Category Archives: Intelligentsia

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Tom Paine, Common Sense

here is a rather unfortunately amusing predicament a student of bourgeois revolutions will notice upon first foraying into online research databases for primary documents. The databases you frequent, and are in many cases forced to use, hold  a noticeable connection to modern libertarianism and whig liberalism. Revolutions of peasants and merchants are now revolutions of only ingenious merchants; of Locke and Hobbes, and not Lilburne or Winstanley. A professor and I were in one particularly odious case forced to print off John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (in which Milton defends tyrannicide and lampoons the historically stagnant) from the “Online Library of Liberty” (a collection of scholarly works on individual liberty and free markets, as the header proudly proclaims), much to our own perturbation.

One finds this elsewhere, as the popularly published and circulated history of the American revolution is extraordinarily conservative and deterministic with some notable exceptions such as Zinn and Linnbaugh, amongst others. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) stands proudly in Memphis, but there is only one statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States in a small New Jersey town. The peasant rebellions subsequent to the American victory are a mere footnote in history textbooks, only glossed over in most junior high and high school level history courses while the story of George Washington and an unlucky cherry tree endures in cultural memory (in spite of its relationship with truth).

Consistent with the bourgeoisie’s own narrative of its historical finality, the fire of the 17th and 18th centuries has been turned into a stone buttress holding up modern capitalist mythos of free enterprise and personal liberty. To such gentrified narratives, Milton’s Areopagitica is a treatise exclusively on modern freedom of speech and the press, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People is merely anticipatory of american radicalism, the Diggers are an insignificant minority, the English Revolution (sorry, the English Civil War) a battle to get rid of an ineffective and catalytic king (Russel), and the Ranters didn’t even exist at all!

The gentrification, or revision as author James Holstun calls it, of the bourgeois revolutions is a two-way street, however, with many leftists rejecting the revolutionary legacy of the English Revolution (for Cromwell and Ireland), the American Revolution (for slavery) and the French Revolution (for  the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon). Such an ideological decision plays into the hands of modern counterrevolutionaries who endeavor to appropriate revolutionary history.  The history of class struggle and warfare, even if the victors are the left’s contemporary enemies, is by right (not divine, of course) the area of Marxists and Marxist critics. There is no doubt that the bourgeois revolutions advanced through crippling dialectical contradictions (between liberty and slavery, for example), and Marxists must never let bourgeois theory escape from these historically objective contradictions. Such an activity, however, requires an appreciation of the movement of these revolutions down class lines and their ultimate failure to fufill their most radical goals; requiring mass repressions of radical peasants and workers in each case.

At the heart of historically highlighting the bourgeois revolutions is the central thesis of a modern Marxist approach – revolutions are what change history. Mass movements of people, not singular heads of government, forge in the fire of violent upheaval the existing social order. The Bourgeois revolutions do not suggest the eternal triumph of the bourgeoisie, as many mainstream critics and historians have sought to prove through historical revision and post-modern diffusion, it is, instead, proof of the universality of class struggle; the power of the working classes, and the greater trend of humanity towards the democratization of production. To write off the bourgeois revolutions as historically necessary and inevitable is not only lazy Marxist analysis but it also silences the voices that actively fought against both feudalism and emergent capitalism. To ignore the struggles of peasants and workers in an era before developed capitalism and Marxism is to rob ourselves of a rich history and context for the establishment of our current struggles and dynamics. It is to chain Marxist analysis to the material conditions of the 19th century, an idea Michael Foucault and other post-modernists have endeavored to  establish for several decades; and an idea we must continue to oppose.

Let us then appropriate in this essay, as the bourgeois revolutionaries did in their revolutions, history. Just as Milton would highlight the democratic “nature” of the English people in Saxon times, let  us tell a history that leads to an understanding of these revolutions developed for many decades by Marxist historians across field and era. An understanding that renders the revolutions as a crucible where revolutionary anti-capitalist voices erupted from anti-royal struggles and were violently silenced by emergent capitalist states; revealing, in turn, the true nature of modern capitalist states and mythos.

