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Workers in the Russian and Cuban revolutions

Fidel Castro addresses a huge crowd in front of the presidential palace in Havana, Cuba, in 1959. 

By Chris Slee

October 4, 2010 -- This is a response to "Cuba: Stalinism isn't socialism", by John Passant, a prominent member of Socialist Alternative in Australia.

John Passant writes:

One of Marx’s unique and profound contributions to socialism is his idea that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. This is the very reason Cuba isn’t socialist... Castro took power, but the working class as the working class played no role whatsoever in the overthrow of Batista. In fact they ignored Fidel’s call for a general strike in 1958.

In reality the working class played a key role in the Cuban Revolution, through general strikes, mass demonstrations and by taking over their workplaces. For details, see my pamphlet Cuba: How the workers and peasants made the revolution.

Passant mentions the failed general strike of April 1958, but ignores the successful general strike of January 1959. According to historian Hugh Thomas:

On 2 January the 26th of July Movement had called for a general strike to mark the end of the old regime, and in Havana and most cities this was fairly complete. In Havana the rebel trade union FONU … called for mass demonstrations … The rebel committees in all unions came out into the open … The old CTC leaders compromised with Batista, Mujal at their head, had fled into hiding … In the next few days all the unions reformed themselves with new leaders … Militants of the 26th of July and Directorio took over as de facto police. Offices of newspapers which had backed Batista were occupied. (Hugh Thomas, Cuba, Pan Books, London 2002, p. 690.)

The general strike is sometimes dismissed as irrelevant because Batista had already left the country. But General Cantillo was attempting to create a new military-dominated government that would preserve the institutions of the bourgeois state. The general strike, which was effective throughout Cuba, developed into an insurrection that helped destroy the old state apparatus. Batista’s army and police disintegrated.

There were four more general strikes in 1959.

Left-wing critics of Fidel Castro often portray the expropriation of capitalist property as simply a matter of the government passing a few laws. The reality was that workers and peasants were actively involved in carrying out the expropriations. The peasants took over the land, and the workers — organised in the revolutionary militia — took over the factories. Joaquín Bustelo (a US socialist from a Cuban-exile family background) explains the role of the workers and peasants in carrying out the expropriation of capitalist property:

Who actually took over the land and drove out the landlord or his caretakers? The peasants themselves, organised and led by the agrarian reform delegates. Who actually took over the more than 1000 enterprises that were expropriated on one day in October of 1960? The National Revolutionary Militias.

Years later in Miami (former) Cuban capitalists were still complaining about how fundamentally unfair it was to have your OWN workers show up with guns and a nationalization order from the state. Without the active, conscious and direct participation of the workers and peasants themselves in the transformation, what happened in Cuba was not possible. Who was to run the factory, warehouse or other business the morning after the expropriation? Who could organise and reactivate production?

The idea that this was done by the cadre of a peasant-based rebel army of at most 1000 is preposterous. Tens of thousands of armed, disciplined workers took part in the takeover of factories, plants and warehouses simultaneously in October of 1960 through THEIR militia units and hundreds of thousands of workers took part in reactivating the workplaces over the next several days through their unions. There was, physically, in Cuba, in October of 1960, no one else who could have done it. (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/GreenLeft_discussion/message/23756)

John Passant writes:

Compare this to the fleeting glimpse of workers’ power in the Paris Commune or, for a few years, in the Russian revolution. In Russia workers set up their own democratic organs of power – called workers’ councils or Soviets in Russian. These were the most democratic institutions the world has seen – direct representation from the workplace, the right of instant recall by workers of representatives who voted against their wishes, Soviet members with their pay limited to the average wage, and the workers’ councils making decisions about what to produce to satisfy human need. And every day the representatives would go back to the factories to debate and discuss issues with workers and receive instructions from them about forthcoming sessions and how to vote.

The war, foreign invasion, the destruction of industry, the de-classing of the working class and the failure of the revolution to spread to Germany (although it was close run) and thus provide material support to help re-build the Russian economy, saw the Russian revolution isolated.

The workers’ councils, without a working class to run them, became shells, and Stalin, the gravedigger of the revolution, rose to power.

Actually, there is a lot of similarity between the problems facing the Cuban and Russian revolutions. An isolated socialist state in a capitalist world faces enormous pressures towards bureaucratic degeneration and capitalist restoration. This was true of Russia in the past and of Cuba today.

In 1917 the Russian soviets were very democratic institutions. Different parties competed for the support of the workers, peasants and soldiers. But under the pressure of the civil war and foreign intervention democracy was progressively limited. The non-Bolshevik parties were banned for siding with the counter-revolution.

