New Books

Indonesia: Echoes of Munir’s Unstoppable Soul

5 mins read

This is a chilling work of true crime about the midair murder of a human rights activist, set against a riveting political drama in the world’s fourth-largest nation. Following excerpts adapted from We Have Tired of Violence: A True Story of Murder, Memory, and the Fight for Justice in Indonesia written by Matt Easton, published by The New Press. – Edts

Munir told a story. A few months before, an immigration officer had stopped him as he was trying to depart for Geneva. The man told him he was banned from leaving Indonesia. Unsure if the officer was following a genuine order or fishing for a bribe, Munir took out his phone. He called General Hendropriyono, the head of the State Intelligence Agency. Munir had recently asked a court to bar Hendropriyono from that job due to his role in a massacre years before. The effort had only succeeded in angering the general, but he answered when Munir called and assured him he was free to leave the country. As Munir described handing his phone to the wide-eyed immigration officer to hear for himself, the group burst out laughing around the box of donut holes. Suci smiled as her husband drained a threat of power, and made it, somehow, seem funny.


Soon after midday prayers the next day, Suci answered her home phone. It was Usman Hamid, Munir’s friend and successor at the human rights group KontraS.

“Suci, where are you now?” he asked.

“I’m at home. Don’t you know you called my home?” Her voice rose: “What is it, Usman?”

“Suci, have you heard the news about Munir?” Usman stammered. His voice was shaky and hoarse.

She hadn’t, and Munir really should have texted or called her by now from Amsterdam.

Usman told her, simply, “Munir has died.”

Suci felt as if she’d fallen from high up in the clouds onto hard earth. A darkness choked her, and her legs felt weak. Suci struggled to think. She needed to know what happened. She needed to prove it wasn’t true. Decades of censorship and lies, followed by years of political turmoil, had created an environment ripe for rumors in a village of 10 million like Jakarta. Many arose spontaneously, sometimes compared to mushrooms in the rainy season. More often, rumors were crafted to threaten and frighten.

Suci would not believe Munir was dead until she saw his body herself or spoke to someone who had. Her disbelief came not just from years of rumor and threat. She could not accept that someone she felt to be a part of her soul could be gone in an instant. Her suspicion and denial grew as Suci called the airports, the airline, and friends in the Netherlands. No one would confirm the rumor. No one would tell her anything at all. On her fourth call to Amsterdam, she erupted at a Garuda employee, “I have a right to information about my husband!”

There was a long pause, before the man whispered, “Yes. Yes, he’s dead.”

Had he seen the body, seen it with his own eyes? He had.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone I told you.”


Photo: Munir sits with Suciwati and his former driver Sugiarto at Jakarta’s airport shortly before his departure. (Poengky Indarti)

Suci told co-workers they should join her at LBH on Sunday, their one day off. They’d been looking for a safer spot to meet, though no place was totally secure. The authorities could raid any meeting they considered political if held without a permit. Suci explained that LBH offered more than they’d hoped for. It had space to meet in private, with lawyers to train them and to help if they got arrested. It was like a ripe durian falling from the tree and coming to rest right at your feet.

Before long, Munir asked Suci for help at the office, and then with a research project on Malang’s northern fringe. She liked being part of the research team, until she heard that Munir was telling people she was interested in him. Suci confronted Munir, telling him that she took her work seriously and didn’t want it mixed up with emotions. She had no choice but to resign. As she walked out the door, some visitors arrived, and Munir could only watch her go. He came to her house that evening to apologize, but she wasn’t there. He returned the next day, and she accepted his apology, but did not return to the research team or the office work. She liked to be with the workers where the action was, and in June she took another factory job, though she kept volunteering at LBH as well.

In fact, Suci was finding herself drawn to Munir. She liked his passion for his work and the way he combined this serious commitment with humor. Once, he took her to a political discussion at his old campus. Afterward, she revealed her fear that his bold words there would get him shot by an intel agent concealed in the crowd. At the sound of his warm laughter, her fear evaporated. In fact, outside of conflict zones, overt state violence was rare. For many Indonesians who were not especially political, the late New Order was a time of increasing prosperity and religious tolerance. By the 1990s, Suharto could assert control mostly through a vast bureaucracy governing all organizations, discussions, and Suci told co-workers they should join her at LBH on Sunday, their one day off. They’d been looking for a safer spot to meet, though no place was totally secure. The authorities could raid any meeting they considered political if held without a permit. Suci explained that LBH offered more than they’d hoped for. It had space to meet in private, with lawyers to train them and to help if they got arrested. It was like a ripe durian falling from the tree and coming to rest right at your feet.

Before long, Munir asked Suci for help at the office, and then with a research project on Malang’s northern fringe. She liked being part of the research team, until she heard that Munir was telling people she was interested in him. Suci confronted Munir, telling him that she took her work seriously and didn’t want it mixed up with emotions. She had no choice but to resign. As she walked out the door, some visitors arrived, and Munir could only watch her go. He came to her house that evening to apologize, but she wasn’t there. He returned the next day, and she accepted his apology, but did not return to the research team or the office work. She liked to be with the workers where the action was, and in June she took another factory job, though she kept volunteering at LBH as well.

In fact, Suci was finding herself drawn to Munir. She liked his passion for his work and the way he combined this serious commitment with humor. Once, he took her to a political discussion at his old campus. Afterward, she revealed her fear that his bold words there would get him shot by an intel agent concealed in the crowd. At the sound of his warm laughter, her fear evaporated. In fact, outside of conflict zones, overt state violence was rare. For many Indonesians who were not especially political, the late New Order was a time of increasing prosperity and religious tolerance. By the 1990s, Suharto could assert control mostly through a vast bureaucracy governing all organizations, discussions, and Students’ Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam, or HMI). HMI had recently split, and Munir joined the more pro-Suharto faction. He was not just a supporter of the president, but a militant one, often clashing with street activists demanding democracy or human rights. They generally fought through public debates, wherein Munir earned a fearsome reputation, and student government races, but the competition grew tense. Munir considered himself a soldier in a religious war, and by his own account carried a knife in his bag in these years, ready to fight. Munir might have developed into a lifelong pro-Suharto ideologue or a religious hard-liner.

