By Nathan Coombs (Royal Holloway, University of London)
(Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro by Dayan Jayatilleka, London: Pluto Press, 2007. 235pp., £17.99, ISBN 978 0 7453 2696 2).
Two contemporary trends in the scholarship of the left converge in Dayan Jayatilleka’s appraisal of Fidel Castro’s legacy.
The first is the emerging perspective, from Jacob Taubes to Alain Badiou, that Christianity provides the foundation for the universalism and moral basis of communism.
The second is the shift from the Second International’s emphasis on the scientific basis of historical materialism to the subject-centred philosophy of the existential movement: from Heidegger’s authentic decision, to Jean Paul Sartre’s notion of commitment, and finally arriving as the discourse of post-Marxism in Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou.
Jayatilleka does not assess Fidel’s significance from the heights of such philosophical speculation, but it is clear from the outset that he works within the shared historical horizon of the theoretical left.
He proposes a radical explanation for the downfall of international, revolutionary socialism: that it did not coincide with some change in the underlying economic base of the global economy, but solely from a strategic loss of advantage in defeats of the left between 1974 and 1980. These defeats include Portugal, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Grenada, El Salvador, Chile and Iran.
His hypothesis is that internal fissures imploded these movements, which resulted from extreme internecine violence between factions of the revolutionary left and the loss of moral advantage as exemplified by the barbarism of the Khmers Rouges under Pol Pot.
As the last remaining – and at least somewhat successful – communist state, Jayatilleka proposes that Cuba holds the key to explaining what went wrong with other revolutionary movements.
Fidel Castro’s Jesuit upbringing and attachment to notions such as honour and morality in the correct deployment of revolutionary violence are used to explain the success of the regime and the attainment of moral hegemony on the global scene.
What Fidel achieved was a fusion of moral precepts with Machiavellian realism to attain both stability and continuing regime legitimacy.
In light of recent attempts by the left to model divine violence on Paulian love, it would have been interesting if Jayatilleka had explored the Christian aspect in a comparative perspective with other international movements.
Is there, for instance, a religious essentialist truth as to why the communist regimes of Catholic Latin America are generally perceived as more humane and successful than those practised in Asia and elsewhere?
In other words, we are left with the tantalising question: is it just Fidel’s ‘Ethics of Violence’ that worked so well, or something deeper within the cultural fabric itself?
[This Review appeared in POLITICAL STUDIES REVIEW, journal of the POLITICAL STUDIES ASSOCIATION, UK, published by BLACKWELL]