No thinking please, we’re red-baiting

The red-baiting of Bernie Sanders is in full swing. From Democrats. Yes, the silly season is upon us as Senator Sanders was roundly condemned because he believes literacy campaigns are good things.

I know the United States is a uniquely anti-intellectual country, but, still, you’d think teaching reading and writing might be thought of as positive goals. The Republican responses to Senator Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview in which he condemned the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism but also acknowledged Cuba’s social achievements, such as drastically improving literacy rates, was predictable. It was only to be expected that there would be pushback by Florida Democrats, who continue to believe they have to roll in the dust at the feet of right-wing Cuban émigrés.

Nonetheless, Democrats outdid themselves. Let’s first pause to quote the words of Senator Sanders that sent them into paroxysm of indignation: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Evidently it is. Particularly humorous was the response of Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, who said of President Castro on Twitter: “His ‘literacy program’ wasn’t altruistic; it was a cynical effort to spread his dangerous philosophy & consolidate power.”

Teaching people who previously had been left in miserable poverty and without adequate education how to read and write? Run, run for your life!

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

And demonstrating yet again his complete ignorance, Senator Marco Rubio offered this “history” lesson: “Democratic socialism sounds benign, but at the core of Democratic socialism is Marxism, and at the core of Marxism is this fake offer that if you turn over more of your individual freedom, we’re going to provide you security. We’re going to provide you free healthcare. We’re going to provide you free education. But the problem is that when they can’t deliver on it or you’re not happy with it, you don’t get your freedoms back.”

Where does one begin with such nonsense? Before we get to what socialism actually is, allow me to inform Senator Rubio and other bloviators that virtually every country on Earth, and every advanced capitalist country other than the U.S., has universal health care — and gets better results than the U.S. for a lot less money. Arranging for everybody to have access to health care really isn’t a spectacular achievement. It is not even necessary to be a socialist country to achieve it.

It ought to be possible to hold more than one thought in one’s head at a time, that there could be positive and negative attributes at the same time. Nor should it be forgotten that although demonologists like Florida politicians reflect those who didn’t like Cuba, we never hear from those inside Cuba who support their revolution.

Can reading be a conspiratorial act?

A short-hand definition of socialism would be this: Popular control of production so that enterprises are oriented toward meeting the needs of everyone in a democratic system instead of for the profit of an individual owner or for speculators. A system in which working people make the decisions in their enterprises and their communities and that such decision-making is done in a broader social context so that decisions with social repercussions are made with the peoples and communities affected. In other words, when people have real control over the conditions of their lives — the rule of people instead of the rule of capital.

Incidentally, Senator Sanders isn’t offering anything like that. He’s also been in favor of some U.S. overseas offensives, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia; echoes the right-wing lies about Venezuela even if he opposes an invasion; and refers to Hugo Chávez as a “dead communist dictator” even though President Chávez and his Bolivarian movement won 16 out of 17 elections in an electoral system the Carter Center called “the best in the world.” So the red-baiting of Senator Sanders is not based on reality but on an inability to distinguish between New Deal liberalism, designed to save capitalism, and socialism.

Miami skyline (photo by Wyn Van Devanter)

As I am writing these lines, I happen to be reading the autobiography of Dorothy Healey, the long-time Communist Party organizer who rose to be the chair of the party’s Los Angeles branch, then the second biggest in the U.S. In her book, she gave a detailed account of the political trial she and several other party leaders underwent in the 1950s on trumped up, political charges. Without minimizing the seriousness of the many years of jail they faced, this story also makes useful parallels with today. The prosecution used a strategy of guilt by association, and by distorting the party’s ideas, whether intentionally or out of ignorance of what those were. Healey wrote:

“As in the Foley Square case [a previous political trial of Communist leaders], it was a trial of books. The prosecutor would have witnesses read big chunks of violent-sounding passages from Marx, Engels, and Lenin. This kind of trial could not have been conducted in any other advanced capitalist country — France or England or Italy — because the basic concepts of Marxism were so well known, studied in every university, and familiar to every active trade unionist, that people would have laughed at the outrageous simplifications offered up so solemnly at our trial. That was a peculiarly American phenomenon.”

