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Regis Debray in Prison

Rims DEBIUlY IN ‘PRISON~ ON IllS

CLASS a HIS COMMITMENT
This article is not about what you will expect. It
does not consider the theory of foci, the specificity
of the class struggle in South American countries,
or the role of the peasantry. All these things pose
important theoretical questions. Moreover, it is
for his writings on them that Debray is known.

Debray was the first in the field, reporting back
from Cuba on revolutionary tactics, employing his
originality of mind to propose some profound
changes in Marxist theory about the development of
revolution. But none of that is my subject.

it,

Noel Parker

with summary execution. He describes a sheltered,
deceitful, predictable world of young men on an
assured road to a good degree, a desirable job,
their own literary success. Their armoury of
sophisticated language was used rather to ward off
than to seize the world of urgent conflict, enabling
them to concentrate more exclusively upon their
little selves. This was the time when Althusser
was first making an impact upon his students.

Debray describes the notion of theoretical practice
not in its own abstract definition, but in the signification it had in that intellectual milieu where it
was propagated. Those young men fell upon it; for
it taught that their isolated, complacent, disputatious lives were a work of genuine transformation.

‘In other words,’ as Debray puts it, ‘all we had to
do to become good theoreticians was to be lazy
bastards.’ And then, besides theoretical practice,
to deal wi th any lingering urge for reality, there
were mock militancy and tame demos, fantasies,
according to De bray , ‘to pay for our total lack of
history (our only connection with it)’. In this hasty,
rather vituperative piece are the elements of a
view of the motivation of French students, like

Self-conscious Intellectual

Two other things distinguish De bray . First, his
personal career is probably unique. A product of
the best in French philosophical education,
Normalien, student and friend of Althusser, he
committed himself to the revolutionary movement
in South ~merica. There, in 1967, he was arrested
by the Bolivians while tDavelling to report on the
guerilla front opened up by Guevara. He was
tortured (no reason to treat him differently from
any other political prisoner in South America! ),
tried for aiding the insurrection, and sentenced to
.!;~
~;I
I
thirty years’ imprisonment (of which he served !it.

t,
only three). He not only advocated revolution, then
as any European intellectual might, he also had to

undergo the sort of penalty that active South
t
American militants risk. Debray the revolutionary,
,
intellectual landed in the thick of the live struggle’

\

and, from a personal point of view, lost heavily. / ‘ .

Secondly, though this is little known in the english,:, ( ~, .

speaking world, a good half of Debray’s writing js~, ‘

of an entirely different kind from the political ana- ~ ~.t
lyses which are known in translation. Since his ,”:,’ ‘,~.’

release Debray has publish.ed, amongst othe~ 7~ ~:~
,;”__~~
things, a memoir on the faIlures of the Left In ”
~~
France, two novels set in the world of South
~,
American revolutionaries, and his personal diary ~,
from prison. Part of a peculiarly French tradition”-to literary self-examination, he• is a self-consciou

.L’/ ” ………….. ”
com mentator upon the personalIty of the revoluh8n- l’hl”‘;)
ary. It is this commentary that interests me hex:~
I.”
in particular the question of revolutionary commit-I~
ment. Debray has publicly confessed what move
him to become a revolutionary intellectual. ,He
believes that only a very particular kind of comm,itment is possible in the environment formed by ,
advanced media of communication in developed ,;
societies. The subject of this article is Debray’s
self-description and his views on commitment.

( ~’Though Debray spent only three years in prison” . __ ( /
~
his period of imprisonment was, inevitably, one ~’/~
~~
reflection upon his own position, revolutionary
~l~ ~~
“,,,,..—~
intellectual conde~ne.d al~ngsi?e the true a.ctivists,
~,’~’

,~~
.

“‘—–‘~
A snippet, from hIS time In prIson, of the Intro-“,
,,”~~

,C’~
spective side of his writing appears in the Pengq.in,-·
‘ ” )’


…..,~~Io9I””~~~7′:oiC;u~~/.P.~/)”A~
Prison Writings (1975), unde r the title of ‘In Settle – “,
ment of all Accounts ‘. It is a description of life ‘at”,.

the Ecole Normale in the late fifties, dating frollll
just after his arrest, when he waS dally threatened”

,

r. ‘

1

.7:..

34

_

Debray himself, flirting with revolutionary ideas.

Both the novelS, L’Indesirable (Seuil, Paris,
1975) and La Neige briile (Grasset, Paris, 1977),
contain a picture of the meeting between intellectual revolutionaries from Europe taking a part in
the live struggle of revolutionary politics in South
America, and South Americans schooled in the
conflict itself. Debray has encountered in his experience two tensions within their meeting: the
practical revolutionaries’ suspicion of the foreign
imitation, come from a different social formation,
to meddle in South America’s quite particular
revolutionary struggle; and the intellectuals’ hesitation before the convictions, absolute within their
own world, that inspire the practical revolutionaries to so much fearful risk and suffering. There
is Frank, the Swiss intellectual of L ‘Indesirable,
arranging a vital shipment of arms for a guerrilla
band at the request of Lucas, a peasant fighter
keeping the gringo at arm’s length. When Frank
finally meets up with the guerrillas, their physical
commitment is beyond him: ‘who forces them to
trudge through the mud with thirty kilos on their
backs and 200 calories a day … what keeps them
on their feet, these flagellants of the revolution?’

