Review: Fidel Castro: a revolutionary life / FRFI 204 Aug / Sept 2008

FRFI 204 August / September 2008

Fidel Castro: a revolutionary life
My Life Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet, Allen Lane 2007, £25 hbk, 724pp

‘I said once that one of our greatest errors in the beginning and many times down through the years of the Revolution was to believe that somebody knew how socialism ought to be constructed’ (My Life, p623).

This book is, then, a tremendous testament to almost 50 years of constructing socialism without a blueprint. In it Castro details the Cuban people’s incredible social, political, educational, cultural and international achievements during his life. The book takes the form of a series of conversations between the Cuban leader and the former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet. In a hundred hours with Castro, recorded between 2003 and 2005, we are given an unprecedented account of his life so far, from the schoolboy forging a glowing report card for his guardians to secure centavos for ice cream, to the mature revolutionary, on the phone advising President Chavez of Venezuela to stand firm during the April 2002 coup.

The unique value of this 700-page volume lies in the additional material detail which illustrates Castro’s strategic and tactical skill. Every setback, every apparently hopeless situation has been made to yield something useful and progressive. After the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953, Fidel is betrayed and captured. Batista’s soldiers are for shooting the prisoners without knowing Castro is amongst them. He relates the episode to make the point that a black Cuban Army officer restrained the troops by repeatedly arguing: ‘Don’t shoot. You can’t kill ideas’ (p162).

Ramonet tells us in the introduction that Fidel often says: ‘It’s ideas that transform the world, the way tools transform matter’ (p14). Castro’s own life of ceaseless revolutionary organisation and action demonstrates his central, Marxist understanding that it is the practical application of ideas that changes and transforms the world, not the individualistic heroism of a single person. Reflecting on the historic importance of particular men, Che’s virtues of ‘moral value... and conscience’ are praised but also seen as ‘of no importance unless one believed that men like him exist by the million – millions and millions of them – within the masses’ (p307).

From privilege to protest
In describing those Cubans who allied themselves with the US to attack the Revolution at Playa Giron in 1961, he comments that ‘among the invaders there were many who were the sons of large landowners and wealthy families. There you see clearly the class nature of the invasion’ (p263).

How was it then that Fidel, the son of a large and wealthy landowner, was able to publicly declare on the day before that counter-revolutionary invasion: ‘This is a socialist and democratic Revolution of the humble, by the humble, and for the humble’ (p638)?

The answer lies in part, as he points out, in his family’s class origins. Castro’s father, Angel Castro, had been an illiterate immigrant from Galicia in Spain who had known grinding poverty and who never forgot his roots. Castro describes his father’s concern at the plight of the landless labourers during the tiempo muerto, the period of near starvation between the end of the sugar harvest and planting, and the measures he took to alleviate the situation.

At Havana University in 1945, Castro tells us, ‘The leftists saw me as a queer duck – they’d say, “Son of landowners and a graduate of the Colegio de Belen, this guy must be the most reactionary person in the world”’ (p94). While 20 years earlier, student Julio Mella, founder of the Cuban Communist Party, had been ‘the presiding spirit’, the odds were considerably different now: ‘Of the 15,000 students... there were no more than 50 active, known anti-imperialists’ (p94).

During this period of early political agitation, which led to his being physically excluded from the university precincts by thugs and police, Castro and his friends committed themselves to organising a challenge to injustice by building a federation of Latin American students, demanding ‘the sovereignty of the European colonies throughout the hemisphere. That was our programme which was anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorial’ (p99). In 1947 Castro headed for the Dominican Republic to lead a company of volunteers against the US-backed dictator there; in Panama he encountered students inflamed by US soldiers who had machine-gunned anti-occupation protesters and in Venezuela he noted the progressive promise of President Betancourt and the Revolutionary Junta. The developing student movement supported the Argentinean demands for the return of the Malvinas and expressed solidarity with the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. In 1948 he travelled to Colombia, where he met presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan who agreed to support a congress of Latin American students. However Gaitan was assassinated in Bogota as the congress was in progress. Castro was caught up in the response of ‘a people seeking justice... I joined the people; I grabbed a rifle in a police station... I witnessed the spectacle of a totally spontaneous popular revolution.’ (p98)


