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John Passant

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January 2009



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

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Cuba: Stalinism isn’t socialism

One of Marx’s unique and profound contributions to socialism is his idea that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.  This is the very reason Cuba isn’t socialist.

In 1956 Castro arrived in Cuba with 82 middle class nationalists to overthrow the US backed Batista dictatorship.  After being attacked and dispersed they re-grouped in the remote Sierra Maestra Mountains and began the long battle to kick out Batista.

At this stage Castro’s stated aim was to implement the 1940 Constitution, which included among other things a commitment to free markets.

Batista had very little support.  By 1959 Castro’s guerrilla army – all 800 of them – was strong enough to force the dictator to flee. 800 middle class nationalists do not a socialist revolution make.

Castro took power, but the working class as working class played no role whatsoever in the overthrow of Batista.  In fact they ignored Fidel’s call for a general strike in 1958.  As Marx said in the Communist Manifesto: “The proletariat is the really revolutionary class.”  Not guerrillas, not middle class intellectuals, not peasants.  Workers.

And the Communist Party?  (Fidel was not a member in 1959 and did not talk in terms of communism or socialism at this stage.)  They had collaborated with Batista during his rule.

1959 in Cuba was at best a nationalist revolution from above.   One minority replaced another.

Compare this to the fleeting glimpse of workers’ power in the Paris Commune or, for a few years, in the Russian revolution.  In Russia workers set up their own democratic organs of power – called workers’ councils or Soviets in Russian.  These were the most democratic institutions the world has seen – direct representation from the workplace, the right of instant recall by workers of representatives who voted against their wishes, Soviet members with their pay limited to the average wage, and the workers’ councils making decisions about what to produce to satisfy human need.  And every day the representatives would go back to the factories to debate and discuss issues with workers and receive instructions from them about forthcoming sessions and how to vote.

The war, foreign invasion, the destruction of industry, the de-classing of the working class and the failure of the revolution to spread to Germany (although it was close run) and thus provide material support to help re-build the Russian economy, saw the Russian revolution isolated.

The workers’ councils, without a working class to run them, became shells, and Stalin, the gravedigger of the revolution, rose to power.  He began to establish state capitalism in Russia. This is where the state becomes the embodiment of capital and expropriates all the surplus value its workers create.  Its historical role is to pull peasant countries up by the bootlaces to become fully fledged capitalist countries.

The first Russian five year plan in 1930, by halving wages, driving peasants off the land and into the cities and moving to build large scale industry in competition with the West, is an indication that by then this process of building state capitalism had begun.

Fast forward to Cuba.  The United States was hostile to Castro’s regime since he wasn’t compliant, as Batista had been, to American interests.

So Castro moved closer to Russia and in 1961 declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and the revolution, retrospectively, socialist. He adopted the Stalinist model – five year plans, repression and the establishment of a one party “Communist” state.  The major player in the Cuban revolution only discovered it was socialist 2 years after the event.  This is sophistry of the highest order.  How can this be the self-conscious activity of the working class if Fidel himself did not know it was a socialist revolution at the time?

It is Stalinist state capitalism. ( It was Tony Cliff in his book, State Capitalism in Russia, who developed the theory of state capitalism, using Marx’s thought and analysis as his benchmark and guide.)

There are no democratic organs of working class rule.  The local defence committees are agencies of the state, not workers.

This Stalinist regime imprisons dissenters, and homosexuals. Castro locked up gays in concentration camps to supposedly stop the spread of Aids.  These are hardly the hallmarks of a democratic socialist regime.

In 1963 US imperialism began its blockade of Cuba.  This has frozen the state capitalist project.  With a lack of resources the island has been trapped in a time warp.  The US must lift its criminal blockade.  It is possible that under Obama this will happen, over time.  Such action will then expose the fault lines in Cuban state capitalism, rather than allow the Castros the usual excuse that all their problems stem from US imperialism and its blockade.

