Book Review: Juan Martín Guevara – Che, My Brother

This is a slightly expanded version of an article that appeared in the Morning Star on 15 May 2017.


Given the number of biographies of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara that have been published in the 50 years since his assassination, many authors would probably struggle to find anything original to write about. Che’s youngest brother Juan Martín Guevara, however, is able to offer an unparalleled insight into the family life, background, influences and early experiences that helped to form the legendary revolutionary.

Such is the stated purpose of the book: to take Che down from the cross; ”to get people to know Che as more than a myth”; to understand how Che was made, in order that more people like Che might emerge to wage the struggle – not necessarily guerrilla warfare, but broad political struggle for the values Che fought for. The world desperately needs people with the intellect, passion, commitment and heroism of Che, and Juan Martín Guevara’s book seeks to inspire the emergence of such people. ”It is important to understand that Ernesto began as a normal and even ordinary person, who became an exceptional person that others can and should emulate.”

The Guevara family were not salt-of-the-earth workers or humble indigenous peasants; they were highly-educated middle-class bohemians. How did such a family produce a fierce proletarian revolutionary such as Che? Juan Martín explains that there was always a strong sense of social justice in the family, combined with a profound commitment to study and to freedom of thought. ”At home, everyone was free to think more or less what he or she wanted, provided of course we didn’t support fascist ideas. Our home was a meeting place for many politically active characters. This hyper-politicised family atmosphere would shape Che.”

Even in childhood, Che had a strong character: purposeful, self-disciplined, resourceful, principled and adventurous. In addition, he was a voracious reader (”Ernesto consumed on average a book a day, taking advantage of every free moment to delve into some volume or other”). He distinguished himself from other middle-class young people in that he was willing and able to get to know the poor, and was therefore exposed to the appalling poverty, inequality, oppression and injustice that exist in class society. His intellect, his character and his experiences – along with the luck of meeting Fidel Castro and his comrades in Mexico – combined to turn the young Ernesto Guevara into the immortal Che.

Juan Martín’s writing is lively and endearing as he presents the story of his famous brother’s early years, along with his own story of struggle against the Argentinian dictatorship (for which he suffered eight years in prison, in appalling conditions). It is by no means the definitive biography, but it is valuable as a means of better understanding Che and the Guevara family.

Of course Juan Martín, as a political disciple of Che, has his own interpretation of Guevarismo, which he emphasises is very different to socialism as practised in the Soviet Union. He even goes so far as to state that he suspects the KGB of having collaborated with the CIA to eliminate Che in Bolivia – although needless to say no proof is offered. This is not a helpful addition to the book. Che certainly had his critique of Soviet socialism, but he was alive to the subtlety and complexity of politics, could see the contradictions and problems faced by the Soviet Union, and had the self-discipline not to go too far in his open criticism. After all, Soviet support was decisive in the survival of socialist Cuba – as has been recognised many times by Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Small flaws aside, this is an insightful and valuable book.

To honour Fidel Castro means to continue his work of fighting imperialism and building socialism

Fidel Castro Alejandro Ruz will be forever remembered as the pre-eminent leader of the Cuban Revolution; its chief strategist and charismatic comandante; a deeply principled, courageous, compassionate and intelligent human being; a guerrilla and a statesman; a relentless fighter against exploitation, oppression and injustice.

But we should be careful not to treat him as some kind of museum relic or historical curiosity. One can study the life of Genghis Khan for the sake of general interest, without expecting to harvest lessons with direct application to modern political life; however, Fidel operated in the current political era: the era of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Cuba was the first country in the western hemisphere to have a socialist revolution and to construct a new type of society. Cuba is the only country outside Southeast Asia to have kept its socialist system intact through the reverses of 1989-91. It has been, and remains, steadfast; a beacon of hope for progressive people worldwide; an example of how an oppressed people can break their chains and build a dignified life, even in the face of blockade and destabilisation orchestrated by the world’s foremost imperialist power – just the other side of the Straits of Florida.

The purpose of this article is to explore Fidel’s political legacy and highlight the aspects that are most relevant to continuing the project that he dedicated himself to: defeating capitalism and imperialism, and constructing in its place a new, socialist world based on the principles of solidarity, respect, equality and peace.

An unswerving revolutionary

In Highgate Cemetery, London, around 134 years ago, Frederick Engels described Karl Marx as being “before all else a revolutionist”, whose “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.”

One could say something very similar about Fidel Castro: that he was an unswerving revolutionary; that he dedicated his long life to the pursuit of socialist revolution, to the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism, to the cause of freedom and national self-determination. He too fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.

Capturing power in Cuba

15250705_10154106164540950_5351735307546115495_oThe very existence of the Cuban socialism provides ample proof as to Fidel’s persistence, courage, imagination and strategic vision in pursuit of revolution. Nineteen-fifties Cuba was by no means an obvious place for socialism to blossom, given its geographic and cultural proximity to the US, the McCarthyite anti-communism that was prevalent at the time, and the enormous volumes of water separating it from any other socialist country. There was no revolutionary ‘model’ to follow: the Cuban Revolution didn’t develop directly out of the industrial centres like the October Revolution did; it didn’t grow out of a protracted people’s war like the Chinese Revolution; it didn’t take advantage of a post-war power vacuum such as had existed in Vietnam, Korea and Eastern/Central Europe. To even see an opening for revolution in Cuba at that time required great originality.

A theme that runs through Fidel’s political life is that he had the knowledge and creativity to identify opportunities that few others would see, and the strength, courage, vision and skill to sieze those opportunities. Cuba’s Communist Party (then called the Popular Socialist Party) also saw the revolutionary potential of the moment, but it had no tangible plan for the capture of power. Fidel and his small group of guerrillas were unique in understanding that, in order to take advantage of the objective element (economic and political crisis, along with widespread popular discontent), it was necessary to apply the subjective element (in this case: conducting armed struggle in order to weaken the Batista regime to breaking point, whilst simultaneously providing a rallying point for the masses). Blas Roca, who was head of the PSP (and who would later become one of Fidel’s most trusted comrades), reflects on this question:

“We [the PSP] rightly foresaw, and greatly looked forward to, the prospect that in response to conditions created by the tyranny, the masses would organise and eventually engage in armed struggle or popular insurrection. But for a long time we failed to take any practical steps to hasten that prospect, because we believed that these struggles, including a prolonged general strike, would culminate in armed insurrection quite spontaneously. Hence, we did not prepare, did not organise or train armed detachments… That was our mistake. Fidel Castro’s historical merit is that he prepared, trained, and assembled the fighting elements needed to begin and carry on armed struggle as a means of destroying the tyranny.” (KS Karol, Guerrillas in Power)

Bay of Pigs

Fidel’s relentless pursuit of revolution was further evidenced during the Bay of Pigs invasion. In April 1961, only two years after the establishment of the revolutionary state, the CIA coordinated a large-scale military invasion of Cuba by exiles and mercenaries, backed by US Air Force bombers and transported by US Navy ships, with the objective of overthrowing Castro’s government. It is almost unimaginable that a small, isolated, newly-established state would be able to defend itself against the world’s most powerful military entity, but the Cuban government under Fidel’s leadership had anticipated this attack and was prepared for it.

The entire population was mobilised and trained; millions of people were under arms. The Cuban Air Force, although small, had been drilled in preparation for just this kind of invasion. Fidel personally coordinated the defence, which within 48 hours was able to capture the leaders of the invasion, sink a supply ship and achieve air superiority. Faced with defeat on the ground, embarrassment at the United Nations, and the threat of Soviet involvement on the side of Cuba (“The Soviet Union will render the Cuban people and their government all necessary help to repel an armed attack”), US President John F Kennedy was forced to withdraw support for the invasion, which promptly crumbled.

Survival in a post-Soviet world

The survival of Cuban socialism beyond the ‘end of history‘ era of the early 1990s is another extraordinary achievement that few people anticipated; another testament to the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people and leadership. Cuba’s economy had been deeply integrated into the socialist world, with over 85% of its foreign trade being conducted through the CMEA (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, also known as Comecon, comprising the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Mongolia, Poland and Hungary). The CMEA was disbanded in 1991. Of its member states, only Cuba and Vietnam resisted counter-revolution. Both faced major economic crises.

At this moment, Fidel and the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party could quite easily (and even understandably) have converted themselves into social democrats. They could have followed the path laid down by Gorbachev and abandoned their commitment to working class rule, to social justice, to political independence, to internationalism. They could have availed themselves of an IMF ‘bailout’, and before long they would have been accepted into the imperialist fold. Perhaps a few European heads of government might even have attended Fidel’s funeral (in the event, Alexis Tsipras of Greece was the only one). In the absence of a Cuban Yeltsin, the US would have been more than happy to work with a Cuban Gorbachev.

But Fidel understood from fairly early on that Gorbachev’s path was the road to ruin, commenting that “Perestroika is another man’s wife; I don’t want to get involved.” In his well-known and exceptionally powerful speech on 7 December 1989 in honour of the Cubans that gave their lives in the struggle to save Angola, Fidel made a clear denunciation of the Soviet Union’s programme of dismantling working class power, and made it plain that a parallel process would not be taking place in Cuba.

“In Cuba, we are engaged in a process of rectification. No revolution or truly socialist rectification is possible without a strong, disciplined, respected party. Such a process cannot be advanced by slandering socialism, destroying its values, casting slurs on the party, demoralising its vanguard, abandoning the party’s guiding role, eliminating social discipline and sowing chaos and anarchy everywhere. This may foster a counterrevolution, but not revolutionary changes.”

Continuing, he firmly re-stated Cuba’s commitment to socialism and willingness to be the global standard-bearer of the communist cause if necessary:

“We owe everything we are today to the revolution and to socialism. If Cuba were ever to return to capitalism, our independence and sovereignty would be lost forever; we would be an extension of Miami, a mere appendage of US imperialism; and the repugnant prediction that a US president made in the 19th century — when that country was considering the annexation of Cuba — that our island would fall into its hands like a ripe fruit, would prove true…

“We Cuban Communists and the millions of our people’s revolutionary soldiers will carry out the role assigned to us in history, not only as the first socialist state in the western hemisphere but also as staunch front-line defenders of the noble cause of all the destitute, exploited people in the world. We have never aspired to having custody of the banners and principles which the revolutionary movement has defended throughout its heroic and inspiring history. However, if fate were to decree that, one day, we would be among the last defenders of socialism in a world in which US imperialism had realised Hitler’s dreams of world domination, we would defend this bulwark to the last drop of our blood.”

When it became clear that Cuba wasn’t going to ride the wave of counter-revolution, the US decided to make things even more difficult by ramping up the economic blockade of the island. With the clouds of destitution and collapse looming ominously, the survival of Cuban socialism required incredible sacrifices and a creative overhaul of the national economy. Eighty percent of imports disappeared pretty much overnight, and many important goods were simply no longer available; the loss of fuel imports in particular meant that industry and transport were paralysed. Belts had to be tightened significantly in terms of food consumption and housing distribution; there was a renewed emphasis on tourism as a means of generating foreign exchange; small agricultural cooperatives and urban gardens sprang up with the government’s encouragement; car use was massively reduced (partly through the purchase of 1.2 million low-cost bicycles from China).

People had to get used to getting by with less, and the increase in foreign tourism brought complex new economic and social problems; however, the revolution survived. Socialism was preserved, Cuban independence was not put on the market, and nobody starved – even if many felt hunger pains for the first time. This survival would clearly not have been possible were it not for the level of revolutionary mobilisation of the Cuban people; if they did not feel passionately about defending the gains of the preceding three decades; if they weren’t willing to engage their energy and creative ingenuity for the sake of overcoming obstacles that must have appeared close to insurmountable. In this, they again had Fidel as their example and leader.

Yes, it is possible

Speaking at Fidel’s funeral, Raúl Castro gave an insightful and moving summary of his brother’s unique qualities; his blend of courage, creativity, foresight, knowledge, military/political acumen, energy, and ability to inspire.

“Fidel showed us that yes, it was possible to reach the coast of Cuba in the Granma yacht; that yes, it was possible to resist the enemy, hunger, rain and cold, and organise a revolutionary army in the Sierra Maestra; … that yes, it was possible to defeat, with the support of the entire people, the tyranny of Batista, backed by US imperialism… that yes, it was possible to defeat in 72 hours the mercenary invasion of Playa Girón and at the same time, continue the campaign to eradicate illiteracy in one year…

“That yes, it was possible to proclaim the socialist character of the Revolution 90 miles from the empire, and when its warships advanced toward Cuba, following the brigade of mercenary troops; that yes, it was possible to resolutely uphold the inalienable principles of our sovereignty, without fear of the threat of nuclear aggression by the United States in those days of the October 1962 missile crisis.

“That yes, it was possible to offer solidarity assistance to other sister peoples struggling against colonial oppression, external aggression and racism. That yes, it was possible to defeat the racist South Africans, saving Angola’s territorial integrity, forcing Namibia’s independence and delivering a harsh blow to the apartheid regime.

“That yes, it was possible to turn Cuba into a medical power, reduce infant mortality first, to the lowest rate in the Third World, then as compared with other rich countries; because at least on this continent our rate of infant mortality of children under one year of age is lower than Canada’s and the United States’, and at the same time, significantly increase the life expectancy of our population.

“That yes, it was possible to transform Cuba into a great scientific hub, advance in the modern and decisive fields of genetic engineering and biotechnology; insert ourselves within the fortress of international pharmaceuticals; develop tourism, despite the U.S. blockade; build causeways in the sea to make Cuba increasingly more attractive, obtaining greater monetary income from our natural charms.

“That yes, it is possible to resist, survive, and develop without renouncing our principles or the achievements won by socialism in a unipolar world dominated by the transnationals which emerged after the fall of the socialist camp in Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

“Fidel’s enduring lesson is that yes it is possible, that humans are able to overcome the harshest conditions as long as their willingness to triumph does not falter, they accurately assess every situation, and do not renounce their just and noble principles.”

An outstanding Marxist-Leninist

“Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t even 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 and Ignacio Ramonet: My Life – A Spoken Autobiography)

At a time when it’s not particularly fashionable to be a Marxist, a communist, it’s worth remembering that Fidel was exactly that. Some have tried to cast him as more of a Cuban nationalist or a stereotypical Latin American caudillo, but Fidel was of the consistent belief that “The future of mankind is the future of socialism and communism”; that “Marx was the greatest economic and political thinker of all times”.

The Cuban Revolution was, from the beginning, a socialist revolution; a process aimed at expropriating the capitalist class, foreign monopolies and landlords, and establishing working class rule. Fidel had become convinced of the correctness of Marxism-Leninism while at university in the late 1940s. “Toward the end of my university studies, I was no longer a utopian communist but rather an atypical communist who was acting independently. I based myself on a realistic analysis of our country’s situation… We were convinced Marxists and socialists… we had already read almost a whole library of the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and other theoreticians.” (Speech at the inauguration of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, cited in the Fidel Castro Reader)

However, due to the widespread acceptance of McCarthyite propaganda, the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘Marxism’ weren’t often used until 1961. Fidel explains:

“Those were times of brutal anticommunism, the final years of McCarthyism, when by every possible means our powerful and imperial neighbour had tried to sow in the minds of our noble people all kinds of lies and prejudices. I would often meet an ordinary citizen and ask them a number of questions: whether they believed we should undertake land reform; whether it would be fair for families to own the homes for which at times they paid almost half their salaries. Also, if they believed that the people should own all the banks in order to use those resources to finance the development of the country. Whether those big factories – most of them foreign-owned – should belong to, and produce for, the people… things like that. I would ask 10, 15 similar questions and they would agree absolutely: ‘Yes, that would be great.’ In essence, if all those big stores and all those profitable businesses that now only enrich their privileged owners belonged to the people, and were used to enrich the people, would you agree? ‘Yes, yes,’ they would answer immediately. So, then I asked them: ‘Would you agree with socialism?’ Answer: ‘Socialism? No, no, no, not with socialism.’ Let alone communism… There was so much prejudice that this was an even more frightening word.” (ibid)

After three years of intense revolutionary activity following the capture of power – ending illiteracy, implementing land reform, setting up popular democratic structures, defending the revolution from invasion and destabilisation – the leadership decided to declare its ideological stance. By this point, the revolution had proven itself through actual socialist construction, and US ideological propaganda had lost much of its impact on the Cuban people. In a speech on 2 December 1961, broadcast on TV and radio, Fidel announced: “I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I shall be a Marxist-Leninist to the end of my life.”

Reflecting a few years later on McCarthyism and the saturation of anti-communism throughout the capitalist world, Fidel pointed out:

“The reactionary classes have always used every method to condemn and slander new ideas. Thus, all the paper and all the resources at their disposal are not sufficient to slander communist ideas; to slander the desire for a society in which human beings no longer exploit one another, but become real brothers and sisters; the dream of a society in which all human beings are truly equal in fact and in law – not simply in a constitutional clause as in some bourgeois constitutions which say that all men are born free and equal. Can all individuals be considered to be born free and equal in a society of exploiters and exploited, a society of rich and poor – where one child is born in a slum, in a humble cradle, and another child is born in a cradle of gold? How can it be said that these people have the same opportunities in life? The ancient dream of humankind – a dream that is possible today – of a society without exploiters or exploited, has aroused the hatred and rancor of all exploiters…

“The word ‘communist’ is not an insult but rather an honor for us… Within 100 years, there will be no greater glory, nothing more natural and rational, than to be called a communist. We are on the road toward a communist society. And if the imperialists don’t like it, they can lump it. From now on, gentlemen of UPI and AP, understand that when you call us ‘communists,’ you are giving us the greatest compliment you can give.” (Speech at the first central committee meeting of the newly-formed Communist Party of Cuba, 3 October 1965, cited in the Fidel Castro Reader)

Against dogmatism and revisionism

The twin curses of revisionism and dogmatism have clung to the left-wing movement with impressive tenacity over the years. ‘Revisionism’ means, essentially, stripping Marxism of its revolutionary objectives; reducing it to a slow reformism that doesn’t recognise the need to defeat the capitalist class. ‘Dogmatism’ means treating the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin (plus, variously, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao or whoever) as biblical sources of timeless and absolute truth, with universal application in all times and places; favouring the application of formulas and learned phrases over serious analysis of concrete conditions; and rejecting all forms of strategic compromise.

The Cuban Revolution came about at a time when the Soviet Union was elaborating an increasingly revisionist theory around its particular strategic needs (to peacefully rebuild and avoid further war), and the People’s Republic of China was reacting to this with an anti-revisionism which before long morphed into a rather dogmatic and unrealistic assessment of the global balance of forces. These differences fed into the Sino-Soviet split, which was to prove painfully destructive to the communist cause.

Fidel understood the potential danger that the Sino-Soviet split posed to the socialist camp and to progressive forces around the world; meanwhile he saw the impact of both revisionism and dogmatism within the Latin American left, and wanted to show that there was a different path.

“Due to the heterogeneity of this contemporary world, with different countries confronting dissimilar situations and most unequal levels of material, technical and cultural development, Marxism cannot be like a church, like a religious doctrine, with its Pope and ecumenical council. It is a revolutionary and dialectical doctrine, not a religious doctrine. It is a guide for revolutionary action, not a dogma. It is anti-Marxist to try to encapsulate Marxism in a sort of catechism. This diversity will inevitably lead to different interpretations… Marxism is a doctrine of revolutionaries, written by revolutionaries, developed by other revolutionaries, for revolutionaries. We will demonstrate our confidence in ourselves and our confidence in our ability to continue to develop our revolutionary path…

“We believe that revolutionary thought must take a new course; that we must leave behind old vices and sectarian positions of all kinds, including the positions of those who believe they have a monopoly on the revolution or on revolutionary theory. Poor theory! How it has suffered in these processes. Poor theory! How it has been abused, and is still being abused! All these years have taught us to meditate more and analyse better. We no longer accept any truths as ‘self-evident’. ‘Self-evident’ truths are a part of bourgeois philosophy. A whole series of old clichés should be abolished. Marxist, revolutionary political literature itself should be renewed, because if you simply repeat clichés, phraseology and verbiage that have been repeated for 35 years, you don’t win anyone over.” (Speech on 3 October 1965, op cit)

As discussed above, the Cubans didn’t try to model their revolution on anything that had come before. They didn’t attempt to apply some sort of Marxist template for building socialism; rather they combined their wide-ranging political and historical understanding with a deep analysis of prevailing conditions. The ideas with which they inspired the Cuban people were grounded in Marxism-Leninism but were also specifically Cuban. Fidel more than anyone understood the need to give Cuban socialism its own national flavour, which he successfully did by connecting the revolution with the Cuban (and wider Latin American) struggle for independence – tapping into an existing reverence for independence heroes such as José Martí and Antonio Maceo – and also the Cuban resistance movements against dictatorship and injustice in the 1930s and 40s.

In the first decade or so of the Cuban Revolution, it could perhaps be argued that, within the Latin American left, Cuba wanted to replace dogmatic adherence to the Soviet or Chinese models with dogmatic adherence to the Cuban model. The means by which the 26th of July movement captured power were promoted, and Cuba gave its support to rural guerrilla groups across the continent (“The only place where we didn’t try to promote revolution was Mexico”, Fidel noted), heavily criticising those leftist organisations that didn’t embrace guerrilla struggle.

