Régis Debray, Radical Conservative
Looking back on his time as a Cuban-trained communist revolutionary, the French writer Régis Debray recalled that Chile’s Marxist president used to display on his desk a photo of guerrilla leader Che Guevara, inscribed: “To Salvador Allende, who is headed to the same place by a different path.” It was a prophecy of sorts: Guevara would be captured and shot by Bolivian army troops while trying to foment an uprising in the country’s southern highlands in 1967. In 1973, Allende would commit suicide during a coup d’état, just after making a radio address to the nation, and just before insurgent forces led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet stormed the national palace.
Debray, comrade, confidant, and adviser to both men, took the same path to a decidedly different place. Now eighty, he gives grumpy interviews in the rightwing daily Le Figaro. He mocks the enthusiasms of France’s intellectual class, from “democracy promotion” to the Muslim headscarf to the environmental preaching of Greta Thunberg. He fulminates on national television about the folly of a borderless world, writes literary appreciations of the great prose stylists of the high French tradition, from Paul Valéry to Julien Gracq, regularly invokes the decline of the West, and insists that when his fellow Frenchmen speak about politics they are often, without realizing it, speaking about religion.
He has written about a hundred books, pamphlets, and brochures, including five since the onset of the coronavirus in 2020: an autobiography, a tract about the religious roots of environmentalism, broadsides on the Americanization of France, and calls to uphold French secularism in the face of an assertive Islam. Without ever migrating to the political “right,” the intellectual firebrand of the 1960s has wound up on the curmudgeonly side of most contemporary controversies. If Debray carries a lesson for his twentieth-century readers, perhaps it is that the French radical tradition really is a tradition, as dedicated to rules, rituals, and reverence as any other.
Born the year Hitler invaded France, Debray had the Paris equivalent of a Park Avenue liberal upbringing. He was raised in the city’s sixteenth arrondissement, the son of well-to-do, politically active and broad-minded parents. He was among the most brilliant minds of his generation, according to the way we measure such things: He finished first on his year’s entrance examination to the École Normale Supérieure, the most competitive route to an academic career in the humanities.
At the École Normale, he fell under the sway of philosopher Louis Althusser, the pious-Catholic-turned-hardline-Marxist, mentor to radical thinkers from Jacques Derrida to Michel Foucault. Rigorous, original, and kindly, Althusser also suffered from severe schizophrenia, and would kill his beloved wife in a fit of insanity two decades later. He has—perhaps unjustly—been little read since. “I became a Marxist because of the Catholicism in it, because I found in Communism the same sense of the Universal,” he once told Debray. “What was there for me to do as a Catholic in the Church? The Party, on the other hand, was seeking me out for the concrete task of liberating mankind.”
Debray was himself fired by communism in just this way. But he was also a literary romantic, drawn to those French writer-exiles, from Chateaubriand to Malraux, who looked to the wider world and its political intrigues for adventure, inspiration, and belonging. He went to Cuba and spent his early twenties crisscrossing Latin America. In 1965 came what Debray called “the little accident that changed my life.” Someone showed Che Guevara, then visiting Algeria, a glowing article Debray had written on Fidel Castro’s Cuba for Les Temps Modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine. Guevara had it translated for Castro himself, who summoned Debray to Havana. The young Frenchman became a court favorite and the privileged evangelist of Castroite Communism to Western youth. It was through Guevara that Debray would meet Allende, and it was as a messenger from Allende that he would enter the circle of the French socialist François Mitterrand, whom Debray would advise when Mitterrand became president in the 1980s.
In Cuba, Debray was not just woolgathering. He was training in guerrilla combat alongside the units that would eventually carry the war into Venezuela, Guatemala, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic. And he was writing. His first book, Revolution in the Revolution?, cut against insurgents’ doctrine and pundits’ cant. The historians Robin Blackburn and Perry Anderson, as well-read as any of their contemporaries on Marxist literature, judged at the time of publication that Debray’s essays “unquestionably constitute one of the most brilliant examples of Marxist-Leninist analysis to have appeared in many years.” Though they faulted Debray for lack of specificity, they were impressed by his “startling” thesis that Latin American guerrilla fighters should, at least in the early stages of revolution, avoid the peasant populations they hoped to radicalize, due to cultural differences between the mostly Indian campesinos and the European-inspired revolutionaries.
