(This is part of a continuing series on “Does Socialism Have a Future”. My next and concluding post will review Michael Lebowitz’s “Build it Now”)
Revolutionary from above?
For state capitalists or Shachtmanites, the notion of “socialism from below” serves as a kind of litmus test for revolutions. For example, David McNally, a Canadian state capitalist professor, wrote a pamphlet titled “Socialism from Below” in 1984 that condemns Trotskyist support for Cuba:
From this point onwards, the movement Trotsky had created fell victim to the ideology of socialism from above. No longer, for them, was socialism dependent upon the self-emancipation of the working class. Now any collection of guerrillas, technocrats or petty dictators who undertook to turn backward countries into modern empires by nationalising the means of wealth appeared as progressive movements. In China, Cuba, Algeria and dozens of other countries, such movements came to power. In no case were these regimes based on structures of workers’ power and workers’ democracy. Yet, more often than not, the Trotskyist movement greeted these brutally undemocratic state capitalist tyrannies as workers’ states.
In trying to understand the origins of this distinction between “above” and “below”, it is helpful to keep in mind that Lenin viewed the bourgeois revolution as having such opposed outcomes as well. In his 1899 “Development of Capitalism in Russia,” he said that the bourgeois revolution can proceed from above, such as the case of the Junkers in Germany, or from below, like the American Civil War against slavery. (Although it is not necessary to go into this here, it is certainly possible to interpret the post-Civil War period as having the same characteristics as Junkers Germany, namely a continuation of the plantation system under less feudal-like conditions.)
In a very important article on the bourgeois revolution that appeared in Vol 13., Issue 4 of “Historical Materialism” in 2005, British SWP’er Neil Davidson made a very convincing case for the need to detach the category ‘democratic’ from “bourgeois democratic revolutions.” Agreeing with Lenin, he sees the bourgeois revolution as being accomplished either from above or below. Ultimately, we are talking about qualitative changes in the mode of production and nothing else.
In the concluding pages of his article, Davidson takes exception to Isaac Deutscher who saw Stalin as a kind of socialist Junkers imposing socialism from above on Eastern Europe after WWII. Unlike the bourgeois revolution, the socialist revolution can only come from below. As he puts it in reckless disregard of dialectics, “the exploited class under capitalism will achieve the socialist revolution, or it will not be achieved at all.” I guess this illustrates Aristotle’s rule of the excluded middle, although it has been years since I was a philosophy student. Furthermore, state ownership of the economy is not sufficient to determine if a workers state exists. This can only be defined by whether “the working class is in political control of the state.” He adds that “democracy is not merely a desirable feature, but a necessity for socialism.”
Implicit in this analysis is the idea that all political tendencies outside the state capitalist movement are not up to the task of building socialism since they lack the theoretical insights of Tony Cliff and his followers that are a precondition for workers democracy. (It must be added, however, that these insights did not prevent the British SWP from unceremoniously booting the American ISO out of their movement.) Set up as a separate and distinct ideological tendency within Marxism, it sees its goal as creating an alternative to Stalinist state capitalism.
At the time of its founding, the state capitalist movement had a fairly easy job on its hands. With the USSR clearly controlled by a privileged and antidemocratic social layer, Tony Cliff and his followers sought to create untainted socialist leaderships everywhere in the world that could challenge the state capitalists for power. This was a black-and-white, almost Manichean, struggle that was mandated by the clear evidence of Soviet brutality in East Germany, Hungary and elsewhere.
In 1959, things got a bit more complicated.
A guerrilla group overthrew the Batista dictatorship with no help from the Cuban Communists and began to build a kind of socialism that had little in common with the USSR. That, at least, is how most independent-minded radicals saw it. However, if your goal is to maintain a kind of brand loyalty to a particular ideology, it is incumbent upon you to highlight everything that stinks about your competitor. If you are in the car rental business, you have to point out that the competition does not have locations near major airports. If you are in the laxative business, you have to point out that other brands take longer to kick in and you know how bad that can be. If you are in the revolutionary socialism business, it is necessary to point out that your rivals are not really proletarian and are hostile to democracy.
