Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.


  1. I agree. Cuban revolutionary art is completely different than socialist realism. Not even close. Even the art which is propaganda (often excellent propaganda, I would add…love the OSPAAAL posters) it doesn’t make use of the same artistic language at all.

    Comment by ISH — December 30, 2012 @ 3:26 am

  2. And what about Cuban cinema? The first two post-revolution films I saw were Memories of Underdevelopment and Lucia. Great films by any standard. And lots more followed.

    Comment by michael yates — December 30, 2012 @ 3:26 am

  3. All true, but let us not bend the stick too far the other way. There was a top down approach and censorship of arts, even if the same kinds of artists didn’t come under the gun in Cuba as they did in the USSR. Nationalism was promoted in Cuba rather than “socialist realism.” Roberto Fabelo, maybe one of the most famous Cuban artists, was doing abstract expressionism in the 50’s. Post-revolution he was doing paintings of sugar cane farmers.

    Remember too that the Beatles were banned by the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television in the 1960’s and 1970’s, apparently purely by the dictates of the individual in charge of the institute. To Cuba’s credit that was later rescinded, but it is worth mentioning. And of course Batista had his own ban of rock and roll in place before Castro, but that’s not necessarily a selling point for the Cuban Revolution.

    What eventually emerged as the “national art” in Cuba is this “new art” that is done by the younger generation. It seems to be heavily influenced by African influences forged through the slave trade and still maintained in rural areas with a heavy dose of sarcasm thrown in.

    It can truly be said that the revolution both drove out many of the well off white establishment artists while at the same time making it possible for greater numbers of “common people” to create art. Today, it’s also true that the majority of art if made for the private market largely driven by foreign tourism, Cuba’s largest source of income since the Special Period kicked in after the “Socialist Bloc” fell in on itself.

    Make of all that what you will.

    Comment by Clark — December 30, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

  4. http://www.counterpunch.org/2008/03/29/cuba-the-beatles-and-historical-context/

    Also, Roberto Fabelo was born in 1951 so I am not sure whether you are referring to someone who was painting happy peasants riding tractors in the early days of the revolution. He seems to have become a major force in Cuban art in the 70s long after any kind of “socialist realism” would have been in force. In fact as someone who has been following Cuban culture since 1967 when I joined the SWP, I can’t remember anything vaguely looking like art under Stalin.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

  5. Sorry, that came out totally mangled. I meant to say that abstract impressionism was the dominant style in the 50’s, pre-revolution, while artists that came up in the revolution moved from that into other things, which including paintings of Cuban farmers (as late as the 2000’s Nelson Dominguez was painting things like “Muchacha con Sesta,” it will be interesting to see what he does now, maybe paintings of the new self employed masses being promoted by Raul and company?).

    Did it look like socialist realism in Stalin’s Russia? Absolutely not. Why would it? We’re talking about completely different societies and types of artists. The geography, culture, training, everything was different. It would be pretty bizarre to see Stalinist socialist realism, which emerged from a combo of European classic art style far predating October and a dogmatic reductionist view of national literature like Gorky’s work, to emerge in Cuba wouldn’t it?

    But let’s not pretend there wasn’t a top down and frankly bureaucratic view of “acceptable art” that was indeed enforced, for example by the removal of a TV host from his position because he defended the Beatles, as the article you linked says, before oddly trying to somehow paint that as a necessity in the face of the non-stop attacks from the US.

    Fabel seems mostly interested with women’s bare breasts, but he does combine them with agrarian imagery (produce, seafood, livestock) quite a bit. I meant to bring him up only to point to him as the most famous contemporary artist in Cuba. I personally see little worth in his work, but then, I’m not a Manhattan art collector on the way to Havana to bag up more of his stuff for private collections, so what do I know?

    Comment by Clark — December 30, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

  6. It would be pretty bizarre to see Stalinist socialist realism, which emerged from a combo of European classic art style far predating October and a dogmatic reductionist view of national literature like Gorky’s work, to emerge in Cuba wouldn’t it?

