In July 2021, protests broke out in Cuba. The precipitating factors were many, but they shared a common trajectory: initiated by the U.S. blockade, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic crisis. The people who participated in the protests mainly came from the sectors of Cuban society most associated with the revolutionary movement. They were joined by anti-communist liberal organizations that work closely with the U.S. government.
Caught off guard by the size of the demonstrations, Cuban police reacted the way that police do. Protesters were beaten, tear gassed, and arrested. In response to the violence, Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel addressed the nation and called “revolutionaries into the streets” to defend the socialist process. Tens of thousands of communists did so, and the next day protests dissipated.
The socialist process continues in Cuba. Decisions like the ones made in July contributed to this reality, while other decisions could have surely ended things. What can be learned from this success?
The State vs. The Process
In liberal corridors, Díaz-Canel’s address was simply another example of an authoritarian regime ordering thugs into the streets to repress dissent. Communist action is indecipherable to them, and the decisions made by Díaz-Canel and his comrades were exemplary of this type of ethics. Demonstrations that risked serving counter-revolutionary ends were confronted by demonstrations of equal size, rather than by the police. These counter-demonstrations were comprised of family members, friends, and coworkers all committed to maintaining the revolution. In an interview for the Cuban magazine Alma Mater, recently translated and republished by Monthly Review, several students and intellectuals discussed the events of July 11th. One of the interviewees gives this insight:
“When Díaz-Canel… called on revolutionaries to take the streets, he went beyond policing, beyond managing the conflict. He traced a path to the political arena by mobilizing a sector of the people who, beyond the state and its shortcomings, defend the work of past generations and dream of a distinct and better society under socialism. It was not a confrontation between the state and the people, but rather a confrontation between two different projects for the future.” [Italics my own]1
Cuba’s revolutionary movement has to navigate the contradiction of communists in political power: that of managing the present moment (the socialist state) while advancing the revolutionary process toward a classless society (communism). Their willingness to experiment, and their practice of placing the people as protagonists, is part of why Cuba’s revolutionary process avoided the same fate as the Soviet Union’s and Eastern Europe’s. When a crisis occurs, their communist movement does not hide behind the walls of the state to defend the state in and of itself. Instead, it engages with the people directly, as a revolutionary force in society, in order to win continued support for the socialist process. They learned through practice that a state response to a social crisis, i.e., a police crackdown, “is not sufficient, because the mere restoration of peace and calm only represents a postponement […] what is necessary is a political response.” 2
Cuba’s revolutionary practice offers lessons to us. We learn a lesson in prioritization, in what is primary and what is secondary. As communists, we are loyal, ultimately, to humanity and to the revolutionary process. Given our current circumstances, these are inseparable loyalties. This loyalty exists regardless of our proximity to political power. By sidestepping the police in favor of mass political engagement, the Cuban communist movement demonstrated a primary loyalty to the revolutionary process over loyalty to the state.
There is a distinction between the interests of the state under socialism and the interests of the revolutionary movement. The two are not the same.
The state, even if it is an expression of working class power, is not infallible. The bureaucratic apparatus of any state, once established, will act in its own immediate interest. That is its role: to manage the present order. The state does not voluntarily act in the long-term interests of communists, because the interests of communists ultimately lead to the dissolution of that state. Communist social relations are irreconcilable with the interests of any state, even if that state is established as a step toward a classless society. There will be times when the interests of communist victory will mean coming into conflict —however brief or however extended — with the interests of the state, and even with elements of a communist party. Some level of integration between the state bureaucracy and the party will be unavoidable, and will inevitably lead to an internal struggle over the need to maintain or supercede the state.
Any state has its own interests that it maintains by means of coercion and consent, and will relate to other states around the world according to its own self-interest. The Venezuelan state, constituted in 1999, is an expression of a multi-class movement for popular sovereignty and socialism. That state, however, maintains close relations with Turkey and Russia, capitalist states rooted in anti-communism, anti-democracy, and nationalist revanchism. This happened because of the logic of inter-state relations: the Venezuelan state needed trading partners amid a brutal blockade imposed by the United States, and found partners wherever they were. All this is to say that even if a state is founded as a result of the revolutionary process, and as a means to further and deepen said process, the state is not the process itself. The primary concern of any state is to manage the present in order to reproduce the socio-economic order to which it is beholden.
This means that any socialist state is placed in immediate and irreconcilable contradiction with its founding ideals by the very fact that socialism is the path traversed as we struggle ourselves away from capitalism and toward communism. If socialism is not a process in constant motion, advancing the class struggle in favor of the working class and toward a classless society, it stagnates. The bureaucracy separates from the class that produced it and acts according to its own interests as an agent of the state. The communist party, instead of an organic expression of the working class and its goal of overcoming itself, is disarmed and becomes merely a vehicle for the state to express its will upon the people. For socialism to not ossify, then the class struggle must continue to be advanced within the socialist society.The communist party must be willing to serve toward this end. In Cuba, the party attempts to do this. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, they do not.
Lessons for a Productive Internationalism
Based on this understanding of the role of the state during a revolutionary process, what lessons can we glean that serve the needs of the left in the United States? Beyond helping to illuminate the contradictions of political struggle, these lessons can also serve to clarify our often-mangled understanding of internationalism.
