Revolution, Socialism, and Leadership

Interview with Journalist Ron Ridenour

The late progressivist Swedish writer Jerre Skog told me that the social democratic system found in the Scandinavian countries was ideal. I demurred because the nature of capitalism is to escape any shackles placed on it. In Scandinavia, the income still is comparatively evenly distributed (GINI expressed as percentage: 24.7 Denmark, 25.8 Norway, 25 Sweden, compared with 32.6 in Canada and 40.8 in the United States), there is free university education, relatively low unemployment with benefits provided to those becoming unemployed, healthcare is for all, etc. Then things started changing.

Denmark elected a staunch right winger as prime minister. Denmark joined in military attacks with imperialist states against weaker states. I turned to journalist Ron Ridenour, who lives in Denmark, to give a first-hand voice to what is taking place.

I support revolution against occupation, oppression, exploitation; however, I hold that the long-term viability of a revolution must be rooted in the people — not in a personality. Therefore, I have reservations about “leaders” — for example, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez — who (besides implementing socialism for the masses) seemingly covet the esteem, if not the perks, of governmental office. Ridenour speaks Spanish, has lived in Cuba, written many books about the revolution there, so he is an informed go-to person for reflections on the revolution there and elsewhere.

Ridenour, notably, has also given voice to the very marginalized plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, has long been active in journalism, has his own website, and in his own words, “Besides using words in an effort to eradicate racism, inequality and wars, I have been an activist against wars, racism, chauvinism and for socialist solidarity.”

This week, I interviewed Ridenour about Denmark, Cuba, and the leaderless revolutionary stirrings against the financial elitists.

Kim Petersen: Denmark is supposed to be a peace-loving state with an envious social safety net. You pointed out in a recent article that the Danish political landscape has slanted rightwards? What caused this? And how can progressivist politics become predominant?

Ron Ridenour: The causes are several, both historical and contemporary. Leftist parties and unionists in Denmark, like people in most of the world, lost faith and hope in socialist-communist solutions due to the atrocities and corruption of Communist parties in power, and then with the fall of those governments in eastern Europe. Even those governments still calling themselves communists base their economies on capitalism today.

One of the main problems of nearly all leftist parties and governments is that they do not believe that the mass—unionists, unemployed, family farmers, students—are actually capable of ruling “sensibly.” One of the best of benevolent “dictators,” Fidel Castro, does not believe such either. Most leaders believe in themselves and not the mass. So, in fact, real socialism has yet to be attempted. No party in power has ever really begun the process of educating workers+ to use political power and then turning over power to the working class, as our ideology calls for.

Another factor, especially Danish, is a national inferiority complex. That is, “We’re just a little country, you know,” so we can’t expect to run things ourselves. This was actually a folksy saying of one of Denmark’s best known politicians, Erhard Jacobsen. For decades, Denmark relied upon Germany and since WWII it relies on the US, first for its economic Marshall Plan and since for its military might. And today Denmark is not a peace-loving state. It is involved in four wars alongside its Big Daddy.

Then there is the national complex of indifference, or “ligegladhed.” There has been a lot of charitable giving of money to the poor abroad but little engagement or true solidarity. Even the left-ish parliamentary party, Unity List (Enhedslisten), opposes support for opponents of the terrorist terror laws, or for armed resistance by the invaded of US-NATO wars.

One can never answer fully what causes policy without taking the economy into account. Danes still live comfortably economically, almost all, in relationship with others even European neighbors. I think that the left parties rely on parliamentarian politics because of this. They do not believe that significant numbers of people will actually support grass roots radical struggles. And the unions long ago aligned themselves with capitalist reformism and oppose extra-parliamentary struggles, including sustaining strikes, of any consequence. Why risk being arrested, losing your job and then your mortgage, your car or one of them simply to do the “right thing”?

How can progressive (?) politics become predominant? Well, if progressive means pushing for reformist policies within capitalism that is becoming dominant now for the two Danish so-called socialist parties in parliament. (Unity List and People’s Party/SF), and it has been so for the major Social Democratic party for decades. But if progressive means radical, then the economy has to collapse, or when it is in deep crises as it is now, then grass roots groups have to take to the streets and stay there just as is possibly happening with Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Uproar, perhaps in Spain and Greece. We have to kick the parliamentary-based politics out of our movements. We have to feel the power in ourselves and push the politicians out.

