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Ken Coates

Caribbean Pilgrim

(Autumn 1961)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 6, Autumn 1961, pp. 25–27.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Readers will recognize Ken Coates as one who has had a varied career. A miner for nine years from the age of sixteen, he won a state scholarship for a prize winning essay on Sean O’Casey, which took him to Nottingham University to study English. He now lectures in sociology in the university’s extramural department. While a miner he was on the Executive Committee of the Young Communist League and was active in the National Union of Mineworkers. He left the CP in 1953 to rejoin later as an opposition member. He left it finally in 1956. At university, he was secretary of the National Association of Labour Students’ Organizations, editor of its paper Clarion, and a major force in revitalizing that body. He has been excluded more than once from the Labour Party.

Said they, you must go over the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the hobgoblins are, where the light is darkness, and where the way is full of snares, pits, traps and gins.

– Mr Valiant, Pilgrim’s Progress

Most socialists do not need to be persuaded that it is a good thing to expropriate the United Fruit Company. Not many socialists are violent partisans of Latifundists, or of illiteracy, or of slums and prostitution. Accordingly, when the Government of Cuba nationalized foreign imperialist holdings in its territory, carried out a sweeping land reform, set up a virtual monopoly of Cuba’s foreign trade, and, in October 1960, nationalized almost all domestic private industry, few tears were shed in the British labour movement. True, the clause-four revisionists were content to preserve the silence of the grave which they were assiduously digging for themselves, but elsewhere the noises that could be heard from England were nearly all approving. Even the New Statesman raised its scarred bottom from the railings to give a feeble cheer for the new Cuba. Into this dismally unamerican situation, at the eleventh hour, was launched Mr Kennedy’s ultimate think-deterrent, Theodore Draper, Mr Valiant-for-the-all-American-Truth. [1]

Encounter chose wisely, when it entered Mr Draper as its contender against Castroism. Liberal, painstaking and learned, Draper is widely respected among socialists as the conscientious historian of the American Communist Party. We lined up at the kiosks with our three-and-sixes, expecting scholarship, detachment, and a spectacular change of front on the part of Encounter. As usual we were wrong. Mr Draper, not Encounter, had confounded our judgment. There had previously been a number of accounts of the Cuban Revolution. Huberman and Sweezy [2] had described the events of the revolution, and its first year’s achievements. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had returned from Cuba vividly impressed with the new State and its leadership. [3] Paul Johnson had written a rave notice to the New Statesman, and lastly, but perhaps most impressively, that most significant of American Radicals, C. Wright Mills, had produced a sympathetic and persuasive statement of the Cuban case. [4] The only significant anti-Castro contribution to the discussion that had appeared in the English Language was an illiterate piece by Nathaniel Weyl, which might perhaps suffice to neutralize the New Daily to an uneasy acquiescence in US policy towards Cuba, but would be little use in any attempt to disarm anyone more exotic in his politics than, say, Mr Stephen Spender. Against all these fearful literary hobgoblins Mr Draper launched his first essay.

The two who received the fullest treatment were Huberman-Sweezy, and Mills. Against all of them, in spite of their partisanship for the right side, Draper scored serious points. All had had something to say about the class-character of the Cuban Revolution. Sartre and Huberman-Sweezy had described it as a ‘peasant’ revolution, while Mills had suggested that ‘the decisive forces were the intellectuals and the peasants, with the former in total command’. For Draper, these statements were all untrue, and we were prepared to learn, until we get his version of what was true: the Cuban Revolution was a middle-class revolution, which Castro betrayed. It is necessary to test this statement fully, if the revolution is to be understood at all.

First, was the middle class decisive? Certainly there is a lot of evidence that the middle class, like the overwhelming majority of the population, found life under Batista unbearable. Draper documents the development of middle-class resistance reasonably well in his article, and it would be silly to deny that ‘the movement of the 26th July originally included important representatives of middle-class radical opinion. But Castro himself has had something to say about his supporters. When asked by Claude Bourdet whether the Cuban Revolution was not part of the ‘worldwide revolution of youth’, Castro answered: ‘Certainly the youth, but above all the workers, the peasants, the victims of colonialism, all the exploited.’ [5] Indeed, the backbone of the revolution was above all the class of agricultural workers, the rural proletariat of the plantations, the refineries, and their ancillary transport systems. These people worked only three months of the year, as wage-labourers, and then, in the tiempo muerte, starved. Englishmen who want some insight into their condition could do worse than read the Australian play The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, mentally setting it in conditions of festering poverty rather than affluent drift. Only a quarter of the Cuban ‘peasants’ were individual landholders, and they mostly scratching the harder wilderness for their livelihood. The remainder were immune to peasant slogans and aspirations for title-deeds: their psychology was a worker-psychology, responding to such political demands as the cry for full-employment. Add to these the 700,000 unemployed, and the 60,000 young men who each year came on to a glutted labour market to find all prospects of usefulness denied them, and you have a picture of the need for social as well as political upheaval. Given that in this situation the middle-class were unhappy about Batista, that the agricultural-workers, led by intellectuals, fought him, and that the urban workers staged the general strike that made it possible for Fidel to enter Havana in 1959, Draper’s oversimplifications lose any advantage that they may seem to have over those of other people.

