Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka’s book, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, is a significant contribution towards understanding one of the enduring intellectual dilemmas in the theory and practice of politics: the ethics of the use of violence. Dayan’s ambitious project in this book is to offer a comprehensively worked out theory for the ethical use of violence, for both revolutionaries and states, based on the political thought of Fidel Castro. The theory that is advanced is presented as one that is modern, universal, based on reason, and one that is opposed to both ‘unipolar hegemony’ as well as culturally relativist and parochial forms of resistance and rebellion.

The book, which straddles several intra-disciplinary boundaries as between political theory, philosophy and rhetoric, exemplifies the authorial hallmarks one usually associates with Dayan: originality, lucidity and cogency, but also polemical partisanship. Its unremitting partiality in the admiration of Castro and the Cuban Revolution, however, does nothing to undermine its academic and intellectual value, for even if one does not regard either Castro or the Cuban Revolution in the same adulatory terms as Dayan, one cannot disregard the massive contribution to the political thought of the twentieth century that the personages associated with that revolution have made, and of which Fidel and Che are only the best known.

The book also marks a milestone in the intellectual evolution of its author: from one whose analytical perspectives used to be informed by a harsh, abrasive and unsentimental Leninist Realism (‘the concrete analysis of concrete conditions’), to a more mellow and perhaps more mature approach which, while still very much within the realist tradition and contemptuous of pacifism, is more concerned than before with the ethical dimensions of power, partly through a greater attentiveness to moral discourses such as Catholicism. It is tempting to think that the pull in this direction transcends Fidel to more ethereal appeals from the Elysian Fields.

Although it has received critical attention within the specialist academic circles of Cuban and Latin American studies, the scope and content of Dayan’s book is, or should be, of far wider interest and engagement, and its relevance self-evidently closer to home in terms especially of what transpired in the period between c.2006 and 2009, and indeed in terms of a much longer timespan in the modern history of Sri Lanka in which violence has been a central issue of politics. The elegance of the argument as well as the prose should only encourage this thought. The undeserved lack of attention the book has received within Sri Lankan intellectual circles since its publication four years ago, perhaps says more about our culture of intellectual engagement, contestation and disagreement, than about the quality of its thesis; although one cannot help but wonder if some of this disengagement has been due to the activities of its author in capacities other than as one of Sri Lanka’s ablest contemporary public intellectuals.

As Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva and Paris, especially the former at a crucial period, Dayan succeeded in mobilising a remarkable coalition of the global south-east against an attempted international intervention via the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. In this he no doubt deployed some of the arguments developed in this book, in particular the opposition to ‘neo-imperialist’ interference with state sovereignty that forms one of the foundations of Castro’s political thought. There is, however, a striking incongruence between Dayan’s theorisation of Fidel’s ethics of violence – three key elements of which are the avoidance of the targeting non-combatants, physical torture, and the execution of captives – and the conduct of the Sri Lankan government in the last phases of the war. The entire raft of potential arguments made possible by this incongruence between theory and practice were never fully explored and debated, least of all by those who oppose Dayan as well as the regime. Such arguments include the nexus at the moral core between Fidel’s ethics of violence and the humane values underlying international human rights and humanitarian law, which has been the dominant discursive language of the Sri Lankan regime’s detractors in relation to international criminal accountability. The very possibility of this line of argument demonstrates the folly of supercilious disengagement, although in this respect, it should never be forgotten that eternal vigilance is the price of intellectual engagement with Dayan Jayatilleka.

Needless to say, Dayan’s ‘impassioned polemical essay’ is one that is located within the theoretical, ideological, historical and dispositional environment of the post-World War II, Third World Left. Given the latitude for disagreement that exists within this broad intellectual terrain, Dayan’s book is perhaps best reviewed, and indeed critiqued, from within this ideological framework. In terms of ideological orientations, I do not belong to this category, except in some matters of dispositional sympathy, such as an attraction to the romance associated with the intensely humanist and patriotic sentiments beyond ideological socialism that drove the early Fidel especially, within the context of the debasement of democracy and self-government that the American influence in Latin and South America entailed in the mid-twentieth century. In turn, such a sympathy arises from the recognition that American interference in Latin and Southern America, whatever the foreign policy motivations within the geo-politics of the Cold War, was in total violation of the spirit, ethos and values of the American Revolution itself. Thus my normative perspective is one grounded in liberal democracy, not socialism.

