Revolutionaries Who Fall Short
It’s been a summer of reading (and walking, see photos!) for me, and now that autumn is here and the usual schedule of Shaping San Francisco Tours and Talks is starting, along with teaching weekly at the Art Institute, my time is shrinking. I still have a lot of time compared to most people so I’m not complaining (and I’m still reading a lot, but less). Anyway, this blog post is less of my writing and more from one of the books I read, which is a must-read for anyone still harboring fantasies that Fidel Castro is a great revolutionary.
I say this knowing that many people, even a fair number of friends, are ardent defenders of Castro, of the Cuban Revolution (which they unfortunately conflate), and the many movements that have claimed Castro as an inspiration or icon for their own efforts at “national liberation” (whether Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, or the FMLN in El Salvador or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua). I am not attacking the people in these various places, not in Cuba or anywhere else, since it’s the rank and file activists who ultimately are the most betrayed by authoritarian party structures created by the various left-wing organizations in the name of revolution. Frequently, starting with Cuba, the argument is made that the United States directly or indirectly has forced these movements to become rigid top-down hierarchies, to center their organizations on a military logic, and to slavishly copy the worst of the old Soviet Union or Chinese Communist Party which in practical terms meant the brutal repression of all liberatory currents not under their tight control (in addition to the more obvious reactionary social groups that also exist in these countries).
I also read a longer book called The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón by Claudio Lomnitz, which is a beautifully composed look at the forgotten role of the Partido Liberal Mexicana (PLM) from 1906 to the eventual revolution overthrowing decades-long dictator Porfirio Díaz, with a detailed account of how its original leading role was marginalized by other leaders and groups in Mexico in part because the PLM leaders chose to stay in Los Angeles to carry on their publishing beyond the reach of the Mexican authorities. Lomnitz does a great job of capturing the cross-border ferment between the U.S. and Mexico, where the revolutionaries grouped together in the PLM organized and published their journal Regeneración. Moving around in the U.S. the Mexican revolutionaries worked closely with a growing group of U.S. radicals, including Wobblies and famed Los Angeles attorney and socialist Job Harriman. Ricardo Flores Magón was the chief theoretician of the self-proclaimed Junta, along with his brother Enrique Flores Magón. Antonio I. Villarreal, Librado Rivera, and Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara, but others played important roles too, notably various American radicals such as William Owen, Elizabeth Trowbridge and John Kenneth Turner (author of the 1907 blockbuster Barbarous Mexico which in classic muckraking journalism exposed widespread slavery in the Yucatan and Oaxaca).
By the time Magón and his colleagues were out of jail their writings had abandoned any pretense of being merely “liberal” or even “socialist” and they had come out as full-blown anarcho-syndicalists. My old partner Chaz Bufe helped produce Dreams of Freedom: A Ricardo Flores Magón Reader (published by AK Press) and in it you can find a fantastic collection of his writings from this lost period of North American revolutionary ferment. Remarkably, once the revolution was underway in Mexico, while Francisco Madero was winning his way towards the overthrow of Diaz (prior to his own assassination), the one military success of the long-time revolutionary agitators of the PLM was the Battle of Mexicali where a combined force of PLM militants and U.S.-based wobblies controlled Baja California for a few months. Lomnitz’s book illustrates clearly how important the Magonistas were at framing the impetus for revolution, but also how their own ideological and personal squabbles combined with a ferocious repression by the U.S. authorities rendered them ultimately impotent in the course of events in Mexico. Imagine being alive at the beginning of 1911 and hearing that Mexicali, a town where 80% of the merchants were U.S. citizens and a new canal had just been built to bring Colorado River water to California’s Imperial Valley just north of the border, had been seized by revolutionaries! In fact the combatants were a diverse bunch, “Mexicans and Americans, Liberals and Wobblies, Indians and ranchers, ideologically driven revolutionaries and privateers.” While the Liberals spent a couple of months in Mexicali their troops fractured between different military leaders and many eventually supported an American who had been in the Spanish-American War and was a Wobbly. During these chaotic months the Hearst press in California headlined its enthusiasm for annexing Mexico, or at least Baja, and the presence of so many non-Mexican combatants undermined the original success of the PLM’s efforts there. The Mexican revolution is such a complicated story that goes on for more than a decade. I knew before I started this book that I didn’t understand it very well, and Lomnitz shined a bright light on an important part of the story that I knew little about. If you’re interested in the real story of the Magonistas and the cross-border revolutionaries of the pre-WWI period, this is a great book to start with.
