Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 13, 2019

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and defending the Cuban, Algerian and Vietnamese Revolutions Against Imperialism

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:40 pm

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and defending the Cuban, Algerian and Vietnamese Revolutions Against Imperialism

 by Ernest Tate, May 6th-8th, 2019

(Remarks prepared for the Havana Conference, May 6th-8th, on the occasion of the centennial of the founding of the Third International, on the topic of “Leon Trotsky and Trotskyism”.)

Any discussion that has Trotsky’s ideas as a subject, and which at the same time commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Third International, must of necessity, I believe, deal with his Theory of Permanent Revolution, what is now regarded by many scholars as his extraordinary and unique contribution to Marxist political economy, one of the most important since Marx.  I wish to discuss here how he arrived at this concept, the political and economic context in Russia at the time he was working it out in 1905 (1) and how it was fundamentally based upon his insights into what role the peasantry would play in a revolutionary upheaval against Czarism. This will not be a fully comprehensive treatment of Trotsky’s, but I think it provides an insight into how the colonial revolution has unfolded since 1917 and how in the future the countries of the colonial world will realize their self-determination and throw of the yoke of imperialism.  These ideas provided much of the theoretical framework for Trotsky’s thinking when he was struggling to found the Fourth International and when he wrote its programme for its first congress in 1938. (2) It is a concept that has distinguished Trotskyism from all other left political tendencies and it helps us understand why most Trotskyist groups – especially in the advanced capitalist countries – have been at the forefront of organizing solidarity with the counties of the third world in their struggle for self-determination and resistance to imperialism.

As is now well known, early Marxists, from the time of Marx and Engels, adhered to the idea that socialism would first develop in the advanced capitalist countries where feudalism had been overthrown by bourgeois revolutions that required struggles often lasting hundreds of years, and where now as a result, a dominant proportion of their economies were comprised of manufacturing and heavy industry with a large working-class of sufficient size and political maturity, it now could contest the capitalist ruling-class and overthrow it to seize state power.  As Trotsky observed, “industrialization is the driving force of the whole of modern culture, and by this token, is the only conceivable basis for socialism.”(3)

Marx’s conclusion, as he stated in his Communist Manifesto, was that the workers make up a universal class, integral to capitalist development, and that its historic destiny was to liberate itself, and thus all of mankind, from oppression and in the process emancipate all of humanity to build a new society that would be based on satisfying human need, rather than human greed, through revolution and the seizure of state power under a programme of expanded democratic rights, which would allow a new kind of state, a workers’ state to come into existence, to overcome scarcity and hunger and the immediate implementation of the eight-hour day. It would be a European revolution, an uninterrupted single process, it was believed, a common illusion on the part of many socialists at that time. In its broad outline, Trotsky’s theory begins with Marx and Engels’ fundamental premise, with which all wings of Russian Social Democracy in the early twentieth century were in agreement: that the working class, although a minority in feudal Russia, was part of a universal class with a specific historic role, that of its own liberation and the building of a new socialist order.

From 1904 and after, the Russian Social Democratic Party had been divided into two main ideological tendencies on the question of the character of the coming revolution.  The Mensheviks believed it would be bourgeois and that this class would overthrow the feudal aristocracy that would create the conditions for a parliamentary democracy that would allow for the emergence and growth of a mature capitalist economy, similar to what existed in the advanced capitalist countries. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, while recognizing the bourgeois character of a future revolution, advocated that the central task of such a revolution would be the setting up of democratic republic by means of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Trotsky, who as a young man, first entered politics as a member of the Narodniki, a semi-anarchist organization which had attempted to represent the interests of the peasantry against the Czar, had been associated with the Menshevik faction, but in reality, organizationally stood between these groupings, looking for ways to get them to cooperate with each other in common endeavours.

Where Trotsky’s thinking departed from that of both these tendencies, was in in his conclusion that Russian feudalism in reality was already ripe for socialist revolution, precisely because of its late development and inherent weaknesses, exacerbated by the penetration of the economy by foreign capital.  Capitalism in Russia, he believed, unlike that of the developed capitalist countries, would no longer able to fulfill its historic mission of introducing democratic reforms such as constitutional changes, the right to vote and a constituent assembly, the raising of wages, the introduction of the eight-hour day and a higher standard of living.  Once begun, he believed the Russian revolution would be an organic historic process of necessity and would have to move forward under the leadership of the working class, and not stop half way. In that sense, it would be uninterrupted, and if that was likely to happen in Russia because it was so backward, Trotsky concluded, the same would be true for all third world countries because their economies had developed under the similar heavy influence of western imperialism, what we call today, the American empire.

Trotsky first postulated how this would come about in his major writing from that time, “Results and Prospects, the Moving Forces of the Revolution”, when he was only twenty-six years of age.  In it, according to his biographer, Isaac Deutscher, he gave “an almost mathematically succinct formulation of his theory.”(4), written in his prison cell during his incarceration after the Tsar’s crushing of the Council of Workers’ Deputies in 1905, otherwise known as the Petrograd Soviet, (5) and for which he had become its main spokes-man and leading spirit  He was President of its Executive Council.  The 1905 Soviet would later be seen to have been dress-rehearsal for mighty victory in 1917.

Taking advantage of his time in jail to fully concentrate on the matter, Trotsky devoted his time to reading and writing and thinking through his ideas about Russian history and its unique features, a prodigious effort to deepen his understanding of what would be the role of medieval Russia’s various classes in any future upheaval, a discussion  he had been involved in with other Marxists long before he had ended up in a Czarist prison. Quoting Marx, and adding a touch of sarcasm, he reminded them that “Marxism is above all a method of analysis—not an analysis of texts but an analysis of social relations.” (6)

The role of the peasantry in a future Russian revolution had long been  debated among Russian Social Democrats (which unlike today, considered themselves to be revolutionary), with the Mensheviks advocating some kind of joint coalition of the working class and the peasantry to take control of the state, they said, but only in preparation for eventually relinquishing that power to the rising bourgeoise to allow capitalism to fully expand, therefore increasing the productive capacity of the economy.  Earlier that year, in the summer, in a foreword to one of Ferdinand Lasalle’s speeches, Trotsky had already dismissed that notion, with words specifically directed at that Menshevik outlook. “It is self-evident,” he wrote, “that the proletariat, as in its time the bourgeoisie, fulfils its mission supported by the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoise.  The proletariat leads the countryside, draws it into the movement, gives it an interest in the success of its plans.  The proletariat, however, unavoidably remains the leader.  This is not ‘the dictatorship of the peasantry and proletariat’ but the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry,” he wrote. (His emphasis) (7)

In prison, he took the time to examine the Czarist empire’s history and its singular system of social relations, writing that Russia, a vast land stretching from Europe to the China, with extremely severe winters that covered much of its territory, had entered the twentieth century with a middle class strikingly feeble. Capitalism had “intruded from the West with the direct co-operation of absolutism”, he wrote.(8) With a small urban population, only 13% of the total and modern towns that were the centres of commercial and industrial life, but with older towns hardly playing any economic role in the society, being mainly military and administrative centres for the state’s services, such as tax collecting.

Compared to England and France in previous centuries, Trotsky noted, where prior to their bourgeois revolutions, large parts of their populations had been engaged in urban crafts that had helped provide social support for a rising bourgeoisie in its battles with serfdom, in Czarist Russia, only a relatively small part of the population was involved in such activities and capitalism there had “appeared as a child of the state”.  Its few factories, had mainly been fostered by foreign investment but were more concentrated and much larger than those in Western Europe, and, moreover, were owned by largely impersonal shareholding companies. Because of that — and especially when the feebleness of the Russian bourgeois was taken into consideration — he saw the need for an alliance between the Russian proletariat and the peasantry, that would lead to the establishment of “a dictatorship of the proletariat that would rely on the peasantry” but which could come to power earlier than in countries where capitalism had already been established.(9)

For fifty years, Trotsky wrote, Russia had been a laboratory for the creation of every kind of peasant party, but all of them had gone nowhere. In this he differed sharply with the Mensheviks and to a lesser extent with Lenin, who in his slogans, had left that question open.  Trotsky conceded that in every-day normal life, a peasant party could possibly have some kind of existence, but such a political formation, because of the Russian peasantry’s many links to its feudal masters, and the sharp social division in the countryside between rich and poor peasants, would always, when confronted with the chaos of a revolutionary crisis, cast its lot in with ruling feudal regime, against the working class, making the idea of “a proletarian and peasant dictatorship”, unrealizable. In those circumstance, he wrote, the petit-bourgeois peasant parties would become tools of the bourgeoise against the working class.  Historical experience shows, he wrote, that the Russian peasantry as a class, because of its amorphousness and scattered location throughout the country, is incapable of playing an independent political role in the struggle for power at the level of the state. (10)

Written during the short life of the Petrograd Soviet, where he had remained aloof from the Bolshevik faction, Trotsky had begun to draw close to them in the sharp debates with the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, to the extent that the Bolshevik Central Committee reciprocated by throwing its support behind him.  And after the crushing of the Soviet, while he was awaiting trial in the Peter-Paul fortress, Deutsher reports that according to a fellow inmate, who was a friend of Trotsky in the prison, his “words were full of warm sympathy for the Bolsheviks, to whom he was spiritually akin, and hardly suppressed antipathy for the Mensheviks, with whom he was associated.” (11)  But on the question of the role of the peasantry and whether it could ever form a political party that was capable of taking take power in a future upheaval, there remained important differences. Lenin argued for a position that called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” and saw the future revolution in Russia as being bourgeois democratic in character, a view that Trotsky did not share.

Nevertheless, Deutscher tells us, Lenin continued in his efforts to win Trotsky over to the Bolsheviks and two years later, 1907, at a special Russian Social Democratic conference in London, England, organized in that city to avoid the Czarist repression in Russia, “Lenin twice emphatically acknowledged that in advocating an alliance of workers and peasants, Trotsky was on common ground with the Bolsheviks.” (12) But by the end of the conference, which lasted three weeks, that rapprochement came to an end because of bickering over other issues and it was life itself that would decide the issue, with the victory in1917, generally confirming the correctness of the position Trotsky had long advocated.

But after the death of Lenin in 1924 and with the increasing domination of the conservative bureaucracy over the new workers’ state, the issue of the Theory of Permanent Revolution became front and centre in Stalin’s drive to undermine support for Trotsky’s ideas.  Using his control of the state’s apparatus to target his political enemy, Stalin, launched an extensive propaganda campaign against the Theory of Permanent Revolution, which, according to the Stalinists, was the original sin of Trotskyism, counterposing to it a system of ideas that expressed the needs of a conservative Soviet bureaucracy, formalized in concept of socialism in one country, ideas that Trotsky vigorously denounced.  “To aim to build a nationally isolated socialist society,” he argued, “means, in spite of all passing success, to pull the productive forces backward even as compared with capitalism.” (13)  As we all now know, that campaign would reach a peak in 1936-38 with the slaughter and imprisonment of all Trotskyists in the USSR and culminated with Trotsky’s targeted murder in Mexico in 1940 at the hands of a Stalin’s assassin.

It is clear that in the run-up to the 1917 October Revolution, Trotsky had seen the future better than any of his contemporaries, and as a consequence in the immediate years following that colossal historic event, the issue of what role the peasantry would play in pre-capitalist economy was no longer debated much.  One result of his analysis, was to heighten the understanding among Marxists for the need for international solidarity by the working class of the advanced capitalist countries with the struggles for liberation of the countries of the colonial and semi-colonial world.

Marxists since Marx, had always understood the pressing need for solidarity with the oppressed of the world, a conviction that the workers of the various countries have more in common with each other than their immediate bosses and that workers’ organizations, especially revolutionary ones, should devote some of their resources to building international revolutionary organizations to carry out that task. And as the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, had declared, “In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put to an end, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put to an end.  In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.” (14)  In 1864, Marx and Fredrick Engels took the lead in founding the International Working Men’s Association, the First International.  It had a short life that lasted until 1876.  Because of its support for the Paris Commune of 1871, it became the object for the hate of the of the ruling classes, contributing to its isolation.  In addition, because of internal sectarian divisions and the destructive influence of the anarchists around Mikhail Bakunin, who had set up a secret organization within it to try and capture power, effectively it was dissolved.  Bakunin was expelled and the First International came to an end when, under Marx’s guidance, its General Council was moved to New York. (15)

The Second International was much larger than the First and this time based upon the mass working class parties, mainly in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe. It was founded in 1889 during the Centenary Celebrations for the French Revolution, but it ended in a terrible disaster, however, for the European working class when with the rise of social patriotism and jingoism that accompanied the outbreak of the 1914 First World War, its constituent parties, abandoning their principles and any pretence of internationalism, threw their support behind their respective ruling classes, going as far as voting in their legislatures for war credits in pursuit of the war.

This betrayal was opposed by the left-wing of the Second International and it organized itself to fight it.  Meeting in secret in Zimmerwald, a small village outside Berne in Switzerland on September 5th, 1915, with Lenin and Trotsky among them, forty-two delegates, representing eleven countries, proclaimed the need for a new International, with Lenin urging the working classes of the belligerent and neutral nations to “turn the imperialist war into civil war.”  Trotsky, who was elected to the new grouping’s International Committee, wrote its statement of principles, and the now well-known, Zimmerwald Manifesto. (16))  By the first week of March, 1919, barely eighteen months since the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, Lenin organized a meeting of approximately twenty delegates from a few comparatively weak socialist organizations, to proclaim the founding of the Third International –or to make preliminary arrangements for it — in effect constituting itself as the new Communist International, or Comintern as it came to be known. Trotsky, who at the time was commanding the Red Army in fighting the foreign armies of intervention, made a brief appearance, giving a short speech. He wrote its manifesto to introduce it to the world, calling for the freeing of the colonial nations.  “Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia!” the manifesto proclaimed, “the hour of proletarian dictatorship in Europe will strike for you at the hour of your own emancipation.”  The following year he wrote the manifesto for its second congress, including the twenty-one points establishing the criteria for membership, and was active in its work over the next three Congresses, until in Stalin’s hands, with Trotsky and the Left Opposition expelled, it became mainly an instrument in the foreign policy of the Soviet state. Despite this dreadful turn of events, Trotsky and the Left Opposition nevertheless, still saw themselves as a loyal opposition inside the Comintern, working for its reform, and characterizing its component parties, despite their many flaws and wrong policies, as still representing the militant vanguard of the working classes world wide. (17)

All that changed, however, with the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the victory of German fascism in 1933, an historic calamity for the German working class and humanity as a whole, Trotsky wrote, and a tragic consequence of the failure of the Communist Party to combat it due to the Comintern’s ultra-left policies.  Up until then the loyal oppositionist had been firm in resisting calls from within his own ranks for the creation of a new International. But by October of that year, giving up all hope of reforming the Comintern, he proclaimed the need for the founding of a new International that would continue with the revolutionary policies of the first four congresses  of the Comintern, policies that were deeply imbued with his Theory of Permanent Revolution, adopted when he and Lenin and the new revolutionary Soviet government had had a major influence upon it.

The Fourth International’s (F.I.) first congress took place in October, 1938.  Like the first four congresses of the Comintern, its programme also was written in the spirit of the Theory of Permanent Revolution.  Trotsky’s, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Working Class”, otherwise known, especially in Trotskyist circles, as “The Transitional Programme”, states: “But not all countries of the world are imperialist countries.  On the contrary, the majority are victims of imperialism.  Some of the colonial or semi-colonial countries will undoubtedly attempt to cast off the yoke of slavery. Their war will not be imperialist, but liberating.  It will be the duty of the international proletariat to aid the oppressed countries in war against oppressors.”  (18) This helps us understand why the Fourth International during the course of its existence, would concentrate so much of its forces in defending the colonial revolution against imperialism, which reached a new intensity after the Second World War with the rise in those years of the colonies against the yoke of imperialism.

In the 1950s, for example it put considerable effort into supporting Algeria’s fight for freedom from France.  French colonialism, in a savage war to try and smash the independence struggle, declared its North African colony was “a department” of France, just like any other of the departments that make up that country, a position with which, it should be noted, the French Communist Party was in agreement.  But after a long war in which tens of thousands of Algerians were massacred at the hands of the French military, France conceded defeat to the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.) in 1962.  All Trotskyist groupings backed the N.L.F.  And some suffered repression because of it.  Two leading members of the International Secretariat, Michel Pablo and Sal Santen, for example, were given fifteen-month prison sentences in Holland for counterfeiting and running guns to the N.L.F.  Pablo later became advisor on the staff of the new government of Ahmed Ben Bella, a self-proclaimed Marxist and revolutionary.

Canadian Trotskyists were also active in that campaign.  For example, two leading Canadian Trotskyists, Ross Dowson and Art Young travelled to Algeria on a fact-finding-mission and to attend an international solidarity conference in support of the new socialist regime.  When they returned to Canada, they toured the country and spoke to several well-attended Algeria solidarity meetings on university campuses to provide information about what was going on in Algeria and the need for the Canadian labour movement to actively support the Ben Bella government.  But by June 1965, this all came to an end when the Algerian military, under the leadership of General Houari Boumediene, staged a coup d’etat against Ben Bella, shifting the country sharply to the right.  The coup also confronted the Cuban government with a crisis because when Ben Bella had issued his appealed for international support, the government of revolutionary Cuba had been one of the first to respond, sending material aid and military equipment and mobilizing many of its citizens to travel to that poor North African nation to provide assistance in the fields of health-care and agriculture.  Cuba was forced to immediately divert its passenger planes to Algeria to bring its people home, at a time when American imperialism was increasing its efforts to over-throw Fidel Castro and putting enormous pressure on the Cuban economy to realize that aim.

However, it was the Cuban Revolution that had the greatest impact on North American Trotskyists in the early sixties and it provides an admirable example of how the F.I. was front and centre in mobilizing support for it.  In the United States, the lead in this campaign was taken up by the Socialist Workers Party (S.W.P.).  Two of its central leaders, Farrell Dobbs and Joe Hansen, had toured Cuba shortly after the victory  in 1959, in order to obtain a first-hand assessment of the progress the Cuban people were making under the new government.   That they were able to travel to Cuba at that time was a bit of a miracle because their passports had been taken away from them during the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt period and had only been returned after a long legal battle. The trip to Cuba was one of the first on their new legal documents.  Dobbs, who had been the leader of the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Union in its militant strikes in the 1930s, was the Party’s Secretary; Hansen was its main political theorist and editor of its journal, International Socialist Review.  He was the Party’s main intermediary with the Fourth International’s centre in Brussels. (Because of U.S. law, the S.W.P. was officially barred from membership in the F.I.)  During Trotsky’s exile in Coyoacan, Mexico, Hansen had been assigned by the SWP to live there and assist him in his work.  Part of a ten-member team, he was there when Trotsky was assassinated in 1940.

After the two S.W.P. leaders returned from Cuba and reported what they had experienced, the party immediately began preparing the membership for a campaign with the objective of making defending Cuba against the American empire its central political priority. To that end both Dobbs and Hansen toured the U.S. and Canada to report to Party branches and activists on the changes they had witnessed directly and up close. Happily, his came at a time when support among the American people for Cuba was growing.  A full-page advertisement soon appeared in the New York Times, signed by many prominent writers, intellectuals and personalities, defending Cuba’s right to self-determination and demanding that the American government cease interfering in Cuban affairs  After the ad’s appearance, a new defense organization in support of Cuba’s right to self-determination, came into existence, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (F.P.C.C.), organized by some of those whose names had been featured in the advertisement.

One of the Committee’s main functions was to try and cut across the malevolent distortions about Cuba that were regularly appearing in a hostile U.S. media, and tell the truth to the American people about what was going on there.  Members of the American Communist Party and the S.W.P., historically opposed to each other, were the main organized radical forces within it. Soon it was sponsoring tours of Cuba, sometimes lasting several weeks, made up of writers, prominent intellectuals and artists, to witness the gains of the Revolution so that the participants could report to the public the truth of what they had seen.  It organized many public meetings and picket-lines in support of Cuba – several thousand outside the United Nations, for example and at a time when Cuban leaders such as Fidel and Che Guevara were there.  It also published many pamphlets and brochures to provide information to the American public about the progress Cuba was making in such areas and health and education.  These circulated widely, an attempt to tell the American people the truth about the Revolution’s many successes.

The American F.P.C.C., it has to be mentioned, while doing very good work, unfortunately had a very short life.  Targeted by American security forces for repression, the U.S. State Department summoned its representatives to appear before a special Senate committee for questioning and formally classifying the F.P.C.C. as “representing a foreign government”, along with the threat of forcing it to hand over its membership lists to the government. To avoid this fate and protect its members from the spying eyes of the F.B.I., the F.P.C.C. swiftly dissolved itself, a severe blow to the growing solidarity movement.

But it was a different story in Canada.  The Trotskyists there, especially after the visit of Dobbs and Hansen to Cuba, were keen to go there. Verne Olson, a long-time Canadian revolutionary socialist and leader of the Socialist Educational League (S.E.L.), the F.I.’s official section in Canada, had the good fortune of being included on an early American F.P.C.C. sponsored tour.  On his return, he addressed many large meetings across Canada, some with several hundred in attendance.  As luck would have it, in Canada, there was a lot more popular sympathy for Cuba than in the United States. Many Canadians, resenting their southern neighbour’s interference in their own affairs, were against the bullying of Cuba, a sentiment that continues to this day, with almost a million Canadian visiting Cuba each year. That was when the Canadian equivalent of the F.P.C.C. was organized.  It had a much longer life than American Committee, and in one of the most successful campaigns of its kind in the English speaking world, its members and supporters were active in trade unions and the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.), (Canada’s version of a Labour Party) to resist the efforts of the American government in pressuring the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker, to restrict trade and tourism with Cuba and to isolate it so that it would not be an inspiration to all colonial people. It turned out to have a very productive life that lasted ten years.

The organization and work of the F.P.C.C.– a broadly based organization, comprised of members representing different view points,  in a single-issue campaign to defend the national rights and self-determination of a small Third World country such as Cuba — was entirely in the spirit of Trotsky’s Theory of the Permanent Revolution and became the template later in the decades of the sixties and seventies for organizing support for third world peoples, especially in Asia in 1965, in their resistance to imperialism, the year the United States massively escalated its military presence in South Vietnam and launched a barbarous war on the North, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers thrown into the battle against Vietnam’s struggle for independence, accompanied by a savage bombing campaign that covered the entire country waged from the air, in which tens of thousands of Vietnamese were killed.  The defeat of the American forces in Vietnam became a major campaign objective for the Fourth International, as outlined in a major resolution, adopted at its 1965 Congress that concluded with a special discussion about how to organize against the war.

In the United States, as the war escalated, the S.W.P. sought to mobilize as many people as possible against the war, around the slogan of “Bring the Troops Home Now!” Making full use of the tactic of building single-issue coalitions that had been so effective in defending Cuba, it was able to play a critical role in leading a movement that grew steadily and massively as the war escalated with the U.S. sending hundreds of thousands of troops there, so well described by Fred Halstead, in his very important book about  those events, “Out Now! A Participants Account of the Movement in the U.S. against the Vietnam War”, (19)

The same was true in Britain.  Using similar tactics as those utilized by the North Americans, a grouping of Trotskyists of the Fourth International, the International Marxist Group (I.M.G.), took the lead in organizing the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (V.S.C.), which over the course of a relatively short period of time, working in a broad coalition, called the Ad Hoc Committee Against the War, organized a series of demonstrations outside the American Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square, each becoming increasing violent and massive as the war progressed. One the largest in the history of Britain, a demonstration of well over a hundred thousand protestors, mobilized in central London, on October, 1968, directed against the Harold Wilson Labour Government to help persuade it to resist American pressure to become more active in support of the war, including the sending of British troops.  Such was the anti-war mood in Britain at the time, which the V.S.C. had helped foment, it would have been political suicide for Wilson to have acquiesced to the U.S. demands.

The V.S.C. was greatly helped in this work by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation (B.P.R.F.), it should be noted.  It played an important part in bringing the V.S.C. into existence.  Organized by the well-known British philosopher, Bertrand Russell and his secretary, Ralph Schoenman to cast a bright light on the crimes being committed by imperialism against the colonial people, the B.R.P.F. was a tireless opponent of American imperialism.   To this end, and as the American actions in Vietnam became increasing savage,  Russell, who over the years had won enormous respect in the Third World for his various well-publicized campaigns against the crimes of colonialism, issued an international appeal, directed at the consciousness of the world, appealing for the setting up of an international war-crimes tribunal made up of leading writers, thinkers and personalities to come together to examine the American actions in Vietnam.  What came to be known as the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, attracted some of the worlds leading intellectuals and thinkers of that time, such as Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Laurent Schwarz, Isaac Deutscher and many others.  It was also publicly supported by Fidel Castro. (He threatened to organize a Cuban sponsored a public session of the Tribunal in New York).  Melba Hernandez, Fidel’s comrade-in-arms from the 26th of July Movement and the attack on the Moncada fortress, became a member  and an important influencer in its the work.

The Trotskyists of the I.M.G. in Britain, recognizing its significant propaganda value against the war, committed itself to doing all it could to make sure the Russell Tribunal would be a success and meet its objectives.  It provided the day-to-day staff to carry out its work, such as the organizing of press conferences and meetings, the publishing of its bulletins and brochures, all the work such a project required, including t making the arrangements for sending its many investigative teams to Vietnam – sometimes of long duration –to collect evidence of the cruel and catastrophic effects of the American military actions against the people there. The Tribunal’s conclusions, adopted in its sessions in Sweden and Denmark — after being officially banned from meeting in France and Britain — about the criminality of the American actions, circulated widely around the world and helped to convince many of the need to end that cruel war.

These three campaigns – the Algerian, the Cuban and the Vietnamese – which activists of the F.I. committed themselves to in the period of the sixties and seventies – and which I have outlined here — show that the idea of international solidarity was not an abstract idea for them.  It was a central part of its political programme. It led it to call for actions to which it assigned resources and members, setting a powerful example for others about what could be achieved if left wing forces would unite to resist imperialism.  For example, and more recently, the massive opposition in Britain against the invasion of Iraq in 2005, was organized and led by the Socialist Workers Party there, who regard themselves as Trotskyist but are not part of the Fourth International.  It seems, they remembered very well their history of fighting against the war in Vietnam and how that was carried out.  The same was true in Canada, where the International Socialists, who also consider themselves to be Trotskyists, organized some of the largest demonstrations ever seen in the country, against that war.  In this sense, Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, ever since it was written in 1905 in Petrograd in a Czarist prison, has stood the test of time and maintains its validity, even today.  Hopefully, it will inspire a new generation of activists in  various countries, especially in North America, to build solidarity with Cuba as it now faces increasing disruption at the hands of the American empire

Notes:   

  1. It was the year when the Russian tsarist empire had entered a profound, social and political crisis. The previous year, in 1904, in a total surprise to the world powers at that time– and to the Russian autocracy — Japan had declared war on Russia, defeating it and destroying its navy in the Far East, a great humiliation for the absolutist regime, leading to a deep crisis of confidence in it. It was the beginning of a radicalization that had never been seen before. Early in 1905, protests swept the empire over shortages and high food prices.  Workers in the massive Putilov engineering works in Petrograd walked off the job and soon other factories were at a standstill.  That’s when the notorious Father Gapon, who in cooperation with the Czarist authorities, set up his Workers Assembly and led over 20,000 workers in a peaceful protest to deliver a petition to the Czar at the Winter Palace, only to be met by his Imperial troops who opened fire on the assembled crowd.  In Russian history, it became known as “Bloody Sunday”. Hundreds, if not thousands were slaughtered and in the outrage that swept the country following it – which included a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin – the Grand Duke Sergei, the Governor General of Moscow was assassinated.
  2. Section: “Aiding Non-Imperialist Countries” in “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Working Class”, by Leon Trotsky, otherwise known, especially in Trotskyist circles as, “The Transitional Programme”.
  3. P 21, “Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects” by Leon Trotsky, Pioneer Publishers, 254pp, 1965.
  4. P 150, “The Prophet Armed”, Volume 1, by Isaac Deutscher, Oxford University Press.
  5. The Petrograd Soviet came into existence in the midst of a general strike, in October, 1905, which had erupted when the city’s printers suddenly hit the streets demanding higher wages, shorter working hours and constitutional freedom. Rapidly spreading beyond the printing trades to other industries and then into the provinces, the strike grew into a massive general-strike which spread throughout Russia, shaking the Czarist regime to its foundations, taking the Russian Social Democratic Party (with its two factions, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks) and Social Revolutionaries, completely by surprise, most of whose leaderships had been in exile in Western Europe. It was the first appearance in feudal Russia of a Soviet and lasted only fifty days before being liquidated by the Tsarist state.
  6. P196, Trotsky, “Results and Prospects.”
  7. P202, Op. cit.
  8. P183, Op. cit.
  9. P65, Op. cit.
  10. P156, Deutscher, vol 1,
  11. P146, Op. cit.
  12. P178, Op. cit.
  13. p22, Op. cit.
  14. P 340, “Capital, The Communist Manifesto and other Writings, by Karl Marx,” edited by Max Eastman, Modern Library Books, New York, 1932.
  15. Chris Hagsberg, Socialist Review September, 2014.
  16. P226, Deutscher, Volume 1.
  17. P43, Deutscher, Volume 2.
  18. Trotsky, “Death Agony of Capitalism”.
  19. “Out Now! A Participants Account of the Movement in the U.S. against the Vietnam War” by Fred Halstead, Merit Publishers.

 

January 19, 2019

Verne Olson and the Cuban Revolution

Filed under: Canada,cuba,Kevin Coogan,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm

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Verne Olson

What follows is chapter fifteen from volume one of Ernest Tate’s memoir, “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 1960s”, published by Resistance Books, London. In this chapter, using archival sources, he describes in detail how a small group of Canadian revolutionary socialists in the Socialist Educational League, S.E.L., later to become the League for Socialist Action, L.S.A., of which he was a leader, organized in 1960 to defend the early Cuban Revolution against a right-wing propaganda offensive inspired by American imperialism, designed to quarantine it from the Canadian people. Their campaign in defense of Cuba, he writes, was one of the most successful of its kind in the English-speaking world.

Ernie Tate and Jess McKenzie, who is referenced in the chapter, will be attending a conference on Trotskyism in Cuba between May 6-8. By making this chapter available to the public inside and outside of Cuba, it should help provide some background on how Canadian Trotskyists related to this historic development.

Verne Olson and the Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution, I have to admit, took our group by surprise. Sometimes, as I’ve discovered, even revolutionaries can be slow in getting off the mark when it comes to recognizing the real deal. I don’t remember us paying much attention to Cuba in the years before 1959, because in such matters we tended to take our lead from the S.W.P. There was not much in The Militant at first, as far as I can recall, and only an occasional item in the Toronto papers. Fidel Castro had been in Montreal in 1957 – and would return as Cuban Premier in 1959 — but that hadn’t registered with us much but our interest, of course, was piqued with the appearance of Fidel Castro on television when Herbert Mathews, an editor of the New York Times, interviewed him in the Sierra Maestra mountains and we became aware for the first time of the strength of the guerilla struggle against the Batista dictatorship. None of us that I recall had ever been to Cuba and I remember especially a couple of people who were close to our group, who had been vacationing in Havana around that time, telling us about a general strike they had seen and that it was obvious something important was going on there. Everywhere you went in Toronto, people were talking about it and public opinion seemed to be supportive of the resistance to Batista. As Robert Wright, a keen student of Canadian-Cuban relations writes, “editorials and letters in the Canadian dailies – throughout 1958 – were overwhelmingly supportive of the guerillas.” 1 “It began as an ill-reported and ill understood revolutionary democratic movement,” Joe Hansen observed. 2

Without any hard facts or not really knowing what was happening on the ground, I remember that in the discussions amongst ourselves, we would tend to dismiss Fidel Castro and theJuly 26 Movement as “bourgeois-nationalist”. This was also reflected in our first commentary about the overthrow of Batista in an unsigned article in our paper. Relying almost entirely on dispatches by the Globe and Mail’s Phillipe Deane, the article was very skeptical of the July 26 Movement and Fidel Castro whom it saw as a brake on the revolution. “All indications are,” we wrote, “that Castro is attempting to control the revolution and channel it into a middle-class reform programme that will leave the source of Cuba’s poverty, and misery – imperialism – basically intact. A provisional government has been set up with elections promised a long 11/2 to 2 years.”3 And according to the S.W.P.’s Lilian Kiezel writing in The Militant, “For the past year Castro has sought in various ways to convince the State Department and plantation owners that he has repudiated the aims announced in 1955 and has no intention of nationalizing industry,”4 and a year later the paper was maintaining that “The main danger to the Cuban Revolution is in its own leadership. The class background of the Castro forces is petit bourgeois.”

