- Created: Thursday, 23 April 2009 14:27
- Written by Helen Yaffe
FRFI 198 August / September 2007
The origins of the Cuban Revolution reconsidered
Samuel Farber, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2006, pp214, £12.95
This book is Samuel Farber’s pre-emptive strike at saying something new in anticipation of ‘transition’ following Fidel Castro’s death and the end of the Cuban Revolution. In fact, he fails to say anything novel, merely demonstrating his credentials as a ‘Cubanologist’ and rehashing the tired old lies of Cuba’s ‘socialist’ critics. Despite following scholarly norms, Farber has a clear political agenda – articulated in articles and interviews with the US ‘Trotskyist’ press. Characterising the Revolution as nationalist, Fidel as populist and dictatorial, and the Cuban masses as passive, scared and manipulated, Farber implies that the Revolution, which, according to him was never socialist, will die with Fidel.
Farber plays an indispensable role for the anti-Cuban western left, providing historical substance to justify their reactionary position on Cuba, and it is for this reason that his book merits attention in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! In Britain, the left is uniquely reactionary, parroting Farber’s lies and distortions (see below). Farber’s credentials seem to be authentic; he was born and grew up in Cuba and he calls himself a ‘socialist’ to distance himself from the unpalatable right-wing extremism of the Cuban exile community, whose views he actually shares. This leads to an awkward and untenable political position which rubbishes the Revolution whilst claiming to uphold the interests of Cuban workers. To sustain this paradox, ‘socialist critics’ substitute meaningless phrases for real analysis. Farber describes Cuba as ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) uses ‘state capitalism’, whilst most Trotskyists say it is either a ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerated’ workers’ state. But these ‘socialist’ critics – false friends of the Cuban workers – are incapable of explaining the longevity and vitality of Cuban socialism.
Ignoring or dismissing the remarkable gains the Revolution brought rapidly to the Cuban people in education, healthcare, housing, sport, culture, science and economic and social justice, reversing years of racism, sexism and class oppression, the left exposes its class interests. Only the privileged could so grossly underestimate the achievement of universal social provision in a small undeveloped country, after 500 years of colonialism and imperialism, still largely isolated, blockaded and under attack by imperialism. Left critics are forced to attack the Cuban road to socialism because it exposes the bankruptcy of their own political strategies based on pro-capitalist trade unions and engagement with liberal parliamentarianism. They refuse to recognise other social forces as the agents of revolutionary social change, including workers outside trade unions, and they regularly denounce the violence of the oppressed.
In The origins of the Cuban Revolution reconsidered, Farber claims to challenge two existing interpretations of how the Cuban Revolution developed from ‘antidictatorial, multiclass political revolution to communism’ (p6): 1) that the US administration pushed the Revolution towards the Soviet bloc or, 2) that the adoption of communism was the inevitable response by conscious revolutionaries to objective conditions. Farber finds a third way: ‘I emphasize the agency of the revolutionary leaders’ (p169), who were ‘greatly influenced by their own political predispositions and ideological inclinations’ (p112). Farber’s real endeavour is to assert that Fidel Castro’s ‘predisposition’ was an obsession with power.
‘Cubanology’ – a special niche for ‘dissidents’
In western academic institutions, Cuba Studies is dominated by ‘Cubanology’ a politically motivated school of interpretation which plays a central role in the ideological battle mounted against Cuban socialism. Cubanology’s roots lie in Cuba’s April 1961 defeat of the US-government sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, which demonstrated that the Revolution was here to stay. In response, US government and corporate business interests set up study centres and sponsored research on Cuba, to better understand their enemy. In 1961 alone two academic investigations were commissioned by the Pentagon and similar studies organised by the Special Operations Research Office of the American University. By the mid-1960s, a centre for Cuban studies was effectively formed by the CIA. The Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, founded in 1964 under the National Defense Education Act, came to dominate Cuba Studies. Its objectives were to compile information for planning future actions against the Revolution and to depict the Revolution negatively for a global audience. This meant denying all positive achievements of the Revolution, deriding official Cuban sources of information and disseminating misinformation about life in Cuba.
