The virtuous servants of God
The examples of Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro
My worldview is formed by the political and cultural contexts of the United States of America and Cuba, which have very different realities, the former in decadence, and the latter seeking to construct a better nation and a better, more just world. The USA today is in the midst of a multidimensional crisis, in which it is handicapped by a broken discourse, an incapacity to discuss and reasonably debate. In contrast, Cuba is showing that the construction of a viable national project with meaning and purpose is possible. In addition, from the vantage point of Cuba and the character and quality of its news and commentaries, one sees that this phenomenon is not restricted to Cuba, but also is found in countries like China, Vietnam, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
In the context of the moral crisis of the West and the empirical demonstration of an alternative viable road, I propose a reconstruction of the discourse of the USA on the basis of a synthesis of Third World Marxist-Leninist thought and socialist practice, the concepts and principles of Western social democracy, the philosophical and theological concepts of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, and American constitutionalism and federalism.
I have described in a previous commentary the exceptional leadership characteristics of Ho Chi Minh. Ho forged a creative synthesis in practice of Marxism-Leninism and Vietnamese nationalism, advocating the independence and unity of Vietnam and social transformations that would liberate Vietnamese peasants from landlords, be they Vietnamese or French. He grasped the need for the education of the peasants and workers in the principles of communism, so that they would be empowered to construct socialism by and for themselves. He understood the need for a vanguard political party formed by intellectuals, peasants, and workers that would play a central role in guiding the nation and educating the people. He appreciated the role of the Confucian scholar-gentry class in the Vietnamese anti-colonial revolution, implying a reformulation of the understanding of the petit bourgeoisie in the colonial situation. He reformulated Lenin’s concept of the vanguard, adapting it to the colonial situation of Vietnam, but he did so with subtlety and political intelligence. And he possessed the political intelligence to put forth clear political goals and proposed programs, connected to the actual concrete reality of the people. (See “Ho Chi Minh: A theoretical synthesis forged in revolutionary practice,” July 15, 2022).
At the same time, Ho Chi Minh understood the need for greater global consciousness among Western workers, so that they would ally with the national liberation movements of the colonies to bring an end to world capitalism and its structures of colonial domination and economic exploitation as well as its barbaric pattern of violence. He took extensive steps to peacefully negotiate with France the independence and reunification of Vietnam, but when rebuffed by the colonial power, he did not hesitate to call the people to armed defense of their nation. With humility, he called the world to defend what it knew and proclaimed to be true and right, confident that the truth would eventually prevail.
Fidel Castro was born thirty-six years after the great Asian revolutionary. The two never met, and Fidel once said that he would never forgive himself for not arranging to travel to meet Ho before he passed from this life. For Fidel understood that the two were made in the same mold. A marginal member of the Cuban national bourgeoisie, Fidel appreciated the profound insights of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but he saw the need to adapt their ideas to the neocolonial situation of Cuba. He described retrospectively how he had formulated by 1951 a revolutionary plan based in Marxist-Leninist principles, as a result of independent reading of the European masters. He noted, however, that he could not have convinced any member of the first Communist Party of Cuba of the correctness of his unorthodox ideas. Like Ho, Fidel reformulated Marx and Lenin, proceeding with political intelligence, for he was operating in an ideological environment in which the concepts of Marx and Lenin were distorted.
Accordingly, armed with an accurate reading of the political mood of the nation and the aspirations of the people, Fidel forged a vanguard from the radical wing of the middle class, the peasantry, and the working class on the basis of audacious political action and armed struggle. He put forth a concrete program of action, promising to respond to the needs of the people, addressing concretely the various ways that the people, in different sectors and in different ways, were treated without dignity in the neocolonial situation. He called all the people to revolution and to the taking of political power in the name of the people, without forming a political party that would expect positions in a new government. With the triumph of the revolution, a new revolutionary stage was initiated, in which Fidel would educate the people toward socialism, explaining that the concrete measures being taken by the revolutionary government in defense of the people constituted a socialist revolution in practice, calling the people to defend their socialist revolution, which was provoking the aggressive hostility of the imperialist powers.
