Cuba: Socialism and Democracy
by Peter Taaffe
Is There a Privileged Elite?
Lorimer spends pages and pages trying to demonstrate that no elite existed or exists today in Cuba. In fact he contends power was and is exercised by the workers and peasants in the same fashion as in Russia immediately after the revolution. He derisively dismisses the evidence that we furnish for this. He writes:
"Here’s the ‘evidence’ Taaffe cites: ‘… Even as early as 1963, KS Karol remarks that in one factory he came across an engineer [who] received 17 times the wage of a worker! Moreover, he cites other perks and privileges cornered by the bureaucracy, such as the "high-class" restaurants like "Monseñor" (sic), the "Torre", the "1830", the "Floridita" and others which charge colossal prices for meals. At the CP Party Conference in 1975 a decision was taken to allow Cubans to buy cars – which up till then had been the preserve of party and state officials!’ This is all the ‘evidence’ Taaffe cites to make his case." 83
Lorimer outlines a liturgy of excuses for the privileges that exist. These amount to the fact that the high-class restaurants were merely for foreign tourists and that all cars prior to 1975 were the preserve of the state. But how does this refute the contention of Karol that this ‘state property’ was used almost exclusively by the state officialdom? Guevara, who lived a very austere existence, taking even less than the official salary, himself recognised the bureaucratic trend that existed soon after the revolution, never mind today, and was intolerant of anyone in his immediate entourage who demonstrated any such tendencies.
Jon Lee Anderson gives examples of this. He writes:
"Everyone knew that Che had refused to collect the salary he was due as president of the National Bank, and he had continued the practice at the Ministry of Industries, steadfastly drawing only his minuscule comandante’s wages. Orlando Borrego, by now a vice-minister, felt obliged to draw only an equivalent amount of his own salary, donating the rest to an agrarian reform fund; it would have been unseemly to be earning more money than his boss. " 84
Anderson further comments:
"Not all of Che’s comrades, including some of his ministerial level peers, appreciated this revolutionary showmanship… When Cuba’s wealthy had fled the country, they had left behind a huge stockpile of cars, promptly nationalised, which the various government ministries allocated to their officials and certain employees. But Borrego had gone one better. During a visit to an ‘intervened’ sugar mill a manager had pointed out a brand-new Jaguar sports car that had been abandoned by its owner and suggested that Borrego take it, since no-one else knew how to run it. Borrego fell instantly in love with the car and sped around proudly in it for about a week, until the day he drove into the garage where he and Che parked their cars, and Che spotted him. He came towards him yelling: ‘You’re a chulo – a pimp!’" 85
This was one case where the egalitarian Che Guevara could check an individual minister’s tendency towards bureaucratism. But this could not, given the relative isolation of the Cuban Revolution and its reliance on Stalinist Russia, prevent the increasingly bureaucratic degeneration overall. Of course, the privileges, as we have commented above, when the lava of revolution had still not cooled, were relatively small, particularly when compared to the luxurious lifestyle of the elite in the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe, Russia and even of China. But privilege was not just expressed in a salary 17 times higher than that of a worker – which Lorimer just passes over as one example of one deviation in one factory. It is also shown in the access to ‘high-class’ restaurants that existed and still exist in Cuba not just for tourists but for the privileged officialdom.
If Lorimer won’t accept our evidence or that of Karol then what has he got to say about the conclusions of François Maspero in his introduction to Janette Habel’s important book ‘Cuba – Revolution in Peril’? Both authors’ roots are probably closer to the DSP then to us. Habel is a leading member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI). Maspero says he has "rejoined the Fourth International," presumably the USFI, which had illusions about Cuba in the early period of the revolution. Yet this is what he writes:
"Let’s face it – there is no point in mincing one’s words – democracy does not exist in Cuba. Human rights have not been and are not respected: at the worst moments, the figure of 80,000 political prisoners was reached. And nor are the rights to freedom of information, expression and movement respected." 86
He also writes in relation to Karol, whose evidence Lorimer dismisses:
"Karol who, with the encouragement of Fidel Castro himself, had written a rigorous analysis of Castroite power that remains today the most honest and complete work of reference on the period, had a taste of [Castro’s wrath]. So too did René Dumont, who had talked agronomics and socialism with his usual outspokenness. Both were denounced by Fidel Castro as agents of the CIA, before a crowd of about 500,000 Cubans – who had heard another story." 87
The result of offending Castro through his well-documented criticisms resulted in Karol’s books and name being banned in Cuba.