The school labelled itself ‘Cubanology’ from April 1970, following a conference organised by the US Library of Congress which resolved to write more sophisticated and supposedly ‘impartial’ material on Cuba. Some academics promote strategies to destroy the Revolution by incorporating Cuba into the capitalist world market, while others advocate counter-revolution from within or outside the island. ‘Academic’ events anticipating ‘transition’ are given legitimacy by the participation of Cubanologists. A key sponsor of Cubanology is the extreme right-wing Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), whose Bureau of Conferences has included respected academics, such as Hugh Thomas and Irving Horowitz.
The key tenets of Cubanology are: the Revolution of 1959 presents a rupture in Cuban history; Fidel Castro is synonymous with the Revolution, personally dominating domestic developments and foreign policy; there is no democracy and civil society is repressed; Cuban economic growth since 1959 has been negligible; pre-1959 dependency on the US was replaced by dependency on the USSR.
Farber upholds these tenets, and having been raised in Cuba, he shares the privileged position of exiles, or ‘dissidents’, within Cubanology. Individuals who previously worked as officials or intellectuals within the revolutionary regime enjoy a special status in anti-communist US institutions if they renounce political commitment to the Cuban Revolution and sign up to undermine its moral or economic viability: ‘Overnight, they become independent intellectuals with the keys to credibility in their pocket.’ (Rafael Hernandez, Boundary 2, 29:3, 2002, p125) It is not clear when or why Farber left Cuba, but by the early 1960s, he was in the US and a member of the International Socialist Club, which advocated a third camp position – neither Washington nor Havana. Renowned for his hostility to the Revolution, he denied any post-1959 achievements of Cuban socialism. He has lectured at Brooklyn College since 1978, writing on Cuba and the USSR. Farber’s work is heavily dependent on ‘dissidents’, relying on the accounts of embittered individuals who had prominent roles in the 26th July Movement (M26J) led by Fidel Castro, but who rejected the Revolution’s alliance with communists and the adoption of a socialist path. For example, through these counter-revolutionaries he describes divisions between Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara, without independent or documentary evidence (pp60-1).
While the hearsay of ‘dissidents’ is accepted as fact, material produced within Cuba is dismissed as ‘ideological’ or ‘unreliable’, as if intellectuals on the island lack the capacity for reflective thought. They are portrayed as mere bureaucrats repeating official discourse. Cuban historian Rafael Hernandez complains this is based on the myth that in capitalist societies ‘intellectuals’ act as society’s critical conscience: ‘equidistant from all political positions, a vestal virgin of some sterilized objectivity’ (Boundary, p130-1). Of course, ‘objectivity’ is a myth in a world divided into oppressed and oppressor classes, and in Cuba, intellectuals, particularly historians, have always been central to social and political movements.
Samuel Farber – false friend of the Cuban workers
Farber’s lies are easily refuted by the most fleeting examination of Cuban history:
1) Lie One: The Revolution is synonymous with Fidel Castro: ‘Fidel Castro’s notion of stages was guided in part by his determination to keep as much personal political control as possible.’ (p66)
Bent on all-out war against both Fidel and history, Farber is forced to concoct a pseudo-analysis to explain Fidel’s undisputed leadership for half a century. Spitting out the words ‘populist’, ‘bonapartist’ and ‘caudillo’ on every page, his argument is circular and repeatedly trips him up. Farber’s Fidel is a ‘declassed’ (p138, p168) ‘bonapartist’ (p116) ‘caudillo’ (p49, p63, p67-8), both from and transcending the politically militant populist tradition (p41, p58), who managed class struggle from the top (p121), using ‘salami’ tactics to defeat his enemies (p124, p127), had affinity with the Soviets (p67) but led Cuba to ‘communism’ as a result of a conjunctural choice in order to maintain control (p63, p66, p68, p170). Sound ridiculous? It is.
Farber’s story is that during the revolutionary struggle, Castro kept his political programme deliberately vague (p111, p157, p168), whilst dividing and conquering opponents (p67) and moulding declassed individuals (p138): ‘into faithful followers of his caudillo leadership’ (p44). He was not fussy which political direction his radical revolution took as long as: ‘he would remain in control’ (p63). Farber strips Castro of all politics, principles, ideology and ethics, without even suggesting that he is motivated by the material benefits of power. Castro appears irrational. Cuban-American sociologist Nelson Valdes calls this the poverty of subjectivism, the idea that Castro’s charisma, ego or psychological state have been more important than, for example, the concrete impact of US aggression in determining developments in Cuba. Cubanologists never tell us how they are privy to Castro’s subjective urges and psychological drives. Refusing to recognise the revolutionary process, Farber censors a rich history of internal debate, conflict and consensus, insisting that Fidel is synonymous with the Revolution.
