First, let’s define some basic terms
In Tuesday’s (April 6) Preface to the column, I described the long intellectual and moral journey that provides the foundation for my thinking, a journey through black nationalism, Catholic philosophy, Latin American anti-imperialism, Cuban socialism, and traditional American conservatism. I believe that each of these schools of thought has important pieces to contribute to the formulation of the necessary road for humanity in the construction of a more just, democratic, and sustainable world. I will be drawing upon each as we move forward.
In today’s column, I would like to provide definitions of the rich, complex, and polemical terms that I have used in presenting the column; with its title, “Knowledge, ideology, and real socialism in our times,” and its short description, “Commentaries on U.S. and world affairs, written from a Marxist-Leninist-Fidelist perspective, based in experience in Socialist Cuba.”
(1) Knowledge. I stand in the classic tradition of both Western philosophy and common-sense understanding in affirming that the real can be known, and truth can be understood. I affirm what a Honduran woman activist said to me more than twenty years ago: “Our children do not have enough beans to eat. This is wrong, and everybody knows it is wrong.”
But how do we arrive to understand the true and the right? I have found that the twentieth century Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan and the nineteenth century German philosopher/historian/political economist Karl Marx, when their approaches to knowledge are synthesized, have taught us the answer. We arrive to understand the true and the right through sustained personal encounter and dialogue with the leaders and intellectuals of the social movements of the oppressed, superexploited, and excluded. Personal encounter leads to the discovery of relevant questions that previously were beyond consciousness; and to a subsequent transformation of understanding that takes persons, if they have a sincere and committed desire to understand, beyond the understandings that are limited by the social positions where they have their being.
(2) Ideology. For the most part, the various ideologies that shape the public discourse in the United States are not rooted in a desire to understand or a genuine search for knowledge. They are formulated in defense of the particular interests of a sector of the society, invariably undermining the common interest in a just, democratic, and sustainable society.
Even oppressed, exploited, and excluded groups can fall victim to ideology. The workers, women’s, and ecology movements have had a tendency to pursue their particular interests and demands in a form that has not taken into account the common interests of the various sectors of the people and the well-being of the nation.
The African-American Movement is an important and thought-provoking case. As the movement arrived to significant gains with respect to political and civil rights in the 1960s, it increasingly formulated an African-American vision for the well-being and future of the nation as a whole. In the period 1966 to 1972, and again from 1983 to 1988, it proposed a multi-ethnic alliance of all popular sectors in defense of the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race, class, or gender; and it adopted an anti-imperialist proposal with respect to foreign policy. However, beginning in the 1990s, having been unable to attain these goals, it turned to a narrow agenda in support of the interests of the black middle class, through identity politics and an anti-racist ideology, with ideological distortions of reality in defense of its particular interests. This turn has been supported by the power elite, which has an interest in dividing the people, in order that the elite can pursue its particular national and global interests without the unified and effective opposition of the people.
In foreign affairs, imperialist ideology has dominated U.S. public discourse since the beginning of the twentieth century, defending American interests without concern for the sustainability of the world-system nor the common needs of humanity. Today more than ever, the entire nation is under the influence of an ethnocentrism that pays no attention to the voices of the neocolonized, who constitute the majority of humanity. None of the major ideological currents in the United States has heard the voice of the colonized, not the Left of Bernie Sanders and AOC, nor the global economic neoliberals of both parties, nor the neoconservative aggressive imperialists of the Republican Party, nor the “soft power” imperialists of the Clinton and Obama administrations, nor the anti-China and anti-Russia hawks of the Biden administration. In foreign policy debates, all bands argue about how to defend American interests in the world. They do not see that the United States no longer has the productive, commercial, and financial capacity to maintain itself as the hegemonic core power, far ahead of other core powers. And they do not see that the world-system itself, having overreached the geographical and ecological limits of the earth, and confronting resistance in various forms from the neocolonized peoples of the earth, is no longer sustainable. Our duty now is to seek to understand a new positive and useful role for the nation in the context of this new national and international situation.
