Was there an alternative to Fidel Castro’s “Stalinism”?

Louis Proyect, the author of this piece, is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list, where his various articles first appear. For information on how to subscribe to the list, go here. Active in socialist politics since 1967, he has given workshops on the Internet to community and union groups, as well as moderating a Marxist mailing list on the Internet that can be linked to above. He has also created a small archive of the writings of James M. Blaut, an outstanding scholar and revolutionary. Proyect’s articles, many of which appeared originally as postings to the Marxism list, have appeared in Sozialismus (Germany), Science and Society, New Politics, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes, Revolutionary History (Great Britain), New Interventions (Great Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans and Green Left Weekly (Australia). He is also a proud member of the NY Film Critics Online. He also run a blog. He can be reached at lnp3[at]panix.com.

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Louis Proyekt

Today I was shocked by the torrent of denunciations aimed at the Stalinist “dictator” Fidel Castro. No, I am not talking about CBS or CNN, where it might be expected. Rather it emanated from FB friends, most of whom supported Tony Cliff’s theory of State Capitalism but with some anarchists as well. I was also shocked by the vehemence that exceeded anything that Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez wrote for the occasion even though they were as bad as I might have expected.

Although I had originally considered writing a longer piece on Castro’s passing, I decided instead to focus in on the question of Fidel Castro’s “Stalinism”. For people such as Farber and Gonzalez, the solution to Cuba’s difficulties would have been a “revolution from below”. Farber puts it this way:

It’s certainly not a socialist society because the working class and the rest of the population do not have democratic control over decision-making. It’s one variety of what and I and others call “bureaucratic collectivism.” Bureaucratic collectivist societies, where a ruling class controls property politically through its control of an undemocratic state rather than individually or privately, differ from each other, but share a basic character — just as capitalist countries vary among themselves: Sweden is not Japan is not the United States.

It might be pointed out that Farber is an old-line Shachtmanite rather than a State Capitalist like the ISO that he frequently writes for. The distinction between bureaucratic collectivism and State Capitalism is hardly worth going into here since we should all understand that from their respective standpoints, Cuba’s government is rotten to the core and needs to be overthrown by an aroused proletariat.

Apparently, these comrades had a different idea of the kind of change that Cuba needed in 1959. Instead of a guerrilla army working in tandem with middle-class elements in Havana, it needed a party like Lenin’s that would have taken power on the basis of worker’s committees even if none had germinated in the struggle against Batista.

Let’s imagine that such a possibility had existed and come to fruition on the basis of a leadership rooted in the working class that had aligned itself with Tony Cliff’s international movement or some reasonable facsimile. Like the sainted Bolsheviks, it would have collectivized the means of production and developed the economy with democratically decided plans hammered out by the workers themselves. It would have been the Paris Commune raised to the tenth power.

Even more in keeping with Cliff or Max Shachtman’s theories, there was complete workers democracy with a free press, the right to assemble and form parties that would contest for power in elections. But above all, the government had to conduct an assault on the American domination of the economy as JFK himself admitted:

At the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands—almost all the cattle ranches—90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions—80 percent of the utilities—practically all the oil industry—and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.

So, let’s not mince words on this. If someone as fearless as Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez had been the Lenin of Cuba (I should mention that Farber believes that Lenin’s anti-democratic tendencies gave rise to Stalin), the first task would have been to seize American properties. Would Washington have been less determined to crush the government if it had been committed to democracy and “socialism from below”? I feel stupid even asking such a question.

You would also have to assume that the revolutionary socialist leadership of Cuba that passed Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez’s litmus test would have been principled enough to denounce the USSR’s treatment of dissidents, its domination of the Ukrainians and other subject peoples, and its general betrayal of the original goals of the Russian Revolution.

