Critical assessments

Régis Debray

‘Latin America: The Long March’. New Left Review 33 (September-October 1965), 21-23, 27-28.

[…] At the opposite extreme from ‘revolutionary putschism’ (as distinct from Blanquism, which was the isolated action of a civilian rather than a military minority), there are the advocates of ‘pure mass action’. Obviously, revolution requires the conscious entry of the masses into the struggle, and hence their ideological awakening and preparation. This is the cautious truism which many communist leaderships now proffer, without saying how to awaken the masses in régimes whose repressive character makes legal, trade union, or political activity very difficult, normally confining it to the narrow stratum of the urban intelligentsia. […]

To Lenin’s question, Fidelism replies in terms which are similar to those of Lenin in 1902 (precisely in What is to be done?). Under an autocratic régime, only a minority organization of professional revolutionaries, theoretically conscious and practically trained in all the skills of their profession, can prepare a successful outcome for the revolutionary struggle of the masses. In Fidelist terms, this is the theory of the foco of the insurrectionary centre […]

Fidelism and Blanquism

The most serious mistake would be to see in the foco a revival of Blanquism. Although it starts as a tiny group—from 10 to 30 individuals, professional revolutionaries entirely dedicated to the cause and aiming to win power—the foco does not by any means attempt to seize power on its own, by one audacious stroke. Nor even does it aim to conquer power by means of war or through a military defeat of the enemy: it only aspires to enable the masses themselves to overthrow the established power. It is a minority, certainly, but one which, unlike the Blanquist minority of activists, aims to win over the masses before and not after the seizure of power, and which makes this the essential condition of the final conquest of power. This minority establishes itself at the most vulnerable zone of the national territory, and then slowly spreads like an oilpatch, propagating itself in concentric ripples through the peasant masses, to the smaller towns, and finally to the capital. The process is of course two-way, since from the towns themselves there comes a movement of mass strikes, demonstrations in defence of public liberties, fund-raising campaigns, and an underground resistance movement galvanized by the exploits of the rural guerilla. This growth of an isolated minority into a minority which is the nucleus of a popular movement, which in turn gathers force in a final tidal wave, is not mechanical, in that the influence of the guerilla centre accelerates by leaps. The first contact with the peasantry in the mountain where the guerilla force must be based for reasons of security and natural cover, is the most difficult to establish and confirm. These isolated peasants, who cultivate small, barren clearings (the conuqueros of Falcon in Venezuela, or the share-cropping Indians of Northern Argentina), are also the most closed to any political consciousness, and the most difficult to orient and organize—because of their dispersion, their illiteracy, their initial mistrust towards strangers who only seem to presage bombardment, pillage and repression. But later, when the peasants have been won over and the foco has gained provisions, information and recruits, the guerilla centre will encounter the agricultural workers of the plains: the cane workers of Northern Argentina, often migrants from neighbouring Bolivia; the unemployed from the market towns of Falcon; the wage-labourers from the coast of the Brazilian North-East. These form a social stratum which is far more receptive and better prepared for the struggle, because of its concentration, its chronic unemployment, its subordination to the fluctuations of the capitalist market. Finally, in the neighbouring towns, there will be a convergence with the small groups of politicized workers which already exist in the local transformer industries, without any need for the slow preliminary work which is indispensable in the mountains.

The second characteristic of the foco which distinguishes it radically from Blanquism, is that it does not in any way aim at a lightning victory, or even for a rapid outcome of the revolutionary war. The foco aspires to conquer power with and through the masses, that is to say with the poor and medium peasants, and with the workers. But these social classes, which have always been isolated from political life, require a long practical experience in order to gain consciousness of their exploited condition, and to organize and move into action. Besides, the chosen terrain of Blanquism was the working-class aristocracy of the 19th-century craft industries, with its high cultural level. This hardly has any equivalent in contemporary Latin America, apart from the anarcho-syndicalist sectors of Buenos Aires and above all of Montevideo (where there exists an important anarchist trade union federation)—products of the first wave of Italian and Spanish immigration: their importance cannot be decisive. […]

‘Socialism: A Life-cycle’. New Left Review 46 (July-August 2007), 8-10, 24-25.

