As Isabel has indicated, I’m not a historian by occupation. If I had a Facebook page — which I don’t — I would list my occupation as “communist.” That is what has guided my actions since I became a conscious political person more than fifty years ago and joined the communist movement in the United States, the Socialist Workers Party.
As all the great revolutionary leaders of the working class have taught us — from Marx and Engels, to Lenin and Fidel — no one becomes a Marxist without being a student of science and history. Not history as it is taught in the academies — an incomprehensible catalog of names, dates, events, and above all rationalizations for the “existing fact” of capitalist social relations.
What I’m talking about is living history, in which we — working people — are the protagonists. “The existing class struggle,” “the historical movement going on under our very eyes,” to use the words of the Communist Manifesto. And always from the point of view of a person who automatically asks Was tun?
“And what is to be done?”
It is in that spirit that Isabel and the compañeros of Ciencias Sociales invited me to participate today. Pathfinder Press, where part of my activity is centered, has published dozens of books on the Bolshevik Revolution and its ongoing continuity. Some of them are available on the table at the side of the room.
And, as the pamphlet you all received a copy of explains, Pathfinder itself Was Born with the October Revolution.
Two great socialist revolutionsLast November, in the hours following the death of Fidel, Jack Barnes, the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, sent a message on behalf of the party to compañero Raúl. I want to begin by quoting from that letter, which states with clarity the theme of my remarks today: “Lenin, Fidel and the Role of the Individual in History.” You each received a copy of this message as well.
Dear Compañero Raúl,
There were two great socialist revolutions in the twentieth century, one in Russia, the other in Cuba. Neither was the product of a single individual. Both were the result of the operations of capitalism itself. But without the presence and political leadership of Vladimir Lenin and of Fidel Castro Ruz at decisive moments in those historic battles by working people, there is no reason to believe either revolution would have been victorious.
Apart from Lenin and Fidel, the history of the twentieth century — and the twenty-first — is unthinkable. Both of them, Marxist students of science and history, gave their lives to uprooting the dog-eat-dog exploitation, oppression, and compulsion on which the capitalist world order depends and replacing it with a workers state, with new social and economic relations based on the liberating capacities of working people and the youth they inspire….
[Fidel’s] highest achievement was forging in struggle a revolutionary cadre, a communist cadre, capable of leading the workers and farmers of Cuba to establish the first free territory of the Americas and successfully defend it for more than five and a half decades against the determination to destroy it by the mightiest and most brutal empire the world has known….
His life work, Cuba’s socialist revolution — its example, and above all its ongoing march — stand as his monument. He needs no other.
A tribute to Lenin and FidelOur discussion here today is as much part of the Havana International Book Fair’s tribute to Fidel — and his political leadership of the Cuban Revolution — as it is to Lenin and the 100th anniversary of October. No other events did more to change the course of history in our epoch and open the road forward for all humanity. And, as the message to Raúl says, it is likely that neither revolution would have succeeded without the presence and leadership of Lenin and Fidel at decisive turning points.
Debate among revolutionists over the reciprocal action of objective and subjective factors in the historical process is not new, of course. It goes back to the foundations of Marxism. Georgi Plekhanov’s classic 1898 essay on The Role of the Individual in History — a polemic against the Narodnik current in Tsarist Russia, which exalted the lone hero as an autonomous creator of history — was one sided and mechanical. But it influenced the generation being won to Marxism in the years before the betrayal of the leadership of the Second International in face of the first interimperialist slaughter.
Would the October Revolution have succeeded without both the presence and the political leadership of Lenin at decisive moments in 1917? Could another revolutionary leader, or a combination of them, have assumed Lenin’s place?
Leon Trotsky, whose standing in the leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution was second only to Lenin’s, wrote about this question more than once in the years after Lenin’s death. As those of you here today are well aware, Trotsky was the organizer of the insurrection and then of the Red Army that successfully defended the young Soviet republic from the combined forces of domestic and international reaction — from London and Paris, to Tokyo and Washington, to the so-called White armies of Russia’s defeated landlords, capitalists, and monarchists.
And for those who come from a different political past than I do, I’ll add that despite Trotsky’s differences with Lenin’s unwavering course that made possible the toilers’ victory, after Trotsky unreservedly joined Lenin in rejecting conciliation with the Mensheviks and other class collaborationists in mid-1917, “from that time on” — in Lenin’s words — “there has been no better Bolshevik.”
From April to October and beyondIn his History of the Russian Revolution — in the chapter “Who Led the February Insurrection?” — Trotsky answered that question as follows: it was led by “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.” Lenin’s leadership was thus crucial not only after the February Revolution but in the years leading up to it, years during which Lenin was in exile.
Lenin’s leadership took on a decisive and irreplaceable character, however, from his post-February political reorientation of the Bolshevik leadership — boldly presented in the “April Theses” — through the October insurrection and beyond. No one else could have taken Lenin’s place, and he could not have led the working class to victory from afar.
There are moments in politics when timing — and unflinching determination — is everything. Fidel’s clarion call to action in 1956, announcing to the world that before year’s end the men of the Granma expedition “will be free or we will be martyrs,” is such an example.
