“I went to Nicaragua with nothing but a tourist visa, $1,500 in cash, the name of someone at the Agrarian Reform Ministry, and the idea of being a revolutionary intellectual. . . . The idea took hold in a simple character flaw: wanting to believe that I knew better than everyone else.”
—From the preface
When Michael Johns joined a Sandinista militia in 1983, a fellow revolutionary dubbed him a rábano, a radish: red on the outside but white on the inside. Now, more than twenty-five years later, Johns appreciates the wisdom of that label as he revisits the questions of identity he tried to resolve by working with the Sandinistas at that point in his life. In The Education of a Radical, Johns recounts his immersion in Marxism and the Nicaraguan sojourn it led to, with a painful maturation process along the way.
His conversion began in college, where he joined a student group called the Latin American Solidarity Association and traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, for research on his senior thesis. Overwhelmed by the poverty he witnessed (and fascinated by a new friend named Maricela who was trying to turn peasants into revolutionaries and who carried a heavily highlighted copy of Late Capitalism), he experienced an ideological transformation. When a Marxist professor later encouraged him to travel to Nicaragua, the real internal battle began for him, a battle that was intensified by the U.S. invasion of Grenada and its effect on the Sandinistas, who believed they were the next target for an imminent American invasion. Before he knew it, Johns was digging trenches and learning how to use an AK-47. His intellectual ideals came face-to-face with revolutionary facts, and the results would perplex him for years to come.
Bringing to life a vivid portrait of the sometimes painful process of reconciling reality with romanticized principles, The Education of a Radical encapsulates a trove of truths about humanity, economics, and politics in one man’s memorable journey.
For ten months in 1983 and 1984 I was a would-be revolutionary in Nicaragua. The experience taught me a lesson. As the American writer Bernard DeVoto says, "Realism is the most painful, most difficult, and slowest of human faculties."
After leaving Nicaragua with vague but creeping doubts about the Sandinista revolution, it took me several years to see the revolution for what it was. It took me another twenty years to see myself for who I was: to see why I went to Nicaragua and what happened to me while I was there.
Realism came slowly for Sandinistas, too. Sergio Ramírez was one of the revolution's top political leaders and its chief intellectual. In 1991 he wrote an essay for Granta magazine explaining why his Sandinistas had just lost the national elections. After admitting that the Sandinistas' "plans for collectivized farming seriously undermined all possibilities of winning" the allegiance of the peasants—who wanted plots of their own—Ramírez blamed the ruinous plans on his noble desire to keep the land from ever "falling back into the greediest hands." He conceded that Nicaragua's counterrevolution had become a civil war in the countryside, but he explained it by saying that the peasantry's "fears had proved stronger than our promises" and thereby split Nicaraguans into "those who understood the revolution, and those who could not be reached by it." The revolution's main failing, he seemed to be saying, was its poor sales job. Even after confessing that he and other Sandinista leaders had "been arrogant and had lost sight of important elements of political reality," Ramírez buried the revolution's internal problems beneath his dominant story line: the mauling of a heroic little revolution in Central America by the big bad imperialist beast of the north. Less than a year after losing power, Ramírez was still too close to his revolution to see it realistically.
In fact, it took him several years to gain the distance he needed to see the revolution on its own terms and in its full complexity. It took him several years, in other words, to see that the revolution's compassion often took the form of paternalism, that its lofty goals were supported by dubious reasoning, that its good intentions excused bad policies, that its concentration of power jeopardized its democratic ideals, that its absolute faith in the goodness of its aim justified a number of heavy-handed means to bring it about. In the end, Ramírez broke with what remained of the Sandinistas. He called his memoir of the revolution Adiós muchachos (So Long, Boys).
Gioconda Belli's memoir is called The Country under My Skin. Beginning as early as 1984, says the former Sandinista, "the Revolution slowly lost its steam, its spark, its positive energy, to be replaced by an unprincipled, manipulative, and populist mentality … we were feeling more and more like spectators to a process that continued to live off its heroic, idealistic image even though, in practice, it was being gutted and turned into an amorphous, arbitrary mess." Belli might have been feeling like a spectator to a wayward revolution, but she did not quite know it: she remained a revolutionary until the Sandinistas were voted out of office.