The mere act of reading and self-education was considered part of the “evidence” against Healey and her co-defendants! She wrote:

“The assistant prosecuting attorney, Norman Neukom, was a vulgar, ignorant man. He was so astonished when one of the defendants was quoted on the need for Communists to engage in continual study. ‘Imagine,’ he told the jury, ‘grown-up people feeling the need to continue to study history and economics and philosophy after they’ve left school.’ For him, somehow, this was further evidence of the evil nature of our conspiracy, grown-ups discussing books they had read. In his cross-examination he wasn’t interested in or capable of refuting any of the substantive points Oleta [O’Connor Yates] made about Party theory and activities.”

Times certainly haven’t changed.

Cubans under Batista had good reasons to join a revolution

None of the above is to suggest that Cuba is above criticism, or that the constrictions on political expression in Cuba is something to ignore. Cuba needs more democracy as it continues to convert the services sections of its economy from state-owned enterprises to cooperatives, as agriculture has long been. We might, however, reflect on the crushing burden of 60 years of attempts to strangle the country by its giant neighbor to the North.

The United States not only threatens to use its overwhelming power in military might but abuses its desirability as a huge market for exports by making its embargo extra-territorial and fully leverages its position as the controller of the global financial system. U.S. embassy personnel have reportedly threatened firms in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with commercial reprisals unless they canceled sales of goods to Cuba such as soap and milk. Amazingly, a American Journal of Public Health report quoted a July 1995 written communication by the U.S. Department of Commerce in which the department said those types of sales contribute to “medical terrorism” on the part of Cubans! Well, many of us when we were, say, 5 years old, might have regarded soap with terror, but presumably have long gotten over that.

Conditions in pre-revolutionary Cuba were ripe for a revolution. The country’s hundreds of thousands of agricultural wage earners averaged only 123 days of work per year. Nearly half of the rural population was illiterate, 60 percent lived in huts with earth floors and thatched roofs and two-thirds lived without running water. Not surprisingly, poor health was rampant with health care generally unavailable and unaffordable to the poor who made up the huge majority of Cuba’s population. Plenty of force was used to maintain that level of inequality. In Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, Batista’s police would torture people to death, with mutilated bodies strung from trees in city parks or dumped in gutters; victims could be as young as 14.

Those conditions and the use of state terror tactics to keep those conditions in place were swiftly reversed after the revolution, never to return. But let us not have any fear of acknowledging that authoritarianism is not unknown in post-revolutionary Cuba and although there are fully free elections at the municipal level, higher-level government positions are not subject to popular vote. One-party states are not conducive to democratic decision-making, regardless of where on the political spectrum the one-party state sits and even in a case like Cuba where citizens are widely consulted and policies adjusted based on popular feedback. Consultation isn’t the same as the power to make decisions.

There is terrorism, but it comes from Washington

But is the United States in any position to point fingers at another country? Let’s look at the record of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The mere fact of the revolution, and its insistence on developing Cuban resources to benefit Cubans rather than immiserating them to enhance U.S. corporate profits, was sufficient to ensure steady hostility from Washington. Aviva Chomsky, in her book A History of the Cuban Revolution, reports the Central Intelligence Agency’s Miami station alone was given $50 million per year to coordinate the sabotage and overthrow of the Castro government following the Cuban rout of the Bay of Pigs invaders. Not content with the CIA’s efforts, President John Kennedy established a separate effort to sabotage Cuba, called “Operation Mongoose,” tolerated terrorist activities by Cuban exile groups based in Miami, and oversaw a series of sabotage operations against Cuban infrastructure, one of which led to the death of 400 workers at an industrial plant. A steady stream of raids intended to sabotage infrastructure and industry continued after the missile crisis, including a CIA-organized operation in which Cuban exiles mined a harbor, which led to the destruction of boats and the deaths of several people.