Consequently, my interest in the underlying dynamics of the Cuban Revolution is more to do with its intellectual antecedents in Jose Marti (and Simon Bolivar) rather than anything to do with Marx or Lenin or other worthies of the Hispanic and European Left whose thought influenced the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, especially Che Guevara, and through him, later, Fidel. One of the implications that such an extraneous ideological and moral perspective has for a review of Dayan’s treatment of Fidelismo is with regard to the normative opposition to imperialism and ‘neo-imperialism’ that informs Fidel’s political thought. This value is not only a foundational element of the ‘moral superiority’ of ethical revolution that is critical to an acceptance of Dayan’s theorisation of morally justifiable violence, but also one that informs the non-negotiable commitment to state sovereignty, particularly of non-Western states. With the hostility to international intervention this entails, including the refusal to accept prima facie the legitimacy of United Nations multilateralism, Fidel’s ethics of violence, as conceptualised by Dayan, can be seen as an alternative to the normative and regulatory regime of conflict that is embodied in the entire panoply of international humanitarian and human rights law. The very resilience of the Cuban revolutionary state exemplifies for Dayan, the relevance and need for an alternative to the liberal democratic orthodoxy that has come to dominate the post-Cold War world.

Dayan’s argument in the book is of course much broader and comprehensive than what has been described above, but it is sufficient to appreciate the sheer scale and ambition of the project. This is why it merits much more, and more critical, attention than it has received. This thesis has implications across the social sciences and humanities, and I hope that others more competent than I would be encouraged now to take up the cudgels, a prospect I am certain the author would only thoroughly relish.

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    My thanks to ‘Publius’ for his well written and incisive engagement. I must however, demur on at least two points.

    Firstly the intellectual-theoretical dimension of the relationship between Fidel and Che. Publius writes of “…Marx or Lenin or other worthies of the Hispanic and European Left whose thought influenced the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, especially Che Guevara, and through him, later, Fidel.”

    This reproduces a popular view of the relationship, its sequence and chain of ideological causation which does not correspond to fact. While Che was clearly the better read and more advanced Marxist-Leninist at the time Fidel and he met, in no way was he the intermediary who introduced Marxist ideas to Fidel (still less converted the latter to Marxism). Fidel displayed a considerable grasp of Marxist and Leninist ideas in the years before he was introduced to Che.

    Though my book makes that point and tracks Fidel’s dating of his Marxism, the more compelling evidence is available in a work that was published after mine, which deals precisely wth the subject of the Fidel-Che equation, entitled ‘Fidel & Che: a Revolutionary Friendship’, by Simon Reid-Henry, Sceptre, UK, 2009.

    He makes a general point about Fidel’s wide reading, as displayed in his courtroom performance after the abortive Moncada attack.”…taking in Montesquieu to thumb his nose at despotism, and citing just about everyone from Thomas Aquinas and John Knox to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the American Declaration of Independence.” (p77)

    Much more pertinently he quotes Fidel’s letters from jail and makes his own observations about Fidel’s reading:

    ‘”After having knocked heads a good while with Kant, I find Marx easier than the Pater Nostrum”, he [Fidel]wrote. “Both he and Lenin had a powerful polemical spirit and I’m having a fine time with them, laughing and enjoying my reading”. Fidel was in fact working his way through a vast number of other thinkers too. Political and social science began with Weber and ended with Mannheim; literature began with Thomas More’s Utopia and was topped by Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and his favorite- Dostoyevsky. This still left time for Thackeray, Turgenev, and Balzac. He worked his way through Freud, Ramiro Guerra’s ten-volume History of the Cuban nation, and biographies of his favorite historical figures: Bolivar and Bonaparte both figured large (he compared Marx’s and Victor Hugo’s analysis of Bonaparte, favoring that of Marx), as did Trotsky’s Stalin.’ (Simon Reid-Henry, Ibid, p90).

