Notes on the Revolution / Column #55
January 10, 2020
Cuba remembers Julio Antonio Mella
By Charles McKelvey
Julio Antonio Mella, the founder of the Federation of University Students and an important figure in the Cuban popular revolutionary movement, was assassinated in Mexico City on this date, January 10, in 1929. In all the universities of Cuba, the local chapters of the Federation of University Students are holding activities in commemoration. I devote today’s Notes on the Revolution to this exceptional leader of the Cuban Revolution of the early 1920s.
Julio Antonio Mella McPartland was the son of Nicanor Mella and Cecilia McPartland. Nicanor was a prosperous tailor who was born in the Dominican Republic, the son of a general in the Dominican independence struggle. He migrated to Cuba in 1875, at the age of 24. Cecelia McPartland was born in Dublin, and she was the daughter of a poor Irish farmer who migrated to the USA. Around the year 1900, Nicanor and Cecilia met in New Orleans, a city to which he traveled frequently to purchase supplies for his business. Nicanor and Cecelia lived for several years in Havana. They were the parents of two boys, without being legally married, inasmuch as Nicanor had a previously established family. Nicanor transmitted to his sons his support for the independence struggles in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, and his opposition to the U.S. military intervention of 1898-1902 and to the imperialist projections of the USA toward Latin America. Nicanor regularly read the principal newspapers and news magazines of the era, with particular attention to international news.
Born in Havana in 1903, Julio Antonio Mella was enrolled in various private schools in Havana, New Orleans, and Mexico. He was an avid reader, particularly appreciating the works of Martí, and he became an advocate of Latin American unity. With the triumph of the Russian Revolution, he became influenced by Marxism and the Communist International, but he remained a strong advocate of truly independent Latin American republics, in accordance with the ideals of Bolívar and Martí. The Mexican Revolution also influenced his thinking.
Mella enrolled in the University of Havana in 1921 at the age of 18, and he immediately became active in a student organization against corruption. He played a leading role in the establishment of the Federation of University Students in December 1922.
Mella organized in 1923 the First National Congress of Students, which included students from the University of Havana, private teaching centers, and secondary schools. The Congress adopted a declaration of solidarity between manual workers and intellectual workers, and it sent a message of greetings from the students to the Workers’ Federation of Havana. The declaration condemned “the outrages committed against the peoples of the Caribbean, Central America, the Philippines, Ireland, Egypt, India, and Morocco,” expressing hope that “these peoples will obtain real self-determination.” The Declaration also expressed its opposition to U.S. imperialist interference in the affairs of Latin American nations, an interference that was symbolized by the Platt Amendment, the Monroe Doctrine, and Pan-Americanism. The Congress also called for Cuban diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union; and it demanded the establishment of a literacy campaign, similar to those undertaken in Russia and Mexico.
In 1923, Mella also played a leading role in the establishment of the José Martí People’s University, which became a center for the exchange of ideas between students and workers, and in which Mella taught a course on the History of Humanity and Cuba. The People’s University was closed by the government in 1927.
In Mella’s time, an important Marxist was Carlos Baliño López (1848-1926), a tobacco worker who was a central voice in the radicalization of the Socialist Group of Havana and its declaration of support for the Russian Revolution and the Third International. In 1925, Baliño and Mella led the establishment of the first Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), with a Central Committee constituted by five workers, a public employee, a teacher, a journalist, and a student, that is to say, Marxist-Leninists not only from the working class, but also from the petty bourgeoisie. The PCC immediately was declared illegal by the government, and its leaders were assassinated, imprisoned, or deported. In addition, it was condemned by the press. However, it continued to operate clandestinely, and it would become the most disciplined and politically conscious organization of the country, playing a central role in the organization of workers and peasants.
On November 27, 1925, Mella was arrested, falsely accused of having placed a bomb in a theater. He carried out a hunger strike, and the national and international clamor compelled the government of Machado to release him. Following a new order for his arrest, Mella left clandestinely in January 1926 for Mexico, where he lived from three years, until his assassination.
Julio Antonio Mella was formed in the moral and intellectual environment established by the powerful teachings of José Martí, who had forged a movement that responded to the two issues of colonial domination and social inequality: a movement that was anti-imperialist, seeking to establish a truly independent nation; and that sought social equality, in which all would be included as full citizens of the nation, regardless of race or class. But Mella lived in a different historic moment. He had experienced the participation of the Cuban national bourgeoisie in the imperialist project of the United States, reducing itself to a figurehead bourgeoisie; the participation of ample sectors of the middle class in the corruption of the republic; and the loss of moral and political direction that defined the society of the republic. And he lived in an historic moment influenced by the triumph of the Russian Revolution. From Mella’s vantage point, Martí’s vision of a society made by all and for the good of all had to be forged through a struggle by workers, peasants, and the poor that would take power from the political class that had surrendered to the interests of U.S. corporations and that had forgotten the needs of the people.
Thus, Mella gave a Marxist-Leninist reading to Martí. He pushed the legacy of Martí to a more advanced stage, by deepening its awareness of the dynamics of class differences and contradictions. But he also preserved essential dimensions of Martí, such as anti-imperialism in defense of national independence as well as the ethical messages of Martí, like the need for personal sacrifice in defense of ideals. At the same time, Mella contributed to the advancement of Marxism-Leninism, connecting its evolving political theory and practice to the struggles of neocolonized peoples for sovereignty. This synthesis of Marxism-Leninism and Martí, initiated by Mella, would be brought to fruition in the 1950s and 1960s by Fidel Castro.
During his three years of exile in Mexico, Mella continued his revolutionary activities. He became a member of the Central Committee of the Mexican Communist Party. He attended, as a delegate of the Anti-Imperialist League of Latin America, the World Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism in Brussels. He traveled to the Soviet Union. And he founded the Association of Proletarian Students and an association of New Cuban Revolutionary Émigrés.
Assassinated at the age of 25, Julio Antonio Mella is remembered and appreciated in Cuba today for his important contributions to the development of the Cuban Revolution and as a symbol of the revolutionary tradition of Cuban students. At the entrance to the University of Havana, one can find Mella Plaza and a monument that preserves his ashes, where each academic year begins with a ceremony presided by the elected officers of the Federation of University Students, the same organization that he founded in 1922. On the ninety-first anniversary of his shameful assassination, Mella is present.
This is Charles McKelvey, reflecting on the unfolding global popular socialist revolution forged by our peoples in defense of humanity.
Arboleya, Jesús. 2008. La Revolución del Otro Mundo: Un análisis histórico de la Revolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Cupull, Adys, and Froilán González. 2010. Julio Antonio Mella: Biografía. La Habana: Casa Editorial Abril.
Instituto de Historia de Cuba. 1998. La neocolonia. La Habana: Editora Política.
Vitier, Cintio. 2006. Ese Sol del Mundo Moral. La Habana: Editorial Félix Varela.
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