    Let me restate my point. Farber describes Cuba as a totalitarian Stalinist state. In his discussion of the arts, he limits himself to a few examples. One was the introduction of a kind of official detective novel that legitimized the repressive state apparatus. The other was the banning of the Beatles. How in the fuck do you reduce Cuban culture to these two items? As Michael Yates pointed out, Cuban film was among the most innovative in the world. In terms of the art scene, I don’t think that it makes sense to describe it in terms of totalitarian control. Cuban artists were not that much different from Soviet artists of the 1920s who sought to become part of an inspiring revolutionary process. And trust me, there were just as many Russian artists and intellectuals who felt that they were living under a totalitarian system long before Stalin consolidated his rule. Don’t ever forget that Lenin kicked a bunch of philosophers out of the country, with Nikolai Berdyaev at the top of the list. Revolutions are characterized by excess, starting with the Jacobins. This has nothing to do with fucking Stalin, who represented Thermidor. Cuba has much more in common with Russia under War Communism and then the NEP that its detractors are willing to admit.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2012 @ 11:16 pm

  7. I agree the book is crap. I got about two chapters in an had enough. I just think there is a danger that comes in bending the stick too far the other way in defending countries like Cuba against such ridiculous charges. Same thing goes with trying to preserve even a fragment of the truth in the face of some of the total absurd stuff said against DPRK in a place like the US.

    Sure revolutions are vulnerable to excesses, and depending on who’s carrying them out (the working class itself or someone else, perhaps in the name of the class) that doesn’t have to be a major problem. But I don’t think Vlad “ban the factions” Lenin is a positive example to point to in regards to working class revolution. Especially in regards to what you’re saying here, since old Lenin created the Cheka and declared Bolshevik control over the press (shutting out working class voices as much as bourgeois voices as Gavril Myasnikov protested) by decree.

    Comment by Clark — December 31, 2012 @ 3:41 am

  8. I appreciate that you’re making a pretty narrow point refuting a claim made in the book, but I still thought I’d help pile on about the top down nature of arts in Cuba mentioned by others, just because I saw the following quote the other day:

    Ironically, several of the founding members did not always appreciate Irakere’s fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban elements. They saw the Cuban folk elements as a type of nationalistic “fig leaf,” cover for their true love—jazz. They were obsessed with jazz. The fusing of Afro-Cuban elements with jazz in Irakere is a direct consequence of the poor relations between the Cuban and United States governments. Cuba’s Ministry of Culture is said to have viewed jazz as the music of “imperialist America.” Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval states: “We wanted to play bebop, but we were told that our drummer couldn’t even use cymbals, because they sounded ‘too jazzy.’ We eventually used congas and cowbells instead, and in the end, it helped us to come up with something new and creative”


    …although I happen to think D’Rivera and Sandoval played better music before they defected and freed themselves from these restrictions.

    Comment by godoggo — December 31, 2012 @ 4:25 am

  9. From 1968 one of the best known Danish abstract painters, founding member of COBRA, Asger Jorn, formed a close working relationship with Cuba/Cuban authorities. Some of his most important works are situated on the island including murals/paintings in the nationalised bank Banco Hipotecario Mendoza which he was allowed to ´decorate`. These were recently restored with help the support of UNESCO.

    Comment by Steve Parsons — December 31, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

  10. In reference to godoggo’s comment, arguably some of the greatest African music of the modern age came from countries in which the state played a major role in cultural matters and musicians were literally government employees (Guinea under Sekou Touré and Tanzania under Julius Nyerere.)

    Comment by John B. — December 31, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  11. The BBC in Britain has censored and banned artists for years and Washington considers them an ally but if Cuba does it they are the bad guys. Things that make you go mmmm??

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 4, 2013 @ 2:21 am

  12. Not really. Britain is in the same imperialist camp as the US. What else would you expect? Washington also has a long love affair with the much more repressive Saudi Arabia. And the US has painted plenty of openly capitalist countries outside of their sphere of influence with a negative brush too.

    Comment by Clark — January 4, 2013 @ 7:02 am

  13. Clark you’re right and I only expect more of the same from Washington which is a continuous track record of bullshit and hypocrisy.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — January 4, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

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