Armed with Book and Lance: England and the Danger of Peasant Power

 “For the army are acted by their own principles; they are an army that  understands themselves.” -John Saltmarsh, A Letter from the Army, on the New Model Army

Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome of the bourgeois revolutions was the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the states that supported it. In England, in spite of the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme into Restoration England, orchestrating the dubiously titled “Glorious Revolution” when fears of James II tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in his recommendable book The Machiavellian Moment, a society where economic stability was tied to political stability, where stability was tied to the prosperity of all; a convenient ideological strand given the frightening upsurge of peasant consciousness and resistance during the interregnum.

There are two things of import in highlighting this ideological turn in the restoration era bourgeoisie in England. First, the feudal economic system was undone. No longer did a King hold the leash of a parliament, long, short or in between; parliament now held the leash of King and Queen; rather tightly, as the Glorious Revolution illustrates. Second, the economic stability of capitalist England was tied to political stability (read Pocock’s chapters “Court, Country and Standing Army” and “Virtue, Passion and Commerce”) to nurture the later blooming English fear of chaos caused by violent revolution, manifested in Alexander Pope’s rational exultation of inaction in his Essay on Man, Samuel Butler’s lampooning of puritan revolutionaries in his Hudibras, rabid anti-Jacobin tracts, and fearful early-Victorian tracts on continental upheaval (1848). Just what had happened in England during its revolution to elicit such fearful sentiments from the triumphant bourgeoisie and their culture? That, in our effort to render the bourgeois revolutions as class wars alight with ultimately snuffed out peasant consciousness, is worth answering.

The English Revolution is remarkable for its firstness in executing a king, and paradoxically, the revolution’s fairly conservative goals. The poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Milton (Marvell’s Horation Ode, Milton’s 16th Sonnet) reflect a deep anxiety with the violent revolution that killed 100,000 in a nation of five million. The political developments of the period (the Presbyterian parliament, the general unpopularity of the commonwealth government, and the ultimate betrayal of the military in the Restoration) show a keen conservative discomfort with what the revolution had uncovered; notably an English heritage of peasant revolt and consciousness, found politically in 1381 and even in literature in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The Commonwealth government, despite its enemies’ accusations, advocated itself for fairly conservative measures. Cromwell, and his fellow Grandees (landed gentry and other nobleman of the New Model Army, of which Cromwell was one, who opposed the agitators at Putney) advocated for very little past greater representation and parliamentary autonomy. That’s not to say, however, that radical and future-looking rebel voices didn’t emerge. In fact, the English Revolution is remarkable for the level of dialogue modern readers can find, be it through the Clarke Papers (which record, by quote, the Putney Debates) or the political tracts of Winstanley, Lilburne, Milton, Presbyters, Grandees, Fifth Monarchists and beyond, all of which survive to this day.

These tracts were read by an ever-diversifying populace. When John Milton was born in 1608, approximately 30% of the population in England could read, by the time he died, in 1688, nearly 50% of the society could read. What is the function of this change? Put simply, revolution and puritan egalitarianism (two connected concepts, no doubt), and what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere. Gone were the days of Latin texts read by only a handful of souls deciding the fate of an entire nation. In revolutionary England, working class New Model soldiers read and circulated texts, arguing with each other on points of organization, terror, and agitation. These texts, of course, were written in the vernacular. They were printed by the hundreds and thousands with ease. Political consciousness in peasants, women (see: Lucy Hutchenson, Anne Trapnell) and urban proletariat soared. Bibles were read by everyone in a pike battalion and everyone in a parish. The same anti-slavery verses that would so attract radical African slaves to the old testament worked unfiltered through the minds of revolutionary puritans via the Geneva Bible.

Of course, this consciousness and ideology wouldn’t be worth very much if it was not itself conscious of its own potential for realization. This potential was elicited, rather unwittingly, by the Grandee officers who gave the same peasants who had rebelled in 1381 pikes and muskets to do battle against the King. The New Model had, by its very own organization and revolution in military leadership and command, toppled one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. This experience, as James Holstien highlights with precision in his chapter “New Model Soviets” in his book Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of political, communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected there very own agitator to represent their interests. Agitators verbally acknowledge in the debates that they speak not for themselves but for their troops. This, fundamentally, was revolutionary democracy. Without the legitimacy of state and constitution, New Model soldiers struggled against what they saw as Grandee betrayal.

