Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bernie and Cuba

I was on Facebook for the first time in a week or more and a post by a friend caught my eye. It had a number of Sanders's main talking points about billionaires, inequality and so on, and one comment asked:

"Will he do anything about it? I think he wants to, but when all is said and done, he can't. The President is not an elected king or dictator, and the reason we call the big businessmen and financiers the 'ruling class' is because, well, they RULE. The fundamental problem with Sanders isn't Sanders the person, but the job to which he's applying, and the power structure in which that job is a part. The problem isn't the occupant of the White House, but the whole bloody economic system."

This is, of course, the classical anarchist position. If voting could change anything, these friends say, they would never allow it. Thus, anyone who runs for office (especially for president) or even votes is either a traitor to the working people or a useful idiot playing into the hands of the ruling class. I pretty much 200% agree with the first statement, but not with the second, as it has to do with how to convince people who still have the idea that voting really matters that in truth it doesn't.

Because if they want you to vote for Mussolini, they just run Hitler against him,. And if they want you to vote for the Republican candidate, the Frankenstein monster, then the Democrats pick as their standard bearer the creature from the "Alien" movies.

Don't believe me? Just go spend a few days studying closely Hillary Clinton's political history and current positions.

But the Russian Revolutionary who used the pen-name Lenin, and that's how history remembers him, had a different approach to the "all or nothing" position in relation to elections (and many other issues). He suggested instead identifying with what people are trying to do when they support a Bernie Sanders, in other words, with their intentions, which we all agree on, and over time having a dialogue that in essence amounts to, I'll go along with the way you're trying to do things although I'm not sure that it will work (or even, I'm sure it won't work, but I want you to see that the reason it didn't work wasn't that I and my friends worked against it, so we stepped aside).

But if your approach doesn't work, here are some alternatives to consider.

It is disappointing to see people criticizing Bernie Sanders by making the same point he is making --that one person, even the president, can't change things-- but doing so in such a way as to try to undermine his effort to bring working people together precisely to fight against ruling class domination.

I say it is disappointing because a revolution is not a moment but a movement. And such a movement does not emerge suddenly but is the result of complicated processes.

People who are effective in bringing about social and political change are those who immerse themselves in such movements and help them mature both by understanding where the movement is at today and --at least roughly-- where it will need to be in the future, and can thus propose some of the next steps in getting from here to there.

Even if you predict this specific effort around Bernie  Sanders  is bound to fall short, all experience shows that the least useful approach is to be sideline critics.

Look at the example of revolutionary change in our lifetimes (at least my lifetime) closest to the United States: Cuba.

Before heading the fight that overthrew the Batista dictatorship, there had been a very substantial pre-history to the current that by the late 1950s was led by Fidel Castro and his friends.

It is well know that Fidel had led the disastrous July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada barracks.

But before that he had helped organize the peaceful Jan. 27, 1953, March of the Torches commemorating the centennial of the birth of José Martí, Cuba's greatest national hero. Which was followed by savage police repression against the movement that was then known as "Youth of the Centennial" and whose followers carried out the Moncada attack.

Before that, Fidel Castro brought a lawsuit demanding Batista's March 10, 1952, coup be declared illegal and Batista removed as president. I'm sure tons of radicals were thinking, "What an idiot! He thinks some judge is going to say a military coup is illegal!"

And before that, Fidel Castro was a candidate for Congress for the anti-corruption Orthodox Party in the 1952 elections that Batista's coup prevented. "What a fool! Changing from the inside Cuba's ultra-corrupt political institutions? Sure."

And even if you say, well, Bernie Sanders is no Fidel Castro, it just so happens that Fidel Castro started out as a follower of radical clean-government reformer Eduardo Chibás, whose dramatic on-air suicide during a radio broadcast in 1951 galvanized a new generation of Cuban youth into action.

"Right. A national radio broadcast (before TV came to the country) with the top opposition leader saying, 'People of Cuba, wake up! This is my last warning!'  Followed by a gunshot.

"That works?"

And Chibás's Ortodoxos, in turn, had been inspired by and descended from the 1933 Revolution against the Machado dictatorship. From that uprising came the "Government of 100 Days" and its leading figure, Antonio Guiteras Holmes, born in Philadelphia in 1906 who grew up with stories of his uncle, a Cuban patriot who fell in the wars for independence, and his great uncle, an Irish patriot of the Young Ireland generation.

With this 26-year-old at its center, the 1933 100 days' government was a  revolutionary-nationalist government that was the first one to enact a minimum wage, the 8-hour day and and many other progressive measures in Cuba. Which is why it only lasted 100 days.

Guiteras's organization, Joven Cuba, fell apart after his assassination in 1935, but was a central inspiration in the founding of the anti-imperialist and anti-corruption Orthodox party 12 years later.

And, of course, the "generation of 1933" in Cuba was directly descended from and inspired by José Martí's Cuban Revolutionary Party and the fighters in the 1895-1898 war for independence that was cut short by the American intervention that turned Cuba into an American  colony in all but name until 1959.

The José Martí generation overlapped with that of the Ten Years' War, which began in 1868 for both independence and the abolition of slavery.

And Cuba's 1868 rebellion was in turn inspired by the crushing of the slave owner's rebellion in the United States (so-called "Civil War") and by anti-Monarchist movements in Spain.

But it is precisely because Cuba's struggle for nationhood arose not just as a political revolution (independence) but a socio-economic one (against slavery) that when the Cuban Revolution finally triumphed in 1959 it wasn't just about changing office-holders or political structures, but a profound social transformation.

*  *  *

A lot of history for a very short conclusion: social change is a process and it takes time; but how sweepingly social it is (as opposed to just narrowly electoral or political) depends a great deal on how it arises and develops along the way.

No one can know today how significant the social motion finding expression around Bernie Sanders will be in the long run. But with his attracting many thousands of people to his campaign rallies, without doubt it is one of the two or three most significant expressions of the interests of working and oppressed peoples in the United States today, alongside Not One More Deportation and Black Lives Matter.

Whether he is the right person to lead or at least symbolize the effort beyond these primaries, what role should the "Black lives matter" or "not one more deportation" movements play, whether the focus should be electoral or in the streets, pushing in an immediate way national changes, local changes or both, are among countless pending questions.

But the least productive way to address them is from the sidelines.

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