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Cuba: Radical face of Stalinism

By John Lister

Written: 1983 / 84.
First Published: January 1985.
Source: Published by Left View Books for the Socialist Group.
Transcription / HTML Markup: Sean Robertson for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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Cuba: Radical face of Stalinism

Part I: The Cuban Conundrum.

1. Introduction

Though the suddenness of Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983 stunned many of the USA's main allies – and particularly embarrassed the Thatcher government in Britain – the operation had long been planned and many times rehearsed by US forces.

Since 1979, the US State Department and military hawks had looked with malevolent eyes upon the radical, defiant and popular regimes established after the overthrow of dictatorships in Grenada and Nicaragua. First Carter and then Reagan have levelled threats against these governments and imposed economic sanctions in efforts to bring them to heel.

These sanctions have in turn driven Nicaragua and Grenada towards increasing economic, political and military relations with Cuba in the first instance and, through Castro, with the Soviet bureaucracy. Yet while denying the Sandinistas and the New Jewel Movement the loans and supplies they need to rebuild and develop their pitifully weak and plundered economies, the US administration has lost no chance to exploit for propaganda purposes any kind of link between these countries and the Stalinist-ruled states.

Perhaps the most crass example of this was Reagan's incessant, hysterical denunciation of the Cuban involvement in the Port Salines international airport in Grenada, vitally needed to boost tourism and thus exploit the island's most lucrative natural resource. Reagan claimed that the airport – built to standard civil aviation specifications and now being completed by the stooge administration on the island – constituted a "military threat", potentially "exporting terror" to the Eastern Caribbean or even the USA itself! It would, he suggested, be turned into a Cuban or a Soviet "base": "We got there just in time". Yet every informed observer, including the Plessey contractors who worked on the site prior to the invasion, points out that the airport is without even the most elementary protection against air attack that would be expected of a military base: neither the fuel tanks nor the control tower were protected.

A similar example of such twisted US propaganda is the impending delivery of MIG fighters to Nicaragua. In view of the repeated air strikes on vital economic and other targets being carried out against Nicaragua under the auspices of the CIA by killer squads of "contras" based in Honduras and Costa Rica, it is evident that the Sandinistas have the right and the need to defend their own air space. Yet Washington has declared ominously that the arrival of the MIGs or any jet fighters for defence purposes would "cross a threshold", and that the USA will take undisclosed steps in retaliation. Meanwhile, limitless CIA funds are being channelled into the maintenance of mercenary gangs of "contras" on the borders of Nicaragua, and additional vast sums are being lavished on training and equipping the Honduran armed forces to play a support role to these gangsters in their cross-border raids, as well as assisting the offensive against left wing guerrillas in El Salvador.

To complete this regional picture of US aggression and political instability, we should recognise a new and sharper turn in the long-running American propaganda war against Cuba. Fresh State Department claims that Castro's leadership is plotting an international campaign of "terrorism" and "assassinations" accompanied "no notice" manoeuvres by a naval task force off the Cuban coast late in 1983. The moves to intimidate the Castro government are a component of Reagan's determined drive to crush the revolutionary struggles in the region, and ensure that whatever actions the USA embarks upon next, Cuba is forced – as with Grenada – to look on with largely impotent anger, unable seriously to intervene. Since it is already evident that the Soviet bureaucracy will not act to defend Nicaragua, this leaves Washington a free hand to focus their energies on rolling back the radical aspects of the Sandinista revolution.

There can be no doubt that in these dangerous days there is a real need to stand for the defence of both Cuba and Nicaragua against possible military attack by the USA, and to oppose the systematic build-up against them. In each case there is the principle at stake of defending the national sovereignty of dependent countries against imperialist aggression: but in Cuba there is the additional factor of defending nationalised property relations established during the revolution. Moreover, there is a need to mobilise support for the courageous guerrilla fighters and working class militants in struggle in El Salvador against the US-backed bloodstained regime, and in other countries where imperialism is seeking to tighten its grip. We must oppose each of the varied means used to repress, contain and destroy the forces of revolutionary struggle.

But unconditional military defence of Cuba and Nicaragua against imperialist attack does not and cannot in itself commit socialists on an international level to any political endorsement of the programme and perspectives of the Castro and Sandinista leaderships. It is of course right that we should combat imperialist propaganda and seek to educate and encourage the workers' movement by pointing out the real gains that have been secured by workers in Nicaragua from the ousting of Somoza and in Cuba as a result of the 1959 Revolution. But this does not mean that we have to support each and every step taken by the Cuban and Nicaraguan leaders, or argue today that either leadership offers a finished and correct model to be advocated in current or future revolutionary struggles.

One depressing – if secondary – aspect of the aftermath of the Grenada invasion is that all sorts of political currents who voiced nothing but the most enthusiastic and uncritical support for the New Jewel Movement in its heyday of power suddenly came forward after the invasion with fundamental criticisms of its lack of internal democracy, the populist methods of Maurice Bishop, and the NJM's failure to draw the masses into decision-making at the top.