Flashing forward to perhaps the other most iconic revolution of the 20th century in Latin America, we come to Cuba. Carlos Franqui was one of the key insider revolutionaries in Cuba in the 1940s, 50s, and early 1960s. He was the editor of the underground and then above-ground newspaper Revolución, before it was closed by the Cuban government in late 1963. He published an exhaustive account of the Cuban Revolution in Diary of the Cuban Revolution based on the documents he collected, and the diaries and memoirs of a dozen other key participants. In 1981 he published Family Portrait with Fidel which is what I am excerpting here. The bulk of this excerpt appears near the end of the book in an account of a confrontation Franqui had with Raúl Castro and other Communist leaders at a cocktail party in early 1964 after his newspaper was already closed and his editorship was over, just prior to his final departure from Cuba.
January 2, 1964
The reception went on and on. The drinks flowed, and there was anything you could think of to eat. And cigars—the palace was filled with smoke. At about 11 p.m. Fidel left. His right hand was swollen from so much handshaking, his beady eyes were shining; he had enjoyed himself because he was surrounded by ass-kissers. Then an assistant to President Dorticós politely—all too politely—asked me to step into the presidential office. Dorticós was Fidel’s thermometer. If you were in Fidel’s good graces, you would know it because Dorticós would treat you well; if not, he wouldn’t know you. I suspected something was up, and when I went in, I found quite a rogues’ gallery: Dorticós, Che Guevara, Faure Chomón, Vilma Espín, Aleida March de Guevara, Oscar López; Flavio Bravo, Alfredo Guevara, Raúl Castro (the Prague group); and mixed bag of comandantes, ministers, captains, and doctors.
Raúl, more than a little drunk, greeted me: “Whadya say, Accatone?”—an allusion to Pasolini’s film about a pimp. I simply asked Raúl if he had bothered to look at his own face in a mirror lately, at which he became livid. Che tried to calm us down by passing from Pasolini to Fellini—Italian movies were all the rage at the time—and Dorticós picked up his lead.
(To me:) “You must like Italian films.”
“Sure, especially La Dolce Vita, added Raúl (also to me).
“Yeah, I like La Dolce Vita, but Fellini’s, not the one you see hanging around palaces.”
Raúl jumped in with: “We know you’re working for the Chinese, that you’re pro-Chinese. You’re running that magazine the Chinese finance in Paris.” (This was the magazine, Revolución, that Jacques Verges was editing. I hadn’t seen either Verges or his magazine, so I could say nothing.)
“Look, Raúl, I admire the Chinese Revolution for lots of reasons, one of them being that the Chinese have tried to get clear of the Russian model.”
Then Raúl really surprised me. “Che works on that magazine, too,” he said. “He’s pro-Chinese. And you’re anti-Soviet. You’ve said as much right here.” He was accusing me, and I had the feeling that this was some kind of trial. But was Che also on trial?
Che and Raúl were good friends in the early days of the war, but they drifted apart during the times of heavy Party politics, when Che began to criticize the Soviet system and the Czechs, who had sold us the junk they couldn’t use. Che said nothing; he only stood there grinning ironically. I kept wondering what they wanted from me—I was nothing—until I realized that my physical presence was what bothered them. They wanted me gone.
“You’re an anti-Soviet,” Raúl repeated.
“Look, Raúl, if the Russians really were Soviets, I would be with them. The Party liquidated the Soviets right off the bat. Your problem is that you think that bureaucracy and Soviet mean the same thing. The other thing is that you love Stalin, the man who was the enemy of the people, the new czar who killed thousands of Bolsheviks and millions of innocent people.”
Raúl shouted me down: “Nobody offends Stalin when I’m around!”
“Really? Listen, Raúl, when I was in Moscow the first time I called him a motherfucker right in his mausoleum in front of the Russians themselves. I’ll do it again for you, right here, if you like.” Now he went crazy, foaming at the mouth, shouting his head off.
Dorticós, ever the clever lawyer, stepped in. “This gentleman is a Trotskyite,” he said. I denied it, but added that he could call me anti-Stalinist anytime he liked. I went on to say that I never kept my feelings secret, as did some persons I could mention, and that I had told Fidel himself how I felt about Stalin, power, bureaucracy, and repression in the Miguel Schultz Prison. I would be glad, I said, to talk about the invasion and occupation of Poland, Budapest, and Prague if they cared to.
“Well, suppose we put you up against the wall? History would absolve us,” said Raúl.
“History absolved us when we rose up against Batista, but now that you’re in power and can kill like a Batista, you’ll find that you’ll be condemning yourself, just as Batista did. So save your threats,” I answered.
“I’ll shoot you right here and now!”
I ripped open my shirt and shouted, “Start shooting if you know how!” (Don’t think I didn’t see the comic side of all this histrionic bullshit. But I was having fun.)
