Saturday 1 September 2007

Review: Praised Be Our Lords (2007)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXV No. 2

Régis Debray, (right) being arrested in 1967 at Camiri in Bolivie (Credit: 

A Political Education

Reviewed by Colin Kirk

Praised be our Lords : A political education by Regis Debray (Loués soient nos seigneurs. Une education politique trans. John Howe), Verso London/N.Y 2007 UKP 19.99 IBSN: 978-1844671403 

A pupil of Althusser, Debray loved his mentor but ignored his guidance. Theoretical practice of Marxism, historical inevitability dehumanised, and academia generally, were not his milieu. Indeed, he craved experience of revolution, sought political involvement. He was not to be disappointed.

During the early years of the Cuban revolution, Debray was a familiar of Castro, who was to use him as link man with Che's Bolivian mission. He spent four years in prison after that tragic fiasco. He served a much longer sentence as political advisor to Mitterrand. Between the two he fitted in Allende's brief presidency of Chile and its demolition by Pinochet and the CIA. He advises anyone keen on academic eminence not to follow this route. He means he hasn't been summoned to the Ecole Normale Supérieure like Althusser, or the Collège de France like Foucault, a contemporary of his as a prodigy of Althusser. Nor is he likely to be!

This is the second part of Régis Debray's Autobiography Le temps d'apprendre à vivre, published by Gallimard in 1996. The first part Les masques, une education amoureuse 1988 and the third, Par amour de l'Art, une education intellectuelle 1998, are not indispensable. This volume is. Before explaining why, it is necessary to sweep away the humbug, of which there is not a little.

The cover of the paperback edition of Praised be Our Lords has a monotone of Debray's face uncannily like Che's on the Cape/Lorrimer edition of Bolivian Diary, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Introduction by Fidel Castro, London, 1968. This is the famous Christ like image of the dead Che produced by the CIA, which did almost as much to iconise him as the 
ubiquitous image fortuitously found behind a shot of Sartre and de Beauvoir on their eulogising trip to Havana in 1960: a quartet of media personalities? Like Althusser, Debray does have a tendency to back modestly into the limelight.

Moreover, Debray's ironic title and opening sentence I loathe public life and politicians have to be a shade deceptive. Fairly recently Chirac appointed him to the commission on secularity, under the chairmanship of Bernard Stasi, Médiateur de la République, which resulted in the head scarf ban. Debray is director of the European Institute of the History of Science and Religion, which aims inter alia to be a check on mis-educational aspects of Media bombardment, and Professor of Philosophy at the Université de Lyon-III.

Nor will he make the Académie Française. These elevated positions are in the gift of the President of the Republic, one Sarkozy no less. In the first round Debray advised voting for Bayrou, in the second for Royale, even wrote despairingly of the shift in French politics to the extreme right. And anyway, French literati criticise Debray for slipshod writing, lack of structure and so on.

In Praised be Our Lords, Debray defines by experience and direct reflection. The structure of the book is a triptych within a proscenium arch. Enough to satisfy the most refined literary tastes. But disciples of Althusser are expected to ape his perfection of French elegance of expression, pellucid prose and so on.

Debray has a somewhat Surrealist stream-of-consciousness style, which John Howe captures admirably. The translation is better than faultless, it is great writing.

Now, with all the easy sarcasm out of the way, which French reviewers revelled in ten years ago, let's get down to the serious business of consideration of why this book bears comparison with Machiavelli's The Prince, which Russell described as a handbook for gangsters. His grandfather, British Prime Minister 1846-52 and 1865-6, would have known better. He too had practical experience rather than theoretical wisdom. The nearest Anglo-Saxon (wonderful Gallic portmanteau word) parallel to this book is Hobsbawm's Revolutionaries, an exclusively academic achievement.

Essential differences between revolutionary politicians, who terrorise by use of violence, and bureaucratic ones, who have others exercise terror on their behalf, are that terrorists purchase their arms whilst bureaucrats manufacture them for both sides. Kalashnikovs, poetry in steel, are manufactured world wide. Arms manufacture and occupation of moral high ground are synonymous, profits from the former fund media manipulation to achieve the latter. Terrorist politicians perform their speeches extemporary from the heart, bureaucratic ones read theirs.

Debray was speech writer for Mitterrand during the reformist socialist period of his first presidency. He was sacked during the second, before the decline into mediocrity and total self absorption. His interests are methodology of achievement and maintenance of political power, personality of political leaders, their choice and use of cronies, individual and communal response to them. In addition, what they do for their peers as against their poor oppressed communities and our individual and community reactions to them. Indeed, he thoroughly explores Kant's dictum: Humans are animals that need masters when living amongst other members of the species.

His account of the maelstrom of ideas, motivations, ambitions and ambiguities into which adolescence emerged at the end of the 1950s is brilliantly evocative. Are contemporary adolescents intellectually and emotionally involved in class struggle on behalf of the criminalised oppressed? English language media and media moguls rule their world. Certainly Anglo-Saxon thinking is no longer permeated by concerns from Paris café life as it was then; the francophone volume is down to a whimper. As Debray points out, France is now a canton of Western Europe.

