MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—Cuba

Cuba and Marxist Theory


Written: 1966/73
Source: Marxist Bulletin No. 8,  New York, 1973
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman.
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.

This Marxist Bulletin opens with a reprint of the document which marks the first expression of what was to become the revolutionary left-wing of the SWP. Shane Mage wrote “Cuba and Marxist Theory” in the summer of 1960. It was then slightly revised and extended by Wohlforth and Robertson who also signed it before submitting it to the SWP intending it essentially as a mere protest against the developing capitulatory line of the SWP toward Castro. Six months later the SWP central leadership forced the issue at a plenary meeting of the National Committee, challenging the left critics to either vacate or defend their views. The plenum struggle hardened the lines of division. Thus half involuntarily a left opposition was then crystallized.

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This document collection centers upon that current of thought within the original left-wing which went on to characterize the Cuban Revolution as having led to a deformed workers state. The principal presentations of other anti-revisionist opinions are advanced, explicitly or otherwise, in the following documents:

Resolution on the Cuban Question, by Shane Mage, 29 May 1961. SWP Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 22, No. 14. (The major document of the left-wing as a whole for the June 1961 SWP National Convention, presented however by the minority without significant discussion within its own ranks is based upon a “Transitional State” interpretation.)

Position on the Cuban Question, by the French Section of the International Committee, December 1961. SWP International Information Bulletin, April 1963. (Argues that Cuba is a “phantom-capitalist” state.)

Trotskyism Betrayed—The SWP Accepts the political Method of Pabloite Revisionism, by the National Committee of the Socialist Labour League, 21 July 1962. SWP Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 1, January 1963. And: Opportunism and Empiricism—A Reply to Joseph Hansen, by the NC-SLL, 23 March 1963. SWP International Information Bulletin, July 1963. (Writings from the standpoint that Cuba is still capitalist.)

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This public bulletin is an outgrowth of a “Spartacist Pre-Conference Discussion Material” bulletin, November 1964, consisting of only the third and fifth items printed here. The continuing importance of the Cuban question and general interest in our views outside the organization has led us to greatly expand what had initially been intended as only a reprinting of the earlier discussion bulletin.

11 June 1966

Addition to MB No. 8 Preface

With the passage of time, a slow drift in the appreciation of old events occurs in the Marxist movement, leading at certain points to sharp departures from what had been previously taken for granted. Sometimes what is in essence a higher and more comprehensive synthesis is arrived at with only incidental loss of particular detail known in an earlier period; and sometimes an essential grasp of reality is dissipated. Which predominates depends on considerations larger than and sometimes remote from the event under consideration.

Haston/Vern Thesis

Certainly the massive enthusing over Fidel Castro by those with pretensions to revolutionary Marxism has been today largely dispelled, or more generally, displaced. But the explanations, rationalizations and substitutes of all the centrist, revisionist and reformist currents have been no improvement. For example, miscellaneous leftist elements presently or recently in the Socialist Workers Party have lately rediscovered in old SWP bulletins the writings on Eastern Europe from the early 1950’s of the Vern-Ryan tendency, a faction in Los Angeles long since dissolved into Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League (itself long since dissolved into the Socialist Party/Social-Democratic Federation). Dennis Vern had in turn borrowed the core of his outlook from the British Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party’s majority faction led by Jock Haston, until the Hastonites liquidated essentially into right-wing Labourism. What is not necessarily appreciated today is that the Haston/Vern thesis—that wherever the Red Army arrived at the end of World War II, by that fact that piece of land was a deformed workers state—was a felt liquidation of Trotskyism, not as logic would indicate to the Stalinists, weak in Britain and the U.S., but ultimately into the reformist reflections of one’s own bourgeois order.

But Haston and Vern did see one aspect of the social transformation in Eastern Europe which was largely lost on the perplexed Trotskyist theoreticians of the time, such as Hansen and Germain-Mandel—namely that account must be taken of the existent armed force as an elementary consideration in seeking to understand what process is going on. But Haston and Vern stopped at only the beginning of wisdom. And they skewed that piece of wisdom besides. The given class character of the state until or unless overthrown certainly determines the direction of social development within the society which that state protects. However, in Eastern Europe the core of the state was a Russian army, agent of the Russian Stalinist degenerated workers state.

In the short run the Russian Stalinist leadership could and did exercise choice (choice not freely arrived at) as to the social outcome—hence the elementary error in the Haston/Vern syllogism “class character of the state equals domination of that class in the society” when the state (army) is Russian and the society is, for example, Austrian or Hungarian. The Russians evacuated the areas they controlled in Austria and Iran but directed the transformation of the bulk of Eastern Europe into social and political counterparts of the Soviet Union—i.e., consolidation in the wake of Russian conquest.

An exception was the particular but at the time not obviously noted case of Yugoslavia, whose social transformation was essentially internally arrived at. Despite the Tito-Stalin split the significance of Yugoslavia only became fully clear in the light of the Chinese and also the Cuban revolutions.


