Book Review of Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution (PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2015, 398pp), originally published in the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2016/2244
The main hypothesis of Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s important new book on the cultural policies pursued in Revolutionary Cuba is that there exist possibilities for relations to be created between art and society that are not premised on the profit motive. In the preamble to the book, titled “Cuba as an Antidote to Neoliberalism,” Gordon-Nesbitt makes clear that what motivated her project in militant research is the current market fundamentalism that consigns all cultural production to the needs of economic growth, shaping cultural production into an ideological weapon of capitalist globalization. As a Marxist art theorist with a keen interest in policy I often find myself reading essays on contemporary art waiting for a kernel of wisdom from its author, something that can put contemporary theory into some kind of relation with the history of radical cultural theory. In this instance, readers are richly rewarded as they are immersed in a case study where some of the perennial debates among artists and writers of conscience are worked out in concrete historical circumstances in which a socialist society attempts to bring into existence the best of what humanist Marxism has promised, along with the necessity of struggle against the results of centuries of colonialism, the pressures of capitalist imperialism and the failures of Soviet Stalinism. However, as Gordon-Nesbitt makes clear, the political event of the Cuban Revolution is not only a matter of history, but has implications for the future (xxiii).
Aside from the introductory texts, which includes a foreword by Jorge Fornet (the son of Ambrosio Fornet, one of the key cultural figures in this account), and a brief conclusion, the book is essentially divided into two parts, with the first three chapters approaching the subject of cultural policy in Revolutionary Cuba through a historically-specific perspective on theoretical issues, and a second part with four chapters that follows a more chronological trajectory from the earliest days after the victory of the 26 July Movement in 1959 to roughly the late 1970s. In this period, debates between “liberal” and “orthodox” tendencies vied for primacy, interacted with international comrades and led eventually to the ratification of the Revolutionary humanist vision of leaders like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, which sought to allow “everything within the Revolution and nothing against the Revolution” (69, 163). The role of militant leadership and of state functions are therefore affirmed not only as a matter of record, but as a point of solidarity by Gordon-Nesbitt, who notes with keen lucidity a meeting of cultural producers at which Fidel intervened by placing his pistol on the table, reminding all those present that the Revolution had been achieved at a great cost and that whatever freedoms had been won by the people of Cuba, artists and intellectuals were mandated with the task to pursue their work in the interest of social, political and cultural transformation and the needs of a socialist society.
In this first part, the author takes the broadest view possible on what a radical cultural policy, in any context, would need to consider. Beyond the mechanisms of socio-economic support for artists and writers, the relation between culture and the state is shown to be essentially different in a capitalist and a socialist context. Since the enlightenment, the aesthetic has been associated with human emancipation, a notion that has been tailored by different political perspectives and government agencies. Insofar as the United States and the United Kingdom have associated culture with commerce and economic growth, they ignore United Nations stipulations that art should be supported but not reduced to the status of a consumer good or a site for speculation. Since the solution to neoliberalization cannot be a return to romantic and modernist notions of autonomy, the policies experimented with in Cuba provide some ideas on how culture can offer a means beyond socio-economic contradictions. It is significant that the Revolution did not originate in strictly communist circles and that Cuban communists of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) only belatedly joined the insurrection, leading to longstanding skepticism towards communism. Rather, the Cuban Revolution was led by new left intellectuals who considered themselves post-Stalinist. Yet, insofar as U.S. aggression was an ever-present danger, ties were maintained with the Soviet Union and Marxism-Leninism was applied to matters of political economy. The flipside to this, however, was a vision of socialism and of a humanist Marxism that sought to protect freedoms and human happiness as well as national cultural characteristics. This took the form of a Marxism influence by the ideas of the Cuban intellectual José Marti, which were introduced by Che Guevara as a means to devise a continent-wide resistance to imperialism. The goals of freeing people from economic pressure, to overcome alienation and restore individuals’ capacity to relate themselves to humanity and nature are keystones of proletarian humanism that were given expression in the creation of a better life in both a material and spiritual sense. While literacy was a first objective of the 26 July Movement (with Cuba having today the second highest literacy rate and the U.S. and the U.K. coming in 44th and 45th place), the creation of cultural institutions was undertaken as early as 1961 with the building of national art schools, professional training for art instructors and an outreach programme to rural areas so as to abolish the distinctions between town and country and between manual and intellectual labour. In a short period, the amateur aficionados art education campaign would produce more than a million amateur artists within a population of seven million.