Out of this crucible of experience Fidel was forced to make some sense. He is unequivocal that it was his encounter with Marx which took him forward. Reading the Communist Manifesto:

‘Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest who doesn’t even know where north and south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.’ (p100)

Castro describes himself as a ‘utopian Communist’ then, but goes on to state: ‘By 10 March 1952, the day of Batista’s coup d’état, I’d already been a convinced Marxist-Leninist for several years’ (p103).

However, as Lenin pointed out forcefully to those who sniffed haughtily at the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, only the most ‘hopeless doctrinaires’ could think that there was anything like a ‘pure social revolution where one army lines up on one side and declares “we are for socialism” and another lines up saying, “we are for imperialism”.’ Castro quotes from Jose Marti, hero of the Cuban War of Independence, in his argument that winning battles can involve guile and concealment as well as courage.

‘All that I have done up to now, and all I will do, is for that [to thwart US imperialism through Cuban independence]...It has to be done in silence, and indirectly, for there are things that must be concealed in order to be attained.’ (p173)

It is a central axiom of Marxism that while the people do indeed make history they do not make it in circumstances of their own choosing. Castro explains that in 1960, after the Revolution, he had at first ‘to appeal to every recourse of my imagination to persuade them without giving our position away (ie, that we were going to proclaim socialism)’ (p243).

But once the Revolution came under armed threat by US imperialism a year later, new, open tactics were necessary. On 16 April 1961, Castro openly proclaimed ‘the socialist nature of our Revolution’ (p 257). The US invasion of Cuba was launched the next day at Playa Giron. Within 60 hours the Cubans had routed the invaders. Castro had appealed now to the working class and peasants to defend their Revolution under the banner of socialism. The attempted invasion had ‘accelerated the revolutionary process’ (p269). And, as Castro says later, ‘Imperialist treachery, imperialist perfidy, stung by every measure of ours that benefited the people or consolidated national independence, forced us to keep our boots on and our combat equipment ready’ (p308).

Castro considers an arc of liberation can be drawn from the landing of the Granma in Cuba in 1956, beginning the revolutionary war, to November 1975 when a small group of Cubans first engaged the forces of the racist army of apartheid South Africa. In the ultimate defeat of the apartheid army by Angolans, Namibians and Cubans: ‘The imperialists and their pawns suffered the consequences of a Playa Giron multiplied many times over’ (p334).

Cuba and Africa
Cuba deployed 300,000 armed and 50,000 civilian internationalist volunteers in support of the Angolan people. By 1988 they had broken the back of the fascist apartheid army at Cuito Cuanavale. Castro’s account provides a timely antidote to the disinformation passed off by the multinational media as to how apartheid was overcome. As Nelson Mandela is feted by the shameless imperialists who once branded him a ‘terrorist’, new generations should know just who stood behind apartheid in South Africa. Castro castigates the US alliance with: ‘a South Africa whose troops Washington didn’t hesitate to use to invade Angola. Dictators, terrorists, thieves and confessed racists were constantly, and without the slightest scruple, incorporated into the ranks of the so-called “free world”’ (pp316/317).

The Cubans mobilised support, soldiers and military equipment across 6,000 miles to confront: ‘the richest and best armed of Europe and the United States’ African puppet regimes. Castro was in command of Cuban, Angolan and Namibian fighters in the largest military operation that Cuba had ever mounted. He directed generals whom he remembered as boys in the Rebel Army. Their struggle for justice which had begun in the mountains, plains and cities of Cuba was elevated to an international level a quarter of a century later. Castro reveals here that the US, using Israel as a proxy, was involved in the supply of atomic bombs to the racist apartheid regime. As the imperialist vultures circle Africa again, from Sudan to Zimbabwe, Castro’s stirring account here confirms what has to be made common argument and knowledge today: that not one battalion, not one soldier, not one rifle was ever mobilised by Europe and the United States against apartheid in South Africa.