[…] ‘Since 1789, ideas alone have constituted the strength and salvation of the proletariat. It owes to them its every victory’, wrote Blanqui (one of those who passed the ideas of 1789 on to the Paris Commune). Abstract concepts were the ABC of a militant’s apprenticeship. The notions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, like those of labour power, surplus value, relations of production, etc., that underlie them, are not apprehensible by the senses. Secondly, whether project or myth, the idea of the Revolution as ‘what should be’ is the denial and transcendence of the immediate, the overcoming of the present. Both as logical discourse and as moral undertaking, the socialist utopia demanded an inner break with the ‘stream of everyday life’, an act of faith that mobilized the powers of conceptual analysis to break the accepted social imagery down into elemental abstracts, like ‘exploitation’. […]

If news bulletins are the medium for history as spectacle, the archive is the medium for history as practice. The story of communism—as revolutionary utopia, not bureaucratic dictatorship—has been a tale of archivists and old papers. Communism was the bookish invention of Gracchus Babeuf, a specialist in feudal law, who extracted its central ideas from Rousseau, Mably and antique parchments. It flourished in the great storehouses of the written word. For Michelet: ‘My history of the French Revolution was born in the archives. I am writing it in this central depot’—the official records office. Men wove between texts, texts wove between men. Myths beget acts which beget myths, and the movement of narratives spurs the movement of peoples. Histories of Rome had their effects on the deputies of 1789, Lamartine’s History of the Girondins and Louis Blanc’s History of the French Revolution on the 1848-ers, Hugo’s Les Misérables on the Commune and his Ninety-Three on the birth of the Third Republic.

The baton was passed round the world, hand to hand: from the Society of Equals, founded by the medievalist Babeuf, to the Society of New Citizens, founded by the young librarian, Mao Zedong. Buonarroti (1761–1837), a year younger than Babeuf (1760–97), dodged the Directory’s police and survived his friend by forty years. In 1837 Buonarroti’s account of the history they had lived, Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality, was published in Brussels, where Marx would take refuge after his expulsion from Paris in 1845, and would find his first apostle in the young Philippe Gigot, paleographer and archivist. Exile in Brussels functioned as a turn-table after the 1815 Restoration. Here Buonarroti met up with the former Convention delegates, Barère and Vadier, who would organize the carbonari, seedbed for the secret societies that sprang up under the July Monarchy, and from which would emerge the League of the Just; which would in turn be refashioned into the Communist League in 1847 by Marx and Engels, along with delegates from Blanqui, ‘the head and the heart of the proletarian party in France’. Thirty-nine years in jail and four death sentences: it was via Blanqui (1805–81), ‘the prisoner’, that the passage was made from Jacobinism to socialism, from 1793 to the Paris Commune; Blanqui who handed the torch to Vaillant, who would pass it to Jaurès, whose byline on his column in La Dépêche de Toulouse was ‘The Reader’, and who was succeeded by Blum, literary critic for La Revue Blanche. […]

[…] The two privileged evolutionary niches of the revolutionary socialist were prison and exile. Prison, to concentrate; exile, to campaign. Reading and writing are luxury pursuits by definition, since they imply leisure time. Where could one enjoy more time to oneself than in the police jails of the 19th century? Prison was the dissident’s second university, his seat of higher learning and greatest moral awareness. ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,’ said Samuel Johnson, ‘it concentrates his mind wonderfully’. And Proudhon: ‘All that I am I owe to despair.’ Bureaucrat, beware the intellectuals that emerge from prison: they have matured and have muscles. […]

The honours list of European prisons from 1840 to 1930 provides a rollcall of Marxist laureates. It ends in the East with the Stalinist labour camp (and Victor Serge). In the West, the prisoners of capital form the links of an anti-capitalist chain, from Babeuf to Proudhon to Gramsci, Blanqui to Bebel to Guesde. […]