Introducción a “Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution,” de Susan Sontag
Duanel Díaz, Princeton University
La idea de la Cuba original, auténticamente revolucionaria frente a la contrarrevolución estalinista, otorga identidad al turismo revolucionario que tuvo su punto culminante en el Congreso Cultural de La Habana, en enero de 1968. Si el comunismo de Europa del Este, dominado por la burocracia estatal y el dogma ideológico, era, en palabras de Sartre, “le socialisme qui venait du froid,” este era uno que venía del chaud: socialismo con pachanga, revolución humanista… Pero resulta que todo eso que los “amigos de Cuba” querían ver lejos de la revolución cubana, se vislumbraba ya en 1968, cuando la vida toda se organizaba en torno al trabajo productivo, y “vagancia” y “extravagancia” eran anatematizadas por un código de buenas costumbres que reproducía en no poca medida la moral pequeño-burguesa. Los peregrinos a la Habana permanecían, sin embargo, ciegos ante la represión y la miseria de la situación cubana, proyectando sobre la Isla sus propios anhelos anticapitalistas.
Repetían, así, lo que tantos otros intelectuales décadas atrás con la Unión Soviética. En La revolución traicionada, Trotsky ya analizaba esa profusión de literatura por parte de los amigos del país soviético como el producto de una insatisfacción con la civilización burguesa, que llevaba a aceptar como auténtico socialismo aquellos hechos consumados. “Se está constituyendo – decía Trotsky – una escuela internacional, a la que habría que denominar bolchevismo para la burguesía ilustrada, o bien, en sentido más estricto, socialismo para turistas radicales.” De lo que se trataba, en tal caso, era de la revolución como performance, o más bien como objeto de consumo. En “El autor como productor,” conferencia pronunciada en 1934 en el Instituto para el Estudio del Fascismo y uno de sus escritos más ortodoxamente marxistas, Benjamin afirmaba que como mismo algunos fotógrafos convierten la miseria humana en objeto de consumo, la Nueva Objetividad había convertido en ello a la lucha contra la miseria.
Se diría que en Cuba, mientras el estado intenta trascender por todos los medios el mercado, de hecho se produce un único producto para consumo interno y externo: la Revolución. Al programa inicial de industrialización y diversificación agraria le siguió un regreso al monocultivo azucarero, pero en realidad el principal producto de exportación del castrismo no ha sido el azúcar ni el tabaco, sino la propia Revolución. Susan Sontag captó algo de esta dinámica al insistir en que aunque vinieran a hacer dos semanas de trabajo voluntario en una granja del pueblo, los intelectuales extranjeros no eran cubanos, por lo tanto estaban condenados no a hacer la revolución, sino a representarla, o a consumirla. Su prólogo a un libro que reproducía carteles cubanos, terminaba con un sorprendente reconocimiento de la imposibilidad de liberarse del mercado, incluso en ese tipo de acercamientos presididos por la simpatía. Según Sontag, el uso que se le daba a los carteles – reproducidos en tamaño reducido, agrupados en libro para vender – estaba muy lejos de su uso originario, tanto que implicaba una traición:
Porque, sean cuales fueran sus definitivos valores artísticos y políticos, los carteles cubanos nacen de la situación genuina de un pueblo que sufre un profundo cambio revolucionario. Quienes producen este libro, como la mayoría de la gente que lo comprará y leerá, viven en sociedades contrarrevolucionarias, sociedades con instinto de arrancar cualquier objeto fuera de contexto y de transformarlo en un objeto de consumo. No es posible, por ejemplo, mirar los “contenidos” de este libro con simpatía, porque la idea de que son los carteles cubanos los que forman el contenido de este libro es realmente una idea espuria. De ahí que, si bien los que han hecho este libro pueden haber estado animados por la intención de presentar el arte del cartel cubano a un público más amplio aun que antes, el hecho sigue siendo que los carteles cubanos reproducidos en este libro se han sido convertidos en otra cosa de lo que son, o al menos de lo que quisieron ser. Han venido a ser un artículo más en los sobreabundantes banquetes culturales de la acomodada sociedad burguesa. Semejante festín ofusca eventualmente toda capacidad de compromiso real, al mismo tiempo que la burguesía de izquierdas – liberal – de tales países se arrulla pensando que eso es aprender algo, que eso es tener sus amplios compromisos y simpatías.
No hay forma de escapar de la trampa, ya se sabe, mientras nosotros – con nuestros ilimitados recursos para el derroche, para la destrucción y para la reproducción mecánica – estemos aquí y los cubanos estén allá. No hay salida posible mientras nosotros seamos curiosos, mientras nosotros permanezcamos intoxicados con bienes culturales, mientras vivamos dentro de nuestras sensibilidades inquietas y negativas. La corrupción entrañada en este libro es sutil, muy poco singular, y en la suma total quizás insignificante. Pero no deja de ser una corrupción real. CAVEAT EMPTOR. ¡Viva Fidel! (estudio introductorio, El arte en la revolución: Cuba y Castro 1959-1970 / Dugald Stermer, México, 1970)
Este ensayo, además, no dejaba de contener algunas críticas: aunque insistía en que el uso cubano de los carteles políticos recordaba a Mayakosky a principios de los años veinte, antes de que “el estalinismo aplastara la independencia de los artistas revolucionarios y desechara la meta comunista-humanista de crear mejores tipos de seres humanos,” ella menciona los artículos publicados en la revista del ejército contra Fuera del juego, de Padilla. “Uno espera que el caso Padilla sea un excepción,” acota entonces.
