Katherine A. Gordy: Living Ideology in Cuba: Socialism in Principle and Practice

Katherine A. Gordy: Living Ideology in Cuba: Socialism in Principle and Practice: University of Michigan Press, 2015. pp. 296, paperback, $40.95. ISBN: 978-0-472-05261-5

by Joshua Simon, Columbia University

As Katherine Gordy observes in this insightful new book, ideology is everywhere in Cuba. The faces of socialist and nationalist icons from Marx to Martí and from Lenin to Guevara are sculpted in public monuments, printed on the currency, and painted on the walls of schools and factories, alongside their most famous maxims. In engaging photographs, interspersed throughout the book’s pages, Gordy captures invocations of revolutionary politics even in unexpected or discordant places—above the entrance to a new shopping mall, for example, or in a trinket and t-shirt shop that caters to foreign tourists. Gordy argues that the very ubiquity of these symbols and sayings has hampered serious scholarship on socialist ideology in Cuba. Most observers present Cuban socialism as a monolithic and frozen edifice, authoritatively articulated by a small coterie of militant intellectuals in the period surrounding the Revolution, and forcibly impressed upon the island’s population ever since in essentially unchanged form. Other works give an almost diametrically-opposed impression of Cuban socialism, as an endlessly malleable series of slogans, emptied of any consistent meaning by opportunistic politicians more interested in retaining and expanding their own power than in making principled policy decisions.

What both of these accounts miss, Gordy shows, are the rich debates, occurring at all levels of Cuban society, that have continuously modified and refined the ideology of Cuban socialism, keeping it alive since the Revolution. In order to see the many forms that socialist ideology has taken in Cuba over this period, and in order to understand the many ways that socialist ideology inflects Cuban politics and society, Gordy argues that we must change how we think about ideology in general. First and foremost, we should not define ideology by counterpoising it to “true” political philosophy or to “truth” itself. Rather, we should treat ideologies as “epistemes” or “framework[s] expressed through language that serve to shed light on the world and the possibilities and considerations it presents.” All political thinking, on this account, operates within and through ideologies. Indeed, Gordy insists, “without ideology, one cannot make any political judgements.” Different ideologies make different facts about the world “visible” to their adherents, while “occluding or silencing others” (11). Thus, ideologies, far from serving only as opportunistic, post-facto justifications of actions or institutions that have already been decided upon or established, actually exert a strong determinative influence on what actions and institutions political actors regard as viable and attractive, and therefore which actions and institutions are undertaken and built.

The second important revision to the concept of ideology that Gordy recommends concerns the relationship between ideologies and civil society. It is common for studies of post-revolutionary Cuba to insist that there is no true civil society on the island, because the relatively autonomous institutions and organizations that make up civil society elsewhere—universities, newspapers, labor unions, and special-interest advocacy groups, for example—exist in Cuba only with the support of the Cuban government. Consequently, on this account, they serve as conduits for the official socialist ideology of the Cuban government, rather than fora in which that ideology is challenged and resisted. Gordy describes this approach to understanding civil society as “fetishizing opposition,” arguing that while Cuban intellectuals, students, journalists, artists, and activists must usually do their work within government-approved institutions and organizations, and without rejecting the main principles that constitute the ideology of Cuban socialism, they nonetheless offer regular and profound challenges to the Cuban government’s interpretation of that ideology. Indeed, it is in these debates, Gordy suggests, that the ideology of Cuban socialism is adapted and applied to new problems, and it is through these debates that the ideology of Cuban socialism persists across time. Thus, in order to understand the ideology of Cuban socialism, we should look beyond Fidel Castro’s famous speeches, to consider the many, overlapping “spheres of Cuban society, all of which have public and private aspects to them,” and within which less well-known men and women bring Cuban socialism to life every day (21).

These theoretical interventions provide the framework for a history of Cuban socialist ideology since the Revolution, focusing on important and illustrative debates from five different decades. Chapter one takes us back to the 1960s and the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, when supporters and critics of the newly-established regime offered sharply different accounts of whether and how an increasingly socialist Revolutionary ideology had been prefigured in earlier moments of contentious politics on the island, including the campaign against Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in the 1950s, and the nineteenth century’s long fight for national independence. While Revolutionary leaders insisted that they had continued and advanced a centuries-long struggle for freedom and equality, presenting nineteenth century patriots like José Martí and Antonio Maceo as their own predecessors, critics argued that their invocation of these national icons was purely opportunistic, a distorting veil cast over what would be better described as a betrayal of the ideals that had inspired popular mobilization against Batista. Rejecting both positions, Gordy shows that the emerging ideology of Cuban socialism adopted important principles from nineteenth-century Cuban nationalism— including both a racially-inclusive account of what it meant to be Cuban, and an emphasis on revolutionary unity that actually suppressed Afro-Cuban activism—emphasizing different principles at different moments during the course of the Revolution. Asking whether the Revolution’s appropriation of these principles was opportunistic or faithful to the original is, Gordy argues, the wrong question. All political ideologies make instrumental use of previous ideologies, rearranging inherited principles and combining them with new ones to address new problems. A better account of the process in which ideologies evolve would foreground these problems and ask “how effectively does that particular combination [of principles] illuminate and guide people at a particular historical juncture” (60).

