Between Developing and Defending the Cuban Revolution

Joshua Lew McDermott | Geopolitics | Commentary | February 13, 2019

Recently, I picked up Leon Trotsky's forgotten classic "Their Morals and Ours: Marxist vs. Liberal Views on Morality." The pamphlet offers a scathing critique of what today is known as the "horseshoe theory," wherein the far left and far right are considered morally identical from the standpoint of liberalism, because both employ radical (and sometimes) violent tactics. This viewpoint will be familiar to anyone who has watched the corporate media decry anti-fascist activists as indecipherable from the neo-Nazis they combat.

The crux of Trotsky's argument, which is astoundingly relevant today, is not only that liberals are embarrassingly inconsistent and hypocritical when it comes to passing moral judgments (the lack of outrage from moral crusaders on Yemen's genocide, Hillary Clinton's destruction of Libya, and many other instances of imperial aggression has long been deafening), but the fact that liberals derive their morality from an ahistorical universalist ideal means that liberal morality inherently serves the rich and powerful. Adherence to abstract and eternal moral laws such as "thou shalt not steal" or "always obey the laws of the land" leads to a remarkably reactionary system of ethics. For example, is it immoral for a starving man to steal a loaf of a bread from a bakery owned by a wealthy business owner? In liberal societies, in which property is the ultimate sacred cow and morality is not contingent upon material/historical context, the answer is "yes." Never mind the relevant economic and legal structures which enabled the business owner to become wealthy and led the other man to starvation.

What's more, Trotsky also grapples with the notion of "the ends justify the means" morality, a sentiment which was doubtlessly tested by Communist regimes throughout the 20th century, sometimes to indefensible ends. Yet, the cynical exploitation of sincere revolutionary upheavals by authoritarian figures does mean that there is a divine law which proves that means can never be justified by ends, as pragmatist John Dewey pointed out in his relatively agreeable response to Trotsky's piece. Again, the true determent of morality for any activist who sincerely cares for other humans being must be based upon a sober calculation of real-world facts and contexts and driven by a sincere desire to create a fair world for all people. As Che Guevara famously said, "At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love."

I do not bring up this moral debate to comment on morality as such or to arbitrate in the often absurd, abstract, and counterproductive clashes within the leftist social media sphere between what's become known as "tankies" and "ultraleftists," but because I found the deficiencies of liberal moral outrage especially cogent and consequential while on a recent educational trip to Havana in July 2018 which I took with a small organization known as La Luchita (run by a lovely and well-meaning husband and wife couple) tailored towards building networks between grassroots American and Cuban organizers and activists.

In an interesting dynamic, the American group, of which there was maybe fifteen of us, largely consisted of vaguely progressive activists, mostly in their late-twenties, who were nonetheless highly critical, or even outright dismissive, of Cuba's socialist project. For one week, we met with a cross-section of Cuban activists, from civil-society activists to students to university professors, all with legitimate critiques and praises of the Cuban revolutionary experiment. As one would expect, almost none of our hosts viewed "the Revolution" (as it is referred to on the island) in simple black-and-white terms, though some were more apologetic than others. The same cannot be said for many of the Americans, who were quick to confirm any anti-revolution bias by latching onto any critiques offered by the Cubans, but slow to acknowledge any triumphs of the revolution. The Americans were, as far as I could tell, not conscious that their knee-jerk responses to the most laudable aspects of the revolution (when finding out that wealthy persons were forced to give up any extra homes they owned in order to provide housing to the poor, some of the Americans audibly gawked) were highly reactionary, a condition indicative of so many American progressives. This blindness is symptomatic of gaining a "progressive" education sans any sort of class-analysis, a condition which defines so many well-meaning activists here. This is a symptom of hailing from an imperial heartland wherein questions of class are largely considered irrelevant, where billionaires such as Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey are even considered radical by some. This selective blindness is the result of not of an absence of ideology, but the product of living deep beneath an invisible ideological shroud: for my colleagues, it seemed, anything good in Cuba was the result of some nebulous category vaguely defined as "Cuban culture" and anything bad in Cuba was due to socialism. For example, on nights out socializing in the city, the beauty of the fact that people from all professions (one night we went out to a jazz club with a group of Cubans comprised of a dentist, a professor, students, a cigar-factory worker, and a janitor) and races intermingled to an extent unimaginable in the U.S. seemed largely to be lost on my American counterparts. "That's just how Cuba is," I imagine they assumed, not realizing the huge strides made for the poor and Afro-Cubans since the fall of the Batista regime.

As a Chinese colleague of mine who travels to Cuba regularly once pointed out to me, Cuban society does not rest on a cult of personality, as in China, nor is it defined by social engineering and violent state control: police presence was almost non-existent within the city. At risk of romanticizing a country with many serious problems, I felt a deep authenticity and cohesiveness in Cuban society I have not experienced in any other country. The difference between Havana or Mexico City or Freetown, Sierra Leone, or any major American city could not have been starker.

I experienced the absolute strangeness of walking across a major city at 1am while seeing children and families enjoying the public parks free from fear, of knowing that every person I saw had full access to one of the world's best healthcare systems and the right to basic human necessities such as housing and employment, still makes my head spin. Where was the oppressive state presence I had heard so much about? The crime-filled streets? I felt I had caught just a small glimpse, for the first time in my life, of the potential harmony that we, as human beings, could achieve in society. What stood out to me most, perhaps, was the prevalence of dignity. Yes, Cuba has tremendous poverty. But the poverty is different than that in the U.S., where social isolation and a lack of access to even the most basic goods abounds despite our unfathomable wealth.