The defeat of these attempts at revolution forced the Cubans to re-evaluate. In Cuba, Fidel and his comrades had benefitted from the element of surprise. By the time guerrilla struggles were launched elsewhere in Latin America, this element of surprise was gone, and the insurgents found that the CIA and its local allies were able to gain the upper hand through the use of advanced surveillance technology, air reconnaissance, psyops, propaganda, fostering disunity, and so on.

fidel-allendeThe victory of Salvador Allende in the Chilean presidential election of September 1970 represented the first time that an openly socialist government had come to power by constitutional means. Fidel was sufficiently inspired by, and curious about, Allende’s project that he toured Chile over the course of 25 days in late 1971 (a highly unusual amount of time for a head of state to spend visiting another country, especially given it was Fidel’s first trip to the South American mainland since 1959). As a result, he was able to make a serious study of the forces operating for and against the process. Speaking a couple of years later, in the wake of the Pinochet coup that brought the Popular Unity project to a tragic end, he sums up the Cuban leadership’s open mind regarding Allende’s Chilean path to socialism:

“President Allende and the Chilean revolutionary process awakened great interest and solidarity throughout the world. For the first time in history, a new experience was developed in Chile: the attempt to bring about the revolution by peaceful means, by legal means. And he was given the understanding and support of all the world in his effort – not only of the international Communist movement, but of very different political inclinations as well. We may say that that effort was appreciated even by those who weren’t Marxist-Leninists.

“And our party and people – in spite of the fact that we had made the revolution by other means – and all the other revolutionary peoples in the world supported him. We didn’t hesitate a minute, because we understood that there was a possibility in Chile of winning an electoral victory, in spite of all the resources of imperialism and the ruling classes, in spite of all the adverse circumstances. We didn’t hesitate in 1970 to publicly state our understanding and our support of the efforts which the Chilean left was making to win the elections that year.”

maurice-fidel-daniel-1The end of the 1970s brought socialist forces to power in both Grenada and Nicaragua. The Grenadian revolutionaries, led by the brilliant and charismatic Maurice Bishop, came to power in a bloodless coup; meanwhile the Sandinistas in Nicaragua came to power on the basis of a guerrilla struggle that would have looked relatively familiar to their Cuban comrades. By now recognising the immense variety and specificity of revolutionary processes, Cuba gave an extraordinary level of fraternal support to Chile, Grenada and Nicaragua, whilst also giving some pertinent advice: that, in a regional context of near-total US domination, no revolutionary process can survive unless it protects itself with firm unity and militant self-defence (one can find a haunting tribute to this message in the last photo of Allende, facing Pinochet’s fascist CIA-backed coup on 11 September 1973, holding the AK-47 given to him personally by Fidel).

These experiences, in addition to the degeneration and demise of the Soviet Union, the unprecedented technological/military changes that have taken place in recent decades, plus the emergence of a raft of progressive governments in Latin America, have led the Cubans to a continually more advanced understanding of revolution and the different means of pursuing it. Ricardo Alarcón, President of the National Assembly of People’s Power from 1993 to 2013, sums up this learning well:

“What characterises Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariátegui said, socialism is a ‘heroic creation'”.

The link between 20th and 21st century socialism

The history of “actually existing socialism” thus far is sometimes considered in terms of two more-or-less distinct phases. The more recent one was famously labelled by its chief protagonist, Hugo Chávez, as “socialism of the 21st century” or “21st century socialism” (these constructions are the same in Spanish: socialismo del siglo 21); for the sake of a simple demarcation, the period starting with the October Revolution (1917) and ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) is generally called “20th century socialism”.

Other than the incremental difference in the number of full centuries since the birth of Jesus, the conceptual contrast between the two phases is not entirely well-defined. However, if we define 21st century socialism on the basis of its history thus far, its characteristics seem to include: capturing (some) power via parliamentary elections; empowering workers and oppressed groups through social programmes, education, local democratic structures; moving towards a redistributive economic model whilst avoiding an all-out attack on capitalist economic power. Socialism of the 21st century has a clear, urgent focus on tackling neoliberalism, environmental destruction, and justice for indigenous, African and LBGTQ+ communities – problems that are more pressing and better understood than they were a few decades ago. In summary, it constitutes a pragmatic and creative approach to defending the needs of the oppressed in the modern era, in a context where more thorough revolutionary transformations (dismantling the capitalist state, expropriating the capitalist class, establishing a monopoly on power by the poor) aren’t realistically possible for the time being.

The status of Cuba – along with China, Vietnam, DPR Korea and Laos – in this distinction of “20th century socialism” and “21st century socialism” is a subject that deserves more attention. In terms of Fidel’s legacy as a Marxist-Leninist thinker and revolutionary, it’s worth noting that his influence spans both phases, and is a key link between them.

Fidel Castro at no point disavowed 20th century socialism. Not once did he imply that building a workers’ state (a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, to use Marx’s phrase for it) had been the wrong thing to do. He strongly believed that the European socialist countries had made a terrible, historic mistake in abandoning the socialist path and embracing capitalism. In a forceful speech given in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 1996, he said:

“There are many people in [the USSR and the former socialist countries in Europe] who vacillated, but who now are thinking, meditating. They see the disorder, lack of discipline and chaos, and they are perceiving that capitalism has no future. Only the countries which are persisting in socialism – in spite of the enormous difficulties resulting from us being left almost alone – using our intelligence, using our hearts, using our creative spirit, are capable of introducing innovations which will not only save socialism, but will improve it, and one day will bring it to a definitive triumph.

“Because of this, today, in these times, we can say: the future – and this can be said with more conviction than ever before – is one of socialism. Capitalism is in crisis, it does not have solutions to any of the world’s problems; only peoples such as those of Vietnam, Cuba and other countries, who did not abandon the principles of Marxism-Leninism, or of popular democratic government, or of the leadership of the Communist Party, are now forging ahead and achieving results not experienced by any other country in the world.”

fidel-chavezNonetheless, when a radical wave hit Latin America – with the election of, among others, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1999), Lula in Brazil (2002), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2005), Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (2006) and Rafael Correa in Ecuador (2006) – Fidel embraced it with open arms, understanding that it represented an unprecedented step forward for the peoples of the continent and towards the Latin/Caribbean integration that Cuba had long pushed for. He understood that, with the US focus directed towards the Middle East, and with a certain strength in numbers, it was possible for this kind of project to succeed where Allende’s government had been defeated.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of Hugo Chávez (to whom he was a longstanding friend and mentor), Fidel highlighted the immense significance of the election of a socialist in Venezuela: “Opportunities have often been lost, but you could not be forgiven if you lose this one.”

All the left-wing governments that have emerged in Latin America over the last 17 years have had enormous respect for Cuba and have sought the wisdom and guidance of its leadership. Like millions of people across the continent, they understand the extraordinary efforts Cuba has made to build and defend its revolution; to create the best education and healthcare systems in the Americas; to wipe out malnutrition and illiteracy; to make huge strides in eliminating racism, sexism and homophobia; to meaningfully tackle inequality; to send internationalist missions around the world; to establish Cuba as a centre of scientific innovation and environmental protection; and to achieve all this in the face of permanent hostility, threats and destabilisation coming from the US. No other country in Latin America can claim anywhere near such a level of success.

Not one of the left-wing governments in Latin America has sought to distance itself from Cuba on account of it not being ‘democratic’; they understand very well that it is far more democratic than the countries that slander it as a dictatorship (in terms of a government representing the will of its people, Cuba might well be the most democratic country in the world).

Through the strong bonds progressive Latin America has formed with Cuba – as well asnwith China – a clear thread of continuity has been established between 20th and 21st century socialism. The key differences are not ideological as such; rather they represent strategic differences corresponding to changed circumstances. Socialism of the 21st century will have a brighter future if, rather than rejecting the experiences of the socialist world so far, it considers itself the continuation of that project and leverages its vast experience. The most advanced contingents of 21st century socialism – specifically the PSUV (Socialist Unity Party of Venezuela), MAS (the Movement to Socialism in Bolivia), the FSLN (Sandinista Liberation Front of Nicaragua) and FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador) – clearly do this. This is a valuable aspect of Fidel Castro’s legacy: understanding that the transition from capitalism to socialism is a single, global, multi-generational project with diverse problems, phases and strategies.

The consummate internationalist

“For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practised to the benefit of large sections of humankind.” (Nelson Mandela, Cuba, 26 July 1991)

“Being internationalists is paying our debt to humanity. Those who are incapable of fighting for others will never be capable of fighting for themselves. And the heroism shown by our forces, by our people in other lands, faraway lands, must also serve to let the imperialists know what awaits them if one day they force us to fight on this land here.” (Fidel Castro, 1989, cited in Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own)

Fidel Castro thought and operated on a global scale. He understood from the beginning that unity is strength; that socialist and anti-colonial states could not survive except through coordination and mutual support. He therefore pushed the Cuban Revolution to become the extraordinary example of revolutionary internationalism that it is.

fidel-mandelaHis thinking was shaped early on by the extensive support given to Cuba by the Soviet Union, without which the Cuban Revolution simply would not have been able to hold out against the military, economic and political attacks of its neighbour to the north. Raúl Castro emphasises this point: “We must not forget another deep motivation [for our internationalism]. Cuba itself had already lived through the beautiful experience of the solidarity of other peoples, especially the people of the Soviet Union, who extended a friendly hand at crucial moments for the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The solidarity, support, and fraternal collaboration that the consistent practice of internationalism brought us at decisive moments created a sincere feeling, a consciousness of our debt to other peoples who might find themselves in similar circumstances.”

Cuban internationalism has become legendary, and has converted a small Caribbean island of 11 million people into one of the most respected countries on the planet. Speaking in relation to Cuba’s decisive contribution to the defeat of South African apartheid, the liberation of Namibia and the survival of Angola, Nelson Mandela commented: “The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

Aside from its support for Angola, Cuba also sent troops, advisers and health workers to support the liberation movements and revolutionary states in Guinea Bissau, Algeria, Guinea, Congo, Ethiopia, Western Sahara and South Yemen. Training and supplies were given to the heroic liberation movements in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and elsewhere. Hundreds of Cuban tank commanders came to Syria’s aid during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Cuba gave abundant support to the revolutionary governments in Grenada (1979-83), Nicaragua (1979-90), Chile (1970-73) and to numerous liberation struggles around the South American continent.

fidel-vietnamIt should be mentioned that Fidel didn’t delegate internationalism to others – he led by example. Indeed, he was the only foreign leader to visit the liberated zones of South Vietnam during the war. There were periods during the height of the struggle for Angola (1987-88) when Fidel devoted most of his time to giving strategic and tactical leadership to that fight; such was his dedication to the cause of ending colonialism and apartheid in Africa.

Havana has provided a home to many revolutionary exiles from the US, including Assata Shakur and Robert F Williams. Cuba has given unprecedented levels of medical support to West Africa, Haiti, Pakistan and many other places. At its Latin American School of Medicine it provides free or subsidised medical training for hundreds of African, Caribbean and Latin American students every year – even a handful of US students from poor families attend the school, on the condition that, on returning to the US, they use their training in the service of their communities. Fidel has been a consistent friend to the cause of Irish unity and self-determination.

As noted above, Cuba has been an inspiration for the wave of progressive governments in Latin America and has been central to the project of developing regional unity. The Second Declaration of Havana, 1962 captured the spirit of Latin American collective struggle long before it became an actual possibility: “No nation in Latin America is weak – because each forms part of a family of 200 million brothers and sisters, who suffer the same miseries, who harbour the same sentiments, who have the same enemy, who dream about the same better future and who count on the solidarity of all honest men and women throughout the world.”

Cuba has been, and remains, a vocal supporter of small countries struggling to maintain their independence and freedom in the face of imperialist pressure. That has included siding with several countries that have been more-or-less abandoned by the fashion-conscious western left, such as Syria, Libya, DPR Korea, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Belarus.

Fidel also recognised the importance of multipolarity as an important emerging trend in world politics, writing in one of his last essays that “the deep alliance of the peoples of the Russian Federation and China based on advanced science, strong army and the brave soldiers is capable of ensuring the survival of mankind”. He understood that, in a context where the US is desperately trying to maintain the uncontested hegemony it won after the fall of the Soviet Union, the establishment of alternative, non-imperialist world powers is a very promising development, creating a much more favourable space for other countries to follow a political and economic path that suits their own needs.

Man of the people

“The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history.” (Mao Zedong)

Fidel had an extraordinary level of faith in the people, an insistence on people-centred government, and a profound understanding that the masses are the true makers of history. The revolution he led remains unsurpassed in its construction of a socialist morality that privileges social justice, fairness, equality, solidarity and participation.

Cuba is often maligned as a dictatorship, but such a label is hard to square with its record in practice of building socialist democracy. One of the first acts of the revolutionary government was to establish brigades of students willing to go out into the countryside in order to teach literacy to peasants who had been deprived even a basic education. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September 1960, Fidel described some of the first actions of his government:

“The revolution discovered over 10,000 teachers without a classroom, without work, and it immediately gave them jobs, because there were also half a million children who needed schools… What was yesterday a land without hope, a land of misery, a land of illiteracy, is gradually becoming one of the most enlightened, advanced and developed nations of this continent. The revolutionary government, in just 20 months, has created 10,000 new schools. In this brief period of time, we have doubled the number of rural schools that had been established in 50 years, and Cuba today is the first country of the Americas that has met all its educational needs, having teachers in even the most remote corners of the mountains. In this brief period of time, the revolutionary government has built 25,000 houses in the countryside and the urban areas… Cuba will be the first country in the Americas that, after a few months, will be able to say it does not have a single illiterate person in the country.”

A ruthless, exploitative dictatorship has no need to provide education to people that have never had education. Growing sugar cane for export does not demand a familiarity with the works of José Martí, Cervantes and so on. The only motivation of the Cuban government in setting up such a programme was to improve the lives of ordinary people, and to empower them to participate more actively in running their society, in making history. Cuba continues to have an education system that is the envy of the world – and which is free at every level.

A ruthless, exploitative dictatorship will exacerbate and leverage racial and gender divisions in order to keep people divided and ruled. And yet the Cuban government has made remarkable progress in tackling discrimination and inequality, and promoting unity. As Isaac Saney writes in his excellent book ‘Cuba – A Revolution in Motion’: “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalised racism and generate racial harmony.”

fidel-malcolmFrom the beginning, Fidel saw racism as a major obstacle to the revolution; he considered that a better society could only built with “a united revolutionary people, whose consciousness is constantly developing and whose unity is indestructible” (speech given on the centenary of Cuba’s first declaration of independence, 10 October 1968). Racism was systemic in pre-revolutionary Cuba, with a system of racial segregation in place that would have brought a contented smile to the faces of the architects of South African apartheid. Fidel appreciated that, even with the defeat of the reactionary classes that benefited from racism, it wouldn’t simply die out of its own accord. In a speech on 21 March 1959 – just a couple of months after the capture of power – he made a profound point:

“In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practise discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?”

Displaying an outstanding humanity and depth of historical understanding, Fidel also connected the struggle against racism in Cuba with the centuries-old colonial domination of Africa, and in turn with the global struggle against colonialism, imperialism and apartheid. At a mass rally of over a million people in Havana in December 1975, where he explains the reasons for Cuba’s solidarity with Angola, he affirmed:

“African blood flows freely through our veins. Many of our ancestors came from Africa to this land. As slaves they struggled a great deal. They fought as members of the Liberating Army of Cuba. We’re brothers and sisters of the people of Africa and we’re ready to fight on their behalf.

“Racial discrimination existed in our country. Is there anyone who doesn’t know this, who doesn’t remember it? Many public parks had separate walks for blacks and for whites. Is there anyone who doesn’t recall that African descendants were barred from many places, from recreation centres and schools? Is there anyone who has forgotten that racial discrimination was prevalent in all aspects of work and study?

“And today, who are the representatives, the symbols of the most hateful and inhuman form of racial discrimination? The South African fascists and racists. And Yankee imperialism, without scruples of any kind, has launched South African mercenary troops in an attempt to crush Angola’s independence and is now outraged by our help to Angola, our support for Africa and our defence of Africa.

“In keeping with the duties rooted in our principles, our ideology, our convictions and our very own blood, we shall defend Angola and Africa! And when we say defend, we mean it in the strict sense of the word. And when we say struggle, we mean it also in the strict sense of the word. Let the South African racists and the Yankee imperialists be warned. We are part of the world revolutionary movement, and in Africa’s struggle against racists and imperialists, we’ll stand, without any hesitation, side by side with the peoples of Africa.”

fidel-supporterWhat has been built in Cuba – through education, through struggle against discrimination, through the establishment of political structures such as the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution – is a genuine people’s democracy; a government that relies on mass participation and that derives its legitimacy entirely through its efforts to represent the interests of the people.

Cuba doesn’t conform to the western liberal concept of democracy, for the simple reason that it has developed a political structure that is better suited to the people’s needs; which is in fact more democratic. In western parliamentary democracy, the masses have the right to say what they think (a right that is usually respected), and the government has the right to completely ignore them (a right that is almost always respected). For example, the recent constitutional changes and associated economic reforms in Cuba were shaped through a process of debate and consultation lasting four years and involving practically the entire population. This was a huge exercise in democracy that stands in stark contrast to the way in which austerity has been rolled out in Europe.

In Cuba there is only one political party – the Cuban Communist Party – but this reflects the fact that this party represents the needs of the ruling classes in Cuban society: the working class and peasantry. And within that party there is a massive variety of opinions on every matter under the sun. The only political question on which unanimity is expected is that of moving forward with socialism, rather than capitulating to imperialist pressure and returning to capitalism. What reasonable person would argue with that? Cuba returning to capitalism would be like France returning to feudalism, South Africa returning to apartheid, the US returning to slavery. As ever, Fidel puts it well:

“Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing. Against the revolution, nothing, because the revolution also has its rights, and the first right of the revolution is the right to exist, and no one can oppose the revolution’s right to exist. Inasmuch as the revolution embodies the interests of the people, inasmuch as the revolution symbolises the interests of the whole nation, no one can justly claim a right to oppose it.”

Living up to Fidel’s legacy

As Nicaraguan revolutionary Tomás Borge said about his comrade Carlos Fonseca, Fidel is “among the dead that never die.” His life as a revolutionary, a Marxist-Leninist, an internationalist, an outstanding and compassionate builder of a new society, now becomes the collective property of the progressive millions of the world: the anti-imperialists, the socialists, the communists. The only condition of ownership is that we use it to help us move humankind further along the path towards a world without war, oppression, discrimination, exploitation, domination and prejudice; a world that protects the earth, which restores community, and which creates conditions for every single human being – of this and future generations – to be able to enjoy a dignified, fulfilling, healthy, interesting and happy life.

From the Chinese Marxist viewpoint: an interview with Professor Deng Chundong

This interview with Professor Deng Chundong, President of the Institute of Marxism, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was conducted by Jenny Clegg in London on 5 December 2016. A slightly condensed version appeared first in the Morning Star.

Over three decades ago, Deng Xiaoping famously likened China’s reform path to a process of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’. On this journey, China has not been unaided: Marxism has been its fundamental guide. As China continues to undergo momentous changes as reform deepens, its president, Xi Jinping has put much emphasis on the country’s ideological orientation. In a nationally televised speech last July on the 95th anniversary of the CPC, he warned that “Turning our backs or abandoning Marxism means that our party would lose its soul and direction”. And he went on: “…what we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other -ism.”

The Institute of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is one of China’s premier institutions, serving at the highest level as a research centre, a government think-tank and one of the foremost academic institutions. Its scholars and researchers not only absorb the Marxist classics but also apply Marxist theory to contemporary conditions, using Marxism to develop the concepts and practices of the socialist market economy, whilst critiquing capitalism to understand and learn from the mistakes of the West.

I was able to learn more about the Chinese Marxist viewpoint when I met up with Professor Deng Chundong, the Institute’s President, who was on a visit to London with a small delegation of political economists. We started by discussing the October Revolution in China, given the upcoming centenary next year. Professor Deng explained:

“The 1917 October Revolution signified a new era of human history. It was a great inspiration to the Chinese people – its great success showed the way forward to establish a socialist system in our country with the proletariat holding state power.

“At that time, China was oppressed by the forces of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. China was in big trouble. Many of our most advanced thinkers of the time – scholars, students, businessmen – had tried to tried to figure out how to save China from its predicament. The success of revolution in Russia brought some sunlight during that dark period – it meant a great deal.

“Now to commemorate the October Revolution, we must commit to pursuing communist ideology and follow strictly the route of achieving socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

I then asked about his views on Fidel Castro’s main achievements and contributions to the world struggle for socialism.

“Fidel Castro gave his whole life to fighting for his people in Cuba. From the Chinese viewpoint, there are two major contributions he made which were helpful for China in setting a model for achieving socialism.

“In the first place, Cuba is a very small country in Caribbean close to the most powerful country in the world, the biggest capitalist country, the US. That such a small county could continue to follow a socialist path under the severe blockade of the US demands our great respect.

“In the 1990s, the whole of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed, but Fidel Castro continued in his belief and continued to promote socialism in Cuba. All communists around the world should show our admiration and our gratitude to Fidel.

“The reasons that socialism in Cuba advanced so far despite such great pressure from the US were firstly, the firm determination of Fidel, and secondly, that Cuba sought to explore its own unique way forward. It followed its own path and did not copy the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but – and this is the most important thing – adapted to the actual circumstances of the country and found its own practices to advance society, developing socialism with its own characteristics.

“Cuban socialism is very popular, it is a great attraction around the world. It has gained the confidence of the people and this is its advantage – its people are in favour of the Communist Party and this means Cuba will have a bright future”.

Although he had never visited Cuba, Professor Deng had had the opportunity for discussion with the Cuban ambassador to China on a number of occasions. Four years ago, he told me, China, Cuba and Vietnam had agreed to set up an annual forum for scholars to share the experiences of building socialism in the different countries and to exchange views and opinions.

We then moved on to the question of Marxist education in China. The rise of western thinking in university degree courses, alongside the waning of Marxist content, has become a particular concern among Marxist scholars in China. The westernisation of economics, it has been argued, was one of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s collapse. As Professor Deng pointed out, starting with China’s reform and opening up from the end of the 1970s, values and ideas from US and Europe have had a huge impact on China in terms of culture, education and economic thinking.

“The textbooks used in universities, the mindset, values and ideology of the teachers, the setting up of courses and curriculum design – all are influenced by Western values to a great extent.

“In the long term this will have a negative influence in undermining Marxist education and this is a situation which must be changed.”

To make the change, Professor Deng, identified three key measures.