Winning the war?

However, history has bitterly demonstrated that while this battle was won resoundingly by Cuba and the liberation army of Angola, fatally wounding the racist regime, it was the imperialists who went on to win the war. From the triumph of Cuito Cuanavale it was only three short years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fidel tells it like it was:

‘When the Soviet Union and the Socialist Camp disappeared, no one would have wagered one cent on the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The country took a stunning blow when that great power collapsed and left us out in the cold, all by ourselves, and we lost all our markets for sugar, we stopped receiving foodstuffs, fuel, even the wood to bury our dead in’ (p365).

Yet Cuba has survived. Why? ‘Because the Revolution always had, has, and increasingly will have the support of a nation which is increasingly united, educated and combative.’ (p366)

Ramonet presses Castro on issues that reflect the concerns of fixed liberal opinion in the West such as emigration from Cuba, the death penalty, the treatment of political dissidents and freedom of the press. Castro patiently refutes these prejudices, pointing out, for example, the obvious paradox that freedom of the press in the West is difficult to square with exclusive ownership of the media by rich individuals. Patient and diplomatic, yes, but also direct and combative in defending Cuba – it is easy to imagine Fidel raising that authoritative finger as he says emphatically ‘Listen: I tell many of our friends who sometimes criticise us that they should try to understand the circumstances under which this country has to defend itself’ (p479).

Meanwhile, the Cuban Revolution is looking to the future, cementing new alliances in Latin America. Castro describes the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia as ‘the expression of the fact that the political map of Latin America is changing. New winds are blowing in this hemisphere... Imperialism no longer has the instruments it once had, nor can it apply them.’ (pp522/523)

These inspiring accounts from the frontlines in Cuba’s 50-year battle against imperialism are of inestimable value to today’s political struggles. We are made privy to the finest analysis of when to apply force, when to negotiate, when to dissemble and bluff, when to pause to analyse and reflect and when to act decisively – a constant ratiocination of the balance of class forces in the anti-imperialist battle for socialism. And yet sometimes his valour, optimism and audacity are simply breathtaking. Castro’s life has been the Cuban Revolution, the building of socialism in that country and the sure marshalling of the forces – the growing masses of the poor around the globe – who are uniting to defeat imperialism. As Castro remarked of the Irish hunger strikers of 1981: ‘Tremble, tyrants, before the courage of such men!’
Michael MacGregor


Harman: making imperialism disappear / FRFI 206 Dec 2008 / Jan 2009

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009

Capitalism’s new crisis: what do socialists say?
Chris Harman,
Socialist Workers Party, ISBN 9781905192458, £1.50

This pamphlet, written by leading Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) ideologue Chris Harman, claims to present a socialist standpoint on the crisis. It does anything but. Its analysis of the crisis lacks coherence; in arguing for action on the series of demands which form the ‘People before Profits Charter’ it does not acknowledge, let alone explain, why the socialist and working class movement in Britain is at its weakest for more than a century. Furthermore, at a time when millions of people throughout the world are struggling against imperialism, the word imperialism does not appear once in the pamphlet’s 34 pages.

Harman on capitalism
In order to understand the crisis, socialists have to be clear about the laws of motion of capitalism as a whole. Harman is not. Throughout the pamphlet he presents capitalism and its crisis from the standpoint of the individual capitalist who experiences life as one of constant competition. Marx understood that it is accumulation that is the driving force of capitalism, but for Harman: ‘The driving force of capitalism is not the satisfaction of people’s needs, but the competition between capitalists to make profits. Human needs are only satisfied insofar as doing so contributes to the profit drive’ (p11). He repeats the point:

‘However, the system... also escapes to a very great degree from the control of the capitalists themselves. Each time one capitalist succeeds in accumulating and expanding the means for producing wealth other capitalists are forced to do the same if they want to stay in business. Competition means they have no choice but to accumulate. They have to accumulate in order to make profits and make profits to accumulate in an endless process’ (p13).

