Notes on the Revolution
November 25, 2019
The teachings of Fidel and their relevance for global conflicts today
By Charles McKelvey
Today, November 25, 2019, is the third anniversary of the death of Fidel Castro. In this special edition of Notes on the Revolution, we reflect on the teachings of Fidel and their relevance to the global conflicts and the issues that humanity confronts today.
No one who was present in Cuba in the days following his death will ever forget the astonishing display of affection by the Cuban people: the lines of people passing by photos of the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution in the central plazas of each of the provincial capitals; the rites at the Plaza of the Revolution in the capital on November 29, where various international dignitaries were present to pay tribute, including Sandinista leader and Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega, who asked, “Where is Fidel?,” and the people chanted in response, “I am Fidel;” the remarkable assemblage of people from November 30 to December 4 along the route of the caravan that transported Fidel’s ashes from Havana to their final resting place in Santiago de Cuba, many lifting signs such as “I am Fidel” and “Promise delivered.” It is difficult to imagine that anyone has ever passed from this life in such a form. One Cuban journalist was prompted to observe that the Cuban people have declared Fidel to be sacred.
It was Fidel who first proclaimed that we are in the midst of the Third World War, a conflict between imperialism and its victims, between those who aggressively defend the privileges of power and wealth that are protected by the structures of a neocolonial world system, and those who are the neocolonized, who seek to transform world-system structures, who discern from their neocolonial situation that the neocolonial world-system is not sustainable and that humanity needs a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system that protects the sovereignty of all nations and the dignity of every person.
Fidel possessed a long-term vision, and he believed that, in the global conflict between the forces of imperialism and the neocolonized peoples, the struggle for social justice would prevail. He allowed for the possibility that the noble human enterprise could end in human extinction or culminate in a global military dictatorship, but he never lost sight of the very real possibility of human attainment of a more just world, attained by the peoples of the world by themselves and for themselves through their own efforts, courage, and sacrifice. He possessed a revolutionary faith in the future of humanity.
We need to remember today the faith of Fidel, in a time of so many complexities, challenges, and setbacks. It is not an idealist vision of the future, but a discerning of real possibilities that emerge from existing conditions, accompanied by the commitment to attain the realization of these possibilities through courage and sacrifice. When intellectuals of the Left in the North, observing any revolutionary project that has departed from their idealist conceptions of what a revolution ought to do, readily arrive to the conclusion that the revolution has been corrupted, they are indulging in cynicism, rooted in a lack of revolutionary faith in future possibilities for humanity. They are falling victim to an implicit belief that a better world is not possible, and in doing so, they cater to the wishes of the powerful. One of the permanent teachings of Fidel is that a true revolutionary possesses an interior faith in the future of humanity.
All the world knows that Fidel gave long speeches, but there is less awareness of the pedagogical character of his discourses. Fidel was continually explaining to the people and educating the people. Fidel’s approach of leadership through education and of popular education through leadership is an important example for us today. We must give high priority to the search for effective methods of explaining to and educating our peoples.
Often the Latin American Left speaks of the importance of communicating more effectively with the people, but often what is meant is the more effective use social media. To be sure, we should use social media, but there is a trap here. Social media emphasizes short and quick interchanges, which is a venue much more compatible with fake news and ideological manipulations than it is with education and explanation. We need to focus on how to make clear and understandable explanations of ideas and historical and social dynamics, and determining the medium and method of communication on this basis. Fidel’s most important speeches are available to us, preserved by the dedicated work of Cuban revolutionaries, but they could not fit on a tweet, nor could Thomas Paine’s important pamphlet of the American Revolution, Common Sense, nor Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. Fidel’s self-defense before the court in 1953, known as History Will Absolve Me, at one both manifesto and platform, was effective because it provided a narrative of the nation that had meaning and credibility from the vantage point of the people, because it explained the sources of the problems that the people were experiencing, and because it advocated concrete steps that responded to the frustrations of the people.
