Fidel and Socialism
By Al Campbell
There has been more than a “flurry,” there has been a regular snow storm of articles written about Fidel since his death was announced on November 25. The majority of sources that send information to me, not surprisingly, had many good things to say about his record in history. The large majority of articles written by the world mainstream press, also not surprisingly, to the contrary had many less complimentary things to say, notwithstanding that many of the less conservative ones worked a few complimentary things here and there into their overall negative evaluations. The number of complimentary things mentioned decreased monotonically as one moved from liberal to conservative to reactionary mainstream media sources.
For anyone reading this blog who is less than 58, Fidel was our neighbor Cuba’s leader since you were born, until 2006. (I am assuming we do not have many readers less than 11, and so this comment does not include them.) Despite this extended span of time, the availability of balanced (or even dependably truthful) accounts of his life are minimal in the U.S. While this entry will make no attempt to summarize his life, I will suggest for anyone interested in knowing more about Fidel, who can find 1 ½ hours free time in their life, that they watch Estela Bravo’s 2001 documentary, “Fidel: the untold story.” As she has produced 30 award winning documentary films over the last 4 or 5 decades, which have shown on places like PBS, BBC, CBC (Canada), and similar outlets in numerous other countries, and been reviewed in places like the New York Times, the Economist, the Guardian, the Miami Herald, Le Monde Diplomatique, etc., most people reading this blog probably know of Estela Bravo’s work. While I do not consider her work either radical or pro-socialist, it is clearly solidly progressive (that’s a good thing!), and the description of her as having a “life-long commitment to preserving collective memory while pursuing a more humane future” seems fully appropriate. The film is posted on the United State Hypocrisy web site.
Here I want to write my opinion on a few things concerning just one, though a historically import one, aspect of Fidel’s life: Fidel’s contribution to the historical process of moving beyond capitalism. Again, these will be just a few comments (as in, “a blog post”), far from an in-depth analysis even of this one aspect of Fidel’s life. Note that this is a question only discussed and argued about on the Left. It is also an issue of great concern to the Right, but they do not discuss nor have disagreements about it. They have a consensus that he continually contributed to (attempting to) move beyond capitalism, and that is why they all agree that there was a continuous need over the entire period to eliminate him (through assassination, regime change through invasion, regime change through economic destabilization, fomenting divisions in the leadership that could promote a coupe (as in Algeria, Grenada, Burkina Faso), etc.).
I will consider here three of Fidel’s positions on building a human centered post capitalist society – internationalism/anti-imperialism, anti-bureaucratism, and the necessary central role of the masses in creating the new society. I will refer to places where one can find a number of his speeches on these topics over the years, but of course I am aware that “sayin’ it in a speech don’t make it so.” While again I can’t here present the necessary social history of Cuba on these issues, I will give some indication of institutions, projects and campaigns he promoted and spearheaded, directed at involving and educating the entire Cuba population with radical progressive ideas on these issues.
Internationalism/anti-imperialism is the easiest one of the three issues to address, in that essentially no one argues that both Fidel in his speeches and Cuba in its actions were not consistently internationalist and anti-imperialist. On the one hand, Fidel argued that trying to build socialism meant that one had an obligation to help those even poorer than one’s own underdeveloped country. Failing to do this would both reflect and promote the personal selfishness that is the death of any human centered development project. On the other hand, any victory anywhere in the world against imperialism weakened it. Fidel and Cuba were aware that imperialism would never accept their choice to build socialism. Hence they would be hindered in their project to do so as long as imperialism lasted, and the stronger imperialism was, the more it would attack them. Anyone who traveled to Cuba, especially before 1990, was struck by the extent that these ideas permeated the large part of the population that was concerned with such social issues. Every collection of speeches by Fidel has a significant number that comment on these issues, and Cuba’s material aid to poorer countries, and its material and especially political support for those fighting imperialism, are well known. For a short colorful presentation of this aspect of Fidel following his death by journalist, commentator and professor Vijay Prashad, see Fidel Castro – The Voice of the Third World, posted at http://portside.org/2016-11-29/fidel-castro-voice-third-world.
Socialism’s central goal of promoting “man’s ontological and historical vocation to become more human” (Freire – also less poetically and less precisely referred to as “human development”) includes self-governance. When a bureaucracy has usurped that power from the masses in a revolution to transcend capitalism, as in the USSR by the early 1930s, all possibilities of constructing socialism are precluded. Fidel spearheaded two major social campaigns against the bureaucratization of the Cuban revolution. The first went from the mid to late 1960s (and must not be confused with the economic and political Revolutionary Offensive launched in the spring of 1968, which is widely considered by those engaged in building socialism in Cuba today to have been seriously problematic for the Revolution). Fidel emphasized the danger of bureaucratism and the need to fight against it in a series of speeches over that period. See the 1983 collection Our Power is that of the Working People. Building Socialism in Cuba, pages 68-90, for a reprint of two editorials from Granma in March 1967, which indicate the nature of the arguments in his speeches at some length. That campaign is perhaps best remembered today for the extraordinary 1966 film, “Death of a Bureaucrat” by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, still available around the world. Fidel’s second campaign against bureaucratization, the relatively well known “Rectification Process” in the second half of the 1980s, was launched by him in the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1986, and had many dimensions to it. At the center was a rejection of appealing to individual material interests and consumerism to try to build socialism, and a return to focusing on developing a social consciousness (including the material base and institutions for it) of why socialism was a “more human system” than capitalism. But one dimension of the rectification process was (and this is obviously related to the central point of building a social consciousness in favor of socialism) anti-bureaucratism. The renowned Cuban intellectual Fernando Martínez Heredia wrote in 1988 as the second of ten points which he listed in an “incomplete list of the of the errors and negative tendencies” to be rectified: “the expansion of the bureaucracy (it grew 2.5 times between 1973 and 1984)”. (Desafíos del Socialismo Cubano, p 23). Thousands of people who had worked in the central government (unnecessary bureaucrats) were moved out into productive activity over the course of Rectification Process.