    Given that this pertains to the period of Fidel’s incarceration post Moncada, i.e. 1953-’55, before he met Che in Mexico upon release, I daresay this clearly demonstrates that Fidel’s grasp of Marxism did not take place ‘later’ and/or ‘through’ Che.

    My second point of contention and clarification concerns Publius’ assumption of my “hostility to international intervention this entails, including the refusal to accept prima facie the legitimacy of United Nations multilateralism…”

    This, I fear, is inaccurate. If I opposed international intervention as such, I could not have supported, as I have consistently done, Cuba’s role in Angola and Vietnam’s in liberating Cambodia from Pol Pot. Nor could I have supported, as did Senator Obama, the US campaign in Afghanistan as distinct from that in Iraq ( though I do think that the former intervention has outlived its shelf life).

    I have never “refused to accept prima facie the legitimacy of United Nations multilateralism”. In general I support UN multilateralism, while criticising, as have the BRICS in the case of Libya, the distortion and misuse as a fig leaf, of such multilateralism.

    It rather depends on the ‘concrete analysis of concrete conditions’.

  • justitia

    This so called book appears to be the refurbished PhD thesis of Dayan Jayatilleke titled “The political thought of Fidel Castro”.
    Finally, after the glorioua revolution in Cuba, most cubans are trying to escape from Cuba – even after Fidel ‘handed over’ the country to his brother “democratically”. The cuban armed forces are engaged in preventing this! They also enforce the Fidel’s style of governance.
    Now,reportedly,Fidel is thinking about introducing a little bit of democracy.

    Thus Sri Lanka appears to be almost a mirror image of Cuba.
    Many sri lankans are trying to escape to other countries and the armed forces are continually engaged in preventing this. The army enforces the Rajapakse style of governance – now an advanced model based on the 18th amendment – like in Cuba. Like in Cuba,no dissent is allowed. Sri lanka wll be handed over to the ‘crown prince’ if Rajapakse has his way.

    • nathan

      The only thing I can say is that DJ’s neo-revisionist glorification of Castro, a man who twists ethics as per convenience, is an indication of the ideological bankruptcy of what one Tamil Nadu guy calls the pink left here http://sanhati.com/excerpted/4190/ (you should read DJ’s self-advertisement in the comments in the article and the author’s polemical response too, just for kicks).

      Real radicalism in this age would mean support for groups that are waging a life-or-death armed struggle against oppressive regimes using state terror with assistance of foreign capital – be it the FARC of Colombia, PKK of Turkey, or our own Tigers.

      No radicalism in eulogising a spent force like Castro, who can do little more than let off hot air, that has lost even symbolic value.

    • Justita, can you point to any example — even one or two will do — of the SL state (never mind the Armed Forces) preventing people from legally leaving the country — ie with a passport and visa?

      • @David Blacker

        There are plenty of instances of the Government of Rajapaksa helping underworld thugs and assorted criminals to LEAVE the country illegally. One example was Karuna who was sent to England on a fake passport. The other example was sending Duminda Silva who was a suspect in the Baharatha Lakshman murder illegally to Singapore for so called treatment to his brain. 😀

        ps. I forgot Kudu Lal who was also sent abroad by “Dr.” Mervin Silva.

      • So Duncey, you agree that there is no sign of the GoSL preventing people from leaving the country as Justita claims? OK 😀

  • Agnos


    There are a few points about Cuba that people need to be aware of–
    1. Soon after the end of the cold war, when Russia was having its own problems and could not afford sugar subsidies to Cuba, the country’s economy was having serious problems. With other Latin American countries also having problems, Cuba relied to a great extent on the remittances to family, relatives and friends by the Cuban immigrants in the US for its survival.

    2. Whenever the Cuban economy was having problems from US sanctions and all that, Castro would threaten to unleash a flood of Cuban immigrants. This was made possible by the very relaxed US immigration policy toward Cuban boat people.