But was the revolution betrayed? It seems fair to assume that no Government this side of the celestial city could satisfy all the divergent interests represented by these various classes. We might therefore expect some Cubans to be disappointed. Indeed, they were. Draper’s reproach to Castro the Betrayer rests on a promise (originally made in the speech History Will Absolve Me [6], in which Castro defied the executioners of Batista in their own Courts) that the Rebels would restore the Constitution of 1940. This promise seems to have been made seriously, for, as Draper shows, it was repeated several times. But so were several others. Promises were also made about Agrarian Reform, about the condition of the poor, and sundry similar matters. Have they been betrayed? The most one can legitimately say about this matter is that Castro and his entourage were not at all times precisely clear about the implications of their promises: they did not foresee that their commonsense approach to Cuban politics might be impeded by the larger nonsense of the world of power in which even Cuba was contained. But if they erred in this way, they are not alone. Other revolutionary leaders have been smitten with similar disappointment.

Cromwell, in 1647, expressed himself about the King in these terms:

I have just witnessed the most touching spectacle, the interview of the king with his children; no one has been more deceived than I about his Majesty; he is, I am now sure of it, the best man in the three kingdoms.

’According to him’, Guizot reports, ‘the officers were all convinced that if the king did not resume his rights, no man in England could enjoy in security his life and property.’ In 1648 Cromwell’s opinion had changed. Nearer home to Mr Draper, the First Continental Congress, assembling in 1774, informed the king:

Your Royal authority over us, and our connection with Great Britain, we shall always carefully and zealously endeavour to support and maintain.

Almost every leader of the American Revolution was guilty of similar innocent perjury: and one could continue this list through almost every dramatic social upheaval between that day and this. Castro and his entourage could do nothing to meet the demands of their real followers, the unemployed and underemployed, the landless, the poor, without going past the politics of parliamentary democracy into those of social revolution. His revolution having become Permanent, he will be more than ever dependent on those strata of the population which have borne him and the revolution past the rule of private property. Draper’s history is too selective to appreciate these matters: Mr Valiant and Encounter’s pilgrim-band are nodding:

they were got to the enchanted ground, where the air naturally tends to make one drowsy.

The airs that have chloroformed Mr Draper’s sense of judgement are the hot and spicy blasts of parliamentary bullshit, an enchanted atmosphere which has nobbled more pilgrims than one since men began to set out in search of better things.

No better example of what happens to social revolutionaries who stray after Mr Draper can be afforded than that of the Guatemalans. The Arbenz regime set about reforming the ills to which Cuba was until recently a prey. Elected in 1950, by 1952 Arbenz had promulgated an Agrarian Reform Law, and in 1953–4 his Government expropriated about 70 percent of the lands of the United Fruit Company.

On the strong advice of the Communist Party, all parliamentary niceties were observed. No old soldiers were disarmed, and no workers were armed. Full compensation was offered to United Fruit, on the basis of their own tax-returns. But when Eisenhower decided to send ambassador Peurifoy to the rescue, it only took an army of 150 hired men to frighten the Generals and the Guatemalan bigwigs into deposing Arbenz and putting all radical notions about feeding the hungry out of mind for ever. Castro made no such detour into the enchanted grounds of parliamentarism. He not merely damaged, but dismantled, Batista’s state machine. The old army was wound up, and its barracks converted into school-rooms. Five-hundred thousand militia-men were trained from among the workers and peasants, by the remaining radical wing of the rebel army. The peasants were in no state of confusion and doubt, as had been the case in parliamentary Guatemala, but were drilling with arms in hand in between spells of housebuilding, school-construction, and the like.

This is not to say that we can afford to be complacent about democracy in Cuba. Draper sees only one kind of democracy as possible, and never troubles his head for a moment about the possibilities of soviet forms of democracy, of power in the hands of workers’ and peasants’ councils. Consequently he sees the gains of the revolution as losses, and proves incapable of facing any of the real problems of power in Cuba today. Yet even if Draper cannot meet the dangers of the Cuban Revolution, dangers there are: and first among them is the danger of bureaucratic paralysis. This is not a question which can be discussed in the hysterical manner of Draper, however. By far his most pressing concern is the extent to which he sees communists permeating the apparatus of administration throughout Cuba. Wright Mills has adequately described the attitude of the Cuban Communist Party, showing beyond doubt how, far from initiating and driving forward the revolution, it had

never dreamed we could go so far so fast – in overthrowing the tyrant, in industrialising, in the land reform, and all the rest of our revolution.