The dilemma which trips Farber up – how a multiclass struggle against dictatorship turns to socialism and class war – is easily understood in the context of a revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle. What Farber dismisses as ‘populism’ are the alliances which Lenin highlighted as characteristic of national liberation movements: between the working class, peasantry and progressive sections of the bourgeoisie. The Revolution began as a popular movement, but structural contradictions with imperialism and national oligarchies, along with a commitment to social justice, propelled it towards socialism.
Farber spits about Fidel’s ‘unquestionable tactical genius’ (p40) in reference to his calls for unity. For Fidel unity has always meant uniting behind a programme of social and economic justice. If the Revolution were to adhere to Castro’s statements in his History Will Absolve Me speech and the Moncada Programme of the M26J, it would have to confront US imperialism, and that meant confronting the dependent domestic capitalist class – the struggle inevitably took on an anti-capitalist character. As social scientist Ernesto Laclau argued in the 1970s, the highest form of populism is socialism. The strategy encouraged many members of the petit-bourgeoisie – in the biographical words of Angel Arcos, colleague of Che Guevara – to ‘commit class suicide’, sacrificing their material interests to throw in their lot with the workers’ revolution.
2) Lie Two: The Cuban Revolution is not a workers’ revolution. After January 1959, trade unions became: ‘mere policy tools in the hands of the Soviet Union and the Cuban communists.’ (p123)
In Trotskyist dogma, trade unions are a critical form of organisation for the politically advanced sections of the working class. The ‘original sin’ of the Cuban Revolution is that it was not led by the trade unions, and did not, therefore, constitute the self-emancipation of the working class. It could never be socialist. Farber censors and distorts history to justify his Trotskyist analysis.
Farber skips over the revolutionary upheaval of the late 1920s, when rural workers set up soviets in sugar mills across the country, and the Revolution of 1933 against the Machado dictatorship in which workers and students formed a radical new government. Robbing Cuban workers of their history of militancy, he avoids explaining how the trade unions had abated into ‘economism’ – prioritising individual interests over the class conscious struggle for socialism – and co-option, by the mid-1940s under the Autentico government. The repression and murder of communists and other radical trade union leaders and their replacement by pro-government puppets and gangsters is airily referred to as: ‘competition between Communist labor leaders, who had just been forcefully expelled from many of their union positions…and the Autentico labor factions who had just been installed in office by party members controlling the national government’ (p25).
New leaders co-opted the unions into the system; their workers’ benefited from improved salaries, conditions, and even state intervention, which entrenched economistic tendencies among unionised workers. Farber cites that 50% of Cuban workers were in trade unions in the 1950s (p22), but says: ‘the popular majorities did not necessarily possess such radical, let alone "socialist" political consciousness’ (p33) in January 1959. Farber refuses to explain this paradox, a significant unionised working class, which won concessions to improve sectoral conditions, but lacked a socialist consciousness. This process of co-option was part of broader phenomena of obscene and institutionalised use of graft, corruption and patronage in the 1940s-1950s, not mentioned until much later by Farber.
Eusebio Mujal, head of the Cuban Workers Confederation (CTC), responded to Batista’s coup in March 1952 with co-operation and complicity. Farber states that Batista created: ‘an attractive climate for investment through such means as suppressing the union movement’s autonomy, repressing strikes, and government giveaways’ (p32). Trotskyist dogma prevents Farber from acknowledging a differentiated working class or the possibility of revolutionary leadership outside the trade union movement, so he fails to understand the dialectic of the Cuban struggle. For example, while conceding that many of the participants in the Granma expedition, led by Fidel in 1956 ‘seem to have been workers by origin or occupation’, he denies them legitimacy be_cause: ‘very few had been active or even involved in trade union or working-class political organizations.’ (pp49-50). As if not participating in co-opted, economistic, corrupt trade unions prevented them from being representatives of the working class.
Unable to organise against the dictatorship through the official trade union apparatus, workers built up alternative labour organisations culminating in the launch in late 1958 of the National Workers Confederation, a class conscious, revolutionary trade union apparatus uniting the M26J, the Revolutionary Directorate (DR) and the Cuban Communist Party (PSP). This was in addition to their civil and armed mobilisation in the mountains and the cities. The general strike called by Fidel Castro on 3 and 4 January 1959 paralysed the country.
