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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Minima Cuba: Heretical Poetics and Power in Post-Soviet Cuba

Out of Bondage and the New Consciousness

In advocating violence as the only means to freedom in the struggle for national liberation, the philosophy of the revolution was very much in line with state discourse and with other postcolonial thinkers, such as Fanon, who argued that the colonized had to fight the colonizers with the violence that the oppressors had instilled in them.14 Revolutionary leaders claimed that like other revolutions of national liberation, the Cuban Revolution was above all a process of decolonization, especially because it wanted to transform a double relation of dependency: the vertical, interdependent relationship between the oligarchy and popular classes within the country and a horizontal, interdependent relationship between third world countries and first world capitalism. As such, the goal of the revolution was to eliminate the economic, political, and cultural control of U.S. neocolonialism, and to put an end to Batista’s brutal dictatorship. In the Segunda declaration de La Habana (Second Havana Declaration), Fidel Castro expresses these ideas with a Marxian vocabulary. He declares that the revolution’s goal is to transform the motor of the capitalist class dominance: private property. He argues that the nineteenth-century bourgeois revolution built the new society over the ashes of the feudal order: “The bourgeoisie took political power and established on the ruins of feudal society its capitalist mode of production [L]a burguesia conquisto el poder politico y establecio sobre las ruinas de la sociedad feudal su modo capitalista de produccion]” (Castro 2008, 244 [1962,13]). The bourgeois revolution did not eliminate the real causes of the old order: private property and class dominance. The Cuban Revolution, however, transformed the capitalist system with the destruction of its structural premises: “But Cuba rose up. Cuba was able to redeem itself from the bastard tutelage. Cuba broke the chains that tied its fortunes to those of the imperial oppressor, redeemed its riches, reclaimed its culture, and unfurled its banner of Free Territory and People of the Americas [Pero Cuba se levanto, Cuba pudo redimirse a si misma del bastardo tutelaje. Cuba rompio las cadenas que ataban su suerte al imperio opresor, rescato sus riquezas, reivindico su cultura, y desplego su bandera soberana de Territorio y Pueblo Libre de America]” (2008, 242 [1962,12]). It was a violent revolution that sought the restoration and renaissance of the nation: “Revolution historically is like the doctor who assists at the birth of a new life. It does not needlessly use the tools of force, but will use them without hesitation whenever necessary to help the birth—a birth that brings to the enslaved and exploited masses the hope of a new and better life [La revolucion es en la historia como el medico que asiste al nacimiento de una nueva vida. No usa sin necesidad los aparatos de fuerza, pero los usa sin vacilaciones cada vez que sea necesario para ayudar al parto. Parto que trae a las masas esclavizadas y explotadas la esperanza de una vida mejor]” (2008, 249 [1962, 17]). This was also Fanon’s idea of revolution: “National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people . . . decolonization is always a violent phenomenon [Liberation nationale, renaissance natio- nale, restitution de la nation au people . . . la decolonisation est toujours un phenomene violent]” (Fanon 1963 [1961], 35 [2002, 39]). The logic of violence was precisely determined by two contradictory ideas. On the one hand, the idea of restoration; on the other hand, that of renaissance. The people had to reclaim their country that had been seized, yet at the same time they also had to rebuild it. In other words, the revolution was conceived as a process to seize the past in order to destroy it. That is, unlike the bourgeois revolution, these processes of decolonization sought to annihilate the ruins of the past: “The destruction of the colonial world is no more and no less than the abolition of one zone, its burial in the depths of the earth or its expulsion from the country [Detruire le monde colonial c’est ni plus ni moins abolir une zone, l’enfouir au plus profond du sol ou l’expulser du territoire]” (1963 [1961], 41 [2002, 44]). In Cuba’s case, it meant creating a new history that would represent revolution as the degree zero of history. It was not a mode to affirm the negation (destruction) and build from its ruins; it was a theological gesture of creation.