In addition to educating the people, Fidel formed the consciousness of a vanguard that would ultimately take collective responsibility for the education and leadership of the people. Many in the North think that the concept of the vanguard is a pretext for elitism and for the protection of the privileged. But in Cuba there is a reality that departs from such assumptions. In Cuba there is a vanguard that is from the people and lives among the people, without any special privileges; and whose members have earned the respect of the people through their informed understanding and commitment. Here is another important teaching of Fidel. In revolutionary processes today, we need to appreciate the importance of educating and forming the consciousness of leadership cadres that are capable of educating the people and earning the confidence and respect of the people through their evident mature understanding and high level of commitment.
Fidel’s attitude toward the people also is so instructive for us. He discerned the dignity of the people, without romanticizing them; nor did he castigate them for their defects. His honest, respectful, and sincere relation with the people is the key to the special place that he holds in the affections and the memory of the people, and it was fundamental to his capacity to educate and guide the people.
Fidel’s understanding of the people is the foundation of the concept of the revolutionary vanguard. The people possess courage, and they are capable of recognizing and protesting injustices committed against them. But the people do not spontaneously understand the sources of their concrete problems nor the necessary road toward social transformation, so a vanguard must be formed for the education and guidance of the people. At the same time, Fidel taught the vanguard that the people, with their defects, must be respected; the new society under construction cannot be imposed. The defects of the people, such as a certain level of racism and sexism, are a product of centuries of miseducation, and their emancipation from these prejudices cannot be eliminated by decree. The vanguard must patiently educate the people.
At a time in which the peoples of the North are turning to new forms of fascism, instead of subtly blaming the people by calling them racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic, should we not critically reflect on our own failures of the Left, for not having been able to guide the majority of our peoples toward a progressive road? Perhaps we need to better understand our peoples in order to guide them with respect. Such was the manner of Fidel.
Fidel became a revolutionary as a student at the University of Havana. Through his participation in student political activities, his taking of courses offered by a few progressive professors, and his reading of the works of Marx and Lenin, Fidel moved from being a politically illiterate patriotic nationalist to a revolutionary with a plan for the taking of political power. He implemented the plan in the July 26, 1953 failed assault on Moncada Barracks, and beginning again, in the December 2, 1956 disembarking from the yacht Granma to launch the guerilla war, which attained political power on January 1, 1959. For Fidel, the goal of the revolution was the taking of political power in the name of the people, thus enabling the revolution to redirect the state toward the defense of the sovereignty of the nation and the economic and social needs and rights of the people. Any social action or strategy, be it mass protest, strikes, boycott, or sabotage, ought to be analyzed from the perspective of its value in contributing to the goal of the taking of power by the people.
In the conditions of the world-system today, in which the global elite since 1965 has demonstrated its moral and intellectual incapacity to govern, we must be clear on this point. The goal is the taking of political power by the people, taking control of our nations from the hands of elites that demonstrate a commitment to defend particular interests, regardless of the consequences for humanity.
The taking of power does not necessarily mean armed struggle. Fidel did not believe that the guerrilla war is the only road to political power. He believed that the armed struggle was the possible and necessary road in Cuba in the 1950s. But he also believed that Salvador Allende, Hugo Chávez, and Evo Morales were revolutionaries, even though they led movements that took political power through electoral means. The correct strategy for the taking of political power varies according to the conditions in each nation, but the goal of a popular revolution is and must be the taking of power by the delegates of the people, so that a revolutionary government can act decisively in defense of the people.
Fidel also instructs us by illustrating a creative adaption of revolutionary concepts forged in other historical and social contexts to a particular national context. He was profoundly influenced by The Communist Manifesto, attaining from it the insight that men in power behave badly toward the people because they are driven by their class interests. But as he appropriated the insights of Marx and Lenin, he adapted them to Cuban conditions. He took the concept of an international struggle of the working class, but from the neocolonial situation of Cuba, he discerned that the fundamental conflict of interests is that between the colonizer and the colonized. He recognized the importance of the working class in the struggle for human emancipation, but he called all of the people to revolution, not only workers, but also peasants, professionals, students, and women, no matter what their “race.” All who were committed to the principles and goals of the revolution were invited to participate in the struggle, including white middle class men, some of whom would play important roles and/or would sacrifice their lives in the Cuban revolutionary process.
