As a pre-university student, Fidel was formed in the tradition of the Cuban struggle for national liberation. He was a great admirer of the Cuban nineteenth century nationalist José Martí, as were many Cuban youth, and he read all of the books that had been written on the two Cuban wars of independence. During his third year at the University of Havana, he began to read the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, using the library of the communist party. He appropriated their concepts from the vantage point of the Cuban situation, thus forging a creative synthesis of the Cuban struggle for national liberation with Marxism-Leninism. In accordance with this creative adaptation, he conceived a revolution of the people rather than a proletarian revolution.
Fidel possessed an instinctive exceptional capacity for the art of politics. He grasped that the bold attack on the Moncada Barracks of July 26, 1956 was the kind of action that was needed to galvanize the people. In calling the people to revolution, he understood the necessity of making declarations that take into account the perceptions and values of the people. He realized that the Cuban people of the 1950s were rebellious, but they had not yet developed revolutionary consciousness; so it was necessary to focus on concrete problems. In addition, during the revolutionary war and after its triumph, he discerned the need for the unity of the diverse revolutionary forces, and he possessed the capacity to forge it. During his many years as the Cuban chief of state, he also demonstrated an exceptional understanding of global dynamics, and he became an important voice defending a radical Third World agenda in the international arena. In the 1980s, in a series of speeches on the causes and the consequences of the Third World debt, he showed a greater understanding of the world-economy than the great majority of economists.
Fidel also has possessed a remarkable faith in the ultimate triumph of the socialist revolution. It is a faith that is rooted in the conviction of the justice of the socialist cause, and it is inspired by the examples of the great revolutionaries in human history. In contrast to the skepticism of the intellectual who can see only the objective conditions and the subjective correlation of forces, Fidel’s revolutionary faith sees the possibility of changing these conditions and forces, through analysis that discerns hidden possibilities within the existing conditions and forces.
The phenomenon of the charismatic gifts of Fidel brings to mind the concept of charismatic authority, formulated in the early twentieth century by the German sociologist Max Weber. For Weber, persons can possess authority, defined as the capacity to influence others, because of an office that they hold in a bureaucratic structure, such as the president of a country; or a position that they hold in a traditional system, such as a king. But there are others who hold no office, yet they possess authority because of their exceptional gifts. Often they are innovators who reform tradition.
In addition to encountering the Cuban revolutionary project, I also have been reading of revolutions in other lands. Noting the importance of charismatic authority in the Cuban revolutionary project, I wondered if other revolutions possessed charismatic leaders, not merely persons who led the revolutions, but persons with exceptional gifts, whose leadership was a necessary and decisive factor in the gains of the revolution. And indeed I have come to the conclusion that the emergence of charismatic leaders is a general characteristic of revolutionary processes.
In Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture was a military genius who also mastered the art of politics, gifts that enabled him to command a black army and control nearly all of the territory. As a result, he was recognized as Governor of the French colony of San Domingo, as it was then known. As Governor, he maintained the sugar plantations, converting the slaves into free wage workers. He stabilized the economy and enjoyed support among blacks, whites and mulattos. He correctly understood that, as a result of the legacy of slavery, the development of the nation needed French support and cooperation, on the basis of Jacobin principles. But this vision was not realized. The Jacobins lost power in France, and the revolution in San Domingo that had been led by Toussaint was brought to an end by the invasion of Napoleon. Toussaint was arrested, and he died in prison shortly afterward. Napoleon tried to restore slavery in San Domingo, without success, due to the revolutionary resistance of the people. An independent nation of Haiti, without slavery, was declared. But independent Haiti was not the Haiti of Toussaint. It went in a different direction: ties with France were severed, whites were massacred, and the plantations were divided into subsistence plots. It endured isolation and poverty for decades, a legacy from which it still suffers.
