The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 8           February 28, 2005  
‘We are heirs of the world’s revolutions’
Talk by Pathfinder Press president at Havana
launching of pamphlet by Thomas Sankara
Below is the talk Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press, gave February 10 at the Havana International Book Fair during the launching of the Spanish-language translation of We Are Heirs of the World’s Revolutions by Thomas Sankara. At the meeting, Waters, who is also editor of the New International magazine, presented issue no. 13 of the Marxist journal.

On behalf of Pathfinder Press, a thank you to everyone who is with us here today to participate in this presentation. Above all, a special note of appreciation to compañero Ulises [Estrada], compañero [Manuel] Agramonte, and compañero [Armando] Hart.

We Are Heirs of the World’s Revolutions by Thomas Sankara, the leader of Burkina Faso’s popular revolutionary government from 1983 to 1987, was published by Pathfinder Press in French and then English some three years ago. The publication of Somos herederos de las revoluciones del mundo means that now, for the first time ever, some of Sankara’s most important speeches are also available in Spanish. It is a powerful new weapon in the hands of those fighting to advance along the road first charted in the Communist Manifesto more than 150 years ago by Marx and Engels and their comrades.

The imperialist rulers are miniaturizing powerful weapons. As you can see here, so can we!

In October 1984, adopting a practice employed so effectively by Fidel [Castro] and Che [Guevara] before him, Thomas Sankara used the platform of the United Nations General Assembly to speak for and on behalf of the oppressed and exploited of the world. “I am here to bring you fraternal greetings from a country…whose seven million children, women, and men refuse henceforth to die from ignorance, hunger, and thirst,” Sankara told the assembled delegates of 159 nations.

“I make no claim to set forth doctrines here. I am neither messiah nor prophet. I possess no truths. My goal is…to speak on behalf of my people…to speak for the great, disinherited people of the earth so disparagingly named the Third World. I wish to explain the reasons for our revolt, even though I may not succeed in making you understand them.”

Sankara voiced the determination and dignity of the people of one of the poorest countries of imperialist-ravaged Africa—one that then had the highest infant mortality rate in the world, an illiteracy rate approaching 98 percent, and an average life expectancy of 40 years. He reached out to, and spoke on behalf of, all those the world over who refuse to accept the economic bondage of class society and its consequences, including ecological devastation, social disintegration, racism, and the wars of conquest and plunder inevitably and lawfully wrought by the workings of capitalism itself. Sankara knew such conditions are not “natural” phenomena, but the products of today’s imperialist world order.  
Revolutionary capacities
That world order, Sankara explained, can be fought, and must be destroyed. What marked him above all was his confidence in the revolutionary capacities of ordinary human beings to accomplish this. Like Fidel and Che, Sankara believed in the men and women so arrogantly dismissed by the rulers of the imperialist world. He did not think that man is “an incorrigible little animal, capable of advancing only if you feed him grass or tempt him with a carrot or whip him with a stick.” As Fidel so memorably said of Che, Sankara knew that anyone who thinks like that “will never be a revolutionary, never be a socialist, never be a communist.”

Sankara believed that a world built on different economic and social foundations can be created not by “technocrats,” “wise men,” or “politicians,” but by the masses of workers and peasants whose labor, joined with the riches of nature, is the source of all wealth. By ordinary human beings who transform themselves as they become an active, conscious force, transforming their conditions of life. And the revolutionary government he headed set out along this course, mobilizing peasants, workers, craftsmen, women, youth, the elderly, to carry out a literacy campaign, an immunization drive, to sink wells, plant trees, build housing, and begin to eliminate the oppressive class relations on the land.

Sankara stood out among the leaders of the struggles for national liberation in Africa in the last half of the twentieth century because he was a communist. Unlike so many others, he did not reject Marxism as a set of “European ideas,” alien to the class struggle in Africa. He understood that Marxism is precisely not “a set of ideas,” but the generalization of the lessons of the struggles of the working class on the road to its emancipation the world over, enriched by every battle. And he drew from those lessons to the best of his abilities.

