“If it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself.”
-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
With these words Arendt complains, in her magnificent book about the French and the American Revolution, On Revolution, that the essential elements of the foundation of freedom in the former north-American colonies were not kept alive theoretically and therefore forgotten by the time of an apolitical workers and consumers society. What was forgotten were such things as the pursuit of public happiness, the formation of power by federalism, the origins of the senate (in the Roman senate) as the seat of political authority, etc… Instead, politics and its institutions came to be perceived as the arena of money and power, of intrigues and blockades. By contrast, the French Revolution animated many thinkers and imitators to develop a conceptual framework: the revolution of the poor against exploitation and oppression, the fight for freedom, equality and fraternity, the predecessor and example of all revolutions thereafter, etc. For Arendt, in spite of her critique of the revolution’s aftermath in North America, these are misleading concepts that deny the immanent reason for the French revolution’s failure: the political inexperience of the revolutionaries, the transformation of virtue into terror, the swarming of the poor into public institutions, and the incapacity to proceed from liberation to a lasting constitution of freedom.
Flickr via stargardener
Revolutions à la française seem to end up in a reign of terror. Is the dictatorship of Castro in Cuba a coincidence? Is Hugo Chavez’ elimination of the second chamber of parliament and the restriction of freedom of opinion in Venezuela also a coincidence? Or perhaps the projection of personal fancy? No, says the Argentinian political scientist Claudia Hilb. These are because of the concept of the radical creation of social equality, which is only possible at the cost of political freedom. Hilb shows, citing Arendt, that “it is perfectly true, and a sad fact indeed, that most so-called revolutions, far from achieving the constitutio libertatis, have not even been able to produce constitutional guarantees of civil rights and liberties, the blessings of ‘limited government’, and there is no question that in our dealings with other nations and their governments we shall have to keep in mind that the distance between tyranny and constitutional, limited government is as great as, perhaps greater than, the distance between limited government and freedom.” (On Revolution)
Claudia Hilb in her “Silencio, Cuba. La izquierda democrática frente al régimen de la Revolución Cubana“ (Buenos Aires 2010) develops a critical framework of conceptual notions which sympathizers of radical social change do not dare to develop, given the discrepancy between their hopes for freedom and equality and the often gloomy subsequent reality. Confronted with criticism on Cuba, they try to defend the regime in Cuba with a “yes, but”. Yes, democracy and civic rights are missing, but there are social achievements like high literacy, general access to health care, and the absence of extreme poverty. Yes, Cuba is poor, but there are no slums like in Buenos Aires. These answers conceal the fact that compared with other Latin American states; Cuba fell from a leading position to a place at the back since the revolution in 1959. Moreover, the defenders attribute Cuba’s economic failures to the boycott by the United States, denying the structural disaster of the Cuban economy on even its own terms. Finally, these defenders color and excuse all this as a “tropical socialism” with its music and the “romantic” ruins that are Havana.
Flickr via flippinyank
The thesis of Hilb: radical equalization of social conditions was made possible by establishing total domination. For her, the real equivalent is not freedom and equality but dictatorship and equality. Therefore, the missing civic rights as well as the prohibition of leaving the country are less incidental concomitants than a sign of the absolute concentration of power. Dictatorship and equality are inherent components of this form of government itself. Therefore, the dictatorship not only violates certain human rights but also does not recognize human rights as such. They are incompatible with the establishment of, and control through, radical equality, rendering democracy and plurality null.
Hilb describes how Castro from the beginning worked on centralization of power, eliminating revolutionary comrades in the party and armed forces as well as in trade unions and student organizations, elevating only his loyal comrades on unity lists in elections. Trade union and student movements were subordinated to his party.
Likewise the cultural sector was brought into line, not so quickly but just as thoroughly. The shameful self-accusation of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1970 became well known. Radical social change required an increasing concentration of power to eliminate all troubling discussions and deviations.
Social organizations like the trade unions and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) were transformed step by step from organizations of mobilization into organizations of control. The trade unions, as “transmissions belts” for revolutionary force, were no longer organizations defending the working class but had the task to imposing voluntary work and intensifying production. The CDRs became instruments to prevent sabotage and control the private life of everyone. With the economic decline in 1970 temporary “re-education camps” were established. During three years 25,000 “antisocial elements” were detained, among them many homosexuals, religious activists, and prostitutes. The film “Before Nights Falls” (2000) based on the novel of the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas describes this time.
Claudia Hilb reminds us of the governmental theory of the French political thinker Montesquieu, in an analysis reminiscent of Arendt’s in On Revolution.
Hilb describes Montesquieu’s analysis of fear as the key principle on which action is based under a tyranny. Fear does not automatically lead to obedience; both fear and obedience must be created, in the Cuban case, according to Hilb, by the arbitrary rule of the party. The Cuban constitution gives the party the power over the state and subordinates law under the political power. He who does not behave in conformity with the party consequently becomes a law breaker. Secondly, fear is created by revolutionary virtue, enforcing conformism in forms of behavior through the party as an unlimited instrument of power. And thirdly, fear is caused by shame. The political regime tacitly tolerates the many violations of law and thefts of public property to guarantee a life above subsistence level. This tolerated life of illegality and lying makes the population constantly vulnerable to blackmail through the shame of possible exposure.
Hilb invites Cuba’s defenders to open their eyes to reality in order to work on a framework of notions that would include how to constitute freedom so that freedom and social justice can be balanced to mutual advantage.
– Wolfgang Heuer