These comments by the two main Trotskyist currents in North America were understandably based upon some of the confusion about the aims of the Revolution as expressed by a few of its main leaders, including Castro, but they were nevertheless a mistake that we would have to rectify very soon. And we were not the only ones associated with the Fourth International who were on that track.

The F.I. initially got off to a good start by having, in early 1959, one of its leaders tour the island. She received a warm welcome and was given extensive radio time to promote the F.I., but this opportunity to establish good relations with the new government soon went off the rails and headed in a sectarian direction under the influence of Juan Posadas, a leader of the Fourth International at the time who was co-coordinating the work of the International’s Latin American sections. We now recognize that it was a golden opportunity missed, but it was probably the unfortunate by-product of an internal tendency struggle in the International between Michel Pablo and Juan Posadas on the one side and Pierre Frank, Livio Maitan and Ernest Mandel on the other.5 For a critical period, the views of Juan Posadas and the F.I.’s “Latin American Bureau” set the public tone for the F.I.’s early attitude to the revolution. That could be seen in an appeal it issued three months after the overthrow of Batista in 1959, “on the rising revolutionary struggles in Latin America”, reprinted in the Spring issue of Fourth International, the theoretical journal of the International Secretariat that referred “to the July 26 movement and similar movements as being led by ‘bourgeois parties and agents of imperialism’ whose anti-imperialist stance was due to ‘the enormous pressure that the masses bring to bear on them.’”6

At best, consciousness about the new developments in Cuba was at a low level. A leaflet, for example, put out for circulation in Britain by the International Group in Nottingham, promoting the International Secretariat’s “Winter, 1959-1960 Fourth International”, makes no mention of Cuba whatsoever.7 But those were the early days. Very soon, as I’ve said, most of us had corrected our attitude and quickly we became enthusiastic supporters of the Cuban experiment. It was destined to have a profound effect upon socialists everywhere and defending Cuba against imperialism became a central activity for the radical left in North America, helping it to emerge from the isolation imposed upon it as a result of McCarthyism.

It was only after a discussion about Cuba opened up in the S.W.P., I remember, did we in Canada fully grasp the true significance of the change in Cuba. Farrell Dobbs and Joe Hansen, two of the main leaders of the S.W.P., had toured Cuba in early 1960 and came away convinced that fundamental change was underway, and in a document written in July 1960, Joe declared that “the new Cuban government is a workers and farmers’ government…”, meaning that while the capitalists still dominated the economy, the workers and peasants had taken control of the government. Five months later the S.W.P. followed this up by declaring that a workers’ state now existed in Cuba, a characterization that recognized that the workers and peasants had defeated the capitalists and now controlled the state and economy.8 The only opposition in our ranks to this view turned out to be in the leadership of the American Y.S.A., led by Tim Wohlforth, Jim Robertson and Shane Mage. Their position was very simple: only the working class could over-throw capitalism, “led by a revolutionary party” such as Lenin’s Bolsheviks’, preferably with a “Trotskyist” programme, they said. And since such a party did not exist in Cuba what was happening in Cuba, according to them, could not be termed a “socialist revolution”. They were joined in this view by many Trotskyists of the insular variety in Britain such as those led by Gerry Healy, the Socialist Labour League and Ted Grant’s grouping, the Revolutionary Socialist League, but in hindsight, I personally shouldn’t be too critical about this.

I was initially sympathetic to some of these views myself because I was still locked into a formal way of thinking and it took me a little while to come around to supporting the majority’s views, but indirectly both Tim and Jim had helped me finally make up my mind because as the discussion unfolded, they began to disagree with each other: Jim believed Cuba had become a “deformed workers state” – a designation in our vocabulary that likened the new Cuban state to those of the authoritarian, Stalinist controlled states of Eastern Europe — and Tim was of the opinion that there had not been a revolution at all. Both were unanimous in calling for the overthrow of the new Cuban government. The S.W.P., especially through the writings of Joe Hansen, would go on to play an exemplary role in theorizing what had taken place in Cuba and ideologically arming radical activists everywhere for its defense. I know of no other socialist organization anywhere, outside of Cuba, that expended more resources and effort, carried out more internal discussions and debates, or published more articles in its press, about Cuba.

As the Cuban Revolution became more and more anti-capitalist and with the new government nationalizing key sectors of the economy and implementing a deep agrarian reform, the United States redoubled its efforts to destroy the revolution by imposing a brutal blockade against the country – that lasts to this day – and by resorting to a combination of clandestine and open military intervention against it. Amidst press speculation about such threats, the S.W.P. moved at full speed to attempt to mobilize support for Cuba in the United States, not only through the party’s press and public forums, but by trying to build as large a united front as possible of all those who supported the right of the Cubans to self-determination and independence. These were the circumstances under which the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (F.P.C.C.) was born. Initiated by Robert Taber, it became for a couple of years, the main instrument for spreading the truth about Cuba in North America. Taber, a CBS journalist who had broken the Cuban story to the world when he interviewed Castro in the mountains in 1957, had run a full-page ad in the New York Times in April 1960, defending Cuba, which was signed by many of the world’s leading intellectuals and personalities of that time, among them Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Truman Capote and Robert F. Williams, a militant, black ex-marine from North Carolina who later would create a sensation in the Black civil rights movement because of his book, “Negroes With Guns”9, an account of his organizing along with others in his community, armed self-defense squads to protect his community from marauding white racists. Over a thousand letters of support flowed in as a result of the advertisement and Taber quickly moved to bring into being the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (F.P.C.C.).

The C.P. and the S.W.P threw their support behind the new project, with the S.W.P taking the most active role. “Within six months, the F.P.C.C. had 7000 members – 27 ‘adult’ chapters and 40 student councils” and Berta Green of the S.W.P. became one of its main organizers, writes Bill Simpich in a well documented article, summarizing the Committee’s work in building solidarity in the critical early years when the revolution was under severe external threat. The F.P.C.C. promptly set up a functioning headquarters in New York under the leadership of Richard Gibson, a black journalist. Although Simpich does not mention the internal tensions between the C.P. and the S.W.P. within the Committee,10 he nevertheless provides an excellent account of its successes.11

The American F.P.C.C. lasted barely two years, winding itself up ultimately because of the intense pressure placed upon it by the American government to compel it to register as “a foreign agent” and hand over its membership lists. The vicious right-wing smearing of the Committee (think of the “shock jocks” on today’s American radio stations) that associated Lee Harvey Oswald with the Committee at the time of John Kennedy’s assassination — was the final straw. But in its brief life, because of its hard work and through its publications, press-releases, demonstrations and protests – some with many thousands outside the U.N. headquarters in New York — it was able to have a critical influence on many people’s understanding of the illegal activity of their government and at the same time win breathing space for the revolution. The decision by the S.W.P. and the radical left – especially the youth — in the early part of the decade, in making the defense of Cuba their highest priority and through the tactic of building the broadest possible united front around a single issue, on the demand for self-determination– would provide the template for later successful organizing against the Vietnam war, a war that was then in its early stages. And it was an initial entry point for many young people into radical politics. As the Canadian academic, Cynthia Wright notes: “In both the United States and Canada, the committees were part of the difficult process of opening up political dissent within the stifling context of McCarthyism and the Cold War consensus; they were also fundamentally linked to the early phases of the civil rights movement, Black Power and the student movement.”12

The Canadian F.P.C.C. was established not long after the founding of the American Committee and was equally as successful, if not more so, and it turned out, had a much longer life and a more lasting effect. In getting it off the ground, we had benefited very much from our close relationship with the S.W.P. We in the S.E.L. had been following the S.W.P’s initiative on Cuba, with great interest, wondering how we could replicate it. Events were moving very fast and all of us believed that our solidarity work should embrace broad forces to persuade working people that Canada should not back up the U.S. Reports were already appearing in the press that the U.S., ominously, had begun threatening military maneuvers from its base at Guantanamo; we were expecting an invasion any day. By then I was on the Political Committee13 and we began discussing what possible actions we could take to carry out solidarity activity. One of our first moves – a modest one — was to issue a leaflet in the name of the S.E.L, “Hands off Cuba!” which we circulated as widely as possible, but that was clearly insufficient. We had to do more, we were convinced, if we were to have a more positive effect. Our first impulse was to organize a picket outside the U.S.Consulate14, but we concluded this might be premature and would probably have resulted in something small and ineffectual, and more than anything else a sign of our weakness.  The S.E.L. was a tiny organization at that time with at most thirty members in Toronto.   Although U.E. and the L.P.P., many times larger than us, had set up “Aid to Cuba Committees”, we noted to ourselves how very passive they had been on the issue and not very active, confining their efforts to mainly raising support within their own ranks, perhaps an expression of Moscow’s hesitation about what was going on in Havana where the C.P., literally, had been pushed aside by the July 26 Movement.  We decided that the best approach for us would be to circumvent the C.P. and set up a “defense committee”, similar to that in the U.S. where they had appealed for prominent public figures to become sponsors. We figured we might be even able to do a better job in Canada because of our broad contacts in the labour movement and the C.C.F.  We were also beginning to see that there was some awakening in the labour movement about the issue.  At its Fall convention that year, in 1960, the B.C. Federation of Labour, to overwhelming and thunderous support from its delegates, and to the discomfort of the Canadian Labour Congress, especially its vice-president, Joe Morris, agreed to send all of its top officers to Cuba for a special visit and at the same time urged all of its local unions to elect representatives to accompany them there to make sure it would be a mass delegation to find out the truth of what was going on.15  As a first step in getting something going on Cuba, we immediately requested our Toronto and Vancouver branches and our supporters in Montreal to begin the preparatory work for the setting up of a defense committee by contacting wherever they could, sympathetic prominent individuals on the campuses and in the C.C.F. and unions to see if they would be interested in such a project.16 At the conclusion of the P.C. discussion, Ross agreed he would approach Verne Olson to see if he would head up the new project and at the same time we assigned one of our most experienced leaders in Toronto, Pat Mitchell — in the event that Verne agreed — to give him full assistance.

Verne and his wife Ann had recruited me to the S.E.L. a few years earlier and I had always remained in touch with them, visiting them in their home in Swansea, from time to time. They were always warm and generous to me and Ann was an excellent cook. I had many suppers there. Verne, who had suffered from polio when a child, making it impossible for him to walk without crutches, came from a poor family in rural Saskatchewan and had remained unschooled in his childhood until a social worker intervened to have him educated. He and Ann became politically conscious in their youth and became active in the F.I. group in Toronto, with Verne becoming one of its leaders. Through single-minded concentration, he had worked hard at overcoming a lack of formal education, and when I knew him, he was employed at Ontario Hydro as a certified technologist in hydrology. It was by no means certain Verne would agree to head up the Cuba project. He suffered periodically from severe depressions – a debilitating affliction that lasted most of his life – and had been on a leave of absence from the S.E.L. at the time, for health reasons and to also spend time upgrading his technical qualifications to gain a technologist certification. We were pleasantly surprised when we heard from Ross that not only had he agreed with our proposal, but he was enthusiastic about the idea. He and Ann had been following events in Cuba very closely with the same great excitement as the rest of us and were also wondering about how we should respond. With his courage, intelligence, and profound sense of moral integrity, he turned out to be ideal for the task, and much of the eventual success of the Committee in Canada was due to his and Ann’s, single-minded dedication to leading it through its many trials and tribulations. They were central to our campaign in Canada to get the truth out about Cuba, and without them, I doubt it would have had the effect it had.

Towards the end of 1960 through our connections to the S.W.P., we managed to have Verne and Ann included in a large delegation of over 300 visitors to Cuba, organized by the American F.P.C.C. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba while the American tour was there, the last to come from the U.S. The U.S. government placed a complete ban on their citizens visiting the island. But Verne and Ann’s visit was the breakthrough we needed in Canada, and we quickly proceeded to set up the F.P.C.C across the country, but independent of the U.S. operation that had been in existence for about a year. This Cuba solidarity work that lasted from 1960 to 1970 is well described by Cynthia Wright. It’s not my purpose here to give the full story of the Canadian F.P.C.C here — Wright does that very well – but to try to tell how it looked from inside the S.E.L and its successor organization, the League for Socialist Action (L.S.A.). I will add to Wright’s account, however, additional information about some of the difficulties we encountered due to the hostility of Canadian security forces towards us and some of the problems we encountered in the Committee’s dealing with those in Cuba who were under the influence of the Popular Socialist Party (P.S.P.), the Cuban version of the C.P., and especially about the problems we ran into in dealing with the Cuban governmental organization, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with Peoples (I.C.A.P.) that was headed up by Leon Mazzola, whom we came to believe was a P.S.P. member, or sympathizer.

The S.E.L.’s urgency in defending Cuba arose from the high importance it gave to internationalism, expressed by its membership in the Fourth International whose programme called for the workers in the advanced countries to resist their own capitalist rulers and placed a high priority in defending the struggles for self-determination and independence in the colonial world. With our limited resources – at that time, as I recall it, we could not have had more than fifty members in the whole country — we believed that the best way to help the Cuban people would be to create a broad single-issue defense campaign to let all Canadians know the truth about the revolution and its accomplishments, to counter the barrage of hostile propaganda that was regularly appearing in the Canadian media, as it swung behind American policy objectives. For us, it was the first opportunity since the Russian Revolution to publicize and promote democratic socialism through a concrete example that was unfolding before our eyes. The vehicle for this would be the F.P.C.C.

While Ann and Verne were in Cuba, we busied ourselves with lining-up speaking engagements across the country so that Verne could address Canadians about his experiences and observations. The response turned out to be greater than we could have ever imagined. Verne even got himself on television and in Toronto we kicked off his cross-country tour with a packed enthusiastic meeting of approximately four hundred supporters in the First Unitarian Church on St Clair Avenue West where we managed to sell approximately 250 memberships for the new committee, such was the excitement in the hall. Alongside Verne on the platform were Professor Leslie Dewart, a Catholic theologian from the U of T, whose family came from Cuba, Farley Mowat, one of Canada’s best-known Canadian writers on the Canadian north, along with key-note speaker, Sam Shapiro, from the New York office of the F.P.C.C. We also had Richard Gibson, the black journalist and one of the main initiators of the American Committee, on the platform. Verne announced to the meeting a list of prominent sponsors who had quickly rallied to the Canadian Committee. Among them were Kenneth McNaught, a much-respected historian at the University of Toronto and the biographer of J.S. Woodsworth17, William Irvine, Honourary Chairman of the Alberta C.C.F., Frank Hanson, editor of the party’s Saskatchewan weekly, The Commonwealth, Orville Braaten, a leader of the Pulp and Sulphite Union in B.C. and the Reverend John Morgan, a minister of the First Unitarian Church to which Verne and Ann belonged. It was the first of many large meetings across the country about Cuba and an impressive beginning for the campaign18. Until reading Cynthia Wright’s essay, I had forgotten the importance of McNaught in helping to get the F.P.C.C. up and running. The same month that the U.S. ended its diplomatic relations with Cuba and while Verne and Ann were in Cuba, an important article by McNaught had appeared in the weekly, Saturday Night, deeply critical of U.S. policy towards the island and urging Canada to reject it and to formulate its own independent position. McNaught urged readers to contact the New York office of the F.P.C.C. and give it support, which hundreds of Canadian did. Those names and addresses were turned over to those working to establish a Canadian Committee. With the successful Toronto event under his belt, Verne crossed the country speaking to all kinds of gatherings, with hundreds turning out to hear him.

We were riding a wave of enthusiasm. Committee chapters sprung up in Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver. Activists in the C.C.F. and the unions were hungry for any reliable news they could get, not trusting what they were reading and hearing in the media. By then we had managed to line up an impressive list of endorsers. On the West Coast, Bob Horne a leading member of our group, a student, moved quickly to get a B.C. wing of the Committee up and running. Soon we had the active support of some key C.C.F. people like Cedric Cox, a C.C.F.-M.L.A. and Dorothy Steeves, a founder of the Party, along with a few prominent trade-unionists such as Orville Braaten and Jerry LeBourdais of the Oil and Chemical Workers Union and. On the prairies, a young Howard Pawley — who would later become the Province’s N.D.P. Premier became a key member of the Winnipeg Committee. Other active supporters on the prairies were prominent left-wingers in the C.C.F. of course, such as Bill Irving, an early sponsor and Tony Mardiros in Edmonton. Hugh Garner, an important Canadian novelist also publicly backed the Committee. But the biggest boost to our efforts came from Cuba itself. Invariably those who visited the country came back bursting with enthusiasm and wanting to talk about their experiences, underlining the old adage that revolutions often turn ordinary people into the best of revolutionaries.

The Canadian F.P.C.C., as Cynthia Wright notes, became one of the most successful solidarity committees in the English-speaking world and during the course of its ten-year history for many activists in North America it was the main source of information about Cuba, as it went through its many achievements and various crises. Right from the beginning the Committee engaged in a vigourous publishing programme, printing many speeches by Cuban leaders, especially those by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and numerous pamphlets and reprints of articles and speeches by Cuba’s supporters around the world. Very successful was a pamphlet by Jack Scott (not to be confused with Jack Scott, the Vancouver Maoist), a very popular columnist for the Vancouver Sun, comprised of eight of his columns, “Jack Scott Takes a Second Look at Cuba”.

He had been to Cuba a couple of times before the revolution and his pamphlet about his most recent trip there, sold many thousands of copies. Another successful little publication was Leslie Dewar’s, “A Catholic Looks at Cuba”, which also sold many thousands and was distributed widely throughout the country. Eventually, the F.P.C.C. would become one of the main suppliers of English-language literature about Cuba to the Cuban Embassy in Ottawa.

It wasn’t long before a major activity of the Committee became that of organizing tours to the island so that Canadians could hear first-hand personal accounts about what was going on, and to also persuade prominent intellectuals and artists to go and see for themselves what was happening, especially on important anniversary dates, all to help counter the growing pressure from the U.S. on the Diefenbaker government to line up behind its anti-Cuba offensive that was intensifying by the day. Dorothy Steeves, a leader of the B.C. C.C.F. until the early Fifties and an important B.C. poet, went to Cuba for the first time along with Al Purdy, even then one of Canada’ major poets. They were part of a delegation of Canadians from the cultural community in the spring of 1964 who attended May Day celebrations on behalf of the F.P.C.C. Purdy later wrote a very powerful account of the destruction of a sugar refinery by counter-revolutionaries in Oriente province, along with a “Poem to the Sailors on the American Warship, ‘Oxford’…”19 When Purdy returned to Canada, he readily agreed to speak at several meetings about his experiences and I remember in Vancouver, when he was on one of his visits, he spoke to a packed meeting of the Y.S.A.

The U.S. State Department’s efforts to line Canada up against Cuba was relentless. An ominous sign about what was in store came very early when Senator Croll, a “left” Liberal and powerful influence in his Party, denounced Cuba and came out against trade with it, demanding that a Cuban trade mission then in Canada, “should be sent packing”. At about the same time, many of Cuba’s supporters became very alarmed when the Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker indicated that he had acquiesced to the Americans’ policy towards Cuba. The F.P.C.C. promptly issued a press release – one of the many over the course of its life — calling on Diefenbaker to reject the “Kennedy doctrine”, pointing out that the U.S. policy also called into question Canada’s own sovereignty. And when Cuba was bombed by ”unidentified military air-craft” in early 1961, a prelude to the Bay of Pigs’ invasion, Verne condemned it as “nothing less than a flagrant act of aggression on a member nation of the United Nations”20 and called upon the Canadian government to denounce it and just as importantly, when Kennedy launched that invasion, F.P.C.C. supporters across the country immediately mobilized to protest. The Vancouver Labour Council, led by F.P.C.C. activists in the hall, condemned the action, pledging full support to the Cuban people “in their fight for freedom and for a better life”, as did the Regina and Hamilton Labour Councils. During the course of the invasion, the Committee organized a series of pickets of several hundred each outside the Vancouver and Toronto Consulates.21

Very soon after it was organized, almost in defiance of the growing Diefenbaker hostility to Cuba, the Committee received a warm response for its goals from hundreds of young people in Canada, especially students. Five campus clubs were soon affiliated to it, most of them headed up by members or supporters of the L.S.A., by then the successor to the S.E.L. Alongside Bob Horne, Brian Belfont – who would also become a leader of our group on the West Coast — became prominent in the Committee’s activities right up to the end of the decade. A welcome find, prior to that he had spent a year studying in Cuba after which he became a very active chairman of the Committee on the University of British Columbia. In the summer of 1964, the Committee sent a delegation of 45 students from all over Canada to Cuba, led by a retired Canadian military officer, David Middleton, a left-wing leader in the Toronto N.D.P. The tour had been over-subscribed with 125 students expressing an interest in participating. Plans called for the tour to join several hundred other students from around the world to work “on the construction of the Camillo Cienfuegos School in the Sierra Maestra Mountains during July and August”.

Ross, who during the Second World War had been a lieutenant in the Canadian army, had figured Middleton would be an ideal team leader, but we later learned that he had to deal with a rebellion of his young charges who had resisted his attempts to impose a military-like discipline upon them. It all began in Mexico City where the group was waiting for a flight to Havana and continued in Cuba, when a few of the students – who were not connected to the L.S.A. – who in addition to resisting Middleton’s discipline, figured that rather than going into the mountains, they would rather experience the city life of Havana. Ruth Tate, who was a founder of the Vancouver Y.S.A. and editor of Young Socialist Forum at the University of British Columbia and Hans Modlich, then an engineering student at the University of Toronto and a leader of the Y.S.A., both members of the L.S.A., tried their best to assist Middleton in preventing the tour from falling apart. It became even more difficult once they arrived in Cuba. Ruth and Hans quickly noticed that in addition to the problem of keeping the tour on course, many of the tour group seemed to be constantly engaged with individual Cubans in discussions about the topic of Trotsky.

The views of many of the youth on that tour were not that much different from those of many non-CP activists anywhere in Canada, where the topic of Trotsky was no big deal. It would have been quite natural for them to talk about Trotsky in those days, but we were suspicious that many of these debates had been provoked by P.S.P. people who seemed intent on “setting up” the tour group as a “Trotskyist” enterprise, part of a political operation we suspected, to discredit the work of the Committee in Canada. But despite those difficulties, we – and I.C.A.P. — considered the 1964 tour a big success, with many of the students later speaking on their campuses about their experiences and bolstering the work of the F.P.C.C. “The result of that visit will always be happily remembered by our revolutionary people”, Giraldo Mazola, Director of I.C.A.P., would later say.22

From the very beginning, the Canadian Committee was treated with deep suspicion by the Tory government and soon after its formation it was added to an unofficial blacklist of “subversive” organizations the government deemed a threat to the security of the state. And the American Committee was coming under similar pressure. Soon after its formation, in the summer of 1961, the right-wing news agency, United Press International (U.P.I.) dispatched a witch-hunting article targetting the American Committee, with the headline, “Pro-Cuba Reds Infiltrating Our Campuses”. The article soon appeared in all major newspapers throughout the United States and not long after the Canadian Committee became the object of a string of virulent, red-baiting articles in the Toronto Telegram, a hard-right daily similar to today’s National Post, smearing Verne and F.P.C.C.’s work.23 The way the wind was blowing could also be seen when MacLean’s magazine told Farley Mowat that an article about Cuba that he had been preparing in consultation with their editors was no longer wanted. 24 There was also some red-baiting by the leadership of the Ontario C.C.F. and the United Auto Workers (U.A.W.) against the Committee, and Leslie Dewar and Kenneth McNaught seemed to bend to these kinds of pressure when they publicly withdrew their endorsement of the Committee, precipitating internal crises in its ranks.

“We have some intelligence concerning the people who had been appointed officials and to the executive,” Dewar told the press. He did not say where his “intelligence” came from, but as far as the L.S.A. was concerned, this was the work of the R.C.M.P., pure and simple. Their filthy finger-prints were all over the affair and could be seen in Dewar’s next comment. “McNaught and I put certain questions about policy to the Chairman, Mr. V.O. Olson”, he said. “We suggested that all governing officials of the committee should be above reproach in their loyalty to the Queen and Canada’s established constitution.”25 It was sad to see these two academics – one of whom, McNaught, was an important public intellectual in his own right and a spokesman for many progressive causes, succumbing to the state’s pressures on this issue. Verne, in no uncertain terms told the two of them where to go with their idea, letting them know that their suggestion would defeat the aim of uniting the greatest number of people behind the goal of fair play for Cuba. “It would require some committee members to investigate the political associations of elected members,” he said. “Such a policy would lead to a witch-hunt in the organization.”26 In a later report, Verne expanded on this point, characterizing it as a form of McCarthyism. “I have taken it for granted that all Committee supporters were vigourously opposed to the witch-hunt which has stultified intellectual life on this continent. We have to combat this atmosphere from the word go in order to establish the truth about Cuba. It was in this belief that I declined to become the instigator of a policy to keep the Committee ‘above reproach’.”

Backing for Verne’s position quickly flowed in from Committee supporters across the country. The Montreal F.P.C.C. likened it to “Intimidation by thought police reminiscent of (the) twenty-year Duplessis Regime.” Howard Pawley wrote: “Don’t become discouraged. We are with you in Winnipeg.” Nevertheless, Dewart and McNaught had supporters in Toronto and in a meeting of the Committee with about sixty people in attendance they proposed that it dissolve itself. The motion was defeated.27

In the midst of the crises precipitated by the Dewar and McNaught affair, Verne and Ann were also placed under continuous surveillance and subjected to harassment by the R.C.M.P., with a police car parked twenty-four hours a day outside their home. “Their resignation followed an RCMP statement appearing in the Toronto papers which said that the Mounties were ‘watching’ the F.P.C.C….” Verne wrote a correspondent.28. This kind of harassment would continue throughout the Committee’s life. In a letter to the Toronto Star, in 1967 for example, Hans Modlich, on behalf of the Committee, protested a bizarre campaign against it, when media reports appeared saying that the F.P.C.C., “was training ‘separatists’ in Quebec during Expo.”29

In September, 1961 a new crisis erupted for Verne and Ann, but from a totally unexpected direction. Robert Williams suddenly showed up on their doorstep, on the run from the F.B.I. in the U.S. Williams had been to Toronto prior to this and had helped get the F.P.C.C. started, speaking several times in support of the Committee across the country, but now he was on the run from both the F.B.I. and the R.C.M.P. From Monroe, North Carolina, where the Ku Klux Klan was a mass movement, he was a leader of the Black Power wing of the civil rights movement in the U.S. Critical of the pacifist methods of Martin Luther King, he had advocated a policy of armed self-defense and had formed a Black Armed Guard to protect his community against racist violence. During a riot in Monroe, he had been forced to flee under threat of death after the F.B.I. had issued a warrant for his arrest, declaring that he was armed and dangerous. It meant he would be shot on-sight. The S.W.P. had a good rapport with Williams that went back several year from when he was head of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) in 1958, when he was in dispute with the national organization about his advocacy for a more militant policy for the civil rights movement, and which led to his expulsion. The S.W.P. had mobilized broad public support for him when he was agitating in the courts and against the police, in what’s now known as “The Kissing Case”, where two black children had been incarcerated because, while innocently playing, one of them had kissed a young white girl. The S.W.P. made a major issue of the case that had outraged many in the U.S. and which received headlines around the world. The party would become one of the first of the so-called “white” revolutionary groups in America to fully throw its support behind the “Freedom Now” wing of the civil rights movement and through the writings of George Breitman, recognize the significance of Black Nationalism in the struggle for socialism, explaining it from a Marxist perspective and highlighting it as a critical factor in the class struggle. They gave full support to Malcolm X, and Malcolm, for his part, considered The Militant to be one of the finest newspapers around. Williams and his supporters, with their tactic of self-defense, were regarded by the S.W.P. as having set an exemplary example of resistance in the black struggle.

When Williams fled to Canada, he could be fairly certain our people would render him assistance. While on his speaking engagements in Toronto – he had been to Montreal and Toronto as recently as the previous May — he always stayed with Ann and Verne. In conjunction with the F.B.I., a manhunt had been launched in Canada by the Mounties who stated as a fact that he was armed and a “common criminal”, a characterization that the F.P.C.C., vehemently protested.30 It was touch and go whether he would be captured or not. The police and the R.C.M.P. harassed many F.P.C.C. members and supporters in looking for him, searching several people’s homes and at one point the basement of the First Unitarian Church. It was pure chance Williams wasn’t picked up. The Olson’s kept him hidden for six weeks while trying to arrange his flight into exile. Finally, they arranged for him to travel to Nova Scotia where a sizable black population lived and where he had a good chance of not being noticed. There he boarded a plane to Cuba and was granted asylum. Mabel, his wife, joined him a few months later. A lot of the details about this event, I didn’t know until I read Wright’s essay.31 In the leading committees of the League for Socialist Action (L.S.A.) (the successor organization to S.E.L.) and the F.P.C.C., it was only discussed in the most general terms and information about it was only given out, correctly so, on a need-to-know basis to protect those involved. The S.E.L., mainly through the F.P.C.C. maintained very good relations with Williams over the years, with many of our people visiting him from time to time in Havana where the Cuban government had provided him with a radio program on Havana Radio, “Radio Free Dixie”, through which to broadcast to the United States his opinions about current events in the black struggle. He also edited a small journal, The Crusader, which Ann and Verne helped him circulate in North America. A few S.E.L. members gathered at their home every month to mail it out to his subscribers, with Ann and Verne’s home address on it. We looked upon all this as part of our elementary duty of solidarity to help the black liberation struggle in the U.S.

When Verne had met with Dewart and McNaught before they severed their connections to the Committee, he hadn’t been entirely frank about the role of the S.E.L. in relation to it. He had countered their complaint about our influence by telling them that out of an eleven-member executive, only one could be characterized as being in the S.E.L. But in this he was being a little disingenuous. While perhaps technically correct, he sought to down-play the S.E.L.’s influence, trying to protect the Committee against red-baiting. Those were hard anti-communist times, but without the S.E.L., the F.P.C.C. would never have gotten off the ground, which didn’t mean it wasn’t broadly based. With a lot of support in the N.D.P. and the unions, it was by no means a “front organization”, the kind the C.P.s were infamous for putting in place and which were basically an extension of their own organization, to be used for any purpose they thought fit. While the S.E.L. had won the respect of many independent activists around the Committee, it very much had a life of its own to the degree that we would occasionally find ourselves in the minority within it. This could be seen early on when we had hoped the Committee would formally affiliate with the American F.P.C.C., something we thought everyone would be in agreement with. However, when we raised this idea, a majority opposed us. They were concerned that membership lists crossing the border might make them vulnerable to the prying eyes of American security agencies, and that possibly money from Canada might be used to publish American literature. The Committee decided to remain independent. As Pat Mitchell, a leader of the S.E.L. and the F.P.C.C.’s membership-secretary later put it, “I don’t think this was a good decision because the American committee needs any support it can get but we could not carry our position on this question.”32 Later, Verne, probably trying to make the best of this rejection, spoke positively about the committee’s “independent position”, but in the end, happily, it proved to be a wise move because in less than two years, the American organization would be forced to dissolve. It had come under worse attack than we had suffered in Canada. Hauled before various Senate Committees to explain its activities, they demanded it hand over its membership lists and register as a “foreign agent”. And there was some falling away of endorsers, among them people like Sydney Lens, then one of the United States’ best known labour historians, who was one of the first to buckle, disassociating himself from the Committee because of “Trotskyist influence” in it.

