Now that Cuba has become a member of the Soviet bloc and Fidel Castro has proclaimed that he has for some time been a dedicated “Marxist-Leninist,” the response of the American left to the Cuban Revolution may be examined without recapitulating the previously contested evidence for these developments. Supporters of the Castro regime, while they will certainly continue to blame the United States for the victory of Cuban Communism, can no longer pretend that they are defending anything but a one-party dictatorship which has chosen a totalitarian course in internal politics and has completely forsworn neutralism in the cold war. No doubt many of Castro’s American supporters will not draw back from such a defense, but others have had to undergo the only too familiar experience in this century of seeing their half-suppressed doubts about the trend of a new regime transformed into bleak certainties.
The Cuban tragedy of errors has been played out to the full. Events have entirely justified both the original fears of American policymakers about Cuba and of the Cuban revolutionaries about the United States. And the half-wishful nature of the fears on each side has helped make them self-confirming in their action and reaction upon one another. The disastrous American-sponsored invasion of last spring—morally and politically, not merely technically, disastrous—vindicated Castro in his demagogic anti-Americanism, although the violence and paranoia of his attacks on the United States helped bring about the very response he professed to fear. If the shock of the invasion forced liberal critics of Castro to confront the utter bankruptcy and irresponsibility of American policy, those whose willingness to give Castro the benefit of the doubt was strengthened by the invasion, can no longer evade full recognition of his primary allegiance in policy and ideology to the Sino-Soviet bloc. The air has cleared in the harsh daylight of the latest Cuban events, and a post-mortem on the attitudes of the American left toward the Cuban Revolution is now very much in order—and all the more so since the Cuban Revolution has provided the first significant test of the values and political intelligence of that amorphous entity, the “New Left.”
In Britain, where the label originated, and to some extent on the European continent, the “New Left” refers to a fairly definite grouping of radicals under forty who possess some organizational unity, journals of their own, and ties to the left wing of established socialist parties. In America it is far harder to identify a coherent movement of youthful political protest. Negro sit-in strikers in the South, Northern groups sponsoring active resistance to segregation, young adherents of the peace movement, the essentially apolitical Beats, and revived socialist clubs and journals in the big cities and on some university campuses, present a varied picture. Except for their attraction to the young, no single target or common denominator unites these expressions of protest. All of them, moreover, have depended heavily on the ideological and organizational leadership of older men with long records of participation in the crusades and battles of the past three decades. Compared to its European counterparts, the American New Left is less fully an autonomous movement of the young generation—even the literary Beats are indebted to middle-aged pro-motors and gurus. Thus any survey of reactions to the Cuban Revolution must also consider various sectors of “Old Left” opinion as well as the position of the left, old and new, in relation to the major historical developments of the past decade and a half.
Europe, which in the early years of the cold war was the main theater of political conflict, has successfully resisted further Communist expansion and has experienced unprecedented economic progress under moderate conservative governments. The once popular left view that only a socialist “third force,” encouraged by the United States, could prevent the Continent from falling to the Communists has been utterly refuted by events. In America, where there has never been an established left in the European sense, liberal and radical demands have been confined to marginal issues by the requirements of cold war diplomacy and the defense economy. Throughout the Western world a parochial lack of concern with foreign policy and a concentration on secondary domestic issues has been the response of much of the left to this frustrating situation which deprives it of an independent political role.
Since the middle 1950’s, however, there has been a growing tendency on the left to define the cold war as primarily a struggle over the political and economic destiny of the underdeveloped nations. As old-fashioned anti-colonialism has become less relevant, with more and more Asian and African peoples winning national independence, a preoccupation with the economic development of the new nations has begun to replace it. In the political stasis of the cold war and prosperity at home, the politics of economic development are becoming a substitute for the politics of domestic class struggle as a special concern of the left; Asia, Africa, and now Latin America, rather than Europe or the United States, have become the parts of the world for which the left can still claim to possess relevant prescriptions. Essentially, this reorientation of interest represents a sensible and long overdue recognition that we truly live in one world and an awareness that conservatives are unable or disinclined to sympathize with revolutionary change in its underdeveloped half.