“First it is necessary to educate the teachers in particular those teaching Marxism in schools and universities. Their mindset must not be influenced by Western values, they need to take Marxism as the core in terms of their stance, view and methods.”

The Ministry of Education has the responsibility here, organising workshops and seminars for university teachers. The Institute of Marxism has also held summer schools in Marxism for teachers from other provinces.

“The second thing that needs to be changed is the textbooks. Originally lots of textbooks used in universities to study economics, law, history, social sciences, journalism and media and so on, were all just copied from Western university textbooks. This situation has to change. Of course there is some content from Western learning that we should learn, but we need to select what is appropriate for China and not simply copy wholesale”.

Thirdly, Professor Deng pointed out that although Marxist education is compulsory in universities, in recent years the total curriculum hours devoted to this has been significantly reduced sometimes by up to a half or even two thirds.

“So it is necessary to adopt some measures to strengthen education in Marxist theory throughout the country.”

At the Institute, the study of Marxism centres on the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong but covers the whole body of Marxist debate, and not only the basic theory of Marxism but also as applied for example to Chinese political economy, law and regulation. Its journal, International Critical Thought, includes articles by both Chinese and Western Marxists on both contemporary and theoretical issues.

On the question of globalisation, Professor Deng pointed out that the important thing is who is in the dominant position and leading the process of internationalisation.

“Currently, of course the advanced Western countries are playing the dominant role – Chinese thinking here is that world affairs should not be determined by only one country, instead we should proactively promote pluralism and multi-polarisation. That is, all countries in the world should have the equal opportunity to get involved in decision-making; all countries should have equal involvement and engagement and should consult with each other and discuss with each other to try to resolve those important issues that affect the whole world and our human destiny.

“And as part of this process, China will gradually get more involved and contribute more to global governance, playing an active role by setting out our own plans and suggesting ways forward for world development.”

As a final point, I raised the issue of Donald Trump’s denial of global warming, to which Professor Deng commented:

“How the US chooses to deal with the issue and with the Paris Agreement, is their own affair, we won’t meddle in this. But for our part, China is committed to cooperating with the international community making our own contribution to tackling this serious problem.”

The Revolutionary Legacy of Amilcar Cabral

Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral, one of the greatest anti-colonial leaders of the twentieth century, was born on the 12th of September 1924 in Bafatá, a small town in central Guinea-Bissau. Today, ninety years later, let us take a moment to remember this brilliant revolutionary – the undisputed leader and architect of the struggle to liberate Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde from the yoke of Portuguese colonialism.

As a revolutionary theorist, as a guerrilla fighter, as an inspiring agitator, as an uncompromising internationalist, Cabral’s legacy continues to inform the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism.

From a base of almost nothing, he was able to lead the construction of the most successful guerrilla movement in Africa and a strong, disciplined political party: the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). Fidel Castro referred to him as “one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa, who instilled in us tremendous confidence in the future and the success of his struggle for liberation.”

130120_amilcar_cabral_0Cabral built close links with the liberated African countries (in particular Guinea, Ghana, Tanzania, Algeria and Libya) as well as the liberation movements fighting colonialism in Mozambique, South Africa and Angola. Furthermore, he located the PAIGC’s struggle against colonialism within the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism, and on this basis forged close ties with the entire socialist camp, including the Soviet Union, China, the German Democratic Republic, Cuba and Vietnam. (The PAIGC was one of the few movements in the 60s and 70s to successfully navigate the Sino-Soviet split and maintain close relations with both the Soviet Union and China).

Cabral was surely a man of action, but he was also an important and innovative political thinker who made an outstanding contribution to anti-imperialist, socialist, pan-Africanist and revolutionary nationalist ideologies. Tetteh Kofi writes that Cabral “charted a new ideological path, extending the works of Marx and Lenin to suit African realities. Cabral was the leading political theorist of the Lusophone leaders, until his assassination in 1973” (cited in Reiland Rabaka ‘Concepts of Cabralism: Amilcar Cabral and Africana Critical Theory’).

Portugal’s racist policy – along with its own backwardness – meant that very few people in its colonies had access to higher education. In Guinea Bissau at the time, there was only a handful of university graduates in the whole country. However, Cabral displayed exceptional academic ability, and this enabled him to study at the University of Lisbon, where he met people like Agostinho Neto and Eduardo Mondlane (who would go on to lead the revolutionary movements in Angola and Mozambique respectively). In Portugal, his fellow African students introduced him to socialist ideology, and they spent much of their time studying, discussing and strategising: how to end colonial domination of their homelands? How to inspire the broad masses of the people to engage in struggle?

Cabral returned to Guinea Bissau in 1951 and worked for some years as an agronomist – which experience provided him with ample opportunity to learn at first hand of the dire poverty and intense suffering of his people, especially in the countryside. His experiences made him more determined than ever to find ways and means of working for the freedom of his country and delivering his people from the yoke of colonial bondage.”

Living for a brief spell in Angola, he was a founder member of Angola’s preeminent liberation organisation, Movimento Popular Libertação de Angola (MPLA), along with his university friend Agostinho Neto. In the same year (1956), he and his comrades founded the African Party of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC).

ANC and SACP stalwart Yusuf Dadoo writes: “Under his leadership the PAIGC mobilised the country’s patriots to struggle for the freedom of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands, created the people’s army and led the national-liberation war against the Portuguese colonialists. Cabral knew and understood his enemy well, and every phase of the struggle was carefully planned and action meticulously organised. The cadres of the PAIGC were given political education as well as military training and he stressed always ‘that we are armed militants and not militarists.’”

cabral-and-fightersIn 1963, after several years of careful planning, study and strategising, the PAIGC launched its military campaign, which over the course of a few years was able to win the support and loyalty of the Guinean and Capeverdian masses and which managed to shake the rotting colonial entity to its foundations. The first liberated zones were set up in 1965, and these continued to expand unstoppably until independence in 1974, by which time practically the entire country was in the hands of the revolutionary forces.

Sadly, Cabral did not live to see the final victory of the national liberation struggle, and Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde were deprived of the insightful leadership that he would doubtless have provided in the post-colonial period. On 20 January 1973, he was kidnapped and shot by disgruntled PAIGC members working in collaboration with the Portuguese secret police.

Nonetheless, the heroic people of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde stepped up their fight, with Amílcar Cabral’s name on their lips.

Piero Gleijeses notes that, “a few weeks after Cabral’s death, the PAIGC was decisively strengthened by the delivery of surface-to-air missiles from the Soviet Union. Until then, the rebels had not had an effective defense against Portuguese air power, but in late 1972, Luis Cabral recounts, ‘we learned about a Soviet anti-aircraft weapon that was light and very efficient. Amilcar made a special trip to Moscow to explain our needs to the Soviet authorities and to urge them to give us that precious weapon.’ The mission, in December 1972, proved successful. In March 1973 the Portuguese prime minister wrote, ‘surface-to-air missiles unexpectedly appeared in the enemy’s hands in Guinea-Bissau and within a few days five of our planes had been shot down.’ This meant that ‘our unchallenged air superiority, which had been our trump card and the basis of our entire military policy … had suddenly evaporated.’” (Conflicting Missions)

By mid-1973, the PAIGC had extended its liberated territory to cover more than two-thirds of the country. On 24 September 1973, the Popular National Assembly proclaimed the independent state of Guinea-Bissau. Full independence was finally granted a year later, on 10 September 1974. Portugal had, in the course of 11 years’ severe warfare, been well and truly defeated.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary anti-colonial wars had played a major part in bringing about the economic and political crisis within Portugal itself, and had been an inspiration for the most progressive elements within the Portuguese left. The overthrow of fascism in Portugal owes much to the heroic struggle waged by the people of Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique.

Patrick Chabal, in ‘Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War’, sums up Cabral’s legacy succinctly:

In less than twenty years of active political life, Cabral led Guinea-Bissau’s nationalists to the most complete political and military success ever achieved by an African political movement against a colonial power. At the time of his death in 1973, months before Guinea-Bissau became independent, his influence extended well beyond the Lusophone world and Africa. Friends and foes alike admired his political acumen and skills and saw in him a potential leader of the non-aligned movement. His writings have shown him to be a sophisticated analyst of the social, economic and political factors which have affected and continue to affect the developing world.

We publish below a selection of valuable quotes by (and a few about) Amílcar Cabral, which are meant to serve as an introduction to his ideological legacy. The quotes are followed by some suggestions for further reading.

Theory and practice

As someone born in a country where a foreign colonial power pointedly refused to allow the vast majority of the population access to learning, Cabral had little time for anti-intellectual strands within the progressive movement. Indeed he strongly felt that the existing anti-imperialist movements were much in need of greater ideological grounding.

The ideological deficiency within the national liberation movements, not to say the total lack of ideology – reflecting as this does an ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform – makes for one of the greatest weaknesses in our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all. (source)

On the connection between theory and practice, he strikes a similar chord to Mao:

Every practice produces a theory, and though it is true that a revolution can fail even though it be based on perfectly conceived theories, nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory. (ibid)

Very early on in their struggle, and with hardly any resources at their disposal, the PAIGC founders set up a political school in order to create cadres.

The fact that the Republic of Guinea was next to us enabled our Party to install there, temporarily, some of our leaders, and this enabled us to create a political school to prepare political activists. This was decisive for our struggle. In 1960 we created a political school in Conakry, under very poor conditions. Militants from the towns – party members – were the first to come to receive political instruction and to be trained in how to mobilise our people for the struggle. After comrades from the city came peasants and youths (some even bringing their entire families) who had been mobilised by Party members. Ten, twenty, twenty-five people would come for a period of one or two months. During that period they went through an intensive education programme; we spoke to them, and night would come and we couldn’t speak any more because we were completely hoarse. (source)

In his celebrated directive ‘Tell no lies, claim no easy victories’, he urges:

Educate ourselves, educate other people, the population in general, to fight fear and ignorance, to eliminate little by little the subjugation to nature and natural forces which our economy has not yet mastered. Convince little by little, in particular the militants of the Party, that we shall end by conquering the fear of nature, and that man is the strongest force in nature. Demand from responsible Party members that they dedicate themselves seriously to study, that they interest themselves in the things and problems of our daily life and struggle in their fundamental and essential aspect, and not simply in their appearance. Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning. (source)

Socialism

Cabral’s major focus as a revolutionary was to create maximum national unity against Portuguese colonialism, and therefore much of his thought is framed in terms of revolutionary nationalism rather than specifically socialism. Nonetheless, he was very clear about what he thought post-colonial Africa should look like. Furthermore, he established very close links with the existing socialist camp, including the Soviet Union, Cuba, the German Democratic Republic, China and Cuba.

In our present historical situation — elimination of imperialism which uses every means to perpetuate its domination over our peoples, and consolidation of socialism throughout a large part of the world — there are only two possible paths for an independent nation: to return to imperialist domination (neo-colonialism, capitalism, state capitalism), or to take the way of socialism. (source)

Further:

The essential characteristic of our times is the general struggle of the peoples against imperialism and the existence of a socialist camp, which is the greatest bulwark against imperialism. (source)

In response to the question of to what extent Marxism and Leninism as an ideology had been relevant to the national liberation struggle of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, Cabral stated:

Moving from the realities of one’s own country towards the creation of an ideology for one’s struggle doesn’t imply that one has pretensions to be a Marx or a Lenin or any other great ideologist, but is simply a necessary part of the struggle. I confess that we didn’t know these great theorists terribly well when we began. We didn’t know them half as well as we do now. We needed to know them, as I’ve said in order to judge in what measure we could borrow from their experience to help our situation – but not necessarily to apply the ideology blindly just because it’s very good. This is where we stand on this. (source)

Cabral’s writings on the class structure of Guinea-Bissaun and Capeverdian society are fascinating and deserve to be studied in detail. Here is a particularly interesting passage on the problem of trying to create a working class mentality in a country that only had a tiny working class:

We were faced with another difficult problem: we realised that we needed to have people with a mentality which could transcend the context of the national liberation struggle, and so we prepared a number of cadres from the group I have just mentioned, some from the people employed in commerce and other wage-earners, and even some peasants, so that they could acquire what you might call a working class mentality. You may think this is absurd – in any case it is very difficult; in order for there to be a working class mentality the material conditions of the working class should exist, a working class should exist. In fact we managed to inculcate these ideas into a large number of people – the kind of ideas which there would be if there were a working class. We trained about 1,000 cadres at our party school in Conakry, in fact for about two years this was about all we did outside the country. When these cadres returned to the rural areas they inculcated a certain mentality into the peasants and it is among these cadres that we have chosen the people who are now leading the struggle.” (source)

Speaking at a seminar on ‘Lenin and National Liberation’, held at Alma Ata, capital of Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan, in 1970, Cabral made the crucial connection between Lenin’s ideas and the national liberation struggles being waged across Africa:

“How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is: this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” (source)

Yusuf Dadoo’s obituary of Cabral notes that “he had very close association with the Soviet Union which he visited on many occasions and made a major contribution to the promotion and strengthening of friendship and cooperation between the peoples of Guinea-Bissau and the Soviet Union, between the PAIGC and the CPSU.”

The socialist countries and the liberated African states were the major suppliers of weapons, training and finance to the PAIGC (as indeed they were to the MPLA in Angola, Frelimo in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia, ZANU and ZAPU in Zimbabwe, and the ANC and SACP in South Africa).

A socialist camp has arisen in the world. This has radically changed the balance of power, and this socialist camp is today showing itself fully conscious of its duties, international and historic, but not moral, since the peoples of the socialist countries have never exploited the colonised peoples. They are showing themselves conscious of their duty, and this is why I have the honour of telling you openly here that we are receiving substantial and effective aid from these countries, which is reinforcing the aid which we receive from our African brothers. If there are people who don’t like to hear this, let them come and help us in our struggle too. (source)

Further:

We want to mention the special aid given to us by the peoples of the socialist countries. We believe that this aid is a historic obligation, because we consider that our struggle also constitutes a defence of the socialist countries. And we want to say particularly that the Soviet Union, first of all, and China, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and other socialist countries continue to aid us, which we consider very useful for the development of our armed struggle. We also want to lay special emphasis on the untiring efforts – sacrifices that we deeply appreciate – that the people of Cuba – a small country without great resources, one that is struggling against the blockade by the US and other imperialists – are making to give effective aid to our struggle. For us, this is a constant source of encouragement, and it also contributes to cementing more and more the solidarity between our Party and the Cuban Party, between our people and the Cuban people, a people that we consider African. And it is enough to see the historical, political, and blood ties that unite us to be able to say this. Therefore, we are very happy with the aid that the Cuban people give us, and we are sure that they will continue increasing their aid to our national liberation struggle in spite of all difficulties. (source)

Anti-imperialist unity

badgeAmílcar Cabral was a consummate internationalist, who understood anti-imperialist unity not simply in abstract intellectual terms but as a matter of life and death for his movement. After all, the enemy has shown itself to be very capable of developing unity when it needs to:

The Portuguese government has managed to guarantee for as long as necessary the assistance which it receives from the Western powers and from its racist allies in Southern Africa. It is our duty to stress the international character of the Portuguese colonial war against Africa and the important and even decisive role played by the USA and Federal Germany in pursuing this war. If the Portuguese government is still holding out on the three fronts of the war which it is fighting in Africa, it is because it can count on the overt or covert support of the USA, freely use NATO weapons, buy B26 aircraft for the genocide of our people (including from ‘private parties’), and obtain whenever it wishes money. jet aircraft and weapons of every sort from Federal Germany where, furthermore, certain war-wounded from the Portuguese colonial army are hospitalised and treated. (source)

In a fiery opening address at the conference of the Conference of Nationalist Organizations of the Portuguese Colonies (CONCP) held in Dar Es-Salaam in 1965, we see the breadth and depth of his internationalism:

Our hearts beat in unison with the hearts of our brothers in Vietnam who are giving us a shining example by facing the most shameful and unjustifiable aggression of the US imperialists against the peaceful people of Vietnam. Our hearts are equally with our brothers in the Congo who, in the bush of that vast and rich African country are seeking to resolve their problems in the face of imperialist aggression and of the manoeuvres of imperialism through their puppets. That is why we of the CONCP proclaim loud and clear that we are against Tshombe, against all the Tshombes of Africa. Our hearts are also with our brothers in Cuba, who have shown that even when surrounded by the sea, a people is capable of taking up arms and successfully defending its fundamental interests and of deciding its own destiny. We are with the Blacks of North America, we are with them in the streets of Los Angeles, and when they are deprived of all possibility of life, we suffer with them.

We are with the refugees, the martyrised refugees of Palestine, who have been tricked and driven from their own homeland by the manoeuvres of imperialism. We are on the side of the Palestinian refugees and we support wholeheartedly all that the sons of Palestine are doing to liberate their country, and we fully support the Arab and African countries in general in helping the Palestinian people to recover their dignity, their independence and their right to life. We are also with the peoples of Southern Arabia, of so-called ‘French’ Somaliland, of so-called ‘Spanish’ Guinea, and we are also most seriously and painfully with our brothers in South Africa who are facing the most barbarous racial discrimination. We are absolutely certain that the development of the struggle in the Portuguese colonies, and the victory we are winning each day over Portuguese colonialism is an effective contribution to the elimination of the vile, shameful regime of racial discrimination, of apartheid in South Africa. And we are also certain that peoples like that of Angola, that of Mozambique and ourselves in Guinea and Cabo Verde, far from South Africa, will soon, very soon we hope, be able to play a very important role in the final elimination of that last bastion of imperialism and racism in Africa, South Africa. (source)

On Palestine:

We have as a basic principle the defence of just causes. We are in favour of justice, human progress, the freedom of the people. On this basis we believe that the creation of Israel, carried out by the imperialist states to maintain their domination in the Middle East, was artificial and aimed at the creation of problems in that very important region of the world. This is our position: the Jewish people have lived in different countries of the world. We lament profoundly what the Nazis did to the Jewish people, that Hitler and his lackeys destroyed almost six million during the last World War. But we do not accept that this gives them the right to occupy a part of the Arab nation. We believe that the people of Palestine have a right to their homeland. We therefore think that all the measures taken by the Arab peoples, by the Arab nation, to recover the Palestinian Arab homeland are justified. (source)

On Vietnam:

For us, the struggle in Vietnam is our own struggle. We consider that in Vietnam not only the fate of our own people but also that of all the peoples struggling for their national independence and sovereignty is at stake. We are in solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and we immensely admire their heroic struggle against US aggression and against the aggression of the reactionaries of the southern part of Vietnam, who are no more than the puppets of US imperialism. (ibid)

Visiting the US, Cabral met with representatives from a number of black liberation groups, and demonstrated a solid understanding of, and solidarity with, their struggle.

You can be sure that we realize the difficulties you face, the problems you have and your feelings, your revolts, and also your hopes. We think that our fighting for Africa against colonialism and imperialism is a proof of understanding of your problem and also a contribution for the solution of your problems in this continent. Naturally the inverse is also true. All the achievements towards the solution of your problems here are real contributions to our own struggle. And we are very encouraged in our struggle by the fact that each day more of the African people born in America become conscious of their responsibilities to the struggle in Africa.

We think that all you can do here to develop your own conditions in the sense of progress, in the sense of history and in the sense of the total realization of your aspirations as human beings is a contribution for us. It is also a contribution for you to never forget that you are Africans. (source)

He also makes an important point about the politics of non-alignment, specifying that this doesn’t mean “neither east nor west”, or “neither capitalism nor socialism”, but rather retaining independence of decision making:

Non-alignment for us means not aligning ourselves with blocs, not aligning ourselves with the decisions of others. We reserve the right to make our own decisions, and if by chance our choices and decisions coincide with those of others, that is not our fault. We are for the policy of non-alignment, but we consider ourselves to be deeply committed to our people and committed to every just cause in the world. We see ourselves as part of a vast front of struggle for the good of humanity. (source)

Cuba

cabral fidelIn his incredible book ‘Conflicting Missions’, Piero Gleijeses writes in some detail about the relationship between Cuba and Guinea Bissau:

In January 1966, Cabral made his first trip to Cuba when he led the PAIGC delegation to the Tricontinental Conference in Havana. He was ‘the most impressive African in attendance,’ U.S. intelligence reported, and he made a powerful impression on his Cuban hosts. ‘His address to the Tricontinental was brilliant,’ Risquet remembered. ‘Everyone was struck by his great intelligence and personality. Fidel was very impressed by him’…

Amilcar Cabral had decided that Cuba alone should send its fighters to Guinea-Bissau. He chose Cuba in part because he felt some cultural and ethnic affinity with the Cubans and, above all, because he respected the Cuban revolution. ‘I remember that when I was in Cuba, Fidel told me that Cuba is also Africa,’ he told a group of Cubans in August 1966. ‘I don’t believe there is life after death, but if there is, we can be sure that the souls of our forefathers who were taken away to America to be slaves are rejoicing today to see their children reunited and working together to help us be independent and free.’ Thirty years later, other PAIGC leaders echoed his words. ‘We greatly admired the struggle of the Cuban people. The Cubans were a special case because we knew that they, more than anyone else, were the champions of internationalism,’ one recalled. ‘Cuba made no demands, it gave us unconditional aid,’ said another.

It was the Soviet bloc whose help was decisive. It provided arms, educational opportunities, and other material and political support. The Soviet Union was, by far, the major source of weapons. Cuba, too, gave material help, in the form of supplies, military training in Cuba, and scholarships. This was a considerable and generous effort for a poor country. But Cuba did much more, and its role was unique. Only Cubans fought in Guinea Bissau alongside the guerrilla fighters of the PAIGC…

Luis Cabral (Amilcar’s brother) later stated: ‘We were able to fight and triumph because other countries and people helped us … with weapons, with medicine, with supplies… But there is one nation that in addition to material, political, and diplomatic support, even sent its children to fight by our side, to shed their blood in our land alongside that of the best children of our country. This great people, this heroic people, we all know that is the heroic people of Cuba; the Cuba of Fidel Castro; the Cuba of the Sierra Maestra, the Cuba of Moncada… Cuba sent its best sons here to help us in the technical aspects of our war, to help us wage this great struggle against Portuguese colonialism.’