Chapters two through four describe debates concerning the role of art and artists in socialist Cuba in the late 1960s, concerning economic reform and marketization in the 1970s and 80s, and concerning academic research in the 1990s. Here we are introduced to members of the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográfico (ICAIC), to the administrators of the Junta Central de Planificación (JUCEPLAN), and to academics associated with the Centro de Estudios sobre América (CEA), amongst others. Making excellent use of both archival sources and published writings, Gordy shows that at no point in Cuban history did these organizations serve as mere conduits for an official ideology articulated on high, but nor did their members find it necessary or desirable to reject Cuban socialism in order to offer a critical perspective. Rather, artists challenged government censorship of films by offering their own elaborations on what Fidel meant when he argued that art was essentially and ineradicably political and that artists should support the Revolution in their work. Economists argued that new market measures introduced in 1975 to increase productivity, far from representing a pragmatic concession of the failure of the Revolution’s economic ideals, were actually anticipated in Marx and Guevara’s writings on socialism as a transitional phase between capitalism and communism. And social scientists protested the government’s reorganization of a prominent research institute without appealing to liberal principles of academic freedom, but rather by acknowledging and insisting upon the importance of their own responsibility, as revolutionary intellectuals, “in maintaining and defending the principles of Cuban socialism as a political, economic, and social project” (152).

In Chapter five, Gordy brings readers into the twenty-first century, and pushes her commitment to tracing the production of Cuban socialist ideology beyond traditional, written or spoken media even further, offering a “dialectical reading” of Revolutionary visages and slogans inscribed above bus stations, on seawalls, and, most interestingly, in the Plaza Carlos III, a shopping mall in central Havana that opened its doors to U.S.-dollar carrying Cubans in 1998. In Gordy’s hands, these images reveal the evident strains to which socialist ideology is subject in Cuba today, where some government officials and a burgeoning commercial sector seek to present even consumerism as a patriotic duty to the Revolution. The case nicely demonstrates that there are, in fact, limits upon how far the constitutive principles of Cuban socialism can be stretched before the ideology becomes incoherent and incapable of effectively framing political judgments and actions. In the conclusion, Gordy continues these reflections, returning to the Plaza Carlos III to address inevitable questions about what the state of socialist ideology in Cuba today can tell us about the future of the socialism on the island. While allowing that economic policies—including dollarization, privatization, and the proliferation of independently-owned and -operated businesses of all kinds—that were initially presented as temporary measures designed to mitigate crises are now regarded as permanent reforms, Gordy emphasizes the persistence of socialist principles in popular culture, from music and film to plastic arts, even and especially in works critical of the Cuban government and its policies. Though she takes no firm stand on what the future holds for Cuba, Gordy shows that even now, socialism is alive on the island, if one knows where to look.

This book will no doubt attract a large audience amongst specialists in Cuban politics, political thought, history, literature, and culture, who will find its scholarly interventions challenging and its careful studies enlightening. But readers interested in other parts of the Americas, whether socialist, post-socialist, or determinedly non-socialist, will also benefit greatly from considering its arguments. Indeed, one of the book’s most profound contributions is to suggest that Cuba may not be as exceptional as is usually assumed. Though socialist images and slogans are certainly more ubiquitous on the island than elsewhere, the debates in which Cuban artists, intellectuals, consumers, and activists decide what those images and slogans mean for them are actually quite familiar from other contexts. As Gordy suggests, even the hegemonic status of socialism in Cuba is mirrored in the United States, where liberalism is similarly pervasive, providing the framework through which both major parties, and most opposition groups on the right and left identify problems and debate policy solutions.

There are questions raised by Gordy’s theoretical innovations and comparative implications that the book leaves unanswered. Treating ideologies as flexible configurations of principles makes it difficult to draw clear distinctions between different ideologies, or to mark particular arguments as expressive of particular ideologies. For example, the constitutive principles by which Gordy identifies Cuban socialism—socioeconomic equality, inclusive nationalism, and political unity—are also present in some liberal and republican ideologies. Indeed, as Gordy herself argues, these principles originated in political struggles that pre-dated the advent of socialism in Cuba. In what sense, then, is it more accurate to describe the Cubans that call upon these principles to criticize or to defend government policies as doing so from within the ideology of Cuban socialism, than to argue that they are doing so from some alternative, if genealogically-linked, ideological perspective? Relatedly, how can we evaluate how a given ideology is performing its function of illuminating political possibilities and guiding political actions effectively? Does ideological diversity or proliferation within a society signal a failure, in this sense, or is it a product of other factors? For example, is the dominance of socialism and liberalism in Cuba and the United States evidence of these ideologies’ effectiveness, or has this dominance been secured through means extraneous to the ideologies themselves? To be sure, it is the mark of an effective work of scholarship that it opens up new and promising veins for future research, and in this sense, Katherine Gordy’s Living Ideology in Cuba succeeds brilliantly.