Yes, there must also be strong unions and workers must strike and/or join Occupy Wall Street. Radical-revolutionary political parties must educate and protest with sensible and morally just programs. They should not act against the more autonomous oriented grass roots groups but in parallel.

KP: This touches on the previous questions, in many countries, people scoffed that Americans could “elect” a born-again, foot-in-mouth, right-winger such as George W. Bush as president. Yet Canadians soon found themselves with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a man to the right of Bush), and Danes wound up with Anders Fogh Rasmussen as prime minister (also a hawkish right-winger). Why do you think this is happening in much of the western world?

RR: Precisely because the left gave up actually being left. It was too difficult and most got too comfortable within the capitalist system. The left adopted the bourgeois democratic premise of making policy within parliaments whose role is to protect finance power. In Copenhagen, Wall Street is Børsen and its building is literally next door to parliament and the executive government.

When finance crises occur, you only have two sources to acquire money to pay for it: from the workers-pensioners-students or from the owners of capital and industry. The latter approach would mean that the rich will refuse to pay for their crises and so, you must nationalize their “private” property, that is, the production centers where wealth originates and the banks that manipulate the wealth for a few. But that takes guts, struggle, sacrifice.

PM Fogh Rasmussen was awarded the greater job of being the commander of NATO. He is loved by the warmongers on Wall Street and the Pentagon, and hated by the peoples who are invaded, but all the parliamentary parties here congratulated him. He should have been ostracized as well as the biggest of capitalists here, AP Møller-Mærsk, the world’s biggest shipper and a major warmonger. Instead his supermarkets, which take in half the food sales, are much of the left’s favorite stores because they are cheap.

We have to find that indignation that many Arabs have found, that some Spanish and Greeks are finding, that is part of OWS, and that us oldies had in the 60s-70s. We have to practice what we preach. Boycott the worst companies (like Mærsk and Coca-Cola…). Go on strike. Refuse to do the system’s bidding. Find our inner strength and alternative life styles. Act in solidarity with the oppressed-exploited-invaded.

KP: The progressivist image of Denmark is further diminished now with its participation in the NATO (currently headed by Fogh Rasmussen) invasion of a sovereign state. There are reports of Danish troops engaging in torture and massacres. How do you read this playing out on the streets in Denmark?

RR: Unfortunately, nothing is happening regarding these atrocities. There is one small group of pacifists who conduct a vigil in front of parliament daily since the beginning of the war against Afghanistan. But it is more of a curiosity than a threat. The anti-war movement died, in part because the Unity party dropped out of protesting because its leaders wanted “influence” with lucrative jobs in parliament. And the climate movement has so far refused to take up wars as part of their anti-pollution protests albeit wars are a major cause of pollution and adverse climate changes. I think they are just too scared of being accused of being outsiders or radicals….

KP: You hinted at a “shaky future” for the Cuban revolution. Do you see Cuba falling further away from the socialism won through the revolution? Who will stand to benefit (or lose) from Cuba’s opening to capitalism?

RR: Yes, I am afraid that what I foresaw in that piece nearly a year ago it occurring rapidly now. More and more openings for capitalism have been adopted even before the Communist party national conference body has met and decided on precise policies to propose to the state. Raul Castro as both leader of the state and the party, following his brother, has already decided. Now, private property (housing) can be bought and sold; cars can be bought in hard currency at big prices, which very few Cubans can acquire legitimately; small enterprises are encouraged to employ workers, and thereby opening up officially for exploitation of labor.

Who will benefit is a new class of small capitalists and real estate hustlers, and speculation will become widespread. Relatives of Cubans in Miami and Spain will be even more privileged than those Cubans without such remittances. Wall Street will benefit in the end, because the blockade against Cuba will be lifted in the not distant future. Other Wall Streets in the world already benefit.

KP: In a summer article on the state of the revolution in Cuba, you defined ethics partially as “We act so that no one person, race or ethnic group is either over or under another.” You added, “We struggle to create equality for all.” If, indeed, the revolution is a revolution of the people and not about a personality or personalities, what does the unbroken political “leadership” of Fidel Castro from 1959 to 2008 speak to such ethics?

You also quoted from Che that “one must have a great deal of humanity and a strong sense of justice and truth in order not to fall into extreme dogmatism and cold scholasticism, into an isolation from the masses.”

