Dr. Thalía Muklan Fung Riverón
Science and revolution from Cuba and from the Global South
Dr. Thalía Fung, the founder of the Cuban Society of Philosophical Investigations, died on November 20, 2023, at the age of 89, provoking a tremendous outpouring of affection and tribute from her Cuban colleagues. I take the sad occasion to reflect on Dr. Thalía’s life work.
Dr. Fung earned degrees in Law from the University of Oriente in Santiago de Cuba and in French language and literature from the University of Havana. She was granted a doctorate in Philosophical Sciences in 1977 by the University of Lomonosov in Moscow, where she presented for the first time her comprehensive vision of the Cuban revolutionary process. And she was granted in 1985 a doctorate in sciences by the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union.
She was part of a group of novice lawyers that lent voluntary legal counsel to the participants in the uprising against the Batista dictatorship on November 30, 1956, among whom were members of the Granma expeditionary force. She was active in the 26 of July Movement in 1957 and 1958. Following the triumph of the Revolution, she was named instructor-auditor in the trials for the crimes of the army of the dictatorship against the people. Throughout her life, she maintained strong ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, often giving lectures in the military universities of the country and serving as thesis advisor for military officers undertaking graduate study. Thalía always supported her students, but she expressed a special affection for the members of the armed forces of the country.
She was among the founders of the Communist Party of Cuba. She worked as a contributor to the Department of Science, Culture, and Teaching Centers of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. She was disposed to travel in the most humble of places in the Cuban countryside to impart knowledge, as was illustrated by her service in the Cuban literacy campaign of 1961. She once described herself in a press interview as a work addict with a social commitment to those of the lowest social status. She was the recipient of numerous awards from Cuban state institutions and organizations of civil society.
Dr. Fung was, in addition, a lover of nature, of flowers and fauna, and all the animals. With environmental consciousness, she wrote of the need to respect the natural habitat of all living things.
Dr. Fung left a significant body of articles and books. At the time of her death, she was Professor Emerita and Consultant of the Faculty of Philosophy and History of the University of Havana.
Dr. Thalía Fung and the Political Science from the South
Dr. Thalía Fung and other Cuban scholars founded the Cuban Society of Philosophical Investigation in 1983, with the intention of bringing together professionals and lovers of scientific investigation; integrating diverse fields of knowledge; drawing from a critical mass of teachers and researchers from the existing universities of the country; attaining a true integration of teachers, researchers, and political leaders of the country; and reflecting a Marxist, Leninist, Martían, and Fidelist perspective of the masses, from below.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Dr. Thalía and others in the Society considered that perhaps one of the factors was the failure to adhere to Lenin’s teaching on the importance of studying political science. Undertaking a study of Western political science, they became fully aware that Western political science was ethnocentric, and as a result, not helpful for understanding the political challenges that the colonized and neocolonized peoples of the world confronted.
Dr. Fung’s critique of Western political science was rooted in a careful study of Marx, Lenin, Martí, and Fidel, bringing her to a synthesis of Marxism-Leninism and the Cuban struggle for national liberation. Seeking to resolve theoretical problems that the struggle for national liberation confronted, she wrote in a form that transcended what the West defines as philosophy, history, political science, economics, sociology, and anthropology.
At the same time, Dr. Fung took to heart Marx’s Eleventh of the Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” She thus sought to formulate an integration of theory and practice.
But above all was the need to formulate from the South, a formulation by and for the Third World, a formulation that would enhance the task of the construction of an alternative world order, necessary and urgent for the neocolonized peoples of the world. Actively engaged in the Cuban academic world at the level of the master’s degree and doctorate, she called and formed two generations of Cuban scholars with respect to this mission.
In 2011, I was asked by Dr. Alicia Morffi, then Secretary (now President) of the Cuban Society for Philosophical Investigations, to promote and organize international participants from the English-speaking world to the Society’s annual conference. In fulfillment of this duty, I regularly arrived to Dr. Thalía’s house with the latest paper proposals from the English-speaking world. She discussed them with me thoroughly, providing me with coffee and snacks. Thalía took great interest in the English-speaking participants, searching for connections between their proposals and her project of political science from the South. She received the proposals and the participants in a spirit of hope for the future, even while recognizing the limited formulations of many of them. She believed that a few days of dialogue at the Conference would be good for their personal development and possibly lead them to new horizons.
