Category Archives: Revolutionaries

An Updated and Improved Marxism

It is the rare intellectual who can withstand the pressures of groupthink. This is a fundamental truth, or a truism, borne out not only by daily experiences in an academic or other “intellectual” context (e.g., the newsroom or editorial board of any establishment media outlet) but also by critical scholarship from the likes of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky. Left-wing intellectuals tend to be vigilantly aware of irrational groupthink among mainstream, establishment types, or even among other leftist sects with which they don’t identify; but, like all intellectual cliques—indeed, like nearly all individual intellectuals—they’re reluctant to turn their critical gaze on themselves. They imbibe certain ideas and ideologies in their formative years and perhaps refine them as they mature, but on the whole their commitment to the ideology is apt to become rigid and uncritical.

This complacency has always most disturbed me with regard to Marxists, whose system of thought, if correctly formulated, is precisely the most critical, the most self-critical, the most democratic and revolutionary ideology ever devised. I expect intellectual laziness from mostpostmodernists,” from liberals and centrists, from all witting or unwitting servants of power. I’m disappointed, though, when I see it in Marxists and semi-Marxists. There’s a pronounced dogmatism in most Marxist circles. Personally, I’ve tried to stimulate some critical rethinking of Marxism in various publications, including my book Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and this distillation of some of its arguments (though disregard the editor’s oversimplified summary at the top of the page), but I haven’t had much success. These writings appear to have been ignored.

Which is unfortunate, because I’m convinced it’s necessary in the twenty-first century to revise the Marxian conception of revolution. Conditions have changed from what they were a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago; Marx would likely be appalled by the lack of creative rethinking that has met these altered conditions. It’s an unfortunate situation when millions of activists across the world are struggling to build new modes of production, new modes of politics, and Marxist scholars and thinkers still confine themselves, more or less, to quoting staid formulations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (This fact, ironically, supports Marx’s argument that old ideologies tend to hang on doggedly even as changing material conditions make them progressively irrelevant.) Writers and ‘critical ideologists’ can play an important role in the laborious construction of a new society from the ground up, but instead they’re usually content with elaborating on old slogans about seizing the state or smashing it, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, creating a vanguard party, and so on.

An article that Jacobin recently published provides an example of this stubborn immersion in the past, as well as an opportunity to propose a more critical and up-to-date interpretation of revolution. The article in question is actually an essay by the famous British Marxist Ralph Miliband, entitled “Lenin’s The State and Revolution,” published in 1970. In itself it’s a perfectly respectable and sophisticated meditation on Lenin’s classic work, indeed counseling a proper critical attitude towards it. But the reposting of it on the website of a “cutting-edge” left-wing journal almost fifty years later highlights just how stagnant (in some respects) Marxist thinking continues to be, especially given the editorial comment with which Jacobin introduces the piece:

Marx famously proclaimed the need to “smash” the bourgeois state. But what does that mean in practice? If our aim is a democratic, non-bureaucratic socialism, what kind of state should we be striving for?

Those looking for answers have often turned to Lenin’s State and Revolution, where the famed revolutionary confidently speaks of transforming “a state of bureaucrats” into “a state of armed workers.”

In the following essay, Ralph Miliband…offers a critical appraisal of Lenin’s pamphlet and explains why “the exercise of socialist power remains the Achilles’ heel of Marxism.” …[T]he essay is still the sharpest reading of State and Revolution available.

The accuracy of this introduction is rather sad. In 2018 we’re still looking for inspiration to a brief critical analysis written in 1970 of a short work written in 1917—in completely different conditions than prevail today—that itself was but a commentary on sketchy ideas put forward in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. (One can argue, moreover, that State and Revolution was intended as little more than cynical propaganda for the Bolshevik party, in light of its deviation from Lenin’s earlier party line and his later authoritarian practice.) Surely we can do better than this.

Miliband is still right, though, that “the exercise of socialist power remains the Achilles’ heel of Marxism.” This is true not only of practice but of theory—which is to say, as I’ve argued in my paper “The Significance and Shortcomings of Karl Marx,” that the concept of proletarian revolution is Marxism’s main weakness. In the rest of this article I’ll again summarize, very briefly, some of the points from my book, in the hope of shedding a little light on an old problem.

*****

The conceptual revisions I proposed in the book offer two main advantages: first, they bring the strategic or prescriptive aspect of Marxism up to date, incorporating the increasingly popular idea and practice of the “solidarity economy” (while simultaneously providing a systematic theoretical framework to interpret the latter’s potential); second, they correct certain inconsistencies and logical errors that Marx’s sketchy proposals on revolution introduced into the theory of historical materialism. That is, with my “revisions,” Marxism has been made more logically defensible and consistent with itself. And the road is cleared for even orthodox Marxists to engage creatively with the burgeoning alternative economy of cooperatives, public banks, and other experimental ideas/institutions.

We can start with Marx’s formulation of revolution in the following four sentences from the famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

One problem with this classic statement is that its notion of “fettering” is meaningless. And nowhere else in his writings does Marx flesh it out with sufficient content. Capitalist production relations, especially in the last hundred years, are, in fact, constantly fettering the use and development of productive forces—and yet no post-capitalist revolution has happened. Recessions and depressions certainly “fetter” the productive forces; so do legal obstacles to the dissemination of knowledge, such as intellectual copyright laws; so do ideologies and practices of privatization, which hinder the public sector’s more socially rational and dynamic use of science and technology. On the other hand, even in decadent neoliberalism the productive forces continue to develop in various ways. So it seems wrong or meaningless to say that production relations fetter productive forces and then revolution breaks out.

A slight revision can remedy the problem, and at the same time changes the whole thrust of the Marxist theory of revolution. Rather than a conflict simply between production relations and the development of productive forces, there is a conflict between two types of production relationstwo modes of productionone of which uses productive forces in a more socially rational and “un-fettering” way than the other. The more progressive mode slowly develops in the womb of the old society as it decays; i.e., as the old dominant mode of production succumbs to crisis and stagnation. In being relatively dynamic and democratic, the emergent mode of production attracts adherents and resources, until it becomes ever more visible and powerful. The old regime can’t eradicate it; it spreads internationally and gradually transforms the economy, to such a point that the forms and content of politics change with it. Political entities become its partisans, and finally decisive seizures of power by representatives of the emergent mode of production become possible, because reactionary defenders of the old regime have lost their dominant command over resources. And so, over generations, a social revolution transpires.

This conceptual revision saves Marx’s intuition by giving it more meaning: the “fettering” is not absolute but is in relation to a more effective and democratic mode of production that is, so to speak, competing against the old stagnant one. The most obvious concrete instance of this notion of revolution is the long transition from feudalism to capitalism, during which the feudal mode became so hopelessly outgunned by the capitalist that—after the emergent economy had already broadly colonized society—bourgeois “seizures of the state” finally became possible.

You see that the simple conceptual revision I’ve proposed changes the Marxian theory from advocating a statist “dictatorship of the proletariat” to advocating a more grassroots, gradual, unambiguously democratic transformation of the economy that proceeds at the same time and to the degree that the old society deteriorates. This change of emphasis is itself an advantage, since the old overwhelmingly statist theory (notwithstanding Lenin’s semi-anarchistic language in State and Revolution) was idealistic, un-dialectical, and utopian. Which is to say un-Marxist.

In the orthodox account of the Communist Manifesto and later writings, the social revolution occurs after a seizure of state power by “the proletariat” (which, incidentally, isn’t a unitary entity but contains divisions). But this account of revolution contradicts the Marxian understanding of social dynamics—a point, oddly, that few or no Marxists appear ever to have appreciated. It exalts a relatively unitary conscious will as being able to plan social evolution more or less in advance, a notion that is utterly undialectical. According to “dialectics,” history happens behind the backs of historical actors, whose intentions never work out exactly as they’re supposed to. Marx was wise in his admonition that we should never trust the self-interpretations of political actors. And yet he suspends this injunction when it comes to the dictatorship of the proletariat: these people’s designs are supposed to work out perfectly and straightforwardly, despite the massive complexity and dialectical contradictions of society.

The statist idea of revolution is also wrong to privilege the political over the economic. In supposing that through sheer political will one can transform an authoritarian, exploitative economy into an emancipatory, democratic one, Marx and Lenin are, in effect, reversing the order of “dominant causality” such that politics determines the economy (whereas, in fact, the economy “determines”—loosely and broadly speaking—politics).1 Marxism itself suggests that the state can’t be socially creative in this radical way. And when it tries to be, what results, ironically, is overwhelming bureaucracy and even greater authoritarianism than before. (While the twentieth century’s experiences with so-called “Communism” or “state socialism” happened in relatively non-industrialized societies, not advanced capitalist ones as Marx anticipated, the dismal record is at least suggestive.)

Fundamental to these facts is that if the conquest of political power occurs in a still-capitalist economy, revolutionaries have to contend with the institutional legacies of capitalism: relations of coercion and domination condition everything the government does, and there is no way to break free of them. They can’t be magically transcended through political will; to think they can, or that the state can somehow “wither away” even as it’s forced to become more expansive and dominating (to suppress capitalist resistance), is to adopt a naïve idealism and utopianism.

In short, the interpretation of revolution that contemporary Marxists have inherited is backward. It is standing on its head; we have to turn it right-side up in order to comprehend our activism and our goals properly. Of course, this isn’t to deny the importance of engaging in political work, whether it takes the form of constructing a workers’ party, electing socialists under the aegis of the Democratic Party, or lobbying for particular laws. As during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it’s essential to target the state at every step of the way. We simply have to recognize that a paramount strategy is to take advantage of openings and divisions in the capitalist state to politically facilitate the long-term construction of new relations of production, on the foundation of which the new society will gradually emerge. The revolution can’t happen in any other way. Certainly not through a historical rupture in which “the working class” dramatically seizes power, suppresses (somehow) all its opponents, and organizes a new economy on the basis of utopian blueprints. In the twenty-first century, any such ruptural conception, even if moderated by realism on some point or other, is astoundingly naïve.

The truth is that revolutionaries have to dig in for the long haul: a global transition to a post-capitalist society will take a century or more. Cooperative and socialized relations of production (in forms that it’s futile to predict at this point) will spread through generations of bitter struggle. Meanwhile, the conquest of political power will occur piecemeal—at different rates in different countries—suffering setbacks and then proceeding to new victories, then suffering more defeats, etc. It will be a time of world-agony, especially as climate change will be devastating civilization; but the sheer numbers of people whose interests will lie in a transcendence of capitalism will constitute a formidable weapon on the side of progress.

*****

As Chomsky has said on more than one occasion, the job of intellectuals, or one of their jobs, is to make simple things appear complicated. You’re supposed to think that in order to understand anything about the world, you have to be able to read and write long articles or books full of citations and arcane terminology and long discussions of other writers, delving into the intricacies of their arguments, minutely dissecting the meanings of their favored terms, spinning out paeans to verbiage like a crafty spider trying to snare the unwary. This is how intellectuals protect their territory and ward off democratic challenges to their status. But the truth is that old-fashioned commonsense reasoning can get you pretty far. It only takes a bit of reading and a bit of critical thought to find approximate answers to classic questions about the nature of society, the nature of a good society, and the revolutionary path to the latter. And, in fact, in the sociological domain, you’re never going to do much better than approximate answers. With interactions between billions of people to take into consideration, too little will always be understood.

So, to get back to the old question that Lenin and Miliband tackled: what does it mean to “smash” the bourgeois state? What kind of democratic state should we be striving for? Well, the notion of “smashing” the state is just a pithy metaphor that provides no guide to action. We should stop being bewitched by old and unhelpful imagery. In conditions very different from those that confronted Marx and Lenin, we should simply focus on the matters at hand rather than endlessly poring over what the god Lenin said. Keeping in our mind the Marxist and anarchist ideal of a stateless, non-coercive, economically democratic society, we should just do what we can to make the state we’re immediately confronted with more democratic and more just. We do what we can to expand democracy in the real world, and step by step we find ourselves approaching the distant moral ideal that guides us. It’s hopeless to try to spell out the ideal in detail. Marx understood this, which is why he was so reluctant to get bogged down in these kinds of questions, confining himself to some vague suggestions that, not surprisingly, turned out to be largely mistaken.

The task of Marxists now, aside from continuing to critically analyze society, is to rethink the old prescriptions and abandon tired formulations. In so doing, they’ll not only make themselves more relevant to the contemporary world, a world teeming with democratic and nonsectarian initiative; they’ll also, in effect, finally rid Marxism of its lingering traces of irrational dogma, internal inconsistency, and parochial nineteenth-century ideology. The system will at last have realized the old ambition of being a genuine science of society.

  1. In reality, of course, political and economic relations are fused together. But analytically one can distinguish economic activities from narrowly political, governmental activities.

Why Venezuela and Syria Cannot Fall

Despite tremendous hardship which the Venezuelan people are having to face, despite the sanctions and intimidation from abroad, President Nicolás Maduro has won a second six-year term.

Two weeks ago, at the Venezuelan embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, where I addressed several leaders of East African left-wing opposition, an acting Charge d’ Affaires, Jose Avila Torres, declared: “People of Venezuela are now facing similar situation as the Syrian people.”

True. Both nations, Venezuela and Syria, are separated by a tremendous geographical distance, but they are united by the same fate, same determination and courage.

During the Spanish Civil War, Czech anti-fascist fighters, volunteers in the International Brigades, used to say: “In Madrid we are fighting for Prague”. Madrid fell to Franco’s fascists in October 1939. Prague had been occupied by German troops several months earlier, in March 1939. It was the blindness and cowardice of the European leaders, as well as the support which the murderous fascist hordes received from populations of all corners of the continent, which led to one of the greatest tragedies in modern history – a tragedy which only ended on May 9, 1945, when the Soviet troops liberated Prague, defeating Nazi Germany and de facto saving the world.

More than 70 years later, the world is facing another calamity. The West, mentally unfit to peacefully end its several centuries long murderous reign over the planet – a reign that has already taken several hundreds of millions of human lives – is flexing its muscle and madly snapping in all directions, provoking, antagonizing and even directly attacking countries as far apart as North Korea (DPRK), China, Iran, Russia, Syria and Venezuela.

What is happening now is not called fascism or Nazism, but it clearly is precisely that, as the barbaric rule is based on a profound spite for non-Western human lives, on fanatical right-wing dogmas which are stinking of exceptionalism, and on the unbridled desire to control the world.

Many countries that refused to yield to brutal Western force were recently literally leveled with the ground, including Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. In many other ones, the governments were overthrown by direct and indirect interventions, as well as deceit, as was the case in the mightiest country in Latin America – Brazil. Countless “color”, “umbrella” and other “revolutions” as well as “springs” have been sponsored by Washington, London and other Western capitals.

But the world is waking up, slowly but irreversibly, and the fight for survival of our human race has already begun.

Venezuela and Syria are, unquestionably, at the front line of the struggle.

Against all odds, bleeding but heroically erect, they stand against the overwhelmingly mightier force, and refuse to give up.

President Hugo Chavez

“Here no one surrenders!” shouted Hugo Chavez, already balding from chemotherapy, dying of cancer which many in Latin America believe, was administered to him from the United States. His fist was clenched and heavy rain was falling on his face. Like this, died one of the greatest revolutionaries of our time. But his revolution survived, and is marching on!

I am well aware of the fact that many of my readers are from the West. Somehow, particularly in Europe, I cannot explain, anymore, what it really is to be a revolutionary. Recently I spoke at a big gathering of ‘progressive’ teachers, which took place in Scandinavia. I tried to fire them up, to explain to them what monstrous crimes the West has been committing all over the world, for centuries.

I tried and I failed. When the lights went on, I was drilled by hundreds of eyes. Yes, there was an applause, and many stood up in that fake cliché – a standing ovation. But I knew that our worlds were far apart.

What followed were pre-fabricated and shallow questions about human rights in China, about “Assad’s regime”, but nothing about the collective responsibility of people of the West.

To understand what goes on in Syria and in Venezuela, requires stepping out of the Western mindset. It cannot be understood by selfish minds that are only obsessed with sexuality and sexual orientation, and with self-interest.

There is something essential, something very basic and human that is taking place in both Syria and Venezuela. It is about human pride, about motherland, about love for justice and dreams, about a much better arrangement for the world. It is not petty; in fact, it is huge, and even worth fighting and dying for.

In both places, the West miscalculated, as it clearly miscalculated in such ‘cases’ as Cuba, Russia, China, Iran, DPRK.

Patria no se vende!”, they have been saying in Cuba, for decades – “Fatherland is not for sale!”

Profit is not everything. Personal gain is not everything. Selfishness and tiny but inflated egos are not everything. Justice and dignity are much more. Human ideals are much more. To some people they are. Really, they are, trust me – no matter how unreal it may appear in the West.

Syria is bleeding, but it refused to surrender to the terrorism injected by the West and its allies. Aleppo was turned into a modern-day Stalingrad. At a tremendous cost, the city withstood all vicious assaults, it managed to reverse the course of the war, and as a result, it saved the country.

Venezuela, like Cuba in the early 90’s, found itself alone, abandoned, spat at and demonized. But it did not fall on its knees.

In Europe and North America, analyses of what is happening there have been made “logically” and “rationally”. Or have they, really?

Do people in the West really know what it is like to be colonized? Do they know what the “Venezuelan opposition is”?

Do they know about the consistency of the terror being spread by the West, for centuries and all over Latin America, from such places like the Dominican Republic and Honduras, all the way down to Chile and Argentina?

No, they know nothing, or they know very little, like those Germans who were living right next to the extermination camps and after the war they claimed that they had no idea what that smoke coming up from the chimneys was all about.

There is hardly any country in Central or South America, whose government has not at least been overthrown once by the North, whenever it decided to work on behalf of its people.

And Brazil, last year, became the ‘latest edition’ of the nightmares, disinformation campaigns, ‘fake news’ and coups – being spread with ‘compliments’ from the North, through local ‘elites’.

You see, there is really no point of discussing too many issues with the ‘opposition’ in countries such as Venezuela, Cuba or Bolivia. What has to be said was already pronounced.

What goes on is not some academic discussion club, but a war; a real and brutal civil war.

I know the ‘opposition’ in South American countries, and I know the ‘elites’ there. Yes, of course, I know many of my comrades, the revolutionaries, but I am also familiar with the ‘elites’.

Just to illustrate, let me recall a conversation I once had in Bolivia, with the son of a powerful right-wing senator, who doubled as a media magnate. In a slightly drunken state he kept repeating to me:

We will soon kick the ass of that Indian shit [president of Bolivia, Evo Morales] … You think we care about money? We have plenty of money! We don’t care if we lose millions of dollars, even tens of millions! We will spread insecurity, uncertainty, fear, deficits and if we have to, even hunger… We’ll bleed those Indians to death!

All this may sound ‘irrational’, even directly against their own capitalist gospel. But they don’t care about rationality, only about power. And their handlers from the North will compensate their losses, anyway.

There is no way to negotiate, to debate with these kinds of people. They are traitors, thieves and murderers.

For years and decades, they used the same strategy, betting on the soft-heartedness and humanism of their socialist opponents. They dragged progressive governments into endless and futile debates, then used their own as well as Western media to smear them. If it did not work, they choked their own economies, creating deficits, like in Chile before the 1973 Pinochet’s coup. If that did not work, they’d used terror – naked and merciless. And finally, as the last resort – direct Western interventions.

They are not in it for ‘democracy’ or even for some ‘free market’. They are serving their Western masters and their own feudalist interests.

To negotiate with them is to lose. It is identical with playing the game by their own rules. Because behind them is the entire Western propaganda, as well as financial and military machinery.

The only way to survive is to toughen up, to clench teeth, and to fight. As Cuba has been doing for decades, and yes, as Venezuela is doing now.

This approach does not look ‘lovely’; it is not always ‘neat’, but it is the only way forward, the only way for progress and revolution to survive.

Before Dilma got ‘impeached’ by the pro-Western bunch of corrupt freaks, I suggested in my essay that was censored by Counterpunch but published by dozens of other outlets world-wide, in many languages, that she should send tanks into the streets of Brasilia. I suggested that it was her duty, in the name of the people of Brazil, who voted for her, and who benefited greatly from the rule of her PT.

She did not do it, and I am almost certain that now she is regretting so. Her people are once again getting robbed; they are suffering. And the entire South America is, as a result, in disarray!

Corruption? Mismanagement? For decades and centuries, the people of Latin America were ruled and robbed by the corrupt bandits, who were using their continent as a milking cow, while living in the repulsive opulence of the Western aristocracy. All that was done, naturally, in the name of ‘democracy’, a total charade.

Venezuela is still there – people are rallying behind the government – in terrible pain and half-starving but rallying nevertheless. It is because for many people there, personal interests are secondary. What matters is their country, socialist ideology and the great South American fatherland. Patria grande.

It is impossible to explain. It is not rational, it is intuitive, deep, essential and human.

Those who have no ideology and ability to commit, will not understand. And, frankly, who cares if they will or not.

Hopefully, soon, both Brazil and Mexico – the two most populous nations in Latin America – will vote in new left-wing governments. Things will then change, will become much better, for Venezuela.

Until then, Caracas has to rely on its far-away but close comrades and friends, China, Iran and Russia, but also on its beautiful and brave sister – Cuba.

Evo Morales recently warned that the West is plotting a coup in Venezuela.

Maduro’s government has to survive another few months. Before Brazil is back, before Mexico joins.

It will be a tough, perhaps even bloody fight. But history is not made by weak compromises and capitulations. One cannot negotiate with Fascism. France tried, before WWII, and we all know the results.

The West and its fascism can only be fought, never appeased

When one defends his country, things can never be tidy and neat. There are no saints. Sainthood leads to defeat. Saints are born later, when victory is won and the nation can afford it.

Venezuela and Syria have to be supported and defended, by all means.

These wonderful people, Venezuelans and Syrians, are now bleeding, fighting for the entire non-Western and oppressed world. In Caracas and Damascus, people are struggling, battling and dying for Honduras and Iran, for Afghanistan and West Africa.

Their enemies can only be stopped by force.

In Scandinavia, a Syrian gusano, who lives in the West, who smears president Assad and gets fully compensated for it, challenged me, as well as the Syrian ‘regime’ and Iran, during the Q/A session. I said I refuse to discuss this with him, as even if we were to spend two hours shouting at each other, in public, we would never find any common ground. People like him began the war, and war they should get. I told him that he is definitely paid for his efforts and that the only way for us to settle this is ‘outside’, on the street.

Venezuela and Syria cannot fall. Too much is now at stake. Both countries are presently fighting something enormous and sinister – they are fighting against the entire Western imperialism. It is not just about some ‘opposition’, or even the treasonous elements in their societies.

This is much bigger. This is about the future, about the survival of humanity.

Billions of people in all parts of the world have been closely following the elections in the Bolivarian Republic. There, the people have voted. President Maduro won. He won again. Scarred, bruised, but he won. Once again, socialism defeated fascism. And long live Venezuela, damn it!

Originally published by New Eastern Outlook (NEO)

A Blueprint for Resistance: Jesus Christ vs. the Police State

“In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime — the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps …the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

Just as police states have arisen throughout history, there have also been individuals or groups of individuals who have risen up to challenge the injustices of their age.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer risked his life to undermine the tyranny at the heart of Nazi Germany.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn challenged the soul-destroying gulags of the Soviet Union.

Martin Luther King Jr. called America on the carpet for its color-coded system of racial segregation and warmongering.

And then there was Jesus Christ, an itinerant preacher and revolutionary activist, who not only died challenging the police state of his day—namely, the Roman Empire—but provided a blueprint for standing up to tyranny that would be followed by those, religious and otherwise, who came after him.

A radical nonconformist who challenged authority at every turn, Jesus was a far cry from the watered-down, corporatized, simplified, gentrified, sissified vision of a meek creature holding a lamb that most modern churches peddle. In fact, he spent his adult life speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo of his day, and pushing back against the abuses of the Roman Empire.

Those living through this present age of militarized police, SWAT team raids, police shootings of unarmed citizens, roadside strip searches, and invasive surveillance might feel as if these events are unprecedented, the characteristics of a police state and its reasons for being are no different today than they were in Jesus’ lifetime: control, power and money.

Much like the American Empire today, the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day was characterized by secrecy, surveillance, a widespread police presence, a citizenry treated like suspects with little recourse against the police state, perpetual wars, a military empire, martial law, and political retribution against those who dared to challenge the power of the state.

As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, a police state extends far beyond the actions of law enforcement.  In fact, a police state “is characterized by bureaucracy, secrecy, perpetual wars, a nation of suspects, militarization, surveillance, widespread police presence, and a citizenry with little recourse against police actions.”

Indeed, the police state in which Jesus lived and its striking similarities to modern-day America are beyond troubling.

Secrecy, surveillance and rule by the elite. As the chasm between the wealthy and poor grew wider in the Roman Empire, the ruling class and the wealthy class became synonymous, while the lower classes, increasingly deprived of their political freedoms, grew disinterested in the government and easily distracted by “bread and circuses.” Much like America today, with its lack of government transparency, overt domestic surveillance, and rule by the rich, the inner workings of the Roman Empire were shrouded in secrecy, while its leaders were constantly on the watch for any potential threats to its power. The resulting state-wide surveillance was primarily carried out by the military, which acted as investigators, enforcers, torturers, policemen, executioners and jailers. Today that role is fulfilled by the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the increasingly militarized police forces across the country.

Widespread police presence. The Roman Empire used its military forces to maintain the “peace,” thereby establishing a police state that reached into all aspects of a citizen’s life. In this way, these military officers, used to address a broad range of routine problems and conflicts, enforced the will of the state. Today SWAT teams, comprised of local police and federal agents, are employed to carry out routine search warrants for minor crimes such as marijuana possession and credit card fraud.

Citizenry with little recourse against the police state. As the Roman Empire expanded, personal freedom and independence nearly vanished, as did any real sense of local governance and national consciousness. Similarly, in America today, citizens largely feel powerless, voiceless and unrepresented in the face of a power-hungry federal government. As states and localities are brought under direct control by federal agencies and regulations, a sense of learned helplessness grips the nation.

Perpetual wars and a military empire. Much like America today with its practice of policing the world, war and an over-arching militarist ethos provided the framework for the Roman Empire, which extended from the Italian peninsula to all over Southern, Western, and Eastern Europe, extending into North Africa and Western Asia as well. In addition to significant foreign threats, wars were waged against inchoate, unstructured and socially inferior foes.

Martial law. Eventually, Rome established a permanent military dictatorship that left the citizens at the mercy of an unreachable and oppressive totalitarian regime. In the absence of resources to establish civic police forces, the Romans relied increasingly on the military to intervene in all matters of conflict or upheaval in provinces, from small-scale scuffles to large-scale revolts. Not unlike police forces today, with their martial law training drills on American soil, militarized weapons and “shoot first, ask questions later” mindset, the Roman soldier had “the exercise of lethal force at his fingertips” with the potential of wreaking havoc on normal citizens’ lives.

A nation of suspects. Just as the American Empire looks upon its citizens as suspects to be tracked, surveilled and controlled, the Roman Empire looked upon all potential insubordinates, from the common thief to a full-fledged insurrectionist, as threats to its power. The insurrectionist was seen as directly challenging the Emperor.  A “bandit,” or revolutionist, was seen as capable of overturning the empire, was always considered guilty and deserving of the most savage penalties, including capital punishment. Bandits were usually punished publicly and cruelly as a means of deterring others from challenging the power of the state.  Jesus’ execution was one such public punishment.

Acts of civil disobedience by insurrectionists. Starting with his act of civil disobedience at the Jewish temple, the site of the administrative headquarters of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish council, Jesus branded himself a political revolutionary. When Jesus “with the help of his disciples, blocks the entrance to the courtyard” and forbids “anyone carrying goods for sale or trade from entering the Temple,” he committed a blatantly criminal and seditious act, an act “that undoubtedly precipitated his arrest and execution.” Because the commercial events were sponsored by the religious hierarchy, which in turn was operated by consent of the Roman government, Jesus’ attack on the money chargers and traders can be seen as an attack on Rome itself, an unmistakable declaration of political and social independence from the Roman oppression.