Internationalism is a practice with two components, one external and one internal. Externally, it is a practice of solidarity with revolutionary processes around the world. Internally, it is a means of education, learning in real time from those revolutionary processes to objectively determine what works and what does not, and to better understand the incredibly complicated tasks ahead of us.
In the twenty-first century, the left bears a burden of the past. The practice of internationalism was always tricky. The Second International betrayed itself when numerous parties chose the side of their nations’s capitalists in the march toward the First World War. The Third International began as an opportunity for comrades from around the world to come to Russia and learn from its successful revolution. When subsequent revolutions across Europe failed, and the Soviet Union entered three decades of isolation, the Comintern and its successor formations became avenues of realpolitik for the Soviet state to express its interests abroad.
Some leftists, instead of placing this state-to-parties relationship in its historical and political context, look back to this time as the model of true internationalism. We apply this analysis as a simple formula. We support the actions of any state that is opposed to U.S. imperialism.
Others, looking back to the Fourth International, adhere to a formula just as simplistic. They view any expression of state power, even one emanating from a sincere revolutionary process, as flawed and therefore unworthy of support.
These two expressions of internationalism—reflexive support (looking back to the example of the Comintern) and reflexive rejection (looking back to the ‘neither-nor’ campism of Trotskyism)—were dominant trends in the left during the era of North American unipolarity. This era was marked by socialist retreat worldwide, and by undisputed American hegemony among the imperialist powers. Both expressions are mechanical, dogmatic, and unproductive.
If being an internationalist in the United States means being an unflinching partisan and opponent of any state on the other side of imperialism, then we corner ourselves into a reactive and undialectical (i.e. un-Marxist) geo-political stance. If we confine our internationalism to trying to justify and reject every action taken by these states—regardless of the class in power—then we limit our internationalism to inter-state relations. These relations are severed from class struggle and any conception of human subjectivity. We see realpolitik and think it is class struggle. Our internationalism should not be so stunted.
Now we have the opportunity to create a new internationalism within the left. The two expressions of internationalism listed above are, thankfully, nearing the end of their own respective justifications. The conditions that brought them about are passing into history. These forms of internationalism were products of an isolated, demoralized, fragmented, and miniscule left that derived confidence from allegiances to past expressions of socialism, including social democrats to the Second International, Marxist-Leninists to the Soviet Union, and Trotskyists, Maoists and Hozhaists to their namesakes.
Today, our left looks different. Before, we were small to the point of irrelevance. Today, socialism is back on the agenda. There are nearly one hundred thousand members of DSA, and many hundreds of thousands more in the immediate orbit of this political formation. We have a foothold in society that has not existed since before the Cold War. We are becoming a political force, an embryonic political expression of the working class.
Externally, these two internationalisms were feeble attempts to project a left pole during a period of imperialist hegemony, without any countervailing weight acting in the interests of the revolutionary process. On the international stage today, unipolarity is giving way to a new international balance of forces, one in which multiple states compete for regional and international hegemony in the space ceded by a retreating American empire. After over twenty years of constant military disasters, the United States looks uncertain of itself, indecisive and weak, and rival states are taking the initiative. The tragic and shocking invasion of Ukraine speaks to this reality.
Again, let us return to the lessons our Cuban comrades offer to us. Communists in any country should not prioritize the defense of the state, even in socialist countries, because it is not the priority of communists in those countries! Their primary loyalty is to the revolutionary process, to the expression of the working class in its struggle for emancipation, as ours should be.
Why should DSA stand in solidarity with the Bolivian government? Is it because Lucho and Evo have good ideas, and because every action of the Bolivian state should be defended? No. It is because Lucho’s MAS government is the elected expression of a movement of millions of ordinary Bolivians struggling to build an ecological, socialist, and democratic society.This movement of millions is trying to figure out the path forward on its own terms.
Why should DSA stand in solidarity with Lula’s administration in Brazil? Is it because Lula’s government is the perfect ideal of a socialist government? Of course not. Many compromises, some necessary and others not, have been made with Brazil’s vicious ruling class. We should stand in solidarity with Lula because his government is an expression of a diverse array of social movements, socialist parties, and trade unions struggling to free Brazil from the shackles of capitalism, racism, and environmental destruction. They, like their comrades in Bolivia, are trying to find the path forward.
Why should DSA stand in solidarity with Cuba? Is it because we defend unflinchingly every action taken by the Cuban state in the past sixty years of the revolutionary process? No. It is because the Cuban state is an expression of a decades-long revolutionary process, inaugurated by the seizure of power in 1959. It has continued every day since, propelled by an organized movement of millions intent on building socialism today and aiming toward a classless society in the future. Ask any participant in the Cuban revolutionary movement, and they will tell you the truth: that every day, a movement of millions is trying to find the path forward.
Our internationalism must be rooted in an understanding, political yet simple. Socialism is a human process. There is no perfect formula to be applied in every context nor under all conditions. It will be imperfect, it will be under constant construction, and there will be constant struggle. Those willing to carry it out deserve our solidarity. They are pioneers of the future, and their service to our cause will be immeasurable.
- Monthly Review Vol. 73 No. 8. “Cuba’s Revolution Today: Experiments in the Grip of Challenges.” January 2022. p. 32.