Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 4, 2013

Samuel Farber versus the Cuban Revolution, part one

Filed under: cuba,Samuel Farber Cubanology — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

The Prophylaxis of Theory: a look at chapter one of Samuel Farber’s Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: a critical assessment

With the stated goal of proving that Cuba is “totalitarian”, Samuel Farber doggedly gathers evidence to prove his point. This methodology is par for the course in the academy, familiar to anybody who has written a dissertation to support some hypothesis or other. Ironically, it is the same approach found in the world of “Marxist-Leninist” sects determined to protect their theoretical purity against “alien class influences”. I would argue for a different approach, one that incorporates Lenin’s observation in his April 1917 Letter on Tactics that “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life” (the words uttered by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust.)

Before addressing the question of whether it makes much sense to describe Cuba as “totalitarian”, I would like to take a close look at the provenance of the material cited by Farber in chapter one of Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: a Critical Assessment titled Toward ‘Monolithic Unity’—Building Cuban State Power from Above. One imagines that in his fervor to make the case against Fidel Castro, Farber sought out the most inflammatory documentation whether or not it passed the smell test. Quite frankly, the deeper I got into this material the more I felt compelled to go out and find some clothes pins to put on my nose, not an easy task given the prevalence of electric dryers.

Farber states that Cuba punished dissidents in the 1980s by putting them into a mental hospital and applying electroshock treatments. This represents an escalation beyond Soviet tactics, where dissidents like Pytor Grigorenko were only kept in custody in asylums.

The Amnesty International affidavits of Cuban dissidents are collected in a book titled The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba, written by Charles J. Brown and Armando M. Lago in 1990. As I read through this book over the past day, I found them remarkably similar to what mental patients undergo in season two of FX’s American Horror Story, subtitled The Asylum.

  • A dissident “lay awake, watching inmates pass the time by setting on fire the socks of their sleeping companions.” (p. 73) [One must assume that this meant something like a very advanced hotfoot.]
  • “…he was placed in a water tank and given electroshocks.” (p. 84)
  • “…the orderly Heriberto Mederos gave electroshocks to political dissidents strapped to a wet floor”. (p. 86)
  • “…his death was due to asphyxiation by hanging, his body then doused with gasoline and set on fire.” (p. 90)
  • “Blindfolded with a black hood over his head and bound by a rope tied tightly around his neck, he was beaten and kicked until he lost consciousness.” (p. 102)
  • “On one occasion, Montero told an interrogator that he ‘couldn’t take it anymore’. The interrogator responded by handing Montero a loaded gun with which to shoot himself.” (p. 114)

Now it is a bit puzzling that nothing like this turned up in Amnesty International’s original 1988 report found in Brown and Lago’s appendix. It concluded: “Amnesty International has no reason to believe that political prisoners are referred for psychiatric tests other than genuine forensic reasons.”

And then two years later Amnesty reversed itself and concluded that Cuban psychiatric hospitals were like the one depicted in American Horror Story, maybe even worse. I called Amnesty International yesterday to speak to someone familiar with both reports. Not surprisingly, my phone call was not returned. I was looking for an explanation of how such a 180-degree turn could have taken place but will likely never receive one.

If you do a search on Cuba, dissidents, and electroshock in in JSTOR, a database of scholarly articles, you find nothing except a review of the Brown-Lago book. In Lexis-Nexis, you will find absolutely nothing except a one-sentence reference in the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald, two Florida papers committed to the counter-revolutionary cause.

Could it be possible that Amnesty and Freedom House, Brown-Lago’s publisher, were serving American foreign policy goals by publishing these lurid and highly implausible affidavits? Charles J. Brown’s CV does raise some concerns. Here is how he is identified at Huffington Post, a “liberal” publication that has been hostile to both Cuba and Venezuela since its inception:

Charles J. Brown is editor and publisher of Undiplomatic, a blog dedicated to covering the intersection of diplomacy, global issues, U.S. politics, and pop culture. In the past, Charlie served as President and CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions; Deputy Executive Director for Action at Amnesty International USA [emphasis added]; Chief of Staff and Director of the Office of Strategic Planning and External Affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the U.S. Department of State; and in a variety of roles at Freedom House. In 2004, Charlie served as co-director of the human rights, democracy, and development policy team for the Kerry-Edwards campaign and is currently an unpaid policy advisor on these issues to the Obama campaign. He is co-author of The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba (1991), and co-editor of Judges and Journalists in Transitional Democracies (1997).

