Workers Socialist League Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

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).

Copyleft: Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line ( 2013.
Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons license. Please cite any editors, proofreaders and formatters noted above along with any other publishing information including the URL of this document.

Cuba: Radical face of Stalinism

Part II: Some Answers: Right and Wrong.

10. Trotskyism and the Cuban Revolution: The Reactions.

Despite the jailing of the Cuban Trotskyists, the smashing of their printshop and the illegalisation of their party; despite the Fidelista's fulsome praise for the Stalinist saboteurs and for the Kremlin gang, there were strong elements in the Trotskyist movement who hailed the Castro leadership as "anti-Stalinist" (or at least non-Stalinist) and consistently revolutionary.

Indeed it was on the basis of this common evaluation of the Cuban revolution that the Pablo / Germain International Secretariat reunited in 1963 with the American Socialist Workers Party which ten years earlier had led the resistance to Pablo's opportunism and tail-ending of Stalinism.

The reunification documents spell out their shared illusions:

"The emergence of mass revolutionary forces led by parties or tendencies which have developed outside the realm of Stalinist control (Cuba, Algeria) has introduced a most powerful disintegrating element into international Stalinism, favouring the development of a revolutionary left wing . . . "
(Dynamics of World Revolution Today, p. 41)

In reality the assimilation of the Cuban leadership was by the late 1960s to enable the Kremlin leadership to tighten its influence inside the Stalinist movement, combat its left-talking Chinese rivals, and acquire fresh influence amongst liberation movements. But the "United Secretariat" was filled with hopes that they could form part of a new, primordial stew of political development centred on Cuba:

"The infusion of Trotskyist concepts in this new Castroist current will also influence the development of a conscious revolutionary leadership, particularly in the workers' states, will help prevent "Titoist" deviations and better assure the evolution of mass pressure and direct action into the cleansing force of political revolution."
(Ibid, p. 42)

In reality, the "infusion" of Stalinist concepts into the "Castroist Current" was already well advanced by the time these lines had been written, and Castro has repeatedly emerged as an opponent of political revolution, from the time of the Czech invasion up to and since the crushing of Solidarnosc. Castro's demagogic denunciations of "bureaucracy" in Cuba were however enthusiastically praised:

"In 1962 Fidel Castro voiced burning denunciations of the incipient bureaucracy in the Cuban workers' state and followed this by condemning the bureaucracy as being based on materially privileged elements in the state and the economy, divorced from the mass of workers. The attack Fidel Castro launched against the Anibal Escalantes of Cuba sounded like a repetition of Leninist and Trotskyist speeches heard in the Soviet Union almost forty years ago."
(Ibid, p. 63)

No mention here of course of the fact that those who attempted to reprint Trotsky's material in Cuba had their printing presses smashed and were thrown in jail. Castro's attacks on a few "Anibal Escalantes" were actually welcomed by many other Anibal Escalantes – not least the Kremlin gravediggers of the Bolshevik leadership!

The United Secretariat also latched gladly on to the "astute" suggestion by one American radical journalist that the Cuban leadership were "unconscious Trotskyists" (p. 68) – without explaining how such a contradictory category of being (likened by the British SLL to a "cold blooded mammal") could come into being, or what use it could have for the workers' movement. And in a paean of praise both for Castro and implicitly for the Stalinist party under construction in Cuba, the United Secretariat attempted to straddle both the Castroite and the orthodox Trotskyist approach to party-building by arguing:

"The victory of the Cuban revolution has led some tendencies in the international labour movement to put a question mark on the necessity for building revolutionary Marxist parties, and especially on the necessity of building a democratically centralised revolutionary Marxist international. Such a conclusion is all the more unfounded in view of the fact that Fidel Castro, as a result of his own experience in a living revolution, today stresses the decisive importance of building Marxist-Leninist parties in all countries."
(Ibid, p. 73)

