Cuba: Critical Thought in the Socialist Transition

This is the text of an essay presented at the Conference on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pensamiento Crítico (Critical Thought) magazine which took place in Havana on February 21, 2017. Pensamiento Crítico was a monthly magazine published in Cuba from 1967 until 1971. Edited by Fernando Martínez Heredia (1939-2017), the magazine was part of an open discussion about Marxism within the Cuban revolution, in which many rejected the stale Stalinist approach taken by the Soviet manuals on “marxism-leninism”

Frank Josué Solar Cabrales is a Cuban communist and lecturer at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba. We publish his essay here as we think that, starting from an appraisal of Pensamiento Crítico, he makes a number of very sharp and relevant points about the situation in Cuba today and the way forward for the Cuban revolution.

The distance that separates us today from the first issue of Pensamiento Crítico (Critical Thought) is exactly the same as the distance between this revolutionary, intellectual adventure and the October Revolution: half a century. The coincidence in this case is not limited to random chance.

The Russian and the Cuban Revolutions unleashed the creative energy of the masses, who, for the first time, had a sense of ownership over everything and brought everything under their control. The revolutions created an atmosphere of free and open debate, sparked and supported by a wave of revolutionary struggles throughout the world, and entrusted their fate to the success of those struggles. Similarly, the unfavourable outcomes of the class struggle internationally caused setbacks in both revolutions, although to very different degrees in each case.

In the final years of the USSR, the revolutionary tendencies that sought to defend socialism were demanding a return to the traditions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to find support for their positions. Today, the bureaucratic model of socialism of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has collapsed, and we are now faced with the real threat of capitalist restoration. We can find the way forward in our own history, in the original contributions of our kind of Cuban “Bolshevism” of the first decade of the Revolution—of which Che and Fidel were the main exponents, and of which Pensamiento Crítico was part in its own right. Fidel turned to this original source at another vital juncture in the Cuban Revolution, in the 1980s, when the process of rectifying errors and negative tendencies began.

Pensamiento Crítico was the intellectual product of the Revolution, at a time when theoretical education was felt to be an urgent necessity. In contrast to the later impoverishment of social thought, the magazine displayed a diverse range of international left ideas in its publications. The only criteria for selection were quality and intellectual rigour. All the main exponents of revolutionary thought were featured in the paper, including schools of thought, theses, and theories that were opposed to the positions of the editorial board. This was part of the freedom of thought, democratisation of knowledge, and wide access to culture brought forward by the Cuban Revolution. It reflected the great themes that were crucial to all social inquiries of the time: Revolution, the struggles for national liberation and popular resistance, the economic structures of domination, the theory of socialism.

Since it was shut down in 1971, Pensamiento Crítico can only be related to the most creative and liberating period of the Cuban Revolution, and not to the mistakes that came later—that is, the part of the Revolution that is not the Revolution. Today, five decades later, Pensamiento Crítico still serves its purpose, and its short and intense five years of existence still provide a useful tool for the  advancement of freedom and socialism in Cuba. Of course, for its recovery to be truly valuable for us today, it must be creative and not a mechanical copy.

Today, almost nobody talks about the socialist transition. To some, it appears to be an outdated concept, but it is essential to our task that we reopen this debate. It must be urgently recovered for its political, theoretical, and methodological usefulness. Establishing communism as our main goal does not only provide the utopian horizon to push us forward, but also the ideal point of reference with which we can contrast our daily reality and practices during the transition.

Socialism is more than a state, a model, a fixed moment, or a specific mode of production. Rather, it is a period of transition, a process in motion. It is a path more than it is a point of arrival. From this point of view, which is the classical view, socialism is the period of construction of communism, and its fundamental objective is to consolidate the communist way of life over the capitalist. This was the conception of radical Cuban revolutionaries in the 1960s, when they talked about the parallel construction of socialism and communism.

The Revolution and its conquests would not have been possible within the limits of sustainability of the technocrats and capitalists. From a narrow, purely economistic view, the conquest of every justice and the guarantee of a decent livelihood for all people would never be sustainable. That could only be a dream of mad men or fanatics. But the social development achieved by Cubans in so many aspects of life during the past 60 years has reached the level of the developed capitalist world, going far above the existing material conditions of reproduction. This goes beyond what would have been achievable on a small island if a Socialist Revolution had not removed the limits of what appeared possible.

The market and the economic categories of capitalism do not work for building socialism. They must be understood as a necessary evil that must be tolerated during a transitional period. But the gradual elimination of these tendencies is precisely one of the indicators of the progress of socialism in the transition. If adverse circumstances make it necessary to extend such measures, we should understand and explain the situation as a setback—as Lenin did when he applied the New Economic Policy (NEP)—, and never as a step forward towards communism. In other words, the capitalist market and mechanisms of production can be used circumstantially for us to survive and recover, but not to generate the wealth and material base necessary for socialism, because they can only lead to capitalism.