Fidel also illustrated the intellectual integration of differing national revolutionary traditions. He was a Cuban patriot, a nationalist formed in the tradition of the Cuban revolutionary José Martí. But Fidel synthesized the Cuban tradition of popular revolutionary nationalism with Marxist-Leninist analysis. On this moral and intellectual foundation, he led the Cuban revolution in a socialist project that would have uniquely Cuban characteristics.
Fidel’s concept of socialism, developed in the context of the Cuban revolutionary struggle, possesses an anti-neocolonial and anti-imperialist perspective that emphasizes the principles of the self-determination of peoples, the sovereignty of nations, and non-interference in the affairs of states. These are the principals affirmed by the Non-Aligned Movement, in which Cuba has been an active participant from the beginning. In a historic address at the 1983 Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, delivered as the world turned to neoliberalism, Fidel provided a thorough and informed analysis of the problems that the world-economy confronted, and he proposed an alternative direction to that being implemented by the global powers. The address is at once a comprehensive historical, economic, and political analysis and a prophetic moral call, proclaimed on behalf of the colonized peoples of the world. Looking at the problems of the world-economy from the vantage point of the Third World is fundamental to the teachings of Fidel and is integral to his concept of socialism.
Fidel also developed a concept of popular democracy, appropriate for societies in transition to socialism; an alternative to representative democracy, the structures of which were developed in the context of the bourgeois revolutions of the West, in which the popular sectors participated, but did not have political power. The alternative structures of popular democracy developed in Cuba ensure that the deputies of the people are the highest constitutional authority, excising their authority without being obligated to particular economic interests. The world ought to have a greater level of consciousness of the Cuban structures of popular democracy, the advantages of which are increasingly evident as representative democracy falls into crisis.
From the beginning, Fidel developed a flexible approach to the economy, accepting various forms of property according to the economic and social demands of the particular moment. The fundamental principles that guided Fidel’s economic thought are, first, the right of the state to nationalize foreign properties in its territory; and secondly, the obligation of the state to direct and regulate the economy and to establish itself as a major actor in the economy. Fidel’s understanding of a socialist economy is consistent with the socialist economies being developed in China and Vietnam as well as Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Because of its flexibility and moderation, the Cuban socialist approach to economic development has been criticized by leftist idealists, principally from the North, who similarly criticize the other above-mentioned socialist projects, without understanding that revolutions in power have to choose among real options. Leaders of socialist revolutions in power have to decide in the context of existing economic and social conditions.
These, then, are the principals of Fidel’s concept of socialism. In sum, socialist revolutions are of, for, and by the people, and they seek the taking of political power. They are patriotic, seeking to redeem the dignity and sovereignty of the nation, taking power from scoundrels who have betrayed the nation. Revolutionary leaders explain to their peoples, educating them with patience, and forming committed cadres who are present in a variety of social institutions educating, guiding, and exhorting the people. Once in power, revolutions develop an alternative theory and practice of democracy. Finally, revolutionary states are decisive actors in the economy, in defense of the sovereignty of the nation and the economic and social needs of the people.
In the United States today, some prominent political figures of the Left are beginning to speak of socialism, and to some extent their discourse is galvanizing the people. As the people of the United States begin to reflect on the meaning of socialism, they ought to reflect on the socialist revolutions emerging from the neocolonized; as Marx understood, insights are attained when the movements from below are taken seriously. Leftists in the United States ought to study the discourses of Fidel, declared by the people of Cuba to be sacred texts.
This is Charles McKelvey, reflecting on the unfolding global popular socialist revolution forged by our peoples in defense of humanity.
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