The 1983 book referred to in the last paragraph is an interesting collection of speeches by Fidel (and some other central leaders of the Revolution) that address the topic of the necessary central role of the masses in creating the new society. In addition to anti-bureaucratism discussed in the last paragraph, other issues addressed there that are part of this topic include participation and socialist democracy/self-governance. The issue of ongoing popular participation in the Cuban Revolution has always been put forward by its supporters, both in and outside Cuba, as one of its strengths, and often as a fundamentally different aspect of the Cuban Revolution from the process in the USSR after the 1920s. One important aspect of this (not the only one, another being the participation of workers in their workplaces) is the existence and roles of the mass organizations. The 1976 Constitution recognizes the following as being responsible for representing the “specific interests of [the various sectors of the population]”: the Central Organization of Cuban Trade Unions (CTC), the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the National Association of Farmers, the Federation of University Students, the Federation of Students of Intermediate Education, the Union of Pioneers of Cuba, and “others.” Of course, critics of Cuba’s attempt to build socialism argue these were always meaningless window dressing, created by the government without any real influence or power. The well-known and very moderate Cuba studies scholar William LeoGrande wrote in 1989 that “mass organization membership is so extensive that virtually everyone belongs to at least one mass organization, and a majority of Cubans belong to at least two.” Responding to the concern that such large memberships could be deceptive in regards to influence, LeoGrande found that “the mass organizations are still the main vehicle for political participation” and that beginning in the 1970s they had “significant input to the policy-making process.” While participation is an essential goal of socialism and its construction, however, it is not the same as collective self-governance. To be sure, there is an important relation between the two. Mass participation implies “voice” (the participants are listened to), since otherwise one would soon not have the assumed mass participation. This then implies “influence” and hence “partial self-governance.” But “being listened to” and having influence remains distinct from full collective self-governance in all social institutions, which has arguably always been the highest human development goal of socialism. In the article (from which all quotes in this paragraph are taken) “Updating Cuba’s Economic Model: Socialism, Human Development, Markets and Capitalism” published this past spring in the journal Socialism and Democracy, I separate consideration of these two issues, which are both essential for socialism and its construction. While the treatment there of these issues of participation and collective self-governance in a couple of pages is still very brief, it is significantly longer than I can discuss them here (and includes consideration of them in Cuba today). I recommend the interested reader look at that article. A number of the speeches by Fidel in the collection just mentioned refer to the need for workers’ increased participation in management in the workplaces, and a larger number of the speeches address increased popular self-governance of society through the introduction of the system of Popular Power in the mid-1970s, conceived of as a form of socialist democracy. For the extent of and limitations on self-governance in the workplaces in Cuba in the time of Fidel, see Work and Democracy in Socialist Cuba by Linda Fuller from 1992. For the extent of and limitations of the system of Popular Power as socialist democracy, there are many books from Cuba in Spanish. Three books focusing on this topic in English are People’s Power. Cuba’s Experience with Representative Government from 1999 by Peter Roman, and Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Elections from 1999 and Cuba and Its Neighbors. Democracy in Motion from 2013 by Arnold August.
My conclusions. The example of Cuba, and Fidel was the acknowledge leader of that process (not to be confused with being that process) for almost fifty years, inspired millions to struggle to transcend (as opposed to merely reform) capitalism. In today’s world of greatly heightened discontent with that hegemonic socio-economic-political system, the importance of that inspiration should be painfully clear. It is often pointed out by the Left that that the absence of sufficient masses ready to really struggle to transcend capitalism is arguably today the system’s strongest element of support (as opposed for example to ideological support, or to success in providing continually rising standards of material wealth to the majority of society, or to its military (including police) strength, etc.). In addition to this historically fundamental broad social contribution to the process of transcending capitalism, in his speeches Fidel also consistently argued for, and even more importantly, actively promoted, many practices that will be essential for a post capitalist society to be conducive to supporting the ongoing human effort to “become more human.” Among many others, the three considered in this note; internationalism/anti-imperialism, anti-bureaucratism, and the necessary central role of the masses in creating the new society, were, and remain, centrally important. It is certainly true that despite its repeated pruning, bureaucratism always remained a serious problem for the advance of the Cuban Revolution, and that the amount of popular participation though impressive, and especially the amount of self-governance in all institutions of society, was inadequate for socialism. More critically, I consider that a balanced evaluation from the perspective of looking back historically at what this Revolution did well and what it did not do well enough, yields both that Cuba and Fidel made historically important contributions to the theory and especially the practice of these issues, and at the same time, that they did significantly less than was actually historically possible for them to do. (It is of course always easier to look back historically than to make a revolution in real time in a small country in a world hostile to revolutions, but it is nevertheless absolutely essential.) They made errors, but beyond that, notwithstanding their fundamentally correct basic position on these crucial issues, their overall practice frequently fell significantly short of their principles, beyond what could be explained by any claim of “historical and socio-political limitations.” Important positive lessons for future revolutions should be drawn from the numerous efforts, the numerous experiments, Cuba undertook to address these issues. And similarly, important lessons must be drawn from a careful evaluation of the inadequacies of what they did, a consideration of what else would have been possible in regards to these issues that was not done, so that future revolutions do not reproduce the same shortcomings. Taking all these considerations into account, I consider that it would be contrary to the historical record, to the point of being simply absurd, if anyone were to argue that Fidel was not one of the major contributors in the 20th century to humanity’s ongoing effort to move beyond capitalism, to build a better, more humane, socialist alternative.