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cwiCuba: Socialism and Democracy

by Peter Taaffe


The Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959, more than four decades ago. Yet, its effects, particularly through its most charismatic figures, Fidel Castro and the murdered Che Guevara, still inspire workers and young people worldwide. The overthrow of the hated dictatorship of Batista was quickly followed by the elimination of landlordism and capitalism. The world labour movement was mesmerised by this. A government and a ‘socialist’ regime had been established in the very ‘jaws of the monster’, US imperialism. Writers and commentators drew parallels with previous revolutions, particularly the Russian Revolution. However, history never repeats itself in exactly the same way. Nor do revolutions. The Cuban Revolution was entirely different to the Russian Revolution, in its origins, the political outlook of its leading figures and the class forces involved.

Indeed, nothing in the socialist and Marxist textbooks – of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg or even Trotsky – fully prepared Marxists for what happened in Cuba. It is true that in his last writings, Trotsky gave some indication of processes which later developed in the Cuban Revolution. He pointed out that leaders from a non-Marxist middle-class background could, in conditions of extreme social crisis, be pushed much further than they originally intended and into breaking with capitalism. The British Marxists also, who later published the newspaper Militant (now The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party) were better prepared than most for the events of the Cuban Revolution. Their analysis of the Chinese Revolution of 1944-49 and the processes in the postwar period which unfolded in the neo-colonial world meant that they were not taken completely unawares by events in Cuba. Yet even the best theory is not able to fully anticipate how a revolution will actually unfold.

The Cuban Revolution was led by Castro and Guevara, and their 26 July Movement, which originated outside of the Stalinist tradition. They established a regime enjoying massive, overwhelming popular support and which evoked enthusiasm in Cuba itself and acclaim from the oppressed worldwide. In its first phase, moreover, the revolution evinced tendencies of mass involvement and participation, including elements of workers’ control and of ‘popular power’. This compelled every socialist and Marxist to assess the precise character of the Cuban regime. Could the government of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara be compared to that of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in the first heroic period of the Russian Revolution? A planned economy had been established but was there real workers’ democracy in Cuba? What were the international dimensions and the effects of the Cuban Revolution? These issues were hotly debated at the time, and have been a source of constant controversy since.

These are also the themes of this book, judged against the background of events since 1959. Many, including some claiming to be Marxists and Trotskyists, were, in our opinion, swept off their feet by the Cuban Revolution. They replaced a balanced Marxist appraisal – support for the revolution but linking this to proposals for establishing workers’ democracy in Cuba – with impressionism. This did involve comparing the government and the state in Cuba to that of the Bolsheviks in the first period after 1917. We opposed this and from the very outset of the revolution attempted to give an all-sided analysis and explanation that could prepare workers for the subsequent developments in Cuba and particularly the Cuban state.

Our ideas were presented in our weekly newspaper Militant and in other publications. I wrote three articles for our newspaper in 1978, which were subsequently gathered together and published as a small pamphlet. I have included this pamphlet as an appendix. This provides important background information on the events leading up to the revolution of 1959 and afterwards. Readers can also, if they wish, read our original analysis in the light of subsequent criticisms.

Twenty-one years later Doug Lorimer, one of the leaders of the Australian-based Democratic Socialist Party decided to subject this pamphlet to a lengthy criticism. This book is a reply to these criticisms. However, before we received Lorimer’s criticisms I already had the intention of writing an up-to-date analysis of the situation in Cuba today which would involve a revisiting of the events of the Cuban Revolution itself.

The topicality of such a work has been underlined recently by the worldwide publicity around the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez, which has once more brought Cuba back to the centre of world politics. The outcome of this conflict, with the ‘capture’ of Elian by the INS, which led to him being reunited with his father, represented a defeat for the die-hard ultra-right Miami exiles. At the same time, it has drawn attention once more to Fidel Castro’s government and political regime, and to the future prospects for the development of Cuba itself.

In this book we touch on some of the main current developments in Cuba but a substantial work, giving a more detailed overall picture of events in Cuba, I have had to put aside in order to reply to the arguments of the DSP with, we hope, some benefits to be gained. Discussion, criticisms and counter-criticisms of different trends within the workers’ movement and amongst Marxists can serve to clarify and educate a new generation who are not yet familiar with our analysis.

I have felt it necessary to reply to the DSP, in the order in which they have set out their criticisms of my pamphlet. This necessarily involves a certain sacrifice of style and presentation in order to properly deal with these arguments. There are also quite lengthy quotes from different authors and publications, which is necessary because of disputes over facts. I hope this is not too burdensome for the reader but will, on the contrary, serve to illuminate and underline the analysis which we have made of the Cuban Revolution, the character of Fidel Castro and his government, and the present and future perspectives for Cuba, which are of vital concern for workers everywhere.

Peter Taaffe

May 2000