The witch-hunting only served to make us redouble our efforts to expand the work of the Committee, especially in the unions. We were convinced that sympathy by many Canadian working people for Cuba remained strong which seemed to be confirmed when Hazen Argue, the new leader of the C.C.F. took a firm stand, saying that “…in the last analysis what the Cubans are doing is asserting the soil and resources of their country should belong to them. Threats of intervention from other countries should be opposed, no matter where they come from.”33 “The real reason for the U.S. attitude is economic,” pointed out Frank Howard, the C.C.F.-N.D.P., M.P., for Skeena, B.C., referring to the Cuban expropriation of U.S. properties.34 Wherever we had members or contacts in the unions, we would persuade them to try and have resolutions passed in their local membership meetings, asking that their national unions send delegations to Cuba so that the unions could witness for themselves the achievements of the revolution. The C.L.C. sent a delegation, as did the B.C. Federation of Labour and the Vancouver Labour Council. All returned with favourable reports. To this day, there is still a deep sympathy among Canadian trade unionists for Cuba and over one million ordinary Canadians go there every year on vacation, making Canada amongst all countries, the largest source of tourists for its beleaguered economy.

Typical of the work of the F.P.C.C. in those days was that of the Vancouver chapter led by Phil Courneyeur and Cedric Cox. It had a very active life organizing protests, public meeting and promoting Cuba in the N.D.P. and in the unions. Within a couple of years there would be two other “competing” Cuban support committees in the city, one organized by the C.P., and the other organized by Jack Scott’s small pro-Mao group that had recently emerged from the C.P. We deplored this division and at various times reached out to them to try and arrange joint activities with them, but nothing much came of this. Neither was as successful as the F.P.C.C. I remember when moving out there in 1962, how impressed I was by its energy, partly due to it being led by young people. Ken Orchard – Cliff Orchard’s brother, a twenty-one-year-old, active in our youth group, was its communications director and Bud Bennet, a leader in the New Democratic Youth was its secretary. Every important Cuban anniversary, it would organize a large public event, often attended by Cuban consulate officials – and sometimes the Cuban Ambassador, Americo Cruz — with speeches and talks about Cuba, often followed by a banquet, and attended by almost two hundred people, many of them from the N.D.P. and the unions. It’s where I got to practice cooking for large numbers of people, something I had learned while helping Fred Halstead at the S.W.P.’s Mountain Spring Camp. Phil, a very bright and precocious teenager, had been recruited to our group by Ruth and Reg Bullock. With a political maturity way beyond his years, he was at the same time, secretary of the Burnaby N.D.P., a centre of the left in the party. He quickly won the respect of the Cuban Ambassador and they became close friends. Cox, also from Burnaby, an N.D.P.M.L.A., had been inspired by the revolution and had become one of its most outspoken defenders.

During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, in addition to organizing several demonstrations outside the U.S. Consulate, the Committee members distributed over twenty thousand leaflets in the Vancouver area, most of them at shopping centres, factories, high schools and at the U.B.C., all within a couple of hours of President Kennedy’s October 22nd speech, the closest the world has ever come to all out nuclear war.35. I remember one particularly scary moment after I had moved out there, during the Cuban missile crisis when we were discussing the launching of a possible protest outside the American Consulate, over other’s objections, I pushed to go ahead with it even though there had not been much preparation, expecting somehow that our supporters would simply turn out because of the crisis. Unfortunately, when we showed up at the U.S. Consulate, we were so few in number that we were immediately surrounded by several hundred hostile Americans spoiling for a fight. They had obviously been mobilized to counter us and I had learned a lesson to listen to others next time who knew the situation better than me. We were forced to end the protest early at the Consulate, later organizing a demonstration where we out-numbered our opponents.

Both Cedric and Phil at different times toured Cuba for several weeks in 1963. Their experiences and observations were put to valuable use in talks to labour groups, N.D.P. clubs and the constituencies throughout the province. A high point was the N.D.P.’s Provincial Convention that fall that saw a big upsurge in interest about Cuba among the delegates who voted for a resolution “almost unanimously” calling for sympathy and support of the Cuban people ‘in their struggle to achieve decent living standards’ and condemning the U.S. boycott of Cuba.”36 The Committee also rallied to organize material aid to Cuba whenever it suffered natural disasters. In October of that year, in addition to the difficult economic conditions that resulted from the American blockade, two of Cuba’s eastern provinces were laid waste by Hurricane Flora. The Committee responded by issuing a public appeal – “Help Cuba!” It urged people to donate generously and asked that its supporters hold social events with the specific purpose of raising money for Cuba.

Among its most popular publications — the product of an F.P.C.C. sponsored tour — was the 1964 pamphlet, “The Real Cuba, As Three Canadians Saw It”, by Michel Chartrand of the Parti Socialiste du Quebec, John Riddell from Toronto, a member of our group on the tour representing the Canadian Universities’ Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (C.U.C.N.D.), and Verne Olson. Many thousands were sold across the country. Another popular pamphlet, was “Four Canadians Who Saw Cuba”, featuring accounts by Cedric Cox, who, in opposition to his provincial leader Bob Strachan, had toured Cuba; John Glenn, a school principal from Ontario and provincial council member of the N.D.P. (and a member of our group); Charlie Bieseck, a columnist for the Prairie New Democrat Commonwealth and Richard Fidler, chairperson of the U of Toronto Student Committee on Cuba and also a member of our group. As Cynthia Wright remarks, most of these pamphlets circulated widely across the country and today can be found in the archives of many universities throughout North America.

Working with the Cubans was not always smooth sailing, it turned out. For successful solidarity work, of course, their cooperation was essential for us, but sometimes we faced strong head-winds in dealing with them. One of our objectives was to have as many people as possible, from the cultural community, from the unions and the C.C.F., travel to Cuba to witness the dramatic improvements in health and agriculture and to especially see the spectacular results of a reading and writing campaign that in a very short time had given Cuba a literacy level equal to that of some advanced capitalist countries. Teams of visitors were usually organized in Canada in cooperation with the Cuban Institute for Friendship with Peoples, otherwise known by the acronym, “ICAP”. Our hope was that once people returned, they would spread the good word about the reforms they had seen, and this usually turned out to be the case. In the early days of the Revolution, things were always a little chaotic in trying to arrange such visits. A tour the Montreal F.P.C.C. had organized for the winter of 1960, for example, was called off because the Cubans couldn’t provide air travel. To say that communications with Cuba “were difficult” would be an understatement. A scheduled tour would neither be on nor off and we always seemed to be in limbo, anxiously awaiting word from Havana about this or that project. A tour for the July 26, 1961 celebrations was called off by the Cubans without any explanation. Verne on one of his trips to Cuba found that many of the people he met regarded I.C.A.P. as a bit of a scandal because of its inefficiencies. I.C.A.P. would often be late getting back to Verne in response to his letters and undoubtedly some of the difficulty was caused by the chaos resulting from transforming the bureaucracy, but nevertheless we believed, rather than the problem of “inefficiency”, a lot of it was also due to the political influence of the Popular Socialist Party (P.S.P)., the name by which the C.P. was known in Cuba, which although reduced by the success of the July 26 Movement, still had considerable presence in the state apparatus and the union movement. Whenever we encountered their people as we tried to move our projects along, invariably they would be sectarian towards us, often spreading malicious rumours behind our backs and misleading others who often did not know any better into doing their dirty work for them.

In addition to the F.P.C.C.’s official visits to Cuba, the Committee also had a policy of encouraging supporters to visit Cuba for their holidays but the odd time they would become a victim of P.S.P. sectarian tactics, we suspected, and be picked up by security forces and held without any explanation or charges being laid, and then released just as mysteriously. Alan Judge, an activist in the Stanley Park C.C.F. in B.C., and supporter of the F.P.C.C., once disappeared for several weeks under such circumstances, as did John Darling, a stalwart of the S.E.L. and the Y.S.A., and a founding-member of the F.P.C.C. In Cuba for a vacation during the dangerous time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, John, an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution, ironically, on April 17, 1961, was picked up in a sweep along with thousands of other non-Cubans and many Cubans who had a history of being opponents of the government. He was held for three weeks in La Cabana Military Prison without any interrogation or explanation or any help from the Canadian Embassy. When he returned to Toronto, in an effort to clear his name, he wrote the Cuban Ambassador that a rumour was circulating in Toronto that he “had been charged and found guilty of black marketing”. We figured elements in the L.P.P. were behind this slander. While in Cuba, “I was unable to establish my support for the Cuban government,” he wrote, “and my innocence of implied charges of being suspected of counter-revolutionary activity” he stated, requesting from the Ambassador that “you affirm that I have been released clear of all charges or suspicions, and that my detention was an error.” The Ambassador replied that his “request has been forwarded to the proper Department in Cuba and as soon as we get a reply, we will call you…”37

Bob Silverman, one of the main leaders of the Montreal F.P.C.C. also disappeared in similar circumstances to John’s, throwing his wife, Edith into a state of justifiable panic when she hadn’t heard from him for several weeks and was unable to contact him, all of it causing a flurry of frantic phone calls from Verne to Ottawa and Havana to find out where he was. He too was released without any explanation and we put it all down to a few P.S.P. elements acting in a free-lance way to harass anyone they suspected of being associated with us.

Founded in 1925, the Cuban C.P. (later to become the P.S.P) had been in its time one of the most formidable C.P.s in Latin America, a mass party with a strong working-class base and a lot of influence in Cuba’s intellectual left. We didn’t know it at the time, nor did Fidel, but Raul Castro had attended Moscow University in the early Fifties and had been a member, as was Che Guevara who had joined for a short time in 1957 in the hope of moving it to the left.38 A loyal follower of Stalin and in a comfortable relationship with Batista before he became a brutal dictator, the C.P. in its early days had played a leading role in founding the main union federation, the Cuban Confederation of Labour (C.T.C.). In cooperation with Batista – who, the C.P. stated “was no longer the focal point of reaction, but the defender of democracy” — it helped write the new Cuban Constitution adopted in 1940, and as part of his “Social Democratic Federation”, campaigned for him to be President and itself electing ten members to the Chamber of Deputies and hundreds to city councils throughout the island, including electing the mayors in two major cities and coming close to winning the mayoralty of Havana. In the build up to the Second World War, during the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, like C.P.s everywhere else, it had vigorously campaigned against the war and had opposed Cuba’s entry into it. But when the U.S.S.R. declared war on Germany, it swiftly reversed itself becoming a champion of Cuba’s participation and changing its name to the Partido Socialista Popular (P.S.P.). “Blas Roca, its leader became the first to volunteer in the army of the Allies.” 39

After Batista seized power in 1952, he banned the P.S.P and many of its leaders were arrested or went into exile. Yet, curiously, some of its prominent people– many of whom had been candidates in previous elections — showed up in important positions in his regime, some of them even becoming key advisors.40 Support for the party declined under Batista’s subsequent repression, but it utilized that period to strengthen and re-organize itself. Although weaker, it was still one of the strongest political parties in Cuba at the time of Batista’s fall in 1959, but fated to end up on the wrong side of history. The P.S.P. had publicly denounced the 1953 Fidelista attack on the Moncada Fortress, that had failed but which became the opening shots in an armed struggle that would eventually transform Cuba. While condemning the repressive methods of Batista – but just in case there was any confusion about where they stood — they at the same time publicly disassociated themselves from the new movement, in a position, I must admit, that would have been shared by many Trotskyists: “We repudiate the putchist methods, peculiar to bourgeois political factions of the action in Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo which was an adventurist attempt to take both military headquarters…”41 But early in 1958, when the July 26 Movement and the National Directorate were putting plans in place for a national strike, the P.S.P., softened its position and hurried to get on board giving its support to the action, but the Directorate, for anti-communist reasons mainly, had blocked their involvement, over the objections of Fidel, to whom the P.S.P. had made a special appeal.42 Up to the seizure of power – and even after — relations remained tense between P.S.P. and the Fidelistas. (It is now recognized that some of this was also due to the anti-communist prejudices of some of the Fidelistas.) But as Scheer and Zietlin, point out, “As late as May 1958, the Communists were still referring to the 26th of July Movement as ‘those who count on terroristic acts and conspiratorial coups as the chief means of ousting Batista…” The April 1958 strike was a failure and the Party publicly declared that the strike movement did not have enough support to succeed, a statement that helped Batista defeat the workers as he quickly circulated it throughout the country.43 And when the C.P. welcomed the July 26 Movement’s “recent espousal of the general strike as a slogan…away from excessive reliance on heroic indecisive guerilla warfare…” the Fidelistas flat out rejected it and “expressed surprise that the Communist leaders, Blas Roca, Juan Marinello, and others were living peacefully in Havana without interference from Batista’s police.”44

During the lead up to the seizure of power and for a few months after, it’s understandable that many socialists around the world would be slow in recognizing the significance of what had taken place. A new phenomenon, it seemed to contradict our traditional notions of how a capitalist system would be overthrown. That was even the case with the I.S. of the F.I. which although adopting a position that Cuba was a workers’ state, had let itself be outmaneuvered by the sectarian Juan Posadas and his “Latin American Bureau” to where Posadas, with his crazy positions, was seeming to speak for the entire movement.

Difficulty in understanding what was going on was also true for many of us in North America, as I have already pointed out. Our slowness, however, did not cost us as much as it did the P.S.P. Its differences with the July 26 Movement were deeply political and the product of having a two-stage conception of how the working class and peasants would achieve power. In their view, it was first necessary to have capitalist development in Cuba and to support “progressive” capitalists to do this, and then following this phase – who knows how long that would last — a socialist revolution would be on the agenda, a conception similar to that of Canada’s L.P.P. which during every election campaigned for an “anti-monopoly coalition” that would include “progressive” capitalists. The consequence of this policy for the P.S.P was profound, causing it to lose support in a sharply radicalizing political environment. It initially kept its distance from the new government. “The fact that the C.P. of Cuba during the first months of the revolution “, says Scheer and Zietland, “continued to call for wage increases and improved working conditions, even in the new situation, indicated that it did not expect the Revolutionary Government to fulfill its program and make a revolution and that they did not have close ties to the government.”45. It was as if the P.S.P. was confronting a liberal bourgeois regime of some kind, not recognizing that a fundamental transformation was underway. Seeing their errors, and no doubt having their concentration focused by seeing their support melt away like snow from a warm spring hillside, combined with the threat of an internal split, they quickly changed course and eventually gave the July 26 Movement full support, fusing with it and the Revolutionary Directorate (R.D.), a mainly student organization based in Havana, to form a new governing party, the Integrated Revolutionary Organization (O.R.I.). Anibal Escalante, who had been a leader of the P.S.P., became O.R.I.’s Organizational Secretary and proceeded to use his position to appoint P.S.P. people to key positions in the party and government, often jumping over revolutionaries from other political backgrounds, and moving to get control over the state’s security forces.

The Canadian F.P.C.C. tour, scheduled to arrive in Havana for the July 26, 1961 celebrations, plus a proposal to send a delegation from the Canadian arts’ community at a later date, seems to have been victims of this factionalism. A list of twenty-five people had been submitted to I.C.A.P. by Verne, at the request of the Cuban Consul in Montreal, to arrive in Cuba in time for the celebrations. “(T)he list was an impressive one,” Ross Dowson wrote, trying to explain the reasons for the failure of the trip to take place, “prominent persons in the C.C.F.-N.D.P., the trade union movement and in Canadian letters…all persons who in some way or another had signified strong support of the revolution and were prepared to put themselves at the service of the revolution following their return by speaking both here and in the U.S. My name along with the secretary of the F.P.C.C. and Olson and his wife were included. At no time was there any exception to the list in any way expressed by anyone, local Cuban officials, Ottawa Embassy officials, I.C.A.P. officials in Cuba, etc., etc.”46 As the time neared when the F.P.C.C. would have to confirm to those on the list that the tour was definitely on, leadership of the Committee became anxious when nothing was heard from I.C.A.P., whose Director, Giraldo Mazola, Verne had learned, was either a member of — or was in the political orbit — of the P.S.P. In conversations with our contacts in the Cuban tourist bureau in Montreal and in our conversations with the Cuban Ambassador – all of whom we were convinced were supportive of the project – including several phone calls to I.C.A.P. in Havana — we would always be given assurances that matters were in good hands. Still nothing happened. Finally, Verne persuaded Leslie Dewart, before he had made his spectacular departure from the F.P.C.C. and whose father was Spanish and mother Cuban, to get involved. “After several contacts were made, Dewart informed V.O. (Verne Olson) that he was absolutely convinced that the Canadian F.P.C.C. was being given the run around Cuban style. He expressed the opinion it was Stalinist sabotage. He told V.O. that he had been noting that the short wave broadcasts from Cuba had been taking on more and more a C.P. character with more and more coming from Hoy and less and less from the Fidelista press services…he suggested that possibly I.C.A.P. had fallen into the hands of the C.P. and that the list was being sabotaged because there were no C.P.ers on it…”47 Although the Committee eventually sent five people to the 26th of July celebrations, we were finally forced to call off the larger tour of twenty-five, much to the disappointment of the prospective tour participants. And ours, I should add. It was a blow to the Committee and a very demoralizing one at that, not so much because the tour had been cancelled, but because of the manner in which it had happened: no explanation provided. Although we were never directly challenged about it by the Cubans, since then I’ve wondered that by placing names of Pat Mitchell and Ross Dowson on the list — two well known Trotskyists, especially that of Ross – may have been just too much for the Cubans to swallow, making it an easy target for those hostile to us in Cuba, and making it also more difficult for F.P.C.C. supporters there to give us their backing. The other proposal, made at the same time as the one for July 26th, for a tour made up of representatives from the Canadian arts world — upon which considerable effort had also been expended — was also nixed without explanation.48

By 1962, Fidel Castro had become so alarmed by the role of some P.S.P. people in O.R.I., in a major speech he created a sensation by publicly denouncing Anibal Escalante for meddling in government affairs and for creating in O.R.I. a “nest of privilege, of benefits, of a system of favours of all types,” and for alienating the party from the masses.49 Consequently, several P.S.P. people were removed from their positions in the bureaucracy, as was the head of police. With that speech by Castro, and another, “The Revolution Will Be a School Of Unfettered Thought,” both of which the F.F.C.C. quickly published in English, it confirmed to the world that Stalinist influence in the revolution would be under a watchful eye.

For the next couple of years, the Escalante affair had a major influence upon the political life of Cuba and there seemed to be an increasing openness towards the the Fourth International’s ideas. Normally regarded with anathema in China, Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R., we regarded it as important sign of acceptance when Ernest Mandel, the internationally recognized Belgian Marxist and leader of the Fourth International, whose work, “Marxist Economic Treatise” had just been published, received a formal invitation from the Cuban authorities to visit Cuba. “I’m due to leave for Cuba where very favourable developments for us are taking place,” he wrote with his typical enthusiasm.50 “Che has received my book and had whole chapters translated”, he wrote a correspondent,51 and to another, he wrote that he was, “On my way to Cuba. Cuban Ambassador has given me many parcels – expect to meet Raul and Che”52 and when he returned, “I’m just back from a long trip to Cuba (I stayed there for seven weeks in the course of which I had many long conversations with many leaders of the Revolution) …” I don’t remember if he met with Raul at that time but I remember it being reported to us that he had led several long seminars for the economics team around Che Guevara. A few years later, he also received an invitation to visit Cuba that “came through Fidel…they kept me there for six weeks”, he wrote.53

One of our best sources of information about Cuba in those years was a young intellectual in Havana who was politically close to us, Nelson Zayas Pozos, who many of our people met whenever they visited Havana. He was one of around fifteen people, some of them in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who were sympathetic to the views of the Fourth International. We got along with him so well, that at one point, one of our Toronto members, Brian Duhig, was dispatched to Havana for a lengthy stay to help him educate the people around him about our ideas. When Verne was there for a five-week trip toward the end of 1963, Nelson told him that the struggle against the C.P. was continuing. “All the preparations are being made to clean C.P.ers out of the Embassies in both Paris and London,” he said. A supporter of the Fourth International, Zayas “has many, many connections, is widely known and highly respected.”54 His closeness to the Fourth International can be later seen when he was in Paris preparing his doctorate and looking for a British publisher for his thesis, Ernest Mandel wrote a letter of introduction for him – “a very good friend of mine”, he said.55

Verne, whenever he was in Cuba, was always very careful in his dealings with the P.S.P. people he encountered. Even though they were a minority – about a third – in the new revolutionary party that the Castro forces were organizing, they still had considerable influence throughout Cuba. He would occasionally bump into them in the bureaucracy, he told us, and they would very often attempt to frustrate his work. Even in the best of times they would attempt to act as self-appointed “gate-keepers” for the people he wished to see. “Our informant reports that there were apparent efforts to frustrate his meeting and discussing with leading persons”, wrote Ross Dowson to the F.I.’s International Secretariat about one of Verne’s trips. “However, he did succeed in having several lengthy discussions with heads of departments concerned with North America. They apparently have been following our informant’s work closely, are amazed, are in complete agreement with its direction, consider it the only really important work being done in the area…”56 Verne, on one occasion, managed to meet with Raul Roa, Cuba’s United Nations’ representative, whom he reported was very supportive of the Committee’s solidarity work and insisted that all future tours be arranged through him.57 That Verne was able to function so well in such a complicated environment, I’m sure was due to his remarkable political astuteness and his experience in working class politics, but it must also have been helped by his commanding physical presence (although I knew he often harboured inner doubts about his own capacities). He stood well over six feet tall, and firmly holding his crutches under his arms, with Ann standing by his side, they exuded such a firm sense of purpose and ethical integrity, I’m sure they were able to have many doors opened to them that would have been otherwise closed.

One of the crosses Verne had to bear whenever he was in Cuba, however, was the sorry reputation of the official Cuban section of the International Secretariat, the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Trotskyista) (P.O.R.(T). Because of its sectarianism and ultra-leftism, it had become an easy target for P.S.P. factionalists but in our circles, little was known about it. As far as I can remember, the S.W.P and the L.S.A. at the time of the revolution did not have many, if any, supporters in Cuba so, but what news we did have about the P.O.R.(T) had certainly alarmed us. This tiny, recently formed organization seemed to be attempting to “be more revolutionary than the revolution”. I remember one time in New York in a discussion about the situation in Cuba, Fred Halstead and Richard Garza, a leader of the New York branch of the SWP, pointing out that during a critical period when the revolutionary government was seizing American assets, the P.O.R.(T) had been on the streets demanding the take-over of industry. We later learned that it subscribed to the views of Juan Posadas on the question of a possible nuclear war. He looked upon such a nightmare as perhaps being the prelude to social revolution, and even seemed to wish it. Furthermore, the P.O.R.(T) had drawn the wrath of the new revolutionary government because of its campaign to have the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo expelled, that would have required Cuba to launch an attack upon it. It had even produced a leaflet calling for a demonstration at the base, which the Fidelistas feared, (correctly so), might act as a provocation and pretext for the intervention of American imperialism, especially in the tense international situation following the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.58

Part of our difficulty in assessing the group in those years was that we simply lacked adequate information about it. We were still in the early stages of overcoming the 1953 division in the International and it was hard to find out who was who in some countries. As I’ve mentioned, the P.O.R.(T) was part of aminority grouping within the International Secretariat, affiliated to the “Latin American Bureau”, led by Juan Posadas. An F.I. grouping had ceased to exist in Cuba for many years – it had dissolved in 1947 — but after the revolution, Posadas in early 1960, assigned some of his leading people to go there to help get one re-established. It became the official Cuban section at the Sixth World Congress in January, 1961, where the position that Cuba was a workers’ state was adopted.59 That summer, even though our organizations in North America had strong disagreements with the Posadas group, we became very alarmed about its fate when we learned that its weekly publication, Voz Proletaria had been suppressed and the typeface for a Spanish language edition of Trotsky’s book, “Permanent Revolution”, which the group had been getting ready for printing, had been destroyed, during a so-called “intervention” by the government to take over the printing industry on the island. We knew nothing of the P.O.R.(T)’s circumstance as a result those events and wondered what this signified about democratic rights under the new regime.

Not long after that, Verne used the opportunity of a visit to Cuba for the July 26th celebrations to meet with the P.O.R.(T) to see if he could provide them some assistance and get some information from them about what had gone on with the suppression of their press. What follows is based upon a report he wrote when he had returned toToronto.60 Verne reports that he met with Idalberto Ferrera, the editor of the group’s journal, and Jose Lungarzo, who had been assigned to Cuba by Posadas. In Verne’s estimation, the organization consisted of approximately forty members, many of them in the militia or in the rebel army he was told, and was mostly made up of workers along with a few intellectuals and professional people. At no point did Verne discuss their alleged position of calling for the expulsion of the Americans from Guantanamo. It’s highly likely he was not aware at the time they had promoted such a position.

According to Verne, the P.O.R.(T) had three branches, one in Havana, and the others in Guantanamo City and Santiago de Cuba respectively.  Although Hoy, the official P.S.P. journal had carried articles attacking them, and even though P.S.P.ers in the unions had been labeling them as “counter-revolutionary”, the group had been able to function openly and relatively free from harassment.  Not all workers were buying the P.S.P. line, it seems.  In one plant, they told Verne, one of their members had been elected three times to a leadership position over fierce opposition from P.S.P. loyalists. The first sign of an escalation of trouble had come just as a May, 1961, issue of Voz Proletaria was going to press. An eight-page paper larger than tabloid size, it had by then appeared eight times, beginning in April.   Just as the ninth issue was about to be printed in one of the few privately-owned print shops in Havana, it was “intervened” – that is nationalized — by the National Print organization, that coincidently, was headed up by a well-known P.S.P. member.  It was a harsh action against the group and the editor and the workers in the print shop were told the paper would not be printed any longer because it was “counter-revolutionary”. Also, in the print shop was the typeface for a Spanish edition of Trotsky’s book, “Permanent Revolution”, which was being readied for publication;

it was removed by National Print, and presumably smashed. Lacking confidence in their actions, the “interveners” refused to put anything in writing.  A few months earlier, the group’s offices in Guantanamo City had been shut down under the pretext of late payment of rent and it wasn’t allowed to rectify the error, an action carried out against them by a civic official who was a member of the P.S.P. And just before the July 26 celebrations in Guantanamo City, a P.S.P. led union and a local defense-committee, distributed a leaflet calling on the workers to attend a local gathering celebrating the 26th, to strike a blow against the enemies of the revolution and listing the Trotskyists as such enemies. In that instance, the P.O.R.(T.) responded by quickly rushing out a statement into print, a copy of which they supplied Verne. “Workers and farmers”, it stated, “– everyone come to the Civic Square on the 26th of July, the date which commemorates an anniversary of the struggle which was started against the tyranny of Batista and the imperialist Yankee. With our presence we will demonstrate once more our unity in action to advance the Socialist Revolution. We will defeat imperialism and the internal counter-revolution, intensifying our agricultural and industrial production and revolutionary consciousness. For the defense and consolidation of our Cuban Workers State, the first in Latin America. LONG LIVE OUR SOCIALIST REVOLUTION; LONG LIVE THE COLONIAL REVOLUTION; LONG LIVE THE WORLD SOCIALIST REVOLUTION. Signed: Revolutionary Workers Party (Trotskyist), Cuban Section of the 4th International, Regional Committee of Guantanamo, Dated Guantanamo, 24th of July, 1961.” The leaflet was distributed throughout the city, but one of the P.O.R.(T.) members was arrested a few days later while he was handing it out. He worked on the railways and was subsequently, arbitrarily removed from his position in his union.

After his meetings with the POR(T) leaders, Verne met with Enrique De La Osa, the editor of Bohemia, a current-events journal published in Havana, to see if he could enlist his help. He told Verne that he was familiar with Voz Proletaria but had not known that it had been suppressed. Familiar with the works of Trotsky, he agreed with Verne that it had probably resulted from growing Stalinist influence and said he would meet with Idalberto Ferrera, the paper’s editor to see if a meeting could be arranged with Castro’s secretary, with the possibility of even meeting with Castro himself. The interview with De La Osa went very well, according to Verne, but we don’t know what happened to the possible interview with Fidel. I doubt this took place, because the attacks on the P.O.R.(T.) seemed to have the backing of Che Guevara, when he repeated some of the P.S.P.’s criticisms of the group in an interview carried in the August 15, 1961 edition of Ultima Hora, a Santiago de Chile newspaper, although Guevara in an earlier criticism, had referred to them as “Trotskyist comrades”, treating them as if they were part of a common struggle. We later learned from our sympathizer, Nelson Zayas Pozos, that Che’s first wife had been sympathetic to Trotskyism and that the only Trotskyists he had ever met were those of the P.O.R.(T.), that is until he went to revolutionary Algeria in 1964 where he met Michel Pablo and with whom he had been very favourably impressed. Pablo by that time had split from the F.I. and was functioning as an advisor to Ahmed Ben Bella, the new President of Algeria.

Within a year Posadas had hived off his Latin American Bureau from the Fourth International to “re-constitute” it as his own “Fourth International”. It lasted a few years before petering out but I remember running into the remnants of his grouping in Venezuela a few years ago, at the time of an international solidarity conference in Caracas. In my discussion with them they identified themselves to me as “supporters of Bandera Roja”, the main journal of Posadas that was no longer being published, and very quickly they revealed themselves to me to be extremely hostile to Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. They seemed to be totally out of sync with the radicalization sweeping Venezuela and I couldn’t distinguish their criticisms from what I was reading in the right-wing press in Caracas. It seemed to me that from their ultra-left days they had travelled quite a distance to the right.

But in 1966, a few years after the suppression of the P.O.R.(T), the S.W.P.s Joe Hansen — who strongly rejected the politics of the P.O.R.(T.) — spoke for all of the F.I. when he wrote about how it had been badly treated, saying that “It was injurious to the Cuban Revolution to muzzle the Posadas group…Was the Cuban Revolution so weak ideologically that it was incapable of answering even a Posadas?…The overhead cost of suppressing the group was rather high, for it gave substance to the false charge that the Cuban Revolution is going the way of the Russian Revolution, i.e., becoming Stalinized…The slowness of the process of setting up democratic institutions of proletarian rule is of concern to many supporters of the Cuban Revolution besides the Trotskyist movement.”61

Robert Williams, the American black revolutionary to whom we had provided succour in 1961 when he was fleeing the U.S, also had had his difficulties with the P.S.P. When they were in Cuba, Verne and Ann would often make a point of getting together with him and his wife Mabel, as would others from our group when they were in Cuba. Invariably charming and generous, they always gave us a warm welcome. In December, 1963, Verne and Ann, after several long conversations with Williams, noted that he had undergone considerable political change over the previous couple of years. Referring to when he had first met Williams in 1961, Verne wrote that “it was my impression that Rob was very soft on the Communist Party of the United States as well as the C.P.-U.S.S.R…. While not a C.P.er in our usage of the term, he was not receptive to any serious political criticism of the C.P…Now he has evolved 180 degrees and almost breaks out in hives when the word communist is mentioned in front of him.”62The American C.P., which in those years, had an orientation to the most conservative wing of the Black leadership, Williams told Verne, had launched an attack upon him in the Worker. It appeared to be a signal to its “Havana branch” to initiate a “Williams Must Go” campaign as it had begun to circulate a petition among American émigrés in Cuba demanding that he, Williams, be removed from Radio Havana. The reason for the hostility was that Williams’ views on the American Black struggle were diametrically opposed to those of the C.P. “The most important struggle in the U.S. today is the “Freedom Now” struggle,” he told Verne, “but the C.P. says that the emphasis upon the race question divides the working class”. According to them, “The struggle for socialism should be paramount to the struggle for Negro freedom”, he said. Williams, who had recently been in China where he had been treated like a “head of state”, said that China had taken a public stand in support of the “Freedom Now” struggle whereas Cuba – but not Fidel – seemed reluctant and even negligent about taking a position on the issue. He complained that an article he had written for Bohemia about his visit to China had yet to appear, which he figured was due to the influence of the C.P, but when Verne met with Enrique De La Osa, its editor, he learned that the article would be published soon, something that happened while Verne was there. Williams’ position inCuba may also have been influenced by the Sino-Soviet conflict. Early on, Cuba had tended towards sympathy for the Chinese side in the dispute, but by 1966 Fidel had publicly come out with a list of grievances against China, accusing the Chinese of trying to meddle in Cuba’s internal affairs by attempting to take advantage of the country’s desperate need to import rice, as a tool to pressure political compliance.63

As a result of having very little contact with the Cuban people in their everyday lives, Williams, in Verne’s estimation, tended to live in “the immediate past” and had a very limited and distorted picture of the Cuban reality, “completely divorced” from the political struggle that was underway between the P.S.P.ers, “the sectarians”, as Verne called them, and the Fidelistas, the ebb and flow of which may have effected Williams’ situation. “He is a true exile in every sense of that word”, Verne wrote. “He sees Cuba merely as a vantage point from which he conducts his struggle back home…Cuba is good or bad in his mind to the degree that he gets cooperation or hindrance in his efforts to conduct his struggle as he sees fit.”