    3. Cuban immigrants to the US are among the most successful Latin American immigrant groups in the US.

    And yet, people like DJ who idolize Castro would flippantly call them “Miami mafia” and ignore Castro’s threats about unleashing a flood of immigrants to the US when it was convenient to him, his playing of these immigrants for remittances, his incarceration and torture of many dissident politicians and writers, the personal wealth he had amassed under his communist dictatorship, etc.
    So much for Fidel’s “ethical” use of violence.

  • ‘Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machines. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.’ (Che Guevara, ‘Socialism and Man in Cuba.)

  • So Dr. Dayan himself had to write something as ‘comments’ to make some others to write comments on what ‘Publius’ has written!

  • Kusum

    Political violence has been causing moral dilemma for many Sri Lankans in the last 64 years ?!?!

    ……. In 1956 the moral dilemma of some of the parliamentarians inside the parliament when police stood by watching some other parliamentarians getting stoned by mobs outside the parliament.
    Governor General William Gopallawa had a moral dilemma in May 1958 and broke the protocol and went to Temple Trees to force SWRD Bandaranaike to declare emergency after 2/3 days of bloody riots.
    In July 1983, some ministers had a moral dilemma when the then-President unprecedentedly decided to cremate the 13 soldiers killed in Jaffna. Some ministers had a moral dilemma when the news of the 49 Tamils killed by the army within 12 hours of the killing of the 13 soldiers was prevented from crossing the Elephantpass. ……….

  • PitastharaPuthraya

    As Nathan correctly said gorifying Castro or Che does not make Dayan Jayathilaka a radical. It would have made him a radical 30 years ago. If he thinks that he is still a radical just because he is fond of Castro and Che to the point of relgious veneration it is either self-deception or conscious deception of the readers.

    Now he can be considered as a leftist political scientist who turned himself upside down to become a right wing political scientist who provides theories to one of the most oppressive regimes we have seen in Sri Lnak to suppress its minorities, human right acivitists, government opponents, to let them amass unprecedent wealth by plundering the national resources and to put the country back 50 years in terms of good governance, accountability, human rights, etc.

    Castro’s rgime in Cuba is a pure and simple dictatorship. Howevermuch, Dayan Jayathilaka and his ilk are trying to cover it with sugary coats of ‘Ethics of Violence’or anything else it remains as what it is. The legitimacy of any regime whether it is Marxist-Lnnisst, Maoist, Captialitst, Islamic, or anything else comes from the people’s support. Whatever the leaders and their henchmen say to justify their rule if the people do not accept them it takes awy any legitimacy to their rule.

    Therefore, I challenge Castro and his supporters to put pressure on Fidel and Rarul to have democratic elections in Cuba and let off the restrictions to emigrate to see what the Cuban people really think about their regime. No dictator would say yes to democratic elections and lossening the emigration resctrictions because they know the reality.

    There is no fundamental difference between North Korea and Cuba. If there is please let us know.

    If the people are not with the rgime where is the legitimacy to rule them. Or is it because they think that they know what the people need better than the people themselves?

    Today radicalism is working against the rule of right wing oppresive regimes of likes of Rajapakshas risking the lives, livelihoods and forgetting about the perks and priviledges you might get from supporting the oppressors. Supporting such regimes to suppress the rights of minorities, political opponents etc, to exploit the country and to take the counry backwards to a semi-feudal society while enjoying the bread crumbs falling off from their tables is definitely not politcal radicalism.

    • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

      Hiya, Pitathtara Puthraya, you are so right about my radicalism. I can’t help but wonder why my book was reviewed by the reputed UK journal that has been around for 40 years entitled RADICAL PHILOSOPHY? Maybe you should write a letter of protest to the Editor…? :))

  • Dr. Dayan does not seem to have a moral dilemma in supporting a corrupt family dictatorship in Sri Lanka…

    • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

      PresiDunce, perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that my support is for the same reason that 90% ( going by Gallup) support the same leadership…and that support may not be FOR but AGAINST….

  • PitastharaPuthraya

    It should be ‘Therefore, I challenge Dayan (not Castro)and his supporters to put pressure on Fidel and Raul….

