Why I parted ways with Fidel Castro
This article was written as a response to Fidel Castro's valedictory speech at the Seventh Cuban Communist Party Congress back in April 2016. This congress in particular was symbolic because it would be the last with the former Cuban leader present. Nearly seven months later, Castro died at the age of 90.
His death has inevitably generated a discussion about the legacy of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, critiques of his leadership, and an evaluation on the state of the left--the latter a particularly important questions in these ambiguous times with a Trump presidency looming.
Fidel Castro is arguably the most iconic revolutionary of the last half-century. It isn't uncommon for people to intimately associate the politics of socialism with the Cuban leader. More reason why socialists need to challenge the nature of the Cuban system and to make the case that Castro's leadership is an inappropriate model for a workers' democracy.
Introduction: Reflections on Fidel
I arrived at Marxism through the Latin American revolutionary tradition. Coming to politics, the deep radical lore of Latin American struggles consumed my imagination. The region's politics, philosophy, literature and culture informed my understanding of historical inequality, oppression, exploitation, racism, and sexism, more so than Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxembourg, and Trotsky combined. To be fair, though, these non-Latin American figures were complementary to my radical development.
For many years, my political inspiration, disciplinarian and counselor was the revolutionary icon of the Latin American left and the leader of the Cuban Revolution of 1959: Fidel Castro Ruz. For the vast majority of my political life, my political model was the Cuban Revolution and its champions. The attraction to Fidel Castro originated from his ability to analyze power, exude charisma, demonstrate clarity, display determination, and be decisive. Most importantly, the historical rebel taught me how to read, write, and speak in a political language. I desired to emulate these traits, even as I failed to grow a thick beard. Castro exemplified the kind of socialism I fantasized I would one day deliver to the oppressed masses.
However, after I returned from Cuba in late 2012, Fidel and I had a falling out. The split was fueled by a process of political clarification that differentiated Castro's authoritarianism from the kind of socialism I began to articulate. The disagreement I was having internally extended to the Cuban leader as I began to interpret Marxism and political organization through a different lens. Engaging in this soul-searching process individually and later through my participation in the International Socialist Organization (ISO), I distanced from my pro-Castro rationalizations. Eventually, I recognized I was on the wrong side of socialist thought--the kind of socialism that historically distorted, undermined and even criminalized workers' agency and curtailed democratic participation.
While there are various factors that reoriented my socialist politics, I want to discuss one crucial source here: Hal Draper's The Two Souls of Socialism.
Hal Draper and the Two Souls of Socialism
The question of what defines socialism has been historically contested among the Left has been a historically contested tradition. In 1966, Hal Draper contributed to this discussion, illustrating the competing meanings of "socialism from above" and "socialism from below." Okay, so what? Why should it matter how socialism is defined? In a Socialist Worker article titled "Where will socialism come from?" Alan Maass summed up the answer quite nicely: "The soul of socialism matters because the meaning of socialism will be bound up with how you think it can be achieved."
If you think that socialism should be founded on behalf of the working class or bestowed onto the grateful masses by a benevolent dictator, then you are most likely satisfied with the socialism-from-above tradition. By contrast, if you think socialism best arises by a mass democratic movement through a process of struggle, then the socialism-from-below perspective is most likely your preference.
Socialism from below is the view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of an activated working class. This kind of socialism argues that workers are political actors, rather than mere subjects on a historical stage. If socialism is meant to be born through this type of struggle, then no blueprint or deterministic strategies designed by theorists or political leaders can authentically guarantee working-class emancipation.
Totalitarian dictatorships, benevolent despotism and economic determinism are all ruling class viewpoints that belong in the socialism-from-above tradition. The fight for democratic power cannot be led by a ruling group working on behalf of the working class. Now, some on the left might disagree. What is wrong with a paternalistic politics if it improves workers' material conditions? The resolution to achieving socialism is fundamentally rooted on the insistence of workers power, not just the narrow focus of egalitarian economic consumption. Matching consumption for all people does not address the critical subject of agency: Who has the power and why the working class?
Hal Draper challenged the limitations of socialism-from-above systems--"dictatorships which crush independent trade unions as well as all political opposition and organize to maximize the exploitation of labor, in order to extract from the hides of the working masses sufficient capital to hasten industrialization at the tempo which the new rulers desire." Draper described a monolithic politics with a centrally planned economy that treated workers as disposable assets to fulfill artificial quotas and accumulate profits for the ruling class. Under these conditions, the state's responsibility is to guarantee the loyalty of masses dedicated to its apparatus, curtailing self-interested workers' struggle.
