What does being a revolutionary mean? Students of Marxism know that the Social Democratic Party broke from its roots. The reformists, who from then on increasingly moved away from Marxist concepts, were left with the name, and revolutionaries created the Communist Party. The "reform or revolution" controversy has a long history.
There are the texts of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, among others.
But the definition, the revolutionary option, its practical reflection, is not exclusive to one party or social class, although, yes, it is exclusive to an era. The bourgeoisie was revolutionary in its time, and the anti-colonial movement in the era of imperialism, in general, took on a revolutionary character. José Martí created the Revolutionary Party to win the independence of Cuba, and he talked about the necessary revolution that would need to be initiated once power was achieved.
I would therefore like to refer to the Cuban tradition of the term. Cintio Vitier, for example, assuming the reductionist risks, establishes two "spiritualist" tendencies to define any grouping in the last third of the 19th century: the revolutionary (Independentism, literary modernism, anti-evolutionism) and the reformist (Autonomism, literary preceptism, positivist evolutionism.)
Certainly, Revolution is Creation, a leap into the abyss, or over the wall of apparent impossibility - "Let us be realists, let us do the impossible," the Paris students of 68 said - the view of a condor, but above all, taking sides with the "poor of the earth." If we take José Martí as our model of a revolutionary, we observe in him three characteristics that are repeated in Fidel Castro.
1. The ethical choice before the theoretical: a theory is adopted in order to struggle against exploitation and not the reverse. It is a vocation for social justice. Martí wrote, "Every true man must feel on his own cheek a blow to the cheek of any other man." Ernesto Che Guevara asserted, "The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." Fidel has said, "It is precisely man, fellow man, the liberation of one's fellows that is the goal of revolutionaries." The revolutionary Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton mocked the snobbish positions of "café latte Marxists" in these verses, "Those who/in the best of cases/want to make the revolution/for History/ for logic/for science and nature/for next year's book or those of the future/to win the debate and even/ to finally appear in the papers/and not simply/to eliminate hunger/to eliminate the exploitation of the exploited."
There are revolutionaries who do not know Marxist theory. And there are Marxist academics who are very knowledgeable of every text, every phrase of Marx, but have never gone out onto the streets, who are incapable of feeling, of trembling, with the pain or joy of others, who do not take sides. These academic "Marxists" are not revolutionaries. Nor are they the continuators of Marx. One of the springboards and agents of a Revolution is solidarity.
2. Radicalism in understanding and in action; the revolutionary seeks the root of a problem, even when it cannot be extirpated immediately, even when one errs in pointing it out and moves rapidly into action. Unlike the reformist, the revolutionary makes no effort to mitigate or cover up the pain, but rather to eliminate the illness.
3. The revolutionary is a person of faith. Not in the religious sense. There is no better statement on this than the one Martí (once again) made to his son, in the dedication of Ismaelillo: I have, he wrote, "Faith in human improvement, in future life, in the utility of virtue, and in you" - faith in people, in their capacities. The revolutionary understands the apparent limits of the possible, and breaks through them, because of faith in the people. In this, a revolutionary differs from a reformist, who for reasons of class does not trust the people, or underestimates them. Believing is not eliminating doubt. We revolutionaries live anguished by doubt, which is that of knowledge. The cynic, however, is counterrevolutionary, although he may not know it.
Some ideologues of the counterrevolution reduce a revolutionary attitude to violent action, the taking up of arms. As if armed revolutions do not occur in response to the violence of bourgeois power. Being radical - going to the root - is not choosing violence. In their rush to depoliticize even the most minimal concept of revolution, these types attempt to pass off as revolutionary actions violent revolts by politicos of the pseudo-republic, who wanted to assert their personal power. Not even all those who opposed Machado or Batista were necessarily revolutionaries.
And they counterpoise revolutionary socialism to that which they call "democratic" (social democratic), because the first does not respect bourgeois order. Socialism can not only be, but must be democratic, although not in the sense which the capitalist system gives the term. It must, and can be more participative, more inclusive, more representative, and show more solidarity. It must and can defend individuality, but not individualism, because socialism is the only route which can transform the masses into a collective of individuals.
Several qualities or ethical virtues constitute the foundation or base upon which a revolutionary stands. But it is an essentially political, social ethic, not private or one that is useless, or like those ethical virtues that serve to empty oneself, to remove oneself from the fundamental contradictions of the era. It is not revolutionary in terms of personal interests, but with regards to society.
There are people who are conservative - for biographical reasons, maybe even for genetic reasons - who avoid abrupt changes, the uncertainty of the new, who enjoy order and routine.
They are not counterrevolutionaries. In his "Words to intellectuals" (1961), Fidel Castro said, "No one has ever assumed that … all honest men must be revolutionaries, just because they are honest. Being a revolutionary is also an attitude toward life, being a revolutionary is an attitude toward existing reality…" And he added later on, "It is possible that men and women who have a truly revolutionary attitude toward reality may not constitute a majority of the population; revolutionaries are the vanguard of the people, but revolutionaries must aspire to having all the people march along with them … the Revolution must never renounce having the majority of the people; of having not only revolutionaries, but all honest citizens with the Revolution, although they may not be revolutionaries, that is, although they may not have a revolutionary attitude toward life. The Revolution must only renounce those who are incorrigibly reactionary, who are incorrigibly counterrevolutionary
Where a Revolution has triumphed, the adjective - which in the globalized world of bourgeois officialdom is used as an insult - becomes a compliment. A person is hard-working, "good people," and revolutionary. The everyday use of the term may de-contextualize the rebellious substrate and its political meaning, reducing the characteristics of a revolutionary to honesty and decency.