But an insistence on the primary importance of the political and economic problems of the underdeveloped world has the additional attraction to some leftists of permitting an ideological end-run around the military frontier of the cold war and the dilemmas of nuclear policy it poses. If it leads to an emphasis on the open, non-military aspect of the East-West conflict, it also permits by-passing the cold war altogether and is easily combined with advocacy of total disengagement in Europe, demands for unilateral disarmament by the West, and an excessive readiness to believe that Khrushchev’s Russia is more pacific and reasonable than Stalin’s. The obvious irrelevance to the underdeveloped world of the anti-Communist monomania and military-mindedness of the conventional American definition of the cold war enables the left to adopt a perspective which is oppositionist at home yet ideologically programmatic on a “world-historical” scale, and which transcends the weary issues of capitalism and socialism or New Dealism, Communism and anti-Communism, as they have been conceived in the context of Western politics. Yet old problems of freedom, revolution, the price of economic progress, and the relevance of democracy reappear, though now at arm’s length from the internal life of the Western political community.
The importance of the Cuban Revolution to the American left must be understood against this background rather than as the result of any long-standing interest in Cuba itself or even Latin America. Suddenly the task of overcoming poverty in backward countries was dramatized by a full-fledged social revolution in America’s own underdeveloped sphere of influence, long dismissed as a politically hopeless area dominated by corrupt military dictators, where—the symbols of formal independence having been won long ago—even the dynamism of a rising nationalism was lacking. Castro’s triumph coincided with the closing years of the Eisenhower administration, whose sterile anti-Communism and hostility or indifference to revolutionary movements abroad had been reflected in its tolerance of the deposed Batista. Cuba represents several “firsts”: the first successful popular social revolution with a worldwide impact in many years; the first political event in Latin America for decades to have had great repercussions in the United States; the first underdeveloped country to produce a leader capable of moving Western intellectuals to entranced identification with him; the first country geographically remote from the Communist bloc nations to pattern itself internally on them and to give them its full allegiance; the first country to become a victim of an American act of aggression since the beginning of the cold war. (Guatemala was ambiguous at the time, although it has aroused considerable retrospective indignation, particularly in light of Cuba.)
Castro had the almost universal support of American liberals and radicals—as well as of more conservative segments of opinion—for about a year after he came to power at the end of 1958. By the summer of 1959 it was evident that the Cuban Revolution amounted to more than the dramatic overthrow of an unpopular dictator and that its leaders possessed the drive and support to carry out a radical program of land reform and industrial nationalization. Expropriated American business interests began to make common cause with anti-Communist and nationalist American politicians and publicists on the right and with largely pro-Batista Cuban exile groups in attacking the Castro regime. Rising criticsim in the United States, most of it emanating from such ignorant and profoundly ill-willed sources, had the effect of increasing American left-wing support of the Cuban Revolution. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee was founded by a number of prominent liberals and radicals in the spring of 1960 and established chapters on some university campuses, attracting the support of left-wing students. In the spring and summer of 1960 visits to Cuba “to see for oneself” by radical intellectuals who had shown little previous interest in Latin American politics became common. Before this period, the main accounts of the Cuban Revolution going beyond day-by-day reporting had come from a few journalists (Herbert Matthews of the New York Times was, of course, the most influential) and several academic specialists in Latin American affairs. Nearly all of them were strongly sympathetic to Castro and the Revolution, although a few expressed reservations, less about the influence of the Communists than about the totalitarian implications of Castro’s persistent fanning of a ferocious populist mood with diatribes against counter-revolutionaries, ex-Batistianos, and increasingly, “Yankee imperialism.”