At the time of the book’s publication, Brown was a project coordinator for Freedom House. Is it possible that he already had ties to Amnesty, where he now serves as “Deputy Executive Director for Action”, whatever the hell that is?

I should hasten to add that the Huffington Post did not mention Brown’s latest gig. According to Linkedin.com:

Charlie currently serves as a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Undersecretary for Policy in the U.S. Department of Defense, where he is responsible for implementing the DoD components of President Obama’s initiative to integrate atrocity prevention and response into U.S. policy. Previously he served as Senior Director for Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Policy, overseeing DoD policy development and implementation on a range of issues.

The fact that Brown can be a senior officer of AI while overseeing atrocity prevention for the Defense Department defies Jesus’s stricture about serving two masters at once but that does not seem to perturb a human rights organization that is now headed up by Suzanne Nossel, a former assistant to Richard Holbrooke in his capacity as UN Ambassador and Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Assistant for International Organization Affairs. All in the name of atrocity prevention, I suppose, the bailiwick of the U.S. State Department and Pentagon.

If I were Samuel Farber I would have looked for evidence of Cuban misuse of psychiatry from less politicized quarters but then again I am not he–thankfully.

Farber takes up the cause of Oscar Lewis, an American anthropologist who was accused by Castro of establishing ties with counterrevolutionaries on the island under a progressive façade. This comes under the rubric of “cultural repression” and is meant to indict the Cuban government in the same manner as the alleged electroshock torture of dissidents. Farber has a footnote intended to back up Lewis’s case, not surprisingly written by his wife Ruth who was part of his research team. Since I am somewhat skeptical of all anthropologists, including those invited to conduct studies in Cuba, I was eager to get the other side of the story.

You can get that in an August 4, 1977 article in the New York Review of Books (unfortunately behind a paywall) written by John Womack Jr. Titled An American in Cuba, it is a review of Four Men: Living the Revolution, an Oral History of Contemporary Cuba by Oscar and Ruth Lewis, and Susan M. Rigdon.

Despite his sympathy for the underprivileged, Lewis developed a theory on “the culture of poverty” that led Marxist anthropologists like Eleanor Leacock to expose his contradictions mercilessly. By proclaiming that poverty bred pathology and that pathology bred poverty, Lewis left the conclusion that “the lumpenproletariat had itself to blame, and was incorrigible.” After meeting personally with Fidel Castro in 1968, Lewis got carte blanche to do research in Cuba despite the misgivings of his North American peers. The book that came out of their research was, according to Womack, generally favorable toward the revolution. However, it was not without costs to the writers, who found themselves at odds with the government during a period of great turmoil. Womack writes:

As Lewis gained confidence in Project Cuba, he lost his main contact with Fidel—Dr. Vallejo died in August 1969. Without advice he trusted, Lewis pushed his luck. In October, and two or three times afterward, he used the Israeli diplomatic pouch for correspondence from the United States. And in March 1970, he began interviewing a mysterious Havana professional, who had been arrested during the Bay of Pigs attack and remained a staunch gusano since. Mr. X, as Mrs. Lewis calls him, had come to Lewis to tell his story, and turned out to be a relative of a prominent Cuban official, himself a friend of the State Security director. In his interviews Mr. X praised the United States, President Nixon, and the fight against communism in Vietnam, and complained about his own country. As if he thought it mattered to the project, he also gave Lewis some low-down on the love lives of his country’s leaders. As if he thought it mattered too, Lewis let him talk.

It was a singularly rotten time for an American social scientist in Cuba to play wild cards. In the spring of 1970, despite four years of vast economic efforts, the country had reached a crisis, and the political and intellectual climate had become grim. Most ominously, the great ten-million-ton sugar harvest was failing. Besides, much less embarrassing but still galling to the country’s leaders, two prestigious and supposedly friendly Europeans had just berated them for failings in democracy and for not having a revolution à la chinoise: René Dumont in Cuba Est-il socialiste? and K.S. Karol in Guérrilleros au pouvoir. Unknown to Lewis, in mid-April the government put him under close surveillance. The bugs of the X interviews would instantly suggest spooky questions: Why did Lewis listen to Mr. X unless he wanted to know who on the Central Committee slept with whom? Why did he want to know that? To report it to the CIA?

It was largely the Israeli diplomatic pouch and the interviews with Mr. X that led to the problems alluded to by Farber. Someone trying to present an honest balance sheet on Cuba might have taken the trouble to supply such background information but that risked reminding his readers that social reality is complex. In a perfect world, the Cuban leadership would have understood that Oscar Lewis’s motives were clean even if they raised suspicions. Also, in a perfect world, Samuel Farber might have taken the trouble to identify where those suspicions were coming from, all too understandable in a country that was living under siege.