The concept of revolution as a process of annihilation was precisely what triggered the rhetorical emphasis on violence. Inspired by the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, Fanon argued that the colonized had to curse the colonialist with the language they had learned from him. The violence of colonization’s “civilizing” mission was now the asset of the colonized people. Guevara also believed that capitalism’s violence could only be fought with violence: “Violence is not the monopoly of the exploiters and as such the exploited can use it too, moreover, [they] ought to use it when the moment arrives” (Guevara 1997 [1961], 74). In his well-known essay Caliban: Apuntes sobre la cultura en nuestra America (Caliban: Notes on Culture in Our America), Roberto Fernandez Retamar reads Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an allegory of colonial oppression. He interprets Caliban’s education as the cultural imposition that resulted from the colonizer’s civilizing mission in the Caribbean. Prospero imposes his culture and his language on Caliban, who realizes he can use the master’s language to curse him back. Likewise, it can be argued that violence became the language of the colonized, because that is what they learned from their masters: “He of whom they have never stopped saying that the only language he understands is that of force, decides to give utterance by force [Lui a qui on n’a jamais cesse de dire qu’il ne comprenait que le langage de la force, decide de s’exprimer par la force]” (Fanon 1963 [1961], 84 [2002, 81]). Thus, they cursed their masters back with the use of violence and strove to take their place (Fanon 1963 [1961], 53). But in order to fight back, the colonized need to be aware of their own agency as subjects. This moment of self-recognition is key in Fanon’s theory, and it can only happen through struggle. In other words, the colonized do not become subjects until they confront the master. Subjectivity or the possibility for emancipation only materializes through struggle. Hence, the struggle between colonized and colonizers was above all a battle for self-recognition. What is required, then, is to understand the ontological implications of this struggle for the colonized. Basing his approach on Alexandre Koj eve’s materialist reading of Hegel’s dialectic, Fanon clearly reinterprets Hegel’s ontological model of the self-recognition process by assimilating it to the process of decolonization. Hegel argues that self-consciousness only exists after the subject is acknowledged by the other (Hegel 1997 [1807], 105). In order to illustrate this idea and the dialectical power relations that take place in this process, he represents it allegorically as the relation between a master and a slave. This is precisely the model that inspires Fanon to understand the relationship between colonizers and colonized.

For Hegel, self-consciousness requires consciousness of the other’s recognition of oneself. In other words, if I cannot recognize that the other is recognizing me, I cannot recognize my own existence. Negativity is key in the dialectical process, for only its sublation into positivity can bring about transformation and eventually freedom. In Hegel’s allegory, the bondsman and the lord face each other in a struggle to death, as both try to attain self-consciousness. Since the moment of negativity is necessary for the completion of the dialectic, they can only attain self-sufficiency by dreadfully risking their own lives. The master wins the battle because he chooses to risk his life in spite of fear. He gets his self-recognition from the bondsman, who prefers to be objectified by the master and stay in fear. But because the master depends on the bondsman to attain self-consciousness, he does not actually become independent (Hegel 1997, 114). The bondsman cannot break free of his bondage to the lord, who needs him for his self-recognition. So he only possesses his independence in thinghood, not manhood (ibid., 115). By choosing to be free of attachments, however, the slave steadily gains his self-consciousness through work, as he sees himself mirrored in what he produces. To conclude his story, Hegel repeats the importance of dread. He says that men need to live in dread and anxiety in order to become self-conscious. If the individual has not really felt deep fear, self-recognition will not occur: “If it has not experienced absolute fear but only some lesser dread, the negative being has remained for it something external, its substance has not been infected by it through and through” (ibid., 119).

