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Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt

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Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt has been engaging with the internal dynamics of the cultural field for two decades. In 1995, she wrote a history of the artist-run Transmission Gallery in Glasgow and extended this into a comparative study of artistic self-organisation to accompany the first major survey of the UK cultural scene, held at the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In 1998, she cofounded salon3, a polyvalent arts organisation, in London. Two years later, she took up a post as a curator at the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art in Helsinki, with a responsibility for stimulating art exhibitions, publications and events throughout the Nordic region and, latterly, the UK and Ireland. As the cultural field succumbed to the neoliberal consensus, she dedicated herself to exploring the politico-economic conditions underwriting artistic practice.

Increasingly deploying an investigative approach, Rebecca has scrutinised the devolution of cultural provision from local government to the private sector. As Researcher-in-Residence at the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry~Londonderry, she interrogated claims of culture-led regeneration being made in relation to the first incarnation of UK City of Culture. As Research Associate at Arts for Health, Manchester Metropolitan University, she compiled an international evidence base around the longitudinal relationship between arts engagement and health, which tentatively demonstrated a positive association between attending arts events and longer lives better lived. Her writing has been extensively published in anthologies, monographs, catalogues and journals, a selection of which is available online.

Rebecca began her journey to Cuba in 2008, in search of new ways of thinking about culture. The following year, she spent five months gathering material in the libraries and archives of Havana. Entering the final editing stages of To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture, she set up the Centre for Cultural Change (, an umbrella organisation that enables critical and creative researchers to explore alternatives to the current socio-cultural malaise.

Watch Rebecca speaking at The University of Nottingham.

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To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution
Author: Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt • Foreword by Jorge Fornet
Publisher: PM Press
ISBN: 978-1-62963-104-2
Published: 09/01/2015
Format: Paperback
Size: 9x6
Page count: 448

Subjects: History-Cuba/Art

Grounded in painstaking research, To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture revisits the circumstances which led to the arts being embraced at the heart of the Cuban Revolution. Introducing the main protagonists to the debate, this previously untold story follows the polemical twists and turns that ensued in the volatile atmosphere of the 1960s and ’70s. The picture that emerges is of a struggle for dominance between Soviet-derived approaches and a uniquely Cuban response to the arts under socialism. The latter tendency, which eventually won out, was based on the principles of Marxist humanism. As such, this book foregrounds emancipatory understandings of culture. 

To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture takes its title from a slogan – devised by artists and writers at a meeting in October 1960 and adopted by the First National Congress of Writers and Artists the following August – which sought to highlight the intrinsic importance of culture to the Revolution. Departing from popular top-down conceptions of Cuban policy-formation, this book establishes the close involvement of the Cuban people in cultural processes and the contribution of Cuba’s artists and writers to the policy and praxis of the Revolution. Ample space is dedicated to discussions that remain hugely pertinent to those working in the cultural field, such as the relationship between art and ideology, engagement and autonomy, form and content. As the capitalist world struggles to articulate the value of the arts in anything other than economic terms, this book provides us with an entirely different way of thinking about culture and the policies underlying it.


"Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt is to be congratulated on having had the courage and tenacity to explore this largely uncharted territory and thereby to have given fresh impetus to the debate on cultural policy in Cuba. With a specific focus on the visual arts, her study is as timely as it is enlightening at this particular historical juncture. This is not only because Cuba is undergoing significant transformations, but also because her detailed study of cultural policy under socialism provides much food for thought for all those interested in broader questions of policy-making and provision. This certainly contributes significantly to our understanding of the current neoliberalisation of the cultural domain in the West."
—Chin-tao Wu, author of Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s

"There is, I am sure, a great deal to be learned from the Cuban experience. And I
couldn't agree with Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt more about the threat to culture under the neoliberal assault on the general population."
—Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus), Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“For all the obvious reasons, there is very little useful scholarship on the achievements of socialism past, present and to come; this valuable study of emergent cultural structures in the Cuban Revolution fills a real gap and reminds us of one of that revolution’s many (and mostly ignored) successes. Cuba is still in existence; maybe it actually has some lessons for us, in our current social distress.”
—Fredric Jameson, author of Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

“Che Guevara believed that art was the highest form of revolution. And Fidel Castro, searching for the appropriate rank to confer upon Guevara at the public wake following his death, called him Artist. To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture, by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, is a brilliant and comprehensive study of the Cuban Revolution’s struggle to counteract neoliberalism’s commodity-oriented degradation of culture with a strategy that recognizes art as an integral part of life, honors the creative mind, and has promoted an ongoing conversation between artist and public that has moved far beyond the borders of the small Caribbean island. It is a struggle that has had its extraordinary highs and painful lows, and Gordon-Nesbitt documents its complex history. This is a must read for everyone interested in Cuba, art, and culture. And it is long overdue.”
—Margaret Randall, author of Che on My Mind

“Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt has written a tremendous book, one that allows us to imagine what culture might look like in a free society—a society where art and culture are not dictated by a market, and can be developed and expressed freely—limited only by the imagination. This opening of the imagination as to what is possible is achieved through a detailed cultural and political description of the early years of the Cuban Revolution. Gordon-Nesbitt finds a wonderful balance between expressing the unencumbered prioritization of cultural expression in Cuba and the various challenges that this process faced.”
—Marina Sitrin, author of They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy

“Writing on cultural policy has completely forgotten the socialist and communist regimes of the 20th century or preserves them as historical memories only. The end of the Soviet Union and the gradual erosion of any explicit social values from the Chinese regime has left us with an impoverished set of cultural policy goals, in which city branding, innovation systems and tourism dollars reign supreme. That there could be another conception of artistic practice and cultural policy; that this could be socialist and not be about tractors and propaganda; that this might persist as a living tradition all this remains hidden from view. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt's new book makes an enormous contribution to the process of retrieving buried histories and opening new futures for cultural policy at a time when the value of culture is utterly debased and obscured.”
—Justin O’Connor, Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

“This study is thoroughly researched and commendably detailed, excelling especially in its methodical approach to tracing the formation and evolution of cultural policy in Cuba from 1959 to 1976. It is likely to prove of considerable use to others working on, and interested in, the relationship between art and politics, not only in Cuba but also beyond the Cuban case.”
—Antoni Kapcia, Author of Literary culture in Cuba: Revolution, nation-building and the book (Manchester University Press, 2012)

“Understanding the uniquely Cuban approach to the support of one of the world’s most celebrated, diverse cultures is essential to a thorough understanding of the Revolution. With meticulous research and insightful analysis, Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt documents the policies, programs and, most importantly, the philosophy behind the active cultivation of vibrant and authentic arts and culture by and for the people. Revolutionary women, like Haydée Santamaría and Celia Sanchez, played a particularly important role in the arts and culture movement and this book gives voice to their invaluable contributions.”
—Betsy Maclean, Editor of Haydée Santamaría: Rebel Lives (Ocean Press, 2003)

“Although there exist academic studies of Cuban art since the Revolution, there has been little examination of the policy underlying this practice. As such, this book is of inestimable value not only to those Cubans and exiled Cubans interested in the policies that have shaped the representation of their cultural identity, and to students of Cuban culture more generally, but also to cultural policymakers in Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”
—Ross Birrell, filmmaker of Guantanamera and founding editor of Art & Research, Glasgow School of Art

“This book will delight some readers and provoke others. But whatever your take on socialist cultural policy, this broadly affirmative account of Cuban experiences makes fascinating reading. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s meticulously researched study makes a substantive contribution to our understanding of the historical development of cultural policy under different political and economic regimes”
—Oliver Bennett, editor of the International Journal of Cultural Policy

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  • Austerity and Culture: Letter from the United Kingdom
    Before embarking upon a discussion of UK cultural policy in times of financial crisis, it is necessary to offer a brief comment on the economic basis of nation states under capitalism. The first point to acknowledge is that the main purpose of gov...

What Others are Saying

Interviews & Mentions


defendTo Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: A Review
by Margaret Randall
Police Futures in Education
April 2016

"PM Press has a worthy list of titles and authors. I salute a press willing to produce this kind of book: so needed but so beyond the range of most publishers these days. On the other hand, I wish a style corrector with a knowledge of Spanish had gone over the text; there are a number of typos and misspellings that, if fixed would have made for a more professional presentation. The index is also somewhat shabbily constructed, with several important references left out.

In the overall context, though, the above complaints are minor. Gordon-Nesbitt has given us a book that is both an extremely valuable research document and a good read, a very rare combination..."

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defendAn excerpt of To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture
by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt
April 27th, 2016

"The main hypothesis of Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s important new book on the cultural policies pursued in Revolutionary Cuba is that there exist possibilities for relations to be created between art and society that are not premised on the profit motive. In the preamble to the book, titled “Cuba as an Antidote to Neoliberalism,” Gordon-Nesbitt makes clear that what motivated her project in militant research is the current market fundamentalism that consigns all cultural production to the needs of economic growth, shaping cultural production into an ideological weapon of capitalist globalization. As a Marxist art theorist with a keen interest in policy I often find myself reading essays on contemporary art waiting for a kernel of wisdom from its author, something that can put contemporary theory into some kind of relation with the history of radical cultural theory..."