Throughout the 1960s, steps were taken in the development of an infrastructure for the administration of Cuban culture: in 1959 the government established the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industries (ICAIC) as well as the Casa de las Américas; in 1961 intellectuals formed the National Union of Cuban Artists and Writers (UNEAC); the pre-Revolutionary Nuestro Tiempo cultural society represented the ideas of the PSP; and the National Council of Culture (CNC) was created in 1961 – a group that Gordon-Nesbitt reproaches for its orthodox misreading of Marxian dialectics and separating art from the historical processes of the Revolution. (In fact, the entire fourth chapter is dedicated to a brilliant theoretical and historical elucidation of the pitfalls of ideological orthodoxy). In addition, in 1961 the National Art Schools (ENA) were established for training across the disciplines and in 1963 a National Museums Commission was formed, exhibiting art recovered from the elite, building a dozen new museums and touring exhibitions around the island and abroad. All of these institutions were committed to contributing to collective consciousness while sustaining creativity, supporting artists, developing pedagogical programmes and engaging with the world though cultural exchanges. In an early statement by Roberto Fernández Retamar, editor of the journal of the Casa de las Américas, the Revolution is described as a process whose course is not exact, but that the Cuban people are immersed in (65). One can see how different a statement this is from artists in the capitalist world who see themselves as an enclave, detached from the rest of society and at the same time immersed in the economic logic of the culture industries.
It was only in 1976 that the CNC was dissolved and replaced by the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT), headed by Armando Hart, a lawyer and former urban guerrilla. The bulk of the entire book, one could say, is dedicated to describing the process that resulted in the creation of MINCULT. Whereas the first three chapters give an overview of this period, elaborating what was at stake in terms of the ideals of the Revolution and the emancipatory role of culture under socialism, the last four take the reader into more detailed analysis of the particulars, demonstrating how at every stage, the valences of the dialectic, as Fredric Jameson calls it, can lead to very different understandings of what is happening. Gordon-Nesbitt consistently shows how the leadership sought to encourage the freedom of creative expression while at the same time securing the Revolution for the existing generation and for those to come. In this process, culture was given an important role in galvanizing revolutionary ideas, artists were freed from the laws of supply and demand, subsidies replaced royalties and sales, and property rights for creative works were replaced by state-sponsored dissemination.
Although it is not possible to do justice here to all of the particular events that are related in the last four chapters – from Fidel’s “Words to the Intellectuals” after the 1961 Pasado Meridiano controversy, the First National Congress of Writers and Artists (August 1961), the CNC policies of the early 60s, Che’s 1965 text “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” the [International] Cultural Congress of Havana of 1968 and its many participants, the Padilla Case of 1968-71, the First National Congress of Education and Culture of 1970, the Five Grey Years of military control of culture from 1971-76, and the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party of 1975 – I would mention that throughout, Gordon-Nesbitt provides a rich and compelling analysis of the relationship between the political vanguard and artistic praxis that could easily be read alongside today’s discussions on socially engaged art, art activism, participatory art, transversal practice, relational and dialogical aesthetics, participatory art and other variants. Her book brings to the fore the problems that we in the capitalist universe would face if some of our political and cultural ambitions were to be realized. We would be able to go beyond confronting major institutions about the abuses of corporate management and sponsorship since they would be ours, people’s museums, universities and ministries, and we artists and intellectuals would have to decide amongst ourselves whether and how we support the Revolution, including its state mechanisms and infrastructures. We wouldn’t need to network or work without pay in order to accrue social capital like so many entrepreneurs of solidarity, but could dedicate ourselves to free exchange and authentic culture. Of course, even in the case of Cuba, there was never a moment when struggle was not required and protest against an imperialist foe was not a reality. The lessons of the Cuban experiment are not that liberal traditions are of no use to the Revolution, but that national culture should not be chauvinistic or elitist, that art and politics cannot be collapsed, nor can they be separated, and so, that aesthetic vanguards must work alongside political vanguards and vice versa. To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture thus provides Marxist aesthetics with a view of radical ideology and universality that goes beyond sociological reduction and challenges the immanentism of today’s global, neoliberal bureaucracies.