Challenges Facing Cuba’s New Left

Erasmo Calzadilla

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, 11 ene — Cuban political scientist and columnist Haroldo Dilla recently published an essay on the need for a new left to be born in our country.

Nevertheless for me, as someone who considers themself a member of that political wing, those words (at least most of them) didn’t resonate. Nor did they resonate with most of the “new leftists” I know.

Haroldo’s commentary invites us try to specify what is (and what is not) the “new left,” who belongs to it and who doesn’t – a task that I leave for the wisest among us.

Instead, I’m going to discuss the “new leftist spirit” that has been astir here in Cuba.

In recent decades there has been born not one or two isolated groups, but an entire spirit, a new (or deeper) consciousness among earthlings, and also among Cubans.

This new awareness includes a lot of environmentalism, queerness, cool solidarity (also with other species), pantheistic religion that ubiquitously assumes a divinity threatened by the consumerist and alienating praxis of the current regimes, and of politics in the sense of activism from below against the established powers.

I would suggest, though not everyone will agree, that this is a left motion.

Like with the “indignados” at Puerta del Sol (Madrid) and elsewhere, this new left is far removed from centralism, authoritarianism, chauvinism, the traditional symbols of the left as well as representative democracy. It distances itself from the spectacle of the struggle between parties, elections, private ownership and other aspects in common with the “Western” paradigm.
I don’t deny that some people in this new wave (I’d say that only a minority feel fairly strongly about this) still believe that this regime is not beyond hope and that the “historic leaders” can lead the change.

Another minority (one that is given much attention and fanfare) consists of those who only focus on the issues of civil and human rights, and who believe that social democracy is a way out. (This is a minority within this “new leftist spirit” to which I’m referring, though perhaps not among the general population).

But back to Dilla. Later in his commentary he states: “But at the same time, I think that this emerging left is facing several critical issues that it must resolve if it wants to actually be a political alternative in Cuban society.”

A “political alternative in Cuban society”? What a joke! For the time being, I don’t think such a thing can be hoped for, and for several reasons.

Building from the ashes

In the first place this is because the movement is still very immature and (in my opinion) too few in number. Castro Stalinism fell like an atomic bomb on the left tradition, hurling people — by their natural rejection — into the arms of capitalism and liberalism.

The left now has to reconstitute itself from the ashes and it must do it at the rhythm of those who are little by little building a new paradigm.

Secondly this is because participating in the political struggle in the traditional style would mean renouncing the essence of the movement. It would involve, for example, the role of an “enlightened vanguard” and everything derived from that: top-down “verticalism,” internal police organization, the frequent purging of heretics, demagoguery, representativeness as a mode of relations between professionals and the rest of the movement, and so on.

However, what’s clear is that the new left should propose (explicitly or by example) the alternative of “achievable good living” (i.e. not committing the idealist’s sin).

There is much talk of cooperatives but — be careful! — when some new leftists suggest this as a way of organizing work (versus private enterprise and wage labor), aren’t they invoking another form of totalitarianism where everything would have to be turned into cooperatives, and where everyone would have to be connected to work in that manner?

In any case, I’m not denying that this movement has before it plenty of dilemmas constituting veritable mountains in its path. It wouldn’t be bad to hear “And you, on your tiptoes!”(*), but maturity can’t be rushed.

As for the question of time running out, I think the left can take it easy regarding this point: there will always be plenty of work for it.
* In Mambi mythology, when one of the Maceos died in combat with the Spanish, the mother, Mariana Grajales, said to another of her sons who was still a minor “And you, stand on your tiptoes so that you can head for the jungle to fight.” Maybe that wasn’t the exact expression – but who really knows?


