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Obituary: Quick Reflections on Fidel Castro's Death

With everything that has been written about Fidel Castro's death I doubt I'm going to add anything original. This entry will not be a useful think-piece or another hot take. Within twenty-four hours of learning about his death everything that I would have originally considered writing was already written and so there will be many aspects of what I say below that have been said, and said better, by others. Indeed, I considered passing over the news of his death in silence (outside of some tweets) but then two things made me change my mine: i) the fact that I tend to write obituaries about other people who were less significant or whose memory I wanted to dis-honour; ii) an excellent polemical obituary by a US Maoist that made me think about my understanding of Castro and the Cuban revolution in regards to my political development.

He did the bird before Bernie Sanders and, like its politics, better.

For me Castro's death is a strange event in that, having grown up with him alive, he has been one of the key living symbols of the great worldwide anti-imperialist movement that outlived this movement's dissolution and thus remained as a representative of a world that might have been. Like the author of the aforelinked polemic I do not think it is useful, now, to discuss the efficacy of the Cuban revolution and its links to worldwide revisionism as well as worldwide anti-imperialism; nuance is important, the socialist movement(s) of the past contained multiple contradictions, and these lines of demarcation were drawn when they mattered. To draw them now when the Cuban revolution is no longer what it was is often an act of radical cosplaying, similar to the ways in which Trotskyists always complain about Stalin winning the line struggle over Trotsky. What matters is that a great revolutionary who remained true to his principles, to the way he understood socialism and an anti-imperialist integrity, has passed away.

I became an anti-capitalist activist in the late 1990s when capitalism had declared itself the end of history. Since this discourse was premised on multiple Cold War narratives about the corruption, violence, totalitarianism, and inefficacy of communism, I was originally an anarchist. I had watched the wall fall on my parents' television and had been taught in school that communism was a great evil; anarchism seemed the only viable anti-capitalist option. During this time I was taught to see Castro as an out-of-touch dictator (if not a vicious and pitiless tyrant) and Cuba as an antiquated socialist backwater that was refusing to accept reality. Like so many anarchists, most of my confirmation bias was supplied by anti-communist ideologues and the thinkers they promoted; like some of the same kind of anarchists and leftcoms who remain today, I uncritically accepted many of these narratives because it confirmed what I wanted to think––what I was taught to think––about socialism.

In fact, one of the first times my anti-communist anarchist bubble was punctured concerned the Cuban Revolution. I had just read a memoir by a Cuban "dissident" about being a political prisoner in Cuba and uncritically accepted what in retrospect was clearly a CIA-backed narrative as truth because, you know, it was a memoir. Now I'm old enough to know that memoirs are not trustworthy historical documents, that memory is political, and there is a reason there is something called the subjectivist fallacy, but at the time I was just an edgy anarchist kid who easily bought into rebellious narratives that suspiciously aligned with common sense ideology. At a party at a fellow anarchist's house who at that time was a very good friend I got into an argument about Cuba with someone who was older and better read; when I tried to use this memoir as proof for why the Cuban Revolution was authoritarian and should not be celebrated, they laid into me with precision and intelligence, castigating my willingness to believe propaganda. This was of course not enough to convince an anarchist kid that he was wrong––doubling-down was a thing that existed long before we had a name for it––but it was enough to make me realize that I didn't know very much.

A few years later, at the FTAA summit in Quebec City where myself and thousands of others were being tear-gassed, I encountered multiple graffiti slogans and pictures celebrating Cuba's resistance to the FTA and memorializing Castro and the memory of Che. At that time I was already drifting away from uncritical anarchism and was thus forced to realize that there was another narrative about places like Cuba that I could not dismiss if I was also to remain critical of capitalist/imperialist propaganda. In the years that followed the anti-globalization movement I drifted towards work that celebrated the Cuban Revolution, to the historiography of the anti-imperialist movement, back to Lenin and the Russian Revolution, and then up to the Chinese Revolution. Rejecting the bullshit about the Cuban Revolution was what allowed me to reject the bullshit of the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution as well. While I ended up proclaiming fidelity to a tradition that was critical of the one the Cuban Revolution aligned with, part of the reason I ended up in this tradition was because of the ways in which I was able to reflect upon my "anarchist" anti-communism that had manifested sharply against Castro's legacy.

While I am not unsympathetic with the standard Maoist critiques of Castro's revisionism, I have always felt that this needs to be balanced with a critical reflection of China's poor record with anti-revisionism at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, I think it is less important at this moment than the liberal hypocrisy revealed by the death of Castro. The imperialist liberal edifice that has capitulated to fascism, is unaware of its own complicity in the immanence of fascism, but still sees itself as the moral standard of humanity spent about as much time, in the days directly following Castro's death, attacking the legacy of the Cuban Revolution as it did criticizing Trump's election.

Obama snidely pointed out that the US differs from Cuba because the US is seen by the world as an exemplar of human rights. A laughable point considering that the same US maintains a torture concentration camp on Cuban soil and has been seen as nobody besides US citizens as the paradigm of human rights. The self-righteous statements about LGBTQ rights in Cuba is equally laughable when one considers that Cuba ended up being light years ahead of the US on these issues and, unlike the US, actually self-criticized for its poor past behaviour. (Even weirder were Marco Rubio's moralistic tweets about Cuba's anti-queer past considering that Rubio, if he had his way, would lock every queer and trans person up in a religious conversion therapy camp.) Then there are the comments about Cuba's political prisoners made by US liberals who are either ignorant or dishonest about the fact that they have the largest prison population in history and that some of these prisoners are civil rights leaders locked up since the 1960s simply for challenging Jim Crow. Finally there is the liberal utilization of identity politics that exhorts us to treat the views of right-wing Miami Cubans seriously because they are Cuban: aside the fact that this denies the statements made by the majority of Cubans in Cuba and in the diaspora, it cannot help but run into the contradiction that this tiny Cuban population of former landowners (from families that were proud of their Spanish colonial descent, who saw themselves as European, and who are living in exile because they could not be modern-day slavers) not only identify with US white supremacy––they celebrate George Zimmerman as a hero––but are part of the Trump partisanship that these same US liberals condemn.

Whatever Castro's failures we should at least recognize that an important anti-imperialist died. Not an anti-imperialist who adapted immediately to neo-colonialism, like Nelson Mandela and others, but one who remained defiant until the end. At the very least Castro's death marks the closure of the past era of anti-imperialism beseeching us to open a new epoch of global anti-imperialist resistance.