As I observe in my commentary of August 13, 2021, Fidel possessed an exceptional capacity to discern the evolving structures of domination and the corresponding struggles of the colonized peoples for social justice. He possessed, moreover, an exceptional political intelligence, understanding what measures were possible in a given concrete situation. And he possessed a deep faith in the future of humanity. I listed twelve key moments during the course of a half century in which these exceptional qualities were decisive. They include: the mobilizing of the people against the Cuban neocolonial government through a dramatic attack on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, followed by distribution of a manifesto and a program beginning in October of that year; decisive political action by the triumphant revolution in defense of the people in 1959-1961; Fidel’s proposal for a sustained U.S.-Cuban economic relation at the time of the Cuban nationalization of U.S. properties, but based on a model of North-South cooperation; the development in the 1970s of a political process of people’s democracy, an advanced alternative to bourgeois representative democracy; Fidel’s call, as President of the Non-Aligned Movement, for the development of an new international economic order, approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 1974; Fidel’s condemnation in the 1980s of Third World debt as rooted in the irresponsible behavior of the Northern banks and as morally, politically, and economically unpayable; and Fidel’s leading of the Cuban nation into the Latin American process of union and integration in the twenty-first century, led by Chávez and Lula, which is integral to today’s global movement for a pluripolar world, led by Xi Jinping and China. (See “The 95th anniversary of the birth of Fidel Castro,” August 13, 2021; “Fidel speaks in the name of the colonized,” August 17, 2021).
Beginning in the last decade of the twentieth century, I encountered the exceptional analyses of Fidel in his pedagogical discourses to the people. It was a surprising, unanticipated phenomenon that defied natural explanation. How can a political leader understand more about the dynamics of the world-economy than the world’s economists, who have dedicated their lives to the study of economies, without the handicap of being distracted by affairs of state? As I periodically expressed my surprise to Cubans, they essentially responded, “Yes, we know.”
Although the exceptional understanding of Fidel is a surprising phenomenon that defies natural explanation, we must nonetheless try to understand and explain it. In reflecting on this question, I have never been able to forget what some Cubans said to me during the time of my initial surprise: “God has sent him to defend us.”
Shiite Islamic theology: First principles
A few years ago, the Islamic Republic of Iran was the guest country of honor at the Cuban International Book Fair, and as a result, I came across three books in Spanish on Islamic theology and Islamic Civilization, published by the Fundación Cultural Oriente in Qom, Iran.I have read them in my leisure time, but with great attention and carefully, in accordance with my lifelong interest in religious and theological questions. On the basis of this study, I now ask, does Shiite Islamic theology provide a point of depart for seeking to understand the exceptional charismatic gifts of leaders like Ho Chi Minh and Fidel?
Before addressing the question, let us turn to a general orientation concerning basic principles. Islamic theology maintains that human beings are born with a capacity for reasoning, and therefore they can develop a high level of understanding through use of their natural intellectual capacities. However, through intellect alone, humans cannot arrive to understand some questions, and especially important here are the purpose and the ultimate destiny of humanity.
Therefore, God since ancient times has sent messengers or prophets to reveal to humanity its origins and destiny, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. However, the human record of the teachings of the prophets in incomplete and inconsistent, and for this reason, there are many misunderstandings and erroneous teachings, including the concept of original sin
The limitations in the historic record of God’s revelation were overcome by the Koran, which was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad during the course of twenty-three years, and it was recorded by his followers as he expressed the revelation in Arabic. The Koran is shorter than the Christian New Testament, and it does not have the inconsistencies of the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity. The Koran is considered a miracle, inasmuch as Muhammed himself was illiterate and uneducated, yet the revelation was expressed in the most elegant Arabic.
Therefore, in the teachings of Islamic theology, the Koran is the last and most complete of the divine revelations. It establishes the last and definitive Divine law and eternal religion. It is a universal teaching for all times and epochs, not restricted to a region or people. Its laws can be applied in different circumstances and various environments through the centuries.
In the Koranic revelation, the future of humanity is clear. Although humanity generally has experienced different forms of disparity and inequality, this situation will not continue forever. Justice and general equity will rule in the future. The history of humanity moves in the direction of a magnificent future, in which justice will rule and general equity will be established.
Therefore, humans have the duty to prepare themselves for the future reign of general justice, by seeking to construct a just society, characterized by equality among its members. To this end, they should follow certain religious disciplinary practices with respect to daily prayer, sexuality, alcohol, and fasting.
Koranic moral principles are rooted in the primordial nature of the human being, and therefore they are unchanging and eternal, even as scientific knowledge develops, and technological conditions change. Accordingly, in all epochs, human beings have the duty to fulfill promises made, and to refrain from deceptions and lies. The good social life of human beings is established on a foundation of a series of moral principles.
