Cuba and the Left

September 25, 2007

The cutoff of Soviet assistance to Cuba marks the end of an era. The Cuban Revolution may find a way to carry forth, but more privation is inevitable, and Cuba's people are unlikely to suffer stoically for a goal that seems evermore elusive. It is a sobering moment for the Left, both here and in Latin America, which has looked steadily to Cuba for inspiration and found it, but has rarely evaluated the experience in all its complexity.

Cuba's many successes and failures in building a just society reflect the limits and opportunities of the Cold War: the unrelenting hostility of the United States, and the ability to play one superpower off the other. But they also reflect the conceptions that have guided the Latin American Left since it emerged as an organized force in the 1920s. These notions, epitomized by official Cuban rhetoric and still dominant in Left thinking in many parts, may once have fit the world; they no longer do.

It now seems evident that socialism cannot be built without democracy. State power provides an important means for transforming society, but without ever increasing grassroots participation, over the long term defending state power becomes an end in itself, the primary end, and building socialism the means to achieve it. This "socialism" then becomes more form than content, ever less able to transform the values by which people live. The Cuban government is by no means as distanced from its people as was the Soviet regime. But to the degree that political and economic decision making is removed from the people––and it clearly is––socialist forms fail to change capitalist values and only reinforce the state's vain urge to repress them.

Revolution can't make a clean break with capitalism by nationalizing property and decreeing that the economy function by a socialist law of value. The dominance of the world economy has not allowed Cuba (or the USSR) to escape the tyranny of the bottom line. Profit, even though it be public, continues to make or break the economy. And the logic of capitalism has not been kept from permeating society.

When socialists are in the government, they have to govern the economy, the existing institutions, by the rules of capitalism. To change these, the Left has to be an independent democratic grassroots movement at the same time. If not, to one degree or another, it becomes the administrator of an order which it can not change and in the end accepts. The old standard, "The more we produce today, the more we can distribute tomorrow," is not true. The system does not function that way. The system generates inequality.

The Left has traditionally assumed that within the logic of capitalism itself there was a basis for the emergence of socialism, that the working class had the historic destiny of transforming society. Neither the working class, nor the peasantry, nor the bourgeoisie for that matter, turned out to be what the Left imagined. Perhaps capitalism doesn't lead to anything but its own reproduction. Perhaps elements of resistance grow, not as a product of the system's logic, but as the result of something which refuses to enter into that logic.

The action of the Left, in and out of power, could then be understood as that which questions the system, keeps open the possibilities for freedom, justice, equality. But it would not prefigure a counter-society. Anti-capitalism as a critique, not an alternative. Profound reforms can make for revolutionary change, but these do not lead toward some ideal goal. Perhaps we should look at revolution as a process of changing people's mentality, a counter-cultural force which operates on a multitude of planes to redefine what is perceived as right and natural.

This is not to say that socialism is dead, or even Marxism for that matter. In fact, all this can be found in Marx. Nor is it to say that Cuba has "failed." Only that without democracy, the Cuban Revolution looks less and less revolutionary.

Last April I spoke at length with José Aricó, an Argentine socialist who died in late August at the age of 61. An editor of the left journal La Ciudad Futura and author of La Ruta de Gramsci en América Latina, he spent most of his life pondering these very questions.

Aricó began his political life in the Communist Party, as did so many Latin American intellectuals. He left the party in the early 1970s along with other notables. In exile after 1976 and back after 1982, they travelled different routes: some moved closer to Peronism, others toward Alfonsín's Radicals, still others, like Aricó, remained independent, though no less active in the political life of the Left.

He was a short round man with a resonant high-pitched voice and that peculiar Argentine capacity for cynical optimism. ("The world is a terible place and it always will be. History advances in the worst possible way.") I met him at the Socialist Culture Club, the Buenos Aires version of New York's Marxist School: an apartment with the city's typical shabby elegance (an old cage elevator, chipped marble columns, pieces of a chandelier, an improvised bar at one side), where independent socialists meet on Friday nights to drink and schmooze.

Aricó's energetic grace belied the seriousness of his illness, just as his casual manner belied his breadth of knowledge and depth of insight. We have to rethink everything, he told me, and no Left is prepared to do this. It's not that such a Left does not exist. The Left is struggling for change at many levels throughout society, and is a real force for empowering people. But it thinks it is building towards some moment of total liberation, a moment which will never arrive.

One sign of the weakness of the Latin American Left, Aricó maintained, is its unwillingness to discuss the experience of the Soviet bloc. The Left still can't talk independently about Cuba, he said, because any criticism is viewed as giving a hand to imperialism––the notion that dirty laundry should be washed at home, that to the world the Left must appear as pure. This thinking, as Aricó put it, "has gone to shit."

Now is the time to defend Cuba. But not by stifling criticism of Cuban policies, on the island and off. Frank and open debate is the best defense against United States designs, and the only way to breathe life into Cuban socialism. The wall that contained the debate of the Left––the existence of the socialist camp––has disappeared. Painful as it is for many, this too is a liberation, an exceptional historic opportunity that may well give rise to new thinking, new movements, a new socialism.


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