The 95th anniversary of the birth of Fidel Castro
“No one has the right to lose faith in the future of humanity”
Today, August 13, 2021, is the 95th anniversary of the birth of Fidel Castro. Today’s commentary is dedicated to his life and work.
There is a tendency today to misinterpret an essential characteristic of modern revolutionary processes, namely, the emergence of charismatic leaders. The early twentieth century German sociologist Max Weber, analyzing the phenomenon of exceptional persons in a historic religious context, maintains that such persons possess charismatic authority, different from traditional authority or bureaucratic-legal authority. Appropriating Weber’s concept in observing modern revolutionary processes, we are able to discern a general pattern: the emergence of leaders with an exceptional capacity to discern and understand the unfolding of events; who possess a boundless commitment to the values of social justice; and who possess a non-institutional authority that is conferred on them by the people. The charismatic leaders of modern revolutions include Toussaint, Lenin, Gandhi, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Simón Bolívar, José Martí, Augusto Sandino, Salvador Allende, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, among others. The emergence of a leader with charismatic authority is needed for a social movement to attain significant goals, above all because a leader with charismatic authority is able to forge the necessary unity from various tendencies, often contradictory, within the movement.
Fidel Castro, known today in Cuba as the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, continually demonstrated an exceptional capacity, on the one hand, to discern the historic unfolding of global structures of colonial domination; and on the other hand, to see the constantly present and irrepressible expression of the colonized peoples for social justice. In addition, he possessed an exceptional capacity for pedagogical discourse, combining succinct historical overview and theoretical analysis with concrete solutions, formulated in an eclectic manner in response to concrete situations. Moreover, he repeatedly demonstrated an exceptional capacity for the art of politics, knowing the concrete issues that touched the emotions of the people; and sensing the pulse of the political maturity of the people, thereby avoiding political overreach beyond their political consciousness. What is more, he possessed an exceptional intelligence for military strategy, creating an army that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship in a little more than two years. And he possessed a deep faith in the future of humanity, believing that no force on earth could stop the forward march of the peoples for social justice.
There were key moments in the history of the Cuban revolution in which Fidel’s exceptional capacities were demonstrated. Such key moments include:
(1) the articulation of History Will Absolve Me, at once a manifesto and a platform, that in combination with the July 26, 1953 attack on Moncada Barracks, galvanized the people;
(2) the unifying of the diverse anti-Batista tendencies as the armed struggle approached triumph;
(3) the decisive action of the triumphant revolution in defense of the people, including the Agrarian Reform Law, the literacy campaign, and the reduction of housing rents and electricity rates;
(4) the 1960 proposal to preserve strong ties with the United States, but transforming them into a mutually-beneficial economic relation based in mutual respect, a proposal that was rejected by the empire;
(5) incorporation of the issue of gender equality into the fundamental principles of the Cuban Revolution during the 1960s;
(6) the unifying of the various revolutionary tendencies during the 1960s and 1970s to form a vanguard party that would lead the revolution, taking the place of Fidel’s personal charismatic authority;
(7) leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calling for global implementation of the historic Third World project and rejecting the neoliberal project of the global powers, basing these proposals in scientific economic analysis;
(8) analysis in the 1980s of the origin of the Third World external debt, describing it as morally and politically unpayable, and calling for a debtor’s strike;
(9) the search for common ground between the Cuban Revolution and the Catholic Church (beginning in the 1980s) in Cuba and at an international level;
(10) leadership of the Cuban nation in the adjustments of the Special Period during the early 1990s;
(11) incorporation of the issue of ecology into the fundamental principles of the Cuban Revolution during the 1990s; and
(12) leading the Cuban Revolution toward participation and leadership in the process of Latin American union and integration (beginning in the late 1990s).
The phenomenon of Fidel defies natural explanation. In a secular age, we would not want to turn to a traditional spiritual explanation. Yet we would have to be blind to not see the modern spiritual manifestations of the Cuban Revolution. It formulates concepts and values that retake the historic formulations of the prophets of ancient Israel, who condemned the greed of the kings in the name of justice for the poor. Educated in Catholic schools, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution once declared that if the Catholic Church were to develop a state in accordance with its values, it would do exactly what the Cuban Revolution has done. When he succumbed to the natural process of death at the age of ninety, the outpouring of popular affection for him was so overwhelming that it inspired a prominent Cuban journalist to observe that the Cuban people have declared Fidel to be sacred.
