Preface: An intellectual autobiography

About Page

Welcome to my editorial column, “Knowledge, ideology, and real socialism in our times,” which appears twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, posted at 10:00 am, Eastern (New York) time.  The column provides commentaries on U.S. and world affairs from a Marxist-Leninist-Fidelist perspective, based in my experiences in Cuba.

This Preface to the column is an intellectual autobiography, designed to provide the reader with an understanding of the intellectual and experiential foundation of my ideas.

My revolutionary consciousness was initially awakened as an undergraduate student at Penn State in the late 1960s.  Professor Brewster of the Political Science Department assigned the short book Peace in Vietnam, which showed the anti-colonial character of the Vietnamese nationalist movement, in which Ho Chi Minh had been one of the principal leaders since the 1930s; and it suggested that the creation of South Vietnam as a supposedly sovereign nation was in actuality a colonialist maneuver.  I have never forgotten what Professor Brewster said one day. “I know that many of us believe that we [the USA] have the most democratic system on earth; but for us to believe that we have the right or the duty to impose our way of life on other people of the world is in the final analysis the highest form of human arrogance.”  During my four years at Penn State, I also regularly attended “teach-ins” against the war and against U.S. imperialism, in which many graduate students gave informed commentaries.  In addition, I had the custom of regularly stopping by to “rap,” which in that time and context meant discussing social issues, at the information table of Penn State’s black student organization.  All of these experiences were eye-opening for me, the grandson of Irish and Italian immigrants, and the graduate of a public high school in a predominately white middle class suburb of Philadelphia.

In 1970, following my graduation from Penn State, I was employed as a caseworker in the Cook County (Chicago) Department of Public Aid.  A black woman co-worker told me of a master’s degree program at the Center for Inner City Studies, a branch of Northeastern Illinois University located in Chicago’s South Side.  I was one of a few white students at the Center, today known as the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies.  I learned a colonial analysis of the modern world, with a focus on Africa and the USA, taught principally by Professors Jacob Carruthers, Anderson Thompson, and Elkin Sithole, a political theorist, historian, and anthropologist, respectively.  They maintained that colonialism is the fundamental fact of the modern world, which promoted economic development and material abundance for the colonizer, and resulted in the destruction of the economic systems of the colonized, thereby creating underdevelopment.  The fundamental purpose of colonialism, they maintained, was appropriation of the land, labor, and natural resources of the colonized.   They further maintained that colonialism was multidimensional, including economic, cultural and psychological components; and that it was a global phenomenon, adversely affecting the peoples of Africa, the Americas, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.  They further maintained that as the anti-colonial movements attained political independence, the colonial powers were able to maneuver to maintain control, such that what emerged was not true independence but neocolonialism.  They viewed race relations in the United States as a particular manifestation of European colonial domination of the world.  They believed that all the colonized peoples of the world, including blacks in the USA, have a common struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism. 

My experience at the Center for Inner City Studies transformed my understanding.  I wondered what white scholars had to say about the Center’s colonial analysis; perhaps some scholars interpreted colonial domination differently, maintaining that it did not in fact promote the underdevelopment of the colonized nor the economic development of the colonizer.  Over the years, I gradually have learned that white scholars essentially have ignored the colonial insight of black nationalist thought; and that this non-response has led to what I call the “colonial denial,” a limitation that pervades not only European and North American mainstream scholarship but also the public discourses of the major nations of the North.    

In the aftermath of my intellectual and moral conversion, I turned to questions of epistemology.  I had become aware that the emerging understanding of black scholars was fundamentally different and opposed to that of mainstream social science.  I was able to see in retrospect that my professors at Penn State were ethnocentric, but I did not doubt they possessed a sincere desire to understand.  Thus, I asked: Is an objective understanding possible, or does truth reflect social position?  I understood that, if social position is the ultimate arbiter, then truth is established by the powerful, rather than by the exercise of reason.  Reflecting my understanding at this stage in my intellectual development, I wrote a paper that drew upon Max Weber’s concept of value relevance to argue that sociological analyses are unavoidably subjective, tied to the culture and the social position of the sociologist.

