Cuba: `Our task is to oppose imperialist threats, to create the best conditions for socialist democracy', reply to Samuel Farber

In an invasion approved by US President John F. Kennedy, on April 17, 1961, 1300 Cuban counter-revolutionaries, armed with US weapons, landed at the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). They hoped to cross the island to Havana with the help of the local population. However it became apparent within the first hour that it would fail.

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By Chris Slee

July 4, 2012 -- Links International Jornal of Socialist Renewal -- In his reply to my critical review of his book, Cuba since the revolution of 1959: a critical assessment, Samuel Farber says: "The driving idea behind Chris Slee's critical review of my recent book ... is that the undemocratic pratices of the Cuban revolutionary regime have been largely a response to the over 50 year old imperialist siege ... and not a defining characteristic of the island's political system... But the Cuban leadership did not adopt the USSR repressive model because Washington 'forced' them to go in that direction. That presumes that the Cuban revolutionary leaders did not have a political ideology of their own".

The Cuban revolutionary leaders certainly had "a political ideology of their own". Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara and some other July 26 Movement leaders were Marxists at the time of the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship in January 1959.[1] Farber seems to think that any departure from socialist democracy in Cuba results from a decision by the leaders to imitate the Soviet Union, which in turn would reflect a distorted understanding of Marxism.

However, I think it would be a mistake to attribute the "undemocratic practices of the Cuban revolutionary regime" mainly to the "political ideology" of the revolutionary leaders. The actions of all political leaders are shaped by the environment in which they find themselves, as well as by their ideology.

Lenin's "workers' state with bureaucratic distortions" in 1921 had departed a long way from the vision Lenin outlined in State and Revolution, due to the effects of the devastating civil war and foreign intervention, on top of Russia's pre-existing backwardness, and the isolation of the revolution.

Similarly, the revolutionary Cuban state has been deeply affected by the US economic blockade, terrorist attacks, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the ongoing fear of another invasion.

Farber says: "In fact, during 1959, the first year of the revolution, an ideological and political struggle took place within the revolutionary government among liberals like Roberto Agramonte and Elena Maderos; radical nationalist anti-imperialists like David Salvador, Carlos Franqui and Marcelo Fernandez; and the pro-Communist wing headed by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and Raul Castro who were then allied with the PSP (Partido Socialista Popular) of the old Cuban Stalinists (this was before Guevara began to be critical of the Soviet block in late 1960). The growing and open hostility of the US contributed significantly to the victory, in that struggle, of the pro-Communist tendency, but that does not mean that it was Washington that determined the purposes and ideas of the revolutionary leadership".

There was indeed a struggle within the revolutionary government in 1959. The struggle against the Batista dictatorship had involved people of diverse ideological views. Once Batista was gone, there were inevitably differences over what to do next.

Fidel Castro had set up the July 26 Movement as an organisation whose aim was to lead the anti-Batista struggle. It had a democratic program, which included not only the demand for political democracy, but also economic issues such as land reform. However it was not a Marxist organisation, even though some of its key leaders were Marxists.

During the anti-Batista struggle Fidel did not try to build a Marxist party (though some members of the July 26 Movement participated in Marxism classes run by Che Guevara and others).

The Popular Socialist Party (PSP) was formally a Marxist party, but had a bad reputation amongst radicals for a range of reasons, including its failure to seriously oppose the dictatorship following Batista's coup in 1952. The PSP had condemned the attack on the Moncada barracks led by Fidel Castro in 1953.

Nevertheless, Fidel was open to cooperation with the PSP, which had some support among a section of the working class, when it belatedly adopted a position of support for the anti-Batista struggle. Some other leaders of the July 26 Movement opposed any cooperation with the PSP.

In April 1958 the July 26 Movement called a general strike, which was unsuccessful. Reviewing the reasons for this failure, one of the lessons drawn by the J26M leadership was that it was a mistake to call the strike in the name of the J26M alone.[2] There was a need to collaborate with other organisations, including the PSP, in organising the next general strike.[3]

Nevertheless, some J26M leaders were still very hostile to the PSP and not enthusiastic about cooperation.