Privilege and corruption, which was limited in the early stages, later grew substantially. Habel devotes virtually a whole chapter to the corruption amongst the bureaucracy, which was endemic by the 1980s. This is just a sample of what she found:
"Waste and corruption have led to a feeling of discontent among the regime’s base of support, the wage-earning strata, faced with the growing wealth of certain sectors of farmers, as well as the privileges enjoyed by the administrative bureaucracy and top officials of the economic and state apparatus. Signs of economic inefficiency, waste, theft and the misappropriation of goods have been joined by the black market and currency trafficking, the spread of prostitution, and a growth of petty delinquency near tourist centres. All such phenomena had fallen considerably – disappeared, in fact – in the years following the seizure of power.
"From June 1986, the Politburo of the PCC undertook an ‘exhaustive analysis of the problem of crime and anti-social behaviour’, particularly in Havana, highlighting ‘instances of aggressive conduct, violence against the person, and "hooliganism" displayed in the capital’."
"Just over a year later several top officials fled to the United States, either by using considerable resources in foreign currency which they had embezzled or by taking advantage of special facilities, thus pointing to the importance of certain privileges. In 1986 Manuel Sánchez Pérez, vice-minister in charge of purchasing technical supplies from abroad, deserted to Spain with US$499,000. According to his declarations, ‘While still in Cuba I did some business deals with foreign firms and accumulated funds for the purpose of creating [abroad] an institution which will prepare a strategy for a return to democracy in Cuba’. This gives some idea of the facilities available to leading officials. In May 1987, General Rafael del Pino, a former fighter at Playa Girón, managed to reach the United States in a small Cessna 402 aeroplane, taking off from an airbase with his wife and three children ‘under the pretext of taking a trip round the island’. The mind boggles at the ease with which this general had access to a private runway. "
"In June 1987, Luis Domínguez, the president of the Institute of Civil Aviation (INA), was arrested, accused of corruption and the misappropriation of resources; he supposedly had personal bank accounts to the tune of $500,000. This arrest was followed by the desertion of Commander Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, the head of Cuban counter-espionage in Czechoslovakia,88 and then by that of Gustavo Pérez Cortt, vice-president of the State Committee for Technical and Material Supplies (CEANT), in January 1988…
"This desertion of top officials was a symptom of the exacerbation of social and political tensions, particularly amongst the most privileged strata who felt insecure and threatened by the current direction taken by Castro. Corruption, the misappropriation of funds from enterprises or using the latter for private ends have been repeatedly denounced...
"During the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs in April 1986, the offensive was resumed ‘against those who confuse income from work and speculation, fiddlers who are little better than thieves, and indeed are often thieves.’ This theme reappeared during the CTC [trade union federation] Congress: denunciation of the huge profits made, thanks to the existence of a significant private sector, by the nouveaux riches (truck owners, farmers, middlemen in charge of selling works of art, etc); by administrators linked to external trade or enjoying privileges gained in trips to Western countries (also denounced by the Young Communists at their 1987 congress); by ‘bureaucrats with comfortable homes’; and by technocrats who build ‘two huge nickel-processing factories and only provide accommodation for the manager and the thirty or forty top cadres, while the workers are put up in makeshift huts’." 89
The Bureaucracy and the Workers
Condemnation of ‘bureaucratism’ is nothing new for Castro or other leading figures of the state or government. But, writes Habel, "From 1965, commissions had been charged with the rationalisation of surplus administrative staff…There is no comparison between what was being denounced then and the current situation. The 1970s were a decade in which the Soviet Union regained a dominant influence in all areas – institutional, political, economic and ideological; and this dominance, followed by the introduction of the economic reforms, gave further impetus to the spread of bureaucratisation in a country where basic goods are still rationed." 90
After dismissing the evidence of Karol, Lorimer then goes on to quote Robert Scheer and Maurice Zeitlin who base their analysis on personal observation. In their book, ‘Cuba: An American Tragedy’ they give a fairly balanced account of the first stages of the revolution. But Franqui gave a timely warning to writers visiting Cuba even in the early days after the revolution’s triumph:
"For progressive people it is easy to see oppression in the capitalist world. It was against that oppression that we rebelled in Cuba – the same sort that filled jails in Franco’s Spain, that makes the black ghettos of New York a hell, that hides Rio’s misery at carnival time. But people should also open their eyes to the crimes that make socialism as it is practised in the world into the negation of the ideal of socialism. My advice to travellers is not to confuse what you see with what actually exists. Try to look beyond." 91
It is advice which Lorimer and the DSP should heed today.
