The oppressed people of the world support socialist Cuba – why doesn’t the SWP? / FRFI 180 Aug / Sep 2004

FRFI 180 August / September 2004

According to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Cuban Revolution has never been socialist because it was not the ‘self-emancipation of the working class.’ A new book, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution by Mike Gonzalez, the SWP’s expert on Latin America restates this view:

‘Che looked on the workers’ movement, students and protest only to support and supply the guerrillas. He described himself as a Marxist now. Yet for Marx, a revolution was the moment when the working class achieved its own liberation through collective action. This does not appear in Che’s worldview – or in his political writings – any more than it does in the political pronouncements and manifestos of Castro.’

It is vital for Gonzalez to assert this point to justify the counter-revolutionary position of the SWP, which advocates the overthrow of the revolutionary government by the Cuban working class. Gonzalez continues: ‘And if that was how the revolution was to be made, then it was also how the society which emerged from the revolution would be.’ (p79) Presumably it is this ‘original sin’ of the Cuban Revolution that allows SWP cadre to recommend the website of right-wing terrorists in Miami, set up by Jorge Mas Canosa. In the July 2004 issue of Socialist Review Gonzalez suggests that the majority of people in Cuba do not benefit from the country’s resources and that workers are not represented. He concludes that: ‘the task for socialists is to seek by every means possible to help workers organise in their own interest. And if that means organising against the state, then so be it.’

The SWP adapts Cuban reality to its dogmatic theory, violating the first principle of Marx himself – historical materialism. The facts confound the SWP’s line. The Cuban working class, the rural proletariat and the peasantry made the Revolution and have benefited massively throughout its 45 years. The participation of the Cuban working class was not led by the trade unions, because communists and other radical left wing trade union activists had been assassinated in the late 1940s and replaced with economistic leaders and outright gangsters. Eusebio Mujal, head of the Cuban Workers Congress (CTC) became a millionaire in one year. He was a rabid anti-communist.

When Batista seized power in 1952, Mujal allied the CTC with the dictatorship. It was impossible for that trade union apparatus to support the revolutionary movement against its puppet master. Mujal warned trade unionists not to support the general strike called in April 1958 by the 26th July Movement (M26J), headed by Fidel Castro. Gonzalez just says the strike ‘was a disastrous failure. The unions did not respond’. (p78) There is no mention of the repression meted out to undermine the strike. In Havana 200 M26J militants were murdered by Batista’s troops who gunned down striking workers in the streets. In Oriente province workers did strike en masse and M26J militia destroyed and appropriated the property of US companies. Most dishonest is Gonzalez’s refusal to mention the revolutionary general strike on 2-3 January 1959, which undermined US attempts to organise a military junta after Batista fled. The strike was total and the country was paralysed as crowds cheered the Rebel Army into Havana.

Blinded by dogmatism, Gonzalez states: ‘The 26 July Movement had supporters and sympathisers scattered across the island, but they were not connected with the trade unions or any other organisations outside their own circle’. (p59) Precisely because of the corrupt, pro-imperialist nature of the trade unions, the task facing the revolutionaries was to encourage workers to step outside the control of the trade unions, to set up independent workers’ organisations and join other revolutionary organisations in the cities, which they did. In the logic of Gonzalez’s argument, when workers fought, either in the urban underground or in the mountains with the Rebel Army, they did not constitute the ‘armed working class’, because the decision was not passed at their local union branch meeting.

The reactionary role of the trade union apparatus during the Cuban Revolution disturbs the SWP because it exposes the dogmatism of their own political strategy in Britain which gives the existing trade unions, and through them the Labour Party, the key role in building a socialist movement. To recognise other sections of the working class as the real agents of social change is to undermine the SWP’s claim to the leadership of the left in Britain, which is based on their trade union constituency.

Activists from Rock around the Blockade, an anti-imperialist campaign in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, continually expose the SWP’s position as contrived from a series of half-truths and outright lies. Gonzalez himself drones from platforms about the Cuban army controlling prostitution, gays being persecuted, AIDS sufferers locked up, no elections, no democracy, no workers’ representation, the government exploiting workers in the
interests of multinationals, while Cuba’s support for Angola against
the apartheid regime of South Africa is dismissed as Soviet ‘imperialism’.

Now the SWP has an organisational alliance with George Galloway, an ardent supporter of both Cuban socialism and Fidel Castro. In this light it is interesting to note that two key SWP lies have disappeared in Gonzalez’s book. Gonzalez’s purpose is to reconcile the anti-capitalist movement’s admiration for Che and Cuban socialism with the SWP’s ahistorical counter-revolutionary position.

First lie: The Revolution was fought by a bunch of middle-class men in the mountains with no relationship to the cities.

At Marxism 2003, the SWP’s annual meeting, Gonzalez described Cuba as: ‘The command model, the idea of a revolution conducted and run by revolutionaries with the passive support of the masses.’ In this account, the Revolution was carried out by a small militarised core, with no participation in the cities.

Now Gonzalez’s book recognises the existence of M26J urban movement led by Frank Pais: ‘Pais would be a key figure in the 26 July Movement, as organiser of the urban movement.’ (p53) Gonzalez now shamelessly criticises Che for doing what the SWP has done until now – censoring the importance of the urban underground movement.