Visiting Cuba in 1966, Cabral stated:

If any of us came to Cuba with doubts in our mind about the solidity, strength, maturity and vitality of the Cuban Revolution, these doubts have been removed by what we have been able to see. Our hearts are now warmed by an unshakeable certainty which gives us courage in the difficult but glorious struggle against the common enemy: no power in the world will be able to destroy this Cuban Revolution, which is creating in the countryside and in the towns not only a new life but also — and even more important — a New Man, fully conscious of his national, continental and international rights and duties…

We guarantee that we, the peoples of the countries of Africa, still completely dominated by Portuguese colonialism, are prepared to send to Cuba as many men and women as may be needed to compensate for the departure of those who for reasons of class or of inability to adapt have interests or attitudes which are incompatible with the interests of the Cuban people. Taking once again the formerly hard and tragic path of our ancestors (mainly from Guinea and Angola) who were taken to Cuba as slaves, we would come now as free men, as willing workers and Cuban patriots, to fulfill a productive function in this new, just and multi-racial society, and to help and defend with our own lives the victories of the Cuban people. Thus we would strengthen both all the bonds of history, blood and culture which unite our peoples with the Cuban people, and the spontaneous giving of oneself, the deep joy and infectious rhythm which make the construction of socialism in Cuba a new phenomenon for the world, a unique and, for many, unaccustomed event. (source)

Solidarity with the working class movement in the ‘first world’

Cabral never tired of highlighting the need for global solidarity and unity against imperialism – a unity that should include the oppressed classes within imperialist society itself. However, he understood from direct experience that the creation of a ‘labour aristocracy’ had the effect of vastly reducing the anti-imperialist sentiment of the working class in western Europe and North America. Frankly, he understood this phenomenon better than 90% of western leftists.

I should just like to make one last point about solidarity between the international working class movement and our national liberation struggle. There are two alternatives: either we admit that there really is a struggle against imperialism which interests everybody, or we deny it. If, as would seem from all the evidence, imperialism exists and is trying simultaneously to dominate the working class in all the advanced countries and smother the national liberation movements in all the underdeveloped countries, then there is only one enemy against whom we are fighting. If we are fighting together, then I think the main aspect of our solidarity is extremely simple: it is to fight…

We are struggling in Guinea with guns in our hands, you must struggle in your countries as well – I don’t say with guns in your hands, I’m not going to tell you how to struggle, that’s your business; but you must find the best means and the best forms of fighting against our common enemy: this is the best form of solidarity. There are, of course, other secondary forms of solidarity: publishing material, sending medicine, etc; I can guarantee you that if tomorrow we make a breakthrough and you are engaged in an armed struggle against imperialism in Europe we will send you some medicine too. (source)

Interestingly, Cabral saw imperialism as being a greater threat to the European working class than to the masses of the oppressed nations – while revolutionising the latter, it had pacified the former, ”encouraging the development of a privileged proletariat and thus lowering the revolutionary level of the working classes.”

As we see it, neocolonialism (which we may call rationalised imperialism) is more a defeat for the international working class than for the colonised peoples. Neocolonialism is at work on two fronts – in Europe as well as in the underdeveloped countries. Its current framework in the underdeveloped countries is the policy of aid, and one of the essential aims of this policy is to create a false bourgeoisie to put a brake on the revolution and to enlarge the possibilities of the petty bourgeoisie as a neutraliser of the revolution; at the same time it invests capital in France, Italy, Belgium, England and so on. In our opinion the aim of this is to stimulate the growth of a workers’ aristocracy, to enlarge the field of action of the petty bourgeoisie so as to block the revolution. (ibid)

In his overview of class society in Guinea Bissau, he notes that the settlers of working class origin are often the most reactionary. This is another manifestation of the success of the western ruling classes in brainwashing workers.

The European settlers are, in general, hostile to the idea of national liberation; they are the human instruments of the colonial state in our country and they therefore reject a priori any idea of national liberation there. It has to be said that the Europeans most bitterly opposed to the idea of national liberation are the workers, while we have sometimes found considerable sympathy for our struggle among certain members of the European petty bourgeoisie. (ibid)

Talking with a degree of frustration about the endless criticism meted out to the liberation struggles by left sects in Europe, he says:

The criticism reminds me of a story about some lions: there is a group of lions who are shown a picture of a lion lying on the ground and a man holding a gun with his foot on the lion (as everybody knows the lion is proud of being king of the jungle); one of the lions looks at the picture and says, “if only we lions could paint”. If only one of the leaders of one of the new African countries could take time off from the terrible problems in his own country and become a critic of the European left and say all he had to say about the retreat of the revolution in Europe, of a certain apathy in some European countries and of the false hopes which we have all had in certain European groups… (ibid)

Against dogmatism

amilcar22Amílcar Cabral is famous for his insistence on a concrete approach to concrete problems, rather than the dogmatic application of formulas. He was by no means against ideology, but he was adamant that no set of revolutionary principles could simply be transplanted wholesale from one situation to another. English historian, Africanist and the major chronicler of the Guinea-Bissau revolution Basil Davidson wrote that “if one had to define a single influential aspect of Cabral’s approach, perhaps it would be his insistence on the study of reality. ‘Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas you have in your head’, was a favourite theme in his seminars for party militants. Your ideas may be good, even excellent, but they will be useless ideas unless they spring from and interweave with the reality you live in. What is necessary is to see into and beyond appearances: to free yourself from the sticky grasp of ‘received opinions’, whether academic or otherwise. Only through a principled study of reality, of the strictly here and now, can a theory of revolutionary change be integrated with its practice to the point where the two become inseparable. This is what he taught.” (source)

After all, there were definitely no ready-made formulas ready for use in the context of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. These highly complex African societies, whose history had been diverted by centuries of oppression by a colonial power that was itself very backward and dependent, were hardly the revolutionary centres that Marx and Engels had in mind when they produced the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. Mao Zedong’s groundbreaking application of Marxism to the conditions of semi-fuedal China provided a much closer analogy to the conditions prevailing in Guinea Bissau, but even then there were important differences that required concrete analysis.

Naturally, there are certain general or universal laws, even scientific laws for any condition, but the liberation struggle has to be developed according to the specific conditions of each country. This is fundamental. The specific conditions to be considered include economic, cultural, social, political and even geographic conditions. The guerrilla manuals once told us that without mountains you cannot make guerrilla war. But in my country there are no mountains, only the people. In the economic field we committed an error. We began training our people to commit sabotage on the railroads. When they returned from their training we remembered that there were no railroads in our country. The Portuguese built them in Mozambique and Angola but not in our country. (source)

The PAIGC made an extensive study of production relations in the countryside, which led them to a campaign of mobilising the peasantry that was decidedly different to what had taken place in other African and Asian countries.

It so happens that in our country the Portuguese colonialists did not expropriate the land; they allowed us to cultivate the land. They did not create agricultural companies of the European type as they did, for instance, in Angola, displacing masses of Africans in order to settle Europeans. We maintained a basic structure under colonialism – the land as co-operative property of the village, of the community. This is a very important characteristic of our peasantry, which was not directly exploited by the colonisers but was exploited through trade, through the differences between the prices and the real value of products. This is where the exploitation occurs, not in work, as happens in Angola with the hired workers and company employees. This created a special difficulty in our struggle – that of showing the peasant that he was being exploited in his own country.

Telling the people that “the land belongs to those who work on it” was not enough to mobilise them, because we have more than enough land, there is all the land we need. We had to find appropriate formulae for mobilising our peasants, instead of using terms that our people could not yet understand. We could never mobilise our people simply on the basis of the struggle against colonialism-that has no effect. To speak of the fight against imperialism is not convincing enough. Instead we use a direct language that all can understand:

“Why are you going to fight? What are you? What is your father? What has happened to your father up to now? What is the situation? Did you pay taxes? Did your father pay taxes? What have you seen from those taxes? How much do you get for your groundnuts? Have you thought about how much you will earn with your groundnuts? How much sweat has it cost your family? Which of you have been imprisoned? You are going to work on road-building: who gives you the tools? You bring the tools. Who provides your meals? You provide your meals. But who walks on the road? Who has a car? And your daughter who was raped-are you happy about that?” (source)

Class suicide

Given the near-absence of an industrial working class, and the prevalence of petty bourgeois (or middle class) elements in the leadership of the national liberation movement, Cabral talked of the need for the petty bourgeoisie to commit ‘class suicide’ in order that the gains of the revolution not be reversed.

To retain the power which national liberation puts in its hands, the petty bourgeoisie has only one path: to give free rein to its natural tendencies to become more bourgeois, to permit the development of a bureaucratic and intermediary bourgeoisie in the commercial cycle, in order to transform itself into a national pseudo-bourgeoisie, that is to say in order to negate the revolution and necessarily ally. In order not to betray these objectives the petty bourgeoisie has only one choice: to strengthen its revolutionary consciousness, to reject the temptations of becoming more bourgeois and the natural concerns of its class mentality, to identify itself with the working classes and not to oppose the normal development of the process of revolution. This means that in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong. (source)

Armed struggle

The people of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde fought for the independence – successfully – with guns in hand (and, thanks primarily to the Soviet Union, with sophisticated military technology). However, Cabral never romanticised the armed struggle and the loss of human life.

The past and present experiences of various peoples, the present situation of national liberation struggles in the world (especially in Vietnam, the Congo and Zimbabwe) as well as the situation of permanent violence, or at least of contradictions and upheavals, in certain countries which have gained their independence by the so-called peaceful way, show us not only that compromises with imperialism do not work, but also that the normal way of national liberation, imposed on peoples by imperialist repression, is armed struggle.

I am not a great defender of the armed fight. I am myself very conscious of the sacrifices demanded by the armed fight. It is a violence against even our own people. But it is not our invention – it is not our cool decision; it is the requirement of history. This is not the first fight in our country, and it is not Cabral who invented the struggle. We are following the example of our grandfathers who fought against Portuguese domination 50 years ago. Today’s fight is a continuation of the fight to defend our dignity, our right to have an identity – our own identity.

If it were possible to solve this problem without the armed fight – why not?! But while the armed fight demands sacrifices, it also has advantages. Like everything else in the world, it has two faces – one positive and the other negative – the problem is in the balance. For us now, it (the armed fight) is a good thing in our opinion, and our condition is a good thing because this armed fight helped us to accelerate the revolution of our people, to create a new situation that will facilitate our progress. (ibid)

African history and culture

The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history. Today, in taking up arms to liberate ourselves, in following the example of other peoples who have taken up arms to liberate themselves, we want to return to our history, on our own feet, by our own means and through our own sacrifices. (ibid)

In his speech at the first Tricontintal Conference in Havana, 1966, Cabral questions the idea put forward in the Communist Manifesto that “all history is the history of class struggle”, noting that this cuts pre-class society out of history.

Does history begin only with the development of the phenomenon of ‘class’, and consequently of class struggle? To reply in the affirmative would be to place outside history the whole period of life of human groups from the discovery of hunting, and later of nomadic and sedentary agriculture, to the organization of herds and the private appropriation of land. It would also be to consider — and this we refuse to accept — that various human groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were living without history, or outside history, at the time when they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism. It would be to consider that the peoples of our countries, such as the Balantes of Guinea, the Coaniamas of Angola and the Macondes of Mozambique, are still living today — if we abstract the slight influence of colonialism to which they have been subjected — outside history, or that they have no history. (source)

In place of class struggle as the driving force of all history, Cabral proposes instead the development of the means of production:

If class struggle is the motive force of history, it is so only in a specific historical period. This means that before the class struggle — and necessarily after it, since in this world there is no before without an after — one or several factors was and will be the motive force of history. It is not difficult to see that this factor in the history of each human group is the mode of production — the level of productive forces and the pattern of ownership — characteristic of that group. Furthermore, as we have seen, classes themselves, class struggle and their subsequent definition, are the result of the development of the productive forces in conjunction with the pattern of ownership of the means of production. It therefore seems correct to conclude that the level of productive forces, the essential determining element in the content and form of class struggle, is the true and permanent motive force of history…

Eternity is not of this world, but man will outlive classes and will continue to produce and make history, since he can never free himself from the burden of his needs, both of mind and of body, which are the basis of the development of the forces of production.

Through this logic, Cabral seeks to break the inferiority complex that is pushed onto the masses of the oppressed nations by colonial ideology, and reassert Africa’s place in history. He also uses this theory to situate the national liberation struggle within the movement of history toward socialism: colonial domination has actually retarded the development of the productive forces (this is especially the case for Portugal’s colonies) and is a block on progress.

Both in colonialism and in neo-colonialism the essential characteristic of imperialist domination remains the same: the negation of the historical process of the dominated people by means of violent usurpation of the freedom of development of the national productive forces.

The colonies must remove this block and, in the interests of rapid development, align themselves with the socialist states:

Whatever its level of productive forces and present social structure, a society can pass rapidly through the defined stages appropriate to the concrete local realities (both historical and human) and reach a higher stage of existence. This progress depends on the concrete possibilities of development of the society’s productive forces and is governed mainly by the nature of the political power ruling the society… A more detailed analysis would show that the possibility of such a jump in the historical process arises mainly, in the economic field, from the power of the means available to man at the time for dominating nature, and, in the political field, from the new event which has radically changed the face of the world and the development of history, the creation of socialist states.

He also notes the process of intense human development that takes place within the national liberation struggle itself:

Our national liberation struggle has a great significance both for Africa and for the world. We are in the process of proving that peoples such as ours – economically backward, living sometimes almost naked in the bush, not knowing how to read or write, not having even the most elementary knowledge of modern technology – are capable, by means of their sacrifices and efforts, of beating an enemy who is not only more advanced from a technological point of view but also supported by the powerful forces of world imperialism. Thus before the world and before Africa we ask: were the Portuguese right when they claimed that we were uncivilised peoples, peoples without culture? We ask: what is the most striking manifestation of civilisation and culture if not that shown by a people which takes up arms to defend its right to life, to progress, to work and to happiness? (source)

Cabral was also strongly focused on the role of cultural imperialism in suppressing the peoples of the oppressed nations, and the importance of culture as an element of resistance to imperialism:

A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from the oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture. Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture”

The value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated. Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of relationships between man and his environment, among men or groups of men within a society, as well as among different societies. (source)

Although he stressed the importance of African culture and identity, Cabral always made clear that this was not based on any type of discrimination or feelings of superiority.

We are not racists. We are fundamentally and deeply against any kind of racism. Even when people are subjected to racism we are against racism from those who have been oppressed by it. In our opinion – not from dreaming but from a deep analysis of the real condition of the existence of mankind and the division of societies – racism is a result of certain circumstances. It is not eternal in any latitude in the world. It is the result of historical and economic conditions. And we cannot answer racism with racism. It is not possible. In our country, despite some racist manifestations by the Portuguese, we are not fighting against the Portuguese people or whites. We are fighting for the freedom of our people – to free our people and to allow them to be able to love any kind of human being. You cannot love when you are a slave… In combating racism we don’t make progress if we combat the people themselves. We have to combat the causes of racism. If a bandit comes into my house and I have a gun I cannot shoot the shadow of this bandit. I have to shoot the bandit. Many people lose energy and effort, and make sacrifices combating shadows. (source)

Further reading

Needless to say, a selection of quotes can only serve as an outline of, and introduction to, the political, cultural and philosophical thought of Amílcar Cabral. Some other material that you may find useful:

Assata: An Autobiography – review and quotes

The following book review first appeared in the Morning Star on 1 September, 2014. It is followed by a selection of important quotes from the book.


Assata Shakur’s autobiography – first published in 1988 and newly republished this year by Zed Books – has lost none of its relevance. It remains an essential text for understanding both the prison-industrial complex and the state of race relations in the US, as well as providing a profound insight into the successes and failures of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Born in 1947, Assata Shakur (then JoAnne Deborah Byron) grew up between North Carolina and New York, experiencing the intense racism that prevailed – and prevails – both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. As a black, working class female, she became acutely aware of the special oppression she and others like her faced. As a college student, she came across activists – especially students from newly-liberated Africa – who challenged her anti-communist prejudices and her internalised stereotypes, and encouraged her to get involved in the struggle for black power and against capitalism and imperialism. This led to her membership of the Black Panther Party and, later, the Black Liberation Army.

The larger part of the book is devoted to documenting Assata’s experiences with the ‘justice’ system, in courts and prisons, between her arrest in 1971 and her escape eight years later. Few readers would fail to be shocked at the extent to which this human being, whose real ‘crime’ in the eyes of the state was to be a loud campaigner for justice and equality, was tortured and abused in prison – often at the hands of openly fascistic prison officers.

Her account also serves as a crucial reminder that there remain many political prisoners in the US, languishing behind bars for decades on trumped-up charges. International pressure must be maintained and intensified until Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier, Oscar López Rivera, Kenny ‘Zulu’ Whitmore, Albert Woodfox and all political prisoners are freed. Furthermore we must maintain the fight against an phenomenally unjust prison system which disproportionately targets poor and non-white people (and this is not restricted to the US – a recent study showed that black people in Britain are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned).

Assata’s profound and thought-provoking reflections on the decline of the Black Power movement deserve to be studied and discussed, as they could help illuminate a path for the current generation of organisers and activists. Aside from the objective factor (the FBI’s large-scale covert assault on the Panthers and others), Assata gives a great deal of attention to the subjective factor, in particular an element of adventurism, sectarianism, amateurishness, failure to consistently raise levels of political consciousness, and alienation from the masses.

Assata’s continuing relevance is not lost on the FBI, which last year added her to its list of Most Wanted Terrorists (she is the first female to enjoy this honour – good to see US imperialism doing its bit for gender equality). Thankfully, she is safely in exile in Cuba, a country she describes as “one of the largest, most resistant and most courageous palenques (maroon camps) that has ever existed on the face of this planet.”

‘Assata: An Autobiography’ is essential reading.


Quotes

On the hypocrisy of the power structure

assata-quote They call us thieves and bandits. They say we steal. But it was not we who stole millions of Black people from the continent of Africa. We were robbed of our language, of our Gods, of our culture, of our human dignity, of our labor, and of our lives. They call us thieves, yet it is not we who rip off billions of dollars every year through tax evasions, illegal price fixing, embezzlement, consumer fraud, bribes, kickbacks, and swindles. They call us bandits, yet every time most Black people pick up our paychecks we are being robbed. Every time we walk into a store in our neighborhood we are being held up. And every time we pay our rent the landlord sticks a gun into our ribs.

They call us thieves, but we did not rob and murder millions of Indians by ripping off their homeland, then call ourselves pioneers. They call us bandits, but it is not we who are robbing Africa, Asia, and Latin America of their natural resources and freedom while the people who live there are sick and starving. The rulers of this country and their flunkies have committed some of the most brutal, vicious crimes in history. They are the bandits. They are the murderers. And they should be treated as such.

On the prison-industrial complex

[The prison-industrial complex] explained why jails and prisons all over the country are filled to the brin with Black and Third World people, why so many Black people can’t find a job on the streets and are forced to survive the best way they know how. Once you’re inprison, there are plenty of jobs, and, if you don’t want to work, they beat you up and throw you in the hole. If every state had to pay workers to do the jobs prisoners are forced to do, the salaries would amount to billions… Prisons are a profitable business. They are a way of legally perpetuating slavery. In every state more and more prisons are being built and even more are on the drawing board. Who are they for? They certainly aren’t planning to put white people in them. Prisons are part of this government’s genocidal war against Black and Third World people.

On liberalism

The Upper West Side, as the neighborhood was called, was supposed to be a “liberal” stronghold. I have never really understood exactly what a “liberal” is, though, since i have heard “liberals” express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject. As far as i can tell, you have the extreme right, who are fascist racist capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they’re coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere between those two points is the liberal. As far as i’m concerned, “liberal” is die most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private schools, and reap the benefits of their white skin privilege, then they are “liberals.” But when times get hard and money gets tight, they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges.

On overcoming anti-communist prejudice

I continued saying the first thing that came into my head [in a debate over Vietnam]: that the u.s. was fighting communists because they wanted to take over everything. When someone asked me what communism was, i opened my mouth to answer, then realized i didn’t have the faintest idea. My image of a communist came from a cartoon. It was a spy with a black trench coat and a black hat pulled down over his face, slinking around corners. In school, we were taught that communists worked in salt mines, that they weren’t free, that everybody wore the same clothes, and that no one owned anything. The Africans rolled with laughter.

I felt like a bona fide clown. One of them explained that communism was a political-economic system, but i wasn’t listening. I was just digging on myself. I had been hooping and hollering about something that i didn’t even understand. I knew i didn’t know what the hell communism was, and yet i’d been dead set against it. Just like when you’re a little kid and they get you to believe in the bogeyman. You don’t know what the hell the bogeyman is, but you hate him and you’re scared of him

I never forgot that day. We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is… It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.

On Marx and Lenin

Usually, after a disagreement, they [my comrades] suggested i read this or that, often Marx, Lenin, or Engels. I preferred Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, Che, or Fidel, but i ended up having to get into Marx and Lenin just to understand a lot of the speeches and stuff Huey Newton was putting out. It wasn’t easy reading, but i was glad i did it. It opened up my horizons a hell of a lot. I didn’t relate to them as the great white fathers or like some kind of gods, like some of the white revolutionaries did. As far as i was concerned, they were two dudes who had made contributions to revolutionary struggle too great to be ignored.