When the modern sociologist Max Weber discerned the pattern of charismatic leadership, he observed its expression in historical religious contexts, in which religious institutions, concepts, and values dominated societies. In a modern secular age, perhaps we ought to consider that the ancient historic thirst of humanity for truth and social justice is now expressed in the form of the charismatic leaders of popular revolutions, who have the capacity to express fundamental universal values and aspirations; but who, unlike the prophets of old, also have the capacity to mobilize the people in the taking of political power and the construction of a more just society. And perhaps, just as for centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims have studied the sacred texts formed by the words of the ancient prophets, everyone who today is committed to a more just world ought to study the speeches and writings of our modern charismatic leaders, treating them as sacred texts that can educate and guide us toward the necessary road for our emancipation.
Fidel Castro Ruz was the son of a landholder, but he was not socialized into bourgeois culture. His father, Angel Castro, was from a poor peasant family of Galacia, Spain; and his mother, Lina Ruz González, had been born into a poor Cuban peasant family. Neither parent had formal education; both had taught themselves how to read. The couple lived on their plantation in the Eastern province of Oriente, and they had no social contact with members of the bourgeois class. Angel had migrated to Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth century. He became a contractor who organized groups of workers, which enabled him to acquire property and ultimately significant extensions of land.
Fidel’s first social world as a child was formed by the poor workers of his father’s plantation. They were mostly Haitian immigrants, and they lived in huts of palm leaves with dirt floors. The children of these families were Fidel’s first playmates, and they continued to be his friends and companions of Christmas and summer vacations throughout his childhood and adolescence. At the age of four, Fidel began attending school on his father’s plantation, a small school with fifteen or twenty students for the children of the workers.
Angel Castro was generous with respect to any request for assistance, and he employed more persons than his plantation required, in response to requests for employment. Later in life, Fidel maintained that the conduct of his father with respect to his workers was an important ethical example in his formation. He maintained that he learned from his family at an early age an ethical sensitivity and certain ethical values, an awareness that there is a difference between right and wrong, and that that one has the duty to do what is right.
Fidel was sent to private Catholic boarding schools for boys, whose students, for the most part, were the sons of the Cuban bourgeoisie. He graduated in 1945 at the age of 18 from the prestigious Jesuit institution, the Colegio de Belén, in Havana.
The ethical sensitivity that Fidel learned from his family was reinforced by his education in Catholic schools, particularly the education of the Jesuits. Fidel later would maintain that the Jesuits preached and practiced the virtues of good character, honesty, sacrifice, and discipline. In Fidel’s view, a developed ethical sensitivity is the foundation for political consciousness and for a commitment to social justice; the religious martyr and the revolutionary hero are made from same mold.
Fortunate to have attended the finest schools for the bourgeoisie, and fortunate to not be burdened by the prejudices of bourgeois culture, Fidel Castro arrived at the University of Havana in 1945 with a basic concept of justice that had been formed in his family and in Catholic primary and secondary schools. And he arrived as a “profound and devoted admirer of the heroic struggles of our people for independence in the nineteenth century,” and as an admirer and follower of the nineteenth century Cuban revolutionary José Martí, consistent with “the enormous attraction of Martí’s thought for all of us.” This formation in the heritage of Martí and of national liberation was deepened by the fact that he had read “practically all the books that were published” on the two Cuban wars of independence. But he arrived with little political consciousness. He had limited understanding of political economy and class divisions and conflicts.
Fidel’s studies during his first two years at the university led him to become what he would later call a “utopian communist.” Especially important was a course taken during his first year, taught by a professor of political economy, Delio Portela. The course discussed the laws of capitalism and the various economic theories, and it led Fidel to the conclusion that the capitalist system was absurd. However, Fidel later stated, his interpretation was utopian, in that it was not based in a scientific analysis of human history. It was simply recognition that capitalism is bad, that it does not work, and that it generates poverty, injustice, and inequality.
During his third year at the university, Fidel began to read avidly the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. He had good relations with Communist Party leaders in the university, so he had access to the books of the Party library. The Communist Manifesto was one of the first that he read, and it had the most impact. It made clear to him the role of class divisions and class interests in human history, thus enabling him to understand why politicians in Cuba behave so badly: they make promises to the people, in order to obtain the political support of the majority; but they are financially supported by the bourgeoisie, and thus they respond to its interests. As a result of this period of new self-directed reading, Fidel would become a Marxist-Leninist by the time he graduated from the university in 1950. However, it was a form of Marxism-Leninism that was synthesized with the Cuban tradition of national liberation and Christian personal morality and ethics, and thus it departed from the ideas of the members of the Cuban Communist Party.