Despite all these hints and suggestions that Castro had in some way approached the Trotskyist programme, the reality stubbornly refused to fit the schema drawn up by the United Secretariat. Far from Trotskyist concepts being "infused" into the Castroite current, the Second Declaration of Havana in February 1962 had spelled out a straightforward perspective of popular frontism on a continental scale – a slightly revised "block of four classes" including whole sections of the bourgeoisie. The picture was if anything made even more confused by the Castroite insistence that the national bourgeoisie cannot play the leading role in anti-imperialist struggles – thus leading implicitly to the classical Menshevik / Stalinist / petty bourgeois notion of a cross-class "anti-imperialist front". Castro shared with Mao and Bukharin the notion that the bourgeois forces would be supposedly under some form of "hegemony" of the working class. Any insistence upon drawing class lines in such "fronts" was dismissed as "sectarianism" by the Cuban leadership:

"Divisionism, a product of all kinds of prejudices, false ideas and lies; sectarianism, dogmatism, a lack of broadness in analysing the role of each social layer, its parties, organisations and leaders, make difficult the necessary unity of action of the democratic and progressive forces of our peoples. They are defects of growth, infantile sicknesses of the revolutionary movement, which must be left behind. In the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggle it is possible to bring the majority of the people resolutely behind goals of liberation which unite the workers, the petty bourgeoisie, and the most progressive layers of the national bourgeoisie.
. . . That movement would pull along with itself the most progressive elements of the armed forces, also humiliated by the Yankee military missions, the betrayal of national movements, by the feudal oligarchies and the sacrifice of the national sovereignty to Washington's dictates."
(Second Declaration of Havana, Pathfinder ed., pp. 20-21)

Conspicuously this extended statement makes no reference to socialist revolution. Instead it maps out a scenario for cross-class fronts which would plainly result in hog-tying the proletariat and poor peasants to the conservative and reactionary politics of "progressive layers of the national bourgeoisie" and patriotic "anti-imperialist" army officers. Yet the USFI reunification document claims breezily and without evidence that the Castroist leadership had:

"systematically sought the international extension of the socialist revolution, at least throughout Latin America."

Nor were these dogged USFI views dented in the least by Castro's strident attacks on Trotskyism as "a vulgar instrument of imperialism and reaction" from the rostrum of the Tricontinental Conference of January 1966. It was argued that Castro was maybe attacking the Chinese, or may be having a go at the Posadas current (whose sectarianism had developed out of all proportion after his break from the IS in 1962). But Castro's stance towards Trotskyism has in no way mellowed with time. In the summer of 1978, the official newspaper Granma carried a rather surprisingly vehement attack on "Trotskyism" (which was scarcely a major day-to-day headache in Cuba) as:

"an adventurist, anti-Soviet, anti-party, anticommunist ideological and political current."
(June 18, 1978)

The article went on to run through a standard Stalinist slander sheet against Trotsky and to approve of the expulsion of Trotskyists as "counterrevolutionaries" from the CPSU in the 1920s. It labelled contemporary Trotskyist activity as "ideological subversion within the ranks of revolutionaries". Interestingly, 1978 was also the year in which it emerged that Stalin's agent who had murdered Leon Trotsky, Ramon Mercader, had died – in Havana.

Having assimilated and been assimilated by the politics of Stalinism since 1959, the Castro leadership remains virulently and instinctively hostile to Trotskyism – and indeed to any form of proletarian opposition to their bureaucratic rule.

But this by no means vindicates the main opponents of the United Secretariat view within the Trotskyist movement. While the USFI focussed simply on the "revolutionary" face of Castroism, and swallowed every aspect of Castro's demagogy – even embellishing it a little for their own ends – the remaining International Committee groupings who opposed the 1963 Reunification exploited the obvious shortcomings in the USFI argument to deny that any overturn of capitalism had taken place at all! The British Socialist Labour League, led by Gerry Healy, and the French group around Pierre Lambert (later to form the OCI) insisted (with some correctness) that a decisive missing factor in Cuba had been a revolutionary party of the working class. But their mechanical conclusion from this correct premise was to insist not on the deformation of the revolution, but that capitalism still prevailed in Cuba! The SLL argued:

