I attended a national convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) in late July, 2013. About 100 participants, including representatives from other socialist organizations, came together for a three-day discussion of impediments to economic and political justice and how to create a better world, what activists from the Global South call “21st century socialism.” They were young and old, Black and white, women and men, gay and straight with a variety of analyses of how to build a more humane future. Despite differences, participants saw capitalism as an obstacle to the survival of the human race and the creation of some form of democratic socialism as a necessary alternative to the drift toward destruction.
The opening plenary identified the devastating effects of reactionary policies of austerity, starving the many for the benefit of the few, as a central feature of contemporary politics. Workers, people of color, and women are its prime victims. Austerity was seen as parallel to the globalization of exploitation, war, and interventionism and inextricably connected to the destruction of nature. Capitalism was identified by panelists as a fundamental cause of inequality; controlling distant people and territories; and destroying land, sea, and air. Other workshops and plenaries explored the possibilities of building majorities to oppose austerity, war, and environmental devastation. Also the issue of how organizations from various left traditions in the United States could more effectively work together to turn the country around was explored.
Attendees left the convention sobered by the analyses of the dire nature of the prospects of survivability but buoyed by the spirit of the meeting and the commitments to work together more effectively. Particularly, the diversity of the gathering gave participants hope about the future of progressive politics.
Sixty years earlier, on July 26, 1953, Cuban revolutionaries launched an assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago, Cuba. The revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, hoped that a successful attack on the military of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, would spark a revolution all across the island. The attack was crushed in less than 30 minutes by Batista’s armies. About two-thirds of the rebels were killed or captured and tortured. The rebel leader, Fidel Castro, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for his part. He was pardoned and released by Batista in 1955.
At his trial, Fidel Castro gave a speech that would speak across years to the Cuban people and the basic human needs that all progressives and revolutionaries pursue in their different political, economic, and cultural contexts. The speech, Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech, referred to those he felt would gain from a revolution, “the vast unredeemed masses, to whom all make promises and whom all deceive.”
He described “the masses” in the Cuban context. They included 700,000 unemployed Cubans and 500,000 farm laborers who worked only four months a year and lived in hovels with no land for personal cultivation. Also he referred to 400,000 industrial laborers and stevedores who had their retirement funds embezzled by bosses and politicians, 100,000 small farmers working on tiny parcels of rented land, teachers and other professionals who could not find attractive work, and small business persons weighed down with debt. Most important he identified the critical issues faced by all the strata of Cuban society, except foreign and local capitalists: “The problems concerning land, the problem of industrialization, the problem of housing, the problem of unemployment, the problem of education, and the problem of health of the people, these are the six problems we would take immediate steps to resolve, along with the restoration of public liberties and political democracy.”
Castro elaborated on the depths of each of the problems and offered a platform for their solution. A new government would give landless peasants land encouraging the formation of agricultural cooperatives. Technical assistance, equipment, and other needs would be provided to small farmers. Rents for all would be cut in half and hovels would be torn down and replaced with multiple-dwelling units. Electricity would be made accessible to all. With the redistribution of land and the dramatic increase in housing construction, the problem of unemployment would be eliminated. Finally, Castro envisioned a new government that provided for the educational needs of the entire population.
Castro claimed that a new society that met the needs of the people was possible; that “there is no excuse for the abject poverty of a single one of its present inhabitants… This is not an inconceivable thought. What is inconceivable is that anyone should go to bed hungry, that children should die for lack of medical attention; what is inconceivable is that 30 percent of our farm people cannot write their names and 99 percent of them know nothing of Cuba’s history.” He declared that when tyrannies violated the principles of constitutional government the people had the right to rebel to reestablish legitimate political institutions that were based upon a social contract between rulers and the ruled. To this analysis Fidel Castro declared “History Will Absolve Me.”
As I was driving home from the CCDS convention I thought about the speech Fidel Castro gave 60 years ago and all the analyses and exhortations at the meeting I had recently attended. Sure the times, history, politics, geography, and economic conditions of Cuba in 1953 and the United States in 2013 were radically different. But what struck me about the comparisons were the remarkable similarities. First, the basic forms of human suffering were the same: lack of economic justice, inequality, and the stifling of democracy. Second, the vision of an alternative to pain and suffering articulated by Fidel Castro in 1953 and the convention participants in 2013 were remarkably similar: more equitable distribution of societal resources, access to adequate nutrition, health care, education, housing, and jobs. The passion for economic and social justice transcends time and place and the struggle continues.