Williams’ instrumentalist approach towards Cuba, it turned out, happened to be also true of how he regarded the people in Canada who had helped him the most in getting to Cuba in the first place and who were now circulating his Crusader throughout North America. He was not – despite his noble intentions — above careless behavior, however when it came to his dealings with us. This was seen the next year, 1965, when he took advantage of the naiveté of two young women from our ranks, Jess MacKenzie and Joan Newbigging – new members of the Y.S. – by enlisting them to act as go-betweens with his supporters in Detroit. This came about because at the last minute, the F.P.C.C. had received an invitation from I.C.A.P to send two representatives to Havana for the 1965 May Day Celebrations, traditionally a large international gathering of many thousands of people where Fidel usually gave a major address. Jess and Joan were the only ones in the F.P.C.C. in a position to make such a trip on short notice and rather than letting the invitation lapse, the Executive Committee recommended they represent the organization. Jess and Joan, aged twenty-two, both fresh out of University, had arrived in Toronto the previous year from Scotland as landed immigrants and were overjoyed at the opportunity to go.

Jess and Joan were strong supporters of the Cuban Revolution. Like many young people in Britain in those years, especially students, Joan and Jess before they had come to Canada, had begun to develop a social awareness about the world and had been active participants in the anti-apartheid struggle and the ban the bomb movement. Through the happy circumstance of having rented an apartment in the same house where a number of our members lived, they were soon won over to our organization and had become active in the Y.S., becoming executive members and not long after, members of the L.S.A. When they were preparing to leave for Havana, Verne asked them to make contact with Williams, providing them with his phone-number and address. They met Williams several times in Havana and were given a warm welcome by him, but they were struck by how paranoid he seemed to be every time they got together with him. He was always seemed to be looking over his shoulder and suggested he was being followed by the security forces or P.S.P. people. Williams — who was moving quickly to Maoism by this time – may have aroused the suspicions of the Cubans, who began to question his motives. After all, it was the Cuban government that was helping him finance his stay in Havana and had given him a radio program on Radio Havana to speak to black Americans and was probably wondering what their famous black guest was up to. Jess says she remembers that she and Joan seemed to be also under some kind of suspicion by Cuban authorities during their visit because while they were able to participate in the celebrations without any problems, even being given favoured seats for the celebrations, they were closely followed around by the police and were restricted in where they could go in Havana, unlike other international guests, probably a result of their association with Williams.

Williams, who as Verne had noted, was relatively isolated in Cuba and effectively cut off from his supporters in Detroit because of the American travel ban, and obviously anxious keep in touch with them, through the force of his powerful personality ended up persuading Jess and Joan to become couriers for him between Havana and his supporters in Detroit for the purpose of smuggling money and documents back and forth. He swore them to secrecy about this endeavour, persuading them to keep their new “assignment” hidden from the L.S.A., including Verne and the F.P.C.C., saying it was probable that the R.C.M.P. might have spies in these organizations and it would place him and his supporters in danger.

Another memorable aspect of that May Day visit for Jess and Joan was an unexpected development in Algeria that threw their plans for returning to Toronto into chaos. Houari Boumediene, a military leader in the independence war against the French, in a counter-revolutionary coup d’état, overthrew the progressive government of Ahmed Ben Bella. Cuba, which had been in the forefront in supporting that liberation struggle against French colonialism, had mobilized its people to give assistance to the new government, was now compelled, because of fears for their safety amidst the politically uncertainty, to immediately recall its citizens who had volunteered to go to Algeria to assist with health and education. This required the re-routing of all of Cuba’s commercial air-craft to Algiers to bring them home. There would be no planes flying to Canada, Jess and Joan learned, until all the Cubans had returned from Algeria.

As a result, they were stranded in Havana for several weeks, unable to get a flight home.

By the time Jess and Joan got back to Toronto from Havana, they were in a very tense state because of their fears about carrying a large sum of money concealed on their persons through Canadian customs for delivery to Williams’ Detroit people. The L.S.A. leadership was ignorant of all these clandestine arrangements with Williams, but had noticed that since Jess and Joan had gotten back, they had been acting unusually reticent about their experiences in Cuba and seemed to be taking their distance from us, prompting Verne to have a discussion with them to find out what had gone on. That’s when he learned the details of Williams’ actions. It had been clearly a mistake to have sent such relatively inexperienced people to Cuba to be taken advantage of in this way. After learning what had happened, Verne and Ross Dowson, tried to make the best of the situation and decided to help out. A Williams’ supporter in Detroit was contacted, who immediately drove up toToronto to get the money, along with the package of documents Williams had sent. Eventually, Williams left Cuba for China where he remained for several years before returning to Detroit in the 1980’s.

Organizing representatives from the cultural community, from the labour movement and universities every year to go to Cuba to get a glimpse of the improvements the Cuban Revolution was making in the lives of ordinary Cubans, continued to be a main feature of the work of the F.P.C.C. But this activity virtually came to an end after 1965. During that summer, the F.P.C.C. – mainly Verne and Ann — had worked feverishly at organizing something special for the July 26th celebrations. The previous year’s students’ tour, despite a few difficulties, had come off very well, but what was envisaged for 1965, would be more ambitious, much larger, encompassing at least one hundred students from major university campuses across the country. In the end it all came to nothing, and would throw F.P.C.C.’s relations with the Cuban government into a severe crisis. According to the F.P.C.C., the tour had “been launched early in March after a firm commitment from the Cuban institution I.C.A.P. was obtained through the Cuban Ambassador to Canada, Dr. Americo Cruz”64 and Verne had proceeded to organize it in the knowledge that the Ambassador, whom we regarded as a firm supporter of the Committee, had also helped him formulate the original tour proposal to I.C.A.P. Even though by this time we had suspicions there might be a change of attitude by the Cubans towards the Committee — possibly as a consequence of the growing closeness of Cuba to the U.S.S.R. due to the American embargo — we figured the same arrangements for 1964 would work again this time. It was planned to be the best ever. The intention was to send 100 students for eight weeks. But the Committee was quickly thrown into a huge crisis when only two weeks before the students were to leave for Havana, Verne received the startling news “that the tour was called off by the Cuban authorities without explanation.”65

Verne immediately flew to Havana where he spent five days trying persuade I.C.A.P to reverse its decision, but I remember him telling us later that as far as he was concerned he had not received a satisfactory explanation for the plug having been pulled and had gotten the run-around from the Institute’s officials when he met with them, although some of them seemed a little embarrassed about the cancellation but seemed incapable of giving him a straight answer, only saying that I.C.A.P. was in the midst of “discussions” about its relations with all international solidarity groups. As a result, the F.P.C.C. issued a statement to the public and its supporters, under the signatures of Verne and Andre Beckerman, chairman of the Student Committee on Cuban Affairs at the University of Toronto and a member of the L.S.A., that stated, “four years’ work … has now been jeopardized, not by the external enemies of the Revolution, but by the arbitrary action of an institution of the Revolutionary Government”

The F.P.C.C., for the first time since its formation, aside from taking on I.C.A.P., and throwing all caution to the wind, was also, by implication, pointing a finger at Cuba’s revolutionary government, something I probably agreed with but from this distance in time, I have some reservations with the statement. It didn’t pull any punches nor was it very diplomatic about what it thought were the reasons for the cancellation. Using the code-word, “sectarian” to point to what it thought was the role of the ex-P.S.P. members’ influence in the affair, the F.P.C.C. asserted, gave an opinion really without any hard facts to back it up, that “the student tour was the victim of sectarian forces within the Revolution itself which have been measurably strengthened in recent months as a result of the critical international situation” and that the cancellation would be “a source of satisfaction only to the sworn enemies of the Cuban Revolution, or to hopeless sectarians”. “The Fair Play for Cuba Committee has been struck a harsh blow”, the statement concluded, “but our confidence in the Cuban people and their cause, and the pressing need to continue our activities in defense of the Revolution, is unshaken.” 66 This was followed up a couple of days later by a joint letter addressed directly to Fidel Castro, the Prime Minister, signed by, among others, Harry Kopyto, Hans Modlich and John Riddell, all members of the L.S.A. but also leaders of several campus Fair Play clubs, stating that while regretting “the strong tone of this letter”, the signatories believed that “unjust vilification has been directed toward the Committee serving as an agent for this tour…we suspect the Committee and in turn the students have become victims of pressure politicking and, if so, the exigencies of the issue warrants the immediate attention of the Cuban people” and asking for “a reversal of the unfortunate decision.”67

Stung by the F.P.C.C. criticism, I.C.A.P. wasn’t long in coming back with a sharp rebuff. In a press release issued under the signature of Giraldo Mazola, I.C.A.P’s Director that received a big play in Canadian Tribune, the L.P.P.’s weekly, he challenged the assertion that the cancellation had been “left to the last minute”. I.C.A.P. at any given moment, he stated, “confronts the need to postpone some projects not contemplated in its yearly planning due to strictly budgetary reasons”. “From the very beginning of the elaboration of this plan”, he claimed “this matter was brought to the attention of the organizers, and it was clearly pointed out to them not to encourage young students about the trip without previously having an affirmative answer.” It is not true that “the reasons for the cancellation were not explained and, far from it, that Mr. Olson had the approval from our Embassy.” And taking up the direct political attack upon I.C.A.P. in the F.P.C.C. statement that had alluded to “sectarian forces within the Revolution”, Mazola issued a strong reprimand, in an argument that one can easily see, again from this vantage point in time, the Committee could not have won, and probably had made a mistake in raising it in the first place. “(T)hey refer to certain matters, which since long ago have been overcome by our Revolution, echoing in a subtle way what the imperialists cry out and pretends to insinuate: the existence of factions, divisions or groups within the Revolution, yet this insinuation crashes against reality, stumble(s) upon the Cuban revolutionarys’ stern unity who consciously and most decisively break through all difficulties to achieve victory. Regardless of how frequent this pretended division is printed in foreign releases, it will not materialize.”

While expressing surprise at Mazalo’s assertion that he had been told not to “encourage” students about the tour, in a further comment on the matter, Verne pointed out that he had only proceeded after a “telegram received from Havana on March 6th which we interpreted as leaving in doubt only the numbers…”68 I don’t know if I.C.A.P replied to the “Postscript”, but Joe Hansen, who had been copied in on the various statements that had been going to and fro between Toronto and Havana, began to grow alarmed that the matter may have been getting out of hand. “It appears to me that it would be well to drop any further pursuit of the polemic,” he wrote to Verne, “even if the last word is left to the other side…I believe that the Canadian friends of the Cuban Revolution would stand to gain by doing their utmost to reciprocate any efforts from any quarter whatsoever in Cuba to overcome the effects of the setback…This can be done by dropping the dispute, restraining those who want to pursue it, and accepting in the most vigourous way anything offered to make up for the setback.”69 “Your advice has been digested and acted upon”, replied Verne.70

Of course, the F.P.C.C.’s members and supporters were devastated by what had transpired, but I remember we sort of comforted ourselves with what looked like a glimmer of hope in Mazola’s reply when he referred to the student tour as having been “postponed to another date, when it would be conveniently feasible” and that might mean, we hoped, that we would have I.C.A.P’s cooperation in the future, so we began to discuss a proposal for another student tour and continued with our activities in defense of Cuba. But the Committee’s relations with the Institute did not look good as could be seen later that summer when the Committee sent two representatives to Havana to represent it in the July 26th celebrations. “I.C.A.P refused to accept them as part of the Canadian delegation”, Verne wrote to Joe Hansen. “They had had several talks with secondary officials in the Institute, who revealed the deep hostility which our statement aroused. On the last day of their visit they were able to see the Director who was full of venom, labeling myself and the Committee as ‘agents of imperialism’”. And despite appearances, things were not going well with the Cuban Ambassador either. A long-time supporter of the Committee, we had assumed he had not changed his attitude to it during the whole kerfuffle over the cancellation. He had been in Cuba for three months during the dispute and when he returned he told Verne that it “was the desire of the Ministry, to repair the damage done to our Committee, and that he was prepared to undertake a tour of Canada under our auspices.”71 And at the F.P.C.C.’s annual banquet that year, on November 20th, celebrating the Fifth Anniversary of the Revolution, with close to 200 supporters in attendance, and where he was the featured speaker, “he expressed a warm appreciation of Vernel Olson, who launched the Committee, thanked the committee for its efforts to establish the truth about the Cuban revolution in Canada, and pledged himself to help the committee in every possible way in the coming years that he expected to be here.”72

But the Ambassador’s words turned out to be a kind of diplomatic double-speak, especially when it came to Vancouver where a similar banquet had taken place and where F.P.C.C.’s executive body was made up almost entirely of people not affiliated to the L.S.A., the exception being Phil Courneyour, its organizational secretary and its main leader alongside Cedric Cox. Cox and several other members, including John Macey, a prominent left-wing Vancouver lawyer, had been upset by the tour cancellation and the dispute with I.C.A.P. and were very unhappy with the public statement that Verne and Andre had issued about it. Hugh Clifford, a major figure in the left of the N.D.P, who had developed an antipathy to the L.S.A. over the previous couple of years, was of the opinion that the L.S.A. had been entirely responsible for what had happened. According to Phil, he was questioning whether because of it, he should stand again for re-election to the Committee’s executive. Despite his reassuring words to Verne, the Ambassador, it seems, during his visit to Vancouver to speak at the banquet, sought to exploit this crisis for his own purposes. He met privately with Cedric, something Phil did not find out about until two months later when he learned from Cedric that the Ambassador had told him directly that “he had been instructed to break off relations with Fair Play by Havana and that he could no longer deal with Cedric or the Vancouver Committee, (and that) he asked Cedric to form a Friends of Latin America Committee…” Cruz charged that Fair Play was “a Trotskyist organization using its influence to interfere in Cuba’s political affairs” and among other things, Verne Olson “maintains correspondence with dubious people (who are being watched). He uses his contacts in Havana to pressure the ministry and bypass normal channels. He sends Trotskyist literature to Cuba. He tries to interfere in Cuban politics…”73 The problem for the Ambassador, however, was that despite his behind the scenes maneuvering to replace the F.P.C.C. with something that he could perhaps exert more control over, he could find no one to go along with his plans and he had to face the hard reality that the Fair Play had more public support, especially on the West Coast, and had been a lot more successful in promoting Cuba than the Communist Party’s committee. So, Verne, understanding that the Ambassador was smart enough to know that Fair Play was the only game in town, and choosing to overlook his activities in Vancouver, began the difficult work at rebuilding the Committee’s relationship with him. But even though the Committee continued to send guests to Cuba for special events, such as anniversary celebrations like May Day and the 26th of July, the 1964 student tour turned out to be the last that the F.P.C.C. organized.

The crisis over the aborted 1965 tour would not be the last in the difficult relations between the Canadian F.P.C.C. and the Cubans. They would reach another low in early 1966. At the Tri-Continental Congress that year in Havana on January 15th, Fidel Castro, whom we came to believe had been influenced by Regis Debray, the French radical intellectual and writer who had been teaching in Havana and who was associated with the top circles of the former Cuban C.P., went out of his way to attack Monthly Review – an American magazine sympathetic to Cuba– and zeroed in on the ultra-leftism of the Posadists about their irresponsible speculation concerning the disappearance of Che Guevara. It is now well known that Che had left Cuba because he was preparing for the opening of a guerilla front in Bolivia, but at the time, many in the big business media were speculating – with no basis in fact –that he had been murdered by Castro. This was a slander also repeated by Adolpho Gilly, a main spokesperson for the Posadists in those years and also spread, incidentally, by many in the sectarian left — who claimed that Che, because of so-called political differences over China, had been “liquidated” by Castro. Fidel at the Tri-Continental Congress, in the process of taking up the speculation about Che, also used the occasion to launch an attack upon Trotskyism, in a tone reminiscent of the worst of Stalinism, characterizing the Fourth International as “…a vulgar instrument of imperialism and reaction”, referring to it as “mercenaries in the services of imperialism.”

Even though we suspected that Castro’s comments were possibly based on the grievously erroneous  positions of the Posadists, the Fourth International in order to defend itself,  was compelled  to make a sharp reply:  “The dossier you placed before the participants…is made up of amalgams and links which collapse at the slightest touch…”, it stated, showing that Castro was employing the methods of the Stalinists in attempting to connect statements and actions of individuals and groups — who had long left the organization – with the F.I. “It is shameful, Comrade Fidel Castro, to utilize your prestige and the admiration and affection which the revolutionary masses of the entire world feel for the Cuban Revolution to dig out of the dustbin of history the slanders and lies that no one dares to utter, even in the Soviet Union itself, after the twentieth and twenty-second Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!”  The F.I. demanded that Castro “submit his proofs before a Tribunal of the Cuban people; five of the most representative leaders of the Fourth International are ready to stand before such a public Tribunal and answer the accuser before the people of all Cuba. Thus the people of Cuba will discover that the entire activities of the Fourth International are devoted to but one aim: the victory of the world socialist revolution!74

A few weeks later, Pierre Frank, while discussing Castro’s attack, went even further and took up some of the limitations that were inherent in the character of the Congress. At a meeting in London, which I reported on at the time, he told us that a basic weakness of the event was that many of the delegations, instead of representing independent revolutionary movements, came from states under C.P. control or from states that had won a measure of political independence from imperialism and thus were limited by the conservative bureaucratic outlook or passing diplomatic needs of the rulers of those countries. Consequently, despite its many positive achievements and declarations, the Tricontinental Congress was unable to work out a consistent world strategy of revolutionary struggle and such statements as Castro’s on January 15th made against us, Pierre said, would probably remain unchallenged by the delegates.75

Because of what they believed was its implication for Cuban solidarity in Canada, the F.P.C.C. also responded to Castro’s attack against the F.I. “We are not concerned here”, it stated, “with a defense of the Fourth International, Trotskyism or Trotskyists, real or alleged, in an academic sense. We assume they will respond as they see fit. What is of serious concern though, is the integrity of the Fair Play for Cuba and persons associated with the Committee. It goes without saying that the Committee would have to take some actions if known ‘mercenaries’ or ‘agents of imperialism’ were active in its ranks.” Stressing that the F.P.C.C. was a broad non-exclusive organization open to all those who have shown interest in furthering the truth about Cuba, the executive challenged the Castro charges head on: “For five years of experience of the Committee in Canada has shown”, they said,” “that persons who are known adherents of, or sympathizers of the organization in Canada known as Trotskyist, have been among the most active, energetic and enthusiastic defenders of the truth about the Cuban Revolution…We have no evidence to sustain or justify the allegations of Prime Minister Castro regarding Trotskysists, Adolfo Gilly or Monthly Review…These charges by the most respected leader of the Revolution – charges which are not confirmed in any respect by our experience, but on the contrary are unacceptable to any serious political tendency on the North American continent – will make this task unnecessarily difficult and will impede further development.” 76 The F.P.C.C. called upon Castro to “reassess” and “repudiate his charges against proven defenders of the Cuban Revolution.” The following year, on the anniversary of Castro’s speech when Radio Havana re-broadcast it with the attack upon Trotskyism carefully edited out, we felt a measure of vindication and comfort in our belief that Castro may have been misled on the issue by some of his advisors.

During the dispute with I.C.A.P. over the student tour, Verne, it seems, had begun to revise his views about what lay behind the cancellation. In the F.P.C.C.’s June 3rd, ,1965 statement issued under Verne’s and Andre Beckerman’s signatures that did not mention anything about the Castro leadership’s role in the affair, Verne had not too subtly ascribed the cancellation as being due to the influence of C.P. elements within I.C.A.P. But during his five-day visit to Havana as he sought to have the decision reversed, as he told Joe Hansen soon after in a letter on June 8th, he had come to see the cancellation as an expression of a general conservatizing trend within Cuba that had resulted from its growing closeness to the Soviet Union – it had ninety percent of the island’s trade – and it could be also be seen in Castro’ March 11th,, criticisms of China that year, provoked by its prevention of Cuban arms getting to Vietnam – in which he referred to the “senile Mao”. Two days later Castro called for the banning in Cuba of Hsinhua, a Chinese weekly widely read on Cuban campuses. “Up until this speech”, Verne wrote, “the Chinese view was popular and widely read on campus. Today, political discussions are rare on campus and discretion seems to be the better part of valour for all students regarding controversial subjects. This attitude seems to permeate the whole country if my sampling was indicative of a trend…” While there were justifiable concerns about C.I.A. activity on the campus, Verne wrote to Joe, many of his contacts had become alarmed by efforts by the Federation of University Students (F.E.U.) and the Young Communists “to drive from the university all students who are not completely identified with the revolution as well as counter-revolutionary students and homosexuals, etc.” “There seems little doubt”, he wrote, “that the general situation described is the basic cause of the cancellation of the Student Tour which we had organized. Information gained would suggest that this move was not a high-handed action on the part of conscious Stalinist forces but was taken with at least the knowledge of the tacit approval…(and) could well indicate a qualitative change in the relationship of forces within the revolution itself.”77

By February 21st of the following year, Verne had come to believe that the negative political trends, “the beginnings of new and profound changes”, that he had noted in his earlier letter, had further deepened. In a long, dense, closely-typed six-page letter to Joe Hansen, he wrote that part of the evidence for this change had come from, “two comrades who visited Cuba in July”, and who were told by two of their contacts “that there was no internal intellectual life in Cuba. The line was set by the top leadership and no discussion or dissent is allowed. In the libraries, Trotskyist publications have disappeared from the news rack and libraries have removed books by the Old Man (Trotsky).” Verne also criticized The Militant, the S.W.P.’s weekly paper, for taking “at face value” what Castro had said about trade with China and urged the “need for a serious evaluation of the Cuban Revolution” by the S.W.P in the light of what was occurring. Relying on anecdotal information from people such as Robert Williams – who by phone had told him that “all dissenters are being called Trotskyist” – he had come to the conclusion that there had been a serious shift to the right by the Cuban government, a shift that also could be seen in the pattern of events that included “the removal of Che” by Fidel for political reasons and Che’s disappearance from public life; the January 15th, 1966, speech by Fidel attacking the Fourth International; Cuba’s support for the Kremlin in the Sino-Soviet dispute; the clamping down of political discussion on the University of Havana campus, and the cancellation of the F.P.C.C. student tour.

According to “a Canadian friend”, Verne reported, a Fred Brown who has spent the previous 2 1/2 years teaching at the invitation of Fidel Castro at the University of Havana, “Castro himself was very angry over our statement following the cancellation of the student tour; the decision to cancel being a top level one.  Castro has been moving to the right not only in regards to foreign policy but also in regards to internal policy.  The result of this, he says, is a growing disenchantment with the leadership of the Revolution among growing layers of the Cuban masses…and was most dramatically expressed in the large, surprisingly large, numbers which our friend reported as having registered with the announcement by Castro that anyone wishing to leave could do so. The report is that 500,000, yes five hundred thousand persons registered to leave…”78  Verne was referring here to a recent propaganda offensive against Cuba by the American government when it had offered to accept anyone into the United States who wished to leave the island, an offer it would quickly revoke when the Cuban government turned the tables on it and informed its citizens that anyone who wished to leave the country could freely do so.

Joe Hansen wasn’t very long in replying to Verne’s February 21st letter, and questioned his conclusions. “The facts you report are of greatest interest”, Joe wrote, “and must be given due weight in estimating what is occurring in Cuba and what our attitude should be. I would say, however, that while we accumulate material of this kind, in addition to facts from other sources, and while we should speak out emphatically on any particular event as clear-cut as the attack in Castro’s January 15th speech, it would be premature to take the public position that a qualitative change has actually occurred; i.e., that we now face a degenerated workers state.” Regarding the growth of bureaucratism in Cuba, he wrote, “I do not have the slightest doubt that this has been occurring – and on a dangerous scale.” But has this reached the point, Joe asked, “where it can be said that a hardened caste has crystallized out, one that can only be removed by political revolution? If this is so, then we should of course say it. But I am not sure that it is the case. We should recall what happened around Escalante. At that time too, Castro appeared not to be seeing what was happening – if anything it could be concluded from a distance that he was abetting it – and incidents were rife of the kind you cite. But as it turned out the bureaucratic crust was not as deep or as hardened as it appeared to be. The experience should incline us to be all the more cautious for the time being in coming to a definitive conclusion on this.”

In taking up Verne’s concern about the half million Cubans who had recently registered to leave Cuba, Joe in his letter, cautioned against jumping to “one sided or impressionistic conclusions” about the matter. “Whatever the reasons adduced to explain this, they remain meaningless in the absence of a comparable offer from Washington to any other country”, he wrote. “How many would register to come to the United States from Venezuela or Brazil, for instance, if they were given the opportunity? Only with at least one control case could the 500,000 figure be seen in the balance – and then it might show Cuba in a favourable light. Despite all the pressure from the U.S., the tightening blockade that has lasted almost six years, the constant threat of invasion, the hardships and absence of an early perspective of substantial relief, only this number wished to leave the beleaguered fortress…whereas in Venezuela, for instance, virtually the entire population registered” when the Americans made a similar proposal. If some weariness has finally set in, Joe warned, “then it would be a considerable error to interpret this weariness as revolutionary fervor to which the leaders no long respond. It may be the other way around; the leaders are beginning to reflect the weariness of the masses.”

Regarding Che Guevara and his disappearance from public life in Cuba, Hansen countered that responsible sources in the capitalist media did not believe that Che was dead, and that the New York Times, editorially, was also speculating that, because of ill health he might be in a sanatorium, possibly in Russia. “In the absence of good evidence one way or the other it would be foolish of us to be impressed by or help circulate rumours concerning Guevara’s supposed death, particularly the version pinning guilt on Castro.” On the question of the Sino-Soviet conflict, Joe stated that this had, “enormously complicated things for the Cubans. Their economic and defense needs compelled them to maintain good relations with Moscow. The Soviet bureaucracy has taken full advantage of this to put the squeeze on them. The Cubans have paid for this in political coin up and down the line. That this has been done generally in an unprincipled way is a mark, of course, of the limitations of the Castroist leadership; but a big share of the responsibility lies at Mao’s door. Instead of being designed to help the Cubans maintain a certain distance from Moscow, Mao’s policy seems expressly designed to leave no room for Cuba to hold an independent position. By forcing Castro to come out decisively, Mao made him choose Moscow’s side. This weakened China. In analyzing this point it is necessary to look beyond the immediate issues in the debate, such as the rice-sugar deal, to the bigger moves in the Sino-Soviet dispute. The actual rift between Peking and Havana began in 1964 and the responsibility was wholly Mao’s. When the Cuban delegation ran into this in China, they could not believe what had happened since their sympathies in the dispute were with China.”

Joe concluded by restating the S.W.P.’s approach to Cuba’s internal problems. “During all these years we understood what was involved. The Cuban Stalinists were rabidly anti-Trotskyist; the new revolutionary leaders and cadres were rather sympathetic to us; but they consciously subordinated their own feelings to what they conceived to be the most realistic policy vis-à-vis Moscow. Our policy has been to strengthen the hand of those who incline in our direction, and particularly not to undertake factional moves that would make things difficult for them. That is the one reason our rating with them has remained high and why we have continued to be appreciated as a force in Cuba and not just a sectarian group.”79

But by the time of this exchange of correspondence, Nelson Zayas Pozo, a Cuban, friendly to our political views, who had worked in the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations, was in Paris to begin his studies towards obtaining his doctorate. I am assuming he is the “David” referred to in Verne’s reply of March 31st to Joe. I couldn’t find a copy of his letter in the archives, but from Verne’s reply, it seems that Zayas, one of our most reliable sources of information inthose years about the internal situation in Cuba, had earlier written to Verne and had questioned the reliability of some of his sources, especially that of the Canadian already mentioned, Fred Brown, the lecturer at the University of Havana. Although not directly saying so, Zayas had not agreed with Verne’s assessment of what was taking place in Cuba, as can be seen from a letter he wrote to him two days after Castro’s January 15th speech, in which he provided information about the positive attitude of leading figures in the government – such as Ricardo Alarcon who at the time was Director of North and South American affairs – towards the F.P.C.C. and the declining political fortunes of a few leading P.S.P. people he was aware of, including the general receptivity to Trotskyist literature among people with whom he was acquainted.80 It appears that Joe had shown Zayas, Verne’s long letter of February 21st. In his March 31st reply to Joe, Verne admits that the assessment of the Canadian, Fred Brown, about what was happening in Cuba may not have been entirely accurate: “It is quite true that Fred’s last months in Cuba were most disorienting and I do not doubt that for a period he completely lost his base, particularly under the influence of his wife who was on the verge of an emotional and mental breakdown. It is also true that some of his associates were with persons not completely tied to the Revolution. But for this reason, his testimony has a certain value and validity, if properly sifted and interpreted…” Verne goes on to say that Joe had mis-read his February 21st letter. “The sharp nature of my comments and possible overstatement of my position was the result of a desire on my part to dramatize my concern with the present course of the movement (i.e., the Fourth International) was on regarding the Cuban Revolution…I did not intend to suggest that we should draw a balance sheet on the Cuban Revolution as you suggest.” It certainly would be wrong, he wrote, to “take a public position that a qualitative change has actually occurred, i.e., that we now face a degenerated workers state…” But nevertheless, Verne goes on to presents further evidence that would go towards substantiating such a conclusion. “An apparatus loyal to the Castro leadership is well on the way to being molded”, he wrote, “and will inevitably – through gradual formulation of its own special interests – form the base of a privileged caste…At the present time Castro is able to make use of his anti-Stalinist past, and the confidence that the masses have in his leadership based on past performance, in order to institute Stalinist type practices and institutions.”81

Not long after his March 31st letter to Joe, Verne, sadly, had resigned from the L.S.A. and the F.P.C.C. His differences with the L.S.A. and S.W.P. about their assessment of the recent changes in Cuba had led him to believe he could no longer support the L.S.A.’s viewpoint in the Committee. He had developed strong disagreement, he said, with the L.S.A. team he had been part of from the beginning of the Committee. Much in line with Joe Hansen’s understanding of recent events in Cuba, the L.S.A. had maintained its analyses adopted soon after the revolution that Cuba was a workers’ state, but as yet lacking in democratic forms of workers’ control, and that socialists everywhere had a primary duty to defend it against imperialism. Verne was not challenging the need to defend Cuba, but his concerns were about the significance of the changes he was pointing to. From this vantage point now, it’s possible to see that there was no reason the discussion could not have continued. He was a hundred percent in support of Cuba and no principle was involved in the disagreement. We could have easily agreed to disagree, but by then he had “lost confidence in the movement (i.e., the L.S.A.), at all levels, resulting from deep differences with the comrades”, as he wrote in his letter of resignation from the L.S.A. “The answer which Joe gave to my initial letter”, he wrote, “also went a long way towards establishing or re-enforcing this tendency…this loss of confidence was under way before Castro’s Jan. 15th speech.”82

Verne’s position as Chairman of Fair Play was soon taken over by Hans Modlich. Verne continued to play an important part in the Committee’s activities, but not to the same degree as before and not as a member of its executive committee. Hans, a long-time member of its executive and a student leader at the University of Toronto had been part of the grouping of the L.S.A. members, such as Pat Mitchell and others, who had originally been tasked with helping Verne get it off the ground. And the Committee’s relations with the Cuban Ambassador improved to the degree that Ross Dowson, probably Canada’s best known Trotskyist, attended the first congress of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (O.L.A.S.) in Havana in 1967, at the invitation of the Cubans.83 Even though its membership had declined from when it was first formed – to “slightly less than a hundred in the Toronto area” — the Committee maintained a very active chapter in Vancouver, continued to enjoy broad support across the country. ”84 And the red-baiting by the right-wing press did not let up. In 1968 the Committee came under a severe witch-hunting attack from Peter Worthington in the right-wing Toronto Telegram – no doubt assisted by information provided by the R.C.M.P. –with photographs of Hans and others of its leadership displayed across its pages. As a result, Hans was forced to abandon his engineering career and to return to University because of the difficulty of finding work due to the witch-hunting. But most people in the broad labour movement saw the red-baiting for what it was. For example, the Workers Vanguard reports that at the tenth anniversary celebration on January 4th, 1969, where Hans Modlich chaired the event and that was attended by some 150 people, the Cuban Consul, Humberto Castanedo and his wife formally greeted the guests on the their arrival and the Master of Ceremonies was no less than Gerry Caplan, a leader of the N.D.P., and that Verne read greetings to the meeting from Stephen Lewis, then N.D.P. M.P.P. for Scarborough West. Both prominent N.D.P.ers to this day – and no friends of the Trotskyists – must have been well aware of the red-baiting the previous year.85 Every year, the Committee, right into 1970, continued with its successful banquets, to which the Ambassador would always either send messages of support, or personally attend and speak.

