Part 1 coming April 4th.
Next week, the Ghosts of Plum Run Hour discusses the two meetings between Abraham Lincoln & August Willich, leader of 1848-49 revolutionary armies in Europe. The first meeting was on February 12, 1861, when Lincoln’s inaugural train tour took him to Cincinnati, where Willich delivered a speech in Lincoln’s honor. The speech was published in German and English that day in the newspaper Willich edited, the Cincinnati Republikaner. The second meeting was at the White House on May 8, 1863, Willich now a brigadier general in the Union Army, recently released from Confederate prison after being captured at the Battle of Murfreesboro December 31, 1862. Willich had just spent 4 months on trains and in prisons in the heart of the Confederacy, and Lincoln wanted to hear from him about it.
Our two experts are David Dixon, author of the very first biography of August Willich, Radical Warrior - August Willich’s journey from German Revolutionary to Union General, and Andrew Zimmerman, editor of the most recent edition of Marx & Engels’ writings on the The Civil War in the United States - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
At the time of the White House meeting, Karl Marx was researching Das Kapital while writing about our Civil War in newspapers and to Engels. Time had cast the 1848 comrades to the four winds long ago. Communism split after the 1848 revolutions between Willich and Marx, and it was not just political. A Schapper-Willich wing faced off briefly against a Marx-Engels wing over control of the Communist League in London, specifically over how to continue the revolution in Germany. The Schapper-Willich wing was more popular, largely because of Willich’s deeds on the battlefield, which Willich promised to resume immediately. Marx had deduced that scientific socialism declared Willich’s zeal for acts, military and otherwise, was a window which had closed, and would not reopen until the dialectic said it would reopen. This is how Willich achieved the title “The Reddest of the Red”; Willich was too radical for Marx. During this split, things got very personal. Jennie Marx called Willich’s repeated attempts to bed her as “trying to coax out the worm that exists in every marriage.” Years later at the White House, oceans and more than a decade traveled, it was Willich seated across from a head of state with his sabre, having survived capital’s prisons to report on them to his president.
Lincoln actually mentions his meeting with the Reddest of the Red in a dispatch, the same day, to his latest failed commander of the Army of Potomac, General Joseph Hooker. Hooker had just suffered the most humiliating defeat of the entire war, the Battle of Chancellorsville, considered Robert E. Lee’s greatest masterpiece and where Stonewall Jackson’s myth takes hold by his death at the hands of his own men’s fire. Willich, entering the White House that day May 8, two days after Chancellorsville ended, would have certainly heard the blame landing as it always did on the German immigrants of the 11th Corps, who famously were overrun and surprised by Jackson on the first day. “Blame it on the immigrants!” Dixon describes as the media narrative in Washington after Chancellorsville, noting, “Where have we heard that before?”
Politically, the German immigrant vote was crucial to Lincoln’s electoral coalition across the country. A midterm election loomed in which anti-war “Copperheads”, northern pro-union voters opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation, were mounting candidates to save the Union as it was, with slavery. Racism and xenophobia was a cancer on the Union Army felt by Willich very personally that day in their meeting at the White House. Lincoln likely began the meeting addressing the matter. So, it is no surprise that in Lincoln’s dispatch to Hooker after the meeting, his characteristic wit both acknowledges the anti-immigrant fog engulfing the war effort, then swiftly deals with it. “He [Willich] says there was not a sound pair of legs in Richmond, and that our men, had they known it, could have safely gone in and burnt every thing & brought us Jeff Davis."
How red was the Reddest of the Red? Join us on our YouTube channel to find out!
Tim Russo is author of Ghosts of Plum Run, an ongoing historical fiction series about the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. Tim's career as an attorney and international relations professional took him to two years living in the former soviet republics, work in Eastern Europe, the West Bank & Gaza, and with the British Labour Party. Tim has had a role in nearly every election cycle in Ohio since 1988, including Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Tim ran for local office in Cleveland twice, earned his 1993 JD from Case Western Reserve University, and a 2017 masters in international relations from Cleveland State University where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science in 1989. Currently interested in the intersection between Gramscian cultural hegemony and Gandhian nonviolence, Tim is a lifelong Clevelander.
Photo credits to: ADALBERTO ROQUE
“Talk to a Cuban. Talk to a Venezuelan,” reactionaries respond in full confidence. These deflections prevent the public from seriously engaging in dialogues about socialism. Detractors assert that the Cuban and Venezuelan experiences demonstrate the crippling failures of socialism and the inherent superiority of capitalism. Socialism could never produce a successful society, they say, as evidenced by the economic turmoil and repressive politics of Cuba and Venezuela.
And it’s not just Republicans that fear monger about socialism; Democrats concur. Biden and Bill De Blasio have accused Trump of behaving like a socialist. Talks about the dangers of populism and fostering a cult of personality permeate the liberal Twittesphere. Even supposed democratic socialists distance themselves from these Third-World experiments.