When I raised these insights with my fellow American travelers, the response was not surprising, nor altogether wrong: "you can't tell someone else to be grateful for what they have if you have more than them," one American told me when I expressed concern that the thawing of Cuban-American relations would hasten the-already-quickening erosion of Cuban social welfare. Many of the Cubans we met were under the impression that this would mean more, not less, prosperity for all islanders: to build upon Steinbeck's famous "temporarily embarrassed millionaires" sentiment: it seemed that many of even the poorest pro-American Cubans assumed (in large part due to American cultural influence that the government has long tried to keep out of Cuba) that they themselves would be the casino and resort owners once capitalism comes back to the island (this was often spoken of as an inevitably). Imagine the surprise of some of my Cuban friends, then, when I told them of growing up in America without health insurance, of experiencing homelessness and abject poverty. As any international traveler can attest, American cultural products, such as Hollywood films, have been remarkably successful at one thing: convincing many of the world's poor that poverty does not exist in the U.S.

Regardless, my American traveling companion was right: as an American who benefits greatly from being a citizen of the world's imperial center (take for example, the ease with which I can attain a visa for travel) with just a few relatives from Cuba and little experience on the island myself, I am in no position to tell Cubans they ought to be grateful for living under a government which has, undoubtedly, at times weaponized the threat of imperialism to silence legitimate dissent. Like many other members of my generation and as a young adult recovering from a childhood in Mormonism, there is little I dislike more than living subject to a governance structure which cannot allow for deviation. But, context and material facts do matter if we, as socialists and activists wanting to change the world, are to give any sort of fair appraisal of the Cuban Revolution. The liberal, postmodern project which reduces all legitimate political activism to thoughts and actions based solely upon one's own life experiences and identity categories is antithetical to social solidarity and all forms of class-politics and anti-imperialism. Case-in-point: after informing another American colleague that I was, in fact, a communist, she replied: "I believe subscribing to any sort of label or ideology destroys the political imagination." I don't doubt her sincerity, but neither do I doubt that her aversion to an actively radical ideology was inherently ideological. It is precisely this sort of nebulous belief in the moral superiority of the (nonexistent) apolitical which explains why so many well-meaning liberals can call a revolution which eliminated illiteracy and homelessness in a generation "monstrous," just because some wealthy people lost their second homes.

Regardless, it's important that all freedom-loving people acknowledge the right of Cubans to self-determination, whatever that means for Cubans. Yet, it's also important that anyone who puts stock on truth and morality acknowledges the great successes the revolution has entailed for inhabitants not only of the island, but for the poor all throughout the world, including especially Africa, where Cuban soldiers helped fend off apartheid and Cuban doctors continue to save countless lives. Socialists, in particular, have a political and moral obligation to denounce the U.S. embargo and calls for regime change.

As for appraising what the revolution can teach non-Cuban socialists about how to fight for a better world going forward, the crux of the matter was illustrated for me in a debate over a single word. One of the Cuban activists, an anarchist, asked me: should Cubans be "defending" or "developing" the Cuban Revolution? To defend the Revolution, he told me, assumes that the revolution was a specific historic event that occurred in 1959 and is now complete. According to him, this imagining of the Revolution entails stagnation, nostalgia, authoritarianism. Instead, he argued, Cubans must develop the revolution; this means emphasizing the need for evolution, growth, self-reflection. For him, an end to Cuba's socialist economy (in its present form) would be a step in the right direction as it would mean an easing of state control and an allowance for the sort of dissent necessary for evolution.

For a communist activist I met, however, if one is not defending the revolution, one is working with the project of American imperialism to defeat it. "The revolution has this much room to maneuver," he told me, squinting through an imperceptible slit between his thumb and index finger. This does not mean that this individual was uncritical of the Communist Party; on the contrary, he offered some of the most insightful critiques of the Cuban system. Nor does this mean that the anarchist comrade was not aware of the threat of U.S. economic imperialism. But to act like it will be good for Cuba to simply throw open its borders and government to unchecked American influence, as many American liberals attest, is not only naive but ideological par-excellence: an end of the Cuban socialist project will no doubt mean suffering for the average Cuban.

In other words, the Cuban revolution is not black-or-white. The Cuban government has long been stuck between a rock and hard place. We have an intellectual and moral responsibility to note that if the Cuban socialist government does, in fact, fall, it is more than likely that the millions of Cubans that the revolution lifted out of poverty, taught to read, offered education and healthcare, will face dire consequences in that brave new world of authoritarian neoliberalism that has always defined counterrevolutionary regimes in Latin America, from Pinochet to the newly elected president of Brazil.

Socialists in the 21st century have an obligation to acknowledge the successes of the revolution and to reject the off-hand moral denunciation that liberals are so quick to heap upon any political organization which dares to buck the conventions of the capitalist ruling system. Is Cuban Socialism perfect? No. No system made by humans will ever be and workers should always be free to critique and develop existing socialist projects. But resistance to capitalist exploitation, to poverty, to imperialism, cannot exist if we hold ourselves to an absurd, abstract, and inconsistent moral standard designed to protect the status quo. Revolution is not easy nor morally straightforward. But Cuba has lifted millions from abject poverty and offered its people and people throughout the world dignity and true sovereignty. For this, it deserves our praise, solidarity, and defense, as do all Cuban people, whether they believe in developing or defending revolution. Ultimately, what the Cubans decide to do about their revolution is up to them, but all socialists have an obligation to defend the island and its revolutionary government from outside aggression.