In January 1959, the old trade unions still had to be won over to a programme of revolutionary social change, in the interests of the whole working class, instead of just promoting sectoral interests from the margins. Fidel told the trade unions not to struggle for crumbs, but to take power. Following two decades of economism what would have been the political expression of trade union autonomy in the context of revolution, counter-revolution, class war and imperialist attack? In the initial post-1959 period, some trade unions failed to identify their class interests with the revolution. In 1963 Faure Chomón Mediavilla, leader of the DR, was responsible for reorganising the trade union movement. He explained the problem:
‘There was a negative tendency in trade unions led by old union leaders who, at the triumph of the Revolution, used the fact that this was a Revolution of the workers to obtain in a disorganised and even ruthless way, big salaries that did not correspond with the economy of the country. These economistic tendencies infiltrated the workers’ ranks so the Revolution was seen only in terms of how much they earn and how much more they want to earn, without analysing how the Revolution should be made and how much it costs; ruining consciousness by taking a syndicalist position as if the state were just a foolish big boss from whom they had to get the most out that they could.’ (Interview, February 2005)
The election of new trade union leaders was directed by the revolutionary government, in the context of forging a new state: dismantling old institutions, creating a new apparatus with new social relations, new alliances, new political priorities and new battles. Changes were discussed in Production Assemblies in every workplace, and workers’ activism in these developments was not limited to membership of trade unions. They also joined technical advisory committees, local militia, street committees, organisations of the masses, revolutionary organisations, the women’s federation and so on.
Today there are 19 major industrial trade unions in Cuba, two of them set up in the 1990s, alongside the Commissions for Labour Justice, where elected workers and administrators co-operate in resolving conflicts. In addition, the working class controls all the apparatus of the state and directs it in its class interest.
3) Lie Three: There is no democracy and no civil society in Cuba: ‘the Cuban masses have remained the objects rather than the subjects of history’ (p68).
Parliamentary liberalism has monopolised the term ‘democracy’ when referring to the form of political organisation preferred by advanced capitalist countries; power sharing between elites who serve the interests of capital accumulation. The Cuban Revolution has developed a different form of democracy, one that means direct participation by all citizens in policy formulation and equal access to social and economic welfare. Despite his socialist label, like all Cubanologists, Farber’s work is premised on the liberal bourgeois concept of democracy. Farber dismisses Cuban elections and the National Assembly of People’s Power as a ‘pseudo-parliament’, because ‘there is only one legal political party, the Cuban Communist Party, which is also an integral part of the state. It is a one party state.’ (New Politics, summer 2003).
In fact, the Communist Party does not stand in elections. It is the ideological motor of the Revolution and separate from government. In Cuba, all state power flows from workers’ councils of recallable delegates, called Assemblies of People’s Power. Every two and a half years Cubans elect delegates from neighbourhood wards of up to 1,500 people to Municipal Assemblies. These in turn elect delegates to 14 Provincial Assemblies, who elect to the National Assembly, the country’s highest authority. Voting turnout is between 95-98% of adults over 16 years old and ballot boxes are guarded by children from the Pioneers organisation. This Cuban ‘parliament’ has over 600 elected deputies, half of whom represent their local areas, the other half sectoral interests, such as the 19 industrial trade unions, students, women, small farmers, artists, religious and sexuality-based groups. Fidel Castro is subject to the electoral process. It would be undemocratic to demand that he be replaced against the will of the majority. Key tenets of participatory democracy, whose origins lie in the Paris Commune of 1871, are the right of recall and a workers’ salary, which prevents the emergence of a professional political class. These are embedded and implemented in the Cuban system, under which delegates report back to their electors every six months.
Farber struggles to account for the Cuban people’s enduring commitment to the Revolution and its leaders in the absence of multi-party liberalism. He concludes that 1959 was a revolution from above in which the population participated, but did not control or direct (p168). Whilst detailing: ‘the tripod on which Castro consolidated his power: popular support, manipulation of that support, and repression’ (p133), Farber censors the impact of sabotage, terrorism and the US blockade, and the benefits the Revolution has brought to the vast majority of Cubans. He insults the entire population, portraying a society which has no independent existence beyond the Party, the government and the alleged ‘elite’.
