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Home  > Nations & Nationalism  > The Strength of an Idea > Revolution in the Revolution? - Regis Debray

Revolution in the Revolution?
- excerpts from the classic by Regis Debray -
Pelican Latin American Library, Penguin Books, 1967

From the Preface by Leo Huberman and Paul M.Sweezy: ".... In April 1967, Debray went as a journalist.. (to) Bolivia. He was arrested by the Bolivian police..... reports - credible in view of what is known of present day Latin American realities - have circulated that Debray has been tortured and starved in prison and that he has been subject to lengthy interrogation by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Why such barbarous treatment for a mere journalist? We believe that Jean Paul-Sartre, the illustrious French philosopher, stated the simple truth when he told a mass meeting in Paris on 30 May 1967 (according to a report in Le Monde): 'Regis Debray has been arrested by the Bolivian authorities, not for having participated in guerrilla activities but for having written a book - Revolution in the Revolution? - which 'removes all the brakes from guerrilla activities.'"

"...The guerrilla force is independent of the civilian population, in action as well as in military organisation; consequently it need not assume the direct defence of the peasant population. The protection of the population depends on the progressive destruction of the enemy's military potential. It is relative to the overall balance of forces: the populace will be completely safe when the opposing forces are completely defeated....... By restricting itself to the task of protecting civilians or passive self-defence, the guerrilla unit ceases to be the vanguard of the people as a whole and deprives itself of a national perspective... By choosing to operate at this level, it may be able to provide protection for the population for a limited time. But in the long run the opposite is true: self-defence undermines the security of the civilian population.... limiting oneself to passive defence is to place oneself in the position of being unable to protect the population and to expose one's own forces to attrition. On the other hand, to seek for ways to attack the enemy is to put him on the permanent defensive to exhaust him and prevent him from expanding his activities, to wrest the initiative from him, and to impede his search operations....the political and the military are not separate, but form one organic whole, consisting of the people's army, whose nucleus is the guerrilla army... the guerrilla force is the party in embryo...."

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Mobility and flexibility or static self defence?  
Warfare should not be confused with propaganda  
It is the 'small motor' (of the guerrilla foco) that sets the 'big motor' of the masses in motion  
The political and the military are not separate, but form one organic whole 
Effective leadership of an armed revolutionary struggle requires a new style of leadership, a new method of organisation, and new physical and ideological responses


Mobility and flexibility or static self defence?

...What does experience up to now teach us? The revolutionary guerrilla force is clandestine. It is born and develops secretly. The fighters themselves use pseudonyms. At the beginning they keep out of sight, and when they allow themselves to be seen it is at a time and place chosen by the chief. The guerrilla force is independent of the civilian population, in action as well as in military organisation; consequently it need not assume the direct defence of the peasant population. The protection of the population depends on the progressive destruction of the enemy's military potential. It is relative to the overall balance of forces: the populace will be completely safe when the opposing forces are completely defeated....

..... to protect the safety of the guerrilla force itself: 'Constant vigilance, constant mistrust, constant mobility are the three golden rules. All three are concerned with security. Various considerations of common sense necessitate wariness towards the civilian population and the maintenance of a certain aloofness.

By their very situation civilians are exposed to repression and the constant presence and pressure of the enemy, who will attempt to buy them, corrupt them, or to extort from them by violence what cannot be bought. Not having undergone a process of selection or technical training, as have the guerrilla fighters, the civilians in a given zone of operations are more vulnerable to infiltration or moral corruption by the enemy.

Therefore peasants, even those who collaborate with the guerrillas, are generally not permitted to go to the encampments, nor are they informed of the whereabouts of arms dumps, or of the destination or real objectives of the guerrilla patrols whose passage they may observe. ...