On capitalism and communism

I wasn’t against communism, but i can’t say i was for it either. At first, i viewed it suspiciously, as some kind of white man’s concoction, until i read works by African revolutionaries and studied the African liberation movements. Revolutionaries in Africa understood that the question of African liberation was not just a question of race, that even if they managed to get rid of the white colonialists, if they didn’t rid themselves of the capitalistic economic structure, the white colonialists would simply be replaced by Black neocolonialists. There was not a single liberation movement in Africa that was not fighting for socialism. In fact, there was not a single liberation movement in the whole world that was fighting for capitalism. The whole thing boiled down to a simple equation: anything that has any kind of value is made, mined, grown, produced, and processed by working people. So why shouldn’t working people collectively own that wealth? Why shouldn’t working people own and control their own resources? Capitalism meant that rich businessmen owned the wealth, while socialism meant that the people who made the wealth owned it.

I got into heated arguments with sisters or brothers who claimed that the oppression of Black people was only a question of race. I argued that there were Black oppressors as well as white ones. That’s why you’ve got Blacks who support Nixon or Reagan or other conservatives. Black folks with money have always tended to support candidates who they believed would protect their financial interests. As far as i was concerned, it didn’t take too much brains to figure out that Black people are oppressed because of class as well as race, because we are poor and because we are Black. It would burn me up every time somebody talked about Black people climbing the ladder of success. Anytime you’re talking about a ladder, you’re talking about a top and a bottom, an upper class and a lower class, a rich class and a poor class. As long as you’ve got a system with a top and a bottom, Black people are always going to wind up at the bottom, because we’re the easiest to discriminate against. That’s why i couldn’t see fighting within the system. Both the democratic party and the republican party are controlled by millionaires. They are interested in holding on to their power, while i was interested in taking it away. They were interested in supporting fascist dictatorships in South and Central America, while i wanted to see them overthrown. They were interested in supporting racist, fascist regimes in Africa while i was interested in seeing them overthrown. They were interested in defeating the Viet Cong and i was interested in seeing them win their liberation. A poster of the massacre at My Lai, picturing women and children lying clumped together in a heap, their bodies riddled with bullets, hung on my wall as a daily reminder of the brutality in the world.

On left arrogance

allpower I had begun to think of myself as a socialist, but i could not in any way see myself joining any of the socialist groups i came in contact with. I loved to listen to them, learn from them, and argue with them, but there was no way in the world i could see myself becoming a member. For one thing, i could not stand the condescending, paternalistic attitudes of some of the white people in those groups. Some of the older members thought that because they had been in the struggle for socialism for a long time, they knew all the answers to the problems of Black people and all the aspects of the Black Liberation struggle. I couldn’t relate to the idea of the great white father on earth any more than i could relate to the great white father up in the sky. I was willing and ready to learn everything i could from them, but i damn sure was not ready to accept them as leaders of the Black Liberation struggle. A few thought that they had a monopoly on Marx and acted like the only experts in the world on socialism came from Europe. In many instances they downgraded the theoretical and practical contributions of Third World revolutionaries like Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Augustino Neto, and other leaders of liberation movements in the Third World.

Another thing that went against my grain was the arrogance and dogmatism i encountered in some of these groups.

A member of one group told me that if i was really concerned about the liberation of Black people i should quit school and get a job in a factory, that if i wanted to get rid of the system i would have to work at a factory and organize the workers. “When i asked him why he wasn’t working in a factory and organizing the workers, he told me that he was staying in school in order to organize the students. I told him i was working to organize the students too and that i felt perfectly certain that the workers could organize themselves without any college students doing it for them. Some of these groups would come up with abstract, intellectual theories, totally devoid of practical application, and swear they had the answers to the problems of the world. They attacked the Vietnamese for participating in the Paris peace talks, claiming that by negotiating the Viet Cong were selling out to the u.s. I think they got insulted when i asked them how a group of flabby white boys who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag had the nerve to think they could tell the Vietnamese people how to run their show.

Arrogance was one of the key factors that kept the white left so factionalized. I felt that instead of fighting together against a common enemy, they wasted time quarreling with each other about who had the right line.

On white supremacy

Most of our fights [as kids] started over petty disputes like stepped-on shoes, flying spitballs, and the contested ownership of pens and pencils. But behind our fights, self-hatred was clearly visible… We would call each other “jungle bunnies” and “bush boogies.” We would talk about each other’s ugly, big lips and flat noses. We would call each other pickaninnies and nappy-haired soand-so’s…

Black made any insult worse. When you called somebody a “bastard,” that was bad. But when you called somebody a “Black bastard,” now that was terrible. In fact, when i was growing up, being called “Black,” period, was grounds for fighting.

“Who you callin’ Black?” we would say. We had never heard the words “Black is beautiful” and the idea had never occurred to most of us…

We had been completely brainwashed and we didn’t even know it. We accepted white value systems and white standards of beauty and, at times, we accepted the white man’s view of ourselves. We had never been exposed to any other point of view or any other standard of beauty. From when i was a tot, i can remember Black people saying, “Niggas ain’t shit.” “You know how lazy niggas are.” “Give a nigga an inch and he’ll take a mile.” Everybody knew what “niggas” like to do after they eat: sleep. Everybody knew that “niggas” couldn’t be on time; that’s why there was c.p.t. (colored people’s time). “Niggas don’t take care of nothin’.” “Niggas don’t stick together.” The list could go on and on. To varying degrees we accepted these statements as true. And, to varying degrees, we each made them true within ourselves because we believed them.

On black consciousness

In a country that is trying to completely negate the image of Black people, that constantly tells us we are nothing, our culture is nothing, i felt and still feel that we have got to constantly make positive statements about ourselves. Our desire to be free has got to manifest itself in everything we are and do. We have accepted too much of a negative lifestyle and a negative culture and have to consciously act to rid ourselves of that negative influence. Maybe in another time, when everybody is equal and free, it won’t matter how anybody wears their hair or dresses or looks. Then there won’t be any oppressors to mimic or avoid mimicking. But right now i think it’s important for us to look and feel like strong, proud Black men and women who are looking toward Africa for guidance.

On Abraham Lincoln

Little did i know that Lincoln was an archracist who had openly expressed his disdain for Black people. He was of the opinion that Black people should be forcibly deported to Africa or anywhere else. We had been taught that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, and it was not until i was in college that i learned that the Civil War was fought for economic reasons. The fact that “official” slavery was abolished was only incidental. Northern industrialists were fighting to control the economy. Before the Civil War, the northern industrial economy was largely dependent on southern cotton. The slave economy of the South was a threat to northern capitalism. What if the slaveholders of the South decided to set up factories and process the cotton themselves? Northern capitalists could not possibly compete with slave labor, and their capitalist economy would be destroyed. To ensure that this didn’t happen, the North went to war.

On negative gender relations in the black community

Back then, when i was growing up, boys gang-banging or gang-raping a girl was a pretty common thing… If a girl was caught on the wrong side of a park or in the wrong territory or on the wrong street, she was a target. It was a common thing back then for boys to downgrade girls and cuss at them in the street. It was common for them to go to bed with girls and talk about them like dogs the next day. It was common for boys to deny they were the fathers of their babies. And it was common for boys to beat girls up and knock them around. And then the girls would get hard too.

“If the nigga ain’t got no money, I don’t want to be bothered.”

“If the nigga ain’t got no car, then later for him.”

The more i watched how boys and girls behaved, the more i read and the more i thought about it, the more convinced i became that this behavior could be traced directly back to the plantation, when slaves were encouraged to take the misery of their lives out on each other instead of on the master. The slavemasters taught us we were ugly, less than human, unintelligent, and many of us believed it. Black people became breeding animals: studs and mares. A Black woman was fair game for anyone at any time: the master or a visiting guest or any redneck who desired her. The slavemaster would order her to have six with this stud, seven with that stud, for the purpose of increasing his stock. She was considered less than a woman. She was a cross between a whore and a workhorse. Black men internalized the white man’s opinion of Black women. And, if you ask me, a lot of us still act like we’re back on the plantation with massa pulling the strings.

On partying and hedonism

This party is a lost cause. I get my beach towel and my book and ease on down the beach a little piece. Looking out at the ocean, i wonder how many of our people lie buried there, slaves of another era. I’m not quite sure what freedom is, but i know damn well what it ain’t. How have we gotten so silly, i wonder. I get back off into James Baldwin… Me and James Baldwin are communicating. His fiction is more real than this reality.

On political evolution

images No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn’t growing, it’s stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. That’s why political work and organizing are so important. Unless you are addressing the issues people are concerned about and contributing positive direction, they’ll never support you. The first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the masses of people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us.

On unity

Some of the laws of revolution are so simple they seem impossible. People think that in order for something to work, it has to be complicated, but a lot of times the opposite is true. We usually reach success by putting the simple truths that we know into practice. The basis of any struggle is people coming together to fight against a common enemy… One of the most important things the Party did was to make it really clear who the enemy was: not the white people, but the capitalistic, imperialistic oppressors. They took the Black liberation struggle out of a national context and put it in an international context. The Party supported revolutionary struggles and governments all over the world and insisted the u.s. get out of Africa, out of Asia, out of Latin America, and out of the ghetto too.

On problems in the black liberation movement

panther One of the basic laws of people’s struggle was to retreat when the enemy is strong and to attack when the enemy is weak. As far as I was concerned, defending the office was suicidal. The pigs had manpower, initiative, surprise, and gunpowder. We would just be sitting ducks. I felt that the Party was dealing from an emotional rather than a rational basis. Just because you believe in self-defense doesn’t mean you let yourself be sucked into defending yourself on the enemy’s terms. One of the Party’s major weaknesses, i thought, was the failure to clearly differentiate between aboveground political struggle and underground, clandestine military struggle.

An aboveground political organization can’t wage guerrilla war anymore than an underground army can do aboveground political work. Although the two must work together, they must have completely separate structures, and any links between the two must remain secret. Educating the people about the necessity for self-defense and for armed struggle was one thing. But maintaining a policy of defending Party offices against insurmountable odds was another. Of course, if the police just came in and started shooting, defending yourself made sense. But the point is to try and prevent that from happening…

On the whole, we were weak, inexperienced, disorganized, and seriously lacking in training. But the biggest problem was one of political development. There were sisters and brothers who had been so victimized by amerika that they were willing to fight to the death against their oppressors. They were intelligent, courageous and dedicated, willing to make any sacrifice. But we were to find out quickly that courage and dedication were not enough. To win any struggle for liberation, you have to have the way as well as the will, an overall ideology and strategy that stem from a scientific analysis of history and present conditions.

Some of the groups thought they could just pick up arms and struggle and that, somehow, people would see what they were doing and begin to struggle themselves. They wanted to engage in a do-or-die battle with the power structure in amerika, even though they were weak and ill prepared for such a fight. But the most important factor is that armed struggle, by itself, can never bring about a revolution. Revolutionary war is a people’s war. And no people’s war can be won without the support of the masses of people. Armed struggle can never be successful by itself; it must be part of an overall strategy for winning, and the strategy must be political as well as military…

Revolutionary war is protracted warfare. It is impossible for us to win quickly. To win we have got to wear down our oppressors, little by little, and, at the same time, strengthen our forces, slowly but surely. I understood some of my more impatient sisters and brothers. I knew that it was tempting to substitute military for political struggle, especially since all of our aboveground organizations were under vicious attack by the FBI, the CIA, and the local police agencies. All of us who saw our leaders murdered, our people shot down in cold blood, felt a need, a desire to fight back. One of the hardest lessons we had to learn is that revolutionary struggle is scientific rather than emotional. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t feel anything, but decisions can’t be based on love or on anger. They have to be based on the objective conditions and on what is the rational, unemotional thing to do.

On COINTELPRO

Nobody back then had ever heard of the counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) set up by the FBI. Nobody could possibly have known that the FBI had sent a phony letter to Eldridge Cleaver in Algiers, “signed” by the Panther 21, criticizing Huey Newton’s leadership. No one could have known that the FBI had sent a letter to Huey’s brother saying the New York Panthers were plotting to kill him. No one could have known that the FBI’s COINTELPRO was attempting to destroy the Black Panther Party in particular and the Black Liberation Movement in general, using divide-and-conquer tactics. The FBI’s COINTEL program consisted of turning members of organizations against each other, pitting one Black organization against another. Huey ended up suspending Cet and Dhoruba from the Party, branded them as “enemies of the people,” and caused them to go into hiding, in fear for their very lives. No one had the slightest idea that this whole scenario was carefully manipulated and orchestrated by the FBI.

On anti-religious arrogance

After the resurgence of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Lolita Lebrón was visited by all kinds of people. Some were pseudorevolutionary robots who attacked her for her religious beliefs, telling her that to be a revolutionary she had to give up her belief in God. It apparently had never occurred to those fools that Lolita was more revolutionary than they could ever be, and that her religion had helped her to remain strong and committed all those years. I was infuriated by their crass, misguided arrogance.

On exposing oppression

Every day out in the street now, i remind myself that Black people in amerika are oppressed. It’s necessary that I do that. People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.

On nationalism and internationalism

It was also clear to me that without a truly internationalist component nationalism was reactionary. There was nothing revolutionary about nationalism by itself — Hitler and Mussolini were nationalists. Any community seriously concerned with its own freedom has to be concerned about other peoples’ freedom as well. The victory of oppressed people anywhere in the world is a victory for Black people. Each time one of imperialism’s tentacles is cut off we are closer to liberation. The struggle in South Africa is the most important battle of the century for Black people. The defeat of apartheid in South Africa will bring Africans all over the planet closer to liberation. Imperialism is an international system of exploitation, and, we, as revolutionaries, need to be internationalists to defeat it.

On life in Cuba

SHAKUR No 2 5.11.13 My neighbors ask me what the u.s. is like, and they accuse me of lying when i tell them about the hunger and cold and people sleeping in the streets. They refuse to believe me. How can that be in such a rich country? I tell them about drug addicts and child prostitutes, about crime in the streets. They accuse me of exaggerating: “We know capitalism is not a good system, but you don’t have to exaggerate. Are there really twelve-year-old drug addicts?” Even though they know about racism and the ku klux klan, about unemployment, such things are unreal to them. Cuba is a country of hope. Their reality is so different. I’m amazed at how much Cubans have accomplished in so short a time since the Revolution. There are new buildings everywhere — schools, apartment houses, clinics, hospitals, and day care centers. They are not like the skyscrapers going up in midtown Manhattan. There are no exclusive condominiums or luxury office buildings. The new buildings are for the people.

Medical care, dental care, and hospital visits are free. Schools at all educational levels are free. Rent is no more than about ten percent of salaries. There are no taxes — no income, city, federal, or state taxes. It is so strange to pay the price actually listed on products without any tax added. Movies, plays, concerts, and sports events all cost one or two pesos at the most. Museums are free.

On Saturdays and Sundays the streets are packed with people dressed up and ready to hang out. I was amazed to discover that such a small island has such a rich cultural life and is so lively, particularly when the u.s. press gives just the opposite picture…

I spent my first weeks in Havana walking and watching. Nowhere did I find a segregated neighborhood, but several people told me that where i was living had been all white before the Revolution. Just from casual observation it was obvious that race relations in Cuba were different from what they were in the u.s. Blacks and whites could be seen together everywhere — in cars, walking down streets. Kids of all races played together. It was definitely different. Whenever i met someone who spoke English i asked their opinion about the race situation.

“Racism is illegal in Cuba,” i was told. Many shook their heads and said, “Aqui no hay racismo.” “There is no racism here.” Although i heard the same response from everyone i remained skeptical and suspicious. I couldn’t believe it was possible to eliminate hundreds of years of racism just like that, in twenty-five years or so. To me, revolutions were not magical, and no magic wand could be waved to create changes overnight. I’d come to see revolution as a process. I eventually became convinced that the Cuban government was completely committed to eliminating all forms of racism. There were no racist institutions, structures, or organizations, and i understood how the Cuban economic system undermined rather than fed racism.

On tacit support for death and destruction

Too many people in the u.s. support death and destruction without being aware of it. They indirectly support the killing of people without ever having to look at the corpses. But in Cuba i could see the results of u.s. foreign policy: torture victims on crutches who came from other countries to Cuba for treatment, including Namibian children who had survived massacres, and evidence of the vicious aggression the u.s. government had committed against Cuba, including sabotage, and numerous assassination attempts against Fidel. I wondered how all those people in the states who tried to sound tough, saying that the u.s. should go in here, bomb there, take over this, attack that, would feel if they knew that they were indirectly responsible for babies being burned to death. I wondered how they would feel if they were forced to take moral responsibility for that. It sometimes seems that people in the states are so accustomed to watching death on “Eyewitness News,” watching people starve to death in Africa, being tortured to death in Latin America or shot down on Asian streets, that, somehow, for them, people across the ocean — people “up there” or “down there” or “over there” — are not real.

On the future

How much we had all gone through. Our fight had started on a slave ship years before we were born. Venceremos, my favorite word in Spanish, crossed my mind. Ten million people had stood up to the monster. Ten million people only ninety miles away. We were here together in their land, my small little family, holding each other after so long. There was no doubt about it, our people would one day be free. The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world.

Towards a common ideology in the struggle against imperialism

This is an expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at the event ‘STRIKE THE EMPIRE BACK: legacies and examples of liberation from neo-colonialism and white supremacy’


As far as most people are concerned, ‘ideology’ is a term of abuse, an insult you fling around: we accuse people of being “too ideological”, of being bookworms, of dividing people with “isms and schisms”, of “thinking too much” (I have to say I’ve never in my life met anyone who actually thinks too much, but I’ve met plenty of people who don’t think enough!).

The Cult of Activism

There is this view that ideology divides us, that it gets in the way of working together, that it’s not really relevant, and that we need to focus purely on ‘action’, on practical activity, on campaigning. We don’t have need to inform our activism with analysis and understanding, we need to do like Nike: just do it. Pickets are good, placards are good, campaigns are good, petitions are good, demonstrations are good, fundraising is good, concerts are good; debate, books, history, study, analysis: not so much. Inasmuch as we need to occasionally need to spread ideas, we do it in cute 140-character slogans on Twitter, or Lord of the Rings memes on Instagram.

In part, this is a reaction to what’s called “ivory tower syndrome” – academics and intellectuals, sitting up in their ivory towers, writing beautiful words but having neither the intention nor the ability to put theory into practice. And even the beautiful ideas the generate are very flawed because they’re so divorced from reality and from the masses.

That is a genuine problem. However, as the saying goes, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If I bite into an over-ripe strawberry and it tastes rotten, I don’t conclude from that experience that I’ll never eat a strawberry again. If there are ivory tower ideologues who are over-ripe and rotten, let’s ignore them and develop the ideology we need, the ideology that serves us.

The state of the movement

As it stands, we as a movement (inasmuch as there is a ‘movement’ – here I am using it as a general label for the various individuals and groups who oppose the status quo and who want to build an alternative) are quite active. There’s quite of lot of activism around, and yet, if we’re honest, we’re getting nowhere.

We’re no more united than we ever were – in fact we’re less united. We’re no more effective than we ever were – in fact we’re less effective. We have meetings, demonstrations, campaigns, pickets and so on, but almost never win anything, and we don’t really play to win; we’re just out there flying the flag.

And yet oppressed and working class people are under attack. In the course of the last three decades, the ruling class have managed to smash the majority of the unions and the community organisations. They’ve privatised everything. They’ve gone to war, killing our brothers and sisters in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya in the hundreds of thousands. Benefits are cut, jobs disappear, wages are reduced, zero-hour contracts are introduced, bedroom taxes are introduced, banks are bailed out, student fees keep on rising, people are thrown in prison for protesting. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia are still prevalent with the dominant culture.

Meanwhile our political representation gets worse and worse, as the whole mainstream spectrum shifts to the right – as evidenced by UKIP’s success at the European election, and by the increasingly blurred lines between Tory and Labour politics.

As for the ruling class, the elite, the government, the police, the corporations, the 1% – they know what situation we’re in and therefore they know they can get away with pretty much anything they want. They know we are not in a position to fight the fight. That’s one of the main reasons we have whatever democratic rights we do have; that’s one of the main reasons they let us have the vote; that’s one of the main reasons they allow some level of freedom of speech: because they know full well we won’t use it to achieve anything meaningful.

Our ‘activism’ hasn’t prevented any of this. In some situations it’s even made it worse. To give a (thankfully) extreme example: when NATO was gearing up for its regime change operation against Libya, a sovereign African state, quite a few well-known activists thought the best thing to do would be to occupy Saif Gaddafi’s house in London, thereby totally playing into the mainstream agenda of demonising a state that the west was about to bomb into the stone age. What a situation, where you have courageous, passionate, righteous people – activists, people who are supposed to be on our side – and the media is able to play them like puppets!

Ideology is nothing to be scared of

If we don’t want to be played like puppets, we need ideology, we need understanding. It’s nothing to be afraid of. An ideology is simply a system of ideas – a set of beliefs, goals and strategies in relation to society. I think this scary word, ideology, can be summed up by three simple questions:

  • What is the current situation of society?

  • What changes do we want to achieve?

  • How do we go about creating those changes?

If you look around the world, and you look into history, you see that every movement that ever achieved anything meaningful is or was built on some kind of ideology. For example:

  • Malcolm X had an ideology, which one could argue was a mix of black nationalism, anti-imperialism, global south unity, socialism and pan-africanism, with Islam providing a moral-spiritual basis.

  • The Black Panthers had an ideology, based in Marxism, Maoism, black nationalism.

  • Closer to home, Sinn Fein and the IRA – who fought the British state to a stalemate (I wish we could do that!) – have an ideology, grounded in Irish nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism.

  • The leaders of the Iranian revolution had and have an ideology, based in radical Islam, anti-imperialism, anti-zionism and orientation towards the poor. You can say something similar about Hezbollah, the only fighting force in the world to have defeated the Israeli army in battle (#JustSayin).

  • The liberation struggles in Vietnam, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Palestine, Namibia, Algeria, Korea; the revolutions in Cuba, China, Russia, Grenada, Nicaragua: they all had/have an ideology, a system of ideas/beliefs/goals/strategies that people unite around.

These ideologies have plenty in common, particularly in terms of opposition to imperialism, opposition to colonialism, opposition to racism, and a general orientation in favour of the poor and marginalised. However, none of them are identical, and each reflects to some degree the history, traditions, culture and conditions of the people involved.

