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Cuba: Radical face of Stalinism

By John Lister

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

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Cuba: Radical face of Stalinism

Part I: The Cuban Conundrum.

3. The Cuban Communist Party – up to 1959.

When the leadership of Cuba's pro-Moscow Communist Party (known from 1944 onwards as the Popular Socialist Party) stridently denounced Fidel Castro's guerrilla raid on the Moncada barracks in 1953, nobody would have been particularly surprised. For the bulk of its period of existence, the CP / PSP had embraced a long-term strategy of cross-class "national unity", and opposed independent actions which might antagonise "progressive" sections of the capitalist class.

Though Castro's strategy also looked towards the cultivation of a broad, cross-class alliance against the dictatorship, his willingness to resort to armed struggle to lend a sharp edge to demands for democratic rights and reforms flew in the face of the Stalinist methods of passive class collaboration. It was not until Castro was plainly emerging as the winner against Batista in the closing months of 1958 that the PSP leaders began to relax their opposition and active sabotage of the guerrilla struggle. It is therefore particularly ironic that a year later Castro should begin turning to these same Stalinists as allies in controlling the Cuban workers' movement. Nothing in the PSP's history suggested that it had anything to contribute in advancing the revolution. The Cuban CP was formed in 1925 with the merger of a number of small groupings. From 1927 onwards its work focussed on constructing the Cuban National Confederation of Labour (CNOC). Winning over some anarcho-syndicalist workers, Party members began to move into some union positions.

1930 saw mass, revolutionary strikes in Cuba, supported by demonstrations, riots, and the formation of a new student directorate at Havana University. The CNOC called a mass strike, backed by 200,000 workers – and was outlawed. At this point the party had no more than 250-300 members, little structure, and policies which were a far cry from the prescribed ultra-left sectarian orthodoxy of the Comintern's "Third Period". Moscow intervened, with calls for the "Bolshevisation" of the Cuban CP, which led to a purge of opponents of the Third Period line in 1930.

This realignment brought forth bitter fruit in the stormy events of 1933. In July of that year, a massive strike movement grew outwards from Havana bus workers, to embrace other cities and other sections of workers including teachers, lawyers and doctors. The central demand was the resignation of the Machado dictatorship.

But the CP's manifesto issued on August 3 focussed primarily on economic demands – including the 8-hour day; payment of back wages; measures to relieve unemployment; and the cancellation of the debts of peasants and small shopkeepers. Five days later, Machado, faced by US pressure to quit, called in the CP leaders of the CNOC, and offered to concede most of these economic demands – in exchange for calling off the strike. The CP leaders agreed – and publicly called for a return to work!

Their pleas were fortunately disregarded by strikers outraged by mass army repression and the shooting of demonstrators the previous day in Havana. Three days later – with the CP still ready to do a deal – even the army demanded Machado's resignation, and he fled the country. His departure was followed by a growing revolutionary movement, as workers hunted down and killed hated police officers, and in some rural areas sugar mills were occupied and soviets proclaimed.

In September came Batista's initial "sergeants' revolt", in which the army's officers were declared dismissed, and the NCOs took over. Batista backed the nationalist President Ramon Grau San Martin, who for 4 months issued far-reaching decrees, manifestoes and laws including the 8-hour day; minimum wage legislation; the legalisation of all parties and unions; the right to strike; the takeover of the US-owned electric power company; and a moratorium on foreign debt payments. A furious US administration refused to recognise the government and sent gunboats. But the Communist Party stridently attacked the Grau government in classic Third Period language as the representatives of "the big landowners and the bourgeoisie", and called abstractly for the immediate proletarian takeover and "all power to the Soviets".

The sectarian trajectory of the Third Period policy was ably summed up in the April 1934 CP Congress resolution, which explained that:

"The fundamental danger lies in the influence of the bourgeois-landlord parties of the "left" and its reformist, anarchist, Trotskyite agents . . . It is . . . necessary to lay down as a specific task the unmasking of these elements and their campaigns of demagogy."

This repudiation of any kind of united front tactic continued into 1934, when after the collapse of the Grau government, the CP in March called abortively for a General Strike. When the biggest strike of all broke out in March 1935, paralysing the country, and met by a declaration of martial law by president Mendieta, the CP was left completely isolated.

The following year the CP definitively turned its back on Third Period politics, and embraced the cross-class strategy of Stalin's Popular Front – to which Cuban CP leaders remained loyal right up to and after the time of Castro's victory in 1959.

The policy was set out clearly in a 1936 Central Committee resolution:

"The Cuban Revolution is at present passing through its national phase, and in this phase the revolutionary role played by other strata of the population besides the proletariat and the peasants must not be underestimated . . . all strata of the population ranging from the proletariat to the national bourgeoisie, fraternally linked (!) by a common interest in the liberation of our country, can and must build a broad popular front against the foreign oppressors . . . "

Within two years, the CP was to demonstrate how "broad" this front was intended to be. As Batista – the power behind Cuban governments since 1933 – began to look for ways of building his own power base of support in the workers' movement, he reached out to the CP leadership, who despite their dismal record had retained and strengthened their early positions in the labour movement. A deal based on reciprocal support began to take shape, involving the Cuban CP with a dictatorship widely branded as "fascist" in the Communist movement. In December 1936, for example, the far from radical Central Committee of the CP USA declared that:

" . . . the issue of democracy versus fascist dictatorship has been sharply raised by the putsch of Colonel Batista. After vainly trying to create a mass base for his dictatorship by demagogic methods, he has carried out – with the help of Wall St. backers and the sugar trust – an attack on the lawful Gomez government in order to destroy it, and with it every movement for real democracy in Cuba."