10 thoughts on “Challenges Facing Cuba’s New Left

  • @ George Ramirez, a perusal of the table of contents of “Cooperatives and Socialism: A Vision from Cuba,” indicates that the contributors all base their writings on the premise that “socialism” means state ownership of productive property, and that, under socialism, socialist property can only be state property. This is precisely the premise of Bruno Jossa’s “The Economic Theory of Socialism” referred to in an earlier comment above. It is evident that all the proponents of cooperatives under socialist state power, in both books, assume the same thing: that the socialist state must own everything productive, and cooperatives may only exist as creatures of the all-owning state.
    This blanket assumption stems from a moralistic view that the institution of private productive property rights is incompatible with the socialist stage of society. Such a view was held by the old Utopians, and also by Engels and Marx. In fact, it is the foundation of statism, and it is the foundation of Marxian ideology.
    The present controversy between the whole world body of Marxists, on the one hand, and the tiny modern cooperative socialist movement, on the other, pivots on this question of property rights. Marxists, every one, still belief with Engels and Marx that private property rights must be abolished promptly under socialist state power, and that this is the foundation of socialism. Modern cooperative socialists believe that such rights should not be abolished, but should be retained and utilized for workable socialism.
    I have shown that Engels and Marx formulated the principle of statism in the next-to-last page of the second chapter of the Communist Manifesto; and that they reaffirmed this principle a quarter-century later in their preface to the 1872 German edition of the Manifesto. You and other Marxists will say and print mountains of statements about statism and cooperatives. But you will never even address directly and honestly what Marx and Engels wrote and believed. You will never admit that statism comes from them, and that they were 100% wrong in their absurd principle and formula for a socialist mode of production.
    You and those like you must attribute everything bad to the monster Stalin, of else your entire ideological edifice comes crashing down. No matter how mush evidence is presented, no matter how many excellent arguments are presented, you people cannot come up with anything but self-righteous dogma that puts religious cultism to shame. You don’t even have the intellectual courage to review the Weitling/Hess letter to see if what I say about Engels and Marx being financially supported by the bourgeoisie is true.
    You, George, are a statist. You believe that private productive property rights are incompatible with socialism. You say you don’t believe Marx is a god, but behave as though this is precisely what you believe.

  • Thanks for the link, George! But I’m in the midst of Marcuse’s Eros & Civilization, which is – to say the least – a mind opener.

  • There was an entire book published in Cuba this month on “Cooperatives and Socialism: A Vision From Cuba” … it has lots of good articles– including on Yugoslavia. These ideas are being taken very seriously by some factions of the intelligentsia in Cuba it seems… In fact, the book was compiled by Camila Piñeiro Harnecker — which if you know something about Cuba you know those two last apellidos.
    the entire book is online in pdf form at:
    Yes the first few chapters have a bit of what Ross talks about– what did Marx/Engels/Lenin say on the topic. Which if it’s used as a way of supporting an argument whatever, is pretty absurd– but if it’s used to explain why cooperative socialism answers the dilemmas that these writers spoke of, then yes, it’s important to know what the founders of this tradition hoped for and dreamed of– and it was not the USSR as it came to be nor the Cuba Revolucionaria that swallowed its formula.
    For Ross, “Marx” is state ownership– But I wonder if he has read his work? For those of us who have, we are interested in a series of concepts that he put into circulation for critiquing social reality. It’s not that the guy was a god and of course he was wrong about tons of stuff. But here is an incredible usefulness of his concepts in making sense of the world which I’m sure you use and do not even realize it: class, capital, mode of production, class consciousness, false consciousness, class struggle, dialectical materialism, exploitation, commodity fetishism, primitive accumulation, surplus labor, species being, alienated labor, cyclical crises, over-accumulation, internationalism, etc, etc…..
    And assuredly if Marx didn’t codify these insights into an intellectual tradition, a later thinker obviously would have… as “philosophy” downward out of the pinnacle of the 1% and apologetic for their power–for millenia via religion— to men (and later women) closer to the lived reality of the masses in an industrial society. They are simply a representation of the dynamics of class society represented through the language of social science and thus are integral to our understanding of such a world.

  • I read Haroldo Dilla’s essay as more of a critique of the new left in Cuba than a call for it to be born. This is what I saw as Haroldo’s central point:

    “In this context, democracy is vital. Nothing is more authentic now for the left in Cuba than to call for political democracy and social autonomy. This is simply because only autonomy and the organization of popular sectors — unions, diverse associations and parties — can guarantee the preservation of the social achievements and serve to advance the country in terms of equity and social justice – goals inevitable for the left.

    This can only be achieved in a democratic system, obviously for everyone, and especially for those who think differently.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

  • Luis, I went to online, where I buy a lot of books, and found this one listed for about $35:
    Self-Management: Economic Theory and Yugoslav Practice (Soviet and East European Studies) (ISBN: 0521244978 / 0-521-24497-8) Saul Estrin. It from about 1985, Cambridge U. Press.