The President of the Cuban Parliament made an interesting self-criticism recently, when discussing the variations within the revolutionary process in Latin America:

“What characterises Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariátegui said, socialism is a ‘heroic creation’. If socialism is to be created, it must respond to realities, motivations, cultures, situations, contexts, all of which are objectives that are different from each other, not identical.”

There are theories that can point us in the right direction; there is history to learn from; but there’s no cookie-cutter that we can pick up to get rid of capitalism and imperialism.

What about us?

We too need an ideology. We need to work out a shared belief system, an agreed set of goals, an agreed set of strategies, that we can unite around and work together to create meaningful change. We need to answer those three questions: where are we at? Where do we need to be? How do we get there?

We will not agree on everything. There are a whole host of important issues that we have to be willing to agree to differ on. But I am convinced that there is space for a common platform.

Just look at the other side. The enemy has ideology. The elite, the rulers of society, the ultra-rich, the government, the state – they have an ideology. It’s imperialism and neoliberalism: the most brutal, the most harsh, the most ruthless form of capitalism, promoting nothing less than ‘freedom’ – total freedom for the rich to get ever richer.

Plus they’re so generous, they realise that the masses need an ideology too, so they create a ready-made ideology for us! The ideology they give us is: consumerism, individualism, diversions, divisions, racism, sexism, homophobia, selfies, twerking, porn, Call of Duty…

And we congratulate ourselves on all this freedom and democracy we’ve got! “It’s a free country”, we say. No! It’s not freedom, it’s not democracy. It’s bread and circuses. Give the masses cheap food and cheap entertainment, keep them divided, and you’ve got them under your control.

Minimum platform

What type of ideology do we need? Good question :-)

That’s the long conversation that we need to continue, in a spirit of inclusiveness, openness, comradeship, creativity and generosity. It’s going to take a while.

To me, in today’s world, perhaps the most relevant examples to look at can be found in Latin America, in particular in terms of the legacy of Hugo Chávez, may he rest in peace.

What does Chávez represent? The essence of ‘Chavismo’, I believe, is: 1) creative, non-dogmatic, up-to-date socialism; 2) consistent, militant anti-imperialism.

Socialism – there’s another scary word that isn’t really that scary. What is the socialism that is being pursued in Venezuela (and Cuba, and Nicaragua, and elsewhere)?

  • Adopting policies that favour the poor: pursuing redistributive economics and social programmes that aim to permanently raise the status and living conditions of those at the bottom of society.
  • Promoting the interests of the indigenous, the African, the worker, the woman. Protecting freedom of worship. Addressing discrimination on every dimension, in the interests of building unity and justice.
  • Attempting to break the power of the old elite, the rich, the right, who have held society in their grip for so many centuries.
  • Constructing a popular democracy, a state that is “for us, by us”.

As for Chávez’s legacy of anti-imperialism, that means consistently uniting with the widest possible forces against the main enemy. Chávez built solid, meaningful alliances with a very diverse range of states and movements, from Cuba to Brazil to China to Russia, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Belarus, Gaddafi’s Libya, Angola, DPR Korea, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and so on.

He wasn’t a gullible liberal or a radical fashionista; he didn’t disown his allies just because the western press was demonising them. He kept his eye on the prize of ending imperialist domination for once and for all and constructing a new, multipolar world where countries can develop in peace.

He always said that one should unite with anyone who had even the slightest chance of joining the fight against imperialism. I think that idea gives as a decent clue as to how we should move forward.

The Legacy of the Grenadian Revolution Lives On

“The Grenada Revolution was a grasp of joy … that life unfulfilled could and would change, be transformed for a people who had known 400 years of transportation, slavery, colonialism, neocolonial dictatorship and exportation to the cities of Europe and North America. Joy that the organised genius of ordinary people could at last be applied to develop their own resources for their own future. There was the joy of education, of seeing your children achieving free secondary schooling and your illiterate mother learning how to read and write, the joy of seeing wasted, unemployed youths forming cooperatives and planting the idle land.” (Chris Searle, Grenada Morning)

Thirty-five years ago today, on the morning of 13 March 1979, the defence wing of the New Jewel Movement successfully overthrew the much-despised government of Eric Gairy. This bloodless coup – conducted by no more than 46 lightly-armed cadres – was widely welcomed by the people of Grenada. Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes that “the coup was enormously popular with Grenadians and it seemed as if the whole of the island was coming out into the streets to celebrate.” English popular educator and internationalist Chris Searle (who spent several years in Grenada and was charged with running both the teacher training programme and the official publishing house) notes that “fishermen, nutmeg workers, unemployed youth, peasant farmers and agricultural workers came streaming from their houses and converged upon police stations all over the island, forcing the policemen to run up white flags.” (Grenada Morning)

It seemed that the smog of subjugation, oppression and backwardness was finally being lifted; that this small southern Caribbean nation would be given the chance it deserved to blossom, freed from the iron grip of the kleptocratic and ruthless Eric Gairy – whose record of repression, personal enrichment, neocolonial policy, and alignment with the most reactionary states in the region (most notably Chile under Pinochet and Haiti under Duvalier) had lost him the trust and respect of the people.

Dennis Bartholomew, who during the period of the revolution was a representative of the People’s Revolutionary Government at the Grenadian High Commission in London, talks of the significance of the ‘revo’:

“From being the descendants of slaves, from people who’d been colonised, from people who’d been tossed aside, we suddenly became the controllers of our own destiny. For 400 years, our forebears were enslaved. We suffered in order to produce Europe’s wealth. After slavery we were further enslaved under colonialism. But in 1979, with our own ability, by our own efforts, we changed our course. Yes, others helped, but it was us.” (phone interview)

Dennis points out that the sense of jubilation and pride generated by the revolution was not restricted to Grenada – it spread like wildfire within the Caribbean community in Britain:

The effect was absolutely electric in Britain. Grenadians had previously kept their heads down – working, sending money home and so on. All of a sudden we felt extremely proud. An energy was there that wasn’t felt before. For example, the High Commission and the Caribbean community worked together to put on an event at the Commonwealth Institute to mark the anniversary of the revo. We were expecting maybe 500 people, and in the end 5,000 turned up. When Maurice Bishop was in London it was phenomenal – you couldn’t get into the meeting because of the crowds. The attitude of Grenadians changed. People were walking around who hadn’t been political before, and they started speaking in public in defence of Grenada, such was the pride.

maurice-samoraThe excitement of the revo was felt all around the Caribbean, as well as in the Caribbean communities in Britain, the US and Canada. Grenada instantly became a pole of attraction for socialists, anti-imperialists and Black Power activists. The father or critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, came to kick off the literacy campaign. Major figures from the US such as Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte visited Grenada and were deeply inspired. Cheddi Jagan, Michael Manley, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro all spoke of the profound importance of the Grenada revolution. The legendary Mozambican freedom fighter (then President) Samora Machel visited the island to show his solidarity. Progressive politicians, educators, activists and writers from throughout the region came to work in Grenada – figures such as Richard Hart, Merle Hodge, Didacus Jules and George Lamming. The truth is that this peaceful revolution in a small Caribbean country (with a population of a shade over 100,000) was a landmark moment, and its effects were felt throughout the region, and indeed the world.

Maurice Bishop

muralThe most prominent leader of this revolution was a charismatic young lawyer by the name of Maurice Bishop. Bishop was a popular, creative and intelligent revolutionary with an intuitive grasp of where the masses were at. A brilliant communicator, his mutual empathy with the masses of the people was one of the major driving forces of the revolution – not unlike the relationship between Fidel Castro and the Cuban people, or between Hugo Chávez and Venezuelan people. Fidel saw him as a true brother and comrade, remarking that “Bishop was one of the political leaders best liked and most respected by our people because of his talent, modesty, sincerity, revolutionary honesty and proven friendship with our country”.

Recently-deceased and much-missed veteran of the Caribbean labour movement Richard Hart wrote:

“By any standards he was a remarkable man. A lawyer by profession from a comfortable middle class background, his sympathies were nevertheless with the underprivileged masses. The initial emotional stimulus which he had received from the Black Power movement of the 1960s had ripened and matured during the 1970s on a more secure intellectual basis as he familiarised himself with Marxist-Leninist theory. Sentiment, theory and practice had combined to mould him into a dedicated revolutionary. He possessed to an extraordinary degree the ability to articulate clearly the objectives of the Revolution and to inspire support for it internally and regionally. His analytical mind and capacity for simple explanation helped the people to understand and share his convictions. His personality was magnetic.” (In Nobody’s Backyard (Preface))

Much like Fidel and Chávez, Bishop was a brilliant orator, uniquely capable of voicing the needs and aspirations of his people. Searle comments: “His bearing, a deep, mellow voice and superb command of the English language together with a continuous propensity to resort to the Creole vernacular, combined with his skills of persuasive and sophisticated speech that he had developed as one of the Caribbean’s most successful barristers, all fused to give a many-sided articulacy to his public speaking… He had an outstanding ability to create this sense of joy among his listeners.” (Grenada Morning)

There were of course other very important leaders whose role was decisive, but it’s clear that Bishop’s personal role as the pre-eminent leader of the Grenadian masses cannot easily be overstated.

Achievements

revsolHaving captured power, the New Jewel Movement quickly got down to the serious work of improving the lives of Grenada’s long-suffering people. As Bishop said in his first broadcast on Radio Free Grenada after the capture of power on 13 March 1979:

This revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children

Wendy Grenade, a Grenadian lecturer in Political Science at the University of the West Indies, enumerates the key areas of focus for the revo: “raising levels of social consciousness; building a national ethos that encouraged a sense of community; organising agrarian reform to benefit small farmers and farm workers; promoting literacy and adult education; fostering child and youth development; enacting legislation to promote gender justice; constructing low income housing and launching house repair programmes; improving physical infrastructure and in particular the construction of an international airport; providing an environment that encouraged popular democracy through Parish and Zonal Councils etc.” All in all, a very different focus to that of any previous Grenadian government, and to that of most other Caribbean states.

Pre-revolutionary Grenada suffered with unemployment levels upward of 50%. Through the development of cooperatives, the expansion of the industrial base, the diversification of agriculture, the expansion of the tourist industry, and the creation of massive public works programmes, unemployment dropped to 14%, and the percentage of food imports dropped from over 40% to 28% at a time when market prices for agricultural products were collapsing worldwide.”

Paulo Freire was invited to design and lead the implementation of a literacy programme, which was successful in all but wiping out illiteracy (the literacy rate increased from 85% to 98%). The leaders of the revo realised that an educational system must be established that broke away from the British colonial tradition and the inferiority complex that it sought to instil in its ‘subjects’. As Bishop elaborated: “The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.”

Searle observed an intense, widespread desire and demand for learning:

One of the first overwhelming truths and discoveries of the Revolution was that education was everywhere, it was irrepressible! It came at once from every side and at every moment. The dammed-up flood of four centuries of the people’s urge to know, to understand, to learn, to connect, to criticise, to express themselves, was unstoppable. At meetings, at rallies, at panel discussions, through songs, poems, plays and calypso, the message poured down upon the revolutionary leaders: Teach us, we want to know! Young and old, farmer and urban worker, fisherman and the woman cracking nutmegs, seamstresses and road-workers, all clamoured for more education, giving the cue for the slogan: Education is a must – from the cradle to the grave.

By 1983, 37% of the national budget was being spent on education and health. School fees were abolished; schools were repaired. “Free books, school uniforms and hot lunches were provided for the first time for the poor. Health care was made free and the number of doctors and dentists doubled.” (source)

ForwardEverBackwordNeverFor the first time, Grenadians had a very real say as to how public funds were allocated – via a People’s Budget that pre-empted the celebrated Porto Alegre participatory budget by more than a decade. Meanwhile, the economic growth rate averaged 10% during the years of the revolution. A World Bank memorandum on the Grenadian economy in 1982 stated: “The government which came to power in March 1979 inherited a deteriorating economy, and is now addressing the task of rehabilitation and of laying better foundations… Government objectives are centred on the critical development issues and touch on the country’s most promising development areas.” Hugh O’Shaughnessy notes that this was “as close to unstinted praise as that cautious institution was ever likely to come.”

Regarding agriculture, Searle writes that “there was increased enthusiasm to work on the land. The old pattern of the plantocratic estate, the hierarchical control of the expatriate landlord or the man in the ‘great house’ and the living death of laborious daily-paid work on land which was not theirs – all this was changing. The growth in cooperatives on the land and the collective stake in production and profit had brought many young people back to the land, and three farm training schools had been established to give these young farmers some basic expertise in agriculture and cooperative management techniques.”

The revo was strongly focused on women’s empowerment and participation. “We moved against sexual harassment, and we encouraged women to participate fully in the construction of a new Grenada, for example through the National Women’s Organisation” (Dennis Bartholomew phone interview). Indeed, the first decree of the revo was to outlaw sexual victimisation.

The changes in society were reflected by a massively invigorated national culture, expressed through calypso, poetry, dance and drama. “The shyness and reticence that characterised many of the Grenadian people before the Revolution, the self-consciousness of being a ‘small island’, second-rate or unnoticed was replaced by an explosion of national self-assertion through the revolutionary culture… More Grenadians were writing poetry and performing calypso than ever before, and receiving publication and air-play.” (Grenada Morning)

In terms of international relations, Grenada maintained friendly relations with all countries that were willing to treat it as an equal. Inevitably, this meant that its closest relations were with other nations within the socialist, progressive and non-aligned world, such as Cuba, (Sandinista) Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, East Germany, DPR Korea, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. Revolutionary Grenada was also a great friend to the forces fighting against South African apartheid and occupation, in particular the ANC and SWAPO.

We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. Our aim, therefore, is to join all organisations and work with all countries that will help us to become more independent and more in control of our own resources. In this regard, nobody who understands present-day realities can seriously challenge our right to develop working relations with a variety of countries.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revo was the construction of an international airport – the first airport to be built by a post-colonial Caribbean state. Bartholomew says with great pride: “The key step was building the international airport. It wasn’t built by the US or Cubans – we built it ourselves, with Cuban help. It was based on an old British plan. Money was raised internally by the raising of bonds, plus there was help from Libya, from Algeria, from Britain and elsewhere.”

Sadly, the revo didn’t live to reap the benefits of the airport, which wasn’t completed until 1984. In May 2009, the airport was finally renamed Maurice Bishop International Airport.

People’s Democracy

maurice-bishop-gen-h-austin-lt-george-cherubinRevolutionary Grenada came under criticism from many angles for not holding parliamentary elections – particularly since Bishop’s first broadcast after the seizure of power had promised the restoration of “all democratic freedoms, including freedom of elections.” This lack of elections was constantly used by the US and its regional proxies to besmirch the New Jewel government, and there are plenty of people – even those broadly sympathetic to the revolution – who feel that the whole experience was tainted through lack of democracy.

Why weren’t elections held? After all, there was never any doubt that the NJM would comfortably win at the polls. Bishop discussed this issue in an interview with New Internationalist in 1980:

We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.

Speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the revolution – an event at which the guests included Daniel Ortega and Michael Manley – Bishop highlighted some of the obvious flaws of the Westminster system:

There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.

In place of a such a pseudo-democracy, there was set up a system of grassroots democracy that, by any reasonable standard, must be considered far more democratic than the pretend democracy in place in Britain and the US. Thirty-five years later, Chris Searle remains immensely enthusiastic about the breadth of popular participation during those years:

“A lot went right. There were some unique developments. The internal democracy – the local democracy at the village and town level – was quite remarkable. Parish councils were set up; the women’s movement and youth movement were extremely active. It was a genuine mass mobilisation of ordinary people at every level, from the elderly down to children. There was nothing forced about it; the democracy bubbled up from the people. It was incredible, really.” (phone interview)

Organs of power sprung up everywhere, and nearly everyone was involved in some level of organisation and decision-making, be it the Zonal Councils, the Workers’ Parish Councils, the Farmer Councils, the Youth Movement or the Women’s Movement, all of which met at least once a month. Free facilities were made available for all such meetings, and they were often attended by senior government figures, who would have to answer directly to the people.

Bartholomew describes the atmosphere:

The feeling was totally different. People were coming together and doing things. Nobody said “we can’t do it”; they were saying “how are we going to do it”? There was a definite spirit in the air.

In 1981, the People’s Revolutionary Government established a Ministry of National Mobilisation, headed up by senior NJM leader Selwyn Strachan. This was a whole government ministry dedicated to devising means of continually spreading and improving popular participation in the running of the country, and ensuring maximum levels of accountability for those in positions of power.

Searle points out that the army was expected to be at the service of the people, and was deeply involved in helping to carry out decisions made by the organs of popular power. He states: “The army was involved and was extremely popular. if repairs needed or houses build, soldiers would be there.” Quite a difference from the role of the army in a typical bourgeois democracy!

So while parliamentary elections were not held in the four and a half years of the revo, a far more meaningful democracy was constructed. This had the additional benefit of avoiding the ways in which international imperialism – with its vast networks of contacts, diplomats, agents, media sources, bribes, and so on – can use parliamentary politics to subvert real democracy. Bishop’s analysis of this process brings to mind the way the west has tried to (and continues to try to) destabilise progressive governments, with varying degrees of success, in Jamaica (under Manley), Chile (under Allende), Venezuela, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere.

“A part of that political tribalism, as used by the CIA, has been to get some of the parliamentarians to use the medium of parliament in such a way as to destabilise the country. Masterminded by their American puppeteers, they raise bogus concerns about the economy, they spread vicious propaganda from outside the country and seek to make the people lose faith and confidence in their revolutionary government, raising a million and one other such provocative matters through the medium of parliament – and thus claim to do it in that sense with a certain measure of legitimacy.” (Interview in mid-1983, contained in Grenada: The Struggle Against Destabilisation)

Destabilisation

Naturally, the revo was not too popular in the eyes of the politicians of the imperialist states. After all, Grenada was the first (and remains the only) English-speaking country in the Americas to have undergone a successful revolution of the oppressed. Moreover, it was a revolution led by the descendants of African slaves, and therefore was seen as a particularly dangerous example to the black population in North America. “The Grenada Revolution has a facility of speaking directly to the people of the USA, in particular the exploited majority. Then in the case of black Americans, meaning something like 27 million black people who are a part of the most rejected and oppressed section of the American population, US imperialism has a particular dread that they will develop an extra empathy and rapport with the Grenada Revolution, and from that point of view will pose a threat to their own continuing control and domination of blacks inside the US.” (interview, ibid)

On top of the bad example it was setting, Grenada was also considered a threat on account of its relations with countries on the wrong side of the ‘iron curtain’. Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes: “Washington’s rage reached paranoiac proportions when Grenada started close co-operation with Cuba and the USSR. Grenada’s action challenged the hegemony that Washington was expecting to extend throughout the Caribbean after the withdrawal of the British who had dominated it for two centuries.”

As can be seen from the example of so many states that have refused to go along with imperialist diktat – from Chile to Mozambique, from Cuba to Libya, from Venezuela to Syria – the west has a thousand different ways of creating instability. Grenada was no different. The US was able to mobilise elements within the Grenadian trade union movement to call strikes when the government was unable to meet their demands for enormous wage increases. There were boss-led lockouts. Production was sabotaged. Rallies were bombed. There were assassinations. A wide-ranging campaign was conducted in the ‘free’ (rich-white-owned) Caribbean press against the Grenadian revolution. In short, Grenada was subjected to every form of economic, political, paramilitary and media destabilisation. The revo was under constant threat.

We think of the scientific way in which they have evolved a new concept which they have called destabilisation: a concept aimed at creating political violence, economic sabotage; a concept which when it fails, eventually leads to terrorism. We think of the attempts to use local opportunists and counter-revolutionaries — people who try to build a popular base, people who fail in building that popular base, and people who as a result of having failed to fool the masses then turn to the last weapon they have in desperation: the weapon of open, naked, brutal and vulgar terror. Having given up all hope of winning the masses, these people now turn their revenge on the masses. They now seek to punish the masses, to murder them wholesale; to plant bombs in the midst of rallies; to try to break the back of the popular support of the Revolution; because imperialism was frightened and terrified by the Grenadian masses on March 13, 1980 when 30,000 of our people gathered in one spot to celebrate one year of People’s Victory, People’s Progress, People’s Benefits. They were terrified by that, and as a result they now seek to intimidate, to brow-beat, to frighten and terrorise the masses to get them to be afraid to assemble, to get them to be afraid to continue to build their own country in their own image and likeness.

In 1981, US President Reagan deployed over 120,000 troops, 250 warships and 1,000 aircraft to Vieques Island, near Puerto Rico, for a mock invasion. The operation was code-named ‘Amber and the Amberines’, in clear reference to Grenada and the Grenadines (which is Grenada’s full country name, as the state incorporates the two small islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique). In this sinister war game, “the objective was to capture ‘Amber’, hold US-style elections and install a ‘government friendly to America’, keeping troops occupying the island until the elections were over.” (The Struggle Against Destabilisation). This was all too obviously an elaborate dress rehearsal for the US military invasion of Grenada.

Such is the dangerous and precarious context in which the revo existed.

Implosion and invasion

Constant destabilisation and psychological warfare had led to an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mistrust among the leadership. Rumours were flying, tempers were frayed, emotions were running high, and people were feeling the sheer exhaustion of working day and night to build a new Grenada in the face of US threats and provocation. Searle writes that “if ever there was a time for forces hostile to the revolution to strike and mobilise themselves around the venomous use of rumours, this was the time. In the small islands of the Caribbean the rumour and the ‘bad talking’ are the deadliest of weapons, and during this time every rumour that moved from person to person, cadre to cadre and community to community contributed to the eventual destruction of the revolution.” (Grenada Morning)

Although the revo continued to make impressive gains, behind the scenes a factional dispute emerged within the New Jewel Movement in 1983, based primarily on a criticism of Maurice Bishop, who was accused of developing a personality cult and of succumbing to petit-bourgeois thinking. A parallel leadership started to emerge in the NJM Central Committee around Finance Minister Bernard Coard, one of the key figures of the revolution and its most respected theoretician.

