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Castroism: Revolutionary or Centrist?

by George Breitman

I found the PC discussion of Cuba starting in August 1978 and the NC discussion at the December 1978 plenum helpful in clarifying certain questions and reaching conclusions on others; the same may have happened with other members who entered the discussion before having made up their minds on everything. At the December plenum I found myself in enough agreement with the NC majority so that I could support the main lines of its reports (later reworked and published as “In Defense of the Cuban Revolution” in Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 36, No. 1, April 1979). This meant agreement that Cuba is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations, requiring not political revolution, the policy we apply to the Soviet Union today, but a policy of reform (to use the terminology we used about the Soviet Union from 1923 to 1933, although the majority report does not use this terminology). But while accepting the main conclusion of the majority report, I continue to question or reject parts of it. In the interests of political clarity and the resolution on Cuba that eventually will replace the majority report, I want to examine some of the differences I still have with the majority document. I will leave aside subsidiary or minor differences[1] and concentrate on one or two questions or clusters of questions I consider to be important politically or methodologically.

The majority report rejects the view, supported by me in the PC-NC discussion, that we should characterize the Castro regime as centrist. Most of us in the discussion agreed, I think, that neither “revolutionary” nor “centrist” fitted the Cuban reality perfectly or completely. Some comrades of the majority said it would take stretching before either of these terms could be applied to Cuba, but they also held that the term revolutionary was more correct because it required less stretching than the term centrist. I conceded that neither term was perfect for the present purposes and said that whatever term was better (centrist, I thought), it would have to be qualified. After the plenum I decided that the term chosen was not as important as a qualification that would correctly convey the complex and contradictory reality of Cuba. Now the written form of the majority report has been printed, and I still find its reasoning on this point wrong.

The majority report doesn’t want to be bothered with qualifications; it prefers simplifications. It says, “If we were to adopt the term centrist to describe them [the Castro leadership team], we would have to say that it is a highly peculiar kind of centrism at best” (p. 23). So what? What’s so terrible about saying that Castroism is a highly peculiar kind of centrism when the report is filled with evidence that Castroism is highly peculiar in many if not most respects, and has been since its birth? And to the extent that Castroism can correctly be called revolutionary, aren’t we compelled in effect to point out the highly peculiar kind of revolutionariness that it represents? So let’s not reject a term, if it fits generally, merely because it does not fit perfectly. That is what qualifications are for. That is how terms like degenerated workers’ state (a highly peculiar kind of workers’ state) came into existence; without such qualifications our education would really be retarded.

Let us recall that our own movement, the Left Opposition, and Trotsky considered Stalinism in its early stages, the decade following 1923, to be a variety of centrism. Because Stalinism had certain peculiarities which made it distinct and unlike other forms of centrism, they called it by a special name, bureaucratic centrism; that is, they qualified the term. I don’t propose that we call the Castroists bureaucratic centrists because that might give the impression that we consider them to be Stalinists, which we don’t. But if on the whole we find the Castroists to be centrists it should not be too difficult to find a scientifically correct term to qualify the noun. (It is true that after 1933 our movement stopped calling the Stalinists bureaucratic centrists, which has led some of our members to think that the term was never correct. But they are quite wrong on this point. After 1933 the Stalinists became counterrevolutionary; that was why the previously correct term for them, a variety of centrism, was no longer appropriate.)

In the majority report the question of centrism is devoid of both complexity and validity. The only pseudo-concession it makes on this score is, “In a loose way, of course, we can say that the Castro current is somewhere between revolutionary Marxism and counterrevolutionary Stalinism.” And it withdraws that immediately by adding, “But that isn’t very useful. It doesn’t help orient us politically. As is usually the case, behind the question of terminology is not so much a theoretical debate as a question of political line” (p. 23).

As one who thought and thinks Castroism veers between revolutionary Marxism and counterrevolutionary Stalinism, I can’t see what is “loose” about that way of viewing it, but I am willing to tighten it here as I did in the NC discussion. Meanwhile I think it described the Cuban phenomenon better than any one-sided, oversimplified characterization. I would also like to have an explanation of why a conclusion that Castroism is revolutionary should help to orient us politically while a conclusion that it is centrist doesn’t help to orient us politically. Can a simplistic reduction of a complex reality ever help to orient anybody politically?