One of Debray's strengths is that he acts like the guide in Dante's Inferno 
He indicates; the reader experiences. Whether intentionally or not, I guess intentionally: Debray dwarfs Mitterrand and inflates Fidel; rather he lets them do so for themselves. Fidel brandishes arms; Mitterrand makes and trades in them. Contrast between truth and enigma. You know where you are with Fidel. Even Mitterrand didn't know where he was with Mitterrand. Although Debray's initial high regard survivesÖbut tattered, not intact.

Debray was in Cuba for revolution. Fidel's primary activity was fermenting revolution. He had training camps for revolutionaries. Dressed in fatigues he trained revolutionaries. He lived in camp, slept on a camp bed set up on a pile of small arms. He had childlike delight and wonderment in the life; belief that a small group of revolutionaries can topple governments. 
Miraculously it had worked in Cuba. Fidel had conviction it could work elsewhere.

The Cuban experience was not exportable, of course. Che wasted his life proving the point. Revolutions occur in a society, lead by home grown leaders, with native passion, bound for glory. They can be trained abroad. They can not be bred abroad. Nor can outsiders substitute for them. Fidel remains Fidel to faithful Cubans; in all societies a minority are unable to kick the habit of hero worship. He became Castro to Debray as a result of the Ochoa show trial in 1989. General Ochoa, the de la Guardia brothers known as los Jimagua, and others were tried for drug trafficking. The U.S. trade embargo, which arguably has kept Castro in power, did not cover this highly lucrative trade, a formidable earner of essential foreign currency. The show trial sacrificed friends of Castro, who had initiated the trade, in the interests of international reputation.

Castro as demagogue, who declaimed five hour long tirades, is media make believe. Rather he ruminated an hour or so, confidentially and enquiringly, on concerns he shared with fellow Cubans, certainly a selected audience. With almost as many Cubans in Florida and thousands in gaol, the available set was somewhat diminished.

Fidel was left with the constituency of poor oppressed he sought to serve. Are their lives richer than downtrodden Americans? Certainly America does little for its own oppressed and seeks to impoverish Cuba, where everyone has access to health care and reasonable quality education. But the comparison Debray presents is with socialist France and its monstre sacré.

The centre piece of Praised be our Lords, a chapter called Disconnection, is reflective, as befits a period of meditation in prison. That it ranges forward as well as back in time is because it was written much later.

However, Che's Bolivian Diary was written at the time. Debray, known as Danton, was used by Fidel as link between Havana and Che's mission in Bolivia. From Che's diary for 1967:
April 2 . . . What has happened to Danton?
April 27 . . The Bolivian radio transmitted army reports which . . confirm Danton is a prisoner near Camiri . .
ANALYSIS OF THE MONTH (APRIL) . . .Danton and Carlos fell victims of their own haste, almost desperation to get out, and of my lack of energy in trying to prevent them, so we have cut our communications with Cuba (Danton) and we have lost our plan of action in Argentinia (Carlos).
ANALYSIS OF THE MONTH (MAY) . . . The fuss about the Debray case has given more combat power to our movement than ten victorious fights.
ANALYSIS OF THE MONTH (JUNE) . . . Debray continues in the news, but more in relation to my case, that now I appear as the leader of this movement.
September 9 . . . suspension of Debray's trial until the 17th . . .
October 3 . . . We heard an interview with Debray, very bravely confronting a student who provoked him.
October 5 . . . The radio reported our two Cambas had been transferred to Camiri to act as witness in the Debray trial. 
The diary ends on October 7. On October 8 Che was wounded, captured and later shot. By then he had gained the opprobrium of Washington, Moscow, Beijing, as well as Caracas and Buenos Aries, probably Havana, quite an achievement.

On November 17 the military court at Camiri condemned Debray to 30 years imprisonment there. He served only four, thanks to de Gaulle and Pope Paul V, improbable petitioners for release of a Marxist revolutionary!

There is no conflict of fact between Debray's account in Praised be our Lords or elsewhere, he's been interviewed on the subject as well as having written about it extensively, including in Che's Bolivian Diary. However, disconnection well describes Debray's interpretation that Che was seeking death. Like all revolutionary activists he risked his life.

Indeed, it would read like a suicide mission if anyone else were involved. But Che had led a charmed and successful life despite chronic illness throughout; he had asthma, with recurrent debilitating attacks. Moreover, his life experiences were not a preparation for failure. He would be justified in regarding himself as invincible. This was the Cuban revolution all over again: Bolivia this year, Argentina next. Debray relays this information too, indeed he was part of the grand plan, but still has Che intent on early death.

