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.

11. Trotskyism and the Cuban Revolution: The Problems.

A brief summary of the issues raised by the Cuban revolution is useful as an introduction to a discussion of the response Trotskyists should have given in 1959 and should now give to the problem of political revolution in Cuba.

1) Permanent Revolution.

According to the classic formulae for revolutionary development prior to the experiences of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, there were to be two distinct "stages" to socialist revolution in backward countries. In the first instance would have to be the ousting of the old, feudal, oligarchic regimes with their vestiges of mediaeval social order, and the establishment of a democratic bourgeois republic that would usher in a period of expansion of capitalism and with it an expansion of the numerical, organisational and political strength of the working class. At some undetermined point, the workers would achieve sufficient social weight and political independence to go forward to their own revolution, the specifically socialist revolution, in which the power of the bourgeoisie would be overthrown. This division of the revolution into distinct stages – based on an economic determinist view of historical development in isolation from any concrete analysis of the development of class relations in a backward country such as Russia, had been the received wisdom of the mainstream Russian Marxist movement and remained so up to the time of Lenin's April Theses of 1917.

This does not mean of course that there had not been important differences of interpretation. The reformist Menshevik wing had gladly embraced the theory as some kind of blank cheque for a prolonged period of collaboration with the "democratic" liberal bourgeoisie in Russia – a collaboration which they envisaged lasting even beyond the overthrow of Tsarism, with the reformists acting more or less as a Jacobin wing of the Russian bourgeois revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the other hand took a much more aggressive stance, emphasising the independent role of the working class as the necessary driving force in carrying through a thoroughgoing democratic revolution for which the "liberal" bourgeoisie had little stomach, and stressing above all the need for the exploited classes – the proletariat and the poorest of the peasantry – to form an alliance and fight for a radical democratic government as distinct from the bourgeoisie and its parties. The working class, argued Lenin, should begin immediately within the period of the "democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry" the struggle for the socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It was Trotsky who from 1905 onwards began to stress the impossibility of the peasantry developing any independent programme of its own – occupying as it did an ambiguous middle position as an exploited, yet petty property-owning class in society. Trotsky stressed in contrast the objectively revolutionary character of the working class, the only completely propertyless class, whose specific weight in backward capitalist countries – particularly of the contradictory development found in the Soviet Union – was often considerably more than its bare numerical strength in relation to the peasantry might suggest. The objective situation of the working class, the counterposition of its interests and even its demands – free trade unions and political parties, the shortening of the working day, etc. – to the interests both of both the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, obliged the working class to go beyond the limitations of the bourgeois democratic programme in order to secure its demands and resolve its problems.

Trotsky argued that in view of the extent to which the "liberal" bourgeoisie in Russia had become intertwined with imperialism and alarmed by the evident strength of the working class, the only way in which even the democratic revolution could be completed would be if the proletariat were able to take the leadership of a radical alliance with the poor peasantry: in such an event, however, the government which might be formed under such an alliance would properly speaking be not a "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" in which power was equally shared between the two components of the regime, but a dictatorship of the proletariat, backed up by the peasantry, in which the leadership of the proletariat would itself take on responsibility for the implementation of the democratic and reformist demands of the peasants as part of their programme for power. What had been hitherto seen as two distinct, and probably widely-separated stages of revolution – the democratic and the socialist – needed in fact to be interlinked and combined if either was to succeed. As Trotsky put it:

"The theory of permanent revolution, which originated in 1905 . . . pointed out that the democratic tasks of the backward bourgeois nations lead directly, in our epoch, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and that dictatorship of the proletariat puts socialist tasks on the order of the day . . . While the traditional view was that the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat led through a long period of democracy, the theory of permanent revolution established the fact that for backward countries the road to democracy passed through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus democracy is not a regime that remains self-sufficient for decades, but is only a direct prelude to the socialist revolution. Each is bound to the other by an unbroken chain. Thus there is established between the democratic revolution and the socialist reconstruction of society a permanent state of revolutionary development."
(New Park Ed., Introduction to the First [Russian] Edition, p. 8)

Additional key aspects of the theory centred on the constant internal struggle it indicated for an "indefinitely long time" in a given society, which would keep "changing its skin"; and the international character of the socialist revolution, which:

"begins on national foundations, but cannot be completed within these foundations."

The theory of permanent revolution is therefore in stark opposition to Stalin's notion of "socialism in one country", to the bureaucratic ossification of the Soviet Union under Stalinist rule, and to all forms of class collaboration with the national bourgeoisie in struggles for national independence or the uncompleted democratic revolution.