El caso Padilla – que no es sino un síntoma de ese mal mayor que los que insistían en la originalidad de la revolución cubana trataban de conjurar – también aparece en el artículo que presentamos ahora: “Some Thougts on the Right Way (For Us) to Love the Cuban Revolution,” publicado en la revista norteamericana Ramparts en abril de 1969. Ese “nosotros” al que Sontag se dirigía no es otro que lo que se dio en llamar la “New Left,” una izquierda que, como explica la propia Sontag, se distingue de la vieja por su mayor preocupación en la “revolución cultural,” pues en última instancia no tiende a ver a la cultura como simple superestructura. Más que ofrecer un testimonio, lo que se propone Sontag – luego de una estancia de dos semanas en Cuba en enero de 1969 – es pensar los puntos de encuentro y desencuentro entre esa nueva izquierda norteamericana y la Revolución cubana.
“Los cubanos se parecen mucho a nosotros,” apuntaba Sontag, unos meses atrás, en las notas de su viaje a Hanoi (junio-julio de 1968), recordando su primera estancia de tres meses en Cuba en 1960, para contrastar la situación cubana con el respeto a las jerarquías y el puritanismo de los vietnamitas, los cuales “do disconfort a Western neo-radical like myself for whom revolution means not only creating political and economic justice but releasing and validating personal (as well as social) energies of all kinds, including erotic ones. And this is what revolution has meant in Cuba – despite waves of interference mainly by old style Communists bureaucrats, who have been contested by Fidel precisely at this point.”(“Trip to Hanoi”, Styles of Radical Will, Delta, New York, 1969, p.228) Pero si lo que Cuba había demostrado es que “a country doesn’t have to adopt a puritan style when it goes Communist,” la evolución de las cosas en Cuba – UMAP, Ofensiva Revolucionaria, apoyo de Castro a la invasion soviética en Checoslovaquia - amenazaba, a la altura de 1969, con echar abajo la tesis de Sontag sobre la originalidad de la revolución. Es esto lo que ella intenta resolver en el ensayo que presentamos.
La autora de “Against Interpretation” está ahora del todo en el terreno de la interpretación: ¿cómo leer el hecho de que en 1965 Allen Ginsberg haya sido expulsado de Cuba por hacer apología de la marihuana y manifestar su disposición a ir a la cama con Che Guevara? Aunque Sontag no menciona este incidente, es de eso de lo que se trata: muchos valores reivindicados por los radicales norteamericanos, como el individualismo y las drogas, son rechazados por los cubanos, quienes a su vez preconizan el trabajo voluntario y la productividad. La diferencia, nos dice Sontag, está en los contextos: una misma cosa puede tener un sentido en Cuba y otro en Estados Unidos, ser revolucionaria allí y reaccionaria aquí, o viceversa. Como “The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality and freaking out. They are not linear, desiccated creatures of print-culture (…) Their problem is almost the obverse of ours.” Mientras los americanos, en medio de una sociedad desarrollada, protestan rindiendo culto a actividades improductivas, los cubanos, en su isla subdesarrollada, buscan la producción. El énfasis en la conciencia que implica la moralización guevarista del trabajo no se da mediante la subversión individual de las normas sociales, como en la contracultura, sino concentrando la energía –antes gastada en una música y bailes vueltos mercancía – en la producción.
Observa Sontag que los cubanos van hacia la disciplina y hacia la organización, pero lo hacen lentamente, por su camino. No desconoce lo ocurrido con el libro de Padilla, pero afirma que lo mismo puede ser un signo para preocuparse que no serlo. Al fin y al cabo, no hay escritores presos en Cuba. Las UMAP existieron, sí, pero ya los reclusos están de vuelta. A lo largo del artículo, escrito en los pródromos de la ruptura de lo que Jeanine Verdes-Leroux ha llamado la “luna de miel” de los intelectuales extranjeros y la Revolución Cubana, se percibe el esfuerzo de Sontag por salvar, junto a la revolución misma, su propia fe, que es la del grupo que representa: esos turistas revolucionarios que tuvieron que esperar hasta la confesión de Padilla – involuntaria parodia de los procesos de Moscú – para reconocer en Cuba el régimen de lo “práctico inerte” y de la “producción fetichisada” que decía Sartre en su agudo análisis del “socialismo que venía del frío.”
Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution
Of course, every revolution demands a change in culture. But in the old days that was thought to be a task that must wait until the revolution had taken power. Perhaps the foremost difference between New and Old left is that New Left people are busier with cultural revolution than with anything else. The Old Left was made up of people who conceived of radical activity from a narrowly “political” point of view; this allowed them to continue sharing the tastes, habits and furniture of the society they claimed to want to bring down. Their radical ideas about property relations didn’t make a dent in their bourgeois sensibilities. They didn’t understand the indispensability of a radical personal culture or life-style. This failure to revolutionize their personal lives is perhaps what left them so vulnerable to piecemeal co-option by the liberal establishment in the late 1930’s and the 1940’s, as radical “demands” became practicable “reforms,” while it condemned those who were not co-opted to sterility and irrelevance.
