Arguing Over Cuba

Far too often, US intellectuals either defended Cuban Communism uncritically or fed into Washington propaganda.

Fidel Castro with schoolchildren in New York City in 1959. George Mattson

For many American intellectuals, how to respond to the early stages of the Cuban Revolution was the key issue of the early 1960s.

Liberal cold warriors like Arthur Schlesinger Jr defended the aggressive line against the Cuban government taken by the new Kennedy administration.

But leftist intellectuals railed against Washington. One of the most prominent among them, radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, argued that unlike both the developed capitalist countries and Soviet Communism, Cuba’s revolution spoke for Third World nations.

Rafael Rojas’s latest book, Fighting Over Fidel: The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution, surveys these heated debates.

It’s a task he’s eminently qualified for. Rojas is a prominent Cuban intellectual who has worked and lived for many years in Mexico City. He has deep roots in Cuba’s cultural establishment. His brother is the Cuban vice minister of culture and his father was for years rector of the University of Havana.

Unlike other authors who write about Cuba, his work is clearly removed from the Cold War spirit. Thus, for example, he gives a respectful, even positive, description of Paul Sweezy’s and Leo Huberman’s sympathetic analysis of the Cuban Revolution that appeared in the magazine Monthly Review in 1960. And he defends C. Wright Mills and Jean Paul Sartre from the accusation, launched by Schlesinger, that they supported the birth of authoritarianism in Cuba.

He even defends some Cubans who supported the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion: he responds to C. Wright Mills’s characterization of them as “soldiers of the CIA” by arguing that ousted domestic elites and others had perfectly rational and autonomous reasons to oppose the Castro government.

Of course, Mills’s and Rojas’s characterizations are not really contradictory: one could argue that these Cubans had the autonomous will to become soldiers of the CIA, supporting and participating in an imperialist adventure that was indisputably controlled by an American intelligence agency.

His extended survey, however, sacrifices some depth, and notwithstanding his serious research, Rojas commits several important errors. These are perhaps due to his lack of familiarity with the US left.

For example, he associates Robert Williams, H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael with the Black Panther Party when in fact they had either no link or at most a brief association with the organization. He also includes Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, and the members of the Partisan Review, and later Dissent, group, as part of the liberal left “characterized by a resolute adherence to Trotskyism and democratic socialism.” It’s a conceptual mishmash that confuses some of these personalities’ political origins with a later political projection that had little if anything to do with Trotskyism.

Similarly, he misuses the term “New York intellectuals”: aside from the fact that not all of the intellectuals he discusses lived in New York, the term historically denotes a specific group of left-wing intellectuals, many of them of Jewish descent who constituted a coherent intellectual community engaged in a common debate. This is not the case for the people Rojas studies. There are also a number of minor errors, such as misnaming Theodore Draper as Thomas Draper.

Many Revolutions

One of Rojas’s central contentions is that although the early 1960s left-wing debates over the Cuban Revolution were undoubtedly influenced by the Cold War, they are by no means reduceable to a simplistic pro-West versus pro-East dichotomy. The members of the independent American left of the sixties, he argues, held different positions on Cuba.

What for Waldo Frank was a humanist Cuban revolution was for C. Wright Mills a Marxist revolution and for Carleton Beals a populist revolution. The pro-Soviet, Maoist, and Guevaraist socialisms debated in the Village Voice and Monthly Review represented different interpretations of Cuban socialism and marshaled different reasons to support it.

Moreover, writes Rojas, the diversity of views among the left-wing intellectuals sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution reflected not only the heterogeneity of the intellectuals themselves, but also the

changing, and at times experimental, nature of Cuban socialism during its first decade. The Cuban revolutions interpreted by the New York public sphere were multiple because multiple Cuban revolutions were taking place in the island.

