When is a revolution socialist? Recent books on Cuba show the importance of revolutionary organisation for the working class, argues Dominic Alexander
Steve Cushion, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory (Monthly Review Press 2016), 272pp.
Marx was consistently clear on what would constitute a socialist revolution:
‘that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves, that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.’
So reads the first of the general rules of the International Working Men’s Association (or the First International) in 1864. Following this principle, socialism cannot be imposed from above, or even achieved on behalf of the working class. Marx made a point of this, as it was the perspective of one tendency of nineteenth-century revolutionaries, the Blanquists (descendants of an ultra-Jacobin faction from the French Revolution) to believe that an elite revolutionary conspiracy could take power and impose communism on behalf of the people. Equally, there were reformist tendencies who believed that society could be remade from above simply by convincing the existing ruling class to behave more humanely and to convert to philanthropic attitudes. It was against these positions that Marx emphasised the need for the revolution to be the work of the proletariat itself.
As so often in politics, the correct perspective, shorn of its historical context, can then be pushed too far in the opposite direction, losing its relational, dialectical character, and becoming an incorrect dogma. In this manner, Lenin has been, and still is, accused of being effectively a Blanquist through his emphasis on the importance of the Party in providing revolutionary leadership to the working class. In fact, Lenin and Trotsky both understood the need for revolutionaries to have distinct organisation, to avoid being absorbed and lose independence within the larger reformist milieu. Yet, the Party must remain an organic part of the working class, drawn from it and responding clearly to its immediate concerns, as well as its long-term interests.
An organisation of revolutionaries brings together the most politically conscious elements of the proletariat, and is necessary because the revolution, and indeed political advance of any kind, will not occur spontaneously, as anarchists fondly imagine. Conscious organisation, and so the development of robust political traditions within the proletariat, is the only way of building the requisite political force that can seize the fleeting opportunities provided by history to challenge the ruling-class domination of politics.
It was an understanding of the dialectics of Party and class which enabled Lenin and Trotsky, and the best of the Bolsheviks, to achieve the first successful socialist revolution in history, where the Russian working class really was the protagonist of the world-changing events of 1917. Tragically, however, the devastating civil war which followed, and the consequent rise of Stalinism meant not just the destruction of working-class political power in the Soviet Union, but also the loss of those political lessons. Across the world, Communist Parties, which had been formed in the wake of 1917, rapidly lost direction, and became prey to the distortions of Stalinist thinking.
The scale of the set-back to hopes for an international, working-class led, socialist revolution were not immediately clear to many. Illusions that Stalinism was progressive persisted throughout the 1930s, and then, after the Second World War, regimes laying claim to the mantle of socialism began to appear across the world. Outside of Stalin’s puppet regimes in Eastern Europe, many of these new states represented genuine advances as post-colonial governments asserting their independence from the imperial rule of Britain, France and other European states. Yet independence from a particular imperialism does not in itself represent the overthrow of capitalism or the emancipation of the working class. Indeed, from Nasser in Egypt to Nkrumah in Ghana, militant leaders of the working class, socialists and communists were used when useful and imprisoned or suppressed when inconvenient. Nonetheless, for many years, the idea of a ‘Third-World’ version of socialism had considerable credibility among parts of the left.
Few of these post-war ‘socialisms’ survive today, but among the most iconic in the first place is the Cuban revolution and its legacy. The prominence of the Cuban cause is largely bound up with its astonishing success in resisting the vicious and unrelenting pressure of US imperialism. Just as post-colonial regimes were advances on direct imperial rule, so Cuba’s struggle for autonomy is of considerable significance, and deserves international solidarity. The fact that a small island has been able to resist a world superpower would be enough, but the Cuban state has also put to shame much wealthier states with its attention to social need, most notably in its medical programmes.
There are, nonetheless, difficulties in identifying socialism with what remains an authoritarian state in Cuba. Left critics of the Cuban revolution have long since pointed out that it was not a revolution led by the working class, as in 1917. The overthrow of the Batista dictatorship was instead achieved by an alliance of a guerrilla group and a substantially middle-class underground movement. This was not a workers’ revolution, and in Marxist terms, the subsequent regime did not therefore qualify as a real socialist state.
This position is essentially the one held by Samuel Farber, whose The Politics of Che Guevera develops a trenchant critique of the Guevara’s ideas and actions, questioning his status as a revolutionary hero, and, more widely, the nature of the Cuban state. A contrasting perspective is developed by Steve Cushion in A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution, which uses original and systematic research to chronicle the activities of the Cuban working class during the years leading up to and immediately after the revolution. Cushion is able to make a substantial case that the working-class contribution to the revolution has been severely underestimated, and that in fact Castro’s guerrilla movement would not have been able to take power without working-class militancy.
