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.
In Cuba Debray stumbled into a world straight out of a Buñuel farce. Treated like a bourgeois dignitary, the 25-year-old writer was provided with a car and a driver, a hotel room with a balcony, a private lift and a white telephone (“it was like being in the movies”). But like every other VIP of the World Revolution, he was forced to kill time. Castro liked to heighten the expectations of the elect, sending an intermediary to announce that “Fidel wants to see you”–and then making the chosen one wait for up to three months before an audience was actually granted.
When the moment came, the sovereign paced “like a wild beast in a cage,” his torrent of words conjuring up a heroic struggle, treating Debray as a confidant, a co-conspirator, a militant “indispensable to the proper course of things, someone on whom the ruler was going to be able to depend at last.” In return, Fidel asked only that Debray undertake a crash course in the art of war. Debray acquiesced with brio, giddy to be given access to a “fabulous Aladdin’s cave for weapons freaks,” thrilled to learn the martial arts, how to handle explosives, surveillance and countersurveillance, techniques of assassination.
Castro had found his John Reed–a fervent convert and foreign correspondent enraptured by the prospect of epochal social change. His guerrilla training finished, Debray set himself to explain to armchair radicals around the world just how the Cubans were paving the way for a Revolution in the Revolution?, as he grandly titled his pamphlet. Written with an air of Cartesian rigor, the essay was meant “to convince that town mouse the urban Marxist” of the virtues of rural guerrilla warfare. The Cubans printed 300,000 copies in Spanish, and within months Debray’s “primer for Marxist insurrection” (as Newsweek magazine called it) had been translated into most of the major languages, including English.
Though brief, it is a remarkably abstract, often dry text, which the author now dismisses as “a bad grafting of ideas onto passion, and doctrine onto conjuncture.” But when it was published in the United States in 1967, just as protests against the war in Vietnam were taking a turn toward violent confrontation, the book was something of an event. By making a willingness to brave death for an ideal seem like tough-minded realism, Debray’s screed helped to reinforce a certain mood on the young left of grim conviction and apocalyptic hope.
Debray himself is remarkably insouciant about the most alarming aspects of his contribution to the theory and practice of the ’60s New Left. “You had to get a bit worked up to believe that a handful of clowns with Kalashnikovs were going to ‘make revolution,'” he dryly recalls. “But everyone did believe it, friends and enemies both.”
These are the years when Debray was a real witness to history in the making–he was the last intermediary between Castro and Che Guevara, ferrying the leader’s views from Havana to Che’s jungle redoubt in Bolivia. Che’s desperate gambit he now calls “a true masterpiece of political anti-art”–a “holy war, extremely limited in means, but total in its lack of precision and the absence of negotiable aims or possible areas of compromise, which could only end with the annihilation of the enemy or, failing that (more likely actually), himself.” It’s no wonder that Che liked to compare himself to an early Christian in the catacombs–it was salvation and not victory that he sought.
A willing accessory to Che’s final folly, Debray almost became a martyr himself. Captured and imprisoned, he got to experience a simulated execution: April 1967, six rifles leveled at ten paces, his wrists handcuffed, no shots fired. There were other tortures, too, accompanied by an international hue and cry, letters demanding Debray’s release signed by Sartre in France and by the New York intellectuals in America.
At his trial, his defense was that he was a journalist, an innocent reporter, a wandering idealist–which was a lie, Debray admits: “In reality I had carried a weapon and taken part in the first ambush; I had fired, I believe without killing anyone; I was not there to interview people but to follow orders.”
At the time of his arrest, Debray was 27 years old. He was roughly the same age as John Lennon–and like Lennon, he was fated to experience the most exciting years of his life before he turned 30.
Even worse, his four years in prison meant that this icon of the era had missed the whole of the “swinging” ’60s: About the Beatles, or May ’68 in Paris, he knew little. When he was finally freed from prison in 1971, he was a man out of sync with his time, and with his most intense moments of happiness behind him:
In Latin America our weapons were pathetic, our plans crazed, our considerable efforts without much effect, yet when I mull over those years now they emit an aura of seriousness, something authentic and luminous. And there were truly radiant moments, times when physical well-being verged on the unreal; the magical sensations I remember from a solitary exploration on foot of the mountainous jungles of Bolivia in 1966, a few months before joining Guevara. From my passage among “men of power” in France, a “serious” situation in a country of repute that counts in the world, I retain–perhaps because the body had so little to do with the transaction–no memories of pure or full joy. Despite the interesting foreign visits, the wealth of information gathered, the vanities of petty importance, I cannot rid myself of a sense of artificiality and emptiness. Maruiac used to say that in politics one cannot be happy twice.