Likewise, there are Imilla and Boris in La Neige
brule, Austrian and French respectively, living on
the fringe of the battle waged by Carlos, the
Bolivian revolutionary, whose murder leaves them
isolated. The meeting o.f the two continents focuses
the gulf between two kinds of commitment, the cool,
intellectual and the unquestioning, physical, which,
argues Frank, have in some way to be fused:

‘We have … tu forge a new race of actiVists,
zealou,s and sceptical. .. Reasonable, and hence
balanced in their judgement; intransigent in their
acts, and hence frenzied. •. The challenge of the
age is to engage in practice without [the support
o~ a faith. ‘

The most sustained personal reflection from
Debray’s time in prison comes from the last few
months, when he finally had the facilities to read
and to write. The writing of this period was published in French in 1976 under the laconic title
Journal d ‘un petit bourgeois entre deux feux et
guatre murs (Seuil, Paris). I want to concentrate
now upon this work because, buried in an introspective dialogue, it contains a sustained argument
about Debray’s personal commitment as an intellectual. It is, of .course, a very personal work, so
that the general applicability of the argumelt
depends upon the extent to which readers may
accept that Debray himself is the type of the
European left intellectual. To establish that view,
by a general surveyor analysis of European intellectuals, lies outside the scope of this article.

Despite the improvement in his conditions, Debray
had no reason at the time of writing the Journal to
believe that his sentence would soon be cut short.

Here, then, is the petty bourgeois intellectuat in
jail, where no outside event is going to touch and
change him, as Debray puts it: face to face for
thirty years with what he is. In prison there can be
no cheating; it is ‘a long forced test of selfverification, the moment of truth spread out over
years’ (77 – all numbers in brackets are pages
from the Seuil edition of the Journal).

The reflections that come to Debray are understandably rambling. He talks of the power of words
and of images in films, of student life in Paris, of
fatherhood. of self-identity, of alienation and of
universalism. In tne diary form it IS often difficult
to see the connection between one entry and the one

following, or the whole. Yet all these themes hover
around Debray’s self-questioning upon the conditions of commitment when his own commitment has
brought him to jail. When more systematically
arranged, they throw into relief an underlying
contradiction in the petty-bourgeois intellectual’s
motivations and a possible resolution.

The analysis of Debray’s reflections that follows
reveals how he had by this time departed from the
straightforward Althusserian orthodoxy of the
essay on ‘The Role of the Intellectual’ (in Strategy
for Reyolution, Penguin), which he wrote before
his imprisonment. There he repeats Lenin: there
is no revolutionary practice without revolutionary
theory; the intellectual contributes his theoretical
practice to the struggle. Here we find a subtler
and more qualified pOSition, starting not fro.m the
premises of a structuralist science of social formations, but from the self-consciousness of an
individual intellectual, considering the meaning
of his own commitment.

The Problem of Death
In his Journal Debray tries to find the value of his
life as if it were already over. By this time he no
longer awaited a summary execution (as he had just
after his arrest); but that experience of being
brought face to face with death carried easily over
to his years in prison. Thirty years is twice the
length of what we call’a ‘life sentence’; a longdrawn-out end of life, then. So it is easy to see
why the book begins and ends by wondering how an
individual can understand his life ended in the
course of the struggle. To accept death in a
struggle must be the crucial test of commitment,
for it is vividly to accord one’s whole life to the
struggle.

The scientific (i. e. historical materialist) measure of an epoch, Debray points out early on (21),
has no regard for the individual and, like a good
general, thoughtlessly replaces the irreplaceable,
the individual fallen in the battle. But from another
point of view that single suffering, ‘a single living
being cut into pieces by a shell or by another living
being in some torture chamber’, sets aside all the
rational coherence of the scientific view of the
epoch, and makes it a scandal. This paradox
determines a fear. For the revolutionary, love,
mUSiC, memories should all pale into inSignificance beside the tasks to achieve, the historical
role which defines the individual. But these things
also feel to Debray like the very flame of life,
consuming all the historical data by wh ich he has
sought to live (23). Forced to go over his life, then,
Debray is unable to content himself with the analysis of the intellectual’s role in a revolutionary
practice which merely situates him within an epoch.

The threat of death takes him beyond marxist
orthodoxy, and may overturn the very prinCiples
upon which he has based his activity as an intellectual in the struggle.

If the threat of death provokes neither paSSive,
thoughtless reSignation nor a restless, futile anger,
it stimulates a desire to see the worth of one’s
completed life as a whole. Debray has, in fact,
already known this satisfaction. The n~ght that
summary execution seeme.d most imminent was
spent, he says, reviewing his past and his future
as a mere spectator, and touching the ungraspable
core of his own reality (108-09). According to him,
this immersion in their real lives allows condemned
men to go happily to their execution. The dying man

35

may be happy, then, in a sensation of the complete
individual identity in the life he has led. Thus the
problem of how to accept death is to be resolved by
a particular type of awareness of identity, and much
of the Journal is, in fact, a reflection by Debray
upon his own identity – as the self-conscious title
suggests.

