Divine and Ethical Violence

The 26th of July Movement (the rebel leaders) that brought down the Batista government conceived of revolution in an Arendtian sense, that is, as a new and radical political process leading to freedom.3 Here is how Fidel Castro defined it in his December 24, 1955, speech “jFrente a todos!” (“Against All!”): “The Cuban people want more than a change of leadership. Cuba yearns for radical change in all fields of public and social life” (Castro 1972a, 78). More specifically, Castro laid out the uprising’s objectives in a speech that he delivered in his own defense while on trial for the first failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953,4 where he also defended his use of armed struggle. Most revolutions are associated with violence, but not all revolutions need be violent. For Cuban revolutionaries, however, revolution and armed struggle were inseparable concepts. Violence can only be instrumental if it is not an end in itself, and Cuban revolutionaries knew they had to justify their use of violence as a means to liberate the country. According to revolutionary discourse, the armed uprising was the last resort to fight Batista’s regime, but the repressive nature of Batista’s rule demanded and justified it.

The 26th of July Movement came together on the grounds of a common belief in revolutionary action. As a matter of fact, in a replica from Bohemia, where he addressed Ortodoxo party’s moderates, Fidel Castro argued that revolutionary action was not just an option, but rather a necessity: “El Movimiento Revolucionario 26 de Julio no constituye una tendencia dentro del partido: es el aparato revolucionario del chibasismo [The 26th of July Movement is not a tendency within the party: it is Chibasismo’s revolutionary apparatus]” (Castro 1972b, 87). Unlike History Will Absolve Me, however, this letter, as well as subsequent ones that were also published in Bohemia in 1956, did not make a direct apology for armed struggle. The message was very clear: the revolutionaries would not strike first, but they would not tolerate Batista’s repression either: “No amamos la fuerza; porque detestamos la fuerza es por lo que no estamos dispuestos a que se nos gobierne por la fuerza. No amamos la violencia; porque detestamos la violencia no estamos dispuestos a seguir soportando la violencia que desde hace cuatro anos se ejerce sobre la nacion [We don’t like violence: it is because we dislike violence that we won’t put up with the repression that’s been devastating the nation for four years]” (Castro 1972b, 91). Fidel Castro’s nonviolence claims gave the 26th of July Movement the moral ground over the Batista regime’s brutal treatment of political opponents, as well as a legitimate right to self-defense and the political legitimacy that his nascent movement needed. When Fidel Castro confronted the Batista regime directly, for example, as he did in his famous 1953 discourse History Will Absolve Me, he justified violence as a right to self-defense.

The advocacy of violence as a means to a just end is precisely the type of argumentation that Fidel Castro used in order to differentiate two types of violence: that of the Batista government, on the one hand, and that of the 26th of July Movement, on the other. Whereas the people had the right to rise in arms against the oppressive regime, Fidel Castro argued, the Batista government’s use of force was arbitrary and unjustified. In Cuba, the attack on the Moncada barracks was Fidel Castro’s first, albeit unsuccessful, armed action. Initially, he was condemned to twenty-seven years in prison, but he was then given the possibility of a trial. Being a lawyer, Castro decided to defend himself. He laid out the political goals of the insurrection and also deployed a defense of armed struggle in his speech History Will Absolve Me.5 One of the argumentative strategies of Castro’s famous self-defense narrative was to assert that the assault of July 26, 1953, was a justified use of violent means to attain just ends: “/Con que derecho enviar a la carcel a ciudadanos que vinieron a dar por el decoro de su patria su sangre y su vida? jEso es monstruoso ante los ojos de la nacion y los principios de la verdadera justicia! [By what right do you send to jail citizens who have just given, for the glory of their country, their blood and their lives? This is monstrosity before the eyes of the nation and before the principles of true justice!]” (Castro 1972c, 69). Castro accused his opponents of an unjust use of violence and, hence, of an unjust use of the law. In contrast, the 26th of July Movement’s use of violence was just because it was founding a new law, a new type of legality. This strategy allowed Castro to argue that the ends to justify his means were just, a way of understanding violence that did not differ much from that of his opponent.