For many years now, Brooklyn College professor Samuel Farber has been providing talking points to the state capitalists for use against the competition. As an ostensible expert (he was born there), he has the kind of authority that others lack.
For example, ISO’er Paul D’Amato finds Farber’s musings on the class nature of the July 26th movement essential to his January–February 2007 International Socialist Review article titled “Cuba: Image and Reality.”
What was the class nature of the revolution? The July 26th Movement’s core around Castro consisted of men from different social classes, mostly from the cities, but even those from the working class had not been active in unions or other working-class organizations before joining Castro. Likewise, peasant guerrilla recruits, “typically had little or no history of previous organized peasant struggles,” notes Sam Farber. “This was very important in allowing Fidel Castro to mould these men into faithful followers of his caudillo leadership. In any case, an inner circle of ‘classless’ men unattached to the organizational life of any of the existing Cuban social classes became Fidel Castro’s political core.”
The footnote attached to this paragraph refers to Farber’s recently published “The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered,” an altogether worthless book that does more damage to the ISO’s reputation than to the Cuban revolutionary movement. I want to take up some of Farber’s major points and then conclude with some thoughts on the question of “socialism from below” and the Cuban revolution.
Chapter two of Farber’s hatchet job is titled “Fidel Castro and the Cuban Populist Tradition.” It is the kind of claptrap one would hear at an American Political Science Association (APSA) convention. After establishing the existence of a populist tradition in Cuba that José Martí supposedly belonged to, Farber then goes through a laborious exercise to prove that Fidel Castro was a populist as well. Apparently, what people think is more important than what they do. Citing a couple of “Marti scholars”, Pedro Gonzalez and Iván E. Schulman, Farber notes that “strong elements of stoicism and romanticism also featured prominently in Martí’s thinking and subsequently became fixtures in the Cuban populist tradition…” Well, so much for historical materialism.
To put it mildly, the term “populist” is next to useless in describing either José Martí or Fidel Castro. In drawing a distinction between the cross-class character of the Cuban liberation movement and the proletarian-oriented Communists, Farber shows that he has little understanding of Leninist politics. This, of course, should not come as any great surprise since he wrote a book that blamed Lenin for Stalin’s rise. Others of us, including the state capitalist comrades, would presumably have more use for Lenin–especially on the national question.
Karl A. Radek: like Farber, had no use for middle-class movements
On May 9, 1916, Lenin noted that Karl Radek had described the Irish rebellion as being a “putsch.” Since, according to Radek, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing…”, there was no need to back something that obviously was just as “romantic” as Marti’s populism. Lenin had no use for this kind of workerist sectarianism. He answered Radek as follows:
To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.
Oddly enough, despite his professions for the need for “socialism from below,” Farber has a weak spot for the Popular Socialist Party in Cuba (the dirty no-good Stalinists) whose working class orientation was in stark contrast to the wishy-washy populists and their amorphous “Cuban people.” A large part of Farber’s infatuation has to do with the high “theoretical level” of the Cuban Communists compared to their populist rivals in the Orthodoxo Party (Castro belonged to its youth wing) and elsewhere, as if being able to explain the Grundrisse could make up for horse-trading with Batista.
In comparison, the guerrillas were a bunch of romantics who went to the hills “for an ideal”, but as the fighter who uttered these words went on to say, he had no idea what the word “ideal” meant. Farber writes that “he had heard the expression and figured it was a good thing.” These are people who would appear to enjoy shooting just for the fun of it, like members of the National Rifle Association in the United States.
Even worse, the July 26th fighters were motivated more by a sense of honor rather than social justice, a quality that linked them to the Sicilian Mafia. Citing a rafter of Cuban “scholars,” Farber asserts that honor has been the “cornerstone of social consciousness” in Cuba for the entire 20th century, a trait they share not only with the Mafia but with southern slave owners and medieval lords as well. So unlike the proletarian and theoretically grounded Cuban Communists, the July 26th movement fought for ideals that it did not understand and had a taste for settling feuds like the American gangsters that Batista welcomed.