In general I support much of what Fidel Castro has helped to bring about in Cuba, but I find that his one-man leadership of the revolution is dangerous in that it embeds the revolution in a person (in this case in a family) rather than in the people. Is Fidel Castro the only person besides his brother fit to “lead” (and do the people require a leader?) the revolution for Cubans?

RR: The points you quote from my piece and your question are part of dialogue, both fraternal and violently hostile, the non/anti-capitalist left has had for more than a century. In my own view, after half a century of struggle and thought that also embraces these points, my conclusion is NO to your question. And that, of course, holds true for Hugo Chavez (and all other leaders), albeit most of the left in Venezuela, as well as a large sector of the general population, believes Chavez is unique and most be their one and only leader for, perhaps, a lifetime. That was also the case with the Cuban people and Fidel for the first decade or so. Well, that is what the Arab uproar wants to end, albeit those gruesome dictators cannot be compared to the kind-hearted Fidel.

The main problem with one leader syndrome is that it saps the vision, inspiration and energy from the mass. I have seen this happening before my eyes during the eight years I worked in Cuba and lived with the people. They lost hope that socialism could actually be the best solution when they always had to wait for answers/permission/resources/materials from above. The same happened in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Now it has come to past that most Cubans, I think, really don’t believe socialism is worthwhile and they want a chance to try supply-demand marketing. This will split the people into classes and further antagonize the true solidarity amongst themselves and with other peoples that they had assiduously built. And that is the essence of what Che meant in the cited quotation—the state and the party have become isolated from the mass and they see no other way out than capitalism with some bourgeois democratic-oriented reforms, such as what the big powers are endeavoring to impose on the Arab rebellion.

Another major mistake that Cuban leaders made is not separating some powers between the state and the Communist party. As the unity strategy goes in Cuba when the state makes a policy for short-term economic benefit or for some diplomatic reason—such as backing the genocidal, brutal governments of Sri Lanka against the entire Tamil population—the party is disallowed from criticizing this or for showing solidarity with, for instance, the much discriminated-against Tamils.

KP: There is growing dissent in the United States, but it is marginalized and propagandized in the corporate media (nothing surprising there). The Occupy Wall Street movement in the US seems to be gathering momentum, having staying power, and perhaps causing ripples in the system. If the grassroots activism proves influential in the US, how do you think this might affect Europe?

RR: I see that 66% of the people Gallop polled in the US want the rich to be appropriately taxed, and 54% want all politicians out of a job. It is that spirit that has to take root, and that is growing in Europe too.

The most important and radical elements in these protests are that they are 1) anti-capitalist, 2) not led by self-interest seeking persons or parties. In fact, OWS is more radical than what we created in the 60s-70s, because it is primarily aimed at the true enemy: capitalism, which is the main cause for adverse climate changes and aggressive wars.

The first solidarity demos with OWS in Denmark are taking place Saturday (October 15) alongside hundreds other cities in scores of lands. This initiative was taken by the indignados in Spain. There, and in other countries on the verge of bankruptcy such as Greece, there is greater potential for sustained radical movements than there is right now in Scandinavia and Germany. But this economic crisis will not just melt any time soon—a spell of anger is mounting. I think in a few European countries protests will arise and continue sporadically, at least.
I see it as a positive development, in fact, that in the recent Danish election, the so-called red block won and with it the Unity party and SF have dropped key programmatic elements of any socialist nature. I think the Unity Party/SF sellout will help create a backlash that could become a true protest movement. But we must also recognize that too few people are really hurting enough economically here to cause them to develop a real sustained fight. I hope I’m wrong.

In Denmark, we must not go to a demo to hear jazz music and a handful of “leaders” speak and then go home to TV or to a cafe for beer and wine. We must find that inner indignation and with it empower ourselves. We must develop leadership in all of us. We must take over tactical areas and stay there. We have one big problem, even greater than the might of police brutality, and that is the weather. Already temperatures are falling to freezing in the evenings in some of Europe and in NYC it is getting cold too. We might have to postpone our staying power over the cold, raining, snowy winter months and return in even greater numbers and strength in the spring.

I close with a quote from Naomi Klein’s talk at Wall Street, October 6. “We have picked a fight with the most powerful economic and political forces on the planet. That’s frightening… Always be aware that there will be a temptation to shift to smaller targets… Don’t give in to that temptation… Let’s treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world.” “It is!” and she points to her favorite sign: “I care about you!”

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.