Jonathan Dettman

Cuba and Western Intellectuals Since 1959

Towards the end of summer I stumbled upon a gem of a book. Kepa Artaraz’ Cuba and Western Intellectuals since 1959 documents the reciprocal—often symbiotic—relationship between the Cuban Revolution and the loosely-knit New Left formations that arose in Britain, France and the United States during the late 50s and early 60s. Artaraz outlines a broad, yet coherent view of the New Left as a movement characterized by its rejection of traditional communist parties, too invested in the Soviet Union and its Stalinist orthodoxy, and by its identification of Third-World nationalist and “anti-imperialist” movements as the locus of revolutionary, anticapitalist struggle. Cuba, as the leading example of anti-imperialist nationalism, came to occupy a central, defining position in the New Left’s conception of the Third World. Likewise, the figure of Ernesto “Che” Guevera became synonymous with the notion of the “committed intellectual,” another key concept of the New Left. “Thus, the New Left can be understood to be a metaphor for a form of committed intellectual that belonged to the 1960s, whereas Cuba acted as a specific example of the Third World—a concept crucial to the definition of the New Left” (57).

The documental work that traces this reciprocity of influence is too rich and detailed to summarize here. Two examples, however, are worth mentioning: that of Sartre and the evolution of his understanding of the intellectual, and that of the Cuban journal Pensamiento Crítico, whose pages illustrate the considerable influence the international New Left had on Cuban theorists in the Revolution’s early years.
Artaraz glosses several New Left theories of the intellectual, citing thinkers like Gramsci, Marcuse, and Althusser. Sartre, however, occupies a key position among these thinkers, not least because he maintained close ties to Cuba. Artaraz reveals that Sartre’s attempt to maintain the individual freedom of the intellectual while simultaneously asserting the possibility for the latter’s solidarity with the masses, or universal class, was ultimately acknowledged to be a failure. In the wake of May 68, Sartre took an increasingly anti-intellectual position as he came to believe that the classical intellectual was inherently elitist and incapable of committment to the masses. “From this moment on,” says Artaraz, “the road was open to a denial of one’s own intellectuality” (157). This trajectory from a position of intellectual solidarity with the revolutionary class (however defined) to one of overt disidentification with anything that reeked of elitist or academic erudition, finds its parallel in the events that unfolded during the first decade of revolution in Cuba.

During the exuberant years after the fall of Batista, artistic avant-gardes thought of themselves as the cultural and aesthetic counterpart of the revolutionary avant-garde; groups like Carlos Franqui and Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Lunes de Revolución sought to transform art as radically as Castro, Guevara, and assorted barbudos were transforming society and politics. The euphoria of what the artists supposed was unlimited intellectual freedom was soon replaced by growing apprehension as functionaries in Cuba’s nascent state cultural apparatus began to proscribe works as “counter-revolutionary.” The banning of the documentary P.M., the closure of Lunes, and Castro’s famous “Words to the Intellectuals” led, finally, to the outright oppression of dissident artists and intellectuals culminating in the international scandal of the Padilla affair, with its grand spectacle of intellectual self-hatred and self-censure. By this time (1968), Cuba was nearing its rapprochement with the Soviet Union, patching up relations that had soured in the fallout from the October Missile Crisis.

As Artaraz summarizes, “[n]owhere was the transition from a Sartrean model of intellectual to a Marxist one more evident than in Cuba. The Cuban example exemplified a move from the first few years of the Revolution, dominated intellectually by a self-appointed group of young writers in Lunes de Revolución who radicalized at the same pace as the Revolution itself, to one that secured ideological control in the hands of the Party” (167). This movement, exemplified by Sartre’s theoretical shift and by the fossilization of the Cuban cultural sphere in the 60s, can also be seen in the fate of the journal Pensamiento Crítico, which Artaraz outlines admirably well.

Pensamiento Crítico (1967-71) was a publication of the University of Havana’s Philosophy Department, which was then dominated by a group of young scholars who had emerged from the Raúl Cepera Bonilla School of Revolutionary Instruction, formed in the early 60s to prepare lecturers in Marxism. Artaraz explains that these scholars had a “particular affinity with the European New Left” (39). The Department of Philosophy’s initial course offerings on Soviet-style dialectical materialism were soon replaced by a more eclectic “History of Marxist Thought” that included readings from Marx, Lenin, Lukács, Althusser and Sweezy, as well as “third-world” theorists like Frantz Fanon and Andre Gunder Frank. The university philosophers were even able to emerge victorious from an ideological battle with the more dogmatically orthodox Marxists who ran the Schools of Revolutionary Instruction, and who favored Soviet pedagogy over a more historically situated approach to Marxian theory.

