Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2006

Samuel Farber Cuba article in the International Socialist Review

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 19, 2006

Sam Farber is a Cuban-American professor at Brooklyn College who basically writes Sovietology and Cubanology type material in the name of socialism. For 3rd camp tendencies such as the British SWP, the American ISO and the journal New Politics, Farber is an indispensable expert–especially necessary in light of their general lack of knowledge and first-hand experience with the island.

Farber doesn’t always get a free pass in this neighborhood. John Rees, a British SWP theoretician, wrote a fine little book titled “In Defense of October,” which answers Farber’s “Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy,” alongside Sovietologists like Robert Conquest, Adam Ulam et al. Rees points out that Farber’s arguments and data echo those of the anti-Communists. Since the state capitalists feel defensive when it comes to attacks on the Soviet leadership before the counter-revolution (their term, not mine), Farber’s assault on the Soviet “golden age” has to be answered. No such quarter is given to the Cuban socialist revolution obviously, which in their eyes never occurred.

Farber has an article in the latest ISR, the magazine of the ISO, titled “Cuba’s likely transition and its politics.” It is one of those exercises you see all the time in the bourgeois press–speculating about a post-Castro Cuba. I want to take up some of his findings, but will precede that with some reflections on Farber’s previous utterances on Cuba.

In 2003, Farber was interviewed by New Politics. He spoke about the Varela Project and Oswaldo Payà (who just received an honorary degree from my employer) but did not once mention that the US financed them. He also made the startling comment that Cuban dissidents were put in mental hospitals, just like in the USSR. After doing some research on this question, I discovered that the sole reference to such a thing in Lexis-Nexis was Milagro Cruz Cano who had indeed spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.

At the risk of coming across like a hard-line Stalinist, from what I have seen Cano does seem a bit off. Cano was a guitar-playing religious zealot who hooked up with the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez after leaving Cuba.

A few blocks from where the cameras wait and the people chant, Milagros Cruz Cano, a blind 32-year-old exile, has been living in a tent on the street, existing on Gatorade and water.

Until the moment she was finally banished from Cuba 10 months ago, she believed her daughter, who is now 9 years old, would be allowed to come with her.

“When I told my daughter that they allowed me to take my two dogs, but not her,” Milagros explained through a translator, my daughter, she say, “Mama, put me in the cage and dress me as a dog, so I can be with you. Please, Mama, do not leave me.”

(The Boston Herald April 6, 2000)

One wonders if Sam Farber ever felt the need to set up a Free Milagros Cruz Cano Committee to defend her right to play Christian hymns on the guitar and dress up her daughter like a dog. Probably not. More to the point, you will simply find no allegations of Cuba putting dissidents into mental hospitals from outfits like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Trust me, if there were such abuses, these groups would be all over them like white on rice.

Farber also doesn’t care for Che Guevara very much. In a New Politics article from the summer of 1998, he describes Che in terms usually reserved for somebody like Enver Hoxha:

By the time he left Guatemala in 1954 in the aftermath of the overthrow of the constitutional government of Jacobo Arbenz orchestrated by U.S. imperialism, Guevara was thoroughly politicized, accepting a Stalinist view of the world. This was true in both the generic sense that he had become a staunch supporter of the political model represented by the USSR of a repressive one-party state owning and controlling the economy without any democratic popular controls, independent unions, workers’ or civil liberties, as well as in the narrow literal sense of his great admiration for Joseph Stalin.

Oddly enough, despite his extreme Stalinophobia, Farber is more charitable to the Cuban Communist Party before the Cuban revolution than he is to the July 26th movement, which the Popular Socialist Party (as the Cuban CP named itself) held at arm’s length. In Farber’s eyes, the PSP was “more anticapitalist” than the Fidelistas in 1956-1958. (“The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1983). Since so much of state capitalist and left social democratic politics is consumed with ideology, it is not surprising that Farber deems the PSP “more anticapitalist”. However, we should heed the words of Karl Marx, who advised Bracke that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

I can certainly understand why the grizzled old social democrats around New Politics would gravitate to Farber. Why young radicals in the ISO or the British SWP would not have an allergic reaction to such prose does puzzle me, however. I guess that’s the result of remaining steeped in ignorance about Cuba and having a steadfast objection to visiting the country.