What do we mean by centrism and what is its relevance to Cuba? In the sense that our movement has used the term up till now, centrism is a tendency that oscillates between revolution and reformism, reflecting the pressures of the workers at one time and those of the capitalists at another. Castroism fits roughly or loosely into that category, the fit becoming much tighter when we add that the reformism toward which it gravitates, and by which it is repelled, is a very specific kind of reformism —Stalinism.

There are many varieties of centrism, we also have said in the past, some of them going far to the right, others far to the left. The direction in which they are moving at a given moment has always been stressed by us as a decisive criterion in our assessing and relating to them. I see this as applicable to Castroism too. Where the majority report sees only an undeviating and remarkable consistency of Cuban policy and practice extending over twenty years, denying that the Cubans have ever made a right turn or a left turn in this period, objective analysis I think shows that the Cuban leadership has veered right and left many times in this period, under different pressures, and that it engaged in a major right turn in the late 1960s (which the majority report delicately calls a pause for reflection), and then in a left turn by the mid-1970s.

The pressures to which the Castroists respond are class pressures. Sometimes they express the interests of the working class, but sometimes they express those of the imperialists and capitalists. The majority report praises them for never bending, never buckling, etc. But whose class interests does Castroism serve when it fights against workers’ democracy in Cuba, as it has done for twenty years? Whose class interests did it serve when it backed the Kremlin’s invasion of Czechoslovakia? Whose class interests did it serve when it supported Torrijos in Panama at the very same time that its troops were fighting those of the imperialists in Africa?

Now let us see how the majority report handles this question. First of all it tries to dispose of it by definition: “In several decisive aspects, the term ‘centrist’ does not fit the Cuban leadership. Most importantly, no centrist current that has ever existed could have done what the Castro team has done in Cuba” (lead the workers and peasants to power, begin the socialist transformation of society, checkmate the strongest imperialist power, fight to extend the revolution for twenty years). But if no centrist current that ever existed could do what the Castroists have done, it doesn’t automatically follow that Castroism isn’t centrist; it might mean only that the Castro regime is the first centrist current to have done them, if it is centrist. It would not be the only unique thing about Castroism.

The majority report then has several paragraphs discussing characteristics of centrism that do not fit Castroism: instability, short life, inconsistency between left talk and right deeds, halfheartedness, etc. But these traits are all secondary or tertiary aspects of centrism, insignificant in comparison to the major characteristics (oscillation between revolution and reformism, the importance of the direction in which the given centrism is moving). It is unfortunate that Trotsky is cited copiously on the secondary aspects but not on the primary ones; this is not the way to educate ourselves or anyone else. And it is doubly unfortunate that no room was found in twenty-two long pages to cite or discuss the most relevant thing that Trotsky said about centrism —namely, that under certain special conditions centrists might be able to come to power at the head of a workers’ and farmers’ government.[2] The supporters of the majority report are well acquainted with Trotsky’s view on this matter since they quote it frequently from the Transitional Program where it appears, but they didn’t find time or room to include it in their examination here of centrism and Castroism.

The majority report says, “If we agree that centrists couldn’t have led the Cuban working class to power...” But we emphatically do not agree on that, and it doesn’t seem to me that Trotsky would have agreed either. But let them finish their thought: “If we agree that centrists couldn’t have led the Cuban working class to power, then we have to conclude that they at least began as revolutionists. But if there has been no break in the continuity of their positions, when did they cease being revolutionists and become centrists? If we were to decide they are now centrists, we would have to go back and undo what we said and wrote about the Cuban revolution from the beginning and explain why we were wrong. Or we would have to try to pinpoint a qualitative change from revolutionary to centrist, which doesn’t match the facts” (p. 23).