I sent the value-relevance paper as part of my application to the sociology doctoral program at Fordham University.  I subsequently received a call from Rev. Dr. Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J.  Father Fitz, then approaching retirement, was a beloved priest at Fordham; fluent in Spanish, he had served as a young priest in Puerto Rico.  Father Fitz suggested that the writings of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan would help me to deepen my understanding of the issue of objectivity that I had addressed in the value-relevance paper.  He indicated that it would be possible for me to study sociological theory in the sociology department at Fordham, and to include in my program a course on Lonergan taught in the philosophy department by Father Gerald McCool.  A visit to Fordham was arranged, in which I met with Father Fitz, Father McCool, and Dr. James R. Kelly of the sociology department.  The three would later form the committee for my doctoral dissertation, which attempted an analysis of the implications of Lonergan’s cognitional theory for the problem of objectivity in sociology. 

The twentieth century Catholic philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan formulated a cognitional theory that enables intellectuals of the North to move beyond the subjectivist and post-modern implications that result from awareness of cultural diversity and of different perspectives rooted in different social positions.  Analyzing forms of knowing in various fields of study, Lonergan formulated a cognitional process through which those who seek to understand can arrive to correct understanding.  Central to the necessary cognitional method is, first, giving priority to the desire to understand over other desires, such as the desire to protect national or particular interests.  And secondly, undertaking personal encounter with persons from other horizons, taking seriously their insights; which enables the discovery of relevant questions that previously were beyond one’s horizon, facilitating a reformulation or transformation of understanding.  Lonergan’s cognitional theory enables all who are committed to understanding to resolve questions of truth on the basis of reason and dialogue.  It is a cognitional theory that recognizes the influence of social locations on understanding, but provides a method to move beyond this limitation and ultimately to arrive to a universal human understanding. 

Lonergan’s cognitional theory explained my recent intellectual development at the Center for Inner City Studies.  I had experienced personal encounter, cross-horizon encounter, with black nationalist thought, which was tied to the African-American social movement; and the experience transformed my understanding, leading to a more objective understanding that transcended my social position as a member of white middle-class society, the grandson of Irish and Italian immigrants.  The experience illustrates that, even though we all have a perspective rooted in the social position into which we are born, we can arrive to a common understanding through a dialogue that takes seriously the understanding of the other.  Today, as I observe that public discourse in the United States has become increasingly poisoned by post-modernist assumptions and tendencies, I have come to view Lonergan’s understanding of the process of knowing as a Catholic answer to post-modernism.

In 1978, with my doctoral study at Fordham completed, I continued with my teaching career at Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame, Ind.), where I undertook a study of Marx.  I interpreted Marx’s work as an analysis of human history, of the British science of political economy, of German philosophy, and of French idealist socialism; an analysis formulated from the point of view of the emerging working class of Western Europe.  In my view, Marx had brought study of human societies to a more advanced stage.  I would later arrive to the understanding that the fragmentation of knowledge of society into distinct academic disciplines since Marx’s time was driven by an interest in containing the influence of Marx’s comprehensive and historical analysis, because of its implications for fundamental social transformation. 

But I was primarily interested in Marx’s work from the perspective of Lonergan’s cognitional theory.   And I recognized that Marx’s intellectual journey illustrates Lonergan’s cognitional method, in that Marx had personally encountered the working-class movement, and he reformulated his previous understanding (rooted in German philosophy) on the basis of relevant questions discovered.  My study of Marx led to a book, in which I maintained that Marx’s concept of science, if reformulated in light of Lonergan, provides the foundation for a method of investigation that would enable social analysts to overcome ethnocentrism.  The key, I maintained, was personal encounter with the anti-neocolonial social movements of the Third World, which have emerged as the most significant social movements of the oppressed since Marx’s time.