The problem of death enters Debray’s reflections
because his commitment seems at the time to have
cost him his life. If he can discover something that
enables him to face death, then total commitment,
one which risks his very life, will not be beyond
him. But, as I have just said, he sees the means
to face death in a particular kind of awareness of
identity. The basis of total commitment will be
found also in the same kind of awareness of identity.

But, as we shall see, for Debray a sound basis of
com mitment can be reached only by overcoming a
conflict in his own sense of identity, which is the
subject of my next two sections.

.;~llnsion:)
I’

in the Petty-bourgeois
Ji.’lh. ‘lua) ‘8 Identity

When Debray explores his own identity in order to
face up to the near-death of imprisonment, he
discovers that it lacks that completeness required
for the acceptance of death in the name of the revolutionary cause. He shows, in other words, that
the foundation of his commitment was, at the time,
unsound. On his account commitment was, in fact,
the product of an attempt to elude the tensions in
his own identity.

The anticipation of death sharpened Debray’s
pursuit of his own identity, but it did not create it.

Debray has an idea of his identity like anyone else.

In fact, he has had one from adolescence onwards;
he ref~rs to the idea of his existence which he constructed between the ages of fourteen and twenty
(36), and confesses to watChing the years go past
comparing himself with the great men of history and
culture (52-53). (This may even strike a familiar
chord wi th readers. But however that may be, it is
important to note in passing that possessing some
idea of self-identity is universal; only the circumstances and the inclination to write- about it are
exceptional. For Debray the pressure of the moment
before death is combined with the pace of thirty
years’ confinement and the habits of a writer. )
Of course, the intellectual will turn to words to
lay hold of his sense of identity. The fascination
with words is a pre-eminent intellectual characteristic. As the Journal ends Debray describes the joy
of slotting an experience into the perfect epithet for
it as liberation itself. Of course, words are devious
servants. The word ‘ebb’ (reflux), designating the
disappointing setbacks of the revolutionary process
in South America, encapsulates them so effectively
that Debray almost hopes for further defeats, rather
than face the necessity to reappraise the situation
(28). Given his intellectual’s addiction to words,
Debray has naturally employed his facility with
them to define his own identity. Now he resorts to
them again to hold that sense of ungraspable reality
which came to him under the threat of execution.

His real goal, he feels, has always been to earn
some epithet or other (29). He suggests some
possibilities: upright, lUCid, tough, rational, whole.

But now the irony of Debray’s SQal must strike us.

These words can be uttered, representing an ideal
Debray; but they are targets which he mayor may
not have reached. His ideal self-identity (his selfimage we might call it) can be set out before, or
36

without, his real identity’s corresponding with it.

When he brings into play his habit of using words ,
Debray makes possible an ideal and a real self and a gap between them. It would, he feels, have
been easier if one knew what to call oneself from
the start, a list of advice on the 1. D. card stating
limits and the result to be expected; that way there
would be no danger of false starts (27).

But, in fact, the reality and the ideal description
he can invent for himself exist side by side. It
would be fatuous to assume the truth of the description. Yet it would be equally wrong to reject the
ideal as a nonentity; it is at least an object of
desire. Especially for the man with no control over
the external manifestations of his life (such as a
man in prison), this ideal self is as much a fact
about him as his desire to be it, and the unwishedfor real events that make up his life.

“1 The imaginary::: the present = the valueless
(What I don’t want to identify myself with,
what I must be without wanting to be, that
which does not fulfil the ideal, namely the
idea of my existence that I created for myself
between 14 and 20)
2 The real::: what is elsewhere yet not foreign
to me = my unconscious, my other self within
= my values, which are images at heart.

3 The real is the image. ‘

(36-37)
The intellectual in particular experiences the coexistence of the self-identity forced upon one and the
self-identity one would value. This is so, in the
first place, because of his ease with words. The
experience is not necessarily confined to introspective experience; it can be a phenomenon of
interpersonal or public relations. Debray gives a
reading of Stendhal as a ‘political writer’, because
Stendhal has observed the power of utterances to
evoke the acts they antiCipate _(28). Nor is the experience in fact confined to intellectuals or common
to all of them. But it is as an intellectual that
Debray meets it.

Debray takes the formation of an image of selfidentity a step further through remarks on literary
culture. Poetry, he writes, seizes and holds a
moment in the poet’s adolescence, that has been
lived by each of us; namely that at which the first
desire takes physical shape in ‘love or more
precisely … the discovery of the body’s capacities’ (31-32). At that moment ‘our ideas (esprit)
become something physical’. It is, in other words,
a moment when image and reality intersect – or
rather the one meets the other, which takes off on
its own course. Poets hang on to this moment:

‘They speak to us in the name of our past, of an
illusion, a past ambition … we are linked to
them by the relation we have to that part of
ourselves that the adult, the force of circumstances, criticism, cliches … have repressed. ‘

The new element in Debray’s description of the formation of an image of self-identity is that these
adolescent images are not benign. In fact, they are
an inhibition in one’s contact with the reality of
other people:

‘The pleasures ot love are not for the young …

Too much imagination: they lay a woman out of
respect for the model, not to lose face, out of
pride, vanity, duty, all feelings in the head.’

