This year marks the 55th anniversary of the Cuban July 26th movement, the 49th anniversary of the victory of the Cuban Revolution and the 41th anniversary of the execution of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara by the Bolivian Army after the defeat of his guerrilla forces and his capture in godforsaken rural Bolivia. I have reviewed the life of Che elsewhere in this space (see July archives, dated July 5, 2006). The Cuban Revolution stood for my generation, the Generation of '68, and, hopefully, will for later generations as a symbol of revolutionary intransigence against United States imperialism.
Thus, it is fitting to review a biography of Che’s comrade and central leader of that revolution, Fidel Castro. Obviously, it is harder to evaluate the place in history of the disabled, but still living, Fidel than the iconic Che whose place is secured in the revolutionary pantheon. The choice of this biography reflected my desire to review a recent biography. As always one must accept that most Western biographers have various degrees of hostility to the Castro regime and the Cuban Revolution and one would expect that to be particularly true of one written by a former British Ambassador to Cuba (who has since died). After reading this biography I find that it gives a reasonable account of the highlights of Fidel’s life thus far and for those not familiar with the Fidel saga a good place to start.
The biography reviewed below, then reflecting a different emphasis that today's commentary, was used last year in commemoration of the Cuban Revolution.
The Real Fidel Castro, Leychester Coltman, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003
Over the past couple of years as Fidel Castro has given up many of his state and party offices in Cuba to his brother Raul and to others in the state and party apparatus the question of his legacy, for assuredly there is one, has become a cause for reflection. The exiles in Little Havana, oops, Miami have one answer. They are, or will be dancing in the streets every time some untoward announcement is made about Fidel’s health. Those of us who have defended the Cuban Revolution from its inception under various political formulas, and who continue today to defend those gains, have a very different take on what the future holds. Thus, it is not inappropriate on this July 26th, the 55th Anniversary of the Moncada attack that began the modern Cuban Revolution to reflect on the life of one Fidel Castro.
There have been numerous biographies produced over the years, most of those produced in the West have been either hostile or agnostic, so it was hard to choose one. My criteria on this occasion came down to getting one that was written in the post- Soviet era in order to benefit from any new information from the Soviet archives and one that was basically agnostic about the role of Castro in Cuban and world history. The late former British Ambassador to Cuba Leychester Coltman’s biography, who died before completion of this work, seems to have fit the bill in this case.
This space is dedicated, among other things, to trying to learn the lessons of leftist political history and in that spirit I want to evaluate Fidel’s life not so much concerning his charismatic character and larger than life presence on the world stage but to focus on his strategies for revolutionary change while fighting for power and after his success against Batista. Coltman goes through the obligatory early stages of Castro's life- his questionable birth, his religious education, his life on the family farm, his involvement with various radical student movements that were ultimately feeders to the oppositional political parties while in college. He further details Fidel’s lack of success as a budding lawyer, his stormy first marriage and erratic fatherhood. Later Coltman will detail the specifics of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the alliance with the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile crisis, the struggle to break out of the monoculture of sugar cane production, the various actions as Soviet military surrogate in defense of third world liberation struggles, the end of the Soviet relationship with the demise of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc and the various ad hoc economic adjustments necessary in the post-Soviet era. These later sections form the heart of Coltman’s book and for the general reader they give a good overview of Fidel Castro’s trials and tribulations and thus Cuba’s over the past half century.
I want to discuss here especially the period from Moncada in 1953 to the period of the American Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Why? One of the great problems that confronted the world revolutionary movement, especially its Marxist branch, in the post- World War II period was the, at first, theoretical then practical dismissal of the international working class as the central force in the fight for socialist solutions to the problems that confronted humankind in the second half of the 20th century. There are many reasons for this, including the overwhelming position of Stalinism in the international movement, the defeats consciously created by the local Stalinists, of the European working classes in attempting to take power, especially in Italy and France. The tremendous rise of third world national liberation struggles led by the huge victory of the peasant Red armies in China and Vietnam. And frankly, the ability of world imperialism to stabilize itself (as it had after World War I, as well) and go toe to toe with the world socialist forces.
This combination of events on the world stage, the specifics of Batista’s dictatorial rule in Cuba and Fidel’s own predilections came together to permit a mapping of the political struggle for power not dependent on the centrality of the Cuban working class and, in the final analysis, not even the peasantry but a revolutionary cadre army with a program that could have gone in any one of several directions. Here Coltman is informative about the role of that rebel army in the struggle for power, the formation of an ideology based on a smattering of Marxist but also traditional third world left bourgeois thought, and the conversion of elements of that rebel army into administrators of the Cuban state. We are very, very far away here from the idea of workers councils, even in distorted form, which drove the Bolshevik struggle for power in Russia in 1917.
Coltman at several points states that Castro, as a matter of conscious policy starved the cities of political cadre, funds and weapons to built up the rebel army. Despite the lackey nature of the Stalinist Cuban Communist Party and its accommodationist policies toward Batista the Cuban working class had certain militant traditions that July 26th Movement urban leader Frank Pais was working on organizing around throughout the late 1950’s before his death. Castro and his army took power and we defend that event and the state created today but that is not the same as saying that this was the only possible way to have defeated Batista and created a pro-socialist state.
The disproportionate role of the rebel army in the struggle for power thus, almost of necessity, got reflected similarly after the seizure of power in 1959 in the administration of state affairs. All the power was effectively centralized in the person of Castro himself or those elements close to him like Raul and Che in the Rebel Army. The later inclusion of many Communist Party cadres reflected a response to the hostility of American imperialism and the fact that these were cadre who could administer the state. So in the final analysis the distortions of the Cuban experience on the road to socialism demonstrate the limitations of the guerrilla road to that goal. And Cuba has essentially been spinning its wheels since that time.
So what is the legacy of Fidel and the Cuban Revolution likely to be? We know from a half-century of experience that it is impossible to build ‘socialism in one island'- even a tropical one. We also know that grievous mistakes were made, some conscious some not, in the attempts to construct socialism on the cheap there. We know now that the way Fidel and his band took power was a result more of exceptional circumstances in Cuba than a blueprint for successful social revolution and construction. We know that the pressures of American imperialism are as intense as ever. We know that with the world historic defeat caused by the demise of the Soviet Union that the struggle has returned to the hands of the international working class. But we also know that, Fidel Castro leading or not, we defend the gains of the Cuban revolution just as we have done for the past 50 years.