It was only when the island’s ideological debate and intellectual life came increasingly under state control and centralization — a process that started in 1961 and culminated in the early seventies when Cuba fully adopted the Soviet model — that, according to Rojas, most members of the New York left became reluctant to endorse Cuba’s new course and “were unwilling to support Cuba’s decolonization if it involved the naturalization of Marxist-Leninist dogma on the island.”

Anatomy of a Revolution

Rojas’s discussion of the American left-wing intellectual support for the Cuban Revolution is a stimulating invitation to revisit a seminal period in the development of the US left. But Rojas fails to consider the fact that the Cuban revolutionary government began to lose some of its attraction for these intellectuals simultaneous with the US government’s sharp escalatation of its military involvement in Vietnam in 1965 and with the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s explosion under the leadership of Mao Zedong in 1966.

In this period, the US left shifted its political attention from Cuba to Vietnam and China. As a result, some of the intellectuals he discusses — notably Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg — became intensely preoccupied with the American horrors perpetrated in Vietnam. Significant numbers of other left political figures sympathized with the Chinese leaders, like Eldridge Cleaver and Robert Williams, who actually moved to China from Cuba after complaining about the island’s racism.

It is also revealing that Paul Sweezy, having supported the Cuban leaders in a 1960 book with Leo Huberman, Anatomy of a Revolution, adopted a critical stance on the Cuban Revolution’s course — no doubt influenced by his favorable interpretation of the events in China — in his 1969 Socialism in Cuba. (Unlike the 1960 volume, Socialism in Cuba was not translated and published in Cuba.)

Meanwhile, C. Wright Mills died in 1962 and Waldo Frank passed away in 1967. Both of these intellectuals, who are so central to Rojas’s argument, actually missed much of the Cuban government’s evolution toward Communism.

At the same time, Rojas ignores the important part of the American left that continued to support the Cuban government. He overlooks how the political texture of the US left changed in the sixties as a result of the Communist Party’s (CPUSA) virtual collapse. Two 1956 events hastened the fall of the “old left” party: the Twentieth Party Congress, where Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin’s crimes shook the international Communist movement, and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution later the same year.

Although small by international standards, the Communists had been by far the largest left political group in the United States. The majority of those who, disgusted by Soviet atrocities, abandoned the CPUSA in droves understood the USSR’s failure as the result of a rigid, authoritarian, and stodgy bureaucracy that had abused and besmirched socialist ideals. Fixated on the symptoms, they neglected to analyze the structural and institutional causes that generated them.

Along with their “red diaper” children, thousands of whom became activists and leaders in the student, civil rights, and antiwar movements, they became mesmerized by the radically different political style of the Cuba’s revolutionary leaders. The Cuban Revolution was not led by a traditional Communist Party and was infused with a fresh and romantic spirit totally absent in the dour capitals of Eastern Europe.

In the eyes of the disillusioned ex-Communists, the charismatic Fidel Castro and the other “barbudos” were the ideal antidote to bureaucratic dreariness. Amid the thrill of the revolutionary sixties, the fact that the Cuban administration structurally and institutionally copied the Soviet model long before 1970 escaped their notice.

Except for a relatively small minority of social democrats, most anarchists, and some Trotskyists, this mood dominated the US left. By the 1970s, however, the Cuban Revolution had lost much of its luster. As Rojas indicates, left-wing intellectuals, among others, became put off by the increasing cultural and political rigidity of Cuban socialism as it moved toward adopting the Soviet model.

So, for example, when the poet Heberto Padilla — whose collection of poems Fuera de Juego was denounced by the Cuban authorities in 1968 — was imprisoned in Havana in 1971, many of those intellectuals, including Susan Sontag, joined other notable figures like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and the Latin Americans Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa in strongly criticizing the Cuban leaders.

Yet far from what Rojas intimates, most left-wing intellectuals did not entirely abjure the leadership of the Cuban Revolution. They took a more quiet position of sometimes critical, sometimes low-key support, and gave the Cuban government the benefit of the doubt. Theirs was a qualified support, but support nonetheless.