After Batista had been overthrown, Fidel, Raul, Che and others saw the PSP as an ally in deepening the revolution and defending it against imperialist attack. But other sections of the J26M leadership remained hostile to the PSP. Probably there were a mixture of reasons for this: some may have had valid concerns about its Stalinist character, but others opposed it from the standpoint of Cold War anti-communism.

Fidel and his closest comrades appealed for unity of the working class (including the PSP) in the face of the imperialist threat. They were very conscious of the history of US intervention in Latin America, including numerous invasions. Che had been in Guatemala in 1954, when a US-backed invasion force had overthrown the reforming Arbenz government. This experience had a deep impact on Che's political outlook.

Preparing to deter a US invasion, or defeat it if it occurred, was a central concern for the Cuban revolutionary leadership. This concern was not at all unrealistic -- a US-backed invasion did in fact occur in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. It was defeated quickly because of the preparations which had been made for such a possibility.

We can assume that during 1959 Fidel and his comrades became very impatient with those who talked about the "threat of communism", when the threat from US imperialism was so great. We can speculate that, at a certain stage, they decided that such talk was hindering the task of uniting Cubans against the imperialist threat, and that such people should be removed from positions of influence, including official positions in the trade unions.

As I said in my book review, the often undemocratic way in which this was done was harmful. But in my opinion, the purpose of the purge was not to create a bureaucratic regime, but to ensure that unions played their part defending the country against the threat of invasion (e.g. helping to build the militia).

It is true that some of those who carried out the purge -- including some PSP union officials -- used this opportunity to advance their own careers by removing their rivals based on false accusations. They were able to get away with this because of the sense of urgency which prevailed among the revolutionary leadership about the need to prepare for resistance to US aggression. The perceived need to act quickly to remove potentially unreliable elements from positions of influence was conducive to injustices.

Farber says: "Given Castro's prestige and popularity, there is little doubt that any slate of candidates he supported would have won in open and free union elections. However, from the Cuban leader's long-term perspective, those new elections would have allowed the unions to retain their autonomy, and that would have been a serious obstacle to the unions becoming instruments of the state as was the case in the USSR and Eastern Europe".

However, the election of a slate purely on the basis of Castro's endorsement would not have been very satisfactory either. If Farber is correct in saying that people would have voted for whoever Fidel endorsed, then the people who compiled the list of names for Fidel's slate would effectively be choosing the union leadership.

It would have been better if workers had been given more time to learn about the political shortcomings of some of their union officials through extensive discussion and further practical experience, before conducting new elections. However the sense of imminent threat meant that hasty and undemocratic methods were used.

Farber says: "Chris Slee implies that democracy is not possible under a 'socialism' built in unfavourable circumstances". This is not an accurate summary of my views. I think that socialists should aim for greatest degree of democracy that is possible in a given situation.

I don't think that the Cuban government has always done this. As I said in my review, I agree that there has been a good deal of "surplus repression" in Cuba. But I added that "even repression which was not objectively necessary was often a product of the mindset created by real imperialist threats".

It is our task to oppose these imperialist threats, and thereby create the best possible conditions for socialist democracy in Cuba.

[Chris Slee is author of Cuba: How the workers and peasants made the revolution.]


1. Some people have disputed that Fidel was a Marxist at the time of the anti-Batista struggle. He didn't openly identify as a Marxist during that period. But he had studied the writings of Marx and Lenin extensively, especially during his time in prison. See The Fertile Prison, by Mario Mencia, Ocean Press, 1993

2. See Che Guevara Reader, Ocean Press 1997, p. 46: Che says that the leaders of the J26M's underground work in the unions at that time, including most prominently David Salvador, were "opposed to any participation by the Popular Socialist Party in the organisation of the struggle", and had attempted to carry out "a sectarian strike, in which the other revolutionary movements would be forced to follow our lead".

3. Che Guevara Reader, p. 47: "the meeting raised the need for unity of all working class forces to prepare the next revolutionary general strike..."