By 1951, Fidel had developed a complete revolutionary conception and a plan for putting it into practice, taking into account the particular conditions of the Cuba, which included the confusion of the people resulting from the dissemination of anti-communist ideology. He launched the implementation of the plan in the July 26, 1953, when he led an assault on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba, with the intention of seizing weapons and launching a guerrilla armed struggle in the mountains. The assault failed, and 70 of the 126 assailants were killed, 95% of them murdered after capture by Batista’s solders in a four-day period following the assault.
The Moncada attack was not undertaken as a rebellion or symbolic action. 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. The revolution triumphs when it takes power from the hands of the social class that controls the state, and puts power in its own hands, in the name of and in defense of the people.
The Cuban essayist Cintio Vitier maintained that the attack on the Moncada barracks had a powerful impact on the people. It responded to the popular sentiment that it was time for action, moving beyond merely moral opposition to the corruption of the neocolonial republic. And it was a courageous action, connecting to the popular belief in heroism, rooted in the teachings of Martí that a more dignified nation could be created through heroic action. The Moncada assault, therefore, in Vitier’s words, was an “enormous, ripping and creative new force that would project itself over the future of Cuba in an irresistible form.”
Prior to Moncada, Fidel was somewhat known in Cuba as a young lawyer who had represented the poor in Havana and had been an Orthodox Party candidate for the legislature in the elections aborted by the March 1952 Batista coup. The Moncada assault lifted Fidel to a leadership position in a new stage in the unfinished Cuban revolution, a role that been assumed in previous historic moments by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, José Martí, Julio Antonio Mella, Ruben Martínez Villena, and Antonio Guiteras.
Fidel was placed on trial for his leadership of the assault of the Moncada military barracks, and on October 16, 1953, he delivered an address of self-defense before the Court. The extraordinary discourse, from which the press was excluded, was reconstructed by Fidel in prison, and it was printed as a pamphlet and distributed clandestinely in 1954 as “History Will Absolve Me.” The title of the clandestine document, taken from its concluding sentence, reflected Fidel’s conviction that justice will prevail in human history.
In his October 16, 1953 self-defense, Fidel defended the legitimacy of the Moncada attack on the basis of universal principles that have been affirmed by humanity. He maintained that the Batista regime was illegal, because it was established by a coup d’état that ruptured the constitutional order and cancelled elections. Moreover, the Batista regime is tyrannical, for it has eliminated civil liberties and elections, and it has uprooted democratic institutions. The attack on the Moncada barracks was legal and constitutional, Fidel argued, because the 1940 Cuban Constitution was still in force, inasmuch as Batista’s abrogation of the Constitution did not have legal standing; and Article 40 of the 1940 Constitution affirms the right of insurrection against tyranny. In addition, ancient and modern political philosophy affirms the right of the people to revolt against tyranny.
Fidel invoked the right of rebellion against tyranny in the name of the people of Cuba, without giving emphasis to any one sector of the people, such as the working class. He described the sectors that comprise the people: agricultural workers who work only four months of the year and who live in miserable shacks; industrial workers without adequate salary, pension, or housing; tenant farmers, working on land that is not theirs; the unemployed; teachers and professors who are poorly paid; small businessmen who are weighed down by debt and plagued by graft imposed by corrupt public officials; and young professionals in health, education, engineering, law, and journalism, who find that their recently attained degrees do not enable them to find work. Fidel maintained that the people of Cuba for generations have been promised a more just and dignified nation, but they have been repeatedly deceived and betrayed. Whether they be agricultural workers, peasants, or industrial workers, they receive inadequate salaries, and many live in inadequate, in some cases wretched, housing conditions. Even teachers and professors are poorly paid, and many young professionals are unable to find work with their recently earned degrees.
Fidel explained that these injustices are rooted in Cuban economic structures. Cuba exports raw materials and imports manufactured goods, and therefore its industrial capacity is limited. Moreover, most of the land is foreign owned. In addition, the great majority of peasants do not own the land they work, and they do not have access to land for the production of food for their families.
