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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 II: Some Answers: Right and Wrong.

12. Trotskyism and the Cuban Revolution: The Alternatives, then and now

It is not adequate merely to chronicle the emergence in Cuba of a deformed workers' state, or chart the evolution of the Castro leadership from petty bourgeois nationalism to Stalinism. The task for Marxists is not simply to criticise and explain the world as it is, but to offer a guide to action, and intervene in order to change it. We cannot simply content ourselves with acceptance of the "reality" of Castroism; we have to probe deeper to alternative lines of policy which might have prevented the assimilation of the Castro leadership to Stalinism, and which in today's situation could offer hopes of placing real power in the hands of the Cuban working class.

One line of approach which should be definitely rejected as ineffective and naive is the passive expectation or wish that "Trotskyist" organisations can by tamely reprinting Castro's speeches in their publications or by mailing their leaflets and articles to Havana, hope to influence or win over the Cuban leadership to Trotskyism – or even build any organised Trotskyist presence in Cuba. That this policy is completely futile can be shown from the two decades of unavailing effort along these lines by the senior organisation of world Trotskyism – the US Socialist Workers Party. As far back as 1961 Joseph Hansen argued for the majority against a small opposition who correctly criticised SWP tail-ending of Castro:

"We have been party-building in Cuba right along, and I don't know if anybody noticed (!!). Apparently some comrades didn't notice it. What were we doing with those articles? . . . We were working there with a design, we were always writing with regard to its influence in Cuba, that is, party-building influence."
(Quoted in Revolutionary Cuba Today, p. 10)

Any objective balance sheet of this "influence" must be wholly negative. Since 1961 Castro has built a new party and state machine on Stalinist lines, outlawing and crushing the Cuban Trotskyists. The SWP leaders, even while organising holiday tours to Cuba, now pursue their quest for "influence" and "party building" from a safe distance or by post.

But even this depressing experience has not extinguished illusions among the SWP leaders. Majority spokesperson Larry Siegle insisted in August 1979 that those who criticised the party's line on Cuba had failed to understand what they had been up to:

"they missed out on the fact that we've been party building in our relations with the Cuban revolution all along. They missed the fact that to build a party, a world party of socialist revolution, we've got to orient towards revolutionary minded forces, toward the forces that are most like us (!!). We've got to seek areas of agreement, seek ways to collaborate with them so we can learn from them, gain a hearing by the effectiveness of our example, and convince them by the correctness of our ideas. ( . . . )
( . . . ) The Castroists should be part of this international organisation that we are trying to bring into being. And they must be part of it if their goal of defending and extending the Cuban revolution is to be reached.
We have not yet been able to make that linkup. It is a challenge that remains before us."
(Ibid, p. 10)

Elsewhere, Seigle has argued quite explicitly the SWP dream of recruiting the Castro team:

"Our strategic orientation (sic) today is the same as it has always been: to support and strengthen the Castro wing against the Stalinists. To support the revolutionary wing against the counter-revolutionary forces and pressures. Within this framework we explain our differences with the Castro current and fight to win as many as we can to the programme of the Fourth International.
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. There is room for different estimates of how likely it is that we will be successful in winning them to our programme, or how significant they will be. But as long as we don't preclude the possibility, then we must agree on the importance of the fight to maximise the chances of winning as many as possible. ( . . . )
What tactical advice can we offer to those in Cuba who agree with us? The answer is, not much (!). It would certainly be foolish to say that Trotskyists should not seek to join the Cuban CP. But what other organisations should they work in? ( . . . ) We obviously can't answer these questions. We are not qualified to be offering tactical suggestions for revolutionists in Cuba today. We would be foolish to try. ( . . . )
The majority of the National Committee believes, in contrast, that the Castro leadership deserves our support in the battle to continue and deepen the fundamentally revolutionary direction that has marked the Cuban revolution for twenty years. Along that road Cuban Trotskyism will grow. (!!)"
(Report to National Committee, December 1978, Ibid, p. 43)