Nevertheless, Scheer and Zeitlin are honest observers of the Cuban Revolution in its first decade and although displaying in part a certain idealisation and romanticism about the situation in Cuba, they do show that the extent of privilege was very limited in the first period of the revolution:
"It was a rare administrator who earned more than the highest paid skilled worker in the same factory. Typical administrators earned the low salary of $350 a month; many earned no more than $250. The administrators in some factories were formerly skilled workers in the same plants. Their salaries were relatively low, not only because Che, the minister of industries, believed in this as a socialist principle, but also because wages were frozen and administrators received the same salaries they earned in their preceding jobs. Some of them did enjoy certain material ‘fringe’ benefits: a car, for instance, if their work required one." 92
This, however, does not invalidate the point that we have made that the extent of the privileges of the as yet unconsolidated bureaucracy were very low, and could not be otherwise, in the first stages of the revolution. But even then the officials in the new state could acquire certain ‘luxuries’, which did include access to a car as we have seen, which were not open to the masses.
Moreover, on the basis of the growth of industry a differentiation between the mass of the population and a growing bureaucracy opened up and inevitably would widen where control and management was not exercised over the state and society by the workers and poor peasants. Indeed Zeitlin shows clearly the absence of real workers’ democracy in this first period of the revolution. He writes:
"The members of the government, the cabinet ministers, are responsible not to the general citizenry – who did not elect them and who had no direct voice in their selection – but only to themselves and a handful of revolutionary leaders – Fidel, Raúl, Che, – who appointed them. These leaders are, in fact, the government. They are the decision-makers; and there are no established channels by which the masses can directly influence them or recall them. (One must not forget on the other hand that the people are armed; wherever one goes, one sees ordinary citizens, including long-fingernailed women in high heels, with rifles or submachine guns slung over their shoulders. If this is not an institutional mode of ensuring responsibility of government figures, it is, nevertheless, a certain source of countervailing power.)" 93
Yes, there was a ‘countervailing power’ at the beginning in the militias and the elements of workers’ control that existed but these alone were not, and are not, sufficient to check the growth of a bureaucratic elite. Zeitlin further writes:
"[The revolutionary leaders] failed to attempt to create autonomous centres of power outside the Party that could act to check and balance the Party’s strength. They apparently made no attempt to establish new autonomous institutions to protect dissent and prevent infringements on personal freedom." 94
He makes the same point about the role and independence of the trade unions in a workers’ state. Guevara, in a discussion with Zeitlin, defended the right of workers to strike and was of the opinion that,
"Strikes stem from the malpractice of those in charge at all levels of industry, and that strikes while - certainly not to be encouraged – are a necessary working class weapon to be used when other methods fail." 95
Thus, instinctively, Guevara understood the need for genuine trade unions in a workers’ state to be both a supporter of ‘their’ state and at the same time a defence of the working class against the abuse of this very same state. But the leaders of many of the trade unions did not share Guevara’s approach, as Jesus Sotu, organisational secretary of the central labour organisation, and another member of the union’s central executive committee and editor of its journal, showed in a discussion with Zeitlin.
"Neither seemed to have even an elementary Leninist conception of the labour unions’ role as defenders against ‘bureaucratic deformation’ in a ‘Socialist society’. Both stressed the unions’ functions of raising the productivity of the workers… [but] neither mentioned that a union ought also to protect the immediate interests of the workers".96
Later, Zeitlin, in ‘Cuba’s Workers, Workers’ Cuba, 1969’, a new introduction to his ‘Revolutionary Politics and the Cuban Working Class’, gives his own impressions of Cuba at that time. Lorimer draws heavily on this account in order to refute what we say above about the existence of a bureaucratic elite. Zeitlin, he says, proves that not only was there not a bureaucracy "from the outset" but such an elite did not exist even as late as 1969. Cuba, he maintains, for the first decade of the revolution had, in effect, a regime of ‘war communism’, similar to the period of the civil war following the Russian Revolution. Not only did ‘war communism’ exist but the regime in Cuba, as we have seen, was the same, he claims, as that of Lenin and Trotsky, basically a healthy workers’ state with mild bureaucratic deformations.
However, Zeitlin’s material was based on his personal observations in Cuba. Many of his comments are valuable in showing the support of the mass of the working class and rural population for the Cuban Revolution even in the teeth of the great difficulties experienced in the 1960s. His comments about the attitudes of different layers of the working class – not all of them unqualified supporters of Castro or the political regime that existed – are useful in helping to form a picture of Cuba at that time. He states:
"The egalitarian ethos of the revolution has been accentuated by its egalitarian practice."
He goes on to point out:
"Wages and salaries reflect the same pattern of social equality." 97
He gives the example, quoted by Lorimer, of a factory employing 2,700 workers where the administrator earned $250 a month. A section chief earned $400 monthly. Skilled workers earned, in effect $300 a month, while the lowest peón, or unskilled worker, earned about $95 a month. But even if these figures of official salaries are accurate they do not give the full picture. We have conceded, both in our original pamphlet and in this reply to Lorimer, that given the stage of the revolution, its cultural level, during the 1960s there could not be the same kind of differentiation between the bureaucracy and the masses as existed at that stage in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, for instance. However, even Zeitlin cautiously suggests that there were other privileges:
"There are certain limited perquisites of office. Many government functionaries have drivers and cars assigned to them for use on government business, mostly four-cylinder compact Volgas or Alfa Romeos, though an occasional Chevy or Ford still serves the revolutionary government….
