Myths answered: How the workers and peasants made the Cuban revolution
Review by Graham Matthews
Cuba: How the Workers & Peasants Made the Revolution
By Chris Slee
Resistance Books, 2008
55 pages, $6 (pb)
Available from <http://www.resistancebooks.com>
May 10, 2008 -- There is a myth perpetrated by some on the left, that there never really was a revolution in Cuba. The Cuban “revolution”, they claim, was just the result of the collapse of the brutal, US-backed Batista regime, followed by the filling of the political vacuum by the few hundred guerrillas that made up the July 26 Movement (J26M). These fighters simply marched down from the mountains to take power in Havana, installing the Castro brothers as virtual dictators.
A neat explanation — but fundamentally wrong. In his excellent pamphlet, Cuba: How the Workers and Peasants Made the Revolution, long-time Democratic Socialist Perspective member Chris Slee explains why.
The detailed history of the Cuban Revolution — from its beginnings in the struggle against the Spanish at the end of the 19th Century, to the victory on January 1, 1959 and beyond, is laid out in a number of historical works. These including Cuban revolutionary leader Amando Hart’s Aldabonazo: Inside the Cuban Revolutionary Underground, Julia E Sweig’s Inside the Cuban Revolution and numerous articles.
Slee has drawn the information provided by these works together and presented them in an easily digestible format, as useful for the seasoned Cuba supporter as those new to (or newly examining) the revolution.
Slee places the revolution in its world historical context — stretching back to the “discovery” of Cuba by Columbus in 1492 and its subsequent exploitation by both Spanish and US capitalism. He explores the particular role played by the US in backing and installing despots in Cuba in a series of coups and fraudulent elections, from 1900 through to the coup that installed Fulgencio Batista in power in 1952.
Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Slee explains that the Cuban people were not just passive pawns in a game of US domination. Fraudulent elections were met by massive protests and attempted revolution. In 1930, the Cuban Communist Party — which changed its name to the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) in 1944 — led a political strike of 200,000 workers.
The Cuban people were politicised and mobilised, but the US exerted massive repressive force in the background. “Thus while Cuba was formally independent and democratic (except that women could not vote), independence and democracy were to a large extent fictitious, since the US could veto or overturn any decision by the Cuban government”, Slee explains.
Fidel Castro is the central figure of the Cuban Revolution and Slee develops Castro’s political history and influences. However, Slee also explores the other fronts of the developing revolution, following the failed assault of the Moncada barracks on July 26 1953, the jailing, release and exile of Castro and the return of Castro, Che Guevara and others on the Granma to Cuba in 1956.
On revolutionary strategy, Slee explains: “The idea of a general strike was a central tenet of the July 26 Movement.” However, in 1956, the J26M “had only a weak presence in the union movement … despite widespread sympathy amongst workers for its goals”.
The J26M called two unsuccessful general strikes, in August 1957 and April 1958, before the success of the January 1959 strike that led to the defeat of Batista. Slee explains that the root of the failure of the 1958 strike (which some socialists use to attempt to prove that the J26M had no roots in the Cuban working class) was that the movement “did not have sufficient organised support in the working class to call a nationwide strike”.
Before success could be achieved, the J26M needed to improve its collaborative relationship with the PSP — which continued to command significant influence among the urban masses.
Following the defeat of the April 1958 general strike, the July 26 Movement “changed its policy and began working with the PSP in preparing for a new general strike, to be called when the conditions for success were ripe”, Slee explains. The resultant increased collaboration between the movement’s urban underground and the PSP laid the basis for the success of the January 1959 general strike.
The J26M was not a politically homogenous organisation. The defeat of the Batista regime and the formation of a new government in January 1959 did not mean the end of class struggle in Cuba.
Throughout 1959 and ’60 there were massive struggles within and outside the government as pro-capitalist forces attempted — unsuccessfully — to restrict the scope of social reforms, which included land reform, higher wages and social guarantees. Throughout, Castro and his key collaborators rested their authority on the support of the masses and frequently mobilised Cuban working people at key junctures to move the revolution to the left.
In July 1959, faced with resistance from the more moderate forces in the government to implementing the J26M’s radical program, Castro resigned as prime minister. Mass protests occurred in his defence, forcing the resignation of the pro-capitalist president Manuel Urrutia instead.
The US was not neutral toward developments in Cuba. “From cuts to Cuba’s sugar quota the US moved rapidly to a total ban on all trade with Cuba”, Slee explains.
Each blow by US imperialism was met by a counter-blow by the revolution. In August 1960, all US and foreign-owned companies were nationalised. This was a decisive blow against the main structures of capitalism on the island.
The US “began preparing for an invasion aimed at overthrowing the Castro government and installing a new regime favourable to the interests of imperialism”.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was launched using Cuban exiles trained by the CIA and transported to Cuba on US warships in April 1961. “However this force was totally defeated by the Cuban army and popular militia within three days”, Slee says.
Unfolding class struggles had their reflection within the J26M itself. The left of the movement increased their collaboration with other revolutionary forces in Cuba, including the PSP and the Revolutionary Directorate — a student-based revolutionary organisation.
By 1965, the collaboration led to the formation of a new party — the Cuban Communist Party. “However the fusion was not without problems”, Slee explains. He describes the struggle with Stalinist forces led by PSP leader Anibal Escalante, the problems of bureaucracy within the union movement and the struggle to build democratic unions.
Slee briefly charts the development of the revolution from the ’60s through to its “Special Period” following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. He also addresses the initial failure of the revolution to come to terms with homosexuality. “Today the government supports efforts to counter homophobic prejudice”, Slee explains.
With his pamphlet, Slee makes an important contribution to revolutionary literature on the Cuban Revolution. A must for those wanting to read a brief explanation of the revolution, Slee’s pamphlet is also an important contribution to a debate on the left about Cuba, setting the record straight on exactly what role working people in Cuba played — and continue to play — in developing their revolution.
From Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #750 14 May 2008.
Some left groups, particularly those from a "state capitalist" tradition (in Australia, Socialist Alternative and Solidarity) claim that workers played no role in the Cuban revolution, which was purely a matter of a few hundred guerrilla fighters marching from the mountains into the cities and establishing a dictatorship.
Even groups from an orthodox Trotskyist background, who recognise that Cuba is a workers' state, are often not very well informed about the role of workers in making the revolution.