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defendTo Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: A Review
by Marc James Léger
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
March 17th 2016

"...In this instance, readers are richly rewarded as they are immersed in a case study where some of the perennial debates among artists and writers of conscience are worked out in concrete historical circumstances in which a socialist society attempts to bring into existence the best of what humanist Marxism has promised, along with the necessity of struggle against the results of centuries of colonialism, the pressures of capitalist imperialism and the failures of Soviet Stalinism. However, as Gordon-Nesbitt makes clear, the political event of the Cuban Revolution is not only a matter of history, but has implications for the future (xxiii)..."

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defendTo Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: A Review
Publishers Weekly
December 2015

In this thorough study based on years of meticulous research, Gordon-Nesbitt, of the Manchester School of Art (U.K.), comprehensively examines policies related to art, film, literature, and other cultural spheres during the Cuban revolution. Gordon-Nesbitt, who is generally sympathetic to “the Cuban experiment,” argues that after decades of “cultural dependency,” the creation of original cultural institutions was considered by Cuba’s revolutionary leaders to be as crucial to the country’s transformation as political and economic changes. A wildly successful literacy campaign and various other efforts were pursued to reduce disparities between rural and urban areas and to extend and democratize cultural participation. Despite internal splits, a uniquely Cuban approach that was “at once anti elitist and anti dogmatic” was pursued in rejection of both Western capitalist and orthodox Soviet models. Eventually, though, what are known as the “Five Grey Years” of 1971–1976 witnessed the temporary triumph of Soviet cultural models, representing “a bleak and treacherous period for cultural policy, characterized by dogmatism and mediocrity.” This immensely detailed and extensively documented academic work will have little appeal to lay readers, but will be much appreciated by Cuba specialists and scholars of art and culture. Photos.

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defendTo Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: A Review
November 9th, 2015

At last! A serious analysis in English, not just of what Cuba did to put culture at the centre of its revolution more than 50 years ago, but also with the valid aim of looking at what we, outside of Cuba and in particular in Britain, could learn from it. A British academic, Gordon-Nesbitt believes that the value of art begins with the actual experience of culture and the arts rather than some of the effects such as the art market and the wealth potential of the ‘creative industries’, unlike the policies of past and present Tory governments. Withdrawing the state from the arts and encouraging market forces to dictate our own culture, erodes the idea of art as essential to society.

Gordon-Nesbitt meticulously explains, how cultural expression was prioritised from day one of the revolution in Cuba, with the aim of ‘arts for all’ and the challenges that process faced, as she traces the formation and evolution of cultural policy from 1959 to 1976. She deals with those points in that evolution that are often dwelt on by critics: Fidel and his ‘Words to the Intellectuals’ speech in 1961, the closing down of Lunes magazine (which was seen by some as too liberal), the Padilla case 1968-71 (when a poet was given a prestigious award but then criticised for his poetry interpreted as reflecting his disillusionment with Soviet influence) and the ‘Five Grey Years’ from 1971 (when the national culture ministry, CNC, influenced by Soviet policy, dogmatically tried to define what art could be about).

However , the author reveals a much more complicated scene, detailing the different players, political tendencies and factors in the debate about to what extent intellectuals could act as the critical conscience of society and sets it all in context. For example, explaining that the CNC was, in the late 70s forced by the Supreme Court to make reparations to creative intellectuals who had fallen victim to its dogmatism. She also explains how cultural institutions set up at in 1959 such as ICAIC and the literary Casa de las Americas were able to resist the restrictions and many artists flourished within them. Researching Cuban archives and interviewing key Cubans, she is able to put the Cuban case and counter the many lies and half truths of commentators outside the island who in her view consistently overestimate the extent to which freedom of expression has been sacrificed.

Much more than this, she emphasizes the Cuban government’s incredible political and economic commitment to getting its people to actively participate in artistic production regardless of geography, income or background. Building new arts schools and institutions, training thousands of arts teachers all over the country is one feat never surpassed anywhere else in the world. 1976 brought the creation of the Ministry of Culture and the loosening of state control in the arts. New head Armando Hart made clear he was interested in artists committed to working, not in the content or aesthetic of their work.

At 350 pages, plus bibliography and timeline, this is an academic study but is stuffed full of fascinating details. Although not focusing on individual artists or movements, it is a must read for anyone interested in how the revolution embraced the arts and what can happen to culture when not dictated by the market.

This review appeared in CubaSi magazine Autumn 2015 issue.

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