These are what I can only call trick questions; whatever their aim, their result is to discourage thinking through complicated questions about the Cuban experience. Trotsky tried to alert us to the possibility that “revolutionary” and “centrist” could coincide and coexist at certain times, but the majority report wants us to view such categories as absolutely exclusive (if the Castroists were centrists, they couldn’t have led the revolution; if they led the revolution, they couldn’t have been centrists, etc.). Trotsky prepared us for unexpected developments from leaders of petty-bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, under certain conditions that seem applicable to the beginning of the Cuban revolution, but the majority report seems more comfortable with emphasis on formal distinctions, despite its avowed stress on the primacy of political line.

One thing that has to be rejected completely is the majority’s claim that if we choose the term centrist now we have to go back and undo what we said and wrote about the Cuban revolution and explain why we were wrong. We wouldn’t have to undo anything except a term; the basic analysis would remain unchanged even if we changed that term. Our analysis of the Cuban revolution and our attitude to it did not flow from or depend on our having said revolutionary instead of centrist almost twenty years ago. Our analysis and our attitude never depended on a term or label, but on the revolutionary things the Castroists were doing.

We can easily change the label, if it is otherwise correct to do so, without retracting a single basic thing we said or did. We can still defend Cuba against imperialism even if its leadership is centrist. We can still classify Cuba as a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations even if we decide that Castroism is centrist. We can still be for the reform of the Cuban workers’ state, instead of for political revolution, as we were for reform of the Soviet workers’ state from 1923 to 1933 when we considered Stalinism to be a form of centrism. So we don’t have to undo a thing in what we said and wrote from the beginning, except for the revolutionary/centrist label. And we also wouldn’t have to go through the contortions of trying to pinpoint a qualitative change from revolutionary to centrist, whatever that may mean.

The majority report reminds us that from the beginning the SWP and the Fourth International as a whole have characterized the Castro leadership not as centrists but as revolutionaries. That is quite true, and I fully concurred with that characterization in the early 1960s. But that was a long time ago. A lot has changed since then, including Castroism. We can now see that tendency and its evolution more clearly than we did in 1960 or 1961. On the basis of more information and longer experience we should not be afraid to say something different if we see something different. Otherwise we’d be stuck forever with wrong or inadequate concepts only because they were first adopted a long time ago.

In 1960-61 Castroism was still developing, and largely to the left. It had not congealed yet, it was still in transition and motion, it was still in the process of maturing. It didn’t itself know precisely how it would evolve in the future, and neither did anyone else. We correctly gave it credit for all its positive achievements and as revolutionary optimists did what we could to move it forward to authentic revolutionary Marxism. The most absurd thing is to act as if nothing has happened since then, as if Castroism is virtually the same thing it was two decades ago. Some things may not have changed but others certainly have. Castroism is not Stalinism, and never was, but Castroism is not as independent of Stalinism as it used to be, and it has made a certain amount of adaptation to Stalinist ideology and practice, in both foreign and domestic policy. How can any serious person deny this?

Castroism, we agree, is not a “hardened” or “crystallized” bureaucratic caste of the type that rules in the USSR and can be removed only through a political revolution. But Castroism does rest on a privileged bureaucratic stratum that maintains a monopoly of political power in Cuba. Is this stratum more privileged than it was ten or twenty years ago? Is it bigger or smaller than it was then? These are the kinds of questions we should be examining, but the majority report is not much interested in them.

Twenty years ago the Castroists were against soviets and workers’ democracy; today they are still against them. Can we conclude then that nothing has changed? No, because in the last five years the Castroists have introduced new institutions, assemblies, constitution, etc., whose main purpose is to prevent the introduction of workers’ democracy. So something definitely has changed. At the very least we now can have a better perspective on the Castroist opposition to the building of soviets in Cuba before they became economically dependent on the Kremlin.

To conclude on this point: The term centrism fits Castroism better than any other I have encountered in this discussion, but I can’t make a motion to adopt this term because (1) it does not fit completely and because (2) I have not been able, by myself, to work out a satisfactory qualifying term. But if centrist is not a completely acceptable term, revolutionary is even more unacceptable. My hopes that a correct and adequate qualification of the term revolutionary might be made in the majority report were not realized; and what is printed in our public press contains even fewer qualifications than the majority report.