(71)

The fmage of oneself which starts one’s adult life
can be, then, a tyrannical self-image obstructing
the way to reality. That is evidently how De bray
experienced it, ticking off the years of others’ acts

I

I

l

of gr~atness as his own youth passed without distinction.

In Debray’s case, writing itself heightens this
tension further. For the written words, like past
acts, constitute a real self-identity from the
writer’s past, a sort of alienated self-identity.

Debray admits to himself that he hates his past
writings ‘for the same reason that mirrors scare
me’ (62-63); he would hate to see ‘what I am in
black and white’. He prefer,s, in fact, words he has
just written, which he can still change. The writing
of the present offers an apparent freedom to appeal
against a real identity from the past, which is
preserved in past writings.

‘It pleases you not to have an identity, but to be
able endlessly to disown names and qualities.

You’d like to look at yourself in the mirror and
see everyone and no -one … ‘

For Debray, then, the self-image, represented
afresh by every piece of current writing, tempts
him to obliterate the self-identity established in the
past.

In two ways, then, the intellectual’s taste for
words makes of the private self-image a barrier
against recognition of the real self-identity. First,
language gives greater weight to the models which
make up the adolescent self-image because they
are corn municated and held by language. Secondly,
the activity of writing creates a false impression
of how easily the real self-identity can be
replaced by a new self-image.

Militancy and Universality
,However, it is when he talks about his background
as a French, left-wing intellectual that Debray
gives this conflict over self-identity a very particular import. For it then appears that the resistance to reality of the private self-image provoked
an equally intense urge for the concrete, issuing
in a commitment to militancy. The earlier tensions
are translated into one between the universalist
values of a petty-bourgeois intellectual and the
draw of militancy.

Debray describes his lasting personal need for
the company of militants of any sort (47 -48).

Sickened by the self-satisfaction, the lack of awareness and the faith in ‘all-powerful concepts ‘of his
fellow students, he dreamed of dry land from’ the
depths of the Ecole Normale Superieure. He is
referring,. of course, to the environment he
described in ‘In Settlement of all Accounts’.

From such a beginning he found professional
revolutionaries the most alive of creatures (47 -48),
‘with the failings of their. nature, in particular that
indifference, innate or acquired, for anything that
does not serve the immediate interests of the
revolution’. They (and pries ts!) ‘look at the ~ selves from the other side, from the point of view
of their goal’.

‘Because they enlarge (redoubler) their lives
with an idea of life, they are really forced to
reproduce (dedoubler) themselves, and we
judge them in the name of that other being that
haunts them, which is not an alibi but a demand.

What is the vi.tal difference that Debray discovered
in the revolutionaries? It is that their self-image
is not a barrier to the recognition of a real selfidentity; rather it moves towards realisation by the
creation of a world that can accommodate it,
whereas the typical self-image of his intellectual
associates, like his own, had either to be protected
or fade. The revolutionaries transcend a private
self-image with a goal in life which seeks out real

existence. This must have been the prinCipal
personal attraction for Debray in taking on the
revolutionaries’ struggle.

In fact, this contrast covers more than simply
Normaliens and revolutionaries. Debray has in
mind as well a structural feature of European, and
particularly French, culture as a whole, which he
calls universalism. He has just described its
effect on French literary culture (42-46). The
writers of introspective journals (Camus, Gide,
Debray himself, of course), who are typical of this
culture, attempt to embrace others in their own
tirelessly eXplicated identities. But this enterprise
is misguided from the start. For one can only
succeed in diluting one’s own identity and that of
others in some general concept, one’s type, or
(more futilely still) the human race as a whole. But
there is no ‘situation in general’ and the writers
end up ‘playing with words … taking seriously the
general, subjecting themselves to a style, a vocabulary, an attitude, or rather a preconceived idea
that they want to give it’, instead of ‘playing with
situations, .•• connecting with the concrete, the’

singular’. Similarly, there is no identity in general,
with one’s particular traits removed, corresponding with the situation in general. Debray writes of
this later:

‘By relying on this identity which goes without
saying (identite-gui-va-de-soi) … I cannot in
the end identify • •• my most ordinary and
striking traits of character, which are just
about recognisable to the man next door. ‘

(146)
Universalism is the assumption of the existence of
a universally present situation in general and a
universally present character in general, and the
weight put upon these in European culture.

This explanation of the spirit of the culture to
which Debray sought an alternative supplements
the mechanism of tensions in identity described in
my previous section with what is baSically a theory
of self-identity. By assuming. in his explication of
his identity that there is a human sit.uation in general, the man of letters drains his self-identity of
substance even as he attempts to realise it on
paper. He pares down his self-image to its most
general features. But far from bringing it closer
to a living identity, he abstracts from the particular
situations and traits which make up real existence.

