Slavoj Zizek: The Left’s Fidelity to Castro-ation

In the last decades, Cuban “socialism” continued to live only because it didn’t yet notice it was already dead.

Slavoj Žižek

A school-side mural of Fidel Castro. (Chris Goldberg / Flickr)

I am crit­i­cal of Cuba not because I am anti-Com­mu­nist but because I remain a Communist.

The true tragedy is that the very remaining authenticity of the Cuban revolution made it possible for the Castro brother’s government to drag on endlessly and meaninglessly, deprived of the last vestiges of an emancipatory potential.

We all remem­ber the clas­sic scene from car­toons: a cat walks over the precipice and mag­i­cal­ly goes on, float­ing in the air — it falls down only when it looks down and becomes aware that it has no ground under its feet. In the same way, one can say that, in the last decades, Cuban social­ism” con­tin­ued to live only because it didn’t yet notice it was already dead.

It is clear that Fidel Cas­tro was dif­fer­ent from the usu­al fig­ure of a Com­mu­nist leader, and that Cuban rev­o­lu­tion itself was some­thing unique. Its speci­fici­ty is best ren­dered by the dual­i­ty of Fidel and Che Gue­vara: Fidel, the actu­al Leader, supreme author­i­ty of the State, ver­sus Che, the eter­nal rev­o­lu­tion­ary rebel who could not resign him­self to just run­ning a State. Is this not some­thing like a Sovi­et Union in an alter­na­tive past in which Leon Trot­sky would not have been reject­ed as the arch-trai­tor? Imag­ine that, in the mid-1920s, Trot­sky were to emi­grate and renounce Sovi­et cit­i­zen­ship in order to incite per­ma­nent rev­o­lu­tion around the world, and then die in the high­lands of Papua New Guinea soon after­wards. After his death, Stal­in would have ele­vat­ed Trot­sky into a cult, and mon­u­ments cel­e­brat­ing their friend­ship, along with icon­ic t‑shirts, would pro­lif­er­ate all around the USSR.

One gets tired of the con­flict­ing sto­ries of the eco­nom­ic fail­ure and human rights abus­es in Cuba, as well as of the twins of edu­ca­tion and health­care that are always trot­ted out by the friends of the rev­o­lu­tion. One gets tired even of the real­ly great sto­ry of how a small coun­try can resist the biggest super­pow­er (yes, with the help of the oth­er superpower).

The sad­dest thing about today’s Cuba is a fea­ture clear­ly ren­dered by the crime nov­els of Cuba’s lit­er­ary icon Leonar­do Padu­ra, which fea­tures detec­tive Mario Conde and are set in today’s Havana. Padura’s atmos­phere is the one not so much of pover­ty and oppres­sion as of missed chances, of liv­ing in a part of the world to a large extent bypassed by the tremen­dous eco­nom­ic and social changes of the last decades.

All of the above men­tioned sto­ries do not change the sad fact that the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion did not pro­duce a social mod­el rel­e­vant for the even­tu­al Com­mu­nist future. I vis­it­ed Cuba a decade ago, and on that vis­it I found peo­ple who proud­ly showed me hous­es in decay as a proof of their fideli­ty to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Event”: Look, every­thing is falling apart, we live in pover­ty, but we are ready to endure it rather than to betray the Rev­o­lu­tion!” When renun­ci­a­tions them­selves are expe­ri­enced as proof of authen­tic­i­ty, we get what in psy­cho­analy­sis is called the log­ic of cas­tra­tion. The whole Cuban politi­co-ide­o­log­i­cal iden­ti­ty rests on the fideli­ty to cas­tra­tion — no won­der that the Leader is called Fidel Castro!

The true tragedy is that the very remain­ing authen­tic­i­ty of the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion made it pos­si­ble for the Cas­tro broth­ers’ gov­ern­ment to drag on end­less­ly and mean­ing­less­ly, deprived of the last ves­tiges of an eman­ci­pa­to­ry poten­tial. The image of Cuba one gets from some­one like Pedro Juan Gutier­rez (in his dirty Havana tril­o­gy”) is tell­tale. The Cuban com­mon real­i­ty is the truth of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Sub­lime: the dai­ly life of strug­gle for sur­vival, of the escape into vio­lent promis­cu­ous sex, of seiz­ing the day with­out any future-ori­ent­ed projects.

In his big pub­lic speech in August 2009, Raúl Cas­tro lam­bast­ed those who just shout Death to the U.S. impe­ri­al­ism! Long live the rev­o­lu­tion!” instead of engag­ing in dif­fi­cult and patient work. All the blame for the Cuban mis­ery (a fer­tile land that nonethe­less imports 80 per­cent of its food) can­not be put on the U.S. embar­go: There are idle peo­ple on the one side, emp­ty land on the oth­er side, and one has just to start work­ing the fields.

Obvi­ous­ly this is true, but Raúl Cas­tro for­gets to include into the pic­ture he was describ­ing his own posi­tion: If peo­ple don’t work the fields, it is obvi­ous­ly not because they are lazy but because the sys­tem of econ­o­my is not able to con­vince them to work. Instead of rep­ri­mand­ing ordi­nary peo­ple, he should have applied the old Stal­in­ist mot­to accord­ing to which the mobile of progress in Social­ism is self-cri­tique, and exert a rad­i­cal cri­tique of the sys­tem he and Fidel per­son­i­fy. Here, again, evil is in the very crit­i­cal gaze which per­ceives evil all around.