The Yugoslav, Chinese and Cuban revolutions can in no way be explained in terms of a direct imposition of Russian rule—by anybody to the left of the John Birch Society, that is, with the exception of Tim Wohlforth of the Workers League/“International (Healyite) Committee.” And even Wohlforth’s tortured dogmas—that trivial parody of Marxism entitled “The Theory of Structural Assimilation” (a Bulletin publication of 1964)—manifestly collapsed with the author’s inability to incorporate Cuba in his schema. As Wohlforth noted in his preface:

“In the summer of 1961 I wrote a preliminary draft document on the nature of the Cuban state and the theoretical implications flowing therefrom [“Cuba and Marxist Theory” (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 8)—SL note]. The first discussions of this document immediately convinced me that I was utterly and totally on the wrong track. Like the SWP leadership itself, I was simply throwing together scraps of theory to ‘explain’ an impression of reality in Cuba and to justify a political conclusion—one of course far more critical of the Cuban leadership than that of the SWP majority. If I was to get to first base in understanding Cuba it became clear that I had to fit Cuba into a general theoretical understanding of postwar developments as a whole. Thus first I had to wrestle with the theoretical problems raised by East Europe, Yugoslavia and China before I could expect to get anywhere on more current developments. Ironically, the more I reached an understanding of these events the less I found them related to Cuba. So a document, which started out as an analysis of Cuba, does not even deal directly with that question. We are issuing an analysis of Cuba separately.”

Wohlforth’s “theory” boils down to the following: first, absorption of adjacent states into the Russian degenerated workers state; second, social transformation of the newly acquired region; third and finally, its release as a separate deformed workers state—all because of a “defensive expansionist” drive by the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy in response to the urgent threat from capitalist imperialism. Wohlforth even explained North Vietnam’s becoming a deformed workers state by his own version of the “domino theory”: first China was absorbed by Russia and regurgitated, then North Vietnam likewise by China.

But looking at his map Wohlforth noticed that Cuba is rather distant from Russia and an island to boot: Thus was Wohlforth left holding the position which the Workers League still, more or less shamefacedly, advances today—that the Cuban state led by Fidel Castro is capitalist. And this is presumably why the so prolific Wohlforth has left us still waiting in 1973 for the promised “separate analysis of Cuba.” (Come to think of it we haven’t noticed any recent reprinting of “The Theory of Structural Assimilation” either.)

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In opposing the SWP Majority’s revisionism, our original tendency came into existence and fought for three main programmatic points in orienting to the Cuban revolution and its defense: insistence on the Permanent Revolution, i.e. the view that no essential task of the revolution could be achieved short of the victory and consolidation of a workers state; and, correspondingly, insistence on the struggle for hegemony of the working class in the revolution; together with the necessity for a conscious Trotskyist party as the proletarian vanguard to lead that struggle.

“Transitional State”?

As noted in our earlier preface, in 1961 Shane Mage—with the agreement of Wohlforth and with the disciplined support of others in our then common tendency—had advanced a politically principled but theoretically yet vague and indefensible position: that the Cuban state had no yet defined class character, that it was a “transitional state.” This viewpoint, together with the way it was imposed upon the tendency, was one of the early frictions in what finally resulted a year and a half later in the split of Wohlforth from what became the Spartacist tendency. Mage’s 1961 resolution on the Cuban question was brought, previously entirely uncirculated among the tendency, into one New York tendency meeting with the statement by Wohlforth that in any case it had to be submitted to the SWP internal bulletin the following morning. Since a possible majority of the tendency in New York and nationally considered that Cuba had already become a deformed workers state, many of us went along only out of a strong sense of tendency discipline demanded by the programmatic struggle in the SWP.

For the next immediate period the disputed question of what was presently the class character of the Cuban state—Mage’s “transitional state,” the bulk of the tendency’s “deformed workers state,” or (after leaving Mage’s position and a brief fling with the tendency majority’s view) Wohlforth’s “capitalist state”—tended to leave certain theoretical aspects in the shadows, in particular a precise analysis, chronologically specific, of the earlier periods of the Cuban revolution. These differing interpretations, while all conjuncturally consistent with our common programmatic basis, were nonetheless a source of tension within the tendency.

Then in November 1962 Wohlforth, abetted by A. Phillips and Gerry Healy, split from the tendency essentially over whether to seek a bloc with the SWP Majority to head off its threatened unification with the European Pabloists—a policy which Wohlforth/Healy sought to foist on the tendency in the guise of a debate on the nature of the SWP (see Marxist Bulletin No. 2). Our political struggle around the issues raised for the SWP’s 1963 Convention and our unsuccessful fight against expulsion from the SWP (precipitated by Wohlforth’s fabricated “revelations” about us to the Majority) preoccupied our tendency for a year.

In 1964 extensive oral discussion in the New York section of the tendency led to Mage’s pretty much vacating his position and to an arrival by consensus at the following central proposition: Cuba became a deformed workers state with the pervasive nationalizations in the summer and fall of 1960, which liquidated the bourgeoisie as a class.