How the divide degenerated to such an extent is, to this day, a matter of intense dispute. It seems that Bishop had initially agreed to a proposal for joint leadership of the revolution which was supported by a majority on the Central Committee. However, he came back from a trip to Hungary and Cuba in early October 1983 saying that he wasn’t sure about the workability of the plan and that he wanted to give it some more thought. This may have been a mistake on Bishop’s part, and the accusation that he was “in contempt of the party” may have been true. Nonetheless, the response of the Central Committee to place him under house arrest was indefensibly foolish. “On the Central Committee side there was a theoretical ‘purity’ which refused to compromise and seek a practical and creative solution… They knew Maurice had enormous popularity with the people and that to detain him in that sudden unexplained and provocative way would rile the support base of the revolution. To many thousands of people in Grenada, Maurice was the revolution.” (ibid)

Maurice Bishop was placed under house arrest on 13 October 1983. Once the word got out, rallies were held across the country demanding his release. Just a few days later, on 19 October, a demonstration of several thousand marched to his house and managed to free him. The situation was one of total chaos and confusion. The crowd marched to the military headquarters at Fort Rupert, where Bishop apparently believed they would be able to defend themselves and regain control of the country. Hundreds of Bishop supporters made their way to the fort, and army units under the command of General Hudson Austin – a longtime comrade of Bishop’s who was on the other side of the NJM dispute – came rushing to the scene.

Both sides claim that the other side fired the first shots. Fort Rupert came under heavy fire from the army. The first to fall dead was Vince Noel, one of the original 14 members of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. O’Shaughnessy writes that “the cry of panic and the groans of the dying and the wounded were almost effaced by the sound of hundreds of people rushing to escape wherever they could. Some ran down the incline back to town, others ran for cover in the General Hospital tucked below the fort, others threw themselves over the battlements to death or injury below, like so many lemmings… Within the operations room Bishop gave the order to stop any return fire on the attacking forces. In the last cry of anguish his followers were to hear, he moaned ‘Oh God, oh God, they turned their guns against the masses.'”

The army won control of the fort, and firing ceased. Those remaining in the fort were ordered to leave, with the exception of (Prime Minister) Maurice Bishop, (Minister of Education) Jacqueline Creft, (Foreign Minister) Unison Whiteman, (President of the Agricultural and General Workers Union) Fitzroy Bain, (Minister of Housing) Norris Bain, Keith Hayling, Evelyn Bullen and Cecil Evelyn Maitland. These eight were lined up facing a courtyard wall and executed by firing squad.

The army’s communique in the immediate aftermath struck a tone of curiously misplaced triumphalism: “All patriots and revolutionaries will never forget this day when … the friends of imperialism were crushed. This victory today will ensure that our glorious party the NJM will live on and grow from strength to strength leading and guiding the Armed Forces and the Revolution.”

The chaos – and the population’s shock at the sudden killing of the country’s leader and his closest comrades – created a favourable context for the US to enact its invasion plans, which had been “nursed in secret at the State Department and the Pentagon for four and a half years” (O’Shaughnessy). As the Cuban government’s statement the next day all-too-accurately predicted: “Now imperialism will try to use this tragedy and the serious mistakes made by the Grenadian revolutionaries to sweep away the revolutionary process in Grenada and place the country under imperial and neocolonialist rule once again.”

A week later, Reagan played out his ‘Amber and the Amberines’ war game in real life, sending tens of thousands of troops to ensure that the Grenadian Revolution was comprehensively wiped out. Thus was destroyed one of the most promising experiments in people’s power of the latter part of the 20th century.

There is much research still to be done in relation to the precipitous fall of Grenadian Revolution – the extent of CIA involvement, the details of the Bishop-Coard split, and so on. It’s almost impossible to understand how such a disaster could have happened, just as it’s almost impossible to understand how the Black Panthers and allied organisations in the US could have imploded so spectacularly. In the case of the Panthers, a great deal of research has been done over the decades, and we have an increasingly clear picture of the depth of the state’s sinister campaign of assassinations, imprisonment, psychological warfare, agents provocateurs, fake letters, rumour-mongering, and the infiltration of drugs. It would hardly be surprising if the US intelligence agencies turn out to have been heavily involved in the collapse of unity within the NJM.

Whatever the case, it’s difficult to disagree with Fidel’s assessment that “no doctrine, no principle or proclaimed revolutionary position and no internal division can justify atrocious acts such as the physical elimination of Bishop and the prominent group of honest and worthy leaders who died… Look at the history of the revolutionary movement, and you will find more than one connection between imperialism and those who take positions that appear to be on the extreme left.” The murder of Bishop and his comrades lost the NJM the trust and confidence of the people, and in so doing paved the way for US invasion.

Lessons and legacy

The great socialist former Prime Minister of Guyana, Cheddi Jagan, (himself the victim of imperialist destabilisation) spoke in 1981 of the inspiration that Grenada was giving to the whole Caribbean region:

“It is like a breath of fresh air, a tonic to the frayed nerves of a people long betrayed, battered and bruised … a monument to the Caribbean man’s courage and political will to stand up to imperialist diktat and blackmail.” (Grenada Morning)

It’s unfortunate that the Grenadian Revolution of 1979-1983 tends to be remembered only in terms of its tragic final days, because its first four and a half years were brilliant and unprecedented – an explosion of creativity, of culture, of vibrancy, of learning, of democracy, of freedom. The grandsons and grand-daughters of slaves wrested power and built a society on the basis of their own hopes and dreams. They began to write their own history.

The successes of the revo could continue to inspire progressive people around the world. The legacy of the New Jewel Movement should be kept alive, for how many other socialist movements in the English-speaking world have achieved so much? Dennis Bartholomew comments:

More than anything, we showed that if you have the will, and if you mobilise the people, you can change things. We were able to do remarkable things in spite of the fact that we started with a bankrupt economy and very little in the way of natural resources. But the people were mobilised. The memory hasn’t been totally wiped out. Thirty years later, we can make a clear comparison to help us understand what the revo did. In four and a half years of a progressive, independent, socialist-oriented model, look at what we achieved, and compare that with the achievements of 30 years of a US-backed capitalist model. Yes, the revo was tainted in the eyes of Grenadians as a result of the tragic events of 19 October, but the achievements can’t be forgotten. We shouldn’t forget the enormity of what we did.

Ultimately, the revo should not be seen as a failure. Do we consider the Paris Commune as a ‘failure’? The Soviet Union? The Haitian Revolution? Julien Fédon’s slave uprising in Grenada at the end of the 18th century? In the context of the broad historical epoch we are living through – the struggle to finally defeat colonialism, imperialism and racism, and to set the stage for the advance to socialism – such experiments cannot be considered as failures. Bishop himself put it well:

It took several hundred years for feudalism to be finally wiped out and capitalism to emerge as the new dominant mode of production, and it will take several hundred years for capitalism to be finally wiped out before socialism becomes the new dominant mode.

May the legacy of the Grenadian Revolution continue to inspire and educate.

Further study

  • In Nobody’s Backyard: Maurice Bishop’s Speeches
  • Maurice Bishop Speaks: Grenada Revolution, 1979-83
  • Chris Searle – Grenada Morning: A Memoir of the ‘Revo’
  • Hugh O’Shaughnessy – Grenada: Revolution, Invasion And Aftermath
  • Chris Searle – Grenada: The Struggle Against Destabilisation
  • Richard Hart – The Grenada Revolution: Setting the Record Straight
  • Merle Hodge – Is Freedom We Making: the New Democracy in Grenada
  • Chris Searle – Words Unchained: Language and Revolution in Grenada
  • Film: Forward Ever – The Killing of a Revolution

Forward Ever, Backward Never: Remembering Maurice Bishop

Thirty years ago today, the leader of the Grenadian Revolution, Maurice Bishop, was gunned down by his own comrades, the result of a disastrous split within the governing New Jewel Movement.

There are many stones still to be unturned in connection with the revolution’s collapse and the anti-popular coup that paved the way for US invasion, but it’s clear that the movement fell victim to the sectarianism, dogmatism and individualism that emerge with frustrating frequency on the left. Combined with the systematic campaign of destabilisation and psychological warfare waged by the US, these factors led to the destruction of one of the most promising political processes of the latter part of the 20th century.

Maurice Bishop was a popular, creative and intelligent revolutionary, with an intuitive grasp of where the masses were at. The clear leader of the Grenadian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the corrupt and pro-imperialist administration of Eric Gairy, Bishop was a brilliant communicator, and his mutual empathy with the masses of the people was one of the major driving forces of the revolution – not unlike the relationship between Fidel and the Cuban people, or Chávez and Venezuelan people. In many ways, Bishop could be considered as the Hugo Chávez of his time. The Cuban government’s statement on the day after his death sums him up nicely:

“Bishop was one of the political leaders best liked and most respected by our people because of his talent, modesty, sincerity, revolutionary honesty and proven friendship with our country.”

muralIn addition to leading the fight for economic, political, social, racial, gender and cultural justice in Grenada; and in addition to working tirelessly to improve the lot of ordinary Grenadian people; Bishop was also a great friend to the socialist and anti-imperialist world. Fidel Castro saw him as a true brother and comrade, and Cuba embraced Grenada whole-heartedly, giving desperately-needed aid and expertise. Grenada built up close relations with (Sandinista) Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, East Germany, DPR Korea, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. Grenada also became a pole of attraction for black power activists from the US. Little wonder it was considered such a threat by the forces of imperialism. An example had to made of the first English-speaking country in the western hemisphere to walk the road of socialism.

Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes: “[Washington’s] rage reached paranoiac proportions when Grenada started close co-operation with Cuba and the USSR. Grenada’s action challenged the hegemony that Washington was expecting to extend throughout the Caribbean after the withdrawal of the British who had dominated it for two centuries.” (‘Grenada – Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath’)

The arrest and murder of Bishop and his close comrades by members of the Grenadian armed forces created a favourable context for the US to enact its invasion plans, which had been “nursed in secret at the State Department and the Pentagon for four and a half years” (O’Shaughnessy). The assassination was carried out by army officers acting under the instructions of the NJM faction centred around Bernard Coard. This group considered itself the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ trend to counter Bishop’s ‘petit bourgeois’ trend; however, its supposedly revolutionary actions were to set Grenada back by decades.

Fidel commented on this issue in some detail at the time:

“Today no one can yet say whether those who used the dagger of division and internal confrontation did so motu proprio or were inspired and egged on by imperialism. It is something that could have been done by the CIA – and, if somebody else was responsible, the CIA could not have done it any better. The fact is that allegedly revolutionary arguments were used, invoking the purest principles of Marxism-Leninism and charging Bishop with practising a personality-cult and drawing away from the Leninist norms and methods of leadership. In our view, nothing could be more absurd than to attribute such tendencies to Bishop. It was impossible to imagine anyone more noble, modest and unselfish. He could never have been guilty of being authoritarian; if he had any defect, it was his excessive tolerance and trust. In our view, Coard’s group objectively destroyed the Revolution and opened the door to imperialist aggression … Look at the history of the revolutionary movement, and you will find more than one connection between imperialism and those who take positions that appear to be on the extreme left.”

stampThe Cuban government’s statement of 20 October 1983 predicted: “Now imperialism will try to use this tragedy and the serious mistakes made by the Grenadian revolutionaries to sweep away the revolutionary process in Grenada and place the country under imperial and neocolonialist rule once again.”

A week later, this prediction was proven painfully correct, as Reagan sent tens of thousands of troops to ensure that the Grenadian Revolution was comprehensively wiped out.

There is much research still to be done on the Grenadian Revolution, and many lessons to be learned. Such lessons are all the more relevant in today’s context of several Latin American and Caribbean countries pursuing their own roads to socialism. The US and their allies would love to do to Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina what they did to Grenada. Destabilisation continues in a thousand different ways.

Meanwhile, the successes of Grenadian socialism – even if short-lived – continue to inspire progressive people around the world. The legacy of Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement must be kept alive.

What follows is a selection of interesting quotes from Bishop, sourced from:

  • “In Nobody’s Backyard” (a fantastic volume of Bishop’s speeches edited by Chris Searle and published by Zed Books, ISBN 0862322480)
  • Hugh O’Shaughnessy: “Grenada – Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath.” (Sphere Books, ISBN 0722165617)
  • This New Internationalist interview

On the danger of Grenada’s example

“We are obviously no threat to America. Nor is Cuba for that matter. I think Washington fears that we could set an example for the rest of the region if our Revolution succeeds. In the Caribbean region you’re talking about small countries with small populations and limited resources, countries that over the years have been classic examples of neo-capitalist depend­encies. Now you have these new governments like Nicaragua and Grenada that are attempting a different experiment. They are no longer looking at development as how many hotels you have on the beach but in terms of what benefits people get. How many have jobs? How many are being fed, housed, and clothed? How many of the children receive education? We certainly believe in Grenada that the people of the English-speaking Caribbean want to see an experiment like that succeed. They want to see what we are trying to build come about. America understands that and obviously if we are able to succeed where previous governments following different models failed, that would be very, very subversive.”

On revolutionary spirit and vigilance

“Revolutionaries do not have the right to be cowards. We have to stand up to fight for our country because, the country is ours. It does not belong to anybody else”

“When will imperialism learn? Yes, they can kill our bodies but they can never kill the spirit of a people fighting for their liberation, they can never kill the spirit of a people fighting for their country and fighting to push their country forward.”

“As we have said so often, imperialism never rests and so we must continue to be on our guard, continue to be vigilant, continue to expand and strengthen our revolutionary People’s Militia. We must keep our eyes open for new tricks, for new variations of the enemy’s plan, for new devious twists and turns on the propaganda, and on the economic and the military fronts.”

“We saw how the CIA actually succeeded in turning back the progress of the organised workers’ movement in Chile, by both open and covert activity, and we in the Caribbean must be particularly vigilant in recognising their position and subversion of the workers’ cause, for imperialism will never rest in its resolution to crush the onward march of the progress and emancipation of our struggling people”

On propaganda, education, cultural imperialism and decolonisation

“We hold the truth itself to be revolutionary and we shall stand firm by its side.”

“Backwardness in the field of information is a fundamental reason for the fact that the international exchange of information is only a one way process. Basically, a veritable flood of information flows from the major imperialist cities to all corners of the globe, whereas there is a mere trickle in the opposite direction.”

“It is imperative to eliminate psychological warfare and cultural neocolonialism from intercourse between states and peoples.”

“The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.”

On free speech, human rights and democracy

“There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.”

“We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanismsand institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to demo­cracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.”

“The right of freedom of expression can really only be relevant if people are not too hungry, or too tired to be able to express themselves. It can only be relevant if appropriate grassroots mechanisms rooted in the people exist, through which the people can effectively participate, can make decisions, can receive reports from the leaders and eventually be trained for ruling and controlling that particular society. This is what democracy is all about.”

“We don’t just speak about their kind of limited human rights but we talk about the human rights that the majority has never been able to enjoy, the human rights that they believe only the minority is entitled to: the human rights to a job, to decent housing, to a good meal when the day comes, to be able to form and to join a trade union, to be able to ensure that you can live a life of dignity and decency. All of these human rights have been the human rights for a small minority over the years in the Caribbean and the time has come for the majority of the people to begin to receive those human rights for the first time.”

“We have a very different conception of human rights than so-called Western demo­cracies. We see human rights much more in terms of economic rights: people having the right to jobs, housing, health and education. Civil and political human rights of course we have no quarrel with. We support them, but we take a different political and class position on these questions than Western clemocracies. When you raise the question of political prisoners people have to be very frank about this and admit a number of things. First, many Western democracies have thousands of political prisoners. Consider the UK in relation to Northern Ireland. In America Andy Young after all has said that blacks in American jails are political prisoners. I could not agree more with regard’ to the system that tries them and the racism that is endemic in it. Our position is that people who are threats to national security have to be kept away from society – both in their own interests, and more funda­mentally in the interests of the new society we are trying to build.”

On destabilisation

In Nobody's Backyard“Destabilisation is the name given to the most recently developed (or newest) method of controlling and exploiting the lives and resources of a country and its people by a bigger and more powerful country through bullying, intimidation and violence. In the old days, such countries – the colonialist and imperialist powers – sent in gunboats or marines to directly take over the country by sheer force. Later on mercenaries were often used in place of soldiers, navy and marines. Today, more and more the new weapon and the new menace is destabilization. This method was used against a number of Caribbean and Third World countries in the 1960s, and also against Jamaica and Guyana in the 1970s. Now, as we predicted, it has come to Grenada. Destabilisation takes many forms – there is propaganda destabilization, when the foreign media, and sometimes our own Caribbean press, prints lies and distortions against us; there is economic destabilization, when our trade and our industries are sabotaged and disrupted; and there is violent destabilization, criminal acts of death and destruction… As we show the world – clearly and unflinchingly – that we intend to remain free and independent; that we intend to consolidate and strengthen the principles and goals of our revolution; as we show this to the world, there will be attacks on us.”

“Destabilisation can work only when the people do not know that it is happening. It is a total failure when it is exposed and when the people see it for what it is. The people of Grenada must learn what this destabilization is, because then we cannot be fooled by it.”

“We think of the scientific way in which they have evolved a new concept which they have called destabilization: a concept aimed at creating political violence, economic sabotage; a concept which when it fails, eventually leads to terrorism. We think of the attempts to use local opportunists and counter revolutionaries—people who try to build a popular base, people who fail in building that popular base, and people who as a result of having failed to fool the masses then turn to the last weapon they have in desperation: the weapon of open, naked, brutal and vulgar terror—having given up all hope of winning the masses, these people now turn their revenge on the masses. They now seek to punish the masses, to murder them wholesale; to plant bombs in the midst of Rallies; to try to break the back of the popular support of the Revolution; because imperialism was frightened and terrified by the Grenadian masses on March 13, 1980 when 30,000 of our people gathered in one spot to celebrate one year of People’s Victory, People’s Progress, People’s Benefits. They were terrified by that, and as a result they now seek to intimidate, to brow beat, to frighten and terrorise the masses to get them to be afraid to assemble, to get them to be afraid to continue to build their own country in their own image and likeness.”

(NB. All of this extremely apt in the context of the current onslaught against Syria)

On independence

“Grenada is a sovereign and independent country, although a tiny speck on the world map, and we expect all countries to strictly respect our independence just as we will respect theirs. No country has the right to tell us what to do or how to run our country or who to be friendly with. We certainly would not attempt to tell any other country what to do. We are not in anybody’s backyard, and we are definitely not for sale. Anybody who thinks they can bully us or threaten us clearly has no understanding, idea, or clue as to what material we are made of. They clearly have no idea of the tremendous struggles which our people have fought over the past seven years. Though small and poor, we are proud and determined. We would sooner give up our lives before we compromise, sell out, or betray our sovereignty, our independence, our integrity, our manhood, and the right of our people to national self-determination and social progress.”

“We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. Our aim, therefore, is to join all organizations and work with all countries that will help us to become more independent and more in control of our own resources. In this regard, nobody who understands present-day realities can seriously challenge our right to develop working relations with a variety of countries.”

On Chile and the hypocrisy of imperialism

“Has Reagan ever been interested in elections and democracy? When did Reagan ever call on Haiti to hold elections? When did Reagan ever call on the butcher Pinochet in Chile or on South Korea to hold elections? Is he calling upon racist South Africa to hold elections? No! Even when Allende in Chile had in fact won power through elections what did the American President – Nixon at the time do? Nixon, Kissinger and Helms sat down the night after Allende won the elections in September 1970 and they worked out their plan of aggression and destabilisation against President Allende. Allende didn’t say no more elections. He didn’t arm working people to try to close down the reactionary paper El Mercurio as he should have done. Allende relied on the parliamentary form that they wanted him to rely on. But because he was a socialist and was independent and was bringing benefits and justice to his people, the American elite went out of their way to crush him ruthlessly. And the criminal they put into power has yet to be told by the so-called democratic United States to call an election.”

(NB. Eric Gairy, the Grenadian President overthrown by the NJM, was a strong supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile)

On Cuba

Maurice Bishop and Fidel Castro“Your revolution, comrades, has also provided the region and the world with a living legend in your great and indomitable leader, Fidel Castro. Fidel has taught us not only how to fight, but also how to work, how to build socialism, and how to lead our country in a spirit of humility, sincerity, commitment and firm revolutionary leadership.” (before a crowd of 1.5 million people on May Day in Havana, 1980)

On the role of repression under socialism

“All revolutions involve temporary dislocations and, for a period, it is always necessary to restrain the abuses and excesses of a violent or disruptive minority in the interests of consolidating the revolution and bringing concrete benefits to the long-suffering and formerly oppressed majority.”

On the long path towards socialism

“It took several hundred years for feudalism to be finally wiped out and capitalism to emerge as the new dominant mode of production and it will take several hundred years for capitalism to be finally wiped out before socialism becomes the new dominant mode.”

20 Reasons to Support Cuba

The 26th of July is celebrated in Cuba as the Day of National Rebellion, in honour of the attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953. This attack, led by Fidel Castro, was the beginning of the revolutionary armed struggle against the Batista regime.

To help mark 60 years of the Cuban Revolution, I have put together a list of 20 reasons why all sensible, progressive people should support and defend Cuba.

1. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world

Cuba’s literacy rate of 99.8% is among the highest in the world – higher than that of both Britain and the US. The Cuban Revolution has placed a very strong emphasis on literacy, considering it an essential component of empowering the population. Just two years after the seizure of power in 1959, the Cuban government embarked upon one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging literacy campaigns in history, sending tens of thousands of students to the countryside to form literacy brigades. Within a year, the literacy rate was increased from 70% to 96%. Additionally, over the past 50 years, thousands of Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in countries around the world including Haiti and remote indigenous communities in Australia.