Any form of dominion over others is categorically prohibited; the human being ought to live free and with nobility, far from any form of degradation or humiliation. Oppression originates from ignorance and lack of wisdom. Islamic theologians teach that a society that constitutes its social relations on a basis of justice attains a good and stable life.
Among the moral principles revealed in the Koran is the human duty to seek to understand the true and the right. There is a reality independent of human thought, an exterior reality outside the human mind. Human knowledge of the real oscillates between being true and false. Misunderstandings of reality, conceptions that are incongruent with reality, occur because of errors or lies. The lie is the recourse of the ignorant, and it is an abomination.
Islamic theology teaches that all human beings are born with a pure nature. Accordingly, through education, instruction, friendship, and inculcation, human beings will walk on the path of the truth. Human beings by nature possess a healthy essence and the capacity to know the difference between good and evil. When human beings depart from this path, which they have the freedom and autonomy to do, they are capable of repenting and returning to the right path. Therefore, no person is innately evil; evil is caused by external and voluntary factors. Human beings enjoy a special nobility, such that the healthy human intellect understands the difference between good and evil.
Islamic teachings stand in opposition to tendencies in the world today, especially in the Left, which can be described as a post-truth world. Islamic teaching affirms certain truths: the existence and oneness of God, and the creation of the universe by God; the revelations of God of the true and the right, affirming the meaning and the ultimate destiny of humanity. In contrast, post-modernism sanctifies individual, subjective preference, giving rise to a chaotic rejection of human purpose and meaning.
The cultural conflicts in the United States today demonstrate the chaos that results when a nation attempts to proceed without the dimensions of revelation and moral duty. Civility disappears, and people lose the capacity to listen and respect one another. Each has their own subjective truth and personal ambition and goal.
The virtuous servants of God
Let us take as our point of departure the revelation to the Prophet Mohammad, the last of the revelations of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition, which proclaims itself to be the last of the divine revelations, and which provides for human beings the permanent moral principles that ought to everywhere and in all times guide their conduct. It is a question of always and everywhere complying with the moral duty of seeking to understand the true and the right, not an individual subjective and personal truth but an objective truth congruent with a reality independent of each person; and the moral duty of contributing to the movement of humanity toward the fulfillment of its destiny to develop a world of general justice and equity.
With this starting point, whether or not we believe that the faithful angel Gabriel made the words of God descend on the heart of Muhammed, we have the moral principles that ought to guide our lives: seek to understand the true and the right; seek to contribute to the building of a more just world, with faith in the future of humanity.
But these moral principles do not provide guidance concerning the collective direction of humanity. They do not address questions concerning the role of the state in stimulating economic productivity and in providing for the human needs of the population, or with respect to the international rules that ought to govern relations among nations.
Ayatollah Subhani refers briefly to surprising and extraordinary acts of “virtuous servants of God” who are not prophets and who do not invoke prophecy.Let us here suggest that the leading of the Vietnamese people to defeat two world imperialist powers can be understood as an extraordinary act. And that Fidel’s capacities were surprising, such as his capacity to understand more about the world economy than economists, more about political strategies than political theorists and analysists, and more about military strategies than generals. And let us furthermore recall that some Cubans, having regularly observed Fidel’s surprising and extraordinary qualities, say that God sent him to defend them through his teachings.
In suggesting that political leaders with exceptional qualities be considered “virtuous servants of God,” I would like to reiterate that Ayatollah Subhani has made clear that the “virtuous servants” do not invoke prophecy. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, none of exceptional revolutionary leaders of the modern era claimed to be prophets. There was some tendency in the U.S. Left in the late 1960s to refer to “modern prophets”, but this was a loose designation, lacking in analytical precision. In precise terms, prophets are those who claim to have had the words of God revealed to them, and their mission is that of God’s messenger. The exceptional revolutionary leaders of the modern era have not claimed and do not claim to be proclaiming the word of God.
We ought to be precise with respect to another matter as well. Islamic theology maintains that the prophets spoke infallibly. This is not the case with respect to the modern virtuous servants. Indeed, the lessons that they teach are built on the basis of observation and political practice. Their knowledge is constantly evolving, as are the political, economic, and ideological conditions in which it evolves. In this context, the virtuous servants of God demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to seeking to understand and to the ultimate attainment of a more just world. But they are not infallible. They cannot avoid errors, which for the most part are idealist errors, attempting to attain more than what the actual conditions permit.