Allende did commit suicide. With the presidential palace, democracy, socialism and all he stood for collapsing around him, poetry in steel gave him his preferred exit. Any alternative would have been designed by Pinochet, Nixon or Kissinger, heaven forbid.
By staking his life, the prestigious individual demonstrates that he has been liberated from the first of the servitudes, enslavement to life. He stands as a free man, in contrast to the base individual who refuses to subordinate himself to the Cause (for example, by accepting dangerous missions from the Commander-in-Chief), preferring the petty existence of a toiler who deals with the resistance of things to transform, day by day, the material conditions of existence. In the vassal aspiring to sovereignty, risking death is part of an unconscious strategy of domination, for it is valour in faith and blood that establishes the Master as the Master of serfs. 
 Here it is the revolutionary freebooter putting his life on the line for the Cause. But eventually:
He will no longer listen to the blockade as an excuse, he is bored by the constant redefinitions of the Enemy, he despises national defence as a police expedient. It is one thing to establish an emergency dictatorship to make war, and quite another to make war in perpetuity to legitimise a dictatorship-for-life. To make this distinction from the inside, when you have not been to university to read Hegel and Hyppolite, may well require twenty years of rumination. My own access to the best authors did not enable me to do much better.
He quotes Jean Hyypolite: Mastery - a blind alley - servitude the true path of human liberation.

After ten years in pursuit of revolution in Latin America, Debray returned to Europe in 1975 in expectation of creation of a genuine socialist republic in Europe. He had to wait until 1981 for Mitterrand's investiture. 
Meanwhile, Debray had fallen in love with France all over again and he and Mitterrand had become invaluable to each other.

Although invaluable to Mitterrand, Marxist Debray was an embarrassment to the regime. After the investiture elocution, he was shunted off to an Elysian back room between the cupboard where the hot line to Moscow was housed and the ex-ballroom where presidential papers were accumulated. He thus had access to everything that crossed the presidential desk the previous day. With far less to do he read them and became better informed than his master, to whom he had the access of a familiar. Familiars sit alongside the gilt armchair not the other side the desk like Ministers.

The sequence is depressing. Debray's critiques of Mitterrand tend to be of a generalised type:
An alternation of hopes and disappointments on the left; of anxieties and reassurance on the right. While they live, everything around such people is mitigated, support and opposition both: nothing in their conduct really inspires enthusiasm, or seems seriously deplorable. Their supporters would not risk death for them, and nor would their opponents to bring them down: the two balance out.
We are forced to witness the death throes in France of Marxist Socialists: a proud species that emerged in the nineteenth century from the crossing of the Revolution as myth with the Book as instrument but is now a technical anachronism, doomed to disappear in the global ecology of the videosphere. We had listened to our own yarns, we were living above our means in the imagination: That socialist president had delivered a last generation of socialist dreamers from the century of lies that had done us so much good.

Shortly before he died that socialist president ended his Mémoires Interrompus, written and published 1996: Mais tout cela ne se fait qu'aprés qu'une stratégie de gauche a été dessiné, une dynamique impulse. Il ne faut donc pas changer de cap: le rassemblement à gauche de toute la gauche.

Is Debray's Advice to Younger Generations a spoof or something serious? Perhaps both but to those who want to shine in today's world it is brilliant. He bases it on Mazarin's Breviarum politicorum 1683, which shows little has changed since the days of Loius XIV, or rather that it has changed and changed back again.

He provides a courtier's guide as applicable in the corridors of financial, legal, industrial and commercial as political power. Mazarin's basic precepts were: simulate, dissimulate, trust no one, speak well of everyone, foresee before acting. Read Debray's contemporary advice, apply it, and the cardinal's success can be yours. Or you might prefer to follow Jean Hyypolite's advice.
The final minesweeping review of the history of endless presumption, bottomless hostility and eternal trickery to which we can turn at any age to befoul our maiden souls with an invigorating truth - comes across as masterly and breathtaking.

He concludes with a A Brief Militant's Lexicon as a personal supplement to those that exist already. Political education is discovering that there is no pass-key  - making up your own set of picks as you go along. Here is Debray's soul laid bare, the antidote to Advice to Younger Generations. It deserves careful study.

For me practical politics ended in Augustus 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and as in March 1939 and February 1948 western democrats were content to let the Czechs suffer. The last name in Debray's book is Jan Palach's whose suicide at the time he sees as a way of reminding those bogged down in life that reality is not our law and life is less important to free men than their reasons for living it.

Machiavelli chronicled and analysed realpolitik in Renaissance Florence when Savonarola's commonwealth briefly replaced the Medici bankers' military monarchy, backed by the Borgia papacy. Allende's brief intrusion of socialism between military capitalist regimes of Chile, backed by the USA, is a close parallel experienced by Debray. Savonarola and Allende were martyrs to their causes.

Socialism in action in Mitterrand's France, as in northern Europe generally, has as its martyrs the oppressed, raised briefly from their distress only to be impoverished again, awaiting benefits to trickle down through the widening gap between obscene wealth and serfdom.

The President of Cuba, in suit and tie as when he welcomed Pope Jean-Paul II to Havana, was the only world leader to receive a standing ovation from his peers at the fiftieth anniversary session of the United Nations.

How simple everything would be if communism had just been a machine for making prison camps! The curse (or blessing, I am not sure which) is that between the crimes it produced fraternity, self-denial, optimism, courage and generosity.

The Philosopher's verdict: Historically inevitable

No comments:

Post a Comment

Our authors very much value feedback from readers. Unfortunately, there is so much spam on the internet now that we now have to moderate posts on the older articles. Please accept our apologies for any extra time this may require of you.