Military-style arrests in the dead of night. Jesus’ arrest account testifies to the fact that the Romans perceived Him as a revolutionary. Eerily similar to today’s SWAT team raids, Jesus was arrested in the middle of the night, in secret, by a large, heavily armed fleet of soldiers.  Rather than merely asking for Jesus when they came to arrest him, his pursuers collaborated beforehand with Judas. Acting as a government informant, Judas concocted a kiss as a secret identification marker, hinting that a level of deception and trickery must be used to obtain this seemingly “dangerous revolutionist’s” cooperation.

Torture and capital punishment. In Jesus’ day, religious preachers, self-proclaimed prophets and nonviolent protesters were not summarily arrested and executed. Indeed, the high priests and Roman governors normally allowed a protest, particularly a small-scale one, to run its course. However, government authorities were quick to dispose of leaders and movements that appeared to threaten the Roman Empire. The charges leveled against Jesus—that he was a threat to the stability of the nation, opposed paying Roman taxes and claimed to be the rightful King—were purely political, not religious. To the Romans, any one of these charges was enough to merit death by crucifixion, which was usually reserved for slaves, non-Romans, radicals, revolutionaries and the worst criminals.

Jesus was presented to Pontius Pilate “as a disturber of the political peace,” a leader of a rebellion, a political threat, and most gravely—a claimant to kingship, a “king of the revolutionary type.” After Jesus is formally condemned by Pilate, he is sentenced to death by crucifixion, “the Roman means of executing criminals convicted of high treason.”  The purpose of crucifixion was not so much to kill the criminal, as it was an immensely public statement intended to visually warn all those who would challenge the power of the Roman Empire. Hence, it was reserved solely for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, and banditry. After being ruthlessly whipped and mocked, Jesus was nailed to a cross.

As Professor Mark Lewis Taylor observed:

The cross within Roman politics and culture was a marker of shame, of being a criminal. If you were put to the cross, you were marked as shameful, as criminal, but especially as subversive. And there were thousands of people put to the cross. The cross was actually positioned at many crossroads, and, as New Testament scholar Paula Fredricksen has reminded us, it served as kind of a public service announcement that said, “Act like this person did, and this is how you will end up.”

Jesus—the revolutionary, the political dissident, and the nonviolent activist—lived and died in a police state. Any reflection on Jesus’ life and death within a police state must take into account several factors: Jesus spoke out strongly against such things as empires, controlling people, state violence and power politics. Jesus challenged the political and religious belief systems of his day. And worldly powers feared Jesus, not because he challenged them for control of thrones or government but because he undercut their claims of supremacy, and he dared to speak truth to power in a time when doing so could—and often did—cost a person his life.

Unfortunately, the radical Jesus, the political dissident who took aim at injustice and oppression, has been largely forgotten today, replaced by a congenial, smiling Jesus trotted out for religious holidays but otherwise rendered mute when it comes to matters of war, power and politics.

Yet for those who truly study the life and teachings of Jesus, the resounding theme is one of outright resistance to war, materialism and empire.

What a marked contrast to the advice being given to Americans by church leaders to “submit to your leaders and those in authority”—which in the American police state translates to complying, conforming, submitting, obeying orders, deferring to authority and generally doing whatever a government official tells you to do.

Telling Americans to march in lockstep and blindly obey the government—or put their faith in politics and vote for a political savior—flies in the face of everything for which Jesus lived and died.

Ultimately, this is the contradiction that must be resolved if the radical Jesus—the one who stood up to the Roman Empire and was crucified as a warning to others not to challenge the powers-that-be—is to be an example for our modern age.

We must decide whether we will follow the path of least resistance—willing to turn a blind eye to what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the “evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence”—or whether we will be transformed nonconformists “dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.”

As King explained in a powerful sermon delivered in 1954:

This command not to conform comes … [from] Jesus Christ, the world’s most dedicated nonconformist, whose ethical nonconformity still challenges the conscience of mankind.

We need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians, who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word and refused to shape their witness according to the mundane patterns of the world.  Willingly they sacrificed fame, fortune, and life itself in behalf of a cause they knew to be right.  Quantitatively small, they were qualitatively giants.  Their powerful gospel put an end to such barbaric evils as infanticide and bloody gladiatorial contests.  Finally, they captured the Roman Empire for Jesus Christ… The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.  The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists.  In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!

…Honesty impels me to admit that transformed nonconformity, which is always costly and never altogether comfortable, may mean walking through the valley of the shadow of suffering, losing a job, or having a six-year-old daughter ask, “Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?”  But we are gravely mistaken to think that Christianity protects us from the pain and agony of mortal existence.  Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.  To be a Christian, one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tragedy-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way that comes only through suffering.

In these days of worldwide confusion, there is a dire need for men and women who will courageously do battle for truth.  We must make a choice. Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds?  Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul saving music of eternity?

A Conversation with Andre Vltchek

Andre Vltchek

This week I spoke with philosopher, novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist Andre Vltchek. Vltchek has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. Three of his latest books are his tribute to The Great October Socialist Revolution, a revolutionary novel Aurora and a bestselling work of political non-fiction: Exposing Lies Of The Empire. His other books can be viewed here. Also be sure to watch Rwanda Gambit, his groundbreaking documentary about Rwanda and DRCongo and his film/dialogue with Noam Chomsky On Western Terrorism. Vltchek presently resides in East Asia and the Middle East, and continues to work around the world. He can be reached through his website and his Twitter.

I spoke with him about his work and his thoughts on the current imperialist attack on independent media.

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Danny Haiphong: Could you give readers a background of who you are and what influenced you to take the path of independent journalism and analysis?

Andre Vltchek: First of all, lately I do not define myself as a journalist. These days, journalism is synonymous with ‘the oldest profession.’ I document the world, I inform people, and I propagate my political ideas. I don’t believe in “objective reporting” – it simply does not exist, and those who claim to be objective, like the BBC or The New York Times, are actually the most professional propagandists for the Western Empire. I may be a propagandist, too, but for the left, for internationalism. And I never hide who I am and where I am standing, politically.

Who am I? To simplify it: a Cuban-style unapologetic ‘Commie’ and internationalist. Russian-born, quarter Chinese, novelist, filmmaker, philosopher and revolutionary.

DH: In the years I’ve followed your media work, you have covered such topics as neo-colonialism, the role of the Soviet Union in the rise of internationalist politics, and the little known imperialist wars on Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few. Could you tell me more about what led you to seek the truth on these matters?

AV: I witnessed terrible suffering of people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It often appeared that the Empire truly saw billions of human beings as ‘non-people,’ as some lowly beings who deserve to have no rights, who could be freely exploited, enslaved, even killed. This arrangement of the world made me sick, from my young age. It made me so sick, that I decided to get involved, to take action, to join the struggle against Western imperialism and neo-colonialism.

I never saw Western civilization or Western culture as something glorious or positive. It managed to literally slaughter hundreds of millions of human beings on all continents, for centuries.

I tried to understand the concept of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, in order to help to stop this deadly process. I went to Namibia to study the first Holocaust committed by Germans. I went to Congo (DRC), in order to understand extremity of European brutality, 100 years ago, and now.

At some point, I finally understood that the only way to reach permanent peace on Earth, based on justice, would be to force Western powers from the position of power, of controlling the world.

DH: In your bio, I’ve noticed that you have written for Russian and Chinese outlets such as RT, New Eastern Outlook, and The People’s Daily. What is the difference, in your opinion, in the quality of journalism that emanates from these countries as opposed to the US and West?

AV: Media outlets that you mentioned belong to the countries which are fighting against Western imperialism and its global dominance. These countries are my allies; therefore, I write for their media, I make films for them, and appear on their television networks. It is not only Russian and Chinese media, but also several outlets in Latin America and the Middle East.

What is different about them? They serve their nations, their people, not some corporate freaks. I like when people work for well-being of their countries: I like healthy patriotism, especially when it is combined with the internationalist principles.

DH: How has the media landscape in the US and West changed since you became a journalist and how have such changes affected broader efforts to understand the developments and changes occurring worldwide?

AV: Media landscape in the West is evolving in one direction only: it is being increasingly, now almost exclusively, controlled by the corporate interests. Corporate interests, in turn, are controlling the state, in both Europe and North America. There is no democracy in the West: governments are being selected, not elected. Most of the media is upholding, glorifying this process. It is definitely not challenging it, philosophically and ideologically. In the past, long decades ago, there was at least some philosophical debate about the direction in which our civilization and our planet was evolving. Now it all stopped. Mass media became synonymous with imperialist propaganda. It is all very well-orchestrated; choreographed. And people in the West are so thoroughly brainwashed that they stopped asking questions regarding the most essential issues.

DH: Since late 2016, the US and Western corporate press and political establishment has been obsessed with the notion that Russia has infiltrated US and Western democracy, influencing elections through the promotion of “fake news.” This accusation has produced grave consequences for alternative media outlets and journalists, as publications such as RT and Black Agenda Report have been labeled dupes of the Russians and subsequently censored by internet search engines such as Google and social media like Facebook. Has social media censorship affected your work at all and what would you say is the significance of this campaign against independent journalism?

AV: In the future, and may this future come soon, those who are performing this outrageous censorship, will be judged by history and labeled as collaborators with the Western imperialist regime, which in turn is synonymous with fascism.

In the meantime, we are now fighting information, or call it a media war. The Western media is directly and indirectly promoting Western imperialism, while some independent media outlets, including Black Agenda Report, and, of course, many non-Western television stations and publications are doing their best to expose the lies and crimes of Western regime and its journo collaborators.

Of course, internet search engines as well as social media are huge business organizations. We cannot expect them to be on our side.

But people, millions of them, even in the West, are now “migrating” to the alternative media sources, like RT, TeleSUR, PressTV, CGTV, but also those that are produced in the West, like TGP, Investig’Action, Black Agenda Report or Dissident Voice.

“The Western media is directly and indirectly promoting Western imperialism.”

And about Russia? Look, it is actually all very simple. And let us say it as it is, brutally: Many Russians look like whites, but they are not really whites, they have their own culture, which is more Asian than European. For centuries, Russia was attacked from the West, by Scandinavians, French, Germans, the US after the Revolution, by the UK, Czechs, Poles, and many others. Russia lost tens of millions of people, but it never ended up on its knees. It became an internationalist power, siding with the oppressed, sponsoring countless anti-colonialist struggles in all corners of the world. One could say, it most likely saved the world from Western fascism, on more than one occasion. The West never forgave Russians for this: white-looking ‘traitors’ who instead of joining the plunder, has been fighting for the oppressed! That is all there is to it; to that anti-Russian hysteria in the West.

DH: You recently wrote a piece criticizing the Western left for abandoning the principle of internationalism. Could you elaborate on your argument and relate it to the question of which way forward the alternative and independent media should go in the current political climate in the US and West?

AV: Yes, I wrote a very critical, some would say damning essay, basically claiming that the Western left is finished and has no right to give advice to any revolutionary country or government in Africa, Asia or Latin America. And if they give advice and are taken seriously, progressive countries end up being defeated, like Argentina and Brazil were defeated, recently. I don’t even trust the Western left when it criticizes politicians like Zuma or Duterte.

The majority of people in the West are not able to commit themselves. They are too selfish, too egotistic. And they are full of nihilism: sweating and shitting nihilism.

They reject all ideologies and they do not want to govern. They despise those who are holding power. However, without ideology and without aiming at governing, no true revolution can take place. I don’t think Western left is serious: there is no revolutionary force there, no willingness to sacrifice anything for the struggle. It is all weak, spineless and boring: like shouting at the high definition television set, or insulting opponents in the pub.

The Western left wants more and more privileges for North American and especially European citizens. Who pays for these privileges? Devastated, raped nations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as those ‘south of the border.’ But French, Italian, Spanish or US intellectuals from the so-called left do not want to talk about this. They are not and don’t claim to be, internationalists.

“The Western left is all weak, spineless and boring.”

I will say more, and this will hurt: they are, many of them are, racist. Not racist in traditional sense, no. They talk racial equality, they are politically correct. It is a different type of racism: they do not mind if millions of Congolese people are sacrificed, so the French workers could have shorter working day or better medical benefits. They are also convinced that countries like China with much greater culture than the West, could and should be judged and defined (“Is China really a Communist country?” For instance) from London, New York or Paris. It is so pathetically arrogant! It is grotesque.

The Western left hates those revolutionaries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East who still dare, who are fighting, who are not afraid to govern.

Independent political media? In the West? It should learn how to be revolutionary, again. Otherwise it will never inspire anyone, anymore. People are bored and tired of theories and clichés. In the West, people are often tired and depressed about themselves, and they’d welcome some mighty kicks into their own asses. In the exploited countries, people do not want to be appeased; they want to fight, to rebel, to have media on their side, carrying their voices.

DH: What are some projects and organizations, if any, that you are working on right now and where can we find your work?

AV: I cooperate with many internationalist media outlets all over the world, be they in Russia, China, Latin America, the Middle East or Africa.

Best way to follow my work is by going to my website. All my latest stuff is there.

As always, I’m running myself to the ground, working day and night, but it is as always great fun! In one month or so, my new book on revoltionary philosophy will be published with the title On Western Nihilism and Revolutionary Optimism. I’m making two documentary films about the absolute environmental devastation of Borneo Island, particularly its Indonesian part (called Kalimantan). And I’m collecting footage in Afghanistan for a low budget feature film. I’m also writing a book about that wonderful but scarred country, and about how the West totally perverted modern Afghan history. I’m involved in a theatre project in Hamburg, and I’m writing two new books.

There is no time to lose. This is a great intellectual war against the West and its deadly imperialism. And for the first time in modern history, we are winning this war. And ‘they’ know it. That is why they are running amok, attacking, censoring. Soon, no one will be taking them seriously. This is our great chance. That is why we have to work day and night, every day and every night, until the final victory!

•First published in Black Agenda Report

World is Burning while Western Left is Quarrelling

It really is a shame, and it is tiring, but it is actually nothing new: there is now total disarray amongst those countless ‘progressive’ and ‘semi-left’ Western intellectuals, publications, movements and political parties.

Cowardice, bloated egos, lack of discipline and intellectual pettiness are often to blame, but that is not all.

It is now absolutely clear that the Western left lost patently and shamelessly. It has almost no power, it has no courage to fight or to take risks, and it counts on no real political following in Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand. ‘The masses’, those proverbial ‘oppressed masses’, have lately been electing and voting in various semi-fascist populists, unapologetic right-wing demagogues, and mainstream pro-business brutes.

Entire Marxist ‘theoretical certainties’ have been collapsing in front of our eyes. Or at least they have been in the West.

*****

To a great extent, what is now happening is absolutely natural. The European left betrayed as early as in the 1980’s, by becoming too soft, too undisciplined, too cautious and too self-centered. It put pragmatism above the ideals. It rapidly adopted the lexicon of the liberal ideological establishment, complete with Western perceptions of human rights, democratic principles and political correctness. It ceased to be revolutionary; it essentially stopped all revolutionary activities, and it abandoned the core element of any true left-wing identity – internationalism.

Without at least some basic internationalist principles, the left is now essentially reduced to some sort of local trade union level: “Let us fight for better labor conditions and health care at home, and to hell with all that neo-colonialist plunder of the world which is expected to pay for almost all of our benefits. As long as we eat well and have long vacations, why should we rebel, why should we fight?”

The Western left has also failed to honestly address global history and especially the role which both Europe and North America have been playing in it. Many so-called ‘progressive’ Western thinkers have essentially adopted the imperialist rhetoric and revanchist interpretation of various key historic events, hence becoming ‘anti-Communist’ themselves.

After that, almost everything was lost, went down the drain.

Revolutionary flags were burned, at least metaphorically. Good old slogans were ditched. Then, instead of marches and violent demonstrations and clashes with the authorities representing the regime, increasingly comfortable couches in front of the latest high-definition television sets got quickly filled with millions of flabby over-indulgent bodies.

*****

Now really ugly fights over the shrinking pie are raging. Theoretical Trotskyists and theoretical Maoists are at each other’s throats. There are, of course, Leninists, and others, many others.

Things went much further, still: these days, in the West, most ‘progressives’ go ‘by the issues’, refusing to commit to anything greater, full-heartedly. This position is increasingly in vogue, and it essentially shouts: ‘I have my own philosophy. I don’t need any ideology at all.’

No revolution has ever been won like this. But in the West, there is no desire for true revolution. Belonging to left is mainly just a pose, with a social media account and a selfie. It is not serious, and it is not intended to be.

There are, of course, Anarcho-syndicalists with their air of superiority and lofty theories that would be outrightly rejected and laughed at by the great majority of the truly oppressed people in places like Asia or Africa.

Lately, I don’t even know, anymore, who is who, in that small and petty world. I am not monitoring it, I hardly participate in theoretical discussions.

I write, using basically just two publications as my platform, from which my writing goes to the world, in various languages.

But that ‘small and petty world’ is obviously monitoring me. And what it sees, it does not like.

*****

After launching with one of the mightiest publications in the West (I don’t really want to name the publication, but my readers, most likely know which one I’m talking about) some 300 essays in the last 7 or 8 years, I was literally dumped by it at the very end of 2017. I will never find out the real reason, but most likely it was due to my ‘too left wing’ convictions, and too anti-Western, too open rhetoric. And, yes, there was actually some hint: The editors did not like it that I write for ‘Russian state-sponsored media’, which in turn has some links to allegedly radical left-wing sites in the U.S.

In the eyes of the anti-Communist, ‘we-go-by-the-issues’ Western media, any ‘state sponsored’ or ‘state controlled’ media is bad, extremely bad!

Even if it belongs to those countries that are heroically fighting against Western imperialism, trying to save our Planet. Or perhaps it is considered especially bad if it belongs to such countries. It obviously applies to the Chinese, Russian, Venezuelan, Cuban, or Iranian media outlets. In summary – it applies to all media worldwide that is fighting to prevent the Western monstrous imperialist endgame from taking place; to the media that is fighting with force and zeal, and with (lately) tremendous success.

Instead of obediently waiting for the Western right or Western left, to define the world, now the Chinese, Russians, Latin Americans and the Middle Easterners are suddenly daring to re-define events that are taking place on this Planet. They are interviewing Westerners themselves, while holding a mirror to those monsters that became both the European and North American societies.

And instead of letting only Westerners speak, there are suddenly African, Asian, Russian, Arab and Latin American people appearing in front of the cameras.

Instead of that ‘noble’ “look what we are doing to the world”, the true victims but also true revolutionaries are leading passionate debates.

Instead of some PhD professor in London debating whether China is truly Communist or not, it is now Chinese people speaking up, clarifying what their own country is and is not.

And the Western left does not like it. It is clear that it does not like such developments at all.

The Western left ‘does not like any state-sponsored media’. It does not like it when others are speaking. Well, it may be even deeper than that: it appears that it does not really like anyone who is really fighting and who is winning: it does not like the left that is actually holding power!

Because the Western left is much more part of the West than of the left.

Because deep down, it is comfortable, even obsessed with its exceptionalism.

Because despite those horrid centuries of colonialist and imperialist plunder of the world by Europe and North America, it does not truly believe that the crimes were committed because of Western culture and way of thinking.

Because, deep down, it really does not think that the non-Western nations and their media and thinkers are capable of defining and describing the world accurately, or even describing their own countries accurately. Non-Westerners simply cannot and should not be trusted. Only Western intellectuals have some sort of inherited right to make fully qualified decisions on such important topics as: whether China is Communist or not, whether Russia under President Putin is a progressive country or not, whether Iran is socialist or just a brutal religious state, whether Assad’s government is ‘legitimate’, whether the North Korean leadership is ‘insane’ or whether President Maduro of Venezuela ‘just went too far’.

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As the world is finally preparing to defend itself against the inevitable Western aggressions, as the people of Asia, Russia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East are discovering their own voices silenced for centuries by colonialist barbarity, as it is while the governments of these countries are making such discussion platforms possible, the Western left is howling at the moon, beating its chest in self-righteous narcissist gestures, and essentially insulting those who are fighting, standing tall, building much better world and yes – governing!

In several countries of South America, the left has recently been defeated precisely because it was too influenced ‘ideologically’ (or more precisely, ‘anti-ideologically’) by those weak, obsolete and overcautious Western pseudo-revolutionaries. Latin Americans should not, and hopefully will not, make similar mistakes in the future.

No revolutionary country can aim at perfection, yet. Revolution is not a bed of roses, said Fidel. Defending one’s country against brutal foreign invasions is not always a pretty business: it is thoroughly messy and bloody stuff.

The weak and soft-skinned Western left can demand from non-Western revolutionary governments both ‘purity’ and a ‘silk-gloved-approach’, simply because it has no idea (or it doesn’t care) what it is like to govern in countries consisting of millions of men, women and children who have been forced to live in absolute shit, after being robbed of everything by European and North American slave drivers. One simple mistake which those governments make, one sign of weakness, and their countries will go up in smoke, end up in ruins, in oblivion: like Iraq, like Afghanistan, like Yeltsin’s Russia, or like China during the “century of humiliation”.

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The ‘over-sensitivity’ of the Western left is actually only a façade, it is not real.

Just as an example, the editors of the above-mentioned magazine, which has so unceremoniously stopped publishing my work, never showed any interest in my well-being or safety. I think if I would have dropped dead in one of the war zones I have covered, they’d hardly notice. Articles and essays signed by me would simply stop coming. Everyone is, after all, replaceable. To offer any support would be below their dignity. But to ask, regularly, for the reader’s financial support, never has been.

The ‘State-sponsored’ media in the revolutionary countries does treat their people differently. At least some of it does.

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And quarreling goes on. I lost interest in the details. It is all time consuming and irrelevant.

In the meantime, I feel more and more comfortable writing for those new and proud media outlets, worldwide, edited far away from the West. I like it when my comrades are getting strong, when they are winning. I want them to govern and to govern well. And I want their countries to survive.

Things are that simple!

It is a great honor to show my films on TeleSur and Al-Mayadeen, to write for the New Eastern Outlook, China Daily, Countercurrents, and Russia Today. I enjoy appearing live, regularly, on PressTV.

I feel that each word that I write and utter through those media outlets is intended for my friends, for my comrades, for our struggle and for a much better world.

And let me repeat: I want my friends and comrades to win, to succeed, and yes, to govern!

The Western left can keep quarreling, chewing itself: ‘Who said what? Who is real left and who is not? Who is pure Marxist and who is simply some social democrat?”

Not all Western left media outlets are as described above. There are still some wonderful writers and editors in the West, too. But the overall situation in Europe and North America is deteriorating.

The governing and struggling revolutionary and internationalist left in the independent countries does not usually have time for lofty debates. We have Moscow, Beijing, Caracas, Havana, La Paz, Damascus and many other wonderful cities behind our backs – to defend. We will deal with the theory later, much later, after we win, after there is real peace, accompanied by justice, after all of us on this planet can proudly be what we really are – ourselves and defined by ourselves!

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• First published in New Eastern Outlook

The Life of Fidel Castro: A Marxist Appreciation


Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.

— Fidel Castro

[Humans] make [their] own history, but [they] do not make it out of the whole cloth; [they] do not make it out of conditions chosen by [themselves], but out of such as [they] find close at hand.

Karl Marx

The Epoch of Fidel

Fidel Castro was one of the outstanding revolutionary leaders over the entire course of recorded world history. His astonishing and heroic life experiences are intertwined with the accomplishments, example, and practice of the Cuban Revolution that he was the central leader of.

The political and personal integrity of Fidel Castro stood rock-solid in the face of decades of tremendous, unremitting pressures directed by the US government to destroy the Cuban Revolution (and him personally through murder).

The skilled resistance Fidel personified at the head of the politically conscious, organized, and mobilized Cuban masses gave him the moral high ground over decades in the treacherous waters of world politics in the “Cold War” era and beyond.

As I wrote in my October 9, 2017 essay “Our Che: 50 Years After His Execution“:

… During the Fidel hate-fest produced by the US media oligopolies after his death, there were small demonstrations, in the hundreds at most, of “die-hard” longtime opponents of the Cuban Revolution – a clear minority today even among Cuban-Americans. The antecedents of these now fast-fading counter-revolutionary forces in 1962 filled the Orange Bowl football stadium in Miami to welcome the return to the United States of the captured mercenary invaders who were defeated at the so-called Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron in Cuba). That occurred after the Cuban revolutionary government exchanged them, well fed and in one piece – that is, never tortured – in exchange for medicines, after negotiations.

The relatively tiny and politically insignificant anti-Fidel protests in 2017 Miami were endlessly repeated in incessant, loop coverage by the cable oligopolies, in a crude manipulation aimed at creating the impression that Fidel was a hated ‘dictator.’ Meanwhile, in Cuba, millions upon millions of Cubans, across every generation, lined the cities and countryside throughout the nation to pay respect and love for ‘the undefeated’ Fidel to his final resting place in Santiago de Cuba.

The ashes of Fidel Castro on the way to Santiago de Cuba

Fidel and the enduring example of the Cuban Revolution consumed the US ruling class with an unrelenting scorn and hatred. They seethed at the sheer effrontery of the Cuban revolutionaries carrying out a socialist revolution in the interests of the working class, the peasantry, and the oppressed, that is, in the interests of the vast majority of the Cuban people.

This is the case, notwithstanding the mass migrations encouraged – and uniquely expedited legally to the United States – by Washington for decades. This reached 7-10% of the Cuban population, resulting in a kind of Cuban diaspora. This self-exiling was centered initially on the Batista-era police, army, and gangster personnel, followed by the Cuban ex-bourgeoisie and owners of expropriated latifundia, and, finally, as the political confrontation between revolutionary Cuba and the United States government intensely sharpened, quickly came to include broad layers (but by no means all) in the Cuban professional and middle classes, a relatively affluent small minority. For example, some 3,000 out of the 6,000 doctors in Cuba before the Revolution emigrated from Cuba to the United States in this period. Most Cuban workers and peasants rarely, if ever, saw a doctor their entire lives in “the good old days” when median life expectancy in Cuba was 52 (it’s now 78). For many years now, the island has produced some 10,000 Cuban doctors a year and, at the Latin American School of Medicine, the largest medical school in the world, has trained, free of charge, tens of thousands of doctors from all over the world who are now practicing in working-class and impoverished communities in their countries. Similar comparisons can be made for all other contemporary Cuban professions.

The special venom and hatred preserved for Fidel Castro by Washington and Wall Street, by all the representatives and spokespeople of world capitalism and imperialism, was, of course, a badge of honor for the Cuban revolutionary. Certainly, the once powerful virtual industry of anti-Castro misinformation and propaganda has been politically defeated worldwide. But it has resources and lingers on in the continued, weakened US anti-Cuba policy of economic war and political hostility, and in the renewed efforts by the Donald Trump White House to pressure and threaten socialist Cuba, following the establishment of formal Washington-Havana diplomatic relations in 2015.

Of course, genuine social and people’s revolutions, such as the Cuban Revolution, inevitably generate bitter hatreds and resentments from the overthrown and vanquished ruling classes. The special hatred of the overturned Cuban ruling classes, allied with Washington and defeated in the course of the Cuban Revolution, toward Fidel, the personification of their social and political vanquishers, is of a piece with how the representatives and beneficiaries of the Confederate slavocracy in their era – and their dwindling band of political heirs, to this day – felt about Abraham Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and others, not to speak of revolutionary abolitionists like John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Harriet Tubman.1

Fidel after laying a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in 1959.

The fact is that Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution successfully and heroically, under the banner of revolutionary socialism, defied the US government diktat. At the time, this was unique in US-Latin American relations. This in an era of full-spectrum US economic, financial, military, and political dominance across the Americas. This was seen by successive US White Houses and Congresses as an utter and unacceptable affront. Rampant CIA (always under the direction of the Executive Branch of the US government) disinformation and misinformation campaigns – perhaps the classic “fake news” model – began in the 1960s in response to the Cuban Revolution and its successful development and world resonance. This is factually unassailable and has long been part of the public record from released, once “classified” documents.