"Functionaries, especially those dealing directly with foreign visitors, also have expense accounts which allow them to indulge more often than other Cubans in meals at the few remaining plush restaurants frequented still by the wealthy who have chosen not to leave. Public property, and accessible to all, such restaurants are a luxury few Cubans can yet afford."
"From what I could observe… expropriated country homes…[did not become] the opulent quarters of a new elite." 98
This is frankly contradicted by Carlos Franqui who writes:
"At that time [in 1961] Security was moving comandantes, ministers and anyone of any importance into new houses. Some of us tried to stay where we were – Che, Faustino, Celia, Haydée, Chomón, Orlando Blanco, and I among them. The new houses were those that had been abandoned by the Havana middle class. This reopened the polemic that had been simmering since 1959. Many of us went right back to our old apartments after the war while others wanted to ‘profane’ (as they said) the houses of the rich. It was they who were ‘profaned’. These houses came equipped with 24-hour, round-the-clock guards – because of the counter-revolutionary threat, but it was also a good way to keep an eye on you in the Soviet style. Celia, Haydée, and I had eluded the new-house situation simply because we were civilians… I had been living in my own flat all this time with no problem".99
However, the premises in which Franqui’s newspaper ‘Revolución’ was produced had been mysteriously attacked a few months earlier. He suspected it was not so much right-wing, counter-revolutionary terrorists but the burgeoning Stalinist ‘security’ forces that targeted him because of his criticism of the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution. He writes:
"Since I wouldn’t obey the order to move, Fidel stepped in, told me I was in danger and that I would simply have to follow orders. The next day the Urban Reform people handed me the keys to my new house. I’d be a hypocrite if I were to say I didn’t like what I found – swimming pool, books, nice furniture, garden, air conditioning – but at the same time I felt guilty. Fidel himself never had those problems, since he was accustomed to living in houses like that…What was really happening was that we were creating a new elite, despite all the rhetoric about the need to protect us, the need for upper-echelon people to be able to relax. This new elite would one day be dangerous." 100
Let us remind ourselves that these events occurred in 1961 not 1969 when Zeitlin recorded his impressions.
Notwithstanding the honesty of Zeitlin, Franqui’s observations are a more accurate account of what was taking place in Cuba. As a participant in the revolution, as a friend and confidant of the leaders of the revolution but also as a stringent and honest critic of elitism and bureaucratism, as well as Stalinism, he was better placed to give a more rounded out view of what was taking place in Cuba. Nevertheless, Zeitlin’s analysis actually speaks against Lorimer’s contention that Cuba had all the features of a healthy workers’ state at that stage. Referring to the trade unions, for instance, he writes:
"From what I could observe, and from the vague and infrequent references to them by the workers I interviewed, they seemed to have ‘withered away’. The workers do not have an independent organisation which takes the initiative in the plant, industry, or country as a whole, to assure, let alone demand, improved working conditions or higher wages; no organisation exists as an autonomous force to protect and advance the immediate interests of the workers, as they see them, independent of the prevailing line of the Communist Party or policies of the Revolutionary Government. The distinction in practice between the role played by the Ministry of Labour and that of the CTC-R, the Workers’ Federation – if it is clear in formal terms – is not clear to ordinary workers. Nor, indeed does this distinction seem clear to some of the government officials and national leaders I spoke with. " 101
He further comments: "The unions function essentially, however, less as workers’ independent organisations than as committees delegated by the workers to represent them on a day-to-day level concerning working conditions, as well as to provide for the distribution of scarce resources to the workers on a fair basis." 102
As to overall control of society, the economy, the factories, etc., Zeitlin comments:
"The distinction between the Party, Workers’ Councils, general assembly, and the union as a means of furthering their interests has become vague in [workers’] minds." 103
In relation to the danger of bureaucracy, Zeitlin bluntly writes:
"The possibility exists that under the social pressures of what Che called the ‘weeds that shoot up so easily in the fertilised soil of state subsidisation,’ of vested interests that may emerge (risen careerists, bureaucrats, and political opportunists), and of some members of the old privileged strata incorporated into positions of authority in the economic administration, government, or Party, the thrust towards social equality clearly evident at present could be subtly, even unconsciously, deflected." 104
He points out that Lenin and Trotsky were both in favour of the workers having the freedom to organise to protect their immediate interests. Independent unions should act both as a defence of a healthy workers’ state and also as a defence of the workers against ‘their’ own state. Most important are Zeitlin’s comments about the overall management of society and the economy:
"At present, despite the apparently ample participation of the workers in discussions and decisions concerning the implementation of the objectives of the national economic plan set for their plant, the workers have no role whatsoever, to my knowledge, in determining the plan itself. They have nothing to say over investment priorities; the decision as to what and how much is to be produced is made by the central planning bodies of the Revolutionary Government responsible to the Council of Ministers." 105
He also points out that as opposed to the days of the revolution when "genuine differences between government leaders were still publicly debated, if in muted tones" the situation in 1969 was that "public debate is absent". Moreover, in relation to the Escalante affair in early 1968 (see my pamphlet on Cuba where this is explained), he validates the points that I made rather than the uncritical position of Lorimer towards this. In relation to the trial of the so-called ‘micro-factionists’ led by Aníbal Escalante, former organisational secretary of the PSP, he writes:
"Several of the government’s charges were sufficiently vague to encompass even prorevolutionary dissent from the present policies of the Revolutionary Government".
