Castro, statism and the Egyptian revolution

The death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro on November 25 prompted a heated debate on the nature of his regime. Some asked why dwell on the past and not our current reality, but I believe Castro’s death provides us with an opportunity to critically explore aspects of the Cuban revolution, and to assess means of change more broadly in a world of injustice and oppression.

My purpose in writing, therefore, is not to reopen graves or deliver a verdict of innocence or guilt, but to explore aspects that I feel were central to experiences in Cuba, and to compare them to our own in Egypt.

The Russian (1917), German (1918) and Iranian (1979) revolutions were fundamentally mass, popular initiatives, by which organized political forces, whether revolutionary, opportunistic, or regressive, reacted, changed their directions and contributed to their defeat.

The Cuban revolution (1959), however, was undertaken by a cohort of revolutionaries numbering fewer than 3,000 at its peak. In fact, efforts were made to curtail popular, mass involvement in the revolutionary movement, and to limit public participation to one of support and the implementation of revolutionary decisions. But is it possible to describe change in which the masses played a minimal role as a revolution? I would say yes, but that that this kind of revolution has several limitations, due to its elitist approach.

There must be complete liberation for the people, by the people.

Top-down revolutions are based on a paradox: they force a separation between the change makers (a loyal revolutionary group) and the beneficiaries or stakeholders of change (the masses, or, more accurately, exploited and oppressed social forces). They require a certain tyranny of a minority of change makers over the masses. This nearly always impacts the nature of the authority that comes out of the process of revolutionary change. The revolutionary minority is generally drawn to one or two alternative scenarios: work with the state apparatus inherited from the previous regime, or dismantle or radically alter it in favor of a new bureaucratic apparatus to manage the transition process.

Both choices are bitter. Creating a huge governing apparatus in isolation of the masses, or civilian oversight, even if its leadership is revolutionary, nearly always leads to networks of special interest or class creating cleavages among citizens. This ruling class has been called the “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” by some, and referred to as “bureaucratic state capitalism” by others. But regardless of the label, the meaning is clear: the masses are not empowered in the process of change and the management of the state leads to the reproduction of class divisions in a more fiercely authoritarian manner.

To separate the means and goals of change is futile. Top-down revolutions, and the economic and political statism that commonly results from them, were at one stage in history, a successful tool for achieving national goals that the traditional bourgeois revolutions were incapable of achieving, such as colonial independence and rapid economic growth.

I have no doubt that such bright, but false, images of a similar developmental model came to the minds of many leftists and Egyptian nationalists as they cheered for the coup of the summer of 2013. I don’t doubt either that similar images came to the minds of the patriotic supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at least in the early days before Egypt’s economic crisis.

It is not enough, in my opinion, to critique Sisi’s right-wing statism more than the national, anti-imperial statism of Castro. I believe we need to abandon statism alltogether if we are to achieve radical social change.

There is a difference between anti-statism and neoliberalism, which many confuse. Anti-statism, from a revolutionary perspective, means an increased hostility to neoliberalism, not the opposite. The aim of radical democratic liberation is change from below, meaning bringing both the state and market under the democratic collective control of millions. As a result, the fundamental issue in such a project is the empowerment of the oppressed as the subject of change.

There must be complete liberation for the people, by the people.

Translated by Assmaa Naguib

Tamer Waguih 

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