Far from passively observing and commenting upon any imagined all-embracing "objective process" which might spontaneously throw up revolutionary leadership, Trotsky's theory points to the need for an active policy of intransigent defence of the political independence of the proletariat and the construction of a revolutionary Marxist party to equip it with a programme and perspective of socialist revolution. It also maps out a clear and principled basis on which alliances should be sought between the proletariat and the most oppressed layers of the peasantry against the landlords and the employers.

This was precisely the perspective embraced by Lenin when in the April Theses he castigated those "Old Bolsheviks" – including Stalin – who had accommodated to the bourgeois Provisional Government to the extent of lending support for the imperialist war effort. It was the same spirit which animated the bold thrust for power by the Bolsheviks in October 1917. And this was precisely the element lacking when the Chinese Communist Party, under Stalin's direction, tail-ended the bourgeois leadership of the Chinese national revolution in the 1920s – with catastrophic results.

But no such spirit of proletarian independence was manifested by the bulk of Trotskyists in relation to the Cuban revolution. While the sectarians of the IC scuttled like frightened rabbits from any serious involvement with the complexities of the living struggle, the forces that were to form the USFI abandoned any class criteria, to extend barely critical support to Fidel Castro's petty bourgeois leadership.

In the absence of any substantial revolutionary party of the Cuban working class, they extended "revolutionary" credentials to the Stalinists of the PSP – who were indeed past masters in the exposition and implementation of Stalin's "stages" theory of revolution. In the absence of any mass organs of proletarian struggle – free trade unions, factory committees or workers' councils – the proto-USFI accepted on good faith that the non-proletarian Castro leadership was acting somehow on behalf of the working class, and, from 1960 onwards, gave credibility to the mass organisations set up and run by the Castroites. In response to Castro's Second Declaration of Havana, Ernest Germain and other leaders of the USFI insisted that its formulations were "Marxist", and in line with the theory of permanent revolution: yet it was clear enough that Castro's vague call for a cross-class "anti-imperialist front" to fight "imperialism and feudalism" makes no reference to socialist revolution, and leads away from the political independence of the working class.

Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, as a strategic guide to action, was effectively thrown aside by the USFI leaders at the time of the Cuban revolution. It was turned, at best, into an abstract kind of check-list of "norms" by which a radicalised leadership should be judged – but which in effect granted "revolutionary" status to anyone prepared to talk generally about internationalising the revolution and the "hegemony" of the proletariat. Worse, "permanent revolution" has come to be regarded as some kind of objective pressure or "process" which inexorably sweeps along certain elements of radical liberation movements – in the case of Cuba, to the formation of a "workers' state". Hence the contradictory and illusory notion of "unconscious Trotskyism", and its emergence as a factor contributing to the total political disorientation of the Trotskyist movement.

But as the Castro leadership has gradually emerged in undisguised Stalinist political colours in terms of domestic and foreign policy, it is no coincidence that the most outspoken "Trotskyist" defenders of the regime have felt obliged themselves to wage an ever more open struggle against Trotsky's theory. Thus one of the SWP's leading theoretical writers, Doug Jenness, came up in November 1981 and June 1982 with lengthy polemical articles attacking Trotsky's theory and seeking instead to resurrect the Stalinist / Menshevik slogan of the "democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry" discarded by Lenin in his April Theses 65 years previously. This attack has been followed up by Jack Barnes' December 1982 speech to the YSA Convention entitled Their Trotsky and Ours, which amounts to a heavy attack on Trotsky's political positions prior to 1917 and after 1928. He argues specifically for the rejection of the theory of permanent revolution, and for the populist version of the Stalinist theories put forward by the Cuban and Salvadorean Stalinist parties.

The reason for this switch is the SWP's efforts to tailor its own progamme to fit in with its understanding of events in Cuba, and therefore also with the political line purveyed by today's Castroite leadership. The consequences of this adaptation can be seen most clearly in Nicaragua, where the SWP, regarding the Sandinista regime as an example of the "democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry" has consistently opposed any independent proletarian line (or even the building of a Trotskyist party). In a similar fashion, the SWP endorsed the "mixed economy" strategy of the New Jewel Movement in Grenada under Maurice Bishop.

2) Workers' and Peasants' government.

Just as "permanent revolution" has been turned from a revolutionary orientation and a strategic guide to the actions of Marxists into a wish and a prayer that non-Trotskyist leaderships with ardent "Trotskyist" support will carry out revolutionary policies, so the transitional demand for a workers' and farmers' government has been drained of its content by the defenders of the Castro regime.

