“It was a privilege to enter this university, without doubt, because here I learned much, and because here I learned perhaps the best things of my life; because here I discovered the best ideas of our epoch and of our times; because here I became revolutionary.”—Fidel Castro Ruz, address in the Aula Magna of the University of Havana on the fiftieth anniversary of his entrance into the university, September 4, 1995.
Fidel Castro arrived at the University of Havana in 1945 with a basic concept of justice that had been formed in his family and in Catholic primary and secondary schools (see “Fidel’s social roots” 9/10/2014). And he arrived as a “profound and devoted admirer of the heroic struggles of our people for independence in the nineteenth century,” and as an admirer and follower of Martí, as a result of “the enormous attraction of Martí’s thought for all of us.” This formation in the heritage of Martí and of national liberation was deepened by the fact that he had read “practically all the books that were published” on the two Cuban wars of independence of 1868-78 and 1895-98 (Castro 1985:158-59; 1998:69; 2006:116, 122).
But he arrived with little political consciousness. He would later describe himself as a “political illiterate” at that time. He had possessed a basic concept of justice; he had seen extreme inequality; and he had knowledge of and identification with the historic Cuban struggle for independence. But he had limited understanding of political economy and class divisions and conflicts, and he had not been involved in any way in political activities. His thinking and his life would be transformed during his five years at the University of Havana (Castro 1998:51; 2006:115-17).
In 1945, the University of Havana was an educational institution for the rich and the middle class, a social place where there was mixing of the relatively privileged sector of the popular classes and the bourgeoisie, in an environment that included some professors of the Left. In the 1920s and the 1930s, in the epoch of Mella and Martínez Villena, anti-imperialism was the dominant tendency among student leaders. However, student consciousness had become confused as a result of the emergence of the anti-communist reformism of Grau, and many students had been influenced by this tendency, leading to a decline of anti-imperialism. With the election of Grau as president of Cuba in 1944, the university administration and the student leadership was controlled by the government of Grau. By 1945, there had emerged a reaction to Grau reformism among students. This tendency would ultimately be expressed in the establishment in 1946 of the Orthodox Party of the Cuban People, which beginning in 1948 would be led by Eduardo Chibás. Fidel, as a consequence of his personal tendency toward rebelliousness and his ethical sense of justice, immediately identified with the emerging anti-Grau tendency at the university, which protested the corruption of the Grau government; and he became actively involved immediately with the political activities of this tendency among university students (Castro (1985:162; 1998:60-61; 2006:114, 116; “Julio A. Mella and the student movement” 7/8/2014; “The Cuban popular revolution of 1930-33; Rubén Martínez Villena” 8/5/2014; “The failure of ‘democracy,’ 1940-52” 8/25/2014; “Grau and reformism” 8/26/2014).
Fidel’s studies during his first two years at the university led him to become what he would later call a “utopian communist.” Especially important was a course taken during his first year, taught by a professor of political economy, Delio Portela. The course, which included 900 pages of mimeographed material, discussed the laws of capitalism and the various economic theories. His study led Fidel to question the capitalist system, and he arrived at the conclusion that the capitalist system was absurd. However, his interpretation was utopian, in that it was not based in a scientific analysis of human history. It was simply recognition that capitalism is bad, that it does not work, and that it generates poverty, injustice, and inequality (Castro 1998:51; 2006:117, 122).
Other courses that influenced Fidel’s development included the “History of Political Ideas,” taught by Raúl Roa García, and “Worker Legislation,” taught by Aureliano Sánchez Arango. Roa had been a prominent member of the student revolutionary movement in the 1920s. After the triumph of the revolution, he would become the Minister of Foreign Relations of the Revolutionary Government of Cuba. As a result of his passionate and eloquent defenses of the Cuban Revolution before international organizations, he came to be called the “Chancellor of Dignity” (Castro 1998:69; 2006:122, 642).
During his third year at the university, Fidel began to avidly read the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Drawing upon his good relations with party leaders in the university, he had access to books of the library of the Communist Party. The Communist Manifesto was one of the first that he read, and it had the most impact. It made clear to him the role of class divisions and class interests in human history, thus enabling him to understand why politicians in Cuba behave so badly: they make promises to the people, in order to obtain the political support of the majority; but they are financially supported by the bourgeoisie, and thus they respond to its interests. This period of self-directed reading was the culmination of an intellectual and moral development that had included, as we have noted, an ethical formation in Christian values, socialization and reading with respect to the Cuban heritage of struggle for national liberation, and a study of bourgeois political economy that had led him to utopian communism. As a result of this period of new reading, Fidel would become a Marxist-Leninist by the time he graduated from the university in 1950. But since it was a form of Marxism-Leninism that was synthesized with the Cuban tradition of national liberation, he “would not have been able to convince a communist militant that [his] theories were correct” (Castro 1985:157-59, 161, 167-68; 1998:69-70; 2006:123).
By 1951, Fidel had developed a complete revolutionary conception and a plan for putting it into practice, taking into account the conditions of the country, which included the confusion of the people resulting from the dissemination of anti-communist ideology.
“I conceived a revolutionary strategy for carrying out a profound social revolution, but by phases, in stages; what I conceived fundamentally was to do it with the great non-conforming rebel mass that did not have mature political consciousness for the revolution, but constituted the immense majority of the people. I viewed that great modest, healthy, rebel mass of the people as the force capable of carrying out the revolution, as the decisive factor in the revolution; one must bring that mass toward the revolution, and one must do it in stages” (Castro 1985:164)..
The Batista coup d’état of March 10, 1952 changed the political context, but it did not change the conditions that made necessary and possible the revolution as conceived by Fidel. The plan was put into action with the assault on the Moncada garrison of July 26, 1953, and the revolutionary program was announced in “History will absolve me” (see “The Moncada program for the people” 9/5/2014; “Reflections on “History will absolve me” 9/8/2014).
Like Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro was first a nationalist (see various posts on Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh). When he arrived at a moment of encounter with Marxism-Leninism, his formation in and commitment to national liberation enabled him to see its insights. He thus proceeded to formulate and put into practice a revolutionary project based on a synthesis of national liberation and Marxism-Leninism. As Fidel would express in 1985: “I believe that my contribution to the Cuban Revolution consists in having realized a synthesis of the ideas of Martí and of Marxism-Leninism, and having consequently applied it in our struggle” (1985:163-64).
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].
__________. 1998. “Días de Universidad” in Fidel en la memoria del joven que es. Edited by Deborah Shnookal and Pedro Albarez Tabío. Melbourne: Ocean Press.
__________. 2006. Cien Horas con Fidel: Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet. La Habana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. [English translation: Ramonet, Ignacio. 2009. Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography. Scribner.
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