News of Fidel Castro’s death left me cold. The long-lived, wily, and ruthless dictator had maintained his grip on Cuba for almost fifty years, ensuring the oppression and poverty of his countrymen. But to most of the rest of the world, he had become irrelevant long ago.
I remember a time when he wasn’t. I came of age during the final phase of the Cold War. As an American, I naturally thought of the Soviet Union as the Adversary. But as an idealist college student, I entertained the possibility that communism (or socialism, the preferred and less threatening term) might be the best option. My friends and I debated its merits.
Our discussions revolved around the writings of the young Marx, figures such as Herbert Marcuse, and our own half-baked theories. Yet the bearded dictator played an outsize role in our political imaginations.
Fidel—his champions always use his first name—cut a dashing figure. His simple military cap and fatigues suggested revolutionary commitment. In the 1960s and 1970s, Albert Camus and his ideals of authenticity were more influential than the doctrinaire and wooden Marx. For this reason, communists in the mold of Fidel and Che Guevara bewitched many of us.
We overlooked their murderous ways and their totalitarian doctrine, because they seemed to live up to the most exacting existentialist standards. Radical chic, so wonderfully described by Tom Wolfe, is fueled by the frisson of commitment, which Fidel seemed to exemplify.
My friends and I never bothered to learn the content of Fidel’s famously interminable speeches. But his marathons of rhetoric affected our imaginations as heroic performances. When a young person fancies himself a politically engaged intellectual, he likes to imagine a man-of-action playing the role of man-of-ideas. This fantasy was a significant factor in communism’s general appeal throughout the postwar West. Marx was a theorist, and students and intellectuals like to think that public leadership requires a command of ideas.
It’s only in retrospect that I fully understand Fidel’s allure for the West: He reassured us that we had real and profound political choices to make. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave effusive tribute to Fidel, as “remarkable” and a “larger than life leader who served his people.” Trudeau was horsewhipped on social media for ignoring the dictator’s tyrannical rule. But this reaction probably misconstrues Trudeau’s sentiment. Fidel appears “noble” insofar as he represents a determined refusal to accept the inevitability of the status quo.
We should not underestimate this appeal. Pope Francis sent an unobjectionable fraternal message of condolence. But I’m willing to bet that in unguarded conversation, the Holy Father would express himself even more effusively than Trudeau. Again and again, Fidel put a stick in the eye of the Americans, who dominated the Western Hemisphere. His defiance thrilled and inspired Bergoglio’s generation of Latin Americans. In view of the pope’s harsh words about the American-led neoliberal consensus dominating global capitalism, it seems likely that he still thinks that way.
To a certain extent, I’m sympathetic.
I was in China when Castro died. The English language daily spoke of him as “a much loved figure for Chinese people.” President Xi Jinping called him “a great figure of our times,” whose “glorious image and great achievements will go down in history.” China Central Television aired a documentary that harkened back to Castro’s early days when Cuba was an outpost of communist promise shining in the dark shadow of the American capitalist empire.
These tributes partake of a kind of nostalgia. Castro’s death puts an exclamation point on the end of the postwar era—an era in which people throughout the world felt they had a crucial ideological choice to make. For a long time now, that sense of exigency has been receding, and our global system of commerce has come to feel like fate, not a choice.
As Aristotle recognized, we are political animals. We are made to deliberate about how best to organize society. It is therefore dehumanizing to be told that we are at the “end of history” and have nothing left to decide. Mass migration and demographic change? It’s inevitable, we’re told. A globalized economy? Inevitable. Even something as noble as human rights can become a tool with which to limit political choices.
Technocracy is based on the idea that all social problems are, at root, technical and require expertise rather than political deliberation. And the metaphysical materialism that dominates the intelligentsia in the West is deterministic. What we imagine to be moral and political justice is really a function of evolutionary biology.
But our political nature rebels against these constrictions. Witness the populism that continues to surprise (and threaten) the establishments in the West that claim the expertise and authority to define what is possible and what is impossible.
It’s in this context that we should think about the enduring allure of Fidel. He was a revolutionary—and when politics becomes fate, revolution feels like liberation.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.