As envisaged by the Comintern in its first four Congresses, the call for a workers' and peasants' government was:

"a central political slogan . . . in countries where the position of bourgeois society is particularly unstable, and where the balance of forces between the workers' parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the order of the day as a practical problem requiring immediate solution. ( . . . )
The most elementary tasks of a workers' government must be to arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, bring in workers' control over production, shift the main burden of taxation onto the propertied classes and break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
Such a workers' government is possible only if it is born out of the struggle of the masses and is supported by combative workers' organisations formed by the most oppressed sections of workers at grass roots level."
(Theses and Resolutions of the First Four Congresses of the CI, pp. 397-98)

In place of pointing out and seeking to combat the political problem in Cuba – that the struggles of the Cuban masses had been promoted by the new regime rather than vice-versa, and that the working class after 1959 lacked any organs of its own power, or any mechanism to force its demands upon the Castro leadership – the USFI leaders concentrated their efforts from early in the revolution on justifying the label "workers' and peasants' government" to describe the new regime.

Certainly it is true that the combination of mass domestic pressure from a radicalising peasantry and proletariat, with hostile outside pressure from US imperialism making a retreat near impossible, and (nearly always understated in pro-Castro analyses) extensive economic backing from the Soviet Union, did create conditions for the emergence by mid 1960 of a government stripped of its bourgeois component, which had disarmed the bourgeois organisations and had swept away the basis of capitalist exploitation in a series of massive nationalisations.

At any point during this period, had there been mass, independent organisations of the workers and peasants capable of deliberating upon and articulating their demands and pressing them upon the Castro leadership, and had there been any vestiges of actual workers' control in industry, Cuba could have become a revolutionary workers' and peasants' government.

But in reality no such organs existed: nor was there a sufficiently organised revolutionary party capable of conducting the systematic agitation needed to fight for their formation. Instead of moving forwards to a workers' and peasants' government, the radical petty bourgeois regime ossified as an entrenched, populist elite, presiding over a state machine in which the masses had no significant control or involvement. Consolidating an alliance with the PSP Stalinists, fusing with them in a Stalinist-model party, and linking up ever-more closely with the Kremlin leadership, the Fidelistas themselves embraced their own variety of Stalinism and its methods at home and abroad. The revolutionary struggle, in the absence of a revolutionary party with a proletarian orientation and programme, resulted not in a workers' government leading to the consolidation of workers' power, but a deformed workers' state.

The misuse of the workers' and peasants' government concept by the USFI, and subsequently by others in drawing different conclusions about Cuba, has led to the sacrifice of its dynamic quality as a demand: it is designed both by the Comintern and in its subsequent adoption by the Trotskyist movement in the Transitional Programme precisely as a transitional demand to lead the working class forward to make its independent mark on history and break from the domination of alien classes and social forces such as the labour bureaucracy. Trotsky stresses that a "workers' and peasants' government" could only be a transitory, short-lived stage on the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat: and were such a regime to come into being, it is evident that the task of Trotskyists would not be simply to stand back in awe and admiration, but to drive forward the struggle for the full revolutionary programme of power for the proletariat. Only if the "workers' and peasants' government" acted consistently with this objective should its leadership be supported (though of course they should in any case be defended against the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie). And at all times the task of Trotskyists as the most conscious defenders of the independence and class interests of the working class is to retain a critical stance towards intermediate governments, leaderships and phases of the struggle. This was not done by the bulk of the Trotskyist movement during the Cuban revolution.

3) Soviets and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The repressive moves to crush the organisations of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie in post-October Russia were carried through under the leadership of a proletarian party, handing power to the already developed soviets of workers, soldiers and – in the countryside – peasants. It was on this basis that the Bolshevik leadership was able to argue without hypocrisy that the proletarian dictatorship meant in actuality a real increase in democracy:

"It follows that proletarian dictatorship must necessarily entail not only a change in democratic forms and institutions, generally speaking, but precisely such a change as provides an unparalleled extension of the actual enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed under capitalism – the toiling classes. ( . . . )
The substance of Soviet government is that the permanent and only foundation of state power, the entire machinery of the state, is the mass-scale organisation of the classes oppressed by capitalism, i.e., the workers and the semi-proletarians (peasants who do not exploit the labour of others and regularly resort to the sale of at least a part of their own labour-power). It is the people who even in the most democratic bourgeois republics, while possessing equal rights by law, have in fact been debarred by thousands of devices and subterfuges from participation in political life and enjoyment of democratic rights and liberties that are now drawn into constant and unfailing, moreover decisive participation in the democratic administration of the state."
(First Four Congresses of the CI, p. 13)

What is discussed above, and was implemented in the earliest days of the October revolution was the supplanting of the fraud of bourgeois "democracy" with a higher form, proletarian democracy. But how does this apply if the repression of opponents is not combined with the development of organs of workers' democracy? By what stretch of the imagination could that be seen to follow the Comintern's guidelines for the establishment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat? What form of "proletarian dictatorship" is established over the heads of the proletariat, by a non-proletarian leadership, without any form of accountability to the working class at all, let alone any provision for the recall of office-holders?