Marx, Lenin, and the revolutions of the East and South
One of Dr. Fung’s last projects was an anthology on the “subject,” by which she means the revolutionary subject in the revolutions of the world. As was her custom, she invited colleagues of the Cuban Society of Philosophical Investigations and others to submit essays on the theme, and she wrote an introductory essay reflecting on various historical and philosophical questions related to the theme. Her reflections on the changes in the revolutionary subject during the course of more than a century and a half, moving from Western Europe, to Russia, to the East, and to the South, underscores her understanding of the need for a Political Science from the South. El Sujeto was set to be published by a Cuban publishing firm. Its publication was delayed by the Covid pandemic, and now it is delayed by a shortage of paper, as a result of the intensification of the U.S. blockade against Cuba by the Trump administration, maintained by the Biden administration. It is available in digital form.
Dr. Fung maintains that in each society a revolutionary subject forms itself with a desire to transform. The revolutionary subject is an active driver of the productive forces, promoting changes in the economy, politics, culture, and thought. The bourgeoisie emerged as the transforming agent of medieval society throughout Europe, constituting itself as a world historical class that elevated the role of the individual and that established reason and science as the sure path to truth; attaining hegemony during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even though there were some philosophers, like Soren Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who denied the truth because of human subjectivities. It was Nietzsche’s thought, Dr. Thalía mentions in passing, that was the foundation of Hitler’s politics as well as postmodern reflection and action.
Marx formulated a historical analysis of the rise of capitalism that stood against the bourgeois stress on the individual yet at the same time affirmed a path to truth on the basis of reason, against subjectivist philosophical tendencies. Dr. Thalía observes that, as early as 1844, Marx had identified the proletariat as a new revolutionary subject. But it was not until 1871, with the formation of the Paris Commune, that the leaders of the working class arrived to understand that their right and duty was to take political power, so that their destiny would be in their own hands. In practical political terms, it was a question of moving beyond the bourgeois replacement of the sovereignty of the monarch with the sovereignty of the parliament, which represents a limited electorate, and not the people or the interests of the people.1
There were significant differences between the European center and Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. The Russian proletariat was small in comparison to other groups, such as the peasantry. For this reason, Russian Marxists wondered if Marxism would be applicable to Russia.
Because of the different conditions of Russia, Dr. Thalía maintains, rethinking of the question of the revolutionary subject was central to the thinking of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. He rejected the proposal of the subjectivist philosopher N. K. Mikhailovsky, who argued that the revolutionary subject is composed of “friends of the people,” who ought to be followed by the workers. This strategy was required because the workers undertake actions with “unfounded self-assurance.”
Lenin formulated a different strategy on the basis of a scientific analysis of Russian peasant society, through which Lenin discerned that the peasantry had a plural structural composition that included semi-proletarians, providing a material basis for a degree of proletarian consciousness. His analysis also showed that peasants consisted of poor peasants and middle peasants, with poor peasants possessing a tendency to form peasant soviets, or local assemblies. He anticipated that in the socialist revolution peasant soviets would neutralize the greater economic power and political influence of the middle peasants. For this reason, he changed the Agrarian Program of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party2 in 1917, bringing its proposals close to what was proposed by the peasant-based revolutionary party.
Lenin, moreover, on the basis of empirical observation, saw the emerging role of the Russian worker as head of the democratic elements of the society. Lenin thus discerned a plural revolutionary subject: the workers, relatively small in number but capable of playing a leading role; and the peasants, who would play an essential role in the revolutionary process, because of their large numbers and their capacity to form local assemblies.
Furthermore, Lenin understood that in all Eastern countries, not only Russia, it would have been impossible to carry forward the socialist revolution without the active participation of the peasantry. This also was understood by Mao Zedong in China and Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.