Since most of our argumentation was directed against the SWP majority, which saw Cuba as evolved from “a workers and peasants government” into a “healthy” workers state “though not yet possessing the forms of workers democracy” and led by “the unconscious Marxist, Fidel Castro” (the Joseph Hansen position), most of our verification centered upon the qualitatively deformed, i.e. Stalinist, character of the Cuban worker’s state: the compulsion for Castro to discover and declare that he was a “Marxist-Leninist” and for the Fidelistas to fuse with the pre-existing Cuban Stalinist party while purging it of its loyalty to the Russian bureaucracy; the existence of a powerful state apparatus of repression, and separate from the masses, as revealed in the massive (and quite justified) incarceration of suspect sections of Cuban society during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; the self-admitted bonapartist role of Fidel Castro personally in arriving at the crucial decisions in the missile crisis, a life or death matter for the whole Cuban people.

A Petty-Bourgeois Government

We took it as incontestable that the Cuban armed rebels who had originally come ashore from the Granma were in every way a petty-bourgeois formation. Their militarily marginal struggle was the last straw for the Batista regime, which was hated by the masses, increasingly isolated from the upper layers of Cuban society and finally abandoned by Yankee imperialism. The rebel army which occupied Havana on 1 January 1959 continued as a politically heterogeneous petty-bourgeois formation possessing massive popular support.

It’s initial coalition government with authentic liberal-bourgeois politicians took place in the context of a shattered old bourgeois state apparatus. In the course of the earlier guerilla struggle—a species of civil war—the commanders of that rebel army had had their previous direct connections with oppositional bourgeois-liberal elements broken and had become episodically autonomous from their class (and in many cases biological) fathers, the Cuban bourgeoisie. After taking power, they were confronted by U.S. imperialism’s clumsy and mounting attempts to bring them to heel through brute economic pressure upon Cuba without corresponding attempts by the contemptuous Eisenhower administration to create the conditions and connections to reknit the new rulers to the old social fabric in order to facilitate accommodation to the brutal demands of the imperialists.

No less crucial than the estrangement created by the civil war conditions between the petty-bourgeois guerilla fighters and the bourgeois order was the absence of a class-conscious combative proletariat which would invariably have polarized these petty-bourgeois militants, drawing some to the workers’ side and repelling others back into the arms of the bourgeois order. Hence the exceptional latitude available to this petty-bourgeois government in the face of the escalating tit-for-tat economic struggle with the American government in that period and under the enormous popular, patriotic upsurge of the undifferentiated Cuban masses.

Deformed Workers State

But when the end was reached with the economic liquidation of the Cuban bourgeoisie (far more systematic and complete than the Chinese Maoists have instituted to this day—even including nationalizing the street ice cream vendors), this petty-bourgeois government even under these most favorable conditions was unable to find a third way between labor and capital to characteristically organize a society, and by virtue of its newly acquired social position—holding a political monopoly at the head of a nationalized economy—was compelled to embrace that ersatz Marxism which is the necessary ideological reflection of a Stalinist bureaucracy, however newly fledged.

To be sure, the existence of the Russian degenerated workers state presented the encouragement of a model and, more important, the material support which made the outcome a practicality. But in no way did the Russians or their domestic enthusiasts directly create the actual process within Cuba itself. The alliance with the Russians was an outcome of, not the precondition to, the formation of a deformed workers state in Cuba.

At no point was there a classless “transitional state” in Cuba. To repeat. in the intervening period between the shattering of the old capitalist Batista state, the compradors of American imperialism, and the consolidation of a deformed workers state, there was a petty-bourgeois government—not a class-neutral one—with the core of its power being the petty-bourgeois Rebel Army. This regime had temporarily become autonomous from the bourgeois order through the violent polarization of the guerilla struggle, moving through a period of great popular (not specifically proletarian) mass upsurge, but as yet not locked upon a nationalized economy. Moreover its existence episodically apart from the fundamental social classes—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—was made possible by the failure of the working class to itself pose a challenge to capitalist rule.

Hence this regime possessed the indeterminancy in outcome and tension of either the potential to regenerate and consolidate a capitalist state or for a section of that regime to lock on to the form of nationalized property and thus verify through a living process the validity of the earlier Trotskyist characterization that, viewed from a most general standpoint, the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy is in one of its central contradictory aspects—i.e., the transmission belt for the pressure of the world bourgeois order on a workers state—a petty-bourgeois formation. The decisive section of the Castroites could make the transition to the leadership of a deformed workers state because in the absence of the egalitarianism and proletarian democracy of a state directly won by the working people, they never had to transcend or fundamentally alter their own radical petty-bourgeois social appetites, but only to transform and redirect them. And parenthetically, in this is both the decisive significance and the necessity of the political revolution, approached from the Cuban experience, i.e., from a different aspect than that of the long, losing rearguard action that Trotsky fought in Russia in the 1920’s.

from Political Bureau Minutes No. 7, 8 July 1973:
Motion: To adopt the political thrust of the addition to the preface to Marxist Bulletin No. 8. Passed
Extensions and corrections made, 8 August 1973.