This vigilance does not necessarily imply mistrust: a peasant may easily commit an indiscretion and, even more easily, be subjected to torture. It is known that this vigilance is exercised vis-a-vis guides especially, all of whom are carefully misinformed concerning where the guerrillas came from, where they are eventually going, etc

Hence the necessity for moving the encampment immediately after anyone leaves it. If it is a guerrilla carrying a message, he will know the terrain thoroughly and will thus be able, on his return, to rejoin the moving column or to find the new camp site. It has been observed more than once that the man - guerrilla or peasant - who by virtue of his functions must go back and forth between the mountains and the city, to carry messages or to gather information or make contacts, is especially exposed to enemy action. It is through him that attempts are made to infiltrate the guerrilla unit, willingly or by force; it is thanks to him that it is possible to discover the whereabouts of the fighters of a given foco.

.... the danger represented by this function of liaison between the guerrilla unit and the plains is (also) of a psychological order. At the outset the young combatant, still uncertain of the possibilities of a guerrilla victory, leaves the camp to fulfill his mission. There below, he discovers the strength and ostentation of the encircling army, its equipment and manpower. Then he remembers the hungry band he has just left. The contrast is too great, the task seems unrealisable, and he loses faith in victory. He thinks it ridiculous or unreasonable to attempt to defeat so many soldiers, with so many trucks and helicopters, with all manner of arms and supplies. Sceptical, from then on he is at the mercy of the enemy. This is how it is with novices. The plain demoralises and disorganises the weak ones.

To sum up, the advantages that a guerrilla force has over the repressive army can be utilised only if it can maintain and preserve its mobility and its flexibility. The carrying out of any operation, the secrecy surrounding preparations, the rapidity of execution, the element of surprise, all require extreme care.

.... By restricting itself to the task of protecting civilians or passive self-defence, the guerrilla unit ceases to be the vanguard of the people as a whole and deprives itself of a national perspective. By going over to the counter-attack, on the other hand, it catalyses the people's energy and transforms the foco (the guerrilla force)  into a pole of attraction for the whole country.

Thus, self-defence reduces the guerrilla force to an exclusively tactical role and deprives it of the possibility of making even the slightest strategic revolutionary contribution. By choosing to operate at this level, it may be able to provide protection for the population for a limited time. But in the long run the opposite is true: self-defence undermines the security of the civilian population.

Allowing oneself to be attacked or limiting oneself to passive defence is to place oneself in the position of being unable to protect the population and to expose one's own forces to attrition. On the other hand, to seek for ways to attack the enemy is to put him on the permanent defensive to exhaust him and prevent him from expanding his activities, to wrest the initiative from him, and to impede his search operations....

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Warfare should not be confused with propaganda

The lack of unity in the command unleashes an infinite number of compensatory mechanisms. One of the favourites is promoting a national front, to which will officially be entrusted the leadership of the armed sector.

Considerable energy is thrown into the establishment of a phantom front, composed essentially of members of the party that have formed it. Since one party does not make a front, organisations are fabricated out of the whole cloth, at the expense of the party itself, and famous progressive 'independent personalities' are sought out whose names can be whispered, adding to their mystery. So much energy and effort withheld from the armed struggle in order to supply a showy facade for it, even before it has been consolidated or extended ! The habitual reaction.

Then comes the standard response: Do not make real alliances, for specific objectives, around an established force, but offer a facade at any cost and adorn it before furnishing the house. Magnificent programmes are widely publicised abroad but remain unknown at home; their authors think they have squared accounts with history because they have mapped out the future, without concerning themselves - in the present - with obtaining effective means for influencing it even in its first phase.

The Programme, the Front, the alliances all this beautiful artificial machinery absorbs attention and thus provides excuses for not putting into operation the instrument for achieving it - the people's army, which alone can give historical significance and effectiveness to a political front.

We must not confuse warfare and its propaganda. No artificial front can fill the vacuum created by a lack of military and political leadership. To conceal one vacuum with another does not eliminate the first, it merely adds a second.