    I can’t order it right now, but at least there is something on the subject. (There are other copies available.)

    I certainly agree with your last line: “It was not perfect, but it was far more revolutionary than any orthodox Marxist-Leninist doctrine.”

    You know, Luis, I just want the world to have a workable formula for socialism. I hate the idea of trying to find a quote in Marx or Engels to prove or disprove anything. Common sense tells us that the state monopoly formula, regardless of who did or did not originate it, is dysfunctional, esp. in the long term.

    I can unite with anyone who will simply say: “It doesn’t matter about Marx and Engels. What matters is how we propose to reorganize society under the post-capitalist state. If we can offer the people a democratic, workable plan that doesn’t threaten anyone, but that will refocus society’s talents and energy, the people will surely support us and we can say goodbye to the monopoly capitalist horror. Regards.

  • Hello Grady,

    The little I know about the ex-Yugoslavia also comes from ‘snippets here and there’. I recently came across a short essay that tries to explain the contradictions between the communist cadres and the democracy in the workplace that characterized the Yugoslav socialist experiment:

    But nothing further.

    I think the problem with Yugoslavia was the Balkan cultural diversity itself – only a strong and charismatic leader like Tito could unite the region. It was not perfect, but it was far more revolutionary than any orthodox Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

  • Hey Luis, most of what I know or think I know comes from years of hearsay and snippets here and there. I’m not much of a scholar, but only a worker. My understanding of them is that they were not owned by the workers who participated in them. As I understand, they were owned by the state–and the surplus-values (profits) generated by the workers went directly into state coffers–with the state bureaucracy then remitting part of these profits according to prior agreements. Perhaps someone out there in cyberland can bring us both up to speed.

    The problem of industrial and commercial cooperatives under socialist state power goes to the heart of the traditional Left’s disdain for legal private productive property rights. A socialist state that believes that such rights are anathema to socialism cannot grant private cooperative ownership to workers of coop corporations without going against the old concept of socialism as full state ownership of everything. In Cuba, if workers are granted such rights, and a movement should arise for the founding of such cooperatives, this would seem to be the end of Cuban state monopoly socialism (and the beginning of real, workable socialism).

    I know that private property rights are not inconsistent with real socialism, but this again flies in the face of all the old prejudices and old thinking. I believe that coops owned directly by those who work could solve Cuba’s many economic and social problems, but do not know if they will be possible, given the PCC’s stand on Marxism (state monopolism) as the state ideology.

  • Hello Grady.

    Do you have any sort of material on the Yugoslavian cooperative experiment? This is a subject that intrigues me, and even the internet lacks deep investigations on the matter.


  • Hey Erasmo I agree with your critique of Haroldo’s essay and one paragraph in particular caught my attention:

    “There is much talk of cooperatives but — be careful! — when some new leftists suggest this as a way of organizing work (versus private enterprise and wage labor), aren’t they invoking another form of totalitarianism where everything would have to be turned into cooperatives, and where everyone would have to be connected to work in that manner?”

    Isn’t it totalitarian to think that “there is only way to go”? After the demise of the USSR, the left-wingers felt one huge impact as the “new global order” was literally hurled into our own throats. The neoliberal order of the 90’s was particularly harmful for us from Latin America.

    Now we face another kind of totalitarianism – the social-developmentalism one. It is of course 100 times better than it was in the 90’s, but it has killed politics, we have no other choice at all.

    Then it comes down to Cuba. Even with all its flaws, it is still a symbol that “there’s another world possible”. That’s why we on the left hope that Cuba will follow its own way.


  • A good, even-handed article.

    With regard to the possibility that cooperatives might result in a new sort of totalitarianism, I don’t think there’s much to worry about on that score. There are all sorts of cooperatives, and pluralism and cooperative business structures go hand in hand. One of the primary principles of coops is that they are voluntary organizations.

    The only instances I know of where coops were less than voluntary were the Yugoslavian experiments, in which the totalitarian regime tried to squeeze more surplus-value out of the workers by offering them more self-management and a slightly larger piece of the pie.

    In Cuba hopefully the production cooperatives that will arise will be owned by the working associates, not the state. Workers would join them as a means of improving their incomes and job satisfaction. At least, that is the hope.

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