"In our opinion the Castro regime is and remains a bonapartist regime, resting on capitalist state foundations. (emphasis added) Its bonapartist nature is determined by the fact that the working class, because of the Stalinist misleadership, is unable to take and wield state power – while on the other hand the big comprador-bourgeoisie which supported Batista is too weak and decimated to retake the power in the present period ( . . . )
The regime, however, is a variety of capitalist state power. (emphasis added) The Castro regime did not create a qualitatively new and different type of state from the Batista regime. What it did do was to clear out the old judges, administrators, bureaucrats, diplomats and policemen and replace them with people who supported Castro. ( . . . )
. . . Cuba has witnessed, not a social revolution which has transformed state power irrevocably from one class to another, but a political revolution which has transferred power from the hands of one class to another section of that same class. (Original emphasis)"
(SLL National Committee resolution, July 1962, in Trotskyism v. Revisionism, Vol 3, pp. 258-59)

Such "analysis" – bearing so little relation to the concrete realities in Cuba – was hard enough to defend in 1962. Its credibility rested chiefly on the weaknesses of the case of those who argued that Cuba was a healthy workers' state and Castro an "unconscious Trotskyist". But it looks particularly bizarre 21 years later, when the Stalinist character of the state has been so clearly established.

The French section, which had originally argued, by analogy with the Spanish Revolution, that Castro's Cuba was a "phantom capitalist" regime, surreptitiously ditched this bizarre formula m 1980, and adopted the rather more plausible (if no less confused and dangerous) notion that Castro's "workers' and farmers' government" had simply been propelled by "mass pressure" into going farther than the July 26 Movement leaders had wished along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie. This conception is also misleading, since it grossly underestimates the impact of external circumstances – particularly the global impact of imperialism and Stalinism – on the Cuban revolution. It leaves open the door to illusions that other petty bourgeois nationalist leaderships can likewise, simply as a result of internal "mass pressure", be forced to carry out similar overturns of capitalism.

Certainly many would-be Trotskyists – particularly in the USFI – have ever since 1961 fondly imagined that other revolutions in the Third World might spontaneously evolve along the "Cuban Road". Such an approach fails to grasp the vital distinctions between the Cuban events and those in every subsequent liberation struggle.

In fact it was not Cuba but Algeria – with its institutionalisation of a radical petty bourgeois regime with a strong state capitalist sector and ties to imperialism – which was to form the basic pattern for coming developments in colonial revolutionary struggle. Having failed to learn the necessary lessons from the evolution of the Cuban revolution, into a deformed workers' state, would-be Trotskyists went on to take an equally wrong-headed attitude towards the Algerian FLN leadership and towards subsequent victorious radical petty bourgeois leaderships, up to and including those in Nicaragua and the NJM in Grenada.

By debasing the coinage of the Trotskyist programme, carelessly labelling the Castro regime firstly a "workers' and peasants' government" and then without qualification a "workers' state", the leadership of the SWP and USFI were forced to abandon the most elementary criteria on which such matters should be judged. One consequence was a head-over-heels love affair between the USFI leadership and the Algerian FLN leadership under Ben Bella. The love affair was, needless to say, a one-way effort, but in 1964 it saw Ben Bella's regime rewarded with the accolade of being categorised as a "workers' and peasants' government" – a seal of approval which was only to be retracted some five years later, long after the ousting of Ben Bella (1965) and the rightward turn of the regime under Boumedienne.

The USFI's self critical resolution of 1969 was a stark contrast to their previous enthusiasm. SWP leader Joseph Hansen, writing in The Militant in 1963 had applauded the fact that "Ben Bella's first appeal is to the peasantry". He pointed to what he called:

"the already evident tendency of the revolution to develop in the socialist direction . . . "

Ben Bella's was a leadership, he argued:

"which intends to move in a socialist direction, but which lacks Leninist clarity."

Ben Bella's forcible takeover of the UGTA Union confederation by FLN thugs was not even reported in The Militant, while the French USFI group actually focussed their criticism not on Ben Bella but on the UGTA. On the other hand The Militant gave two whole pages to the March nationalisations and "self-management" decrees, with Hansen declaring:

"The tendency of the Algerian Revolution to develop in the socialist direction has grown even stronger."

Hansen made no report, however, of the April budget, in which Ben Bella increased spending on the army and police, taking on French-trained gendarmes.