Predictably, Cromwell and Ireton (a frequently quoted Grandee from the Clarke Papers) responded to these agitator’s cries for universal suffrage with accusations of anarchism and banditry. Cromwell retorted to Rainsborough, the oft quoted agitator, by claiming, “No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but that the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy.” Ireton condemned the leveling ideology at the meeting by asking, “by what right may I not take your property?”

These responses to peasant power, in letter and musket, is anticipatory of the universal repressions of peasants and workers subsequent to each major bourgeois revolution. Critically, we see a keen tension between what the bourgeois revolutions produced as bi-product and what they were prepared to procure politically. Elevated consciousness in the peasants and the wars they were willing to wage to bring together ideal, both religious and political, and reality, posed a grave danger to the triumphant bourgeois state of England. It is for this reason that repressions occurred, and that even through restoration and glorious dynasty change, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme in England; in stability, profit, crushing urbanization, and growing inequality.

We must never silence the voices of these agitators because they are inconvenient to our analyses, both left and right. The bourgeois revolutions were not simply anti-feudal, inevitable struggles born of inherent contradiction, nor were they wars for universal freedom and liberty. In between lies a world of both Grandee and Agitator, where both parties battled, and the latter lost. This battle and its belligerents are not insignificant. In the battle, many aspects of modern bourgeois democracy and the mythos that supports it were forged. The martial metaphor, as will be elucidated, is apt indeed.

A Republic of Burned Letters

“-no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” -Ireton, Putney

The battles and its ultimate outcome is worth stopping upon, to illustrate how the failures of the bourgeois revolutions to meet their revolutionary ideals can be used as a catalyst in understanding the dominance and weaknesses of modern bourgeois mythos.

I had previously mentioned Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and highlighted then only the core and mostly well-respected movements of his theory; chiefly that in Early Modern Europe you see the emergence of a republic of letters (not his term, but a popularly used one) in which textual voices discoursed over vast geographical distance critical problems and issues in society, philosophy, and so on. What many Marxist critics notice upon reading Habermas (a Frankfurt Marxist himself) is that the idea is too glorified, that Habermas believes too strongly that this system actually worked in any measurable amount.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere (obviously, having used the concept previously), but I do agree with other critics that Habermas’ vision of it is too idealized. The public sphere functioned down class lines, and was, as alluded to above, working in a society where only half of the population knew to read and write. We must guard cautiously against dubiously claiming the public sphere was anything more than an inter-bourgeois mode of critique and debate. Clearly, as we will revisit and hash out below, many voices in emergent bourgeois society were crushed utterly and violently.

In England, many leveling New Model soldiers refused to go to war in Ireland, earning them jail and expulsion from the army. The Diggers, lead by Gerrard Winstanley, numbering only 50, were attacked by hired thugs of landed gentry (on whose land they lived on the outskirts of) and were eventually dissolved forcefully by Thomas Fairfax and Commonwealth soldiers, with their crops torn out, their hovels burned, and their common buildings torn to the ground. Radical preachers were thrown in prison by a parliament preaching religious freedom. Licensing of texts continued in spite of John Milton’s famous protestation Areopagitica. Perhaps most famously but least importantly, Christmas was cancelled due to peasant revelry and the associated sinning.

Clearly, this was a society much to John Milton’s liking; a society where a privileged, intellectual few men made the decisions for an entire nation, and not a society were millions discoursed on national policy free from repression. What we see in England is, as Pocock is right to trace, republican governance in the true Roman and Greek sense; as Vladimir Lenin was astute to point out, freedom for wealthy men, and not plebs, lest we find ourselves in tyranny (or anarchy, as Cromwell suggested at Putney). Indeed, this was, explicitly, what Milton and many other Commonwealth intellectuals (such as Marvell) advocated for. The rule of the rich was universally preferable to the rule of the emotional and chaotic “thralls” (as Milton called the working class in his Readie and Easie Way).