This approach to self-identity has eminent philosophical b!tcking. As a matter of style alone autobiographical self-generalisation underlies the very
beginning of modern bourgeois philosophy in the
Discourse on Method and; to a degree, Hume’s
Treatise. What is more important, the presupposition of a universal character is expounded throughout bourgeois philosophy from the Cartesian cogito
to the Kantian noumenal self. Thus the reliance
upon language is not in itself, as first appeared,
the source of the tensions between self-image and
self-identity. There is a still more widespread
disposition in European bourgeois culture and
thought, which drains the self-identity while
appearing to complete it, expressed in the philosophical presupposition of universalism.

Debray would concur; I think, in most of theJ3e
remarks about. the relation between modern bourgeoiS universalism and th~ conflict of identity
which he experienced – though he would, I susPect,
call it petty-bourgeois universalism.

He makes up a mock interview in which he shocks
a serious journalist by explaining that, rather than
guerrilla struggles, it is the scholastic debate over
37

nomio,alisrn~tl:).at is on his mind (90). The vital
question
is
.

. ‘Do concepts, names of chisses , categones, -Isms, correspond with something real or
are there only unclassifiable particulars ..• ? ‘(92)
The presupposition about a universal iden.tity sets
. up further impediments even to those who consciously try to renounce the vapid self-image it creates.

In engaging in struggle, says Debray (24), he has
to divide the world into friend and foe; but out of
latent liberalism or bourgeois individualism he
secretly holds back from the nolitical struggle by
making allowances for the enemy as an individual.

It is, he maintains (111), typical of the petty bourgeois that he should deny the differences and divisions between men, either by insisting upon a
common physical solidarity or by keeping areas of
disagreement apart (chacun’a ses gouts ‘). He
clearly touches upon the source of that disdain in
which are held the White Liberal, the liberalminded academic, and the Social Democrat – three
types derided by the militant and the oppressed
whose advocate they wish to be.

Why does petty-bourgeois universalism cling to
Debray, even when the cul-de-sac to which it leads
in the development of his self-identity has provoked
him to turn from the petty bourgeoisie to the revolutionaries? I think the reason must lie in the
nature of universalism itself. In order to move
from his petty-bourgeois existence to any other,
including that of a revolutionary, the petty bourgeois must suppose his original, given character
susceptible to the change. He can only do this by
elevating it to the highest possible level of generality; the petty-bourgeois assumption of a universal
identity is a vital presupposition for abandoning
one’s identity as a petty bourgeois. It is thus
reinforced by the petty bourgeois’ own attempt at

I”J~td~

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l3arbara Easron: Feminism, Patriarchy and the Contemporary
Family
David ihndd: Israel, the Palestinians, and the Middle East
Michacl Reich and Richard Edwards: Political Parties and the
Americ:lIl State
Eli Lm:tsky: Psychotherapy and Politics in Americ:!n Culture
Articles on politic:!1 p:!rties, trade unions, :!nd soci:!l movements in the United Statcs

111 recellt issues:

Daniel Ben-lIorin: Television
Richard Lichtman: Marx and Freud, three part series
Lucio Magri: Italy, Social Democracy, and Revolution
Elkn Malos: lIousework and the Politics ot Women’s Liberation
David Plotke: American Politics and Class Forces in the 1970’~
Nicos Poulantzas: The State and the Transition to SocialIsm
Harold Baron: Robert Alien and the Retreat from 13lack
Nationalism

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38

change. The petty bourgeois is driven to a dead end,
whether he stays with his class or tries to eschew it,
We might go further. Universalism not only
denies the petty-bourgeois intellectual integration
into the revolutionaries, it tantalises him with the
possibility in the first place. The universal identity
which he appears to share with all other men holds
out in the first place an illusion of freedom to
choose by subjective decision such ‘non-essential’

features of one’s own identity as one’s place in
society or in class conflicts. Without that illusion
Debray might never have thought of taking on the
identity of a revolutionary to escape the tensions of
his sense of identity.

This, then, is the contradiction which Debray
reveals in his identity. Beginning from typical
features of the petty-bourgeois intellectual, fluency
with words, the habit of writing, the presupposition
of universalism, he describes the contradictory
motivations they create in his own commitment and
the shortcomings from which it suffers as a result.

It seemed possible to elude the tension between
self-image and self-identity by a commitment to
the revolutionary cause of another class. But the
route to commitment led through an emphasis on
universal identity which excluded serious
commitment.

The Recourse to Particularity
Feeling that his attempt to choose a new selfidentity has not, and cannot succeed, Debray
reflects instead about what constitutes his original,
particular roots and character, and about the forms
of culture which can seize this particularity. This
reflection marks a change in political direction.

