Lenin: The Leader, the Reality, the People

Work by Mario Sandoval, courtesy of José Martí National Library. Photo: Granma

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of V.I. Lenin’s birth, Granma features an essay about the Russian revolutionary’s ideas in Cuba

The arrival of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s ideas to Cuba has a history, inseparable from socialist ideals and the emergence of the Soviet Union. But a great door was opened with the triumph of a revolution made with the humble, by the humble, and for the humble, which did not take long to embrace socialism.

The popular reception of this process was supported in Cuba by a national history that had, almost 50 years before 1917, its own foundational October, that of 1868, when our wars of independence were launched. In the search for freedom and social justice, this cause was forged with the fight against slavery.

As a group, the richest Cubans began to distance themselves from this search, and deserted the example of founding fathers like Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and Ignacio Agramonte, and the unjustly oft-forgotten Francisco Vicente Aguilera, among others. The leadership of the struggle was increasingly concentrated in more humble hands.

José Martí brought these aspirations to the fore in the second half of the nineteenth century. With brilliance that continues to light the way, he cast his lot “with the poor of the earth” and against emerging U.S. imperialism. Such was the inheritance bequeathed to Fidel Castro and the revolutionary movement he led, which has transformed Cuba since 1959.

In this effort, based on the interaction of thought and action, the central contributions of Lenin, Marx, Engels and others were incorporated – although here we are talking about the leader whose 150th anniversary is being celebrated. With intelligence, wisdom and honesty, Lenin embraced Marx’s ideas, interpreting them in his time, under current circumstances. He applied them creatively in a country that was far from developed capitalism, with contradictions that would not easily open the way to the construction of socialism, a hope that Marx came to hold.

The situation in Russia and its neighboring possessions posed enormous challenges to socialist aspirations, and not only in that nation. The colonial reality, so vast and relevant in much of the world, also demanded attention. Among the many challenges was the need overcome obstacles inherited from economic and social relations with feudal roots or, thinking of other locations, from the burdens of the so-called Asian mode of production, a label that is controversial, but points to a reality that left its mark.

Socialism did not emerge from developed capitalism, which, in fact, has produced barbarism, an increasingly bloody form of barbarism. In the United States at the end of the 19th century – where the system was already advancing toward its most powerful phase – a Cuban, Latin American and universal revolutionary, José Martí, could see that justice was not flourishing in that society, but rather imperialism, as he precociously used the term.

He died in combat in 1895, anxious to prevent the United States’ expansionist plans from being consummated. Years later, when the country’s nature was more fully developed, Lenin was able to interpret the phenomenon theoretically, while he was leading a revolution to found the first workers and peasants’ state. Marti, on the other hand, further developed the conviction he metaphorically summarized when he described the duty of Latin Americans: “When a problem appears in Cojímar, they are not going to look for the solution to Dantzig.” He wrote it in his essay “Our America”, published in January of 1891.

If Martí demanded that the reality Latin Americans were called upon to transform guide revolutionaries’ work, Lenin did the same under his conditions. Not those he imagined or would have preferred, but the conditions he was obliged to face. He was not a cabinet scholar, but a revolutionary who took immediate action to ensure the survival of the socialist project he was leading.

It is not irresponsible to assume that not all the measures taken pleased him. Nor would they satisfy later revolutionaries, who also needed to confront their own realities, not imagined ones. In Cuba, we know of the disagreements a revolutionary like Ernesto Guevara expressed with some of Lenin’s economic practices. Neither of the two, nor others, faced, or would face an ideal world.

In other locations today, there is talk of betrayal by Lenin and the Party he created. Lenin betrayed no one, he betrayed nothing. He strove tirelessly through the complexities of reality, and before contenders of different tendencies, not all necessarily enemies, and none more stubborn than the facts. But he always put light and principled resolve first.

When the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was dissolved, it was no longer even remotely Lenin’s Bolshevik party, even though it still had members – who knows how many – who wanted to keep it alive. Had it been Lenin’s party, it could not have been demobilized as it was. In any case, it would have been obliged to wage an underground struggle, of which Lenin was a master. The exercise of power is more arduous and complicated.

Some polls show that the majority of the Russian people regret the changes that led to their country’s current reality. Yes, the role that Russia plays in international politics is commendable, and, at its best moments, would be unthinkable without the Soviet heritage. But the regrets cited require and deserve to be studied, not as a mere curiosity.

In an effort to silence the value of Lenin’s work, Stalin’s practices are commonly cited. Certainly, personalities play a certain role, sometimes extraordinary; but they are part of a greater reality, which defines them, however capable they may be of influencing this reality.

Around, under and above Lenin, and Stalin – and others – was the party, with its membership. If the organization had played its role fully, with intelligence and courage, would Stalin have been able to commit the excesses he did? But perhaps nothing can prevent some from attributing others to him today, just as attempts are made to equate him with Hitler, a perverse fashionable maneuver.

Among the cardinal ideas that José Martí brought not only to Cuba, one stands out, summoning not only those who lead, but also, and above all, the people, who must make it count: “Ignore the despots; for the people, the suffering masses, are the true leaders of revolutions,” as he stated January 24, 1880.

Only by asserting this idea will the so-called masses be able to fulfill their duty and achieve – in their socialist efforts – a goal that was frustrated in Our America’s independence struggle, as Martí implored: “Common cause with the oppressed must be made, to strengthen the system opposed to the oppressors’ interests and customary ways of ruling,” reads the aforementioned essay of 1891. Take note: a system opposed not only to the interests of the oppressors, but also their customary ways of ruling.

In these aspirations, the legacy of Martí and those of Lenin and Marx are united from different historical and intellectual angles. Proof of this is the presence of Martí’s ideas as a principle in the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, with socialist aspirations, and those of Marx and Lenin, sustained by the explicit inclusion of communist ideals that the people demanded, not as a tacit backdrop.

If reality is to provide Lenin a worthy tribute, 150 years after his birth, and ensure he is not unjustly forgotten, the current pandemic of capitalism is enough, worse than that of the new coronavirus, aggravated by the systematic crisis. The historical and moral need to build a political, social, and cultural civilizing model different from the capitalist one is confirmed.

This system has experience in ensuring its own survival at any cost. But the survival of the human species is in danger, and neither resignation nor conformity are of any use. The way forward is to fight and struggle, as Che would say: Always onward to victory!