In Cuba a similar process occurred. As US aggression escalated, opposition forces were suppressed.

In January 1921, Lenin described Russia as "a workers' state with bureaucratic distortions" (Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 48).  Over time these distortions deepened, and Russia became what Trotsky called a degenerated workers' state, or what Tony Cliff called state capitalist.

In the early 1920s Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which involved concessions to private enterprise and the market. The NEP continued until Stalin adopted the policy of forced collectivisation in the late 1920s.

Cliff said that the adoption of the first five-year plan in 1929 signified "the transformation of the bureaucracy into a ruling class" (State Capitalism in Russia, Bookmarks 1988, p. 164). This seems to imply that prior to 1929 (i.e. during the NEP period) Russia was still "a workers' state with bureaucratic distortions".

The Cuban Revolution did not create soviets, but it did create revolutionary mass organisations such as the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the revolutionary militia, and mass revolutionary organisations or women, workers, youth and rural workers. Later it created the system known as People's Power for the election of government bodies at the local, regional and national levels.

However the US blockade of Cuba, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, US-backed terrorist attacks and the ongoing threat of a much larger invasion have imposed enormous strains on Cuban society -- in addition to the pressures just from operating in a capitalist world economy.

These pressures have created serious problems of bureaucracy and corruption, and could well lead to capitalist restoration.

Whether the current NEP-style changes turn out to be a step on the road to capitalist restoration, or a reform to improve the efficiency of the socialist state, only time will tell.

[Chris Slee is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne, and author of Cuba: How the workers and peasants made the revolution.]

Comments

Re: Workers in the Russian and Cuban revolutions

"Cuba is a socialist country in the popular understanding of the term. It
is not functioning according to the dynamics and tendencies of capitalist
production, although it cannot escape the vicissitudes of the global
economy. It is a planned economy. Its government was created by a dynamic
multi-class revolution that smashed the old state apparatus and broke apart
the capitalist state institutions: the army, police, courts and prisons.
Although the revolutionary leadership that initiated the armed struggle
against the old Batista regime was not a proletarian communist party, but
rather a multi-class formation—the July 26 Movement—the new revolutionary
state that came into existence after 1959 represented the class interests of
the workers and poorest peasants. When the class character of the state
became evident between 1959 and 1961, the bourgeois nationalist sectors of
the July 26 Movement abandoned the revolution and made common cause with the
pro-Batista counterrevolutionaries. Most importantly, they became the agency
through which U.S. imperialism employed a campaign of terror, subversion and
invasion against the revolution." -- from "A Marxist Analysis of Cuba's
Economic Reforms" [http://www.pslweb.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=14493].

In addition to correctly following methodologies of analysis developed by
Karl Marx; the analysis from the Party of Socialism and Liberation
acknowledges the subjectivist aspect in context of defining cuba as a
"revolutionary state". it correctly points out that the "class nature" of
the cuban revolutionary democracy can only be discerned in implicit
("evident") negative terms, and offers a concrete example in the incidence
of rightward defection of "bourgeois nationalist sectors of the July 26
Movement" between 1959 and 1961. This defection of bourgeois nationalist
and liberal social-democrat sectors made it possible for the Barbudos (the
popular name for the Guerrillero government led by Fidel Castro and Che
Guevara) to radicalise the process of transition during the subsequent
"Periodo Chino" (Chinese Period) of 1961-63; where inspired by the example
of Mao Tse Tung's "Proletarian Cultural Revolution" there was an intentional
effort to promote the emergence of post-capitalist/post-liberal social
relations and forms of collectivist-democratic rule that would eventually
evolve into the Asambleas del Poder Popular.

The Playa Giron incident took place at the beggining of this phase of the Cuban transition towards Revolutionary Democracy; a process that culminated in 1975 with the ratification of the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, a
Guevarista-Martiista social revolutionary document, the most progressive
juridical text in the Americas until this day.

Yet, it is a fact that subjectivity can never negate objectivities. as i
wrote elsewhere: socialism is not just about some vaguely defined "workers
control". It is about *industrial workers control on the basis of
collectivised property forms*. The cuban revolutionary democracy is not
controlled by capitalists since they where long ago expropriated and the
means of production where collectivised. It is not controlled by an
industrial working class in the sovietic sense of it being governed by
"councils of elected and recallable industrial worker representatives", not
because of some "bureaucratic degeneration", but because cuba is not an
industrialised nation, and consequently it has no industrial working class
as a majoritarian sector of the economically active working population.