But not long after arriving at college, friends, books, teachers, and his own curious mind began challenging his constricted views. He enjoyed taking the pro-government side when arguing with the radical street activists, but some of their arguments were persuasive. Munir also began excavating the history of HMI. He was surprised to discover its founding documents were almost radical in their challenge to state authority and capitalism. Drafted in 1960 by an influential and progressive Muslim intellectual named Nurcholish Majid, they used the Quran and the Hadiths to argue that Muslims should side with the oppressed.

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Ouverture: Living in a Topsy-Turvy World

4 mins read

Contemporary life is defined by excess. There must always be more, there is never enough. We need a surplus to what we need to be able to truly enjoy what we have. Slavoj Žižek’s guide to surplus (and why it’s enjoyable) begins by arguing that what is surplus to our needs is by its very nature unsubstantial and unnecessary. Following excerpt deported from the author’s most recent book, Surplus-Enjoyment : A Guide For The Non-Perplexed published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel uses the term “die verkehrte Welt”—usually translated into English as “topsy turvy world”—to designate the madness of the social reality of his time. “An example of topsy-turvy occurs when your carefully-made plans got messed up at the last minute and everyone is running every which way with no idea where to go.” Does this sentence from entry for “topsy-turvy” not encapsulate perfectly the basic reversal in a Hegelian dialectical process in the course of which even the best-made projects turn into their opposite—a dream of freedom into terror, morality into hypocrisy, excessive wealth into poverty of the majority? Back in 1576, Thomas Rogers wrote in his A Philosophical Discourse Entitled The Anatomy of the Mind: “Devilish it is to destroy a city, but more than devilish to evert cities, to betray countries, to cause servants to kill their masters, parents their children, children their parents, wives their husbands, and to turn all things topsy turvy.” Three basic relations of domination (masters over servants, parents over children, husbands over wives) are here turned around or, rather, inside out—is this not a succinct formula of Hegel’s thought?

So is the present book yet another one on Hegel? In order to explain the logic of denial (Verneinung), Freud evokes a remark made by one of his patients: “You ask who that woman in my dream can be. Whoever she is, it’s not my mother.” Freud’s reaction (which has since become proverbial) is: the question is settled then, we can be sure it is indeed his mother. I can say exactly the same about this book of mine: whatever this book is about, it’s not about Hegel, and this is not a Freudian denial but literally true. Yes, Hegel is ever-present in it. Even when he is not directly mentioned he lurks in the background, but the topic of the book is exactly what its title says: it’s about how the paradoxes of surplus-enjoyment sustain the topsy turviness of our time.

In an ideological space, different stances get connected into what Ernesto Laclau called a “chain of equivalences”— for example, extreme right-wing conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic get combined with New Age spirituality. Melissa Rein Lively’s focus on wellness, natural health, organic food, yoga, ayurvedic healing, meditation, etc., led her into a violent rejection of vaccines as a source of dangerous contamination. Today, this process is palpable all around us. We live in a weird moment where multiple catastrophes—pandemic, global warming, social tensions, the prospect of full digital control over our thinking …—compete for primacy, not just quantitatively but also in the sense of which of them will count as the “quilting point” (Lacan’s point-de-capiton) which totalizes all others. Today, the main candidate in the public discourse is global warming, while lately the antagonism which, in our part of the world, at least, appears as the crucial one is that between partisans of vaccination and vaccine-sceptics. The problem here is that, for COVID sceptics, the main catastrophe today is the fake vision of the (pandemic) catastrophe itself which is manipulated by those in power to strengthen social control and economic exploitation. If one takes a closer look at how the struggle against vaccination condenses other struggles (struggle against state control, struggle against science, struggle against corporate economic exploitation, struggle for the defense of our way of life…), it becomes clear that this key role of the struggle against vaccination is the outcome of an ideological mystification in some aspects even similar to anti-Semitism: in the same way that anti-Semitism is a displaced-mystified form of anti-capitalism, the struggle against vaccination is also a displaced-mystified form of class struggle against those in power.

To find a way in this mess, we should perhaps mobilize the distinction between apocalypse and catastrophe, reserving the term “catastrophe” for what Anders called “naked apocalypse.” Apocalypse (“an uncovering” in Ancient Greek) is a disclosure or revelation of knowledge; in religious speech, what apocalypse discloses is something hidden, the ultimate truth we are blind to in our ordinary lives. Today we commonly refer to any larger-scale catastrophic event or chain of detrimental events to humanity or nature as “apocalyptic.” Although it is easy to imagine the apocalypse-disclosure without the apocalypse catastrophe (say, a religious revelation) and the apocalypse catastrophe without the apocalypse-disclosure (say, an earthquake destroying an entire continent), there is an inner link between the two dimensions: when we (think that we) confront some higher and hitherto hidden truth, this truth is so different from our common opinions that it has to shatter our world, and vice versa, every catastrophic event, even if purely natural, reveals something ignored in our normal existence, places us face to face with an oppressed truth.