The story is detailed and intricate, but full of interest, beginning with the defeat of the 1933 general strike, which first brought Batista to political leadership in Cuba, but concentrating on the years of the latter’s dictatorship proper, from March 1952, to the consolidation of Castro’s government in 1959. Cuba in the 1950s had the highest level of trade-union membership in Latin America, and even though the trade-union federation, the CTC, was corrupt and heavily compromised with the Batista regime, there was considerable rank-and-file militancy that was able to win real victories even under conditions of violent repression. A 1954 American plan to build a canal across the island was opposed by trade unionists ‘in terms that combined anti-imperialism, nationalism, and anti-militarism with a promise to resist the canal’s threat to jobs and conditions’, and the scheme was dropped (Cushion, p.30). Militancy created a polarisation within the CTC that led to better leadership in the course of the 1950s, and a declining ability of the ruling class to impose their demands upon important sectors of industry (Cushion, pp.120-2).
The continuing militancy of a number of sections of workers, from transport, to tobacco to sugar, despite the regime’s escalating violence, meant that support from Cuban business opinion and the middle class increasingly ebbed away from the dictatorship (for example see Cushion, pp.76-81, pp.96-8). There were defeats as well as victories, of course, but Batista’s inability to neutralise the working class doomed his regime. The detailed analysis of the timing of all this, particularly the strike wave of 1957, the failure of the 1958 strike call, and the final general strike in January 1959, led by a new trade-union coalition, the FON, (Cushion, p.180), lends strong support to the argument; the dynamics of class struggle need to be put at the centre of the explanation for the fall of the state.
Cushion at several points lays emphasis on the anti-imperialist nationalist consciousness of Cuban workers, which certainly contributed towards their determination to bring down Batista. Yet, it has a larger significance also. In one instance, tobacco workers, influenced by the communists, formed an alliance with ‘patriotic employers’, in order to oppose mechanisation (Cushion, p.102). In context this saw a victory for the workers, but it indicates the continuing importance of the communists’ cross-class ‘popular front’ politics.
The communist Partido Socialista Popular (PSP) was on the one hand clearly full of militant workers with considerable experience in trade-union struggle, and yet equally was also thoroughly dominated by Stalinist thinking, particularly the ‘stages’ model of development (Cushion, p.203). In this view of history, societies must pass rigidly (and, in effect, independently of wider global developments) from one stage to another; from ‘feudalism’ to capitalism, and only then to socialism. Cuba, economically subordinated to the US, would have to establish a developed, independent, bourgeois state, before the proletariat could hope to make any advances towards socialism. This theoretical view encouraged the formation of alliances with ‘progressive’ sections of the bourgeoisie (‘popular fronts’), and frequently resulted, across the world, in political leadership of the working class remaining in capitalist hands.
The impact of communist theory and practice seems particularly clear in the Cuban case, although Cushion does not make this an explicit part of his argument. Cushion does acknowledge how the party’s tendency to seek conciliation damaged its credibility severely at points, including during the 1933 general strike (Cushion, p.35). However, the problem goes beyond the economic sphere. The PSP consistently failed to establish an independent working-class politics, even supporting Batista in the 1940s, before his coup of 1952.
The PSP’s failure to develop a convincing political stance meant that militant activists were increasingly drawn into the Movimiento Revolucionario 26 de Julio (MR-26-7), the political organisation of Castro’s guerrillas (Cushion, pp.142-6). The staggering achievement of two worker congresses held under a dictatorship resorting to torture and death-squads (Cushion, p.212) was not matched by corresponding political organisation. There was only the vacillating PSP, and the middle-class led MR-26-7. For this, the Stalinist tradition is certainly largely to blame (it is interesting also to note the migration of Cuban Trotskyists into the MR-26-7, Cushion, pp.112, 171).
To argue that the working-class made a substantial, even pivotal, contribution to the Cuban revolution, is not the same thing as showing that the result was a workers’ state in the true sense of the term. A crucial absence in revolutionary Cuba was any kind of institution like the Russian soviets, or worker’s councils, through which the proletariat could democratically exercise organised political power. The soviets were what made the new government of October 1917 in Russia a real workers’ state. The absence of any such institution of working-class power (Farber, p.xvi) meant that while the Cuban proletariat no doubt had a certain amount of influence and even leverage over the new government, it was not in power as a class.
Samuel Farber, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice (Haymarket Books 2016), xxvi, 162pp.
Socialism, again, needs a genuine democratic infrastructure in order for the working class to exercise actual political and economic power. It was an unfortunate tendency for revolutionaries such as Che Guevara to be contemptuous of democratic forms, however much discredit the managed systems of ‘representative democracy’ in the developed West have poured over the word (Farber, p.xviii, p.7). While the MR-26-7 understood the need to develop more support through a working-class base, particularly in the wake of the failure of the call for a general strike in 1958 (Cushion, p.169), it showed no intention or willingness to encourage the development of workers’ democracy during the revolution.