As many recent scholars have been right to point out, the American revolutionary generation inherited much from its English younger brother. Ben Franklin reflects in his autobiography reading Milton’s political tracts in his grandfather’s library. Tom Paine quotes Milton’s Satan in Common Sense, and Lilburne was widely read. Interestingly, the repression of emergent peasant radicalism was not transcended by a purely temporal shift forward (as a Whig historian might suggest). We see in the Whiskey Rebellion and more particularly Shay’s Rebellion, opposition to the failure of even the Constitutional (as opposed to the confederated) government to achieve the aims of revolutionary peasants and workers met with violent repression instead of an open republican hand or even a concession like the tribune or plebeian council.

In France we find an extremely similar story. The sans-culottes, essentially rioting urban proletariat, were originally used and championed by the Jacobins and their leader Maximilian Robespierre. It was the sans-culottes who most vigorously defended the “terror” against reactionaries and enemies. When Robespierre was executed himself and the Directorate rose to supremacy, the sans-culottes were repressed violently as remnants of a chaotic and tyrannical period. Those two words associated with peasant power should be familiar to you at this point. The offspring of Greco-Roman republicanism shared its deep fear of true democracy and the crucible of plebian control.

“The secret in freedom lies in educating the people, whereas the secret of tyranny is to keep them ignorant.” – Maximilien Robespierre

In total, studying the true, if often not recounted, nature of the bourgeois revolutions; in their deep fear of true democracy and in their brutal repression of emergent peasant power, we find a fruitful theoretical avenue for understanding the formation of modern bourgeois states and their mythos. A Marxist will be eager to use the simple fact that the bourgeois revolutionaries never attempted to provide true democracy or freedom. They never sought to hear the voices of every citizen, and this is flagrantly obvious with the tangential study of bourgeois repressions of peasant movements in each major revolution found above. In spite of capitalist mythos of unlimited freedom and a republic of letters, the history of the revolutions alone (to say nothing of imperialism) proves these to be completely false and even never explicitly desired by the founding fathers in each case.

Given what we have highlighted above, we must refute both whig and crude marxist renderings of the bourgeois revolutions that leave them a lifeless husk of nebulous progress and inevitability. What we find in a true study is quite the opposite – a period alight with bloodshed, rebellion, revolutionary discourses, and tyrannical bourgeois republicanism; where each tract and battle titled the scales of history. Critically, we find in the bourgeois revolutions as an almost unintentional bi-product the empowering of peasants past what the bourgeois leaders were comfortable with. We see peasants and urban proletariat waging war against capitalism as well as feudalism, and forming their own independent organizations with their own representatives.  Their voices are important for us now, in light of whig history coming from both left and right, we find in history that the contradictions of capitalism have not moved an inch. From 1640 to today, from Lilburne to Hampton, the bourgeoisie maintains its deep fear of a people’s tyranny, repressing violently any who would suggest something more; any who would suggest for true universality and not the universality of Rome and Athens, who would endeavor to fulfill the true promise of the revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. Such is the function of the bourgeois state from its inception as we have seen above, but in the history of its forging, what we have endeavored to reappropriate to the history of class struggle, we can find in their own deeds the means for procuring an end of true, universal “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic, American, American Revolution, Capitalism, Class, Class Conflict, Dialectics, Early Modern, English Civil War, France, History, Humanism, Imperialism, Intelligentsia, Marxism, Milton, Republic, Revolution, Whig

The Classroom of Revolution: The Revolutionary Cuban Intelligentsia’s History and Legacy

A truck used by student insurgents in their attack on the presidential palace in Havana, 1957.

The Cuban Revolution is a historical singularity; a revolution, unlike its socialist counterparts, that included a vast left-center coalition that resulted in the establishment of soviet-styled socialism (Wolf). Yet, the parts that made up that coalition, so critical for revolutionary success, did not vanish from Cuban Society nor did they simply appear in 1959.  The college students and the intelligentsia at large as a part of this coalition is worth stopping upon, as Education and its ease of access in Cuba is commonly highlighted as one of the most successful aspects of the historical Cuban Revolution and the revolution of today.