Nevertheless, the Committee’s activities were reduced, but every month, it kept up its commitment to the Cubans by mailing 400 copies of the English edition of the Cuban publication, Granma to its Canadian subscribers. One of the Committee’s last activities was the touring across Canada of a photographic exhibit, “Cuba Today”, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. On display for three weeks at the Sigmund Samuel Library at the U of T, it was displayed at campuses, churches and libraries across the country.86

The F.P.C.C. remained active for the rest of the decade and into the very early Seventies, holding film showings, telling the truth about Cuba to whoever would listen and celebrating its important anniversaries every year, often with speeches and gatherings at banquets, attended by hundreds of supporters, usually with the Cuban Ambassador present along with many Cuban consular officials and their families. And support for Cuba among Canadians continued to increase, no doubt helped by the Committee’s persistent work — for example, in the March1969, N.D.P. paper, the Democrat, the B.C. party’s provincial secretary reported to the membership that the following October, the party would sponsor a two-week tour of the island.87 By the end of the decade, nonetheless, Fair Play was beginning to run out of steam. There is “overload and fatigue in the members”, wrote Phil Courneyour, secretary of the Committee in Vancouver. In a letter to Toronto he reported that a film showing about Cuba, into which they had put a lot of resources to promote, had been far from a success, with only 75 people showing up.88

Verne died of a sudden heart-attack in 1999. A severe depression had forced him to take early retirement from Ontario Hydro and for a long time he had withdrawn from any serious political activity, although many of his friends from the old days would often visit him and Ann to discuss what was going on in the world. Whenever we visited, we always came away impressed with his insights and optimism about the future, though sometimes all of us despaired a little about what was happening in the class struggle with the rise of neo-liberalism. When Ann died suddenly, in 1994, I remember well that Robert Williams, although obviously in a state of poor health, made the long journey up from Detroit to stay with Verne and attend Ann’s funeral, such was his feeling of solidarity with him. Jess and I helped organize a commemoration at Verne’s funeral. Many of his comrades and old friends were there to bid him goodbye and pay tribute to his remarkable life. Even though it had been many years since Verne had been active in defense of Cuba, a delegation from the Cuban consulate made a point to be there to pay tribute to his memory and to tell the audience about the significance of his contribution in helping Cuba during some of its most difficult days. It reminded all of us that through Verne and the radical left as a whole, we had helped provide critical space so that the Cuban Revolution could be considered by Canadians on its own merits. It was a moving tribute to an exemplary life which had been dedicated to humanity’s struggle for a socialist future, and in the words of the Cuban Consul who addressed the gathering, a life that had found its most creative expression in defending Cuba against American imperialism.

Notes

1          p98, “Three Nights in Havana”, by Robert Wright, quoted in Cynthia Wright’s essay, “Between Nation and Empire”, in ”Our Place In The Sun: Canada and Cuba in the Castro Era”, edited by

Robert Anthony Wright and Lana Wylie, University of Toronto Press, 2009.

2          Review of C. Wright Mills’ “Listen Yankee”, International Socialist Review, Spring, 1960.

3          Workers Vanguard, Mid-January, 1959, Vol. 4

4          The Militant, “Cuba Ousts Batista Dictatorship”, January 12, 1959.

5“The Fourth International: The Long March of the Trotskyists”, by Pierre Frank,1979, Ink Links.

6          “How Sectarians Misrepresented Trotskyism in Cuba”, by Jose Perez, Intercontinental Press.

7          R.D. Fonds, MG, 1V 11, Cont. 109, File19, L.A.C.

8          “Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution”, Pathfinder Press, 1978.

9          “Negroes With Guns”, by Robert Williams, Wayne State University Press, 1962.

10        The C.P. “form clubs but do not affiliate to the Committee…they are not sending money”, wrote Cliff Cotton who was attending the SWP’s study camp that year and was frequently in New York talking to party activists. Letter to Ross Dowson from Cliff Cotton, November 22, 1960, MG28, 1V11, Container 105, File 16, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

11        Fair Play for Cuba and the Cuban Revolution: How American Antiwar and Solidarity

12        op.cit., Cynthia Wright, p.98.

13        Toronto resident members of the National Committee and the leading body of the group between N.C. meetings.

14        R.D. Fonds, Container 109, File 18, L.A.C.

15        Workers Vanguard, Mid-October, 1960, Vol.8, No.10.

16        Letter to Branch #1 and #2, December 29, 1960 from Ross Dowson, R.D. Internet Archives. “Within the next three weeks we anticipate we will have done sufficient preparatory work to establish such a committee here in Toronto.”

17        “A Prophet in Politics: A Biography of J.S. Woodsworth, Kenneth McNaught, University of

18        Report to the 1961, (S.E.L.,Toronto) Branch Conference about the F.P.C.C., MG 28, 1V 11, Cont. 109, File 6, R.D.Fonds, L.A.C.

19        Summer, 1964, F.P.C.C. Bulletin. The Oxford, a U.S. warship, in the aftermath of the missile crisis of 1962, constantly hovered close to the coast, in full view of Havana, spying on the island’s communications system.

21        Workers Vanguard, May 1961, Vol.6, No.3.

22        I.C.A.P. Press Release, undated, (most likely the summer of 1965) , R.D. Fonds, M.G.28, 1V, 11, Container 110, File 2, LA.C.

23        Workers Vanguard, Mid-July, 1961, Vol.6, No.5.

24        Op.cit. Cynthia Wright, p100

25        Toronto Telegram, June 27, 1961.

26        Toronto Telegram, June 28, 1961

27        Report from the Chairman, by Vernel Olson, MG 28, 1V 11, Cont. 109, File 16, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

28        Op.cit. p 108, “Between Nation and Empire”,

29        Cont.109, File 20, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

30        F.P.C.C. Statement, October,1961, MG 28,1V, Cont.109, File 20 R. D. Fonds, L.A.C.

31        Op.cit. p. 110, Cynthia Wright.

32        Letter to Harold (Vancouver) from Pat Mitchell, January 27th, 1962, MG 28, V11, Cont. 109, File 11, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

33        Undated F.P.C.C. statement, possibly 1961, Cont. 109, File 20, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

34        F.P.C.C. Bulletin, Summer 1962, Cont. 109, File 19, R.D.Fonds, L.A.C.

35        F.P.C.C. Bulletin, Summer, 1963.

36        F.P.C.C. Bulletin, Winter,1963.

37        Letter to the Cuban Ambassador, Americo Cruz from John Darling, June 10, 1961, Letter to John Darling from the Cuban Ambassador, June 19, 1961 M.G.28, 1V 11, Container 110, File 2, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

38        p14, “One Hell Of A Gamble”, Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, by Aleksandr Furenko and Timothy Naftall,1997, W. W..Norton and Company and “Che: A Revolutionary Life”, by Jon Lee Anderson, Grove Press, 1997.

39        p124, ”Cuba, An American Tragedy”, a Penguin Special by Robert Scheer and Maurice Zietlin, 1964.

40        Op.cit. p 125

41        Cited in the Daily Worker, New York, August 5, 1953, p3, from ”Cuba: An American Tragedy”.

42        Op.cit, P. 198, Jon Lee Anderson.

43        Op.cit P.127, Scheer and Zietlin.

44        Op.cit, P.128, Scheer and Zietlin, quoting P187 from The World Today, 38

45        Op.cit. P.119, “Cuba, an American Tragedy.”

46        Letter to Joe Hansen, from Ross Dowson, August 16, 1961, MG 28, 1V, Cont. 109-11, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

47        Op.cit. Letter to Joe Hansen, August 16, 1961.

48        Op.cit, Letter to Joe Hansen, August 16, 1961.

49        ” Cuba: How the Workers and Peasants Made the Revolution,” by Chris Slee, Resistance Books, 2008, p 34.

50        Letter to Dear Friend from Ernest Mandel, February 23, 1964, Ernest Mandel Papers, 21-28, International Institute of Social History( I.I.S.H.), Amsterdam

51        March 1st, 1964, I.I.S.H.

52        Dear Alan, March 7th, 1964, I.I.S.H.

53        Letter to David Horowitz from Ernest Mandel, July 20th. 1967, File 38, I.I.S.H.

54        What looks like an untitled letter to United Secretariat of the F.I by Ross Dowson, under the pseudonym “Kent”, containing a summary of his discussions with Verne, January 17, 1964, R. D. Fonds, L.A.C.

55        Letter to Russell Stetler, January 11, 1968, I.I.S.H.

56        Op.cit. Letter to International Secretariat, January 17, 1964.

57        Op.cit. Letter to Hansen, August 16, 61.

58        Op.cit. “How Sectarians Misrepresented Trotskyism in Cuba”, by Jose Perez, I.P.

59        “The Fourth International: The Long March of the Trotskyists” by Pierre Frank, 1979, Ink Links.

60        .”REPORT OF DISCUSSIONS HELD WITH COMRADES FROM THE CUBAN SECTION— FOURTH INTERNATIONAL”, August 14, 1961. This report is unsigned and was probably meant for the International Secretariat. I know that Verne often left his name off sensitive documents in case they fell into the wrong hands, wishing to protect the F.P.C.C. against factional attacks, and not wishing to compromise its formal independence from the L.S.A. and the S.W.P. The sensitivity of the political situation in Cuba also demanded this, along with the fear of being red-baited in Canada. The report’s point form and the fact that he refers to the L.S.A. also suggests this. It’s highly unlikely an SWP member would have made this specific reference. MG 28, 1V 11, Container 109, File 11 R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

61        ”Stalinism or Trotskyism in the Cuban Revolution?” by Joseph Hansen, International Socialist Review, Vol. 27, No3, Summer, 1966. Joseph Hansen Internet Archive, 2006.

62        Letter to George Breitman from Verne Olson, January 29, 1964. Cont.109, File 16, R.D.Fonds, L.A.C.

63        Op.cit. p644, Anderson.

64        ”F.P.C.C. ,Statement On Cancellation Of The Tour”, F.P.C.C. Fall,1965 Bulletin.

65        F.P.C.C. Statement On the Cancellation Of The Tour”, F.P.C.C. Fall’65 Bulletin.

66        F.P.C.C. Bulletin, Summer-fall,’65

67        “Dear Dr. Castro”, June 5th, 1965, Cont. 112-2, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

68        Student Tour Cancellation: Postscript by the F.P.C.C.”, July 25th, 1965, Cont.112-2, L.A.C.

69        “Dear Verne” from Joe Hansen, September 21, 1965, Cont. 110-1, L.A.C.

70        ”Dear Joe”, from Verne, December 14,1965, R.D. Fonds, Cont. 110 – 1, L.A.C.

71        “Dear Joe”, from Vernel Olson, August 31, 1965, R.D. Fonds, Cont. 110 – 1, L.A.C.

72        “Ovation for Ambassador at Cuba Fair Play Supper”, Workers Vanguard, Mid-December, 1965, Volume 10, No. 7, (115)

73        “Letter to Verne Olson” from Phil Courneyour”, January 28, 1966, R.D. Fonds, Cont. 110 – 1, L.A.C.

74        World Outlook, February 18, 1966, Chris Arthur Archive, 711/B/1/3, Warwick University.

75        World Outlook, Vol. 4, No 8, March 25th, 1966, Chris Arthur Archive, 711/B/1/3, Warwick University.

76        Statement of the Toronto Executive of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, February 14, 1966,

77        “Dear Joe”, from Verne Olson”, June 8th, 1965, Cont.110-1, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

78        ”Dear Joe” from Verne Olson, February 21, 1966, Cont.110 – 1, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

79        “Dear Verne” from Joe Hansen, March 7th, 1965, Cont. 110-1, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

80        ”Letter to Verne and Anne”, January 17th, 1966,unsigned, but from internal evidence appears to be from Nelson Zayas Pozo, , Cont.110-1, R.D. Fonds,L.A.C.

81        “Letter to Joe Hansen”, from Verne Olson, March 31st, 1966, Cont. 110-1, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

82        “Letter to Ross Dowson” from Verne Olson, April 14th, 1966, Cont. 110-1, R.D. Fonds L.A.C.

83        ”L. A. Solidarity Congress Faces Che’s Challenge”, by Ross Dowson, Workers Vanguard, Volume 11, No.11 (131), Mid-July, 1967.

84        “Memorandum on the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in Canada”, July 28th, 1967, by Ross

Dowson, “submitted to Minrex with a copy to Fidel Castro.”  Cont. 110-1, R.D. Fonds L.A.C.

85        ”Tenth Anniversary of Cuban Revolution”, Workers Vanguard, Volume 13, No.9 (165), January

13th, 1969.

86        Cont. 105, File 17, R.D. Fonds, L.A.C.

87        Workers Vanguard, Vol. 13, No. 18 (174), May 19th, 1969.

88        Letter to Ross Dowson, July 28, 1969, MG28,1V11, Cont.109, File 6, R D. Fonds, L.A.C.

November 15, 2018

Cornered: Trump Gets Thumped on Cuba at the UN 

Filed under: cuba,Guest Post — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

By IKE NAHEM

On November 1, 2018, for the twenty-seventh straight year, the full United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted by a near-unanimous 189-2 for “the necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” The Israeli government, as usual, voted automatically with the US without saying a word on the floor. There were no abstentions, but Moldova and the Ukraine chose not to vote at all.

[Footnote 1:  The Benjamin Netanyahu Israeli government generally jerks its knee behind the US position on the Cuba anti-US blockade votes, abstaining in the last vote in 2016 when Barack Obama was in the White House. Netanyahu’s UN representatives reverted to a No vote this time under Trump. While diplomatic relations between Israel and Cuba have not been restored since being broken in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle Eastern War, which saw major combat between Israeli forces and the armies of Egypt and Syria, Israel and Cuba carry out significant two-way economic trade and commercial relations. There is important Israeli-based capital investment in several Cuban projects and industries including irrigation technology, office towers, and agricultural production. There is also fully legal travel from each country to the other. The many thousands of Israeli travelers to Cuba, and the travel agencies that work with them, have found no anti-Semitism in Cuba and no personal hostility towards Israelis even though the Cuban government is a strong supporter of Palestinian self-determination and has normal or friendly diplomatic relations with all the Arab countries as well as Iran. Cuba promotes a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine based on UN Resolution 242, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.]

“Clever” Tactic Fizzles Fast

The final vote had been delayed a day as the Donald Trump White House wheeled out what they apparently thought was a very clever tactic aimed at diverting attention away from Washington’s annual political isolation and defeat. The tactic was to propose a series of no less than eight “amendments” to the anti-blockade Resolution with bogus attacks against Cuba over “human rights” and political freedoms inside Cuba.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, in her last hurrah before resigning the post by year’s end, presented the “amendments” as being formulated by directly using the past words from Washington’s NATO allies in the European Union and Canada. This year, as usual, the EU and Canadian representatives made perfunctory statements after the vote with implicit criticisms of Cuba along the lines of restrictions on democratic rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and so on, which are sometimes put in the context of the US blockade. (See my Submission to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Geneva, Switzerland, “The Case of Cuba: “Human Rights” as a Club” https://dissidentvoice.org/2017/10/the-case-of-cuba-human-rights-as-a-club/)

Both EU and Canadian diplomatic spokespeople quickly disabused Haley of any hope that Washington’s maneuvers would gain traction this year and bottle up the works. An Austrian diplomat speaking for the EU and the Canadian representative both made forceful statements rejecting all the “amendments.” They reiterated that the “amendments” had “no place in the current Resolution” and that the question of the “extraterritorial” US economic, commercial, and financial embargo against Cuba should not be “mixed up” with the issues raised through the “amendments.”

The General Assembly was required to vote on each Amendment separately. Haley and her boss Trump were isolated and cornered with no political way out. Each “amendment” went down in flames with 3 votes in favor (the US, Israel, and the Ukraine, which managed this time to press a button, 114 against, with 66 abstentions.

The common denominator in the near-unanimous votes, year after year in the UNGA, is the question of “extraterritoriality,” whereby the United States government gives itself the right to impose its economic, political, and travel blockading of Cuba on other countries and commercial entities who have normal or friendly relations with the Cuban workers’ state. It is this US posture, long before Trump’s regime came into power, that determined the votes of the European Union – a major capitalist trading and economic bloc with its own great political pretensions – with Cuba against US policy. Trump and Haley’s amendments ploy fizzled fast and was labeled correctly by EU and Canadian representatives as a “diversion” from the real issue, for them, of “extraterritoriality.”

The General Secretary’s Report

Most speakers from the floor referred positively to the report issued by UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese President and former President of the Socialist International, on the UNGA Resolution against the US blockade. It is a 168-page long comprehensive document. (http://undocs.org?A/73/85). Virtually every member-state plainly gives their opposition to the US blockade in their own words, as well as statements from 36 “organs and agencies of the United Nations system” from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization to the United Nations Children’s Fund to the World Trade Organization, all attacking from their own angle and perspective the US blockade and solidarizing to some degree, mostly strongly, with Cuba.

From Obama to Trump

The Trump Administration has re-tightened aspects of the US economic and travel sanctions that had been marginally loosened during the last two years of the second Barack Obama White House. Full diplomatic relations were restored between Washington and Havana in July 2015 and Trump has stopped short of moving to abrogate them. He has, however, virtually frozen US embassy functions in Havana, making it very difficult for Cuban citizens to travel to the United States. This includes family members, trade unionists, doctors and scientists, and artists and musicians. “People-to-people” licensed travel to Cuba by US citizens is still possible and Cuban-American citizens remain able to travel back and forth to the island with no special requirements.

Trump has consciously ratcheted up bellicose and provocative anti-Cuba rhetoric. This plays badly with the “public opinion” of the peoples and governments of the world, including inside the United States and among Cuban-Americans. The fusillades of hostile demagogy against the Cuban government by Trump, Nikki Haley, and National Security Advisor John Bolton only produces disdain and contempt across the political and ideological fissures in world politics. This is because the Cuban state and government practice of international solidarity – including Cuba’s vanguard role in medical internationalism and worldwide emergency disaster relief efforts – and its political principles is universally admired. It is universally recognized that Cuba’s quick action and dispatch of medical personnel was the decisive factor in containing and conquering the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa on the ground. Also very clear factually are the example of Cuba’s great human indices for the health and education of the Cuban population as a whole despite the terrible impact of decades of US economic and political aggression, and recurrent military and terrorist threats. These are all settled questions around the world. And all the huffing and puffing of Trump and his lackeys cannot change that.

For many years before Trump, the UNGA annual vote around Cuba have registered an accumulating political problem for Washington in the world, particularly across the Americas. This was the case under both Republican and Democratic White Houses and Congresses. Considerable political damage was absorbed by the US government. Well into his second term, President Barack Obama, backed by his former-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the bulk of the Democratic Party, and some Republicans, decided that a political retreat was necessary. (https://dissidentvoice.org/2010/03/obama-and-cuba-end-of-an-illusion/)

Months and years of serious diplomatic talks preceded the December 2014 “breakthrough” announcements by Presidents Obama and Raul Castro. The political retreat and shift by Obama required him to order the release of the Cuban Five and for the US State Department to formally remove Cuba – an historic recipient of US-sponsored terrorism in the actual world – from its “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list. But the US economic, financial, and commercial embargo – which openly aims to use US power to universally blockade Cuba – remained in place and was barely tinkered with by Obama even in areas he could have.

[Footnote 2: In the 1990s, Cuba’s economy contracted sharply, and virtually overnight, following the evaporation of the island’s exchange and commercial ties with the former Soviet Union and allied Eastern European governments during the “Cold War.” Long-defeated counter-revolutionary Cuban-American organizations, with histories of violence and terrorism against Cuba, felt wind in their political sails. They illegally organized from US territory, stepping up subversive provocations against Cuba. These groups particularly targeted the rapidly expanding Cuban tourism industry which was generating much-needed foreign exchange. A terrorist bomb killed an Italian tourist. After repeated attempts to get the US government to act against all of this, a team of trained Cuban revolutionaries were dispatched to South Florida to infiltrate and monitor these groups clandestinely. Until they were arrested and convicted in a rigged Miami Courthouse in 1998, the Cuban Five – Fernando Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernandez, and Ramon Labanino – preempted a number of planned attacks. A major international campaign organized over many years demanded freedom for the Cuban Five. The last three incarcerated Cuban heroes were released in December 2014, as part of the agreement between Cuban President Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama to restore US-Cuban diplomatic relations.]

 John Bolton Whips it Up

John Bolton, who replaced the harried Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor in April 2018, has a history of ranting and railing hard against Cuba. In 2002 he ran up the propaganda flagpole the idea that Cuba was involved in production of chemical and biological weapons. Inside the George W. Bush Administration, Bolton pushed for international inspectors to monitor Cuba’s biological facilities. This clear attempt to frame Cuba was not, and could not, gain any political traction, insofar as it was: 1) made up out of whole cloth; and 2) then-President Fidel Castro responded quickly, forcefully, and with full political impact. Bolton crawled back in his hole.

[Footnote 3: At the time Bolton thundered, “The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support [biological weapons] programs in those states. We call on Cuba to cease all [biological weapons]-applicable cooperation with rogue states and to fully comply with all of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.”]

On November 1, 2018 in Miami, at a campaign rally in support of Florida Republican candidates in Miami, Bolton conjured up a “troika of tyranny” with Venezuela and Nicaragua as US-anointed members and Cuba the communist mastermind. The crowd of hundreds was populated with veteran Cuban counterrevolutionaries and mercenaries from Washington’s wars and terrorism against the Cuban Revolution since the 1960s.

The Last Ordeal of Nikki Haley at the UN

If I was a talented cartoonist, I would portray Nikki Haley up there at the UNGA podium, and John Bolton among the defeated, aging counterrevolutionaries, as caricatures with steam coming out of their ears. The cornered Haley could only strike the pose of relishing in her government’s isolation and pathetically trying to make a virtue out of political humiliation. Haley pouted: We. Are. Alone. We are proud of it! We are defiant!! (And we are screwed.)

The most revealing statement of all from Haley was her labeling of the proceedings as a “a total waste of time.” To begin with, the annual vote and previous votes represents a particularly powerful marker that acts as a restraint on US aggression. It is part of the world political atmosphere that creates space for the international political defiance of US policy and solidarity with Cuba. It is this solidarity that has eroded the blockade politically and economically, objectively helping revolutionary, socialist Cuba survive the economic cataclysm of the 1990s following the near-overnight collapse of its then-extensive economy ties with the former Soviet Union and the so-called “socialist camp in Eastern Europe.”

The reality is that the accumulation of political defeat for Washington year-after-year, in forum after forum, has become a material factor in world politics. Haley’s arrogance barely veils the accumulated political damage that Washington continues to endure on the “Cuba Question” in Latin American and world politics.

Haley engaged, on the stage of world politics, in what in psychology is called “minimization,” that is “a type of deception coupled with rationalization in situations where complete denial is implausible,” as defined in Wikipedia. Practitioners such as Haley are engaged in “downplaying their misdemeanors when confronted with irrefutable facts.” Haley’s bleating went so far as to portray the world body gathering as ganging up and bullying poor old Uncle Sam. Here we have Goliath turned into David. Here the schoolyard bully finds the entire school united against him and the bully cries foul. But with no allies and collaborators, the bully’s aura and the fear he counts on evaporates.

Haley and Bolton’s Bombast is Not Politically Sustainable.

All the bluster in the world cannot hide the political weakness in the Trump Administration’s policy. After the latest thumping for US policy at the UN can Trump move to implement new anti-Cuba actions beyond what he has already done? Will legal travel between the US and Cuba, including for Cuban-Americans, be closed even more, or altogether? Will diplomatic relations be unilaterally abrogated by Trump? Are subversive US “regime change” programs being reactivated and stepped up? 

US embarrassment and political isolation at the UN would likely become a political disaster and crisis for Washington at home as well as worldwide if US anti-Cuba moves sharply escalate with interventionist threats and deeds. Such moves would be far more likely to increase demands to defy Washington and back up the UNGA Resolutions with concrete deeds, despite the US veto in the UN Security Council (UNSC). Bullying in full view is rarely a winning tactic in the long run, especially when the bully is up against a politically savvy opponent full of principle and dignity such as the Cuban revolutionaries.

In any case, Trump and his team are nowhere near creating the political conditions for a US-backed military coup in Venezuela, let alone direct US military aggression.

 The interventions from the General Assembly floor began with the “geopolitical” and other groupings that claim to speak as one, from time to time, on issue by issue. On the Cuba-sponsored Resolution, top diplomats from one country lined up to denounce US policy for the bloc or group: Ethiopia for the African Group, Egypt for the Group of 77 Plus China; Venezuela for the Non-Aligned Movement; El Salvador for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC); Singapore for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN); the Bahamas for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM); and Bangladesh for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Solidarity with Cuba was most pronounced by the representatives of countries that have benefited directly from Cuba’s socialist internationalism. The representative from the Bahamas, who spoke for the Caribbean Community gave a heartfelt tribute to Cuban medical assistance, including the free medical training of Bahamian and Caribbean doctors. These were echoed by strong language from the representatives of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Jamaica. Jamaica’s representative called the US blockade “an affront to the world.” He was echoed by many speakers when he expressed “profound disappointment that we are still meeting on this question, that this is still happening” following the steps taken under Obama’s last years which raised hopes (and illusions) worldwide and in the United States.

Part of the campus of the Latin America School of Medicine (ELAM). Since 2005 ELAM. has graduated tens of thousands of physicians from oppressed and exploited populations in Africa, Asia and the Americas, including working-class and impoverished communities in the US, with full scholarships offered by Cuba. These new young doctors make a commitment to work in underserved areas upon graduation.

South African and Namibian representatives spoke with sharp emotion of Cuba’s decisive part in the defeat of the apartheid South African state and the “democratic dispensation” in South Africa, and the winning of the independence of Namibia.

The Bolivian representative gave a militant defense of the Cuban Revolution – “the enormous island of dignity.” He called US aggression against Cuba “one of the most important issues facing the UN system…One of the most powerful countries – the host country – refuses to comply with General Assembly resolutions year after year…Cuba is an example for all humankind [with its] selfless assistance to the rest of the world. Cuba was there in Africa! Cuba was there!” He ended his rousing remarks by quoting the legendary Ernesto Che Guevara, who said “the people of Cuba are stirred when any injustice occurs in the world.”

Cuba Speaks for Itself

Before the final vote on November 1, 2019, after Haley’s amendments were defeated, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez took the floor in a powerful presentation. (http://misiones.minrex.gob.cu/en/un)

Rodriguez spoke in the tradition of Cuban revolutionary diplomacy around the world and at the UN going back to the work of the legendary Cuban UN Ambassador Raul Roa and the speeches of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara before the General Assembly. In those early decades of the Revolution, when the US blockade was at its tightest, and when the military threats and interventions of Washington and the militarized counterrevolutionary exiles was at its height, Cuba boldly made its case and defended itself politically from the platform of the UN.

[Footnote 4: It was a time when a Cuban diplomat was assassinated in the streets of Queens, New York. It was a time when terrorist bombs were set off at the offices of the 1199 Health Care Workers Union, which courageously opposed the US blockade of Cuba, in the heart of Manhattan, the offices of Casa de las Americas, Cuban-Americans who defended the Revolution, and elsewhere. The Cuban Mission to the United Nations made networks of friends and supporters of revolutionary and socialist Cuba in the 25-mile-radius New York City-area where Washington, as the host country of the UN, could not prevent a Cuban presence or Cuban revolutionary freedom of speech at the UN. These friendships and solidarity have become deeply rooted over many decades. This was recently exemplified when newly elected President of the Cuban Council of State, Miguel Diaz-Canel, came to the United Nations for the Fall 2018 opening of the General Assembly and spoke to some 2300 people from New York, New Jersey and many other cities, who packed into the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, for a rousing evening of solidarity.]

Raul Roa and Fidel Castro at the United Nations General Assembly in 1960

Rodriguez spoke not only as Cuba’s top diplomat in making a comprehensive presentation of the human impact of the US blockade, including in Cuba’s exclusion from US-based life-saving or life-enhancing medical products, medications, technologies, and devices. Much of Rodriguez’s presentation took this up in moving detail. But he also spoke as a representative of the Cuban socialist revolution, which holds up the banner of international solidarity with the oppressed and exploited overwhelming majority of humanity in opposition to the world of capitalist exploitation and imperialist war.

Rodriguez began his speech with an expression of solidarity with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where a Jew-hater inspired by Nazi ideology and anti-immigrant hatred gunned down eleven Jewish people in their Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27.  The Temple congregation was prominent in aiding war and other refugees migrating to the US. This evidently sparked the carnage. Rodriguez also expressed solidarity with the victims of floods and landslides in Indonesia which killed dozens.

Most powerfully the Cuban Foreign Minister was not about to listen to any lectures from Donald Trump, Nikki Haley or the United States government on Human Rights:

“The US government does not have the least moral authority for criticizing Cuba or anyone else with regards to human rights.  We reject the repeated manipulation of human rights with political purposes as well as the double standards that characterize it… The US government is the author of human rights violations against its own citizens, particularly Afro-Americans and Hispanics, minorities, refugees and migrants. In the midst of the opulence of that country, 40 million of its citizens live in conditions of poverty and 52 million live in impoverished communities.  More than half a million sleep in the streets. Twelve per cent lack medical insurance and millions of low-income persons will be left without it. Quality education is not accessible to the majority. Equal opportunities are a pipedream. It is a government of millionaires imposing savage policies…There is a different racial pattern with regards to the inmate population, the length of imprisonment terms, the application of the death penalty -which is also applicable to minors and the mentally disabled; and the number of persons being shot dead by the police. The US government builds walls and separate children -even young children- from their migrant parents and put them in cages. The United States is party to only 30 per cent of human rights instruments and does not recognize the right to life, peace, development, security, food or the human rights of boys and girls.”

Rodriguez’s speech included a strong socialist critique of the “democratic” pretensions and highfalutin words of Washington’s mouthpieces vs. the realities of capitalist politics in the United States:

”The ‘special interests,’ that is, the corporate interests, have kidnapped the US political system, which is corrupt by definition…Words and political statements do matter. While demonizing and turning political opponents, institutions, social groups and nations into enemies through the use of propaganda, division, violence, hatred, [then] crimes and wars thrive and take root…Dirty politics, indecency, amorality, lies, the redesigning of electoral districts out of political convenience and the manipulation of voters are all exacerbated. Six million low-income US voters are prevented from voting.  In Florida, 21 per cent of Afro-American voters are not entitled to cast their vote. [There is] [f]ake information [and] the monopoly over communication…The US government unscrupulously interferes in the electoral processes and internal affairs of most States in this planet.” (See Isaac Saney’s Submission to the UN Human Rights Council, “Cuba, Human Rights and Self-Determination for a clear look at Cuba’s highly participatory electoral procedures. https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/10/06/cuba-human-rights-and-self-determination/)

A Post-World War II, Post-Cold War World is Emerging

This year the UN vote highlighting the US economic war against Cuba converges with Washington’s – which is now Trump’s Washington – tendentiousness and political isolation on other burning issues and existing and looming crises worldwide:  Trump’s unilateral pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was reached between Iran and the United States, the UK, Russia, France, China, Germany and the EU in July 2015 and confrontations he is pushing with the EU and other powers over US “extraterritorial” pressures to tow the US line; unfolding political developments on the Korean Peninsula; Saudi Arabia’s US and UK-backed murderous war on Yemen and the mounting political crisis in the Saudi bastion of reaction in the entire Middle East region; the political aftershocks of the brutal Syrian war; prospects for a two-state settlement in Israel-Palestine; and Trump’s pulling out of the (already weak) UN “Framework Convention on Climate Change” after 2020, an issue where Washington is even more isolated than on Cuba.