Once again, and in spite of all previous experience, institutions are taking priority over actions. Even before going into action, fledgling revolutionary movements or small groups of men numbering a few dozen are working out tables of organisation more complex and unintelligible than those of a ministry, replete with Orders, Directives, Commissions - as if a revolutionary movement were to be measured by the number of its subsidiary units. Forms of organisation precede the content, while content itself remains unorganised. Why ? Because such people are not yet liberated from the old obsession, they believe that revolutionary awareness and organisation must and can in every case precede revolutionary action....

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It is the 'small motor' that sets the 'big motor' of the masses in motion

...First, it is necessary to proceed from the small to the large: to attempt to proceed in the opposite way is pointless. The smallest is the guerrilla foco, nucleus of the popular army. It is not a front which will create this nucleus, but rather the nucleus which, as it develops, will permit the creation of a national revolutionary front. One creates a front around something extant, not only around a programme of liberation.

It is the 'small motor' that sets the 'big motor' of the masses in motion and precipitates the formation of a front, as the victories won by the small motor increase. Fidelista guerrilla experience points to the following paradox: the weaker the revolutionary nucleus the more it must mistrust alliances; the stronger it is the more it can permit itself to seek such alliances, inasmuch as the People's Army is in control, and principles - the reasons for the struggle - are protected.

This conception would be sectarian if it were only a matter of keeping the resolute purity and clear conscience of the armed nucleus, but not if it is a question of a dynamic nucleus, conceived of as the generative force and leader of an unremitting offensive war. For the sake of its own salvation this little group cannot remain quiescent and isolated. It stakes everything. Patria o muerte. It will either die - physically - or conquer, saving the country and itself.

In one sense the Rebel Army struggled throughout the war and especially at its inception against unprincipled unity at any price, mobilising militants of other parties as well as the people at large against the dictatorship, by means of their participation in the war against it. Once again the letter to exile organisations, denouncing the Miami Pact, is an incisive example. It ends with these words: 'In order to die with dignity it is not necessary to be accompanied.'

This strange dialectic had repercussions on the relations between the guerrilla force and the (opposing) army. At the beginning, when the rebels were weak, Fidel strongly discouraged attempts to stage coups d'etat and contacts with the military. Even a coup d'etat in favour of the 26 July Movement would have been a disservice to the Rebel Army: since a counter-force was lacking, a 'liberation' junta would have been able to take over and interrupt the revolutionary process.

Later, when the Sierra Maestra had acquired sufficient strength and had, little by little, become the vanguard, recognised as such by the entire population, Fidel lost no opportunity to make contact with the military, not in order to foment a coup but to accelerate the collapse of the government and sharpen the contradictions within the army, notably between the non commissioned officers and the Havana high command. Even if a coup had been carried off, it could no longer have side-tracked the people's struggle. It would have divided the enemy's forces but not the guerrilla forces, which would have continued the fight against the military with even more enthusiasm.

Since such an incorporation could appear to be treason to the soldiers who remained loyal to their institution, he was content to invite them to talk, lay down their arms, or neutralise certain units, without imposing humiliating conditions. To accept talks is already to waver; and the more attacks they were subjected to, the more the enemy officers responded to the messages from the rebel command, despite the Batista propaganda which labelled the rebels as murderers of soldiers.

Psychological warfare is effective only if it is introduced into war itself. If military pressure is eased even briefly, political pressure on the adversary immediately lacks a point of support and falls into a void. Because soldiers were dying every day, because they saw their own lives threatened, Batista's officers, leaders of a professional army, accepted a dialogue. They no longer scoffed at such a forthright appeal. Infiltration and pressure are useful if one fights and strikes at the same time. In order for an army to respond to patriotic or revolutionary appeals from the popular armed forces, it must respect them. And a soldier respects only what he fears....