When I went to Cuba I intended to find the remnants and ancestors of those first college students from the early 20th century to the mid-20th century students that stormed Batista’s palace in Havana, and appraise in what relation these remnants interact with the Cuban Revolution of today. By studying (1) the historical role of the Cuban college students and greater intelligentsia in the revolution of 1959 and earlier oppositions movements, (2) and the dynamic of the University of Havana in Cuban revolutionary society a greater understanding of the relationship between past rebellion and present reform concerning the intelligentsia emerges. I found in my trip to Cuba that the intelligentsia remains detached yet critically engaged with Cuban socio-political life in a uniquely Cuban way, one that critiques the Communist Party but rejects North American hegemony and is desirous of true Cuban autonomy. It is my contention that this is a remnant of the historical presence of a critical yet skeptical opposition movement centered in the urban intelligentsia in Havana , that saw the necessity of revolution and at the same time remained ever critical of socialist policies.

The first era that I will highlight as important in the development of the Cuban Intelligentsia’s keen desire for self-determination is the period of the Platt Amendment’s domination (subsequent to the original Cuban Revolution of Marti), and the periods of disillusionment before and after the presidency of Gerardo Machado and Ramon Grau San Martin from 1925 to 1933. The revolutionary upswing of the turn of the 20th century is still remembered in the countless statues of Jose Marti throughout Havana. These revolutionary sentiments and victories were future looking but inherently chained to the occupying North American forces who entered Cuba in 1912 and 1917, to finally leave in 1923 (Sweig 13). Before the rise of Machado, author Julia Sweig highlights in her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, that, “Throughout the 1920s, public frustration and fervor grew pervasive among an ever wider swatch of Cubans. Intellectuals, labor activists, veterans of the Wars of Independence, and student movements all grew jaded by the failure of Cuba’s leaders to fulfill the idealism and potential of the independence movement itself” (Sweig 13). It is here that we see the first unique character of the Cuban intelligentsia that we see still today; a keen sense and desire for self determination. Sweig continues, “the liberal-democratic student movement remained not so much anti-American but anti-interventionist” (Sweig 14). This is a concept keenly reflected today in Cuba, were a desire for self-determination transcends any national rivalry, even in the case of the United States who has quite literally attacked Cuba from every side.

Author Eric Wolf would elucidate this point further in his chapter on Cuba in Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century; quoting the Cuban historian Herminio Portel Vila, who wrote, “The incendiary torch, the struggle the reconcentration camps, the defeat of the Spanish party, were preparing the future for a new Cuba when North American intervention re-established and consolidated the economic and social aspects of the destroyed regime, with all their political implications” (Vila 255). Wolf concludes, with the reader, “In this perspective, Cuban intellectuals long spoke of a ‘frustrated revolution,’ frustrated by the United States” (Wolf 255). Even before the disappointing presidency of Machado, the Cuban intelligentsia and student movements had developed anti-imperialism without the name – a desire to be free of the tyranny of the Platt Amendment and be at once free to self-create a state of their making. So we see that the Cuban intelligentsia and indeed the Cuban revolutionary movement had its roots in opposition to foreign occupation in the nationalist movement of Marti, made more concrete by the Platt Amendment  and Machado’s failure to free Cuba from US hegemonic control (Sweig 15). The impulse for self-determination  is one that is profoundly seen in Cuba today where reform is seen as necessary in the face of “Stalinist bureaucracy” as professor Antonio Romero Gomez (University of Havana) called it – the specter of reform is ever present but in a “Cuban way” as professor Rafael Betancourt (San Geronimo de la Havana) stressed so keenly in a lecture. This idea will be highlighted later in this article, but first we must move our historical narrative forward were disillusionment in the intelligentsia would become even more crystallized in the failed regime of San Martin and the rise of Fulgencio Batista.

Both during Machado’s reign and the short-lived regime of Grau San Martin, students at the University of Havana staged an occupation of the campus; demonstrating their power and fervent participation  in these opposition movements before the final triumph of 1959 (Wolf  267), and the fall of San Martin and the rise of Batista made concrete through synthesis the previously highlighted desire of the Cuban intelligentsia for self-determination and introduced another unique characteristic of the Cuban intelligentsia – a contentious relationship with the Cuban Communist Party before the revolution and its post-revolution reconstruction . In the “campus seizures” during Machado’s reign, the youthful communist party played a preeminent role but the CP would quickly oppose mass action in fear of an foreign intervention, oppose Grau and eventually actively support the Batista regime (Wolf 267). This tension between student unrest and CP policy mounted during the years of Grau’s fall and Batista’s rise, as the official communist party fell monumentally short of the revolutionary student’s ideals. Due to the communist party’s failure to either reconcile with student radicalism  or fully support Grau, Grau San Martin found himself attacked on all sides, by conservatives for his radicalism, by radicals for his liberalism (Sweig). It was perhaps for this reason that Grau San Martin lasted for so short a time, yet some of the socialist sources I have consulted on this period have over idealized the connection between the Communist Party and early student radicals.