The American Left and its Cuba Politics

These left-wing intellectuals’ and activists’ backing of the Cuban government was part of an ideology that combined some facts with a large number of problematic assumptions and errors that were then systematized into a from-above political framework that was indifferent, if not explicitly opposed, to democracy.

Setting aside repeated shortages of agricultural and consumer goods and a permanent housing crisis, the Cuban leadership, until the Soviet bloc’s collapse in the late eighties and early nineties, managed to guarantee the majority of the population an austere but tolerable standard of living, and important gains in the areas of health and education.

It is also true that the Castro government turned the Cuban Republic into a much more sovereign entity than it had been previously. However, these achievements were both made possible and limited by the Cuban economy’s dependence (including substantial subsidies) and its junior foreign-policy partnership with the Soviet Union.

Exclusively focused on those gains, despite the 1990s downturn, American left intellectuals continue to a considerable extent to support Castro. Those achievements also allowed them to ignore — or at least minimize — the thoroughly undemocratic character of the Cuban one-party state, its repressive apparatus, and its total control of media, trade unions, and all the island’s other so-called mass organizations.

Others points of contention on the island were ignored, as well. There were significant advances for Cuban blacks in the early years of the revolution when the government abolished segregation and opened the path for education and social mobility. But while some racial justice battles were won, other forms of racism still persisted.

This situation was aggravated when the government declared in the early sixties that racism was no longer a problem on the island. They proceeded to enforce a long-standing silence on the question — a policy that has recently been partially retracted — while banning Cuban blacks, or any other oppressed group, from forming independent organizations to fight for their rights.

African American left-wing personalities like Cornel West, Kathleen Cleaver, the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr, and the late Ruby Dee Davis have criticized the situation in the island, which has been aggravated by the increasing racial discrimination provoked by the rise of tourism and other recent economic changes. But others such as Alice Walker, Danny Glover, and Harry Belafonte have continued to support the Cuban government in a generally uncritical fashion.

The relative silence on these questions from the US left stems in part from views that conflate the importance of opposing US imperialism and intervention abroad with the different belief that all anti-imperialist political systems and leaders must be politically supported.

Closely tied to this conflation is the idea that any criticism of those systems, no matter how pro-revolutionary, will distract attention from US imperial abuses and thus weaken opposition to it, as if one must ignore reality to hold a principled defense of national self-determination against US imperialism.

Some of the Cuban government’s more sophisticated defenders have also argued that the Cuba’s prevailing economic underdevelopment make it unlikely, if not impossible, for a democratic political and economic system to survive: poverty and economic scarcity, they contend, are not conducive to democracy.

Although this may or may not be true, the real issue is whether a one-party state is conducive to the development of radical democratic rights and a way of life that improves the chances for the development of a socialist democracy in the island.

Nothing of what has happened in Cuba, or in any other part of the former Communist world, supports the idea that the one-party state has contributed to the democratization of those societies.

Political Responsibility

By implying that left-wing American intellectuals stopped supporting the Cuban state by the early 1970s, Rojas — a prominent intellectual critic of the Cuban government — is spared from even considering whether and how to address his US counterparts who were and still are sympathetic to the Cuban current leaders.

Although this might not have been part of his agenda, his problematic implication that a non-Communist left rejected the Cuban government’s turn to the Soviet model prevented him from considering the important issue of how an independent left might have an approach to the Cuban government without bolstering Washington propaganda.

It was — and still is — possible to criticize and oppose the social and political system established in Cuba while strongly reiterating opposition to US intervention whether it takes the form of military invasion, terrorist sponsorship, or economic blockade.

This double-barreled stance requires a political method that most left-wing American intellectuals have been loath to adopt. But their prevailing method of tallying the Cuban government’s perceived gains and losses has obscured one particular loss that cannot be compensated for by any gain: the loss of autonomy and ability to organize independently and defend their interests by workers and other oppressed groups, and the associated civil and political freedoms that make such organizational independence viable.

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