The best parts of Debray’s memoir, like this passage, are of a very high order: lucid, lyrical, full of feeling.
But other parts, alas, are prolix, self-absorbed and full of specious casuistry. “We are all Gauleiters,” he asserts with peremptory confidence. Well, no, most of us are not Gauleiters–simply because most of us, for better or worse, aren’t nearly as fixated on fantasies of sovereign power as Monsieur Debray elsewhere confesses that he is. (“To tell the truth I could not cry: ‘King Fidel is dead!’ until I was able to continue with equal piety, in the same breath: ‘Long live King François, his oak and our rose!'”)
The 1970s were something of a lost decade for Debray. He championed the “third way” of Salvador Allende–a radical socialist program pursued through moderate and legal means–and Allende, following in Castro’s footsteps, treated him as a confidante. After Allende’s overthrow, Debray drifted back to Cuba, where he grew progressively disenchanted with Castro’s dictatorship. Home in France, he took “an openly reformist line”–and thus came into contact with the leader of France’s resurgent Socialist Party, François Mitterrand.
Explaining his recurrent pledges of fealty to rulers like Mitterrand, he cites as precursors Seneca and Voltaire, and characteristically quotes Malraux, a mythomaniac as self-exculpating as Debray: “‘It’s too late to act on something,’ Malraux once said, ‘one can now only act on someone.’ This despairing observation holds good for all time”–as if Seneca had no choice but to tutor Nero, and Voltaire had been forced to accept the patronage of Frederick the Great.
Acknowledging the expectation that he will express some sort of remorse for at least some of the more reckless passages in his political life, he stubbornly demurs. “How simple everything would be,” he writes, “if communism had just been a machine for making prison camps! The curse (or the blessing, I am not sure which) is that between the crimes it produced fraternity, self-denial, optimism, courage and generosity.” Castro’s Communism was “a corrupting and uplifting machine for making people worse and better than they are.” He cannot forget “the superior human qualities of the militants who kept the inhuman machine running.”
A crafty rhetorician, Debray is disarmingly honest about his dishonest tendencies: “A philosopher is someone who does not want to lie to himself. The problem (as can be seen from this very text) is that no one makes History without doing so a lot, in petto.” He comes across as a paragon of “sinuousness,” to borrow a term that he applies to Mitterrand: “The great accompanist of his time espoused its caprices and tendencies so earnestly that he was incapable on any given day of uttering a hint of contrition for the previous one. He absolved himself every time, for he had been sincere and wholehearted throughout.”
In the second half of Praised Be Our Lords, Debray chronicles his years alongside Mitterrand in power, serving the French Republic. Like everyone else on the French left, he welcomed his master’s election in 1981 as a historical turning point for socialism in France. At first, he advised the president on foreign policy and served as an informal liaison with Parisian intellectuals: One of his duties was to invite luminaries like Fernand Braudel and Michel Foucault to dinners at the Elysée, and another was to convene experts on sensitive parts of the world–India, the Middle East, the USSR–to meet with Mitterrand and offer their advice.
But his new master let him down. And some of his comments are withering: “A de Gaulle grasps things at the root, a Mitterrand by the leaves.” Nobody was killed, a strong franc was created, a new generation of technocrats was trained: “I had passed from faith without method in one continent to method without faith in the other.”
So at the end of the “political education” that Debray recounts, what has our sinuous hero learned? In one chapter, he proffers “Advice to the Younger Generation,” and some of it comes as a shock. “Reality,” he avers, “is the media, and facts are images of facts”–a proposition that is neither true nor original. He speaks of the glory of war, the satisfactions of faith, the sentiment of patriotism, the durability of myth–“where there is institution there is superstition”–again, not exactly novel ideas, as the author well knows (citing, as he does, such eloquent precursors as Georges Sorel and Ernst Junger).
At one point, Debray exhorts his readers (he is, of course, exhorting himself too) to “break with disenchantment,” since the one who is disenchanted “is still a good prospect for enchanters.” But this is easier said than done.
In the pages of this memoir, he swings erratically from cynical resignation to sentimental defiance. He is too in love with illusion–the joys it can bring, the power it can serve–to give it up altogether. Perhaps that is why in 2007, more than a decade after completing this provisional settling of political accounts, Régis Debray is still engagé–an old-fashioned French intellectual, a melancholy militant, quixotically in quest of a left that won’t be left behind, devoted as ever, despite himself, to the traditional ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity), once more urging the saving remnant into combat in the columns of Le Monde.
“What can I say?” he asks with a shrug. “It isn’t proper history, but it’s my history. Sorry, there’s nothing I can do about it now.”