Two books that document covert US anti-Cuban subversive campaigns.

Washington’s Factories of Fabrication

There were, in fact, (now known in detail from then-secret government documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act), major US government operations, with significant assigned personnel and large budgets, employed specifically to disseminate disinformation and misinformation, that is false information with the deliberate intention to deceive, about the actual reality and facts of the Cuban Revolution and its leadership. This was a classic “fake news” model.

Many millions of dollars, employing no doubt hundreds of personnel directly and indirectly – were spent on so-called “psychological-warfare operations” (psy-ops) to spread lies – about revolutionary Cuba in the form of gossip, innuendo, and rumors made up out of whole cloth, on the theory, I suppose, that if you throw enough bullshit against a wall, some is bound to stick.

The modus operandi in the CIA’s factories of falsification were the spreading of conspiracy theories, fabricated to cause confusion and, hopefully, cause divisions and splits in the revolutionary leadership. Among the most notorious lies spread far and wide concerned two of the Cuban Revolution’s most revered revolutionary heroes and martyrs, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Che Guevara.

Camilo Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro

Revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos didn’t really die in a plane crash after a mission to counter anti-revolutionary activity centered around Huber Matos in Camaguey, but was actually killed by Fidel Castro, who was “threatened” and “feared” Camilo’s popularity. (Matos, an icon of counter-revolutionary exiles for years, was sentenced and incarcerated for 20 years for sedition and treason, that is, collaboration with US government agencies in the period leading up to the Bay of Pigs mercenary invasion. Camilo Cienfuegos was dispatched to relieve Matos of his military command and arrest him and his top adjutants. Matos was one of a relative handful of revolutionary combatants in M-26-J who opposed the radicalization of the Revolution in a socialist direction, politically split from the Movement, and went over to the side of US subversion and intervention.)

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara

Another particularly notorious example of such CIA “psychological operations” was the worldwide effort to plant false stories in big-business and other media outlets, about a supposed falling out and political rupture between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Che Guevara did not really go out of public view to organize anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and Latin America, but was actually imprisoned and even killed by Fidel Castro. (When that Big Lie was no longer operative, a new mendacity was promoted that Fidel refused to “rescue” Che in Bolivia and “allowed” him to die, still peddled to this day.)

This was during a period in 1965-66 where Che, with the full moral and political support of Fidel and the central Cuban communist leadership, had disappeared from public view and was preparing and organizing revolutionary armed struggles in first the Congo, and then Bolivia.

Such efforts by US intelligence agencies over the years were, of course, accompanied, and complemented by, more direct, material attempts – hundreds of times in documented fact – to assassinate Fidel Castro and other popular leaders of the Revolution and the Cuban government and other repeated acts of terrorism and economic sabotage.

The ”Dictator”

Commitment to overturning the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro in Cuba was never, for over five decades, a source of serious division between the Democratic and Republican parties ruling in Washington. The Fidel Castro government was caricatured and slurred as a personal dictatorship in Cold War propaganda, as well as a puppet and client of the Soviet Union.

The most common presentation and image of Fidel Castro in these circles was that of a “bellicose” and “unaccountable” dictator. The more “moderate” version, which, more or less, acknowledges the big social and human advances of the Cuban Revolution and its record, unmatched in this world, of international solidarity, presents a “benevolent” dictator (whose absence would surely be the end of Cuban socialism).

Contrary to this boilerplate of anti-Castro propaganda, perhaps Fidel Castro’s most distinct leadership quality was how he continually, in the most difficult and challenging circumstances, before, during, and for decades after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, was his skill, ability, and political perspective to forge teams of outstanding individuals, the opposite of “yes-men,” toadies, and sycophants. There has never been anything in Cuba remotely resembling a state-fostered Stalin- or Mao-like “cult of personality” around Fidel. Just the opposite, laws were enforced keeping his name, and any other living leader, off public sites such as statues and streets. Raul Castro, in his moving tribute to Fidel on December 3, 2016, said, “Fidel was always against the cult of personality until his dying days. He was consistent with that attitude, insisting that after his death his name and figure never be used to name plazas, avenues, streets, and other public places, as well as the building of statues.” The Cuban National Assembly has passed a law implementing Fidel’s wish.

The reality was that Fidel Castro was never any kind of personal dictator with the inclination, desire, or power to rule arbitrarily. Undoubtedly Fidel Castro had great political authority and personal popularity. Nevertheless, one of Fidel Castro’s greatest strengths and characteristics as a revolutionary and a leader was his ability to foster and develop united team leadership based on ideas, program, and revolutionary ethics. To forge inclusive and collaborative teams of revolutionary fighters, men and women, of Spanish, African, and other national origins, and from different social and class backgrounds.

This was the case not only during the revolutionary struggle for power, but over decades in the face of all the enormous challenges and threats from a resentful imperial ex-overlord ninety miles away during the Cold War. These disciplined and revolutionary teams navigating the treacherous waters of that tumultuous era in world politics. Revolutionary fighters such as Ricardo Alarcon, Juan Almeida, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Victor Dreke, Vilma Espin, Ernesto Che Guevara, Armando Hart, Melba Hernandez, Jose Ramon Machado, Frank Pais, Manuel Pinero, Jorge Risquet, Raul Roa, Celia Sanchez, Haydee Santamaria, Ramiro Valdes, Harry Villegos, and countless others who were the remarkable individual products of the struggle for the Cuban Revolution, its defense, and its revolutionary internationalism around the world. Such individual human material, capable of organizing, leading, and sustaining a mass revolutionary struggle for power, has to have within themselves the discipline, sacrifice, creative thinking, tactical savvy, culture, and humanity that are the opposite of sycophants and toadies.

At any rate it is ludicrous beyond even the most primitive logic to think that “one-man rule” (as Hillary Clinton once described the Cuban government led by Fidel) could have survived the unremitting onslaught of US imperialism – the most powerful economic and military counter-revolutionary machine in world history – for nearly 60 years. Actually, all of the truly bloody right-wing military and family dictatorships that Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean endured throughout the 20th Century – from Batista’s Cuba to Somoza’s Nicaragua to Pinochet’s Chile, from Guatemala to Haiti to Uruguay to Argentina — were sustained, supported, and armed by Washington.

This era of US domination peaked during the era of “Operation Condor,” from the mid-1970s, where Washington and its ultrarightist military partners in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay ran death squads and other terrorist operations against working-class, peasant, democratic, and revolutionary forces across the Americas. In those terrible years, “totalitarian” “Communist” Cuba was perhaps the major force in the Hemisphere that was actively promoting grass-roots struggle to restore democratic rights and space in Latin America and fight for social justice. This goes a long way to explaining the broad contempt and derision held for US anti-Cuba policy across the Americas.2

Under the leadership of this popular revolutionary team, with the indefatigable Fidel as the central spokesperson and holding great political authority, Cuba forged an infant revolutionary government stamped by the interests, social dominance, and political authority of workers and farmers.

This translated socially and politically to concrete measures and progressive policies, backed by mass mobilizations and assemblies of Cuban working people and the clear, large majority of the Cuban population. These policies included: radical land reform; massive youth-led drives that succeeded in eradicating illiteracy; the legal obliteration of race discrimination and historic advances for Afro-Cubans; the self-organization of Cuban women into the Federation of Cuban Women and truly remarkable in policies and practices promoting women’s rights and equality; the massive expansion of trade unions and workers control and management of industry; and the establishment of free, high-quality health care and education for all Cubans.

All of this was in the interests of, and with the participation of, the large majority of Cuban society. Counter-revolutionary organizations grew up that became aligned to the US government and acted under its general political direction. Like all great revolutionary transformations and overturns in history, the Cuban Revolution became marked by profound social and class – and thereby political – polarization. There never has been, and never will be a genuine people’s revolution – overturning the existing social and political order – that does not, by definition, impose its authority on the defeated classes.3

The Main Source of Fidel’s Legacies

Fidel Castro was a great humanitarian, one of the world’s great promoters of universal health care and universal access to quality education. He inspired and led the organization of an amazing legacy of Cuban medical internationalism and relief and aid for peoples devastated by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other so-called “natural disasters.” All of this has gained near-universal recognition and love.

Fidel Castro led some of the greatest advances in the fight against racism and white supremacy and the oppression of women for any nation-state in world history.

Fidel Castro had a mastery of the strategy and tactics, the art, of revolutionary politics. But this was never not some abstract Machiavellian skill-set in intrigue, as portrayed in literature and drama from time immemorial.

Fidel Castro was a world-historic military figure and commander. This aspect of his legacy is often ignored or downplayed in the “democratic West.” But the truth is that Fidel was at the center of two distinct, major, world-impacting military campaigns: the 1956-1958 Cuban revolutionary war and the war with apartheid South Africa from 1976-1990 in Angola and southern Africa. In both cases Fidel stands out as a practitioner of military science and the logistics, organization, strategy, and tactics that were tested and led to clear victory. In both cases Fidel was fighting forces backed clearly, albeit covertly, by the United States government. These were two world-changing events with a decisive military component. Both unfolded under the military command of Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro also became, as head of state, a skilled and savvy “statesman” and negotiator who advanced and expanded Cuba’s diplomatic ties and relations on a world scale in the face of the US blockade, as well as in Cuba’s highly complex relations with both enemies, allies, and friends. Picking up steam in the 1980s and 1990s Cuban diplomacy eventually established diplomatic relations with every country in the western Hemisphere, Washington being the last holdout until 2015 under the Barack Obama administration. Fidel had an important political part in breaking open negotiations that led to cease-fires and an eventual end to decades of armed conflicts and war in Colombia.

Fidel Castro had great oratorical and literary skills. He communicated largely through speeches. These may have been famous, generally, for their length, and were thus easily and cheaply caricatured by his opponents as a way to avoid dealing with their content. I have had the personal privilege and excitement of witnessing a dozen or so speeches by Fidel Castro, short, long, and very long (up to six hours), in both massive and much smaller settings. While sometimes exhausted and straining to concentrate, I was never bored.

Fidel’s speeches, especially addresses to the Cuban people, registered the candor and transparency of familiarity, taking up the social, economic, international, and other challenges facing Cuba. Fidel’s speeches were full of statistics and empirical data, quotes from studies, news accounts, books, political opponents word-for-word, and international press agencies. But they were also filled with big ideas, razor-sharp analysis, political acuity, and philosophical depth.

Fidel sometimes found it hard to resist imparting any and every important fact, document, or statistic to his audience. How his clearly “photographic memory” could even retain ten percent of them all (as he generally spoke with few notes, and, of course, without a teleprompter) was beyond my wildest ability to understand. All of this without a trace of the racist, “populist,” megalomaniacal bombast associated with the most effective fascist demagogues like Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler.

Fidel often said his style was not to impose his ideas but to convince.  In the early years of the Revolution Fidel’s speeches explaining to Cubans the historic roots of racist discrimination and the oppression of women and the revolutionary government’s policies are master classes in this method.4

In his speeches to mass rallies, workplaces, large and very small communities, revolutionary international gatherings, and in historic speeches to the United Nations General Assembly, Fidel retained an unsurpassed ability to break down and communicate big ideas and history. This rational and fact-based mastery of the spoken word undoubtedly places Fidel Castro in the pantheon of great orators in contemporary history. (See a comprehensive archive of Fidel’s speeches here.)

Fidel’s Marxism

Any of these specific accomplishments stand out on their own.  Any one by itself would mark an exceptional life. Taken together, looking at Fidel’s life and practice as a whole, they all flowed from Fidel’s embrace of socialism and Marxism as a coherent world outlook and guide to revolutionary action, as he understood it and further developed it, in the course of the Cuban revolutionary struggle. Fidel fought his entire conscious political life under that banner.  Moreover, Fidel’s works – written and spoken – made a great contribution to the development of Marxism and socialism, in theory and practice. Fidel’s life underlines the truth of Lenin’s political and organizational perspective that ‘’without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.”

Influenced by revolutionary democratic, socialist, and Marxist ideas and theories as a young, rebellious man, already familiar with the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, he embraced, assimilated, and developed the dialectical and materialist world outlook and methodology.

Fidel defended the Marxist method and the integrated philosophical world outlook of dialectical and historical materialism. And yet Fidel Castro, the staunch communist and materialist-atheist, inspired and was embraced by countless Christians, Muslims, Jews and believers of every denomination and creed. Of course, as with everything else about the “polarizing” Fidel this was usually – but not mechanically or uniformly – expressed along class lines. (See the brilliant dialogue between Fidel and the Christian Liberation Theologist Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo, known as Frei Betto, in the best-selling, widely translated Fidel and Religion (Ocean Press, 2006).5

Proletarian Internationalism

All of us are products of the space and times we live in, but Fidel, to an extraordinary degree, also shaped his times, the times of an entire epoch. Fidel’s impact was not in the interests of the oppressors and exploiters, the colonial masters and white supremacists; the imperialist warmongers out for markets and loot; and the ruling-class beneficiaries of grotesque inequality, racism, and misogyny. His life, and the historical impact of his life, was dedicated to the interests of toiling humanity, of workers and peasants, of oppressed nations and nationalities, of women ground down by unspeakable subjugation and “tradition.” Fidel Castro was the ally and champion of all who fought for social justice, for human progress and a better world, and for the revolutionary transformation of the capitalist world order and its inhuman social relations. Fidel practiced international solidarity decade after decade, under always changing objective circumstances in the world, and often under conditions of great difficulty and danger for revolutionary Cuba.  He embodied what the Marxist movement had once termed proletarian internationalism. Fidel and the Cuban Revolution’s legacy of international solidarity remains the anchor of Cuba’s foreign policy to this day.

For Fidel and the young Cuban revolutionaries he was part of and led, this was not a hollow, ritual phrase, something to give lip service to only to contradict in practice, but a genuine belief and a genuine practice. In 1976 Cuba sent volunteer revolutionary combatants to the front-line of newly independent Angola to beat back the invading behemoth of the South African apartheid state (covertly backed by Washington). In 2014 Cuba rushed doctors and medical personnel to West Africa in what became the decisive turning point in containing and overcoming the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic.

Marx and Engels

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, gave, as theoreticians, activists, and political leaders, a tremendous impulse and dynamic to the modern workers movement in the late 19th Century and beyond to this day. But, of course, neither revolutionary wielded governmental or state power, although they both, as leaders of the International Working Men’s Association, keenly observed and drew the lessons from the 1871 Paris Commune – following the unfolding Franco-Prussian War which exploded in the heart of Europe – the first seizure of governmental power by a mass working-class and popular movement.

Marx and Engels

Furthermore, both Marx and Engels died at the dawn of the qualitative leaps in the development of 19th Century capitalism. Their prescient writing on the development of British imperialism in their lifetimes anticipated, but did not directly experience, the qualitative, epochal transformation of world capitalism into 20th Century nationally-based, monopolized, and oligarchic finance capitalism. And the concurrent revival of direct imperialist expansion out of the rapidly industrializing capitalist centers and a massive overproduction of capital searching for raw materials, cheap labor, new markets to conquer and subordinate, and super-profits.

Colonial Empires were spawned in the United Kingdom, France, and much of the rest of Western Europe; e.g., Belgium in the Congo, the Netherlands in Indonesia, and so on. German colonialism was late to the European enterprise and the United States entered the “Age of Empire” signaled and accelerated by the 1898 Spanish-American War. This directly impacted on the burning question of Cuban independence and sovereignty, as the colonial rule in Cuba of the pre-capitalist fraying and hollowed-out Spanish Empire disintegrated, and was displaced by US neo-colonialism and decades of yanqui economic and political domination.

The 20th Century Latin American political arena which was characterized by a state of, more or less, permanent political turmoil and intensifying class struggle under conditions of massive poverty and social inequality, that was interlocked with foreign, mainly US, economic and political domination. Since the 1898 Spanish-American War, which marked the origins of the modern American Empire, Washington engaged in frequent overt and covert violent invasions, interventions, and subversion across the Americas, over the subsequent decades. (For a comprehensive list of US interventions in the Americas since 1898 click here.)

Lenin

Vladimir Lenin

V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the November 7, 1917 Russian Revolution, and the Communist International founded in 1919, died in January 1924, at the age of 55, as the Soviet workers state he led, was beginning to recover from the utter devastation of the 1918-22 Civil War. This was an exceedingly brutal war, coming directly on top of the carnage of World War I, starting in 1914 on the Eastern-Russian front. Millions upon millions of dead and brutalized.

The Civil War pitted conservative and reactionary forces from the overthrown ruling classes – with liberal and “moderate socialist” forces forming at the end of the anti-Bolshevik line – aiming to crush the new revolutionary power.  These fragmented forces, without any agreed social or military policies between them, gained strength as they were soon backed up, armed, and otherwise supported by the allied major powers; e.g., Great Britain, France, and the United States, who were still, but not for much longer, furiously engaging in the World War I bloodbath.

These forces were beyond livid that Lenin’s government had withdrawn Russia from the war and called for the immediate end, on all sides, to what they accurately termed an imperialist war. The Bolshevik-led government dispatched People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Leon Trotsky to negotiate with the German imperialists in the name of the Russian state they now headed, and which was still formally at war with Germany and its allies (and losing badly to).

Adding insult to injury, in what was a huge political blow and embarrassment, Trotsky was authorized to publicly release the secret protocols between the overthrown Tsarist Monarchy (and the “Provisional Government” which followed it) and the European military powers. These released documents were politically explosive as they exposed the expansionist, aggrandizing, and colonial aims of the warring imperialist powers.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution accelerated and deepened the growth of global mass anti-war sentiment and action, including among soldiers. With the – totally intertwined politically with the Bolshevik Revolution – outbreak of anti-war and revolutionary struggle inside Germany in 1918, and the political collapse of its war effort, the political imperative to end the inter-imperialist slaughterhouse became inevitable, and an armistice was signed in November 1918.

The thus victorious – if exhausted and facing political turmoil and instability at home – British, French, and US “Allied Powers” hardly lost a beat and stepped up military attacks and intervention against the Bolshevik government. Eventually well over a dozen other major or lesser powers directly intervened on Russian territory, joining in the cause to overthrow Lenin’s government, fighting in conjunction with the so-called “White Army.” This greatly added to the length and ferocity of the Civil War.6

Lenin’s revolutionary government was under siege from practically the moment it took power through the mass organizations of elected workers, soldiers, and poor peasant councils (soviets) in November 1917. There was hardly any period of time while Lenin was alive that his revolutionary government could lose its focus on defeating the imperialist-backed counterrevolution.

When Lenin died in January, 1924, his actual political legacy became practically buried inside the Soviet Union by the massive impoverishment and military bleeding of Russian society over the entire period. The subsequent political developments in the battered Soviet Union after Lenin’s death, and the consolidation of governmental power under Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, led to the eventual physical elimination of the entire generation of revolutionaries, including virtually the entire Red Army leadership, identified with Lenin, from 1936-1938. Conservative figures for the Stalinist purges start with over 100,000 Communists executed. And yet another false, endlessly repeated, assertion and narrative is that Stalinism was the continuation of Leninism when the two were actually antithetical. As I will return to below, opponents and propagandists against the Cuban Revolution, including those positioning themselves on the left, have generally tried to smear Fidel Castro and the Revolution itself as “Stalinist.” (For Fidel’s actual views on Stalin and Stalinism, see the last sections of this essay.)

The Longevity of Fidel

In Fidel’s political lifetime, peers such as Malcolm X, Maurice Bishop, and Thomas Sankara also emerged as outstanding revolutionary leaders. Malcolm X was a strong supporter of the Cuban Revolution. More and more consciously in the last two years of his life, following his split from Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam, Malcolm X had started to embrace anti-capitalist and socialist views when he was murdered in February 1965. (See my essay “To the Memory of Malcolm X: Fifty Years After His Assassination.)

Maurice Bishop led the 1979 Grenadian Revolution and Thomas Sankara led a revolutionary popular government from 1983-87 in Burkina Faso. Both were conscious revolutionary Marxists who briefly wielded central governmental and state power. Maurice Bishop was overthrown and murdered in a coup by counter-revolutionary secret factions in the government and state led by Bernard Coard. Thomas Sankara  was overthrown and assassinated in a coup led by Minister of State Blaise Compaore, with covert support from the French state, in October 1987.

The brutality, terror, and chaos from Coard’s counter-revolutionary coup became the pretext for the Ronald Reagan Administration to invade and occupy Grenada and dispatch Coard’s hated regime. Cuban construction workers, who were working on the unfinished, renamed in 2009 Maurice Bishop International Airport, resisted the US invasion. Fidel Castro was furious at the anti-Bishop coup and Maurice Bishop’s murder along with seven of his leading comrades from the New Jewel Movement-led revolutionary government that lay destroyed.

Compaore managed to consolidate a repressive and regressive regime, under the cover of a series of rigged elections, that lasted 27 years. He was forced to resign in October 2014 after a sustained mass uprising, fleeing to the Ivory Coast. Maurice Bishop was 39 and Thomas Sankara was 37 when they were executed.

Fidel and Malcolm X

Fidel and Maurice Bishop

Fidel and Thomas Sankara

Ernest Che Guevara, born in Argentina and of Irish heritage, was recruited to Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement as the guerrilla army’s doctor in Mexico in 1956. In the Cuban revolutionary war, Che became a top military commander and led the decisive Battle of Santa Clara that opened the road to the collapse of the Batista regime and the triumphant march of Fidel into Havana.  Che left Cuba in 1965 to organize revolutionary internationalist missions in the Congo and then Bolivia, fully backed by Fidel and the Cuban government. Che was executed after his capture in Bolivia in October 1967 at the age of 39. (See my essay Our Che: Fifty Years After His Execution.)

Che Guevara

Fidel survived and carried on. His example is bound to be a permanent, weighty, and material political force for future generations and time immemorial. Fidel’s example is certain to be continually renewed and embraced again and again by new generations of social-justice fighters and revolutionaries.

Without exaggeration or illusion, this is politically true also in the United States, where accurate information about Cuba is available and disseminated, and where there is clear and large majority opposition to continuing US economic and travel sanctions. There is also a growing layer of Americans who are politically sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution and its social and internationalist policies, as they hear even some of the truth.

Many hundreds of thousands of US citizens and legal residents have visited the island over the decades and especially in recent years, and seen its reality with all its strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and contradictions, which the Cuban people and government disdain to ignore or sweep under the rug.7

Unintended Consequences of World War II

An entire epoch of anti-imperialist and revolutionary struggle was ushered in by the titanic consequences and dynamics of World War II and the post-war era. A new world relationship of forces was consolidated “geopolitically” in the post-war “Cold War” period. There was a shift in the gravitational forces of revolutionary struggles towards colonial independence struggles which became intertwined with class struggles in the advanced capitalist-imperialist states.

Coming seemingly out of the blue, less than fifteen years after the end of World War II, the Cuban Revolution entered the world as the dust was starting to settle from the consequences of the post-World War II.

These consequences, intended and unintended, included:

1) The decline and displacement of the British, French, and other European colonial Empires. These had been, more or less, maintained up until World War II but were now completely upturned by the actual unfolding of events during and after the war.

2) The rise of US imperialism, which displaced the European powers militarily, economically, financially, and politically in world capitalist economic and military structures. This registered the relative dominance of US capital in the post-war capitalist order. US capitalism boomed during the war, which was not fought on continental US soil. In heavy and industry, manufacturing, finance, and living standards, US capitalism dwarfed its capitalist rivals.

3) The rise of the Soviet Union – its survival and geographic and political expansion – followed its utterly heroic victory over Nazi Germany at an exceeding bloody price in the largest bloodbath in human history on the World War II Eastern Front. The Soviet government and Red Army went from the cusp of annihilation in the opening five months of Hitler’s invasion with the Nazi war machine advancing on Moscow in late 1941 to the conquering of Berlin in April 1945.  This gave a new lease on life and great political prestige to the Stalin-led Soviet Union and the “world Communist movement,” despite gross political errors and crimes (a point I will return to). In Europe, Communist Parties in a number of countries such as Yugoslavia, Italy, France, and Greece became mass parties leading broad military formations and where they were leading forces in largely working class and popular anti-Nazi resistance movements. A people’s revolution became a socialist revolution in Yugoslavia. Communist Parties in France and Italy for many years after got up to 40% of the vote in national parliamentary elections.

Revolution in Asia

Japan was the most advanced, industrialized capitalist economy in all of Asia and had secured its colonial rule in a territorially united Korea from 1905-10. A brutal, militarized Japanese imperialism struggled mightily to displace European colonial rule with its own in the World War II period.  That war era in the entire Asian Continental and Pacific Rim, South Asia, and southeastern Asia began militarily years sooner than the September 1, 1939 German-Nazi invasion of Poland. Imperial Japan’s 1931 invasion and occupation of Chinese Manchuria deepened in 1937 into full-scale Japanese anti-China aggression. This was ineffectively countered by the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-chek. After the Japanese government decided to bomb the US territory and major naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941 the so-called “Pacific Theater” became a bloody back-and-forth war between the established colonial powers and the ambitious Empire-building and consolidating (or so they hoped) Japanese imperialist aggressors, who became allied with Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and other Axis forces.

The main unintended consequence of World War II in Asia was that the violent and bloody conflict between imperialist powers created space for independence and national liberation struggles. Invariably the most consistent and courageous independent fighters were influenced by, and many embraced, left-wing, socialist, and communist world outlooks, looking to the oppressed masses, workers and peasants, as the primary force to deliver national salvation. The war and the erosion of the colonial empires accelerated an unstoppable dynamic toward national sovereignty and independence. In particular, the Chinese and Vietnamese Revolutions, led by liberation forces and leaderships identifying themselves as Communist, such as Mao Zedong and Zhu De in China and Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam, had a worldwide political impact and influence.

This was certainly the case with Fidel Castro’s generation of revolutionary-minded patriotic youth in Cuba and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including Ernesto Guevara in Argentina, all living under the dominance of the US behemoth in the Western Hemisphere. This domination of US capital and US power in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America generally took different forms than direct colonial rule on the European model.

Fidel Castro devoured these world events as he came of age in exactly this mid-20th Century vortex of history growing up as a teenager, student, and young adult on the island of Cuba in the center of the Caribbean. Fidel developed a political consciousness and identity that was forged, in its essential core, out of the global colonial independence and national liberation struggles.

Fidel and the Historical Moment

The Cuban Revolution took place in a Western Hemisphere firmly in the “sphere of influence” of Washington and US capital. Cuba found itself at the center of the Cold War. The Cuban Revolution ushered out the 1950s period: from the Korean War and its stalemated end; the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khruschev’s “de-Stalinization; the 1954 Vietnamese victory over French imperialism at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords imposed on the Vietnamese; the 1956 British-French-Israel Suez War with Egypt; the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary; and the late-Eisenhower era abortive thaw and détente of US-Soviet relations.

In any case, immediately upon the seizure of power, the Cuban revolutionaries began to establish fraternal, internationalist links with anti-imperialist fighters worldwide. But Fidel and the other young revolutionary fighters around the July 26 Movement also looked to and had an independent political (and sympathetic) stance toward the legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, augmented by their total embrace of the 1949 Chinese Revolution and the Ho Chi Minh-led national liberation movement in Vietnam. Cuba was the first Latin American nation to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1960.

Volatility and Permanent Crisis in Today’s Capitalist World Order

Today’s volatile political world – over 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact-allied governments – is increasingly marked by an accelerating unraveling of that great post-World War II capitalist world order, politically dominated by US military and economic power and a so-called “socialist camp” centered on the Soviet Union, that was also a world military power. Nevertheless, the old, fraying world structures still stamps the framework of world economics, finance, politics, and social relations towards the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.