All the blockade did was drive Castro further into the arms of the Russians.  Their Stalinist structures became Cuba’s. The edicts of Fidel became the  word for workers to follow. This top down dictatorial approach, with the great leader telling workers and peasants what is good for them and what they must do, is the antithesis of socialism.

Where are the workers’ councils, teeming with debate and discussion, and the differing workers’ parties fighting for working class support over issues, strategies and directions?

As I mentioned before, the blockade provides the Cuban elite with a convenient scapegoat for the failures of state capitalism. It unifies many Cubans behind the regime.   Having said that, it appears that large numbers of young Cubans hate the Government.

It is true Castro has improved the health and education of the Cuban people markedly.  There is nothing peculiarly socialist about that.  Most capitalist countries realise that a fit and educated workforce is essential for the effective exploitation of  their workers.

Many on the Left around the world have illusions in Castro and the Stalinist regime in Cuba.   (Just as they do in Venezuela.)

This is because Stalinism all but destroyed the real Marxist tradition of socialism from below and as a consequence many leftists are unfamiliar with the essence of Marx’s thought and the real democratic nature of socialism, for example of the Russian Revolution before Stalinism destroyed it.  They see the world through neo-Stalinist glasses.

The desire to see actually existing socialism is strong, and it provides a sense of satisfaction that somewhere “socialism” exists and we can aspire to that sort of society too.

None of this is revolutionary.  Stalinism is a false idol and diverts the Left from the real tasks at hand.  In Australia that includes clarifying our ideas about what socialism is and building the small revolutionary socialist groups that exist into a mass party of the working class in the long run.  The long term goal must be the working class setting up workers’ councils and the vast majority of Australians transferring power to their own organs of state and running society themselves in the interests of satisfying human need.

That will be the future for Cuba too. Workers and peasants will challenge the rule of the dictatorial Stalinists and set up their own democratic organs of rule. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but the social forces currently exist in Cuba  for a real workers’ revolution from below.



Comment from Jason
Time January 5, 2009 at 8:13 pm

I vey much enjoy your blog, but re:

“Compare this to the fleeting glimpse of workers’ power in the Paris Commune or, for a few years, in the Russian revolution, ”

I was wondering how the Checka, Kronstadt and Lenin’s “string up 100 Kulaks” directive fit into your conception of worker’s demcracy?

Comment from John
Time January 5, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Thanks Jason.

When the Bolsheviks first came to power and then the Civil War broke out, at first they would release White fighters if they promised not to fight any more. They soon learned this was an error.

The Red Terror was a response to the White Terror, where the other side in the Civil War used terror unremittingly against the Bolsheviks.

Marx had imagined the revolution in an advanced Western country where workers were a majority.

That was not the case in Russia. Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution I think explains well how the revolution against the Tsar would become or spill over into a socialist revolution. The working class, although only 4 million strong, would lead the revolution against the Tsar and the peasantry would follow. That happened (in the sense that their interests coalesced at the time of the Russian revolution.) But the alliance was an uneasy one, and this difference of class interests and the fact the working class were a minority, was one of the reasons for its failure (especially since the revolutions in Germany (1918 to 1923) failed).

With the foreign intervention of 14 armies (including Australia)and the Civil War, the best political workers fought against the forces of reaction and others went back to the countryside for food. To talk of a working class became meaningless as production was by 1919 13% of 1913 levels.

There was no working class to speak of.

Trotsky wrote that if the Bolsheviks had surrendered or been defeated during the Civil War, fascism would have had a Russian name, and I think that is right.

But as you might gather, I see the rise of the Cheka as a response to the de-classing of the revolution and the Whites conducting a campaign of terror against the reds as part of the Civil war.

Trotsky led the assault on Kronstadt. He argues that the forces in Kronstadt in 1921 were peasant elements, unlike 1917, and they posed a threat to the very continued existence of the revolution. I feel uneasy about that, and also the establishment of the Cheka.

it was Marx who recognised this dilemma of history when he wrote words to the effect that people make history, but not of their own choosing.