In Two Souls, Draper wrote about socialism's identity crisis--a crisis that very much still exists 50 years after its publication--an internal crisis of mine that I continue to address. One of the instigators responsible for this crisis were the Stalinist-type systems, not just capitalist nations demonizing and suppressing the Left. Draper describes the system that I had looked to:
[T]here are the Communist states whose claim to being "socialist" is based on a negative: the abolition of the capitalist private-profit system, and the fact that the class which rules does not consist of private owners of property. On the positive side, however, the socio-economic system which has replaced capitalism there would not be recognizable to Karl Marx. The state owns the means of production--but who "owns" the state? Certainly not the mass of workers, who are exploited, unfree and alienated from all levers of social and political control. A new class rules, the bureaucratic bosses, it rules over a collectivist system--a bureaucratic collectivism.
Fidel Castro's regime is the very personification of the socialism-from-above tradition--a benevolent despot who governed through his personal rule and constructed a one-party state that monopolized politics, regulated sociocultural expectations, and dominated all economic activity.
Once I learned about the differences between these two traditions of socialism, it became clear the reason why socialists need to choose a side--and Castro is on the wrong one.
Castroism: Stalinism in the Tropics
The mantra of the Cuban government for 25 years now is that the revolution cannot be faulted for its limitations. The system is "imperfect" because: one, the criminal U.S. embargo impedes Cuba's economic development; and two, the government abides by the slogan and policy of "la estrategia de perfeccionamiento," meaning that the process to upgrade the economic and political system is a gradual one. The Cuban government has used these two excuses to continue legitimizing the status quo. La estrategia simply indicated the need for gradual economic reforms amenable to free-market capitalism while maintaining the party dictatorship that still dominates. La estrategia is often equated with the Sino-Vietnamese models of radical economic change without political pluralism.
However, the real problem with the "reforms" is that the party elite and its functionaries do not openly acknowledge, much less challenge, the bureaucratic nature of their system--a system that hinders material and economic improvement for the Cuban people suffering decayed living conditions; and a system that creates oppressive barriers to any meaningful political challenge toward the regime's monopolization. The government doesn't even try to rectify its dictatorial institutions and practices--evidence of a bad case of socialism from above.
The time for revolutionary socialists to evaluate Fidel Castro is now. Questions about the nature of socialism are on the radar for people searching for viable alternatives to the insecurity of capitalism and the political deadlock--particularly in the United States. The question of the Cuban government's socialism-from-above characteristics are important especially today in the midst of a thawing in relations between Cuba and the United States. Additionally, Fidel Castro made his probable final appearance at the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party on April 19. For what may be remembered as a historic moment--Castro, known for his unpredictable discourse chose to stick to the bland script of the party congress's discussions.
With all the talk about détente, it is easy to miss another piece to the equation. The Cuban government and the capitalist nations alike aren't discussing a push for real democratic control, and why should they: this isn't a genuine concern. The rhetoric of the Obama administration hinges superficially on the idea that the Cuban people are entitled to independently organize themselves on the issues that affect their society. But what Washington really means to say is that freedom is welcome as long as it doesn't compromise the access of international business interests in Cuba. Unfortunately, ordinary Cubans will not have the option to decide on larger economic shifts arranged on the island nation--more reason why democracy is a worthy and practical method for people to solve the problems in a participatory manner. I should also add that "democratic control" is not the same as simply voting for a new leadership to bring about change in Cuba. The type of democratic control that I'm referring to does not limit the working class to elections, but includes the creation of independent unions, community boards and political organizing from below. What is needed is the defanging of state domination over potential movements from below.
Another feature of Castro's socialism-from-above customs is the revolution's stance on "monolithic unity," a Stalinist conception defined by militarized discipline and organization. Opponents and skeptics alike often identify socialism as a system of political uniformity and economic centralism. In other words, the idea is that the people must conform to the enlightened party apparatus, without meaningful debate to orient politics democratically. In practice, monolithism also means that the state controls the economy, but the people do not control the state. People mistrust socialism, and with good reason: the Stalinist practice of unity euphemistically implies monolithism and autocratic power. To be clear: This uniformity heralded by Cuban-style Stalinism is incongruous to the kind of democracy and socialism that I endorse.
Monolithism was demonstrated through public mass mobilization, which is not the same as movement-building and democratic participation, though it is true that Cubans overwhelmingly supported the revolution in the early years. Paradoxically, legal and political restrictions were implemented to prevent the free flow of ideas and further crystallized as Castro consolidated his rule. Cuba's one-party state depended on popular mobilization, not popular democratic control and not autonomous, democratic and pluralist organizing. Instead, the revolutionary government created mass organizations centered within the government, while simultaneously criminalizing other factions and parties. In rejecting substantive direct democracy, the Cuban government instead depended on public militant rallies to show unanimous support for major government policies.