What has been developing, with accumulating force again today, ten years after the financial crash and near-meltdown of the so-called “Great Recession” of 2007-08, is the relative erosion and decline of US economic, financial, and political power, and Washington’s overall weight in world politics and “global affairs” today. This has been unfolding objectively over a number of years, in this still-young 21st Century.

This political reality has been much lamented by Democratic and Republican party establishments, and has deepened political divergences and factionalism within, across, and between both big-business parties. This has been deepening in the opening period of the Donald Trump White House. (As the US rulers wring their hands over whether Trump is accelerating this erosion and decline with his impulsive methods and demagogy in the US and internationally, I cannot recall, in my lifetime, such a joint crisis within both capitalist parties, and the lesser-evil, two-party oligarchy.)

In this context, revolutionary Cuba today – and this is the living legacy of Fidel – has become, in word and deed, the leading voice for working people and oppressed nations and peoples in every tribune at hand in today’s world.  In the worldwide Battle of Ideas that Fidel stressed continually in his last years, the Cuban Revolution is the living, resonant, politically attractive socialist alternative to today’s capitalist world disorder with its grotesque inequality and permanent fueling of war. Understanding this is the opposite of any residual 1960s or ancient Cold War-era nostalgia.

Before the Revolution: Fidel the Activist and Organizer

Fidel Castro, the offspring of a Spanish-immigrant who became a prosperous landowner, entered political life as a student activist at the University of Havana. He set up a law practice under permanent financial stress insofar as his clients were invariably poor and destitute working people facing the daily blows and rigged social relations of the Cuban neo-colonial state. And he could never bring himself to charge them.8

Fidel remained true to his rebel student youth in this period. He deepened his youthful convictions and principles through theoretical and political study, with and was active in, the multi-class Orthodox People’s Party founded and led by Eduardo Chibas in 1947. That party put the fight against the corruption that enveloped Cuban politics and economics at its center and projected what could be termed a left-wing “populist” program for the promotion of a Cuban identity, economic independence, and social reforms. (See Ramonet p. 83-88 for Fidel’s assessment of the Ortodoxos and the other middle-class political tendencies.)

The late-1940s and early 1950s was a rich period in Cuban politics in general, and student and youth politics in particular. Revolutionary ideas were in the air, transmitted through such figures as the revolutionary socialist martyrs Julio Antonio Mella and Antonio Guiteras. This was a period of mounting social and political crisis in Cuba leading up to the 1952 military coup that installed Fulgencio Batista in power. Fidel entered into this with all his heart and soul and brain. “I began to acquire a more radical political awareness, and I was learning more and more about Marx and Lenin. I was reading Engels and other authors and works on economics and philosophy, but mainly political works – the political ideas, the political theories of Marx.” (See Ramonet, p. 89-90.)

The seizure of power by military forces led by Fulgencio Batista on March 10, 1952 abrogated the 1940 Cuban Constitution, a relatively progressive document that incorporated land reform, health care, public education, and a minimum wage. The 1940 Constitution was itself inspired by the 1933-34 mass struggles of workers and youth and the political upheavals that followed the collapse of the repressive regime of Gerardo Machado. Batista, a prominent military figure, had emerged from the turmoil and political instability of the “1933 Revolution” as the dominant figure in the Cuban state across a series of “elected” weak and corrupt regimes.

Batista managed to get himself directly elected President during World War II from 1940-44, posing as a progressive in the “anti-fascist world camp.” Cuban Communists, renamed the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) in 1944, actually joined the Batista Cabinet, taking two ministerial posts in those years. This became an important factor in the development of the July 26 Movement as an independent revolutionary formation in the period that opened up after the Batista coup.9

During this time Batista accumulated a tidy fortune, living it up in south Florida after his single term allowed under the Constitution ended. Facing certain defeat in the 1952 election he was contesting, Batista orchestrated the military coup which was backed by Washington, the real power in the Cuban neo-colony.

Batista’s coup accelerated the political and social crisis in Cuba, as he moved to consolidate an exceedingly venal and repressive regime. Batista’s government allied itself with top US organized-crime mafias, promoting a tourism based on promoting Cuba’s island beauty and beaches with casino gambling and prostitution on a grand scale. The period is captured with great artistry and verisimilitude in the classic Francis Coppola film The Godfather Part II. The dictatorship allied with the most reactionary sectors of Cuban society, and with the US organized crime families and gangster enterprises that had become a key component of Havana and Cuba’s economic and commercial activity. Even as the Batista government became more unpopular and more hated by the year, it necessarily became even more dependent on, subservient to, and propped up by Washington, then under the Republican Dwight Eisenhower Administration, with Democratic Party control of both the US House of Representatives and Senate. The support for Batista was solid and bipartisan, if increasingly anxious, in Washington right up to the collapse of the regime.10

Under the conditions of Batista’s deeply unpopular regime, there sprung up a plethora of competing factions, student and left-wing radicals, the Popular Socialist Party, small groups calling themselves “Trotskyist,” militant workers in the divided Cuban labor movement working clandestinely, and among the bourgeois liberal and conservative opposition political forces. All contested for political influence and a mass base amidst the general opposition and revulsion to the Batista coup and its attempts to consolidate a stable government.

Fidel exploded into the center of Cuban politics on July 26, 1953 with a highly organized armed attack by 160 young, largely working-class, fighters on the Moncada and Bayamo Barracks of the Batista dictatorship. These were highly disciplined and trained combatants motivated by patriotic and revolutionary purpose.

Along with Fidel, the other central leaders of the preparation and organization of the July 26, 1953 attacks were Abel Santamaria and Jesus Montane. The plan and political perspective of the Moncadista insurrectionists was to seize the two Barracks, disarm the government troops, seize broadcast and other means of communication, and call for a mass uprising.

The outcome of the assault can be said to be a classic example of military defeat becoming political victory. In this case a military defeat transformed into a dynamic political advance and the ultimate victory of the Cuban Revolution within less than five years. (See Ramonet pages 104-134 for a fascinating account of the Moncada assault, the unanticipated difficulties and errors, and the necessary retreat and aftermath.)

Abel Santamaria was tortured to death by Batista’s troops following his surrender and capture. Fidel, Jesus Montane, Raul Castro, Juan Almeida and other rebels survived with some luck, but the post-attack scene was mark by extraordinary bestial conduct, which quickly became public, on the part of Batista’s henchmen, with unspeakable torture and murder of disarmed youth being the fate of most. Cuban public opinion was horrified, and this became a factor in preserving the lives of the survivors.

Public revulsion also began to overlap with growing sympathy for the July 26 youth. Growing anti-Batista mass demonstrations and protests mounted against the increasingly isolated and repressive regime. Fidel’s stirring speech in his defense before the kangaroo court – “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” – presented the program and political orientation of the insurrectionists. It was reproduced and widely circulated by the growing cadre of organized supporters who became the July 26 Movement (M-26-J). The pamphlet History Will Absolve Me became a key recruiting tool for the Movement and its major programmatic document.

Political pressure on the Batista government became focused on a mass campaign for amnesty for the Moncada fighters, which also built the Movement. All the fighters were released after barely two years of incarceration. Batista and his goons evidently believed their death squads would be more likely to get away with murder outside the prison walls than within. The July 26 Movement emerged as the most, dynamic, creative, and attractive political force in the unfolding pre-revolutionary situation developing inside Cuba in the mid-1950s.

Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, Fidel Castro and other Moncadistas released in May 1955

Fidel, Raul, Juan Almeida, and other Moncadistas were eventually able to get to Mexico where colonies of Latin American freedom fighters were to be found, and who worked and played in overlapping social and political circles.

In Mexico, Fidel and his team began recruiting cadre who received military training (from a veteran Republican fighter in the 1930s Spanish Revolution and Civil War) for a planned landing in the Cuban countryside, the launching of a rural guerrilla war, and the concurrent launching of a nationwide revolutionary movement politically connected to the armed struggle in every corner of Cuba. What became a vibrant, clandestine urban movement led by figures like Armando Hart, Enrique Oltuski, Frank Pais, Celia Sanchez, and Haydee Santamaria whose responsibilities included funneling arms and trained cadre to the guerrilla army.

Among the first recruits to the expeditionary army was Dr. Ernesto Guevara, an Argentine and the only non-Cuban among the guerrilla army in formation. Guevara had organized a clinic for impoverished workers and peasants in Guatemala before escaping, and also ending up in Mexico, one step ahead of the death squads of the CIA-installed murderous military regime that overthrew the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz government. Soon he had befriended a number of July 26 Movement cadre, including Raul Castro. Ernesto became Che, the affectionate moniker affixed to him by his Cuban pals soon to become his comrades.

It was the July 26 Movement that emerged at the head of a genuinely mass, revolutionary movement to overthrow Batista and his regime. M-26-J seized state power under a clear and definite social and political program that it began to implement. Fidel became the central leader of a revolutionary government directing and organizing a new type of state power and social relations in the 20th Century and reaching out politically everywhere across the Americas and worldwide.

The July 26 Movement was, in practice, a centralized combat organization, the expression, in a political-military form, of a political vanguard. In the military defeat of Batista’s US-backed Cuban army, what became, from the twelve or so (out of 82) ambushed survivors of the Granma expedition, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) that defeated the far more numerous – and strongly equipped and armed by Washington –  Cuban army under Batista’s command.11

Leading a Socialist Revolution

In the definition given by Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution, “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events…the forcible entry of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” In that sense, the Cuban Revolution was a genuine people’s revolution.

Its radicalization and transformation into a socialist revolution was based on mass mobilizations and mass participation. All flowing out of a new mass consciousness. But this collective united action of the popular majority was the concentrated political expression of the transformation of millions of individual human beings who, in the words of Karl Marx, describing the insurgent workers of the Paris Commune, decided to “storm the heavens.” This dialectical interplay between individual and mass is the dynamic human spring in any genuine people’s revolution.

The working teams of outstanding cadre forged and trained under Fidel’s central leadership had boundless faith in the ability of working people and the oppressed to enter the realm, on a truly mass scale, of struggle and organization. These were professional revolutionaries, volunteers for a cause, motivated by patriotic and, for many, socialist convictions. Individuals prepared to embrace the discipline required for effective action, if, and it was a big “if,” there was a leadership that was honest, self-sacrificing, politically savvy, courageous, and prepared to go all the way. In a 1987 interview with Italian television journalist Gianni Mina, Fidel said, “You can’t be a revolutionary without a large dose of idealism and a tremendous confidence in human beings. A sceptic can’t be a revolutionary. A revolutionary is an optimist, someone who believes in human beings.”

What the Cuban Revolution conquered socially, in the interests of the large majority in its opening years, is all the more remarkable when we realize it was done in the teeth of violent, unscrupulous, permanent aggression by the United States government. This aggression included the April 1961 mercenary invasion by counter-revolutionary exiles organized by the CIA that was smashed at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron to Cubans).12

President John Kennedy’s “Operation Mongoose,” a program of unbridled terrorism, economic sabotage, death squads and assassination teams (some 600 assassination plans and programs were put into play against Fidel Castro alone by the spooks of Washington in these years) was now intensely in play after the Bay of Pigs debacle. Concrete preparations and projections were well underway for a direct US invasion, which “Mongoose” aimed to soften the ground for.

These were the conditions, with Cuba facing the total devastation of a full-scale US assault by air, land, and sea, that led the Soviet government led by Nikita Khrushchev to propose to the Cuban government placing nuclear weapons in Cuba as a deterrence to the coming US invasion. Decisive in the Cuban government’s reluctant acceptance, was the Soviet presentation of the necessity of the missile placement, in order to, as Castro put it in the Ramonet interviews, ”to improve the balance of strategic forces.” Specifically, Khrushchev hoped to acquire, with a fait accompli, the leverage to eliminate operational US nukes near Soviet borders in Turkey. (See my essay55 Years After: Political Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis” for more on Operation Mongoose and the unfolding of events leading to the nuclear missile crisis.

Revolutionary Cuba in the 1960s became the political and organizing center across the Americas for revolutionary struggle against US domination and the rule of the oligarchies – two things that were hand in glove.

In the early years after the triumph of the Revolution, the CIA set up in South Florida the largest base operation at that point, in its history. Daily operations were spun and run into Cuba involving plans for sabotage, terrorism, assassination, and so on. Organized, trained, funded, and directed from Washington, the operatives – by and large – were Cuban exiles. Thousands of Cuban citizens lost their lives as a result of such actions over the years.

The Agrarian Reform

With all this as a daily backdrop, Fidel and the Cuban revolutionaries carried out their program and policies, with mass support and mobilizations, utterly transforming Cuba.

The centerpiece for implementing, through popular mobilization and governmental power, the July 26 Movement’s program of radical social reforms was the transformation of the Cuban countryside by the Agrarian Reform Law. Agrarian reform was the fulcrum for the social and economic transformations heralded by the Revolution. Deliberations to codify in law, and implement in practice, a comprehensive agrarian reform began within the central July 26th Movement leadership almost immediately after the military victory, and the establishment of a provisional government. The most profound direction and input came from the collaboration between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The agrarian reform was seen as the necessary foundation and catalyst for Cuba’s industrial development.13

The National Institute of Agrarian Reform was organized to implement the Law, with Fidel Castro as President and Che Guevara appointed head of the Department of Industrialization on October 8, 1959. Che held the central political and administrative responsibility within INRA.

Che organized and trained an INRA militia of 100,000. Their responsibilities included seizing control of expropriated land, supervising distribution, and helping to establish viable farm cooperatives. Some 500,000 acres of confiscated land was owned by US corporations. INRA, under Che’s direction, financed highway construction, built housing for peasants and farming cooperatives, and other industrial projects, including resorts for tourists.

All these economic measures dynamically interacted with the implemented radical social policies and laws that fundamentally altered and transformed social relations on the island to the clear benefit of the oppressed and exploited large majority of the Cuban population. These included a massive, successful campaign to wipe out illiteracy, and, what was particularly annoying to foreign and domestic big-business owners, progressive labor laws that greatly expanded trade-union membership and facilitated struggles for higher wages and better working conditions. Revolutionary laws and policies abolished racist Jim Crow-style segregation and discrimination policies, leading to huge advances for Cubans of African origins. The Revolution dealt big blows against the oppression of women including: legalizing the right to abortion (the first country in the Western Hemisphere to do so); the establishment of day-care facilities; equality in pay; greater access to education and professional training; and the eradication of organized prostitution with job training for ex-prostitutes. (It is estimated that one out of three women in Havana were super-exploited in the gangster-run commercial “sex industry.”)

These measures were not yet explicitly socialist; banking, manufacturing, and large-scale wholesale and retail distribution remained in private hands. However, the anti-capitalist tendency was clear and the encroachments on the prerogatives of domestic and foreign capital were intolerable to the ruling classes. With the implementation of the Agrarian Reform Law it was clear to all that social relations in Cuban society were being fundamentally transformed and that working people in the city and countryside were becoming politically and socially dominant.

Moreover, the evaporation of the old neo-colonial state and its repressive apparatus – the Cuban “deep state” so to speak — left a vacuum in political and social relations, into which stepped the highly radicalized, organized, and mobilized Cuban working people and youth led by the team around Fidel Castro. This was a leadership team of exceptional political and personal audacity and courage, who knew where they wanted to go and were not afraid of the dangers and consequences. The neo-colonial Army, police, courts, prisons, and the entire “criminal justice system” evaporated and were dismantled, with the new bodies and institutions stamped with a different class character.

The unfolding of the Cuban Revolution recalls the poetry of Bob Dylan’s classic “The Times They Are A-Changin’:

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Fidel and the Liberation of Southern Africa

April 1974 saw a coup by left-wing military officers in Portugal against the semi-fascist Salazarist regime there and its unsustainable colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and the Cape Verde Islands where Portugal held colonies, more or less, for centuries. The coup unleashed pent-up mass struggles inside Portugal for democratic and workers’ rights. First and foremost, it expedited the collapse of Portugal’s colonial holdings. Negotiations with the new Portuguese government led to the target date of November 11, 1975 for the establishment of formal Angolan independence.

The broadest-based and predominant Angolan independence organization was the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) which was poised to take governmental power out of the political situation left with the disintegration of Portuguese rule and the withdrawal of Portuguese troops.

The South African apartheid regime sensed the danger to it in these developments. Prior to the formal, scheduled Angolan Declaration of Independence, South African forces forged alliances, which they clearly dominated, with reactionary forces of the more narrow and insular, ethnic-tribal-based Angolan FNLA and UNITA organizations. These organizations were also aligned with the United States as well as the pro-imperialist and exceedingly venal Mobutu dictatorship in “Zaire.” (Joseph Mobutu’s regime had changed the name of the Congo to “Zaire,”) The apartheid South African regime, with covert US support, had begun incursions into Angola, which led to a full invasion on October 1975, weeks before the formal establishment of Angolan Independence.

With Mobutu’s troops directly supporting the FNLA from Zaire to the west, and apartheid South Africa’s troops accompanying UNITA from bases in the South African colony of Namibia (an illegal occupation under rulings by the United Nations), the South African apartheid army and its pro-imperialist allies were on the verge of seizing the Angolan capital of Luanda when, in one of the most selfless acts of revolutionary internationalism in history, the Cuban government dispatched the first contingents of what became tens of thousands of combat troops. Within months the Cuban forces had routed the South African-Zairean invasion.

Cuban leader Jorge Risquet, the African director of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, who was centrally involved in the policymaking and execution of policy within the Cuban government in those historic days, pointed out in an interview from the excellent French documentary “Cuba: An African Odyssey,” that “Angola needed soldiers and weapons at that time. The South Africans were advancing, so they couldn’t wait until the 11th because the South Africans and Mobutu would reach Luanda. There’d be no independence. [Angolan President Augustino] Neto sent a message to the Soviet government, but they said they weren’t prepared to do anything inside Angola before November 11. We, however, were ready.”

Fidel Castro said, in the same film, “When on October 23, Angola was invaded by regular South African forces, we couldn’t just sit and watch. And when the MPLA asked for our help, we offered the aid necessary to prevent apartheid from being installed in Angola.”14

The Cubans assembled every available, and then some, air transport carrier to transport heavy-weapons specialists and Special Forces on the first flights, making 70 transatlantic crossing round trip to Luanda between November 7 and December 9, 1976. The bulk of Cuban troops, which initially reached 35,000 infantry by the end of 1976, and equipment were transported by ship, boats, and other waterborne vessels commandeered from all available ships in the Cuban Merchant Marine. The volunteer troops were conscious of the political and military imperative of the mission at the gates of Luando.

The Cuban leadership carried this out without even informing the Soviet government beforehand, which they knew would have opposed the Cuban intervention as an obstacle and irritant to their pursuit of post-Vietnam possibilities of détente with Washington. What Cuba did was done for nothing material in return, out of pure revolutionary duty, and human solidarity.

Cuban troops routed the South African-led invasion and repelled the otherwise inevitable South African seizure of the Angolan capital of Luanda. Cuban troops remained in Angola for over a decade to check South African military aggression. During this extraordinary period the clear victories of the largely Afro-Cuban military forces and their African allies defeated the mighty apartheid army. The political impact of South African military reversals inspired the entire continent, not least of all the militant, revolutionary-minded youth of South Africa’s townships and the South African Black working class.

The South African racists were bitter that the covert support and encouragement given to them by the Ford-Kissinger government could not be publicly expressed. As word of the South African aggression became public, Washington was paralyzed politically, unable to identify openly with the apartheid regime it was allied with covertly. South African Defense Minister and future South African President P.W. Botha, said in 1978, “[W]e crossed a border …in the case of Angola [and] we did so with the approval and knowledge of the Americans. But they left us in the lurch. [We] …went in there and operated in Angola with their knowledge…they encouraged us to act and, when we had nearly reached the climax, we were ruthlessly left in the lurch.”

The stunning “fact-on-the-ground” was that the mighty white supremacist army (which included puppet African troops) had been stopped and pushed back on the road to Luanda by largely dark-skinned Cuban and Angolan forces, with Cuban combat fighters the decisive factor.

Months after the victory over the apartheid army by the Cuban armed forces – made up of internationalist volunteers – came the June 1976 mass upsurge inside apartheid South Africa. The urban townships exploded following the historic high-school student uprising in the impoverished Johannesburg ghetto of Soweto (South West Township). There is no question of the interconnection. Oppressed South Africans, especially industrial workers and youth in the Townships and “Bantustans,” connected to the mass African National Congress underground resistance, knew about, and were emboldened by, the defeat of the racist army in Angola by the revolutionary Cuban combatants. Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu certainly knew about it in the prisons of Robben Island, apartheid’s Alcatraz, off Cape Town.

Despite bloody repression that murdered 600-700 in the streets of Soweto, the South African regime began to weaken and politically disintegrate. The Soweto Uprising, in fact, signaled the beginning of the end for the apartheid regime and that hated imperialist bastion.

At each political and military turning point of the 1976-1999 war between Cuba and its allies and apartheid South Africa and its allies, covertly backed by Washington, Fidel’s clear Marxist revolutionary perspective was that a military victory of apartheid South Africa in Angola would inevitably be a decisive victory that would prolong the life of the white-supremacist regime for an entire, and not inconsiderable period. It would be akin in its political impact to Hitler’s destruction of the German worker’s movement, Franco’s defeat of the Spanish Republic, and Pinochet’s coup in Chile. It takes a long time for the working class and oppressed nations to recover and revive after an historic defeat or major setback. This is a law of the class struggle and politics.

The ability to clearly see the price, first of all for the African masses of every country in southern Africa, of an apartheid state victory, is what led to the bold (and exceedingly risky for the Cuban state) measures undertaken in 1976 and again in the decisive 1988 crisis and emergency. The latter events involved initially an on-the-ground and in-the-air debacle and disaster, under the direction of Soviet military advisors, that went forward against the strong, razor-sharp opposition of Fidel and all the top Cuban leadership on-the-ground in Angola. What Fidel and the Cubans did was to turn a disaster into a decisive military victory at the small town of Cuito Cuanavale on the banks of the Lomba River in Angola.15

After the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the apartheid army was forced into a headlong retreat back to South Africa where the African townships were now in open, permanent, mass rebellion. It was Endgame for the apartheid regime. The South African rulers, and eventually their covert allies in the Ronald Reagan Administration, were forced to negotiate massive concessions in formal talks with revolutionary Cuba, the ANC, and other southern African liberations forces. In 1990, Namibia won its independence; Nelson Mandela and all the anti-apartheid political prisoners were freed; and the ANC and all the banned anti-apartheid organizations were legalized.

Over 300,000 Cubans – doctors, teachers, and engineers alongside combatants – served in Angola in the over ten-year period. Over 2,000 died.

Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela

These giant, world-historic, world-changing accomplishments – defending the sovereignty and independence of Angola, winning the independence and sovereignty of Namibia, and the unraveling and defeat of the apartheid state – unfolded with Fidel’s political and military leadership the decisive factor. These events without question laid the historic foundation for the new, relative rise of Africa in the world. This alone would be enough to secure Fidel’s role at the top summits of history’s liberators.

Preventing “Another Cuba” in the “Cold War” Years

Cuba did become allied to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact-states during the “Cold War” decades. This was probably decisive in preventing the Cuban Revolution from being overwhelmed by the economic and military power of the United States in the first years of the Revolution. The fate and survival of the Cuban Revolution – at the Bay of Pigs and during the Cuban Missile Crisis – became a major “flashpoint” of that “Cold War” period.

From its beginning, the Cuban Revolution and its leadership found a great resonance worldwide, and especially across Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Both big-business parties in the US were determined to use the apparatus of US power in the Hemisphere to counter that sympathy and prevent the emulation of the Cuban Revolution, and its extension in a period of intensifying national liberation and class struggles in the Americas. This included inside the United States with the rising Black liberation struggle and the growing mass movement against US aggression in Vietnam and Indochina. There was a growing layer, particularly among African-Americans, Latinos, and student youth, but also many others, who were attracted to and sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution.

Washington’s policy was to overturn the revolutionary Cuban government and stamp it out as a dangerous, but short-lived, revolutionary meteor that would crash back down to earth. But, Washington failed to defeat the Cuban Revolution. Nevertheless, US imperialism did manage, at a huge cost to the working people and for democratic rights in the Hemisphere, to defeat revolutionary struggles and popular upsurges in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s, and again in Central America in the 1980s.

It was the liberal Democratic Administration of Lyndon Johnson, continuing the policy of his assassinated predecessor, that orchestrated and provided key material and political support to the 1964 military coup in Brazil that deposed the reformist government of Joao Goulart in Brazil. The brutal military regime there lasted until 1985. Among the greatest of Goulart’s sins in the eyes of Washington was his government’s refusal to break diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Johnson Administration invaded the Dominican Republic with nearly 25,000 troops in 1965 to “restore stability” after a military coup against the elected, progressive government of Juan Bosch, and to prevent an unfolding revolutionary dynamic there. Johnson demagogically presented this gross violation of Dominican sovereignty as the need to prevent “another Cuba.”

Additionally, the Johnson White House, as it was escalating the US war against Vietnam, also oversaw the defeat of continental guerrillas, under the leadership of Ernesto Che Guevara, that were battling US-backed military and oligarchic regimes across the Americas from bases in Bolivia. The Johnson “National Security team” expedited the murder by summary execution of Che – captured in combat and unarmed – by US-backed Bolivian military forces in October 1967. The subsequent Republican White House of Richard Nixon, at the same time it was exerting itself to prevent a political-military collapse and defeat in Vietnam and Indochina, closely collaborated with the Chilean military and bourgeoisie to overthrow the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in September, 1973.

Chile

On September 4, 1970 Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile with a plurality of the vote, 36.6 percent, against two divided liberal and conservative bourgeois parties. Allende was a leader of the Chilean Socialist Party (SP), a mass working class party. The SP-led government and coalition, Unidad Popular, included the Chilean Communist Party, another large working-class party, and liberal middle-class parties and groups.

Allende’s government coalition in its first year carried out a number of far-reaching and popular reforms, including nationalizing foreign holdings in the copper, nitrate, iron, and coal industries. Land reform legislation passed under previous capitalist Christian Democratic-party led government began to be implemented, in a political dynamic where landless peasants were already seizing land and working it. Space was conquered for increased trade union organization and workers won and received under Unidad Popular significant wages increases. A law was passed guaranteeing a daily quart of milk for children. Thousands of political prisoners were released. Allende’s government re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1971 and quickly developed warm relations with the revolutionary Cuban government. It spoke out strongly against US aggression in Vietnam, infuriating the Richard Nixon Administration.

In subsequent municipal and national legislative elections Unidad Popular increased its vote to up to nearly 50%, some 44 per cent in the 1973 parliamentary elections. Class, social, and therefore political polarization sharply increased. The Allende-led governmental coalition faced tremendous pressures from big-business and financial class forces, the Catholic Church hierarchy, and broad middle-class layers in Chile. These forces, in turn, were backed by, and actively collaborated with, United States government agencies and spooks. Washington carried out destabilization projects and plots, under the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger White House and State Department. These were widely known at the time, but, many years later, have been officially documented in great detail from records and archives released under the Freedom of Information Act.

(Pathfinder Press has published Fidel Castro on Chile, New York, 1982 with an introduction by Elizabeth Stone, a comprehensive compilation of speeches, interviews, press conferences, and interactions with Chilean workers and trade unionists, peasants, and students from November 10 to December 4, 1971. In speech after speech, Castro foresees – in a cumulative master class in the Marxist method – the gathering, impossible-to-be-avoided political, social, and class showdown. He did everything in his power to prevent a historic defeat and slaughter of working people in Chile similar to what Che Guevara had witnessed in 1954 Guatemala. The classic documentary The Battle of Chile, shot during the Allende years, smuggled out of Chile, and finished in Cuba, shows how workers and peasants, ready to defend their gains, arms in hand, waited in vain to be mobilized, organized, and armed as the defense of democratic space and constitutional legality that was being abandoned by the Chilean ruling classes and was, in fact, collapsing.)