Turning now to Farber’s piece in the ISR, one should not be surprised that he relies on Carmelo Mesa-Lago and Horst Fabian’s possible scenario for a post-Castro Cuba. For anybody who follows such things, Mesa-Lago and Fabian, frequent writing partners, are recognizable as top dogs in US Cubanology. One wonders if an article submitted to ISR that relied on Adam Ulam and Robert Conquest, their Sovietology counterparts, would also pass muster.

I myself would be hesitant to rely on Mesa-Lago in light of his 1998 projection that “the probability of a strong, steady recovery in Cuba appears to be very low, particularly after the poor performance of 1997-98.” In fact, just the opposite is true. The Cuban economy has done quite nicely over the past 10 years, enough to catapult it into the top tier of the UN Human Development Indicators along with Sweden, Canada, etc.

But who am I to advise Sam Farber. He is a tenured professor, after all.

Most of the ISR article is filled with empty speculation about the Cuban army spearheading a China type transformation and similar thumb-sucking conjectures. Frankly, this sort of exercise is a dime a dozen. You can find pretty much the same sort of thing in an article written by Miguel Angel Centeno, a Princeton professor, for a 1995 conference on “Toward a New Cuba?: Legacies of Revolution.” The paper also relies heavily on Mesa-Lago and includes such jewels as:

The Cuban leadership may be aware of the impossibility of maintaining the current status quo and may also be wary of the kind of chaos often associated with transitions (and described below). In that case, and in combination with some “healthy” self-interest, the so- called Chinese model may appear quite attractive.


Finally, Farber advises his readers that in the chaos following the death of Fidel Castro, it is necessary for genuine socialists as opposed to the Stalinist fakers in Cuba to take control of the situation:

In addition to having to confront the Right, the new democratic revolutionary Left will also face major obstacles and intense competition from the neo-Fidelista forces described above. The two will clash in terms of two entirely different conceptions of the Left and socialism, in theory and in social organizational practice. For many years, the Left has been associated with a critique of and opposition to capitalism. However, this conception retains a sometimes fatal ambiguity. Anticapitalism does not necessarily mean pro-socialism if we define socialism as a movement ‘from below’ attempting to establish the democratic rule of the workers and the majority of the population.

Such ambitions strike me as being vain in every sense of the word. It is a form of vanity to compare oneself favorably to men and women who have shaken the world to its foundations. It is also vain in the sense of being an exercise in futility.

The comrades in the state capitalist tradition have a major task in front of them. Capitalism is being challenged to one degree or another throughout Latin America. The political and spiritual roots of that challenge are in the island of Cuba. As long as one holds the leadership of the revolution that took place there in sectarian contempt, the more difficult it will be to align yourself with the real movement, as Karl Marx referred to it in the letter to Bracke.

The Associated Press Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Bolivian President Pays Tribute to Guevara

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales celebrated the birthday of Che Guevara Wednesday, the first time a top Bolivian leader has paid tribute to the revolutionary who was executed in the Andean nation four decades ago.

Surrounded by Cuban and Venezuelan officials, Morales observed the 78th anniversary of Guevara’s birth, using the occasion to praise his close allies President Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Guevara, an Argentine, launched an armed revolt in 1966 to bring communism to Bolivia after helping lead the 1959 Cuban Revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and thrust Castro into power.

He waged a guerrilla insurgency for 13 months in Bolivia but was captured and executed by the Bolivian army at age 39.

Morales flew in a helicopter loaned by Venezuela to the small town of La Higuera _ the site of Guevara’s execution _ 480 miles southeast of La Paz.

Local children and nearby residents blew out a birthday cake with 78 candles representing how old Guevara would be if were alive.

He said in a speech that a decade ago he had a dream that there would be other Cubas in Latin America.

“I wasn’t wrong,” he said. “Now we do have another commander, colleague Chavez.” He also praised Castro’s Cuba, and he said both leader have shown they unafraid of “the empire,” a reference to the United States.

Since taking office in January, Morales has forged close alliances with Cuba and Venezuela, which have flooded Bolivia _ South America’s poorest country _ with aid.

Morales thanked Venezuela and Cuba for their aid and said he would make Castro a cake for his next birthday made of coca _ the leaf from which cocaine is derived.