In his essay “Apocalypse without Kingdom,” Anders introduced the concept of naked apocalypse: “the apocalypse that consists of mere downfall, which doesn’t represent the opening of a new, positive state of affairs (of the ‘kingdom’).” Anders’s idea was that a nuclear catastrophe would be precisely such a naked apocalypse: no new kingdom will arise out of it, just the obliteration of ourselves and our world. And the question we should ask today is: what kind of apocalypse is announced in the plurality of catastrophes that today pose a threat to all of us? What if apocalypse in the full sense of the term which includes the disclosure of hitherto invisible truth never happens? What if truth is something that is constructed afterwards, as an attempt to make sense of the catastrophe?

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Dudley’s Resignation and Return to the Throne

3 mins read

The following excerpt was adapted from the official biography of late Prime Minister Dudley Senanayaka, published by the Senanayake Foundation and Sarasavi Publishers.  Dudley Senanayake was known as “the reluctant politician.” It was never his intention to pursue public office immense pressure brought on him by friends and relatives forced him to enter public life. He entered into politics at the age of 24 years and became four times prime minister of Ceylon (Sir Lanka) during the 37 years of his political career. He is perhaps the only leader in recent history who voluntarily gave up power when one was at one’s peak, and perhaps the only ex-leader to be persuaded back to revive the flagging fortunes of one’s party.

Dudley Senanayake, the second Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the man who led his party to a resounding victory at the 1952 General Election, for the first time obtaining a two-thirds majority in Parliament, resigned from the post of Prime Minister on 12th October 1953 and handed the reins to Sir John Kotelawala. This was the first and the only time a head of State has renounced power in Independent Sri Lanka. The only other parallel in our long recorded history is the renunciation of the kingdom by King Siri-Sangabo whose name transpires at the commencement of this book. Just one and half years after being elected as the head of the Government, Dudley resigned as Prime Minister and chose to remain as a backbencher until the Parliament was dissolved in 1956. Citing ill-health, he issued a statement pleading with the Nation to release him from his responsibilities. In his statement he stated,

Dudley attending a function with his mother after becoming a member of parliament for Dedigama in 1936 [Photo: Special arrangement]

“I have endeavoured to fulfil the heavy responsibilities of the important charge entrusted to my care with all the conscientiousness that is possible to a human being and it is the same spirit of conscientiousness which makes me feel now that at a trying time like the present there should be at the helm of affairs a person unhampered by any ailment such as has dogged me in recent months.

It is exactly 18 months since having scarcely recovered from the shock of the sudden loss of my father, I yielded not without hesitation to the persuasion of my colleagues in the Cabinet in the Parliamentary Party to undertake to carry on the work from where my father left it. Almost immediately thereafter I decided to dissolve Parliament and go to the country for a clear mandate. Though the result was most gratifying, the effort which I had to put into it left little room for any recovery from the earlier strain.”

He went on to say,

“The ‘unexpected misfortune of my not being able to continue to share in the service of my Motherland in an important capacity I must bear as best as I can. But I take my leave of you with firm faith that our Party and our new Government will work in unison for the welfare and happiness of Sri Lanka”

Plagued with illness and intrigue all Dudley wished was to lead a quiet life. There were also rumours that Dudley was going to become a Buddhist monk, but it was never to be. Even though he wanted to give up politics permanently, little did he realize that in a few years’ time he would lead his party once again like a colossus dominating the entire political arena.


The General Election of 1956 witnessed the debacle of the United National Party. The Party that held a two-thirds majority in Parliament was reduced to a mere 8 seats. Sir John’s leadership was clearly rejected by the masses and the U.N.P. was beaten to a pulp. Unable to fathom this pathetic performance, the elders of the U.N.P. were looking for ways and means to repair the damage done to the Party. J.R.Jayawardene who was considered the deputy lost his own seat. He was contested by R.G.Senanayake, one of his erstwhile colleagues, who left the U.N.P. to contest as an independent and was successful in winning not only his own seat in Dambadeniya but also defeating J.R.Jayawardene in Kelaniya and in both instances by huge majorities. The United National Party could not even become the largest party in Opposition. Dr. N.M.Perera, the leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, became the Leader of the Opposition.

Most people began to say and the U.N.P. itself began to think that the Party was finished politically. In sheer desperation, the elders of the U.N.P. decided to ask Dudley Senanayake to lead the Party again. After much persuasion, Dudley consented to lead the Party on condition that Sir John resigns from all positions held by him. Although many compromises were forwarded, Dudley rejected them all. Finally, Sir John stepped down and Dudley Senanayake found himself leading the U.N.P. once again.

S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, who won the general election of 1956 and became Prime Minister, was assassinated in 1959 and one of his Ministers W.Dahanayake succeeded him.

However, after numerous cabinet reshuffles and being unable to command the majority in Parliament, the Prime Minister dissolved Parliament and held a general election in March 1960.

The United National Party was led by Dudley Senanayake and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party was led by C.P.De Silva, the deputy of late Mr. Bandaranaike. The incumbent Prime Minister W.Dahanayake contested from his own party, the Lanka Prajatantravadi Pakshaya and not only did he lose the election but also lost his own seat — Galle. The U.N.P. became the largest Party in Parliament winning 50 out of 151 seats in Parliament. Dudley in the absence of an overall majority formed a caretaker government in March 1960 and became Prime Minister for the third time.

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Bangladesh: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm

6 mins read

Following excerpts adapted from the authors’ latest book, The Vortex A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation, published by HarperCollins Publishers

White mist surged across the Mahajagmitra’s bridge and the ship’s aging frame creaked with each menacing gust. The man in charge, Captain Nesari, watched the pressure fall a bit more on his ship’s barometer and paced the length of the control room. With its holds crammed to capacity with jute fiber and steel, the ship rocked ominously as it inched toward the open sea.

Nesari and his ship were leaving the great Hooghly River, the westernmost finger of India’s Ganges delta and one of the world’s most troublesome waterways. The Hooghly meets the Bay of Bengal at a point about thirty miles south of Calcutta, where incalculable volumes of silt wash down from the Himalayas and form a fan of ever-shifting rivers, tributaries, and temporary islands. A freighter that alights on a sandbar here might never break free.

