‘Condemn me if you must. History will absolve me!’ Remembering Fidel Castro 1926 – 2016

‘Fidel’s Ethics of Violence’ explores the moral and ethical aspect of Fidel Castro’s political thought and strategy, and examines as a crucial constituent component of that, Castro’s idea of the correct and incorrect use of violence. Dayan Jayatilleka  argues that Fidel Castro, near-universally regarded as a charismatic leader, made a contribution to Marxism and political thought in general, and that his main contribution to revolutionary Marxism was the introduction of an explicitly moral and ethical dimension, issuing from his combination of Marxism and Christianity.fidel_castro

This extract is in part biographical, including several quotes from Castro, as well as, providing insight into the book’s themes with an examination of Castro’s philosophical reconciliation of violence, political power and morality.

A little over half a century ago, a brilliant, passionate, Jesuit-educated young lawyer-politician led a group of rebels on an attack on the Moncada army garrison in the Oriente province in Cuba. The aim was to seize the weapons, distribute them and trigger an uprising in the province, which would then become generalised throughout the country. The goal was to topple the military junta of Batista, which was supported by the United States.

The attack failed, the rebels were arrested, tortured, murdered. Thanks to luck, the integrity of a military officer and the intervention of an archbishop, a few survived. That should have been the end of the story, like that of so many rebellions in Latin America. Yet it was not. Brought to trial in what was presumed to be an open-and- shut case, the young rebel leader conducted his own defence and made an oration that ranks in the annals of the finest emancipation literature in human history.

Itemising and denouncing the unjust structures of his society, drawing on the literature of human freedom and injustice (including the Bible), and unfailingly dignified and fair to his judges, he concluded with a phrase that has become part of the consciousness of modern humankind: ‘Condemn me if you must. History will absolve me!’

It is by his deportment in defeat and by turning a material defeat and disaster into a moralfiddy victory that Fidel Castro entered History. Revolutionary Cuba was born six years later. Cuba has remained revolutionary, anti-imperialist and socialist despite the longest- running economic embargo in known history, and despite the collapse of its ally, the Soviet Union, more than a decade and a half ago. It has remained defiant despite being located on the doorstep of the mightiest power the world has ever known, and despite the active hostility of that power. The survival of Revolutionary Cuba issues from the specificity of Cuban socialism – and that specificity derives not only from the history and culture of the Cuban people, but also from the specific theory and practice of Fidel Castro.

The global scenario today is polarised between the sole superpower and terrorism of Islamic provenance. Might there not be, however, a third way of being as represented by Fidel Castro? The most visible resistance to unipolar hegemony and interventionism by the US (and/or Israel) tends to take the form of terrorism and suicide bombing. This book argues that Castro provides an alternative ethic of resistance and rebellion, one in which violence in the cause of liberation consciously eschews the targeting of non-combatants.

The present global polarisation is commonly represented as the struggle of the forces of anti-modernity and parochialism against those of modernity and reason. There is a need for an ideal and ideology of resistance and rebellion, which springs from the wellsprings of modernity and universalism but stands for an alternative modernity. Castro’s ethic, I suggest, is such an ideology and he constitutes such an example of modernity, reason and militancy, not in the interests of the status quo but of progressive change…Castro’s ideas and example are relevant not only for rebels. The Fidelista ethic of violence, in which the moral high ground is permanently retained, is of relevance both to resistance/liberation movements and to states. It is hoped that the study would contribute to the setting out of a moral and ethical third way and sketch the contours of a different kind of hero: modernist, rational, internationalist; fighting full-scale wars when necessary, but never resorting to targeting of non-combatants, physical torture and execution of captives.

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For Castro, the end – of overthrowing oppression and injustice – sometimes, but not always, justifies the means of armed violence, of killing. Violence is a last resort. It should be used only if other possibilities for change have been closed off. Conversely, if other possibilities for change have been closed off, violence is justified and necessary.

‘That is why I express my conviction – and I think it would be the conviction of any authentic revolutionary – that violence is the last recourse, when there is no other road, when there is no other possibility of change.’

This willingness to use violence – to kill – as a last resort, in the struggle against violent oppression and injustice, demarcates Castro from Gandhi. That is his morality. On the other hand, Castro has always affirmed his belief in the existence of the notion of the innocent. He has always refused to use armed violence against them, or to consider everyone who lives under enemy control or is a victim of enemy ideology as an enemy. He has insisted that the death of the enemy or traitor should not be by cruel methods, and refused to countenance torture, mutilation and dismemberment. He has consistently avoided targeting the enemy in conditions that could predictably lead to civilian casualties. He has never considered the families of enemies as targets. He has insisted that the armed enemy should be treated correctly if captured. All these demarcate his ethics from those of liberation movements that practise terrorism.

THE EARLY FIDEL

The guiding ethics of the Cuban Revolution, its specific ethos, is in large measure present in and product of the ideas and consciousness of its leader, Fidel Castro. The raw materials and specific ingredients of the ideology of Fidel, of Fidelismo, are discernible in his early years. As in the case of Marx, Engels, Lenin and most Marxist leaders, the evolution of his political consciousness and convictions did not stem from his social origins, but rather from ideas, examples and reasoning, that is, from a mental and emotional process.

‘I did not acquire it by having poor, proletarian or farm origins – that is through social circumstance. I gained my political consciousness through reasoning, thinking, by developing feelings and deep conviction.’