  • Karunya Vathanarupan

    Dear Dayan,

    This is the Ph.D. thesis you completed while you were in the US using its scholarship fund. You had the privilege of writing this in the atmosphere where no white vans or para military groups were roaming around.They didn’t worry about on whom your were researching.

    My question is : is it possible to stay in Sri Lanka and still write something against the Sri Lankan government or arguing for a separate State for the peoples of the North-East and get a Ph.D. from a Sri Lankan university, leave alone the white vans and the para military?

    The formula is simple: where there is no democracy, there is Dayan.

    Long Live Red Opportunism

  • The unethical thing to do today is to argue on behalf of the SL State in its attempts to deny a section of its citizens, the Tamil people, of their legitimate right to hold the State and its armed forces accountable for their actions which resulted in the killings and disappearances of large number of their people.

    Actions speak louder than words.

    • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

      Cyril, tell that to Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Uruguay, all led by radicals and revolutionaries, who support Sri Lanka against hypocritical calls for accountability by imperialism and its stooges…

  • “The founding of the Castro dictatorship in Cuba set the pattern that was followed later in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Grenada. By initially concealing the fact that he was a Communist, and having some non-Communists around him as window dressing, Fidel Castro was able to play the role of a popular liberator, out to end oppression, hold free elections, and do all sorts of good things for “the people.”
    The useful idiots in the United States and other Western democracies ate it up. Many still do, to this very moment.
    Once in power, Castro tolerated no opposition, held no free elections, and established a police state that made the previous dictators look like amateurs. Those who spoke out against what was happening were jailed or executed. So were those who tried to flee the country.”


  • DessertFox

    Would love to hear Dr.Jayathilleke’s thoughts on Fidel’s Destructive Leadership as illustrated in ‘The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments’by Art Padillaa, Robert Hogan and Robert B. Kaiser


    The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 18, Issue 3, Destructive Leadership, June 2007, Pages 176-194


    4. Castro and Cuba: an illustration of the toxic triangle

    A considerable scholarly and popular literature on Fidel Castro and his Cuban regime has built up over the past 50 years, including 20 major biographies (e.g., Fuentes, 2004, Geyer, 1991, Quirk, 1993 and Raffy, 2004). Castro and Cuba provide a useful illustration of the foregoing themes.

    4.1. Castro as a destructive leader
    Castro is one of the iconic figures and longest serving dictators in modern history. As a teenager he displayed intelligence, unusual memory, remarkable energy, physical courage, and talent for self-promotion. During his college days, he tried repeatedly to lead various student groups, with no success. These student groups, moreover, were characterized by a propensity for serious violence (Ros, 2003). He identified the previous Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, as an expedient political target for his ambitions. In his early 20s, Castro became a principal opponent of Batista, competing for the public’s attention with Batista’s other political opponents. After the successful overthrow of the dictatorship at the end of 1958, the 32-year-old Castro and his supporters swiftly extended their control, rapidly suppressing dissent while simultaneously promising free elections, democracy, as well as a better life to the peasant underclass. He embarked on a triumphant US tour and media blitz within weeks of seizing power. All of this prompted one State Department observer to note: “It would be a mistake to underestimate this man…He [is] clearly a strong personality and a born leader…” (Quirk, 1993, p. 243).

    As a young man, Castro was seen as bright, charismatic, idealistic, courageous, bold, ruthless, skilled at self-promotion, and able to attract a band of capable and equally ruthless and bloody minded supporters. His charisma is apparent in newsreel clippings. His personalized use of power is seen in the way he enriched himself, and in his lifestyle compared to his citizens. Castro’s narcissism is evident from his exhibitionism (long speeches starring him), grandiosity (sending troops to Africa and Central America), and unwillingness to admit to any mistakes (Geyer, 1991, Montaner, 1983, Montaner, 1999, Pardo Llada, 1976 and Raffy, 2004). The negative life themes appear in his fractious relations with his father, difficult upbringing in several foster homes, and ridicule and mocking by schoolmates for his illegitimacy and his rural upbringing (Montaner, 1999, Pardo Llada, 1976, Pardo Llada, 1988and Raffy, 2004). Castro’s several wives and mistresses report that an ideology of hatred for the United States was a constant theme in his private life (Geyer, 1991, Fuentes, 2004 and Raffy, 2004).

