The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

A Radical Nationalist Policy Carried to Its Limit

Oct 31, 1983

Today there is a continuing debate between the Socialist Workers Party and the rest of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International over the evaluation of the role of the Castro current in the revolutionary movement. But if there is a difference on this aspect of the Cuban question, practically all of the other tendencies in the Trotskyist movement agree that Cuba is some form of a workers state, although there are different appreciations of the degree of its health or deformation. And yet they agree that the working class in Cuba does not now, and has never directly controlled this state.

From the standpoint of logic, this seems aberrant reasoning, especially for a Marxist. Nonetheless, all of them, whatever their differences in evaluation, point to a certain number of substitute criteria to justify giving Cuba such a label.

They point first to the fact of Cuba’s stance against U.S. imperialism, dating back to the 1960s, lasting up until today. However, according to such criteria, not just Cuba, but also such regimes as that of Khomeini in Iran, or Khadafi in Libya, would also qualify as workers states. But no one in the Trotskyist movement today would call these states workers states. In general, any regime in an underdeveloped country that is fighting to defend its national interests comes up against a particular imperialism, often the one that has been its major exploiter. The fact that such a regime takes a stand defiant of a specific imperialism is simply a reflection of its nationalist policy.

To prove that Castro rules in the interest of the working class, many Trotskyists also point to the fact that the regime carried out land reform and improved the standard of living of the population. Certainly there were significant improvements in the general living standards, and especially in health, education and the opening up of cultural activities, and this explains in part the early popularity of the Cuban regime. But we think that many of the other Trotskyists exaggerate the increases in the standard of living – they tend to ignore the rationing of food, the lack of consumer goods and the housing shortage. But even if we grant their characterizations, such measures don’t break down the framework of bourgeois society. They are not socialist measures in and of themselves.

Most importantly, the other Trotskyists point to the expropriations, the nationalizations, the central planning and the monopoly of foreign trade, and thus, a state-run economy in Cuba, as proof of the class character of the regime. None of these measures in and of themselves has a socialist character. The proof of this is that they have been used repeatedly by the bourgeoisie of many countries as a solution to particular problems they faced. Nationalizations have been used by the various European bourgeoisies to protect a vital industry that was not profitable enough to exist on its own. Thus we see, in France, that one-third of all industry is nationalized.

The other Trotskyists admit that the bourgeoisie also resorts to nationalizations, but claim that it is the extent of the nationalizations that is key. But it’s not just Cuba that has resorted to an important amount. The state in a good number of the underdeveloped countries has recourse to nationalization; some countries have resorted to almost total nationalization of their industry for some period of time. These countries, where the native bourgeoisies were weak and unable to provide for an independent economic development, where there was practically no industry any way to be nationalized, have relied on the state to try to accumulate capital needed for development. Such, for example, was the case of Egypt, which nationalized practically its whole economy starting in the mid-1950s. In a different period, in the last century, when a certain opening still existed for development, the Japanese military used the state as a means to accumulate capital and build the infrastructure that the Japanese bourgeoisie needed to develop a modern capitalist economy. Today such a state intervention gives no prospects in a world completely dominated by imperialism and this shows the limits of the policies pursued by the nationalist regimes. In any case, such nationalizations, state intervention, central planning and control of the economy cannot be used as criteria to evaluate the class nature of a state.

The only way to make an accurate analysis of the class nature of a state is to look at which class put it in place, and which class controls it, and thus whose interests it serves.

What Were the Origins of the Cuban State?

Cuba in the period leading up to the Cuban revolution was no more than a colony of U.S. imperialism. Cuba’s economy was completely dominated by U.S. corporations which controlled a quarter of its land, and 70% of its exports, primarily sugar. Even its electricity and communications were controlled by U.S. corporations. The tourist trade was one of Cuba’s main sources of income, forcing a large section of the Cuban population to work as maids, prostitutes, and in gambling and drugs.

Cuba was ruled by Fulgencio Batista, a brutal dictator known for his corruption and his willingness to sell his country to U.S. imperialism. U.S. companies had given him forty-eight million dollars in stocks in U.S., foreign, and joint U.S.-Cuban corporations. The Cuban army was trained and supplied by the U.S., which helped to prop up Batista’s regime.