In 1984, I relocated to Clemson University, as a result of the fact that my interdisciplinary approach to study and writing had provoked disfavor at Saint Mary’s College.  At Clemson, I continued to work on my book on Marx.  At the same time, I was elected by South Carolina Jackson delegates as a Jackson delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention, thanks to the call of some elderly black women, whose moral authority could not be denied, for the inclusion of some white delegates.  My subsequent experience as a Jackson delegate led me to view Jackson’s presidential candidacy as a renewal of the Civil Rights Movement.  It inspired me to further study the movement, which culminated in a book on the African-American Movement, from the Pan-Africanism of the 1920s to the Rainbow Coalition. 

We South Carolina Jackson delegates met regularly following the convention to discuss developing the Rainbow Coalition as a statewide mass organization, but we were unable to put the idea into practice.  The National Office of the Rainbow Coalition spoke of the need to develop a nationwide mass organization, and I tried to talk to Rev. Jackson about it on his visit to Presbyterian College.  I ultimately concluded that there was not strong commitment to the development of a permanent mass organization within the Rainbow Coalition.  This was a limitation with serious consequences, because the Rainbow Coalition was just what the nation needed.  It envisioned the empowerment of all sectors of the people, including white workers and white small business persons, in defense of the social and economic rights of all; and it advocated a foreign policy of cooperation with the governments and movements of the Third World.  The Rainbow Coalition was an advanced reformulation of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.

In 1988, having again encountered objections from the sociology department for my interdisciplinary writing, I relocated from Clemson to Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.  I encountered similar problems in the sociology department at Presbyterian, but several senior faculty members from various disciplines came to my defense, and I was granted tenure in 1994.  Meanwhile, in 1990, I had been invited by the college chaplain, Greg Henley, to participate with him as co-teacher in a Spring Break student experience in Honduras.  Beginning with that experience, I developed experiential courses in Honduras and Cuba, which became a central component of my teaching until my retirement in 2011.

Seeking to put the Lonerganian-Marxist method of encounter into practice, I began traveling extensively to Honduras in the early 1990s, taking advantage of summer vacations as well as a Fulbright grant.  I discovered that the Honduran popular movement had an anti-neocolonial discourse that was similar to the colonial analysis of the Center for Inner City Studies, albeit in slightly different terminology.  Determined to encounter the Latin American popular movement, I undertook the difficult task of improving my Spanish, for which I had acquired a rudimentary capacity through high school courses, general education requirements at Penn State, and self-study for the language requirement test at Fordham.

I first traveled to Cuba in 1993, when I participated in an interchange between U.S. sociologists and Cuban social scientists, co-sponsored by the Marxist Section of the American Sociological Association and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Havana, organized by the US sociologist Richard Dello Buono.  In Cuba, I was immediately struck by two phenomena that I had not anticipated.  First, Cuban public discourse is anti-colonial, anti-neocolonial, and anti-imperialist, similar to the anti-colonial discourses of the Center for Inner City Studies and the Honduran popular movement.  I recall saying to myself, “I have heard all of this before.”  Secondly, I sensed among the people a commitment to carry forward with their socialist project, in spite of the hardships provoked by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc.  Nearly everyone outside of Cuba, including the Left, had thought at the time that Cuban socialism soon would join Eastern European socialism in collapse; but I found myself saying, “I am not sure this thing is going to fall.”

I soon relocated my ongoing project of personal encounter with the anti-neocolonial movement from Honduras to Cuba.  For the last twenty-five years, I have traveled extensively to Cuba, seeking to deepen my understanding of the Cuban political-economic-cultural system, and endeavoring to write clear explanations of the Cuban political-economic system, with the intention of educating the English-speaking peoples of the world, particularly of the North. 

In summary form, I have learned the following about Cuban socialism.  First, Fidel was a leader with exceptional understanding and unlimited commitment to the people and the nation.  He played an indispensable role in guiding the nation on the necessary road. 

