Forty years ago, Régis Debray was a political celebrity and, to some, an existential hero. With his wild mustache and brooding gaze, he looked like Friedrich Nietzsche in battle fatigues–the gun-toting philosopher as atheist prophet. A guerrilla warrior who had joined Che Guevara and his band of rebels in Bolivia, he was a controversial theorist of revolution–and, after his capture in 1967, an international cause célèbre. His fame lasted longer than fifteen minutes but faded with the ’60s. Yet in France to this day, he remains well-known as a commentator, essayist, novelist, playwright, autobiographer, media theorist, political philosopher and sometime participant in French politics who takes care to burnish his “brand image” at the website www.regisdebray.com.
Debray’s new book in English, Praised Be Our Lords, is actually eleven years old. Though the English jacket calls it simply “The Autobiography,” the translated text is the second in a trilogy of memoirs. The first volume recounts “an amorous education,” the second “a political education,” the third “an intellectual education”–the subtitles of each, of course, are an allusion to Flaubert’s novel Sentimental Education.
Like Flaubert, Debray wants to write a moral history of the men of his generation–and like Sentimental Education, his memoir is a narrative of disillusion and thwarted passion. Praised Be Our Lords mainly concerns events in two decades: the ’60s, which Debray spent largely in Latin America as a revolutionist in league with Fidel Castro; and the ’80s, which Debray spent largely in a small office at the Elysée Palace as an adviser to the notionally socialist President François Mitterrand.
Debray was born in 1940 and grew up in a prosperous Paris neighborhood. A prodigy, he won the philosophy prize in the national concours général in 1956 and later won entrance to the elite École Normale Supérieure. In the first of what would become a series of political epiphanies, he beheld “in the year of grace 1958, coming out of the Janson-de-Sailly lycée in the avenue Henri-Martin, the black DS19 carrying Charles de Gaulle.” Seduced by visions of great leaders and the idea of the omnipotent sovereign, he soon fell under the spell of Louis Althusser, his teacher at the École Normale, who converted him to Marxism and persuaded him to join the Communist Party.
Though he proved to be a brilliant exegete of historical materialism–perhaps the finest theorist of his generation–the young Debray decided that he “would follow Lenin’s recommendation and become a ‘professional revolutionary.'” Like André Malraux in 1922 and Paul Nizan in 1926, he fled France at his first opportunity, hoping to “take on the human condition at its sharpest.”
He headed West (unlike Malraux and Nizan, who went, respectively, to Cambodia and Yemen). He spent six months in Cuba in 1961. Two years later, he went to South America for an improvised tour of the continent that lasted eighteen months. On this trip, he spent time in the ranks of the Falcón guerrilla army, based in the jungles of Venezuela. Flying home from Brazil at the end of 1964, he imagined building a new international movement in Latin America modeled on Lenin’s Comintern.
Dropping out of the French Communist Party, Debray dreamed instead of becoming a secret agent, a freelance insurrectionist. “I identified,” he explains, “much more strongly with Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Gian Maria Volonte in Il terrorista than with those edifying figurines Lenin, Mao, Rosa Luxemburg.” His main chance, ironically, came through a bravura display of Marxist theorizing. In January 1965 Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes published a piece by Debray on “Castroism, or the Long March in Latin America.” On a visit to Algeria, Che Guevara chanced upon a copy of the essay and had it translated into Spanish to pass on to Fidel Castro. Impressed by the dialectical acumen of his theoretical doppelgänger, Castro personally invited the French Fidelista to Havana. “The dreamer lying in ambush” had his opening.