Marx showed that it is not competition that leads to accumulation, but accumulation – the expression of the social relations of production of capitalism – that necessarily provokes competition. Marx develops the concept of capital before consideration of ‘many capitals’ or their interaction through competition. He argues that ‘a fall in the rate of profit connected with accumulation necessarily calls forth a competitive struggle...not vice versa’ (Capital Vol 3 p251).

Harman replaces Marx’s materialist analysis with idealism: capital is about ‘drive’ and ‘choice’, or lack of it, a ‘competition to see who is greediest’ (p3). Accumulation is not contained within the concept of capital but is the outcome of individual capitalists’ desire to stay ahead of each other (p16). By presenting competition as the primary force within capitalism, Harman cannot analyse its tendency towards monopoly, conveniently avoiding that ultimate expression of monopoly capitalism, imperialism. But, by the same token, if we are just dealing with subjective questions as choice, drive or greed, might these not be held in check by some external intervention – say, by the state?

Not just an idealist, Harman is also an eclectic: he presents different explanations as to why a crisis occurs within capitalism. On page 3, greed is the ‘the simple explanation for the cause of the crisis.’ On page 14, however, it is because of a shortage of raw materials and components leading to rising costs. Later on in the same page it is because there is ‘overproduction’ – people cannot afford to buy the goods that have been produced. Further on, on page 16, it is because of a ‘downward pressure on profit rates’, a consequence itself of the competition process. Which ‘cause’ is decisive is never clear. For Marxists, however, the crisis occurs when: ‘the expansion of production outruns its profitability, when existing conditions of exploitation preclude a further profitable capital-expansion
or what amounts to the same thing, an increase of accumulation does not increase the mass of surplus-value or profits, an absolute over-accumulation has occurred and the accumulation process comes to a halt. This interruption of the accumulation or its stagnation constitutes the capitalist crisis. It represents an overproduction of capital with respect to the degree of exploitation. From the point of view of profitability at this stage, existing capital is at the same time too small and too large. It is too large in relation to the existing surplus-value and it is not large enough to overcome the lack of surplus-value.’ (Paul Bullock and David Yaffe, Inflation, crisis and the post-war boom, here)

At a certain historical point the tendency towards capitalist breakdown or crisis expresses itself in the development of imperialism:
‘The aggressive character of imperialism likewise necessarily flows from a crisis of valorisation.* Imperialism is a striving to restore the valorisation of capital at any cost, to weaken or eliminate the breakdown tendency. This explains its aggressive policies at home (an intensified attack on the working class) and abroad (a drive to transform foreign nations into tributaries). This is the hidden basis of the bourgeois rentier state, of the parasitic character of capitalism at an advanced stage of accumulation. Because the valorisation of capital fails in countries at a given, higher stage of accumulation, the tribute that flows in from abroad assumes ever greater importance. Parasitism becomes a method of prolonging the life of capitalism.’ (Henryk Grossman: The law of accumulation and breakdown of the capitalist system, Pluto Press, pp122-3). [*By valorisation is meant the reproduction and expansion of capital through the exploitation of labour.]

Imperialism is not a political expedient or whim, but arises from the crisis of accumulation. Whilst Lenin in his writings was primarily concerned with the political consequences of imperialism – the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations and the split in the working class in the oppressor nation – his standpoint followed from an understanding of the capitalist crisis which we have set out. Not to mention him in a pamphlet of this character demonstrates a complete lack of Marxist understanding and in the end justifies opportunism.

Yet, despite himself, Harman is forced to demonstrate the development of parasitism when he writes:

‘Finance’s destructive role has been quite simple. In its pursuit of profit it scoured the globe looking for opportunities to lend money so as to reap vast amounts in interest payments, undertaking speculation, and raking in fees from overseeing takeovers and privatisations.’ (p6)

A succinct statement of parasitism, but one which he cannot take further because he is never clear whether or not such activities produce profits, or whether they merely represent a claim on profits made elsewhere. He continues:
‘In the 1970s and 1980s this had focused on the poorer countries of the world – lending them so much at such high interest rates that in order to keep up their repayments they were forced to borrow more at even higher interest rates. When such countries ran into trouble, the US, British and European Union governments sent in the IMF to bend them to its will, forcing them to open up their markets to giant Western firms, to sell off their industries to them, to privatise healthcare and to force the poorest parents to pay for their children’s education’ (p6).