As if to prove the point, the rusty hulls of abandoned vessels dotted the seascape. Colossal silt deposits alter the map on an almost daily basis, which is why Nesari hired the expert river pilot R. K. Das from the Port of Calcutta to navigate this stretch of water. Das deftly guided the six-thousand-ton ship through the narrow channels as the wind began to pick up.

Nesari darted his eyes back and forth between the barometer and a stack of outdated maps as he tried to estimate the coming storm’s strength. The stakes were high. Waiting out the weather system would add at least a day to their two-week trip to Oman. It would mean that the company would have to pay another day’s worth of salaries to the crew of forty-eight seamen, deplete another day’s worth of fuel, and stretch their already narrow profit margins to the breaking point—all potentially fireable offenses for any captain who signed off on such a cost overrun.

Then again, pushing onward out of the delta would expose the ship to the full power of whatever weather system lay just over the horizon. The worst-case scenario was too terrifying to contemplate. So Nesari had a decision to make: Would he take the risk, or would he power down?

If it was just a squall, then the Mahajagmitra would be fine. But what if they were witnessing the edge of a cyclone? Cyclonic storms—called hurricanes in the Americas and typhoons in the Pacific Rim—are especially deadly in the Bay of Bengal. Here storms spin counterclockwise, which means that any ship leaving the Port of Calcutta would have to travel directly into the center of the storm’s power—facing potentially devastating wind and waves head-on. Once a ship turned southward, the wind would crash against the port side, which could capsize a vulnerable vessel.

Nesari thought of his family and then considered his first mate. David Machado wore the starched white uniform of the Indian Merchant Navy, complete with three gold stripes and a diamond on his epaulettes. Machado couldn’t help cracking into a smile when he thought no one was looking. Last week, he’d married the love of his life. After the ceremony in South India, the newlyweds flew to Calcutta together. Sailors like him didn’t always get to pick the location of their honeymoon, yet somehow he’d convinced his bride that a cruise to the Middle East would be a fine way to start their life together.

Machado’s wife stowed herself below deck, her heavy wedding jewelry tucked safely away in a trunk in their shared compartment. The crew knew the ancient Greek warning that women on board were bad luck. Ostensibly, this was because women caused distractions, but more superstitious sailors claimed that they also attracted misfortune and bad weather. Captain Nesari was glad that they lived in more civilized times.

It was November 11, 1970, yet despite thousands of years of seafaring, a sailor’s ability to predict the weather hadn’t improved much since the nineteenth century. The radio was the biggest breakthrough in the last hundred years and allowed mariners to speak with other ships who were closer to dangerous weather systems. A smart navigator could triangulate a storm’s center by matching other ships’ weather reports to his ship’s current position—a method that wasn’t so different from how truckers relayed traffic patterns to their colleagues over CB radios.

The catch was that the radio operator had to actually find another ship’s signal. As far as Nesari could tell, there wasn’t a single transmission coming from anywhere in the Bay of Bengal. This meant that if the Mahajagmitra proceeded onwards it would be the first to brave the swells. It would be their job to report back to other vessels contemplating the journey.

Barring radio contact, Nesari had only one other tool to understand the weather system: Buys Ballot’s law. In 1857, the Dutch meteorologist Charles Buys Ballot invented a method for determining the direction of a storm. He wrote that if a sailor in the Northern Hemisphere stood on deck with his back to the wind, he could use his senses like a human compass. The pressure would be low on his right and high on his left, which meant that his right hand would point to the center of the system—the most dangerous part. As long as Nesari could steer clear of that point, they’d avoid the most intense wind and waves. The ship and its crew would be safe, and they’d save valuable days at sea.

The problem was that Buys Ballot’s law was really more of a guideline than a law. It was about as accurate as navigating through crowded Calcutta streets using only the North Star as a guide, which is to say, it was not very accurate at all. Nevertheless, Nesari walked out onto the deck, turned his back to the growing gale, and guessed that the Mahajagmitra would make it safely through.

It was his call.

An hour later, the ship reached Gasper Light, a repeating signal tower that marked the last point on the river system before open water. Das recorded in his log that the ship was in fine sailing shape after he handed control back over to the captain. Das also noted that the waves were growing and the weather was “not at all good” but “not so bad as to make boating impossible.” With those mixed messages he left out any mention of whether he agreed with Nesari’s decision to push out into the bay. His job done, Das disembarked, then watched as the Mahajagmitra’s silhouette diminished in the distance, until it was just a dark speck on a sinister orange-green horizon.

The ship moved forward under Nesari’s confident hand. He’d worked on oceangoing vessels like this one for most of his career and knew every compartment, bolt, and line of rope on board, but this storm already felt different from any other he’d pushed through. The wheel pulled against his hand, and it became more and more difficult to keep his ship on course. First mate Machado tried to comfort his wife as the ship rocked back and forth on the waves. Perhaps he told her that this was a large ship and they would be fine.

The Mahajagmitra’s engines strained as the boat pitched through the churn. Though there was no way for Captain Nesari to know it, he was sailing directly into the center of a cyclone. The vortex cast a wide disk of clouds spanning almost the entirety of the Bay of Bengal, an expanse of water about the same size as Texas. The swirling storm gathered strength from warm waters and conjured winds that screamed across the sea at a hundred and forty miles an hour.

The system whirled around a perfectly still eye. Clouds spun like the hands of a clock turning backward, yet inside the eye, the winds fell to a whisper. Here, an impenetrable cloud wall touched the sky as it rotated slowly. This gyre fed on the power of the earth itself, dragging the ocean along its rotation so that the sea formed a gigantic whirlpool, pulling everything toward one ultimate point.

