Debray’s memoirs: tears of a clown

Issue: 116

Ian Birchall

Régis Debray, Praised Be Our Lords (Verso, 2007), £19.99

Régis Debray first came to prominence in the 1960s when he published various articles and a short book, Revolution in the Revolution?, about guerrilla struggles in Latin America. This aroused considerable interest because a new generation of the left was eager to discover revolutionary movements independent of both Washington and Moscow.

The Latin American guerrilla struggles, beginning with the Cuban Revolution, had rejected the orthodoxies of Stalinism. But as Debray showed, they had also rejected the basics of Marxism. Debray stressed the importance of small revolutionary groups acting in isolation, remote from any proletarian or peasant base. As he put it, “The mountain proletarianises the bourgeois and peasant elements, and the city can bourgeoisify the proletarians.”

Debray was adopted by the Cuban leadership, and went to Bolivia to join Che Guevara’s guerrilla group shortly before Che’s murder. Debray spent nearly four years in a Bolivian jail and then went to Chile, where he wrote a book based on conversations with the president, Salvador Allende, defending Chile’s parliamentary road to socialism. He claims that “it never occurred to me for a single moment” that Allende’s rule would end with bloody overthrow.

Debray’s analyses were soon overtaken by events. The Cuban Revolution had succeeded in a unique historical conjuncture which was not to be repeated; when Castro tried to declare independence from Washington, he soon found himself trapped as sugar supplier to the rival empire in Moscow. Guevara died a heroic but futile death, and by the early 1970s the wave of guerrilla struggle was largely exhausted. Allende was overthrown by a vicious right wing coup.

For Debray it looked like the end of a promising career. But when François Mitterrand was elected president of France in 1981 he appointed Debray as a “special adviser” on foreign affairs. At first sight it was an odd choice. After what had happened to Guevara and Allende, Debray could hardly be seen as a lucky mascot. And given the quality of his previous predictions, the standard of advice he could offer was scarcely guaranteed. But then, as Debray wryly notes, Mitterrand never listened to his advice anyway.

It seems more likely that Mitterrand imagined that Debray’s reputation would enhance the president’s left image while he pursued ever more right wing policies. The United States, for whom such Gallic subtlety was a bit much, tried to get Debray’s diplomatic passport withdrawn. Debray did, however, do a number of odd jobs for Mitterrand, and acted as ghost writer: “I could churn out kilometres of pure Mitterrand non_stop.” He finally resigned in 1988, noting that there was nothing socialist or even republican about Mitterrand’s policies. True enough, but he took his time noticing it.

This book consists of Debray’s memories of his experiences with Castro, Guevara, Allende and Mitterrand. Contrary to the front cover, it is not an “autobiography” (the French original makes no such claim, but merely subtitles the work “a political education”). It contains only a few mentions of Debray’s student days—he studied under the Stalinist anti-humanist philosopher Louis Althusser, which may explain a lot. And, since the French original was published in 1996, it says nothing of the past decade, in which Debray took part in a commission set up by President Chirac that advocated the ban on the hijab in schools. (“From Guerrilla Fighter to Veil_Snatcher” would make a nice title for an autobiography, if he ever does write one.)

This is not an easy book to read. Grappling with Debray’s style is rather like swimming in marmalade. He has obviously got through a very large number of books. (Or am I being naive? Perhaps he just read a library catalogue and a dictionary of quotations.) His continual use of literary allusions constructs a protective barrier against the reader: “If you don’t understand that, you aren’t clever enough to be reading me”.

Yet it would be surprising if there were nothing of interest in the memoirs of one who has associated with some of the key figures of the left over the past 40 years. The anecdotes and observations are often drowned amid Debray’s own rather tedious reflections on the universe and everything, but they are there.

On Castro, he is quite severe. He notes that on returning to Cuba in 1971 he found that all attempts to pursue an independent revolutionary course had been abandoned: “What had been restless or anxious about the man seemed to have congealed or stiffened… Seized by totemic solemnity, my companion was well on the way to being certain of everything, and deaf to everyone.” The man who had once described Russia as “a giant country run by midgets” now praised Moscow’s representatives.

Debray attempts no explanation of why Cuba’s bid for independence failed, but he shows how bureaucracy became established. He adds that Castro is a man “for whom theory has never been a problem, has no interest in debating ideas and never listens to an adversary’s argument”.

Guevara gets equally harsh treatment. What had seemed virtues in the 1960s are now viewed more critically. His leadership style is summed up as “not giving a damn really whether anyone understood him or not; not bothering to acquire the means to win the ‘masses’ over to his point of view, as politicians do. Not even his own lieutenants: he never explained orders, briefed the men, asked them any questions or invited them to speak.”

Guevara went to Bolivia “without any political, geographical or social survey of the terrain, without trying to set up any sort of support network in the region or to recruit a single Bolivian from the region”. Debray eventually concludes that “Che Guevara went to Bolivia not to win, but to lose”. This can only be psychological speculation, but Debray is sufficiently well informed to make us think twice about drawing tactical, as distinct from moral, lessons from Guevara.

Mitterrand, by contrast, gets a much easier ride. Debray tells us nothing of the failure of his initial reflationary economic policies and his consequent swing to the right, nor of how his electoral manoeuvring gave an initial boost to the Front National (Le Pen’s name never appears in the book).

Debray is well aware of the shifts and turns in Mitterrand’s career, how he started out as a right wing anti-Gaullist and then “recycled the credo of his youth into a left anti-Gaullism”. Mitterrand was “a socialist advancing the cause of advanced liberalism”, a secularist encouraging church education, “the signatory of a party congress motion calling for a break with capitalism adopting the country’s most right wing finance policy since the liberation”. He could “talk revolution in public and police surveillance in private”. Indeed, he had “an allergy…to the very idea of truth”.

And yet Debray calls the old crook “a decent man” (the original French pudique is stronger than “decent”, implying reserve and discretion). Clearly truth, let alone socialist principle, is not a value of any great importance to Debray. He protects himself from criticism by adopting an ironic, self-deprecating stance. The Mitterrand years were “no big deal”, leaving a “sense of artificiality and emptiness”. He justifies his jesting tone by noting that “at court, more than elsewhere, truth comes from the mouths of buffoons”.

In any case, none of it matters. Debray concludes that, although progress is possible in technology, it is meaningless in politics. This, of course, is the delusion of an intellectual, comparing himself to Victor Hugo or whoever. Life is no paradise for French workers today, but it is a sight better than it was a century ago, thanks to the great struggles of 1936 and 1968, and a thousand smaller battles.

Debray protests vigorously that he is no renegade from leftism, that he was never a leftist. He was “repelled” by the “anarchist psychodrama” of 1968. He even makes the preposterous claim that there was a 20 percent suicide rate among the extreme left. Here we can admit that Debray’s claim of consistency is valid. From the rigorous Guevarist to Mitterrand’s errand boy, and from there to the conservative cynicism of his memoirs, there is one constant theme in Debray’s work—a total rejection of the idea that collective human action could change the world for the better.

As I write, the press is full of furore about Alastair Campbell’s diaries. (By the time this is published, people will be asking “Who?”) Debray is immeasurably more cultured than Campbell, whose literary ambitions never extended beyond his youthful efforts at pornography. But in the end both books are testimony to the degradation of politics in declining capitalism.