Why Fidel Castro’s communism failed

The left should strike a new deal with markets, democracy, individual freedom and rule of law

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

In a courtroom speech in 1953, Fidel Castro made the claim: “Condemn me, it does not matter! History will absolve me!” But Castro himself would make the job of history much more difficult during his more than 47 years of rule over the tiny island nation of Cuba. Castro’s death last Friday has prised open the debate once again: What will be history’s verdict on Castro?

His revolutionary ascent to power in 1959 came at a time when the communist movement was meandering in the post-Joseph Stalin USSR and the ideological divergence between Mao Zedong’s China and Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union was widening by the day. Ironically, Castro’s death has come at another important historical juncture—as the world is entering 2017, the 100th year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution which brought Vladimir Lenin to power in Russia. A ruling on Castro, in such a scenario, cannot be extricated from a verdict on communism itself.

The essence of what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels arrived at in the 19th century was the inevitability of future utopia in industrialized societies which have seen a long phase of capitalism. The utopia would be preceded by a class struggle culminating in a dictatorship of the proletariat. While the Soviet Union became the centre for the communist movement, a charming idea promising global equality quickly spread to faraway lands. Much of the romanticization with Cuba has to do with the fact that a tiny island nation was able to stand up to the “bully” US while being just a hop, skip and leap away from Miami in Florida.

The resistance to the US, however, came at a high cost for the Cubans themselves. There was no space for freedom of speech and political dissent in Castro’s oppressive rule. The island nation saw good progress in literacy and healthcare but many nations were able to achieve that without a brutal regime in place. The extent, and not the existence, of repression varied in different socialist countries. A generous view would be that the desire for equality trumped the cause of liberty. A more realistic view concludes that the ideology lent itself to dictatorial regimes that were simply interested in perpetuating themselves.

If the generous view is granted, Marxist political philosopher G.A. Cohen provided one of the best bulwarks for socialism without dismissing the libertarian concerns. Even market ideologues, according to Cohen, would prefer the equity of socialism in certain circumstances like, say, a camping trip. If market-based pricing becomes the norm for transactions in a group out for camping, the experience can be pretty harrowing. Cohen is cautious not to extrapolate the desirability of socialism in a camping trip to build a case for feasibility of socialism in society in general. However, Cohen does indeed put up a stellar intellectual resistance against fellow political philosopher and the libertarian Robert Nozick who argued for primacy of individual rights above the quest for equality.

Cohen believed that individual freedom is not bestowed equally upon all on top of unequal distribution of resources. Rather, for him, the exercise of freedom is a function of the distribution of resources itself. Nozick was looking at this from a different angle. To Nozick, any effort to bridge inequality could not be effected without infringing on individual rights. Another contemporary political philosopher, John Rawls, strikes a balance some might find comforting. In his theory of justice, Rawls did not denounce inequality as long as the worst-off was better in the unequal society as compared to a strictly equal one. Rawlsian “difference principle” advocated for talented individuals receiving higher rewards as long as a part of the higher produce they generate can be used for the worst-off.

Cohen, however, did not find Rawls convincing. Even if he could grudgingly accept that some talented individuals can generate higher productive performance, Cohen was not sure of the precise magnitude of extra rewards that must be allowed without compromising the basic premise of just society.

But these frameworks are a far cry from what came to be practised under communist regimes. The historian Archie Brown notes: “The idea of building communism, a society in which the state would have withered away, turned out to be a dangerous illusion. What was built instead was Communism, an oppressive party-state which was authoritarian at best and ruthlessly totalitarian at worst.” Besides political centralization, the failed ideas of 20th century socialism like public ownership of the means of production and planned economy failed to realize the promise of collective abundance. When markets were stifled, informal patronage-based networks took over, resulting in sub-optimal economic returns and widespread discontent.

As the communist movement started losing its revolutionary edge, 21st century socialism embraced elitist post-nation state projects quite distant from working-class issues. The vacuum created was filled by xenophobic, anti-immigrant elements from the far right. A new crop of socialists—political parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain and leaders like Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK—are now rethinking the utility of elitist club projects. But for their thrust to make a meaningful impact, the left should also move away from the failed ideas of the previous century and strike a new deal with markets, democracy, individual freedom and rule of law. To begin with, they can do away with the practice of hailing tyrants like Castro and Stalin.

Can a re-imagined communist movement be revived in this century? Tell us at views@livemint.com