Trump, in his crude branded way, blurts out US imperial arrogance in a world today that is marked by an emerging post-World War II, post-Cold War era where the full-spectrum economic, financial, and political dominance of the American Colossus is receding more and more from sight in history’s rear-view mirror. Recently, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in floated the idea of lifting some of his country’s sanctions against the North, Trump said, “They won’t do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval.” (Both “South” and “North” Korea voted with Cuba at the UN.)

The relative decline of US capitalist power in the world of today means that the still-overwhelming military dominance Washington holds – in terms of nuclear arsenal and other unmatched firepower capability; the worldwide reach and projection of US naval and air power, with hundreds of military bases in operation worldwide – still finds great pressures and limits on the political ability to use it, particularly since the unintended consequences of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. I think this is particularly true across the Americas, even with the recent electoral advances of conservative and reactionary forces on the South American continent.

Brazil’s Election and Potential New Alignments

With the election on October 28, 2018 of Jair Bolsonaro, a rightist demagogue, Trump and Bolton quickly saw a potential weighty ally in Latin America for the perspective of putting together a political bloc against Cuba and to breach the wall of continental solidarity with it against the US blockade. Bolton welcomed Bolsonaro’s election saying, “The recent elections of like-minded leaders in key countries, including Ivan Duque in Colombia, and last weekend Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, are positive signs for the future of the region, and demonstrate a growing regional commitment to free-market principles, and open, transparent, and accountable governance… today, in this hemisphere, we are also confronted once again with the destructive forces of oppression, socialism and totalitarianism…Under this administration, we will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores in this hemisphere. We will not reward firing squads, torturers, and murderers … The troika of tyranny in this hemisphere – Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – has finally met its match.”

Bolton shameless demagogy, as with Haley, correlates to another classic scientific category called “psychological projection.” This is, in Wikipedia’s definition, “a theory in psychology in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.” Insofar as the United States government has a crystal-clear history and legacy of supporting, sustaining, or directly installing virtually every blood-soaked military or rightist family or oligarchical dictatorship in Central America, Latin America, and the Caribbean in modern times, this is “projection” of the highest order. (Check out this US interventionist history in https://www.zompist.com/latam.html)

And let us underline that Bolton is praising a political and military figure, Bolsonaro, who came out of and defends wholeheartedly the right-wing military regime in Brazil from 1964-1986, with its documented history of death-squads, murder, and torture on a mass-scale. Bolsonaro has publicly said that the military dictatorship did not murder and torture those who resisted and fought it enough.

[Footnote 5: It should be noted that the democratically elected government of João Goulart, which attempted to carry out progressive measures in education, voting rights, taxes, and land reform that infuriated the Brazilian capitalists and large landowners. It also enraged bipartisan Washington, in this case under the liberal Democratic White Houses of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. This was mainly because Goulart opposed the US blockade of Cuba and refused to break diplomatic relations as demanded by Kennedy and Johnson. Between 1961 and 1964, the CIA performed so-called psyops, or “psychological operations” against Goulart, poured money into opposition groups, and was essentially the architect of the coup.]

Bolsonaro was elected with a ten-point margin, culminating, for now, a deepening political crisis in Brazil that was set in motion by the sharpest economic retraction and recession in modern Brazilian history that kicked in starting in 2014. This drawn-out political earthquake saw the 2016 impeachment and removal from office of Workers Party (PT) President Dilma Rousseff on dubious charges of manipulating budget statistics followed by the 2018 imprisonment and barring from running for President of PT leader and former president Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva on the relatively petty charges of receiving access to an apartment on the beach. Denied strongly by da Silva, the charges rose to the level of the absurd given the massive corruption that marks capitalist politicking in Brazil with its rampant wheeler-dealerism, kickbacks, and bribe-taking. This was the case before, during, and after Lula da Silva and the PT won the Presidency in January 2003, starting with the political forces that moved against Rousseff and Lula da Silva.

Among the aftershocks over time from the 2007-08 world economic crisis and depression was the collapse in raw materials, energy, and other commodity prices in world capitalist markets. This expedited the economic crisis in Brazil, the eighth largest capitalist economy in the world. Brazil has built up giant export platforms for oil and other raw materials to markets in advanced capitalist countries such as the US and the EU, as well as to China, over many decades. Huge capitalist farms in Brazil export products such as soy beans, sugar, and meat that brought in large sums in foreign exchange. It is an example of how even the most developed (semi-industrialized) capitalist economies in “Third World” nation-states like Brazil are dependent on the advanced capitalist economies of the United States, western Europe, and Japan and the international institutions they control like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) for markets and credits (that is, debt).

In that cyclical period of expansion driven by high commodity-raw material prices, the successive PT governments funded social-welfare programs that created real – but tenuous and ephemeral as it turned out – alleviation of extreme poverty, of which there is a tremendous amount in Brazil. These policies marginally advanced working-class access to education and health care and fueled Lula’s high levels of political support and popularity. This popularity was apparently the decisive factor in banning him from being on the ballot in the Presidential election, where most surveys had placed him in the lead.

Politically, the PT policies delivered relative class and political stability, without any disruption of the financial, economic, and social dominance of the Brazilian bourgeoisie and landowning ruling classes. The Workers Party in the October 2018 elections paid the political price for the sharp economic recession that unfolded from 2014-16, with a stagnant “recovery” today. Bolsonaro was able to exploit other issues such as the miserable living conditions in the favelas, controlled by criminal gangs running organized drug rackets that are tangled up with corrupt and murderous police forces. The Brazilian ruling classes and media oligopolies swung behind Bolsonaro decisively in the elections, burying previous derisions of him when he was “on the fringe” of bourgeois politics in Brazil.

It remains to be seen if Bolsonaro is prepared to – or is politically able to – unite with Trump in an anti-Cuba, anti-Venezuela crusade. In a November 7, 2018 Financial Times article titled “Brazil version of Trump to play hardball with Bolivian autocrat,” writer Gideon Long relishes a coming confrontation between Bolsanaro and Bolivian President Evo Morales (“one of the last survivors of the leftist ‘pink tide’”) over a natural gas deal that is up for renewal. Long further asserts the ascendancy of “a new regional order” in a Latin America that he says has “shifted rightward.”

Bolsonaro Forces Out Cuban Doctors

On November 14, 2018, the press office of the Cuban UN Mission in New York issued a Declaration from the Ministry of Public Health announcing the withdrawal of Cuban doctors from Brazil following Bolsonaro’s attacks and threats on them and the Program More Doctors organization the Cuban volunteers work through. The Declaration states:

“Jair Bolsonaro, president-elect of Brazil, who has made direct, contemptuous, and threatening comments against the presence of our doctors, has declared and reiterated that he will modify the terms and conditions of the Program More Doctors…he has questioned the qualification of our doctors and has conditioned their permanence in the program to a process of validation of their titles and established that contracts will only be signed on an individual basis…These unacceptable conditions make it impossible to maintain the presence of Cuban professionals in the Program…The decision to bring into question the dignity, professionalism and altruism of Cuban cooperation workers who, with the support of their families, are currently offering their services in 67 countries is unacceptable. During the last 55 years, a total of 600,000 internationalist missions have been accomplished in 164 nations, with the participation of 400,000 health workers who, in quite a few cases, have fulfilled this honorable task more than once. Their feats in the struggle against the Ebola virus in Africa, blindness in Latin America and the Caribbean and cholera in Haiti as well as the participation of 26 brigades of the International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disaster Situations and Great Epidemics “Henry Reeve” in Pakistan, Indonesia, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Venezuela, among other countries, are worthy of praise…Likewise, 35,613 health professionals from 138 countries have been trained in Cuba at absolutely no cost as an expression of our solidarity and internationalist vocation. The peoples from Our America and from all over the world know that they will always be able to count on the solidarity and humanistic vocation of our professionals.”

Cuban Doctors in Brazil

“Pinochetism” Without Pinochet?

Bolsonaro is gearing up to carry out a “neoliberal” austerity program of attacks on industrial workers, agricultural workers, landless peasants, and small and medium farmers. He looks to the “model” of the policies carried out with extreme violence by the US-backed military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which overthrew the elected, constitutional President Salvador Allende in a 1973 US-backed military coup.

At each step of the consolidation of his brutal dictatorship Pinochet consulted with and was advised by various US government and academic figures. These included, famously, a group of University of Chicago (UC) conservative and reactionary economists, spawns of Milton Friedman and Frederick von Hayek. These “Chicago Boys” found themselves dominating the Economics Department at UC and were available for the cause of crushing the workers and peasants of Chile into the dirt.

Survivors and would-be revivers of that “Chicago School” are very enthusiastic backers of Bolsonaro, starting with incoming Finance Minister Paulo Guedes. In an interview with the November 2, 2018 Financial Times Guedes said Bolsonaro’s election presents a “Pinochet” moment for Brazil. “The Chicago boys saved Chile, fixed Chile. Fixed the mess.”

Of course, when class and political polarization reaches the intensity of the last years of the Allende government, the room for “parliamentary democratic” resolution diminishes. Washington and the Chilean bourgeoisie and oligarchy, including in the officer corps of the Chilean armed forces, were baying for blood and carried out economic sabotage, covert subversion, and terrorism against Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition, whose mass and electoral support was increasing at the time of the coup. Nevertheless, the UP government and Chilean revolutionists were unable to counterattack effectively and derail the more-and-more open coup plotting, US covert action, and right-wing mobilizations.

[Footnote 6: See Fidel Castro on Chile, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1982 with an introduction by Elizabeth Stone, a comprehensive compilation of speeches, interviews, press conferences, and interactions with Chilean workers and trade unionists, peasants, and students from November 10 to December 4, 1971 when the Cuban revolutionary and President visited the country. In speech after speech, Castro foresees – in a cumulative master class in the Marxist method – the gathering, impossible-to-be-avoided political, social, and class showdown. Castro did everything in his power to prevent a historic defeat and slaughter of working people in Chile similar to what Ernesto Che Guevara had witnessed in 1954 Guatemala. The classic documentary The Battle of Chile, shot during the Allende years and during the coup, smuggled out of Chile, and finished in Cuba, shows how workers and peasants, ready to defend their gains, arms in hand, waited, Godot-style, to be mobilized, armed, trained, and organized as the defense of democratic space and constitutional legality was being abandoned by the Chilean ruling classes and was, in fact, collapsing.]

It would have been impossible to carry out “the fix” Guedes crows about for Chile without the destruction of democratic rights and political space and murdering thousands of trade unionists and revolutionary-minded working-class and student youth, and anyone who stood in their way. Gruesome torture was institutionalized by the “fixers” on a mass, industrial scale after the initial bloodbath. This was a pre-condition for smashing trade union legality and driving the workers movement underground. Suppressing wages and worker’s rights laid the basis for renewed “confidence” and profitability for Chilean and foreign capital. Cyclical economic expansion primarily benefited a super-affluent minority.

The workers and mass struggles that pried open political space and trade-union legality in the 1980s, leading to Pinochet’s demise, used that space to fight to raise their living standards.

Can there be an updated Pinochetism against Brazil’s highly organized working-class movement, including mass trade unions and landless peasant organizations that Bolsonaro has made a career of making harsh attacks on? Bolsonaro spoke openly during and after the election of going after “delinquent Reds,” and organizations of landless peasants and homeless people, in addition to going after pension systems for organized workers, a centerpiece of Pinochet’s “reforms” in Chile.

While many on the Brazilian “left,” including PT activists, are no doubt shaken by the election of Bolsonaro, who obviously won the votes of many disillusioned and desperate working people, it should be said that the Brazilian workers and peasant class organizations and the mass, social movements, including for Afro-Brazilian rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights, have not been defeated in struggle and combat, as was the case in Chile. Bolsonaro’s “electoral mandate” will be tested in the actual class and political struggles ahead.

Operation Condor II?

With Pinochet’s triumph in 1973 there was increased collaboration and coordination of the Latin American military regimes (joined by Argentina in 1976) under Chilean leadership (and that of the US CIA in the shadows) in the so-called “Operation Condor,” which operated death squads and organized terrorist acts on a continental scale.

The Condor Years: How Pinochet And His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents by John Dinges

Trump’s team, to the degree that they have a coherent political focus on Latin America, certainly see opportunities to advance US policies through alignments with the series of more conservative and reactionary governments that won elections in Argentina, Chile, Columbia, and Peru in recent years. Economic conditions in all these states compel them, and they all are preparing, to take on the working-class and popular movements and to use the economic crisis to reverse the advances made in the period of the “pink tide” ascent. The Mauricio Macri government in Argentina, in particular, is in a real-time crisis after a disastrous decline in the value of the Argentine peso and consequent huge rise in the country’s dollar-denominated debt, topped off with a humiliating $57 billion “bailout” loan from the hated International Monetary Fund.

It should be noted that the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico will replace a conservative “neoliberal” regime with an Administration and legislature that campaigned as progressive, anti-establishment, anti-corruption, and opposed to US interventionist policies in the Hemisphere.

Venezuela

Trump and the Latin American forces he looks to bloc with certainly would like to pounce on Venezuela, which they portray as descending into ungovernability and endless economic cataclysm, and therefore is viewed as politically vulnerable. They dream and devise plans to sweep in a pro-imperialist government in an orchestrated “regime change.” There has leaked for public consumption US discussions and collaboration with pro-coup forces inside Venezuela’s military and other state institutions. These discussions were over the viability of a US-backed coup or a direct US military intervention to overthrow the Nicolas Maduro government. Nikki Haley has spoken openly to street actions calling for Maduro’s overthrow.

The Trump White House has spent over $20 million in “humanitarian refugee assistance” under the pretext of dealing with the some 2-3 million Venezuelan refugees who have been generated from the still-deepening economic crisis, crash in production, and runaway inflation in the country. These refugees have poured mainly into Colombia, with many transiting from there to Ecuador and other Latin American countries.

It is certain that the class struggle across the Americas will intensify and deepen in period at hand and coming. And that the political alignments of today may not be the realignments of tomorrow. The “Cuba Question” is bound to be at the center of all of this. The 2018 UN vote against the US blockade strengthens Cuba’s position in this volatile and explosive period in world and Western Hemispheric politics, and in the international class and national liberation struggles, that are now unfolding.

November 15, 2018

New York City

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 11, 2018

My Dear Americans – The British Sceptre Passes to the US

Filed under: Brian A. Mitchell,Great Britain,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

(A guest post by Brian A. Mitchell)


The British Government, having lost their gamble with the Nazis in the pre-war Munich deals with the Nazis, then having had to run begging to the US for economic and military aid in the war and afterwards, had to cede Britain’s colonies, overseas assets, markets and foreign military bases to the US and submit to US demands for bases in Britain in order to bring our wartime allies, the Soviet Union, within range of US nuclear bombers in the US led Cold War and without any British control. In other words the British Sceptre passes to the US.

“…to set forth the political, military, territorial and economic requirements of the United States in its potential leadership… including the United Kingdom itself as well as the Western hemisphere and the Far East. The first and foremost requirement of the United States in a world in which it proposes to hold unquestionable power in the rapid fulfilment of a programme of complete re-armament… to secure the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by foreign nations that constitutes a threat to the minimum world area essential for the security and economic prosperity of the United States.”

(Economic and Financial Group of the US Council of Foreign Relations, 1940.)


“The question of leadership need hardly arise. If any permanently closer association of the two nations is achieved, an island people of fifty millions cannot expect to be the senior partner. The centre of gravity and the ultimate decision must increasingly lie with America. We cannot resent this historical development.”

(The Economist Oct 19 1940.)


“Well, Boys, Britain’s broke. It’s your money we want.”

(British ambassador to Washington, Lord Lothian, November 23 1940.)


“Whatever the outcome of the war, America has embarked on a career of imperialism in world affairs and in every other aspect of her life… Even though by our aid England should emerge from this struggle without defeat, she will be so impoverished economically and crippled in prestige that it is improbable that she will be able to resume or maintain the dominant position in world affairs that she has occupied for so long. At best, England will become a junior partner in a new Anglo-Saxon imperialism in which the economic resources and the military and naval strength of the United States will be the centre of gravity… The sceptre passes to the United States.”

(President of the US National Industrial Conference Board Virgil Jordan, to the Annual Convention of the Investment Bankers’ Association of America, Hollywood, Dec 10 1940.)


“Gradually, very gradually, and very quietly, the mantle of leadership was slipping from British shoulders to American.”

(Elliott Roosevelt, on the Atlantic Charter conference with his father US President Franklin Roosevelt and British PM Churchill in August 1941.)


“My dear Americans, we may be short of dollars, but we are not short of will… We won’t let you down. Standards of life may go back. We may have to say to our miners and to our steel workers: “We can’t give you all we hoped for. We can’t give you the houses we want you to live in. We can’t give you the amenities we desire to give you.” But we won’t fail.”

(British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin to the American Legion, London, Sept 10 1947.)


“Today Americans know that they are the dominant power in the world… and they expect the rest of us to respect their leadership.”

(Tory Lord Woolton, Sunday Times, July 16 1950.)


“Mr. Bevin went to New York, determined to prevent the precipitate rearmament of Germany… He failed… Faced with an American ultimatum… he toed the line.”

(New Statesman and Nation, Dec 2 1950.)


“We British must recognise that American policy must prevail, if there is an honest difference of opinion between us as to what to do next in the world struggle. He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

(Labour MP Commander King-Hall, National Newsletter, June 28 1951.)


“Do we need Britain? The British Empire, for all its reduced power, has a valuable string of naval bases around the world – Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Malta, Suez, Aden, Singapore, to mention the most important… The colonies take one into the economic sphere – tin, rubber, uranium and other raw materials… We need Britain.”

(New York Times, Jan 9 1952.)


“You may be sure that we shall stand by you on fundamentals.”

(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in letter to US President Eisenhower, 1953.)


“…this Marshall Plan is going to be the biggest damned interference in international affairs that there has ever been in history. It doesn’t do any good to say we are not going to interfere. … I don’t think we need to be so sensitive about interfering in the international affairs of these countries.”

(US Senator Cabot Lodge to the US Foreign Relations Committee regarding post war Marshall aid to Britain and Western Europe.)


“Whether we like it or not, we must all recognise that the victory which we have won has placed upon the American people the continuing burden of responsibility for world leadership. The future peace of the world will depend in large part upon whether or not the United States shows that it is really determined to continue its role as a leader among nations.”

(US President Truman’s message to Congress, Dec 19 1945.)


“Am I wrong in saying all British governments since 1945 have done what the Americans have wanted?”

(British MP Tony Benn.)


“…the United Kingdom is already dependent on United States support.”

(British Foreign Office, 1958.)


“It is cheaper to fight with soldiers of other nations even if we have to equip them with American arms, and there is much less loss of American life.”

(US Senator Taft, Washington, May 19 1951.)


“It takes a man and a gun to fight. The United States is providing the gun, Europe the man.”

(US General Eisenhower, Paris, August 1951.)


“We fought World War I in Europe, we fought World War II in Europe, and if you dummies will let us we will fight World War III in Europe.”

(US Rear Admiral Gene La Rocque.)


“…what has been our one and only basic policy in the last thirty years. This is that we prefer to fight our wars, if they be necessary, in someone else’s territory.”

(US JCS document, 1946.)


“We are proposing dollars to arm men other than our own men. We are contributing dollars rather than men.”

(US General Marshall, August 1 1951.)


“Abominable. Loyal, blind, apparently subservient… I think that the almost undeviating support by Great Britain for the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq have been a major tragedy for the world… has prolonged the war and increased the tragedy that has resulted.”

(US President Carter, on British PM Tony Blair’s subservience to the US, on BBC Radio.)


“The UK will… take on at times the role of a Trojan Horse … but its effectiveness in this role will depend on… not appearing to act as a US stooge.”

(British Foreign Office, 1972.)


“We’ve got to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans.”

(Observer editor Roger Alton to his journalists, January 2003.)


“…the US did not want to be the only country ready to intervene in any trouble spot in the world. We hoped the British would continue to uphold their world-wide responsibilities.”

(US Secretary of State Dean Rusk to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.)

Brian was born in the bombed out wartime East End of London and developed an interest in political books early on. He worked in various technical fields for 20 years, all of which thoroughly bored him. He entered academic life (History and Classical Economics) and became an independent journalist, worked for the ANC (secret at the time) until the end of apartheid, and was a trade union representative in a large hospital. He is now retired and still works (when able) as an independent journalist.

 

February 26, 2018

Vivek Chibber’s Apolitical Marxism

Filed under: Jacobin,Political Marxism — louisproyect @ 11:39 pm

As part of Jacobin’s regrettable last issue on the Russian Revolution, there was an article by Vivek Chibber that I took a detour around for the simple reason that the edgy graphics would have been too much of a burden on my cataract-ravaged eyes.

Eventually, a typographically correct version of the article appeared that I was in no rush to read but decided to give it a gander since it was critiqued on Jacobin by Charlie Post, who up till now would have been regarded as indistinguishable politically from Chibber. Both men are disciples of Robert Brenner, the UCLA historian who alongside the late Ellen Meiksins Wood was the founder of an academic sect called Political Marxism. The term was coined by Guy Bois, a critic of the Brenner thesis who wrote in the May 1978 issue of Past and Present: “Professor Brenner’s Marxism is ‘political Marxism’ in reaction to the wave of economist tendencies in contemporary historiography. As the role of the class struggle is widely underestimated, so he injects strong doses of it into historical explanation”. Early on, the Brennerites resented the term but nowadays have no problem using it to describe themselves.

Chibber’s article is titled “Our Road to Power” and can best be described as reformist pablum. It starts off with the customary equation of Lenin and Stalin:

The defenders of the Leninist party are right that in its early history it was remarkably open and dynamic. But at the same time, the fact is that its global experience since the 1930s veers much closer to its later, undemocratic form. So while Lenin’s party was very democratic, the Leninist party has not been. And we can’t lay the blame solely on Stalin, Zinoviev, or whoever your favorite villain is. A party model with strong and resilient democratic structures should have generated a more diverse set of experiences, not a uniform history of ossification.

You’ll notice that there is no attempt to provide a historical materialist analysis of how the Soviet Communist Party became undemocratic. That would entail a close examination of the economic disasters of the civil war that opened the door to the bureaucratization of the government and the CP. But if Bois is right in faulting the Political Marxists for ignoring “economist tendencies” in historiography, then it is perfectly logical that Chibber would ignore the objective causes of Stalinism.

Chibber seems ready to accept the Bolshevik model—warts and all—since it worked in Russia. For him, the lesson to be drawn from Lenin’s party is that it “fought alongside the base every day, in the workplace and in the neighborhood.” Oddly enough, the link contained in the sentence above does not take you to an article about Bolshevik practice but to a Jacobin article that offers critical support to the Italian Communist Party under Togliatti. It is hard to get into the head of a hustler like Bhaskar Sunkara or other members of his editorial board but for some reason their magazine has a soft spot for Togliatti, including two other articles that flatter the CP leader–one by Stathis Kouvelakis and the other by Peter D. Thomas who wrote that “The theoretical and political culture that Togliatti helped to shape in the Italian Communist Party, and in Italy more generally as this massive party’s sphere of influence radiated across the entire spectrum of the Left, was the example to which other leftists in Europe and around the world looked for inspiration.”

You don’t have to read the Trotskyist press to understand what a bunch of crap this is. Paul Ginsborg’s “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” will serve as a powerful antidote to such feverish thought. It not only details the class collaborationist policies that were largely indistinguishable from that of the Italian social democracy but also shows how devoted the party was to the Soviet dictator who they described as “a scholar of genius who analyses political and historical problems in the light of Marxist principles”.

In August 1945, the CP held a conference on post-war economic problems. Ginsborg indicates that Togliatti spoke against nationalizations while stressing the primary role of private industry. He deemed a national economic plan as “Utopian” and put forward a plan as bland as Obama’s—the rich had to pay their fair share of taxes. Togliatti said that the CP’s struggle was “not against capitalism in general but against particular forms of theft, of speculation, and of corruption.” Silvio Daneo, an Italian diplomat and by no means (obviously) a radical, criticized Togliatti’s speech to the conference as “a call for a daily Realpolitik in which reconstruction was reduced to the prudent democratic administration of the economy on nineteenth-century liberal lines.”

Unlike the Italian Communist Party that was immersed in the working class (even as it was selling it out), Chibber finds today’s left nothing but “a haven for a kind of lifestyle politics for morally committed students and professionals.” Now I am not privy to the kind of activism a sociology professor like Chibber is involved with but a search on his name and “Abu Dhabi”, where workers from East Asia virtually slave away building NYU’s satellite campus, turns up nothing. You’d think that someone complaining about middle-class politics would set an example but Chibber’s main activity seems to be speaking at HM conferences or writing for its journal.

Chibber has little use for the Russian Revolution as a model, a conclusion shared by Jacobin’s editorial board that put together a special issue that reads like it was written by YPDML. (Young Peoples Dissent Magazine League). For him, the “strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.”

The word “gradualist” links to an article endorsing the Meidner Plan in Sweden (one in which the trade unions owned shares of Saab, et al) as one that can be adapted to the USA as if something that failed in a country ruled by social democrats could ever work in the USA, where the Democratic Party is to the right of Sweden’s party of big business. And the word “approach” links to an article by Eric Olin Wright that proposes “Real Utopias”, which boils down to worker-owned firms like Mondragon or free labor projects like Wikipedia that “destroyed a three-hundred-year-old market in encyclopedias.” I guess this is Utopia but whether it is Real is another question.

Moving right along, we discover that Political Marxist extraordinaire Vivek Chibber is a market socialist after the fashion of Alec Nove. He writes that “we have to seriously consider the possibility that planning as envisioned by Marx might not be a real option.” One really has to wonder how much of Marx Chibber has read. A search on the Marxism Internet Archives reveals not a single article by Marx on how to build socialism, either through markets or through planning. In the afterword to the 1873 edition of Capital, Marx wrote: “Thus the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.” The word receipt was used in the 19th century interchangeably with recipe so you understand what Marx was driving at. You also have to engage with Marx’s writings that unlike Eric Olin Wright’s were focused more on revolution than what to do after it occurs. His study of the Paris Commune had little do with whether planning or markets were needed but on what a free society looked like:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant. In the full consciousness of their historic mission, and with the heroic resolve to act up to it, the working class can afford to smile at the coarse invective of the gentlemen’s gentlemen with pen and inkhorn, and at the didactic patronage of well-wishing bourgeois-doctrinaires, pouring forth their ignorant platitudes and sectarian crotchets in the oracular tone of scientific infallibility.

Neither ready-made utopias nor Eric Olin Wright’s Real Utopias can be extrapolated from anything that Marx ever wrote.

Now, turning to the problems of socialist construction in the 20th century, there is ample evidence that it was tried in every single post-capitalist society from the NEP in the USSR to Cuba’s small, privately owned businesses today. The key challenge, however, is resolving the problem market socialism has with a key commodity–namely labor power. It is one thing to have a market in consumer goods, where citizens have the choice between shoes made in one firm or another but what if the market preference for firm A is so much greater than firm B that its workers have to accept lower wages or else lose their jobs? In September, 1986 Ernest Mandel wrote a critique of Alec Nove for the NLR titled “In Defence of Socialist Planning” that can be read at the MIA. Mandel points out that Nove overemphasizes consumption, which was certainly what you’d expect during the period of a crisis in the USSR when the masses felt resentment over poor consumer goods and a lack of choice. Mandel writes:

So far we have followed Alec Nove – and other critics of Marxian socialism – in focusing on problems of consumption. But this concern is, of course, in itself a one-sided one. For the average citizens of an advanced industrial country are not only and not even mainly – that is, for the greater part of their adult lives – consumers. They are still first of all producers. They still spend an average of at least nine to ten hours a day, five days a week, working or travelling to and from work. If most people sleep eight hours a night, that leaves six hours for consumption, recreation, repose, sexual relations, social intercourse, all taken together.

Here a double constraint arises, with which the champions of ‘consumer freedom’ hardly deal. For the more you multiply the number of needs to be satisfied within a given population, the greater the work-load you demand from the producers at a given level of technology and organization of the labour process. If decisions about this work-load are not taken consciously and democratically by the producers themselves, they are dictatorially imposed on them – whether by Stalin’s inhuman labour legislation or by the ruthless laws of the labour market, with its millions of unemployed today. Surely any advocate of a juster and more humane society should feel as deeply repelled by this tyranny as by that over consumer needs? For the system of ‘rewards and punishments’ through the market, ingenuously extolled by so many on the Left nowadays, is nothing but a thinly disguised despotism over the producers’ time and efforts, and therewith their lives as a whole.

Such rewards and punishments imply not only higher and lower incomes, ‘better’ and ‘worse’ jobs. They also imply periodic lay-offs, the misery of unemployment (including the moral misery of feeling useless as a social being), speed-up, subjection to the stop-watch and the assembly-line, the authoritarian discipline of production squads, nervous and physical health hazards, noise bombardment, alienation from any knowledge of the production process as a whole, the transformation of human beings into mere appendices of machines or computers.

The conclusion to Chibber’s article has a distinctly social democratic ring and even more specifically that of the DSA’s old guard. He advocates: “Any viable left has to also embrace electoral politics as the other node of a two-pronged strategy, in which power at the base is combined with a parliamentary wing, each feeding the other.”

So you have to wonder what that parliamentary wing entails. In the USA, it can only mean one thing—backing the Sanderista movement. In October 21, 2015, Verso published a statement by leading academics calling for support for the Bernie Sanders campaign, which in their words was “committed to a clear and emphatic reassertion of the importance of public goods and the public sector that provides them, including public higher education in particular.”

The signatories constitute a kind of who’s who of the academic left including Vivek Chibber and Walter Benn Michaels, another high priest of Marxist orthodoxy who like Chibber can’t stand the middle-class left with its obsessions over (quoting Chibber) “language, individual identity, body language, consumption habits, and the like.” Back in the 60s and 70s, there were professors who went into industry if they were serious about connecting with the working class, including Hans Ehrbar, the retired U. of Utah economist who makes Marxmail possible. Do you think that people like Chibber would ever take a factory job like Ehrbar did? Nah, the guy is all talk.

Now, this is some bundle of middle-class politics–like a full diaper. For all of Chibber’s Marxist bluster, this guy is an echo chamber for the kind of politics you can find in the rightwing of the DSA, Dissent Magazine, In These Times, et al. I can’t say that I am totally surprised but it must have been a real surprise to Charlie Post who has maintained an ideological bromance with Chibber for over a decade at least.

In Post’s critique of Chibber’s article, he makes sure to lavish praise on this steaming pile of horse manure even if he makes some useful points. But you can see how lame the critique is with the opening words: “Chibber’s call for a ‘cadre party’ rooted in the working class is most welcome.” I suppose so, but when Chibber links to a puff piece on Togliatti in support of such a call, you have to wonder whether Post bothered to check the links. Very poor scholarship, indeed. But when you are in the business of having to offer a serious critique of some really crappy politics but only with kid gloves, you are left with an unenviable task.

Chibber defended himself as only an arrogant don would: “Much of Post’s essay agrees with and repeats what was in mine. But some of it is tendentious, representing claims that aren’t implied in ‘Our Road to Power,’ much less advocated.”

I’ll leave these two to their own devices. These dueling, huffing and puffing, preening male academic peacocks deserve each other.

May 29, 2017

Recommended Marxist readings

Filed under: Marxist literature — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Mr Proyect,

Please excuse the intrusion on your time, but I’m a little lost and would appreciate some guidance.

I’ve been trying to understand Marxism and its variants for years, now, but it is a very thick and deep forest. It doesn’t help that there seem to be a lot of strongly held opinions out there, and everyone criticizes everyone else. That’s probably a good thing for the movement, but it is quite bewildering for the outsider or beginner.