With these precautions in mind, I see a definite advantage to conceptualizing exceptional revolutionary leaders as virtuous servants of God. In the first place, it gives emphasis to the moral commitment of today’s revolutions and their leaders to the quest for truth and to the moral principles that have guided religious beliefs and practices. It makes clear that revolutionaries embrace universal human values, and seek political, ideological, diplomatic, and sometimes military strategies to implement them in reality. It makes clear, as well, the faith of the revolutionaries in the future of humanity, a faith that grounds their sacrifices and those of the people that follow them. It makes evident that revolutionaries today have nothing in common with the post-modern, post-truth, subjectivist and personalist ideologies that are currently present in the USA like an infectious and potentially deadly disease.
Independent of our beliefs with respect to the divine revelations of the pre-modern era, we today can and should embrace their primordial legacy of faith in the future of humanity, a future of general justice and equity. For psychological, political, and social reasons, we ought to have faith in the future of humanity; we ought to believe that the creation of a world of general justice and equity is the final destiny of humanity, in accordance with the proclamations of the prophets since ancient times. This belief provides us with the foundation for personal meaning and purpose, in that it implies a corresponding moral duty to contribute with our lives to the development of a more just world.
How can humanity attain its ultimate destiny of just world order? Here we should have consciousness that, in accordance with the teachings of today’s theologians, today God sends not more prophets, not new revelations in the form of messages through the prophets, because all necessary moral principles have been revealed. Rather, God sends virtuous persons to guide and instruct humanity toward the necessary road for attaining the perfection that has been revealed as the human destiny. Virtuous persons who do not present themselves as prophets, but who possess an exceptional capacity to understand the political, economic, and cultural process through which a more just world, defined by human equity, can and will be attained.
Such virtuous persons include Ho, Fidel, Mao (in spite of idealistic errors with serious negative consequences), Nyerere (who synthesized modern Western and traditional African values), Chávez (who forged the political unity of the neocolonized in opposition to new forms of Western imperialism), and Evo (who led the establishment of a plurinational state that includes indigenous nations as it participates in the construction of a new international economic order).
The virtuous servants of God are not prophets. They are leaders and teachers that explain the road to equity and justice, the duty toward which has been revealed by the prophets. They gift and empower humanity with advances in scientific knowledge, in knowledge of the road to construction of that just and equal society that the prophets have proclaimed.
The virtuous servants of God have emerged in human history in an historic moment in which universities have abrogated the search for knowledge and truth. Directed by the interests of the elite, the universities have operated under a false notion of detached and neutral objectivity and have fragmented knowledge into distinct, dysfunctional disciplines, thus establishing philosophical and structural constraints on the pursuit of knowledge. In this context, there have emerged servants of God to lead the search for truth, establishing their classrooms in the terrain of political struggles of social justice. Having previously sent the prophets, God today sends servants with a capacity to speak the truth in the context of the modern world-system and its evolving structures of domination, keeping alive hope and the political possibility for a more just, democratic, and sustainable world.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Left has abrogated the search for social justice. It has embraced an impossible post-truth world that places individual subjectivity above truth, reality, and nature, thereby dividing the people and effectively allying itself with the interests of the dominant class. More hopeful is what I call the global Left, those intellectuals of or tied to the Western world and its institutions, but who pay attention to the alternative projects of Third World socialism plus China. These intellectuals of the global Left today struggle to find an effective terrain of political practice.
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Elía, Ricardo H.S. 2012. La Civilización de Islam, Segunda edición. Qom, República Islámica de Irán: Editorial Elhame Shargh, Fundación Cultural Oriente.
Iazdi, Aiatollah M.T. Misbah. 2010. Enseñanza de la Doctrina Islámica. Translation to Spanish by Huyyatulislam Mohsen Rabbani and Sheij Abdul Karim Paz. Qom, Islamic Republic of Iran: Fundación Cultural Oriente, Editorial Elhame Shargh.
Subhani, Ya‘far. 2004. La Doctrina del Islam Shi‘ah: A la Luz de las enseñanzas de Ahl-Ul Bait. Translated by Feisal Morhell. Qom, Irán: Fundación Cultural Oriente.
Subhani, La Doctrina del Islam Shi‘ah, Pp. 167-68.