Discussing Che’s upbringing Gonzalez says: ‘More important, perhaps, than these directly political questions is the matter of the social class to which the family belonged’ (p10) and speculates about ‘how clearly he bore the marks of his class’ (p13) with an anecdote about a beggar rejecting his help. Considering the class background of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, it is ridiculous that the SWP attempts to discredit both Che and Fidel Castro for being middle-class. Clearly it is not individual class background that is important but the class interests such revolutionaries represent in the movement.

Within months of Batista’s coup in March 1952, Fidel set up the M26J, recruiting from the poor constituency of Havana where he had been standing as a congressional candidate. Within a few months 1,500 members of the M26J were engaged in military training. They made an alliance with Frank Pais and another group in Santiago, Cuba’s second city. Of those who attacked Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953, ‘most were factory workers and shop assistants’ (Hugh Thomas, Cuba, p36).

The attack failed militarily and 61 of the 125 participants were massacred. Politically, however, its sparked a movement throughout the country, demanding the release of the survivors. In May 1955, less than two years later, Batista submitted to public pressure and the prisoners were released. Clearly then, Fidel and the M26J already had public support. Gonzalez doesn’t think so: ‘who were the guerrillas beyond the small self-selecting group who had landed from the Granma?’ (p63)

The urban wing of the M26J had sections for labour organisation, civic resistance, students, urban militia, propaganda and treasury. Life in the cities was more perilous than in the mountains, because of the iron grip of the dictatorship. Nonetheless the M26J’s National Workers’ Front organised work stoppages, the M26J’s Civic Resistance organised National Strike Committees and the M26J’s National Student Front agitated in schools. The urban militia carried out sabotage and burned sugar cane. Frank Pais, the movement’s leader, was assassinated on 30 July 1957. He was 23 years old. The following day, 60,000 people attended his funeral, businesses shut and workers went on strike spontaneously for several days until Batista’s repression forced them back to work. This courageous and revolutionary history is censored by the SWP and Gonzalez who writes: ‘The nature of the guerrilla struggle, and its leadership by the 26 July Movement under Castro, also meant that no mass organisations or organs of workers’ self-defence had grown in the course of the revolutionary war. That was a necessary consequence of a war conducted until its very final moments in areas remote from the centres of population and political culture.’ (p101)

Second lie: Che knew nothing about Marxism
In 1991 Socialist Worker claimed that Che was ‘never inspired by anything which remotely resembled Marxism.’ This is repeated frequently from SWP platforms. Gonzalez now identifies Che with Marxism, admitting that even before arriving in Cuba: ‘He had begun to read his way into Marxist writings in a slightly more systematic way.’ (p54)

In 1963 Che instigated a ‘Great Debate’ between Cuban revolutionaries, members of the old Cuban communist party and internationally renowned Marxists. The debate was about how to move away from the laws of motion of capitalism and construct socialism in Cuba. Key to the debate was the question of moral versus material incentives. Gonzalez characterises Che’s advocacy of moral incentives as an expression of idealism or subjectivism. Gonzalez asks: ‘Why did he lay such emphasis on the question of a new consciousness? It was certainly not for economic reasons, or because committed people are more efficient producers.’ (p149) He is wrong. Che wrote: ‘We maintain that the development of consciousness does more for the development of production in a relatively short time than material incentives do.’ (On the Budgetary Finance System, February 1964)

Che criticised the socialist bloc for using the ‘dull instruments of capitalism’ – the law of value, the profit motive, material incentives – in building socialism. The law of value determines the distribution of the social product according to the socially necessary labour time embodied within it. The law of value is at the heart of capitalist production. For Che Guevara, moral incentives and voluntary labour were key to undermining the law of value because they contradict its logic, under which workers sell their labour power in order to purchase their subsistence, while creating profits for the capitalists.

Gonzalez’s book is marred by factual errors, dubious referencing, spurious assertions and derogatory statements, backed by no evidence. Gonzalez has pulled his information from several mainstream biographies of Che and quotes some of Che’s best known works via secondary sources, implying that he has not read them. A few examples follow:

On pages 71-2 Gonzalez claims that during the guerrilla struggle ‘the 26 July Movement was also in regular contact with the CIA...and money had already reached the Movement from US government agencies.’ No evidence or reference is supplied for this claim.

On page 137 he quotes Jon Lee Anderson favourably: ‘There is no longer any doubt that his [Che] and Fidel’s paths had begun to diverge.’ A few pages later Gonzalez states that: ‘While the economic argument was developing with growing ferocity, Fidel was moving towards the position that Che was defending.’ (p141)

As examples of baseless derogatory comments; on Che’s youth, Gonzalez says: ‘Apart from his sexual dalliances with women workers, there is little evidence to suggest that Ernesto had very much contact with working people.’ (pp16-17) On the Rebel Army’s arrival at La Cabana fortress on the triumph of the Revolution, Gonzalez says Che: ‘opted for a kind of mass marriage ceremony within the fortress, legitimising the uninhibited sexuality of the youth soldiers.’ (p95)

While Gonzalez’s book spreads its counter-revolutionary nonsense in Britain the Cuban people prepare for an attack by the US. Cuba’s best defence from imperialist aggression is to continue to strengthen the remarkable achievements of Cuban socialism, in healthcare, education, culture, science, sustainable development and in international solidarity. As Gonzalez’s words ring hollow round the walls of Marxism 2004, Cuba continues to make an indelible contribution to revolutionary Marxism.
Helen Yaffe

Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, Mike Gonzalez, Bookmarks Publications, 2004, £8, pp186