Secondly, Cuba has developed a political system of people’s democracy, characterized by direct elections of delegates to municipal assemblies, without the participation of political parties.  The elected delegates in turn elect the deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power, which is the highest authority of the nation.  The National Assembly elects the President of the Republic, who submits ministers of the government to the Assembly for its approval.  Integral to the political process are mass organizations of workers (including professionals), women, students, small independent farmers, agricultural cooperativists, and neighborhoods, which also have a system of direct and indirect elections rooted in the base, and which play constitutionally-defined roles in the electoral process and in the legislative committees of the Assembly. 

Also central to the political process is the Communist Party.  The Party selects its members, choosing the best citizens (approximately 15%).  The Party educates, guides, recommends, and exhorts.  The Party does not decide; only the National Assembly, elected by people, has the authority to decide.  This difference in functions between the Party and the National Assembly is almost universally obscured in the discourses of the North, but it is critical for understanding Cuba’s system a popular democracy, an alternative to representative democracy.  When the Party has a proposal, it legally and constitutionally has to submit the proposal to the National Assembly of People’s Power; and it does so in practice.  The leadership of the National Assembly then presents the proposal to appropriate committees of the Assembly, which consult with the mass organizations and in some cases directly with the people in popular consultations; which leads to modifications, including in some cases major modifications, before final approval by the deputies of the National Assembly.

Thirdly, Cuba has developed a pragmatic approach to its socialist economy.  The State directs the economy, and there is state ownership in the major industries.  But there is space for small-scale private property and foreign ownership, as part of and in accordance with the development plan of the State.  At the same time, the State actively looks for ways to increase production (as the people currently are demanding), utilizing work incentives through wage differentials as well as self-employment and small-scale private enterprises.  One could call the Cuban approach a “socialist third way,” playing upon the supposed “third way” between capitalism and socialism proclaimed a couple decades ago by some supposedly progressive politicians in the major capitalist nations.

Fourth, Cuban foreign policy is based on the principles of the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement.  Cuba plays a world leadership role in affirming the fundamental principles of the anti-neocolonial movements of the Third World, such as the rights of nations to sovereignty, self-determination, non-interference in their affairs, and control of their economies and their natural resources.

Fifth, Cuba gives priority to and has made significant investments in the development of science, particularly applied science that responds to the needs of the people and to the needs of underdeveloped nations. 

Sixth, the Cuban State plays an active role in seeking to respond to the needs of the people for health care, education, nutrition, culture, and sport. 

Seventh, Cuba has developed high-quality public television and radio. 

Finally, Cuba has made considerable gains in overcoming the social inequalities that it had inherited, not by focusing on equality of results, but by ensuring full equality of educational opportunity for all, regardless of race, color, class, or gender.  Free, universal and high-quality public education is the foundation of the Cuban quest for equality.

During these many years of seeking to understand the true and the right, I have identified with the Left, but always with a critical posture.  The more my understanding of the Cuban theory and practice of socialism deepened, the more I was able to see serious limitations of the concepts and strategies of the Left in the United States and other nations of the North.  I have become increasingly troubled by the Left’s simplistic and moralistic interpretations of culturally and philosophically complex issues, such as sexual orientation, sexual identity, abortion, and immigration; as well as its historically and scientifically inaccurate proclamations of systemic racism and white privilege, which are imposed on others through authoritarian and uncivil practices.  Becoming increasingly ill at ease with the politically divisive Left, I have turned in recent months to reading commentaries written by traditional American conservatives (as distinct from neoconservatives).  I have found these writings to be more informed by history and literature, more truthful, more consistent with common-sense understanding, and more characterized by a sense of humor, than is the standard leftist fare.

My life-long project of encounter seeking understanding continues.  I hope to find readers for this Substack editorial, “Knowledge, ideology, and the real socialism of our times.”  I hope that more than a few will offer their reactions, commentaries, and questions.

Leave a comment

About Page


Follow me on Twitter: Charles McKelvey@CharlesMcKelv10