Lenin’s analysis of the failure of the workers’ revolution of the West following World War I led him to conclude that the revolution would extend to the East, as was indicated by the Great Chinese Revolution of Sun Yat-Sen in 1911. These revolutions, Lenin maintained, would emerge not as bourgeois revolutions, but as revolutions of national liberation. Lenin’s projection of the extension of the world revolution to the East was embraced by the Third International, on the basis of Lenin’s analysis. In accordance with this understanding, Lenin maintained that the slogan of the workers should convoke not only the workers of the world but also the oppressed peoples of the world, who as colonized and neocolonized peoples are agents of change. Ho Chi Minh, Dr. Thalía notes, was a strong defender of Lenin’s thesis of the colonized and neocolonized as an agent of change. Ho maintained that his comrades in the left-wing of the French Socialist Party and later the Communist Party did not understand Lenin’s position.
In Cuba, Dr. Thalía observes, José Martí, the leader of the Cuban Revolution in the early 1890s, stressed the need for constructing the subject of the revolution of national liberation. The unity of the revolutionary subject was essential, so that priority must be given to the liberation of the nation, subordinating the demands of groups within the Cuban nation. Martí maintained that attention to objectives claimed on the basis of race would distract from the central problem that had to be resolved, which was victory in the war of national liberation. He maintained that since the launching of the revolution in 1868, whites and blacks were united as comrades in struggle, such that in his time black Cubans do not aspire to Cuban independence as black Cubans, but as Cubans. Anything that could affect the unity of the revolution and the victory in the emancipatory war must be avoided.
Dr. Thalía observes that in History Will Absolve Me, pronounced in 1953, Fidel revealed that the “people” are the revolutionary subject in the struggle against the Batista dictatorship.3 In the twenty-first century, Fidel revealed another revolutionary subject, Dr. Thalía notes, a subject even more universal, namely, the “poor.” In addition, since his university days, she notes, Fidel found in youth a capacity for assuming revolutionary causes, as did Julio Antonio Mella in the 1920s, who was able to unite students and workers in Cuba.
Thus, for Dr. Thalía, the revolution is today a worldwide revolution with two revolutionary subjects, the neocolonized and the poor. Exceptional leaders from Lenin, to Mao, to Ho, to Fidel have declared it so. It is a revolution in which the youth of the neocolonized world, having internalized the teachings of the revolutionary leaders of the last 110 years, must play a protagonistic role.
Dr. Fung observes that in our times the revolutionary subject expands to include native peoples, non-citizens, the poor, women, colonized and neocolonized, and the illiterate. On a global scale, the capitalist system is able to constrain the power of these subjects, supported by Western political scientists who defend the words and actions of a parliament of a new type, which blocks political leaders that favor the people over the bourgeois and corporate class. Western political scientists do not discern that the sovereign people is the base of the revolutionary struggle, from which the demands of the people in defense of their rights emerge.
Dr. Thalía maintains that in the world revolution true political leaders arise from the organic social leaders of the oppressed neocolonized peoples. The first steps in the revolutionary road were taken by the workers, peasants, and soldiers of Petrograd in 1917, who rose up not only against the Tsar but against all forms of domination. The world revolution moved toward the East, and later established itself in the South for the first time in a Caribbean Island. These revolutionary processes are linked, beginning with the October Revolution, followed by the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions, and then the Cuban Revolution. Fidel brought the social revolution to the New World of America, where it would attain universality, transcending borders, countries, and physiognomic differences, becoming a struggle between, on the one side, the masses of the poor and dispossessed, and on the other side, the elites of power.
“It is time,” Dr. Thalía concludes, “to begin the transformation of revolutionary subjects in struggle, in defense of the leaders of the world revolution. Tomorrow is too late.”
I am unable to reflect on the evolutionary emergence of the revolutionary subject of the peoples of the Global South without addressing what it means for the naming of the revolutionary subject in the societies of the North, particularly my own people, the people of the United States. One could draw upon Fidel’s and Thalía’s reflections in their final years identifying the world’s poor and dispossessed as the revolutionary subject. Certainly, with respect to the USA, the application of this notion would be far better than the current emphasis on race, gender, sexual orientation, and sexual identity, which is full of unscientific formulations, and at the same time, deeply divides the people.