He goes on to point out:
"The charges are essentially that Escalante and his comrades differed with the Revolutionary Government’s policies and attempted to convince others of their views. They were accused of ‘furthering ideological differences’ in the Party, despite the fact that ‘on numerous occasions’ several of them had been ‘called in to discuss their ideas and attitudes which were opposed to the line of the Revolution’."106
His conclusions are:
"To say the least, this trial might have had a chilling effect on the expression of opposing views even within the Central Committee itself, and in the country at large amongst revolutionary cadres; and it sets a precedent for the imprisonment of revolutionaries who deviate from the party line."
Zeitlin points out:
"Once ‘attitudes, ideas and arguments’ can lead to imprisonment, the potential for the repression of any or all who express competing views, even the most loyal revolutionaries, has been established. It is good, but not enough, to say as Fidel did after the trial, that ‘the revolutionary courts were not as severe as some would have wished, but in the final analysis unnecessary severity has never been a characteristic of this revolution’." 107
It is beyond question that soviets existed in Russia in the period leading up to the revolution and the immediate period afterwards. They were weakened because of the civil war, which saw the flower of the proletariat deployed in defending the revolution against the armed attacks of imperialism. The proletariat itself became almost atomised, as Lenin commented, because of the civil war and the extreme privations that this introduced. However, it was still legitimate to describe the state at this stage as a relatively healthy workers’ state. Power was wielded by the most revolutionary party in history and, it might be added, the most democratic. The leaders of this state, notably Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, were conscious of the inherent dangers of bureaucratisation that flowed from the isolation of the revolution. They therefore took measures to try to prevent and hold back the process. In Cuba, however, there were never any ‘soviets’ in the classical Marxist sense of the term. The leaders of the revolution, moreover, did not have a consciously worked-out programme or perspective and as we have seen were compelled to turn towards the bureaucracy of the ‘Communist’ party and remnants of the old state machine. Therefore the situation was entirely different in Cuba compared to Russia between 1917 and 1923.
Sad to say our old friend Karol, summarily dismissed by Lorimer, is much more accurate on the issue of workers’ democracy, soviets and the lack of them in Cuba than the ex-Trotskyists of the DSP. His comments on the situation in Cuba are more penetrating on the general issue of the transition from capitalism to socialism than the DSP leadership. He makes the following insightful comments:
"Fidel Castro will often tell you: it is five times more difficult to develop a country after the revolution than to seize power. He does not hesitate to illustrate this thesis by the example of his own practical errors, all due to his lack of experience. But this is not really the point. The reason it is five times more difficult to build a socialist society than to seize power is the failure to create a genuine socialist outlook even while the struggle is still being waged, or to establish popular methods of running the new society. Socialism has no chance of success unless, in the very fire of action, at the very point of social explosion, a move is made towards the solution of the delicate problem of the relationship between the masses and the political leadership. Now the search for this solution was never part of the Castroist scheme. True, without Fidel, Cuba would be like the Dominican Republic, but this does not alter the fact that Fidel’s method – the only possible one, perhaps – is the basic cause of his greatest difficulties. A people that says: ‘If Fidel is socialist, so are we’ is not really mature enough to build a socialist society; it has only just been admitted to the rank of builder’s apprentice." 108
We would dispute Karol’s contention that Fidel’s method is "the only possible one – perhaps". But his general point about the consciousness of the working class and socialism is valid. Karol comments on the early debates following the victory of the revolution amongst the leadership:
"In this whole debate there was a major gap which genuine Marxists might have been expected to close. Neither Che nor his opponents have come to grips with the problems of political power in, and the political organisation of, all those societies where centralised or reformist experiments in planning and economic management were taking place. The ‘classics’ which both sides so assiduously quoted, had never equated socialism with mere economic efficiency; ie, with economic control by a small group deciding, in the name of the people, on the best way of organising work and leisure. One can look in vain to Marx for this concept of permanently delegated political and economic authority. On the contrary, for Marx the entire transition period towards socialism and communism was characterised by the direct participation of all workers, free at last in the running of communal affairs. Even for Lenin, the founder of the theory of the proletarian vanguard party, Soviet power still came before electrical power." 109