In the Mexican Revolution, a charismatic leader capable of unifying the revolution on the basis of a national plan that united the forces of peasants, workers, and the petit bourgeoisie did not emerge. Zapata and Villa possessed charismatic gifts, but their vision was limited to the perspective of the peasant and the countryside, and not the nation as a whole. Ricardo Flores Magón was able to envision the necessary national plan, but he did not master the art of politics. The Mexican Revolution triumphed not as a popular revolution but as a revolution by a rising petit bourgeoisie, based in the military.
In the case of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin adapted Marxism to the conditions of Russia, discerning that the unfolding revolution was not precisely a proletarian revolution, but a peasant and proletarian revolution, led by a proletarian vanguard. Appreciating the need for the support of the peasantry, Lenin put forth a slogan for the distribution of land to peasants. In addition, Lenin discerned the importance of the soviets (workers,’ peasants’ and soldiers’ councils), as the expression of an advanced form of democracy and as an indication that the Russian Revolution represented a transition to socialism.
Lenin possessed an exceptional understanding of global dynamics. He discerned that with the failure of the proletariat revolution in the Western Europe, the vanguard of the revolution would move to the East, that is, to the colonized and oppressed peoples of the world.
The Haitian, Mexican and Russian revolutions inspired the world. But none of them ultimately triumphed as revolutions of the people guided by charismatic leadership. In contrast, popular revolutions in the colonized and peripheralized regions of the Third World would triumph and would sustain themselves, thus placing themselves in the vanguard of the global socialist revolution, as Lenin had anticipated. During the twentieth century, the two most important expressions of this were the revolutions led by Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh.
Ho Chi Minh adapted Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of Vietnam. He forged in practice a synthesis of Marxism-Leninism and the political-intellectual tradition of Vietnamese nationalism, which had been developed by Confucian scholars, and in which he had been formed as a young man. He understood that national liberation of the colonized peoples could not be attained without socialism, and that socialism in the West could not be attained without the liberation of the colonized peoples. He thus saw the dual character of the revolution as both a social and class revolution and an anti-colonial revolution of national liberation. He discerned the revolutionary spontaneity of the peasant, setting aside the distrust of the peasantry that had been a strong component of the tradition of Marxism-Leninism. Moreover, he mastered the art of politics, knowing when to implement revolutionary measures. These exceptional qualities enabled him to lead the Vietnamese people through two long wars against French colonialism and US imperialism, ultimately leading to the establishment of an independent nation that to this day follows an autonomous socialist path to economic, political and cultural development.
During the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, in reaction to the imposition of the neoliberal project by the global powers, popular movements in Latin America assumed the vanguard in the global socialist movement. Charismatic leaders emerged, calling the people in various nations to autonomous national projects that sought definitive independence from the neocolonial powers, and discerning the objective possibilities for Latin American and Caribbean unity and integration. Especially important in the new Latin America have been Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.
There are charismatic leaders who directed movements that could not take and consolidate power, such as Simon Bolívar and José Martí, the two giants of the nineteenth century Latin American struggles for independence; and Julio Antonio Mella and Antonio Guiteras, leaders of the Cuban popular movement in the 1920s and early 1930s. There are, in addition, charismatic leaders who led movements that took power for a relatively short period of time, such as Salvador Allende in Chile. And there are charismatic leaders whose charisma is a consequence of a connection with a charismatic leader, as is the case with Raúl Castro in Cuba and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. All of these leaders have had exceptional capacities to understand and to formulate courses of action, qualities that have been discerned by the people, who have lifted them up, thus providing them with political and teaching authority.