So simultaneously you have Cuba nationalizing American corporations that had a stranglehold on the economy and issuing proclamations calling for the overthrow of the Soviet bureaucracy. Not only would you have Esso and ITT on your case; you’d have Khrushchev so pissed off that smoke would be coming out of his ears.

imageBut none of this would matter because Cuba would prevail on the basis of its socialist principles. All of its enemies would melt away in its path. Workers would produce sugar and tobacco for the world market even if the USA imposed a blockade just as it did for the “Stalinist” Fidel Castro. Embargo? No problem. Just remind the capitalist marketplace that Cuba has a free press. That would assuage them, I’ll bet. The NY Times wouldn’t mind Esso being seized by communists as long as there was freedom of the press. Right.

Leaving such fantasies aside, imperialism would be just as committed to the destruction of a democratic socialist Cuba as it was to a Stalinist Cuba. How do I know? Because the USA was part of the 21-nation invasion of the USSR in 1919 that cost a million deaths and production to be reduced to 20 percent of its pre-Civil War level. In fact, Cuba suffered virtually the same economic losses even though the Bay of Pigs victory reduced the possibility of a major loss of life.

In a review of Salim Lamrani’s “The Economic War Against Cuba” on CounterPunch, Daniel Kovalik writes:

Lamrani concludes that the results of this relentless 50-year blockade have cost Cuba more than $751 billion, and has “affected all sectors of Cuban society and all categories of the population, especially the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, and women.   Over 70 percent of all Cubans have lived in a climate of permanent economic hostility.”

The USA understood that economic suffering would perhaps turn the people against the government just as Ronald Reagan hoped that the contra war would make the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”. Lamrani quotes Lester D. Mallory, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, who wrote on August 6, 1960:

The majority of the Cuban people support Castro.  There is no effective political opposition.  . . .  The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection and hardship.   . . .   every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba . . . a line of action which . . . makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.

But it wasn’t enough for Cuba to have to put up with this. Farber and Gonzalez insist that the government had to publicly differentiate itself from the Kremlin, taking every opportunity to denounce it for its bureaucratic crimes. So not only would Cuba have to suffer 751 billion dollars in economic losses for its democratic revolutionary socialist measures against Esso, ITT et al, it would not be able to rely on the Soviet bloc for assistance. Indeed, we could be guaranteed that Khrushchev would have been just as anxious as JFK to get rid of the troublemakers who we must assume would be providing material aid and advice to like-minded revolutionary movements in Latin America just as Lenin and Trotsky did in the 1920s.

As it happens, the Castro brothers and Che Guevara were never likely to confront the USSR because they, like most of the Latin American left in the 1950s, regarded the Soviets as defenders of socialism. Keep in mind that the USSR enjoyed enormous prestige in the 1950s for having been primarily responsible for defeating the Nazis and for its ability to recover so quickly from its wartime devastation without any outside help. Young men and women would naturally be inclined to look to the USSR for help rather to alienate its top leaders, especially someone like Nikita Khrushchev who had made a speech just three years before Castro took power that stated:

Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed these concepts or tried to prove his [own] viewpoint and the correctness of his [own] position was doomed to removal from the leadership collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent Party leaders and rank-and-file Party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of Communism, fell victim to Stalin’s despotism.

But the Cuban press under an anti-Stalinist editorial board like the ISO’s or New Politics would have not been satisfied with these words. It would have written scathing attacks on Khrushchev for crushing dissent in the USSR and serving the interests of a privileged bureaucracy no matter what he said.

I think by now you get the point. People like Farber and Gonzalez don’t really care about such matters since their role politically is to differentiate themselves from all the evil Stalinists of the 20th and 21st century who have betrayed the principles of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Thank god we have professors like them to stand up for True Socialism. Imagine the fat FBI file that Farber accumulated writing such courageous articles. It is a miracle that Brooklyn College did not try to fire him.

Does it matter that a government that took their advice seriously would be snuffed within a year of its taking power? Obviously not. They don’t really care about the difficulties of wielding power in a world controlled by immensely powerful capitalist states, including one that was only 90 miles from Cuba.

That they and their supporters would take the opportunity of Fidel Castro’s death to raise their litany of complaints about Stalinism while his body was still warm really fills me with disgust. I should probably expect this by now after seeing all the junk written about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution in their press for the past 25 years or so but I still can’t get over it.

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