On the issue of ‘direct democracy’, an idea formulated in relation to Cuba by the US left intellectuals C. Wright Mills and Paul Baran, Karol comments:
"Castroists did not still pretend that direct democracy, based on a dialogue between Fidel and the rank and file, constituted an end in itself and not just a step towards a genuine workers’ democracy. Far from trying to develop ‘a system of more organic relations between the rightful government and the Cuban people’ they tell themselves that this system already exists, indeed that it appeared in 1959-60 and that it has proved its worth ever since." 110
Karol’s conclusion is:
"The building of socialism cannot be the business of one man or of a single group of men, however well-intentioned. If the socialist ship is to come safely into harbour, everyone alike must take to his oars – a few men rowing up in front are not enough. This may sound like a slogan, but socialist democracy is not the kind of luxury people can only afford when everything else has been settled. Unless everyone pulls his weight, the leaders no less than the workers are exposed to an intolerable strain. In such circumstances, it matters little that great sacrifices no longer serve to enrich a minority of privileged people, or that the leaders are men of high integrity – and no one can say otherwise of the Castroists. The result is bound to be apathy and a general flagging of political interest." 111
These lines are not particularly scientific but they express more horse sense about the reality of Cuba, both yesterday and today, than those of Lorimer.
In coming to the conclusion that a bureaucratic elite dominates Cuban society we do not base ourselves exclusively on the individual observations of this or that commentator but on an analysis of the processes which are likely to develop following a revolution that is isolated, particularly in a relatively undeveloped country like Cuba. And we do not start with a blank sheet. We can call upon the accumulated experience of the Russian Revolution and its subsequent development, including the bureaucratic degeneration that flowed from its isolation as we explained earlier. It does not even occur to Lorimer to ask the question that even if, as he contends, a relatively healthy workers’ state was created in Cuba in 1959 to 1960 how is it possible that it has maintained itself intact for over 30 years? Has it remained a healthy workers’ state without spreading internationally, particularly to the industrialised countries, and without experiencing the bureaucratic degeneration which Russia went through after 1923? If so is this because of the revolutionary intransigence of Castro and his entourage, including the Cuban Communist Party? This is pure idealism, which ignores the colossal heritage that Trotsky has left us in his analysis of the objective causes of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution.
Let us nail here a gross misrepresentation of our position where Lorimer accuses us of trying to show: "Castro is a Cuban Stalin".112 This is despite the fact that he uses quotes from our pamphlet, which clearly show we do not believe that Castro could be put in the same box as Stalin. Stalin was a grey mediocre figure who played no significant role in the Russian Revolution, who developed into a tyrant and was perfectly fitted, as Trotsky pointed out, to head the bureaucratic counter-revolution which eliminated the Bolshevik party and established the bureaucratic regime. Castro was a revolutionary, without having a rounded-out Marxist understanding or programme. He demonstrated enormous combativity, improvisation and originality in the struggle against the Batista regime. To his credit he also reflected the huge pressure of the masses in the period of the revolution to break with capitalism and establish a planned economy. Given the character of the Cuban Revolution, and the fact that Castro and the 26 July Movement originated outside of a Stalinist tradition, as well as reflecting the traditions of Cuba itself, the regime which was established did not and could not initially ape all the features of the regimes of Eastern Europe, Russia or China. The situation in Cuba was much more fluid. We argued in our pamphlet, that there was not just massive popular support for the revolution but elements of workers’ control in the factories and on the farms. However, this does not in itself constitute what Marxists would consider a healthy workers’ state. Even in Yugoslavia under Tito there was an element of workers’ control in the factories as the bureaucracy attempted to tap the initiative of the masses to extricate the planned economy from the impasse caused by the bureaucratic caste which controlled industry and society.