The New Left has intuited that there is scarcely any concrete political proposal to be made by radicals that cannot, given certain limited crisis, be taken up by the government and implemented – radical movements in American having thus mainly served to strengthen the power structure, making it more sophisticated and flexible. That includes stopping the war in Viet-Nam, rebuilding the ghettos, etc. but what cannot be taken up and absorbed by the ruling elite – it is thought – is an uncompromising repudiation of the basic cultural norms, of the majority life-style of this country.
This, after the fact, might be the way to explain why most dissenting energies at this moment go into working out and promoting an alternative culture. In a culture judged as inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian, it becomes a revolutionary gesture to be alive. Perhaps the most eloquent document of this discovery is Soul on Ice, which both tells about Cleaver’s coming alive and makes the connection between his individual psychic survival and the psychic survival of this country: America’s psychic survival entails her transformation through a political revolution. But the starting point is the view that psychic redemption and political redemption are one and the same thing.
The view is that the power structure derives its credibility, its legitimacy, its energies from the dehumanization of the individuals who operate it. The people staffing IBM and General Motors, and the Pentagon, and United Fruit are living dead. The revolutionary response can’t be sabotage: blowing up the great corporate institutions. We are too few, too divided; and the violence they monopolize is formidable. The answer on which everybody is, miraculously,in agreement is subversion – subversion of the culture which produces the heartless bureaucrats of death and empty affluence: a kind of benevolent science-fiction operation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with the Body Snatchers as the good guys. Bending the mind and shaking loose the body makes someone a less willing functionary of the bureaucrat machine. Rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature – really grooving on anything – unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life.
The American revolutionary vision in the ‘60s has been preeminently of a psychic revolution. This is way its most celebrated mentors are really not very political: Marcuse (a radical Freudian first, a tame neo-Marxist second), Brown, Mailer, Laing – all progeny of mad old Daddy Wilhelm Réich, the original Freudian communist. It also explains how such open apolitical, or even reactionary, types as Alan Watts, Leary and McLuhan could be important influences, too.
For some people, like Leary, psychic liberation offers a clear alternative to revolutionary activity. But it’s too simple to oppose psychic and political liberation. In America, at least, the boundary can’t be drawn between the two. At one moment, dropping out means staying away from demonstrations. At another moment, the underground papers are alive with political debate and doing a political thing. The radicalization of hip is neither impossible nor inevitable. It fluctuates, and will continue to do so.
That the most lively front of radical activity in the U.S. is culture may be understood as clear proof that we live in a pre-revolutionary situation. On this view, the emphasis on culture illustrates the weakness of the American movement. Unable even to envisage, much less to mount, a political offensive against the power structure, American radicals and would-be revolutionaries have aimed their guns at the country’s culture – marking time by fighting symptoms, because they are unable to strike at the root cause. But this, I think, is a superficial judgment. Culture is no mere symptomology or “superstructure”; it probably never was; and certainly it isn’t in affluent industrial societies where culture is an important locus of money, resources and power. Nevertheless, the American’s left preoccupation with these questions is something limiting. Apart from the fact that young people appear to underestimate how radical values and psychic states can also be co-opted, assimilated into the society, precisely as a new form of “culture,” the absorption of the new generation of radicals and the task of creating a radical life-style puts a serious obstacle before their development as effective and intelligent political militants. Whether or not the United States is in a pre-revolutionary situation, this obstacle seems to reflect peculiarly the unique historical situation of the United States, both as a domestic ethical environment and as the dominant political-economical power in the world today.
The new American radicalism is, I think, undeniably more intelligent and more sensitive and more creative than the so-called Old Left. But it is also, as part of these same virtues, more provincial, more excruciatingly American. If the main struggle at this moment is to establish an alternative or adversary culture, it is entirely American that the struggle flourishes around the goal of freedom (not, for instance, justice). And even more specifically American is what is understood as the content of freedom – the guarantee of freedom to the individual. American radicals are claiming one of the fundamental promises of American society – the promise to protect each person’s right to non-participation, disaffiliation, selfishness. These promises were designed for quite different people, of course. Originally they were meant as a way of ensuring that business in a developing capitalist economy would be uniquely free of traditional restraints. Then the promise was claimed by a quite different and much larger constituency, emigres from the bottom of the class structure in Europe, people whose main experience was the unalterability of their social and personal situation. The refugees who filled up the American continent in the second half of the 19th century up to the First War World were not only very poor, but more often than not the somewhat less well-integrated, the more alienated members of the European proletariat and peasantry – villagers who felt more particularly church-oppressed, for instance. What they look for in America was mobility, isolation (the right of voluntary association), informality and elevation of their self-esteem. The American vision of revolution in the second half of the 20th century retains much of this essentially individualistic perspective. The enemy is the corporate structures, which makes it possible to put labor unions in with big business. In a kind of internal immigration, the American radical disaffiliates. If white, he is most likely acting on behalf of an oppressed individuality. But when black radicals urge the disaffiliation of a whole oppressed people from the majority culture they are curiously parodying the white argument.