Don’t remember the string up a hundred kulaks issue. I’ll have a read.

To summarise – the working class is fragmenting, the Civil war is destroying democracy too, the Bolsheviks are beginning to cling to ideas, they are beginning to substitute themselves for the class, the Whites unleash their terror, the revolutions in germany fail. What would you do?

Their strategy was to hang on for the revolutions in the more advanced West to pride them with much needed machinery etc. Those weren’t successful and the end result was Stalin, who destroyed completely the democratic aspirations of the revolution.

Comment from Jason
Time January 5, 2009 at 10:42 pm


Your knowledge of the Russian revolution is obviously more extensive than mine, but I suppose I would not hold up either Cuba or Leninist Russia as ideal revolutionary models, though I think there are positives that can be learnt from each.

Lenins telegram re the Kulaks is on wikipedia:
“Comrades! The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed ithout pity. The interests of the whole revolution demand such actions, for the final struggle vith the kulaks has now begun. You must make an example of these people. (1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. (2) Publish their names. (3) Seize all their grain. (4) Single out the hostages per my instructions in yesterday’s telegram. Do all this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks and that we will continue to do so. Reply saying you have received and carried out these instructions. Yours, Lenin.

P.S. Find tougher people”

Comment from John
Time January 6, 2009 at 10:59 am

Thanks Jason. You and I will disagree about the first years of the Russian revolution.

Civil was are bloody affairs. The Americans lost more men (per capita?) in their Civil war than in any that followed. General Sherman for example was not exactly a gentleman.

But in an advanced Western country if revolution were to occur workers would set up their own state power (workers councils) and run society democratically, and it would be truly the vast majority running society in their interests, rather than as happened in Russia with workers as a small minority.

I still think the Bolsheviks were right to lead the revolution and for workers to transfer power to the Soviets, but the conditions were and became incredibly difficult, with the revolution eventually being defeated with the rise of Stalin.

Comment from John
Time January 14, 2009 at 7:48 pm


Sandra Bloodworth from Socialist Alternative released a book last year on Russia 1917: When workers took power. It’s on teh SA website – somewhere.

Not sure if that is the exact title, but you’ll find it informative of our view of the revolution and its subsequent defeat with the rise of Stalinism.

Comment from Juan R
Time January 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Dear john
Please accept my belated comments about your article “Cuba: Stalinism isn’t socialism”. Whilst I agree with the main thrust of your story, I am concerned about the evolving semantics of critical terms you use in describing the events, aspects and protagonists of the Russian and Cuban “revolutions”. In particular I refer to the terms “working class”, “workers”, “proletariat” and “peasants” as you paraphrase Marx’s edicts.
Take, for example, your opening paragraph: “One of Marx’s unique and profound contributions to socialism is his idea that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. This is the very reason Cuba isn’t socialist.” And then further down, in the fifth paragraph: “The proletariat is the really revolutionary class.” To which you add: “Not guerrillas, not middle class intellectuals, not peasants. Workers.”
The question immediately arises: what is a worker, or a peasant, or the proletariat? Many will just say: check your dictionnary or thesaurus. The point I am trying to make is that those, and similar terms, as used by Marx 160 years ago cannot be interpreted in the same way in the age of internet. Does a highly paid public service lawyer meet the definition of worker? Is a small-time farmer a peasant? Does the working class include all those self employed and small busines people who constitute the majority of the workforce in most developed economies today? How deep and wide does the proletariat extends in today’s capitalist society? Would it actually be possible to identify this class?
Both, the Russian and Cuban, revolutions were led by middle class lawyers, doctors, teachers, all sort of intellectuals and such like. Both revolutions “failed” (my italics) as much due to internal conflicts as to external threats and obstruction. I don’t believe the fact that Lenin and Fidel were lawyers is a paramount fact on the decline of the revolutionary fevor of those countries.
If, as Marx maintained, the transition from a capitalist society to a socialist, and eventually communist, society is inevitable, must we wait for the proletariat to revolt or should potential leaders, from any strata of society, but with their heart in the right place, have a go and hope that his/her good intentions are understood and supported by the vast majority of the peopke? I believe that both the Russian and Cuban revolutions were a step forward in the fight against capitalism and all its militaristic evils.
These revolutions may not have lived up to our (middle class lefties) expectations but I can assure you that both the Russia and Cuban people are today far better off under their respective failed revolutions than if they have continued under the yoke of feudo/capitalist imperialism. I will not parade the statistics to support my views because I am sure that you know them better than I do.
Our job is for each one of us, as individuals and collectively, to build on what those before us have tried to achieve. Not to be continually splitting hairs over obsolete recipes for the perfect revolution.
Yours in solidarity, Juan