By the late summer and autumn of 1960, the first lengthy interpretations of the Revolution by radical intellectuals, following their visits to Cuba earlier in the year, appeared. These included two books, Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy’s Cuba, Anatomy of a Revolution and C. Wright Mills’s Listen, Yankee, as well as Jean-Paul Sartre’s series of articles, later published in the United States in a volume called Sartre on Cuba. These writers took note of assertions that the Castro regime was moving in a Communist direction—but only as voiced in vulgar and inaccurate form by the popular American press. They paid little attention to charges of growing internal Communist influence, except to deny them, and defended Cuba’s economic ties with the Soviet Union (for which, of course, a good case could be made) as no more than a sound business proposition necessitated by the American suspension of the Cuban sugar quota. Yet months before these writers had visited Cuba, as early as the autumn of 1959, the growing power of the Cuban Communists had become a major issue within the Castro regime itself, and a number of Castro’s closest revolutionary comrades—by no means “respectable” moderates opposed to basic economic reforms, as Castro’s apologists allege—had defected or been forced out of office for opposing Communist gains at the expense of the original Fidelistas. Undeniably, most of the intellectuals who visited Cuba in early 1960 were in no position to observe or even to learn of these developments (for one thing few of them spoke Spanish), but they were scarcely disposed in any case to view the Revolution with even a modicum of critical reserve.
Events were moving so quickly in Cuba that by the time the more lengthy analyses of the Revolution had appeared in book form in the United States the situation had greatly changed. As a socialist writer, Michael Harrington, observed last August, “Listen, Yankee is a faithful rendering of the point of view of a 26th of July militant of a year or so ago. . . . One reads, for instance, how his [Mills’s] militant feels about the Communist party, and then turns to the most recent statement of the Maximum Leader. An enormous change has taken place, and Mills had no inkling of it.” What is true of Mills’s book is even truer of Sartre’s existentialist celebration of the Revolution as a movement guided by no fixed ideology but defining itself in practice.
Magazines and newspapers, however, can avoid being outdated by events more easily than books. By the end of 1960 and through the following year, division within the ranks of the left over Castro’s Cuba became clearly evident and can be followed, especially in their correspondence columns, in Dissent, the Catholic Worker, Liberation, Monthly Review, the Nation, the New Leader, New Politics, the New Republic, Studies on the Left, and the Village Voice. These journals more or less cover the spectrum of left opinion in the United States, excluding official Communist publications and those of the tiny Marxist sects. None of them published articles or editorials defending the American-supported invasion of last April, even in its conception as distinct from its execution, and none of them have taken seriously the ultra-right view that the entire Cuban Revolution was simply a Communist plot from the beginning.
Articles on Cuba in the New Leader and Dissent have been almost uniformly critical of the Castro regime, expressing reservations even in the early period when left-liberal opinion was unanimously sympathetic. Monthly Review and Studies on the Left, on the other hand, have been even more consistently pro-Castro and have increasingly engaged in polemics against the views of the anti-Castro left. The other journals, in varying degrees, have published both pro- and anti-Castro articles; their letters columns, and in the case of Liberation their editorial columns, have been filled with vigorous controversy. This rough line-up of pro and anti views on the trend of the Revolution has, as we shall see, some significance, but it should be emphasized that it in no way corresponds to a broader continuum of views from moderate to “extreme” left—if indeed such a classification makes sense at all any longer, which is doubtful. However, the various groupings and ideological positions of both the Old and the New Left are reflected in reactions to the Cuban situation.
The new leader and dissent both represent the old anti-Stalinist left, the former from what was once a right-wing socialist (or “Menshevik”) position, the latter from a more radical, often “sophisticated” Marxist or neo-Marxist, perspective. The New Leader last year published two long supplements on Cuba by Theodore Draper, which have made Draper the “Trotsky” of the Cuban Revolution to Castro’s supporters—a critic who is too well-informed and formidable to be easily dismissed. Draper is an ex-Communist, the author of two excellent scholarly studies of American Communism, whose first visit to Cuba in the spring of 1960 was followed by an article praising the reforms improving living standards initiated by the Castro regime in the first year of the Revolution. Other survivors of the old anti-Stalinist left, whether they were formerly Communists, Trotskyites, or Social Democrats, and whether they are today moderate liberals or some species of democratic socialist, have also—usually more in sorrow than in anger—turned against the Castro regime while continuing to condemn the invasion attempt and America’s past record of tolerating rightist dictators and economic colonialism in Cuba and Latin America as a whole. Among those who have expressed themselves forcefully are Robert Alexander and Daniel Friedenberg (both authorities on Latin America long before the Cuban Revolution), and Michael Harrington, Michael Walzer, and Sam Bottone. Inevitably, memories of a previous “revolution betrayed” made veteran anti-Stalinists sensitive to totalitarian tendencies in Cuba from the beginning; their doubts and suspicions were intensified when Castro denounced former comrades as traitors, when Fidelista exiles began to flock to Miami, when the Cuban leaders disparaged democratic institutions and destroyed civil freedoms in the name of the “higher democracy” of the Revolution—and when some American leftists began to indulge in a painfully familiar brand of apologetics for the regime.