Speaking before the United Nations in 1984, he linked the freedom struggle of the people of Burkina Faso to the centuries of revolutionary struggle from the birth of capitalism to today—from the American and French revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century to the great October Revolution of 1917 that “transformed the world, brought victory to the proletariat, shook the foundation of capitalism, and made possible the realization of the Paris Commune’s dreams of justice.” We are the heirs of those revolutions, he said—hence the title.

“We are open to all the winds of the will of the peoples and their revolutions, and we study some of the terrible failures that have given rise to tragic violations of human rights,” he noted. “We take from each revolution only its kernel of purity, which forbids us to become slaves to the reality of others.”

And along that line of march, Sankara looked to Cuba as the preeminent example of revolutionary struggle in our times.  
A world leader
Sankara was not only a leader of the people of Africa. He was not only a spokesman for the oppressed and exploited of the semicolonial countries. He gave leadership to working people in the imperialist world as well. In the last decades of the 20th century, proletarian leaders with the world stature of Thomas Sankara, Maurice Bishop, and in a similar way Malcolm X in the United States, have emerged from the ranks of the oppressed peoples of all lands—even the most economically undeveloped—to give leadership to the international struggle for national liberation and socialism. And thus to take their rightful place in history, in leading historical change.

That fact is a measure of the vast changes that have marked the past century—the strengthening of revolutionary forces worldwide foreseen by Lenin and the leaders of the Communist International in the first years after the victory of the October Revolution.

This is the tradition in which we can today place the example given us by our five Cuban brothers who continue to fight not as victims, but as combatants of the Cuban Revolution, today on the front lines of the class struggle in the United States. From within the federal prisons, they are carrying out their political work among some 2 million others who are the recipients of what Washington calls justice. That is where we see the original of the face that the whole world has witnessed so clearly at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and in Iraq.  
A powerful, unique impact
The books produced by Pathfinder are not sold only in bookstores or through the worldwide web. Most are sold on the streets—from sidewalk tables in working-class districts of the cities and towns of the United States and Europe, at mine portals and factory gates, on university campuses and at high school doors, at demonstrations or meetings where those who are fighting and seeking a way forward for working people are likely to gather.

At those tables, the face of Thomas Sankara has a powerful, indeed unique impact. Many passing by are literally stopped in their tracks when their eye falls on the book Thomas Sankara Speaks. It is an expanded selection of his speeches that Pathfinder published in English very soon after he was assassinated in 1987 and has maintained in print ever since. Some do not know who he is. But they are attracted to the confidence, character, and integrity they see in his face, and want to know more about him.

It is among the growing tens of thousands of immigrant workers from West and Central Africa who today are swelling the ranks of the working class in the imperialist centers, driven there by the whiplash of capital, that Sankara is best known and respected. Many are astonished to see the face of Sankara on a street table in the neighborhood where they live or work, on the cover of a book of his speeches, edited, printed, and distributed in the United States by working people there who look to Sankara as a revolutionary leader. That fact alone leads a good number to begin to think about the working class in the United States in a different way, and to be open to seeing the importance of the traditions of struggle they bring into what is the growing resistance by working people in North America to the bosses’ assaults on our wages, job conditions, hours of work, and basic social and political rights.

And it is important to add that the converse is equally true. Reading Sankara is for us an important part of broadening the historical and cultural horizons of those who have been born or lived for years in the imperialist centers.

Since it first appeared in 1988, close to 7,000 copies of Thomas Sankara Speaks have been sold in English alone, and many thousands more of the French edition, Oser inventer l’avenir—dare to invent the future.

From the very beginning, one of the hallmarks of the revolutionary course Sankara fought for was the mobilization of women to fight for their emancipation. As he says in one of the speeches published here, a talk that presents the program of the government he headed, “The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

Sankara’s powerful speech on Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle, given on international women’s day, March 8, 1987, has been published by Pathfinder as a pamphlet that is available in four languages—French, English, Spanish, and Farsi. Some 12,000 copies of that title have been sold since it first appeared in English translation almost 15 years ago—more than 1,500 in Farsi in Iran alone.