Only from such a highly selective and subjective viewpoint was it possible to portray the Ben Bella government as a "left wing" body, making only progressive moves towards the masses and against imperialism. From the standpoint of the struggle for revolutionary leadership, an objective, all-sided assessment of the Ben Bella government was essential, one that exposed the continued links to imperialism. Ben Bella was attempting to secure a foothold by balancing between token concessions to the masses, alongside practical measures to strengthen the state apparatus on which the power of the petty bourgeoisie (and capitalism) rested.

In 1969 the USFI disappointedly admitted:

"The Ben Bella team was of a much lower revolutionary political stature than the Castro-Guevara team in Cuba. It failed especially to smash all surviving elements of the bourgeois army . . . "

The 1969 Resolution confesses to having believed that the FLN army could play the role of a revolutionary party in Algeria: but complains that its confusion arose in part from "incorrect formulas" with regard to the Algerian state from Michel Pablo (who had gone the whole hog and become an advisor to the Ben Bella government). Amongst the weird and wonderful ideas served up by Pablo and swallowed whole by the USFI in that period were the notions of Algeria as an "anti-capitalist state" or even a "semi-workers' state".

From this completely cock-eyed picture of events, the leadership, and the tasks that needed to be accomplished, the USFI had embarked upon a craven tail-ending of Ben Bella. In their own words:

"it (the USFI) assigned to mass mobilisations essentially the role of supporting the Ben Bella tendency, and carrying out the programme of the FLN, failing to appreciate that it was crucial for the urban and rural proletariat and poor peasantry to set up independent organs of power, and clinging to the utopian, non-Marxist concept of the possibility of a gradual change in the nature of the state." (emphasis added)

If Trotskyists don't fight for Marxism and their own programme, they wind up willy nilly embracing "non-Marxism", and somebody else's programme!

According to the USFI, the Algerian events made them lose track of what they should have been doing as Trotskyists. Instead, they:

"set the task for revolutionary Marxists of collaborating in the formation of a revolutionary socialist left, led by the FLN (!!) instead of stressing the need to work among the ranks first to create a revolutionary Marxist organisation linked to the Algerian masses . . .
( . . . ) Too little was done in carrying out the specific functions of the Troskyist movement, to form the nucleus of a future Algerian revolutionary party. The work of training and recruiting Algerian militants was neglected for work at the top."

It is one of life's bitter ironies that this scathing and accurate self-criticism should have been adopted at the same USFI Congress which also voted by a majority to adopt a crazy continent-wide orientation to guerrilla warfare for its Latin American sections – once again in practice turning aside from the "specific functions of the Trotskyist movement" and deludedly chasing after radical petty bourgeois guerrilla forces. The guerrilla "turn" by the USFI even took place just after the bandwagon had stopped rolling: Castro himself had the year before abandoned the guerrillaist perspective for Latin America. The USFI, however, impervious both to reality and even to bitter experience, was not to cast aside its own guerrilla orientation until the late 1970s – by which time it had brought disastrous consequences for the USFI's Latin American cadre.

Nearly every one of the errors in the USFI's approach to Algeria and subsequent revolutionary movements – most obviously in Nicaragua – can be seen to trace its roots from the false and superficial analysis that had been made of the Cuban revolution. But while the turn of the Algerian leadership firmly back towards imperialism left the USFI high and dry with its theories, the assimilation of Cuba into the Stalinist orbit left sufficient ostensible leftism and loopholes for most USFI leaders to avoid any reckoning until the late 1970s.

In 1978 / 79, however, a discussion broke out between European leaders of the USFI and the leadership of the American SWP as to whether the Cuban leadership – clearly and firmly entrenched as a bureaucratic caste controlling all the levers of power, and subordinate to Soviet foreign policy – could correctly be termed revolutionary. Was it not at least centrist – or actually Stalinist? Was it not now necessary to call for political revolution in Cuba?