The coca leaf has traditional and legal uses in Bolivia although the U.S. has long backed its eradication.


  1. Louis, possibly are you being a little too enthusiastic about the extent that capitalism is being challenged in South America? I totally agree that some kind of populist socialist/social democratic electoral wave is hitting parts of Latin America, however most of these are not really challenging capitalism . Da Silva made promises to the bankers to keep the economy going, Chavez was elected not brought to power by revolution and he has not nationalized all the means of production, and most of Morales’ support is from the rural petty bourgeois and de-proletarianized. Could this not be left bourgeois populism with a lot of nationalism and anti-Americanism spread about so that it looks like revolution but does not taste like revolution? Third world nationalism often has looked this way and gained support from fouth internationalists as you obviously know (Pablo, Mandel, etc…). Good polemics on the third campers and state capitalistas.

    Comment by Nicholas — July 20, 2006 @ 1:20 am

  2. Totally irrelevant, but I was wondering what you thought of the discussion I involved myself in the comments box over at MRZine–am I totally wrong?


    Comment by Poulod — July 20, 2006 @ 12:44 pm

  3. Poulod:

    I mostly agree with what you wrote there, but I tend to more crude analysis, viz. that two wrongs don’t make a right and expediency—in the narrow sense—is a bad guide to action. Expediency in the broad sense is a different matter, that is, where the totality of ends is taken into account, the ends do justify the means; it being understood that avoiding unecessary human suffering is an end to be taken into account. I thought your intolocutor’s position unacceptable, and if he were to say “socialism or barbarism”, I wouldn’t believe him.

    Comment by Paul Lyon — July 21, 2006 @ 12:21 am

  4. One thing that this transition talk—whether from someone like Farber or, yet worse, the bizarre documents that the Bush admin has been putting out about a post-Castro transition—does not consider is the Cuban project in sustainable agriculture. The Bush admin folks probably don’t even know that this project exists and wouldn’t care anyway, but I find it puzzling that some one like Farber wouldn’t pay any attention either. (I assume that he didn’t, otherwise he might not have been so casual about his recommendation.)

    On the other hand, I read somewhere that one Cuban experiment in democracy, viz. that of involving Cuban workers in a nation-wide discussion about the basic priorities of the economic plan, did not sit well with the bureaucrats in Havana, as it involved rather a lot of time and effort, the which seemed to them a waste. (The discussions were local, if I recall correctly what I read, but took place across the country, whence “nation-wide”). I am not sure of the reference, because I don’t have it to hand, but IIRC, the worker consultancy mechanism is discussed in Linda Fuller’s 1992 book Work and democracy in socialist Cuba

    Comment by Paul Lyon — July 21, 2006 @ 1:31 am

  5. I am not familiar with Fuller’s book but I have gotten good use out of “The Problem of Democracy in Cuba: Between Vision and Reality” by Carollee Bengelsdorf. Benglesdorf is by no means a gung-ho Fidelista but describes the kidn of give-and-take that is at the heart of grass-roots democracy in Cuba, with all its flaws. As might be expected, Farber attacked this book as crypto-Stalinist tripe:


    Comment by Louis Proyect — July 21, 2006 @ 1:49 am

  6. Louis: why are you so bitter politically in this Blog? You judge the revolutionnary trotskist left always from oustide, from an intellectual watch-tower. It seems that your main concern is to deliver bad and good points to the different trotskist trends. What is the use? No one in the revolutionnary waits for your approbation. Unless you get involved and participate the construction of an organization and the debates about its political actions and decisions.

    Comment by Activist from France — September 10, 2006 @ 10:42 am

  7. Farber gets Cuba right. It takes approximately 20 minutes of walking around Havana and talking to people to realize that Castro’s Cuba is neither socialist nor a worker’s state nor anything of the sort. Worker control and worker power is the sine qua non factor of socialism, is it not? Cuban workers have basically no decision making power in the structure of the cuban economy or in the policies and programs of the cuban government. Certainly the vast majority of Habaneros despise their government (opinion may be different elsewhere in the country, I don’t know). Cuba is basically a (poorly run) authoritarian welfare state where no independent political organizations, media outlets or worker associations are allowed.