The majority American culture itself reinforces the prevailing new Left belief that there is no necessary conflict between individualism and radical politics, that one of the best ways – though of course not the only way – to attack the system is to do something for yourself, your authentic self. American radical thought verges on a kind of Adam Smith doctrine according to which, even in matters of revolution, the pursuit of private advantage inexorably leads to public benefit. Americans are a notoriously optimistic people, but I think we shall have to wait a long time for our laissez-faire revolution.
Nothing more quickly points up the local flavor of the American vision of revolution than a visit to Cuba. The comparison is instructive precisely because, in so many ways, the Cubans are like us; and their revolution remains the one most accessible to American radicals. Besides being exemplary in many respects that are particularly congenial to Americans, the Cuban revolution is not presented behind the barrier of exoticism that can become so formidable when trying to understand the Vietnamese revolution.
Perhaps the first thing a visitor to Cuba notices is the enormous energy-level. It is still common, as it has been throughout the ten years of the revolution, for people to go without sleep – talking and working several nights a week. In the way that the Cubans talk, too, and in the extraordinary accomplishments of labor and productivity, it seems sometimes as if the whole country is high on some beneficent kind of speed, and has been for ten years.
They are high. Like all revolutions, the Cuban one is a reorganization – and a vast release – of human energy. Needless to say, this release of energy is experienced as “liberating.” Even deprived of the right to go into private business or to see pornographic films, the great majority of Cubans feel vastly more free today than they ever did before the revolution. But it can’t be denied that many of their freedoms seem constricting to us. And the energy of the Cuban revolution must be defined quite differently from the energies the American seek to liberate at home.
Americans, though, are likely to misinterpret this energy. Because of the ebullience and euphoria and expressiveness of the Cuban temperament, they are likely to associate this energy with the ones they seek for themselves. The way the Cubans have of making work seem like fun (lots of talking, joking, high noise level, lack of punctuality, irregular hours, absence of hierarchy and deference, and plenty of inefficiency) reassures American radicals who have dreaded discovering anything like the regimentation and bureaucratic lifelessness which make a mockery of the pretensions to revolutionary socialism in most countries belonging to “the socialist camp.” On this score, the American visitors are right to be reassured. After ten years of revolution – think of what happened in Russia in a similar period – the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression and bureaucratization. (Not only has the Cuban revolution not begun eating its children, as all revolutions are suppose to do according to the received liberal view. Well aware of this famous prediction, it has no intention of doing so.) But American visitors are wrong if they mistake the Cuban energy as being very similar to their own.
The new energies American radicals are particularly devoted to unleashing in this country are those of the individual life-history, of private passion; the energies of outraged selves, cheated by the society of their humanity and their vitality, seeking fulfillment. The analysis of American radicals counsels various kinds of retreat from the rough, dehumanizing embrace of the corporate life-killers (family, school, jobs, the Army) to locate a new focus of energy. For some, this focus is exclusively private, often crudely hedonistic; for more and more people, it is found in new independent communities and families and affinity groups, voluntarily constituted. But in Cuba this perspective does not make sense; indeed it is positively counterrevolutionary. A society in which a revolution has come to power can hardly find reinforcement for revolutionary consciousness in a view which makes “society” the enemy.
And “consciousness” is the name of the game. Here we are so close to the Cubans, and also so remote. One of the things American radicals find more attractive about the Cuban revolution is that it is defined, above all, as a change in consciousness. As Che stated in his famous “Man and Socialism in Cuba” and Fidel has reiterated many times, the Cuban leadership measures the revolution’s success first of all by its progress in creating a new consciousness, and only secondly by the developing of the country’s economic productivity upon which the securing of its political viability depends. (Ideally, Fidel said in his July 26, 1968 speech at Santa Clara, “Communist awareness must be developed at the same rate as the productive forces.”) It all sounds just what we want to hear – until one visits Cuba and realizes how different the content of that effort of consciousness, and of productive development, is from the goals American radicals set for themselves.
The difference arises because, unlike us, the Cubans have an acute sense of underdevelopment. I don’t mean only underdevelopment as an economic reality, although this can hardly be underestimated – Cuba as part of the Third World, a backward, basically one-crop Caribbean island with seven millions inhabitants, almost all of them illiterate when the revolution came to power. I mean underdevelopment as the Cubans themselves continually speak of it – as a moral and cultural and historical phenomenon. This is the underdevelopment which is the heritage of a rather complex set of causes – certain aspects of the culture brought by the Spaniards, the still strong African strand in Cuban culture, and the demoralizing and corrupting influence of American colonialism – both the economic hegemony and the impact of American tourist culture, located particularly in Havana and on the Isle of Pines. It is out of these not very promising elements that Cuba’s human resources were formed. The Cubans are, of course, well known for certain kinds of very attractive energies of a mainly sensual kind. But these are energies which long ago lost their innocence, and had for many years, before the revolution, become commodities. Cuban energy was exported in concrete form in the dance rhythms that dominated bourgeois social dancing in Europe and America in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s. The country itself was a commercially packaged fantasy for hard-working, repressed Jews and Protestants: an island whose décor of unproductive leisure (sun, warm sea, palm trees) was populated by charming people skilled in various kinds of economically irrational vitality. Until the revolution, Cuba’s historical definition was summed up by two roles: as a strip of natural resources, mainly sugar and tobacco, exploited by US-owned companies, and as one of the most popular “southern” playgrounds for the limited exercise of the white middle-class American id on winter vacation.
