Monal, former longtime director of the Philosophy Institute in Havana, is today the editor of the magazine Marx Ahora (Marx Today). She began her history of revolutionary activity in the 1950s as part of the underground struggle against the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. In late 1958 she was arrested in the United States for transporting guns destined for the July 26 Movement and Rebel Army, which under Fidel Castro’s leadership brought the revolutionary struggle to victory here in January 1959.
In October 1917, guided by the Bolshevik Party under Vladimir Lenin’s leadership, working people in their millions overthrew the state power of the capitalists and landlords in Russia and across the fallen monarchy’s prison house of nations, stretching from eastern Europe, through central Asia, to the Pacific. They established a workers and peasants republic and opened the door to the world’s first socialist revolution.
The panel discussion on lessons of that profound revolutionary upheaval was organized by Ciencias Sociales publishing house. Ciencias Sociales released a new Spanish-language edition of John Reed’s classic, Ten Days That Shook the World, which was on sale throughout the 10-day book fair. First published in English in 1919, the book is a vivid eyewitness account of the Bolshevik-led revolution. Reed was one of the founders of the Communist Party in the United States that same year.
The panelists were Dagoberto Rodríguez and Thalía Fung, professors at the University of Havana, and Mary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States and president of Pathfinder Press.
“With the coming to power of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the Russian events grew in influence in the United States,” said Rodríguez in his talk on the revolution’s impact in the U.S. For the first time ever, there was “a government representing the interests of the broad majority of the population.”
Attracted by the Bolshevik example, the revolutionary left wing of the Socialist Party in the United States broke with the party’s reformist leadership, Rodríguez said, and founded the Communist Party. It joined the Communist International, a worldwide organization of revolutionary workers parties launched in 1919 at the initiative of the Bolshevik leadership.
Rodríguez focused on the reaction of the U.S. capitalist rulers, whose fear of the revolution’s spreading example led them to launch a “red scare,” arresting thousands of militant workers and deporting more than 500.
Two great socialist revolutionsMary-Alice Waters spoke on “Lenin, Fidel, and the Role of the Individual in History.” She drew on a message that Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, sent Raúl Castro, first secretary of the Communist Party and Cuba’s president, after the death in November of Fidel Castro, the central leader of the Cuban Revolution for six decades.
“There were two great socialist revolutions in the 20th century, one in Russia, the other in Cuba,” Barnes said in the message. Without the presence and political leadership of Lenin and Fidel at decisive moments, “there is no reason to believe either revolution would have been victorious.”
Fidel Castro’s highest achievement, Barnes wrote, “was forging in struggle a revolutionary cadre, a communist cadre” that led the working class in Cuba, their toiling allies, and youth attracted to their leadership to take power and defend that power for more than half a century.
Waters said that Fidel, “like Lenin and Che [Guevara], 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.”
She noted that “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, just as it was Lenin who politically led the leaders of the Russian Revolution, Waters said, it was Fidel’s “steady moral, political and military leadership of the leadership” that was decisive in the Cuban Revolution.
Waters stressed her agreement with Fidel Castro’s remarks last year that it will not another century before “another event like the Russian Revolution occurs.” (See Waters’ talk, p. 8.)
Thalía Fung spoke on “Lenin and the October Revolution.” As a young lawyer in Santiago de Cuba in the 1950s, Fung defended some 30 members of the July 26 Movement captured by the Batista dictatorship during the November 1956 uprising in that city and participated in other revolutionary activity the next two years in Bayamo, Manzanillo, and Guantánamo. A graduate of Lomonosov University in Moscow, she was for many years a leading figure in the School of Philosophy and History at the University of Havana.
Fung focused on “Lenin’s role in the field of political philosophy and political science.” Stating that “Rosa Luxemburg was more Marxist than Lenin,” she pointed to differences between Luxemburg and Lenin over the character of the working class and peasantry as “historical subjects,” differences that have been part of debates over revolutionary strategy since the founding of the international workers movement.
Those seeking social change in the world, Fung said, need to orient to “our South,” referring to radical political currents and governments today in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America.
A panelist invited to speak on the Russian Revolution’s impact in Latin America was unable to attend at the last minute, so Isabel Monal took up that theme as she introduced other speakers.
October Revolution: a beacon“A central part of Lenin’s work was the effort to spread Marxism and communist ideas throughout the world,” Monal said. “And the October Revolution was a beacon for all of Latin America, for the revolutionary popular movements that swept the continent in the 1920s.”
During the discussion, Rubén Zardoya, a University of Havana professor who also works at the Center for Hemispheric and U.S. Studies, spoke about Lenin’s political leadership in the first five years after the revolution’s victory. Workers and peasants took power in October 1917 in a country with a relatively low level of economic development, Zardoya said. Lenin charted a course to broaden access to culture in order to strengthen working people in the fight to transform social and economic relations.
Zardoya urged participants to read Lenin’s 1922-23 speeches and writings on these questions in the book Lenin’s Final Fight, published by Pathfinder Press. Several years ago Zardoya, who was then rector of the University of Havana, invited communists from the U.S. and other countries to present that and other Pathfinder books to students there.
Martín Koppel, part of a group of communist workers from the Socialist Workers Party and other countries who volunteered to staff the Pathfinder stand at the book fair, spoke about the watershed the October Revolution represented for the working-class movement in the United States. During its early years the U.S. Communist Party led strikes, defense campaigns, and other workers struggles, he said.
Koppel pointed to The First Ten Years of American Communism by James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the Communist Party and later the Socialist Workers Party. Cannon explains the decisive lessons the young CP learned from the Bolshevik leaders of the Communist International, including the necessity for the party to shed its underground existence and to champion the struggles by African-Americans against racist discrimination and for national self-determination. After the panel discussion, several participants bought copies of that Pathfinder book as well as Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power by Jack Barnes, which also takes up these questions.
Can’t ignore class struggleIn her remarks on Latin America, Monal pointed to political developments in Brazil, Venezuela, and other countries in recent years with governments claiming to represent working people.
“One of the big mistakes is that in a number of countries, movements leading these processes threw the class struggle out the window,” she said. “How can you understand the world if you don’t see social classes and the class struggle? Sometimes you have to make alliances with reformist groups on joint projects, but you can’t have too many illusions in them.” The result is that little is done to meet the needs of the working population.
Monal said she had been in Brazil when big demonstrations were held demanding improvements in health care and other urgent needs. The government later claimed credit for reforms, but the people knew these measures had been carried out “because they went into the streets to demand them.”
Today there’s a counteroffensive by the right and by imperialism against these governments, Monal said. “And nobody should be surprised they’re making gains. … When the counteroffensive begins, the masses of people don’t take to the streets against it, because the governments promised and could have done a number of things but didn’t do them.”
Monal recalled that as a young woman during the first years of the Cuban Revolution, she had read the account of the Bolshevik-led insurrection in Ten Days That Shook the World. “The book had a huge impact on me,” she said. What is describes “remains relevant for today. And it has a special relevance given the conditions in Latin America today.”
Lenin, Fidel and the role of the individual in history
Socialist revolutions in Russia and Cuba based on the liberating capacities of working people
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