Régis Debray: The writer and philosopher on religion and revolution

Do all lives lead to and spring from a single moment? An illustration: it’s 1964, and Che Guevara, in the gardens of the Cuban Embassy in Algiers, interrupts a game of chess to flick through Sartre’s review Les Temps Modernes. He comes to an essay on urban and rural guerrilla movements written by a 23-year-old graduate of the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Guevara has a translation forwarded to Fidel Castro, who invites its author, then teaching philosophy in drab Nancy, eastern France, to Havana. The young man accepts, and so begins a journey from Cuba to the Bolivian jungle, to Allende’s Chile, even to the Elysée Palace.


Now, 40 years after setting out, the writer and philosopher Régis Debray sits in an apartment off the Boulevard St Germain in Paris. Volumes of Victor Hugo lie strewn on the table, a portrait of Kafka hangs on the wall. The room looks on to the rue de l’Odéon, where Joyce read from Finnegans Wake at the original Shakespeare and Co. bookshop. The friendly clutter within, the tranquil streets inhabited by literary ghosts without, suggest journeys through mindscapes rather than through rebellion and dictatorships.

“I was very literary as a young man, but highly politicised,” Debray says. “Both vocations were stored in strictly separate compartments, with a certain humourlessness. A Communist party member, I was also inspired by Orwell, the great solitary irredentist… Life in France under De Gaulle seemed blocked. Although I now believe my imagination was greater than my sense of reality, your destiny falls into your lap, so to speak, because you would have it so.” By 1965, Cuba’s revolution had survived the Bay of Pigs invasion and assassination attempts on Castro. For Debray, it was “a heady time”. “In the West… the proletariat, sated on consumer goods and postwar prosperity, had fumbled the revolutionary torch. But it had been taken up again by peasant movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

Debray was catapulted into Castro’s inner circle. He spent weekends in combat training in the Sierra Maestra with other guerilleros, while all-night conversations in the capital focused on history, theory and the relative merits of AK47s over M16s. It was soon to become clear, however, that revolution was exporting none too well, as Guevara’s botched Congo expedition of 1965 would prove. “My misgivings crystallised during Che’s Bolivian expedition, but I went nonetheless,” Debray recalls. “Shortly after his capture and execution (with a nod, of course, from Washington) in November ’67, I was arrested and imprisoned. Four blank, sterile years followed. Beyond dreams of escape, I was kept alive by books – like all intellectuals – and I had time to reflect on history in the long term.”

Here Debray saw the blind spot in Communist thinking. “Aside from the limits to armed struggle, I was struck by the lack of revolutionary fraternity between Cubans and Bolivian guerrillas, and also by the sight of the widows of dead Bolivian soldiers baying for my foreigner’s blood. In solitary confinement I turned to thinking about the collective, the ‘we’.

“It struck me that a Chinese Marxist has more in common with a Chinese Confucianist than an English Marxist. They are both Chinese, after all. The national is ineradicable. History as tradition, language, even the clothes you wear, will always take precedence over ideas, and any politics that fails to take on board the particularities of a culture is hollow.”

He returned to Cuba on his release in 1971. Due to Soviet tutelage and the American embargo, Castro had stiffened into the blustering colossus we know today. Believing that his evolving ideas could thrive better in Chile, under Salvador Allende’s recently elected Socialist government, he spent the next two years shuttling to and from Santiago, writing Revolution in Chile. “Chile was a profoundly civilised society,” he says. “I predicted Allende would fall – in a general election. No one could have foreseen the sheer savagery of Pinochet’s coup.”

On returning to France in 1973, Debray produced a spate of memoirs, fiction and journalism. He developed close ties with Socialist leader François Mitterrand, who, on his election in 1981, appointed Debray as adviser on foreign policy. Isolated by the press and politicians as a pro-Cuban provocateur, Debray hung on until a very public denunciation of Mitterrand precipitated his resignation in 1992. “I went to the Elysée Palace believing that France, ripe for modern socialism, could steer a course through totalitarianism and neo-liberalism. However, by 1983, Mitterrand’s Communist allies had left government, and France had aligned itself on a conventional, Europeanist basis. I had acted on an illusion.”