When someone says, “talk to a Cuban, talk to a Venezuelan,” they weaponize identity politics for the ruling class' benefit and prioritize the lived experiences of exiles in the United States over that of others. It is seemingly a full-fledged argument. You cannot talk about something you have not lived through. You must seek guidance from someone who has. But, then, what about the Venezuelan socialist? What about the Cuban communist? What is the experience of those who align themselves with the revolutionary cause of these governments?
While I cannot speak for anyone but myself, I attempt to answer these personal questions – with a little help from my comrade Carlos L. Garrido of Midwestern Marx – a US-based digital journal devoted to bridging the divide between the modern left and the working class. Carlos services Midwestern Marx’s 100,000 readers as a writer, editor, and podcast host for the journal’s YouTube channel. He is a Cuban-American Marxist and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Philosophy at Southern Illinois University. Carlos and I share similar tales: we’re both Latino socialists living in the US since childhood. Carlos’ family brought him to the US at age 3, in the year 2000; mine brought me at age 8, in the year 2003.
Carlos was born in Havana, Cuba to a family of academics with socialist orientation. Upon their arrival to the US they remained largely politically uninvolved. Consequently, Carlos was not brought up around Marxist thought. The philosopher characterizes his upbringing as rather apolitical, albeit of his family’s known anti-imperialist and anti-establishment sentiments. Yet, when he listened to Los Aldeanos’ protest raps against Fidel Castro, Carlos’ family met him opposition: “Every time I would put it on, my parents would talk about how stupid it was.”
It took Carlos’ own philosophical radicalization to realize the leftist legacy his family had imprinted in Cuba. Specifically, his maternal grandfather was a communist seminarian active in the first youth squadrons sent after the revolution to build schools and clinics in the poor countryside. As the multi-hyphenated man put it, “until the point of his death my grandfather was a communist.” He explains, “I really started finding out about all of this when I started getting into Marxism. So, that’s why when people ask me if I was a Red diaper baby… kinda, but not kinda.”
Then, there’s me. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela to a magazine ad manager and a technology store owner. Unlike Carlos, I was in no way a bottle-fed champion of the working class. I was born into a privileged financial position, complete with private school education and a live-in housemaid. This seems like a very strange reality in retrospect. Our experiences as immigrants in the United States taught us difficult lessons on class rigidity and the cycle of poverty. Yet, at the time, it seemed normal.
My family is a curious collision of two different worlds. My mother's side comes from el Estado Aragua. They were working-class folks of Black and indigenous descent. My grandfather drove a garbage truck, and my grandmother informally sold makeup and homemade goods. My father's side migrated from small-town Sicily to the Venezuelan capital in the 1960s. Historically, European immigrants in Latin America are welcomed with tax breaks, land grants, employment opportunities, and social privilege. The government did not extend such courtesy to Caribbean immigrants or the country’s native people. My paternal grandparents constructed houses (yes, themselves) and collected rent. Two worlds existed in the same country, producing vastly different politics. My maternal grandfather ardently supported Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. My paternal grandparents would spit in Chávez’ grave if they had the chance.
Reconciling the dichotomies of my family history is an endless process. Many Cubans and Venezuelans see themselves in this predicament. Carlos admits to similar family divisions: “I had other parts of my family that were very reactionary and part of the opposition. While in Cuba they were actually being funded by interests in Miami that were funded by State Department interests. It was a very weird family dynamic.”
Despite a lack of funding from the State Department, my family members act in a similar fashion. They suffer from Chávez derangement syndrome: they have deluded themselves into feeling nostalgia for a gilded farce of prosperity in our home country. Many Cuban and Venezuelan exiles romanticize the times they enjoyed the fruits of inequality. They compare their material conditions of the past to their material conditions of the present. And are understandingly upset. But rarely do they consider the material conditions of the less fortunate. They do not consider the segregation and squalor endured by the lowest economic classes. They know they had to work hard for their managerial positions and cosmopolitan lifestyle, but they ignore the indigency and indignation that ravished the cityside and rural masses. This lack of class consciousness manifests into racial animus and contempt for the revolutionary cause.
For a long time, I suffered from Chávez derangement syndrome myself. During the New Year’s Eve tradition of eating twelves grapes and making twelve wishes, I routinely wished for Chavez to die. Since birth, the indistinct sounds of the oppositional Globovision blared through my grandparent’s home. I attended opposition marches with my parents. My family even emigrated to the United States in response to Chávez’s restoration of power following the 2002 coup d'état attempt. I had no opportunity to develop my own thoughts or even consider what drove Venezuela to socialism. While not all can be simplified down to a matter of allegiance, ruling class propaganda firmly implanted my young brain with disdain and mistrust.
The vilification of revolutionary leaders dates back centuries. But, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has mastered the art of turning a country’s own people against each other – to the point where Venezuelan exiles promote and push for economic sanctions against their fellow compatriots. And no one is immune. Even a semi-bottle-fed socialist like Carlos held negative conceptions of Castro before he journeyed into Marxist philosophy and Castro’s works. Now, he proudly hangs a portrait of Castro in his home library.