The policy of seeking to "influence" or recruit the Castro leadership to Trotskyism is therefore detached from any substantive political criticisms of what the regime is doing already, or any arguments that might offer them a reason to change course. It cannot provide even tentative tactical advice to a potential co-thinker in Cuba. According to the SWP Majority, "Cuban Trotskyism" will grow along the road of barely critical support to Castro: practical experience shows however that the only forces that will grow along this road are those of Castroism, which has in effect won over the SWP Majority. National Secretary Jack Barnes in December 1982 even began to dump the very term "Trotskyist" as a description of the SWP:

"Most of us (not to mention those outside and opposed to the SWP!) will not call ourselves 'Trotskyist' before this decade is out, just as Trotsky never did. We in the Socialist Workers Party, like Trotsky, are communists. "
(New International, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 86)

The policy of "influence" and support has also meant however that the SWP has wound up defending the two decisive early moves which set the Cuban leadership on its trajectory towards Stalinism: the acceptance of political "strings" on Kremlin military and economic aid, and the launching of a single, united party with the PSP Stalinists. This position was argued by Joseph Hansen as late as 1977:

"The Kremlin demanded propaganda painting up the rule of the bureaucracy in the USSR and its policy of 'peaceful coexistence' (class collaboration) with capitalism.
Castro accepted these conditions, although with some reservations. It can be argued that this was an incorrect decision and that it would have been preferable to reject the unconscionable terms. However . . . (the Cubans) would have shortly faced the murderous fire of the Pentagon . . . their martyrdom would have signified a defeat for the world revolution as a whole."
(Two Interpretations of the Cuban Revolution, SWP Discussion Bulletin No. 16, 1977)

Larry Seigle simply put the same argument more crassly and bluntly, when he told the NC in 1978 that:

"We think it was correct for the Cubans to have turned to the Soviet Union for aid, despite the political price tag."
(Revolutionary Cuba Today, p. 32)

This can only mean that today's SWP leaders would do the same thing themselves, and pay the same political price. What are the implications of such a position for the leaderships of other liberation struggles or revolutionary movements in underdeveloped countries? Does it mean that the very best the SWP's "Fourth International" programme can offer them as a perspective is to strike a deal with the Kremlin bureaucracy, in which the prestige of their revolution is used to dress up Stalinist politics, in exchange for economic aid? If this were in fact the only option open to sustain revolutionary regimes, then what is the purpose of seeking to construct a Trotskyist international with parties in the neo-colonial countries, equipped with an understanding of the counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism and a commitment to fight it?

If Trotskyist political principles and lessons are to be cast aside at the very point where there is the possibility of bringing them to life in the struggle for state power and a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat, then do they have any value at all? Would it not make sense simply to join up with the "radical" wing of the Stalinist movement or the existing "broad fronts" in Central America, and hope to "influence" them and eventually strike the best deal possible with Konstantin Chernenko or his successors in the Kremlin?

Ironically even the Castro leadership during one phase of its evolution showed more backbone in its relations with the Moscow bureaucrats than the "Trotskyist" SWP. From 1965 onwards to mid 1968 Fidel Castro embarked upon repeated moves to humiliate and defy the Kremlin. He fostered a split in the "official" Venezuelan CP, promoted guerrilla groupings and struggles, sabotaged Moscow's schemes at the Tricontinental conference, launched his own Latin American Solidarity Organisation, vigorously defended Vietnam, denounced US-USSR talks and treaties and generally played the rogue elephant. Even in his eventual climb-down under pressure and ambivalent support for the invasion of Czechoslovakia Fidel injected more independent criticism than the SWP's miserable "acceptance of the price tag" would suggest. Yet throughout this period Castro continued to receive Soviet economic assistance. It is possible therefore to demand and to procure Soviet aid under certain conditions without bowing to Stalinist political diktat: but only insofar as the leadership concerned grasps the importance of such a stand and is prepared to make its demands and the responses public to the workers' movement on a world scale.