2. Health-care is free, universal, and of high quality

It is a small, poor island that does not exploit other countries and which suffers from a suffocating economic blockade, yet Cuba “boasts better health indicators than its exponentially richer neighbour 90 miles across the Florida straits.” Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births). Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba – “one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England.” Healthcare is community-based, prevention-oriented, holistic, and free.

As Kofi Annan said: “Cuba demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities – health, education, and literacy.”

3. Education is free, universal, and of high quality

If you want to understand the true nature of a society, then a study of its education system is a good place to start. In Cuba, high quality education at every level is regarded as a human right, and has been the major priority of the government from 1959 onwards. The result is that a poor, underdeveloped country with widespread illiteracy and ignorance has become one of the most educated nations in the world. (Incidentally, you might think that a ‘dictatorship’ obsessed with preserving its grip on power – as the Cuban government is portrayed in the imperialist world – would worry about the consequences of creating generations of skilled critical thinkers!)

This article by Nina Lakhani in The Independent gives a useful overview:

“Education at every level is free, and standards are high… The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development… There is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.

“School meals and uniforms are free… ‘Mobile teachers’ are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability… Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular.”

The quality of Cuba’s education is recognised at the top international levels; for example, Cuba is ranked at number 16 in UNESCO’s Education for All Development Index, higher than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean (and higher than the US, which is ranked at number 25).

4. The legacy of racism is being wiped out

Pre-revolutionary Cuba was, in effect, an apartheid society. There was widespread segregation and discrimination. Afro-Cubans were restricted to the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst education. They suffered from differential access to parks, restaurants and beaches.

The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted.” In March 1959, just a couple of months after the capture of power, Fidel discussed the complex problem of racism in several speeches at mass rallies.

“In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practise discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad … and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?”

The commitment to defeating racism has brought about tremendous gains in equality and racial integration. Isaac Saney writes: “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalised racism and generate racial harmony.”

Of course, deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities cannot be eliminated overnight, and problems remain, especially as a result of the ‘special period’ in which Cuba has had to open itself up to tourism and some limited foreign investment. Racism thrives on inequality. However, Cuba remains a shining light in terms of its commitment to racial equality.

Assata Shakur, the famous exiled Black Panther who has lived in Cuba for several decades, puts it well:

“Revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice.”

Isaac Saney cites a very moving and revealing anecdote recounted by an elderly black man in Cuba:

“I was travelling on a very crowded bus. At a bus stop, where many people got off, a black man got a seat. A middle aged woman said in a very loud and irritated voice: ‘And it had to be a black who gets the seat.’ The response of the people on the bus was incredible. People began to criticize the woman, telling her that a revolution was fought to get rid of those stupid ideas; that the black man should be viewed as having the same rights as she had – including a seat on a crowded bus. The discussion and criticism became loud and animated. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus because the people engaging in the criticism had decided that the woman expressing racist attitudes must get off the bus. For the rest of my trip, the people apologized to the black comrade and talked about where such racist attitudes come from and what must be done to get rid of them.”

Who can imagine such a scene occurring on a bus in London, Paris or New York?

5. Women’s rights are promoted

Cuba has an excellent record in terms of building gender equality. Its commitment to a non-sexist society is reflected in the fact that 43% of parliament members are female (ranking fourth in the world after Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa). 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels.” Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old.

A recent report by the US-based Center for Democracy in the Americas (by no means a non-critical source) noted: “By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago.”

6. Community spirit still exists

Modern capitalism breaks down communities. Consumerism and individualism create isolation and depression. Poverty creates stress and family tension. Inequality leads to crime, which leads to a culture of fear – something that is completely inimical to the project developing a sense of community and togetherness. Anyone who has experienced life in a modern western city will understand this only too well.

Cuba provides a very different example. It is an exceptionally safe country, with very little in the way of violent crime. With a high level of participation in local administration, social stability, social welfare, low unemployment and a media that promotes unity rather than disunity, Cuba’s sense of community is something that visitors quickly notice.

Assata Shakur mentions this, and contrasts it with the US:

“My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units that were afraid of interaction, of contact, that were lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here [in Cuba]. One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbours, about how you want to live on this planet.”

7. There will be no capitulation to capitalism

The Cuban leadership have had any number of opportunities to sell out their people and to abandon the cause of socialism. If Fidel had been willing to convert himself into a fluffy social democrat, abandon militant internationalism, abandon the government’s commitment to equality and social justice, and accept the subjugation of Cuba’s economy to the IMF and World Bank, he would be portrayed throughout the western world as a brilliant and righteous man. Instead he has spent over half a century being portrayed as a ruthless, corrupt dictator.

Many expected that Cuba would give up the cause when its major supporters – the Soviet Union and the eastern European people’s democracies – did. It was an era when socialism seemed doomed; the “end of history.” And yet the Cubans never considered such an option. They could see the type of catastrophic consequences that capitalist restoration would bring: massive impoverishment and demobilisation of the masses; the collapse of the basic moral fabric of society; an explosion of crime, drugs, racial division, alienation, prostitution; along with, of course, the accumulation of obscene wealth in the hands of a few. In a thinly-disguised attack on Gorbachev’s policy of endless compromise with the west and his readiness to throw away any semblance of revolutionary leadership and vigilance, Fidel said in 1989:

“It’s impossible to carry out a revolution or conduct a rectification without a strong, disciplined and respected party. It’s not possible to carry out such a process by slandering socialism, destroying its values, discrediting the party, demoralising its vanguard, abandoning its leadership role, eliminating social discipline, and sowing chaos and anarchy everywhere. This may foster a counter-revolution – but not revolutionary change.”

The 2002 Constitution, approved by 98% of the electorate, states:

“Socialism, as well as the revolutionary political and social system established by this Constitution, has been forged during years of heroic resistance against aggression of every kind and economic war waged by the government of the most powerful imperialist state that has ever existed; it has demonstrated its ability to transform the nation and create an entirely new and just society, and is irrevocable: Cuba will never revert to capitalism.”

Over a million people – nearly a tenth of the country’s entire population – turn out to celebrate International Workers’ Day every May 1st. In spite of some limited market reforms that have been implemented in order to revitalised the economy, Cuba is still very much organised along socialist lines. The working class has a firm grip on political power. In an era such as ours, Cuba’s continuing commitment to socialism is very much something to celebrate.

8. Cuba is a functioning socialist democracy

Cuba is far more democratic than Britain or the US. The process of decision-making is far more open to grassroots participation, and is in no way connected with wealth. It is easy enough to see that one cannot expect to be successful in politics in the capitalist countries without a good deal of money behind you; political success is therefore predicated on the financial backing of the wealthy, who expect return on their investment. Political representation in Cuba is nothing like this. Representatives are elected by the people, and are expected to serve the people.

Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba. They take place every five years and there have been turnouts of over 95% in every election since 1976… Anybody can be nominated to be a candidate for election. Neither money nor political parties or orators have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates. It is not a requirement that one be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to be elected to any position. The party does not propose, support nor elect candidates.” As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women.

Beyond representative democracy, Cuba also has a meaningful direct democracy. The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were formed in the early years in order to organise the population to defend the revolution. “Membership is voluntary and open to all residents over the age of 14 years. Nationally 88% of Cuban people are in the CDRs. They meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organisation of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes etc). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and crucially, feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy.”

Looking at the Cuban system of democracy, you begin to understand the painfully shallow nature of western-style parliamentarism, where ‘democracy’ means nothing more than “the oppressed [being] allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.”

9. Cuba is a key member of the progressive family of nations

Cuba continues to pursue policies of south-south cooperation and anti-imperialist unity. Its foreign policy has in no way been swayed by the never-ending propaganda and manipulation of the corporate press. It maintains excellent relations with Venezuela, China, DPR Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Syria, Belarus, Iran, Russia, Ecuador, Laos, Algeria and other not-very-fashionable countries. Cuba was a founder member of ALBA and is very active in the recently-formed CELAC. It consistently uses its role at the UN to support the progressive nations and oppose imperialism, for example voting against resolutions seeking to demonise Syria and speaking out boldly against the despicable war on Libya.

10. Cuba is a friend to Africa

Africa is the continent that has suffered most and benefitted least as a result of the rise of capitalism. Its enormous contribution to world history has been all but forgotten, and much of the continent exists in a state of chronic underdevelopment, the result of half a millennium of slavery, colonialism and imperialism at the hands of a rising western Europe.

Cuba, recognising its own African roots (“the blood of Africa runs deep in our veins,” as Fidel famously said), has from very early on in its revolution supported and built close links with Africa. Its role in defending Angola and liberating Namibia and South Africa is one of the most inspiring examples of revolutionary international solidarity. Nelson Mandela put it well:

“The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

Cuba has excellent, mutually supportive with many African states. One way it provides support is by offering thousands of fully subsidised places at its universities (for example, there are 1,200 South Africans currently studying medicine in Cuba). Cuba is very active in the fight against the scourge of AIDS internationally, for example having helped Zambia to start manufacturing its own antiretrovirals.

11. Cuba has achieved sustainable development

The World Wildlife Fund called Cuba “the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development,” measured as a combination of human development index and environmental sustainability. Cuba is a world leader in the adoption of environmentally friendly technology. “Organic urban farms in Havana supply 100% of the city’s consumption needs in fruit and vegetables” – rather different to London, where we rely on a disgustingly exploitative and ecologically disastrous cash crop system.

Cubans understand that the protection of the earth’s resources is a global project. Fidel Castro has been very vocal at international bodies for over 20 years, particularly in drawing attention to the responsibilities of the imperialist countries, whose ruthless quest for profit has caused untold damage to the planet. “With only 20% of the world’s population, [the imperialist countries] consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.”

12. Poverty is becoming a thing of the past

Considering it is an third world nation with limited natural resources, suffering under economic blockade and coping with the loss of its major trading partners in the early 90s, Cuba’s achievements in wiping out poverty are spectacular.

A Cuba Solidarity Campaign fact sheet notes:

“Before 1959 only 35.2% of the Cuban population had running water and 63% had no WC facilities or latrines; 82.6% had no bathtub or shower and there were only 13 small reservoirs. Now 91% of the population receives sustainable access to improved drinking water. Sanitation has been a priority since the revolution and 98% of Cubans now have sustainable access to improved sanitation.

“Before 1959 just 7% of homes had electricity. Now 95.5% of Cubans have access to electricity. Solar panels and photovoltaic cells have been installed in schools and clinics in isolated areas.”

Income disparity is exceptionally low. No Cuban starves; no Cuban is homeless; no Cuban is deprived of education, healthcare or housing. There are very few countries in the world that show such unambiguous dedication to people’s basic human rights.

13. There is no homelessness in Cuba

A country that truly cared for its people would move heaven and earth to ensure that they all had somewhere to live. This is exactly what Cuba does. Rich countries like Britain and the US (which has over 600,000 homeless) could learn a thing or two.

14. Cuba makes an important contribution to science

At the time of the revolution, Cuba was stuck in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, without the knowledge, resources or political will to use science as a tool to improve the lives of its people. Now there are over 230 institutions devoted to scientific research and innovation. Cuba’s biotech industry is considered the best in the world among developing countries, and has generated important innovations in cancer research, AIDS research. Cuba created the world’s first vaccine against meningitis B. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Agre has stated that “what this small country has done in the progress of science and eradication of diseases is worthy of recognition,” adding that Cuban science’s greatest asset is its large pool of highly qualified, enthusiastic young scientists.

15. Free medical training is given to thousands of international students

Cuba provides full free medical training (including food and board) for hundreds of students from across the world, with a special emphasis on Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. With over 10,000 current students, la Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina may well be the largest medical school in the world. The quality of the training is world class: the school is fully accredited by the Medical Board of California, which has the strictest US standards. The only contractual obligation for students is that, having completed their training, they return to their communities and use their skills to serve the people. Another demonstration that socialism implies a level of humanity, compassion and altruism with which capitalism simply cannot compete.

16. Gender justice is being achieved

Cuba has, over the last 20 years, been making dramatic progress towards full equality for all, regardless of sexual preference. Cuban-American journalist David Duran writes: “Cuba is leading by example and positively affecting the lives of not only the LGBT people who reside there but others all over the world who see these massive changes taking place so quickly in a country where most would think the topic of homosexuality would be off-limits.”

The National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) campaigns for “the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights.” This includes working to combat homophobia and to move on from the ‘machismo’ culture often associated with Latin America.

In a display of humility and honesty very rare for a politician, Fidel Castro in 2010 admitted responsibility for the mistreatment of homosexuals in Cuba in the early decades of the revolution.

17. Natural disasters are dealt with better than anywhere else

Like other countries in the region, Cuba is vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes. These natural disasters, if not properly prepared for, can cost thousands of lives. However, with its well-oiled Civil Defence System and highly mobilized population, “Cuba is one of the best-prepared countries in the world when it comes to preventing deaths and mitigating risks in case of disasters.” Although recent hurricanes have caused major disruption and economic damage, the numbers of dead and injured have been impressively low as a result of Cuba’s preparation and relief efforts. One need only compare this with the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (with its 1,833 fatalities) to see the difference in priorities between the two countries’ governments.

18. Cuba’s major export is doctors

Cuba’s ‘Operation Miracle’ has helped restore sight to millions of people across Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba also has a huge number of doctors working in other countries of the Global South, helping to spread Cuba’s hard-won expertise in the field of saving lives. “A third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries.”

In response to the Haiti earthquake disaster of 2010, Cuba immediately (within hours) sent 1,500 medical personnel to help with the relief efforts. “They worked in 20 rehabilitation centres and 20 hospitals, ran 15 operating theatres and vaccinated 400,000 people. By March 2010 they had treated 227,143 patients in total (compared to 871 by the US).” Cuba has even offered to develop a complete programme for reconstructing Haiti’s healthcare system. Emily Kirk and John Kirk note: “Essentially, they are offering to rebuild the entire health care system. It will be supported by ALBA and Brazil, and run by Cubans and Cuban-trained medical staff. This is to include hospitals, polyclinics, and medical schools. In addition, the Cuban government has offered to increase the number of Haitian students attending medical school in Cuba. This offer of medical cooperation represents an enormous degree of support for Haiti.”

Cuba provides Venezuela with 31,000 Cuban doctors and dentists and provides training for 40,000 Venezuelan medical personnel (in exchange for which, Cuba receives 100,000 barrels of oil a day – a great example of two countries cooperating on the basis of their strengths).

19. Cuba loves sport

The Cuban Revolution has, from the beginning, recognised the value of sports in terms of promoting health, building community and developing national pride. Since 1959, Cuba has developed a wide-ranging sports infrastructure and has achieved massive levels of participation. In the 54 years since the revolution, the island has won 67 Olympic gold medals, compared with just four in the preceding 60 years. It consistently comes second (behind the US) in the Pan-American Games, punching well above its weight.

20. Cuba loves culture

Cuba places a strong emphasis on affording its citizens the facilities for cultural expression and enabling them to nurture their talents. Cuban children are guaranteed free access to artistic education, including musical instruments. There are more than 40 art schools, along with a system of neighbourhood cultural centres around the country for enabling art and music. The state level support, combined with a deep-rooted culture of music and dance, makes for a hugely vibrant and participatory culture. Music is everywhere in Cuba, and being a street musician is a state-licenced job. “If you stop to listen, you’re expected to pay, and musicians are around every corner.”

The full range of musical forms are supported and promoted, from classical music to Cuban folk music to hip-hop. The Ministry of Culture even has a division devoted to hip-hop, and Fidel has referred to rap as “the vanguard of the revolution.”

SUPPORT CUBA!

Cuba is under constant threat from US imperialism. Its development is made unnecessarily difficult by an unfair and illegal blockade. Yet it stands as one of the great beacons of socialism, and deserves the support of progressive people everywhere.

Some essential reading

  • Isaac Saney – Cuba: A Revolution in Motion
  • Richard Gott – Cuba: A New History
  • Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own
  • DL Raby – Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today
  • Theo MacDonald: The Education Revolution
  • Piero Gleijeses: Conflicting Missions
  • George Lambie: The Cuban Revolution in the 21st Century
  • Salim Lamrani: The Economic War Against Cuba

The C-word: comm**ism. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

Let’s talk about the C-word: Comm**ism. So much more shocking than the other C-word. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

You’d think it’d actually be pretty popular. I mean… it makes quite a lot of sense. What does it mean? It means a classless society, built on common ownership of the means of production, that by definition works to overcome the worst inheritance of human history: poverty, starvation, war, racism, sexism, national oppression, social alienation, inequality, exploitation. A collaborative, participatory society that seeks to elevate the oppressed to the highest levels of happiness, education and culture; that builds upon all advances in human understanding in order to create a qualitatively new way of being. This isn’t the place to dive into the theory, but let’s face it, it sounds great.

And yet, in the collective mind, ‘communism’ is a dirty word. When we think of communism, we don’t think of progress, literacy, economic uplift, culture, national reconciliation, peace, creativity, diversity. Rather we think of secret services, prisons, indoctrination, brainwashing, stale uniformity, dictatorship, militarism, bread queues, ration books. We think of the world described by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. We think pretty much exactly what senator Joseph McCarthy wanted us to think about communism: that it is the enemy of freedom.

This image is of course unfair, and represents a massive propaganda victory for the real enemy of peace and freedom: the imperialists. Ever since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 – almost a century ago – the media and education systems in the ‘free world’ have made anti-communist propaganda one of their most central tasks. The wretched of the earth rising up and expropriating the oppressors? That’s the sort of contagious idea that has to be nipped in the bud. Hence the endless and intense slander campaign against any socialist country that ever existed, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, from Vietnam to Venezuela, from China to Albania, from People’s Korea to Yugoslavia. Any progress made by these countries is totally ignored; any problems and failures are magnified out of all proportion; issues are distorted and lies are spread.

Am I saying that these socialist countries, led by communist parties, were/are perfect models of this new type of society? Clearly not. There were, and are, massive problems in the building of socialism and laying the foundation for a future communism. However:

1) All of these problems are exaggerated by a well-funded western media and academia, and all too often the ‘statistics’ about socialist history are based on the claims of highly dubious McCarthyite ‘scholars’.

2) Issues regarding repression must be seen in the context of socialist states having to protect themselves within a hostile international atmosphere where the enemy spares no effort to destabilise and attack them (just look at the 600+ attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro).

3) Building a new society and getting over the inheritance of feudalism and capitalism is never going to be easy.

4) Most accusations pointed at the socialist countries generally speaking apply in much greater measure to the capitalist countries. For example, no socialist country in history ever had anything like the incarceration rate of the modern day USA.

5) Whilst it’s popular to talk about the “crimes of communism”, what about the “crimes of capitalism”? Such as, for example:

  • The transatlantic slave trade
  • The genocide of the native populations of the Americas and Australia
  • The numerous famines in India and Ireland brought about by British colonial policy
  • Apartheid
  • The dispossession of the Palestinians
  • The killing of 10 million Congolese by Belgian colonialism
  • The 13 million that die every year due to malnutrition (wholly preventable but for capitalist greed)
  • The rape of Africa
  • The wanton destruction of Vietnam and Korea
  • The Opium Wars
  • The Nazi holocaust
  • Systemic racism
  • The cult of the individual and the breakdown of community
  • The destruction of cultures across the globe
  • The monopolisation of wealth by a small handful of implausibly rich people

It’s quite obvious to any thinking person that, even if we accept the extremely dodgy and dubious claims of CIA-payroll historians like Robert Conquest, the “crimes of capitalism” far outweigh any “crimes of communism”.

6) Meanwhile, in the face of great difficulties, socialist countries have achieved some pretty extraordinary things.

Let’s take China for example. Pre-revolution life expectancy was around 35; now it’s around 74. Literacy was under 20%; now it’s 93%. It has witnessed the most rapid poverty alleviation in history. Its people were looked down upon as the scum of the earth. As WEB DuBois said in a broadcast on Radio Peking:

“What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not the time when in Shanghai no Chinese man dare set foot in a park which he paid for.”

And who doesn’t know that Cuba provides by far the highest standard of living for ordinary people anywhere in South America and the Caribbean; that it has a life expectancy of 79 and literacy rate of 99.8%, in spite of a cruel economic blockade; that it has done more to eradicate the scourge of racism than any other country in the western hemisphere?

And who doesn’t know that the Soviet Union brought about a profound improvement in the living standards of the vast majority of its people; that it defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe; that it provided crucial support to the liberation movements in Africa, to Cuba, to Nicaragua, to Vietnam, to Korea; that it brought about a transformation of the republics of Central Asia, ground down for centuries by competing colonial interests? When we think of communism, why isn’t it all this that we think of?

Certainly, many individuals have suffered unfairly in socialist countries. But why is the blame always assigned to ‘communism’? If I want to see oppression and repression, I can take the briefest of walks down Tottenham High Street. If I want to see corruption, bureaucracy and the centralisation of power, I can observe the proceedings at Westminster. But these things don’t get attributed to ‘capitalism’. Most people who walk past dozens of homeless people each day don’t turn into zealous anti-capitalists (more’s the pity). Anti-communism is the dominant narrative, and so it’s easy to adapt to. Anti-capitalism is not at all the dominant narrative, and to adapt to it is to face isolation and abuse.

The question is: can the C-word be re-claimed, or has the propaganda war already been lost? Are sensible, progressive people so put off by any mention of communism that they immediately disregard anything associated with it? Do we need new terminology for the basic principles of equality, people’s power and social justice? I have come across quite a few very decent and principled people putting forward such an argument – that the C-word is beyond the pale. I’m not convinced. Imperialist cultural hegemony isn’t going to broken unless people who oppose it stand up confidently and loudly for what they believe in. Are we simply going to allow free reign to slander and disinformation? Should we leave prejudices intact? To use a parallel from the world of religion: could Muslims get rid of islamophobia by changing the name of their religion to, say, Democratic Mohammedanism?

Prejudices need to be attacked. Disinformation needs to be exposed. People’s psychological/ideological/cultural reliance on imperialism needs to be broken. That won’t happen if we keep playing by the enemy’s rules.

Like Malcolm said:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”