While the intro to the Links article [http://links.org.au/node/1927]
correctly states that "the working class played a key role in the Cuban
Revolution, through general strikes, mass demonstrations and by taking over
their workplaces"; the percentage of actual industrial workers participating
in these actions was minoritarian because indeed, the industrial section of
the economically active urban working population was not dominant. ergo:
Cuba *cannot be* an example of Existing Socialism, although it was a
revolutionary state in transition from 1959 to 1975, and a Revolutionary
Democracy since then.

It is important to differentiate between economically active working
population sui generis, economically active URBAN population and the
Industrial Working Class as a subset of the latter. Only the Industrial
Working Class can govern an Existing Socialism. Cuba has not achieved
existing socialism because the objective conditions for it are not present.
Revolutionary democracy itself is but a context for the potential emergence
of an existing socialism given sufficient economic and necessary political
conditions. Cuba has accomplished the necessary (post-liberal) political
conditons as its political system is based on the collective representation
of the socially organised forces* *that made the revolution (whom the PSL
analyst above calls *"a multi-class formation"),* and where the
individuation of politics and institutions related to this phenomena (such
as the senate) characteristic of capitalist "market democracies" has been
transcended (ergo: the cuban revolutionary democracy is post-liberal).

Cuba has not yet accomplished the sufficient economic conditions necessary
for the emergence of existing socialism; its economy is not industrialised
and a modest technification was accomplished only recently. the Cuban
economy is based on services and agriculture, the light industrial sector
constitutes only a small percentage of its GDP, and its industrial workfoce
is consequently only a minority of the economically active working
population. the bulk of cuba's economically active working population
is composed of farmers and non-industrial employees (tourism,
microentrepeneural cuentapropistas, services, professionals, government
administration).

The current process of rationalisation in context of
integration with Venezuela and Ecuador via ALBA is part of a process of
technical reorganisation of production and social reorganisation of labour
necessary to achieve the sufficient conditons (in terms of GDP growth and
diversification) that will enable the emergence of an existing socialism in
Cuba, in context of ALBA, as they permit the expansion of a light industrial
base and consequently the "production" of an industrial working class that
could be equiped to govern an Existing Socialism.

Marxism or schematism

In Build It Now! Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. Michael Lebowitz offers this critical lesson, drawn from the experience of the past century. Unfortunately, many on the left have yet to learn it.

"Socialism doesn’t drop from the sky. It is necessarily rooted in particular societies. And that is why reliance upon detailed universal models misleads us. (Think about how many left criticisms of the Bolivarian Revolution have their origin in the fact that it differs from the early Soviet Union!) Every society has its unique characteristics - its unique histories, traditions (including religious and indigenous ones), its mythologies, its heroes who have struggled for a better world, and the particular capacities that people have developed in the process of struggle. Since we are talking about a process of human development and not abstract recipes, we understand that we proceed most surely when we choose our own path, one that people recognize as their own (than the pale imitation of someone else)....

"Further, the historical actors who start us on the way may be quite different in each case: Here a highly organized working-class majority (as in the recipe books of previous centuries); there a peasant army, a vanguard party, a national liberation bloc (electoral or armed), army rebels, an antipoverty alliance, and variations too numerous to name or yet to emerge. We would be pedantic fools if we insisted that there is only one way to start the social revolution."

It's How You Finish

To say that different specific social formations are different, which is what Lebowitz says, is a tautology. Of course China of the 1920's was different from Yugoslavia of the 1940's which was different from Cuba of the 1960's, which is to say nothing, really.

What is common is that they were all riven by deep class antagonisms which had opened the way for a revolutionary upsurge. How these upsurges were started were different in each case. How the class contradictions were resolved were the same in all cases: the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus; the expropriation of the means of production, and the installation of a workers and peasants government.

Where these contradictions were not solved in that manner resulted in a massacre of tens and hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries; need we mention Indonesia, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina and so forth.

It is the question of the state which separates the reformists from the revolutionaries. Lenin was right, Lebowitz is wrong. Its not what starts the revolution which matters as much as how it ends.

Re: EN PASSANT: "Stalinism isn't socialism" (Cuba is Neither)

Re: EN PASSANT: "Stalinism isn't socialism" (Cuba is Neither)
Posted by: "Miguel Angel" neosyndic@googlemail.com neosyndic
Date: Fri Oct 22, 2010 6:28 am ((PDT))

[If cuba is "capitalist" then why does the USA maintain a blocade of the
island ? and i ask this question as a defender of the thesis that cuba is
neither "socialist" nor "stalinist". I am a defender of the cuban
revolutionary democracy on anti-imperialist, latin amercian second
independentist grounds. cuba CANNOT be defined as "socialist"; because cuba
lacks the objective industiral base upon which a state of existing socialism
could be premised. a state of existing socialism is defined as government of
the industrial working class premised upon collectivised means of industrial
production. in cuba the industrial working class is not the dominant sector
of the economically active urban population. cuba CANNOT be defined as
"capitalist"; because the means of production in cuba where collectivised
during the period of transition from neo-colonial status (begun in
1959) to the consolidation of revolutionary democracy (circa 1975-6).
Capitalism is political economy premised upon private ownership of the means
of production AND on the basis of private ownership "the accumulation of
(surplus) value by means of exploiting wage labor in the process of
producing commodities".