In its first years, Pensamiento Crítico maintained an active correspondence with such New Left publications as Partisans, New Left Review, and Monthly Review, to name only the most recognizable. Gradually, though, even this most heterodox of publications was influenced by the growing climate of anti-intellectualism. As early as 1968, calls from the pages of Revolución y cultura to erase the distinction between armed struggle and intellectual struggle were denounced vehemently by many of the same scholars who, from their position in the Department of Philosophy, considered themselves the intellectual vanguard of the Revolution. Even among this group (which included renowned novelist Jesús Díaz), the same kind of guilty conscience that had plagued Sartre was at work. As Artaraz explains, “as in other historical examples of the relationship between power and intellect, the completeness of the intellectual-guerrilla remained paramount in Cuba where a sense of inferiority was pervasive in this generation as they accepted their secondary role to the ‘real vanguard’ embodied in Castro and Guevara” (172).

[As an aside, I should mention that this kind of deference to “real” revolutionary struggle has characterized much of Latin American studies in the North American academy. Scholars have had a decades-long obsession with testimonio as, supposedly, an anti-literary and authentically popular genre, unmediated by intellectual intervention. Recently, John Beverley has attacked Marxist-influenced theorists like Beatriz Sarlo for a “neo-conservative” preference for theoretical analyses of repression over more visceral, first-person accounts. Such attitudes may have their origins in the demise of the New Left: as a displacement of the anti-intellectual sentiments brought about by its failure to adequately account for solidarity (or lack thereof) between the masses and the intelligentsia, and as a reactionary defense of the “third-world” revolutionary subject that the New Left itself came to abandon.] In the wake of the death of both Guevara and foquismo and the definitive rift between Western Marxists and the Soviet Union caused by the invasion of Prague, Pensamiento Crítico began to publish fewer and fewer contributions from the international New Left, and eventually reverted to an ortho-Marxist stance. The journal was terminated in 1971 and the Philosophy Department was reformed along lines more compatible with Cuba’s renewed ties to the USSR.

In sum, Artaraz traces the New Left’s trajectory as a rebellion against traditional communist parties and the role of pamphleteer generally assigned to intellectuals in these workerist organs. Heterodox theories of intellectual praxis and non-proletarian revolutionary subjects emerged, only to revert to more traditional, Leninist approaches to political engagement. The really novel contribution of Artaraz’ book is to show, quite clearly, how the Cuban experience informed the trajectory of the New Left. As Cuba itself moved to a more orthodox, working-class politics, so did the New Left.

Artaraz’ book illustrates a certain dilemma that exists for leftist intellectuals: how to speak approvingly of the New Left’s opposition to Soviet authoritarianism while simultaneously affirming (albeit tacitly) the return to the worker-centered revolutionary politics that underpinned the whole Soviet project? Artaraz, like many others, looks to recent developments in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America for inspiration. Despite the failure of third-world revolutionary movements and their attendant intellectuels engagés (which, according to Artaraz, “could not have possibly been otherwise” [173]), Latin America, at least, is still looked to as the site of alter-globalization and new proletarian formations. Fernando Ignacio Leiva’s Latin American Neostructuralism gives the lie to this kind of wishful thinking, showing how neostructuralism’s preferability to neoliberal regimes of accumulation depends largely on a discursive erasure of its own coercive violence.

Finally, an understanding of the New Left’s identification with the kind of warrior–intellectual synthesis embodied by Guevara qua third-world revolutionary as an alternative to workerist party politics leaves out the fact that Guevara’s politics, too, were labor-centric. A reading of El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba makes it clear that, for Guevara, social transformation would be catalyzed by work based on moral incentives. Although the New Left distanced itself from party-driven politics, it could never sufficiently distance itself from an understanding of the revolutionary subject as an identity-based (and, ultimately, class-based) grouping. To replace the Third World as the privileged site of emancipatory struggle with, say, the Global South, or the industrial proletariat with service laborers or other non-traditional (domestic or sex) workers, simply misses the point: that the New Left distanced itself from traditional working-class parties, not only to break with Stalinism, but because workerist politics had entered a very real crisis. Since the 60s, if not earlier, organized labor has ceased to be a viable counterweight to capital, even in appearance. What Artaraz describes as the New Left’s reversion to a labor-centric anticapitalism coincided with its decline as a political force. I would argue that what is needed now is not a theory of emancipatory praxis in which labor and third-world marginality somehow coincide. In other words, if we are to revive anything from the 60s, it shouldn’t be the New Left or the belief in the inherently revolutionary character of Latin America. Rather, we might benefit from an examination of a central figure (and one not typically thought of as part of the New Left) in one of the most tumultuous events of that decade, Guy Debord. Likewise, it now seems appropriate to ask whether (abstract) labor can emancipate us from the social bondage it perpetuates.

comments powered by Disqus