A wave of brutal, bloody US-backed military regimes ruled across the South American continent during this period. Washington’s policies were largely motivated by a hatred and fear of the consequences of any potential extension of the Cuban Revolution. That is, revolutionary Cuba’s appeal to the oppressed and exploited peoples of the Hemisphere to rise up and conquer their national and social liberation. During these dark days of brutal rule by the US-backed militaries and oligarchies it was, in fact, the Cuban “dictatorship” that aided in every way it could – in a non-sectarian manner – the progressive and revolutionary forces defending democratic freedoms, political space, trade union legality, farmers rights, and so on. Is it any wonder that Washington’s shameless lectures to Cuba on “human rights” and “democracy” are met with such derision and contempt and have been unable to gain significant political traction in this Hemisphere.

Fidel speaking to a mass rally in Chile, November 1971

Certainly Washington’s problem with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution is that, to his everlasting credit, the revolutionaries he led did not turn the other cheek, and give in, in the face of imperialist subversion and aggression. Revolutionary Cuba did not turn into 1954 Guatemala or 1973 Chile. They defended themselves and continue to defend themselves. Washington, the European Union “statesmen,” and the big-business media and house pundits call this “violations of human rights.”

Central America Revolutionary Upsurge in the 1980s

A decade of revolutionary upsurge, fierce counter-revolutionary response, in the finest traditions of the Latin American oligarchies and ruling classes, and US covert and increasingly open intervention and threats, was ushered in with the 1979 triumphs of the Nicaraguan Revolution, led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and the Grenadian Revolution, led by Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement. Revolutionary armed struggles against military tyrannies in El Salvador and Guatemala unfolded in the early-1980s.

The response of Washington, under the new Ronald Reagan White House, and Democratic Party majorities in both Houses of Congress, was the not-secret-for-long covert campaign to arm, train, finance, and organize logistics for the terrorist contra army. The contras naturally drew heavy on remnants of the overthrown Somoza-family dictatorship and oligarchy. Washington fostered a large base in Honduras to stage bloody terrorist raids into Nicaragua.

In El Salvador, Reagan’s team worked hard to put a “democratic’ face on the “moderate” “center” Jose Napoleon Duarte regime, but the operative, dynamic force, over this entire period, umbilically tied to the growing US military presence and intervention, were the rightist death squads slaughtered some 70,000, in a country of around 4.5 million at the time. (That would be the equivalent of 3.5 million people in the US at the time or 1,167 separate 9-11-2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center at around 3,000 an attack.)16

Fully in line with its proletarian internationalist traditions, Cuba did everything its could to promote and defend the Sandinista Revolution, the Grenadian Revolution, and the liberation forces in El Salvador and Guatemala. In Nicaragua and Grenada, the revolutionary workers and farmers governments and mobilized working people and youth in both countries were carrying out powerful economic policies and social programs in the interests of workers and peasants, with immediate results in massive growth is popular access to health care, education, and the arts.

The Reagan Administration counter-revolutionary drive also targeted Cuba, which, in the words of then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig, was the “source of the problem.”

In Nicaragua, despite the military defeat of the contra army, the war-battered, exhausted, and devastated country saw an erosion of mass participation and support for the Revolution by the late-1980s. In that context and pressure, there were also important political shifts in Sandinista policies, in particular delays in the implementation of land reform, that contributed to the electoral defeat and collapse of the Sandinista-led government in 1990. In this same period, by the late 1980s, military and political stalemates led to negotiated settlements in El Salvador and Guatemala. All of this meant that the revolutionary wave from 1979 had definitively ended without further victories, and with two historic losses in Nicaragua and Grenada.

The shock, and accompanying positive material effect for the capitalist class, of the political and economic stabilization of neo-colonial capitalist rule, after the great expectations and inspiration 1979 ushered in, could only lead to a widespread political demoralization and a trend toward the rejection of Marxist and socialist ideas for so-called “neo-liberalism” exemplified by the rightist trajectory of some prominent ex-leftist intellectuals such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Teodoro Petkoff, and Jorge Castenada. Suddenly, the “Washington Consensus” and “neoliberalism” were ascendant. Neo-liberal governments were elected from Argentina to Peru to Brazil carrying out the Pinochet “Chicago School” economic program under a veil of capitalist “democracy.” A decade of “neo-liberal globalization” carried out a program of attacking workers and unions, driving down the value of labor, driving farmers off the land, and promoting anti-labor austerity and cutting already minimal social programs while promoting financial speculation, borrowing, and massive debt.

Moreover, by 1991, the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp” had politically collapsed. Triumphalist propaganda exalted the supposed “triumph of liberal capitalist democracy,” “the end of socialism,” and even “the end of history” altogether. The capitalist ideological and political offensive, full of righteous arrogance and full of itself, was on full throttle.

Nevertheless, in the “neo-liberal decade” of the 1990s, it was Cuba, and popular organizations like the Confederation of Cuban Workers CTC) or the Cuban Institute for Friendship With the People’s (ICAP) that called and organized trade unionists and solidarity activists across the Western Hemisphere and around the world to Conferences dedicated to struggle against “neo-liberal globalization.”

The “Special Period”

The collapse of the USSR and the “socialist camp” devastated the Cuban economy, threatening the gains of the Revolution and the Revolution itself, more than it had ever been, before or since, even when Washington nuclear missiles were aimed at it, when US invasion forces were gathering, and when the US Navy was sealing Cuba off from the world.

Cuba’s economy had become tied to the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp” to the point where 85% of its economic exchange was with it. Fidel had attempted to shift the Cuban economy, through the mid-1980s “Rectification” campaign, a politically-led attempt to revive Che’s economic policies and orientation, among other important social and political changes. But this was aborted under the rapid unfolding of events in the USSR and Eastern Europe from 1989-1992.

Almost overnight economic exchanges and ties to the “socialist camp” evaporated. Cuba’s economic output fell 35%. Factories shut down for lack of parts. Produce rotted in fields as farm equipment could not move. Oxen replaced tractors. Surgeries were performed in the open sun for lack of electricity. Blackouts were the norm. Those dog days across the 1990s became known as the “Special Period.”

It was precisely at this time that US economic and travel sanctions were deepened and intensified. Bipartisan Washington, under both the first George Bush and William Clinton White Houses hoped that, once and for all, it could be rid of the “pestilence” of the Cuban Revolution, its example and outsized political resonance and influence in the Americas and the world. It was inconceivable to the US government that the “Castro” Revolution could survive these blows. Washington passed legislation, the Torricelli and Helms-Burton “Acts,” that tightened the US economic, commercial, and financial embargo and attempted to “internationalize” it into a de facto military blockade. This was to be done by pressuring and threatening with penalties other countries or enterprises that independently traded with Cuba.17

The Cuban Five meet Fidel and his wife Dalia Soto del Valle

It can be said that Fidel’s last great triumph as a revolutionary leader was the struggle, with the Cuban people, to successfully lead the nation through, and beginning to fight its way out of, the “Special Period.”

Cuba began to climb out from the “Special Period” at the turn of the 20th Century. Fidel’s government deployed teams of economists, diplomats, and negotiators around the world seeking investment capital, negotiating trade deals and financing, figuring out ways of getting around the US blockade, and so on, and making important progress. Cuban working people stepped up to the plate to build high-rise and other new hotels and food markets to rebuild the tourism industry. Tourism, which quickly expanded, brought in urgently needed foreign exchange to maintain the basic conquests of the Revolution in free and high-quality medical care and education. A key to Cuban economic advances was new economic and political relations with Venezuela, Brazil, and other Latin American countries that were prepared to stand up to Washington’s pressure, as well as increased economic ties with China and Vietnam.

At this time Latin America was undergoing major political shifts with mass resistance growing to the so-called “neo-liberal Washington Consensus” policies of austerity and assaults on working people. In particular, the Bolivarian government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, elected President in 1998 after a mass uprising against austerity measures was met with murderous repression, forged a close alliance with revolutionary Cuba, that included providing oil and energy needs to the island, while Cuba provided 30,000 thousand doctors and teachers that greatly boosted the access to 10 million Venezuelan working people to quality medical care and education. Over time, in this period, all Latin American governments united to oppose Washington’s attempts to isolate and overturn the Cuban government and Revolution. It was Fidel Castro’s government that mobilized world public opinion against the US-backed attempted coup of April 2002 in Venezuela.

Fidel, the “world Communist movement” and Socialism

Fidel politically defeated his enemies in his lifetime and in history. The Cuban Revolution not only survived the decades-long US government onslaught, but implemented and consolidated historic social and cultural advances. To this day, Cuba’s example and its deeds of international solidarity resonate in today’s political world and with new generations of socialist and revolutionary-minded fighters in every corner of the globe.

It is clear that Cuba punches “way above its weight” in world politics. Fidel’s enemies for all their efforts have not been able to manufacture a false narrative – and have it stick – on the great Cuban revolutionary.

Fidel was an opponent of dogma and often expressed a striking critique of the stultification of Marxism in the Soviet bloc. In a January 12, 1968 speech at the closing session of the Cultural Congress of Havana at the Charles Chaplin Theater, Castro said:

[N]othing could be more anti-Marxist than dogma, nothing could be more anti-Marxist than the petrification of ideas. And there are even ideas propounded in the name of Marxism which seem to be truly fossils. Marxism has had thinkers of genius: Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Lenin, to mention the outstanding founders. But Marxism needs to develop, break away from a certain rigidity, interpret today’s reality from an objective, scientific viewpoint, conduct itself as a revolutionary force and not as a pseudo-revolutionary church. These are the paradoxes of history. How, seeing sectors of the clergy becoming revolutionary forces, can we resign ourselves to seeing revolutionary forces become ecclesiastical forces.

The emergence of the independent Cuban communist leadership was a political and ideological challenge to the bastions of “official” Marxism in the Soviet Union of the post-Stalin and Khrushchev era from 1953-1964 and also to the variant coming out of the political, economic, and human turmoil in China during the era of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution where intense political-factional warfare broke out within the Chinese Communist Party and government.

There may seem to be little immediate residual relevance to these decades-ago polemics and divisions within what was once called the “world Communist movement.” But for a revolutionary Marxist and the working-class movement, understanding the lessons and history of the past are indispensable in developing a consciousness, methodology, and program for today and tomorrow.

Today, all “traditional” political tendencies in the workers movement and the “left” are being shaken up by the ascent of so-called populist movements and parties, “right” and “left.” Longstanding social-democratic parties and organizations have been thrown into turmoil and crisis in country after country in Europe and attempts to forge a similar “progressive,” “mixed economy” perspective in in Latin America and elsewhere in the so-called “emerging markets.” (What I would call a “Left Keynesian” outlook and perspective.)

Today, the permanent crisis of building effective, international working-class leadership and organizations, based on fraternal collaboration and solidarity in common struggle, remains weak and unresolved. But it is increasingly on the table as social and class polarization, and inevitable political volatility and instability, mounts everywhere, from the richest to the most destitute countries on Earth, and everywhere in between.

Today, the permanent crisis of building effective, international working-class leadership based on fraternal collaboration and solidarity in common struggle, remains weak and unresolved. But it is increasingly on the table as social and class polarization, and inevitable political volatility and instability, mounts everywhere.

Yet, this is also an era where the fact and example of the Cuban Revolution survives and leads. It is this anti-imperialist, socialist, and Marxist legacy of Fidel Castro needs to be studied by young people turning to anti-capitalism and socialism, and to revolutionary struggle around the world, including in the United States, Europe, and other industrialized capitalist countries. Many will perhaps be surprised at the fruits of their study.

Fidel and Stalinism

Political and ideological attacks on Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionary government from the propaganda machinery of the capitalist world have generally attempted and continue to attempt to identify the Cuban Revolution with “Stalinism,” no matter how little serious understanding of that actual historical phenomenon there is on the part of anti-Cuban propagandists. Of course, defenders and apologists for capitalism and imperialism love to equate “Communism” and Marxism with Stalinism, and to collapse the latter into the former.

Historically, the terms “socialism” and “communism” were more or less interchangeable. After the Russian Revolution, a sharp polarization in the workers movement developed between supporters and opponents of the Bolsheviks in the radicalizing workers movement, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks identifying as “Communists.” This political division was reflected and registered in the different labels. This deepened with the consolidation of Stalin’s regime which retained the label “Communist” as did the large majority of Communist Parties in the world that allied with the Soviet government and Stalin’s Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The objective and subjective circumstances facing the Cuban Revolution, and the responsibilities upon Fidel as the central spokesperson of the revolutionary leadership, made a certain circumspection a necessary political quality and characteristic. The art of revolutionary politics – a test that every sectarian fails – is not always saying everything you may think you know, but saying what is necessary, always speaking the concrete truth, and backing up your words with deeds, and with action.

At the same time, the alliance – including the military component – with the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp,” was decisive in the very material survival of the Cuban Revolution, at least in the crucial early years when Washington’s open commitment, backed by furious actions and deeds, was to utterly eradicate the revolutionary government. Moreover, Fidel and the Cuban leadership were genuinely grateful for the solidarity and material aid they received from the Soviet Union and its allies.

The Fidelistas were drawn into, whether they liked it or not, the raging political battles within the “world Communist movement.” This was a period where the schisms between the Soviet and Chinese Communist Parties and governments were becoming toxic even as US aggression against Vietnam began to escalate and eventually dominate world politics throughout the decade of the 1960s and early 1970s. The contemporary questions roiling the “world communist movement” essentially dealt with the long decades of the rule of Joseph Stalin’s government in the Soviet Union from its consolidation of power by the late-1920s, following the January 1924 death of Lenin, and the failure of Lenin’s death-bed attempts to remove Stalin as the General Secretary and a central leader of the Soviet Communist Party.

The Cuban leaders thought deeply about all these questions. Che Guevara, in particular, grappled with these questions very concretely as he prepared to depart from Cuba to provide central revolutionary political-military leadership for revolutionary armed struggle first in the Congo and then Bolivia and the Latin America Continent. Even before that in the period prior to 1965, when Che was a primary spokesperson and emissary of the Cuban Revolution in world politics, making numerous political and diplomatic travels, establishing relations with many countries, and visiting the “socialist camp.” The experience led him to think out, develop, and write down serious criticisms of the economic, social, and political practices of the Soviet and Eastern European governments and parties.

Cuban practices, despite pressures to conform to and assimilate the economic and social policies of their Soviet bloc allies, tended to diverge in many concrete arenas: land reform, the approach to family farmers and the peasantry as a class, culture and art, criminal justice and legal norms, hostility to torture, electoral procedures, women’s rights, and foreign policy. But, and this was central to the “Rectification” campaign, and, later, the lessons drawn from the “Special Period,” there was a tendency to copy, especially in economic practices, the experience and mechanisms of the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp.”

Under these circumstances, Fidel and the Cuban revolutionary leadership could not say everything they thought publicly, although if we look at the actual historical record, it is quite remarkable how much was said and how the independent revolutionary perspectives of the Cuban leadership was projected internationally. Vietnam was the sharpest expression of this, in the public speeches and statements of Fidel and Che.18

Fidel’s 1973 visit to Quang Tri in southern Vietnam raising the Khe Sahn Battalion Flag

The Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

As I note in the essay, “55 Years Later: Political Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis“:

Soviet-Cuban tensions escalated in this mid-1960s period, although never to the point of a public break. Nevertheless, sharp, concrete political and theoretical differences were registered between the Soviet and Cuban leaderships in this period over the US escalation in Vietnam and serious political divergence in Latin America. In several speeches in 1966 and 1967 Fidel Castro publicly excoriated the Soviet government for its economic and political relations with Latin American repressive and reactionary regimes.

The betrayal and execution of Che in 1967 sharpened the existing tensions and was followed by the [Anibal] Escalante intrigue and covert plotting against the revolutionary government. In terms of the economic relations and exchange between Cuba and the Soviet Union during these clashes, there was limited but noticeable Soviet measures affecting the struggling Cuban economy which was being whipped by the US economic blockade, particularly in the Americas. In this period, the first decade of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba struggled with diplomatic isolation in the Western Hemisphere under US pressure, with only Canada and Mexico maintaining formal diplomatic ties.

While all of this was impacting on the Cuban leadership and Cuban-Soviet relation –  and while, at the same time, the United States government, on the cusp of the Vietnamese “Tet Offensive,” had 500,000 troops and personnel in Vietnam, employing massive, destructive, and murderous firepower – in August 1968, the Soviet Union, with the participation of troops from four other of its allied Warsaw Pact states, invaded Czechoslovakia with some 200,000 troops, and overthrew the “reform” and popular government of Alexander Dubcek, who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

Fidel Castro gave very critical, even bitter, support to the invasion in a highly anticipated public speech. The speech was so critical that the Soviet press maintained a censorious public silence on its content, despite the bottom-line support. Aside from the inevitable denouncement from Washington and the European capitalist powers who had been handed by Moscow a propaganda bonanza and opportunities for political advantage in the “Cold War” chessboard, the Soviet invasion caused huge divisions and opposition from large Communist Parties in Europe and elsewhere, and near-universal opposition among left-wing forces and revolutionary-minded tendencies worldwide.

Fidel’s position as elaborately, and even passionately, presented in an August 23, 1968 highly anticipated speech, was internally consistent. He said the invasion “unquestionably entailed a violation of legal principles and international norms” and “it cannot be denied that the sovereignty of the Czechoslovak State was violated. That would be a fiction [and] an untruth. And the violation was, in fact, of a flagrant nature…From a legal point of view, this cannot be justified…Not the slightest trace of legality exists. Frankly, none whatsoever.”

Nevertheless, Fidel accepted the premise and assertion that Czechoslovakia was heading toward a restoration of capitalism which meant it would fall into the arms of world imperialism, weaken the “socialist camp,” and thereby greatly weaken anti-imperialist struggles around the world, particularly in Vietnam, but also the Cuban Revolution at that conjuncture. Leaving aside whether Fidel Castro was accurately assessing the dynamics of the so-called “Prague Spring” of Dubcek reforms and government, it is clear that Fidel’s position was shaped by anti-imperialist “camp” theories that was a seemingly intractable political framework at that height of the Cold War.

The Cuban Revolution paid a high price politically for a number of years for their position, despite the harsh criticisms and nuances in Fidel’s speech. It reinforced the views of those who identified the Castro leadership with “Stalinism,” and won over even more liberals, progressives, and leftists to that subjective, shallow viewpoint.

Nevertheless, Fidel never reversed his initial judgment and position of critical support for the Soviet invasion. (In the Ramonet interviews, Fidel said “[F]urthermore, we said we thought that the first issues raised in Czechoslovakia were unobjectionable, because they tended to improve Socialism. The denunciation of the methods of governance, the bureaucratic policies, the divorce [from] the masses, all those denunciations were unquestionably correct. But from fair slogans there had been a move towards an openly reactionary policy.  And we – bitterly, sadly – had to approve that military intervention. The preservation of the unity and strength of Socialism in the face of imperialism was for us vital, of first priority.” For his full nuanced position in Ramonet see pages 579-580. (In 1979 Fidel opposed the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan on grounds of international law.)

Fidel on Stalin

On a number of occasions Fidel Castro spoke clearly and forthrightly, with great reflection and insight, on the figure of Joseph Stalin and Stalin’s impact on history and world politics, including the politics of the “world Communist movement.” In the Ramonet interviews Fidel said,

I, deep inside, was more critical of Stalin, because of some of his mistakes. He was to blame, in my view, for the invasion of the USSR in 1941 by Hitler’s powerful war machine, without the Soviet army ever hearing a call to arms. Stalin also committed serious errors – everyone knows about his abuse of force, the repression, and his personal characteristics, the cult of personality. But yet he showed tremendous merit in industrializing the country, in moving the military industry to Siberia – those were decisive factors in the world’s fight against Nazism. So, when I analyse it, I weigh his merits and also his great errors, and one of those was when he purged the Red Army due to Nazi misinformation – that weakened the USSR militarily on the eve of the Fascist attack…He disarmed himself, he weakened himself, and he signed that terrible German-Soviet pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and other things.

In a 1992 interview with Sandinista leader Tomas Borge, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro went into more detail:

We should keep in mind, first of all, that the Soviet Union had the misfortune of Lenin dying relatively young. It needed him to live a further 10, 15 or 20 years…Lenin would have been able to rectify many of the negative trends that arose within the soviet revolutionary process after his death. Thus, Lenin’s absence – the vacuum his death left in the theoretical sphere as well as the construction of socialism in the Soviet Union – is a factor that had a great influence on what happened next.

Castro then focused on “first of all, for his infringements on legality. Stalin committed enormous abuses of power,” as well as “Stalin’s character, his terrible distrust of everything, [which] made him commit several other mistakes: one of them was falling in the trap of German intrigue and conducting a terrible, bloody purge of the armed forces and practically beheading the Soviet Army on the eve of war.”

Going into detail Fidel contrasts the practice of revolutionary Cuba to Stalin’s “worst mistakes” in agricultural policy and “forced collectivization” of farms.

It seems to me that the process of socialization of the land should have been started earlier and developed progressively…It seems to me that the attempt to socialize the land in an extremely short period of time historically, by means of violence, was very costly, both economically and in terms of human suffering. That was a serious mistake under Stalin’s leadership…What I don’t believe is that anything forced them to have then carried out an accelerated process of compulsory collectivization…We’ve always understood that small plots of land have limited production possibilities, but we never engaged in any compulsory collectivization.

Estimates of the number who died in the mass famines in Soviet Ukraine in this period are in the millions.

Castro credits Stalin’s organizational and administrative talents, and his eye for detail, for the relatively rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and for the, by any measure, heroic accomplishment of Soviet workers of dismantling and transporting whole war industries and factories east of the Ural Mountains, and out of the range of the Nazi Luftwaffe, as the Nazi onslaught advanced, a process Stalin evidently directly oversaw and supervised. By this point, Stalin had given considerable ground in military decision making to the rebuilt Red Army officer corps.

Castro’s stated views on Stalin are particularly animated and sharp on the period leading up to and during World War II, particularly on the political morality of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. These give important insights into the primacy that Fidel gives, in revolutionary politics, to internationalist Marxist principles, and not giving up the moral high ground. He contrasts and compares – within the limits of any analogy – the practice of the Cuban Revolution to Stalin and Stalinism. The Borge interview takes place in the real-time period where the Soviet Union had just collapsed as a nation-state. As he recalled to Borge:

I was 13 when World War II began, and I read all the newspapers. I had been avidly reading all of the newspapers, all the international news, ever since the Spanish Civil War…I read the newspapers in the years proceeding World War II, and I read the news every day during the war years. This is without mentioning the books I read about the military events of the time and about political events after the war.

Stalin [did] something that I will always criticize, because I think it was a flagrant violation of principle: his seeking peace with Hitler at all costs, to gain time. In our long revolutionary life and in the already relatively long life of the Cuban Revolution, we have never negotiated even one principle to gain time or obtain any other kind of practical advantage…all my life, ever since I developed a political and revolutionary awareness, I have considered that pact to have been a terrible mistake in Soviet foreign policy, a mistake that Stalin made in those years leading up to the war…Moreover, I think that, far from providing more time, that nonaggression pact reduced the time available…I think it was a terrible mistake from the point of view of principles and of international opinion…all my life, I’ve thought that the little war against Finland was another terrible mistake, both from the viewpoint of principles, and from that of international law. That’s what I have always thought.

He drives home this crucial point, which was also made in the November 2005 speech at the University of Havana:

[Stalin] went on making one mistake after another that brought the Soviet Union into disrepute among large sectors of world public opinion and placed Communists around the world…in an extremely difficult position, having to defend all those things in their own countries. Communists all over the world…had to engage in a kind of hari-kari to defend the Soviet Union…they found themselves forced to defend such unpopular things as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the occupation of a part of Polish territory, and the war with Finland.

At this point he tells Borge:

Now that we’re talking about this, I should take the opportunity to tell you that I’ve never spoken about these things this way with any journalist before.

Castro continues:

I think they were terrible political mistakes – and mistakes of principle as well – that we would never have made. The history of the Cuban revolution bears this out, because the Revolution never abandoned its principles. Never, for national convenience or any other reason, did the Revolution abandon any legitimate cause in the world, nor did it abandon any revolutionary movements, even though our adversary was the powerful US government….The things I mentioned go contrary to…doctrine…[and] political wisdom. Even though it is true that the Soviet Union had a year and nine months between September 1939 and June 1941 in which to rearm, the one who made himself much stronger – ten times as strong – was Hitler. If Hitler had gone to war against the Soviet Union in 1939, he would have done it less damage than in June 1941…He made another extremely serious mistake in June 1941 when the German had concentrated millions of soldiers, thousands of planes, tens of thousands of tanks and armored vehicles and hundreds of divisions…along the border. Faced with such clearly aggressive intentions – it was impossible to disguise them – Stalin clung to the theory that it was an act of provocation…and acted like an ostrich, sticking his head in the sand. He didn’t mobilize the troops…So what happened?…Hitler launched a “surprise” attack on the Soviet Union…How do you launch a “surprise” attack with millions of soldiers? Well, it was done, and Hitler’s troops attacked a country that wasn’t mobilized.

Fidel on Stalinism – Brazil 1990

In March 1990 Fidel traveled to Brazil to attend the Inauguration of Fernando Collor de Mello, the first directly elected president since the Brazilian military regime gave up formal political power in 1985. Collor de Mello defeated the left-wing Workers Party candidate Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva by 6%, in what was widely considered a manipulated outcome. Collor de Mello was the scion of one of the top ruling-class families of Brazil with vast media holdings. His was one of the first governments identified with the “Washington Consensus” and “neoliberal austerity” policies, registering pro-imperialist advances under conditions of inflationary spirals and massive state debt, to take office in the wake of the end of the revolutionary upsurge in Central America and the Caribbean and the collapse of the USSR and the governments of its Warsaw Pact allies. Within two years Collor de Mello was impeached for numerous “gross corrupt acts.”

In that period, the political dynamic in Latin American, where mass struggles for democratic rights were growing, was also prying open democratic and political space in a number of countries and, at the same time, registering a relative political slippage and retreat in Washington after the brutal “Condor” years. Politically, Fidel’s visit was part of the successful initiatives of Cuban revolutionary diplomacy in this period. The Cuban government saw, and seized on, the new, and highly contradictory, political conditions in Latin America in that period, to break out of Washington’s imposed diplomatic isolation for socialist Cuba in the Americas. This was a very successful campaign over a number of years, occurring at the same time Cuba was reeling from, coping with, and struggling mightily to ameliorate and get out of the “Special Period.”

Fidel’s expansive trip to Brazil was six days full of speeches and encounters up and down Brazilian society.

In 1990 Brazil, in this period when the “socialist camp” was disintegrating in real time and the Cuban government had begun preparing the Cuban people for the economic tsunami that they knew was about to smash into Cuba, Fidel spoke expansively on Stalinism and the Cuban Revolution. The political importance represented by Fidel’s remarks was underlined by the publication in Cuba of the small book Back in Brazil in 1990, under the copyright of both Fidel and the Jose Marti Publishing House.

In a meeting with a Christian “base community” at the Anhembi Convention Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 17, 1990 Fidel gave an extensive back-and-forth in the mass meeting attended by 1300 activists and chaired by prominent Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff, Methodist Minister Taria Marra, and Lutheran Minister Milton Schwantes.

Asked about Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika in the USSR (in what turned out to be the last year-and-a-half of the Soviet state) and if Cuba would have such an “opening” and “democratic process,” Castro answered:

[We] had already begun our process of rectification of errors and negative tendencies. Naturally, our process couldn’t be the same as that of the USSR, because we didn’t make the same mistakes they made.  We made other mistakes of a different kind and we had to rectify them, because doing the things they did over there would have been like removing a corn with a remedy prescribed for a toothache…We didn’t have phenomena like those stemming from Stalinism in our country – that never occurred and neither did abuse of authority, for at certain historical moments highly negative violent processes against peoples took place in the Soviet Union.