This feeling of dread is also key to understanding the rhetoric of Fanon and Guevara, as dread triggers the people’s will to revolt. Both writers choose violence as a means to gain self-consciousness and eventually freedom: “The colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence [L’homme colonise se libere dans et par la violence]” (Fanon 1963 [1961], 86 [2002, 83]). For Fanon and Guevara, the people or the colonized are bondsmen. They are objectified by the lord, who needs their recognition to attain self-consciousness. Whereas in the Hegelian model, the bondsman becomes self-conscious through labor, for Guevara and Fanon the bondsman attains freedom by winning the struggle with the lord and taking his place. “The guerrilla is the combat vanguard of the people . . . willing to carry out a series of warlike actions for one possible strategic end—the seizure of power,” Guevara writes (1997 [1961], 71). (“La guerrilla es la vanguardia combativa del pueblo armada, dispuesta a desarrollar una serie de acciones belicas tendientes al unico fin estrategico posible: la toma del poder [1977a, 204].) This is the most important difference between their theory and the Hegelian model, and it also explains why Fanon’s and Guevara’s models are not dialectical. In their theories, the bondsman surpasses the moment of negativity or dread, but instead of sublating this negativity into positivity, he falls back into positivity: “Decolonization is truly the creation of new men. But this creation does not receive its legitimacy from any supernatural power: the colonized ‘thing’ becomes a man through the very process by which it frees itself [La decolonisation est veritablement creation d’hommes nouveaux. Mais cette creation ne regoit pas sa legitimite d’aucune puissance surnaturelle: ‘la chose’ colonisee devient homme dans le processus meme par lequel elle se libere]” (Fanon 1963 [1961], 36 [2002, 40]). That is, the colonized reach self-consciousness when they eventually win the battle, and not through work. In other words, the slave ceases being a bondsman and thus becomes a lord. As a result, he never becomes independent or free. He attains self-recognition but not independence, because he always depends on the gaze of a bondsman for his self-consciousness. Instead of becoming truly free, the colonized repeat the cycle of violence indefinitely. In other words, Fanon’s and Guevara’s propositions might be doing away with the teleological nature of Hegel’s theory of self-recognition, but they are still embedded in the onto-theological foundations of Hegelian thought. The structure of power remains the same. And since the relationship of codependency between the lord and the people remains the same, no real freedom or change is achieved. The logic of violence also articulated the theory of the New Man as an intellectual, especially in Ernesto Guevara’s thought. Guevara’s theory contains no idea of intellectual organicity. Intellectuals are and were society’s vanguard, having been educated and brought up to be so. They do not need to go through a process of transformation to be leaders. But they do need to break with the bourgeois ideology that formed them as intellectuals. Intellectuals need to negate their bourgeois ego and regain a new consciousness in the new society through work and sacrifice. For Guevara, this new intellectual is the New Man or the hero and the warrior. The New Man thus has to restore himself through work and sacrifice by negating the bourgeois consciousness and sublating it into positivity as a new hero and warrior. How can intellectuals find self-consciousness by negating their own ego? This is the question that Guevara addresses through the allegory of the New Man. Warfare ideology gained prominence after the institutionalization of the revolution. The guerrilla warfare hero, the defense of the fatherland, and armed struggle became the three fundamental principles articulating the discourse of national liberation on which the new society was constructed. Warfare came to symbolize progress, modernity, and construction rather than destruction, and the subject whose identity embraced all these values was the warrior or the New Man. The New Man was the revolutionary hero, with whom all Cubans born within the revolution had to identify: “The Revolution began to be identified with the Sierra Maestra and the people with the Rebel Army, while the United States and those Cubans without national dignity represented the enemy” (Perez-Stable 1993, 134). Guevara developed the concept in his description of revolutionary intellectuals’ goals and values in “El socialismo y el hombre nuevo en Cuba” (“Socialism and the New Man in Cuba”). In this, one of his most paradigmatic essays, Guevara argues that only the generations formed in the new revolutionary society would be free of temptation from capitalism. The younger generations were made out of “malleable clay” from which Cuban socialism would create the New Men of the Revolution, the intellectual vanguard that would lead the masses.

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