Author Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada, and president of Cuba’s national assembly for many years wrote in an article “Cuba: Education and Revolution” found in the “Monthly Review” that during this period,

“Public education was a refuge for Cuban patriotism throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But during the U.S. domination of the island, either in a direct form or via repressive and corrupt U.S.-sponsored regimes, it was education that enabled the student movement and the best of Cuban intellectuals to resist. In fact, student movements and Cuban intellectuals participated decisively in the political and social struggles of the Cuban nation both during the long period of Spanish colonialism and U.S. hegemony, initiating and developing socialist and anti-imperialist thinking.”

While it is objectively true that the University of Havana did and continues to shelter opposition to the regime and offer an avenue for criticism in Cuban society, it is important to note that while socialist thought intermingled in the student radicalism of this period, as Wolf points out, there was a keen sense of separation between the radicalism of the students and the institutionalized leftist parties that self-labeled as socialist and this separation grew in the period of the fall of Grau San Martin, his ultimate return at the head of the Autenticos, the subsequent return of corruption in Havana and eventually the rise of Batista, the political “chameleon” (Swieg 19).

The emergence of violent radicalism in Cuba can be traced, as we have here, to two key problems in Cuban Society; (1) The Cuban Communist Party was a front for counterrevolutionary statesmanship and (2) elected liberal parties failed utterly to meet the expectations of the revolutionary intelligentsia in Havana. For these reasons the student movements against Batista became increasingly violent and increasingly threw their support behind the July 26th movement (not explicitly a socialist movement). Of import, the students of this period before the struggle against Batista were critical of the regime but skeptical of the Communist Party, a theme that remains today. So we see that each period beget the next, or at the very least, each period of student rebellion cast its shadow on the next; the revolutionary sentiment of  Marti leading to a desire for self-determination that ousted Machado under pressure from  the urban intelligentsia in Havana (Sweig) that intern lead to a disillusionment with institutionalized parties and leaders; leading the students of Havana to more radical means to their ends in the period of Batista – which was not unnoticed by the populist turned dictator.

The early 1950s marked the high-tide of student resistance to the Cuban regime, and much of this resistance was violent and radical in nature. Yet not all resistance was this way, as evidenced by the Orthodoxo Party, founded by Eduardo Chibas, himself a former student activist (Sweig 19) in opposition to yet another former student activist, Carlos Prio Socarres, standing President of Cuba and Autentico. Fidel Castro was originally a member of the Orthodoxos yet following Chibas suicide on public radio, the Autenticos turning the University of Havana into the capital of “political gangsterism” in Havana, and the ever present fear of the growing clout of the Orthodoxos and leftism in general, Batista launched a coup months before an election he was certain to lose (Sweig 19). This coup, as Sweig points out, made concrete the disillusionment with electoral systems in the face of such corruption and willing disrespect for the comparatively radical constitution drafted by the Batista regime but a decade earlier (in the coup of 1933). This frustration, rooted in the first failure of Grau and even the Platt Amendment of the early 20th century, came to a head in Havana when Batista subverted the electoral process. The year 1953, merely a year after Batista’s rise to power , proved violent and  radical. Fidel launched his attack on the Moncada Barracks and University of Havana professor Rafael Barcena lead a short-lived anti-Batista conspiracy (Sweig 28). Fidel and his rebels were banished, but revolutionary sparks met dry tinder in Havana in their absence. Tensions reached a fever pitch with the arrival of the Granma and the actions of the Revolutionary National Action group headed by Frank Pais, which, as Sweig points out, played a critical role in exporting Sierra socialism to the country entire in 1956.