Once more Habel provides some interesting detail on this issue. She writes about the situation in Cuba:
"A hierarchical approach can be found, to a greater or lesser degree, in all sectors of society, to the point where enterprise managers are often called el jefe (chief). The latter’s privileges and power in relation to the workers are clear. In 1983, a trade union activist – the social affairs secretary of the light industry rank-and-file section and an attender of the sessions of the consejos de trabajo (work councils) – challenged the absenteeism of particular managers and asked the council to deal with the issue. ‘The administration was reluctant. I said: "I can prove that of the 24 administrators’ time cards in this workplace, 18 showed unjustified absences." But still the management balked at bringing a case. I tried other routes. I talked to the union, but the union would not back me up. It was just too hard for the union leaders to force the issue because it meant going against the jefes. The situation was never resolved. The consejo could never do anything at all’." 113
She also points out:
"Workers’ councils were set up in 1965 to rule on problems of indiscipline and violations of labour law in enterprises. They can only be formed by workers. According to the law of 1965, they were to be composed of five members elected by secret ballot at their workplace for a three-year renewable period. They are charged with the resolution of conflicts between workers and managers over discipline and workers’ rights. They mainly deal with conflicts over absenteeism, late arrival at work, the failure to follow tasks, carelessness, the lack of respect for managers, instances of physical assault, damage to tools, as well as cases of fraud and robbery. But wages, working conditions and transfers also form part of their responsibilities." 114
She points to the role of Guevara in this:
"Set up on Che’s initiative, the councils were initially independent bodies formed by the workers themselves. They had real power to control, even though the scope of their activities was limited by the overall low level of training at the beginning of the revolution. In the recent period it is significant that lack of time has been one of the councils’ major problems. The number of conflicts has become increasingly large and the councils have been criticised for not managing to deal with them. To cope, workers had to add this task to their ordinary work, hence the trend towards the councils’ decline. The problem could have been solved by a cut in the working hours, but intensification of work was the order of the day." 115
On the crucial issue of the overall management of the economy, Habel quotes Francis Pisani: "With infinite patience compañero Gada [the manager] explains the principle of what could be called the ‘yo-yo economy’ to me. This consists of sending figures, suggestions or demands ‘upwards’ and waiting for answers, directions and orders to come back ‘downwards’, in an endless to-ing and fro-ing between the rank and file and the leadership. It is extraordinarily difficult to locate the level at which decisions are taken, even though the correct answer is always to say ‘above’, but without saying from where." 116
From all the most authoritative accounts, Hugh Thomas’s ‘Cuba or The Pursuit of Freedom’, or Jon Lee Anderson’s biography, ‘Che Guevara’, a picture emerges of the character of the Castro leadership in the first stages of the revolution. This is a leadership that is driven empirically and very courageously to establish a planned economy but with no real power vested in organisations controlled and managed by the mass of the population themselves. A high degree of personal power was in the hands of Castro, Guevara and the leading group in the first period. Decisions were taken on the basis of personal intervention of Castro and others rather than through representative organisations of the masses themselves. This is what Tad Szulc said about Castro’s role:
"His compulsive dedication to detail and the conviction that, no matter what the subject, he knows more about it than anyone else, have combined to make Castro an obstacle to an efficient development of both economy and society… Therefore, a mutually protective association of bureaucrats has come into being, and the bitter Havana joke is that Cuba does have a two-party system after all: the Communist Party and the Bureaucracy Party. The waste of resources and talent is staggering." 117
And later he adds:
"His impatience led him into continuous shifts between short-, medium- and long-term planning as well as into endless improvisations. No policy was given reasonable time to succeed (or to be proved unsatisfactory), and political or visionary pressures pushed Castro into grandiose projects the economy could not possibly handle." 118
"In 1970 a Cuban intellectual was already lucidly denouncing the even further concentration of power in Fidel Castro’s hands. He stressed the need for the participation of the masses and the different social groups in economic and political decisions, as opposed to the impossibility of managing from a single centre. But he was already expressing doubts as to the likelihood of this occurring:
‘I am a bit pessimistic as to the likelihood of such changes coming about. I would like to be wrong, but Fidel’s own words show that his idea is to provoke a few changes of individual people, solve a few minor problems irritating the masses, and win popularity through a few personal visits and conversations at workplaces. But as you can understand, that won’t change anything and it’s inconceivable that such measures might lead to a reactivation of the economy and to the masses retaining confidence in the leadership’." 119
Pisani illustrates the limited scope for workers in decision making:
"In one small enterprise 75 out of 300 came to the assembly. As to the self-critical attitude of officials, one activist says that it is the case of the well-known technique of pre-empting the accusations to come. Although all issues are dealt with, including the failure to meet targets set by the plan, few young people participate and there is an overwhelming atmosphere of weariness. Two days earlier, a production assembly had discussed the same issues, and, during the course of the second assembly, a worker summarises the situation well: ‘We know what the problems are. Now we’d like to know how to solve them.’"120
"This is a good summary of the more general problems affecting Cuba: debate and criticism are open, but this ‘eiderdown democracy’ does not give any power to those practising it." 121
It is true that this situation was tolerated, if you like was acquiesced to, by the mass of the population of Cuba, particularly as the framework of a planned economy was established. On this basis Cuba was therefore able to introduce significant improvements in health, education and social services, many of which generally exist today, and compare particularly favourably to the conditions in many of the neighbouring Latin American countries. There were important aspects of the Cuban Revolution and of the regime that arose from it, which were different to the heavily bureaucratised regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The regime was not an exact copy of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe, Russia or China. There were features in Cuba that did not exist in those societies. This could not fail to be the case given the character of the revolution and how the new state was established.