    4.2. Cubans as susceptible followers
    Two groups of Cubans were positioned to profit from a Castro-led revolution. The first, and quite small group, consisted of Castro’s inner circle: backers and fellow revolutionaries (e.g., Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, brother Raúl Castro) who shared Castro’s worldview and would themselves accede to power—always a desirable outcome for political operatives. The second was Cuban rural residents and the uneducated urban poor, a large group for whom the promise of escape from poverty was alluring. The first group did indeed gain power; the degree to which the second group profited from the Castro regime is highly debatable (Fuentes, 2004, Latell, 2005 and Raffy, 2004). A third group—a relatively large and mostly apolitical professional middle class-opposed Batista’s corrupt dictatorship and initially backed Castro’s revolution. Their support vanished as it became obvious that elections and democracy would not materialize (Montaner, 1983, Pardo Llada, 1988 and Quirk, 1993). Many of them, or their unaccompanied children, fled to the US and Europe during the 1960s (Thomas, 1998 and Triay, 1999). Their departure drastically reduced the number of potential dissidents and further consolidated Castro’s influence.

    4.3. Cuba’s propitious environment
    Cuban history prior to Castro was a story of political dysfunction in the midst of economic prosperity, resulting in: (a) the typical Latin American income inequalities; and (b) political instability with coups and revolts occurring every few years (Thomas, 1998). Cuban political and legal institutions were ineffective and corrupt. A culture of presidentialism and a concentration of power at the top of the political structures existed (Geyer, 1991 and Thomas, 1998). Crisis and governmental instability were the norm. A small inner circle, including high officers in the police and the military, supported the dictator Batista, who left them alone to do business. Most of the rest of the population, including the large middle class and the larger poor and uneducated segments, chafed at the violence and corruption and resented the status quo. A long history of instability and ineffective governmental institutions made the Cuban population ripe for revolution.

    After seizing power, Castro and his supporters consolidated their authority by swiftly dismantling democratic and social institutions and replacing them with powerful police and surveillance systems to control dissent (Latell, 2005, Fuentes, 2004, Quirk, 1993 and Thomas, 1998). The Castro regime has perpetuated a sense of insecurity with recurrent references to external threats in the form of invasion from the US or the return of Cuban Americans who would take back their homes and property (Alarcón, 2006).

    4.4. Destructive outcomes
    We have a charismatic and determined ruler, susceptible followers, and an oppressive and unresponsive government often operating in situations of crisis and urgency. What followed was a revolution initially hailed by leftist thinkers in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe as a paragon of freedom, economic justice, and human rights (DePalma, 2006 and Matthews, 1961).
    The problem was Castro and his followers. Like Stalin, Mao, and all the former Communist leaders of Eastern Europe, Castro was motivated by self-interest and a narcissistic need for power. There were some positive developments for the Cuban poor, notably in health care and education, but at great cost to their freedom and human rights. The overall consequences of Castro’s regime have been an economic disaster, and for all the predictable reasons. On the one hand, Forbes magazine has estimated conservatively that Castro is personally worth nearly $ 1 billion (Kroll, 2006), with extensive accounts in Swiss banks (Latell, 2005 and Fuentes, 2004). On the other hand, pre-Castro Cuba ranked third in Latin America in per capita food consumption; today it ranks last. Telephone service is at 1950s levels, electric power generation is only ahead of Haiti (U.S. Department of State, 2002). In the 1960s and 1970s, one quarter of the population fled, and many more would leave today if they could (Fontova, 2005 and Thomas, 1998). It is not the case that economic sanctions by the U.S. have caused this decline in Cuban wellbeing. The wrong-headed policies of a corrupt Cuban regime and a non-functioning economy are largely to blame.

    • kusum

      Dessert Fox
      Have you seen this:
      Interview of Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka by La Lettre Diplomatique

      We want philosophers who can solve our problems and not who multiply our problems by hiding them.