But if "demagogy" failed Batista, his cynical moves to enlist the Communist Party to support his "fascist dictatorship" proved more successful. In late 1937 a CP front organisation – the Party of Revolutionary Union – was legalised. Next came a general amnesty, and on May 1 1938, the still "illegal" CP was allowed to launch a daily paper Noticias de Hoy (known ever since as Hoy), edited by Anibal Escalante. In June 1938 a grateful CP Central Committee passed its first pro-Batista resolutions, and in September the Party was legalised. 1939 saw the legal recognition of the Cuban Confederation of Labour (CTC) under the leadership of Stalinist functionaries including Lazaro Pena. The new "union" began to operate in tandem with Batista's Ministry of Labour: both were mechanisms to control the working class.

In November 1939 the CP ran in elections as part of a "social democratic" coalition of Batista supporters, and in 1940 the Party helped the Colonel draw up a new Constitution which placed wage bargaining in a structure of labour courts and the Labour ministry, with scope for direct Presidential intervention. The CP was the first to back Batista's candidacy as President in the 1940 election, and in 1942 was further rewarded for this craven support when two Stalinist leaders, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez (today's Vice President under Castro) and Juan Marinello were included in Batista's cabinet as part of what they termed a "government of national unity". An obedient CP-led CTC that same year voted at its Congress to renounce any strike action for the duration of the war.

In 1944, following Stalin's dissolution of the Comintern the previous year, the Cuban CP changed its name to the Popular Socialist Party, and declared its long-term commitment to collaboration with Batista and the Cuban bourgeoisie:

"The Marxists stand for national unity and for its continuation, extension and consolidation under such conditions as may prevail in Cuba after the war. The policy of national unity, for the Marxists, is a long range policy."

Batista was fulsomely praised as a "great democrat", and "the great man of our national politics who embodies Cuba's sacred ideals." But when Batista was succeeded as President by a returned Grau San Martin, the PSP, eager to defend its bureaucratic positions in the union hierarchy, offered Grau a similar degree of support. CPer Marinello was appointed Vice President of the Senate.

In 1945, Blas Roca and Lazaro Pena, General Secretary of the CTC, issued a pamphlet entitled Collaboration Between Workers and Employers, the bulk of which consisted of a speech given by Pena to a banquet hosted by Cuba's National Association of Industrialists.

In an introduction to the pamphlet, Roca declared:

" . . . at present, the working class's patriotic policy of national unity is at its own initiative; workers are not prohibited from striking – rather they are rising above their petty interests (!) and demanding a policy of no strikes, a policy of maintaining production, and a policy of national unity, thus showing that they are the most patriotic, most responsible and most capable class in society today."
(p. 21)

And of course the PSP in turn was the most patriotic, "responsible" and capable class collaborationist bureaucracy the Cuban ruling class could have hoped to meet.

But after the 1946 elections, Grau had strengthened his position and no longer needed PSP support. His own "Autentico" supporters were lusting for the power and privileges of heading the CTC, and in 1947 the PSPers were ousted. Their attempt to hit back by forming a breakaway union collapsed when Grau's men at the Ministry of Labour made use of the CP's own formulations in the 1940 Constitution to deny the breakaway body the government recognition it required to conduct wage bargaining.

During this period of collaboration the CP / PSP had been able to offer prestigious and lucrative perks and bureaucratic privileges to a layer of leading members in the unions and in Parliament, and had grown in membership. It had also used its position for electoral advantage, achieving 8% of the vote in 1944 and 10% in 1946: but as the party was frozen out by Grau's Autenticos and by the pressures of the Cold War upon the Cuban bourgeoisie, this empire began to crumble. Stripped of its levers of control in the unions, the party was regarded as largely harmless. The Cold War repression saw little interference with PSP leaders or their electoral work. Even after Batista's bloodless pre-emptive coup in advance of his certain defeat in the 1952 elections, and after the formal proscription of the PSP in the Autumn of 1953, its leaders were allowed to pursue their work largely unhindered.

Doubtless these Stalinists saw Castro's adventurist attack upon the Moncada barracks as a threat to this new period of "peaceful coexistence" with Batista. The PSP in August 1953 declared:

"We condemn the putchist methods – characteristic of bourgeois groups – which were evident in the adventurist attempt to capture the barracks at Santiago. The heroism displayed by the participants was misdirected and sterile."

