“A Profound and important work” - Fidel’s Ethics of Violence, By Dayan Jayatilleka

A review by Rémy Herrera

[The following is the English translation of a review essay by Prof. Remy Herrera which has just appeared under the caption “Morale de la révolution” – "Morality of the Revolution" - in the December 2008 edition of Afrique-Asie, the reputed French magazine.]

Re-defining the terms of a moral ideal of rebel resistance: How to master revolutionary violence? questions the Sri Lankan academic Dayan Jayatilleka in his latest book. It is by practicing a strict code of ethics, the way the 'Maximum Leader' did, proving that the limits imposed on legitimate violence help avoid terror and extreme violence and that those limits help gain popular support.

For nearly a decade, Latin America has become a place of resurgence of the peoples’ struggle for national sovereignty, respect for cultural diversity, social progress and democracy. This renewed vigour in the Latin American people’s resistance, and the strong and permanent ideological reference that the Cuban revolution and its historic leader Fidel Castro (whom Hugo Chavez Frias, the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, calls his "political father") constitutes in the heart of that popular movement, compel us to interrogate the nature, value and the modernity of Fidelismo.

That is precisely what Dayan Jayatilleka, a steadfast progressist, a lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo and representative of Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council at the UN in Geneva, has undertaken to do in a profound and important work titled Fidel's Ethics of Violence, published in English, by Pluto Press, London.

Cuba's adherence to communism since 1959 and the survival of the Cuban revolution beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s can be understood only in the long-term perspective, through a complex analysis of the conditions under which they fused with Cuba’s struggles for national liberation and social emancipation. The role played by Fidel Castro - from the commander of a guerrilla war to the victorious head of state of the Tricontinental - in the consolidation of the Cuban people’s resistance and in maintaining their unity in the face of the dangers they encountered, should be evaluated for what the Cuban people were, and still are: this is absolutely vital.

It’s to the fundamental basis of this reality that Dayan Jayatilleka chooses to draw the attention of the reader; although many Western leftist administrations might still be hampered by great confusion and have not yet found, due to the incessant bombardment of the media feedback, the ways of rebuilding their internationalism and an active solidarity with the peoples of the South; although great leaders of the Third World may not yet be truly recognized - even by many Marxists - as having contributed to the advancement of the history of thought in political philosophy, in general - and in Marxism, in particular; although Fidel himself, disgusted by the personality cult and political pragmatism, has not systematized his vision of the world in a completed, written doctrinal work.

According to the author, Fidel Castro’s major contribution is the moral and ethical dimension which characterizes his thought and action. The sources of his ethics are deeply rooted in the history of the "Cubanism" itself, in its very special mix of idealism and realism, in the successful combination of the humanist heritage of Jose Marti (the initiator and hero of the war for independence who died in the battle in 1895) and Marxism-Leninism, and in the unique way of balancing the exercise of power and the imperative for virtue.

This is one of the fundamental reasons for which the Cuban revolution not only was not entombed with the USSR (how many times should it be reminded that Cuba is not a residue of the Soviet Union, lost in the Caribbean?), but also did not, hitherto, resort to terror to prevail. And this is certainly not strange because up to now, of all the great revolutions, it is the one that took place in Cuba that gave its leaders - first of all, to the first among them - the longest, widest and most solid support of its people.

At the heart of the topic resides of course the issue of revolutionary violence and its containment - that is to say, the use of violence in a "fair" or "correct" manner - when an entire nation rises up clamouring for its liberation. Because, if we accept that (these obvious facts have now become taboos) the violence of the oppressed is not of the same nature as that of the oppressor - a Palestinian child who grabs hold of a stone against an Israeli soldier who holds him at gun point - and that people can legitimately opt for armed struggle to resist oppression - French resistance under Nazi occupation, the Algerian "rebels" during the fight for Independence, the Vietnamese fighting against the U.S. aggression, were they terrorists? -, an inevitable disquieting concern arises: what are the limits that are to be imposed on this legitimate violence?

Dayan Jayatilleka shows how Fidel Castro was capable of defining these impassable limits through an inflexible code of ethics, and how he put it to practice in Cuba even during the movement of people’s rebellion. And this code of honour, these universal values which were practised even in the guerrilla war, who else than Ernesto Che Guevara - the heroic guerrilla, the "moral giant" as Fidel called him- could be more pure and popular to have been able to symbolize them? One day in 1958, after a battle against the army of the dictator Batista in the mountains of Sierra Maestra, a guerrilla asked Fidel "What shall we do with the prisoners?” Fidel’s answer was: "Treat them humanely. Do not ever insult them. And remember, for us, the life of an unarmed human being must always remain sacred."

It’s this ethic that nurtured the Cuban Revolution since its very beginning, on the island as well as beyond its borders, in the deployment of its military internationalism in solidarity with the struggles of other nations, against colonialism, imperialism and apartheid. And again, it is this ethic that made him constantly safeguard the lives of the non-combatant civilians, refuse the execution of the prisoners of war and reject torture. After all, everyone knows this (even John McCain, who nevertheless claimed to have been "tortured" by Cubans in Vietnam ... although there were no Cuban fighters in Vietnam!): If torture is used on Cuban soil, it is in the Guantanamo base, and nowhere else, that is to say, it is in this piece of land that the United States holds since the military occupation of the island in 1898 and which it refuses to give back to the Cuban people for over a century.

