Veteran social activist Tom Hayden interviews Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon.
?Let?s try to imagine what Karl Marx would be doing today.?
It was Sunday, May 21st, and my host posing the question was Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly. It was Alarcon?s 69th birthday, and I was having difficulty understanding why he had pressed me to fly down for a visit. The purpose was nothing more than ?two old guys talking,? according to his daughter Maggie, a thirty-something single mom and formidable interpreter of Cuba to many North Americans.
Looking back today, I don?t know whether or not Alarcon already knew that his longtime comrade Fidel was diagnosed as needing serious surgery. The question would become a ?state secret,? at Castro?s wish. Alarcon is third in line to succeed Fidel after Raul Castro, although it is more likely Alarcon will blend into a collective transitional team.
The prospect of three days? conversation with Ricardo Alarcon reflecting on his long revolutionary experience was too important to put off, and our interviews may be of greater value during the current rampant and reckless speculation over Fidel?s status. Few individuals alive have the range of Alarcon?s experience, from being a Havana student leader during the Cuban Revolution to Cuba?s United Nations ambassador (1965-78 and 1990-92) to foreign minister (1992-93) and National Assembly president since 1993. And so we sat at a seaside restaurant on his birthday with daughter Maggie and his advisor, Miguel Alvarez. A Venezuelan cargo ship passed just offshore.
?I think Marx would be asking what are we doing about all the millions today who are protesting for peace and justice,? said Alarcon in answer to his question. In a recent essay on ?Marx After Marxism? he argued that Marxists should begin to see the world anew. Scoffing at neoconservatives who embrace the end of Marxism (and the end of history itself), Alarcon also emphasizes the need for ?self-critical reflection on our side as well.? In effect, he is proposing a return to the original spirit of Marx before the 20th-century revolutions in his name. That original Marx organized an early transnational labor movement, with the central demand the eight-hour day, and wrote more theoretical works on 19th-century capitalism. According to Alarcon, that earlier Marx never meant a science-based, inevitable march to socialism based on some objective truth revealed through communist parties. That Marx was a practical revolutionary who himself famously declared ?with all naturalness,? Alarcon points out, ?I am not a Marxist.?
For Alarcon and the Cubans, history always has been contingent, subject to human will and unexpected developments, rather than an unfolding of the inevitable. After Cuba?s decades of dependency on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which caused a degree of ?subordination? to Soviet interests and ?reinforced dogmatism,? Alarcon calls for active exploration of new trends in global capitalism and its oppositional movements. ?Old dogmatists are incapable of appreciating new possibilities in the revolutionary movement,? he says.
All the talk of the United States becoming a sole superpower ?falls to pieces with its bogging down in Iraq? and the derailment of its neo-liberal agenda for Latin America, Alarcon believes.
He identifies new obstacles facing capitalist growth. Every 25 years a population equivalent to the whole planet?s numbers in Marx?s time is born. Alarcon believes climate changes are irreversible, forests are being transformed into deserts, cities becoming uninhabitable and, as a result, an environmental challenge to capitalism has arisen which requires rethinking of Marxist political economy.
Alarcon revises the Marxist (and Leninist) conceptions of the 19th-century proletariat accordingly. Today there are growing numbers of those from different stations of life ?who do not conform, are unsatisfied and rebel.? ?For the first time, anti-capitalist malaise is manifested, simultaneously and everywhere, in advanced countries and those left behind, and is not limited to the proletariat and other exploited sectors.? And so ?a diverse group, multicolored, in which there is no shortage of contradictions and paradoxes, grows in front of the dominant system.?
?It is not yet the rainbow that announces the end of the storm,? Alarcon says, warning that the diverse movements lack a common theory, are marked by spontaneity more often than organization, and need to develop further without either sectarian factionalism or becoming carried away.
He pauses, points an index finger for emphasis, and tells me ?the most important task for the Latin American left? is to reelect President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. Having met with leftists highly critical of fiscal moderation in power, Alarcon says that ?notwithstanding his faults, if Lula is defeated, all of Latin America will be worse off.? This advice may not sit well with some radical advocates of Latin American revolution, but Alarcon takes a longer view. The recent nationalist electoral wave in Latin America—Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, Chile, and a near-success in Mexico—inevitably brings dilemmas of governance to the forefront. But for Alarcon and Cuba, the overall changes in Latin America further a benign result, the full integration of Cuba into Latin America after decades of Cold War antagonisms. The permanent embargo by the United States makes the Cubans especially wary of any reversals in the continental process, as the defeat of Lula in the Oct. 1 election would represent.
Alarcon is pragmatic. He believes in the Cuban philosophy that ?the duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution,? that it must be a ?heroic creation.? But he is aware, perhaps painfully, that revolutions cannot be ?imprinted or copied? and that the ?mandates? of mass movements like those that have elected Lula must be respected. ?There is no alternative in Brazil. The guys who were mad at me for saying this went to meet with the landless movement representatives in Brazil, and they told them the same thing.?
Continuing at a dinner conversation, Alarcon opined that there should be ?many forms of socialism,? depending on the needs of different countries and movements. Even the social-democratic parties, the historical rivals of the European communist parties, have an important role to play today, he said. ?I hope they go through the same sort of introspection we have,? Alarcon said, referring to the tendency of the moderate socialist parties to cut social programs and ?tail? after U.S. military and economic policies. ?I would go further,? he said. ?I don?t believe that capitalism cannot be reformed. The Great Society in your country is an example.?