All this is well known, and yet an American radical visiting Cuba today can never be reminded too often of this shameful past, because we are still – not altogether unlike our parents who might have gone to Cuba for a winter holiday – tempted to seek in revolutionary Cuba an energy, a southern spontaneity which we feel our own too white, death-ridden culture denies us. For all the admirable energies of the Cubans, which give such extraordinary zest to their revolution, the important point for us to appreciate is that for them the pattern of energy has not been productive – has been indeed a primary concomitant of underdevelopment. The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality and freaking out. They are not linear, desiccated creatures of print-culture. In short, their problem is almost the obverse of ours – and we most be sympathetic to their efforts to solve it. Suspicious as we are of the traditional puritanism of left revolutions, American radicals ought to be able to maintain some perspective when a country known mainly for dance music, prostitutes, cigars, abortions, resort life and pornographic movies gets a little up-tight about sexual morals and, in one bad moment two years ago, rounds up several thousand homosexuals in Havana and sends them to a farm to rehabilitate themselves. (They have long since been sent home)
If the revolution has brought about an enormous increase of energy, it is partly at the expense of the old energies which the Cubans had in abundance (and to which Americans still over-respond). The increase of energy comes because they have found a new focus for it: the community. Individuals have become less erotic since the Revolution (though Cubans are still very erotic compared to most peoples) because so much warmth comes from relations with larger groups of people. The great effort of the revolution has been to reinforce the new focus for energy – primarily through the moralization of work.
Cuban culture lacks any equivalent of the Protestant ethic to draw on; people must be inculcated about matters we take for granted. By now, of course, they have gone far beyond any positive notions this society holds about work. The program of voluntary agricultural labor for city people – working part-time in the the Green Belt surrounding Havana where coffee trees have been planted, contributing an average of 30 consecutive days each year to the sugar harvest – is probably not very efficient from the point of view of agricultural productivity. But at least as important a function of this program is the building of consciousness: eradicating individual selfishness and materialistic incentives, breaking down the traditional low value placed on manual labor, becoming accustomed to privation. Work is moralized, and the new attitude toward work strengthens the larger moral aspirations of the revolutionary society. (One can hardly overestimate the enormity of this task or the heroic progress Cubans have made, considering the cruel material hardships inflicted by the continuing American blockade and the fact that this small backward island lost almost all its professionals – doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers – and businessmen, virtually its whole middle class, through immigration in the first years of the revolution, because it was inconceivable to these people to give up the economic privileges which the old society had given them and become salaried public employees.)
Although their awareness of underdevelopment inevitably leads to an increasing emphasis on discipline, the Cubans are devoting a great deal of effort to safeguarding the voluntary character of their institutions. In practice this means the Cubans are evolving forms of discipline very slowly – partly out of their traditional antipathy to regimentation, partly as a matter of public policy (wishing to avoid the commonest form of degeneration of socialist society). Nevertheless, the trend is, inevitably and correctly, given their problems, toward more discipline, more organization. And this is a trend about which most visiting Americans have, at best, a very ambivalent attitude. Americans like the fact that the whole country is armed, and most civilians – uniformed and rifle in hand – do several hours of guard duty a week at the place at which they work, their school, the nearest public building, etc. (There has been for years a serious problem of sabotage from the small bands of CIA-sponsored infiltrators who come in boats from Miami and nearby islands and land regularly along the coast.) But with our reflex posture of anti-militarism, the growing role of the Army, as distinct from the militia, in Cuba life (it is more and more involved in agriculture, for instance) is bound to trouble many American radicals. An even more important form of discipline – the formation of an ideology – also arouses a lot of mistrust. Sure the Cubans are communists, is the common feeling of American visitors, but they’re really better than that. Traces of decades of Cold War indoctrination plus a dogmatic distrust of any formed structures of positive thought lead Americans to slightly sidestep the fact that Cuba has not just made a revolution, one that its leaders seek to mold in terms of a particular system of thought, however flexibly and idiosyncratically they interpret it.
As the Cubans’ need for discipline – literal and ideological – flows from their consciousness of underdevelopment, our aversion to discipline stems from a contrary awareness. Radical Americans live in a society they consider over-developed, one whose economy has attained such an extraordinary productivity that this productivity is itself a menace. America is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity that inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities, services, gadgets, images, information. This country has a surplus of energy, whose predatory overflow upon the rest of the world must be contained. Here the revolutionary implications of dropping out – of taking drugs (thereby reducing efficiency, clarity, productivity), of disrupting the school system (which furnishes the economy with docile trained personnel), of concentrating on unproductive hedonistic activities like sex and listening to music.
Of course, this vision of the American New Left clearly reflects the fact that most of its adherents are white and had middle-class childhoods. Black revolutionaries do not have the same attitude toward American affluence, since they have the gut experience of how unevenly distributed it is. Nevertheless, even black revolutionaries echo the theme of disaffiliation from the majority culture, of rejection of its goods and images. The productivity of society is still taken for granted. And what discipline the American radical movement can muster is still basically reactive (against state repression) or imitative (of black militants).
