up to his standards e.g. Trotskyists, but also that he would support even non-Marxists if they successfully organised.

I can’t believe I’ve had this gem on my shelf for so long and not read it yet. Thanks for arranging this reading group.

non-diegetic screams

Thanks for reading with me! You’ve helped me understand it quite a bit better! 🙂

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