Lenin’s presence on the front lines of the revolutionary struggle — sheltered by workers in the proletarian districts of Petrograd — was necessary to the success of the proletarian revolution. As was Fidel’s leadership in the Sierras, protected by peasants and rural toilers among whom the Rebel Army began laying the foundations of the new social order.
And Lenin’s political leadership of the Bolshevik party at critical moments was equally irreplaceable. The Bolshevik party led the workers and peasants to victory. But it was Lenin who led the leaders of the revolution. It was Lenin who stabilized the party and won the fainthearts in the Bolshevik leadership through the waverings of March and April, to the perilous July days, and beyond. It was Lenin who insisted on publicly announcing the date of the insurrection, without which it would have likely failed.
The political authority Lenin had earned among the cadres through years of revolutionary struggle was equal to none.
Chance played a role too. We can ask ourselves, what might have been the course of history had the German high command, for its own reasons, not allowed Lenin to travel by train through German lines to Sweden, and then on to Petersburg in April 1917? Or if Lenin had been mortally wounded by his would-be assassin in August 1918? Or felled by a stroke such as those that ended his political life a few years later?
Writing from exile in 1935, Trotsky’s conclusion was unambiguous: “For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place — on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik party would have prevented it from occurring.”
From Moncada to 1959 and beyondReturning to the Cuban Revolution, the parallels are inescapable. The historical conditions that gave rise to the Batista coup, the Centenary Generation, and the revolutionary struggle for power led by Fidel had been gestating for years. Objective conditions were more than ripe.
But without Fidel’s leadership, would the bold call to action — the assault on the Moncada Garrison — have been organized? Would the Granma landing and the November 30 uprising in Santiago have occurred?
If by chance Fidel had been killed in any of these events, or struck down in combat during the revolutionary war, had he been felled by the traitor resting next to him in the Sierras — would the July 26 Movement and Rebel Army have defeated the offensive of Batista’s 10,000 troops? Would they have won the political authority to displace the scheming bourgeois opposition leaders with their Miami Pacts and other conciliationist maneuvers?
Would the Cuban people have achieved the unprecedented feats of holding the imperialist empire to the north at bay for decades, defeating the army of the South African apartheid regime, and leading the epic battle of the Special Period to victory?
Without Fidel’s steady moral, political and military leadership of the leadership — over more than 60 years — would Cuba’s socialist revolution, despite all historical odds, still be on course today?
No one can prove a negative. But as historical materialists, we have to say that all evidence makes it unlikely.
A proletarian line of marchFidel’s leadership, like Lenin’s, was proletarian leadership. Fidel spoke less frequently in class terms, but the class line of march was the same. As Raúl reminded us, Fidel led a revolution “of the humble, by the humble and for the humble.”
Like Lenin and Che, he believed in the capacity of ordinary human beings to accomplish what others believed to be impossible, and, above all, to transform themselves in the process.
“Our revolution started from scratch, from nothing,” Fidel said in 1987. “We did not have a single weapon; we did not have a penny, even the men who started the struggle were unknown, and yet …we confronted the thousands of soldiers, and the revolution triumphed because we believed in man.”
The revolutionary war had one and only one objective: to take power as quickly as possible, with the least possible cost in human lives. “With a minimum of weapons and a maximum of moral values,” to cite a Radio Rebelde broadcast from the Sierras in August 1958.
“Politics begin where millions of men and women are,” Lenin told the Extraordinary Congress of the Russian Communist Party in March 1918, “where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin.”
That is what guided the Bolsheviks during the tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution and its early struggle for survival.
It is what guided and continues to guide the Cuban leadership to this day.
Imperialism lost Cold WarSome twenty-five years ago, shortly after the collapse of the “meringue,” to use Fidel’s term, the Socialist Workers Party adopted a resolution entitled “US Imperialism Has Lost the Cold War.” (It is published in the magazine of Marxist politics and theory, New International, and is available on the table over there.) At the time, there was hardly a soul on the planet who didn’t think we were delusional. Including here in Cuba, where you were living through the darkest days of the Special Period.
Today, perhaps, we aren’t so alone in holding to that view.
The “Cold War” was never about bringing down a bureaucratic caste in the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. For the imperialist rulers, it was always about trying in vain to hold off the inevitable acceleration and sharpening of the class struggle on both sides of what they called “the Iron Curtain.” It was about trying to convince working people on both sides that they were enemies of each other — not allies — in order to divide, weaken, and conquer.
The meringue fell first, but today it is the European Union, NATO, and other institutions of imperialist rule that are cracking. All the unresolved contradictions of the last century are reemerging with explosive force. And the privileged classes everywhere are scrambling to try to find ways to protect their interests from the humble majority, those who Hillary Clinton during her presidential election campaign scornfully labeled “the deplorables.”
The exploiters scramble to find ways to deny their fear.
On the 100th anniversary of the great October Revolution, there are those who say the occasion should be commemorated with angry denunciations and shouts of “Never Again!”
For our part, we can affirm with confidence, as Fidel did in his words to the closing session of the Cuban Communist Party congress last April, that it will not be another century before “another event like the Russian Revolution occurs, in order that humanity have another example of a magnificent social revolution that marked a huge step in the struggle against colonialism and its inseparable companion, imperialism.”
100th anniversary of Bolshevik Revolution discussed at Havana event
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