We are proud that with the publication of this selection of some of the most representative of Sankara’s other speeches, his voice will now be heard more broadly in Spanish. Somos herederos de las revoluciones del mundo includes his wonderful speech on imperialism’s destruction of the trees and forests of Africa, given to an international conference in Paris in 1986. Before the president of France and other top dignitaries of the imperialist government, Sankara affirmed:

The battle against the encroachment of the desert is a battle to establish a balance between man, nature, and society. As such, it is a battle that is above all political, one whose outcome is not determined by fate….

As Karl Marx said, those who live in a palace do not think the same things, nor in the same way, as those who live in a hut. This struggle to defend the trees and the forests is above all a struggle against imperialism. Imperialism is the arsonist setting fire to our forests and savannahs.

That speech by Sankara is cited extensively in the new issue of the magazine Nueva Internacional, copies of which will also be available at the table outside following today’s presentation. From its lead article, “Our Politics Start with the World,” by Jack Barnes, to the picture of “Earth at Night” on its back cover—a photo that provides a stark measure of the economic and cultural inequalities, the veritable abyss, that exists between the imperialist and semi-colonial countries, and among classes within almost every country—this issue of the magazine of Marxist politics and theory distributed by Pathfinder deals in depth with the same political issues and course of action Sankara fought to advance.  
Revolutionary internationalism
To end, I want to point to the depth of Sankara’s internationalism so evident in these pages. For him, the popular, democratic, revolutionary struggle of the people of Burkina Faso was one with the struggles to bring down the apartheid regime of South Africa; it was one with the anti-imperialist struggles of the people of Angola, Namibia, Palestine, Western Sahara, and Nicaragua; it was one with the people of Harlem who so warmly welcomed him there in 1984, and other working people across the United States and the imperialist world.

It was in Managua in 1986 that I had the pleasure of meeting and coming to know him as a leader. We were both delegates to an international conference marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Sandinista National Liberation Front and the 10th anniversary of the fall of Carlos Fonseca in combat. Sankara was chosen to speak at the rally on behalf of the 180 international delegations present there.

When he learned that a delegation from the Socialist Workers Party in the United States was present, he made a point of heading straight over to our table to greet us. It was not just as an act of diplomacy; he came to talk politics with fellow revolutionists. He knew well that the Militant was one of the few papers outside Africa that regularly wrote about the revolutionary course unfolding in Burkina Faso, carrying interviews and speeches by Sankara whenever we could get them.

The presentation of Somos herederos de las revoluciones del mundo here in Cuba is especially appropriate because of the final selection it contains, Sankara’s tribute to Che on Oct. 8, 1987. That 20th anniversary of Che’s fall in combat was barely a week before the counterrevolutionary coup d’état that ended Sankara’s own life.

It is only because of a fortunate combination of circumstances that Sankara’s words at that event are available to us today, that they have not been lost. The exhibition focusing on Che’s revolutionary course and example, inaugurated that day by Sankara, coincided with the opening of an international anti-apartheid conference in Ouagadougou attended by delegations from some 29 countries. Among them were compañeros from the United States and Canada, supporters of the newspaper the Militant, and of Pathfinder. They were looking at the displays when Sankara arrived together with [Che’s son] Camilo and a number of other Cuban compañeros. When Sankara began his impromptu remarks, one of the Canadian compañeras turned on a tape recorder she had in her pocket and recorded them. The Militant transcribed and published them shortly afterward, and they are included here in their totality.

Che taught us “we could dare to have confidence in ourselves, confidence in our abilities,” Sankara pointed out on that occasion. Che instilled in us the conviction that “struggle is our only recourse.”

Che, Sankara insisted, was “a citizen of the free world that together we are in the process of building. That is why we say that Che Guevara is also African and Burkinabè.”

What more appropriate place to end?
Related articles:
Links of Cuba and Africa highlighted at Havana launching of book by Sankara  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home