Much of an American radical’s reaction to Cuba is probably unlike any other sympathetic visitor’s reaction – which exposes how much of American radical attitudes are a reaction (which has been over-generalized) to the particular conditions of American society. For instance, the anti-militarism of much of the American left, not to mention the unformulated pacifism of many left-liberals active in the demonstrations against the Viet-Nam war, is basically not a thought-out political position, but a response to our experience. For Americans, the idea of a professional army supplied by a draft doesn’t conjure a force defending a homeland, as it does in many countries including Viet-Nam and Cuba, but our Army only – that overwhelmingly superior military power stomping on small nations all over the world. For the same reasons, American radicals tend to have an automatic distrust of rhetoric, particularly of a patriotic kind. Listening to the more credible patriotic rhetoric of other peoples, however, suggests that the american’s left aversion to patriotism is a very particular development – one that came about because internal radical activity has largely taken the form of an attack on American culture.
White middle-class radicals in America have discovered an alternative culture, “the culture of voluntary property,” which is as distinct a form of life as “the culture of poverty.” This discovery is one of their principal weapons against the system – the other being the culture of youth. In this, of course, they are being very American. And these discoveries have little relevance to the Cubans. The Cubans are poor. And most of them, including their leaders, are very young.
In short, the Cuban revolution presents in part an extremely uncomfortable challenge to American radicals, who find people in whose revolutionary humanism one cannot doubt assigning positive value to things American radicals vehemently oppose (the military, traditional schooling) and censoring things that Americans condone or even favor. The link between asocial behavior and at least a tacit radical stance is so firmly ingrained in our tradition that it is hard for Americans to understand why the Cubans come down so hard on mild psychedelics and have recently put great pressures on youngsters to keep their hair short; the connection between the sacredness of the right of individual nonconformity makes it painful to Americans that the Cubans lean on homosexuals. The answer, from the Cuban point of view, is that they have a different conception of society and of the dangers of conformism. Their conception is summed up by a sign I saw in an office in Havana which declared that everyone must struggle both against conformism and against “individualism.” For us, the struggle against conformism is identical with the cultivation of personal individuality. For the Cubans, it is not so simple.
Americans are, perhaps, over-zealous when they visit Cuba about the fate of oppositional forces within the society, while systematically underestimating the society’s positive collective accomplishments. This is understandable, since Americans who visit Cuba tend to be “intellectuals” – probably a majority of them write, if they are not actually professional writers, journalists, teachers or students – and most of the rest are exceptionally well educated and atypical professional people. An American radical visiting Cuba is therefore more likely to be interested in the fate of his opposite number, a student or writer or teacher or artist, than he is of a dairy farmer or of a fisherman, and he is likely to leave relatively unquestioned the traditional role which intellectuals play in our society: being a critic of the system. If American radicals can barely envisage a new role for intellectuals which goes beyond the traditional oppositional one, they are scarcely alone. The Cultural Congress that was held in January of last year in Havana, attended by 500 delegates from all over the world, was mainly devoted to just this question but didn’t settle it. All we know is that it will probably not be chiefly an oppositional role any longer, that the intellectuals in in a revolutionary society must have a pedagogical function; they will play a major role in the raising of the level of consciousness. Still, it is natural to feel concern about those who refuse this task. While an older writer with an international reputation like José Lezama Lima can go on with his difficult non-political writers in revolutionary Cuba, when there is a public attack on one of the younger apolitical writers, the poet Heberto Padilla, there might be reason to worry. But again there might be not. (No Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published.)
But it is not only the fierce concern for individual civil liberties that dictates this approach to Cuba, and produces a disproportioned suspiciousness in American visitors. It also results from a very American attitude, which inclines toward a suspicion of all approved, official, majority culture. The Cubans – for a variety of reasons – don’t have this suspicion. American radicals quickly note that Cubans don’t share their attitude toward American culture. The existence of the Havana Hilton, renamed the Havana Libre, or the El Colony hotel on the Isle of Pines, structures finished just before the revolution, confiscated in 1960, but intact in all their original, unredeemable American furnishings, just doesn’t bother the Cubans. It does us; an integral part of the adversary culture developed by American radicals is the cultivation of good taste. Imperialist America is also Babbitt America. To us, it is self-evident that the Readers Digest and Lawrence Welk and Hilton Hotels are organically connected with the Special Forces’ napalming of villages of Guatemala this past year. To an American, you might as well hang up a picture of Johnson in the lobby of the Havana Libre. The Cubans, of course, scarcely know what the Americans are objecting to.
The reactions of Americans visiting Cuba bring home how profound a part of American radicalism is the revolution against the native vulgarity. (It’s really a quite specific kind of American taste, the genteel-awful, that is rejected. Pop artists have redeemed the most plebeian, tackiest forms of Americana.) Finding the Cubans not very sensitive to the questions of taste, many Americans are surprised. They forget, because they expect everything of the Cubans, what this revolutionary generation in Cuba has had to work with: a bastard culture made up of degraded Spanish, Yoruba and American elements. The remarkable thing is that they have done as much as they have, not that one still finds such expressions of spic taste as the ubiquitous girls on the street wearing their hair in pink plastic rollers or the relics of Miami rhinestone chic like the Tropicana nightclub.