Meanwhile, the majority of the Cuban people existed in poverty, living in huts without basic sanitation and electricity. Thirty-seven per cent of the population was illiterate. In 1956, per capita income in the countryside, including home-grown vegetables, was under $100 per year.

Moreover, the viciousness and corruption of Batista’s regime gave an opening for the development of an opposition movement. Even most sections of the bourgeoisie took a distance from the regime. His only support was his own state apparatus, the army, and the most servile sections of the bourgeoisie, those completely tied to U.S. imperialism.

But the old opposition parties had more or less fallen apart, or been discredited. Even the Popular Socialist Party, the Cuban C.P., which had a base in the cities and in the working class, had compromised itself by serving in the Batista government in the 1940s. So on the one hand there was a regime that was rotten to the core, and on the other there was no real organized opposition. Into this vacuum stepped the 26th of July Movement.

Who Had the Leading Role in the Cuban Revolution?

The 26th of July Movement was a small group of petty-bourgeois intellectuals: doctors, lawyers, students, some of whom, like Fidel Castro, came out of the old opposition parties. After the ill-fated attempt on Moncada in 1953, and Castro’s subsequent imprisonment, a small band of determined people launched a guerilla war from the countryside. They organized a guerilla army which was made up mostly of peasants, and which eventually came to number about 2,000. Moreover, their movement enjoyed the overwhelming support of the majority of the peasantry.

That is, the 26th of July Movement was essentially a movement of the petty bourgeoisie. It viewed the urban population, and specifically the working class, as a supplementary force for the guerilla army. Though the working class was fairly developed and organized and had a certain history of militancy, dating back to the 1930s, the working class never played an independent role in Batista’s overthrow. Even when the 26th of July Movement called for a general strike in 1958, it was only in support of the guerilla struggle.

At no time in the Cuban revolution were there any independent organs of workers power created by the Cuban working class. There were no factory committees, no soviets, and no independent armed mobilization of the working class, no creation of workers militias to replace the army and the police.

Castro, himself, in describing the nature of the Cuban revolution said: “The victory was only possible for us because we have reunited Cubans of all classes and all sectors around one and the same aspiration.”

Once in power, Castro invited bourgeois politicians to participate in the new government. Thus, Urrutia served as President of the new republic, and Pazos served as president of the national bank. Certainly, the real power was in the hands of Castro and the army created by the 26th of July Movement, but it was clear that Castro saw no barrier between himself and the other bourgeois politicians.

The program of the 26th of July Movement was an openly bourgeois nationalist program. It called for land reform, ridding the government of corruption, establishing political democracy, improving the standard of living of the population, and developing the national economy. In relation to the U.S., its most radical point was that the U.S. companies should begin to pay taxes to Cuba.

Certainly most of those who characterize Cuba as a workers state would even agree with much of what we have said so far. The disagreement comes later. For they argue that objective circumstances brought Fidel Castro and those around him to go much further than they had originally intended; that it was these circumstances that turned Castro into a Marxist and a communist, and transformed the 26th of July Movement into a communist party, and the Cuban state into a workers state.

We would certainly agree that objective circumstances forced the Cuban leadership to go much further than it had intended to go – but the main question is, to where did it go?

The U.S. Attacks, and Cuba Stands Firm

The main objective circumstance that did force the Cuban regime to take more radical measures was the hostility of U.S. imperialism. It was U.S. imperialism that broke with Cuba, not vice versa. From the earliest days, the Cuban leadership tried to have friendly relations with the U.S. Castro made it clear he wanted economic aid, and that Cuba was willing to keep itself open for private investment. Castro came to the U.S. in April of 1959 to prove Cuba’s interest in good relations and to ask for aid. But the U.S. in 1959 had the same reflex to Cuba it had to China in 1949.

Confronted by the situation it faced in Latin America, its corporate backyard, U.S. imperialism chose not to accept to have normal relations with the new Cuban regime. It was unwilling to condone a popular movement that had overthrown one of its strong men. It was not prepared to allow Cuba to be an example that could inspire others in Latin America to follow the same path.