So far we have established that Fidel Castro’s movement was populist, gun crazy and consumed with notions of “honor” like the Mafia. If that wasn’t bad enough, we soon discover that it was racist as well. Unlike the Cuban Communists, who went out of their way to recruit Blacks, the populist movement “failed to recognize the special oppression of black Cubans.”
Although Richard Gott is not the hostile propagandist that Samuel Farber is, he does concur that the July 26th movement gave short shrift to Afro-Cubans. In his recently published “Cuba: a New History,” Gott writes:
The Revolution was to create avenues of economic progress for the great mass of the black population, but without a programme of US-style positive discrimination their social and political advance remained slow. By 1979 there were still only 5 black ministers out of 34, 4 (out of 14) black members of the politburo of the Cuban Communist Party, and 16 (out of 146) members of the Party’s central committee. No black generals served in Angola, although most of the troops were black.
Despite this, Gott does give credit to the Cuban government for ending Jim Crow shortly after taking power and for funneling urgently needed resources to the countryside, which had a high representation of Afro-Cubans. Part of the problem, of course, is figuring out what it means to be a Black in Cuba. Some scholars believe that 70 percent of the Cuban population is descended partially from African slaves. In the 1980s, I worked with a programmer named Gabriel whose father was a sergeant in Batista’s army. He had a coffee complexion and told me that his pipe-smoking grandmother who worshipped the Santeria gods was black as coal. Was Gabriel white? Certainly not in the eyes of the average New Yorker.
Chapter four of Farber’s book is titled “The Driving Force of the Cuban Revolution: From Above or From Below?” It begins with a categorical denial that “mass pressures from below played a critical role in determining the course followed by the revolutionary leadership.”
It is essential for Farber to make such an argument since the overall schema is one of a government carrying out structural reforms, often counterproductive ones, over the heads of a population that stood by with its arms folded and that eventually was ordered about like servants. In this scenario, the guerrillas shot their way into power against an army that was decaying from within, like a termite-ridden house, and then took the reins of government to carry out social experiments inspired by the state capitalist USSR.
Louis A. Pérez Jr. on Cuba in 1959:
“Pressure for immediate, deep, sweeping change was building from below“
In his acknowledgements, Farber thanks Louis A. Pérez Jr. for his penetrating and useful criticisms but holds himself “solely responsible” for the views expressed in the book. One wonders if this might have something to do with the 180 degree difference between him and Perez over the question of mass pressure from below. In Perez’s “Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution,” we get quite a different view of the mood and activities of the Cuban people at the time of the revolution:
The rhetoric of revolution awakened the imagination of hundreds of thousands of Cubans, creating a vast constituency for radical change. It raised expectations of revolution, and not since 1933 had Cuban hopes for change reached such levels. Pressure for immediate, deep, sweeping change was building from below and the invocation of revolution encouraged it to rise to the top. Organized labor mobilized to press demands on a wide variety of issues. The Confederation de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) demanded outright a flat 20 percent wage increase for all workers. Strikes increased in number and frequency. Six thousand workers of the Cuban Electric Company staged a slow-down strike to dramatize their demands for a wage increase. Unemployed electrical workers demonstrated at the presidential palace. Unemployed railway workers proclaimed a hunger strike, as did former employees of a Havana paper mill. Construction workers called a wildcat strike at the Moa Bay Mining Company. Restaurant workers threatened to strike. Cane cutters marched. Labor protests disrupted sugar production in twenty-one mills.
A March 9th 1959 Washington Post article was typical. Headlined “Workers Seize Radio in Cuba Labor Dispute,” it reported that it was the second such seizure in two days. Workers had already taken over the privately-owned equipment and studios of television Channel 12 in a similar labor dispute. The final paragraph states: “A Government labor representative said the workers at Cuban Wireless rejected a company offer to turn the management of the enterprise over to them.