In March of 1957, a group of clandestine students, members of the Revolutionary Directorate and future enemies of Fidel, stormed Batista’s presidential palace, the bullet-holes of the event still adorn the wall of the building. Ultimately the attack failed and its members defeated and killed, but the stunning success of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra both elevated Fidel’s power and inspired continued struggle (Wolf 271).  Keenly, the directorate’s leader, a student named Jose Echeverria was killed in a shootout at a radio station in a related assault. The directorate itself stands as a historical testament to the division of students and the intelligentsia on the subject of socialism, given the directorate’s staunch anti-communist approach that lead to their forceful dissolution and incorporation into the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba in 1961. It’s important to note, as Sweig does, that the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba was indeed a coercive attack on fractious student revolutionary movements, but it was also a move against the PSP that had backed Batista and was subservient to Moscow; as Fidel himself desired the unification of student groups under the tent of the CPC to allow for truly autonomous nation-building to begin in earnest (Sweig). So we see that ultimately the student revolutionary movements that moved in the era of Batista, notably the directorate, were indeed absorbed and dissolved, but their influence was a dialectical one, one that does not simply vanish when the institution of their ideological power vanishes. Put simply, Cuban society after the triumph of the cuban revolution retained much of the ideas that formed in the days of Marti, Machado and Grau, namely a desire to be truly autonomous, a deep skepticism of outside influence and to be skeptical of organized parties and ideologies including the PSP and future CPC. The influence of the intelligentsia, put differently, the purveying desire of the Cuban revolutionary movement to be autonomous, can be found in one final place, and that is in the very sailors of the Granma.

For socialist revolutionaries, Fidel and his fellow rebels aboard the Granma were keenly abstracted from the rural proletariat they endeavored to liberate. Eric Wolf makes note of this in his class analysis, but the fact is not lost in an analysis of the importance of the intelligentsia in the Cuban Revolution namely because Fidel was a member of the intelligentsia. Wolf remarks, “How did the rebel group galvanize the masses? The original core of the rebel force was composed primarily of what have been called “revolutionary intellectuals,” mostly middle-class origins. Some were students (Raul Castro, Faure Chomon), some lawyers, (Fidel, Dorticos), some doctors, some teachers (Frank Pais)…”(Wolf 269). Che Guevara himself went on to remark, “none of the first group who came on the Granma …had worker’s or peasant’s backgrounds” (Wolf 269). Wolf continues his analysis in saying that Fidel’s move to guerilla tactics after the catastrophe of the Granma’s original landing was keenly anti-Marxist, from a Leninist perspective. Here we see the role of the intelligentsia in action; socialist revolutionaries heeding not the words of Marx or Lenin (or his Muscovite successors) but the realities of their material conditions. So we see, not only was the revolution a conglomerate of revolutionary students, lumpen proletariat, proletariat, petty-bourgeois peasants and even bourgeois elements but also one that preserved the original revolutionary urge to attain autonomy in practice. These urges remain today, and I found that out profoundly upon visiting Havana and its university.

The University of Havana remains a center, as Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada remarked upon its historical role, of dissent and criticism for the regime. I learned about this role by simply being around it, hearing lectures from professors and talking to a few students and college-aged youths in the city of Havana. Dr. Antonio Romero Gomez of the Universities’ international economy department gave a lecture with a keen sense of both factors I have highlighted about the historical role of the intelligentsia in Cuban society.  Firstly Dr. Gomez highlighted the necessity of change in light of the special period and critiqued the lack of foresight in the planning of the Cuban Economy. When the crises occurred, Dr. Gomez and his colleagues had encouraged Fidel and the Communist Party to take immediate action (Gomez), but the CPC leadership for too long blamed the crises on external factors according to Dr. Gomez. Immediately I saw the relationship I had read about in action – the intelligentsia centered in Havana ever skeptical of party dialogue and urging for reform. Yet, this reform was not like that in Guatemala, Chile and others where national movements were crushed by foreign backed coups – the reform advocated for by Dr. Gomez was one intimately interested in Cuban sovereignty.