Only a leadership steeled in a grasp of the implications of Stalinist politics, committed to a practical as well as a propaganda struggle against Stalinism, and with a firm commitment to the establishment of working class power through mass organs of workers' democracy could be reasonably expected to take a sufficiently firm stance against the political and economic pressure of the Kremlin bureaucracy. Castro was not equipped to fulfil such a role. He was neither a Marxist nor a working class leader. He had no conception of the Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat, based on the power of workers' councils; no more than the most primitive grasp of the politics of Stalinism; and no alternative ideology with which to combat it.

A Trotskyist leadership – or Trotskyist party in Cuba at the time – would have been different and acted differently on all counts.

It would have fought from the outset for a government based on councils of workers and poor peasants, for workers' control of industries and banks, and for workers' militias. From this base of mass, organised and politically active support, it would have made demands for economic and military support from the Soviet Union and other deformed workers' states, while refusing to make political concessions. It would have explained this stance politically to the workers' movement, especially in Latin America. It would have used the example of the scandalous political record of the PSP from the 1930s up to the time of the revolution as an educative example of the politics of Stalinism that had to be rejected. And it would have made this stance the basis for an appeal far and wide in the international labour movement for active solidarity and material support.

In 1961, had the Cuban leadership taken this kind of line it could have exploited the divisions opening up within the Stalinist movement between Moscow and Peking, and the increasing gestures of independence by the other Stalinist bureaucracies. It could have triggered even more powerful movements than emerged in any event in Latin America and in the imperialist countries.

A Trotskyist leadership or party would also have used its international prestige and impact to advance a perspective of proletarian revolutionary struggle in Latin America and on a world scale rather than the disastrous and inappropriate guerillaist strategy advocated indiscriminately by Fidel Castro until 1967. This would at the very least have increased the impact of the Cuban revolution on the working class organisations in the sub continent – including some of the Communist Parties – and quite possibly brought forward new possibilities of revolutionary working class struggle that might have broken the isolation of the Cuban revolution. In any event it would have been a weighty answer to popular front politics.

Another aspect of the Soviet assistance needs to be taken into consideration: its sheer scale. In cementing their alliance with the Kremlin leadership, the Castroites have used Soviet cash to finance exemplary health, welfare and other benefits and a programme of military spending. It is of course possible that democratic committees of workers' management might have decided on similar priorities: but it is not unlikely that workers in possession of the full facts and options might have decided to allocate more of the billions of dollars that have been donated or borrowed to the development of productive investment which would relieve the island's dependence upon imported manufactured goods. It is certainly questionable whether any regime under the democratic control of working class organisations would have run up quite such a reckless and unpayable array of debts both to the Western bankers and to the Soviet bureaucracy as Castro's team has accumulated. Under such leadership Cuba has broken neither from its dependence upon sugar nor from its dependence upon external finance and industry: the Kremlin leaders have been all too ready to use a generous "aid" programme to tighten the political reins they have on Castro. They have also ensured that the Soviet Union is clearly identified as linked to the benefits and social services available in Cuba. Under workers' control and a workers' plan of production, that aid would have been kept to a minimum – and with it the obligations to Moscow.

It will be said by the SWP and other defenders of the 1961 compromises that the alternative policies suggested here would have amounted to a reckless gamble with the Cuban revolution. Certainly the eventual consequences could not be predicted with certainty. But revolutionaries have never been able to offer guarantees of success: revolution in itself is a leap into the unknown, an attempt to overturn an existing, unacceptable "reality", change the "fait accompli" of imperialist control and exploitation, challenge the dominance of historically dominant forces and ideas and bring the new, formerly oppressed forces onto the scene.

To assert that what actually happened in the Cuban revolution, or its overturn by imperialism, were the only two viable variants, is to exclude the working class from a voice in history, and thus embrace the world view of Stalinism. We should remember that the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia beat back massive imperialist interventions, fought a taxing civil war and simultaneously exploited divisions between the imperialist powers to help create the basis for their own power against apparently impossible odds. All the while they maintained a firm line of political independence, launching for this very purpose the Communist International. The odds against the Cuban revolution in 1961 were certainly no more daunting than these: a revolutionary stance rather than an accommodation to Stalinism was excluded only by an absence of adequate revolutionary leadership.

