In response to my critique of Harry Targ’s blog post (see “Role of US intellectuals", Part I), Cliff DuRand wrote:
There is not a word in Harry’s article that does not respect the sovereignty of the Cuban people or their right to decide their future. Harry’s call for our solidarity with the development of work place cooperatives is consonant with the Guidelines adopted by the Cuban Communist Party and the National Assembly. It is not an interference in Cuba’s affairs, it is supportive of the direction they have chosen. What you should be criticizing is President Obama’s meddling by supporting what he hopes will be a nascent capitalist class in the small private businesses.
But in addition to critiques of the dominating structures of the world-system, we intellectuals of the Left should critically reflect on our perspectives. I believe that the discourse of the Left is an important factor in our limited influence, and that we need to reconstruct our discourse on the basis of the assumptions and values of the revolutionary movements of the Third World.
I was critical of a paragraph that Harry wrote, because it seemed to reflect a tendency in the US Left to assume that we know what should be done around the world. But we in the US Left really do not have the credentials that would qualify us to know what courses of action Third World revolutionary governments should take. Although progressive popular movements in the United States have registered impressive gains in making the nation more democratic, they have accomplished far less than popular movements in Cuba, Latin America and Southeast Asia. The Cuban movement, for example, managed to overcome internal divisions and to take control of the government, and to maintain control of the political, economic and cultural structures of the nation for more than fifty years, in spite of the hostility of its powerful neighbor to the north. We progressives in the United States have not accomplished anything close to this. In this situation, there are fundamental questions that we should ask: How did the Cuban popular movement do it? What are lessons that we can learn from their achievements? How can we apply these lessons to our reality? I think that we should do a lot less suggesting concerning what they should do, and much more listening and learning.
How do we arrive at an understanding of what should be done or what the characteristics of a just society are? The most insightful ideas emerge from popular movements forged from below, fueled by a collective experiential understanding of the structures of domination and exploitation, and by a tremendous thirst for social justice. The yearnings and spontaneous action of the people establish fertile ground for the nurturing of leaders and intellectuals, and charismatic leaders who are both leaders and intellectuals. This process of popular movement from below in response to domination is the source of advances in human understanding with respect to the dynamics of domination and the characteristics of a just society.
We relatively privileged intellectuals of the middle class of core nations can advance our understanding by encounter with the popular movements from below, listening to the teachings of their charismatic leaders, and carefully observing their dynamics and strategies. Our understanding emerges from this continuous observation of and listening to the movement unfolding from below. In arriving at an understanding of imperialism and neocolonialism, for example, my thinking has been shaped by years of encounter with organic intellectuals of the Third World, specifically the African-American community, Africa, Central America, and Cuba. I believe that listening to the voices of the Third World, seeking thereby to deepen our insight, is central to advances in understanding in the political culture of the North.
Accordingly, I believe that we should not be oriented to suggesting to the movements of the South what they ought to be doing. In more than forty years of encounter with organic intellectuals of the Third World, I have arrived at the conclusion that they have a more advanced understanding than we do. In these years of encounter seeking understanding, I have not forgotten the criticism of white liberal paternalism by African-Americans during the period 1966-72, and I have sought to listen and learn, rather than to instruct.
When we do not sufficiently encounter Third World revolutionary movements, we do not fully understand the structures of domination nor the necessary processes and strategies for their democratic transformation. This severely limits our capacity to politically act effectively. Our people are confused, manipulated by the ideological distortions of the elite and their puppets; but the people know enough to know that we intellectuals of the Left do not know. We support revolutions in other lands, without seeking to develop one in our own nation. We are content to “speak truth to power” on behalf of the people, rather than seeking to take power in the name of the people. Of course, our support for revolutions in other lands is critical; we offer criticisms of revolutionary projects in other nations on the basis of abstract concepts that are informed by our cultural and intellectual context and that are disconnected from real social movement.
I have not forgotten the teachings of Malcolm X, who counseled sincere whites to dedicate themselves to the political education of white society. Our task as US intellectuals, on the basis of the understanding that we form through encounter, is to strive to create the subjective conditions that would make possible the emergence of a revolutionary popular movement in the United States that would seek to take power in the name of the people and that would cooperate with the nations and movements of the world in the creation of a more just, democratic and sustainable world-system. This is not an easy task, but it is our duty; with the privilege to study, comes obligation.
Key words: Cuba, socialism, revolution, intellectuals