I found in my historical survey that such a motion was in line with over a hundred years of revolutionary development. The classroom of revolution had taught the Cuban intelligentsia much about reform, practicality and defending their autonomy. Admittedly, the perspective was historical and validated, but I remained skeptical that such reforms could occur while at the same time respecting their original tenants – mainly remaining autonomous and free from international monetary control. Indeed, a recent Reuters article declared that school enrollment had dropped 27% between 2008 and  2012 and that extensive cuts had been made to education spending (Reuters). I agreed with Dr. Gomez critique of the old system in a world without the Soviet Union, yet this point was something to stop on – had Cuba really achieved the autonomy it so desired during the period of its alliance with the Soviet Union? Dr. Gomez suggested not, given that the fact that imports decreased over 70% after the fall (Gomez) and planning had lacked the backwards and forwards linkages between industries with an over-focus on industry in the soviet-style. Perhaps, I pontificated, could this period after the special period produce a true autonomy of Cuban development devoid of a greater state’s influence? Could the reforms be the outcome of a historical process spanning back centuries, made possible by the revolution, but necessitating a new approach to reach? This idea was elucidated further by another professor.

Rafael Betancourt, himself a professor in Havana highlighted the victories of the revolution while in line with the long history of the intelligentsia in Havana critiquing the weaknesses of the bureaucratic system currently in place.  Having seen Dr. Gomez’ presentation previously, I went into Professor Betancourt’s presentation with the questions raised above in mind. Professor Betancourt highlighted in detail the Guidlines published in 2011 by the Communist Party on the new reforms, chief among them that the state will continue to own the main means of production while at the same time giving more autonomy to the private sector and also to state-run operations. Again the distrust of bureaucracy yet focus on making something of unique Cuban character was at the heart of the professor’s analysis. I remained skeptical, as the professor claimed that 7% growth for almost 30 years was necessary to stabilize the Cuban economy, and in an era of scarcity, growth every year will become impossible. That notwithstanding, Professor Betancourt stressed, as Dr. Gomez did, the necessity of change in a Cuban way. The analysis seemed universal in the Cuban Intelligentsia and Cuban society at large; change is necessary, but the Cuban people most come to it through consensus and mutual work, to come to their own synthesis of planned and private, in their own national way. I found, by surveying the historical struggle of the intelligentsia in Cuba that such a desire was an inevitable product of the political developments of the first half of the 20th century and into Cuba’s soviet-influenced, socialist transition.

Cuba was for me a place of socialist victory, my choice to go a sign of solidarity; and it is perhaps for this reason that their move away from socialist policies left me fearful for the future of the Cuban revolution’s gains. Yet by studying history and looking to the ancestors of those first professors and students who fought against the Platt Amendment a keen insight emerged about the revolution of 1958/9; its socialist character was crucial and influential, and from this base came an emergent quality of the revolution – the revolution had empowered all of the people of Cuba, the intelligentsia included. By studying the history of the student movements and their influence on the Cuban revolution at large and then offering two anecdotes on my experience with modern Cuban intellectuals at the University of Havana a greater understanding of the thread I am connecting between past revolution and current reform emerges. We should not be surprised that in the nation born out of student riots and Sierra idealists should continue to be a synthesis of these two competing yet irrevocably attached ideological threads. Cuban Socialism has, after all, been but one step in a long historical progression towards autonomy for Cuba manifested noticeably in the intelligentsia’s unending desire for it; and perhaps in time, history may “absolve” both  Fidel and his compatriots in their struggle for political autonomy and procure a future best fit for Cuba – at the decision of none other than Cubans themselves.

Works Cited:

Alarcon De Quesada, Ricardo. “Cuba: Education and Revolution.” Monthly Review. N.p., July-    Aug. 2011. Web. 25 July 2013.

Betancourt, Rafael. “Cuba in Transition: Towards a New Economic Model.” Colegio  Universitario San Gerónimo De La Habana, Havana. June  2013. Lecture.

Gomez, Antonio R. “Cuba: Economic Transformations and International Re-Insertion.”   University of Havana, Havana. June 2013. Lecture.

Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford UP,   2009. Print.

“With Cuts, Free Education Is No Longer a Cuban Birthright.” New York   Times. Reuters, 3 Oct.   2012. Web.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.    Print.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cuba, Cuban Revolution, Education, Intelligentsia, July 26th Movement, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Movements, Revolution, Socialism, Student, Uncategorized, University of Havana