This is indeed what happened, but at the time the SWP denied it was of any significance! They wrote then:

‘In fact neither the export of capital nor the “super-profits” of imperialism play the role they once did... It is arguable that there has been no net capital export at all (to the Third World) for long periods in the recent past... Export of capital plays a vital role in modern capitalism but it is overwhelmingly export from one developed country to another. Its economic significance is entirely different...’ (Socialist Worker 28 April 1979).

In other words, there is no imperialism, and the SWP could conclude that this export of capital ‘cannot account for the “corruption” of “labour aristocracies”... by the crumbs of super-profits’. Therefore there was no opportunism, either.

Harman obscures the question as to whether the financial system he describes is productive of surplus value, or profit. On the one hand he says ‘so long as the mountain of debt had produced profit there was nothing but praise for those who ruled over the financial system’ (p8). On the other he says that ‘the great bulk of [the financial system] is concerned only with the distribution of profits between sections of the capitalist class’. Yet if the financial system does not produce profit, where is it all coming from? And, equally importantly, how have the ever-increasing number of workers in the financial sector been getting paid? After all, even Harman has to note that ‘Finance and business services grew to account for four times as much investment as manufacturing and other industries and for almost a third of the economy in 2004’ (p23); in 2005 they employed six million workers. So where on earth was all the money coming from? You will seek the answer in Harman’s pamphlet in vain.

Marx is quite clear: labour in banking and financial services is entirely unproductive of surplus value or profit, and is financed out of the surplus value that is generated through the exploitation of workers employed productively, mainly in industry, manufacturing and transport. Yet, as Harman and many others have noted, there are fewer and fewer such workers in Britain, and their labour does not sustain even a small part of the edifice of British capitalism. There is only one coherent explanation: that Britain’s vastly expanded financial sector and the many well-paid workers it employs are paid out of surplus value sucked in from overseas, specifically through the super-profits derived from the exploitation of productive workers throughout the world, the vast majority of them in the underdeveloped countries. And the figures show this: British imperialism’s external assets expanded from £1,976 trillion (244% of GDP) in 1997 when Labour came to office to £6,486 trillion in 2006 (470% of GDP). This represents in Lenin’s words, ‘a gigantic usury capital’ (see David Yaffe, Britain – parasitic and decaying capitalism). For Harman it is a closed book.

It is this ‘gigantic usury capital’ and the super-profits it extorted that explains why there is no socialist movement in Britain today. Between 1992 and 2006 such super-profits had supported a continuous rise in living standards for the majority of the British working class and petit bourgeoisie. They did not have any need for socialism. So when Harman presents the People before Profit Charter and its basic demands, we have to ask what sort of movement will fight for it. Is it one that continues to make alliances with Labour lefts and their trade union leader allies on the latter’s terms? Or one that breaks completely with that rotten tradition and stands firmly on anti-imperialist principles? Given the various Keynesian journalists and intellectuals, Labour MPs and trade union leaders who have endorsed the Charter, it is evident that Harman and the SWP think that the way forward is once again through compromise with the reformists.

At the end of the pamphlet, Harman says that ‘The answer to the banking crisis is not regulation, or nationalisation of one or two banks, but a takeover of the whole banking system. And the nationalisation should be to stop repossessions and to stop debt strangling the world’s poor...’ (p33). He needs a reality check. At a time when the bankers are dictating to the government, he is calling on the government to nationalise in the interests of the working class what is essentially the core of British imperialism. However if you were a socialist you would have to add that in order to do this you would first have to overthrow the British state, and before that, you would have to build a new movement. This is what socialists should be saying: stand against imperialism and opportunism, break with Labour, and build a new working class movement based on these principles.

Robert Clough


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