An hour after Das disembarked, a nearby ship named the Desh Alok picked up the dots and dashes of a distress call from the Mahajagmitra’s transmitter. The radio operator deciphered the line of Morse code inside his damp radio room:


Captain Nesari didn’t know it yet, but his ship had already crossed the point of no return—the storm’s event horizon. Its fate was sealed as if it were light entering into a black hole.

As water crashed against its gunwales and poured onto the deck, the Mahajagmitra had no way to find its bearings. The forty-eight-member crew secured every hatch and portal to the lower decks, in the hopes that a watertight ship might survive on luck alone after they lost control of the helm. Every eight seconds, the vessel pitched fifty degrees along its axis as it rode up the face of one wave and into the trough of another. Nesari would have tried to keep the bow facing directly into the threat of oncoming waves, but he couldn’t do anything when the water came from all directions at once.

Two hours out from Gasper Light, just after noon, the radio operator of the Majahagmitra sent out another message. This time, it was a request for bearings. They were lost. If two ships responded with their positions, the navigator could try to ascertain the ship’s place on a map by triangulating the signals. Yet any attempt would have been little more than an academic exercise.

By this time, the cyclone’s tendrils brushed against the sandy islands that make up the Ganges delta, testing the point where it would eventually meet land. Though the storm was moving northeast, the wind hit the coast from the south as the storm circulated.

One hour later, the Mahajagmitra sent out another distress call.

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Revolution: First Steps, First Problems

6 mins read

Today, August 13, the world is celebrating the birth annivessary of Fidel Castro who needs no introduction. Following experts adapted from his book My Life.

In January 1959 you and your followers didn’t institute a policy of revolutionary change overnight; you began a sort of transition phase, isn’t that right?

We had already put in place a government. I had said that I had no desire to be president – I wanted to show that I hadn’t been in the struggle out of personal interest. We looked for a candidate, and we chose a magistrate who’d been against Batista, who’d actually acquitted revolutionaries who came before him in an important trial.

Manuel Urrutia?

That’s right, Urrutia. He was highly respected. It’s a shame he didn’t have a bit less ambition and a bit more humility and common sense.

You didn’t want to be president at that moment?

No, I had no interest in being president. What I wanted to pursue was the Revolution, the army, the development of our heroic Rebel Army. I mean, an election might come along at some point and I might run, but I wasn’t really thinking about that at the time. I was interested in the laws that the Revolution would put in place, and in the application of the Moncada programme.

In other words, you waged that entire war with no personal desire to become president immediately afterwards?

I can assure you that that was the case, yes. Other factors may have come into play besides disinterestedness; there may have been a bit of pride, something

of that sort, but the fact is, I wasn’t interested. Remember, I’d been as good as dead for a long time. I was fighting to bring about a revolution, and titles weren’t important to me. The satisfaction of the struggle, pride in the struggle and its eventual success, victory, is a prize much greater than any government position, and when I said I wasn’t interested in being president, I did so after great deliberation. Our movement supported Urrutia for president, and we respected its decision. He and the 26th of July Movement, together, made the appointments to the cabinet, and there were those in the leadership cadre of the 26th of July Movement who were from the upper-middle class, even pretty right-wing, who’d joined us along the way, and others from the Left.

Some of them have written their memoirs, and many of them remained with the Revolution afterwards. They’ve had very interesting things to say, and they’ve been honest about what they thought, their discussions [perhaps ‘arguments’] with Che and Camilo.

Did Che mistrust some of those leaders?

Che was very suspicious and very mistrustful of some of them, because he’d seen some problems during the strike in April 1958 and he thought that some of the members of the 26th of July Movement whom he’d talked to in Villa Clara during the war were incorrigibly bourgeois. Che was very much in favour of agrarian reform, and some of the others kept talking about a very moderate reform, with indemnifications and compensations and that sort of thing.

Che, nevertheless, was in favour of unifying all the revolutionary forces. On the other side there was a lot of anti-Communism; it was strong and influential, and Che rejected it. Here in Cuba, during the McCarthy era, things were pretty venomous; there was prejudice everywhere, in all the media. And to add to the anti-Communism of quite a few people, with their bourgeois and petit-bourgeois background, there was also sectarianism among many Communists.

Of the ultra-left-wing sort?

No, the Communists, the people in the PSP [Popular Socialist Party].1 Because also, in a way, within the leadership sectarian methods and habits had evolved.

That party always maintained good relations with me, and later with the 26th of July Movement. It was in their bookstore on Calle Carlos III that I bought most of the classics of Marxist literature I read when I was a student.

When our movement, which had been born after the coup, was organized and launched its attack against the Moncada barracks complex in an attempt to bring down that spurious regime that was detested by the immense majority of the population, it did so in absolute secrecy, as an action of that sort can only be carried out. I’ve talked about this. In the subsequent repression, several Communist leaders, among them Lazaro Pena, were arrested by the repressive forces, which were looking for Bias Roca. Bias Roca, who happened to be in Santiago, had left the day before 26 July. In the same cell block where I was isolated in a cell with iron bars, I saw Lazaro Pena walking down the hallway with that noble, dignified expression on his face – he’d been unjustly accused of being an accomplice in the assault. Some leftists, outside the country, were talking about a putsch. I can’t blame them, because no one can know the private thoughts of those who carry out such actions, nobody is in a position to know that a new tactic had emerged, of the thousand and one kinds of fighting that can be used to change a society. When those of us in our group were out on the street again – we’d been released due to public pressure – we renewed our contacts with our former Communist companeros in the struggle for university autonomy. Flavio Bravo, former member of the directorate of the PSP youth, was my contact. In fact, the 26th of July Movement and the PSP were allies, and they had known about our plan to flee to Mexico, so the upper ranks of the Party directorate knew our plans and in principle were in agreement with them; certainly they wanted to maintain contact and continue to cooperate in the fight against tyranny.