Lenin in State and Revolution stressed precisely this element of recall and accountability as vital:

"In socialist society, the 'sort of parliament' consisting of workers' deputies will of course, 'establish the working regulations and supervise the management' of the 'apparatus', but this apparatus will not be 'bureaucratic'. The workers, after winning political power, will smash the old bureaucratic apparatus, shatter it to its very foundations, and raze it to the ground; they will replace it by a new one, consisting of the very same workers and other employees against whose transformation into bureaucrats the measures will at once be taken which were specified in detail by Marx and Engels: (1) not only election, but also recall at any time; (2) pay not to exceed that of a workman; (3) immediate introduction of control and supervision by all, so that all may become 'bureaucrats' for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a 'bureaucrat'".
(Progress Publishers Edn., 1972, pp. 99-100)

After the revolution, the Comintern's Second Congress likewise stressed the need to fight bureaucratism; the dictatorship of the proletariat, it declared:

"will demand the appointment of . . . inexperienced workmen to the most responsible State functions, otherwise the workers' government will be powerless and it will not have the support of the masses."

There is no more sign of this having been carried out in Cuba than there was in the bureaucratically established Stalinist states in post-war Eastern Europe. In reality the embellishment of the Cuban regime by "Trotskyist" admirers has served to soften up the attitude of some towards the Stalinist states in general. The repeated references by the American SWP to "workers' states" in "China, Korea, Vietnam, Eastern Europe and Cuba" are indicators of the distinction that ought to be sharply drawn between healthy workers' states on the one hand – the revolutionary model for which we fight – and deformed or degenerated workers' states on the other. A similar blurring of lines on this cardinal issue can be seen in the resolution of the USFI on Cuba (quoted above). Worse, even one of the latter-day "orthodox" critics of the SWP and USFI Majority, Nahuel Moreno, leader of the International Workers League and the Argentine Socialist Workers Party (PST) is on record as arguing that the Stalinist states are a "million times more democratic" than the capitalist "democracies". By accepting Cuba as some form of "dictatorship of the proletariat", the majority of the Trotskyist movement has begun to undermine a fundamental element of its own programme for political revolution.

If the working class is not to be crushed by each and every "left" talking petty bourgeois leadership in the Third World, or annexed by posturing Stalinist leaders, these distinctions must be drawn out and acted upon. Without functioning organs of workers' democracy, the proletariat has no protection against bureaucratic degeneration of the regime or its future shifts towards policies of collaboration with the Kremlin or capitulation to imperialism.

In other words, the power of decision on every aspect of the evolution of the revolutionary regime is then handed to the leadership already installed and to the external and alien forces of Moscow Stalinism and imperialism. That is not a revolutionary policy; nor is it a proletarian policy. It has no place in the Trotskyist movement.

4) The role of the revolutionary party.

Confusion over the proper tasks of a Trotskyist party underlies many of the errors of the movement on post-war events, not least on Cuba. The building of parties based on the Trotskyist programme and perspective is not an abstract and pointless fetish to be set aside whenever events appear to offer a shortcut. The Trotskyist programme of 1938 and the record of struggle of the Trotskyist movement from the early 1920s onwards are the summation of the highest level of the struggle for proletarian class interests against the Stalinist degeneration of the USSR and the Comintern, as well as against the pressures of reformist and centrist leaderships. The Trotskyist party is needed by the working class to function as the independent eyes, ears and brain of the most advanced elements of the proletariat, articulating its needs in form of living demands and guiding the action of the mass movement. While the spontaneous, reformist consciousness of many sections of the workers' movement may be swept along in a populist tide, the Trotskyist movement owes a duty to analyse, to probe beneath the surface to the realities of a given struggle and to orient critically towards spontaneous or politically alien leaderships, finding tactical ways and means to make its policies a material factor in the workers' movement.

More than almost any other formation we are likely to encounter in the international class struggle, it is essential that Trotskyists start from the understanding of petty bourgeois nationalist movements as cross-class alliances, within which the proletariat and even poor peasant forces are generally in a small minority.