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The political and the military are not separate, but form one organic whole

The phrase 'armed struggle' is brandished, repeated endlessly on paper, in programmes, but the use of the phrase cannot conceal the fact that in many places the determination to carry out the armed struggle and the positive definition of a corresponding strategy are still lacking.

What do we mean by strategy? The differentiation between the primary and the secondary, from which comes a clear priority of tasks and functions. A happy pragmatism will permit all forms of struggle to drag on together, will let them come to an understanding among themselves. At one point, however, the negative definition of strategy may appear, in the form of a refusal: to the idea that under certain conditions peaceful forms of mass struggle must be subordinate to armed mass struggle has sometimes been opposed the idea that such a subordination would be equivalent to making the political line of the vanguard party dependent on military strategy, on the party's armed apparatus, and would subordinate party leadership to military leadership. In reality this is not the case. Once more it has been forgotten, in spite of verbal acquiescence, that guerrilla warfare is essentially political, and that for this reason the political cannot be counterposed to the military.

'Technicism' and 'militarism' - are these terms not justly applied to those who label as technicism and militarism the wish to encompass all forms of struggle within the context of guerrilla warfare, to those who counterpose political line to military strategy, political leadership to military leadership ? They live in a double world, genuinely dualist and - why not say it ? - deriving from a strongly idealist tradition: politics on one side, the military on the other.

The people's war is considered to be a technique, practised in the countryside and subordinated to the political line, which is conceived of as a super-technique, 'purely' theoretical, 'purely' political. Heaven governs the earth, the soul governs the body, the head governs the hand. The Word precedes the Act. The secular substitutes for the Word - talk, palaver, chatter -precede and regulate military activity, from the heavens above.

First, one cannot see how a political leadership... can remain aloof from technical problems of war; it is equally inconceivable that there can be political cadres who are not simultaneously military cadres. It is the situation itself, present and future, that requires this: 'the cadres' of the mass armed struggle will be those who participate in it and who, in the field, prove their ability as its leaders.

But how many political leaders prefer to concern themselves, day after day, with world trade-unionism or to involve themselves in the mechanisms of a thousand and one 'international democratic organisations' dedicated to their own survival rather than devote themselves to a serious and concrete study of military questions related to the war of their people ?

Furthermore, military technique assumes a special importance ... (where)  the initially great disproportion between the strength of the revolutionary forces and that of the entire repressive mechanism, and the demographic consequences of poverty in the rural areas do not permit the immediate replacement of arms and technique by sheer mass and number of combatants.

On the contrary, to compensate for this initial disproportion and for the relative demographic poverty....  technique must be wielded with expertise. Whence the more important role here than elsewhere of, for example, mines, explosives, bazookas, modern automatic weapons, etc. In an ambush, for example, when the smallest detail and every minute count, the intelligent use of modern automatic arms, their firing plan, a co-ordinated programme of fire can all compensate for the lack or scarcity of man power on the revolutionary side.

In a limited and defined number of seconds three men can now liquidate a troop transport truck carrying thirty soldiers, whereas with the older type of guns an equal number of guerrillas would have been required. For the same reason the number one objective of a guerrilla group is to capture the arms of the enemy not to attempt to annihilate him, unless necessary in order to take possession of its weapons. In brief, no detail is too small for a political-military chief: everything rests on details - on a single detail - and he himself must supervise them all.

Second, it has been proved that for the training of revolutionary cadres, the peoples war is more decisive than political activity, without guerrilla experience.

Leaders of vision... today are young, lacking in long political experience, prior to joining up with the guerrillas. It is ridiculous to continue to oppose 'political cadres' to 'military cadres', 'political leadership' to 'military leadership '. Pure 'politicians' - who want to remain pure - cannot lead the armed struggle of the people; pure 'military men' can do so, and by the experience acquired in leading a guerrilla group, they become 'politicians ' as well.

The experiences .... demonstrate that people .... are more quickly and more completely moulded by the experience of guerrilla warfare than by an equal amount of time spent in a training school for cadres - a consequence, as far as men are concerned, of the essentially and totally political character of guerrilla warfare.

