Watching the outpouring of political platitudes and grief on Saturday, one would never have guessed that the man who had died ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2006 without election before handing over to his brother. Nor that he was a dictator who had routinely rounded up and imprisoned people because they opposed his politics, who brutally suppressed freedom of expression, and who executed countless people during his four and a half decades in charge of one of the world’s poorest nations. It turns out, if the question needed to be asked, that building a few schools and some hospitals is enough to tip the balance between brutal totalitarian and champion of social justice.
The amusing hypocrisy that the same people who call Castro a champion of social justice are the same ones who got ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ to number two in the UK charts doesn’t go unnoticed, but the silence over Castro’s barbarity does not dispel the fact that the world leader who best summed him up was Donald Trump: ‘a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people’.
Defenders of communism, and particularly its Marxist variant which shall be the focus of this piece, argue that the problem with communism is not in its theory, but in its execution – no state has ever achieved ‘true communism’, they argue. The problem, alas, is with both.
Marxism dictates the need for a socialist revolution to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with a communist one. This communist regime (or dictatorship of the proletariat) would then repurpose the means of production, redistribute society’s wealth, ‘re-educate’ the public to create a society conducive to a stateless communist utopia, and then fall away into oblivion leaving the aforementioned stateless communist utopia behind. That’s a fairly broad overview of the theory, but it’s enough for the purposes of this analysis.
The most logical place to start is at the beginnings of a Marxist transition. A socialist revolution is bad for two main reasons: firstly, the very notion of a revolution in modern society (where nearly all nations are democracies) is underpinned by a minority group seizing power, contrary to the will of the majority; and secondly it breeds the sort of climate that Mikhail Bakunin (who lost the ideological battle for the Left to Marx) warned of – that is to say that the manner of the revolution creates a state in its own image. The reason that so many communist leaders are military leaders: Castro, Mao, Stalin, Kim Il-sung, and others; is that revolutions are, by their very nature, led by military figures. That creates a state ruled by ruthless leaders who aren’t afraid to kill their opponents to cement their position.
That brings us on to the need for a communist state to have unrivalled supremacy over the politics of the society it governs. While Marx never ruled out democratic transitions, given the scale of transformation required for a dictatorship of the proletariat to be established, a successful democratic transition seems unlikely. Democratically imposed communism itself often leads to rigged elections (see Guatemala and Venezuela), the imprisonment of opposing thinkers, and the proscription of opposing political parties, and so the end result is the same.
Moving on from the transition to the actions of the dictatorship established to create a Marxist wonderland. In practice, Marxist re-education usually follows the same pattern (in spite of the ‘superb’ education policy pursued by Castro’s Cuba): suppression of freedom of expression, executions, arrests, manipulation of information, and propaganda. Every attempt to impose universal ideology: be that an ideology of fascist creed, communist creed, or liberal creed; has failed because people will always believe in different things – unfortunately, where you couple a brutal leader and a desire for universalism, that universalism is imposed brutally.
To repurpose the means of production and redistribute the wealth of the nation (neither of which are particularly liberal, but their merits aren’t relevant for this discussion), the creation of an extremely powerful, centralised state is required. If you need convincing of this, look at the authoritarian nature of every communist state ever created, or for that matter, look at the centralisation of power required by nearly every ideology left of centre. A powerful authoritarian state with only one party creates a powerful incentive for selfish politicians to take control of the system.
Thus, even if an ideologically pure, selfless leader came to power, even if they were able to consolidate power peacefully, there will be a point at which someone inevitably needs to succeed them. The power imbued within that leadership position will be much more attractive to selfish people than selfless ones, and that is why leaders like Stalin emerge and successions in countries like the Soviet Union and China have to be carefully managed and frequently result in murders and violence.
The dictatorship and ruthlessness required to create a Marxist utopia are the very reason that such a utopia can never be created. Wherever that much power is concentrated in the hands of such a small elite, the state will continue to act in the interests of the dictators who rule it. There is always a Castro standing between Marxist theory and Marxist reality, and presuming a circumstance in which there isn’t is simply unrealistic.
Those who would argue that Castro was more than the selfish, brutal dictator outlined in this article might take a moment to consider some interesting little pieces of information. While Jeremy Corbyn considers him a ‘champion of social justice’, Fidel Castro left office in 2006 with a net worth of $900 million (around a quarter of the net worth of Donald Trump) – not bad in a country where the average salary was $17 per month in 2015. The hundreds of political prisoners and political executions tell us a lot about Fidel’s softer side; while his government’s efforts to limit his citizens’ internet access and generally curtail access to information and freedom of expression show us that this man was clearly a champion of social justice.
Alas, Castro is but the most topical example one could use to highlight the failings of Marx’s main philosophy. Regardless of the means by which you create it (and especially if those means are revolutionary), a dictatorship of the proletariat will always create a state which must be brutal in dealing with its opponents, centralised in its management of society, and attractive to those who would use it to their own advantages, like Fidel Castro. Such a state does not need the addition of ‘of the proletariat’ and will never fall away, because human nature doesn’t work like that.
Centralisation, curtailing freedom of expression, revolution – these are ideas that a modern, progressive society should be replacing with devolution, free speech, and democracy. The people who laud Castro as a hero and a progressive seem to have lost touch with what it is to be a progressive.
Fidel Castro was indeed (to use the unintentional pun everyone else seems to be using) a revolutionary figure in 20th Century politics, but Castro’s legacy should not be in his healthcare system or his education system, it should be in the suffering and persecution he brought upon those who disagreed with him. Fidel Castro’s Cuba should stand as a warning marker against authoritarianism and Marxism – let the end of Castro’s era be the end of an era of failed politics.
To those who advocate and seek to bring it about: communism will always fail, because there is always another Castro.