Even now, Debray thinks this was one of the ways Che Guevara erred: He tried to spur an uprising in a part of southern Bolivia that was hard for guerrilleros to extricate themselves from, and far from the region’s mining towns. These towns would have offered a more sophisticated and therefore more easily radicalized workforce on which the fighters could lean for support. (In just this way, Castro had taken advantage of the proximity of Cuba’s second city, Santiago, to his base in the Sierra Maestra.) Debray had scouted alternative places; Guevara ignored him. When Debray, posing as a journalist, was sent to make contact with Guevara in 1967, he was captured near Camiri and sentenced to thirty years in prison, of which he served four.
Though Debray fought briefly with the Sandinistas in the late 1970s, reading, aging, and the steady hardening of the Cuban regime took some of the luster off of communist revolution. Mitterrand’s fourteen-year term as France’s president, during which he invited communists into the government, made the transition from 1960s subversive to twenty-first-century Solon more seamless in France than it might have been elsewhere. Debray spent much of the 1980s as a foreign-policy adviser. He emerged short on achievements but with a large store of practical wisdom and instructive anecdotes. When told that George W. Bush had not known that Shiites were Muslims, he recalled, “François Mitterrand himself could raise a quizzical eyebrow on hearing me speak of ‘Christian Arabs.’”
But even before he hooked up with Mitterrand, Debray was establishing himself as a literary author. People had already begun asking whether he was turning into some kind of reactionary, and every couple of years since, without ever fully severing his ties with revolutionary circles, Debray has found a new way to provoke that question.
One constant in Debray’s writings is the seriousness with which he takes the social order. Many communists got carried away with their doctrines and sold the bourgeoisie short. Not Debray: He always assumed the middle class in any given European country to be more resilient, more idealistic, and more ruthless in fighting back than radicals realized. The most arresting claim in his first book is this: “The revolution revolutionizes the counterrevolution”—which might also serve as a one-sentence explanation of fascism. Taking the bourgeois order seriously is perfectly consistent with radical Marxism, but it is something that survives in Debray’s work even after the Marxism has fallen away.
Perhaps the bourgeois order—and his own place in it—is what Debray really wanted to talk about all along. He has written a half-dozen versions of his autobiography, each time with a different focus. His account of his political education, Praised Be Our Lords, has some claim to be his greatest book. It contains a number of striking passages about the nature of political commitment (and his own commitment in particular), as he thinks himself into the mind of a skeptic:
See that fanatic who says he’s ready to sacrifice himself for a better world? Don’t believe a word he says. He wants a cure for his world-weariness and a way out of getting a real job. A rich boy’s self-hatred isn’t the same thing as a love of the poor. The worst kind of egotism can dress itself up as altruism . . .
In passages like these, an American reader will hear echoes of Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir Making It, with its heretical message that young intellectuals are often working only secondarily on their books, primarily on their careers. It is a constant theme in Debray, who describes the mid-century French Communist party of his youth as “a springboard without parallel: a press service, a tour operator, a loudspeaker, a place to meet people . . . ready to help, without fail.” And he calls France’s Trente Glorieuses, the thirty-year boom that followed the Second World War, an outright misfortune for a young man like him. As a time that had no need of heroes, it was “a disaster for glory.”
Having gone to such lengths to make himself an actor on the historical stage, Debray missed the great historical upheaval of his generation. Unlike the United States, where “the sixties” were a slowly evolving, multi-faceted cultural process, France saw its bottled-up tensions burst forth as an event—the Paris student uprisings of May 1968. Debray at that point was reading Gramsci in a jungle prison on Bolivia’s Paraguayan border. This is not such an unusual fate for a Latin-American revolutionary. Debray’s Sandinista comrade-in-arms, the present-day Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, imprisoned for bank robbery from 1967 to 1974, wrote a poem about the experience titled “Nunca vi a Managua en minifalda” (“I never saw Managua in a mini-skirt . . .”). But it is almost unique for a Parisian intellectual of that generation.
Even before his jungle sabbatical, Debray took little interest in the bits of the global sixties that were already visible (and audible) in France: “Jacques Brel and Leo Ferré drowned out the Beatles.” It is striking how little he feels he missed. Some of the harshest words in his career of polemical writing are reserved for the “revolution” made by the generation a decade his junior. What they were carrying out, he claims, was no revolution at all. His “Modest Contribution to the Official Tenth-Anniversary Speeches and Ceremonies” (1978), since reprinted as May ’68: A Successful Counterrevolution, is his reconstruction of events.