The Cubans have not had a cultural revolution in the sense one might expect. The Tropicana still puts on a floorshow straight out of the 1940’s. “Dolce Vita” or the latest French neo-American detective movie plays on the screens in Havana and in the provinces (the Cubans get movies from every major film-producing country except the U.S., which refuses to sell these films). Cubans can see American TV, at least the evening shows, from Miami, as well as listen to Miami on the radio; neither TV nor radio are jammed by the Cubans, although American jamming keeps Cuba radio stations off the air in Puerto Rico and Florida. The weekly comic supplement for children features only the blandest Bambi and other Walt Disney types. Libraries are full of American literature, as well as political books from all over the capitalist world. No streets and hardly any hotels or restaurants have been renamed. Our very wondering why the Cubans don’t purge more of their environment of these relics of colonial servitude and commercial American culture is very much a product of a society of abundance. Both our cultural asceticism and the intensity of our aesthetic reactions – particularly to the vestiges of American culture in Cuba – are precisely the function of our situation, not theirs.
Cubans simply have a much less complicated relation to modernism than we do. For them, having things which are moderns is part of development. This includes everything from the small pre-fab houses out of which whole villages are being put up throughout Cuba in three weeks’ time to the virtuoso architecture of Porro’s buildings for the School of Arts in Miramar, a suburb of Havana, one of the world’s most beautiful modern structures. We are more selective, reacting quite differently to the former than to the latter. The reason is that even modernism as a style has a basically American “imperial” flavor for us. Being modern is not good enough. The work must be particularly good or distinguished, as is much of Cuban architecture, films and posters, which means – and here lies the untenability of the American response – preferring a modernism which is essentially international and aesthetically sophisticated, but not necessarily economically functional.
American radicals have not yet learned what is functional, much less essential to their revolution, and to the society they aspire to build. All they know is that such a society must be built, and both its means and its end is a new kind of consciousness. They know, too, that that consciousness involves a higher kind of moral aspiration, but the strongest form into which they can put their moral insights so far is more aesthetical than political.
If the main focus for changing consciousness in America is the battle for psychic survival, the main instrument in Cuba is the awareness of the world outside – the development of a unique degree of historical solicitude. The growth of revolutionary consciousness in Cuba means that Cubans are situating (and measuring) what goes on inside of Cuba next to what happens in Latin America, in Viet-Nam, in the world.
For us, the revolutionary perspective means shifting moral focus from public values, such as success, security and group approval, to private values like pleasure and danger. This strengthening of the private sphere generates a base for a moral – possibly, in time, political – criticism of the majority values and practices of the community, the state. For Cubans, the shift of moral focus has meant the discovery of new public values. (Public values are made concrete in many ways, notably in the figure of Che, who functions as a daily point of reference in the imagination of millions of Cubans. Not least of all components of Che’s serviceability as a moral exemplar is the fact that he was not a Cuban but a foreigner.) These newly discovered public values are capped by the consciousness of Cuba’s role as a world-historical people: the conviction that Cuba has a destiny all out of proportion to her small size, unhappy history and meager resources. As one Cuban said to me, the blessing is that Cuba has had not one but two leaders much bigger than the country deserves, who really belong in a larger historical context: José Martí and Fidel. The great discovery of the Cuban revolution is perhaps not communism, though it is through choosing to become a communist society that Cuban have survived and lived to play out her historical role. The greatest discovery of the Cuban revolution was the invention of the Cuban internationalism, that peculiar intense form of fraternal international feeling that one feels talking with any articulate Cuban. Havana today, starkly denuded of commodities and comforts as it is, is vibrant with the conviction of being a world capital. And despite all the austerity, any visitor feels this. One feels more in the world, more in touch with events, in Havana, capital of this poor small Caribbean island, than one ever does in such genuinely provincial cities as Rome or Stockholm.
The international consciousness of Cubans today is both a tremendous force of élan and a very strict ideological and moral tool. The continuing consciousness of Viet-Nam that exists throughout Cuba is, I think, without precedent or equal in the world today. The Cubans speak often and quite spontaneously of their admiration for the Vietnamese. One writer said he thought the Cubans suffered from a kind of guilt because they knew that it was only after the Russians indicated to the Americans during the missile crisis in 1962 that they would not stand up to the Americans, that the U.S. concluded it could go ahead with a genocidal war in Viet-Nam without interference. So, in a way, he said, the bombs that have been falling on Viet-Nam in the last four years are the bombs that didn’t fall on us.
All this internationalism, however inspiring to a visiting American radical, is a little hard to assimilate. We are so disposed to see our task as one of scaling down, not reaching out. American the giant must be humble. For the Cubans, of course, it is exactly the opposite. Little David has taken on the mammoth task of fomenting revolution everywhere, criticizing the Chinese, reproving the Russians, telling of the Yugoslavs, and all the while standing up to the American giant. It is psychic universe quite remote from ours, with our aptitude for guilt and our impotence, and the debilitating effects of our habit of over-aestheticizing revolution.
