Politics and Governance

Fidel’s Ethics of Violence

 Fidel's Ethics of Violence

[The following is the English translation of a review essay by Prof. Remy Herrera which has just appeared under the caption “Morale de la révolution” in the December 2008 edition of Afrique-Asie, the reputed French magazine.]


Re-defining the terms of a moral ideal of rebel resistance: How to master revolutionary violence? questions the Sri Lankan academic Dayan Jayatilleka in his latest book. It is by practicing a strict code of ethics, the way the ‘Maximum Leader’ did,  proving that the limits imposed on legitimate violence help avoid terror and extreme violence and that those limits help gain popular support.

For nearly a decade, Latin America has become a place of resurgence of the peoples’ struggle for national sovereignty, respect for cultural diversity, social progress and democracy. This renewed vigour in the Latin American people’s resistance, and the strong and permanent ideological reference that the Cuban revolution and its historic leader Fidel Castro (whom Hugo Chavez Frias, the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, calls his “political father”) constitutes in the heart of that popular movement, compel us to interrogate the nature, value and the modernity of Fidelismo.

That is precisely what Dayan Jayatilleka, a steadfast progressist, a lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo and representative of Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council at the UN in Geneva, has undertaken to do in a profound and important work titled Fidel’s Ethics of Violence, published in English, by Pluto Press, London.

Cuba’s adherence to communism since 1959 and the survival of the Cuban revolution beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s can be understood only in the long-term perspective, through a complex analysis of the conditions under which they fused with Cuba’s struggles for national liberation and social emancipation. The role played by Fidel Castro – from the commander of a guerrilla war to the victorious head of state of the Tricontinental – in the consolidation of the Cuban people’s resistance and in maintaining their unity in the face of the dangers they encountered, should be evaluated for what the Cuban people were, and still are: this is absolutely vital.

It’s to the fundamental basis of this reality that Dayan Jayatilleka chooses to draw the attention of the reader; although many Western leftist administrations might still be hampered by great confusion and have not yet found, due to the incessant bombardment of the media feedback, the ways of rebuilding their internationalism and an active solidarity with the peoples of the South; although great leaders of the Third World may not yet be truly recognized – even by many Marxists – as having contributed to the advancement of the history of thought in political philosophy, in general – and in Marxism, in particular; although Fidel himself, disgusted by the personality cult and political pragmatism, has not systematized his vision of the world in a completed, written doctrinal work.

According to the author, Fidel Castro’s major contribution is the moral and ethical dimension which characterizes his thought and action. The sources of his ethics are deeply rooted in the history of the “Cubanism” itself, in its very special mix of idealism and realism, in the successful combination of the humanist heritage of Jose Marti (the initiator and hero of the war for independence who died in the battle in 1895) and Marxism-Leninism, and in the unique way of balancing the exercise of power and the imperative for virtue.

This is one of the fundamental reasons for which the Cuban revolution not only was not entombed with the USSR (how many times should it be reminded that Cuba is not a residue of the Soviet Union, lost in the Caribbean?), but also did not, hitherto, resort to terror to prevail. And this is certainly not strange because up to now, of all the great revolutions, it is the one that took place in Cuba that gave its leaders – first of all, to the first among them – the longest, widest and most solid support of its people.

At the heart of the topic resides of course the issue of revolutionary violence and its containment – that is to say, the use of violence in a “fair” or “correct” manner – when an entire nation rises up clamouring for its liberation. Because, if we accept that (these obvious facts have now become taboos) the violence of the oppressed is not of the same nature as that of the oppressor – a Palestinian child who grabs hold of a stone against an Israeli soldier who holds him at gun point – and that people can legitimately opt for armed struggle to resist oppression – French resistance under Nazi occupation, the Algerian “rebels” during the fight for Independence, the Vietnamese fighting against the U.S. aggression, were they terrorists? -, an inevitable disquieting concern arises: what are the limits that are to be imposed on this legitimate violence?

Dayan Jayatilleka shows how Fidel Castro was capable of defining these impassable limits through an inflexible code of ethics, and how he put it to practice in Cuba even during the movement of people’s rebellion. And this code of honour, these universal values which were practised even in the guerrilla war, who else than Ernesto Che Guevara – the heroic guerrilla, the “moral giant” as Fidel called him- could be more pure and popular to have been able to symbolize them? One day in 1958, after a battle against the army of the dictator Batista in the mountains of Sierra Maestra, a guerrilla asked Fidel “What shall we do with the prisoners?” Fidel’s answer was: “Treat them humanely. Do not ever insult them. And remember, for us, the life of an unarmed human being must always remain sacred.”

It’s this ethic that nurtured the Cuban Revolution since its very beginning, on the island as well as beyond its borders, in the deployment of its military internationalism in solidarity with the struggles of other nations, against colonialism, imperialism and apartheid. And again, it is this ethic that made him constantly safeguard the lives of the non-combatant civilians, refuse the execution of the prisoners of war and reject torture. After all, everyone knows this (even John McCain, who nevertheless claimed to have been “tortured” by Cubans in Vietnam … although there were no Cuban fighters in Vietnam!): If torture is used on Cuban soil, it is in the Guantanamo base, and nowhere else, that is to say, it is in this piece of land that the United States holds since the military occupation of the island in 1898 and which it refuses to give back to the Cuban people for over a century.

Dayan Jayatilleka does not brush aside any problem (neither of philosophical nature nor of practical nature), makes no effort to differentiate (from other revolutionary experiences in the South, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka …), does not forget any of the painful issues (for example, the Ochoa case). Through his nuanced, courageous and ‘against the current’ thinking, he offers all progressives the opportunity, both to set up the terms of a moral ideal of rebel resistance and to rebuild a concrete alternative which fits challenges of modernity. And to the most radical among them, this book might help them even to rethink the unthinkable under such trying conditions at the beginning of this twenty-first century: another world, which is better and … socialist.


Rémy Herrera, Professor in Development Economics at the Université de Paris 1, France, is a researcher at the CNRS, the National Centre for Scientific Research, and the Director of the Social Forum collection at Edition L’Harmattan, Paris. A collaborator of Prof. Samir Amin, he is a member of the World Forum of the Alternatives – FMA, Dakar.