However, it would be politically unwise to ignore the increasing economic insecurity of the middle class in the advanced economies of the North. Indeed, the increasing economic insecurity of middle class blacks is an important factor in the emergence of inaccurate and divisive anti-racist theories, which are driven by a black middle class fear that, as the opportunities for the middle class decline, the white middle class will abandon the cause of racial justice, because their commitment to the cause is not sufficiently strong. In this fear, the new black radicals may have been right.
But the solution to the problem of potential insufficient white middle-class support with respect to issues of racial justice is not the denigration of middle-class whites for the sins of their grandparents and for their possible future abandonment of the cause of racial justice. Rather, the solution involves working together as allies in solidarity in alternative construction that defends the interests of the middle and working classes.
In the context of the current ideological divisions and confusions in the North, the best approach in the United States might be (1) the calling of the “people,” as Fidel did in 1953. (2) Identifying the various sectors of the people and their specific needs (as did Fidel). (3) Recalling, in a spirit of patriotism, the historic heroes of the nation, in spite of their defects (as did Fidel). (4) Explaining to the people the factors in the spectacular ascent of the USA and its recent fall into decadence (as does any effective revolutionary in the particular context of their nation). (5) Calling the people to a new anti-imperialist foreign policy of cooperative and mutually beneficial trade with the nations of the world, thereby restoring the prestige of the American Republic.
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Although beyond the scope of the present commentary, I will note here that during the course of the twentieth century, the franchise was extended to include in essence the various sectors of the people, regardless of race, class, gender, religion, or ideology (endless debates over the details of this notwithstanding). Accordingly, the bourgeoisie (or the power elite) has developed other mechanisms to ensure its control of the parliament and the negation of the fundamental interests of the people: elite control of the press, the universities, and think tanks; and the dependency of politicians on elite financial support. These mechanisms ensure that issues are framed in ways that do not threaten elite interests. However, believers in true democracy and social justice ought to appreciate that current political and technical conditions in representative democracies make possible the formulation and the dissemination of the true interests of the people, if the defenders of true democracy were to overcome their current confusions and useless divisions.
The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, also known as the Russian Social Democratic Party, was established in 1898 in Minsk in present day Belarus, then a part of the Russian Empire. The Party was formed with the intention of unifying the various revolutionary organizations of the Russian Empire. It split in 1903 into the Bolsheviks ("majority") and the Mensheviks ("minority"). The Bolsheviks greatly expanded their influence following the February 1917 revolution, as a result of an effective platform proposed by Lenin, which he was able to persuade the Party leadership to accept. The Bolshevik platform focused on three issues that invoked a favorable response among the people: power to the soviets, which the peasants, workers, and soldiers were forming; the distribution of land to peasants; and bringing an end to the war. Soviets, land, and peace were the issues that brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to the vanguard of the Russian Revolution by October.
In History Will Absolve Me, Fidel maintained that if the assault on Moncada Barracks had succeeded, the revolutionaries would have had the support of the people. “When we speak of the people,” he declared, “we mean the vast unredeemed masses, to whom all make promises and who are deceived and betrayed by all; who yearn for a better, more dignified and more just nation; who are moved by ancestral aspirations of justice, having suffered injustice and mockery generation after generation; and who long for significant and sound transformations in all aspects of life, and who, to attain them, are ready to give even the very last breath of their lives, when they believe in something or in someone, and above all when they believe sufficiently in themselves.” Fidel described the sectors that comprise the people: 600,000 unemployed; 500,000 agricultural workers who work only four months of the year and who live in miserable shacks; 400,000 industrial workers without adequate salary, pension, or housing; 100,000 tenant farmers, working on land that is not theirs; 30,000 teachers and professors who are poorly paid; 20,000 small businessmen who are weighed down by debt and plagued by graft imposed by corrupt public officials; and 10,000 young professionals in health, education, engineering, law, and journalism, who find that their recently attained degrees do not enable them to find work.