For example, there are Marxism, Trotskyism, Communism, Socialism, and so on, and I see that each has multiple definitions (depending on whom and when one asks). One book I read on Marxist economics said that even Karl Marx himself said he didn’t recognize all the the things called “Marxist”, so many things were done in his name. To make matters worse, there are all of the uncertainties of history related to Marxism and its offshoots: Bolsheviks were financed by New York bankers, the Soviet Union betrayed the Spanish communists when they were fighting Franco, CIA strategy was developed in part by ex-Trotskyists, and so on. This can’t all be true, there are so many contradictions.

I’ve been exposed to American history all of my life (some of it quite false), and I am a little comfortable navigating around it, though I am certainly not an expert. That includes U.S. law (and its roots in England), the various antecedents of American “philosophy” (again, right and wrong), and the roots of U.S. culture. But, when it comes to other ways of thinking and other histories, I am a stranger. My idea of Russian history, for example, is a mass of facts, many contradictory, so I don’t have a sense of how it all ties together. I know that a lot of it relates to this or that political theory, and I know that Marxism started more in England than in Russia, so maybe it doesn’t have much to do with Marxism. But this cannot be exceptional: most of the thievery by the privileged in the U.S. is simple thievery, not based on anyone’s awareness of surplus value or democracy or anything like that. Maybe theory is just theory, and it’s simply fantasy to tie them much together.

I read and enjoyed Harman’s A People’s History of the World, and enjoyed it immensely. However, it only went so far, and it had very little theory in it. I’m not sure where to go from there. Marx himself is very dense, and frankly I have trouble following him, but things have moved forward from him, anyway, so he’s probably not the best place to start. Trotsky, Lenin, and Luxemburg (for examples) are quite readable, but I don’t know how to put them into perspective.

I don’t see a reading list on your web site.

So here’s my question and request: Can you recommend a book (or maybe several) which gives a “fair and balanced” introduction to all of these things, including both history and theory? (No, not “fair and balanced” in the Fox news sense!) Some theory, some history, some sense of relative theoretical and historical importance? By history, I’d like to see both history of Marxism et al themselves, as well as history of people and nations. When it comes to economics, numbers and formulae don’t bother me, I majored in math and economics. (And it’s quite possible to get an economics major without hearing either of the words, “ethics” or “Marxist”.)

Again, thank you for your time.

Best regards,

M.


Dear M.,

I see that you have read Chris Harman’s History of the World. I have that on my bookshelf at home and am looking forward to the time when I can read it myself. It sits next to Neil Faulkner’s A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals that I hope to get to as well. Faulkner, like Harman, was a member of the British SWP until he left in a split led by John Rees. Like a number of people trained in this movement, these are the elite of Marxist theory. I would also recommend anything written by Neil Davidson, who may still be a member—I’m not sure. Davidson’s latest book is titled We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions and would be a good place to start since it is a collection of his articles that appeared in scholarly journals. Also, A.L. Morton is another British historian that I hold in high regard. Morton was a member of the British Communist Party Historians Group that included Morton, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. Morton wrote a People’s History of England that is priceless as history as well as a model of how to reach a non-academic audience. I suspect that Howard Zinn had Morton’s book in mind when he wrote his American history. The good news is that Morton’s book is freely available on the net (https://libcom.org/history/peoples-history-england). I also recommend CLR James’s Black Jacobins that is about the revolution in Haiti led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. James was a great historian and arguably the most important Marxist thinker after the death of Leon Trotsky.

Turning to Russian history, I strongly recommend Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution that is online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/. Trotsky was a great writer and his history was viewed as a literary masterpiece even by those who disagreed with his political analysis. I also have high regard for anything written by Moshe Lewin, who started off as a blast furnace operator in a Polish factory during WWII and then became a major figure in academic Sovietology. I read his Russia — USSR — Russia: The Drive and Drift of a Superstate and recommend it highly. Another important work that will help you understand Soviet Communism is Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Nikolai Bukharin. Like Lewin, Cohen is influenced by Marxism but is not really ideological in the same way as Trotsky or CLR James. To round out “the Russian question”, I would recommend Isaac Deutscher. His 3-volume biography of Leon Trotsky is indispensable. Deutscher started off as a Trotskyist but became critical of the movement later on. There’s a collection of his articles in Marxism, Wars and Revolutions: Essays from Four Decades that was written in 1985 that covers Russia as well as other topics. I have read some of the articles and found them very useful, especially one on the Polish Communist Party that will be referenced in a forthcoming article about the filmmaker Andrjez Wajda I am working on.

To conclude on economics, I’d have to start with Ernest Mandel who despite his life-long membership in the Trotskyist movement was regarded as a world-class economist even by his ideological adversaries. There is a large collection of his books and articles here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/index.htm. I particularly recommend An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory that was written in 1967. I am also very partial to the economists who are associated with the Monthly Review, a journal and book publishing company founded by Paul Sweezy in 1949. Sweezy and MR co-editor Paul Baran wrote Monopoly Capital in 1966, a book that dealt with the American economic system as well as the social relations that had characterized the post-WWII expansion (TV, advertising, etc.) Another MR classic is Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, a 1974 book that is focused on the impact of automation on work. Braverman, unlike Sweezy and other MR editors, had a background in the Trotskyist movement but by the time he became associated with MR, he had developed a much broader outlook. Braverman’s book is online here: http://libcom.org/library/labor-monopoly-capital-degradation-work-twentieth-century

Maurice Dobb is among the authors published by MR’s magazine. To illustrate how broad its outlook, Dobb was involved with a major debate with Paul Sweezy in the 1950s over the origins of capitalism but that did not exclude him from consideration as a contributor to the magazine. I strongly recommend Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism that is focused on British economic history and as a good complement to A.L. Morton’s book. If you read the two in tandem, you’ll learn about British history and the Marxist class analysis. Like Morton’s book, Dobb’s is online: http://digamo.free.fr/dobb1946.pdf.

You also might want to look at the archives of a Yahoo mailing list I created in 2008 that was designed as an introduction to Marxism class. It never quite turned into an online seminar that I hoped it would become but you can find a number of “lectures” I gave to the group that you might find interesting: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/marxism_class/conversations/messages

Finally, I would recommend David Harvey’s online lecture videos on Karl Marx’s Capital. Harvey is a major Marxist economist in his own right and admired greatly by his students: http://davidharvey.org/reading-capital/

This list of course does not exhaust the subject of learning about Marxism but I guarantee that a careful study of the included works will give you a leg up.

Comradely, Louis

January 27, 2014

Recent novels about Leon Trotsky

Filed under: literature,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

For reasons not clear to me, there’s been a bumper crop of novels about Trotsky in Mexico published recently. The first was Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” that came out in 2009 and is very pro-Trotsky. I have not made time for it, however, because most critics view it as a lesser work.

Moving closer to the current day, there are two books about the assassination of Leon Trotsky that have just been published. One is titled “The Man who Loved Dogs” and written in 2009 by Leonardo Padura, a Cuban. A translation by Anna Kushner now makes the nearly 600-page novel available to English readers. The N.Y. Times review would have us believe that Padura wrote the novel to discredit the Cuban government:

In the context of a plot that revisits the grim mockery of Stalin’s show trials, these acts of compulsive self-incrimination are not only loaded with significance but are also — given that Mr. Padura is a Cuban author writing in Cuba — charged with an additional layer of meaning.

Fidel Castro’s most scandalous show trial was not mounted against a political figure but against a writer: Heberto Padilla. In 1971, after 38 days of detention, Mr. Padilla was forced to “confess” at the Cuban writers’ union to the charges of “subversive activities.” He had published a book of poems faintly critical of the regime.

I don’t know if all this self-incrimination is part of the novel because Mr. Padura wants to make the point that in Cuba, writing is an activity fraught with fear, or because it is the involuntary reflex of someone who has awaited the day of his own political trial. In any case, it stands as a clear register of the author’s circumstance: Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.

As it turns out, the Times assigned one Álvaro Enrique to review Padura’s book. Enrique is a Mexican novelist who perhaps does not consider journalists to be writers. If he did, he surely must be aware that a hundred reporters have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

One should certainly not prejudge Padura’s novel based on the use that Enrique is making of it since the wiki on Enrique states:

Padura’s novel El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs) deals with the murder of Leon Trotsky and the man who assassinated him, Ramon Mercader. At almost 600 pages, it is his most accomplished work and the result of more than five years of meticulous historical research. The novel, published in September 2009, attracted a lot of publicity mainly because of its political theme. The main argument of the author seems to be that Joseph Stalin betrayed socialism and destroyed the hope of creating a utopian society in the 20th century.[citation needed] It leaves open the possibility that such a society might still be possible in the 21st.

The novel that I am looking forward to reading the most, however, is John P. Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”. I had the great pleasure of experiencing his writing in a long article that appeared in the January 2014 Harper’s titled “You Rang: mastering the art of serving the rich” that chronicled his experience at butler school! It is exceedingly witty and socially aware:

Getting the details right was especially important when there were several houses, so that consistency could be maintained from property to property in the remotes for television sets, the controls for lighting and security systems, the organization of kitchen and bathroom cupboards. Principals did not want to fumble around, lost in their own houses. Ms. Fowler used Excel spreadsheets to stock refrigerators with soft drinks, then lined up and photographed the contents so that a glance would tell what needed replenishment. She religiously checked the expiration dates on cans of soda: if you own seven houses and each has as many as six refrigerators — two in the kitchen, one in the garage or storeroom, one in the pool house, one in the master suite, one in the screening room — for a total of forty-two refrigerators, it’s possible that years could pass before a can of soda is opened.

One hopes that Mr. Davidson has found better uses of his talents than checking on soft drink expiration dates, such as his new novel. On his website he describes how became interested in the Trotsky assassination:

My decision to write the novel came gradually, starting on a visit in 2001 to the Trotsky Museum in Coyoacán. As I walked through the Trotsky compound, I sensed an old turmoil, a kind of narrative static electricity. Trotsky’s life in Mexico was so unexpectedly romantic, and the assassination so dramatic, I didn’t understand how it could be that I didn’t know the story.

Or rather, I didn’t understand how I had forgotten the story, because I had been to the museum on earlier visits to Mexico, walked through the rooms, read the documents, and looked at the old black-and-white photographs of the Trotskys with Frida Kahlo, Diego River and André Breton.

I wondered if decades of anti-Soviet propaganda had kept me from grasping Trotsky’s humanity. Or perhaps my perspective had been changed by 9/11 and my own maturity. But whatever the cause, I was certain there must be a compelling book about Trotsky’s exile and the assassination. I began to search for that book but found nothing that was accessible or in print.

In the chapter that I have reproduced below, Davidson describes the encounter between Trotsky’s assassin and Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s chief bodyguard. I only knew Hansen well enough to say hello after joining the Socialist Workers Party in 1967 but I was much closer to George Novack who spent a lot of time in Coyoacan and was one of the main organizers of the Leon Trotsky Commission of Inquiry chaired by John Dewey.

Hansen was 57 when I joined the SWP and still quite vigorous. Despite the fact that I was not that familiar with him personally, his approach to political problems was a great influence on me. To this day, I have Hansen’s methodology in the back of my mind when I am writing about some vexing problem in the class struggle such as how to figure out what is going on in Ukraine and Thailand where class lines are not sharply delineated.

I have only browsed through “The Obedient Assassin” to this point but what I have seen impresses me a great deal. Davidson’s background is as a journalist and this probably accounts for the lean but compelling character of his prose.

The other day Stephen Colbert interviewed novelist Michael Chabon about Ernest Hemingway in a show devoted to the novelist Chabon regarded as always sounding fresh. Although Chabon did not mention it, I think a lot of what we like about Hemingway can be attributed to his training as a journalist. With so many novelists today writing 800 page novels trying to capture What Life is Like Today, it is refreshing to read prose that is focused mainly on capturing human drama in a pellucid style such as how Davidson writes:

Row after row, eight abreast, thousands of Mexicans marched down Reforma. Many looked Aztec or Mayan, with straight black hair and sharply sculptured features. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters, the rank and file of the Communist Party in Mexico, they carried cardboard placards demanding that Trotsky get out of the country. Afuera Trotsky! Trotsky, get out! They walked silently, their faces so impassive, it might have been a funeral procession but for the trucks with loudspeakers that passed at regular intervals bearing large pictures of Trotsky looking satanic with his white goatee, eyes glaring intensely through his spectacles, a harsh metallic voice ringing from big cone-shaped speakers. “Trotsky is a traitor and terrorist!” the voices would cry from the distance, grow painfully loud, then fade away as the trucks moved on. All the while, the shuffling of the workers’ feet on pavement remained soft and constant.

To the casual observer, the May Day parade was a stunning turn-around. Trotsky had been a hero to peasants and workers when he arrived in Mexico, and now he was an archvillain. To Jacques, the parade was a demonstration of Eitingon and Caridad’s prowess They had brought the power of the Kremlin and Comintern to bear upon the Communist Party of Mexico. Moving behind the scenes never showing their hand, they purged the Communist newspapers in Mexico, replacing the editors and writers who had accepted the presence of Trotsky. Brought to heel, the Communist press mounted a campaign against Trotsky, all but calling for blood. Trotsky was not a friend of the worker. He was a terrorist and a Fascist.

Eitingon and Caridad had applied the same sort of pressure to the largest and most powerful labor unions in Mexico, which were Communist-run. Union bosses had turned out twenty thousand Mexicans to protest against Trotsky. Eitingon and Caridad had their kinds on the levers of power and were pulling all of the elements of their plan into alignment. Everything was running according to schedule. The attack on Trotsky would take place soon. It was the first of May; Hitler’s troops had invaded Denmark and Norway. France, the Netherlands, and Belgium were next. The free world would watch in horror as a Fascist dictator marched through West-ern Europe. Hitler would provide all the cover needed for Stalin to settle an old score.

After the parade finally passed, Jacques got in his car and started for Coyoacan. He would have preferred not going on that particular day, but Marguerite had asked him, and he feared it would look strange if he didn’t appear.

As Jacques pulled up in front of the house, lightning flickered in the dark clouds clustered against the volcanoes. He recognized Julia and Ana, the women Siqueiros had hired to spy on the house. Dressed like peasant girls, they were flirting with the policemen in front of their hut. They had rented cheap flats on the next street, where they entertained the police, pumping them for every last detail about their post.

Jacques waved to Jake Cooper in the machine-gun turret, then heard the electric lock snap open as he approached the reinforced door. The heavy metal bar scraped against cement; Sheldon opened lie door, stepping aside, his eyes wide in the dim light of the garage.

“What are you doing, letting me in like that?” Jacques asked in a low voice.

“I heard your car. I knew it was you.”

“You have to be careful.”

“Marguerite had to go out, but Hansen wants to see you.”

“Me? Why does he want to see me?”

“I don’t know, but he said to send you in. He’s in the library.”

Walking up the flagstone path, Jacques felt as if some great gravitational force were taking hold of him, a strong ocean current that would drag him out to sea. The doors to the library stood open a waiting trap. As he stepped beneath the bower of bougainvillea he removed his dark glasses, his eyes and mind working rapidly, taking notes for Siqueiros. The room resembled a battlefield command station, spartan, improvised, orderly with unfinished plank floors thick adobe walls plastered a deep mustard color, bare lightbulb hanging on long cords from the rafters of the ceiling. There were two desks and a worktable, two big black typewriters, filing cabinets, a telephone, a map of Europe, and a small bookshelf filled with volumes of an encyclopedia.

Jacques had imagined the room so often, assembling a picture from bits and pieces of information. He was surprised to find it empty, except for Joe Hansen, who sat at the desk toward the back of the library. He gazed up from a typed document, studied Jacque, for a moment, then got to his feet. Wiry and of moderate height Hansen was like a character from the Wild West, his dark blond hair cut badly by a Mexican barber, pale blue eyes, and a prominent Adam’s apple riding above the knot of his tie and the frayed collar a holstered pistol hanging from a wide leather belt.

“Marguerite asked me to give you this,” he said, handing Jacque, an envelope.

“I’ve seen you outside. I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Yes, I know who you are.”

“The Old Man wanted me to talk to you. He keeps hearing abo you and has begun to wonder what it is you’re doing here.”

Jacques felt his mouth go dry. “I’m in Mexico on business. M wife, Sylvia, introduced me to the Rosmers.”

Hansen frowned. “What about this false passport?”

“Yes, I had to buy a Canadian passport in Paris. I’m Belgian but couldn’t get a passport there.”

“Why was that?” Hansen asked, crossing his arms.

“A problem with my family, a legal difficulty.”

“By legal, do you mean criminal?”

“No.” Jacques recoiled a bit as if offended. “I don’t believe this is your business, but I was commissioned as an officer in the army. Later, after I was discharged, my family pulled strings to have me lecalled so I wouldn’t leave the country. I was eventually cleared hut with the war and all, my visa was tied up in red tape. Buying a passport was a matter of convenience, nothing more.”

Hansen chewed on that for a moment, nodding. “The Old Man also wants to know about your politics.”

“I stay clear of politics.” Hansen gave a slight shrug. “Well, I’ll let you get on your way.”

Leaving, Jacques found Sheldon waiting in the garage. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The tin roof above ticked as the afternoon sun abated. The area smelled of dust and oil and tires and grease. A straight-back chair, a clipboard, and a stack of old magazines sug-gested the monotony of waiting.

“What did he want?” “Nothing. He had a note from Marguerite for me.”

“Why didn’t he give it to me?”

“I don’t know.” Jacques took out his cigarette case, offered one to Sheldon, and took another for himself. As he lit their cigarettes, he observed the young man’s hand tremble slightly. Jacques put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Can you get away tonight?”

He nodded. Yes. “Come to the Shirley Courts. I’ll bring you home.”

“When should I come? Is seven too early?”

“No, that’s good. Now, you’d better let me out.”

He watched Sheldon move the heavy iron aside. The door opened to the smell of rain coming across the valley.

“The Obedient Assassin” can now be ordered from Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/The-Obedient-Assassin-A-Novel/dp/1883285585).

June 25, 2013

Who were the Cochranites?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

Harry Braverman

In the latest of an ongoing series of exchanges with Luke Cooper, a young British revolutionary whose critique of “Leninism” I share, Paul Le Blanc referred to some fairly ancient history that will likely be obscure to most on the left, even those who have been following this debate and others like it for the past decade or so.

In trying to paint James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, as someone open to the kinds of broad left unity taking place in Britain today, Le Blanc refers to the “regroupment” period of the mid-50s which had Cannon sounding sweet and reasonable at a 1958 public meeting:

Socialists of different tendencies have begun to think of each other as comrades. Free discussion and fraternization, and sentiment for united action and regroupment of all the scattered forces, are the order of the day for us now everywhere. I say that’s a good day for us and for our cause – the cause of American socialism.

This is part of a delicate balancing act being undertaken by the International Socialists Organization. They recognize that lip-service must be paid to the powerful historical tides are moving in the direction of broad left unity but are loath to give up the sectarian framework that has worked so well for them in the past. When you can build up an organization of more than a thousand committed activists in a relatively brief period based on the party-building methodology of people like Tony Cliff, James P. Cannon, Ted Grant et al, you feel vindicated. There is of course a need to speak in terms of becoming part of a broader vanguard party down the road but until history comes knocking on your door, why give up on the “market share” approach that has worked so well in the past?

In trying to burnish the image of Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party, Le Blanc offers a disparaging portrait of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union, which existed from 1954 until 1960:

I was not recruited … by the group around Bert Cochran that left the SWP in the 1950s but had disappeared by the early 1960s. All of these had important things to say, offered compelling insights, contained admirable people, made genuine contributions. But none of them survived as an organized force, with revolutionary perspectives intact and some credibility, capable of recruiting and helping to political train the person that I was in the 1960s and 1970s. The SWP did survive as such a force, and it was able to grow and play a very positive role before succumbing to the contradictions that I have analyzed elsewhere.

There is of course a problem with the whole concept of recruitment that probably eludes Paul Le Blanc. If you go back to the early 1900s in Czarist Russia, the Social Democracy did not go out and recruit people. It was instead an organic outgrowth of a pre-existing socialist movement that had not yet cohered into an organization. Lenin wrote “What is to be Done” in order to accelerate such a cohesion.

This business about the “Cochranites” not having the same shelf life as the SWP is something I have heard before, including a crasser version made by a former member of the SWP who is a fan of the ISO. This was his comment on my blog:

And where are the Cochranites now? As they say, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

Well, I suppose if the criterion is being “rich”, the Socialist Union was a loser. But I wouldn’t put much stock in longevity as a sign of wealth or health considering the fact that Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party has the SWP beat by a mile.

The interesting thing for me is how incapable Paul Le Blanc was in understanding what Cochran and Braverman were up to. They had broken completely with the “recruitment” model of the SWP and were committed to a genuine regroupment of the sort that Cannon only paid lip service to.

In 1955, the radical weekly Guardian newspaper approached the SWP with a proposal to run a “united socialist” ticket, a hallmark of the regroupment period that often focused on electoral campaigns that could unite the left. Cannon wrote a letter to SWP leader Murray Weiss revealing what he thought of the Guardian, a paper that probably had 5 times as many readers than the Militant in the 1960s:

The American Guardian Monthly Review outfit, as far as I know … does not object to the general ideology of Stalinism on any important point. They are willing to endorse everything from the Moscow Trials to the Second World War and the pacifist ballyhoo for co-existence, if only they are allowed to do it as an independent party… The great bulk of these dissident Stalinists are worn-out people, incurably corrupted by Stalinist ideology, who haven’t the slightest intention or capacity to do anything but grumble at the official CP and to demand a stagnant little pond of their own to splash in.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, they organized a class on party history that featured the key leaders on all the famous fights and maneuvers calculated to convince us raw “recruits” that we had hooked up with the smartest people on earth. I can’t remember who gave a class on regroupment but I am damned sure that this was the consensus in 1967: regroupment was designed to recruit some of the best of the disillusioned CP’ers to the “vanguard party”, a rescue operation in effect. The highest-profile ex-CP’er to join the party was Clifton DeBerry, an African-American who ran for president on the SWP ticket in 1964.

Unlike the SWP, the Cochranites took the project seriously and no distinction could be made between their private and public utterances. Bert Cochran uttered these words to a meeting of 800 people in Chicago in November 1956 and you can be damned sure he meant them:

What we have to ask ourselves, I think, is this: Is it possible now in the light of the dolorous experience of American radicalism, and the greater knowledge we possess today of the Russian experiment, is it possible to look at Russia from higher vantage ground, and from the viewpoint of our own American needs even if we have some differences in our precise appreciations? Can the Left free itself from unthinking idolatry and the whitewashing of Russian crimes against socialism; and, on the other extreme, from the embittered hostility which misses the epic movement of historic progress, and can see in the Soviet bloc only the anti-Christ of our time.

IN other words, I am making a plea for sanity, for more mature judgment, for deeper historical insight, for an end to Left bigotry and Babbittry, for a cease-fire in our own cold war, for an effort at cooperation, and where possible, reconciliation.

For those who are impressed with longevity, there’s not much that can be said about the Socialist Union that lasted half a decade. But it is important to remember that Karl Marx, the founder of our movement, was not always involved in building organizations. I urge you to look at an article on Democratic Centralism written by Joaquín Bustelo for Solidarity that might fault Marx as well for not being “rich” in the terms outlined above.

Now one very important thing to note about Marx and Engels’s conception of the Communist Party as a leading force in the working class struggle is that this did not in the slightest cause them to hesitate in dissolving the organized expression of that party, the Communist League, only a few weeks after having written those lines in the Manifesto, when a revolution broke out in Germany.

Engels explains it very straightforwardly in his article “On the History of the Communist League, “simply as a function of political tasks. The old propaganda league was not suitable for the new conditions of Germany in revolution, a newspaper was a much better political instrument, so they wound up the underground League and founded the daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

I want to conclude with a talk I presented on the Cochranites to a conference on American Trotskyism organized by Paul Le Blanc thirteen years ago. Although I was anxious to get out the word on a group I closely identified with and whose former members had become like family (particularly Cynthia Cochran who treated me like a son), there was a sense that my talk would fall on deaf ears. There was still a strong belief that “democratic centralism” was an organizational measure worth pursuing. Thank goodness we are in a new era.

The Cochran-Braverman Legacy

According to Al Hansen, who wrote the preface to “Speeches to the Party”, a mostly obscure collection of James P. Cannon’s anti-Cochranite rants from the late 1940s and early 1950s:

. . . Sol and Genora [Dollinger] expressed the following views. The party should not be trying to build branches, running election campaigns, or even trying to recruit members in this period. The country was facing the triumph of fascism and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it because of the conservatism of the workers and our party’s weakness. When fascism triumphed here, all known Trotskyists would be wiped out as had happened in Nazi Germany. Therefore the best thing that we could do as revolutionists was to spend as much time as we had writing down and printing our ideas, our program, and then hide this printed matter in attics, basements, etc., for future generations to discover.

So that’s the official version of the Cochranites: liquidationists panicked by McCarthyism. And then you mix this with Cannon’s crude sociological explanation of them as a privileged strata of the working class. These were UAW Joe Six-Packs tired of the class struggle and anxious to live the good life paid for by high union wages. When a raw recruit like me first heard about the Cochranites in a 1969 Frank Lovell lecture, I felt thankful that the good guys had won, just like they always did in the SWP. In revolutionary parties, as in politics in general, history is written by the victors.

In early 1970 I took an assignment to go up to Boston to fight against the Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT). This workerist grouping around old timer Larry Trainor, included not only my friend Alan Wald then in Berkeley, but a number of party members my age. They numbered perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the SWP and YSA. The POT worried that the rapid influx of middle-class students would create alien class pressures on the proletarian party. The next thing you know we’d oppose the USSR’s invasion of Finland or something. I was never sure how I fit into all this because my father had been a truck-driver before he opened up a fruit store. As a computer programmer, I supposedly belonged to Ernest Mandel’s new working class. In any case, I never lost any sleep over this question.

The POT in Boston couldn’t wait for the rest of the party to wake up to the danger. They had begun to take jobs in hospitals and factories in order to transform themselves into workers. With its attention fixed on the factories, the Boston branch lagged behind the rest of the country in building the mass antiwar movement. Branch organizer Peter Camejo’s job was to destroy the Trainorites politically and reorient the branch toward the student movement. I was his one of his right-hand men in the faction fight.

As justification for this crackdown, the Cochranite heresy proved useful. In my remarks to the branch during the 1971 pre-convention discussion, I said that it was useless to take jobs in factories. After all, it had made no difference for the Cochranites. Even autoworkers were not above selling out the revolution.

Although the party apparatus was successful in destroying the POT, it turned around and adopted virtually its entire agenda only 7 years later. The “turn” toward industry was just another misguided attempt at colonization, not much more sophisticated than the one mounted by the Boston SDS Worker-Student Alliance in 1970 that had served as a model for the Boston branch.

Despite the turn, Peter Camejo remained a 1960s holdout. After spending time in Nicaragua witnessing a living revolution, he became convinced that the SWP was on a sectarian dead-end. He not only defended the 1960s orientation, he believed it necessary to work more closely with non-Trotskyist groups like the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Basically, he was trying to work out a Cuban or Central American type orientation for the United States.

Questioning the “turn” got him thrown out of the party in 1980. That year I began wondering why the SWP was doing so little to organize protests against US intervention in Central America. Although I had been out of the party for two years, I read the Militant from cover to cover each week. If there was any deep concern with US imperialism’s designs in the region, I couldn’t see it. A chance encounter with Ray Markey, who was still in the party and who always seemed level-headed to me, prompted me to ask what was wrong the SWP. Had they turned into a workerist sect? He gave me a copy of Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” which said yes to that question. As I began reading it, I found myself in agreement with every word.

About 7 years ago J. Plant, who works with the excellent British journal “Revolutionary History,” raised a question on an Internet mailing list that led me to begin writing about party building questions. He asked people for their assessment of Trotskyism. I replied that Trotsky’s basic ideas on permanent revolution, fascism, the popular front, etc. remained sound. But we had to come to terms with the problem that his movement had a tendency to generate sectarian formations. I said that this was caused by a misreading of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and announced that I would write about these problems in some depth. So I wrote about the CP, the Trotskyists. and newer formations like the Cuban July 26th movement and the FSLN in Nicaragua. All of it is archived on the Marxism list website, along with links to material on the Cochranites.

I found myself questioning not only official versions of what it meant to build Marxist-Leninist parties, but the particular Cannonite version handed down in the SWP. Part of this re-investigation meant taking a new look at all of our various renegades. Since I was in a forgiving mood, I began handing out absolutions to everybody. Oehlerites, Shachtmanites, Cochranites–it didn’t matter. I no longer had any use for reading people out of the movement. Look where it had led.

At the time I had neither the motivation nor the resources to actually study what the Cochranites stood for in any great detail, especially since there was a paucity of documentation available to the general public. All that changed after Sol Dollinger showed up on a Marxism list I had launched in May of 1998. Over the past year or so, we have had discussions on the list about the legacy of the Trotskyist movement that have benefited from the insights of a living and breathing–and sometimes blunt–Cochranite. One of the first things we learned from Sol was that the charge of “privileged” Cochranite factory workers was absurd. He wrote:

Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other auto worker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.

Keeping in mind that my criticisms of Trotskyism flow from a Cuban or Sandinista type perspective like Camejo’s, I found that Sol’s basic approach coincided with my own. That led me to look into the whole question of the Cochran legacy. Contrary to Al Hansen, this group did not liquidate itself in 1954. It made an audacious attempt to start a new Marxist left. Their organization was called the Socialist Union. Their journal the American Socialist began that year as well, only to cease publication at the end of 1959. Edited by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, it is not only one of the best Marxist journals ever published, it is also a guide to understanding the kind of revolutionary movement that we need today.

Over the past year or so, I have been scanning in articles from American Socialist, courtesy of Cynthia Cochran who lives here in NYC and making them available in electronic archives. Eventually I hope to have this published as an American Socialist Reader.

To start with, it does not make sense to speak of Cochran or Braverman in the same terms as CLR James or any other figure around whom disciples gathered. That being said, there is still a “Cochranite” approach to politics that revolved around overlapping concerns. Let’s take a look at them.

To begin with, the American Socialist rejected the “vanguard” model that James P. Cannon had promoted. Although the magazine never mentioned Cannon or the SWP after the first issue, there was no mistake that they were for a complete break with the sectarian model.

Unlike the Trotskyists, they believed that a genuine regroupment was necessary on the American left. I want to emphasize the word genuine because the SWP went through a regroupment period themselves in the late 1950s that can only be characterized as a fishing expedition to gain new members, particularly disaffected ex-CP’ers. Activists in the Socialist Union saw their work with other groups as a means to an end. They sought to build a broad-based socialist movement and not just another sect.

In October 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment meeting in Chicago that drew 800 people. Besides Bert Cochran, the speakers included A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Sidney Lens, a writer and trade union official. Cochran told the audience:

Practically since its inception, the American Socialist has declared that a regroupment was necessary on the American scene, that the old movements had knocked each other out, and what remained of them had either succumbed to the slough of sectarianism, or had outlived their usefulness as vehicles of American radicalism. At first we were a lone voice, but today this idea is accepted by many. Nevertheless, as a result of many private conferences and conversations that we have been engaged in over these past months, we are convinced that the regroupment and the setting up of something new will necessarily involve a more or less protracted process of discussion, debate, and re-examination of many of the Left’s premises and solutions, before the ground is sufficiently prepared for the next organizational ventures.

Not only was the American Socialist immersed in the regroupment process, it also explained the importance of similar efforts underway in Europe that they characterized as the unfolding of a “new left”. This term, by the way, is used frequently in the pages of American Socialist to describe not the sorry mess we ended up with in the 1960s but something more in the way of a new Marxist left. It is unfortunate that objective circumstances militated against the Socialist Union’s best efforts to make such a new movement possible.