Indeed, Guevera himself early in the guerrilla struggle had developed, according to Samuel Farber, a conception of revolutionary leadership which assigned ‘a supportive and subordinate role in the revolution to the working class and the peasantry’ (Farber, p.117). Cushion notes the cross-class character of MR-26-7 at several points, contrasting the relative vagueness of its revolutionary rhetoric, compared to the more specific, but cautious demands coming from the PSP (Cushion, pp.189-90). The MR-26-7 was therefore consciously balancing working-class and middle-class interests. In other words, the Cuban revolution cannot be said to be the conscious self-emancipation of the working class, however much workers took a significant part in the struggle.
Samuel Farber’s account of Che Guevara makes an important argument in showing how the famous revolutionary’s ‘voluntarism’ led to his own downfall, first in the debacle of Cuba’s Congo intervention, and then fatally in Bolivia. Guevara believed that a disciplined, even ascetic, guerrilla force could achieve a revolution in the absence of actually revolutionary political conditions and of working-class organisation. In light of Cushion’s work, it seems that he missed the correct message of the Cuban revolution itself. In Bolivia he ‘subordinated the needs and political potential of the militant and politically conscious Bolivian workers to those of the very small guerrilla forces under his command’ (Farber, p.117). Thus, he was easily isolated, defeated, and murdered by the Bolivian army.
Farber makes a substantial case against the Cuban state as it took shape after the revolution, particularly in regard to Guevara’s authoritarian attitudes, and his preference for a highly centralised Stalinist economic model (Farber, p.22). In addition to that general problem, trade unions lost independence amid demands for rationalised working practices, and the argument that, in Guevara’s own words of June 1961, ‘the Cuban workers have to get used to living in a collectivist regime and therefore cannot strike’ (cited in Farber, p.67). Farber goes on to criticise the ‘monolithic’ media that developed partly under Guevara’s watch (p.71), as well as his disdain, in the book Socialism and Man in Cuba, for any notion of workers themselves ‘making democratic decisions about social, economic and political matters’ (Farber, p.81).
Indeed, partly this was because the highly ascetic Guevara felt that the people would have to learn new habits, and abandon consumer desires. They would not do this by themselves ‘unless they were compelled to through a combination of the exhortation and personal example set by the revolutionary leaders, wholesale censorship, and the suppression of competing political parties’ (Farber, p.87). The Cuba described by Farber might be the sort of state that the Blanquists of the nineteenth century would have constructed, but cannot be what Marx had in mind when he wrote of the proletariat emancipating itself.
Yet, while Farber’s overall analysis of Guevara’s ideas and actions, and the general character of the post-1959 Cuban state, must be broadly correct, there is perhaps a caveat to add. It is true that Farber does acknowledge, for example, that ‘workers implicitly accepted the new labor order in exchange for the social and economic gains they had achieved under the regime and the new nationalist anti-imperialist solidarity they shared with their revolutionary leaders’ (Farber, p.67). Nonetheless, there is little emphasis on any of the countervailing aspects of the Cuban revolution which has enabled it to resist colossal pressure from the US, while largely retaining the loyalty of Cubans, as well as gaining widespread admiration across Latin America and the world. The tendency to one-sidedness in Farber’s account means that it is more likely to raise hackles and excite contradiction, than to convince many of his case.
Farber concludes that the revolution in Cuba produced ‘a new class system based on state collectivism’ (p.119). This analysis is probably meant to be aligned to a theory of state capitalism, which was developed to describe the Stalinist Soviet Union, and other associated post-war states. This conception remains the best way of understanding these ‘socialisms’. Nonetheless, the correct theory, used as a label rather than understood in its historical context, can lead in the wrong political direction. This was the fate of another analysis of Soviet Russia, which theorised Stalinism as representing, not a variant of capitalism, but a new mode of production altogether, ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. The theory led its creator, the American Trotskyist, Max Shachtman, to side with the anti-communist witch-hunt during the Cold War, on the grounds that American capitalism was more progressive than Russian ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. This move represented a collapse of anti-imperialist politics, which was no help to the working class, either in the US or internationally.
The Cuban revolution, although not best seen as a socialist one, really did represent an advance for the working class. It brought down a vicious dictatorship (and Castro has been no Batista), it brought real social advances for the Cuban poor, and it has been a permanent rebuke to American power. The revolution was possible due to, as Farber notes, the political weakness of the capitalist class in Cuba (Farber, p.37), but also, as Cushion demonstrates, due to the relative strength of the Cuban workers’ movement. While it fell short of socialism, the revolution demonstrated the cracks in capitalist hegemony beyond the imperial centres. Cuban state capitalism is not so much a ‘new class system’ as a contradictory formation, born because the international socialist movement was not strong enough to support the formation of a workers’ state, while capitalism was nonetheless in a systemic crisis. Fundamentally similar conditions apply in the world today, but what was lacking in Cuba in the 1950s, a revolutionary socialist leadership capable of giving direction to a class-conscious proletariat, remains a relationship to be built.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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