Does this sound like a scenario in which the workers stood by passively while a bunch of middle class guerrillas went about the business of converting Cuba into a state capitalist dungeon? Unless you are totally committed to the state capitalist faith, it would seem that the events on the ground had more in common with France in May-June 1968 than with Stalinist Poland or East Germany.
Even Fidel Castro risked being bypassed by events. The October 25, 1959 NY Times reported that the Cuban president was under tremendous pressure from the counter-revolutionary right and from the workers and peasants on the left. The article concluded:
Dr. Castro’s austerity program [dictated by the economic chaos of the just concluded revolutionary war] has no enthusiastic support from the masses of people. At the same time, the workers expect the Government to see that they get the pay raises and other advantages despite the depressed conditions of business and industry, while the landless peasantry expects to be living well.
Like few other leaders that had taken power in Latin America, Central America or the Caribbean for the better part of 50 years, Fidel Castro decided to push the dynamics of the revolution against capitalism and imperialism. If one categorizes him as a populist, there is some difficulty in explaining his trajectory. Against all odds, Samuel Farber gives it a try. Basically, Farber interprets all of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary initiatives as clever ruses to maintain power. In other words, he acceded to popular demands for land reform, workers control of industry, reduction of rents, wage hikes, etc., just to stay in power. In two paragraphs that are a departure from the heavy fog of bourgeois social science that hovers over Farber’s text, we learn that Castro broke with his ostensibly populist past in the early years of the revolution:
The announcement early in the Castro regime that serious cases of misappropriation of funds by public officials might be punished with the death penalty might have sounded harsh to foreign observers, but it was music to the ears of most Cubans, who had despaired of and become cynical about the possibility of public officials ever being honest. Cubans of all classes, particularly the working class and the poor, were pleased by the brand-new revolutionary police force’s lack of abusive behavior. Many of these new police officers were politically aware revolutionaries and had had no time to develop the deformation of character common to members of all professional repressive institutions. Other early measures—for example, the opening of all beaches to the public early in 1959—met with widespread approval among workers and the poor, especially the black population, which had been the principal victim of the private appropriation of public facilities such as beaches and, in some provincial towns, parks. So, without explicitly appealing to specific class-warfare themes early in his regime, Castro obtained and consolidated an overwhelming amount of popular support.
Months later, however, Castro started to take measures that had sharper teeth and shattered the multiclass coalition of the 1956-58 period. Thus, for example, the drastic reduction of rents by as much as 50 percent in March 1959 shook up Cuban society. While this action alienated some sections of the upper and upper-middle classes, it cemented popular support and definitively established that the revolution was dedicated to the material improvement of the working class and the poor. The May 1959 agrarian reform law eliminated whatever doubt might have remained on this score. By this time, the revolutionary regime was clearly enjoying huge popular support materially based on the substantial redistribution of income that took place during its first year in power.
Farber adds that this kind of behavior “expressed a combative and aggressive attitude toward imperialist capitalism rather than a defensive and measured response to U.S. acts against Cuba.” Quite so, and also quite distinct from the behavior of any Communist Party since the early 1920s. The normal reaction for a radical would be to solidarize with such rebels rather than to condemn them as acting “from above.” That, I am afraid, would take a willingness to admit one’s errors that is simply beyond the capability of a self-declared vanguard.
To return to the question of “below” or “above”, let us accept the verdict that the Cuban government acted from above. If this is so, then perhaps it is time to reevaluate the usefulness of Davidson’s distinction. If the Cuban government, acting from above, could carry out the following according to Farber:
1. Eliminate corruption.
2. Eliminate police brutality.
3. Democratize the beaches and other public spaces.
4. Seize the land of the wealthy and turn it over to the landless
5. Stand up to U.S. imperialism.
Then, perhaps we should view it just as much of an advance over bourgeois property relations as bourgeois property relations were over serfdom. It is one thing to maintain one’s political distance from the Kremlin after Stalin’s rise; it is another to assert that there was no qualitative difference between Cuba and Haiti after 1960.
Unfortunately, the comrades have painted themselves into a corner. They have built an ideological edifice that is much more like a house of cards. Pull out one card and the whole thing comes tumbling down.