The benevolent dictator also put forward the idea that the Cuban people must be freed from their historical exploitation by imperialist powers. The Castro government proposed immediate measures to meet material demands such as the nationalization of certain industries, agrarian reform, home-building, and construction of schools and hospitals to guarantee access for every Cuban citizen. While many of the revolution's decrees and resolutions were noble political acts, it must be made clear that distributing basic materials to meet the needs of the masses is not the same as working-class people establishing councils to democratically determine and control their own material needs and distributions.
The potentiality of workers' power--a socialist principle--cannot become reality if the state adopts an elitist and totalitarian system of labor structures. I reject the economic-determinist, fatalistic and romantic-mystical notion that workers will automatically or spontaneously become revolutionary socialists. Workers must be convinced of socialism through their own struggles and through the efforts of the politically advanced elements of the working class. Undeveloped working-class consciousness proved something that Castro would manipulate during the initial years of the Revolution. In a 1971 speech in Chile, Castro elaborated on this point:
At the triumph of the revolution, from the point of view of leadership and cadres, we couldn't count on a tested, awakened workers' movement. We didn't have one...We counted on the support of the workers and farmers--a very broad base--but we didn't have what could be described as a tested, organized and awakened workers' movement. That's the way things were.
Rather than support workers' empowerment from below, Castro chose to define the relationship between the state and labor unions differently. For instance, during the union elections at the Tenth Congress of the Confederación de Trabajdores, (Confederation of Cuban Workers) in November 1959, Fidel Castro personally intervened and imposed a union leadership slate with a greater pro-Communist composition. New labor laws destabilized autonomous labor organizing. Castro's consolidation of power over labor was followed by a series of purges of union leadership and suppression of the building of autonomous unions. As a result, the regime transformed Cuba's trade unions into a monolithic labor organization wholly controlled by the revolution.
Another component that solidified state rule over labor was "La Ley de Justicia Laboral de 1964" (the Labor Justice Law of 1964). The Law was designed to strengthen labor discipline and increase productivity. It prescribed punishments and penalties for degrees of economic sabotage, fraud and laziness. However, it never mentioned a fundamental democratic tool for workers--the right to strike. The intent here is a classic example of Stalinist theorizing: if workers are the owners of the means of production by state decree, then workers could not possibly strike against themselves. Ironically, the moderately progressive Constitution of 1940--a document which many Cuban revolutionaries defended--explicitly declared the right to strike in article 71, a right prohibited by the Batista dictatorship and never properly restored under Castro.
The Cuban government is also culpable for cultural repression and social control, with customs and behaviors determined by government bureaucrats and political functionaries. The revolution did condemn social values and beliefs antithetical to the anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles. But while, for instance, the revolutionary government made racial segregation illegal, it opposed any measure for developing independent Black organizations that could press grievances and demands for Black Cubans. Another example: The government attacked gay artists and intellectuals, banned gays from diplomatic, humanitarian, or military missions abroad, scrutinized alternative sexual preferences and religious practices, and controlled the import of literature, music and other forms of entertainment media. Eventually, the Castro government managed to seize the facilities and equipment of the press, facilitating the revolution's monopolization of media outlets, both major or minor, national or local--in due course, constructing a mechanism of media unanimity.
The characteristics of the Cuban system I have described can be summed up as "Stalinism in the tropics." Some on the left might criticize me for nitpicking or being too hardline, but I think the Stalinist features of Cuba's political economy are quite clear:
The state owns and controls the economy.
Both political and non-political organization is determined by the ruling party.
The central political bureaucracy functions like the owner of the state, meaning that power is monopolized by an autocratic elite.
This kind of socialism-from-above constrains, if not outright criminalizes, the building of popular organization independent of the one-party state.
The dominant method of dealing with dissidence and political difference is violent policing, rather than political persuasion and argument--the latter being a necessary element if the goal is to build socialism and democracy.
Conclusion: Which Side Are You On?
Look, I get it, the Cuban Revolution's anti-dictatorial struggle, the popular policies that for a time showed promise in improving the lives of average Cubans, and the galvanizing spirit of mass political mobilization with a social justice appeal is inspiring to most socialists, even for those committed in principle to socialism from below. However, the reality is that the revolution--a term that is inherently tied to the Cuban political elite, the same people who enforced and reinforced Stalinist-style policies and practices--is antithetical to socialism from below in principle and praxis.
Believing this, I realized I could no longer stand with Castro. Frankly, I would not even want him beside me in solidarity, because ultimately, he is a part of the problem. If the goal is to build a socialist movement from below that actively empowers workers to determine their own political and economic conditions, then Señor Castro is not with us. Dissecting Fidel Castro and the consequences of the Cuban Revolution relying on the Hal Draper's analysis not only eased my transition, but reminded me of the importance of a key Leninist principle: A workers' movement needs a clear revolutionary program and a cohesive organization, not one dependent on a conspiratorial elite, whether from the bourgeoisie or from a small band of guerrilla fighters.
Hasta siempre, mi comandante.