Marxists need to recognise the differences that exist between different states. The enduring popularity of Castro’s regime was evident in the first and subsequent period. But it is also necessary to note the fundamental similarity in the economy and in the state forms which began to evolve in Cuba, particularly when Castro was forced to lean on the Russian Stalinists. Given the blockade exercised by US imperialism the Cuban regime turned towards the Stalinist regime of Russia.
In the first stage of the revolution Castro was reaffirming his commitments to the US, to foreign investment in Cuba, insisting that his agrarian reform law would affect only neglected land. He urged more US tourism and he expressed his hopes that the United States, Cuba’s biggest sugar buyer, would increase Cuba’s sugar quota. He also said that Cuba would
"Honour its mutual defence treaty with the United States and continue to allow the US Navy to use the Guantánamo base – and while it may come as a surprise to those in the know back in Havana, he was also opposed to Communism and in favour of a free press".122
This underlines once more how facile and impressionistic is Lorimer’s contention that Castro was a conscious Marxist prior to the revolution. He was feeling his way, as was the Russian bureaucracy. It took events, the attempted blackmail of Cuba and the imposition of a blockade, to radicalise Castro, to bring to an end the temporising which he showed immediately after the revolution. And yes, let us restate again ‘under mass pressure’ he carried through step by step the expropriation of landlordism and capitalism. This represented a colossal step forward both for the Cuban people and for the downtrodden masses in the Latin American continent and throughout the neo-colonial world.
However, Khrushchev, representative of the Russian bureaucracy par excellence, had no interest in spreading genuine socialism to the rest of the world. A healthy workers’ state, based upon workers’ democracy, represented a deadly threat to the Stalinist bureaucracy as much as to world imperialism. However regimes which assumed the economic and political forms of Russia itself, a planned economy but without workers’ democracy, the Russian bureaucracy would find not only compatible but also useful in its military-diplomatic manoeuvres against American imperialism.
The support for the Cuban regime, despite Khrushchev’s statements about support for ‘socialist states’, had everything to do with extending the power, prestige and world position of the Stalinist bureaucracy of Russia and nothing to do with genuine international revolution. This was subsequently shown in the Cuban missile crisis when Cuba was used as a pawn in the manoeuvrings against US imperialism. The US had established nuclear bases in Turkey and Khrushchev’s answer was to install them in Cuba. Of course the Cuban regime wished to have a shield against attack from US imperialism but this was of secondary importance to Khrushchev, whose policy was determined by the national interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy and not out of concern for the workers and peasants of Cuba or of Latin America as a whole.
Trotsky’s writings on Stalinism represent an even greater contribution to our understanding of revolution, of social counter-revolution and of the world we live in today than his participation in the Russian revolution. Trotsky’s ‘fall from power’, subsequently viewed with astonishment by superficial bourgeois commentators, had nothing to do with his personal qualities or lack of them but was the result of an objective process, given the isolation of the revolution. Trotsky himself, in view of his enormous authority with the Red Army, could have taken power and removed Stalin. But as he himself commented, this would have meant he would have been a prisoner of a military bureaucratic caste, which in some senses could have been worse, at least in the first period, than the bureaucratic ‘civilian’ layer who supported Stalin. He also commented that Krupskaya in 1927 said that if Lenin had lived he would have been in prison because of the bureaucratic degeneration. The process of bureaucratism is inevitable, as Trotsky explained, on the basis of a paucity of cultural and economic resources. Russia, even with the resources of a continent at its disposal, faced inevitable bureaucratic degeneration on the basis of its isolation.
In the words of Marx, where ‘want is generalised, all the old crap will revive’. First and foremost the state would not only continue to exist but grow in a society of scarcity and poverty. The bureaucrat forced to regulate and preside over the rationing of resources ensures that ‘he eats first and eats best’. The isolation of the Russian Revolution led to the discouragement of the masses, their elbowing aside and the gradual rise of a bureaucratic officialdom. To begin with their conditions were not all that better than the mass of the population. But gradually the power and the privileges and income that go with it were concentrated in the hands of this stratum, personified by the rise of Stalin. Such a process is inevitable on the basis of the isolation of a revolution. The origins of the Cuban Revolution were different than those of the Russian Revolution but the processes of bureaucratic deformation and degeneration were fundamentally the same.