Thus the U.S. refused to give any aid to Cuba and in response to the very mild land reform of the Spring it immediately demanded compensation for the U.S. corporate land that was taken over. At the same time the U.S. began to give support to Batista’s followers based in Florida. By June, planes from Florida were bombing Cuban sugar mills and cane fields.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Castro began to look for other economic help to develop Cuba’s economy. In the summer of 1959, Cuba began to explore the possibilities of trade with Russia. In August, the USSR agreed to buy some sugar. The U.S. was quick to object. In October, Russia agreed to purchase still more sugar. At the end of the year, in response to economic problems and the continuing attacks of Batista’s henchmen, Cuba carried out a further confiscation of land belonging to Batista’s followers and set up cooperative farms and peoples’ stores. In January of 1960, Eisenhower had a bill introduced in Congress to eliminate Cuba’s sugar quota. So once again Cuba tried to defend itself by turning to the USSR. In February, Mikoyan visited Cuba and left agreeing to buy a million tons of sugar a year for the next five years. In June, the sugar quota bill passed Congress and in July, Eisenhower announced the cut-off leaving Cuba 700,000 tons of sugar unsold. To a country that was completely dependent on sugar export, this was a total declaration of economic war. In July, again in response, Cuba signed another sugar deal with China, which agreed to exchange industrial goods. The U.S. threats escalated. In the Summer of 1960, the USSR agreed to supply Cuba with crude oil, but the U.S.-owned Cuban refineries refused to process it. At the end of June, Cuba seized the refineries. Eisenhower canceled the remaining sugar quota; Castro replied anew in August, by confiscating 800 million dollars in U.S. corporate property. Then, in September, Cuba nationalized the Cuban branches of the U.S. banks and, in October, nationalized most of the rest of the Cuban economy.

The U.S. imposed a total trade embargo, attempting finally to completely strangle the Cuban economy. In April of 1961, it tried to topple the regime with the CIA-inspired Bay of Pigs invasion. In the same month, Castro declared that Cuba was a socialist state. It was a gesture of defiance towards the U.S. and a gesture of appreciation towards the USSR, on which Cuba was now dependent for military, as well as economic aid.

By December of 1961, Castro declared himself a Marxist and carried out a fusion between the CP and the 26th of July Movement. This allowed him to eliminate any potential opposition to his government and at the same time gave him an apparatus to discipline the whole population, including the working class. In the newly formed party’s central committee over two-thirds of the members were officers in Castro’s army; with the subsequent purges carried out in the next period, the party was firmly under Castro’s control.

The threats of invasion persisted and finally the conflict came to a head with the missile crisis in 1962. Since that time the U.S. has maintained a more or less hostile attitude towards Cuba. But neither this hostility, nor the defensive measures taken by Castro as a result, either on the political or the economic level prove that the class nature of the Cuban state underwent a change.

It Takes More than a Label to Change the Nature of the Regime

After the announcement that Cuba was socialist, it continued to be controlled by the same leaders as before, through the same apparatus as before. The existing state apparatus was not smashed, and not even changed. But in other words, implied in the position of the other Trotskyists is the idea that the regime of Castro which had headed a bourgeois state, through a process of reforms, now came to head a workers state.

Many Trotskyists often blur this issue by saying that the changes in policy resulted from the regime coming in line with the masses; that there were initiatives by the masses and pressure from below which Castro responded to. In the first place, we disagree with their evaluation of the facts. We believe these were simply measures taken by the Cuban regime for its own reasons and to defend its own interests. But even if it were true, that there was “pressure” from the masses, what would it prove?

Without the creation of democratic organs of workers power to form a new state, Cuba can only remain a bourgeois state. The class nature of a bourgeois state cannot be changed without the working class finding the means to impose and directly exercise its power. This was never the case in Cuba.

A Nationalist Policy on the International Level

If the Cuban revolution has meant that to some degree the lives of the Cuban people are better today than they were under Batista, in no way either for the Cuban people or for humanity as a whole does it offer a way forward.

The world economy is a whole today and it can only be made to function in the interests of humanity when the resources and technology are organized on an international scale. There is only one social class that has the possibility to carry out the socialist revolution on an international scale – and that is the working class, because of its role in production, and because it is the only class whose interests, when it becomes conscious of them, lead it to carry out such a fight.

