Thinking About Socialism: the New Cuban Social Sciences

By Juan Luis Martin

[Juan Luis Martin is Director of the Centre for Psychological and Sociological Research (CIPS) in Havana. The following article is reprinted from the March-April 1999 edition of the US magazine NACLA Report on the Americas.]

As in other fields of scientific production, the development of the social sciences is intimately related to the specific problems faced by a given society, and the ways different groups within that society -- particularly dominant groups -- respond to those problems. In Cuba, dramatic events on the international scene in the 1990s have given rise to new social, economic and political problems which have made a deep impact on the Cuban social science community. The most notable of these include the abrupt collapse of the socialist experiments in Eastern Europe, the economic success of what is called "market socialism" in China and Vietnam, the expansion of globalisation, the telecommunications revolution and the growth of environmental problems. Each of these factors has had powerful repercussions in Cuba's economic and social life and in shaping the thinking and research agenda of the social science community.(1)

Perhaps above all, the collapse of Eastern European socialism signaled the shake-up of the dominant social reference point in Cuba, marking the beginning of a critical evaluation both of the premises associated with that model and of the very practice of what was called "really existing socialism". The East European debacle had two basic effects on Cuban social research. On the one hand, academic exchanges -- which had grown dramatically with the East bloc between 1975 and 1986 -- dropped off completely, leading to the cultivation of more diverse relationships with scholars elsewhere. In 1991, for example, the 18th Congress of the Latin American Sociology Association (ALAS) was held in Havana. Some 3000 researchers from throughout the region attended this conference, allowing Cuban scholars to reconnect with trends in social theory as well as with prominent academic figures from the region. Later, contacts were broadened toward the North American academic community, especially through the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), as well as with academic institutions in Western Europe.

The expansion of exchanges with academic communities of varied theoretical orientations initially produced a certain mimetic tendency, reflecting the insufficient intellectual maturity of the Cuban social science community. Soon, however, Cuban scholars began to rediscover the value and meaning of their own intellectual and human experiences as well as to explore new venues in which the confrontation of ideas could take place. In the process, new scholarly journals began to appear, and today there are many more such outlets for scholarship than a decade ago. Magazines such as Temas, Contracorriente, Cuadernos Americanos, Bimestre Cubano and Cuba Socialista are beginning to play an important role in stimulating processes of synthesis and debate.

The second effect was the development of a more thoughtful, less rigid approach to the methods of developing socialism. Indeed, the preceding period was characterised by the growing prevalence of a highly simplified and vulgarised Eastern European variant of the ideas of Marx and Lenin. In the mid-1980s, perestroika generated a current of sympathy in academic sectors, characterised by the frequent proposal of reforms similar to those adopted by what was then the Soviet Union.(2) But the denouement of the Eastern European experience prompted a more measured evaluation of the nature, pace and paths to perfecting the socialist system.

In contrast with the collapse of Eastern European socialism, the economic success of the Chinese and Vietnamese experiences has heightened attention by Cuban research centres to these experiments of using the market as a means to building socialism. There have been, for example, a number of excellent analyses of the achievements as well as the theoretical and practical problems posed by market socialism. A number of research projects on the evolution of these experiments have also been carried out, both within and outside the National Program on Science and Technology.

Beyond these immediate and direct effects, the collapse of Eastern European socialism poses deeper questions about the theory of constructing socialism under contemporary conditions, about capitalism as a social system, and about the place and role of different actors in the historical process. These new global circumstances have forced Cuban scholars to reexamine the different visions of socialism that have influenced both the world of politics as well as the social sciences since the end of the last century. But scholars have yet to develop a theoretical framework that fully addresses the issues at stake.

