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Socialist ideas must be decoupled from the nightmare of totalitarian regimes

Masha Gessen writes:

There are two ways to misinterpret the comments Bernie Sanders made in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired on Sunday night. When asked by the host, Anderson Cooper, to explain his long-ago praise of the achievements of Fidel Castro’s regime, in Cuba, Sanders said, “We are very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba. But, you know, it’s unfair to simply say, ‘Everything is bad.’ 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?”

One way to spin these statements is to say that Sanders has finally been exposed as the socialist bogeyman that President Donald Trump and the Democratic contender Michael Bloomberg have been invoking, and that, if elected, Sanders will destroy the American way of life in favor of Soviet-style totalitarianism. This was the predictable reaction from the right. The predictable corollary from the left was to say, in effect, that Sanders is right: Cuba has the best education record in Latin America, and universal health care, too.

And then there was a third reaction. The writer Ana Simo responded to the interview with a two-word comment on Facebook: “Moral stupidity.” Another writer, Achy Obejas, commented, “ . . . And there goes Florida . . . ” Halfway across the world, the artist Tania Bruguera got off a plane in Milan, where she is mounting a show, and told me by phone that she “saw the news and thought, Oh, my God.”

These were not expressions of glee. None of these artists is a right-wing ideologue—all three are outspoken progressives, out lesbians, and potential Sanders voters. All three are also Cuban. Simo fled Castro’s homophobic purges as a young woman, in the late sixties, landed in Paris, and later moved to New York. Bruguera divides her time between New York, international travel, and Havana, where her work has been censored and she has been arrested for her art and her activism. Obejas came to the United States with her parents when she was a child, in 1962. She told me on the phone that she doesn’t call herself a socialist, though her political beliefs probably fit the label. But, she said, “It’s quite another thing to consider voting for someone who thinks that a place that caused my parents so much pain is not just O.K. but exemplary in some ways.”

Simo and Obejas are refugees from totalitarianism, as am I. In making his comments, Sanders stepped into the gap that separates the American-born left from those of us who came here from totalitarian countries. The regimes we fled did their best to discredit Marxism, socialism, and leftist ideas in general. To a large extent, they succeeded. When I was growing up, my parents believed, and taught me, that the attempt to build a state in accordance with Marxist ideals—or, really, any attempt to create a society in which everyone contributed what they could and received what they needed—was doomed to produce a totalitarian dystopia. We longed to escape to a land ruled by the blissful and, it seemed to us, natural union of capitalism and freedom.

In the U.S., some of us commenced the long journey to a more complicated view of capitalism. At the other end of this journey lay the realization that capitalism and democracy may not be a match made in heaven, and the hypothesis, supported by the example of Western social democracies, that socialist ideas may yield a freer and fairer society. These discoveries suggested that socialist ideas can and ought to be decoupled from the totalitarian nightmare of our past—indeed, that those totalitarian regimes, whatever they might have written on their banners, had very little to do with those ideas. [Continue reading…]

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