The liberation of humanity cannot be found within national borders but only by breaking them down. It is why the Russian revolution, the only victorious workers revolution in the world, saw as its first goal the spread of revolution around the world. It is why the first and only workers state we have seen put as its major task the creation of a revolutionary proletarian international.

The Cuban regime has never joined or tried to build a revolutionary international. Nor has it tried to create revolutionary sections in the working class movement anywhere. Without eliminating U.S. imperialism, the Cuban revolution stands doomed. But even in this place where it had the most pressing interest to construct a revolutionary working class party, it made no attempt. In the years after Castro came to power, given the upsurge in the black movement, there might have been the opening for Castro to call on his popularity to aid the building of such a party. Moreover, the Castro regime did not even try in that area of the world, in Latin America, where it would have been easiest for it to build up working class revolutionary organizations. Not only has the Latin American working class shown its combativity, but it looked to the Cuban revolution with admiration and respect. But in relation to Latin America, the Cuban regime has followed a policy no different from that of any other nationalist regime.

Even from the standpoint of the nationalist revolution, the policy of Castro was not one of extending the revolution. It was how best to gain allies. The most important aspect of this policy was to look to regimes that were already in place that were willing to offer a certain friendship, even though that meant turning its back on the spread of revolution in those countries. Thus, it continues to look to Mexico, because Mexico makes a certain pretense of neutrality. In 1969, after General Velasco had come to power in Peru, Castro welcomed him, ignoring the fact that Hugo Blanco and other revolutionary supporters of Cuba were in prison there. Where it has offered a support to revolutionary movements it was in those countries where the regimes were unremittingly hostile to Cuba, such as in the Nicaragua of Somoza or in El Salvador today. Even in the case of Chile, where it helped to create and gave support to a guerilla movement, it was willing when Allende came to power and offered it friendly relations, to disband the guerilla forces, seeing them as unnecessary.

In Africa, the Cuban policy has been exactly the same, to find allies. We hear a lot about the fact of Cuban support for the struggle in Angola, which in fact is only support for Neto. What this kind of policy means can be seen in the support Cuba gave to Megistu in Ethiopia, against the Eritrean liberation struggle.

The Cubans have openly opposed themselves to those who struggle in the Soviet bloc, in their defense of the Soviet bureaucracy and its interests. Thus, the Castro regime supported the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, and finally that of Afghanistan. More recently the Cubans supported the Jaruzelski regime in Poland when it imposed martial law against the Polish working class.

Such a policy on the part of the Cuban regime has nothing in common with proletarian internationalism. It is the policy of nationalism through and through, that is, a bourgeois policy.

The Road Taken by Castro Does Not Go against the Interests of the Bourgeoisie

What was unique about Castro and the 26th of July Movement was that they refused to give in to imperialism, and that they were willing to use radical means in order to defend their existence. Unlike the majority of nationalist leaders in the underdeveloped countries, Castro was willing to go to the limit within the framework of a nationalist policy. And that meant not only was he willing to nationalize imperialist property inside Cuba, as well as that of the Cuban bourgeoisie which fled, but he was also willing to mobilize the Cuban population to fight against U.S. imperialism.

It is true that for over twenty years the Cuban regime has maintained itself against the hostility of U.S. imperialism. Certainly in this dispute, socialist revolutionaries take the side of Cuba. But in doing this, we do not have to call Cuba a workers state. It is simply the kind of solidarity that revolutionaries must show to any underdeveloped country attacked by imperialism.

As such, neither the mobilization of the population nor the kind of measures taken by Castro are harmful to the basic interest of the bourgeoisie. It’s true that most of the Cuban bourgeoisie and even of the petty bourgeoisie felt endangered and fled Cuba. But this is by no means unique in history. Many times the bourgeoisie has required a radical petty bourgeois leadership to play a role in clearing the decks; and nonetheless the bourgeoisie feared that leadership. Such was already the case with Robespierre during the French Revolution when a large part of the bourgeoisie opposed him.

If the revolution in Cuba attempted to repeat the experience of the earlier bourgeois revolutions, it repeated them at a time when there was no longer a place for an underdeveloped country to develop itself. It can imitate the process of the classical bourgeois revolutions, but it cannot achieve the results. It cannot escape from the prison of underdevelopment.