We’ve never used violence against even a single one of our citizens; we’d never stoop to doing that, because the day we did such a thing, using torture, committing crimes, we’d be outraged ourselves. There’s never been a case of political crime in our country; we had revolutionary laws, revolutionary courts, revolutionary trials, and even spies, terrorists who were executed with due process, but we’ve never laid a finger on anybody to make him speak or tell anything…That hasn’t stopped people from spreading the most atrocious and infamous lies about our country…but, obviously, great abuse of authority took place at certain times in the USSR, and there were phenomena which did not exist in Cuba.

…Other things happened in Cuba and one of them was that, in spite of the originality our Revolution always had, there were some things we copied from them and in our process of rectification this is one of the things we’ve rectified so far. I mean methods we copied from them with bad results in our country…We are distancing ourselves from mistakes; we don’t think much of using capitalist categories in constructing socialism while they, on the other hand, are moving in the direction of introducing capitalist categories more and more…We respect what they’re doing, because I really think [what] a country does must be respected. I’m simply answering your question…We’ve been careful to avoid as much as possible privileges for our leaders, officials, cadres; we struggle against that but, above all, we’ve made a big effort to uphold the unity between our Party and the people, between the Revolution and the people. Because what has happened in several of these countries is that there was a gap between the Party and the people, between the government and the people. If we commit those mistakes we won’t last two minutes next to the United States, a powerful country that blockades us, pressures us, harasses us, wants to destroy us. Without a united, organized, and armed people to defend the Revolution, we couldn’t exist next to the United States, and so reality shows that we haven’t made those types of errors.

Driving home the point, Fidel indicates the steely political resolve that led Cuba successfully through the “Special Period” and into the new horizons, and challenges, for Cuban socialism today:

Does it seem like the easiest thing in the world to make a revolution 90 miles away from the United States and resist for over 30 years the imperialist blockade, the hostility, the slander, the war against us, the permanent threats, which have forced us to invest so many resources and so much energy, and make so many sacrifices. Who was going to save socialism in Cuba, the Soviet tanks? The Soviets were over there, far away from us, they couldn’t have arrived in Cuba in time. The tanks that can come rapidly to Cuba are the US tanks, do you understand? That actually helped us a lot.

Instead of saying, what a misfortune it is living so close to the United States, I can say, what a good fortune to have lived so far away from the borders of the Soviet Union. It never occurred to us to trust that the Soviets would come to save our Revolution, had we divorced ourselves from the masses and the people and started to make all sorts of mistakes. And, in addition, what good fortune that was, because any revolution that is unable to defend itself is a revolution not worth saving. What good is any revolution that must depend on others to save it?

Fidel Castro and the Crisis of Revolutionary Leadership in the World

History will record that the team of revolutionary fighters gathered around Fidel Castro made a giant effort to move forward the struggle for revolutionary leadership in the world. Cuban revolutionary theory and practice was animated by a strong anti-bureaucratism articulated in the speeches and writings of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, that was bound together by a profound internationalist spirit of solidarity. This entire perspective and outlook was a return to – and spurred the revival of in a new generation of revolutionary-minded youth – a creative, and human-being centered, Marxism after decades of stultification and dogma in theory, as well as horrible crimes and betrayals in its name in practice, by the government led by Joseph Stalin and his acolytes in the Soviet Union and the so-called “socialist camp.” (See especially Socialism and Man in Cuba by Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press edition and Fidel Castro’s 1962 speech on sectarianism and bureaucracy.)

The consolidation of the socialist Cuban Revolution meant that for the first time since the opening years of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, revolutionary internationalists were in the leadership of a workers’ state. They not only held domestic power but, in their foreign policy, had the political perspective of extending the Revolution and using the political authority and material resources of the workers state – within the limits of the possible – to collaborate with and aid fellow revolutionists.

Taken as a whole, Fidel’s accomplishments stand unique in the history of the revolutionary workers’ movement and the national independence and liberation struggles that unfolded fiercely in the blood-soaked 20th Century.

In the following year after the 2005 University of Havana speech, Fidel underwent emergency intestinal surgery with a long recovery period. In February 2008 Fidel announced that he would not take up his government positions and on February 24, 2008 Raul Castro became President of the Cuban Council of State. On April 19, 2011 Fidel resigned from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. At each step of Fidel’s illness and his physical inability to continue in his positions, his class enemies and anti-Cuba propagandists, who were tied to the line of “the dictator” and the “one-man show” smugly prophesized the quick collapse and implosion of the Cuban Revolution. Some are reverting to the same nonsense as President Raul Castro prepares to step down in April 2018 at the end of his term.

When Fidel Castro delivered the famous October 18, 1967 memorial speech for Ernesto Che Guevara in the Plaza de la Revolucion before over one million Cubans, he said about Che that, “An example such as this can never be eliminated by anything or anyone.” No more profound truth can be said about Fidel. It was Fidel’s fate, to the great benefit of oppressed and exploited humanity, to survive as a revolutionary fighter, head of state, dominant figure in international politics, and so much more until the age of 90. His ideas, ethical revolutionary practice, moral stature, and identification with revolutionary Marxism and the struggle for a socialist world and a classless society are immortal and imperishable and will never be erased.

As Frederick Engels said at the graveside of Karl Marx:

Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat…Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival… His work [including]… a host of militant pamphlets, work in organizations in Paris, Brussels and London, and finally, crowning all, the formation of the great International Working Men’s Association — this was indeed an achievement of which its founder might well have been proud even if he had done nothing else. And, consequently, Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were a cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers — from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America…His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.

Let the oppressors, the warmongers, the racists, the oppressors of women, the oligarchies, and the capitalist ruling classes rage and tremble at the memory of Fidel Castro, and rejoice at his passing. His towering physical presence is now ashes buried in Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of the Cuban Revolution. But they are not finished, they will never be finished, with Fidel Castro. And he is not through with them.

• Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Febe Velasquez

  1. Lincoln’s great merit was sanctioning and implementing, in the crucial 1863-64 period culminating in his 1864 re-election, truly revolutionary measures to actually abolish slavery on the ground (and later constitutionally with the Congressional passage of the Thirteen Amendment), and thereby implementing the radical abolitionist program. These measures included the recruitment and training of free Black and ex-slaves into the Union Army, which became a decisive factor in the defeat of the Confederate Army, as the Union forces became a vehicle for the escape, migration to Union Army lines, and liberation of millions of slaves (although large numbers died of disease, malnutrition, and poverty in the process). In my judgement, this fact transcends and overcomes the bulk of Lincoln’s pre-Civil War political and legislative career, with its fine distinctions, measured gradualism, adaptations to white-supremacist ideology, and his overweening pragmatism on the “slavery question.” Fidel was a lifelong admirer of Lincoln, laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1959, and always kept a bust of Lincoln in his office. Also see Karl Marx and Frederick Engels profound and essential writings and correspondence on the US Civil War and Lincoln.
  2. See Isaac Saney’s “Cuba, Human Rights, and Self Determination: A Submission to the United Nations Human Rights Commission” for an objective, fact-based, and compelling presentation of Cuban election procedures and participatory democratic norms, constitutional, and political space. Fidel once commented on the development of Cuban political institutions, “You strangle us for forty years and then criticize us for the way we breathe.”
  3. See Frederick Engels seminal essay and polemic “On Authority”.
  4. On March 29, 1959, for example, Fidel took up, without pandering one milligram to residual popular prejudice or social backwardness, the question of racism at a mass rally of Cuban workers: “I believe it is my duty to tell the people about the things on my mind and how they must collaborate with their revolutionary government and how it is helping them…But not everybody’s mentality has developed enough in the revolutionary way; a revolutionary consciousness is lagging behind the people’s feelings.  The people’s feelings are all revolutionary, but their mentality is still not wholly so.  The people’s mentality is conditioned by many inherited prejudices, many vestiges of the past, and many old customs.  If the people want to overcome this evil they must begin by recognizing it…Battles must be won by us…the battle against unemployment; the battle to raise the standards of the lowest paid workers; the battle to bring down the cost of living; and one of the most just battles that must be fought, a battle that must be emphasized more and more, which I might call the fourth battle — the battle to end racial discrimination at work centers. I repeat:  the battle to end racial discrimination at work centers.  Of all forms of racial discrimination, the worst is the one that limits the colored Cuban’s access to jobs.  It is true that there is in our country in some sectors the shameful procedure of barring Negroes from jobs. Everybody knows I am not a demagogue. Everybody knows I hate demagogy…[The first form] of racial discrimination we must combat is racial discrimination at work centers…

    [This]…limits access to places where a living can be earned.  It limits the Negro’s chances of satisfying his needs, and so we commit the crime of denying the chance to work to the poorest group particularly. While the colonial society made the Negro work as a slave, made the Negro work more than anybody else, and without pay, we commit the crime in our current society, which some have wanted to call a democratic society, of doing just the opposite and trying to prevent him from working to earn a living.  And so, while the colony worked him to death and beat him to death, we want to starve our colored brothers to death. It ought to be necessary to issue a law to establish a right that is earned by the mere fact of being a human being and a member of society.  It ought not to be necessary to issue a law against an absurd prejudice.

    What should be proclaimed is anathema and public condemnation against those men, full of leftover prejudices, and who are unscrupulous enough to discriminate against a Cuban, to mistreat a Cuban, over a matter of lighter or darker skin, because, after all, we all have a lighter or darker skin…But nobody can consider himself of a pure race, least of all the whites. The same way that we are going to organize and wage a campaign for buying domestic products, without a law or legal penalties being needed, we are going to put an end to racial discrimination at work centers by waging a campaign to end this shame, to end this hateful, repugnant system with a new slogan:  work opportunities for every Cuban, without discrimination for race or sex.  Let there be an end to racial discrimination at work centers; let whites and blacks all get together to end hateful racial discrimination at work centers.  In this way we will gradually build the new fatherland. We must mingle at recreation centers…At school black and white learn to live together like brothers. And if they mingle in the public schools they mingle afterwards at recreation centers and they mingle everywhere. But when they are educated separately, and the aristocrats educate their children apart from the Negroes, it is logical that later whites and blacks cannot mingle at cultural or recreation spots. [We will build] playing fields at public schools where blacks and whites can play together, and also establish clubs — or let us change the name and call them recreation centers — as we are going to do at all beaches; we are going to provide recreation centers for public school children, where they can have fun, play, and enjoy the bounties of nature, and know the joy to which every child has a right, the white child and the black together, as in the schools…”

  5. There has never been, in the practice of the Cuban Revolution, any laws or campaigns against religious belief or believers, although religious cover was often used by CIA-trained counter-revolutionary enemies of the Cuban Revolution in their violent struggle against the revolutionary Cuban government, leading to tensions and pressures, including with church hierarchies. A sectarian rule barring religious believers from being members of the Cuban Communist Party was not overturned until 1991. In 1992 the Cuban Constitution was amended to deem Cuba a secular state, as opposed to the previous characterization as “atheist.”
  6. The caricature that has become the mainstream narrative of the Russian Revolution in “Western” academic and journalistic circles paints it as a minority coup against a “democratic” government. This will be repeated ad nauseum in this centenary year of the Bolshevik triumph. In actual fact, the overthrown Provisional Government was never elected to anything by anyone and continually postponed having universal parliamentary elections. Such elections were actually held after the November 7 Revolution, under Lenin’s government, from previously drawn up candidate lists, that no longer accurately registered the fundamental changes on the ground, most importantly the major split of the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party, with the reconstituted Left SR’s now allied with the new Bolshevik government, that was carrying out land reform and ratifying land seizures taking place on a mass scale by landless peasants, including soldiers from the broken ex-Tsarist Army.

    The election results were majorities or large pluralities for the Bolsheviks in the cities and majorities for the former Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party in the countryside, and the collapse of electoral support for the liberal capitalist and “moderate” socialist parties. The Bolsheviks were the overwhelming choice of soldiers who voted at the various war fronts. (See John Reed’s 10 Days That Shook the World for the actual numbers of the Constituent Assembly elections). After foreign subversion and intervention began and the bloody Russian Civil War broke out and deepened, and the Bolshevik government dissolved the, by then, incoherent “Constituent Assembly.” The Bolshevik idea was to transcend and replace the bourgeois parliamentary system that had developed out of early British class struggles, the 1776 US and 1789 French Revolutions, 19th Century Latin American independence struggles, and the 1848 bourgeois-democratic revolutionary upsurge in Europe, with the soviet system of mass workers, peasants, and soldiers elected councils. This political program and perspective came under overwhelming pressure during the Civil War and its aftermath and Lenin’s death in January 1924. The soviet system eventually became, under Stalin’s rule, a formal construct with little political content or genuine working-class or popular participation. The closest approximation to the forms and norms the Bolsheviks tried to develop is in Cuba today.

  7. Every year since 1992 the United Nations General Assembly has voted to condemn Washington’s “Economic, Commercial, and Financial Embargo” against Cuba.  As I wrote in a 2013 article, “Isolation: Another Vote on Washington’s Anti-Cuba Policy at the United Nations“:

    Washington’s formal political isolation over its anti-Cuba policy can hardly be more complete. Is it possible to imagine any significant political issue in world politics uniting so many disparate entities often in significant conflict with each other — from the semi-feudal ultra-reactionary ‘Sunni’ Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the ‘Shi’ite’ Islamic Republic of Iran, from India to Pakistan and Syria to Turkey; ‘North’ Korea and ‘South’ Korea; Russia and Georgia, and so on across the spectrum from the most industrialized capitalist ex-colonial powers in Europe and Japan to their most ‘underdeveloped’ ex-subjects in the so-called Third World?

    And, it has to be underlined, that this vote was in defense of Cuba — a revolutionary socialist government ruling over a state where capitalist property relations have been overturned since the early 1960s and which has renounced nothing of its revolutionary legacy, heritage, and program even as it maneuvers and navigates in the reality of a disintegrating capitalist world order?

    On November 1, 2017 the UN General Assembly voted by the margin of 191-2 (with the United States and Israel voting no) registering the posture of the Donald Trump White House which has escalated bellicose rhetoric against Cuba and moved to further restrict travel back and forth between Cuba and the United States. In 2016, in the last period of the Barack Obama Administration, which had seen through the establishment of US-Cuban formal diplomatic relations in 2015, Washington and Tel Aviv had abstained. US bilateral and extraterritorial economic, commercial, and financial sanctions against Cuba continued under the Obama Administration. Despite its deferential vote with Washington at the UN, Israel and Cuba have significant economic exchanges with no sanctions and freedom of travel between the two nations.

  8. In Fidel Castro: My Life, A Spoken Autobiography by Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet, Scribner 2008, Fidel describes how “[In] July 1947, at the age of twenty-one I joined the Cay Confites expedition to fight against the dictatorship of Trujillo, since in my first year [at the University of Havana] I’d been designated chairman of the [Federation of University Student’s] Committee for Dominican Democracy. I’d also been named Chairman of the Committee for Puerto Rican Independence.” While the expedition was a debacle, Castro called it “an experience of great political importance,” which he describes on p. 97-98.
  9. In one of his last addresses to the Cuban people on November 17, 2005, Fidel gave a major speech at the University of Havana before becoming ill and undergoing major surgery less than one year later.  The wide-ranging speech is a remarkable and noteworthy document for many reasons. In it Fidel zeroed in on questions of economic waste, bureaucracy, and corruption as Cuba was beginning to emerge from the economic crisis and “Special Period” starting in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    In the speech Castro spoke candidly about how the PSP was politically discredited among the revolutionary-minded youth of his generation, when it allied with Batista and joined his government. Referring to “the erroneous direction that was imposed by Stalin on the international movement,” pushing the PSP alliance with Batista. “By then, Batista had suppressed the famous strike of April 1934 that followed his coup against the provisional government in 1933 which was unquestionably revolutionary in nature and to a large degree, the result of the historical fight of the workers’ movement and the Cuban communists. Before that anti-fascist alliance, Batista had assassinated countless numbers of people and robbed incredible sums of money, and had become a flunky of Yankee imperialism.  The order came from Moscow: organize the anti-fascist front.  It was a pact with the devil.  Here the pact was with the fascist ABC and Batista, a fascist of a different color, who was both a criminal and robber of the public coffer. And further in the speech, “[T]hat alliance with Batista…who had repressed students and the public in general. The young people resented [Batista’s] power very much; the workers who had always seen their interests continuously defended by the communist leaders were firmly loyal to the Party, but it was amongst the youth and wide popular sectors of society that there was the most justified rejection of Batista.”

  10. See Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution by Thomas Patterson, Oxford University Press, 1994 on the Dwight Eisenhower White House’s endeavors to make contact with anti-Batista forces, including the July 26 Movement. This, of course, was conditioned by the growing political turmoil and crisis in Cuba as the Batista regime grew more hated and isolated, and as the armed struggle – politically led by Fidel Castro – was advancing.
  11. Ernesto Che Guevara’s Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War 1956-58, (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1996), remains the classic, first-hand account of the course of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. It is a literary and historical gem.
  12. A panel at The Cuban Playa Giron Museum commemorates the defeat of the counter-revolutionaries. One of its panels reads: “The social composition of the mercenary brigade revealed the interests that they hoped to re-establish. An analysis of prisoners demonstrated that 800 of them, or their families, had owned 370,628 hectares of land [around 916,000 acres], 9,666 houses or buildings, 70 factories, 10 sugar refineries, five mines and two banks. They also included 135 soldiers of the tyrant Batista, and 65 criminals, among whom were three known murderers and torturers.” Fidel Castro personally interviewed and interrogated each prisoner and reported these figures and more at a massive May Day 1961 rally in Havana, eight days after the Cuban victory.
  13. Accurate statistics for pre-revolutionary Cuba regarding social and class composition and demographics are often incomplete, unreliable, and easy to manipulate. Slightly less than half of the Cuban population lived in the countryside according to the 1953 Cuban Census. Categories of landless peasants, family farmers (also mostly impoverished), and agricultural workers overlapped. Land ownership was dominated by giant monopolies or latifundia. The overriding factor to understand the pre-revolutionary social and class structures and system in Cuba was the domination of US capital in the overall Cuban economy. In his first-hand 1968 account, The Economic Transformation of Cuba (Monthly Review Press, New York), Edward Boorstein writes, “Sugar dominated the economy. Together with its byproducts, alcohol and molasses, sugar made up about 80 percent of the exports and paid for the bulk of the imports. The sugar companies controlled 70 to 75 percent of the arable land; they owned two-thirds of the railroad trackage; most of the ports and many of the roads were simply adjuncts of the sugar mills. The sugar industry employed about 25 percent of the labor force. The export of sugar and its byproducts constituted 20 to 30 percent of the gross domestic product. But this last percentage does not give sugar its true importance: most of the rest of the gross product depended on sugar.

    “The sugar industry was seasonal, unstable, and stagnant, and it imparted these characteristics to the whole economy. It employed about four to five hundred thousand workers to cut, load, and transport the cane during the three or four months of the harvest season, and then left them to starve during the rest of the year. The price and demand for sugar rode up and down with war and peace and business cycles, taking the whole Cuban economy with them. Since export outlets for Cuban sugar were growing only slowly, the whole Cuban economy stagnated.

    “Even apart from sugar, there was great concentration in Cuban exports. When tobacco, minerals, and coffee are added, 94 to 98 percent of total exports is accounted for. Tobacco exports, next in importance after sugar, also stagnated. They were about as high in 1957-1958 as in 1920-1921. The earnings from minerals and coffee were small and uncertain.

    “With exports stagnating, the only way the Cuban economy could have advanced was by increasing production for domestic use…[But] diversification and growth of agricultural output was blocked by the landholding system…Some new manufacturing industries producing for the Cuban market were being established, but they were foreign enclaves, appendages of the American or some other foreign economy…

    “Most of the land in Cuba was monopolized by huge latifundia – sugar plantations and cattle ranches – that sprawled across the countryside. Both sugar grower and rancher practiced extensive agriculture which wasted land, limited employment opportunities, and kept agricultural output down.”

  14. For a dramatic, beautifully rendered account, by the Nobel Prize in Literature-recipient Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of the Cuban mission, named “Operation Carlota,” in honor of an African slave in Cuba who, in 1843, was killed leading an uprising of women slaves in the city of Matanzas, against the Spanish slave masters and colonizers, click here.
  15. For the full, documented, and riveting account of all of this, see Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991 by Piero Gleijeses, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. This volume, along with the previous Conflicting Missions University of North Carolina Press 2003 are classic works where Gleijeses weaves together in meticulous detail and documentation, the amazing history of Cuban internationalism in Africa, telling the full story of the defeat and unraveling of the South African apartheid state. Gleijeses, a noted scholar at Johns Hopkins University, was able to gain unprecedented access to US, Soviet-bloc, apartheid South African, and Cuban previously secret archives and documents.
  16. I visited El Salvador in November 1988 as part of an international labor delegation, representing the Washington Area Labor Committee on Central America and the Caribbean. We went there to attend the 20th Congress of the National Federation of Salvadoran Worker’s Unions (FENASTRAS). FENASTRAS organized, at the time, some 20,000 workers in many industries, including textile, garment, transport, and fishing. FENASTRAS wanted to test the waters and political space to hold a public Congress. Having an international trade-union delegation, with representatives from the US, UK, and other European countries (including, as I remember, a top Norwegian union leader) to physically attend the Congress was not only an act of solidarity but would hopefully be a protection for the gathered Salvadoran workers. The US folks flying into San Salvador were met furtively by two FENASTRAS leaders. Both were targeted by death squads. We learned details of the astonishing 800 FENASTRAS members and leaders who had been murdered by right-wing death squads tied to Washington. When we arrived to the FENASTRAS headquarters sandbags were stacked ten-feet high. I remember five minutes before the Congress was to start there were only the international delegation and a handful of Salvadorans. As I was thinking to myself, “well, this is a bust,” within the next five minutes hundreds of workers poured in using routes and means planned out for enhanced security. The Congress was a big success, but one year later, two of our hosts, including the dynamic and courageous General Secretary Elizabeth Velasquez, affectionately called Febe by workers, a textile worker and mother of three who organized a large plant making Levis and Calvin Klein jeans in San Salvador, and another FENASTRAS leader, Jose Daniel Melendez were among the ten people murdered when a powerful bomb devastated the FENASTRAS headquarters.
  17. At this time, anti-revolutionary Cuban-American organizations, with histories of violence and terrorism against Cuba, illegally organized from US territory, stepped up subversive provocations against Cuba, targeting in particular the rapidly expanding Cuban tourism industry. A terrorist bomb killed an Italian tourist. After repeated attempts to get the US government to act against this, a team of Cuban revolutionaries were dispatched to South Florida to infiltrate and monitor these groups clandestinely. Until they were arrested in 1998, the Cuban Five – Fernando Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernandez, and Ramon Labanino – preempted a number of planned attacks. A major international campaign organized over many years demanding freedom for the Cuban Five. The last three incarcerated Cuban heroes were released in December 2014, as part of the agreement between Cuban President Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama to restore US-Cuban diplomatic relations. Fidel had promised the Cuban people they would return, and he lived to see it.
  18. Che’s “Message to the Tricontinental,” was published by the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Ospaal) in April 1967, while Che was fighting in Bolivia. It included a direct, stinging rebuke to the Soviet and Chinese governments: “US imperialism is guilty of aggression — its crimes are enormous and cover the whole world. We already know all that, gentlemen! But this guilt also applies to those who, when the time came for a definition, hesitated to make Vietnam an inviolable part of the socialist world; running, of course, the risks of a war on a global scale-but also forcing a decision upon imperialism. And the guilt also applies to those who maintain a war of abuse and snares — started quite some time ago by the representatives of the two greatest powers of the socialist camp.

Socialist Planning Circles

Common objections to socialist planning from below

In my last article, “Do You Socialists Have Any Plans? Why We Need Socialist Architects“, I argued that the only way 21st century socialism is going to get any traction with working class people is to not only have a socialist vision, but also to have feasible plans which suggest transitions in between the current capitalist crisis and our ultimate vision.

In that article, I presented the following objections along with their rebuttal through a dialogue between two workers: an older worker, Andrew, and a young, anarchist worker, Sean. The objections of Sean to socialist planning transitions were:

  • Marx said a plan isn’t necessary—the workers of the future will figure this out.
  • Workers are only capable of dealing with survival needs. Planning is too remote from every-day life for them.
  • Plans are rigid and can’t do justice to the complexity of social life.
  • Plans aren’t implemented as politics gets in the way. (Stalin’s chaotic five-year plan)
  • There is something inherently revolutionary about collective spontaneity.

Let’s examine some small but hopeful moments that could benefit from and be deepened by socialists who have collective experience making socialist plans.

Disaster socialism as a precursor

In his book Introduction to Collective Behavior and Collective Action, David Miller cites convincing research demonstrating that natural disasters bring out the best rather than the worst in people. Contrary to centrist newspapers’ mantras about “looting”, most people respond to a crisis heroically. Instead of mainstream newspapers’ warmed-over version of a Lord of the Flies scenario, if we examine the mass behavior in the recent hurricanes to hit Florida, Texas, Mexico and Puerto Rico, we find stories of people acting altruistically, in socialist ways. From a socialist point of view, the problems with the crowd’s altruistic response to these disasters is that after the storm people have not built socialist institutions that can help them extend their altruism longer before the return to a rapidly collapsing capitalism. Yet the behavior of masses of people in natural disasters is very close to how people behave in revolutionary situations. How can we preserve and deepen the memory of such collective creativity?

Workers cooperatives

Capitalists have done a good job of convincing people that there is “no alternative to capitalism because all socialism is Stalinism – and that has failed. This ignores the fact that workers’ self-management, workers’ control, and worker cooperatives currently exist and many are surviving with better production records than capitalist businesses or workers under state socialism. (Seymour Melman’s book After Capitalism provides a wonderful description of this). In the case of worker cooperatives, they are managed and run by workers themselves, most of whom have ownership in the company. Through regularly held general assemblies, workers decide together what will be produced, how much will be produced, how long and how hard they will work and what they will be paid. They also decide what tools and resources they will purchase and what they will do with the surplus. This is a radical departure from companies where workers have no say in any of these matters. John Curl’s book, For All the People documents the history of workers’ co-ops.We don’t expect miracles from any worker co-op because they still have to exist within a decaying world capitalist system. However, worker co-ops and the flashes of “disaster socialism” are promising.

Rank-and-file union democracy

As many of you know, radical unions in the early 20th century in the United States like the Wobblies used to talk about workers running things on their own, having “One Big Union”. Now unions have given up any vision of workers running anything. Instead, they preside over the most myopic concerns at sparsely attended meetings. In fact, when my partner once asked her shop steward at the university where she worked, “why don’t all these separate unions unite under one union instead of having numerous small ones? Wouldn’t we be stronger united?”, the steward looked at her like she was from another planet. Despite this, one small bright spot in the United States is Labor Notes, a monthly publication which tracks union activity around the US from the point of view of the rank-and-file. These monthly reports are union workers’ experiences with the strategies and tactics they used to combat employers and were largely independent of union leadership.

What is missing from these scenes of “disaster socialism” workers’ co-ops and rank-and file union democracy is a unified political party which coordinates, synchronizes, deepens and expands all these activities and spreads them to wider sectors of society with some kind of transition program. We don’t have such a party, but if we did the party would need a coordinated plan to link these experiences together in time and space.

Limitations of Trotskyist transition programs

Unlike anarchists, Leninists have experience with state power and understand the importance of a socialist transition program which takes years and decades to implement. In the United States, the Socialist Workers Party used to lay out a transition program as part of their presidential runs. We think this was a very good idea. The problem here is that all the imaginary planning was done by the vanguard party. “The workers”, as Lenin said, “can attain only a trade union consciousness”. They need to be injected with the collective imagination of the vanguard. But the workers of Russia during the first four years of the revolution and the Spanish workers during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939 showed more collective imagination than any vanguard party. They developed general assemblies, workers’ councils, and direct democracy by politically mandating delegates rather than representatives. Optimally, these delegates were rotated and were strictly recallable. These were the inventions of working class collective creativity that were not imposed on them by any socialist leadership. In the case of Russia, it was the Bolshevik party that reacted and supported these councils or “soviets”, for a time. But the origin of these political forms were workers, peasants and soldiers.