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff

Later in the 1960s and thereafter, CIA tactics switched to encouraging exile groups to conduct those types of terrorist operations rather than directly conducting them itself. Instead, the CIA concentrated on biological attacks that resulted in a variety of crop, animal and human outbreaks of diseases. The CIA goal (carrying out U.S. government policy) remained fixed, as an agency operative would later admit: “We wanted to keep bread out of the stores so people would go hungry. We wanted to keep rationing in effect and keep leather out, so people got only one pair of shoes every 18 months.”

In a report published on April 20, 2000, in the Miami New Times, Jim Mullen compiled a list of terroristic acts committed by Cuban exiles in the Miami area, a list Mr. Mullen said is “incomplete, especially in Miami’s trademark category of bomb threats.” Mr. Mullen listed 71 acts of violence from 1968 (all but two from 1974) through April 2000. The list includes seven people, six of whom were exile figures, murdered in a three-year span of the 1970s; a radio reporter whose legs were blown off by a bomb after the reporter condemned exile violence; dozens of actual bombings; several beatings of demonstrators, including a nun; and bombings of cultural events.

Who gets to point fingers?

There is no bigger hypocrisy than U.S. government officials condemning other governments. Martin Luther King was correct when he called the U.S. the biggest pervader of violence in the world, and that is no less true today. The list of countries that the U.S. has invaded, overthrown governments or interfered in elections is too long to fully recount. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, the U.S. has invaded 96 times. That total represents only the direct invasions; it doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., including Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973.

Chile under Salvador Allende was similarly denounced as a dangerous dictatorship even though the Allende government kept strictly within legal bounds while the right-wing opposition used extralegal means to oppose it and when that didn’t work called in the military to bomb, arrest, force into exile, “disappear,” torture and kill hundreds of thousands. What “crimes” did President Allende commit? These three statistics concisely summarize the story:

• In 1970, on the eve of Allende’s electoral victory, 50 percent of Chile’s children were undernourished, stunting their development; there were 600,000 considered developmentally disabled because of lack of protein and other problems of malnutrition.

• In 1972, the Allende administration arranged for 550,000 breakfasts and 700,000 lunches to be served daily to students.

• By the early 1980s, under Pinochet, more than half the population of greater Santiago was unable to develop normally either physically or mentally as a result of lack of proper nourishment.

It takes a breathtaking level of ignorance to see providing health care, seeing to it that children receive proper food and raising literary and cultural levels is a form of terrorism while believing such basics should be provided only to those who can afford them. Unfortunately, such ignorance is bipartisan.

12 comments on “No thinking please, we’re red-baiting

  1. Deborah Andrew says:

    Have you considered submitting as Letter to Editor in major newspapers? Alternative history course on line, free? And in an audio version. Distributed to libraries. Not just this essay, but all you have written. In a world that has seldom if ever brought truly critical analysis/thinking into the classroom or public sphere, your writing/thinking would be an important gift.

    • tubularsock says:

      SD, Tubularsock would encourage you to heed Deborah’s words. This could be a valuable side gig for your work …….. just for the fun of it.

      And it is shorter than your book!

    • Thank you for such kind feedback, Deborah. I do what I can to promote ideas that speak to the concerns of so many and will continue to do so, both by publishing and public speaking, including the radio. I am always open to opportunities.

  2. tubularsock says:

    SD, You have once again eloquently provided an excellent introduction to basic information that is overlooked in our NON-thinking, let alone reading, society.

    Thank you. It is always amazing the amount detail one forgets that is vitally significant for decision making.

    • You are most welcome, Tubularsock, and allow me to say that I appreciate your sense of humor in your own commentaries.