The year 1956 passed. In Mexico we had serious problems, and many of us were even arrested. The situation in Cuba was still not critical. In the classic theses of the Communist movement, revolutionary action should always be preceded by great economic and financial crises. The conditions in that second half of 1956 didn’t seem to be terribly favourable for a revolution to break out. Flavio Bravo visited us in Mexico. He brought us the opinion of his party’s leadership and asked us to postpone our action. Flavio was like a brother. We may have given too much importance to our own vow that in 1956 we would either be free or be martyrs. But no one renounces what he believes in, and I believed in what we were doing.

We left [Mexico], we disembarked [in Cuba], and three days later we had that terrible setback in Alegria de Pio. I’ve already told you that story. A fierce wave of persecution was unleashed against the dispersed expeditionaries: many were murdered. The Communists denounced and condemned the murders. The tyranny, emboldened, sated its hatred by murdering a great many revolutionaries in December, among them several Communist union leaders.

All seemed lost. Theories emerged as to the objective and subjective factors that had come into play, the causes of the difficulties – a leftist magazine not connected with the 26th of July Movement published all this – as told by one of the companeros who’d come over on the Granma and was currently in prison. During those extremely difficult days, up in the Sierra Maestra several of us survivors continued to believe that even under these circumstances we had to fight for a victory. Certainly in the case of our country, subjective conditions played a considerable role.

There came a moment when the survivors of the Granma, with the support of the campesinos and the young reinforcements from Manzanillo, Bayamo, Santiago and other places, sent in by Frank Pais and Celia Sanchez Manduley, managed to reconstruct our detachment, which, now experienced and battle-hardened, though still small, barely 250 men, was able to extend its operations, with four columns, almost to Santiago de Cuba, and to invade the large strategic eastern region of the island.

The historical leader of the Popular Socialist Party, Bias Roca, was a man from a very humble background. He’d been born in Manzanillo and was self-taught, but he was a tireless advocate of spreading Marxist-Leninist ideas and developing the Communist Party in Cuba. Bias Roca had had to live outside Cuba for some time, for obvious reasons. During that time, Anibal Escalante, as secretary of the Party, assumed the main leadership position. By the time of the triumph of the Revolution, he had great authority, and he acted as the virtual president of the Party. He was capable, intelligent and a good organizer, but he had the deeply rooted sectarian habit of filtering and controlling everything in favour of his Party. Those were the old tactics, the old obsessions, of a stage in the history of Communism – a ghetto mentality born of the discrimination, exclusion and anti-Communist feelings that people were subjected to for so long.

During the early days of the Revolution, once the war was over, they even did this with the 26th of July Movement, despite our excellent relations. These were misguided, mistaken methods, though used by unquestionably honourable, self-sacrificing people who were true revolutionaries and true anti-imperialists.

The Axes of Leadership

12 mins read

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, The Leadership, published by Penguin Random House

Any society, whatever its political system, is perpetually in transit between a past that forms its memory and a vision of the future that inspires its evolution. Along this route, leadership is indispensable: decisions must be made, trust earned, promises kept, a way forward proposed. Within human institutions – states, religions, armies, companies, schools – leadership is needed to help people reach from where they are to where they have never been and, sometimes, can scarcely imagine going. Without leadership, institutions drift, and nations court growing irrelevance and, ultimately, disaster.

Leaders think and act at the intersection of two axes: the first, between the past and the future; the second, between the abiding values and aspirations of those they lead. Their first challenge is analysis, which begins with a realistic assessment of their society based on its history, mores, and capacities. Then they must balance what they know, which is necessarily drawn from the past, with what they intuit about the future, which is inherently conjectural and uncertain. It is this intuitive grasp of direction that enables leaders to set objectives and lay down a strategy.

For strategies to inspire the society, leaders must serve as educators – communicating objectives, assuaging doubts and rallying support. While the state possesses by definition the monopoly of force, reliance on coercion is a symptom of inadequate leadership; good leaders elicit in their people a wish to walk alongside them. They must also inspire an immediate entourage to translate their thinking so that it bears upon the practical issues of the day. Such a dynamic surrounding team is the visible complement of the leader’s inner vitality; it provides support for the leader’s journey and ameliorates the dilemmas of decision. Leaders can be magnified – or diminished – by the qualities of those around them.

The vital attributes of a leader in these tasks, and the bridge between the past and the future, are courage and character – courage to choose a direction among complex and difficult options, which requires the willingness to transcend the routine; and strength of character to sustain a course of action whose benefits and whose dangers can be only incompletely glimpsed at the moment of choice. Courage summons virtue in the moment of decision; character reinforces fidelity to values over an extended period.

Leadership is most essential during periods of transition, when values and institutions are losing their relevance, and the outlines of a worthy future are in controversy. In such times, leaders are called upon to think creatively and diagnostically: what are the sources of the society’s well-being? Of its decay? Which inheritances from the past should be preserved, and which adapted or discarded? Which objectives deserve commitment, and which prospects must be rejected no matter how tempting? And, at the extreme, is one’s society sufficiently vital and confident to tolerate sacrifice as a waystation to a more fulfilling future?

the nature of leadership decisions

Leaders are inevitably hemmed in by constraints. They operate in scarcity, for every society faces limits to its capabilities and reach, dictated by demography and economy. They also operate in time, for every era and every culture reflects its own prevailing values, habits and attitudes that together define its desired outcomes. And leaders operate in competition, for they must contend with other players – whether allies, potential partners or adversaries – who are not static but adaptive, with their own distinct capacities and aspirations. Moreover, events often move too quickly to allow for precise calculation; leaders have to make judgments based on intuitions and hypotheses that cannot be proven at the time of decision. Management of risk is as critical to the leader as analytical skill.