There is a double advantage over 'traditional' political training, whether within the party, in trade union struggle, or in a national or international school for cadres: in such a political cursus honorum it is certain that no one will receive military training (except for details), and it is not certain that the political training received will be the best.

For example: Cuba. The Rebel Army and the underground movement have furnished the Revolution with its leading cadres and with the nucleus of its activists. Even today the rebels are in the front lines of this vanguard, defending the most radical... line within the Revolution itself. Is this not a strange destiny for 'military men' as conceived of by 'the politicians ' ?

.... the political and the military are not separate, but form one organic whole, consisting of the people's army, whose nucleus is the guerrilla army... the guerrilla force is the party in embryo.

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Effective leadership of an armed revolutionary struggle requires a new style of leadership, a new method of organisation, and new physical and ideological responses

A revolutionary armed struggle, wherever it exists or is in preparation, requires a thoroughgoing transformation of peacetime practices. War, as we know, is an extension of politics, but with specific procedures and methods. The effective leadership of an armed revolutionary struggle requires a new style of leadership, a new method of organisation, and new physical and ideological responses on the part of leaders and militants.

A new style of leadership: It has been widely demonstrated; that guerrilla warfare is directed not from outside but from within, with the leadership accepting its full share of the risks involved. In a country where such a war is developing, most of the organisation's leaders must leave the cities and join the guerrilla army. This is, first of all, a security measure, assuring the survival of the political leaders.

.... there is a close tie between biology and ideology. However absurd or shocking this relationship may seem, it is none the less a decisive one. An elderly mans accustomed to city rising, moulded by other circumstances and goals, will not easily adjust himself to the mountain nor - though this is less so - to underground activity in the cities. In addition to the moral factor - conviction - physical fitness is the most basic of all skills needed for waging guerrilla war; the two factors go hand in hand.

.... That an elderly man should be proven militant - and possess a revolutionary training - is not, alas, sufficient for coping with guerrilla existence, especially in the early stages. Physical aptitude is the prerequisite for all other aptitudes; a minor point of limited theoretical appeal, but the armed struggle appears to have a rationale of which theory knows nothing.

A new organisation: The reconstitution of the Party into an effective directive organism, equal to the historic task, requires that an end be put to the plethora of commissions, secretariats, congresses, conferences, plenary sessions, meetings, and assemblies at all levels- national, provincial, regional, and local. Faced with a state of emergency and a militarily organised enemy such a mechanism is paralysing at best, catastrophic at worst. It is the cause of the vice of excessive deliberation which ... which hampers executive, centralised, and vertical methods, combined with the large measure of tactical independence of subordinate groups which is demanded in the conduct of military operations.

This reconstitution requires the temporary suspension of 'internal' party democracy and the temporary abolition of the principles of democratic centralism which guarantee it. While remaining voluntary and deliberate, more so than ever, party discipline becomes military discipline. Once the situation is analysed, democratic centralism helps to determine a line and to elect a general staff, after which it should be suspended in order to put the line into effect. The subs ordinate units go their separate ways and reduce their contact with the leadership to a minimum, according to traditional rules for underground work, in pursuance of the general line they utilise to the best of their ability the greatest margin for initiative granted to them.

New ideological reflexes: ...Addressing himself fraternally to Party comrades during the struggle against Batista, Che Guevara made the following mordant comment:

'You are capable of creating cadres who can endure torture and imprisonment in silence but not of training cadres who can capture a machine-gun nest.'

This remark in no way constitutes an appraisal of courage; it is a political evaluation. It is not a matter of replacing cowardice with courage, still less, one ideology with another, but of one form of courage with another, one pattern of action (and of psychic identification) with another; that is to say, of accepting the ultimate consequences of one's principles, right up to the point where they demand of the militant, other forms of action and other responses from his nervous system.

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