At times, given that the Revolution has taken power, the term is identified with good or correct behavior. We say, "Deep down, he/she is a revolutionary," as if we were saying, "Beyond appearances, he/she is a good person." And we believe that the "most revolutionary" child or youth is the one who behaves. In a certain way, the adjective has become bourgeois. This appears almost inevitable, but it is not: a revolution in power needs to establish its "new normal," its ability to govern.
Defending one's political power is a basic premise of any political power, more so when it is a counter-power encircled by a world power, which not only harasses it on the physical plane (materially, militarily), but also spiritually, in the arena of passing on values, and its normality is an "anomaly" beyond its geographic borders.
Being revolutionary is participating in the consolidation of the revolutionary government, establishing a common front with this government, to defend every conquest and establish new goals, even when the degree of participation in the determination of these objectives is not as yet sufficient, or is exercised in a formal manner.
Socialist democracy, essentially superior, still has a long way to go. Being revolutionary is participating with a perspective of committed criticism. Criticizing is not reporting a known fact; it is acting on it, pushing toward its solution. What gives a criticism veracity and fairness is not that it is vocalized; but rather its meaning. If criticism is depoliticized, it is gutted, and its content is falsified.
Imperceptibly a slow process of separation occurs, the removal of the "rebel" content which a revolutionary attitude always presupposes. This is not good. Rebellion is then taken up and counterpoised to being revolutionary - a longstanding aspiration of imperialist subversion: promote anti-revolutionary rebellion, which is to say, the rebels are anti-rebels, who aspire to be "normal," opposed to rebellion, and in agreement with global alienation - or in an antithesis, there are those who believe that the rebel is the true revolutionary.
These latter can lose their sense of direction, because rebellion alone, regularly manipulated by the capitalist market, has a long history of coexistence, and at times collusion, with capitalism. Youthful rebellion is not, and cannot be, the enemy of a revolutionary spirit. Being revolutionary is the highest form of rebellion. Without the nonconformity that rebellion produces, and its propensity for breaking the mold, norms, and frameworks, it is difficult to be a revolutionary.
Cuban universities cannot be "of and for revolutionaries;" they are training centers and, yes, they must train revolutionaries. From their classrooms, Mella and Fidel emerged. Capitalism (the culture of having) attempts to tame rebellion by promoting its primary expressions: contempt, irreverence. It attempts to isolate the rebel, encouraging self-absorption, exploiting individualism to the maximum, transforming the rebel into a cynic. Socialism (the culture of being) attempts to channel this rebellion toward transformative action, giving it capital letters, making it part of the era's most just causes.
I lived in the Central Havana neighborhood of Colón, and I know that many people in that area must confront more concrete, close-at-hand enemies than U.S. imperialism, at least this appears to be the case, when corruption, bureaucracy, double standards, insensitivity, the "save yourself if you can" attitude, hold sway. I believe, as they do, that this is the principal enemy.
But we cannot be confused as to its name: this is about capitalism, of its capacity to regenerate within socialism, which is nothing more than a route (not a point of arrival) to another place, to another hope or assurance of a better life. If we detach this name from these manifestations, or we erroneously link them to the socialist road we have taken, we could lose our way. We cannot be revolutionaries today, in this globalized world, if we are not anti-capitalist; if we are not anti-imperialist; if we do not feel the conquests, the dangers, the humiliations of other peoples as our own; if we do not defend the unity of Cuban revolutionaries and that of the peoples of Latin America in the face of imperialism.
We cannot be revolutionaries if we think that the world has the breadth or length of a street, of a neighborhood, or a country; if we accept the consensus others have constructed, and do not construct our own; if we empty every word from our texts of struggle, because they will be immediately filled with other content by those fighting us.
Martí, Mella, Guiteras, Che, Fidel, are too much alike for us to invent the issue of generational rifts. They have not ceased to be young. Tasks change, the coordinates change, but not the attitudes, the principles, the horizon toward which we always advance without arriving.
On the other hand, no one becomes a revolutionary once and for all.
One must be reborn as a revolutionary every morning, every day. Roles are not predetermined or immutable: the hero of 1868 could became a traitor 20 years later; the person who was indecisive at that time, perhaps took up arms with dignity in 1895; the valiant independence fighter may have allowed himself to be seduced by corrupting neocolonial politics; the energetic opponent of Machado could become disillusioned with the ideals of his youth or become an instrument of violence; the revolutionary of the Sierra or the city could accommodate or be caught up in the web of bureaucratism; the skeptic of those days could become a fervent militia member, an everyday, invisible hero; the student leader trapped in good behavior and applause, could become a repeater of empty slogans; and the perennial rebel can continue growing to become truly revolutionary.
Disguised among one or another of these are the opportunists, the “pragmatic” cynics of all times. History is besieging them, and of their multiple actions, all that will last is the instant of fundamental morality which sustains the homeland: “this sun of the moral world,” which illuminates and defines human beings, according to the phrase Cintio recovered from José de la Luz y Caballero. A homeland which is humanity, which is not the “grass upon which our feet tred,” or in some always-evolving customs, but rather a collective project of justice. A homeland which aspires to merge with humanity, and which in the meantime defends its space to forge, to create, to protect the full dignity of its men and women.
[Enrique Ubieta Gomez is a Cuban essayist and researcher.]