Farber predicts that following Fidel Castro’s death: ‘A capitalist transition is likely to be led, as in the Soviet Union and China, by Cuban Communists and would restore, although not necessarily in the same form, much of the power that the United States lost in Cuba almost fifty years ago’ (p172). Farber’s pretensions are that: ‘my book might be useful to people who will try to build a revolutionary and democratic alternative… [which]…would mean organizing people from below in Cuba’ (IV Online Magazine, February 2007).
In anticipating ‘transition’, Farber urges revolutionaries and democrats to organise outside the institutions of the Revolution, and that means against it. In his frustration, this Trojan horse of US imperialism is forced to admit that the only ‘dissidents’ in Cuba are pro-capitalist and pro-US. They are also mainly rich and white. The working class, and all those sections who suffered capitalist oppression before the Revolution, are shoulder to shoulder with Fidel and Raul, marching forward to socialism.
Farber, Harman and the SWP
‘For 3rd camp tendencies such as the British SWP, the American ISO and the journal New Politics, Farber is an indispensable expert – especially necessary in light of their general lack of knowledge and first-hand experience with the island.’ (Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist, http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/tag/cuba)
Chris Harman, Central Committee member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) used the opportunity of reviewing Farber’s book to attack Cuban socialism (‘Cuba: Behind the myths’, International Socialism 111 Summer 2006). He celebrates Farber’s credentials as ‘a revolutionary socialist Cuban exile’, critical of Cuba and struggling against US capitalism, and repeats verbatim the same lies and distortions. Farber was a colleague of SWP founder Tony Cliff.
Harman favourably quotes Rene Dumont, a French agronomist who was in Cuba in August 1960. As private land and industry were beginning to be expropriated and nationalised, Dumont urged the Cuban government to adopt the ‘free’ market mechanisms – material incentives, profit and market pricing – to allocate production and consumption. Dumont promoted capitalism, just as the Revolution took its first steps towards socialisation. Despite his published criticisms and opposition to the newly established ‘peoples’ farms’, Dumont was invited back to Cuba for further investigations and to discuss his criticisms. Che Guevara, who battled against market socialism as the road to capitalist restoration, regarded Dumont as an enemy.
Harman also leans on Cubanologist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, director of the Centre for Latin American studies (see above) set up to oppose the Revolution. Harman and the SWP are located within the right-wing of Cubanology. Taking their lead from extremists in the Miami exile community, the SWP’s lies over the years have included:
• The working class played no role in the Revolution, has hardly benefited and is exploited by the Cuban government.
• Che Guevara knew nothing about Marxism and left Cuba because Fidel kicked him out.
• Cuba acted as a stooge of ‘Soviet imperialism’ in sending troops to Angola to fight apartheid South Africa’s occupation.
• Homosexuals and those with HIV/ AIDS are persecuted and/or imprisoned in Cuba.
• The army controls prostitution in Cuba.
• Cuba’s health and education achievements are merely the product of Soviet aid.
In July 2002, an SWP hack even recommended the website of terrorist Jorge Mas Canosa and the Cuban American National Foundation (see FRFI 168).
Progressive movements on the rise in Latin America benefit from the example and support of Cuban socialism. Cuba has sent 16,000 doctors and thousands of educators to the slums of Venezuela. Others are in Bolivia. 30,000 doctors are posted throughout the oppressed world. This inspiring example of proletarian internationalism is condemned by the SWP who fear that the Cuban Revolution will be used as a model. Turning reality upside down, Harman says: ‘There are attempts to use Cuban prestige to hold the mass movements in Venezuela back from moves against local capitalism and any serious breaks with the multinationals… Dressing up the commercial exchange of Cuban doctors for Venezuelan oil as an act of ‘socialist solidarity’ is then used to attempt to derail revolutionary possibilities’ (IS 111). Thanking Harman for his positive book review, Farber says: ‘I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments expressed by Chris in his concluding remarks that "support for Cuba against US imperialism, its threats and its embargo must not turn into support for a Cuban model that offers nothing to the new revolutionary movements"’ (IS 112).
Farber, Harman and the SWP side with imperialism in opposing the growing revolutionary unity within Latin America, which gives the first hope in decades of defeating vicious neo-liberal policies.