The lack of understanding in the North of the necessary role of charismatic leaders in revolutionary processes leads us to misinterpretations. We tend to think that the long-term presence of a single leader is a result of a move of the leader toward authoritarian control, thus confirming that “power corrupts.” And we tend to think that the people support the authoritarian leader, because they have limited education, and because they are manipulated and/or fearful. With this false assumption, we cannot see that the charismatic leader is an indispensable resource in the ongoing struggle against the global powers. And we are not aware that the most educated and informed of the people are among the most fervent supporters of the charismatic leader, on the basis of their understanding of the essential role of the charismatic leader in sustaining a revolutionary process under continuous attack by powerful enemies. When people in the North, in the name of democracy, call upon Third World governments to establish “term limits,” they are proposing a structure that is alien to revolutionary processes. In order for revolutionary processes to sustain themselves, the continuing wisdom and unifying presence of the charismatic leader is indispensable. When we propose “term limits,” we are suggesting to the poor and the colonized that they not use their most powerful weapon, as they struggle to survive the onslaught of hostile actions by the global powers.
In the case of Cuba and Fidel, the charismatic authority of Fidel has been institutionalized in two ways. First, when Fidel was named Prime Minister in the Revolutionary Government on February 13, 1959, his political authority was converted from charismatic to legal authority. Subsequently, the Cuban Constitution of 1976 established structures of Popular Power, which include popular election of the National Assembly to five-year terms, which elects the Council of State and Ministers, including the President of the Council of State. This represented a reorganization of the structures of legal authority. Fidel was President of the Council of State through 2008, when he stepped down for reasons of health. This office is currently held by Raúl Castro, who also possesses charismatic authority. When Raúl no longer holds the office, others will be elected to five-year terms. The long-term institutionalization of charismatic authority would involve the election of persons to the office of President of the Council of State who possess charismatic authority, exceptional gifts to analyze and explain, discerned by the people. Such charismatic leaders will likely be among the people, because they are called forth by revolutionary process. Our charismatic leaders are gifts from God, in that they are born with exceptional qualities. But the revolutionary process nourishes them, and calls them to fulfillment of their potential and their duty.
Secondly, the teaching authority of Fidel has been institutionalized through the creation of the Cuban Communist Party. The charismatic authority of Fidel, in addition to political authority, included teaching authority, and in fulfillment of this function, Fidel in his speeches was constantly educating the people. The Party, which consists of approximately 15% of the people, plays the role of forming the consciousness of the people and developing the political culture of the nation, rooted in the teachings of Fidel. The transferring of Fidel’s teaching authority to the Party has been a slow process, because every time that Fidel spoke with insight, the authority to teach stayed with him, rather than being transferred to the Party. But since his retirement in 2008, the process of institutionalization has accelerated. The new social and economic model submitted to the National Assembly in 2012 was initiated by the Party, which led a mass popular consultation; Fidel played a minor, although supportive, role.
A number of the blog posts that I have written on revolutionary processes in various nations have discussed the phenomenon of charismatic leaders. These posts, in addition to being categorized in particular revolutions, also have been placed in the category of Charismatic Leaders.
The list of posts in the category of Charismatic Leaders is as follows. To find them, go to the category of Charismatic Leaders, and scroll down.
“Moncada: a great and heroic act” 9/2/2014
“Fidel: ‘History will absolve me’” 9/4/2014
“The Moncada program for the people” 9/5/2014
“Reflections on “History will absolve me” 9/8/2014
“Fidel adapts Marxism-Leninism to Cuba” 9/9/2014
“Fidel’s social roots” 9/10/2014
“Fidel becomes revolutionary at the university” 9/11/2014
“The revolutionary faith of Fidel” 9/15/2014
“Unifying the Cuban revolutionary process” 9/17/2014
“The pluralism of revolutionary unity” 9/18/2014
“The defining moment of the Cuban Revolution” 9/24/2014
“Ho’s practical theoretical synthesis” 5/9/2014
“On the charismatic leader” 4/30/2014
“Is Marx today fulfilled?” 3/20/2014
“The dream renewed” 3/6/2014
“Lessons of the Mexican Revolution” 2/19/2014
“Reflections on the Russian Revolution” 1/29/2014
“Toussaint L’Ouverture” 12/10/2013
“Toussaint seeks North-South cooperation” 12/12/2013
“The isolation and poverty of Haiti” 12/17/2013