This brings us on to the second stubborn line of SWP defence of the actions of the Cuban leadership: the argument in favour of the formulation of a united party with the Stalinists. On this, too, the pace was set early on by Joseph Hansen.

In 1969 he gave his account of the fusion of the Fidelistas with the PSP:

" . . . they utilised the Communist Party. They dismantled it, tried to put it together and make something new out of it. It was like using old bricks in a new building. They found the Cuban CP useful in this respect.
(Reprinted in Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, p. 235)

This apolitical and excessively flattering view of the PSP and its rank and file – also ignoring completely the question of what programme formed the basis of the new party – is of course moulded into even cruder and more blatant forms by the present-day SWP leaders. Seigle, for instance, argues that:

"The fusion was a correct political move. It advanced the defence of the revolution. Far from demonstrating Castro's 'capitulation' to Stalinism, it highlights his capacities as a revolutionary politician. Wouldn't we have done exactly the same thing?
There was never any doubt that the decisions on policy would continue to be made by the Fidelistas, not the Stalinists of the PSP. In fact it is clear that one of the conditions of the fusion was recognition of the Castro team ( . . . ) (In 1965) There were no PSPers on the eight person Politburo. It doesn't add up to a conversion to Stalinism."
(Revolution in Cuba Today, p. 32)

Seigle's second paragraph in fact underlines that it is the Castroites themselves who must carry responsibility for the Stalinist evolution of the Cuban party, which in reality has never functioned as a party in the Marxist sense. Seventeen years after this "correct political step", Seigle himself at the conclusion of the same report was forced to admit that:

" . . . the Cuban Communist Party is not a political party as we think of one, so much as a part of the administrative apparatus."
(Ibid, p. 43)

How can the building of such a Stalinist "party" be hailed as a correct step by Trotskyists, whose whole history and reason for existence is a movement consists in a continual struggle against Stalin's bureaucratisation and suffocation of the revolutionary voices firstly within the Bolshevik Party and then within the Comintern and its national sections? How is it possible to combine the Stalinist party model established in Cuba with any form of healthy inner-party regime or political line?

Castro's willingness to unite with the Cuban Stalinists is explainable by his lack of any coherent political alternative, and his desire to assert political control over the Cuban workers' movement. But neither of these motives should have been shared by Trotskyists. A Trotskyist leadership – least of all one in power – would on no account unite in a common party, nor seek a common programme with Stalinists (though obviously demands for a united front against imperialism could and should have been raised). Nor would a Trotskyist agree with what was the natural consequence of the formation of a single "party" in Cuba in 1961: the muzzling of Trotskyists and of all working class political opposition groupings and parties. Such a move is by no means an automatic or necessarily correct feature even of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" – except under the Stalinist model. Lenin pointed out that far from necessarily crushing rival views in the working class, even the bourgeoisie might have rights under the dictatorship of the proletariat:

"As I have already pointed out, the disfranchisement of the bourgeoisie is not a necessary and indispensible feature of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And in Russia, the Bolsheviks, who long before October put forward the slogan of proletarian dictatorship, did not say anything in advance about disfranchising the exploiters."
(The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Peking 1970, p. 60)

Trotsky stood consistently and correctly for the unimpeded struggle of working class political tendencies for the support of the masses. The new Cuban party after 1961 suppressed that struggle: in supporting the formation of that party, the SWP are in effect breaking from Trotskyist principles.

But where should Trotskyists stand now on the struggle to change the Cuban regime? On this question, too, confusion reigns supreme; There is of course the SWP, which concedes the absence of workers' democracy, the bureaucratic deformations, and non-Leninist character of the Cuban CP, but strives to differentiate Cuban foreign policy from that of the Kremlin, and argues that Cuba remains in essence a healthy "workers' state". They oppose any call for political revolution or a change in the present leadership, and pin their hopes for the future on external events shifting the regime to the left.