Under conditions where such formations are the principal force fighting imperialism and its agents, however, it is essential that Trotskyists avoid taking a sectarian stance towards them, and consider ways in which the tactics and programme of the Trotskyist movement can be developed to link up with and advance the struggle, and at the same time mobilise the proletarian forces and organs of power to assert their necessary leading role.

This means developing a programme of transitional and democratic demands which in the course of the fight can expose the real class role of many existing petty bourgeois leaders as agents of capitalism and world imperialism.

In other words the crucial task is in drawing class lines within the common "anti-imperialist fronts", a task which requires Trotskyists to preserve their political independence. The classical Pabloite strategy, adopted in Cuba, in Algeria and again in Nicaragua (of dissolving into the prevailing cross-class movement) liquidates the political independence of the revolutionary group, and subordinates (or indefinitely postpones) the struggle for the Marxist programme in order to tail-end the spontaneous development of petty bourgeois movements.

In this way, political development is restricted to the level tolerated by the petty bourgeois leadership, and, almost inevitably in justifying their own orientation, the "Trotskyists" concerned wind up acting as apologists for that leadership.

It is worth noting in this context the stern warning from the Second Congress of the Comintern in its Theses on the National and Colonial Question:

"A determined fight is necessary against the attempt to put a communist cloak around revolutionary liberation movements that are not really communist in the backward countries and training them to be conscious of their special tasks, the special tasks, that is to say, of fighting against the bourgeois-democratic tendencies within their own nation. The Communist International should accompany the revolutionary movement in the colonies and the backward countries for part of the way; it should even make an alliance with it; it may not, however, fuse with it, but must unconditionally maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, be it only in embryo." (Emphasis added)

It is essential therefore that Trotskyists, the continuators of the traditions of the Comintern, ensure that they are able to wage the most open possible struggle for basic demands that will challenge and expose the class collaborationists and map out a way forward for the working class. This means demanding in the most tangible form that the petty bourgeois leaders "break from the bourgeoisie; take the power". In Nicaragua for instance it would mean raising demands to "open the books" of the "mixed economy", and insisting on the building of independent organisations of the working class as a basis for proletarian power and for solid defence of the revolution against US attack.

At the same time we should point out that – though it should be defended against imperialism – a government of even a "left" petty bourgeois nationalist formation is not a dictatorship of the proletariat. Marxists must therefore strongly defend all democratic rights under such a regime, in particular the freedom of the press, freedom of political parties and complete freedom and independence of the trade unions from state interference. Within that context, particular organs of bourgeois reaction should be confronted by independent action of the working class, not by bureaucratic state repression. It must be made quite clear that the step from such a regime to a workers' state requires the formation of popular organs of power (workers' and peasants' councils, mass action to secure the expropriation of foreign and domestic capital, etc.). There is no way that a class collaborationist junta with capitalists in its ranks and committed publicly to the preservation of a "mixed economy" can be permitted to repress sections of the workers' movement.

At the same time the fight for the opening of the books of industry and the banks takes on a particular significance, to show the behind-the-scenes links between the different sections of capitalists, the scale and significance of the "private sector" in the economy, and the profits made by the domestic and multinational banks and distributors off the backs of the peasantry and proletariat. In this way a basis can be laid for mass agitation for nationalisation without compensation, and tangible steps taken towards workers' control, challenging the right of the petty bourgeois administrators and bureaucrats to impose a plan of their own invention upon the working class.

A crucial gauge of the political temper of the new regime is precisely its preparedness to tolerate or crush the independent political voice of the working class, expressed through a revolutionary, Trotskyist party. This political role must in no way be renounced, but vigorously defended against any attempt to subject it to repression or restriction.

While supporters of the Cuban regime can point to Stalinist leaderships that have embarked upon armed struggle (who could have been more Stalinist than Mao or Tito?) and claim that Cuba's overturn of capitalism amounted to the completion "unconsciously" or "by a blunt instrument" of an uninterrupted transition from the democratic to the "socialist" revolution, the actual fruits of these developments are armed popular fronts in Latin America and elsewhere, and a Stalinist state in Cuba dependent on the Kremlin. The "short cut" route to revolution without Trotskyist parties has led nowhere to proletarian revolution, but only (at best) to more or less radical versions of Stalinist politics at the level of struggle and state power. Far from questioning the need for Trotskyist parties or suggesting that workers should turn to some "new" Castroite international, the experiences of Cuba and Central America have refuted those Trotskyists who have tail-ended alien leaderships and abandoned the movement's orientation to the working class.

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