In the light of his own corn mitment, Debray
decides that his own past activity was a specious
attempt to evade his original identity:

‘Clandestine tasks attract you because for them
you change your name, because you are ageless,
without a past, or even a fixed nationality, by
dint. of changing from one to another. You escape
from the police, institutions, routine and yourself. ‘ (81)
He makes a new resolve which would avoid this
phoney commitment:

Tyou have ceased to be young from the moment
you no longer dream of escapting from the
[obligation to] become what you are. .. From
today no more alibis, even the notebook may
fall f;om your hands ~ From now on you will
always be the same. ‘ {77)
Debray sees in his language an all-embracing
identity, and makes the relation to one’s language
the test-case of a proper relationship to one’s
particular background. (What would an Englishman
turn to in the same circumstances? Inherent
corn mon sense, perhaps. Our philosophy of language has usually been a philosophy of common
sense.) Linguistics is wrong, he argues, to take
language as an instrument (136-37): we do not
perceive our own language, as we do a tool, nor
change it when we turn to work on a different
object, nor choose nor create our language. In
terms of the philosophy of language these remarks
are not striking; but they lead on to a theory of
cultural identity (137 -39). A language, which we
receive from the past and pass on, is more real
than each individual who acquires it. We have to
experience ourselves (nous rendre presents ‘a
nous-meme) and portray the world to ourselves
within the shortcomings of a given language. To

make~neself the child of a language by profound
familiarity with it is to ‘plunge one’s roots as deep
as possible in the earth, in a territory, in a nation,
in a given history’.

One does not,however, lose one’s freedom by
immersion in one’s particular language. Rather,
by identifying his self with his language, the great
writer makes the latter a perfect expreSSion of
every motion of the former. Debray’s thinking
appears to be that if a writer’s identity is totally
integrated into his culture-, then it is impossible to
say that one is determined by the other. He enjoys
something like Spinozistic liberty, necessity wellunderstood becoming freedom; except that the
necessity is in this case not universal but particular
to the writer’s background. This latter shift is, for
Debray, a condition of real integration between
one’s own identity and a given culture.

Debray does not intend the virtues of this close
relationship to particularity to be restricted to the
activity of writers ~ He feels that he requires a
relationship of the same sort for authentic- political
activity, and will obtain the same freedom by it.

In 1967 (with his arrest), he writes (79-80), he
recalled that he had a family, that he was that
family; that he was French; that he was attached to
that language, that history, Gauloises cigarettes
and so on; that he was a young French intellectual
of bourgeois family – all things he had found
shameful before. But in recogniSing his natural
filiation he had loosened it:

‘To loosen one’s filiation (se des affilie r ) is to
begin to be able to be an activist, to cease to be
the foreigner, the one-legged one (one foot here
but the other elsewhere, no one knows where,
retractable and invisible), the half-responsible,
the adviser, the contact, the middleman. ‘ .(81)
The freedom to assume a new identity was an
illUSion, which led to partial commitment and
merely sustained the conflict of identity. Byavoiding that conflict, an open acknowledgement of one’s
given particularity would make possible true
commitment, and hence real action. Thus, although
he can no longer choose the limits within which he
works, Debray feels he now envisages a real
instead of an illusory freedom.

Debray would evidently hold that this acknowledgement of one’s own particular roots is sound dialectical
materialism – even if those roots are petty-bourgeois.

For the writer im mersed in his particular language l
he writes (139-40): ‘You have to inherit a history
(local, given) to be able to interrupt and renew it. ‘

The sentence is reminiscent of Marx’s famous
remark at the beginning of the Eighteenth
Brumaire:

‘lVien make their own history, but not of their
own free will; not under circumstances they
themselves have chosen but under the given
and inherited circumstances with which they
are confronted.

(from the Penguin edition of the Political
Writings: Volume II. Surveys from Exile, p145)
The conception underlying this remark, and
Debriy’s, is that of a dialectical conflict between
men’s intentions to innovate and the historically
given social forms, which occurs in two ways. On
the one hand, men’s aims are diverted to create
new social forms different from those which were
intended (such as Bonapartism). On the other, it is
the contradictions in the historically given social
forms that give rise to men’s opposition to thetii in
the first place. Because of this relationship
between social action and social forms, Debray

holds that it is’undialectical to believe in
action ‘in the absence of some particular prior conditions or other, which, though they both determine
and divert the pure intention of the action, are also
the price of its place in the real world of dialectical
development. In Debray’s view the suppression of
linguistic difference is undialectical for tt1e same
reason. It is an ‘anti-dialectical illusion’ and ‘a
modern hydra’. The specificity of any man’s
situation makes his action within that situation
real at the same time as it inhibits it.

Debray’s view of how the individual commits himself politically is compatible, then, with the
dialectical materialist view of men’s place in
history – though Debray’s concern, unlike that of
Marx, is, of course, the individual’s experience
of the process in which his com mitment is made,
not the process itself. The precondition of commitment is a tension with one’s own particularity. But
does the notion of a dialectical relationship to one’s
particularity allow for commitment to a struggle
any more total than that arising from the earlier
tension in Debray’s identity? In theory it may.

For, thought of in this way, one’s particularity
does not entail mere passive acceptance of historically given social forms. One’s particular conditions
can create a will to see them transformed. The
dialectical conflict between one’s actions and one’s
history ends by transforming both. The dialectical
conception thus brings to the idea of commitment
the notion of a creative relationShip to one’s
particularity which is neither docility nor the selfdeluding denial of it which underlay the pettybourgeois’ partial commitment.