A slightly – but only slightly – different stance is adopted by other currents comprising the majority of the USFI. They go rather further than the SWP in their criticisms of the internal regime in Cuba and couple this with a critique of the Castroites' foreign policy, likening it in many respects to Kremlin policy.

But they claim that the tendencies to bureaucratisation can be successfully reversed by internal transformations and by the extension of the revolution "in Latin America". They therefore reject any perspective of political revolution, arguing that the bureaucracy enjoys only limited privileges, and has not counter-posed its own interests as a bureaucracy to the interests of the Cuban masses. What appears most to influence the thinking of the USFI is the evident level of mass support which the Castro leadership has retained, making it appear unlike any other deformed workers' state. The USFI majority therefore retains the characterisation of Cuba as basically a healthy workers' state, while advocating sweeping democratic reforms. But within this majority view there are those (see for example the article by Alan Jones of the British Socialist League published in Intercontinental Press [Feb. 19, 1980, and reprinted in Revolutionary Cuba Today]) who would dissent from the SWP view that the Castro leadership is without qualification "revolutionary". Some argue that it is "centrist" or even "bureaucratic centrist" – though still in the main opposing political revolution as the answer. The USFI majority as a whole, however, hedges its bets on whether or not a new Trotskyist party should be built in Cuba to carry through a fight for the "democratic socialist reorganisation" they call for.

Other currents – including Nahuel Moreno's International Workers League and Pierre Lambert's International Centre for the Reconstruction of the FI – though retaining a confused and confusing analysis of the Cuban revolution itself, have come out clearly (albeit belatedly in the case of Lambert) and pronounced the Cuban leadership to be a Stalinist bureaucracy which must be overthrown by political revolution – and have followed up this line by taking an independent stance towards the Nicaraguan and Salvadorean leaderships. But their theoretical analysis represents an adaptation to accomplished facts rather than a healthy starting point for future analysis.

In arguing that Cuba has evolved from the very beginning into a bureaucratised, deformed workers' state, and been gradually assimilated into the politics and methods of Stalinism; and in insisting that only a political revolution can break the vice-like grip of Stalinist control and bring real power into the hands of the Cuban working class, this author, a member of the Socialist Group in Britain, is distinctly in the minority in the Trotskyist movement (though similar views have been upheld more or less consistently by a small minority in the USA and elsewhere since the mid 1960s).

We cherish no illusion that the mass support still enjoyed by the Fidelistas would simply evaporate as soon as a clandestine Trotskyist cadre issued its first leaflet. We recognise that to fight for political revolution in Cuba requires that broad layers of workers and youth be convinced that the present Stalinist course of the regime is against their interests and against those of the proletariat on a world scale. And we recognise that this means combating more than two decades of increasingly Stalinist education of Cuban youth and worker militants, to raise with them for the first time the real political traditions of the Bolsheviks and the Comintern, to expose the reactionary politics of the Kremlin and their squalid deals, and point out a coherent alternative.

Though the extent of the bureaucracy and the scale of its material privileges are plainly much smaller in Cuba than in Poland, the example of Solidarnosc indicates a central line to be followed: the struggle for workers' management in industry and workers' control over the planning process rather than the present tokenistic workers' participation in the implementation of the pre-arranged plan at shop floor level. In this way the questions of how to confront the country's chronic shortages and rationing can be raised from a working class point of view, and the extent and direction of Soviet involvement in the finance and operation of Cuban industry and agriculture can be probed.

This general issue of democratic control and planning raises the central question of workers' democracy. This is ruled out in the existing CP, the "unions", the CDRs and the other "mass organisations", just as in any other Stalinist state. The Hungarian and Polish examples tell us that the answer to this must be the construction of independent working class organisations, and their linking up through autonomous workers' councils. The rank and file of the armed forces too should fight for the right to organise and democratic rights to discuss independently of the Stalinist-dominated officer corps.

The right to strike and form unions independent of the state must be demanded – mindful of Castro's open hostility to Solidarnosc. Similarly the right to form working class political parties, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the right to form tendencies and factions within the CP should be advocated in opposition to Castro's Stalinist model of "proletarian" dictatorship.