Then Raúl calmed down and asked me what I thought of the attack on the presidential palace. Now Faure Chomón, the leader of that attack, was right there, so I figured this one was going against him, too.
“I think, Raúl, that was an act of extraordinary bravery, the most revolutionary act in the history of Havana. From a Marxist point of view”—and this I said in an ironic tone—”it was the act that stirred the consciousness of the masses in the capital and shook the dictatorship right down to its very foundation.” Then I told Raúl that on March 13 I was being tortured in the Bureau of Investigations and that Mariano Faget, one of Batista’s assassins, had asked me the very same question. He thought I had been in on the attack—which I hadn’t; it had been the Directorio, not the 26 July Movement, that had mounted the assault. The only reason Faget hadn’t killed me was that when the colonel in charge of killing prisoners at the Bureau called the palace for instructions, Luis Gómez Wangüemert had answered the phone and told him that Batista was dead and that the Directorio had taken over.
Poor Chomón was as silent as a mouse; the same man who had had the guts to attack Batista’s palace couldn’t say a word now. He wasn’t going to fall for one of Raúl’s provocations. Now I began to feel ridiculous. Then Aleida March said she was leaving because she didn’t like to see people ganged up on like that. Dorticós tried his Trotsky ploy one more time, so I turned to him and said, “This isn’t my first violent argument with Raúl, but I have no intention of arguing with people like you, who were not even in on the revolution.” His jowls began to tremble, and that reminded me of Camilo Cienfuegos’s laughter when he talked about people like Dorticós or Augusto Martínez Sánchez and their trembling jowls when they were afraid.
Dorticós, white with rage, fell into rhetoric. “You, sir, are offending the office of the presidency.”
“The only person being offended here is me” was my answer.
I finally left. A car pulled up alongside me, and I figured I would be arrested. But no, they gave me a ride to L and Twenty-third streets. I went to the Habana-Libre and ran into some foreign writers and journalists.
I was nervous and needed a walk. I went down to the old tropical market, but it didn’t exist any more. No more fish. No more fruit. No more flowers. Where was it all? The socialist market was empty, bureaucratic, and ugly. The whole city was becoming Haitianized. You now saw chickens and turkeys in coops on balconies; there were vegetable gardens wherever there was some open land. Once upon a time only the Chinese had these minigardens; now everyone did. The salt in the air was destroying the walls of the houses because no one bothered to paint any more. It was early in the day, and the first lines had already formed, people looking for bread or for the cup of coffee they would never find. No neon signs, no lights, fewer cars than I had remembered. Buses were now a rarity, and taxis were impossible to find. Women came carrying pails of water.
As day dawned, it dawned on me that I was in real danger. In my mind’s eye, I could see the past like film. I reviewed it all and found no way out of what I had done, no way out of where I was. I should have thought things over when we came down from the mountains into Santiago at the beginning of January in 1959. Fidel said he would miss the war. I knew I wouldn’t, but I knew I would miss something else—the future I had fought for. Everything was different, but nothing had changed. Only the power had changed hands. The people still had to work and obey.
I was just reading an article in the Brazilian press a week ago attacking the rise of Marina Silva, the candidate who ran in 2010 and galvanized the urban intelligentsia, the ecologically minded, and the young. Now she’s running for president in Brazil with a coterie of mainstream economists advising her, and has become a pole of attraction for anyone fed up with years of Workers Party (PT) rule there. Polls put her into the runoff and give her a good chance of beating the incumbent Dilma Rousseff (PT) in the October election. The article I was reading was attacking her as the face of Brazil’s New Right and the tool of a conservative restoration. No doubt she is not perfect. As an avid Pentacostalist we can wonder about how her Christian fundamentalism will influence her politics. She has already withdrawn her previously stated support for Gay Marriage because of the objections of her religious advisors (though she also promulgated a several-page long manifesto which was strong on gay rights and rights for transsexuals in general). But the language in the article comes to mind here, because it is reminiscent of the language of Communists throughout the 20th century, denouncing anyone who deviates from the party line as a the enemy. There’s no room for a candidate who combines politics in ways that escape the left-right paradigm as inherited from the 20th century. This is not to say that I know Silva’s trajectory that well, or that I would put my trust in her to break with the dictatorship of Capital in Brazil. But the idea that a progressive voter in Brazil is duty-bound to support the tired, corrupt regime of the Workers’ Party just because of where it started decades ago and what it claims to stand for (even while imposing widespread neoliberal reforms on the country), is simply the worst kind of ideological bullying. Such bullying was effective for all too long and still controls way too many people who claim to be for a radically different way of life. The Left as we have experienced it has not changed life, only the leaders. The basic structures remain largely the same, or in some cases such as Cuba—or the Soviet Union that inspired its choices—worse.