For me, it took time and education to unlearn those reactionary views. My curiosity began with Latin American critical race theory; then, I ventured into socialism by asking, “Why did the Bolivarian Revolution happen?” No one had ever bothered to discuss such gargantuan aspect of Venezuelan history with me. Perhaps no one had ever bothered to ask the question… or think for themselves. I conducted an undergraduate thesis focusing race relations during the Punto Fijo era of Venezuelan politics. My findings brought me necessary clarity and a fundamental understanding of the nexus between the racial and class struggle in my native land. I finally grasped why my grandfather appreciated Chávez’s populist message so deeply.
To truly decolonize our minds, we must reject the notion that socialist experiments of the Global South have not yielded positive results. Ahistorical accusations of kakistocracy and authoritarianism often mask United States interests. The same people who decry Chávez’s and Maduro’s power romanticize Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s military dictatorship. Same applies to admirers of Fulgencio Batista. As Carlos pointedly remarked, “They’ll say ‘Well, there weren’t these civil liberties in socialist states'. But where were those civil liberties in Czar’s Russia? Where were those civil liberties in pre-Maoist China? Where were those civil liberties in Batista?… They didn’t exist!”
Though the idea of a deformed worker’s state does concern me, Carlos seems unbothered. He poses the question, “How would the Founding Fathers deal with someone advocating for monarchy in the middle of a revolutionary project?” He argues counterrevolution and capitalist-funded insurgency requires a strong state apparatus. Outsiders have long mystified repression in socialist countries, drawing up an unfair caricature of brainwashed people unallowed to think critically. However, these countries’ citizens participate in local affairs, debate about the presence of corruption, and support the tenants of the revolution. The reality is “no one is as critical of Cuba as Cuba is.”
Obviously, socialism is not without faults. But to learn from the successes and the failures of previous experiments, we must divorce ourselves from the false pretense that socialism has never worked.
“This mentality separates things from their historical context and tries to deal with it in the abstract. What happens is that, if you interpret the society that Russia had before and after the revolution, you realize that the mass of people received an incredible amount of freedom. The freedom that they had in every day life increased tremendously. It was a backwards society that industrialized without having to colonize anyone, genocide any native peoples, or require African slavery. It was able to do all of these things that capitalism had to do the most gruesome things in order to develop. It did it through socialist planning. There were mistakes. Of course, there were mistakes. But it was able to achieve a level of development never before seen, at a velocity never before seen, without the bulk of the negatives that it took capitalism. That’s something that’s extremely impressive.”
Socialism has eradicated or massively alleviated poverty in Russia, China, Vietnam, and Bolivia. Even the alleged catastrophes of Cuba and Venezuela show resilience in the face of economic warfare. Since the countries rebelled against American economic occupation, the United States government has bombarded Cuba and Venezuela with an embargo and economic sanctions.
In rhetoric, these sanctions stand against human rights violations. In practice, these sanctions are a human rights violation. They cripple economies and violate the sovereignty of local governments. American imperialist policies intend to sow discord in the populace and destabilize the region, in hopes that it creates a motivating factor for regime change. They retaliate against socialist countries’ nationalization of their industries by creating stagflation, medical shortages, and hunger. Then, the desperately impoverished population will want to crawl back to US control of labor and production.
The blockade has taken a tremendous toll on both nations. Business vanished, trade ceased, those who could fled, and those who could not suffered the dire consequences of capitalist greed. Still, the US’ Machiavellian efforts have not reached their ultimate end. The anti-imperialist apparatus and their popular support have weathered the man-made storm of capitalist revenge. To Carlos, this represents a beacon of light: “I look back on my country and am very proud. I look at it as a David and Goliath story, as one of the biggest hopes of the 20th century, a small island that was able to face the biggest empire in the history of humanity and win, something it is still doing.”
He asserts that a capitalist country facing similar conditions would have endured long famines and homelessness. “If that would’ve happened to another type of society, a society that would put money before people, things would’ve been a whole lot worse,” the Cuban Marxist conjectures. I draw one conclusion: the blame has been misplaced. The American state bears the responsibility for the poverty inflicted on Cuban and Venezuelan people. Castro’s and Chávez’s intolerance for rentierism and neocolonialism posed a threat to American hegemony. And we are being punished by a hostile empire.
In the hypocritical name of freedom and democracy, our right to self-determination is being smothered. And propagandized people eat it up. Carlos questions, “Where is your conception of free markets if you’re going to use government regulations to stop trade and to stop Cuba’s ability to trade anywhere else in the world?”
Miami exiles serve as pawns in this ever-brewing Cold War. Their stories of privilege loss resound in the ears of anti-communists. And their fervor for counterrevolution lends legitimacy to past, present, and future aggression. Carlos adds without hesitation, “The worst enemies of the Cubans in Cuba are their brothers and sisters that are in Miami.”
So, if Carlos and I love communism so much, why don’t we just go back home? “For the same reasons why bees follow a stolen beehive. All the wealth from Latin America is funneled to the US. So that’s where the immigrant goes.” We’re coming for what’s ours.
Gaetano is a Venezuelan socialist and digital content creator. He graduated from Florida International University with a BA in Political Science, focusing on history and the racial class struggle throughout the Americas. He now spends his time meandering through Instagram.