Monthly Review, on the other hand, represents that segment of American leftist opinion which, without associating itself in any way with the Communist party either ideologically or organizationally, has continued to maintain that Russia and China are “socialist” countries, more “progressive” and therefore more deserving of the sympathy of the left than the “capitalist” West. Monthly Review has often been critical of the Soviet Union since Hungary and de-Stalinization, but its editors and contributors have never abandoned their conviction that Soviet society is bound to become more liberal now that it is fully industrialized and that its economic achievements provide the best model for the underdeveloped countries to follow. Joan Robinson, the well-known British Keynesian economist, recently exulted in Monthly Review that Western capitalism, although undeniably more stable than formerly, could pride itself on being the second-best economic system in the world, the growth rates of Russia and China allegedly having proven the superiority of “socialism.” Miss Robinson, Paul Baran, and Paul Sweezy (one of the editors), as well as several other regular contributors to Monthly Review, are all professional economists. Their fetishism of economic development, no matter what its political and social costs, curiously parallels the free market fetishism of their opposite numbers, the “hard” neo-classical economists who advocate abandoning all government welfare programs, including public education, and outlawing trade unions in order to maximize “consumer sovereignty” and “efficient allocation of economic resources,” which can only be insured by a pure free market system.
Cuba has provided a heaven-sent ideological opportunity for the fetishists of state-directed economic growth. Since they are forced to concede that Western capitalism has partially resolved its “internal contradictions” and moderated class conflicts, the underdeveloped world now becomes the place where the “fetters of capitalism” prevent economic progress. And when, as in Cuba, a revolution occurs in a backward country directed against a corrupt native ruling class allied with American business interests, “capitalism,” and better still American capitalism, can with some plausibility be blamed for underdevelopment, rather than the greed of domestic oligarchs, overpopulation, or the strength of pre-industrial traditions and institutions. Thus worldwide significance can be attributed to Cuba. Huberman and Sweezy and Baran have been quick to interpret the Revolution in accordance with their view that “socialism,” defined as centralized state planning and nothing more, is the sole road to economic development for backward countries. Dictatorships and the destruction of civil liberties are seen as temporary necessities justified by the long-run goal of economic development and the ruthlessness of the capitalist-imperialist enemy. These writers, not surprisingly, are undisturbed by the Communist take-over in Cuba and are far more ready to concede that there has been such a take-over than other American supporters of Castro. “A stranger arriving in Havana,” Professor J. P. Morray wrote last summer in Monthly Review, “would now have some difficulty distinguishing the official Communist party newspaper from the others.” His explanation, echoing that of Castro and Che Guevara themselves, is that, although there were few replacements of non-Communists by Communists in the top levels of the government, “the necessities of the Revolution and the growing contacts with the socialist [read Soviet bloc] countries produced what appears to have been a mass conversion to Marxist-Leninist ideology.” He concludes—probably accurately—that “the steady course of the Revolution toward Leninist socialism is due to the hand of Fidel Castro, not of the Communist party, at the helm of the Cuban state.”
