Violence and its moral dilemmas: Fidel according to Dayan

Asanga Welikala | Published on January 22, 2012 at 11:59 pm

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’s book, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, is a significant contribution towards understanding one of the enduring intellectual dilemmas in the theory and practice of politics: the ethics of the use of violence. Dayan’s ambitious project in this book

Fidel Castro

is to offer a comprehensively worked out theory for the ethical use of violence, for both revolutionaries and states, based on the political thought of Fidel Castro. The theory that is advanced is presented as one that is modern, universal, based on reason, and one that is opposed to both ‘unipolar hegemony’ as well as culturally relativist and parochial forms of resistance and rebellion.

Castro and the Cuban Revolution

The book, which straddles several intra-disciplinary boundaries as between political theory, philosophy and rhetoric, exemplifies the authorial hallmarks one usually associates with Dayan: originality, lucidity and cogency, but also polemical partisanship. Its unremitting partiality in the admiration of Castro and the Cuban Revolution, however, does nothing to undermine its academic and intellectual value, for even if one does not regard either Castro or the Cuban Revolution in the same adulatory terms as Dayan, one cannotdisregard the massive contribution to the political thought of the twentieth century that the personages associated with that revolution have made, and of which Fidel and Che are only the best known.

The book also marks a milestone in the intellectual evolution of its author: from one whose analytical perspectives used to be informed by a harsh, abrasive and unsentimental Leninist Realism (‘the concrete analysis of concrete conditions’), to a more mellow and perhaps more mature approach which, while still very much within the realist tradition and contemptuous of pacifism, is more concerned than before with the ethical dimensions of power, partly through a greater attentiveness to moral discourses such as Catholicism. It is tempting to think that the pull in this direction transcends Fidel to more ethereal appeals from the Elysian Fields.

Elegance of the argument 

Although it has received critical attention within the specialist academic circles of Cuban and Latin American studies, the scope and content of Dayan’s book is, or should be, of far wider interest and engagement, and its relevance self-evidently closer to home in terms especially of what transpired in the period between c.2006 and 2009, and indeed in terms of a much longer timespan in the modern history of Sri Lanka in which violence has been a central issue of politics. The elegance of the argument as well as the prose should only encourage this thought. The undeserved lack of attention the book has received within Sri Lankan intellectual circles since its publication four years ago, perhaps says more about our culture of intellectual engagement, contestation and disagreement, than about the quality of its thesis; although one cannot help but wonder if some of this disengagement has been due to the activities of its author in capacities other than as one of Sri Lanka’s ablest contemporary public intellectuals.

As Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva and Paris, especially the former at a crucial period, Dayan succeeded in mobilising a remarkable coalition of the global south-eastagainst an attempted international intervention via the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. In this he no doubt deployed some of the arguments developed in this book, in particular the opposition to ‘neo-imperialist’ interference with state sovereignty that forms one of the foundations of Castro’s political thought. There is, however, a striking incongruence between Dayan’s theorisation of Fidel’s ethics of violence – three key elements of which are the avoidance of the targeting non-combatants, physical torture, and the execution of captives – and the conduct of the Sri Lankan government in the last phases of the war.

The entire raft of potential arguments made possible by this incongruence between theory and practice were never fully explored and debated, least of all by those who oppose Dayan as well as the regime. Such arguments include the nexus at the moral core between Fidel’s ethics of violence and the humane values underlying international human rights and humanitarian law, which has been the dominant discursive language of the Sri Lankan regime’s detractors in relation to international criminal accountability. The very possibility of this line of argument demonstrates the folly of supercilious disengagement, although in this respect, it should never be forgotten that eternal vigilance is the price of intellectual engagement with Dayan Jayatilleka.

In terms of ideological orientations, I do not belong to this category

Needless to say, Dayan’s ‘impassioned polemical essay’ is one that is located within the theoretical, ideological, historical and dispositional environment of the post-World War II, Third World Left. Given the latitude for disagreement that exists within this broad intellectual terrain, Dayan’s book is perhaps best reviewed, and indeed critiqued, from within this ideological framework. In terms of ideological orientations, I do not belong to this category, except in some matters of dispositional sympathy, such as an attraction to the romance associated with the intensely humanist and patriotic sentiments beyond ideological socialism that drove the early Fidel especially, within the context of the debasement of democracy and self-government that the American influence in Latin and South America entailed in the mid-twentieth century. In turn, such a sympathy arises from the recognition that American interference in Latin and Southern America, whatever the foreign policy motivations within the geo-politics of the Cold War, was in total violation of the spirit, ethos and values of the American Revolution itself. Thus my normative perspective is one grounded in liberal democracy, not socialism.

An alternative to the normative and regulatory regime of conflict

Consequently, my interest in the underlying dynamics of the Cuban Revolution is more to do with its intellectual antecedents in Jose Marti (and Simon Bolivar) rather than anything to do with Marx or Lenin or other worthies ofthe Hispanic and European Left whose thought influenced the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, especially Che Guevara, and through him, later, Fidel.One of the implications that such an extraneous ideological and moral perspective has for a review of Dayan’s treatment of Fidelismois with regard to the normative opposition to imperialism and ‘neo-imperialism’ that informs Fidel’s political thought. This value is not only a foundational element of the ‘moral superiority’ of ethical revolution that is critical to an acceptance of Dayan’s theorisation of morally justifiable violence, but also one that informs the non-negotiable commitment to state sovereignty, particularly of non-Western states. With the hostility to international intervention this entails, including the refusal to accept prima faciethe legitimacy of United Nations multilateralism, Fidel’s ethics of violence, as conceptualised by Dayan, can be seen as an alternative to the normative and regulatory regime of conflict that is embodied in the entire panoply of international humanitarian and human rights law. The very resilience of the Cuban revolutionary state exemplifies for Dayan, the relevance and need for an alternative to the liberal democratic orthodoxy that has come to dominate the post-Cold War world.

Dayan’s argument in the book is of course much broader and comprehensive than what has been described above, but it is sufficient to appreciate the sheer scale and ambition of the project. This is why it merits much more, and more critical, attention than it has received. This thesis has implications across the social sciences and humanities, and I hope that others more competent than I would be encouraged now to take up the cudgels, a prospect I am certain the author would only thoroughly relish.


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Fidel Castro

Violence and its moral dilemmas: Fidel according to Dayan

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’s book, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, is a significant contribution towards understanding one ...