As Debray sees it, in 1968, as the presidency of war hero Charles de Gaulle neared its end, France was on the verge of exploding, because there were in reality two Frances. “Economic France” was a highly advanced Western capitalist country. “Cultural France” was literary, religious, untelevised, traditional—and a drag on economic France’s profits. Though the number of Frenchmen who made their living off the land had fallen to 14 percent, France had “kept a peasant outlook . . . the imprint of a rural, old-Catholic world that de Gaulle had buried physically but not psychologically.” These habits choked off the consumer spending that was needed to fuel a modern, American-style economy.
The youth of 1968 were not attacking anything political. The real object of their political hatred was their parents’ and teachers’ parsimony and puritanism (or “anality,” as Debray wrote, it being still the age of Freud). No political shift followed, even when de Gaulle, nearing eighty, left office a year later. But a wave of corporate consolidations did, and so did an increasing French dependence on American and German finance. This was the age when television really supplanted print, and when the intellectuals Debray describes as prophétique (such as Jean-Paul Sartre) and spécifique (such as Michel Foucault) made way for those he dismisses as cathodique (such as Bernard-Henri Lévy). “The French road to America passed through May 1968,” Debray wrote. “The French avant-garde would henceforth be an American caboose.”
Debray is too dispassionate a thinker to be accused of “hating” America. He once told John Vinocur of the New York Times that if he had to live someplace other than Paris, he would choose New York. But another lifelong constant in his philosophy is that the United States has, on balance, done the world more harm than good. Maybe this attitude is a survival of Debray’s anti-colonial battles in Latin America at the time of the Vietnam war. The United States, as he sees it, has hardly improved since, behaving like a “rogue state” in wars from Serbia to Iraq.
Some of America’s failings come merely from its having an empire, for empires run on double standards. “The turban-wearing leader of a [rich] client state is a ‘strategic partner,’” Debray writes. “His penniless neighbor is a ‘new Hitler.’” Debray is also attentive to a paradox first noted by Tocqueville: that “democracies . . . most often have a confused or erroneous idea of their foreign-policy interests and look only to domestic considerations in resolving them.” This means that democracies operate in the wider world with their hands tied. They are also more likely to engage in idiotic posturing about their “values,” trapping themselves in tests of machismo where no real national interest is at stake.
In his most recent writings, Debray has shown himself alarmed not just at America’s power to erode other cultures but at the content of its own. Alignez-vous! (roughly, “You’re Outta Line!”), published last July 4, a month after the Black Lives Matter riots and protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, laments that his own countrymen, out of a combination of zeal and peer pressure, are conforming to a foreign political-movement-cum-religious-revival:
When [President Emmanuel] Macron puts his hand on his heart while singing the “Marseillaise,” when [Sanders-style politician Jean-Luc] Mélenchon takes a knee, when [mayor Anne] Hidalgo puts Jeff Koons’s bronze “Tulips” in the most beautiful spot in Paris, when a drug dealer addresses a judge as “Your Honor” . . . none of them are conscious that they’re imitating anything. They just want to be “with it.” When the Lycée Colbert in Thionville [a high school named after Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister under Louis XIV and a founding father of the French state] gets renamed after Rosa Parks (or when another gets named after Angela Davis), surely it’s only to be “smart.”
The word smart appears in English, for France, Debray notes, has obligingly assimilated such anglicisms as gender studies, Gay Pride, revenge porn, and #MeToo, along with the collective self-loathing they are meant to carry with them. Since Debray has always been attentive to the role of privilege and guilt in his own early revolutionary enthusiasms, this is a subject that interests him greatly. “The stigma of being a bourgeois oppressor was not irremediable,” he recalls. “You could join the Communist party, a trade union, or a guerrilla commando in Mozambique. But white privilege? Where do you go to get over that? The dermatologist?”
How France might protect or reclaim its cultural heritage from the arrogance of the United States has long been a preoccupation of Debray. In 1990, he wrote an homage to de Gaulle, praising him as a nationalist (in remaining aloof from NATO), as an anti-colonialist (in extracting France from its imperial role in Algeria), but above all as a prose-writer. In 2002, Debray wrote a Swiftian satire analogizing the American empire to the Roman, in which a fictional “Xavier de C” ends up urging that Washington give its imperial subjects citizenship, as Rome’s emperor Caracalla did in a.d. 212.
