Between the Old Left and the New Left, between the radicalism of the 1930s and the radicalism of the 1970s, there comes the curious figure of Fidel Castro. A celebrated revolutionary thinker. The absolute ruler of Cuba—and, for a time, the man believed to have finally solved the Communist dilemma: finding a way of being Marxist without becoming Stalinist, creating a fully socialist state that would not harden into totalitarianism.
He didn’t, of course. Soon after it seized power in 1959, Castro’s revolutionary government became a socialist dictatorship, barely distinguishable from all the other Communist states of its time. But the surprising lesson of Rafael Rojas’s new book, Fighting Over Fidel, is how brief was the time, how narrow the window, that serious leftists actually believed in Castro’s exceptionalism.
Oh, as late as the 1980s, the Soviets were still insisting that Cuba was a socialist paradise, impoverished only because the United States had isolated the island with economic boycotts and military threats. And that Russian propaganda would have a lingering effect on American leftism, leaving Cuba a convenient symbol around which to unite pro-Communist radicals and anti-anti-Communist liberals. From Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton, Democratic presidents all toyed with the notion of regularizing Cuban relations, although they were thwarted by congressional opposition. In 2015, President Obama simply ignored Congress and unilaterally reestablished diplomacy and trade with the island nation—the culmination of a decades-long rejection of the idea that Cuba was a threat and Communism a disease.
But the intellectual class of American leftism (which was, in many ways, the dominant intellectual class of the nation) had doubts from surprisingly early on. Castro had been a young attorney with what he believed was a rising political career—a career derailed when former president Fulgencio Batista seized control of the government and cancelled the 1952 parliamentary elections. The thwarted Castro quickly raised a small force of impoverished Cubans, and he rose to national attention when, on July 26, 1953, he led an attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.
Castro may have imagined that his assault on a military base would trigger a national uprising, or he may simply have been seeking a cache of weapons. Regardless, the assault failed, and he and his men were quickly arrested. That should have been the end of the story, as the Cuban people condemned a terrorist attack on their own soldiers, and the national mood recoiled from the revolutionaries.
Unfortunately, recognizing the advantage that Castro’s failure had given him, Batista used the incident as an excuse to arrest his political opponents, accusing them of complicity in the attack. It was a profound mistake. Public opinion swayed back against Batista, Castro’s famous History Will Absolve Me letter was smuggled out of the prison and published, and by 1955, the government felt it had to release the prisoners. Castro would flee to Mexico, returning in 1956 to build a guerilla force in the mountain caves of the Sierra Maestra. By 1959, he had defeated the Cuban military, driven out Batista, and taken control of Cuba.
Rafael Rojas is fascinated by all this fifty-year-old history, but his interest is focused less on Castro and more on the reaction to Castro. A professor in Mexico City, trained in the intellectual history of Latin America, Rojas uses Fighting Over Fidel to examine the wild crew of radical writers and left-wing thinkers in the United States as they struggled to understand Castro—oscillating, as he notes, “between a sense of the promise Cuba represented for leftist libertarianism and the sense of disenchantment.”
The key moment in the rise of Castro’s North American fame came in 1957, when New York Times reporter Herbert L. Matthews traveled to Cuba for a secret interview with the young revolutionary. The interview painted Castro as an idealistic and reluctant warrior—a man not dedicated to Marxism, however willing he was to use Communism as a tool for social reform.
Subsequent interviews, combined with Castro’s victories as he emerged from the mountains, led to even more interest, and in 1960 the widely respected sociologist C. Wright Mills published Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba, practically a love letter to what Mills would call the “New Left.” Castro was not a Communist in any of the old senses of the word, Mills insisted. Rather, under his guidance, Cuba was blazing a new path, avoiding dictatorship while pursuing the revolutionary redistribution of wealth to the poor.
The writer Waldo Frank would go even further in his 1960 book Cuba: Prophetic Island. Marxism had always been a kind of Christian sect, he argued—a modern Christianity, in which the ridiculous religious elements were cast aside to make room for the scientific economics that would bring about the righteous world that Christianity had vaguely preached. Previous Communist states had failed to achieve this goal, falling into totalitarian control. But Cuba had Castro—the salvific leader of a prophetic island—and socialism there would escape the Stalinist trap, becoming a beacon for revolutionaries everywhere.
These proclaimers of the arrival of a new form of Communism were soon to be disappointed, as Castro would quickly align himself with the Soviet Union and impose harsh controls on Cuban society. To explain the growing suspicion of Castro, Rojas turns to the writings of Allen Ginsberg—and there’s a reason Rojas pays so much attention to the Beat poet. Ginsberg, far more than Castro, represents an early sign of what the New Left would become by the 1970s.
The Old Left, ruling radicalism from the 1930s through the 1950s, saw progress almost entirely in economic terms. Good Marxists, they sought state ownership of the means of production, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the violent overthrow of capitalist governments. But the New Left became less interested in economics with every passing year. Progress was to be measured instead by a revolution in social and personal attitudes about sex, religion, and the freedom of the self. Thus, in a marvel of moral equivalence, Ginsberg denounced in the early 1960s “the puritanical censorship of consciousness imposed on the world by Russia and America,” and he condemned Castro’s crackdown on homosexuality and prostitution as bourgeois diseases. Consciousness-altering drugs and uninhibited sex were, in Ginsberg’s view, the path to true revolution.
In some sense, the history Rojas recounts is trivial. The fringe intellectuals of progressivism had little impact on world affairs, and Fighting Over Fidel limits itself mostly to the subspecies of what the author calls the “New York intellectuals”—none of whom had much impact on the policies of Washington, Moscow, or even Havana. Nonetheless, Fighting Over Fidel is an important book, a vital book, in tracing the paths by which we arrived at our current situation. There’s something appropriate, or at least sadly ironic, about President Obama’s recent turn toward Cuba. In his politics and social sensibilities, Obama is a descendent of the New Left—the post-New Left that won so many of the cultural battles it defined as social progress.
Along the way, of course, it forgot why it had once been suspicious of Castro and the regime he imposed on the Caribbean island. Castro, as he turned to the Soviet form of Marxism, would identify his rule of Cuba as the triumph of Communism over capitalism. The later New Leftists would interpret Cuba instead as an example of former colonial states, the Third World, rising up against the sins of Western imperialism. And so Castro’s racism, censorship, and mini-archipelago of political prisons are all forgotten. The catastrophes of his economic policies, the evils perpetuated by his sending soldiers to Africa, and the foment he loved to stir up in Latin America—all, all, unremembered.
It’s enough to make a sane person spit.