Once the rebels were in power, however, the use of violence became more difficult to justify. Yet, the government kept reinforcing the discourse of war. As Hugh Thomas points out, in 1961 Cuba was a militarized society full of aspiring soldiers (Thomas 1971, 1321). State rhetoric was influenced by Marxist ideas, but it also included a new doctrine: the worship of war?fare. I take this argument farther and say that it used war, and especially its aesthetization, as the discursive core of revolutionary ideology. The aesthetic representation of violence was instrumental in creating popular support for the increasing militarization of society: it had to embody appeal, necessity, and above all, justice. This explains why, as Rojas eloquently puts it, revolutionary exploits were represented in a theatrical manner, and leaders were portrayed as religious saviors: “Las vidas ejemplares de la elite y el lider, como las de los santos del cristianismo, debian conformar la trama de una obra de teatro moralizante, que lograria la cohesion de la comunidad y, sobre todo, su involucramiento en la epopeya [As with Christian saints, the exemplary lives of the elite and the leader were represented in morality plays producing social cohesion, and above all, the people’s involvement in the epic]” (Rojas 2007, 44). Many of the revolutionary accounts given by Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara illustrate this idea. In “Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War” ’s description of the final revolutionary battle in Santa Clara, for example, Guevara talks about the suffering of the soldiers when the leader dies. Surprisingly, however, the soldiers do not cry for the dead leader, instead, they suffer because they cannot take his place: “Era curioso ver a los curtidos y nobles guerreros, mostrando su juventud en el despecho de unas lagrimas, por no tener el honor de estar en el primer lugar de combate y de muerte [Every time one of its men died—and this happened during every combat—and a new candidate was accepted, those who were not chosen could not hide their disappointment nor hold back their tears]” (Guevara 1977b, 264 [1968, 252]). As this example shows, most dramatizations of the revolutionary epic foreground a heroic death, which promises at the same time to be the conquest of justice. The hero fights in the name of universal justice, and the closer he gets to violence, the faster he can approach justice.

Making reference to Benjamin’s concept of mythical violence, Rojas argues that these episodes have the “sentido mitico y teatral de la vio- lencia y la moralizacion de la economia [mythical and theatrical sense of violence and the moralization of economy]” (Rojas 2007, 45). Yet, this violence was certainly not mythical; it was, rather, represented as a Benja- minian divine form of violence, and this also explains its religious connotations. For the sake of my argument, let me briefly elaborate on Benjamin’s well-known essay “Critique on Violence” and, most specifically, on the difference between mythical and divine violence. After analyzing the role of violence within legal theory, Benjamin abandons the secular domain to look at violence in the mythical and religious spheres. Mythical violence, according to him, works very much like legal violence in that every act of power to establish the law is in itself an act of violence (Benjamin 1986, 296). In this regard, legal or mythical violence operates in the same fashion in democratic and nondemocratic regimes. Divine violence, however, is the opposite of mythical violence, because it destroys the law instead of founding it (Benjamin 1986, 297). Benjamin’s discussion of divine violence is certainly the most metaphorical and complex fragment of the essay, among other things, because Benjamin refers to Talmudic law, and his example is underdeveloped and unclear. This being said, I think that it is a key passage to understand the question that Benjamin addresses: Is it possible to solve a conflict without resorting to violence? At the beginning of the essay, he partially responds to this question by invoking the power of language and communication, and most scholars have followed this interpretation. Yet, in my opinion, the more abstract and metaphorical response to his question is to be found in his discussion and critique of divine violence. As a matter of fact, divine violence can, according to Benjamin, put an end to mythical violence.

The understanding of this idea is crucial for my argument, because I contend that, in the name of divine violence, the state justified armed struggle, as a just means to attain ethical Justice. Unlike mythical violence, Benjamin argues in a rather poetic form, that divine violence destroys the law, that it expiates instead of demanding retribution, and that it is lethal without being bloody (Benjamin 1986, 297). Most importantly, his essay argues that only divine violence can be a just means to a just cause, because its goal is moral universal Justice, as opposed to legal justice. The relationship between the divine and universal Justice is key to understanding why Cuban revolutionary violence was divine and not mythical, and why revolutionary rhetoric was enunciated as a religious allegory. The religious undertones of revolutionary discourse were due to the understanding of armed struggle as ethical crusade. It was by appealing to a universal understanding of ethics that revolutionary rhetoric justified state violence. The implication was that the revolution would save people through armed struggle. Moreover, it also indicated that the state was acting in the fashion of the sovereign (understood as the monarchical figure endowed with godly powers). Thus, violence in the hands of the sovereign (qua divine violence) would be the means to eliminate the law (as a repressive instrument of power). In a way, this discourse was repeating the old patterns of the political theology of royal sovereignty. A state that justified violence in the name of Justice, as Fidel Castro did in History Will Absolve Me, acted like the sovereign endowed with the power to annihilate history and reconstruct it in the name of ethical Justice.

Understood in Benjaminian terms, this type of violence, far from representing a new, radical way of understanding governance, still followed the theological and metaphysical structure of sovereignty and divine violence. According to this logic, the revolutionaries were acting as Messiahs who had the power to annihilate the past in order to create a new law. The revolutionary hero sacrificed his life to follow the unwritten laws of the Messiah (Benjamin 1986, 320). In other words, for Castro, guerrilla warfare was understood in its Clausewitzian rendition as a continuation of politics by other means. According to this logic, partisans (guerrilleros or irregular soldiers) were fighting for a political objective and to achieve Justice. In History Will Absolve Me, Fidel Castro used constitutional law from different centuries and countries to justify the right to rise up in arms against a tyranny. He famously finished his discourse with a defense of armed struggle articulated as a religious metaphor addressed to future generations: “Condenadme, no importa, la historia me absolvera [Condemn me, it doesn’t matter, history will absolve me]” (Castro 1972c, 71). That is, future generations would not condemn his sins (the use of force), because his cause was led by the moral imperative to attain universal Justice.

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