These criticisms of course have a great deal of validity. Some of us pointed out such things long before the invasion was more than a glint in Ronald Reagan's eye. The correct time to raise them was in the course of the struggle itself, not after the event. We should perhaps be grateful that some lessons have been drawn from experience. But the analysis after the event has proved to be nearly as confused as the uncritical attitudes taken before the invasion.

Many of the "explanations" of the mistakes of the Grenadan leadership focus narrowly and shortsightedly on drawing unfavourable comparisons between the "democracy" of Bishop's New Jewel Movement and that of Castro's Cuban Communist Party. Certainly Bishop and his comrades in the NJM made errors in their policies and in their internal party regime. They also remained throughout the Revolution dangerously isolated from the working masses of Grenada, who had played no part at all in the top-level coup which ousted the vicious Gairy regime in 1979 and subsequently set in train radical and revolutionary measures. The NJM leaders made mistakes in their uneasy efforts to maintain friendly links with both the imperialist and the Stalinist leaders.

But none of these errors are unique to the New Jewel Movement. Rather they are an echo in every detail of the politics and methods of the Cuban leadership, which both Bishop and his rivals in the disastrous top-level feud had always taken as their model. These same methods can be seen in slightly varied form in the shaky balancing act of Nicaragua's Sandinista leadership. Under heavy siege and imminent threat from US imperialism, the Sandinistas have even now left a majority of the economy in the hands of a potential "Fifth column" of capitalists, while the Catholic Church has exploited the Sandinistas' tolerant approach at every turn.

The reality is that Castro's "Communist Party" is not a party in the normal Marxist sense of the term – nor has it ever been one. And the political movements formed in its image – the NJM and Sandinista movements – are undemocratic precisely because they follow Cuba, not because they do not. If the lessons of Grenada are to be taken seriously – and they should be – then they must be taken up in relation to Cuba itself, Nicaragua, and the more general discussion of strategy for Central America, the Caribbean and Third World revolutionary movements.

The Sandinistas, too, have copied the populist methods of organisation and mobilisation from Castro's system in Cuba. A proper, objective accounting of Cuba and the politics of Castroism are therefore of particular importance for the class struggle in the period ahead, not only in the obvious arena of Central America, but also in Africa, where Cuban influence and the Cuban "model" have gained currency following the events in Angola and Ethiopia after 1976, and in every arena where myths and illusions in Castro are a factor in the workers' movement or in left wing circles.

There are four main lines of response to the Cuban regime within the international workers' movement. The first, overwhelmingly the majority at least in the social democratic and reformist labour movements in the Western imperialist countries, is to echo in some form the standard anti-communist propaganda against Cuba, and simply to oppose Castro as a totalitarian figure directly comparable to Stalin. Such an attitude may in some cases be tempered by some awareness that – unlike the hated leaders of the police-state regimes of Eastern Europe, or today's leaders of the USSR – Castro retains mass support at least in part because he actually led a revolution which toppled the Batista regime and brought tangible material benefits to the working people of Cuba. But feeding, as it does, on the lies and distortions of the Western media and upon illusions that social democratic politics are in some way superior as a solution to the problems of the working class, this standpoint is hopeless for making an objective assessment of Cuba – or indeed any aspect of international politics.

The second line of response, with wide support, comprising the membership and periphery of the official "Communist Parties" of Western Europe and internationally, and widely echoed in the anti-imperialist movements of the Third World (most obviously in Latin America) is to regard the bureaucratised, Stalinist regimes of the USSR, Eastern Europe and Asia as "socialist countries", and to support Castro's Cuban regime as a part of this same "socialist camp". Such a view takes no account of the independent interests of the working class in these countries, and sides with the ruling bureaucracies which "defend socialism" by repressing any sign of independent organisation by the class. Like Castro himself, the defenders of this line would in many cases defend the Polish regime's martial law crackdown and crushing of Solidarnosc in December 1981. Many have discarded any more sophisticated view of the world than a crude division between the two "camps" – thus excluding any independent role for the working class in the "socialist states". Others regard the role of the Communist leadership as to exercise power on behalf of the working class rather than give any decision-making power to the workers themselves, and wind up willy-nilly defending the entrenchment of a privileged and self-perpetuating bureaucracy. From this point of view, too, it is quite impossible to arrive at an objective understanding of reality. Crude Western anti-communist propaganda is countered by equally crass Stalinist propaganda which perverts and degrades the language and methods of Marxism and covers over the reality of life in the "socialist" states. Seen in this light, Cuba is certainly an untrammelled workers' paradise: but so, too, is Bulgaria, East Germany or the USSR!