The Left historically has been a voice against imperialism, especially during the Vietnam War. But the anti-imperialism of the Left has had serious limitations. First, the Left has not been consistent in its anti-imperialist projection. Secondly, leftists tend to be opposed to imperialism on moral grounds, without grasping the logic of imperialism from the point of view of American interests. Therefore, the Left is unable to delegitimate imperialist policies by demonstrating that the logic of imperialism no longer applies, and that imperialist policies are no longer economically, politically, and ecologically sustainable. Thirdly, the Left has not been conscious of the fact that the popular movements and progressive/socialist governments of the Third World have been forging in practice an international anti-imperialist movement, seeking to develop a more sustainable world order that respects the sovereignty of nations. The Left therefore is unprepared to seize the opportunity of the historic moment to call the people to participation in the global movement for a more sustainable world that protects the sovereignty of nations and their right to development, to sovereignty, to control of their economies and their resources, and to participation in mutually-beneficial trade among nations.
Ironically, traditional conservatives today speak more frequently against imperialism than does the Left. Traditional conservatives, such as writers for The American Conservative and Chronicles, speak against the endless wars in the Middle East and the emerging Cold War with China and possibly with Russia. But in taking this implicitly anti-imperialist stance, traditional conservatives are driven mostly by awareness of the limits of the nation’s global economic and military power; they tend not to be aware that imperialism has outlived its time. In addition, traditional conservatives stand out among the various ideological currents in being the most uninformed with respect to the characteristics of socialism.
(3) Real socialism. When I listen to the public discourse in the United States today, I am astonished at the extent to which there is a negative discourse about socialism, without there being even the most minimal understanding of what socialism is. Nearly universally, the negative discourse is referring to the Stalinist Soviet Union, Maoist China, and/or authoritarian tendencies in the socialisms of Eastern Europe before the collapse of the socialist bloc. We used to refer to these manifestations of socialism as “real socialism,” to distinguish the reality from a form of socialism that might exist in someone’s thinking.
It should not need to be said that the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc no longer exist; and the socialism in China has evolved through two subsequent stages, beginning in 1978 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, followed with the current stage led by Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, socialism has evolved in practice in the Third World, with the persistent socialism of Vietnam and Cuba; and with new socialist projects unfolding in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Socialism in the real world today has almost nothing in common with the Soviet Union under Stalin or with Maoist China. Moreover, and much more to the point, these Latin American socialist projects, in alliance with Third World progressive governments and the Non-Aligned Movement, are cooperating with China in seeking to develop in practice an alternative, more just and sustainable world-system. Here is where the Left in the United States, if it possessed consciousness with respect to these global developments, would be able to call the American people to cooperation with the movements and peoples of the Third World in the quest for a more just and sustainable world, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because a world shaped by competing imperialist powers is no longer a practical option.
In the title of this column, when I refer to “real socialism in our times,” I am pointing to the need, when we talk about socialism, to talk about socialism as it actually exists in the world today. And we do need to talk about socialism, because real socialism today is doing things that are of great importance to the future of humanity.
(4) Marxism. I take from Marx too important ideas. First, people are driven, not universally but in general, to think and act in accordance with their class interests. Secondly, human history has meaning and purpose. Analyzing the dynamics of his time, Marx projected that the workers’ revolution would culminate in the political, economic, and cultural emancipation of the worker.
But Marx also taught that theory evolves on the basis of practice. Since Marx’s time, the workers’ movements in the advanced capitalist societies have been coopted. Meanwhile, new forms of socialism have emerged in conditions fundamentally different from Western Europe in the time of Marx; these new forms of socialism have characteristics that Marx did not anticipate. In the Third World revolutions, what emerged was a basic class conflict between, on the one hand, a national industrial and agricultural bourgeoisie, supported by foreign interests; and on the other hand, the popular sectors, consisting of workers, peasants, women, and students. The axis of struggle is colonial domination, imposed by foreign states and foreign and national capitalists; and resisted by the anti-colonial struggles of the popular sectors in defense of national sovereignty. The essence of the thing is no longer a working-class movement but an anti-colonial popular movement.
As Marx understood, meaning in history can and ought to be discerned. But we have to look at reality not with Marx’s unavoidably dated concepts, but with his eye for discerning the direction and meaning of socioeconomic dynamics. In our time, we are able to see that the capitalist world-economy has gone through very stages, including the most recent stage of global neoliberal economics and aggressive imperialist wars. Inasmuch as this stage contradicts the long-term requirements of the world-system, a problem not discerned by the elite, the current stage represents capitalism in full decadence. Meanwhile, the neocolonized are emerging to construct a more just and sustainable world-system. Let us in our time, therefore, discern meaning in human history, and see that we today stand at the dawn of the emergence of a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system, emerging from the collapse of the capitalist world-economy, and made real by the cooperative political action of the neocolonized and the popular sectors of the nations of the North.
