Mistakes Made by Reviewer Samuel Farber

By Rafael Rojas

Fighting over FidelHAVANA TIMES — Every historian makes mistakes. Historian Samuel Farber makes very few and that’s why his books, such as The Origins of the Cuban Revolution (2006) are compulsory reading texts in contemporary historiography. However, I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about Samuel Farber as a reviewer. In a recent comment made about my book Fighting Over Fidel. The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2016), Farber is mistaken in at least four of his observations.

He says that, in my book, I link Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe and the editors of Partisan Review and Dissent with a liberal left “characterized by its strong adherence to Trotskyism and to democratic socialism.” According to Farber, this is a “conceptual mess”, which distorts a political movement, that is to say, the liberal left, which “had nothing to do with Trotskyism.” I can’t see the word “adherence” in the Spanish manuscript of my book anywhere, but maybe Carl Good’s excellent translation has led Farber to believe that I claim that Trilling and Howe were militants of the Fourth International.

In the section “Microcosms of the Left” (pgs. 12-19), I define New York’s intellectual left of the post-war period and the beginning of the Cold War (Harvey Swados, Lionell Trilling, Irving Howe, Dissent, Partisan Review..) as an anti-Stalin movement which approached Trotsky and Trotskyism without joining the Fourth International. We mustn’t also forget that Trilling, along with Edmund Wilson and the other liberals I’ve aforementioned, belonged to the American Commitee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky and expressed his ideological sympathy for the Bolshevik leader in texts such as “The Assassination of Leon Trotsky” (1960), written after Ramon Mercader was released from jail in Lecumberri. Farber is the one who is mistaken when he claims that these New York liberals and democratic socialists “had nothing to do with Trotskyism.”

Farber also says that I “link” Robert F. Williams, H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael with the Black Panthers Party in my book, when “none of them were associated” with this organization. In the Introduction of my book, I make sure that it’s clear that my interest in Williams lies in his actions as the “antecedent figure of this movement” (p. 12), being one of the first Afro-American leaders to promote the armed struggle against white hegemony in Monroe and North Carolina, since the 1950s. In the first section of my book entitled “Negroes with Guns”, which is dedicated to Williams, I never once say that Williams ever campaigned for the Black Panthers Party.

In fact, on the first page of this chapter, I only mention Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Little Bobby Hutton, Eldridge Cleaver y H, Rap Brown as members of this organization. It is well known that the latter joined the Black Panthers for a period of time and even became the organization’s Justice Minister. In the Spanish version of my book, translated into English by Good, in the “Negroes with Guns” chapter, I state that party leaders studied ideas from Cuba, but also those of a series of intellectuals and politicians such as Robert F. Williams, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davies, who “accompanied” the fight for civil rights. The translator preferred to refer to these three figures, as well as others, as “prominent activists and intellectuals asociated with the party” (p. 165).

Stokely Carmichael was also a minister of the Black Pathers, especially in the time frame studied in my book. In the paragraph “From Fanon to Carmichael” his speech on Black Power is reconstructed as a turning of the screw in the thesis of decolonizing violence of Frantz Fanon. Samuel Farber wants to read an intellectual history book like mine as if it was the sum of political biographies.  That’s why he eludes the central theme of the chapter “Negroes with Guns”; which is the point of agreement of all those intellectuals on the idea of armed struggle and the tensions of black nationalism with the Cuban socialist project.

Is there any doubt that these leaders weren’t linked? Even though they weren’t members of the same organization and shared great ideological differences, which I go into quite some detail in my book. On the level of receiving anti-racist, Pan-Africanism and decolonization thoughts from every quarter, on the island and other areas of the New Left, all of these intellectuals shared the same ground when questioning the US’ imperialist policy in the Cold War and the model of segregation which prevailed throughout the West at that time. For example, the volume of Pensamiento Crítico and Edmundo Desnoes’ anthology, Now! El Movimiento Negro en Estados Unidos (1967), “associated” all of those Black intellectuals and politicians.

The only error that Samuel Farber attributes to my current work, which has some ground, is that of “misusing” the term New York Intellectuals. As he maintains in the Introduction, this topic has been limited exclusively to intellectuals of the white liberal left or anti-Stalinists during the Cold War (Swados, Trilling, Howe, Wilson), leaving a good part of the New Left from the ‘60s and ‘70s out. One of my book’s deliberate objectives was to challenge this common ground so as to reconstruct some – not all – of the main arguments surrounding the Revolution and Cuban socialism in New York. I never intended to write the history of New York’s Left’s “solidarity” with Cuba, from then until now, which is something that Farber mistakenly reproaches me for.

In both my Introduction and Epilogue of the book, which will appear without great corrections, in Spanish, in Mexico, at the Cultural Economy Foundation, next November, he claims that my objective is to find the most disappointing and critical moments which led these intellectuals to challenge the “Stalinization” of Cuban socialism, which Hannah Arendt, probably, warned about after she met Fidel Castro in Princeton in April 1959. New York, and other capitals of Culture such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Paris or Madrid, gave the Cuban Revolution a public space which it was denied, between 1959 and 1971, and which could have resisted the authoritarian laws of the dizzying social change that was being experienced on the island.

Samuel Farber concludes that all of these “important mistakes” – as well as typos here and there, such as the name of Theodore Draper which appears correctly in the Bibliography and on several of the book’s pages, but I confused it once with Thomas Draper – are due to my “lack of familiarity” with New York’s Left and because I was educated in the “higher spheres” of Cuban society. Judging by Farber’s own mistakes, you don’t need to be educated by that Left in order to know their history properly. My education, on the other hand, was public: I studied Philosophy at Havana University, between 1985 and 1990, and History at El Colegio de Mexico between 1991 and 1996.

One thought on “Mistakes Made by Reviewer Samuel Farber

  • I’m just beginning to read your book and am trying to understand your penultimate paragraph above. I think you’re saying there was more open debate about Cuba’s trajectory in these cities than there was in Cuba. Is that about right?

    The reason I ask is that I believe intellectual histories have to be read with caution, especially if they are covering a location in the twentieth-century U.S. I suggest this because whatever was being discussed in intellectual circles in the New York at the time, the rest of the country, and the country’s economic and military power, were not influenced by these debates, mostly because they were unaware of them. It pains me to suggest this because I’m an academic, but another reason for Cuba’s turn in the direction it took was that it, too, was paying less attention to the NY intellectuals and more attention to U.S. economic and military power in the midst of the Cold War.

    Our words, even our finely crafted, nuanced ones, have less power that we would like to think they have. Maybe that’s a necessary illusion…but it’s still an illusion. Culture is best capitalized only if it stands at the beginning of a sentence.

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