Race to revolution

The interwoven history of racism and liberation in Cuba and the United States in Race to Revolution illuminates a new historical narrative, argues William Booth

Race to Revolution

Gerald Horne, Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow (Monthly Review Press, 2014), 429pp.

Gerald Horne’s new volume casts light on a ‘special relationship’ which is often ignored or forgotten: that of the United States and pre-revolutionary Cuba. Horne, a Marxist historian whose work has covered a multiplicity of themes including race, empire, revolution and communism, has been committed to the study of narratives and topics excluded from the (particularly US) mainstream. He describes the manner in which academic historians have generally dealt with communist history, for instance, as ‘incredibly biased, one-sided, deeply influenced by the conservative drift of the nation’.[1]

One of his ongoing concerns is to challenge the notion that the twin processes of genocide and enslavement which took place during the establishment of the United States as a political and geographical entity were ‘a step forward for humanity’. Another suggestion he has made on numerous occasions is that we should view the United States through the lens of the wider territory of African experience (and thus examine US attitudes to sites of black resistance in that light). Race to Revolution brings two pairs of overlooked histories together: the US and Cuba as nations, and communists and black activists as political actors. It also tells the latter part of the history of slavery, conventionally defined, and offers a corrective to those accounts of abolition in the US which fail to set that story in any kind of wider structural context.

The first part of the book (chapters two to five) cover the period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, taking in the annexation of Florida (a key event in drawing US attention ever closer to Cuba), Texan secession, slave revolts, the rise of abolitionism, and the Civil War, which ‘split the island, just as it divided the mainland’ (p.102). Throughout these early chapters, the deep ties between the two nations are clear, and often surprisingly so. Not only did these interconnected racial histories reinforce solidarity across the strait but also the fear of another black republic, like that produced by the slave revolution in Haiti (1791-1804). With this in mind, the possibility of a massacre of the ‘162,983 whites of foreign birth’ was raised by alarmist mainlanders (p.17). In fact, for Horne, the spectre of Haiti – both the violence of independence and the racial nature of the conflict – loomed over the entire US-Cuba relationship.

The second part of the book (chapters six to eleven) charts the waxing and waning of US imperial control over the island and its population, from initial informal empire, to invasion, to proxy control, ending with the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 by Castro’s guerrilla army. The role of black Cubans in the independence struggle is given prominence by Horne, who sees this enhanced political-military position as a key distinction from mainland activists. Part of this difference springs from the Spanish tradition of arming some of its black imperial subjects, creating both a (heavily managed) social mobility and some degree of military – and potentially revolutionary – knowledge.

A more significant difference, though, surely lies in the commonplace that in the US, the dominant racial signifier in terms of categorisation is black ancestry (that is, the ‘one drop rule’), whereas in Cuba (and elsewhere) this was less definitive. This fact provoked a good deal of worry for those reliant on racial gradations as a tool of governance: ‘it is impossible to make a distinct separation between any of the races; a fact of difficult management in the event of self-government or any step toward it’ (p.122). There is a danger that racism within Cuba is set to one side in such an interpretation; among even the highest echelons of the armies fighting for independence (1895-8) there was racial tension, not least in the prejudice against Lt. General Antonio Maceo. Among labourers these conflicts manifested themselves in attacks on West Indian migrant workers in the early 1930s.

Horne has published prolifically, particularly since 2000, and his work ranges widely with books on Kenya, Mexico, Brazil, and Zimbabwe (among others), but the crux of the global structure of repression he identifies is primarily the United States. The nature of racial persecution in the US means fascinating differences emerge with other societies where ethnic tensions or persecutions have dominated. Writers and campaigners from the United States were amazed by the different racial dynamics in Cuba. Langston Hughes, for instance, noted the inspiration drawn by mainland radicals from Cuban political activism (p.223). Horne’s overarching thesis lies in this difference. While on the mainland, the ‘erosion of legitimacy’ of Jim Crow led to the (largely liberal) Civil Rights movement, the same political impulse in Cuba produced support for the revolution.

Though international and transnational aspects of political activism are present throughout, chapter ten in particular draws out a multiplicity of links between antifascist socialism and racial political consciousness. ‘The rise of fascism,’ argues Professor Horne, ‘can readily be seen as an ineluctable outgrowth of the racism to which Africans had been subjected for centuries’ (p.233). A key example of this confluence of interests comes with the role of Cubans in the Spanish Civil War, demonstrating very well the internationalism which was at the heart of Cuban radicalism long in advance of Castro’s revolution. The same interests, though, led to the vexing (for leftist historians, at least) contradiction of support for the authoritarian Batista among Harlem’s black Latin Americans; Horne calls this a ‘messiness’, which though understandable, is perhaps a little reductive. This was further complicated by concerns among US commentators of a budding alliance – with some form of anti-American sentiment – between Batista and Juan José Arevalo of Guatemala.

The book is exhaustively referenced, drawing on material from both sides of the Atlantic and in English and Spanish; fully one-third of the pages are devoted to endnotes. Horne meticulously builds his argument across varying periods and locations in a way that requires particular attention. There are a few points where it perhaps feels a little rushed, but with a writer as prolific as Horne that is almost inevitable. It is an unapologetically political book, offering both implicit and explicit commentary on the political practice of radicals, and particularly highlighting the ‘messiness’ and contradictions in the period immediately prior to the Cuban revolution.

Alongside The Counterrevolution of 1776 (also 2014) this book gives a striking revisionist history of the post-colonial United States, yet it also brings Cuba to the centre of a North American story which all too often fails to look beyond the immediate shoreline. Cuba is shown to be the epicentre of European (and, later, North American) imperialist impulses. Professor Horne’s book should prove a useful addition to any shelf where studies of slavery, imperialism, and the politics of race or socialism have a place. It should also provide an important background to the current purported changes to US-Cuba relations, seen so often through the prism of Castro and the 1959 revolution, but in fact rooted in events dating far back into the nineteenth century.