‘Strategy’ describes the conclusion a leader reaches under these conditions of scarcity, temporality, competition and fluidity. In finding the way ahead, strategic leadership may be likened to traversing a tightrope: just as an acrobat will fall if either too timid or too audacious, a leader is obliged to navigate within a narrow margin, suspended between the relative certainties of the past and the ambiguities of the future. The penalty for excessive ambition – what the Greeks called hubris – is exhaustion, while the price for resting on one’s laurels is progressive insignificance and eventual decay. Step by step, leaders must fit means to ends and purpose to circumstance if they are to reach their destinations.

The leader-as-strategist faces an inherent paradox: in circumstances that call for action, the scope for decision-making is often greatest when relevant information is at its scantiest. By the time more data become available, the margin of maneuver tends to have narrowed. Amid the early phases of a rival power’s strategic arms buildup, for example, or in the sudden appearance of a novel respiratory virus, the temptation is to regard the emerging phenomenon as either transitory or manageable by established standards. By the time the threat can no longer be denied or minimized, the scope for action will have constricted or the cost of confronting the problem may have grown exorbitant. Misuse time, and limits will begin to impose themselves. Even the best of the remaining choices will be complex to execute, with reduced rewards for success and graver risks in failure.

This is when the leader’s instinct and judgment are essential. Winston Churchill understood it well when he wrote in The Gathering Storm (1948): ‘Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.’[

In May 1953, an American exchange student asked Churchill how one might prepare to meet the challenges of leadership. ‘Study history. Study history,’ was Churchill’s emphatic reply. ‘In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ Churchill was himself a prodigious student and writer of history who well understood the continuum within which he was working.

But knowledge of history, while essential, is not sufficient. Some issues remain forever ‘veiled in mist’, forbidding even to the erudite and experienced. History teaches by analogy, through the ability to recognize comparable situations. Its ‘lessons’, however, are in essence approximations which leaders are tested to recognize and are responsible for adapting to the circumstances of their own time. The early twentieth-century philosopher of history Oswald Spengler captured this task when he described the ‘born’ leader as ‘above all a valuer – a valuer of men, situations, and things . . . [with the ability] to do the correct thing without “knowing” it’.

Strategic leaders need also the qualities of the artist who senses how to sculpt the future using the materials available in the present. As Charles de Gaulle observed in his meditation on leadership, The Edge of the Sword (1932), the artist ‘does not renounce the use of his intelligence’ – which is, after all, the source of ‘lessons, methods, and knowledge’. Instead, the artist adds to these foundations ‘a certain instinctive faculty which we call inspiration’, which alone can provide the ‘direct contact with nature from which the vital spark must leap’.

Because of the complexity of reality, truth in history differs from truth in science. The scientist seeks verifiable results; the historically informed strategic leader strives to distill actionable insight from inherent ambiguity. Scientific experiments support or cast doubt on previous results, presenting scientists with the opportunity to modify their variables and repeat their trials. Strategists are usually permitted only one test; their decisions are typically irrevocable. The scientist thus learns truth experimentally or mathematically; the strategist reasons at least partly by analogy with the past – first establishing which events are comparable and which prior conclusions remain relevant. Even then, the strategist must choose analogies carefully, for no one can, in any real sense, experience the past; one can only imagine it as if ‘by the moonlight of memory’, in the phrase of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga.

Meaningful political choices rarely involve a single variable; wise decisions require a composite of political, economic, geographical, technological and psychological insights, all informed by an instinct for history. Writing at the end of the twentieth century, Isaiah Berlin described the impossibility of applying scientific thinking beyond its remit and, consequently, the enduring challenge of the strategist’s craft. He held that the leader, like the novelist or landscape painter, must absorb life in all its dazzling complexity:

what makes men foolish or wise, understanding or blind, as opposed to knowledgeable or learned or well informed, is the perception of [the] unique flavors of each situation as it is, in its specific differences – of that in it wherein it differs from all other situations, that is, those aspects of it which make it insusceptible to scientific treatment.

six leaders in their context

It is the combination of character and circumstance which creates history, and the six leaders profiled in these pages – Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher – were all shaped by the circumstances of their dramatic historical period. They all then also became architects of the postwar evolution of their societies and the international order. I had the good fortune to encounter all six at the height of their influence and to work intimately with Richard Nixon. Inheriting a world whose certainties had been dissolved by war, they redefined national purposes, opened up new vistas and contributed a new structure to a world in transition.

Each of the six leaders, in his or her way, passed through the fiery furnace of the ‘Second Thirty Years’ War’ – that is, the series of destructive conflicts stretching from the beginning of the First World War in August 1914 to the end of the Second World War in September 1945. Like the first Thirty Years’ War, the second began in Europe but bled into the larger world. The first transformed Europe from a region where legitimacy was derived from religious faith and dynastic inheritance to an order based on the sovereign equality of secular states and bent on spreading its precepts around the globe. Three centuries later, the Second Thirty Years’ War challenged the entire international system to overcome disillusionment in Europe and poverty in much of the rest of the world with new principles of order.

Europe had entered the twentieth century at the peak of its global influence, imbued with the conviction that its progress over the previous centuries was certain – if not destined – to be unending. The continent’s populations and economies were growing at an unprecedented rate. Industrialization and increasingly free trade had midwifed historic prosperity. Democratic institutions existed in nearly every European country: dominant in Britain and France, they were underdeveloped but gaining in relevance in Imperial Germany and Austria, and incipient in pre-revolutionary Russia. The educated classes of early twentieth-century Europe shared with Lodovico Settembrini, the liberal humanist in Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, the faith that ‘things were taking a course favorable to civilization’.