      Following up on your response to Deborah above, I will continue to pursue opportunities to speak out. But I have to point out that most everything is shorter than my book! Incidentally, I have written a second book (completed but looking for a publisher) and this one is much shorter, having learned my lesson about writing large books. This second book is about economic democracy, and the core of the book are six examples of societies attempting to build an economy centered on human need rather than private profit.

      In my own defense, the format used by my first publisher greatly inflated the number of pages due to the small physical size and large space between lines. On the other hand, people consistently tell me the book looks good and is very readable, and I have to agree with that. Aesthetics should be important.

  3. sustain2016 says:

    Thanks once again Pete for your reminder of our not so admirable history. Did not know about the Dengue Fever crime. Greatly appreciated.

  4. Shadowman says:

    Pete, you make many great points as usual. However, I think the right-wingers have a point that education and literacy is dangerous (to them). I’m thinking here along the lines of Thorstein Veblen’s classic 1919 essay in The Dial, “Bolshevism Is a Menace–to Whom?” I am also thinking somewhat along the lines of Merton’s Strain Theory. Let me illustrate. It took the French revolution to institute the metric system in France. No matter how rational the use of the metric system is, it is properly considered “radical” in the sense that its implementation *required* a political revolution. Similarly, I was reading both Christopher Read’s (decent) bio “Lenin” and Lars Lih’s (excellent) “Lenin (Critical Lives)” around the same time (so this info might be from either or both of them, I don’t specifically recall), which convey how the Ulyanov family were school system administrators whose efforts to promote literacy in tsarist Russia were thwarted (because literacy would have increased the population’s expectations beyond what the tsarist autocracy was willing to meet — like Merton’s strain theory). But their son Vladimir (Lenin) achieved near total literacy–a historically unprecedented increase in literacy–in just a few years after the Bolshevik’s assumed power. Hence, literacy was *radical” in that it required a political revolution to achieve. What I’m saying is that the right-wingers are entirely correct that literacy and education are threat, but only a threat to their ideas about the “proper” unequal social hierarchy they seek to promote and maintain. At most, I would say these right wingers support education and literacy only to the limited extent that it serves as “job training” to enable the unwashed masses to toil away on behalf of (and for the benefit of) their “betters”–akin to what Paolo Freire described as the “banking” model of education (in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.

    • I certainly am in agreement with your outline here. What the financiers and industrialists behind the corporate takeover and privatization of education desire is a workforce with strong technical skills but without knowledge of the world or the ability to think independently, and we can readily see all the propaganda behind this agenda and charter schools is geared toward this goal. There will always be individuals who put themselves in this mold but I don’t think in the long run such narrow tailoring of education is possible on a mass scale.

      What you describe in terms of attitudes toward education in tsarist Russia were also found in Somoza-era Nicaragua. The first Somoza openly stated that he wanted “oxen,” not educated people, and after the Sandinista Revolution, there were Nicaraguan land owners who criticized the literacy campaign there because people had a “right” to not be able to read and write. Right-wing ideology flourishes when there is a lack of education, an echo of which we can see in the U.S. debate over universal health care. What has long been reality in almost every country of the world is demonized as dangerous in the U.S., something possible only because of the widespread ignorance of the world beyond U.S. borders, an ignorance reinforced by the corporate media and other institutions at the disposal of corporate elites.

  5. tubularsock says:

    Shadowman and SD:

    An additional factor that is necessary to consider is the cell phone and the social media platform which dehumanizes personal physical human contact with each other and the perfect mental control mechanism for social control.

    This has become a major control mechanism at so many levels.

    Bread and circuses have always been a great diversion.

  6. I think the definition of socialism is seriously deficient. It evades the most important issue: which class owns and controls the means of production. And what drives the economy – is it conscious planning or a somewhat regulated free market? And which class owns and controls the government and how does it exercise that control.