In effect, the Monthly Review group has adapted past apologias for Soviet totalitarianism to the Cuban situation in the language of a new theory of the requirements of economic development. Isolated by the cold war, disoriented by Hungary and de-Stalinization, they have been enabled by the Cuban Revolution to regain some intellectual influence over the various politically inexperienced New Left groups emerging in the past few years. Yet their outlook is scholastic and heavily ideological; the New Left enthusiasts for Castro were, at least in the beginning, more naive, more directly concerned with Cuba as such, and more responsive to the immediate élan of the Revolution itself. Sartre and Mills, with their stress on the freedom of the Fidelistas from the rigid ideological formulas of the past, were undoubtedly more in tune with the mood of those who were bored with old battles, who saw both the United States and Russia as bureaucratic managerial societies, and who wished as they listened with vicarious nostalgia to their elders’ talk of Spain and anti-fascism for a fresh new cause that their “generation” might embrace. They were anxious to agree with Daniel Friedenberg, one of the earliest of Castro’s critics from the left, that “Castro’s was a good fight, perhaps the only clean and unequivocal fight since the Spanish Civil War,” but they were incapable of adding his immediate qualification: “At least I thought so in 1958 and still do with that part of my heart my mind tells me is unreliable.”
This mood was most pronounced in England and received fullest expression in the pages of New Left Review. In America, Studies on the Left, edited by a number of graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, appeared in 1959 and presented itself as an American counterpart of the British New Left—although the association with the journal of several older men of proto-Stalinist antecedents made its claim to be reviving a Marxist approach free of past commitments somewhat less convincing than in the case of the older English group. An early issue reprinted Sartre and Che Guevara on the Cuban Revolution and hailed it in an editorial which, however, devoted more space to attacking American policy, concluding that “Cuba presents us with an urgent task and, at the same time, with the best opportunity to expose and destroy cold war ideology.” Cuba was described as a “new humane society” and the conflict between “freedom” and “Communism” as a “sham battle.”
Studies on the Left represents a more self-consciously ideological tendency than the other youthful New Left groups in the United States which have been more attracted by direct moral protest than by political analysis, and have valued action and the evidence of vitality over intellectual rigor. But the early issues of Studies on the Left also manifested this spirit in their eagerness to see the Cuban Revolution as a new beginning, a new form of “existential” radicalism distinct both from Communism and from liberal democratic reformism. Unhappily much of this spirit has now vanished and recent issues resemble Monthly Review in their doctrinaire defense of Castro and polemical onslaughts against his leftist critics. The current number, for example, contains a ponderous effort by a recent Ph.D. in social psychology employing the jargon of psychoanalysis to discredit “American Anti-Communist Liberals” (the term is the author’s), especially their views on Cuba. Their outlook is characterized as a “defensive reaction to political anxiety”; Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, the editors of Dissent, reveal the mechanism of “projection” when they doubt that Khrushchev’s Russia has ceased to be totalitarian; Theodore Draper is fixated on the “primitive political assumption” that “to reject capitalism is bad” and thus condemns Castro (nothing is said of his early support of Castro’s socialistic reforms); and so on. One wearily recalls talk over a decade ago about the anti-Communist left’s “Stalin-ophobia” and the “reaction formations” of allegedly “guilt-ridden” ex-Communists: the abuse of psychoanalysis as a political weapon is an old story.
Fidel castro was a natural hero for the New Left from the first. The survival of his tiny group of fighters in the mountains, their brilliant feats of guerilla warfare, and their amazingly sudden victory when Batista’s army simply gave up, made Castro a genuine hero in an age of characterless bureaucratic leaders. Moreover, he and all his men were young and wore unruly beards, the newly publicized symbol of rebellious youth. His air of informality and creative improvisation, so evident on his brief American trip in early 1959, when he casually lit cigars, talked endlessly, and strolled on and off speech platforms in the middle of official receptions for him, stood in delightful contrast to the managed appearances of other politicians in this age of TV. And then it became apparent that he was the leader of a real live social revolution, no mere putsch, and was determined to carry out without delay genuinely egalitarian reforms. Thoughtless, pious, and reactionary voices were too quickly raised against him in the United States, as in the criticisms of the mass trials of Batista’s thugs. Sartre and Mills came back from Cuba reporting that here was something new under the sun and pilgrimages from the mainland began in earnest.