This utopian view reached its apotheosis in the English journalist Norman Angell’s bestselling 1910 treatise The Great Illusion, which held that growing economic interdependence among the European powers had rendered war prohibitively expensive. Angell proclaimed ‘man’s irresistible drift away from conflict and towards cooperation’. This and many other comparable predictions would be exploded in short order – perhaps most notably Angell’s claim that it was ‘no longer possible for any government to order the extermination of a whole population, of the women and children, in the old Biblical style’.

The First World War exhausted treasuries, terminated dynasties and shattered lives. It was a catastrophe from which Europe has never fully recovered. By the signing of the armistice agreement on November 11, 1918, nearly 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians had been killed. Of every seven soldiers who had been mobilized, one never returned. Two generations of the youth of Europe had been depleted – young men killed, young women left widowed or alone, countless children orphaned.

While France and Britain emerged victorious, both were exhausted and politically fragile. Defeated Germany, shorn of its colonies and gravely indebted, oscillated between resentment of the victors and internal conflict among its competing political parties. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires both collapsed, while Russia experienced one of the most radical revolutions in history and now stood outside any international system.

During the interwar years, democracies faltered, totalitarianism marched, and privation stalked the continent. The martial enthusiasms of 1914 having long since subsided, Europe greeted the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 with premonition tinged with resignation. And, this time, the world at large shared in Europe’s suffering. From New York, the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden would write:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odor of death

Offends the September night.

Auden’s words proved prescient. The human toll exacted by the Second World War ran to no fewer than 60 million lives, primarily concentrated in the Soviet Union, China, Germany and Poland. By August 1945, from Cologne and Coventry to Nanjing and Nagasaki, cities had been reduced to rubble through shelling, aerial bombing, fire and civil conflict. The shattered economies, widespread famine and exhausted populations left in the war’s wake were daunted by the costly tasks of national reconstitution. Germany’s national standing, almost its very legitimacy, had been obliterated by Adolf Hitler. In France, the Third Republic had collapsed under the impact of the Nazi assault of 1940 and was, by 1944, only just beginning its recovery from that moral void. Of the major European powers, Great Britain alone had preserved its prewar political institutions, but it was effectively bankrupt and would soon have to deal with the progressive loss of its empire and persistent economic distress.

On each of the six leaders profiled in this book, these upheavals left an indelible mark. The political career of Konrad Adenauer (born 1876), who served as mayor of Cologne from 1917 to 1933, would include the interwar conflict with France over the Rhineland as well as the rise of Hitler; during the Second World War, he was twice imprisoned by the Nazis. Beginning in 1949, Adenauer shepherded Germany past the lowest point of its history by abandoning its decades-long quest for domination of Europe, anchoring Germany in the Atlantic Alliance, and rebuilding it on a moral foundation which reflected his own Christian values and democratic convictions.

Charles de Gaulle (born 1890) spent two and a half years during the First World War as a prisoner of war in Wilhelmine Germany; in the Second, he initially commanded a tank regiment. Then, after the collapse of France, he rebuilt the political structure of France twice – the first time in 1944 to restore France’s essence, and the second time in 1958 to revitalize its soul and prevent civil war. De Gaulle guided France’s historical transition from a defeated, divided and overstretched empire to a stable, prosperous nation-state under a sound constitution. From that basis, he restored France to a significant and sustainable role in international relations.

Richard Nixon (born 1913) took from his experience in the Second World War the lesson that his country had to play an enhanced role in the emerging world order. Despite being the only US president to resign from office, between 1969 and 1974 he modified the superpower tensions of the high Cold War and led the United States out of the conflict in Vietnam. In the process, he put American foreign policy on a constructive global footing by opening relations with China, beginning a peace process that would transform the Middle East and emphasizing a concept of world order based on equilibrium.

Two of the leaders discussed in these pages experienced the Second World War as colonial subjects. Anwar Sadat (born 1918), as an Egyptian army officer, was imprisoned for two years for attempting in 1942 to collaborate with German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in expelling the British from Egypt and then for three years, much of it in solitary confinement, after the assassination of the pro-British former Finance Minister Amin Osman. Long animated by revolutionary and pan-Arab convictions, Sadat was projected, in 1970, by the sudden death of Gamal Abdel Nasser into the presidency of an Egypt that had been shocked and demoralized by defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. Through an astute combination of military strategy and diplomacy, he then endeavored to restore Egypt’s lost territories and self-confidence while securing long-elusive peace with Israel with a transcendent philosophy.

Lee Kuan Yew (born 1923) narrowly escaped execution by the occupying Japanese in 1942. Lee shaped the evolution of an impoverished, multiethnic port city at the edge of the Pacific, surrounded by hostile neighbors. Under his tutelage, Singapore emerged as a secure, well-administered and prosperous city-state with a shared national identity providing unity amid cultural diversity.

Margaret Thatcher (born 1925) huddled with her family around the radio listening to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wartime broadcasts during the Battle of Britain. In 1979, Thatcher inherited in Britain a former imperial power permeated by an air of weary resignation over the loss of its global reach and the decline of its international significance. She renewed her country through economic reform and a foreign policy that balanced boldness with prudence.

From the Second Thirty Years’ War, all six leaders drew their own conclusions as to what had led the world astray, alongside a vivid appreciation of the indispensability of bold – and aspirational – political leadership. The historian Andrew Roberts reminds us that, although the most common understanding of ‘leadership’ connotes inherent goodness, leadership ‘is in fact completely morally neutral, as capable of leading mankind to the abyss as to the sunlit uplands. It is a protean force of terrifying power’ that we must strive to orient toward moral ends.

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