Filling in the Gaps

As I said in my previous article, socialists are very good at criticizing capitalism. You can get us to argue about what would and wouldn’t be allowed in our ideal socialist society: whether or not to abolish inheritance; how people should be compensated for their work or whether we use labor vouchers or dissolve all mediated exchange of products and services. But the moment you say “what about the messy transition from the current capitalist crisis to our ideal conditions?”, almost everyone disappears.

There are a few visionaries who propose scenarios about what socialist futures might look like and how to get there, including David Schweickart, John Romer, Michael Albert, and Erik Olin Wright. But do radical organizers use these plans? No. They either don’t know about them or they do know, and they dismiss them because the theorists are academics. But worse, they don’t even think plans are necessary. At best, radical organizers go from socialist principles directly to strategies, tactics and then to collective actions. My claim in this article is that between principles and actions there needs to be socialist plans that inform strategies and tactics. Plans mediate between principles and strategies. They ground principles, making them more tangible while they give wings to strategies by keeping the long-view in mind.

Here is what I don’t understand. Socialists have no problem starting and sustaining book clubs in which they discuss and learn what the great theorists say. There are book clubs about politics, economics, history and anthropology. But there are no meeting groups where socialists are forced to write detailed plans to answer questions such as:

  • Give me a snap-shot version of how a socialist future will work in terms of politics, economics, the workplace, housing and education.
  • How long do you project it would it take, and by what process are you going to get there?

If I weren’t already a socialist these are the questions I would expect most socialists to be able to answer readily. If they couldn’t do this I’d never take them seriously. If fiction-writing groups get together and write stories, why don’t socialists get together and share their dreams as architects of socialism?

My Personal experience with socialist planning circles

About three years ago, four of us got together for over a year and engaged in what we called a “socialist planning circle”. We met for three hours once every two weeks. We each developed our own plans for the most basic social institutions that would need to be reorganized as part of the revolution – food production, basic housing, energy harnessing, transportation systems, and workplace organization, to name a few.

The kind of controversies we addressed were:

  • Economic allocation systems: who is entitled to what under what conditions?
  • What does a transition out of the wage system look like?
  • How do we institute a global minimum wage to keep capitalists from leaving a country?
  • How to we abolish finance capital? Is there a place for “socialist banks?”
  • How might food cooperatives reorganize food production?
  • If we want to abolish the prison system, what do we do with people who continue to engage in anti-social activities?
  • By what process would shortening the work week be institutionalized?
  • Which social industries can afford to be localized and which, say, energy system might need to remain centralized?
  • How to coordinate workers’ councils from the local to regional level?
  • Will we still have a need for political parties and if so, how would they be organized?

Our procedure in socialist planning circles

We agreed on an area in social life from our master list, say economic allocation. Over the next two weeks we each created our own vision of the future about economic allocation. We each made a table entitled “The Current Crisis of Capitalism” and followed it through in six phases:

  • Transition one phase
  • Justification for transition one
  • Transition two phase
  • Justification for transition two
  • Ideal condition
  • Justification for ideal condition

Once the phases were identified:

  • Each of us presented our plan for economic allocation at the next meeting
  • We criticized and discussed each other’s plans
  • Two weeks later we synthesized the plans into a written document
  • We picked a new topic and repeated the steps

What was invigorating about this process was how often we already had ideas about these topics but we didn’t know we had them because we never asked ourselves, let alone anyone else. We also learned a great deal from the criticism from other members. Some of us were hesitant about our own plans but we could be critical of the plans of others. These criticisms in turn led us to look at our own hesitant plans in a new way. What was also interesting was the need to prioritize in what order we would restructure things in a socialist manner. It’s like a parody of the old show “Queen for a Day”. If the gods said you had a week to build a socialist system, what would you do first, second and third?

Justification for socialist planning circles

A socialist planning circle is a small group of 4 to 8 people formed with the intention of:

  • Giving socialists confidence that we can plan the future now while living under capitalism. This involves learning and practicing our skills at planning transition programs for the infrastructure, structure and superstructure of socialist society among ourselves. We rehearse our scenarios in the hope that when capitalism collapses we have some semblance of a collective, structured understanding as to what is to be done because we have shaped, criticized and refined our plans through thought, discussion, writing, criticism and revision over weeks, months and years.
  • Once we have experienced this process in a pilot group, we establish new groups to provide a supportive atmosphere to help working class people build confidence that they are smart enough to coordinate production across their workplaces.

There is a need for working class visionaries who learn to collectively imagine socialist futures, not by reading books, but by writing and sharing our imaginations now, before capitalism completely collapses. We need to rehearse, rehearse and rehearse our socialist plans with each other. We need to begin to cultivate our social imaginations now, rather than waiting for leaders or vanguard parties to do this for us. We have to have the nerve to say, “I can imagine transportation systems could be run this way, or food distribution should be run that way”. This project requires us to take seriously our socialist claim that we know how things could work in an ultimate sense, as we imagine how we navigate in the immediate future through the muddy, murky waters of getting from the crisis to our ideal conditions.

Objections

Why don’t you just start a reading group of socialist visionaries like you mentioned earlier rather than reinventing the wheel?

For the same reasons that you don’t begin scientific research with a literature review. You begin with your hypothesis and what the reasons are you think will support it. Then you do the literature review. Otherwise what you think is buried by the literature review. The same thing is true for art. You don’t begin drawing the figure by measuring it with a ruler. You begin with a gesture drawing, so you bring life into the drawing. You measure later. In the case of socialist planning, I’m convinced that people have an unconscious knowledge of how social organization could be. It is currently buried within them and needs to become conscious and worked on. The scenarios of scholars would only bury this unconscious knowledge. In the revolutionary situations that are coming, we are going to have to figure this out by ourselves anyway.

Socialist planning circles are too abstract and not connected to the working class. Getting together and spinning socialist plans pulls us away from the daily struggles of poor and working-class people. It will draw people who just want to talk and not act.

This is a danger in a discussion group in which there is no reading and where no preparation is required. It is less of a problem in a structured reading group because the individuals must make the effort to read the book in order to discuss it. A socialist planning group requires imagination and preparation, just the way a painting group would require people to bring two paintings to show for the next meeting or a songwriters’ group would expect people to come up with two songs for the next meeting. In some ways planning is more difficult than imagining ideal conditions. Ideal conditions ask you to imagine how things could be in an ultimate sense. Socialist planning groups ask, “How are you going to get there”. In my opinion, the second requires a far more active commitment. A socialist planning group would very quickly shed ‘dead weight” people who just wanted to talk.

These plans will dissolve once they face the realities of real social life

Any socialist who participated in these groups would know that when they return to their political practice much of the plans they learned to cultivate in the group would crumble and dissolve. However, the collective memory of some of these plans would remain and grow stronger by continuing in the socialist planning hot-houses over weeks, months and even years.

For example “participatory budgeting” is a way for people to become involved in local economics by having a say in the prioritization of the city’s budget. This exercise is designed to give residents practice in how to plan economically. But years ago, anarchist Murray Bookchin argued that the basic unit of city governance should not be city council, but neighborhood assemblies. City budget priorities were proposed at these local assemblies. Does that mean the city council in a capitalist city would accept that local neighborhood assemblies should exist at all? Of course not! Neither are they likely to agree if these assemblies decided that they wanted real estate “developers” kicked out along with a reduction of the police force. The important thing is to awaken in working class people a taste for planning and running things independently of the outcome.

The subtitle of this article was very carefully chosen. I am not advocating a static blueprint. I am advocating building scaffolds. In a technical sense a scaffold is defined as a temporary structure outside a building used by workers while constructing or repairing a building. Scaffolds are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for buildings. Scaffolds are not buildings. But without scaffolds there would be no buildings. The buildings themselves are like the socialist institutions of the future. The scaffolds are the means by which we build that future. There will be no socialist “buildings” without scaffolds.

As capitalism continues to decline, we will have more “disaster socialism” situations because the chickens are coming home to roost in capitalist ecological policies. Workers’ co-ops may spread because they will pay better entry level wages than capitalists and they are less likely to fire people in times of crisis. Rank-and-file democracy in unions will spread as workers become increasingly disgusted by a union leadership wedded to the Democratic Party. In all these circumstances the memory and enactment of socialist planning circles’ scaffolds could only deepen and organize what is already going on.

Optimally socialist planning circles would be an institutionalized, ongoing structure within a working-class party. It could certainly be implemented within the Green Party. But we can’t wait for these organizations to do this. Socialist planning circles should begin now. If organizations form later to house socialist planning circles, fine, but we cannot afford to wait for them to see the light. We must be our own light. If they these political forms emerge later, they will be lucky to have us!

55 Years After: Political Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis

The last two weeks of October 1962, 55 years ago, was the closest the world has come so far to a widespread nuclear exchange in what has become known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” 

The First Use of Nuclear Weapons

In August 1945, the United States government, having, at that moment, a monopoly on the “atom bomb,” unilaterally dropped nuclear explosives, successively, on the civilian inhabitants of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time of this clear war crime, Japanese imperialism’s conquests and vast expansion in China, the Pacific Rim, and Southeast Asia, that began in the 1930s, had shrunk sharply. The Japanese rulers were utterly alone and isolated politically; their German Nazi ally was defeated, smashed, and under occupation. Japanese imperialism was in headlong retreat under intense attack from, on the one hand, rival colonial powers and imperialists fighting to get their colonial territories back, and indigenous independence forces in the remaining lands they occupied on the other. The latter was a mass upsurge for national independence and included resistance to Japanese aggression in parts of Manchuria in China, as well as Korea, Vietnam, and the “Dutch East Indies,” now Indonesia.

At the time the decision to explode the nukes on Japanese cities was made, the Japanese navy was incapable of any operations and the Japanese merchant fleet was destroyed. The Japanese government had begun to send out “peace feelers,” fully aware of its hopeless situation. Washington’s utterly ruthless action – rationalized as necessary to prevent mass casualties for US soldiers in a ground invasion of Japan – finalized the defeat and prostration of the Japanese Empire in the Asian-Pacific “theater” of World War II…and sent an unmistakable shock and signal to the world for all time.

Cuba In the Eye of the Storm

The young leaders of the Cuban Revolution, now holding governmental power, were in the very eye of the storm during those last two October weeks of 1962. In the end the diffusing and resolution of the Missile Crisis – in the sense of reversing and ending the momentum toward imminent nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union – came when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave way to US President John Kennedy’s demands and agreed to halt further naval shipments of nuclear missiles to Cuba and withdraw those already in Cuban territory. Khrushchev further agreed to the removal of Soviet medium-range conventional bombers, very useful to the Cubans for defending their coastlines, and a near-complete withdrawal of Soviet combat brigades.

For his part, Kennedy made a semi-public conditional formulation that the US government would not invade Cuba (this was not legally binding or attached to any signed legal or written document). Kennedy also agreed, in a secret protocol, to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Turkey that bordered the Soviet Union.

The Cuban government, which had, at great political risk, acceded to the Soviet proposal to deploy Soviet nuclear missiles on the island, was not consulted, or even informed, by the Soviet government, at any stage of the unfolding crisis, of the unfolding US-Soviet negotiations. With Cuban representatives completely excluded, the five points Cuba wanted to see addressed and included in any overall agreement coming out of the crisis were ignored altogether under US insistence and Soviet acquiescence. The entire experience was both politically shocking and eye-opening for the Cuban revolutionaries. They came out of it acutely conscious of their vulnerability and angered over their exclusion.1

Washington Plans Direct Invasion

By April 20, 1961, the revolutionary Cuban armed forces, led by Fidel Castro, was victoriously mopping up on the coastal battlefields and detaining survivors from the routed counter-revolutionary Cuban exile “army.” An army was organized by the US government and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron to the Cubans). This major operation to overthrow the “Castro” government and destroy the Cuban Revolution had been devised by the Dwight Eisenhower White House and carried out by the new Kennedy Administration in its third month after taking office.

At the time of their April 1961 victory at the Bay of Pigs over the counter-revolutionary exiles, Fidel Castro declared that the Cuban Revolution was a socialist revolution and that he was a “Marxist-Leninist.” Castro’s declaration corresponded to the social and economic deeds and policies being implemented by the revolutionary government (and to the profound internationalism of the Cuban leadership team). By 1962 the major domestic and foreign privately-owned major means of production in utilities, transportation, heavy and light industry, manufacturing, mining, and oil refining had been nationalized (mostly with fair compensation) by the workers and farmers government.2

Concurrent with this, the revolutionary government established a state monopoly of foreign trade and the first shoots of central economic planning began which would supersede the old neo-colonial capitalist market. With all its flaws and contradictions, pressures and counter-pressures, a qualitative class transformation of the Cuban state had been realized in a dynamic way. Certainly, bipartisan Washington and the entire bourgeois political spectrum in the US from left to right had no illusions in this regard. The hostility of the US Democratic and Republican parties to “Castro’s Revolution” was monolithic and poised for aggression at that time.

Playa Giron was as humiliating and unacceptable for Washington as it had built confidence and was invigorating for the Cuban revolutionaries. It was certainly no secret to anyone paying the slightest attention that not even a nanosecond passed between Washington’s debacle at the Bay of Pigs and the planning for a new invasion. But this time it would be directly by US forces without the proxy agency of the mercenary “troops” of the former ruling classes of Cuba, who were by then ensconced in southern Florida. Since October 1961 the Pentagon officers assigned to prepare for the US invasion of Cuba had been revising, updating, and “polishing” the concrete details. These “operational plans” were continually reviewed with President Kennedy.

Cuba faced an imminent, violent one-two punch: intensive aerial bombardment followed by large-scale invasion on multiple fronts. It was less than ten years since the last major US war in Korea, a former Japanese colony artificially divided in the aftermath of World War II. The impact of US bombing on the northern Korean state and its capital of Pyongyang, could not have been encouraging to the Cuban leadership. Virtually the entire city was flattened by US carpet bombings. According to the Australian journalist and eyewitness to the carnage Wilfred Burchett, “There were only two buildings left standing in Pyongyang.”

Pyongyang, Korea in 1953. US saturation bombing flattened 18 of North Korea’s 22 cities, an unequaled level of destruction in modern wars.

All in all Washington dropped some 635,000 tons of bombs (plus over 30,000 tons of napalm) on northern Korea. This compares to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific Theater during World War II by all sides.

While the numbers of civilian deaths from the US bombing assaults in Korea are inexact, well over 1 million Koreans in the north died, some 12-15% of the total population by conservative estimates. If you add injuries and missing the figure reaches 3 million. (For a comprehensive, classic account of the origins and development of the Korean War see The Hidden History of the Korean War by legendary US journalist I.F. Stone first published by Monthly Review Press in 1952. It can also be downloaded at the Amazon Kindle Store.)

The 2017 Kennedy Assassination Files

At the end of October 2017, amid some hoopla, the Donald Trump White House allowed the release of nearly 2900 previously “classified” US government files and documents pertinent to the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy. Other files and documents were held back for now.

A number of these documents reference US violent plots against Cuba, including assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and other revolutionary leaders by the Kennedy Administration. These reconfirm what has long been known on the massive military force Washington was planning to employ to invade and occupy Cuba and crush the revolutionary government after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

One document, a memo from August 8, 1962 – over two months before the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban territory – states, “In order to seize control of key strategic areas in Cuba within 10-15 days with minimum casualties to both sides [an absurd throwaway line regarding what could only have been horrific slaughter and massive dead and wounded] about 261,000 US military personnel would participate in the operation.” The memo was addressed to a “Special Group” within the Kennedy White House that was coordinating intensifying US efforts to eliminate the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro. The October 30, 2017 USA Today writes:

While this and other documents had nothing to do with the actual assassination, it was included in the files because of the connection between Kennedy’s desire to remove Castro from power, his support of Cuban exiles to help him, and the affinity of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald for the Castro government.

The “operational plans” for the US invasion of Cuba were to involve the initial dispatching of 90,000 troops and was projected to reach the 261,000 figure. This for a country of six million people. (For comparison, the population of Vietnam was around 40 million during the years of the US war in the 1960s and early 1970s. US troop levels reached over 500,000. Massive US military operations, in the air and on the ground, killed millions of Vietnamese, perhaps 10% of the Vietnamese population).

There is no question that once “the dogs of war” were unleashed against Cuba, with the accompanying propaganda onslaught, Washington would wage a war of annihilation under the rote cover of “democratic” and even “humanitarian” verbiage. Cuban resistance would be fierce. Mounting US casualties would, in the initial period, feed war fever and US aggression. In short: Cuba faced unheard of death and destruction…and the clock was ticking.

Operation Mongoose

By this time President Kennedy’s “Operation Mongoose” was in effect. “Mongoose” was essentially a large-scale terrorist campaign and US intervention inside Cuba employing sabotage, bombings, murder, and so-called “psychological warfare.” Kennedy’s cynical purpose was to undertake and carry out any means deemed necessary to disrupt and demoralize Cuban society through constant, incessant violent attacks and economic sabotage to the point where the social and political conditions would be created for a full-scale US invasion.

But Kennedy and his civilian and military “advisors” continued to underestimate both the caliber of the revolutionary leadership and the capacities of the Cuban working people and youth they were terrorizing, as well as the Revolution’s determination and competence to organize their defenses.

Above all, the US rulers were not used to facing such a politically savvy enemy. The young Cuban revolutionary government, with the indefatigable Fidel Castro as its main spokesperson, was adept and quick on its feet in effectively exposing to world public opinion Washington’s anti-Cuba campaign through a vigorous, public, and factually accurate counter-offensive based on telling the truth about what the Revolution was actually doing and what the US government was actually doing.

The logic behind “Operation Mongoose” was bluntly laid out in an internal memorandum of April 6, 1960 by L.D. Mallory, a US State Department senior official:

The majority of Cubans support Castro … the only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship. … every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.

Mallory proposed “a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government.”

On July 26, 1961 – the national holiday declared by the revolutionary government commemorating the July 26, 1953 attack led by Fidel Castro and Abel Santamaria on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba – the CIA attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara during the celebrations. The CIA plan was, if the murders were “successful,” to stage a provocation against the US base at Guantanamo and make it appear to be Cuban revenge for the murder of their top leaders. This would then be the pretext for a full-scale US invasion. Here on full display is the cynical mendacity operating at the top of the US government in the drive to bring back the power of the landowners, rich playboys, segregationists, gangsters, and pimps – the full flower of “democracy” to the benighted Cuban masses suffering under literacy drives, free medical care, desegregated public facilities, and the crushing of the US Mafia.

Raul Castro and Che Guevara

During the next month of August 1961, the CIA organized one of its most pernicious campaigns against the revolutionary government. Its agents spread lies through a built-up rumor bill that there was a Cuban government policy to take all children away from their parents by force and raise them in “state institutions.” Some 15,000 Cuban families, overwhelmingly from middle- and upper classes full of prejudice and hostility to the Revolution, panicked and sent their children mostly to the US in response to a Big Lie, under the CIA’s infamous “Operation Peter Pan.”

CIA-hatched “Operation Peter Pan.”

The Revolution Advances Its Social Program

So, while all this criminal activity was going on, the Cuban Revolution advanced its program of social justice and human liberation for the oppressed and exploited majority as the most effective counter-force to the Yanqui aggression. On February 26, 1962 Cuba’s now fully legal and rejuvenated labor unions provided the people power for the campaign of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Health to carry out a nationwide drive for vaccination against polio. By the end of the year the disease was completely wiped out on the island. It took the United Nation’s World Health Organization, then far more subject to pressure from Washington than now, 43 years to finally recognize that Cuba was the first nation in the Americas to accomplish this.

Things like this, and the full array of revolutionary advances taking place in the face of Washington’s mounting terrorist campaign, convinced General Maxwell Taylor, who oversaw Operation Mongoose with Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the White House, that the terrorist operation “mak[ing] maximum use of indigenous resources,” could not and would not do the job of overthrowing the revolutionary government. “Final success,” Taylor explained in a March 1962 report to President Kennedy, “will require decisive US military intervention.” US spies inside Cuba, at most, could help “prepare and justify this intervention and thereafter facilitate and support it.” With the Bay of Pigs debacle still fresh in his mind, and without some of the blinders of more gung-ho invasion advocates, Kennedy hesitated to give a green light to the invasion plans he himself had ordered up. It remained yellow-lighted, however, and Kennedy directed that Mongoose terrorism continue and step up.

The terrorist anti-Cuba campaign was not limited to Cuban territory. On April 28, 1962 the New York offices of the Cuban Press Agency Prensa Latina was attacked in New York, injuring three staff members.

More seriously, from May 8-18, 1962 a “practice run” for the US invasion of Cuba took place. The full-scale “military exercise” was code named “Operation Whip Lash” and sent an unmistakable signal of intimidation from the US military colossus to the six million people of Cuba.

All this mounting imperialist intervention had only one possible ending point – short of a Cuban surrender, which would never come. Events were coming to a head in Washington, Moscow, and Havana. Events that ineluctably posed and placed the nuclear question in the equation.

While the Cuban government and overwhelming popular majority were mobilized, armed to the teeth, and prepared to fight to the death, they wanted to live in peace and to enjoy the fruits of building a new society after a hard-fought revolutionary triumph. The Cuban leadership fully understood that a US invasion would kill many hundreds of thousands and destroy the Cuban infrastructure and economy. How to stop the coming US invasion was the burning question for the revolutionary government.

Khrushchev Rolls the Dice

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, the Soviet leadership was facing a decidedly negative nuclear relationship of forces vis-à-vis Washington. This position of inequality (in the framework of the aptly acronymed Mutually Assured Destruction – aka MAD – nuclear doctrine) was perceived in Moscow as an impediment to carrying out political negotiations and maneuvering with Washington and the NATO powers, and defending Soviet interests in the “geopolitical” Cold War arena.

By April 1962 fifteen US Jupiter nuclear missiles had been installed and were “operational” in Turkey on the border of the Soviet Union. “Operational” meant ready to launch at any moment. Each missile was armed with a 1.45 megaton warhead, with ninety-seven times the firepower of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The official estimate of the “fatality projection” for each missile was one million Soviet civilians.

The Jupiter deployment in Turkey added to the overwhelming US superiority in quantity and quality in the “nuclear arms race” between Washington and Moscow. According to Anatoly Gribkov of the Red Army General Staff (cited in the television program DEFCON-2 shown on the US Military Channel), “The United States had about 5000 [nuclear] warheads, the Soviet Union 300. And of those [300] only two or three dozen that could hit the United States.” Khrushchev decided to alleviate this “imbalance” by placing missiles on the Cuban island if he succeeded in selling the idea to the Cuban leadership.3

Sometime in the spring (April-May) of 1962 the Khrushchev government of the Soviet Union proposed to the Cuban government that Cuba receive nuclear-tipped missiles on Cuban territory.  In no other country (including none of its “Warsaw Pact” allies, who were all politically subordinate to the Soviet government) had the Soviet government located nuclear missiles outside of Soviet territory.

Washington, by contrast, had openly placed nuclear missiles in numerous western European countries as well as Turkey and secretly in Okinawa, Japan, aimed at China. (The United Kingdom and France, both US allies, also had nuclear arsenals by that time. China detonated its first nuclear bomb in an October 1964 “test.”) Additionally, US “strategic” nuclear armed aircraft were in the air ready for attack orders 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. US nuclear submarines were in similar mode, and even more difficult to detect.

While Soviet capabilities undoubtedly lagged behind the US, it was not so much so as to preclude inevitable reciprocal attack in response to any US “first strike.” Soviet missiles in Cuba would theoretically be a further deterrent to any US “first strike” threat. Placing the missiles in Cuba was clearly seen by the Soviet government as a bargaining piece to advance Soviet strategic interests in the nuclear chessboard that animated US-Soviet “diplomatic” maneuvers and intrigue and political objectives on both sides.

Khrushchev evidently presumed that, faced with a fait accompli, Washington would redress the imbalance to the benefit of the Soviet Union. The Soviet missiles, upon being fully operational, would be able to strike major population centers and whole geographic regions of the US, roughly equivalent to the potential death-dealing capacity Washington had through its missiles in Europe surrounding and targeted on the Soviet Union. Of course, the big “if” in all of this reasoning was getting to the accompli. Given US technical proficiency this was a fantasy.

Cuba Accepts the Soviet Proposal

At the end of May 1962 the first direct presentation of the Soviet proposal was delivered to Fidel Castro and Raul Castro in Cuba by a Soviet delegation led by an alternate member of the Soviet Presidium (an executive decision-making body). The Soviet officials revealed to the Cuban leaders that their “intelligence” told them conclusively that a US invasion was being seriously prepared, to be implemented at any time over the next months. Of course, the Soviets were not telling the Cubans anything they did not already know in general, but there were new specific facts and details. The now-concrete proposal that measures to fortify Cuban defenses would include the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island naturally led to intense consultations within the top Cuban leadership. The chief government ministers involved were Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Osvaldo Dorticos, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, and Blas Roca. The day after the proposal was received the Cuban leadership told the Soviet delegation that the nuclear deployment was acceptable in principle.

In extensive discussions with European journalist Ignacio Ramonet (which became the book My Life: A Spoken Autobiography by Fidel Castro, published in 2006 by Scribner) Fidel Castro referred to the discussions within the Cuban central leadership. He said that besides Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership’s “sincere desire to prevent an attack against Cuba…they were hoping to improve the balance of strategic forces…I added that it would be inconsistent of us to expect the maximum support from the USSR and the rest of the Socialist camp should we be attacked by the United States and yet refuse to face the political risks and the possible damage to our reputation when they needed us. That ethical and revolutionary point of view was accepted unanimously.”

In a speech many years earlier in 1992 Fidel Castro had said:

We really didn’t like the missiles. If it had been a matter only of our own defense, we would not have accepted the deployment of the missiles. But not because we were afraid of the dangers that might follow the deployment of the missiles here; rather, it was because this would damage the image of the revolution, and we were very zealous in protecting the image of the revolution in the rest of Latin America. The presence of the missiles would in fact turn us into a Soviet military base, and that entailed a high political cost for the image of our country, an image we so highly valued.4

Legality, Secrecy, and Lies: Losing the Moral High Ground

Having agreed in principle, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara, repeatedly argued with the Soviet leadership that the deployment should be open and public. The fact was that there was nothing in the Soviet-Cuban agreement to deploy the missiles that contravened any existing international law. In any case, the Cuban leaders were certain that it would be virtually impossible for the shipment, site construction, and land deployment to remain concealed from the highly sophisticated US surveillance technology. Furthermore, that, on the face of it, given the US missiles in Turkey and Italy surrounding the Soviet Union, and with practically open US plans to invade Cuba, open and transparent was the way to go politically and morally. All of this was rejected out of hand by the Khrushchev leadership. The Cuban leaders chose not to push the point and deferred.

In the book with Ramonet, Fidel Castro speaks of the “strange, Byzantine discussion” over whether Soviet arms shipments to Cuba were offensive or defensive.

Khrushchev, in fact, insisted they were defensive, not on any technical grounds, but rather because of the defensive purposes for which they’d been installed in Cuba… [We felt there was] no need to go into those explanations. What Cuba and the USSR were doing was perfectly legal and in strict conformity with international law.

Castro continued:

We didn’t like the course the public debate was taking. I sent Che…to explain my view of the situation to Khrushchev, including the need to immediately publish the military agreement [on deploying the nuclear missiles in Cuba] the USSR and Cuba had signed. But I couldn’t manage to persuade him…For us, for the Cuban leaders, the USSR was a powerful, experienced government. We had no other arguments to use to persuade them that their strategy for managing the situation should be changed, so we had no alternative but to trust them.

For the Cuban revolutionaries, the economic, military, and political ties forged with the Soviet Union had been a decisive, irreplaceable factor in their survival from the period after the January 1959 triumph of the Revolution through the April 1961 Playa Giron defeat of the US-organized mercenary invasion. Nevertheless, the unfolding of the Missile Crisis, and its ultimate resolution, left the Cuban leadership feeling vulnerable, bypassed, and insulted by the perceived highhanded behavior of the Soviet government led by Nikita Khrushchev.