Young radicals seeking a cause, like the editors of Studies on the Left, went. Bohemian poets and painters, previously un-political though full of contempt for American middle-class life, went. And others, such as Warren Miller and Marc Schleiffer, both young novelists, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the doyens of the San Francisco Beat poets, and Leroi Jones, another new Bohemian poet and editor, wrote enthusiastic accounts of what they had witnessed in Cuba. They were caught up in a festive atmosphere, a mass euphoria generated by the Revolution, which was alien to their previous experience, and their reports, often written with skill and feeling, are reminiscent of John Reed on Petrograd during the October Revolution of 1917 or George Orwell on revolutionary Barcelona in 1937. Most of the literary rebels who thus celebrated the Cuban Revolution have been silent for the past year or more, but the quality of their response to Castro was perhaps best expressed in an open letter to the Maximum Leader by Norman Mailer, published in the Village Voice just after the collapse of the invasion, but written, Mailer says, several months earlier. “You were the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second War,” he wrote. “There has been a new spirit abroad in America since you entered Havana. I think you must be given credit for some part of a new and better mood which has been coming to America.” He goes on to warn Castro about his new friendship with Khrushchev, because “Commissars never made a revolution . . . [and] the Communists are used to considering small nations expendable—it is part of their pride that they will sacrifice their followers.” In an open letter to Kennedy denouncing the invasion, published at the same time, Mailer tells the President, “you will never understand that the man [Castro] is the country, revolutionary, tyrannical, hysterical, violent, passionate, brave as the best of animals, doomed perhaps to end in tragedy, but one of the great figures of the 20th century, at the present moment a far greater figure than yourself.”
Another group of castro supporters on the left are, rather surprisingly, the “ethical” radicals: pacifists, libertarian anarchists, Catholic socialists, and advocates of non-violent resistance. The growing peace movement and the non-violent campaign against racial segregation have in recent years given them a wider audience, which may account for their readiness to take up the cause of the Cuban Revolution. Although most of their arguments and interpretations are similar to those from other pro-Castro sources, the tone of writers on Cuba for Liberation and the Catholic Worker is quite different from both the bland, doctrinaire apologetics of the Monthly Review group and the revolutionary romanticism of the literary Fidelistas. It is far more troubled, groping, and ready to confront, even if in the end to minimize, the evidence of totalitarianism and Communism in Cuba. David Dellinger, an editor of Liberation, has written the second-best factual and moderately sympathetic appraisal of the Castro regime’s achievements in the early period of the Revolution. (The author of the best account is Samuel Shapiro, an academic Latin Americanist writing in the New Republic, who has since become somewhat disillusioned with the Revolution, though continuing to place major blame for the Communist take-over on the United States.)
Through 1960 Liberation published a large number of articles on Cuba expressing a variety of points of view. The majority were strongly sympathetic, but several were quite critical of internal developments—for instance, pieces by Robert Alexander and Kenneth Boulding, the well-known economist. In early 1961, Roy Finch, one of the editors, impressed by the suppression in Cuba of libertarian anarchists and other independent radicals, concluded that “the Revolution has pretty well been taken over by totalitarian-minded people” and “the minuses begin to outweigh the pluses.” The other editors were quick to express their disagreement with him and, after publishing a full statement of his point of view, Finch resigned from the editorial board in May on the grounds that the other editors’ “continuing and relatively enthusiastic support for the Castro government (though with varying degree of reservations) seems to be at variance with our original policy.” Correspondence supporting both Finch and the remaining editors, much of it lengthy, appeared in the magazine.
The April invasion seemed to strengthen the pro-Castro position of Liberation’s editors. They published, among other things on Cuba, an excellent critical analysis of the shocking American press coverage of the event. Since then the editors have continued to regard Cuba as the exemplar of a “new humanistic radicalism,” but their doubts and misgivings have perceptibly increased. In the December 1961 issue, Sidney Lens, an editor, reports on his latest trip to the island and deplores “bureaucratic tendencies,” the arrogance of the secret police, the growing adulation of Castro, and the total absence of any criticism in the controlled press. Yet he is still able to maintain that “at the moment none of this has destroyed the humanism of the Revolution.” He suggests hopefully—and credulously—that “plans for a new, unified single party may result in the Communists being engulfed and subordinated . . . and perhaps the Communists will no longer be able to function as a tight-knit disciplined group in the broader movement.” And he reports without comment the surely preposterous statement of “a prominent Cuban writer” that Kennedy could destroy the Communists “in ten minutes” by reopening his embassy because “Fidel would agree to it immediately and undercut them.”
If the old left has inevitably interpreted the Cuban Revolution in accordance with an outlook shaped by the historical and ideological struggles of the past three decades, the Revolution has been a new and formative experience for the New Left. It is among the younger Castro partisans that one finds the will to believe in its purest form, brusque impatience with the past, and a readiness to attribute sweeping historical significance to Cuba. Unhappily, the ancient symptoms of wishful selection and reading of the evidence, and indulgence in wild and bitter attacks on doubters, especially those who are also of the left, have been quick to reveal themselves. Let us, in order to bear out these statements, look, in closing, at some of the arguments and counterarguments advanced in Castro’s favor.
Cuba is, after all, a small country, necessarily confined to a minor role in world politics and scarcely likely to be the scene of a social transformation that is vitally relevant to the experience of older and larger nations. But some of Castro’s supporters are not content to interpret the Cuban Revolution as an incident in the larger setting of the cold war or even as a feasible model for the economic development of other relatively poor and backward countries. They must see it as something more earth-shaking than that, as an entirely new and unprecedented experience from which, not merely the other Latin American peoples or even the underdeveloped world as a whole, but we Westerners ourselves can learn lessons applicable to our own societies. Thus Stuart Hall and Norman Fruchter, editors of the English New Left Review, argue that, far from possessing exclusive relevance to “the revolutions in all the backward territories,” the Cuban Revolution “resumes fully the whole galaxy of questions involved in socialism in our time . . . [and] could be either the axis or the graveyard of socialism in the next decade.”
Since, in the eyes of the New Left, the world Communist leaders are as rigid, bureaucratic, and lacking in humanity as the leaders of the West, much has been made of the alleged difference between Castro’s economic reforms and the priorities of Communist planning. Hall and Fruchter, Saul Landau (an editor of Studies on the Left), and others have pointed out that Castro’s initial reforms in land distribution, housing, rent control, education, and public recreation have been directed toward the immediate improvement and equalization of living standards, whereas the orthodox Communist practice is to stress heavy industry and capital accumulation at the expense of consumer goods, thus sacrificing the needs of the living to an economic development which will benefit only future generations. The claim that Castro stands for a “new humanist socialism” is largely based on this contrast with the Communist pattern of enforced industrialization.
But, as Castro’s partisans are only too ready to remind us in connection with other matters, a revolution is a process, and its final achievements outrun and transcend both the aims of its makers and the tendencies present at the beginning. More than two decades of violent struggle within the Bolshevik leadership, the failures of Communist movements in the mature industrial societies of the West, and the expansion of Soviet power as a result of war into the less advanced areas of Eastern Europe and Asia, intervened between the Russian Revolution and the eventual emergence of Communism as a technique for rapidly and ruthlessly industrializing backward societies. Have the new leftists forgotten Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the early 20’s with its slogan of “enrich yourselves” addressed to the peasants? May not Castro’s “humanist” reforms look equally remote a decade from now if the Cuban Revolution follows its present course? Even where doctrinaire Communist movements triumphed, in Eastern Europe and China, the redistribution of land and other popular reforms raising living standards were initiated in the early years of their consolidation in power. It was not long, however, before the peasants were forced into state-controlled collective farms, armaments production took precedence over consumer goods, and heavy sacrifices were demanded for the sake of increasing the tempo of industrialization. Already the same process is repeating itself in Cuba. The Maximum Leader boasts that Cuba is becoming an armed camp, although the United States could destroy him in a few days if it so wished. And, according to Theodore Draper, the agricultural cooperatives so praised by Castro’s American admirers are increasingly being overtaken by granjas or People’s Farms, “closely modeled on the Soviets’ sovkhos or state farm system.” Since we are urged to take a long view when the question of democracy and freedom in Cuba is at issue, let us do the same for Cuban economic policies and methods of industrialization.