This reassessment arose in part from the aftermath of the USFI Majority's self criticism of the 1969 guerrilla turn. It was also partly a consequence of the Cuban involvement in crushing the Eritrean liberation struggle through its support for Mengistu's bloodstained Ethiopian regime. Indeed many who have shrunk from calling the Castro regime a bureaucracy or branding it as Stalinist have made strong criticisms of Cuba's anything-but-revolutionary foreign policy in the late 1970s. To a degree these criticisms became suppressed following the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions of 1979. But significant critiques of the Cuban leadership have been drawn up by various minority opponents of the SWP line in the USA (some of whom had been consistently attacking this line for many years). Some regarded the Cuban leadership as a Stalinist bureaucracy, some as centrist; in Europe, the mainstream opposition of the USFI majority to the SWP line basically accepts that Cuba is some form of healthy "workers' state", but takes up criticism of its policies. One hard-hitting critique by Claude Gabriel (Intercontinental Press, Feb. 19, 1979) poses, but fails to answer, the question of whether his analysis means that the USFI has to change its analysis of the Cuban leadership:

"What we can say, at least, is that this foreign policy is an element accelerating the process of bureaucratisation in Cuba."

The most developed statement on the Cuban leadership from the USFI Majority is a resolution adopted in the absence of SWP representatives in May 1981. It includes the following points:

"The Cuban workers' state is characterised by contradictory traits and tendencies, partly determined by its historical origin, partly as a consequence of the choices made by its leadership team. On the one hand bureaucratic tendencies exist, expressed by a layer of cadres and leaders who, thanks to posts of control and command in the structures of the state, army and party, benefit from social privileges. Furthermore structures and mechanisms exist which favour bureaucratisation and are analogous to those in the other workers' (sic) states. Pressures linked to the USSR's military and economic aid, which Cuba needs, strongly encourage these tendencies. On the other hand ( . . . ) The privileges that a layer of bureaucrats enjoy in Cuba still remain limited. The leadership grouping ( . . . ) does not act from the point of view of defending the interests of this layer of bureaucrats ( . . . )
Revolutionary Marxists do not put forward the same strategic objectives for Cuba as they advance for the USSR or the other workers' (sic) states. They do not put forward a policy of political revolution for the overturn of a bureaucratic caste. They reject at the same time any fatalistic idea according to which in the last analysis the bureaucratic degeneration of Cuba is inevitable. The tendencies to bureaucratisation can be successfully reversed by internal transformations, by the extension of the revolution in Latin America which would break Cuba's isolation and, even more so, by the combination of the two.
Progress towards a socialist society in Cuba presupposes a democratic socialist reorganisation which transforms the present structures and builds new ones with the aim of ensuring the democratic management of the plan and self-management of the workplaces, as well as the effective participation of the masses in political leadership at all levels."

These ambivalent terms were followed by a long and weighty list of democratic demands in Cuba which would self-evidently pose in reality the question of political revolution.

As sharp questions have been raised, the SWP leaders, who had swung back more strongly towards Castroism in the late 1970s, have hit back indignantly, arguing that Cuba remained a healthy workers' state, with a "revolutionary" leadership, composed of "proletarian internationalists".

Back in 1961 the SWP had tried to get around the problems of defining Cuba as a healthy workers' state by a "cold-blooded mammal" type of description from Joseph Hansen. Cuba, he said, was a workers' state, healthy because not yet bureaucratised, but one:

"lacking as yet (!) the forms of democratic proletarian rule, meaning that while it is not 'deformed' in the sense of having Stalinists in power, the state is not under the democratic control of the workers' and peasants."
(Joseph Hansen, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, p. 130)

In other words it was a "workers' state" in which the workers had never as a class held the power and in which they had no organised means to express their demands! There is a scientific term to describe such states, which are not uncommon in the post-war world: they are deformed workers' states, qualitatively different from healthy workers' states. They have not "degenerated" from any previously healthy condition: born deformed, they have remained so ever since. To make any sense, a definition of a deformed workers' state needs to be based not on a political characterisation of the leadership, but on an analysis of the mechanisms for workers' control and management of economy and government.