Dayan Jayatilleka does not brush aside any problem (neither of philosophical nature nor of practical nature), makes no effort to differentiate (from other revolutionary experiences in the South, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka ...), does not forget any of the painful issues (for example, the Ochoa case). Through his nuanced, courageous and ‘against the current’ thinking, he offers all progressives the opportunity, both to set up the terms of a moral ideal of rebel resistance and to rebuild a concrete alternative which fits challenges of modernity. And to the most radical among them, this book might help them even to rethink the unthinkable under such trying conditions at the beginning of this twenty-first century: another world, which is better and ... socialist.

[Rémy Herrera, Professor in Development Economics at the Université de Paris 1, France, is a researcher at the CNRS, the National Centre for Scientific Research, and the Director of the Social Forum collection at Edition L’Harmattan, Paris. A collaborator of Prof. Samir Amin, he is a member of the World Forum of the Alternatives - FMA, Dakar.]

Link to the original review in French published in Afrique-Asie:


Firstly congratulations to Dayan Jayatilleke for getting his book published.

Going only by Professor Rémy Herrera's praise perhaps Dayan Jayatilleke has said something worthwhile - I have not seen the book though, so perhaps...

Also I wonder if Dayan Jayatilleke has written anything about the Lankan conflict in his book.
And if so, whether the Lankan conflict has been fairly and accurately represented - is it Fidel and fiction or Fidel and fact?

Of course if Dayan Jayatilleke has really understood Fidel Castro's thinking then he would no doubt also be praising and justifying the Tamil militant resistance as an ineveitable and ethically necessary reactionary response to Sinhala-Buddhist extremism.


Posted by: N2 | December 7, 2008 01:40 AM

N2 need not rely exclusively on Prof Remy Herrera's review. He can also consult the rather more critical one by an Emeritus Professor at the LSE (see below), and more enthusiastic others by senior UK academics. It is precisely because I understand Fidel Castro that I staunchly oppose -- not support, endorse or excuse-- the LTTE, and it is because my reading of Fidel is accurate that we can understand why he has himself just written a book which strongly opposes and criticises the oldest and biggest guerrilla movement in Latin America, Colombia's FARC!!

Dayan Jayatilleka

Fidel's ethics of violence, by Dayan Jayatilleka

Book Review

Reviewed by Prof Sebastian Balfour in the Bulletin of Latin American Research, the Journal of the Society of Latin American Studies, UK, Vol 27, No 4, October 2008

This is a passionately written and painstakingly argued book from an author who was an underground revolutionary activist in Sri Lanka and is now an academic in the University of Colombo and Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United Nations. Jayatilleka argues that the enduring legacy of Fidel Castro’s thought is not so much in military, social, economic or political matters but in political morality, in particular the ethical use of violence. He proposes that Castro has applied an original concept of morality, drawn from a synthesis of Christian, progressive western and Cuban radical traditions, to both revolutionary struggle at home and abroad and to governance of Cuba itself. Relying on Castro’s own statements in speeches and interviews and on a range of secondary sources, he seeks to demonstrate a consistency in the Cuban leader’s ethics since the early 1950s.

Faced with the dilemmas of power, Castro forged a synthesis of ethics or idealism and realism. In a bold assertion, he argues that Castro’s ethical model of just violence (presented as a version of just war theory) represents a third way between violence and pacificism along a spectrum much disputed on the Left, yet largely ignored in Marxism – Leninism, in which there is no explicit code of good and bad, right and wrong. Castro’s revolutionary Cuba, Jayatilleka asserts, is therefore an ideal type for progressive anti-systemic movements in the Third World. He points to the respect enjoyed by the Castro regime as a result of its relative independence from the Soviet Union, the absence of Cuban terrorism (despite the US-supported terrorism of Cuban exiles in Miami), its internationalist support for Third World liberation struggles and, finally, its defiance of the Goliath. The accumulated moral capital of this kind is fundamental to the legitimacy of Third World movements.

This is a useful addition to the literature on Castro, highlighting an ethical dimension normally subsumed under the ideological evolution of Castro. Yet Jayatilleka’s analysis starts from the basis of a number of assumptions that remain unquestioned, but are contentious. He assumes Castro is a revolutionary Marxist, however that may be defined. He takes for granted that the Cuban Revolution was socialist, in his own words, in ‘identity’ and ‘spirit’ (p. 7), whatever that may precisely mean. There is an implicit supposition throughout the text of an undifferentiated global socialism (for example, p. 32), raising doubts about the conceptual basis of his analysis of the Cuban Revolution. Another questionable assertion is the moral and ethical hegemony of Castroism, ‘the essential secret of the success of the Cuban Revolution in the face of impossible odds’ (p. 115). Jayatilleka’s defence of the moral superiority of the political system in Cuba is weakly grounded in that it rests on Castro’s own perception of a mandate from the ‘masses’ based on the supposed dynamic of his interaction with Cuban people (a feature some would describe as a form of populist, political caudillismo), as well as on the social gains of the Revolution in comparison to pre-revolutionary Cuba or capitalist societies in general (p. 123).

Cuba’s one-party state and its intolerance of dissent outside the narrowly defined paradigm of the Revolution could hardly be characterised as beacons of moral or ethical rectitude, even if the regime’s treatment of dissent compares reasonably well to that of many other Third World countries over the last 50 years or so. Nor is it enough to justify the limitations on freedom of expression in Cuba simply by reference to the political and economic siege of Cuba by the US. Indeed, Jayatilleka’s emphasis on the balance of idealism and realism in Castro’s policies leads him to skirt around contradictions in Castro’s ethical stance, such as his support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, explained away by the justification that it was an unavoidable part of a broader commitment to socialism (pp. 104 – 105).

Jayatilleka, it could be argued, goes too far in asserting the moral and ethical consistency of Castro’s politics. He is portrayed as the ‘solitary hero’, a ‘moral existential hero’ in pre-revolutionary days, imbued by ‘chivalric honour’, rallying others to his moral banner by sheer force of example (pp. 68 – 75). This characterisation ignores the complex politics of the 1940s and early 1950s and Castro’s own ideological indefinition (aside from his espousal of the traditions of cubanía rebelde) that allowed him to woo both the Communists and the liberals. He also relies perhaps too much on Castro’s own rationalisation of the past in his numerous interviews, and on his retrospective efforts to construct a continuity in his ‘life-story’ that epitomises the values of the Revolution.

Nevertheless, Jayatilleka puts forward a compelling case for incorporating the ethical component of Castro’s practice and thinking, in particular his views on just war and just violence, into a more balanced judgement than is currently available of one of the most controversial statesmen of the twentieth century.

(Prof. Sebastian Balfour is Professor Emeritus of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics.)

Posted by: dayan jayatilleka | December 7, 2008 11:07 AM

Fidel’s Ethics of Violence, By Dayan Jayatilleka is extremely readable and worthy of recomendation for all sane thinking peoples.

In the anals of history,there are only a few instances where prisoners of war were treated humanely and it happened when Bangladesh was born-in the 1971 war when Pakistan was cut to size by India.

90,000 thousand Pakistani prisoners of war were transported to India where they were well looked after , fed,clothed and the ill given the best medical treatment.
Fidel Castro's statement "."Treat them humanely" pales into insignificance against the backdrop how India treated the Pakistani POWS.

Narayanswamy Sankaran

Posted by: Narayanswamy Sankaran | December 8, 2008 12:11 AM

One has to obviously begin by congratulating Dayan Jayatilleke for writing a book on what could be described as ehtical and philosophical work on "people's rebellion." It is not the easiest of subject matter to tackle, even for philosophical giants of yore to contemporary ones.

So, where does it all begin? Sun Tzu's Art of War? Viyasa Bagawan's Bagavadgita? Carl von Clausewitz's On War? What about the Teachings of Chairman Mao? How does Castro's revolutionary ethics compare with the above list of giants? I wouldn't drag Nicolo Machiavelli's Prince into this, which as far as I can tell is devoid of war or revolutionary ethics.

I am very pleased for you that you were able to tackle such a deeply complex theme as ethics of revolutionary violence and write and publish a book - even get some acclaimed reviews.

Very well done indeed. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: P Shantikumar | December 10, 2008 05:03 PM

I still haven't seen the book ... one day perhaps.

Now Prof Sebastian Balfour's review isn't really that flattering: he notes for example that doubts must be raised about the conceptual basis of his [Dayan Jayatilleke's] analysis of the Cuban Revolution, that the characterisation of Castro in the book "ignores the complex politics of the 1940s and early 1950s and Castro’s own ideological indefinition", and so on.

But that "Nevertheless, Jayatilleka puts forward a compelling case for incorporating the ethical component of Castro’s practice and thinking ..."

The word "Nevertheless" is crucial to seeing Prof Sebastian Balfour's opinion of the book: in other words, DESPITE certain shortcomings and errors... there is (nevertheless) a need for particular aspects of Castro's thinking as considered in Jayatilleke's book to be written about more widely - that is about Castro's ethics in the context of talking about justifiable wars and violence.

So well done Dayan Jayatilleke for choosing this necessary and timely topic, but going from his review Prof Sebastian Balfour would I think doubt Jayatilleke's assertion "...I understand Fidel Castro ..."

This is exactly what I too felt when I saw Dayan Jayatilleke (December 7, 2008 11:07 AM) glibly if not also naively comparing the FARC with the LTTE, and supposing that the same kinds of criticisms of the FARC by Castro (and in that case there were also personal issues) apply to the LTTE.

These comments are toward improving academic quality (the essence of which is debate and fair criticism) so please do not think I am attacking you personally.

Posted by: N2 | December 16, 2008 01:24 AM

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