The problems of Cuba, Fidel declared, cannot be resolved as long as the government gives priority to the interests of the economic and financial elite. A revolutionary government would ignore such interests and would act decisively in defense of the needs of the people. It would mobilize capital to develop industry; it would establish limits to the size of landed property and expropriate the land of large estates, distributing land to peasants and promoting the development of agricultural cooperatives; it would reduce rents; and it would universalize and reform the educational system. He proposed concrete measures, including: agrarian reform and the redistribution of agricultural land; profit sharing for commercial and industrial workers and employees; the confiscation of property that had been fraudulently obtained by government officials; the nationalization of U.S.-owned electric and telephone companies; the comprehensive reform of education; and the collection of taxes that had been evaded.
In an interview by the Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet in 2006, Fidel declared that in the early 1950s he viewed the people as having a healthy spirit of spontaneous rebellion, but lacking mature political consciousness. Therefore, he conceived bringing the people to revolution in stages. First, focusing on concrete problems, like unemployment, poverty, and the lack of hospitals and housing; and then a second stage of political education. In accordance with this strategy, Fidel did not declare the socialist character of the Revolution until 1961, during the mobilization of the people for the defense of the nation against the U.S.-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs. He thus utilized used an intelligent strategy for educating the people concerning the meaning of revolution and of socialism, focusing first on practice and later on theory.
Fidel explained issues in concrete language connected to the worldview of the people, avoiding historical and theoretical terminology, except briefly and succinctly. He saw the perspective of the people as based on their experience of problems of “subsistence, rent, the education of the children and their future.” So he proposed solutions that responded to these concrete problems: the ceding of land to tenant farmers, the sharing of profits by workers in industry and mining, and increasing the small farmer’s share of the sugar yield. When his proposals move beyond concrete needs, they connect to resentments that are felt and expressed by the people: nationalization of foreign companies that charge exorbitant rates, and just punishment for corrupt government officials. The Moncada program was a proposal connected to the emotions and the understanding of the people.
But Fidel also had the capacity to understand issues in historical and theoretical terms, and he grasped the structural roots of problems and the steps necessary for their solution. The Moncada program was rooted in an understanding of the objective conditions of the neocolonial republic, and of the concrete measures that would be necessary in order to transform the neocolonial reality into an alternative more just and democratic reality. Fidel understood what the most advanced intellectuals of the time understood: the historical development on a global scale of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism; and the emergence of revolutions that must necessarily be socialist, if they are to transform unjust structures. This advanced understanding was revealed in his explanation of the structural roots of the problems in History Will Absolve Me, but his treatment of these theoretical matters was succinct.
Fidel also instructs us by illustrating a creative adaption of revolutionary concepts forged in other historical and social contexts. He was profoundly influenced by The Communist Manifesto; but as he appropriated the insights of Marx and Engels, he adapted them to Cuban conditions. He appropriated the concept of an international struggle of the working class, but from the neocolonial situation of Cuba, he discerned that the fundamental conflict of interest 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 indeed would play important roles and/or would sacrifice their lives in the Cuban revolutionary process.
Fidel and his comrades were released from prison in 1956, as a result of popular demand. Turning down offers that would have given him a prominent position as an opposition politician and in intellectual affairs, Fidel opted for the armed struggle as the necessary road to the taking of political power by the people. He led 82 armed comrades in the December 2, 1956 disembarking from the yacht Granma to launch the revolutionary guerilla war, which attained political power on January 1, 1959.
Following the triumph of the revolution, in addition to pedagogical discourses directly to the people in mass assemblies, in meetings with mass organizations and professional societies, and on television, Fidel also attended to the formation of the consciousness of a revolutionary vanguard that would ultimately would take collective responsibility for the education and leadership of the people. Many in the North think that the Leninist concept of the vanguard is a pretext for elitism and for the protection of the privileged in a communist political system. But in Cuba there is a reality that departs from such assumptions. In Cuba, there is a vanguard political party 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. 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 view of the people is the foundation of the concept of the revolutionary vanguard. The people possess courage, he believed, 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 itself 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.
Fidel led the Cuban people to the development of alternative political structures of people’s power and to the development of a pragmatic socialist economy. These are issues that I treat in my August 10 commentary, “Reflections on Cuban socialism: A people’s anti-imperialist revolution with conservative values.”
Fidel possessed a simple Christian sense of morality. He often declared, “No one has the right to be indifferent to the suffering of others.” And he possessed an enormous faith in human potentialities, often declaring that “No one has the right to lose faith in the future of humanity.” His teachings are eternal. They remain with us as part of the human heritage of wisdom and knowledge.
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