As another example of Cuban totalitarianism, Farber points to the arrest of Huber Matos in 1959 for treason. Ultimately convicted, Matos was sentenced to 20 years. According to Farber, Matos was merely guilty of thought crimes, specifically being opposed to socialism or communism even though Fidel Castro had not yet made his convictions on the future direction of Cuba public. From Farber’s presentation of the events, one would conclude that Matos had something in common with Bukharin in the Moscow Trials.

While by no means endorsing the sentence handed down against Matos, we must entertain the possibility that there was more than thought involved. In an article titled Political Change in Cuba, 1959-1965 that appeared in Social Research, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer 1968), James O’Connor wrote:

Due mainly to a high degree of local autonomy in INRA, the implementation of the Reform Law was more thoroughgoing than the law itself. Thus more right-wing moderates were swept aside during the second half of 1959. The best known case was that of Huber Matos, Rebel Army officer and INRA chief in the cattle province of Camaguey. The decisive influence in the Matos affair was unquestionably his militant anti-Communism, especially significant at a time when Castro was seeking to replace those of his own constituency, both leaders and cadres, who had defected with PSP regulars, and when he was promoting non- Communist radicals to posts abandoned by the right-wing moderates. But this fact tends to obscure another of perhaps even more fundamental importance; namely, that Matos hesitated to carry out INRA’s orders in relation to the agrarian reform. “. . . In August, 1959,” one outsider has written, “the writer was informed in a conversation with an agronomist. . . working under the Point IV program of the U. S. government in Cuba, of the obvious disorganization of the agrarian reform program … in Camaguey. . . . Several months passed before anything happened; at the end of October, 1959, Huber Matos . . . was summarily removed by Fidel Castro, thrown into prison, and charged with blocking the agrarian reform,” having conspired with land-owners, according to the official version.

Revolutions, of course, are brutal businesses as anybody studying the French or Russian varieties can tell you. If Matos was guilty of sabotaging land reform in Camaguey, then there were grounds to charge him with a crime. Once again, my problem with Farber is less about him bringing up the case of Huber Matos, but leaving out the whole story.

Turning now to the question of how Cuba ended up as a “totalitarian” society, we learn from Farber that Fidel, Raul, and Che had it planned all along, echoing the hoary Cubanologist business of hidden agendas. It goes something like this. Fidel and company had plans all along to impose a Stalinist straightjacket on a freedom-loving people but kept it a secret until all their ducks were lined up in a row. Farber writes:

Contrary to beliefs that have long been held by many liberals and leftists in the United States and elsewhere, the revolutionary leadership did not establish a Soviet-type system on the island merely as a reaction to the powerful hostile pressures of US imperialism, much less internal class forces in Cuba. Undoubtedly, the revolutionary leaders acted under serious internal and external constraints. The strong opposition of the US Empire to anything that would disturb the economic, political, and foreign policy status quo in its “backyard” weighed heavily on the political calculus of the revolutionary leaders. But at least as important was that these leaders indeed had a political and ideological view of reality that shaped their perceptions of danger, the appropriate responses to it, and especially what they regarded as the desirable form of social and political organization. As Ernesto “Che” Guevara told the French weekly L’Express on July 25, 1963, “Our commitment to the eastern bloc was half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice.”

With all due respect to Che Guevara (and a lot less so to Samuel Farber), “a political and ideological view of reality” had a lot less to do with the trajectory of the Cuban revolution than the relationship of class forces globally. But more importantly, the Cuban road to socialism was shaped very much by the country’s long history as a colony and the long-standing political crisis of both the parties of the right and the left. Farber would have preferred a lively political culture with a free press and multiparty elections (who wouldn’t?) but Cuba’s half-century of experience with a tainted “free” system led in a different direction. It is also important to keep in mind that an affinity for the Soviet Union was understandable given the prestige that the country enjoyed after the victory over fascism, the aid that was being given to the colonial revolution, and perhaps most importantly the perception that the worst days of Stalinism were in the past. So powerful was this perception that the Fourth International itself split over how to regard the Communist Parties, with Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel entertaining the possibility that they were capable of serving as imperfect revolutionary instruments. Standing against the turn toward the CP’s were the parties led by James P. Cannon and Gerry Healy. Cannon’s eventually figured out that the Cuban leadership was not “Stalinist” while Healy’s sect continued to agree with Samuel Farber’s analysis.