The third view is held by many within the Trotskyist movement and certain other elements on the left wing of the workers' movement who have drawn – from the Hungarian, Czech and Polish events of 1956, 1968 and 1980-81, possibly combined with some more theoretical approach or some reading of Trotsky's writings – a critical analysis of the Soviet and East European Stalinist bureaucracies, and recognise their police-state character: but they sharply distinguish Cuba from such grossly deformed and degenerated workers' states, both because of its recent revolutionary origins and because of its subsequent more overtly radical politics at home and abroad. Cuba, they argue, is neither bureaucratised, nor Stalinist to anything like the degree in these other states: it is the only surviving example of a healthy workers' state, whose tendencies towards bureaucratism, and accommodation with the politics of the Kremlin can be tackled by internal reform. In many respects this view is more in accord with the realities of the present day situation: it shows a more accurate assessment of Stalinism and the so-called "socialist" states, and some grasp of the independent role that must be played by the working class as a class after the overturn of capitalism in such states. But in their appraisal of the situation and system in Cuba and the role that should be played by the Cuban working class, the holders of this point of view acquire the blinkers and rose-coloured spectacles more characteristic of Communist Party members. The standards they would defend in relation to Eastern Europe are abandoned in the case of Cuba: bold Marxist critique is transformed into craven cover-ups.

The fourth approach is held by sections of the Trotskyist movement, and is the one adopted in this pamphlet. It discards the Western propaganda against the Cuban revolution, and firmly defends the real gains that were made after 1959, particularly the nationalisation of the economy (to a far greater degree than in much of Eastern Europe), the elimination of the old exploiters and torturers, and the institution of radical social changes including vastly improved education, health care, other services, and egalitarian policies which have benefitted and prolonged the lives of the workers and peasants of Cuba, particularly the specially oppressed women and blacks. Defending such gains, however, does not mean accepting every one of the steps taken by the Castro leadership, or necessarily identifying the leadership with the gains made. Nor does it mean defending the status quo in Cuba as a healthy workers' state, glossing over such questions as the regime's record of oppressing gay people, or belittling the extent of the bureaucratisation and Stalinist politics now evident in the Castro leadership (which still, 25 years after the revolution, monopolises political power and bans the building of independent working class political organisations or trade unions in Cuba).

Rather, it means looking towards the kind of policies needed to place real power in the hands of the Cuban workers, and break from Stalinist politics both on the domestic and international front. This means breaking the grip of the present ruling bureaucratic elite. Such substantive and deep-going changes can only be termed a political revolution: a complete reorganisation of the political structure, while defending the basis of the nationalised economy.

The approach of this book is not one of abstract criticism, but one directed towards the problem of revolutionary perspective and programme for the workers and peasants of Central America as a crucial component of the international class struggle. Castro's politics must be rejected, not because they infringe on some cherished abstract or purely theoretical dogma, or simply for the sake of intellectually "proving" the necessity for Trotskyist as against petty bourgeois nationalist or Stalinist leadership. We must reject Castroism because its politics today are the counter-revolutionary politics of Brezhnev, Andropov and their Stalinist cronies, translated – with occasional flourishes of left rhetoric – into the terms and language of the Caribbean and Latin America: they are the politics which threaten to stunt the political growth of courageous revolutionary fighters on an international scale, preserve the isolation of the Cuban revolution and could help threaten even the gains so far achieved by the struggles of the Nicaraguan masses.

Similarly, this book will argue that the deformed workers' state erected in Cuba stands in need of political revolution, not as a result of some abstract of sectarian criticism of the wording of this, that or the other document or resolution of the Cuban Communist Party, but because as it is presently constituted, the Cuban workers and peasants are walled off from any means to exercise power in their country, to take or even significantly shape decisions on the economy, political life or – least of all! – foreign policy. Through a mechanism very different in form from the brutal police-state regimes in Eastern Europe, but very efficient in suppressing opposition, the Castro leadership makes it impossible for an alternative political line of struggle to be put forward and debated or adopted through any "normal" or "constitutional" channel.

A final chapter will discuss the implications of the term "political revolution" in the context of a country like Cuba directly under the guns of the world's most powerful imperialist nation, and where the existing leadership so obviously commands immense popular support.

The extent to which a political revolution in Cuba would necessarily be a violent, armed uprising along the kind of lines envisaged by Trotsky for the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the degenerated USSR, remains a moot point even amongst those most critical of the Castro regime and its policies.

However it is plain that only the development of a real struggle in Cuba around demands for workers' democracy, for a break from Stalinist lines of foreign policy, and for genuine workers' control over production and the economy as a whole could create conditions either for sweeping (quite unprecedented) reforms, or for the mass action that would lead to political revolution. In practice, it is only those who advocate political revolution, not the advocates of reforms, who insist upon the need for such struggles, and for a revolutionary leadership, independent of Castroite politics, to take them forward.

It seems that in Cuba, as with so many other situations the (unlikely) scenario of major structural reforms could only become reality as a by-product of a truly revolutionary struggle, while the timid advocates of possible reforms wind up willy-nilly as defenders of the status quo.

But it is appropriate to begin this analysis with a brief account of Castro's rise to power, and the subsequent construction and consolidation of the present-day Cuban Communist Party.

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