    Comment by Adrian — October 17, 2007 @ 4:22 am

  8. I think that this a good place to make some very broad comments about Cuba and power. Any future alien from another time and place who discovers this trove of old material will probably be aware that Fidel Castro died last year. That brought about a lot of comments about his legacy. It would have not been hard for you to notice that all attempts at creating a socialist country on this planet have up until now been very authoritarian. This record has helped in discrediting socialism, other than the placing allowing some welfare benifits to be incorporated in to capitalist economies. Yet for those of on this planet at this time who have some sense, the history of capitalism shows that it is a pile of shit as well. Yet capitalism is a system that is embraced even by many of the people who suffer from its institutions.
    The vice grip that those who want to create a better world are caught in is that when you get right down to it the masses can not be trusted. They can not be trusted mostly because they have been falsely indoctrinated. Furthermore they are almost just as capable of greed for wealth, status, and security as the rich.
    They are even less accepting of the rich in tolerance of religious, or racial diversity, or a diversity of customs. The rich can not be trusted either. The are racked by greed, vanity, cruelty, and dishonesty. They set a terrible example for those less fortunate than them to follow.
    So with so few people who are sane, honest, and intellegent it is obvious at this time in March of 2017 that a better world is not going to be created through the means of an election. If the sane, honest, and intellegent people of the planet are going to change its trajectory violence will be neccessary. Because their numbers are small the chances of success are small with or with out violence.
    But if they (the few sane, honest, intellegent people of the world) should prevail is it neccessary that they rule as tyrants? Furthermore how will they sustain themselves over the long period that will be required to undue all the damage that has been done to the world over the last 200 plus years. How will the leadership avoid orthodox thinking entreching itself in the leadership on one hand and a lack on unity causing policy incoherence on the other hand. I do not have the complete answer to those questions. I do think that I have some clues though. First is that institutional balances of power are very important. Second Term limits are a very important check on tyranny. Fidel Castro failed miserably on that score. With these points in mind I would like to suggest something that I think would be useful if the best case scenario could develope. (or would have developed if you are reading this in the distant future.) That is that Central Committees take the place of such positions as President, or Prime Minister, or Primier, or Chancellor, or Governor, or Superintendent, or whatever.
    These committees shall be made up of 6 or 12 or 18 members depending on how much the committee is responsible for. The members of these committees will be selected from a pool of candidates deemed by the ruling party(ies) to be qualified to hold a position on the committee. I am not saying at this point anything about how such qualifications should be determined. The reason is that I want to make a different point at this time.
    Elections are a terrible way for placing someone in a position of authority. Yet appointments are no better a way to place someone in a position of authority. In the distant past random selection was also tried. That stinks now to as the world is much more complex today than it was more than 2000 years ago.
    Yet those are the only non violent ways to achieve a position of authority that the mankind has been able to come up with that I know about, in its 50,000 year history. Therefore it seems to me that the most reasonable way to put people in to positions on a central committee would be to have 1/3 of them selected randomly from the group that is qualified to sit on the committee. 1/3 of the members should be pushed up by being elected from the group qualified to sit on the committee BY those qualified to sit on the committee. 1/3 should be elected by the central committee itself from those qualified to be on the committee, or by the next higher committee if such a committee exists.
    The method that I just descibes covers all the bases. A society is not placing all its hopes on the quality of thought from the type of hiarchy that has plagued the churches and governments for 2000 years in which the leadership has always permoted those who defend the status quo. Limiting membership to these committees to 6 years is another way of limiting the damage that one man can do. By having 1/6 of the seats change hands each year the insitutions will always be getting new outlooks on things without a sudden massive change of policy when it is not neccessary. If such abrupt changes were neccessary the quality of those already on the committee should ensure that they are capable of seeing the obvious for themselves anyways.
    If a revolutionary leadership would make its thoughts on this subject clear before taking power it could create trust and by actually following through with such simple steps it could avoid the slings and arrows of being labled dictators. OK oligarchs would still apply. So what, if your heart is pure to be called an oligarch should be but a triffleing concern. As an oligarch you share the blame for what ever goes wrong with other people. If you are a politcal oligarch but not an ecomomic oligarch you will not be exploiting people. You might be oppressing them. If you are oppressing them they problably deserve it. They are an unruly mass rich and poor alike who need the strong hand of a mother (or shepard)(or big bother) to guide their developement.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 7, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

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