The majority report should be commended for criticizing certain political defects and errors of Castroism (for the first time in years), but its analysis would be improved if it would stop trying to convince us at every possible opportunity, appropriate or not, that Castroism is and always has been revolutionary. These explanations sometimes take us to the border of apologetics. I feel embarrassment for the SWP when I read what the majority report says about Castroism and Eritrea. So far as I can see, there was nothing progressive or revolutionary about the Castro policy on that question; the blood of the Eritrean revolution is on their hands politically, and we should be able to state it plainly, instead of insisting so strongly on the two-bit differences Castro had on this question with Brezhnev and Mengistu.

When the Castroists do something progressive or revolutionary, let’s be the first to point it out. When they do something nonrevolutionary or antirevolutionary, let’s point that out too. And at all times let’s educate ourselves and others to understand that Castroism is capable of both. That’s the line we ought to have, whatever the terminology we choose.

June 11, 1979


1. For example, I cannot accept the report’s characterization of the Ogaden war in 1978 as an “imperialist-inspired attempt by the Somalian regime to roll back the Ethiopian revolution” (p. 3). Neither here nor in other writings by the supporters of the majority report do I see evidence to support the “imperialist-inspired” claim about the origins of the war. I was dubious about our first position on the Ogaden (support of the Somalians) and I am dissatisfied with our current position (support of the Ethiopians); I think we should have been neutral in this conflict. But I do not go into the matter here because I do not regard it as decisive one way or another for determining the character of the Cuban regime, the degree of its degeneration, the basic attitude we should have to the Cuban CP, etc. I don’t mean that the Ogaden question is subsidiary or unimportant in and of itself —only that it does not really help us to settle much about our differences over Cuba, despite the contentions of the majority and advocates of the political-revolution and state-capitalism positions.

2. Trotsky in 1931: “In some situations victory is possible even with a very bad policy. With the deepening of the [world economic] crisis and its prolongation, with the subsequent disintegration of the social democracy and the demoralization of the [bourgeois] governments, the victory of the German Communist Party is not excluded, even with the policy of the Thaelmann leadership. But, unfortunately, it is merely not excluded. The actual chances for such a victory are not great...” (“Some Ideas on the Period and the Tasks of the Left Opposition,” July 28, 1931, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1930-31), p. 293.)

Trotsky in 1932: “In a previous letter the thought was expressed that under certain historical circumstances the proletariat can conquer even under a left centrist leadership. Many comrades were inclined, I have been informed, to interpret this thought in the sense of minimizing the role of the Left Opposition and of mitigating the mistakes and sins of bureaucratic centrism. Needless to say how far I am from such an interpretation.

“The strategy of the party is an exceedingly important element of the proletarian revolution. But it is by no means the only factor. With an exceptionally favorable relation of forces the proletariat can come to power even under a non Marxist leadership. This was the case for example in the Paris Commune and, in a period which lies closer to us, in Hungary. The depth of the disintegration of the enemy camp, its political demoralization, the worthlessness of its leaders, can assure decisive superiority to the proletariat for a certain time even if its own leadership is weak.

“But in the first place there is nothing to guarantee such a ‘fortunate’ coincidence of circumstances; it represents the exception rather than the rule. Second, the victory obtained under such conditions remains, as the same two examples—Paris and Hungary—prove, exceedingly unstable. To weaken the struggle against Stalinism on the ground that under certain conditions even the Stalinist leadership would prove unable to prevent the victory of the proletariat (as the leadership of Thaelmann could not prevent the growth in the number of Communist voters) would be to stand all of Marxist politics on its head.

“The theoretical possibility of a victory under centrist leadership must be understood, besides, not mechanically but dialectically...” (“On the State of the Left Opposition,” December 16, 1932, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1932-33), p. 35.)

Trotsky in 1938: “Is the creation of... [a workers’ and farmers’] government by the traditional workers’ organizations possible? Past experience shows, as has already been stated, that this is, to say the least, highly improbable. However, one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.) the petty bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they themselves wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie. In any case, one thing is not to be doubted; even if this highly improbable variant somewhere, at some time, becomes a reality and the workers’ and farmers’ government in the above mentioned sense is established in fact, it would represent merely a short episode on the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat...” (“The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” April 1938, in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p. 135.)

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