The Basis of Political Commitment
Debray evidently intends that recognition of
one’s particularity should be not simply a condition
of commitment, but also its source. This can be
seen in his solution to the problem of death, which
constitutes, of course, a test case of commitment,
since commitment is at its most total when it
makes it possible to accept death. The solution
Debray suggests presupposes a dialectical tension
between one’s actions and one’s particularity. And
in setting it out, Debray is also sketching, I
believe, his own resolution to the contradictions
in his commitment, and his own idea of a ‘balanced
and intransigent’ commitment, such as a wellinformed modern man could undertake.

Debray feels, it will be recalled, that under the
threat of death he -had experienced the sentiment
of his own existence which is the inspiration of
condemned men. As against this, the individual
could never make sense of his own death through a
scientific analysis of the movement of history in
which he is involved. Debray now has a notion of
corn mitment which is consistent with the dialectical
science which he had previously found inadequate
for the personal situation. Is it possible, then, to
discover the reasons why a dialectical materialist
should sacrifice his life?

As Debray points out (156-59), such a question
is, in the nature of materialism, peculiarly difficult for a materialist to resolve. Whereas any
religion has a support for the dying in its justificatory theology, the core of materialism is a
~ejection of all transcendence, which excludes all
realities beyond human existence. Materialist
science regards theological systems of thought as
non-science or as transient ideology. Were it
possible to deny all distinction between individual
and collective purposes, the problem could be
solved. Yet in European culture the distinction
is an established principle. The contradictory
fact, which marxist learning appears incapable of
understanding, is that a materialist ‘is a revolutionary because he loves life, and because he loves
life he voluntarily exposes himself to death’. The
dying words of a communist executed by the Nazis
epitomises the sentiment: ‘Vivre la vie’ .

What is needed, . Debray feels, is ‘a religion
without transcendence’, or rather with only ‘a
transcendence of the present’ – that is, transcendence which extends beyond the time-span of the
individual life yet stays within the confines of
material human existence. Clearly, the movement
of history, which carries the individual with it,
would, as understood by dialectical materialism,
be a transcendence of this sort. But to find the
required transcendence only in history would
return us to the contradiction with which Debray
began, with history the cool-headed general sacrificing troops who cannot understand their own fate.

Debray has in mind a transcendence ‘no longer
based upon the sense of history (as if there were a
universal history or just one history for everyone!):

but on the meaning of each of our acts, modestly.’

I think Debray envisages a kind of transcendence
in which the individual’s acts transcend the limits
of his life and connect with the movement of history
via his particularity. For one’s particularity can,
of course, be defined in history as well as being
experienced from within. Acts performed in
furtherance of the goals deriving from one’s
particularity may therefore be regarded in two
ways. They are, on the one hand, a natural manifestation of one’s particular identity. But, on the
other hand, they belong to an historical process in
which social forms are generating conflicts that
transform them.

I take it that it is with this sort of idea in mind
that Debray now resolves the problem of death by
recourse to particularity. In rediscovering that he
had an origin, he says, he discovered as well that
there is a particular death which fits the particular
life that it brings to an end.

‘In giving up your lifa you ought to have admitted
that if life is given, it is taken away, that it is
aiways a given individual who dies because he was
born of such-and-such parents, on such-and-such
date,- here and not elsewhere. ‘ (81)
Now, if the individual’s particularity comprehends
his particular death, and if, in addition, that particularity is an historical phenomenon, then acts
ariSing from or complementing that particularity~
including those which lead to death, have an historical tre aning trans cending his own life. But, from
the point of view of the individual himself, such
acts make up at the same time the complete individuality which a person may sense as he faces
death. Where death itself is the outcome of those
acts an individual may, in Debray’s terms, die
Pappy with the sense of his own completeness. In
this way a materialist, who does not believe in any
40

survival after death, may die for the meaning of
his acts, which transcend their time-span. Why
should an individual com mit himself to a political
struggle if, in order to sense his own completeness
at the moment of death, he has only to fall in with
a peaceful historical particularity? The answer
must be that some individuals’ particular conditions
generate a conflict between themselves and him.

That this happens is, indeed, a contention of dialectical materialis m. For these individuals, falling in
with their particularity means making a com mitment to a struggle. If they are dialectical materialists, they can combine a scientific judgement of the
present moment of history with a total commitment
in their own acts. In this way a dialectical materialist may die for the meaning of acts by which he
has sought to transform his particular conditions.

In my introduction I spoke of Debray’s view that
‘the challenge of the age’ was to be able to engage
in intranSigent, unquestioning action yet, in a
cool, intellectual manner act without the support
of faith. Those who are able, in the way just outlined, to unite scientific judgement and commitment to a struggle meet the challenge. They would
be the new breed of activists that Debray calls for.

His hero in L ‘Indesirable,. Frank, describes the
diSCipline of mind that stems from such activists’

concentration upon their role within history:

‘What does revolution mean? To do what? At
what cost, to what end?

Out-of-place questions. Less profaning than
profane. Irrelevancies which are perhaps relevant
from the outSide, but beside the point. For the
activity of the revolutionary is too disinterested(desinteresse) to stoop to wondering about the
usefulness, the result, the limits uf revolutidns •..

Those who wish to ensure their grasp on the
world must safeguard like the apple of their eye
the blind task in view. ‘

(L ‘Indes irable, pl12)
What Frank describes is a cool acceptance of an
historical necessity directing one without any
promise of a particular outcome or of personal gain.

