Is there a more unctuous Pecksniff on the American left than Samuel Farber? I’d be hard-pressed to name one.
In an article for Jacobin, which is rapidly adopting many of the colors of the “socialism from below” part of the left that measures revolutions against its own lofty standards and invariably gives them a failing grade, Farber warns radical youth against Che Guevara like some parents warned against smoking marijuana in the early 60s—it was not good for you..
You can practically figure out what will be in Farber’s rancid article without going past the title:
Che Guevara was an honest and committed revolutionary. But he never embraced socialism in its most democratic essence.
How generous of Farber to find Che “honest and committed”. But the poor thing never “embraced socialism” as presumably Farber did many years ago when he belonged to YPSL. Embracing socialism, as we all know, rather than Cuban petty-bourgeois authoritarianism is an acid test for the left. Very few souls have been pure enough to pass the test but Farber, Tim Wolforth, and James Robertson were among those who stood up for genuine Cuban socialism when a repressive, petite-bourgeois, anti-proletarian regime was making life hell for the workers.
The point of Farber’s article is to wake up the left to the fact that “Che Guevara’s politics had far more in common with the politics of the Castro brothers than many of his current admirers would care to admit.” Well, gee, I don’t know how to put this but most leftists who are ready to trash Fidel and Raul are just as ready to trash Che.
Farber’s case for seeing Che as an enemy of the vaunted “socialism from below” is consistent with his shabby record of either bending the truth or simply writing lies.
He starts off by saying that “he shared with them a revolutionary politics from above that allowed him to retain, along with the Castros, the political control and initiative on the island, based on a monolithic conception of a type of socialism immune to any democratic control and initiative from below.”
I always get a chuckle when I read Farber about the need for democratic control. This is a guy, after all, who viewed the Cuban CP as more in the socialist tradition than the July 26th movement, not being bothered apparently that the CP urged a vote for Batista in the 1930s. But the Stalinists can be forgiven because their party was the “only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist” in contrast to the July 26th movement that was “antitheoretical” and “antiprogrammatic”:
Last but not least, the PSP [Popular Socialist Party, the pro-Kremlin official party] was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted to the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.
–Samuel Farber, “The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 1983
So that’s what “embracing socialism” means, voting for Batista and being “theoretical”. What a joke.
Moving right along, Farber contends that a sign of Che bureaucratic/centralist tendencies was his response to a difficult situation in the Congo. Che supposedly had a panacea: the creation of a “vanguard Communist Party that would singlehandedly lead a revolution” in the Congo even though he believed that it lacked “any of the necessary conditions for socialist revolution.” So what kind of asshole would be for the creation of a vanguard party in a country that could never have a revolution to begin with? Farber helps us out by linking to an excerpt from Che’s Congo Diary, which appeared in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/aug/12/cuba.artsandhumanities. I defy you to find a single word about building vanguard parties. In fact, the excerpt is mostly a cautionary note about expecting too much out of a badly divided country and insisting on the need for practical assistance such as doctors and technicians. Does Farber expect people reading his idiotic article not to bother to check his sources? Maybe Jacobin can hire a good fact-checker so that the unwary reader does not waste his time on such shoddy journalism.
Farber does credit Che with being a radical egalitarian unlike the Castro brothers. So what made him a good guy at least on this count? It can be explained by his “bohemian upbringing” in Argentina. I don’t have a clue what Farber is talking about here. Jon Lee Anderson’s fairly decent biography does not yield a portrait of a guy walking around in sandals reading Rimbaud. Instead Che is seen as a deeply idealistic student who chooses to become a doctor so he can help the poor. Maybe because Che and a friend went “on the road” in Latin America on a beat-up old motorcycle, this is supposed to evoke Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. But if you read “Motorcycle Diaries”, the thing that stands out is his outrage over the suffering of the poor, especially the Indians. Che Guevara was no “bohemian”. He was an embryonic revolutionary.
This alleged bohemianism apparently went hand in hand with asceticism, according to Farber (as if potheads in the early 60s weren’t fond of a pint of cherry vanilla ice cream when they were feeling kind of groovy.) So ascetic was Che that he believed that the Cubans could be “educated” to live without the boob tube according to Farber’s latest book “The Politics of Che Guevara”, which is now available from Haymarket. Since the Vietnamese were building socialism without TV’s, why couldn’t Cuba? After consulting this book on Google, I could find no reference to Che’s actual words, only Farber’s extrapolation thereof from what seems like an off-the-cuff observation. You would have to search in vain to find any extended analysis that Che made about consumer goods. His main emphasis was not on living like monks but in avoiding the competition and materialism that exists in bourgeois society. All you need to do is read “Socialism and Man in Cuba” to see that the question of consumer goods is not even posed. In fact, Farber seems to grasp this in referring to his “hyper-voluntarism that expressed itself both in politics and in economic policy through his stress on moral incentives and creating a ‘New Man’ who was totally dedicated to society and oblivious to his individual fulfillment.” For that matter, you can find the same sort of revolutionary zeal in the USSR in the early years (or the French revolution for that matter) not that this would make any difference to Farber who looks just as much askance at Bolshevik rule as he does the Cuban CP.
Farber ends his article with a bouquet of platitudes:
Socialism: because the true liberation of working people can only be attained when both the economy and the polity come under the control of the women and men who through their work make social existence possible. Democracy: because majority rule and respect for minority rights and civil liberties is the only way that working people can in fact, and not in theory alone, control their destiny. Revolution: because even the most welcome, authentic reforms cannot bring about true emancipation and liberation.
You can obviously say that the USSR also failed to achieve socialism. Indeed, the entire history of the revolutionary movement since the time of Karl Marx has been marked by failure. While everybody is for the economy and the polity coming “under the control of the women and men who through their work make social existence possible”, the challenge for the left is how to bring that about.
Cuba has failed to satisfy these benchmarks for a variety of reasons. To start with, an “open society” would have been exploited by its enemies to destroy the revolution in its infancy. How do I know that? Because I saw it happen in Nicaragua where the government following Cuban advice to avoid their own excesses gave the USA the opening it needed to pour millions of dollars into the counter-revolutionary press and parties. When Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in 1861, he was facing far less of a threat than Cuba did 100 years later. Does that matter to Farber? Certainly not. He has one yardstick for Cuba and another for the rest of the world.
The other problem is that the Castro brothers and Che Guevara were men of their times. In the late 50s when they went into the mountains to launch a guerrilla war in combination with the student and trade union movement in the cities, the USSR was at the height of its prestige globally. The Russians had defeated Hitler, were providing aid to nationalist movements around the world (even if often ineffectively), and were making great industrial and scientific progress. The Cubans were likely to be influenced by ideology that diffused outwards from the Kremlin, as was obvious with Fidel’s highly critical support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The kind of people who sounded like Sam Farber in Cuba were affiliated with J. Posadas’s Fourth International. Posadas had all of the same ideas as Sam Farber and Cubans were free to read them in the Posadista bookshop, which for some reason avoided being shut down by the dictatorship. Posadas advocated a working class revolution that most certainly conformed to Farber’s strict guidelines of “socialism from below”. He also had some other odd ideas that Farber probably would have had problems with, such as advocating a first strike nuclear attack by the USSR so that socialism could emerge out of the radioactive ashes.
Fortunately, the Castro brothers steered clear of the Posadas bookstore even if it meant disappointing Sam Farber.