For example, in 1958 the American Socialist covered developments in Great Britain around the journals New Reasoner, which included E.P. Thompson as an editor, and Universities and Left Review. They eventually merged and became New Left Review. Here is Cochran sizing up the New Reasoner:

The weakness of the New Reasoner appears to be that most of its writers are still unduly pre-occupied with the world from which they have so recently broken, as evidenced in the subject matter which claims their attention, the problems that continue to dominate their thoughts, and the people to whom they are primarily addressing their writings. Moreover, trying to continue to rest on the Communist tradition by restoring it to its original pre-Stalinist pristine purity strikes me as a quixotic venture. Communism is bound by historical associations of a quarter of a century that neither god nor man can eradicate. To try to restore Communism to the meaning that it possessed in 1917 or 1848 is like trying to take Christianity away from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches of today and restore it to the simple virtues of the Biblical Apostles. It is a subject matter for literary exercises. It has no use as a workable tradition for the Left in Britain, much less, in the United States.

The American Socialist also sought to ground itself in earlier radical traditions in the United States, before Bolshevik cloning became mandatory. This meant taking a fresh look at the Debs legacy. Not only did the editorial board of American Socialist include octogenarian George H. Shoaf, who had worked closely with Debs, it also published a special issue on the Socialist Party in which Cochran drew a contrast between Debs’ party and what had followed it:

PECULIARLY enough, the Communist movement that followed Debs, and became the mainstream of American radicalism in the thirties and forties, lost this trait all over again, and became too much of a Russian movement; not in the sense that most of its members were of Russian extraction (they were not), but because their thought was so largely concentrated on Russia. Their leaders uncritically tried to copy Russian patterns of behavior, and misconstrued socialist internationalism to mean loss of independence for one’s own party. A reawakened socialist movement will undoubtedly have to re-create much of the earlier Debs model in this respect.

The break with the SWP not only involved questions of the appropriateness of the ‘vanguard’ party-building model, it also challenged the sort of ‘catastrophism’ that marked the party’s post-WWII outlook. While Cannon predicted a new depression and working class radicalization, the Cochranites urged a more cautious and objective view of the American economy and society. As is obvious today, the Cochranite assessment was far more accurate.

Cochran’s co-editor Harry Braverman focused on the American economy’s strengths and weaknesses. In article after article, he examined the nature of the post-WWII prosperity. While first showing residual influences of the kind of ‘catastrophism’ found in the post-WWII SWP, he eventually found himself coming to terms with what would turn out to be the longest and deepest capitalist expansion in history. In a May 1958 article, written as a reply to British ex-Marxist John Strachey who believed capitalism had resolved its basic contradictions, Braverman openly and courageously dealt with the question of ‘immiseration’ which had been central to the concerns of 1930s radical movement:

All the above difficulties in Marxism obviously stem from the fact that the capitalist system has persisted, and restabilized itself repeatedly, over a much longer period than had been expected. The great expansion in labor productivity which has created such new and different conditions was not unexpected in the Marxian economic structure, a structure which, as no other before or since, focused on the technological revolutions which capitalism is forced to work continuously as a condition of its existence. What was unexpected was capitalism’s length of life and its ability to expand. Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon.

The capitalist expansion of the 1950s was not the only thing that was unexpected. It also saw the beginning of the automation revolution. In an effort to understand what was different from the 1930s, you could not ignore something this major. In October 1954, Cochran wrote:

Everyone has heard of ‘automation’ by now and knows it is a new giant stride in the elimination of human labor in production by the use of automatic machinery, electronic computers and feedback controls. Few factories are as yet built on complete ‘automation’ lines, which in its strict scientific definition describes electronic or magnetic-tape control of complete sequence operations. Partial use of the new technology, however, is already becoming common. In continuous-flow-process industries, such as petrochemicals, many plants are on the verge of complete automation. Fortune magazine analysts believe even more startling changes may come in the white collar field with the introduction of high speed ‘memory’ and computing machines such as ‘Univac’ or IBM’s No. 702.

So if Univac rather than Armageddon was on the agenda, what would be the best hope for social change? As we know, the civil rights movement was starting up. The American Socialist provided some of the best coverage of this new movement, including dispatches from Carl Braden and Albert Maund, the author of “The Big Boxcar” who is in his mid-80s now and living in New Orleans. The great civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn served on the editorial board. WEB DuBois was also an occasional contributor.

It also examined some of the social contradictions that would eventually give birth to the environmental movement. Reuben Borough, who had been the editor of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign in 1934, served on the editorial board of American Socialist as well. In September, 1957, long before the publication of Rachel Carsons “Silent Spring,” Borough began writing about the environment from a Marxist perspective.

The problem of the conversion of power from these various non-depletable sources has never been under sustained and organized inquiry in the United States. This is a job beyond the immediate capacities of the isolated laboratories of the private enterprisers—they cannot solve the problem in time. Public enterprise can and must solve it. The loyal citizen of the Earth Planet must marshal the political forces necessary to that end. The long and ruthless raid of Greed upon the basic wealth of Nature must be stopped. Loving care must take the place of the befoulment and destruction of man’s environment. This is the inescapable task and responsibility of the religion of conservation.

Let me conclude. There was no such thing as “Cochranism.” It neither added nor subtracted anything to Marxist thought. Instead the Cochranites represent one of the most advanced and sustained efforts to apply a classical Marxist analysis to American society in the mid 20th century. The fact that they failed to build a new Marxist left is not an indictment of their methodology nor their analyses. They were just ahead of their time. If a new Marxist left in the United States is to succeed today, it will be along the lines set down by Socialist Union. You can bet on that.

Solidarity represents an effort to move in the direction set down by the Cochranites. I would invite these comrades to study the archives of the American Socialist to see how an earlier generation confronted the task of building a non-sectarian socialist movement based on Marxist principles.

As Bert Cochran said to a gathering of the Socialist Union at its inception in May 1954:

We approach all these strata, however, in the spirit of Marx’s Communist Manifesto which proclaimed that the revolutionists had no interests separate and apart from the working class, that we are not a special sect, cult, or church, which seeks to draw people out of the broad currents into its backwater, but rather as American Marxists, we seek to join with others in advancing the existing struggles to a higher stage and on a broader front. We are convinced that out of these struggles and experiences, even before big mass forces take to the field, Left currents will arise with which we shall be able to cooperate and fuse; that the American Marxist tendency, as a stronger formation than at present, will thus be able to discharge its role as a left wing in the big movement-as part and parcel of the struggle to create the mass revolutionary party in the United States. That is our perspective.

May 14, 2013

Reflections on Chechnya

Filed under: Chechnya — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

Grozny

Aleppo

You say that there are some who say we should have been more openly critical. I think it depends upon your first premise; do you believe that Chechnya is a part of Russia or not? I would remind you that we once had a Civil War in our country in which we lost on a per capita basis far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the 20th century over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.

President Clinton news conference, April 21, 1996

* * * *

Washington and other western powers are playing an active part in supporting the Chechen separatists. The imperialists have stepped in to grant asylum to many of the leaders in the separatist and exile government, which has declared Chechnya, “The Republic of Ichkeria.” It is headed by Aslan Maskhadov, the provisional president. The U.S. gave asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister of Maskhadov’s opposition grouping.

Party of Socialism and Liberation, December 1, 2004

They say that Saddam Hussein had an entire library devoted to Stalin. Perhaps if Vladimir Putin was as much of a scribbler as Stalin, we might expect fellow Baathist Bashar al-Assad to do him the same kind of honor since the war in Syria seems to be lifted out of the Chechnya playbook. You unleash a scorched earth policy against a civilian population and then justify it as a defensive measure against Jihadist terror.

If the left had little reason to align itself with the first Chechen war that was prosecuted by neoliberalizing bogeyman Boris Yeltsin, there was clear evidence that Putin’s war that began in 1999 would be given the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the cue they needed could be found Anatol Lieven’s journalism. No matter that Lieven had written powerfully against Yeltsin’s intervention. By 1999 Putin had become a lesser evil in his eyes, just as al-Assad appears to a broad swath of the “anti-imperialist” left. In testimony before the Helsinki Security Commission on the question of Chechnya after 9/11, Lieven sounded like Christopher Hitchens or Paul Berman:

This must also involve a recognition that it is emphatically not in the interests of the USA, the West, or the Caucasus that the Russians should simply withdraw and Chechnya return to its condition of 1996-99. The banditry which flourished in those years was a threat to the region and to western visitors to it. The establishment of a new base for international Muslim radicalism (and perhaps terrorism) posed a threat not just to the region, but to Western interests across the world, and to US allies in the Middle East. This is a point which was fully recognized by the Israeli government long before September 11th, but which for a long time was not fully understood by the US foreign policy elite – to the genuine bewilderment and frustration of Russian officials. Before September 11th at least, few in the USA stopped to think what the US reaction would be to the establishment of a powerful group of heavily armed international Muslim radicals on America’s borders – and yet the answer is not difficult to find.

If you are looking for left scholarship that took a different tack on Chechnya, there was little to go on other than articles that appeared occasionally in New Left Review by Georgi M. Derlugian and Tony Wood. Except for these two, the general consensus on the left is that although Putin was wrong to invade Chechnya, those who fought against him were Jihadists inimical to secular and progressive values—in other words, the same tropes applied to Syria today.

In the provocatively titled “Che Guevaras in Turbans” (New Left Review I/237, September-October 1999), Derlugian made the case for the Islamist guerrillas and Shamil Basayev in particular. Basayev, who was killed by a Russian car bomb in 2006, was responsible for some of the most sensational terrorist attacks that persuaded many liberals and radicals to adopt a plague on both your houses position with respect to the Second Chechen War. While Derlugian was no apologist for terror, he provided some background on Basayev that never found their way into the customary reportage in the left press:

During his brief period as a student in Moscow, aside from the fateful Professor Borovoy, Basayev met Cubans and learned from them about Ernesto Che Guevara. The young Chechen commander carried a picture of Che in his breast pocket through the Abkhazia war of 1992–93, where he was rescuing the fellow Abkhazian mountaineers from the marauding Georgian warlords—and where he was apparently trained, supplied, and supported by the Russian military who saw their interests as lying in the subversion of Georgia’s independence.

In 1999 Basayev led an incursion to Daghestan with the intention of creating a new Islamic state that would in turn form the basis for a broader union of the North Caucasus Muslim polities. At the time his bid was seen as driven by nothing except a typically Jihadist agenda based on religious fanaticism. In his 2007 book “Chechnya: the case for Independence”, Tony Wood hones in on the socio-economic realities that made Daghestan open to Islamist intervention:

The republic is so riddled with corruption that in 2005, Mukhu Alley, then chairman of the People’s Assembly of Dagestan, but appointed its president in February 2006, admitted that ‘there is not a single post to which one could be appointed without a bribe’; a low-level police position reportedly cost $3,000 to $5,000, that of a district administration chief $150,000, while one could become a minister in the republic’s government for $450,000 — $500,000. In post-Soviet conditions of economic collapse and de-industrialization, unemployment skyrocketed, reaching 30 per cent in 1999, though the true figure is undoubtedly higher. Poverty levels were astronomical: in 1995, 71 per cent of Dagestan’s population had an income below the official subsistence level, compared to 25 per cent across the Russian Federation; by 1998, it remained at 58 per cent, compared to 21 per cent nationwide. Those on the inside of Dagestan’s neo-patrimonial order strove to reinforce it; the tens of thousands on the outside grew increasingly dissatisfied with their lot. Islamist groups were an outlet for criticism of official corruption and misrule, as well as of the complicity of the official clergy. The Islamists’ calls for equality and social justice, gesturing beyond ethnic particularities to a shared Muslim identity, inevitably acquired greater and greater resonance. Moreover, as discussed with regard to Chechnya, Salafism joined the flow of deeper social dynamics, being described by one expert as a ‘mechanism for the democratization of Dagestani society through cleansing its Islamic life of mysticism, superstition and patriarchal elements’. In sum, the roots of Dagestani Salafism are to be found in ‘the socio-economic realities of the republic, in the unbearably onerous burden of pseudo-traditional customs, and in disillusionment with the spiritual authorities’.

While Russia was primed for the reconquest of Chechnya and the eviction of Chechen rebels from neighboring Daghestan, there was some evidence that military action was made more palatable by an awful series of terrorist bombings in Russian apartment buildings in September 1999. Eventually a commission of inquiry under the direction of attorney Mikhail Trepashkin was established to identify the perpetrators. The investigation revealed that Russian secret police officer Vladimir Romanovich, who was identified by eyewitnesses, had rented an apartment in a basement of one of the buildings prior to the bombings. But Trepashkin was unable to present this evidence because the Russian secret police arrested him in October 2003 for “disclosing state secrets”. A closed court sentenced him to four years, while Romanovich was killed in a hit-and-run incident on Cyprus.

This is typical police business under Putin and the sort of thing that makes him a perfect partner for the Obama administration that is using the Bill of Rights as toilet paper to wipe its collective ass.

Putin made sure not to go easy on the Chechens, as Yeltsin had. He assembled a massive expeditionary force that was the perfect analog to Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. As soul mates in the great Muslim-bashing game, they were made for each other as Bush once observed: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.” Besides looking into Putin’s eyes, it helped Bush’s successor in the White House maintain this bromance on a more practical basis. In 2011 Putin signed a $367.5-million deal with the Pentagon to supply 21 Mi-17V5 transport/attack helicopters for the Afghan military. After all, what are friends for?

Once the war began, Putin demonstrated the kind of brazen disregard for human life and world opinion that is currently on display in Syria. On October 22nd 1999, Russian Scud missile attacks on Grozny’s open-air market resulted in massive casualties. At first the Russians denied any responsibility but Putin eventually was forced to admit in the face of overwhelming evidence that his forces were responsible. But he had an excuse.  “I can confirm that actually some explosion has taken place in Grozny’s market. But I want to draw attention of the press to, that we mean not just a market in the conventional sense, rather it refers to the arms market – that is how this place is called in Grozny. This is the base of weapons, an armory. And this place is one of the headquarters of the gangs. We do not exclude that the explosion that occurred there, is the result of clashes between warring factions”.

So you can see where Bashar al-Assad developed his PR techniques, from a past master of homicide and the unabashed big lie.

January 4, 2013

Samuel Farber versus the Cuban Revolution, part one

Filed under: cuba,Samuel Farber Cubanology — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

The Prophylaxis of Theory: a look at chapter one of Samuel Farber’s Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: a critical assessment

With the stated goal of proving that Cuba is “totalitarian”, Samuel Farber doggedly gathers evidence to prove his point. This methodology is par for the course in the academy, familiar to anybody who has written a dissertation to support some hypothesis or other. Ironically, it is the same approach found in the world of “Marxist-Leninist” sects determined to protect their theoretical purity against “alien class influences”. I would argue for a different approach, one that incorporates Lenin’s observation in his April 1917 Letter on Tactics that “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life” (the words uttered by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust.)

Before addressing the question of whether it makes much sense to describe Cuba as “totalitarian”, I would like to take a close look at the provenance of the material cited by Farber in chapter one of Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: a Critical Assessment titled Toward ‘Monolithic Unity’—Building Cuban State Power from Above. One imagines that in his fervor to make the case against Fidel Castro, Farber sought out the most inflammatory documentation whether or not it passed the smell test. Quite frankly, the deeper I got into this material the more I felt compelled to go out and find some clothes pins to put on my nose, not an easy task given the prevalence of electric dryers.

Farber states that Cuba punished dissidents in the 1980s by putting them into a mental hospital and applying electroshock treatments. This represents an escalation beyond Soviet tactics, where dissidents like Pytor Grigorenko were only kept in custody in asylums.

The Amnesty International affidavits of Cuban dissidents are collected in a book titled The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba, written by Charles J. Brown and Armando M. Lago in 1990. As I read through this book over the past day, I found them remarkably similar to what mental patients undergo in season two of FX’s American Horror Story, subtitled The Asylum.

  • A dissident “lay awake, watching inmates pass the time by setting on fire the socks of their sleeping companions.” (p. 73) [One must assume that this meant something like a very advanced hotfoot.]
  • “…he was placed in a water tank and given electroshocks.” (p. 84)
  • “…the orderly Heriberto Mederos gave electroshocks to political dissidents strapped to a wet floor”. (p. 86)
  • “…his death was due to asphyxiation by hanging, his body then doused with gasoline and set on fire.” (p. 90)
  • “Blindfolded with a black hood over his head and bound by a rope tied tightly around his neck, he was beaten and kicked until he lost consciousness.” (p. 102)
  • “On one occasion, Montero told an interrogator that he ‘couldn’t take it anymore’. The interrogator responded by handing Montero a loaded gun with which to shoot himself.” (p. 114)

Now it is a bit puzzling that nothing like this turned up in Amnesty International’s original 1988 report found in Brown and Lago’s appendix. It concluded: “Amnesty International has no reason to believe that political prisoners are referred for psychiatric tests other than genuine forensic reasons.”

And then two years later Amnesty reversed itself and concluded that Cuban psychiatric hospitals were like the one depicted in American Horror Story, maybe even worse. I called Amnesty International yesterday to speak to someone familiar with both reports. Not surprisingly, my phone call was not returned. I was looking for an explanation of how such a 180-degree turn could have taken place but will likely never receive one.

If you do a search on Cuba, dissidents, and electroshock in in JSTOR, a database of scholarly articles, you find nothing except a review of the Brown-Lago book. In Lexis-Nexis, you will find absolutely nothing except a one-sentence reference in the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald, two Florida papers committed to the counter-revolutionary cause.

Could it be possible that Amnesty and Freedom House, Brown-Lago’s publisher, were serving American foreign policy goals by publishing these lurid and highly implausible affidavits? Charles J. Brown’s CV does raise some concerns. Here is how he is identified at Huffington Post, a “liberal” publication that has been hostile to both Cuba and Venezuela since its inception:

Charles J. Brown is editor and publisher of Undiplomatic, a blog dedicated to covering the intersection of diplomacy, global issues, U.S. politics, and pop culture. In the past, Charlie served as President and CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions; Deputy Executive Director for Action at Amnesty International USA [emphasis added]; Chief of Staff and Director of the Office of Strategic Planning and External Affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the U.S. Department of State; and in a variety of roles at Freedom House. In 2004, Charlie served as co-director of the human rights, democracy, and development policy team for the Kerry-Edwards campaign and is currently an unpaid policy advisor on these issues to the Obama campaign. He is co-author of The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba (1991), and co-editor of Judges and Journalists in Transitional Democracies (1997).

At the time of the book’s publication, Brown was a project coordinator for Freedom House. Is it possible that he already had ties to Amnesty, where he now serves as “Deputy Executive Director for Action”, whatever the hell that is?

I should hasten to add that the Huffington Post did not mention Brown’s latest gig. According to Linkedin.com:

Charlie currently serves as a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Undersecretary for Policy in the U.S. Department of Defense, where he is responsible for implementing the DoD components of President Obama’s initiative to integrate atrocity prevention and response into U.S. policy. Previously he served as Senior Director for Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Policy, overseeing DoD policy development and implementation on a range of issues.

The fact that Brown can be a senior officer of AI while overseeing atrocity prevention for the Defense Department defies Jesus’s stricture about serving two masters at once but that does not seem to perturb a human rights organization that is now headed up by Suzanne Nossel, a former assistant to Richard Holbrooke in his capacity as UN Ambassador and Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Assistant for International Organization Affairs. All in the name of atrocity prevention, I suppose, the bailiwick of the U.S. State Department and Pentagon.

If I were Samuel Farber I would have looked for evidence of Cuban misuse of psychiatry from less politicized quarters but then again I am not he–thankfully.

Farber takes up the cause of Oscar Lewis, an American anthropologist who was accused by Castro of establishing ties with counterrevolutionaries on the island under a progressive façade. This comes under the rubric of “cultural repression” and is meant to indict the Cuban government in the same manner as the alleged electroshock torture of dissidents. Farber has a footnote intended to back up Lewis’s case, not surprisingly written by his wife Ruth who was part of his research team. Since I am somewhat skeptical of all anthropologists, including those invited to conduct studies in Cuba, I was eager to get the other side of the story.

You can get that in an August 4, 1977 article in the New York Review of Books (unfortunately behind a paywall) written by John Womack Jr. Titled An American in Cuba, it is a review of Four Men: Living the Revolution, an Oral History of Contemporary Cuba by Oscar and Ruth Lewis, and Susan M. Rigdon.

Despite his sympathy for the underprivileged, Lewis developed a theory on “the culture of poverty” that led Marxist anthropologists like Eleanor Leacock to expose his contradictions mercilessly. By proclaiming that poverty bred pathology and that pathology bred poverty, Lewis left the conclusion that “the lumpenproletariat had itself to blame, and was incorrigible.” After meeting personally with Fidel Castro in 1968, Lewis got carte blanche to do research in Cuba despite the misgivings of his North American peers. The book that came out of their research was, according to Womack, generally favorable toward the revolution. However, it was not without costs to the writers, who found themselves at odds with the government during a period of great turmoil. Womack writes:

As Lewis gained confidence in Project Cuba, he lost his main contact with Fidel—Dr. Vallejo died in August 1969. Without advice he trusted, Lewis pushed his luck. In October, and two or three times afterward, he used the Israeli diplomatic pouch for correspondence from the United States. And in March 1970, he began interviewing a mysterious Havana professional, who had been arrested during the Bay of Pigs attack and remained a staunch gusano since. Mr. X, as Mrs. Lewis calls him, had come to Lewis to tell his story, and turned out to be a relative of a prominent Cuban official, himself a friend of the State Security director. In his interviews Mr. X praised the United States, President Nixon, and the fight against communism in Vietnam, and complained about his own country. As if he thought it mattered to the project, he also gave Lewis some low-down on the love lives of his country’s leaders. As if he thought it mattered too, Lewis let him talk.

It was a singularly rotten time for an American social scientist in Cuba to play wild cards. In the spring of 1970, despite four years of vast economic efforts, the country had reached a crisis, and the political and intellectual climate had become grim. Most ominously, the great ten-million-ton sugar harvest was failing. Besides, much less embarrassing but still galling to the country’s leaders, two prestigious and supposedly friendly Europeans had just berated them for failings in democracy and for not having a revolution à la chinoise: René Dumont in Cuba Est-il socialiste? and K.S. Karol in Guérrilleros au pouvoir. Unknown to Lewis, in mid-April the government put him under close surveillance. The bugs of the X interviews would instantly suggest spooky questions: Why did Lewis listen to Mr. X unless he wanted to know who on the Central Committee slept with whom? Why did he want to know that? To report it to the CIA?

It was largely the Israeli diplomatic pouch and the interviews with Mr. X that led to the problems alluded to by Farber. Someone trying to present an honest balance sheet on Cuba might have taken the trouble to supply such background information but that risked reminding his readers that social reality is complex. In a perfect world, the Cuban leadership would have understood that Oscar Lewis’s motives were clean even if they raised suspicions. Also, in a perfect world, Samuel Farber might have taken the trouble to identify where those suspicions were coming from, all too understandable in a country that was living under siege.

As another example of Cuban totalitarianism, Farber points to the arrest of Huber Matos in 1959 for treason. Ultimately convicted, Matos was sentenced to 20 years. According to Farber, Matos was merely guilty of thought crimes, specifically being opposed to socialism or communism even though Fidel Castro had not yet made his convictions on the future direction of Cuba public. From Farber’s presentation of the events, one would conclude that Matos had something in common with Bukharin in the Moscow Trials.

While by no means endorsing the sentence handed down against Matos, we must entertain the possibility that there was more than thought involved. In an article titled Political Change in Cuba, 1959-1965 that appeared in Social Research, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer 1968), James O’Connor wrote:

Due mainly to a high degree of local autonomy in INRA, the implementation of the Reform Law was more thoroughgoing than the law itself. Thus more right-wing moderates were swept aside during the second half of 1959. The best known case was that of Huber Matos, Rebel Army officer and INRA chief in the cattle province of Camaguey. The decisive influence in the Matos affair was unquestionably his militant anti-Communism, especially significant at a time when Castro was seeking to replace those of his own constituency, both leaders and cadres, who had defected with PSP regulars, and when he was promoting non- Communist radicals to posts abandoned by the right-wing moderates. But this fact tends to obscure another of perhaps even more fundamental importance; namely, that Matos hesitated to carry out INRA’s orders in relation to the agrarian reform. “. . . In August, 1959,” one outsider has written, “the writer was informed in a conversation with an agronomist. . . working under the Point IV program of the U. S. government in Cuba, of the obvious disorganization of the agrarian reform program … in Camaguey. . . . Several months passed before anything happened; at the end of October, 1959, Huber Matos . . . was summarily removed by Fidel Castro, thrown into prison, and charged with blocking the agrarian reform,” having conspired with land-owners, according to the official version.

Revolutions, of course, are brutal businesses as anybody studying the French or Russian varieties can tell you. If Matos was guilty of sabotaging land reform in Camaguey, then there were grounds to charge him with a crime. Once again, my problem with Farber is less about him bringing up the case of Huber Matos, but leaving out the whole story.

Turning now to the question of how Cuba ended up as a “totalitarian” society, we learn from Farber that Fidel, Raul, and Che had it planned all along, echoing the hoary Cubanologist business of hidden agendas. It goes something like this. Fidel and company had plans all along to impose a Stalinist straightjacket on a freedom-loving people but kept it a secret until all their ducks were lined up in a row. Farber writes:

Contrary to beliefs that have long been held by many liberals and leftists in the United States and elsewhere, the revolutionary leadership did not establish a Soviet-type system on the island merely as a reaction to the powerful hostile pressures of US imperialism, much less internal class forces in Cuba. Undoubtedly, the revolutionary leaders acted under serious internal and external constraints. The strong opposition of the US Empire to anything that would disturb the economic, political, and foreign policy status quo in its “backyard” weighed heavily on the political calculus of the revolutionary leaders. But at least as important was that these leaders indeed had a political and ideological view of reality that shaped their perceptions of danger, the appropriate responses to it, and especially what they regarded as the desirable form of social and political organization. As Ernesto “Che” Guevara told the French weekly L’Express on July 25, 1963, “Our commitment to the eastern bloc was half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice.”

With all due respect to Che Guevara (and a lot less so to Samuel Farber), “a political and ideological view of reality” had a lot less to do with the trajectory of the Cuban revolution than the relationship of class forces globally. But more importantly, the Cuban road to socialism was shaped very much by the country’s long history as a colony and the long-standing political crisis of both the parties of the right and the left. Farber would have preferred a lively political culture with a free press and multiparty elections (who wouldn’t?) but Cuba’s half-century of experience with a tainted “free” system led in a different direction. It is also important to keep in mind that an affinity for the Soviet Union was understandable given the prestige that the country enjoyed after the victory over fascism, the aid that was being given to the colonial revolution, and perhaps most importantly the perception that the worst days of Stalinism were in the past. So powerful was this perception that the Fourth International itself split over how to regard the Communist Parties, with Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel entertaining the possibility that they were capable of serving as imperfect revolutionary instruments. Standing against the turn toward the CP’s were the parties led by James P. Cannon and Gerry Healy. Cannon’s eventually figured out that the Cuban leadership was not “Stalinist” while Healy’s sect continued to agree with Samuel Farber’s analysis.

What Farber and the Spartacist League/Socialist Equality Party have in common is an idealist understanding of history. It goes something like this. Men and women develop ideas about what kind of society they want (and make sure to announce it to the world through proclamations meant to achieve posterity through the ages) and then assemble the cadre and mass following to implement those ideas. The obvious purpose of Farber’s writings is to inoculate the mass movement against pernicious “Stalinist” ideas that can subvert future revolutionary struggles.

For some on the left, the “prophylaxis of theory” is essential and serves as their reason for existing. When James P. Cannon smuggled an article by Leon Trotsky out of the USSR in a teddy bear, he was convinced that this was the necessary first step in creating a new revolutionary movement that could strike a lethal blow against both Stalinism and capitalism. As it turned out, Stalinism and capitalism have survived while his own party is moribund.

The “prophylaxis of theory” is most often tied to a particular papal figure on the left who like his Roman counterpart is best qualified to interpret the meaning of the holy writ (Marx and Engels) as the Pope arbitrates the New Testament.

For the ISO and the British SWP that figure is V.I. Lenin who was the USSR’s last best hope for carrying out “socialism from below”. Since V.I. Lenin died long before the Cuban Revolution, it is of course open season on the Fidelistas ideologically. Even though the Cuban Revolution has evolved along a path similar to the USSR’s experience with War Communism and the NEP, it does not get the benediction of Samuel Farber or the editorial boards of the state capitalist press.

There is a certain inconsistency at work here. It has always struck me as odd that the comrades allow themselves to publish every burp on Cuba that comes out of Farber’s mouth but never felt inspired to publish his views on Lenin and the Russian Revolution.

In 1996 Science and Society published a special issue on Lenin that included an article by Farber titled The Relevance of Lenin Today. In a nutshell, it encapsulates the Sovietology article of faith that Lenin led to Stalin, although he does not come out and state that explicitly. But anybody can figure out that this is implicit argument here:

Yet, here we find one of the more striking paradoxes in the Marxist tradition. While the struggle for democracy was central to Lenin’s politics, his conception of the nature of democracy was flawed even while he was in opposition, let alone when he was the head of the Soviet state. As I have argued at length elsewhere (Färber, 1990), there was a quasi-Jacobinism in Lenin’s politics that led him, for example, to give more importance to the politically more advanced elements organized in the party than to broader class institutions such as the soviets. Yet an elementary sense of proportion and perspective demands that we distinguish between Lenin’s flawed conception of democracy, which he mostly upheld until at least the Spring of 1918, and the clearly anti-democratic perspective that, with his associates, he began to adopt shortly before and especially during the course of the Civil War. These anti-democratic views and practices fully crystallized after the Civil War, in the period 1921-1923, even as Lenin reacted in genuine horror against the practical outcomes of those very views and actions. It was particularly during and after the Civil War that many undemocratic practices that may have indeed been justified as necessary came to be seen and defended by Lenin and other mainstream party leaders as intrinsically virtuous. The existence of this attitude is also demonstrated by the virtual absence of statements by Lenin attesting to the temporary or conjunctural nature of his repressive and anti-democratic measures, except in a few isolated instances, such as when the 1921 ban on party factions was originally declared to be temporary.

I should mention that Farber’s reference to “Lenin’s flawed conception of democracy” is another instance of idealism, seeking to explain the problems of Soviet statehood in the 1920s in terms of faulty thinking rather than the economic devastation and loss of cadre in a bloody civil war. If you discount such factors in the USSR, you are bound to discount them in Cuba, a country that faced sabotage and terror the minute the guerrillas marched into Havana.

I suspect that both the USSR under Lenin and Cuba under Castro get failing grades from the professor emeritus will matter little to those who remain committed to the state capitalist theoretical prophylaxis. But at least in one instance a leader of the British SWP had Farber nailed. John Rees, who has since gone his own way, wrote a book in 1997 titled In Defense of October that included an article by Farber along the lines of the S&S article cited above. As editor, Rees enjoyed the privilege of commenting on the various articles and made sure to inform Farber that his contribution reminded him of Robert Conquest.

In some ways, Farber is correct. Both the Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution were “from above”. Both used political and cultural repression against its enemies. And both certainly failed to measure up to the yardstick of socialism as defined in the Marxist classics. My guess is that no revolution ever will.

In 2007 reviews of a new book by Lesley Chamberlain titled Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia caught my eye. The amazon.com blurb sums it up pretty well:

In 1922, Lenin personally drew up a list of some 160 ‘undesirable’ intellectuals – mostly philosophers, academics, scientists and journalists – to be deported from the new Soviet State. ‘We’re going to cleanse Russia once and for all’ he wrote to Stalin, whose job it was to oversee the deportation. Two ships sailed from Petrograd that autumn, taking Old Russia’s eminent men and their families away to what would become permanent exile in Berlin, Prague and Paris. Lesley Chamberlain creates a rich portrait of this chilling historical moment, evoked with immediacy through the journals, letters, and memoirs of the exiles.

Now this was after the worst of the Civil War was over and before the NEP began to unwind. There is no evidence that Lenin acted in any way other than Fidel Castro acted when the Beatles were banned from Cuban radio. That, after all, is what happens in revolutions. They are subject to excess.

My advice to Samuel Farber and the comrades who take him seriously is to consider these lines of William Blake, one of Britain’s greatest revolutionary poets:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

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