Trotskyists, too, would be critical of Castro's politics and methods, but from an entirely different starting point. Castro's isolation from – and to a large extent indifference towards – the Cuban working class shaped his rebellion from the outset as a petty bourgeois-dominated, elitist movement. And his cross-class, popular-frontist political line and programme – more akin to that of Stalinism than Trotskyism – likewise served to minimise the proletarian component of the struggle. While giving Castro's movement critical support and defending it against Batista's dictatorship, Trotskyists should have maintained their own political independence.

The thrust of the Stalinist criticisms from the PSP on the other hand focussed on their fears that Castro's opening of the armed struggle would radicalise Cuban politics to the extent of jeopardising the PSP's own Popular Frontist relations with sections of the Cuban bourgeoisie, and outflank the PSP in winning the most militant forces of the petty bourgeoisie and working class. The PSP attacked Castro's obvious adventurism politically from the right – from a standpoint of opposing any real struggle; revolutionary Marxists would criticise from the left Castro's lack of working class politics.

After Castro's resumption of the guerrilla struggle in 1956, the PSP again opposed such tactics, and in February 1957 restated its now familiar popular front policy of 1936:

" . . . the correct approach . . . lies in the unity and common action of all opposition forces . . . in a struggle to eliminate tyranny and achieve the victory of democratic forces."

Former Batista minister Carlos Rafael Rodriguez went even further along this cross-class road in an interview with the French Communist Party journal France Nouvelle in July 1958 -six months before the fall of Batista:

"To overthrow Batista, it is necessary to form a coalition reaching beyond the ranks of the anti-imperialists to include forces which are not committed to anti-imperialism . . . Therefore the present strategy of the PSP is based on the necessity of achieving the unity of all political parties and groups that are opposed to the government. . . This unity must be such as to enable men like Prio Socorras and Grau San Martin to take part in the coalition."

Nor were these differences with Castro merely the subject of academic discussion or abstract polemic. Stalinist parties have never scrupled at the outright sabotage of opposing political currents and struggles which they cannot control, and the PSP was no exception in the 1953-58 period.

The Stalinists assigned informers to disrupt and destroy the student Revolutionary Directorate (DR), which, fighting in solidarity with Castro, had proven stubbornly resistant to the wretched politics of the PSP. In the summer of 1957 one such informer, "Marquitos" Rodriguez, supplied the police with the details of the whereabouts of four leading DR members, who were then summarily machine-gunned to death. "Marquitos" was smuggled out of the country by PSPers, and was eventually received with honours as a member of the Mexican CP.

This betrayal was one of the most spectacular of what appears to have been a persistent series of tip-offs to Batista's secret police by Stalinists in the period from January 1957 to June 1958. Significantly, after the approaches of a PSP delegation to Castro and a tentative agreement between them in the Summer of 1958, there was a marked fall-off in the number of police swoops and in the quality of intelligence on which they were based.

Nor was it only on the guerrilla front that the Stalinists ruthlessly opposed the Castroites. The July 26 Movement's call for a General Strike on April 9 1958 was met with outright hostility and sabotage from Stalinist union organisers. In some instances they called in Batista's cops to arrest strike organisers: one Stalinist simply went out fingering July 26 militants to the local death squad – before himself being appropriately executed by a strike organiser. Another group of three Stalinist strike-breakers seized two Autentico militants – working with the July 26 – and handed them over to the cops for execution. In one Havana bank, Stalinist saboteurs took refuge with management in fear of retribution for their treachery against their workmates. Meanwhile prominent Stalinist and former minister Juan Marinello was given 24-hour a day protection by Batista's secret police against possible violent retaliation for the betrayal of revolutionary militants by members of his party.

In May 1958, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez and Osvaldo Sanchez visited Castro in the Sierra Maestra on behalf of the PSP. There is no clear evidence of the proceedings or discussions, but it appears that from this point onwards the PSP relaxed its opposition to the J26M and that some PSP members began to play an active supporting role in the struggle.

The switch of line came from a position of profound weakness for the PSP. Its fortunes and membership had declined in proportion to its exclusion from the corridors of class collaboration and from any struggle against the regime of the day. In 1942 membership had reached 87,000. Ten years later, after the Party had been elbowed out of its bureaucratic posts and its cosy links with Batista, it had fallen to 20,000. By the beginning of 1959, after six years of sabotage and opposition to Castro's struggle, the PSP had no more than 7,000 members – and was cordially hated by the most dedicated anti-Batista fighters.

Nor did the PSP drop its gradualist, collaborationist line even after Batista's flight. Throughout 1959 the Party urged Castro's leadership to hold back the Revolution so as not to provoke a US intervention. In May 1959 the PSP implicitly opposed the radical proposals of the Agrarian Reform Law. And as late as August 1960, on the very eve of the massive wave of nationalisations which were to destroy the basis of capitalism in Cuba, the Party's veteran General Secretary Blas Roca (in office since 1934) warned the PSP Congress:

"The Cuban revolution is not a communist revolution; it is anti-imperialist and anti-feudal . . . patriotic and democratic . . . The social classes that are objectively interested in the fulfilment of these historic tasks are the workers, the peasants, the urban middle classes and the national bourgeoisie."

Fortunately Castro's decisions at that point were shaped by rather more weighty forces and pressures than the CP's "theoretical" offerings, left over from the betrayals of the 1930s.

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