Rosa Luxembourg and the Venezuelan Communists would add that Capitalism also
involves systematic police state repression in order to ensure private
capital preservation and suppression of working class resistance. The idea
of a so-called "stalinist legacy'' in cuba is an anti-historical
smokescreen. As i wrote before: J.Stalin had NO INFLUENCE on cuba in any way
as he was long dead when Fidel and Che entered havana. THESE ARE THE FACTS.
to claim that the cuban revolutionary government is "stalinist" is an
anti-historical FALSIFICATION OF THE OBJECTIVE HISTORICAL FACTS. the
methodology of historical analysis developed by Karl Marx calls for concrete
analysis of the concrete reality in order to define objective historical
situations. this requires paying attention to FACTS over anti-historical
mythology. /n2]

[En Passant wrote:] "Castro took power, but the working class as working
class played no role whatsoever in the overthrow of Batista. In fact they
ignored Fidels call for a general strike in 1958."

[This assertion constitutes a falsification of historical facts. to quote a
critique of En Passant's missive posted on Links:] *"Passant mentions the
failed general strike of April 1958, but ignores the successful general
strike of January 1959. According to historian Hugh Thomas:"On 2 January the
26th of July Movement had called for a general strike to mark the end of the
old regime, and in Havana and most cities this was fairly complete. In
Havana the rebel trade union FONU … called for mass demonstrations … The
rebel committees in all unions came out into the open … The old CTC leaders
compromised with Batista, Mujal at their head, had fled into hiding … In the
next few days all the unions reformed themselves with new leaders …
Militants of the 26th of July and Directorio took over as de facto police.
Offices of newspapers which had backed Batista were occupied. (Hugh Thomas,
Cuba, Pan Books, London 2002, p. 690.) The general strike is sometimes
dismissed as irrelevant because Batista had already left the country. But
General Cantillo was attempting to create a new military-dominated
government that would preserve the institutions of the bourgeois state. The
general strike, which was effective throughout Cuba, developed into an
insurrection that helped destroy the old state apparatus. Batista’s army and
police disintegrated. "*

Mechanistic Menshevism

Since this is the third posting by the companero along the same lines, and since he seems to represent the viewpoint of the Party for Socialism and Liberation in the United States, then it is perhaps time to challenge their ideological position regarding the Cuban revolution.

1. The companero asserts that there is no such thing as Stalinism, that it died with Josef Stalin. Such an assertion is illogical. Marxism didn't die with Marx, Leninism didn't die with Lenin, and Trotskyism didn't die with Trotsky. For the edification of the companero and his party then, Stalinism is a political viewpoint, a conservative world outlook which represents the ideology of the bureaucratic caste which rises above and rules over states which have been constructed on the basis of a social revolution. I would recommend that the companero read Issac Deutscher or Leon Trotsky, among others, as to the nature of these social formations.

2. The notion of the PSL and the companero pertaining to why Cuba is not socialist is an example of the mechanistic "Marxism" which was extolled by the minority of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the Mensheviks. They, like the PSL, argued that there could be no socialist revolution in Russia because of the lack of a working class with sufficient weight in the population, and that the industrialization of Russia would first have to occur prior to the social revolution.
Cuba was a capitalist country prior to the social revolution; but it was a semi-colonial country with all the aspects which that implied; including a large rural proletariat which eventually formed the basis of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. But the relations of production in Cuba were capitalist relations, and that meant they were relations which required social labour, as opposed to serf, slave and petty artisanal forms of production. In other words, the social basis for a social revolution were existing in Cuba, as they do in all countries which have entered into the capitalist mode of production.
To confuse the growth of an industrial proletariat with the "production" of a working class and the social relations of production which "produce" it is to make the same error as made by the Mensheviks and other mechanistic Marxists.

3. The companero insists that Stalinism played no role in the formation of and political evolution in Cuban post revolutionary life. He is of course factually wrong. He really should study in depth the reasons why Fidel and Che denounced the Stalinist Anibal Escalante and his secret faction, made up of former members of the Popular Socialist Party, the Cuban Stalinists; and how they tried to undermine the revolution from within through their control over the ORI. These were the people who had posters of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin on their walls. Perhaps the companero knows similar types in Los Angeles?

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