Debray long seemed to think, like his friend the great left-nationalist legislator and writer Jean-Pierre Chevènement, that self-assertiveness would be enough to keep the U.S. (and the European Union) out of France’s traditional sphere of sovereignty. In a lecture that he delivered in Japan in 2011, and then published under the title In Praise of Borders, he warned that the erosion of boundaries is a horrible enemy not just of security but also of meaning and belonging.
The more contentious the subject, the more coy, allusive, and “philosophical” Debray tends to be. In writing about borders, he draws on anthropology (the frontier-fixing responsibility of most priesthoods) and philology (the origins of the word “sacred” in the Latin sancire, “to delimit, surround, interdict”). Yes, he concludes, “breaking down borders” means better food, “diversity,” and cosmopolitanism. But it also means the sexually sad dilution of “Mrs.” and “Miss” into “Ms.” (a dissolution that has not yet happened in France). It means the breakdown of the border between childhood and adulthood and, thus, “the thirty-year-old adolescent living with his mom.”
That book was written a decade ago, in a different age. Debray has not tired of cataloguing America’s failings, but he now does so in a different, much darker, spirit. “In 1960,” he writes in his latest autobiography, “to judge individuals by their race, sex and physique was a mark of the extreme right. In 2020, it is a mark of the extreme left.” And in his anti-PC pamphlet from last summer, he wrote that, as American-inspired societies extend their systems of ethnic privileges and quotas, “our researchers will be able to take inspiration from those German jurists who once had to determine the exact lines that separated the Jew, the half-Jew, and the quarter-Jew.” Americans should get used to hearing their country’s present-day utopian projects described this way.
There is nothing in Debray’s writing to suggest that countries should have much hope for self-correction once they are embarked on such a path. Decent and conscientious citizens may feel that disproving accusations of racism and sexism, “voter suppression,” and “white supremacy” will begin to clear up misunderstandings. It won’t. In a fascinating passage written in a different context, he explains:
In politics, the only way to get rid of an error is by replacing it with another error. That is because the error is not really an error. It is an illusion, in the Freudian sense of “a belief motivated primarily by the realization of a desire, which takes no account of the belief’s relation to reality.”
My generation has had the privilege,” Debray wrote recently, “of watching one world die and another be born.” He has different ways of describing this transition—sometimes from the American century to the Asian century, sometimes from the red century to “The Green Century,” to take the title of a book he wrote in 2020. There, he discusses the transition in religious terms. Until recently we lived in a “Faustian era,” a term coined by Oswald Spengler. Debray uses it to express his contempt for the hubris of industrial-age man, “a tenant of the planet who mistook himself for its proprietor.” The Faustian era is ending, Debray believes, because the young people of the world, claiming to speak for the future, have “put Prometheus in the dock.”
What is unusual about Debray’s treatment of the subject is his keen awareness that for many centuries the West had a system for putting Prometheus in the dock: Christianity. “Party, Army, Church,” he reflected a quarter-century ago. “These communities, built out of rituals, symbols, emphases, are amply stocked with legends to lure the orphans of the marvelous.” Today they are less and less accessible to young people, even in their imaginations. France has become a place “where boys aged ten no longer play with toy soldiers and, aged twenty, dream of joining not the International Brigades in Spain but a [migrant-rescue] boat run by some foundation in the Mediterranean.”
Environmentalism, in this reading, resembles a substitute religion because it is a substitute religion. The Promethean spirit, as it works to conquer nature, enters into what Debray calls a “thermostatic” relationship with it. The more un-“natural” and uprooted from tradition Western citizens’ lives become, the more we hearken back to nature and to physicality, which Debray sometimes calls “animality” and sometimes “incarnation.” Already by the mid–twentieth century, the haute bourgeoisie of France was cut off from tradition in a way that anticipated the dislocations of today. Debray recalls sitting around a campfire with Venezuelan guerrilla fighters in 1963, when his comrades-in-arms began singing folk songs of their respective regions. They asked Debray to sing one from France, and he was struck dumb. He didn’t know any. He sang as much as he could remember of “Alouette, gentille Alouette.”
Religious people are likely to be heartened by Debray’s interpretation of the Green movement. He not only vindicates the traditional institutions through which we once acknowledged the holiness of creation, but also finds inadequate the enthusiasms we have put in their place. Debray believes “The World,” or “The Planet,” to which the Greens wish us to transfer our allegiance, is an unsatisfactory substitute, because it is not local enough, not loving enough, not special enough for us to feel at home in.
