Alan Sheridan

  • Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France by Régis Debray, translated by David Macey
    New Left Books, 251 pp, £11.00, May 1981, ISBN 0 86091 039 3

For most people, I suspect, the name of Régis Debray is still inextricably linked with that of Che Guevara. For many, it still conjures up a blissful time of youthful certainties and heroic purpose. Debray was one of the first to do what many later dreamt of doing. In 1961, as a 20-year-old philosophy student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he visited Cuba in the aftermath of the Revolution. He travelled widely in Latin America, studying the various left-wing movements. In 1966 he returned to Cuba to take up a chair in philosophy at Havana University. The following year, his Revolution in the Revolution? was published in Havana, where it was regarded as a semi-official exposition of Castroism. It was to become a best-seller the world over. In it, Debray developed the doctrine of the foco, the small guerrilla band that was to be the nucleus of Marxist revolution throughout Latin America. Repudiating the ‘reformist’ policies of the continent’s Communist Parties, this self-proclaimed Leninist rejected, not only the urban proletariat, but also the peasantry, as the motive force of the revolution. For, far from living among the peasants ‘like fish in water’ (Mao), the revolutionary base ought to remain for ever on the move, avoiding the villages and mistrusting the peasants.

The theory of the foco was implemented days after the publication of Debray’s book. It is none too clear why Bolivia was selected for the experiment: one reason suggested by Debray was that it bordered more countries (five) in Latin America than any other (except the vast Portuguese-speaking Brazil) and would presumably, therefore, provide a perfect base for further expansion. In February 1967, a band of 15 Cubans, led by Castro’s deputy, Che Guevara, himself a middle-class Argentinian, was joined by 12 Bolivians to form the foco that was to trigger off the Bolivian revolution. Their numbers dwindled almost at once. Debray, who joined them in April, ostensibly as an observer, was captured within weeks, tried and condemned to 30 years’ imprisonment. Che Guevara was killed. In February 1968, the four survivors escaped across the Chilean border. The adventure had lasted just 12 months. Debray served only three years of his sentence, being released by a new, more liberal military regime. Undeterred, foquismo continued to ignore specific conditions and national boundaries. The Italian Red Brigades and the German Baader-Meinhoff group were directly inspired by Debray’s early writing, and Debray himself returned in triumph to Paris, where he pursued a prolific literary career.

Le Pouvoir Intellectuel en France was published two years ago and now reaches us as Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France. The French title, with its Gallic abstraction, grandiose and menacing at once, promises much; the English, down-to-earth, sociological, depoliticised, is less portentous, but more specific in its promise, and more frustrating for that. What one might have expected from someone of Debray’s training and experience was a thoroughly researched contribution to the burgeoning discipline of ‘media studies’. What he delivers falls tar short of this. On page 2 of his Foreword Debray makes what increasingly looks like a Freudian ‘disavowal’: ‘Our purpose here is not to display ill-temper, indignation or resentment, but to analyse.’ (‘Sehr interessant!’ Herr Doktor muses, reversing the statement.) While agreeing that ‘a polemical situation may be the moving force behind thought,’ Debray declares that ‘the pamphlet is a degrading genre at odds with any ethics of knowledge.’ In the event, Debray pays scant regard to ‘Scientific analysis’, and despite a few, almost decorative statistical tables and some brief, second-hand historical summaries, the book rapidly turns into an impassioned polemic against the mass media in general and certain (named) individuals in particular. The polemic is not in itself a degrading genre: an unsubstantiated claim to scientific analysis in a polemic degrades both genres.

If Debray does reject the charge of polemic, he admits himself that his book is shorn of much of its validating material. It was originally the concluding part of a forthcoming theoretical work, Traité de Médiologie, in which ‘the notions of intellectual, medium and state have been systematically located.’ Meanwhile Debray asks the reader for ‘a limited stay of credit’. This is rather a lot to ask. The justification offered for separate publication is that this book is a study, not of the media themselves, but of the intellectual’s relationship with them. A less charitable hypothesis might be that this short polemical work stood a better chance of getting mass media attention than the two-volume treatise on mediology that is supposed to back it up. If this is the case, it would corroborate the many instances in the book where Debray shows himself to be part and parcel of the very system he is castigating.

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