Workers in the Russian and Cuban revolutions

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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. (

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.]