A Self-Critique in Defense of Cuba

Two years ago, I wrote my first article in Jacobin Magazine. I had naively drafted it part way through my first extended stay in Havana, before I had fully understood the imperial power dynamics undergirding my relation to the revolution. The main problem discussed in the article is, in my current view, still relevant: the turn towards openness with the global capitalist system has left the Cuban socialist project vulnerable. This was something that the Cuban revolution will have to reckon with, and something that socialists in the imperial core should be aware of.

But the way I elaborated that point was wrong. In a simplistic classification of dissidents with anarchist tendencies as “the Left” and the Cuban Communist Party as the “authoritarian state,” I obscured the complex reality that is Cuban socialism. I also, in a small way, contributed to the imperial project of undermining the Cuban revolution through delegitimization. I implied it was not true to the Marxist-Leninist values that is purports to represent; I should have been more careful with my analysis.

We have seen that “takes” such as this have been explicitly used to undermine revolutionary movements and parties throughout the Global South—most recently, an article in Jacobin Magazine condemning the Bolivarian Revolution and Telesur was cited by the right-wing opposition to undermine the legitimacy of the press and the government of Venezuela. This is a concerning trend of which socialists in the imperial core must be aware and actively defend against.

We should make every effort to learn from the successes and failures of socialist projects around the world—a task that undoubtedly requires the identification of their failures. But to do so without an understanding of the underlying imperial power dynamics is dangerous.

Our commitment to the defense of socialist experiments in the Global South from imperial attacks must always come before our desire to critique those experiments.

In this spirit, I want to briefly address the challenge I raised in the original article: Cuban socialism faces an uncertain future given the willingness of leaders to open the doors to foreign capital– a complicated move that has been debated at length both in the island and among the global left. As this process unfolds, how can Cuban socialism be revitalized in the twenty-first century, instead of re-incorporated?

Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes: “If [Cuba’s] problems are solved within a socialist framework, Cuba may once again become an agent for the renovation of the Left . . . bringing about a different kind of socialism from the one that failed in the twentieth century.” The sources of failure of Actually Existing Socialism were undoubtedly more external than not. Still, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the gradual turn towards the market in China, Vietnam, and Cuba, we are faced with a challenge that twentieth century socialism has been unable to solve.

But there is evidence to suggest that the Cuban revolutionary government acknowledges this challenge, despite its turn towards the market. Cliff Durand, writing in the Monthly Review, explains one example better than I could:

Today, as the Cuban Revolution moves away from the centrally administered state socialism of the last century, its leaders are seeking to socialize their institutions in a new way. Although in the 1960s the new Cuban government reclaimed the resources of society from capitalism, it did not fully socialize them. Instead, the state stepped in as the agent of society, in effect removing the people from active participation. A paternalistic state provided universal free health care and education, along with secure employment, and in return, the people gave the state their loyalty. But they have remained passive participants, rather than protagonists in a participatory democracy, shaping their own destiny. As a result, by the end of the twentieth century, it was civil society, rather than the state, that threatened to wither away.

Now the Cuban state is devolving power downward, to local levels of government and to cooperatives. While most property remains state-owned, where possible, its management is being transferred to those in actual possession of property. With management thus separated from ownership, the operation of small enterprises is placed in the hands of collectives of workers. Following the principle of “subsidiarity,” daily decisions are to be made at lower levels, with the support or supervision of higher levels where necessary. Through these reforms, the Cuban state is recreating democracy from the base of society upward, and the constituted power of the state is facilitating the constituent power of civil society.

Two striking elements emerge from reading this passage: one on process, one on content.

First, on process: Durand expertly assesses a shortcoming of the Cuban revolution (“the state stepped in as the agent of society, in effect removing the people from active participation”) without condemnation.

Second, on content: the Cuban state is actively working to revitalize socialism in Cuba. This implies an acknowledgement that the socialism of the twentieth century is no longer sufficient in the twenty-first.

None of this is to say that we should blindly support the actions of (any) government, or that we shouldn’t critically assess Cuban socialism. We must if we are to learn how to replicate and expand its many successes. It is only to say that, as the above passage demonstrates, we can approach this critique without doing harm and without falling into hypocrisy.

Importantly, our critical assessment must not result in lecturing, scolding, or prescribing. The purpose of critical assessment must be to further our own anti-capitalist project, not “perfect” or “purify” another’s. Socialists in the Global South don’t need our critiques—they’re doing just fine on their own. We should focus instead where our energy is best served—at reducing the violence of global capitalism, centered here in the imperial core.

Thanks to Emeline Armitage for her comments on this post

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