While Ramírez and Belli tell brave and searching stories from deep inside the revolution, neither tells the story that I want to tell: how the ideal of socialism—a political ideal that requires almost complete moral and intellectual certainty—breaks down under the pressure of realism. It is a story, in other words, about how much truth one can see of a socialist revolution and still believe in it.
I'm no Voltaire, but as a twenty-four-year-old in Nicaragua I was something like Voltaire's Candide—in the sense that I too was "a young metaphysician entirely unschooled in the ways of the world." And like Candide, I needed many countervailing experiences before finally tempering my enthusiasm for Marx's version of Pangloss's theory that every effect has a direct cause in a chain of necessity leading to the best of ends. A grand theory makes life clear and simple. It provides a sense of control and purpose. It gives you an identity. It even charts your course of action. So it's very hard to give up.
And the difficulty with describing how I did give it up is that, like Candide, I had only the faintest idea that I was losing my faith. I fought a fierce mental battle in Nicaragua about the Sandinista revolution, but I fought it almost entirely in the back of my mind. So I describe the battle through a series of incidents that, without my quite knowing it, were chipping away at my political certainty while eroding my self-image as an American revolutionary working for socialism in Nicaragua.
Realism does not mean seeing things as they really are. Truth is elusive, especially in politics. Realism means thinking realistically. At its simplest, thinking realistically means allowing yourself to see what George Orwell called "uncomfortable" facts—uncomfortable because they confound your view of the world and your place in it. That is why DeVoto said realism is painful, difficult, and slow. And it is why someone as smart as Charles Darwin had to force himself to follow what he called, in his autobiography, "a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones."
While in Nicaragua, I had none of Orwell's capacity to stare down uncomfortable facts. Nor was I wise or honest enough to follow Darwin's rule of writing down everything that ran counter to my ideas. But I did manage to see, if unwittingly, just enough of the Sandinista revolution to get my first lesson in realism.
On October 25, 1983, I woke up in Managua to the news that the United States was invading Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island whose socialist government was friendly with Cuba, Nicaragua, and the USSR. Like everyone else who heard the news that morning in Nicaragua, I could not help wondering if we were next.
Nicaragua's revolution was led by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, which Nicaraguans called either the Frente or the Sandinistas—or, if they hated them, the comunistas. Immediately after defeating the longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza in July 1979, the Frente confiscated his sugar estates, coffee farms, cement factories, construction companies, and slaughterhouses. The Frente went on to seize the nation's banks. It then appropriated the properties of rich Nicaraguans living in Miami. It even took over the import-export business.
All at once the Frente found itself with a huge piece of the national economy and, as its leaders liked to say, "the guns in our hands and the people on our side." And so it launched its revolutionary program of transferring the nation's wealth and power to itself—as a self-appointed vanguard in charge of leading the people to what its visionaries called a "new society."
By the time I arrived in early June 1983, the Frente's revolutionary program was under attack from contra-revolucionarios who were backed by the American government. The contras raided Sandinista co-ops and collective farms along the border with Honduras. Late that summer, they briefly took over a Nicaraguan town on the border with Costa Rica. They even tried bombing the military airfield at Managua's Sandino International Airport, though the pilots missed their target and crashed into the passenger terminal. Just ten days before the American invasion of Grenada, contras used speedboats supplied by the CIA to fire on and explode fuel tanks in Nicaragua's port of Corinto, whose twenty thousand inhabitants had to be evacuated.
The fighting was far from Managua, where I was living. It was equally far from the capital's two neighboring provinces, where I was doing a study for the Sandinistas. Even so, the daily reports of attacks and killings, along with the Frente's incessant warnings of an impending American invasion, created an atmosphere of danger that encouraged my fantasy of being a revolutionary intellectual. The fantasy was easy to indulge because the possibility of real danger seemed so remote—until I woke that morning to the news of Grenada.