More recently and under pressure, the SWP has conceded that Cuba is a "workers' state with bureaucratic deformations" (Castro would probably agree). But the SWP defines these deformations and identifies them narrowly with the old-guard Stalinist elements of the CCP, while regarding the Castro leadership as anti-Stalinist. The SWP has sought answers not in proletarian action, but jollying along the Cuban leaders:

"Our strategic (sic) orientation today is the same as it had always been: to support and strengthen the Castro wing against the Stalinists."
(Larry Seigle, NC Majority Report, Dec. 1978, reprinted in Revolutionary Cuba Today, p. 43)

Precisely what the differences of substance might be between the dominant Castro wing and their ageing Stalinist sidekicks is not explained; nor why it should be necessary, given Fidel's charismatic hold on mass support, for Trotskyists to offer him such (probably unwelcome!) support. But Seigle does give us an idea of the unfavourable odds to be faced by Marxists:

"The Cuban Communist Party is not a Leninist party. It allows no democratic internal life in the Bolshevik sense. There are no organised tendencies and factions around programmatic points that could advance the clarity of discussion and contribute to solving the problems facing the Cuban revolution.
Moreover, to a certain degree the Cuban Communist Party is not a political party as we think of one, so much as a part of the administrative apparatus. It suffers from the same bureaucratic degenerations as the rest of the governmental apparatus."

So the prospect looks pretty bleak for revolutionaries who want to get their views across in "revolutionary Cuba" – even according to one of its most grovelling apologists. Any hope of getting round these problems is reduced to the level of day-dreams about possible external events which might enable the SWP to recruit Fidel Castro in the indefinite future:

"Under the impact of great revolutionary events in the world, sections of the leadership of the Cuban CP can be impelled towards the left, towards us (!)"

Here we see once again symptoms of the passive, idealistic, opportunist poison that has gnawed away at the programmatic backbone of the post war Trotskyist movement. The SWP has hardened up still further along these political lines, to the extent that it now effectively dismisses 80-90% of Trotskyists – including the majority of its co-thinkers in the USFI who oppose its views – as "hopeless sectarians". The keynote speech of SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes to the December 1982 youth conference of the Young Socialist Alliance has been pointedly published during the Autumn of 1983 in a new journal entitled New International. Along with Barnes' blockbuster article (which heaps political praise on veteran Salvadorean Stalinist leader Shafiq Jorge Handal and attacks Trotsky and the Theory of Permanent Revolution) the magazine reproduces a massive tract written against Trotskyism in 1970 by Carlos Rafael Rodriguez.

Barnes proclaims that:

"The Cuban Communist Party, Sandinista National Liberation Front, New Jewel Movement, and Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front are reforging political links with the programme and strategy of the Communist International during its early years under the leadership of a Russian Communist team that included Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek, Leon Trotsky and Gregory Zinoviev, and was led by Vladimir Lenin. ( . . . )
In their collaboration with revolutionists throughout the Americas, the Cubans seek to pass along lessons not only from three decades of their own experience in leading and consolidating a revolution, but also from earlier struggles of the world working class recorded by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and the resolutions and reports adopted by the Bolsheviks and the Communist International under Lenin's leadership."
(p. 10)

So while we are led to believe that even the Sandinistas and New Jewel Movement have embraced the "programme (!) and strategy (!) of the Communist International", Trotsky's very name is deliberately submerged in the list of Comintern leaders, and is omitted from the list of those who have recorded earlier struggles of the working class. This is in keeping with the SWP's turn away from any focus on the USFI or the Trotskyist Fourth International, to indulge instead in wild fantasies of a "New International" comprising the ostensibly radical Stalinist and petty bourgeois nationalist leaderships of Central and Latin America. As Barnes puts it:

"There is no special 'Castroite' revolutionary outlook or political current in the world today. That is a myth we should bury for good. The Cuba, Nicaraguan, Grenadian, and Salvadoran revolutionists have each made political contributions based on their particular experiences and the traditions of revolutionary struggle in their own countries, but what they are learning, enriching and applying is the programme of Marxism, not 'Castroism'. They are communists. And that is what we are, too."
(p. 25)

From seeking to "infuse Trotskyist concepts" into the Castroite current, the SWP has itself been suffused completely with Castro's populist brand of Stalinism. The poison has done its work.

Workers Socialist League Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive