Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 4


Trotskyism in Cuba

Dear Editor

Gary Tennant and Revolutionary History are to be commended for bringing to light so much information on Trotskyism in Cuba. The result is a picture of a heroic, if not overly successful, struggle by workers, many of whom were well placed in the labour movement. I have a problem, however, with Gary’s premise. If I understand him correctly, he is convinced that the Cuban Trotskyists, from their earliest days until today, deviated from orthodox Trotskyism in the direction of what he calls ‘the “national liberation” tendency of Trotskyism’. They did so by making various blocs, entries and manoeuvres with petit-bourgeois revolutionary formations (for example, the Grau Martin presidential campaign, Joven Cuba, and Fidel Castro). I am not disputing Gary’s facts. In at least some cases, I would agree with his political critique. I met the group’s leaders in the mid-1980s, and would agree that they advocated a political assessment of the Castro regime that was too positive, at least for me. My disagreement is with his implication that if the Cuban Trotskyists had only adhered to the straight and narrow politically, they would have …? Prospered? Even come to power? I do believe it is more than likely that a more orthodox formation would have been even more isolated, and less successful. I base this on the experience of highly orthodox Trotskyist groups elsewhere in the same period.

Gary never confronts the question as to why dedicated uncorrupted revolutionaries, like the Cuban Trotskyists, were tempted to carry through what he considers deviations from the straight and narrow. It seems rather obvious that in Cuba, as in Bolivia and other Latin American countries, the revolutionary dynamic developed outside the Trotskyist orbit as broad-based radical national movements with a petit-bourgeois leadership and a flawed political programme. Quite naturally, the Cuban Trotskyists sought to find a way to connect with these fresh forces. They did not always choose the best methods. Yet the instinct was a sound one; better, I believe, than Gary’s preoccupation with the preservation of doctrinal purity.

But why did the revolution by-pass Trotskyism and its formulae? Gary does not seem to be aware of the question, and therefore makes no effort to answer it. The basis for an answer lies in placing the evolution of Cuban Trotskyism in the realistic context of the Cuban economy and the postwar world. Within that context, he would have been forced to face the question of the relevancy of the doctrine itself.

What we can call ‘permanentism’ is composed of the following elements:

  • Neither the bourgeoisie nor the petit-bourgeoisie can any longer carry through the democratic and anti-imperialist revolution.
  • Victory requires the leadership of the working class headed by a revolutionary – read ‘Trotskyist’ – party.
  • This revolution must be permanent in the sense that it goes over immediately into a Socialist revolution establishing a workers’ state.
  • The success of the revolutionary regime depends on the spread of the revolution to advanced industrial nations that can help the backward nation develop.

Postwar Trotskyists, particularly those influenced by the International and United Secretariats of the Fourth International, have tended to neglect altogether the fourth point. However, if you read the discussions that took place at the time the theory of Permanent Revolution was first put forward, it is the critical point. Lesser-developed nations simply do not have the internal economic capability to evolve in a Socialist direction.

The particular character of Cuba, with its mono-cultural sugar economy, makes it far more dependent on exterior factors than Russia in 1917. It is, of course, absurd to consider constructing a healthy Socialist state on the basis of the isolated economy of an island nation. In Cuba’s case, the resources available for both industrial development and providing social services to the population are totally dependent on the price of sugar in the world market. It is much like a producer’s cooperative within a single capitalist nation. While all nations today are part of a global economy, the agricultural commodity-producing ones are way down at the bottom of the totem pole. These nations are forced to compete against each other, driving down the price of the commodity they produce. The world market system operates in a manner that actually transfers wealth from the poorer nations to the richer ones. And that’s not much help when you’re trying to scrape together the resources to develop your country’s economy so as to create a better life for the people.

The bipolar world of the 1950s and 1960s was characterised by industrialised countries in the West experiencing booming economies, and a militarily coequal Soviet bloc in the East. Yet revolutionary possibilities abounded in underdeveloped nations like Cuba. No sane revolutionary in the Third World, once in power, could expect to be rescued by revolution in an industrial nation. The alternative was aid from the Soviet Bloc.

The Cuban experience is a case in point. Castro’s revolution was ‘permanent’ in the sense that he found it necessary to overturn capitalist relations on the island in order sustain an anti-imperialist course. In other respects, Castro took an uncharted path not to be found in any Trotskyist texts written prior to 1959. In return for Soviet aid, he adopted the Stalinist model of government, by-passing democratic working-class rule. Part of the price Castro paid was the persecution of the local Trotskyists. He fought the old CPers within his new single party only to the extent that he felt they challenged his personal leadership.

Would Soviet aid have been offered to a Trotskyist-led regime? To ask the question is to answer it. Yet Soviet aid, paltry as it was, made the critical difference that permitted Castro to provide a reasonable standard of living for his people. Today, without that aid, life in Cuba has deteriorated considerably. To give Castro credit, he made attempts to diversify Cuba’s economy. However, he learned from experience that such efforts had to be subordinated to the efficient production of as much sugar as possible.

We need to add one more difficulty. A Trotskyist-led Cuban government would presumably allow the people to throw it out if they so wished (if I am wrong in this presumption, the resultant state would have differed in name only from present-day Cuba). Lacking external resources, and therefore unable to provide the good life, such a government would be subject to a democratic counter-revolution. The experience of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua provides a sad example of this process.

It is a gross misreading of Marxism to suggest that Socialism is possible in any country at any time. It would be adventuristic indeed to seek to seize power promising a Socialism that simply was not objectively possible. However, such advocacy was popular in Trotskyist circles, particularly in the 1960s. Does that mean that revolutionaries can do nothing in such circumstances? They can strengthen the workers’ movement, defend the workers’ living standards, oppose imperialist influence, and cooperate with others, including non-Socialists, in a variety of projects.

My suggestion is that the weak performance of the Cuban Trotskyists in the 1950s and 1960s might have been, at least to some extent, related to their adherence to ‘permanentism’, rather than deviation from it.

The individuals I met struck me as people of the highest moral calibre. The two words that come to my mind when I think of them are ‘heroic’ and ‘tragic’. These workers were jailed under Batista, and then again under Castro. I would not condemn these comrades when, after five years in jail, they agreed to dissolve their marginalised minuscule party. The blame for the dissolution of the POR(T) lies with Castro and his American supporters like Jack Barnes, not with the Ferrera family.

I remember an old man living in a tiny humid apartment in the old part of Havana, a wife, his political comrade for decades, a son named after Leon Trotsky, who worked in the construction industry and was a union representative, and two bright-eyed children. Before we left, my friend and I gave them a pile of Trotskyist books, recently printed in Mexico, and a fan. The sweating family seemed more excited by the books.

Tim Wohlforth

Updated by ETOL: 5.10.2011