Debray has suggested in the Journal how an individual may find such a commitment from his own
particularity.

An Authentic Petty ..bourgeois

‘Commitment
Suppose that the’ petty-bourgeois intellectual (or
anyone else) found himself in a position of1ension
with his own particular history. A commitment to
transform it would, of course, be compatible with
his given identity, since it would be based upon his
acknowledgement, not his denial, of his particular
identity. Likewise, it could be a commitment based
upon understanding, and thus reasoned, and yet
unshakeable because it followed from an objective
situation. Debray has described, then, the conditions of an authentic, balanced and intransigent
commitment.

But could this situation ever arise for a European
petty-bourgeois intellectual such as Debray? One
further literary enterprise in which Debray has been
involved since his release may provide a case in
point. (It was to be expected that the reflections in
jail which’I have analysed would have an impact
upon Debray’s subsequent political involvement.)
In 1976, a committee initiated by the French
socialist leader Fran~ois Mitterand published its
considerations on Ube”rty (Liberte, Libertes,
Flammarion, PariS), with a view to proposing a

a tenSIon between him and it.

One objection to Debray’s commitment to this
enquiry is that it is not really a serious attempt to
ANTIPODE-RECENT ISSUES
transform the conditions with which he is supposed
to
be in conflict; in a word, that it is mere reformVol. 8 No. 1
Urban Political Economy
ism. This may be afValid”!objection to the tactic
Vol. 8 No. 2
Origins of Capitalism. Politics of Space. etc.

Vol. 8 No. 3
adopted (though that would’ not impair the value of
Kropotkin. Ireland. etc.

Vol. 9 No. 1
Underdevelopment; I Socio-Economic Forthe example as an example). But Debray does have
mation and Spatial Organization
answer, which can be found in his Critique of
an
Vol. 9 No. 2
Geography and Imperialism, Polit. Econ. of
Arms.

The book as a whole is a critique of the
Journey to Work. etc.

efficacy ‘of the armed strategy in South America.

Vol. 9 No. 3
Underdevelopment: 11 Mode of Production
and Third World Urbanization
: It examines, amongst other things, the Chilean
, experience of reform, and draws the conclusion
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crisis. From this conclusion Debray continues:

See also Radical Geography, the best of our previous
‘If you want to go on to extend this rule to
articles. $7.95 from Maaroufa Press, ‘610 N. Fairbanks
developed
countries with representative demoCourt, Chicago 60611.

.cracies, functioning in normal (1. e. peaceti me)
conditions, where “bourgeois liberties” are not
just an empty phrase, you might well end up with
formal charter to be appended io the French constfthe theory that only “reform,is m” is capable of
tution. Debray was one of the editors. The whole
undertaking a sustained, centralised and
enterprise is thoroughly in the French tradition:

systematic offensive against the political,
a word from the motto of the French republic is
economic and even (why not, indeed?)
subjected to the kind of inventive explication which
ideological pOSitions of the dominant class. ‘

is taught the French at school. It is also, in con(trans. R. Sheed, Penguin, 1977, p312)
ception, thoroughly petty-bourgeois: a cultured,
But regardless of the adequacy or inadequacy of
thoughtful exposition. in print of one of the first
demands of the bourg~ois revolution. Thus it is an
Debray’s understanding of the situation of his
enterprise in full accord with Debray’s particular
native country, the committee on liberty does
conditions. Yet it is also an enterprise in opposition illustrate the sort of mechanism by which authentic
to those conditions, which employs marxist concepts political commitment could be undertaken consist(such as the reproduction of the existing model of
ent with the implications of Debray’s speculations.

society) in order to point up, the contradiction
If it seems a feeble undertaking, that must be
between the concept of liberty to which the bourbecause it is rare for there to be historical circumgeoiSie subscribes and the concrete conditions of
stances which generate for elements of the petty
bourgeoisie an obligation, or indeed an opportunity,
French men and women. In short, it exposes a
‘to enter into an innovative tension with their own
tension between the most hallowed values of
given· historical conditions. From this historical
Debray’s own particular .country and the concrete
fact, indeed, arose perhaps some of Debray’s
application of those values. It is a case where one
original impatience with the unreality of life at the
part of an individual’s particular conditions (his
Ecole Normale Superieure.

socially given values) generates (by their own logic)
!

‘After Prof. Na;geli had thus tried to curb our
scientific knowledge of riature, his example was
followed at the same meeting by Prof. Virchow,
wp,o pressed for still further restrictions on “the
freedom of science in the modern state”. And his
are so sensitive they cannot even stand the
glow from Na;geli’s feeble candle:

‘1 should like to prove to you that we have
reached a point at which we must make it our
special business to moderate ourselves and to
renounce to some extent our predilections and
personal views, so as to preserve the goodwill
which the nation still shows us. ”
Our comrades will have no difficulty underst:andlI1li
a miserable “nation” is this, whose good will
the professor is so anxious to preserve. We can
tell the Il1e,n of property by their single-minded
pasSion for the moderation of others, and by their
sensitivity towards anything wh:lch might interfere
their digestion. ‘

e’

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