There have been many conceptions of socialism over the past 150 years -- from the First International to the Third World national liberation movements that flourished after World War II -- which have been critical in shaping the evolution of the socialist project in Cuba. But the Cuban revolution always placed a heavy emphasis on the role of subjective factors. In particular, the architects of the Cuban revolution emphasised the role of ethics as a basic element in politics and in mechanisms of mobilisation and social integration.(3)

The validity of different conceptions of socialism -- as well as the roads to building it -- are conditioned, of course, by the situation of "really existing" capitalism in the current period. Answering the pertinent questions posed by this reexamination of socialism is the most important strategic task, not only of the social sciences in Cuba, but of all those members of the intellectual community who agree that it is both important and necessary to find a formula of social organisation capable of offering humankind a rational and ethical alternative to its principal challenges. From this flows the more particular and specific questions involved in the case of Cuba.

The changes in the international situation are spurring internal policy shifts that are rapidly transforming Cuban society and the nature of the social problems it faces. These changes include the transformation of the economy from a state-run to a mixed economy; the diversification in property forms, including the expansion of cooperative property; the emergence of the self- employed, small-scale businesses and mixed enterprises; the new finances and dual-currency economy; the progressive decentralisation of state enterprises; and the expanding role of tourism. All this has modified the basic relations of production and distribution forged in the first three decades of the revolution, generating an extraordinary range of social, political and cultural problems.

First and foremost, the new policies are creating changes in the class structure of Cuban society by stimulating the emergence of new social forces as well as a process of internal differentiation among the country's traditional social sectors. Second, they are prompting changes in patterns of investment and with those changes, an increased differentiation among regions. Third, they are altering long-existing channels of social mobility, which in turn is changing traditional collective understandings and values.

These transformations are taking place in a context marked by increasing flows of information -- including access to the Internet -- that continually broaden the range of available reference points. The vast access to information may lead to an expansion of analytical capacity, or it may degenerate into little more than people speaking past each other. Which of the two directions this takes will depend, in great measure, on the theoretical solidity of the academic community. A debate about the objectives of history and a critique of contemporary thought has therefore become all the more urgent.

The situation has given rise to a relative reordering of research priorities. One of the main tasks in which Cuban scholars should be engaged is the analysis and systematising of the fundamental principles of socialism in the world and in Cuba. This is being done through research on issues such as the intellectual foundations of the Cuban revolution, including the thought of Jose Marti, the different readings of Marxism, the evolution of contemporary capitalism and the causes of the collapse of socialism.

Another focus of inquiry is the nature of the globalisation process and its economic, social, cultural, environmental, juridical and political impact in Cuba and Latin America. The monitoring of recent changes in Cuba's domestic social structure is another main avenue of research. This line of investigation emphasises the impact of these changes on the objective level as well as on the subjective level of perceptions, social representations and predominant values.

The ongoing process of globalisation is the object of growing scholarly attention for two essential reasons. First, the impact of globalisation on the nation-state as an historical form of community is vital for a revolution whose birth was intimately linked to the process of recovering the true identity and sovereignty of the nation. Second, the process of globalisation poses many new questions for international relations, the global and local economies, cultural dynamics and the evolution of social classes. More generally, it remains to be seen whether the capitalist system will be capable of assimilating this "new world order" without collapsing -- or destroying humanity altogether.

New research is also focusing on improving the operation of the political system, with special attention to the state. This encompasses issues such as reforms in the judicial system, social policy and the organisation of the emerging sectors of the economy, such as tourism, science and mixed-property sectors.

Perfecting the social-security system and adjusting it to the new circumstances has also received considerable attention by Cuban scholars. This includes analyses of the educational system, the mass media, social organisations and policies, and mechanisms of social control. It also includes the analysis of questions linked to the control of specific social problems, such as criminal activity or public-health problems such as HIV-AIDS. Scholars are also evaluating the changes in the country's international relations, and they are beginning to seriously examine the emigre phenomenon in general and relations with the Cuban community abroad in particular.