Fidel Castro’s Secret Speech

In a major speech over two days to a closed meeting of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) on January 25-26, 1968 Fidel Castro reviewed the entire Missile Crisis.5  Combining great emotion with sharp, cool logic Castro detailed how the “Missile Crisis” unfolded and how Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union emerged out of the crisis different from what they had been before.

Castro stated that Cuba’s revolutionary leadership looked to the Soviet Union for, “…measures that would guarantee the country’s safety. In that period, we had tremendous faith in the Soviet Union. I think perhaps too much.” Furthermore, “I am sincerely convinced that the Soviet Party bears great responsibility in what happened and acted in a totally disloyal manner in its relations with us.” Referring to the continuing terrorist attacks against Cuba that never stopped after Soviet missiles, planes, and combat troops were removed from Cuba at the “end” of the October Crisis, Castro stated:

Together with the pirate attacks and the U-2 flights, incidents began to flare up at the Guantanamo base. [The US military base on Guantanamo Bay was ceded to the US government in the notorious neo-colonial Platt Amendment of 1901 passed by the US Congress and has been maintained to this day against the demands for its return to Cuban sovereignty.] The same Guantanamo base which, we are certain, would have been dismantled had there been a modicum of serenity and firmness during the October crisis. Had they had the presence of mind to have posed and demand correctly from a principled standpoint, had they said that they would withdraw the missiles if satisfactory guarantees were given to Cuba, had they let Cuba negotiate, the crisis might even have turned into a political victory…All the rest are euphemisms of different kinds: Cuba was saved, Cuba lives. But Cuba had been alive and Cuba had been living, and Cuba did not want to live at the expense of humiliation or surrender; for that you do not have to be a revolutionary. Revolutionaries are not just concerned with living, but how one lives, living most of all with dignity, living with a cause, living for a cause…Cuba did not agree with the way the issue was handled; it stated the need to approach the problem from different, more drastic, more revolutionary and even more legal positions; and it totally disagreed with the way in which the situation was terminated.

“[Around July] we saw that the United States was creating an atmosphere of hysteria and aggression,” Castro bluntly spoke, “and it was a campaign that was being carried out with all impunity. In the light of this we thought the correct thing to do was to adopt a different position, not to get into that policy of lies: ‘we are sending Cuba defensive weapons.’ And in response to the imperialist’s position, the second weakness (or the first weakness) was not to stand up and respond that Cuba had every right to own whatever weapons it saw fit…but rather to adopt a policy of concessions, claiming that the weapons were defensive. In other words, to lie, to resort to lies which in effect meant to wave a basic right and principle.”

Decades later, in the Ramonet book, Castro returned to this crucial political approach, which is much more powerful than the usual technical cast of events when things had reached the stage of the actual nuclear standoff:

There was nothing illegal about our agreement with the Soviets, given that the Americans had missiles in Turkey and in Italy, too, and no one ever threatened to bomb or invade those countries. The problem wasn’t the legality of the agreement – everything was absolutely legal – but rather Khrushchev’s mistaken political handling of the situation, when even though both Cuba and the USSR had the legitimate right, he started spinning theories about offensive and non-offensive weapons. In a political battle, you can’t afford to lose the high moral ground by employing ruses and lies and half-truths.

The missile transport was the largest sea-borne operation in Soviet history. By the time of the detection of the missiles, and Khrushchev’s decision to remove them under US pressure, there were already 134 nuclear warheads in place and on the ground in Cuba. All three of the SS-4 missile regiments were operational even as Soviet ships stopped moving towards Cuba.

The January 25-26, 1968 speech went into scathing detail on how shocking, given the Soviet insistence on secrecy, the lack of discretion on the Soviet side was in the actual deployment of the missiles, crossing into outright recklessness.

“Uncontrolled Forces”

At the height of the crisis, the central Cuban leadership was certain that a full-scale invasion of the island was imminent. As the latest batch of 2017 declassified Kennedy assassination-related documents reconfirm, preparations – “contingency plans” – for such an invasion had been in place for many months prior to the secret installation of the Soviet missiles. This was the only conceivable basis for Khrushchev to make the missile proposal to the Cuban leaders and expect their agreement. In fact, a US invasion of Cuba was on the hair-trigger of being ordered at several concrete conjunctures in the course of the crisis.

The decision to actually carry out a direct, large-scale US military assault was being furiously debated within the Kennedy Administration and the narrow circle of bipartisan Congressional leadership that was privy to the deliberations at the top. As President and Commander-in-Chief, Kennedy had to choose whether to give the order to invade – again, everything was already in place for the execution of an invasion – the island where many nuclear warheads were already in place, targeting US territory and where Cuban armed resistance to the invading troops was certain to be massive, highly motivated, well-led, and creative.  For the immense majority of the Cuban population, having just experienced a profound social revolution, drawing millions into revolutionary struggle and consciousness, Cuba would be fighting from their own territory against a foreign invasion force and massive bombing assaults. Thousands of Cuban civilians would have been instantly killed in these air strikes.

The political consequences of this carnage – against a sovereign people with the gall to make a Revolution, throw out a venal dictator, institute land reform, literacy campaigns, rent reduction, abolishing Jim Crow-segregation, etc. etc. – would certainly have been devastating for Washington even if nuclear warheads were never launched on either side, a dubious prospect at best. Washington would lose the “moral high ground,” so crucial in concrete questions of world politics. Cuba would regain what had been eroded by the secretive, clumsy adventurism of Khrushchev’s “initiative” and its incompetent implementation.

The question of the nuclear weapons that were already on the island and the more that were en route would likely have been rendered secondary and the question of Cuba’s right to self-determination would have again risen to the fore. Kennedy was politically savvy enough to realize all of this and finally rebuffed the advocates of launching an invasion.

Uppermost in Kennedy’s considerations were the physical presence of thousands of Soviet combat troops and military personnel (there were some 40,000 Soviet mechanized combat divisions in Cuba, although the Kennedy Administration seems to have counted less than half the actual number). This fact posed the question that Soviet casualties would be inevitable, further sharply posing the question of questions…would the US invasion inexorably lead to nuclear exchanges? Who actually would – in a hair-trigger political atmosphere – fire first becomes almost a moot, secondary question in the framework of such a political confrontation.

US “intelligence” estimates were that 18,500 US casualties would take place in the first period after a US invasion, according to declassified material obtained by the National Security Archive. The presence of Soviet nuclear warheads and large numbers of Soviet military personnel, fighter jets, anti-aircraft gun emplacements, and so on, was another major factor leading Kennedy to repeatedly postpone the invasion plans and opt for a naval blockade (labeled a “quarantine” for legalistic purposes) surrounding Cuba, and the drama of a relatively slow showdown unfolding over days in the Atlantic while negotiations between Washington and Moscow intensified, negotiations that excluded the Cuban government…as if Cuba had nothing to do with what was happening.

As is always the case when war and combat is actually joined, the “law of unintended consequences” comes into dynamic play. Or, as the historic revolutionary leader of the working-class movement, Frederick Engels, put it, “Those who unleash controlled forces, also unleash uncontrolled forces.”

The Letters

On October 26, 1962 Fidel Castro – at the most intense, dangerous point of the entire crisis – wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, which stated:

Given the analysis of the situation and the reports which have reached us, [I] consider an attack to be almost imminent–within the next 24 to 72 hours. There are two possible variants: the first and most probable one is an air attack against certain objectives with the limited aim of destroying them; the second, and though less probable, still possible, is a full invasion. This would require a large force and is the most repugnant form of aggression, which might restrain them.

You can be sure that we will resist with determination, whatever the case. The Cuban people’s morale is extremely high and the people will confront aggression heroically.

I would like to briefly express my own personal opinion. If the second variant takes place and the imperialists invade Cuba with the aim of occupying it, the dangers of their aggressive policy are so great that after such an invasion the Soviet Union must never allow circumstances in which the imperialists could carry out a nuclear first strike against it.

I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba–a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law–then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.

Khrushchev responded, in a second round of letters with Castro that:

In your cable of October 27 you proposed that we be the first to carry out a nuclear strike against the enemy’s territory. Naturally you understand where that would lead us. It would not be a simple strike, but the start of a thermonuclear world war.

Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I find your proposal to be wrong, even though I understand your reasons.

… As far as Cuba is concerned, it would be difficult to say even in general terms what this would have meant for them. In the first place, Cuba would have been burned in the fire of war….

Now, as a result of the measures taken, we reached the goal sought when we agreed with you to send the missiles to Cuba. We have wrested from the United States the commitment not to invade Cuba and not to permit their Latin American allies to do so. We have we wrested all this from them without a nuclear strike.

We consider that we must take advantage of all the possibilities to defend Cuba, strengthen its independence and sovereignty, defeat military aggression and prevent a nuclear world war in our time. And we have accomplished that.

Of course, we made concessions, accepted a commitment, action according to the principle that a concession on one side is answered by a concession on the other side. The United States also made a concession. It made the commitment before all the world not to attack Cuba.

That’s why when we compare aggression on the part of the United States and thermonuclear war with the commitment of a concession in exchange for concession, the upholding of the inviolability of the Republic of Cuba and the prevention of a world war, I think that the total outcome of this reckoning, of this comparison, is perfectly clear.

Castro then responded:

I realized when I wrote them that the words contained in my letter could be misinterpreted by you and that was what happened, perhaps because you didn’t read them carefully, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I meant to say so much in too few lines. However, I didn’t hesitate to do it…

We knew, and do not presume that we ignored it, that we would have been annihilated, as you insinuate in your letter, in the event of nuclear war. However, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to yield. Do you believe that we wanted that war? But how could we prevent it if the invasion finally took place? The fact is that this event was possible, that imperialism was obstructing every solution and that its demands were, from our point of view, impossible for the USSR and Cuba to accept.

And if war had broken out, what could we do with the insane people who unleashed the war? You yourself have said that under current conditions such a war would inevitably have escalated quickly into a nuclear war. I understand that once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn’t concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding, moreover, when to use nuclear weapons. The destructive power of this weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage.

And I did not suggest to you, Comrade Khrushchev, that the USSR should be the aggressor, because that would be more than incorrect, it would be immoral and contemptible on my part. But from the instant the imperialists attack Cuba and while there are Soviet armed forces stationed in Cuba to help in our defense in case of an attack from abroad, the imperialists would by this act become aggressors against Cuba and against the USSR, and we would respond with a strike that would annihilate them.

Everyone has his own opinions and I maintain mine about the dangerousness of the aggressive circles in the Pentagon and their preference for a preventive strike. I did not suggest, Comrade Khrushchev, that in the midst of this crisis the Soviet Union should attack, which is what your letter seems to say; rather, that following an imperialist attack, the USSR should act without vacillation and should never make the mistake of allowing circumstances to develop in which the enemy makes the first nuclear strike against the USSR. And in this sense, Comrade Khrushchev, I maintain my point of view, because I understand it to be a true and just evaluation of a specific situation. You may be able to convince me that I am wrong, but you can’t tell me that I am wrong without convincing me.

Fidel Castro’s exchange of letters with Khrushchev assumes that given the forces in play and in motion – 300,000 Cuban combatants with 40,000 Soviet military personnel, the bulk in mechanized combat brigades, on the ground in Cuba on one side, confronting a US invasion force projected to quickly reach hundreds of thousands, all coming head-to-head while massive US air strikes and countering Cuban-Soviet anti-aircraft fire are unleashed, with enormous naval forces, many armed with nuclear weapons, including torpedoes in combat action – that the US invasion, which he considered inevitable and imminent, would inexorably go nuclear. Following this undoubtedly correct assumption, Fidel Castro’s logic and formulations in his initial letters became necessarily more abstract and algebraic. He presents, in the rush and incredible heat and speed of events, a post-invasion scenario where Soviet forces could strike, in a limited “tactical” use (although those terms are not specifically used), the US forces before the US could strike the Soviet forces. The same technical, military logic of “pre-emption” would, of course, dominate the US side which had a clear superiority in both quantity and quality of nuclear weapons deliverance at that point, the full extent of which the Cuban leadership was not likely aware of the extent of.

The M.A.D. doctrine was based on each side’s nuclear arsenal countermanding the others. The seemingly absurd stockpiling of nuclear warheads and delivery system locations had the “rational” kernel of logic that after a “first strike” or pre-emptive launch of warheads the “other side” would still have enough of an atomic arsenal left to deliver a crushing response. The idea, developed by “Dr. Strangelove” US theorists like Herman Kahn, and accepted by their Soviet equivalents, was to build up and protect a “second strike” capacity in order to obviate a “first strike.” Of course, Washington continued – and continues to this day – to develop a “decisive” first-strike capability, largely through anti-ballistic and “Star Wars” systems to intercept and eliminate the other sides “second strike” (or first, or any strike) giving the US a credible “first strike.”

The fact of a US invasion – that is, its actual occurrence – of Cuba would have set in motion a dynamic that would have rendered moot, useless, and even ridiculous the question of who would “fire” the “first” nuclear weapon, if that could even be determined after the event (if indeed the word after would have any content). Dozens and dozens of ships, planes, and launch sites on the ground, under the control of dozens and dozens of military officers subject to “orders” in what would have been  unimaginable chaos and breakdown inevitable in the first nuclear exchange in world history. Would anyone have even known who struck first? The key point – the only determinant fact – in whether nuclear holocaust would be unleashed to an unknown degree was whether the US would invade Cuba.

New Facts

What is now known about the Missile Crisis is that a situation existed where, at the height of the confrontation, from October 25-28, literally dozens and dozens of military officers well below the executive political “decision makers” in a theoretical chain of command, on both the Soviet and US side, had the capacity and even the authority to push the nuclear button and pull the nuclear trigger.

We certainly know this to be true in the first-hand accounts by Soviet and US military officers and personnel on the ground, on the oceans, and in the air that have become public and from “classified” government documents on both sides.6

The author Michael Dobbs in an October 18, 2012 New York Times op-ed piece (“The Price of a 50-Year Old Myth”) wrote:

While the risk of war in October 1962 was very high (Kennedy estimated it variously at between 1 in 5 and 1 in 2), it was not caused by a clash of wills. The real dangers arose from “the fog of war.” As the two superpowers geared up for a nuclear war, the chances of something going terribly wrong increased exponentially…By Saturday, October 27, the two leaders were no longer in full control of their gigantic military machines, which were moving forward under their own momentum. Soviet troops on Cuba targeted Guantánamo with tactical nuclear weapons and shot down an American U-2 spy plane. Another U-2, on a “routine” air sampling mission to the North Pole, got lost over the Soviet Union. The Soviets sent MiG fighters into the air to try to shoot down the American intruder, and in response, Alaska Air Defense Command scrambled F-102 interceptors armed with tactical nuclear missiles. In the Caribbean, a frazzled Soviet submarine commander was dissuaded by his subordinates from using his nuclear torpedo against American destroyers that were trying to force him to the surface.

In his Guardian piece cited above Noam Chomsky, referring to the October 26, 1962 letter of Fidel Castro, writes:

As this was happening and Washington was debating and Kennedy was poised to decide on a US invasion, Fidel Castro wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev which has been interpreted, over Castro’s sharp objection, as advocating a Soviet nuclear attack – a so-called ‘first strike’ against US territory if the US invasion were to actually occur. Khrushchev himself took the necessarily and purposely algebraic and highly cautious words of Castro as such a call, and used Castro’s wording as practically a cover to carry out the retreat and concessions to Kennedy that diffused the crisis and reverse the momentum towards purposeful or accidental nuclear exchanges.

An Extraordinary Gathering

The special January 24-26, 1968 meeting of the PCC Central Committee meeting where Fidel Castro gave his extraordinary speech was in no way fortuitous. It took place at what was perhaps the nadir of the downward spiral of Cuban-Soviet relations set in motion by the October Crisis of 1962. It was held just 107 days after the death of Ernesto Che Guevara and the defeat of his guerrilla forces based in Bolivia.

This on-the-ground fact was a real blow to the Cuban revolutionaries and the perspective of building a continental revolutionary army to take on and overturn the military regimes backed by the ruling oligarchies. These regimes of the Latin American ruling classes were themselves allied with, dependent on, and conjoined with the dominant US power in the Hemisphere. This new objective reality necessarily raised many challenges in the development and direction of Cuba’s revolutionary foreign policy.

Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership placed an important part of the responsibility for the defeat of Che’s guerrilla on the top leadership of the Bolivian Communist Party which supported the program and perspective of the Soviet leadership in Latin America and opposed the armed-struggle campaign under Che Guevara’s leadership in Bolivia (which was seen as the initial base for a multi-front continental revolutionary movement against the military dictatorships and oligarchies) reneging on previously given commitments. The Cuban revolutionary line in Latin America was opposed – with varying degrees of vehemence – by virtually all of the Latin American Communist Parties that looked to the Soviet Union for political direction and orientation. What the Cuban revolutionary leadership considered betrayal in Bolivia, disrupted and undermined the formation and development of urban resistance forces crucial to supplement the rural-based guerrilla struggle under Che’s command, leaving the guerrillas exposed, vulnerable, and politically isolated.7

The Escalante Affair

Prior to Fidel Castro’s speech, the Central Committee gathering had heard an extensive presentation by Raul Castro, then Chairman of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the President of the Cuban Council of State since 2006. The report was a damning indictment of a secret faction inside the PCC led by Anibal Escalante. Escalante’s faction, which was composed of former leaders, like himself, and cadres of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP).((In 1968 the Cuban publisher Instituto Del Libro, Ediciones Politicas, printed a 160-page book, “Information from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba on Microfaction Activities,”which includes Raul Castro’s report and other important documents. It is an exceedingly important document, which illuminates that historical and political period and gives great insight into the caliber and character of the Cuban revolutionary leadership.)) Before the Revolution the PSP, which had a base in the industrial working class and trade unions, was connected to the dominant currents in the “world Communist movement” and Latin American Communist Parties that looked to the Soviet Union for political direction and program.8

The PSP initially opposed the July 26th Movement (M-26-J) led by Fidel Castro, but by early 1958 they had endorsed the anti-Batista struggle and M-26-J leadership. Joint political and military collaboration was carried out in the last period before the revolutionary triumph. Over the next few years the majority of PSP cadres were successfully integrated into what became the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in 1965. In 1962 Escalante, who had been the top functionary of the Integrated Revolutionary Organization, an initial formation bringing together the currents supporting the Revolution, had come under fierce public criticism by Fidel Castro for “sectarianism” and “bureaucratism” in March 1962.

Soviet-Cuban tensions escalated in this mid-1960s period, although never to the point of a public break. Nevertheless, sharp, concrete political and theoretical differences were registered between the Soviet and Cuban leaderships in this period over the US escalation in Vietnam and serious political divergence in Latin America. In several speeches in 1966 and 1967 Fidel Castro publicly excoriated the Soviet government for its economic and political relations with Latin American repressive and reactionary regimes.

The betrayal and execution of Che in 1967 sharpened the existing tensions and was followed by the Escalante intrigue and covert plotting against the revolutionary government. In terms of the economic relations and exchange between Cuba and the Soviet Union during these clashes, there was limited but noticeable Soviet measures affecting the struggling Cuban economy which was being whipped by the US economic blockade, particularly in the Americas. In this period, the first decade of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba struggled with diplomatic isolation in the Western Hemisphere under US pressure, with only Canada and Mexico maintaining formal diplomatic ties.

In the decade following Che’s defeat in Bolivia, all other allied Latin American guerrilla movements into the early 1970s had been crushed, most notably Argentina and Uruguay. At the same time there was a revival of mass urban and rural working-class and popular struggles in a number of Latin American countries, including Bolivia, which pushed open some democratic and political space, including for revolutionaries. In Chile, in 1970, in a byproduct of mounting class and popular struggles, the Popular Unity electoral coalition by two mass workers parties, the Socialist Party and Communist Party, won a plurality of the vote and Salvador Allende, head of the Socialist Party became President. Diplomatic relations were soon reestablished between Chile and Cuba.

The September 11, 1973 US-backed bloody military coup against the Popular Unity government pulverized all democratic rights and political space for many years and was extended by the mid-1970s as military rule was consolidated in Argentina (1976) and in Uruguay after 1973.

Aftermath

The Cuban Missile Crisis was hugely traumatic in world public opinion. Its resolution led to increased propaganda for “peace” and “reconciliation” in both Moscow and Washington, with accompanying worldwide diplomatic maneuvering. This culminated in the actual signing by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (formally the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, which was strongly welcomed in world public opinion when it went into effect in October 1963, one year to the month from the political drama and trauma of the Missile Crisis. (The treaty did not ban “underground” nuclear tests which could also lead to radioactive releases into the atmosphere as well ground water.  The treaty put no limits on the production of nuclear warheads and their fitting onto missiles.) All of this took place as Washington steadily and sharply escalated its military intervention and aggression in Vietnam.

John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership in the Soviet Communist Party and Soviet state came to an ignominious end in October 1964 as he was pensioned off and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexi Kosygin. The new Lyndon Johnson White House abided by Kennedy’s verbal “pledge” and invasion plans were put in mothballs, although covert action, terrorism, and containment continued. Primary focus and attention shifted to Indochina where Johnson maintained continuity with Kennedy’s intervention and deepened it.

Formal and definite improvements in Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union began after 1968 (despite tensions over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and other questions), particularly in economic exchange, through the 1970s and 1980s until the soviet government collapsed in 1991, setting off a huge economic depression and crisis in Cuba. In this period fundamental contradictions and sharp policy differences emerged over Soviet policies in Africa, military tactics in Angola, and the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which Cuba opposed.

The immediate threat of US-Soviet nuclear exchange and war receded on October 28, 1962 with the announcement that Soviet ships had stopped advancing and that Soviet missiles would be withdrawn. But for Cuba the crisis and the pressure intensified.

Not even two weeks after the supposed resolution of the crisis the world’s “sigh of relief, 400 Cuban workers were killed when a Cuban exile counter-revolutionary sabotage team, dispatched from the US, blew up a Cuban industrial facility. Right up until his assassination Kennedy was approving terrorist attacks against Cuba. US intervention by proxy never stopped and became systematic. US armed and trained counter-revolutionaries were finally defeated in the Escambray mountains in central Cuba in a campaign from 1963-65.

After a pause and renewal in the late 1960s, Cuba’s revolutionary internationalist foreign policy – in the spirit of Che – reached glorious new internationalist achievements in southern Africa after the great acceleration of events ushered in after the overturn of the hollowed-out Salazarist dictatorship in Portugal in 1974 and the final collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bassau, and the Cape Verde Islands. Cuban troops stopped the apartheid South African invasion at the gates of the capital Luanda in November 1975 aiming to topple the newly independent Angolan government. Cuba’s revolutionary action and solidarity over the next nearly two decades was decisive in defending the independence of Angola, winning the independence of Namibia, and in the retreat and unraveling of the South African apartheid state.9

Fidel’s Last Thoughts

On October 22, 2012 Fidel Castro addressed the Missile Crisis on its 50th Anniversary:

A few days ago, very close to the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, news agencies pointed to three guilty parties: Kennedy, having recently become the leader of the empire, Khrushchev and Castro. Cuba did not have anything to do with nuclear weapons, nor with the unnecessary slaughter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki perpetrated by the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, thus establishing the tyranny of nuclear weapons. Cuba was defending its right to independence and social justice.

When we accepted Soviet aid in weapons, oil, foodstuffs and other resources, it was to defend ourselves from yanqui plans to invade our homeland, subjected to a dirty and bloody war which that capitalist country imposed on us from the very first months, which left thousands of Cubans dead and maimed.

When Khrushchev proposed the installation here of medium range missiles similar to those the United States had in Turkey – far closer to the USSR than Cuba to the United States – as a solidarity necessity, Cuba did not hesitate to agree to such a risk. Our conduct was ethically irreproachable. We will never apologize to anyone for what we did. The fact is that half a century has gone by, and here we still are with our heads held high.

  1. In a public statement on October 28, presenting the five points, Fidel Castro said, “With relation to the pronouncement made by the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, in a letter sent to the premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, to the effect that the United States would agree, after the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations, to eliminate the measures of blockade in existence and give guarantees against any invasion of Cuba, and in relation to the decision announced by Premier Khrushchev of withdrawing the installation of arms of strategic defense from Cuba territory, the revolutionary government of Cuba declares that the guarantees of which President Kennedy speaks–that there will be no aggression against Cuba–will not exist unless, in addition to the elimination of the naval blockade he promises, the following measures among others are to be adopted: 1) Cessation of the economic blockade and all the measures of commercial and economic pressure which the United States exercises in all parts of the world against our country; 2) Cessation of all subversive activities, launching and landing of arms and explosives by air and sea, the organization of mercenary invasions, infiltration of spies and saboteurs, all of which actions are carried out from the territory of the United States and some other accomplice countries; 3) Cessation of the pirate attacks which are being carried out from bases existing in the United States and Puerto Rico; 4) Cessation of all the violations of our air and naval space by North American war planes and ships; and 5) Withdrawal of naval base of Guantanamo and the return of the Cuban territory by the United States.”.
  2. The private owners of nationalized foreign enterprises in Cuba, with their governments, negotiated satisfactory compensation with the revolutionary Cuban government, in accordance with international law. The US government, at the time, was already planning and organizing for the overthrow of the “Castro” government and was therefore in contemptuous rejection of any negotiations for compensation to US owners of Cuban assets being nationalized. This was a large swath of the Cuban economy, which was dominated by US capital.
  3. In the 1960 Presidential election, the liberal Democrat John Kennedy shamelessly promoted as an important campaign issue a supposed “missile gap” – in the Soviet Union’s favor – between Washington and Moscow, a conscious fabrication. Kennedy also postured to the right of his Republican opponent, Eisenhower’s Vice-President Richard Nixon, on “getting tough with Castro.” On this, Nixon had the disadvantage, as Kennedy was no doubt aware, of being unable to publicly tout the Eisenhower White House’s already advanced plans for the mercenary invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which Kennedy carried out three months after his Inauguration.
  4. Cited in October 1962 The ‘Missile’ Crisis As Seen From Cuba by Tomas Diez Acosta, Pathfinder Press.
  5. The entire speech, previously unpublished in any public medium, was printed in 2002 with an official Cuban Council of State English translation, in the book Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis by James Blight and Philip Brenner published by Bowman and Littlefield Publishers.
  6. See Noam Chomsky’s “Cuban Missile Crisis: How the US Played Russian Roulette with Nuclear War” in the October 15 Guardian newspaper, which cites several harrowing moments of near disaster.
  7. See Fidel Castro’s “A Necessary Introduction” in Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press, 1994 for Fidel’s description of the factor of betrayal in the defeat of Che’s guerrilla forces.
  8. Some thirty-five members of the so-called “microfaction” were expelled from the PCC and received prison sentences from two to fifteen years. The most serious charges involved secret activity aimed at forging ties between the “microfaction” and government officials and Communist Party leaders in the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and Czechoslovakia in their common opposition to the revolutionary line of the PCC, and the large majority of PCC members, in Latin America and on Cuba’s domestic and foreign policies in general. This went as far as to urge Soviet economic pressure on Cuba, for which they were charged with treason. Escalante’s grouping never argued for their political positions openly within the structures and procedures of the PCC, which was their right. In their secret functioning inside Cuba and intrigues with Soviet and Eastern European officials and diplomats, the portrayed Che Guevara as a “Trotskyite adventurer” and the Castro leadership as “petty bourgeois elements” that seized control of the Revolution and who held the working class in contempt. Moreover, the Cuban revolutionary leadership was “anti-Soviet”and did not support Soviet “hegemony.”
  9. See the amazing history of Cuba’s internationalist foreign policies in Africa and southern Africa in the two volumes of the great scholar Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions and Visions of Freedom, University of North Carolina Press.