Comment from John
Time January 19, 2009 at 8:47 am


Thanks. A good post.

You say: “The point I am trying to make is that those, and similar terms, as used by Marx 160 years ago cannot be interpreted in the same way in the age of internet.”

I think this is not correct. The proletariat or working class has changed in terms of its composition from, in Marx’s time in England, nannies (the most numerous class of workers then) and blue collar workers to a mix of white collar and blue collar workers.

That doesn’t detract from the fact that society is divided in developed countries between two classes – the bosses, who own the means of production (factories, mines, offices etc) and workers – those who survive by selling their labour power to the boss. The internet doesn’t change this fundamental division.

Then you ask: “Does a highly paid public service lawyer meet the definition of worker? ” (For those not in the know this could well be a reference to me before I retired from the public service).

There are nuances on the division between bosses and workers. There is a middle management level which polices the working class. I was part of that management group. Because of my role (although I tried my best to ameliorate the impact of this “management”) I was not a worker. I was an agent of the boss, and a boss myself.

It is true the Russian revolution was led by a political party whose leadership was petit bourgeois but was steeled over time for the struggles of 1917 and beyond. However in 1917 the Bolsheviks became a mass party of the working class and reflected that base. As Trotsky put it: The class was the steam, the party the engine.”

None of these factors existed in the Cuban revolution. The Cuban revolution was not driven by the working class. It is a Stalinist version of reformism – the idea that liberation can be imposed from above, a top down approach.

The difference is vital. Otherwise you have to accept that socialism can flow from coups, the barrel of a gun or rather the guns of the Red Army after the second world war in Eastern Europe. This mirrors George W Bush’s approach to “liberating” Iraq.

That cannot be right. The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class. That was the case initially in Russia in 1917. It was not the case in Cuba in 1959.

The urge for unity is an important one. But where the vision of socialism is completely different – a difference between revolution from above and revolution from below, there can be no unity. These seemingly hairsplitting debates are precursors to debates that will occur when the working class enters onto the stage of history. It is the working class who will decide which is correct, not you or me.

I have to go to aquarobics now, but will get back to discuss this further.

Thanks again for the post Juan.

Comment from Tim Anderson
Time June 7, 2009 at 10:00 am

John, a silly, ideological article – but consistent with that narrow thread in western marxism that only conceives of resistance through an industrial proletariat – that seems to be one reason why why many trotskyists and ‘leninists’ don’t understand Latin America

Comment from John
Time June 7, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Thanks Tim. Ideological I accept, but silly? Why and how so?

I think Trotsky and Lenin understood full well the nature of resistance outside the proletariat (industrial or otherwise). The Soviet Government was based on soviets of workers, peasants and the military. Indeed the peasantry’s class interests were one of the contributors to the defeat of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin.

I take the point about seeing the world through ideological eyes, but I would contend we all do that, and that maybe the current left project in Latin America is nothing other than top down reformism. Chile on 11 September 1973 seems to hold some relevant general lessons here.

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