    You define socialism as “Popular control of production so that enterprises are oriented toward meeting the needs of everyone…” But who owns the major enterprises? In Cuba, they were taken over by the state. Is that what you’re talking about? Yes, it is true that the state is not a truly democratic one, that it’s bureaucratic, but the economy is still driven by the state, and that’s why despite the bureaucracy and lack of democracy they have made the advances that they have.

    Given the prominence of what Bernie Sanders advocates, the inevitable interpretation of what you write is privately owned companies (“enterprises”) with some degree of worker input, maybe by workers sitting on the boards of directors. That and more state intervention into the economy. But such an economy would still be unplanned and therefore chaotic and driven by the “free” market no matter how much we try to reform it. That is what was tried in the Scandinavian countries which Sanders says is his model. What few are willing to recognize (including Sanders) is that in every one of those countries they are now cutting back on the very social services that we look to. And the ones doing the cutting are the very Social Democrats (“democratic socialists”) that Sanders talks about. The result is that in all those countries there are growing white nationalist – even fascist – movements.

    Basically, I think that what Sanders is advocating (and this article too!) is a kinder, gentler capitalism. And while any reforms should be welcomed, what’s also important is clarity – especially since we are in an era in which capitalism cannot afford reforms in the long term.

    • Your assumptions about me are incorrect, Oakland Socialist. Bernie Sanders is indeed advocating a kindler, gentler capitalism. I do not.

      The definition of socialism offered was explicitly a short-hand one, not a complete definition. You are correct in referencing the question of who owns the means of production, and that in turn raises the question of social relations. For those interested, I have elsewhere on this blog given a more comprehensive discussion of what constitutes socialism (“There is no democracy without economic democracy“) and I’ve also discussed the limitations of cooperatives (“Bankruptcy of Mondragon company demonstrates limits of cooperation under capitalism“).

      I’ll have more to say in the future about the Swedish model, which I discuss in my next, forthcoming book (What Do We Need Bosses For?). The concept of some Swedish unions, known as the Meidner Plan, was to gradually buy up the stocks of large Swedish corporations and eventually take them over as public entities. Needless to say, Swedish capitalists did not go along with this plan, which was essentially stillborn. And, today, Sweden actually has inequality and poverty levels above the European Union average in an economy at the mercy of larger capitalist forces. So much for social democracy.

      You bring up the question of planning. That is a topic that can’t be avoided. I believe it best to recognize the weaknesses of the Soviet model. Top-down central planning did not work well. No agency or ministry can possess enough information to manage a large economy, and the incentives in the Soviet system contributed to poor-quality production. Some people argue that with today’s computerization it would work, but I am skeptical about that.

      We should not go to the opposite extreme and say we should let markets decide or that we can forego planning. A mix of democratic planning with input from below (lacking in the Soviet variety) and mechanisms for enterprises to communicate and negotiate with other enterprises, including those above and below in the production chain, would have to be worked out. Key industries, which would differ from one society to another but should always include banking and energy at a very bare minimum, should be in public (government) hands but with some form of democratic control. The rest of the economy can be in cooperative enterprises, but with the cooperative cooperating with each one, not competing against one another in a market system. Pricing would need to be negotiated and planning must be flexible rather than be a rigid numerical total imposed from above. There should also be agencies that grant certificates for meeting various social standards, without which an enterprise is not allowed to operate; these could be government agencies, social organizations or some combination of both.

      Obviously, what I have just sketched out here is very basic. There are more details in the links above in this response, and of course there is much more to be said, discussed and analyzed that what I have written there. What we can’t do is impose a blueprint on the future. What we can do is think seriously about the basic contours of a better world, one based on cooperation and not competition, and one that will require a massive global “movement of movements” (as others have put it) conscious of finally putting capitalism behind us. I am in agreement that better future world will have a great deal of planning in it, and obviously it would have no more capitalist class that owns and controls productive enterprises and thereby grabs surplus value.

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