But this is not, ultimately, a religious or even philosophical viewpoint. It is a sociology impregnated with nostalgia. Those who have read the late provocateur and controversialist Christopher Hitchens will occasionally be reminded of him, except that Debray writes a less accessible prose. The reader who dips into any one of his hundred books will see immediately why Debray has difficulty finding an American audience. As he puts it:
The great ubiquitarian lurch, with its oil spills, its market panics, its flash pandemics, lends a note of obsolescence to the Old World’s narrow lots, while the tsunami of the mainstream, as they say, sweeps away our flimsy levees. Is that any reason to become a man of prejudices rather than a man of paradoxes? I should say not.
Such passages will raise one overarching question in the mind of Debray’s English-speaking reader: What the heck is he talking about? Debray is a good writer. His high, “classical” French will be gratifying to those who read him in the original. But it is a poetic, rather seventeenth-century way of writing, which proceeds as much through association as through argument. Debray is an adept of the triptych, the triad, the threesome. Recherché words such as fanfréluche and frotti-frotta are everywhere. The prose is pyrotechnic, self-content, full of rhymes and alliteration and onomatopoeia and caesuras. There is an element of play in a lot of French prose-writing, but it translates poorly into English.
Debray, one suspects, has made an effort to become more difficult. He would not wish to be confused with those “cathodic” political partisans he sees as the legacy of 1968. “I’m not an activist intellectual,” he said in an interview in 1980, “and still less a battling philosopher, as they used to say during the Cold War. I’m an intellectual and an activist.” To judge from his recent writings, he believes his main contribution to Western thought will lie in his writings on “mediology” (the study of the conditions of production of ideas) and on the “religious unconscious” of the West. To a casual reader, his work on media seems to cover little ground that the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan and the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu have not covered already. In a similar way, his main book about the “religious unconscious,” The Critique of Political Reason, focuses on how “the principle establishing a community is of a different nature, and in a different sphere, than what is instituted, and the basis of society, in the final analysis, is not of a sociological order”—a variation on Max Weber’s discussion in Economy and Society of the transition from revelation to congregation, or from charisma to its bureaucratic successors.
In his excellent history of recent French thought, The Anthropological Turn, the CUNY historian Jacob Collins makes serious claims for Debray as a philosopher, emphasizing his receptivity to religion: “With his compass pointed in this direction, Debray had an easy time explaining concepts and processes that had been passed over in most modern theories of politics.” That’s true. Collins takes an example from Debray: Karl Marx, for all his explanatory power, offers no explanation of why people should want to wave flags, nor can he, because a banner is not an economic thing. “Banners,” Debray insists, “are stigmata from the prehistory of human beings.”
One could cite other, more recent instances. Debray’s wisdom on subjects that involve belief and faith is indeed superior to that of most of his contemporaries. He notes that a nation built on a worldly creed rather than a tribal identity or a revelation will be unstable: “When it is adhesion to an idea that provides cohesion, the group can explode over the tiniest difference of opinion.” And he notes, correctly, that the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic after 2020 shows why one cannot rest a government on shared belief in science: “The problem? Medical science is subject to controversies, conjectures and uncertainties—that’s precisely what makes it science.”
Debray may now see that his reputation has suffered because we do stake so much on the modern scientific outlook and the faith in progress that goes along with it. Barely out of adolescence, he dedicated himself to fighting at the very spear point of progressive ideology, as the successors of Marx had laid it out. He did so with considerable sophistication and originality, but only up to a point. For Debray had a second vocation, and that vocation happened to be the most reactionary one there is: literature, which rests on tradition, on craft, on fidelity to nature. His political principles called for tearing down the things on which his literary principles rested. Debray’s writing has been an effort—sometimes exciting, sometimes disordered—to honor both sides of this split personality.
Though he doesn’t repent of his youthful enthusiasms, Debray had by the age of forty acquired enough ironic distance from them to acknowledge that he was a conservative of sorts, and in fact always had been. “I had too much of a sense of tradition to wing it,” he wrote in 1996. “A run-of-the-mill conservative becomes a reactionary. Only a radical conservative can become a revolutionary. In a corrupt society, you have to return to the source. At the start of the sixties, my Golden Age was St. Petersburg in 1917; five years later it was the Sierra Maestra in 1956. That was progress of a sort. But any date would have suited me, so long as it was in the past.”
Originally published by First Things.
Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books and a Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute.