Raúl Garcés, Professor of Journalism and Dean of the Faculty of Communication of the University of Havana, began his comments by noting that he had never seen such enthusiasm, one indication of which was the number of people who were asking what they could do to pay homage to Fidel. There is, he observed, a personal connection between Fidel Castro and the people of all ages. He noted that the nation has passed in recent years through a difficult economic situation, and every Cuban has his or her opinion concerning what policies ought to be adopted. But, he observed, these recent days have demonstrated that all Cubans are in agreement on one point, namely, that “Fidel is sacred.” In his view, the people in recent days have overwhelmingly affirmed their commitment to the revolutionary project, constituting an historic moment that represents a new point of departure.
Garcés’ observation that “Fidel is sacred” is consistent with the concept of revolutionary charismatic leadership that I have previously expressed (see various posts in the category Charismatic Leaders). As we observe revolutionary processes, we see that they are characterized by the emergence of charismatic leaders with unusual capacities for understanding national and international dynamics, with exceptional leadership abilities, and with a profound moral commitment to social justice and to the defense of the poor, oppressed, exploited and marginalized. I have maintained that the speeches and writings of such charismatic leaders constitute “sacred texts” that should be studied by all who seek to understand and do social justice.
The notion that “Fidel is sacred” would be, without doubt, an unacceptable idea to many intellectuals, activists, and commentators in the societies of the North, where notions of revolution have been developed without careful observation of the characteristics of revolutions. Such observation is necessary, and it ought to include revolutions that have been successful in creating an alternative type of society, in which there is political control by delegates of the people and a political will to respond to the needs and interests of the people and the nation.
Without benefit of such observation, there has emerged in the North notions that contribute to confusion. Among historians, there has emerged a rejection of the “great white man” interpretation of history, prevalent prior to the popular revolution of the 1960s, resulting in a focus on social processes, de-emphasizing the role of individuals. However, the error of the previous historiography was not that it focused on the exceptional capacities and consequent high degree of influence of some individuals. Its error was its writing history from above, rather than from below, and thus not seeing the movements formed and led by persons of color in the world, including some leaders who were women of color. But the old historiography indeed was correct in discerning the exceptional capacities of some persons.
There also has emerged in the North a distorted understanding of democracy, according to which no person should have too much power, guided by the maxim that “power corrupts.” This distrust of the corruptive influence of power gives rise to an insistence on term limits for officials in revolutionary organizations and governments. And it also leads to a rejection of hierarchies of power in society and social organization, including necessary structures of legitimate power in the forms of rational-legal authority and charismatic authority (Weber 1947:324-63; see “Authoritarianism vs. legitimate power” 5/16/2016).
When we observe the alternative structures of popular democracy that have been developed by revolutionary processes, we see that democratic revolutions do not eliminate power and the need to develop just and reasonable structures for the distribution of power. Rather, what occurs is that popular democratic revolutions transform structures of power, so that delegates of the people, rather than representatives of the elite, have political power. In such revolutionary democratic societies, the forces that defend the people are given full expression, and such forces include charismatic leaders who are committed to speaking and acting in defense of the people. Popular unity in defense of charismatic leaders is indispensable, inasmuch as true democracy has many enemies in the world, constituted by powerful sectors that seek to defend their particular privileges.
When we recognize the sacredness of charismatic leaders and their words, there is the danger of formalism, a rigid and uncreative repetition of the words and strategies of the charismatic leader, ignoring the responsibility of critical reflection. To avoid this error, we must follow the example of the charismatic leaders, who critically analyzed the social situation and creatively developed new understandings, embracing the tradition formulated by previous charismatic leaders and intellectuals, but pushing the received wisdom to a new stage.
We have to study the sacred texts of the charismatic leaders, in order to discern their insights, and to creatively apply their insights to a social context that is different from the ones in which they spoke. This requires constant critical reflection and creativity, following the example of the charismatic leaders, guided by their insights, but at the same time forging new insights and new strategies as the social context evolves, or in creatively applying the insights of charismatic leaders in different national social contexts.
Seeking to avoid the danger of formalism, Fidel spoke against the “cult of the personality” and against the display of images of any living person. In his final testament, Fidel requested that no monument be constructed to him, and that no street, school or hospital be named for him. Raúl has noted that he will soon request the National Assembly for legislation to this effect.
My reaction to the announcement was that charismatic leadership can be extreme. Not one monument in the entire city? Such is the nature of charismatic leadership; it demands, and it challenges. We of course will comply, out of respect for his insight, and for him as a person.
Rather than constructing monuments, we should be studying sacred texts and arriving at insights, so that that we do not fall into ritualistically repeating words and formulas. This is the challenge that we confront.
On the other hand, we would be blind to an important dimension of the human condition if did not see that there has been among us exceptional leaders with penetrating analytical and moral insights, which can provide the basis for advancing human understanding. The gift of charismatic leadership must be seen and appreciated, if humanity is to advance. Its central role in revolutionary processes should be understood.
Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. Edited with an Introduction by Talcott Parsons. New York: The Free Press, Macmillan Publishing Co.