So what about pro-Cas­tro West­ern Left­ists who despise what Cubans them­selves call gusanos/​worms,” those Cubans who emi­grat­ed to find a bet­ter life? With all sym­pa­thy for the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion, what right does a typ­i­cal mid­dle-class West­ern Left­ist, like too many read­ers of In These Times, have to despise a Cuban who decid­ed to leave Cuba not only because of polit­i­cal dis­en­chant­ment but also because of pover­ty? In the same vein, I myself remem­ber from the ear­ly 1990s dozens of West­ern Left­ists who proud­ly threw in my face how, for them, that Yugoslavia (as imag­ined by Tito) still exists, and reproached me for betray­ing the unique chance of main­tain­ing Yugoslavia.

To that charge, I answered: I am not yet ready to lead my life so that it will not dis­ap­point the dreams of West­ern Left­ists. Gilles Deleuze wrote some­where: Si vous etes pris dans le reve de l’atre vous etez foutu!” — If you are caught in the dream of the oth­er you’re ruined. Cuban peo­ple paid the price for being caught into the West­ern left­ists’ dream.

The grad­ual open­ings of Cuban econ­o­my towards a cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket are com­pro­mis­es that do not resolve the dead­lock but, rather, drag on the pre­dom­i­nant iner­tia. After the impend­ing fall of Chav­is­mo in Venezuela, Cuba has three choic­es: to con­tin­ue to veg­e­tate in a mix­ture of Com­mu­nist par­ty régime and prag­mat­ic con­ces­sions to the mar­ket; to embrace ful­ly the Chi­nese mod­el (wild cap­i­tal­ism with par­ty rule); to sim­ply aban­don Social­ism and, in this way, admit the full defeat of the Revolution.

What­ev­er will hap­pen, the sad­dest prospect is that, under the ban­ner of democ­ra­ti­za­tion, all the small but impor­tant achieve­ments of the Rev­o­lu­tion, from health­care to edu­ca­tion, will be undone, and the Cubans who escaped to the Unit­ed States will enforce a vio­lent re-pri­va­ti­za­tion. There is a small hope that this extreme fall­back will be pre­vent­ed and a rea­son­able com­pro­mise negotiated.

So what is the over­all result of the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion? What comes to my mind is Arthur Miller’s expe­ri­ence on the Male­con (Havana’s Caribbean ocean-front board­walk) where two guys were sit­ting at a bench near him, obvi­ous­ly poor and in need of a shave, and engaged in a vivid dis­cus­sion. A taxi then pulled up to the curb in front of them and a love­ly young woman stepped out with two brown paper bags full of gro­ceries. She was jug­gling the bags to get her mon­ey purse open, and a tulip was wav­ing dan­ger­ous­ly close to snap­ping its stem. One of the men got up and took hold of one of the bags to steady it, while the oth­er joined him to steady the oth­er bag, and Miller won­dered if they were about to grab the bags and run. Noth­ing like this hap­pened — instead, one of them gen­tly held the tulip stem between fore­fin­ger and thumb until she could get the bags secured in her arms. She thanked with a cer­tain for­mal dig­ni­ty and walked off. Miller’s comment:

I’m not quite sure why, but I thought this trans­ac­tion remark­able. It was not only the gal­lantry of these impov­er­ished men that was impres­sive, but that the woman seemed to regard it as her due and not at all extra­or­di­nary. Need­less to say, she offered no tip, nor did they seem to expect any, her com­par­a­tive wealth notwithstanding.

Hav­ing protest­ed for years the gov­ern­men­t’s jail­ing and silenc­ing of writ­ers and dis­si­dents, I won­dered whether despite every­thing, includ­ing the sys­tem’s eco­nom­ic fail­ure, a heart­en­ing species of human sol­i­dar­i­ty had been cre­at­ed, pos­si­bly out of the rel­a­tive sym­me­try of pover­ty and the uni­form futil­i­ty inher­ent in the sys­tem from which few could raise their heads short of sail­ing away. (Arthur Miller, A Vis­it with Cas­tro,” The Nation, Decem­ber 24 2003)

At this, the most ele­men­tary lev­el, our future will be decid­ed. The real­i­ty that glob­al cap­i­tal­ism can­not gen­er­ate is pre­cise­ly such heart­en­ing species of human sol­i­dar­i­ty,” to use Miller’s phrase. So to con­clude in the spir­it of de mor­tu­is nihil nisi bon­um (noth­ing that is not good should be said about the dead), this scene on Male­con is per­haps the nicest thing I can remem­ber about Castro.
Slavoj Žižek, a Sloven­ian philoso­pher and psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is a senior researcher at the the Insti­tute for Human­i­ties, Birk­beck Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. He has also been a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at more than 10 uni­ver­si­ties around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, includ­ing Liv­ing in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dream­ing Dan­ger­ous­ly and Trou­ble in Paradise.
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