As Mills’ fictitious Cuban goes on to say ...

the plain fact is, our revolution has outdone the communists on every score. From the beginning up till today, always at every turn of policy, the revolution is always faster than the Cuban Communist Party, or individual communists. [7]

Yet clearly if the Cuban Revolution is forced to retreat, if its arteries begin to harden, we can expect the CP to be a keen promoter of bureaucratization. But Draper tells us nothing that enables us to judge about so vital a matter. He documents the extent to which individual communists get important jobs, but he has nothing to say about the context in which this happens. We are told about the stalinization of the Cuban Trade Unions, but not about the Fidelization of the Cuban CP. In fact that party is far from the monolithic burrower under freedom that Draper describes: it is fiercely split, being governed by a Maoist faction with a captive Stalinist (muscovite) general secretary. Recently it wound up its youth league, which appears to be very much out of control. Obviously the fact of the revolution has had a major effect on the bearings of individual communists in Cuba, and old dogmas are ten a penny in the circumstances. About the Fidelistas, Draper quotes the saying of Sartre that nobody in Cuba is foolish enough to strive to link her with the Eastern bloc, against Guevara’s welcome for the Moscow declaration of support for the Cuban Revolution. But he reports Guevara as endorsing not this statement, solely referring to Cuba, but the manifesto of the eighty-one communist parties, about which Guevara said nothing. (Although here in England Tribune did, which looks bad for Michael Foot when Draper gets round to sorting us out.) Certainly we might expect unpleasant pressures to be brought to bear on the Fidelistas, both by the Russian bureaucrats, and those of Cuban supporters who have not been given seriously to think by the events they have lived through. But Cuba is not Spain. The colonial revolution is advancing, not retreating: Latin America is by no means the safe place for reaction that Europe was in the 1930s. Already demands for soviet democracy, for government by workers’ councils, have been advanced in Cuba, by the journal Voz Proletaria. This has had to run the gauntlet of communist party interference, but it has survived, and conditions are propitious for its growth.

Against this, weighs the disturbing news that the Fidelistas are discussing the formation of a parti unique embracing all revolutionary groups including the communists. Dangerous though this may be, Draper’s gloom is by no means vindicated by this development. There is no guarantee that any such party can become a monolithic party, and indeed the prospects for monoliths anywhere in the world are distinctly bleak. Still more, there is no guarantee that the armed people will embrace a monolithic party even if attempts are made to form one. But socialists who have supported the Cuban revolution have the right to be concerned about these matters. Draper has not: he has already moved from criticising the revolution to this:

No anti-Castro Movement can resist Russian tanks and Czechoslovak machine-guns with sympathy alone. It would be more honest and more humane to advise any movement not to resist than to resist with bare hands. Castro’s opponents have the right and the duty to obtain arms where they can, as Castro did, and as other revolutionary movements have done. [8]

Too much to ask Draper to ask himself about those Czech guns: a moment of thought would have persuaded him already that they do not shoot themselves. Castro has no standing army. If his militia deserts him, he is sunk. For those who regret the passing of Theodore Draper, radical, it seems that the prospect of real and lively democracy in a situation like this are better than perhaps anywhere else in the world: if they are defeated it will be largely because of the actions of the nasty forces with which Draper has aligned himself. In this parody-of-a-pilgrim’s progress, it is sad to record that our Mr Valiant-for-Truth

passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.


1. Theodore Draper, Castro’s Cuba, Encounter, 90, March 1961; Disaster in Cuba, Encounter, 94, July 1961.

2. Huberman and Sweezy, Cuba – Anatomy of a Revolution, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960, pp. 207, 25s. This edition includes a postscript to the original Monthly Review paperback, written at the end of 1960. Huberman has also published a further article in Monthly Review, this year, and the same journal has issued a pamphlet, Reflections – on the Cuban Revolution, by P.A. Baran.

3. See New University, 4, December 1960.

4. Castro’s Cuba, by C. Wright Mills, Seeker and Warburg, 1960, pp. 190, 16s. Published in the US under the title Listen Yankee.

5. Bourdet, France-Observateur, Sept. 29, 1960, p. 7.

6. Fidel Castro, History Will Absolve Me, Liberal Press, NY 1959, quoted to Mr Draper’s annoyance in Hubermann-Sweezy, pp. 30–48.

7. Mills, p. 105.

8. Draper, Encounter, 94, p. 77.

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