Justifications of the absence of democracy in Cuba are worth examining because the particular arguments employed are highly selective. Castro’s New Left supporters are concerned not just with defending or excusing Castro, but with expressing a positive faith, a mystique of the Cuban Revolution, that goes far beyond mere apologetics. American opinion is accused of having an obsession about elections. The explanations offered for Castro’s failure to hold elections are on the whole reasonable: the Revolution has been unquestionably popular with a large majority of the Cuban people, and few revolutionary governments, including the one headed by George Washington, have held elections until considerable time elapsed after they came to power. It is also true that the United States is disposed to raise the issue of elections only with reference to dictators who threaten American interests or pursue an independent foreign policy: little fuss was made about Batista, Rhee, Chiang, or Franco (who was recently praised lavishly by Secretary of State Rusk). As David Riesman has remarked, “the word ‘freedom’ becomes truly Orwellian when we use it to support the landing of Batista officers on Cuban beaches.”
Castro’s apologists, however, by concentrating on the question of elections, conveniently avoid the more fundamental issue of civil liberties: freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to a fair and open trial, freedom of the press, the right to maintain free trade unions independent of government control. It is the suppression of these freedoms, not Castro’s failure to hold elections or even to permit rival political parties to organize, which has alarmed such critics as Draper, Friedenberg, and the old anti-totalitarians of the left. Nor do Castro’s supporters confine themselves to justifying the temporary postponement of elections: like Castro himself, they now argue that the Cuban people don’t want elections because they were often rigged in the past and were followed by corruption and betrayed promises. Why, then, one wonders, couldn’t Castro, in whom the people are said to have such profound faith and who has transformed Cuban society, overcoming tremendous obstacles, hold an honest election, at least when the time seems ripe? But Castro’s admirers do not hesitate to take the further step of sneering at elections as such: they frequently write scathingly not merely of past electoral shams in Cuba but of the lack of a “real choice” in the United States when the voter is asked to opt for a Nixon or a Kennedy. And it now becomes plain that the old Marxist theory of the hoax of “bourgeois democracy” is being revived in a new guise. Its function is the same as before: to extol “economic democracy” at the expense of “formal” political democracy, to minimize the destruction of civil rights and liberties by treating voting and parties as the sole content of Western political institutions, and, finally, to celebrate the superior “direct” democracy of the single leader, or cadre of leaders, who needs no institutional apparatus to mediate his interpretations of the will of the people.
In an intemperate letter to the Village Voice denouncing “many self-styled American liberals” as men of little faith, Richard Gibson, acting secretary of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, gives the game away: “For these young men of the Last Frontier,” he writes, “Fidel Castro, Sekou Touré, Kwame N’Krumah, and Dr. Ahmed Sukarno are only dictators, not liberators acclaimed by millions of men and women who see in them the truest expression of their aspirations for a decent life free of the shackles of a cruel and corrupt West.” Perhaps it would be useless to remind Mr. Gibson that millions also acclaimed Hitler, Mussolini, and, in Latin America, Peron and Trujillo. Popular dictators are scarcely a novelty in this century. (Why, incidentally, does he omit Gamel Nasser from his list?) But one wonders why the dictatorial leaders of new underdeveloped nations represent the “truest expression” of popular aspirations for a better life. Are, say, Jawaharlal Nehru, Habib Bourguiba, the late Ramon Magsaysay, José Figueres, and Romulo Betancourt to be regarded as less authentic leaders of the “revolution of rising expectations” just because they are not dictators with totalitarian inclinations who have eliminated all real alternatives to their own direction of their nations’ destinies? And is it “pessimistic and defeatist” of American liberals and radicals to believe that such men are more deserving of their support and more likely to achieve both economic progress and political liberty than authoritarian demagogues?
Many people have seen a parallel between the totalitarian outcome of the Russian Revolution and the far faster movement in the same direction of the Castro regime. Some of Castro’s New Left supporters in the United States seem in an equally short time to have traveled from a fresh rebellious idealism, sorely needed after the confusions and timidities of the 50’s, to a fascination with populist totalitarianism that is scarcely distinguishable from that of the latter-day Communist apologists of the late 30’s and early 40’s. One is forced to be thankful that Castro leads only Cuba and not, as Stalin did, one of the great nations of the world.