We have seen in previous posts that there is a tradition in Marxism-Leninism of interpreting the popular revolution as a proletarian revolution or as led by a proletarian vanguard (see posts on The Vanguard). In “History will absolve me,” there is no notion of a proletarian revolution or a proletarian vanguard. Instead, we find a concept of a people prepared to support a revolution, a people coming from various social classes (see “The Moncada program for the people” 9/5/2014). .
As he explained in an extensive interview in 1985 with the Brazilian Dominican priest Frei Betto, Fidel already had a Marxist-Leninist formation at the time of “History will absolve me.” During his third year at the University of Havana, he had begun to study the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, using books obtained at the library of the Communist Party. In his study of Marxist literature, The Communist Manifesto had the most impact on him, because of its simplicity and clarity, and particularly important was its understanding that human societies are characterized by class division. Fidel’s life experiences, in which he had “seen up close the contrasts between wealth and poverty, between a family that possessed extensive land and those that have absolutely nothing,” (Castro 1985:161), confirmed the truth of Marx’s insight into class division. And the insight, for Fidel, had explanatory power, for it made clear that social phenomena are not consequences of the evil or immorality of men, but of factors established by class interests (Castro 1985:157-70).
In this description of his reading of The Communist Manifesto, we can see that Fidel was making immediately a Cuban interpretation of Marx. In confirming the validity of Marx’s insight for the reality of Cuba, Fidel was focusing not on the exploitation of the industrial workers, which was the social context in which Marx formulated the concept, but on the unequal distribution of land, rooted in the colonial and neocolonial situation of Cuba. Thus, Fidel was beginning to appropriate from Marx in a form that reflected the neocolonial conditions of Cuba.
Fidel was not studying the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin as an academic exercise. He was seeking to understand how to further develop the Cuban Revolution and the revolutionary theory and practice that was the heritage of Céspedes, Martí, Mella, and Guiteras. As a result of this intellectual work and political practice, Fidel had formulated, even before the Batista coup, a revolutionary strategy for bringing about a profound social revolution in Cuba. Having observed the isolation of the Communist Party, in spite of its considerable influence among urban workers, and the dissemination of anti-socialist and anti-communist ideas, he concluded that it would be necessary for the revolution to develop in stages. The first stage would involve a mass rebellion by the majority of people, focusing on concrete demands that would respond to the sources of popular discontent; and a subsequent stage would be characterized by the formation of the political consciousness of the people, during which the socialist character of the revolution would be understood (Castro 1985:164-65).
Thus, Fidel had become a Marxist-Leninist by 1950, the year of his graduation from the university. But his understanding of Marxism-Leninism was shaped by Cuban revolutionary practice, and it adapted the key insights of Marx and Lenin to Cuban reality. Accordingly, he did not speak of a proletarian revolution, but a popular revolution formed by various classes and social sectors, including the unemployed, agricultural workers, industrial workers, tenant farmers, teachers and professors, small businessmen, and young professionals. He did not refer to a proletarian vanguard, but instead implied that the popular revolution would be led by members of the various popular classes who possess the courage to act in defense of the revolutionary ideals defined by José Martí. And he conceived and envisioned a socialist revolution in stages. Based on an appreciation of the insights of Marx as well as observation of Cuban reality in a context of political practice, Fidel’s formulation represented a synthesis of Marxism-Leninism with the Cuban revolutionary struggle for national liberation.
Fidel’s formulation was an important theoretical advance in the evolution of Marxism-Leninism. But Fidel did not present it as such. He did not offer a theoretical analysis of the development of the concept of a proletarian vanguard, describing the social context in which the concept emerged and explaining why a reformulation is necessary. Rather than making a theoretical defense of his reformulation from proletarian to popular revolution, he simply presented the new formulation. And this creative formulation made sense to the people, for it described what they already knew in experience, and it included concrete solutions.
An English translation of “History will absolve me” can be found in Fidel Castro Reader (Deutschmann and Shnookal 2007).
Castro, Fidel. 1985. Fidel y La Religión: Conversaciones con Frei Betto. La Habana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. [English translation: Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology. Melbourne: Ocean Press].
__________. 2007. “La historia me absolverá” in Fidel Castro: Selección de documentos, entrevistas y artículos (1952-56). La Habana: Editora Política.
__________. 2014. History Will Absolve Me: Speech at the Court of Appeals of Santiago de Cuba, October 16, 1953. La Habana: Editora Política.
Deutschmann, David and Deborah Shnookal, Eds. 2007. Fidel Castro Reader. Melbourne, Australia: Ocean Press.
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