What Farber and the Spartacist League/Socialist Equality Party have in common is an idealist understanding of history. It goes something like this. Men and women develop ideas about what kind of society they want (and make sure to announce it to the world through proclamations meant to achieve posterity through the ages) and then assemble the cadre and mass following to implement those ideas. The obvious purpose of Farber’s writings is to inoculate the mass movement against pernicious “Stalinist” ideas that can subvert future revolutionary struggles.

For some on the left, the “prophylaxis of theory” is essential and serves as their reason for existing. When James P. Cannon smuggled an article by Leon Trotsky out of the USSR in a teddy bear, he was convinced that this was the necessary first step in creating a new revolutionary movement that could strike a lethal blow against both Stalinism and capitalism. As it turned out, Stalinism and capitalism have survived while his own party is moribund.

The “prophylaxis of theory” is most often tied to a particular papal figure on the left who like his Roman counterpart is best qualified to interpret the meaning of the holy writ (Marx and Engels) as the Pope arbitrates the New Testament.

For the ISO and the British SWP that figure is V.I. Lenin who was the USSR’s last best hope for carrying out “socialism from below”. Since V.I. Lenin died long before the Cuban Revolution, it is of course open season on the Fidelistas ideologically. Even though the Cuban Revolution has evolved along a path similar to the USSR’s experience with War Communism and the NEP, it does not get the benediction of Samuel Farber or the editorial boards of the state capitalist press.

There is a certain inconsistency at work here. It has always struck me as odd that the comrades allow themselves to publish every burp on Cuba that comes out of Farber’s mouth but never felt inspired to publish his views on Lenin and the Russian Revolution.

In 1996 Science and Society published a special issue on Lenin that included an article by Farber titled The Relevance of Lenin Today. In a nutshell, it encapsulates the Sovietology article of faith that Lenin led to Stalin, although he does not come out and state that explicitly. But anybody can figure out that this is implicit argument here:

Yet, here we find one of the more striking paradoxes in the Marxist tradition. While the struggle for democracy was central to Lenin’s politics, his conception of the nature of democracy was flawed even while he was in opposition, let alone when he was the head of the Soviet state. As I have argued at length elsewhere (Färber, 1990), there was a quasi-Jacobinism in Lenin’s politics that led him, for example, to give more importance to the politically more advanced elements organized in the party than to broader class institutions such as the soviets. Yet an elementary sense of proportion and perspective demands that we distinguish between Lenin’s flawed conception of democracy, which he mostly upheld until at least the Spring of 1918, and the clearly anti-democratic perspective that, with his associates, he began to adopt shortly before and especially during the course of the Civil War. These anti-democratic views and practices fully crystallized after the Civil War, in the period 1921-1923, even as Lenin reacted in genuine horror against the practical outcomes of those very views and actions. It was particularly during and after the Civil War that many undemocratic practices that may have indeed been justified as necessary came to be seen and defended by Lenin and other mainstream party leaders as intrinsically virtuous. The existence of this attitude is also demonstrated by the virtual absence of statements by Lenin attesting to the temporary or conjunctural nature of his repressive and anti-democratic measures, except in a few isolated instances, such as when the 1921 ban on party factions was originally declared to be temporary.

I should mention that Farber’s reference to “Lenin’s flawed conception of democracy” is another instance of idealism, seeking to explain the problems of Soviet statehood in the 1920s in terms of faulty thinking rather than the economic devastation and loss of cadre in a bloody civil war. If you discount such factors in the USSR, you are bound to discount them in Cuba, a country that faced sabotage and terror the minute the guerrillas marched into Havana.

I suspect that both the USSR under Lenin and Cuba under Castro get failing grades from the professor emeritus will matter little to those who remain committed to the state capitalist theoretical prophylaxis. But at least in one instance a leader of the British SWP had Farber nailed. John Rees, who has since gone his own way, wrote a book in 1997 titled In Defense of October that included an article by Farber along the lines of the S&S article cited above. As editor, Rees enjoyed the privilege of commenting on the various articles and made sure to inform Farber that his contribution reminded him of Robert Conquest.

In some ways, Farber is correct. Both the Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution were “from above”. Both used political and cultural repression against its enemies. And both certainly failed to measure up to the yardstick of socialism as defined in the Marxist classics. My guess is that no revolution ever will.