(5) Leninism. Lenin was the first to lead a Marxist revolution to triumph, and he was required to reformulate Marx’s concepts in accordance with the actual situation. He observed that there was a high level of peasant participation in the revolution, but with a lower level of advanced revolutionary consciousness. Lenin therefore interpreted the process not as a working-class revolution but as a revolution of workers and peasants, led by a working-class vanguard. This notion of a vanguard that educates and leads the people became one of Lenin’s most important contributions to revolutionary thought, such that we can refer today to the concept of a Leninist vanguard party that educates and leads, different from the electoral political parties of the representative democracies, who are required to manipulate the people, rather than educate the people, in order to attain or keep political power.
When the young triumphant Russian Revolution confronted serious economic difficulties, as a result of civil war and foreign interference, Lenin adopted a New Economic Plan. The need to be flexible in economic policy, setting aside ideology in response to practical demands, became one of the permanent teachings of Lenin.
(6) Fidelism. Fidel stated in an interview in 2003 that he believed that his contribution to the Cuban revolutionary struggle consisted in his synthesis of the tradition of Marxism-Leninism with the Cuban nationalist revolutionary struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism, which dates from the Cuban war of independence of 1868 and took a more advanced form with the writings and leadership of the Cuban revolutionary José Martí in the 1880s and 1890s. Although this declaration modestly understates Fidel’s historic role, it does get to the heart of the matter.
Put differently, Fidel’s contribution to Marxism-Leninism was to adapt it to the neocolonial situation of Cuba, just as Mao adapted Marxism-Leninism to the situation of a once great empire humiliated by imperialist powers, and just as Ho Chi Minh adapted Marxism-Leninism to a Kingdom that had come under the domination of French colonialism. The triumph and sustainability of these three revolutions established the evolution of Marxism-Leninism in practice in an economic and political context fundamentally different from that of Marx and Lenin.
The insightful adaptations of Fidel to the neocolonial reality of Cuba are numerous, and here I will mention only a few. First, Fidel reformulated the concept of the revolutionary subject in the context of neocolonial Cuba. In 1953, Fidel called to revolution the unemployed, agricultural workers, industrial workers, tenant farmers, teachers and professors, small businessmen, and young professionals in health, education, engineering, law, and journalism. In 1960 and 1961, the young triumphant revolution organized itself into mass organizations of workers (including professionals), women, students, independent farmers, agricultural cooperativists, and neighborhoods. In Cuba, the revolution is forged by the people, including all sectors of the people.
Fidel saw the need to nationalize foreign-owned companies that dominated the economy, an indispensable step for the attainment for control over the national economy. In leading the revolution to this decisive step, he nonetheless called for cooperation between Cuba and the USA, proposing the expansion of the USA-Cuba sugar trade, so that Cuba would be able to pay compensation for the nationalized property during the course of thirty years. With this dramatic proposal of August 6, 1960, Fidel was proclaiming in practice the necessary road for the entire world-system: the transformation of the economically exploitative neocolonial relation into mutually beneficial trade.
Fidel initially proposed the inclusion of the national industrial bourgeoisie into the Cuban revolutionary project. However, the Cuban national bourgeoisie was economically and ideological dependent on U.S. capital. When the national bourgeoisie followed the wishes of their U.S. tutors and participated in the U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution, the revolution nationalized Cuban big industry. Here Fidel demonstrated flexibility with respect to the questions of nationalization. Through his life, Fidel declared that the neocolonized nations have the right to nationalize and to freely decide on the question of nationalization, taking into account national and international conditions.
Fidel, in addition, was a persistent advocate on the global scene of economic cooperation among the nations of the South, and he maintained that mutually beneficial trade among all the nations of the world is a precondition for world peace. His was a persistent voice declaring that the dream of a more just, democratic, and sustainable world could be made real. “No one has the right,” he often declared, “to lose faith in the future of humanity.”
Taking important concepts from Marx and Lenin, and following the teachings of Fidel, I describe my writing as formed from a Marxist-Leninist-Fidelist perspective.
Each of the concepts discussed in today’s post will be further developed in future commentaries. On Tuesday, April 13, I will further discuss the question of knowledge.