All of this starts from a widespread misconception, reinforced by common sense: socialism is very fair and works wonders to secure cultural and social rights, but economically it is a disaster, it is inefficient and does not create wealth, nor does it stimulate production and growth. Therefore, it seems clear that the solution should be to combine the best of both systems. Let us utilize the proven efficiency of capitalist economic mechanisms to produce wealth, and the socialist political model to distribute it as fairly as possible, in particular to assist the ones who are most in need. This is the old reformist dream of social democracy, forever unfulfilled because it is completely disconnected from reality. The pragmatist Chinese proverb sums up their idea in a sentence: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

The color of the cat makes no difference. Of course, whether the cat catches mice is a matter of concern to socialism—the more the better. But it also matters how it is catching them. We should see socialism not as a mere system of more or less fair distribution of wealth, but rather as the creation of a new culture, with new social relations, new human beings—along with the material basis necessary to satisfy people’s needs. This purpose cannot be served by any kind of economic development, much less one that is based on the exploitation of the labor of others, which engenders selfishness, inequality, and poverty. Misery and inequity cannot be normalized.

The economic growth necessary for socialism must be achieved through socialist means, and not through capitalism’s worn-out tools. It is not even a question of a parallel development of the so-called material basis for socialism and the new man as two distinct, simultaneous processes—on the one hand socialist economics, and on the other hand communist morality. Instead, as Che said, they are one and the same process.

We cannot use the old whips of capitalism if we wish to achieve true emancipation. Rather, the only way to increase productivity and generate economic growth by socialist means, is through consciousness, education, the formation of new men and women, and new social relations of production among them. In this sense, genuine workers’ control over politics and the economy is not secondary, but the necessary condition for the transition, and the only way it can develop the productive forces in a socialist sense.

To understand the transitional period as a process of tension between the old refusing to disappear and the new struggling to be born, does not mean to accept these contradictions as normal and tolerable. We must identify and know them well, in order to resolve them in the direction of socialism. That is to say, our role is not that of a doctor watching over the health of the old capitalist order, but rather that of a midwife working with all our strength to aid the painful birth of a new world of justice.

Revolutionary Marxism, apart from being a guide to action in the transformation of society, must be more than a tool for analyzing and understanding how capitalism works. It must also serve for a rigorous and honest examination of society in the socialist transition, to provide an account of its tendencies and contradictions, assess its progress and regressions, and anticipate its development. Otherwise it would cease to be an instrument for liberation, and would become a mere theory to legitimize those in power.

Left criticism—at least one worthy of such a name—is not dangerous to the Revolution, but to the bureaucracy. Left criticism is what Che made when he warned about the dangers threatening the construction of socialism, and about the possibility of capitalist restoration in the USSR. It is what Fidel did constantly throughout the revolution, for instance when on November 17th 2005 he attacked corruption and the new rich. And it is also what Raúl continues to do when he warns us of the need for an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideology; to never lose sight of the problems affecting the people; and to the present and future generations of leaders to always maintain the outlook that this is a revolution of the masses, by the masses, and for the masses.

Today, this left criticism is more necessary than ever to avoid capitalist restoration in Cuba. The unity of all revolutionaries is a precondition for the strengthening and defense of the Revolution from attacks by imperialists and the right wing. But its use by the bureaucracy could serve to defend the illegitimate interests of a small group, which would ultimately endanger the Revolution, and would prepare its defeat without the possibility of a strong reaction. We cannot forget the lessons of history.

The accusation by a corrupt, usurping bureaucracy against left-wing revolutionaries of jeopardizing unity and aiding the enemy led to the murder and exile of thousands of communists in the Soviet Union. This consummated the bureaucratic counterrevolution, which exterminated the generation of Bolsheviks who made the revolution alongside Lenin, opening the way in the long run for capitalist restoration. The same bureaucracy that accused revolutionaries of undermining the unity of the people later became the new capitalist class. The vast communist ranks, accustomed to uncritically obeying the leadership’s line as to preserve unity, were unable to take action to prevent this.

The experience of socialism in the 20th century shows that unity is essential to defend the Revolution, but unity alone is not enough to further its development and prevent its defeat. Revolution must come with popular control over the bureaucracy, that is, as an effective exercise of popular power and a purposeful act of critical left thought.

What kind of socialism? As François Houtart says, neither the one that’s a joke—social democracy—, nor the one that’s fearsome—stalinism. Of course, most of the regimes that called themselves socialist in the 20th century had nothing to do with real socialism. Mistaking the Stalinist model, which spread throughout the world to different degrees, for true socialism is like mistaking the Inquisition with primitive christianity—which was revolutionary, collectivist, and tied to the popular masses. The socialism that we strive for here and around the world is in favor of freedom and equality; the kind of socialism which points to a society of free associated workers, where the free development of the individual is the condition for the development of all, and where power and property belong to all. A new world, with no Cesars and no bourgeois. A revolutionary cannot settle for less.

Source (Spanish Original):Pensamiento Crítico en la transición socialista