Three independent, though state-funded, National Social Science Programs, grouped under the subjects "Cuban Economy", "Economy and International Relations", and "Cuban Society" were founded to address these concerns in 1996. The objective of the latter program was to characterise the current status of Cuban society and to forecast its possible evolution. Specific subjects being investigated include civil society, religion, municipal governments, community and sustainable development, youth, labour relations, the family, the educational system, emigration and the Cuban community abroad.

New organisational formulas are being developed to address the long-standing problem of fragmentation among the disciplines and the trend toward an abstract academic focus as opposed to a more practical, problem-oriented approach. The complexity of the situation facing the country and the series of threats it still faces make it more likely government agencies as well as society at large will pay close attention to the results of these investigations.

The Cuban social science community is particularly sensitive to the contradictions of globalisation, in part because of its own historical experience, and in part because of its unique situation in the current period. Throughout its history, Cuba's internal situation has been conditioned by its insular character, its small sise and geographical position, its natural resources, and of course, its political history. These factors, in turn, have affected the nation's position in the world.

Right now, for example, Cuba is highly vulnerable to the environmental degradation that is occurring worldwide. This is the case not only because of Cuba's unique geopolitical characteristics, but also because tourism, which poses a host of new environmental questions, is expanding rapidly throughout the country. This has prompted both the government and independent research centres to engage in research on environmental issues.

Cuba seems today to be more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the international system. This makes it critical for Cuban scholars to continuously evaluate the process of globalisation, a process which today is fundamentally marked by the near-universal application of neo-liberal economic policies. For this reason, the historical evolution of globalisation may both hinder and promote the development of socialism in the future. On the one hand, the acceleration of the processes of centralisation and concentration of capital has increased the power of transnational corporations and institutions, leading to the formation of gigantic economic blocs and the homogenisation of culture along Western lines.

On the other hand, the process of neo-liberal development is increasing the number of people who are economically and socially excluded from society on a world scale, in what seems to be an end-of-the-century variant on the process of the immiseration of the working class foreseen by Marx.(4) It is also exacerbating environmental problems and the vast income disparities between the world's rich and poor. This has had the effect of raising awareness of the need for an alternative system to capitalism and mobilising solidarity among those trying to build such a society.

Just as the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the nation- state in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the birth of the modern social sciences, the simultaneous processes of globalisation under neo-liberal principles and the fragmentation of social institutions currently underway will profoundly change the nature of the economic, political and social problems facing humanity as a whole and Cuba in particular. This, in turn, will prompt a deep transformation of the issues, theories and methods used in the social sciences over the next several decades. Most likely, the very nature of the social sciences will change, just as the natural and technical sciences are changing and adapting to rapid changes in the current milieu.

Social researchers have the responsibility of identifying these problems and proposing solutions according to a value framework anchored in a concern for social justice and equality. As in all genuine scientific activity, this task implies a commitment not only to the nation, but to humanity as well. The work of social researchers will not only be motivated by the quest for technical rationality, but also by an ethical orientation. The magnitude and complexity of the problems to be addressed may result in an eclectic fragmentation, or it may contribute to the synthesis required by this new period. How the Cuban scholarly community responds to the challenges ahead will reflect the degree of intellectual maturity acquired over the past 40 years.

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1. Juan Luis Martin, "La investigacion social en Cuba", paper presented to the Conference of Cuba Studies of the Cuban Research Institute, Florida International University, Miami, October 10, 1997.

2. Rafael Hernandez, et. al., "Las ciencias sociales en la cultura cubana contemporanea (Mesa Redonda)", Revista Temas, No. 9 (1997), pp. 68-86.

3. Rafael Rojas, "El discurso de la frustracion republicana", in Horacio Cerutti, El ensayo en nuestra America (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1993), pp. 389- 432.

4. James Petras, "Intelectuales: Una critica marxista de los post-marxistas", in Francisco Lopez Segrera, ed., Los retos de la globalizacion (Caracas: UNESCO, 1998), pp. 221-283.