The Cubans conceive their task as one of building a history, forming consciousness. Everywhere one goes there are public buildings, schools, factories, farms named after the martyrs of the revolution. In a side street, one will suddenly come across the photograph in the window of an empty store of the young José Mella, youthful founder of the Cuban Communist Party, who was assassinated in Mexico City in 1928, or Frank Pais, one of the original leaders of the urban guerrilla struggle against Batista, who was murdered in Santiago de Cuba before the revolution came to power. During the two weeks I was in Cuba this January, Fidel inaugurated a primary boarding school in the Cangre region near Havana, which he named after the priest Camilo Torres, murdered leader of the guerrilla struggle in Colombia, and a new polyclinic also in the country near Havana which was named after Tamara Bunke, Che’s slain comrade in Bolivia. Alongside this consciousness of revolutionary sacrifice is the use of Viet-Nam as an educational instrument. Viet-Nam seems everywhere in Cuba; one comes across a small school named after Nguyen Van Troi; the eighth year of the revolution was named the Year of Heroic Viet-Nam. The entire society can be considered as one enormous school, with Fidel as chief pedagogue, delivering those long speeches with their enormous burden of statistics, as the most eccentric and inspiring medium of pedagogy. What one feels in Cuba is a tremendous hunger to accumulate – information, ideas, things, projects, words. Some of it may be uncritical, but the hunger in insatiable.
For American radicals, though, the impulse is quite different. Our task is seen as not one of forming but dismantling a consciousness, becoming simpler, discharging dead weight. Hence, the anti-intellectualism of the brightest kids: their distrust of books, school; their attraction to non-verbalizable experiences like rock and to states, such as under drugs, which confound verbalizing; their belief in instinct, in vibrations. Hence, also, the unwillingness and lack of competence on the part of militants to map out explicit solutions to social problems. (A book like Kahn and Wiener’s The Year 2000 is inconceivable coming from a New Left writer.) But it is of course just these impulses that make our problems so different from those of the Cuban revolution. We are united with the Cubans in our moralism, in our longing to participate in the creation of a new human nature. But the American New Left is profoundly at odds with them in its social experience, which limits its sense of priorities and feeling for means. The neo-primitivism of much of the American movement is probably only a transitional phase, and a great deal that is creative has come out of it. But the next stage of radicalism in America must confront the paradox of our own “development” and find an appropriate response to that, more political and more disciplined than our present form of mainly cultural warfare.
Ramparts was an American political and literary magazine, published from 1962 through 1975.
Founded by Edward M. Keating as a Catholic literary quarterly, the magazine became closely associated with the New Left after executive editor Warren Hinckle hired Robert Scheer as managing editor. Its contributors included Noam Chomsky, Cesar Chavez, Seymour Hersh, Tom Hayden, Angela Davis, Jonathan Kozol, Todd Gitlin, Sol Stern, Tariq Ali, Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens and John Beecher. Unlike most leftist publications, Ramparts was expensively produced and graphically sophisticated. It reached an audience that may have been put off by the grittier "movement" publications of the time.
Between December 1966 and December 1969, newsstand sales increased from 10,000 to 42,250, and the number of subscribers jumped from 87,976 to 244,069. Between December 1969 and December 1970, the number of Ramparts' subscribers increased to 299,937. By July 1967, the magazine was also earning around $13,000 per month from its advertising sales. A share of the magazine was owned by New Republic magazine owner Martin Peretz, who became a critic of the New Left a few years later.
Ramparts was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. Its April 1966 cover article concerned the Michigan State University Group, a technical assistance program in South Vietnam that Ramparts claimed was a front for CIA covert operations. In August 1966, managing editor James F. Colaianni wrote the first national article denouncing the U.S. use of napalm in that conflict. Ramparts also unearthed the first conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination, and in 1967, editor Sol Stern's interview revealed that the CIA had backed the National Student Association as part of its Cold War strategy. The magazine published Che Guevara's diaries, with an introduction by Fidel Castro, and the prison diaries of Eldridge Cleaver, later republished as Soul on Ice. Cleaver was a Ramparts editor when he witnessed a confrontation between Huey Newton and a police officer outside the magazine's office in February 1967; he soon became the Black Panther Party's Minister of Information.
Although Ramparts closed its doors for good in 1975, several former staffers founded their own magazines, most notably Mother Jones and Rolling Stone. Robert Scheer later became a featured columnist in the Los Angeles Times and is now the editor of Truthdig and a regular participant in the NPR program Left, Right and Center. Another Ramparts editor, James Ridgeway, is a senior correspondent in the Washington DC bureau of Mother Jones and the author of many muckraking books. James F. Colaianni went on to represent the radical Catholic perspective with the books Married Priests & Married Nuns and The Catholic Left. Two editors, David Horowitz and Peter Collier, later underwent political conversions and became neoconservative critics of the left. For a brief time, the magazine's Washington correspondent was Brit Hume, now of the Fox News Channel.
The magazine also featured discussions of arts and culture. It included contributions from (or interviews with) Thomas Merton, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Susan Sontag, Eduardo Galeano, Peter Ustinov, Erica Jong, and John Lennon.