Debray sees illusion not as personal shortcoming, but as a profound historical force. Returning to university at 54, he completed a doctorate on the religious instinct throughout history. “Men have to choose between a lucidity which immobilises, and movement driven by illusion. The moment there is action, collective action, the imaginary has taken hold. All great illusions, be it Christianity, or Communism, the last great Christian heresy, pull us upwards.” He adds: “Politics is a religion. Science may be truth, but no society, no nation has ever been founded on it. As Nietzsche said, ‘Rather perish truth than life’. Each society aspires to the sacred: in America, ‘In God we Trust’; in France, the sacred Republic.”

Praised be our Lords (translated by John Howe; Verso, £19.99) is Debray’s latest work of autobiography to be published in Britain. It is as profound and generous a meditation on such driving forces as it is irreducibly French. Praise must go to John Howe, who has produced a steady English version from a French which is dense and allusive. The book not only provides an insider’s portrait of Mitterrand, who remains one of France’s most intriguing presidents; it is also gripping as a study of Che Guevara. “History has been hard on Fidel Castro,” says Debray. “While it diminishes him, it enhances Che. But I’m not sure that I would have liked to live in a state where he was president.”

At a far remove from the handsome dreamer of the Korda photograph, or the gap-year student of The Motorcycle Diaries, Che comes across as dour, prone to humiliating friends and comrades. Having ruined the Cuban economy as minister of finance, he lands in Bolivia fully aware of the disaster ahead. “Che was a rather doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist,” Debray recalls, “a complex character, but without the communicative vein, the natural warmth of Fidel Castro. He had a great love for mankind, but he was not particularly fond of men.” For Debray, “We tear up reality to preserve the legend, and with good reason. Legend creates reality in its turn. Guevara inspires.” He adds that “If you read the Gospels with a cold eye, you would see the great harshness, the corrosive sarcasm in Jesus of Nazareth. That we choose not to read him this way says much about us”.

Debray is not a believer, but in works such as God: an itinerary (Verso) he rejects the liberal consensus, typified by Richard Dawkins, that religion is primarily destructive. “One could write a black book or a rose-coloured one about religion. It’s the ambivalence that counts. Christianity brought the Inquisition, but also the first hospitals and universities. God is both a murderer and nurse.”

Notions of sacredness and national identity have emerged as key themes in this year’s French presidential election. “Much of it is trivial, like a sporting event,” he says, “but beyond debates on what hairdresser Ségolène [Royal, the Socialist candidate] goes to, all the candidates seek to mobilise myths, be it participative democracy for the former, or a ministry of national identity for Nicolas Sarkozy, or even [François] Bayrou’s new Republic. But one remains sceptical.”

Particularly because all three claim inspiration from Tony Blair? Debray says, “Perhaps it’s the great genius of the English for marketing that all point to Britain’s neo-liberal ‘success’, but the perception that France endures some profound crisis is a strong one. That said, cities like London breathe a happy cosmopolitanism which we do not enjoy here in France”. He gestures to his office.

“Thomas Paine sat in this very room and wrote The Rights of Man, a defence of the French revolution. We are entering a new dark age, where such ideas are going underground. But I believe they will survive.” He gets to his feet, and ponders the table like an onlooker at a game of chess. “I don’t think Ségolène will win, but I would rather believe that she will.”


Régis Debray was born in Paris in 1940 and studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He first travelled to Cuba in 1961 to work on a literacy project. He saw combat in Venezuelan guerrilla units, and returned to France to teach in Nancy in 1963. On Castro’s invitation, Debray travelled to Havana in 1965. He followed Guevara to Bolivia in 1967, where he was imprisoned. On release in 1971, he spent much time in Chile, a confidant of Allende. Back in France, he advised Mitterrand on foreign policy from 1981 to 1992. Since then he has lectured and written on religion and the sacred. He also edits Medium, which examines the impact of information technologies on culture. This month Verso publishes his memoir, Praised be our Lords.

Friday, 13 April 2007




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