Ideas, ethics, morality and reason are key and intertwined themes in Castro’s political thought. Material rewards and material punishment, the policy polarities that socialist states tended to swing between, play little role in his ideology:

‘I think it’s a great merit for a person to give their life for a revolutionary idea and to fight, knowing they may die. Even though one knows there’s nothing after death, one upholds the idea, the moral value, so firmly that one defends it with everything one has – without expecting reward or punishment.

Political ideas are worthless if they aren’t inspired by noble, selfless sentiments. Likewise noble sentiments are worthless if they aren’t based on correct, fair ideas.’

Honour was an important ingredient of Castro’s spirit. ‘Even though I wasn’t a model student, I felt morally obligated to pass all my exams. For me it was a question of honour.’ Castro was clearly impressed, not by the dogmatic methods of religious instruction – which were unsuccessful in his case, and which he rejects as ineffectual – but by the many aspects of the Jesuits’ collective character:

‘Undoubtedly my teachers, my Jesuit teachers, especially the Spanish Jesuits, who inculcated a strong sense of personal dignity – regardless of their political ideas – influenced me. Most Spaniards are endowed with a sense of personal honour, and it’s very strong in Jesuits. They valued character, rectitude, honesty, courage and the ability to make sacrifices. … The Jesuits clearly influenced me with their strict organization, their discipline and their values. They contributed to my development and influenced my sense of justice – which may have been quite rudimentary, but was at least a starting point.’

body_fidel-castro_1

The Bible, especially the Old Testament, left an indelible mark on him. ‘Academically … he
showed a keen interest in religious history, particularly battles like that at Jericho, and the heroic accomplishments of Moses, Joshua and Prophet Daniel.’7 The parallels with his own experiences are discernible between the lines of Castro’s retelling:

‘I think I first learned about war in Biblical history. That is, I became interested in the art of warfare. I was fascinated by it from Joshua’s destroying the walls of Jericho to the sound of trumpets, to Samson’s Herculean strength, which allowed him to tear a temple down with his bare hands. Those deeds were really fascinating.’

Castro dwells upon ethics far more explicitly than anyone in the Marxist tradition. The dismissal of ethics and morality as class-based and therefore to be rejected by Marxists as ruling-class ideology if not self-serving hoaxes, is radically absent in Castro’s thinking. The class dimension is clearly present but as a violation by the ruling and exploiting classes, of universal ethics and standards. This conforms to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony: the identification of the interests of a class or party with that which is general and broad rather than the narrowly conceived class interest.

‘Ethical values came from my education, that is from school, from the teachers and, I would say, from my family, from home. I was told very early in life that I should never lie. There were clear ethical values. They weren’t Marxist and they did not seem from an ethical philosophy. They were based on a religious ethic. I was taught what was right and wrong, things that should and should not be done.

Later on, my experiences in life began to create a feeling of what was wrong, the violation of an ethical standard, and a sense of injustice, abuse or fraud. So, I received not only a set of ethical standards, but also some experience of the violation of ethical standards and what unethical people were like. I began to have an idea of what was fair and unfair. I also began to develop a concept of personal dignity.’

EARLY INTERNATIONALIST SOLIDARITY

Ingredients in the early years of Castro’s politics were a strong sense of solidarity with struggles throughout Latin America, a readiness to join (irrespective of political rivalries) expeditions and efforts at armed rebellion against dictatorial usurpations, and the attempt to counter the influence of US dominance in the region.

While he was a rebel, an anti-imperialist, a critic of the character of the prevalent democracy, he was not Communist in the sense of belonging to a Communist party. Following the Comintern line of the Popular Front, the Cuban Communist party had allied with Fulgencio Batista. Fidel does not criticise the Popular Front as an international policy and general line except to say that it was belated in the case of Europe: if the purges in the USSR had been avoided and the Popular Front line adopted earlier, it may have prevented the victory of Nazism. But he criticises the misapplication of that policy by the local CP, to ally with a corrupt dictator like Batista.

This is perhaps the source of Castro’s bypassing of the Communist party, though a strategic reason was also present: Cold War propaganda pervaded Cuba, making the designation ‘communist’ a dangerously unpopular one to the point of being politically fatal. While he avoided affiliation with the Communists, who on Havana University campus were suspicious of this Jesuit-educated son of a large landowner, as a university student Castro was heavily influenced by Marxism, disclosing that he ‘gradually built up a complete Marxist-Leninist library of my own’ while still at the University of Havana.15 He describes himself as a socialist student, albeit a utopian one.

castroThe role of a solitary rebel, maintaining his stand in the face of tremendous odds and gravest of physical risks, was assumed early in Castro’s political life – and recurs as motif in his defiant stand after the collapse of his ally the Soviet Union and the disappearance of global socialism. While on campus Castro was isolated by the pro-Grau San Martin government forces, and was in danger of physical attack, even elimination. His isolation was compounded by considerable jealousy among student contemporaries. In an almost Gethsemane- like moment, he portrays himself, at the age of 20, as crying in solitude on the beach, and then as taking the existential decision to return, alone – and armed.

This was his first episode of wielding a weapon in a political context, and significantly it is in self-defence. Thus the wielding of arms is readily resorted to as armed resistance against a threat of lethal violence and against considerable odds. However, this act semi-spontaneously caused others to rally around him, thus giving an illustration of the force of example. More: it was early proof or perhaps the seed of his idea that if one is willing to raise the standard of resistance and rebellion even against seemingly impossible odds, if one is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, others will come forward to support the cause and the isolation would be broken by solidarity.Jayatilleka T01755.jpg

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Dayan Jayatilleka is a political analyst and commentator, and a former underground revolutionary activist. He is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is also Sri Lanka’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

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Fidel’s Ethics of Violence is available here.

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