In 2007 reviews of a new book by Lesley Chamberlain titled Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia caught my eye. The amazon.com blurb sums it up pretty well:

In 1922, Lenin personally drew up a list of some 160 ‘undesirable’ intellectuals – mostly philosophers, academics, scientists and journalists – to be deported from the new Soviet State. ‘We’re going to cleanse Russia once and for all’ he wrote to Stalin, whose job it was to oversee the deportation. Two ships sailed from Petrograd that autumn, taking Old Russia’s eminent men and their families away to what would become permanent exile in Berlin, Prague and Paris. Lesley Chamberlain creates a rich portrait of this chilling historical moment, evoked with immediacy through the journals, letters, and memoirs of the exiles.

Now this was after the worst of the Civil War was over and before the NEP began to unwind. There is no evidence that Lenin acted in any way other than Fidel Castro acted when the Beatles were banned from Cuban radio. That, after all, is what happens in revolutions. They are subject to excess.

My advice to Samuel Farber and the comrades who take him seriously is to consider these lines of William Blake, one of Britain’s greatest revolutionary poets:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

December 30, 2012

Did the Cuban Revolution enforce socialist realism?

Filed under: Samuel Farber Cubanology — louisproyect @ 12:44 am

One of the things that becomes depressingly obvious as you begin reading Samuel Farber’s “Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: a critical assessment” is its refusal to acknowledge anything positive about the system. It is a methodology that he learned on the sectarian left and that has been reinforced by the particular brand of Sovietology/Cubanology he developed over decades in the academy. It is the approach of the District Attorney who is making the case against the defendant, footnotes included. I learned the sectarian way to do it through 11 years of membership in the SWP, all geared to making the “enemy” of the party some kind of guilty perp.

The methodology, of course, rests on the cherry-picking of the facts. If you are trying to make your case against Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, why undermine your case by finding something good to say about them? What Farber does not understand of course is that by refusing to engage with the positive aspects of Cuban socialism (for lack of a better term), he comes across as a cheap propagandist. Something of course that he is.

Today I spent several hours going through the first chapter of his book titled “Toward ‘Monolithic Unity’—building Cuban State Power from Above” that tries to make the case that Fidel Castro always had plans to create what Farber calls a “totalitarian” state, whether or not the U.S. had tried to overthrow the Cuban Revolution.

I will be dealing with this chapter in some detail in a subsequent post but would simply like to address one point here and now. Farber writes that “Cuban literature came closest to the model of Soviet socialist realism”, a sure sign that in the realm of art the Cuban state was as opposed to free expression as it was in the political realm. If that is the case, how does one explain Cuba’s sharp departure from Soviet norms in painting? Was Cuba putting a gun to artists’ heads to make sure that they did not stray from the all-important goal of representing peasants beaming over a sugar harvest, tractors and all? In reality, Cuban art was not quite like that at all.

Screen shot 2012-12-29 at 7.36.36 PM

From chapter three of “Abstract Expressionism: The International Context”

A Legacy for the Latin American Left: Abstract Expressionism as Anti-Imperialist Art

Abstract artists were strong when the Revolution took place, and they were supporting the Revolution; therefore there was no negative identification with abstractionism….

It was decided that Cuban painting would have to be destroyed, in a manner of speaking…We decided to use North American abstraction as our form, because in Cuba there was no tradition…. We also discovered that abstract art was the only weapon with which we could frighten people….Then it seemed to us that our painting served as a means to raise consciousness.


On the third anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, in January 1963, the new revolutionary government sponsored an exhibition in Havana with the title Abstracto Expresionismo. As the title of this show indicates, the visual language of Abstract Expressionism was identified both with the insurgent forces that had toppled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and with the art world movement that had radically expanded the discursive field for cosmopolitan modernisms in Cuba. Moreover, this exhibition also made clear that the so-called socialist realism of the Soviet Union would find little favor in revolutionary Cuba. Indeed, Che Guevara condemned the latter in 1965 as a specific nineteenth-century French art that would only constrain artistic practice in a revolutionary setting, where experimentalism was the order of the day. The first Cuban edition of Che Guevara’s most famous text on the culture of socialism explicitly contrasts examples of a newly validated Cuban modernism (in this case semi-figurative paintings by René Portocarrero and Wilfredo Lam, as well as the new art school at Cubanacán) with the stultifying visual forms of contemporary Soviet art, which are entitled “Sobre los bases del siglo pasado.” [On the basis of past century.] As for the design of the book’s cover, by an artist named Chago, it is clearly linked with the Russian Constructivism of the pre-Stalin era.

Painter and printmaker Raúl Martinez (1927-1995), easily one of the most significant artists to work in Cuba from the 1950s to his death there in the 1990s, observed that the language of Abstract Expressionism was particularly important not only for opening up Cuban painting to a new international dialogue in the arts, but also for its power of cultural negation during this period.

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