Further tangible demands for the full equality of Cuban women should be advanced and for women's organisations to become politically autonomous of the state. And anti-gay bigotry and oppression must be forcibly ended, with a full-scale campaign against all forms of homophobia and sexism.

Only in the event (unlikely enough) of such demands being conceded by the Cuban leadership would it be appropriate to conclude that the regime could be transformed into a healthy workers' state without a political revolution. There is every reason to believe that both Castro and the Kremlin leaders would fight tooth and nail to prevent any such concessions and seek to repress those who call for them. For this reason – and for the sake of ensuring that the fight is consciously waged in Cuba – no realistic programme for socialist political change in Cuba should omit the need for revolutionaries to organise themselves as a clandestine party, independent of – though possibly working carefully within – the political structures that presently exist.

And if economic questions and workers' control are the most immediate issues to be taken up, a fight to expose the real nature of Cuba's Stalinist foreign policy, and the corrupt and reactionary regimes sustained by its military missions and advisors overseas and the sacrifices of dedicated Cuban soldiers and technicians, is also necessary to dispel illusions both in Castro and the Kremlin, and turn the undoubtedly high level of internationalism amongst Cuban workers and soldiers in the direction of genuine proletarian class politics. This would mean in particular taking an openly critical stance towards petty bourgeois nationalist movements and regimes and towards the politics of Stalinist parties on a world scale.

The response of the Kremlin leaders to such developments would certainly be one of unrestrained hostility: underlining the extent to which the links with the USSR militate strongly against the interests of the Cuban working class. But would Moscow necessarily be able to throttle a Cuban revolt at birth? Certainly the island's geography largely precludes the threat of a "Hungarian solution" in the form of military invasion: here is one advantage the Polish workers would dearly have loved to possess.

What, then, of economic strangulation? Cuba's most glaring weaknesses are its dependence upon sugar exports – for which it receives a degree of preferential pricing from the Moscow bureaucracy – and its dependence upon imported oil. The current glut and slump in oil prices, coupled with the varied conflicting interests of oil-exporting regimes makes it almost certain that replacement supplies could be obtained despite the US blockade: similarly, a determined effort to find new buyers for Cuban sugar could generate the necessary foreign exchange. And while there might be interruptions in the supply of new weaponry to the Cuban military, Soviet foreign policy objectives would not be served by becoming identified as the direct cause of the defeat of the Cuban revolution: it is likely that at least a minimum of support would continue.

The main obstacles to Cuban breaking from the Kremlin's orbit and politics are not practical but political: the Castro leadership now sees itself as an integral part of the Stalinist apparatus, and will defend that alignment against any working class opposition.

The extent to which the fight for sweeping changes would lead to a violent political revolution in Cuba would depend on the extent to which they were actively taken up by the working class, and the extent to which the Castro leadership, for its own protection and under the prompting of the Kremlin, attempted violently to repress the movement. It is ironic that those who most vehemently insist that sweeping reforms can somehow be achieved in Cuba without a political revolution, also refrain from building any organisation in Cuba to fight for the reforms they argue are possible, and play up the extent to which the demand for political revolution could unleash a bureaucratic reaction in Cuba or endanger the revolution itself.

The proof of any pudding is in the eating. The apologists for Fidel Castro have abjectly failed to produce any pudding to be tasted as a result of over 20 years of tail-ending and seeking to "influence" the regime. Those who now argue for political revolution to overturn the Stalinist regime may find in practice that the struggle for revolutionary demands produces an unexpected about-face from the Castroites, and reforms more deep-going and widespread than have ever been conceded to the working class by Stalinists since the bureaucratisation of the USSR.

In this unlikely event, reforms – revolutionary in scope – which could only benefit the Cuban and international working class, would emerge as a beneficial by-product of the struggle for political revolution.

In terms of their own rights, and the fight to defend their revolution through its extension into Latin America, Cuban workers have nothing to lose by adopting the Trotskyist road of struggle – and they have a world to gain.

JRL, January 5th, 1984.

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