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Vol. 81/No. 2      January 9, 2017

(Books of the Month column)

Cuban Revolution was ‘guide to a lifetime of action’

Below is an excerpt from Cuba and the Coming American Revolution — one of January’s Books of the Month — by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. Barnes, who in 1961 was a student leader at Carleton College, describes the enormous impact that the victory of the Cuban Revolution had for revolutionists in the U.S. In the introduction Mary-Alice Waters, an active participant in many of the events Barnes describes and a leader of the SWP today, writes, “Cuba showed us that with class solidarity, political consciousness, courage, focused and persistent efforts at education, and a revolutionary leadership of a caliber like that in Cuba — a leadership tested and forged in battle over years, it is possible to stand up to enormous might and seemingly insurmountable odds and win.” Copyright © 2001 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The year 1961 in Cuba was “The Year of Education,” when more than 100,000 young people, the big majority of them teenagers, left their homes and spread out across the country to eradicate illiteracy from Cuba before the year was up. In unexpected ways, 1961 was also our year of education.

One of our biggest lessons was what happens in an imperialist country when war begins.

In a matter of hours on April 17, the broad undecided center had shrunk to a voiceless kernel. Months of concentrated political action preparing for the inevitable battle fell into place in a few decisive days. Committed builders of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee at Carleton in early 1961 had been fewer than half a dozen. But now came the payoff for the weeks of education, propaganda work, writing, talking, pushing for and organizing open political debate, and taking up the challenges of every opponent on every issue. As the workers and peasants of Cuba inflicted a crushing defeat on U.S. imperialism, support for the political positions we had been defending exploded overnight. But only because we were there, we were known, and we were prepared to respond.

The sharp and violent polarization that erupted as the first shots were fired taught us another big lesson. As opponents of the U.S.-sponsored invasion, we were in the streets within hours. But so too were the ultra-right-wing cadres of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) who mobilized to try to physically prevent Fair Play for Cuba Committee actions from taking place. …

We learned in practice what Batista and the Cuban Revolution had already taught us from afar: that in the United States, too, we would have to defeat the reactionary thugs in the streets even to have the right to make our positions known.

We got an education in liberalism, too, as most of our faculty friends went silent or absented themselves, rather than take on a dean (a reserved and tolerant one, no less) suddenly waving the Attorney General’s list and FBI informer reports in their faces. A couple of prominent faculty conservatives, in fact, were more steadfast in their defense of our rights than were most of their liberal colleagues.

We saw student allies who had previously been staunch defenders of the Cuban Revolution, or at least of Fair Play’s right to function like other campus organizations, suddenly develop cold feet; they were discovering that future career plans were incompatible with continued association with friends who were becoming communists.

Others made the opposite life decisions in a matter of days, sometimes hours.

Our understanding of these class questions was accelerated immeasurably by the fact we were sharing our day-by-day experiences, as well as talking about them into the wee hours of the morning with communist workers in the Twin Cities. They were people like V.R. Dunne, who had been a member of the Communist International from its founding in 1919, a leader of the Teamsters strikes and organizing drives in the Upper Midwest during the 1930s, and one of the first victims railroaded to prison by the federal government under the infamous Smith “Gag” Act for opposition to U.S. imperialism leading up to and during World War II.

These workers pointed us to the history of the class struggle in the United States, to the lessons we needed to learn from the workers and farmers in this country whose fighting legacy we inherited. They drew on this rich history to help us understand what we had to be prepared for as we went up against the most violent and brutal ruling class in the world.

Above all, they taught those of us who, like themselves, were so strongly and passionately attracted to the example being set by the fighting workers and peasants of Cuba that the challenge — for us — was not in Cuba. Our fight was in the United States. Cuba’s workers and farmers had proven they could take care of themselves. Washington, to paraphrase Cuban Division General Enrique Carreras, would never be able to get that bone out of its throat.

Those workers like Dunne and others helped us see that the contest would end only with the defeat of the revolution in Cuba or a victorious socialist revolution in the United States.

“There is one thing we can most certainly tell Mr. Kennedy,” Fidel Castro told a cheering crowd in Cuba on March 13 of that year. “A victorious revolution will be seen in the United States before a victorious counterrevolution in Cuba.”

That had become our conviction too. But above all it was becoming the guide to a lifetime of action, a course of conduct born of the historic needs, interests, and capacities of the working class. As beyond belief as this revolutionary goal appeared to the average American, it had become clear to us it was the only realistic perspective, and we set out to speed the day. …

We came to appreciate that everything depended on being organized and having done the political work beforehand. We learned firsthand how dangerously wrong and class-biased were the fears and semihysterical reactions of many of our campus-based colleagues. The source of reaction was not “backward American workers” but the U.S. ruling class, and the semihysterical middle-class layers who served as their transmission belt. The danger came also from those in these relatively better-off layers who, whether they owned up to it or not, had set out on a life course that of necessity involved politically rationalizing the rapacious and brutal actions of that ruling class.
Related articles:
Cuban solidarity has been ‘extraordinary’
Namibian envoy speaks on Fidel Castro at UN
‘Cuban soldiers gave their lives for our independence’
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