A review of Sam Farber, The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), £36.50, and Richard Gott, Cuba: A New History (Yale, Nota Bene series, 2005), £9.99
One side-effect of the current upsurge of struggle in Latin America has been to focus attention once more on Cuba. Castro’s name is bracketed with those of Chavez and Morales, and the island is still seen as a model for much of the Latin American left. Even those who are critical of the Stalinism which passed away with the collapse of the USSR usually still speak of Cuban socialism, and few of those who are marching behind red banners on the streets of Caracas or La Paz are happy to hear critical remarks about Cuban society.
Yet there is also a sense of the need to go beyond Cuba. Talk of ‘socialism of the 21st century’ involves aiming for things not achieved by any of the societies of the 20th century still (mistakenly in my view) referred to almost universally as ‘actually existing socialism’. When the need for democracy and participation is added to this, there is often an at least implied desire to achieve something not existing in Cuba. But how can this something extra be achieved? What needs to be done that was not done in Cuba?
It is impossible to answer any of these questions without looking once again at the revolution of new year 1959.
These two new books provide a useful introduction for anyone wanting to do so.
The authors approach Cuba from rather different angles. Richard Gott’s book is an outline history of Cuba from the Spanish settlement 500 years ago to the present; Sam Farber is concerned with the forces leading to the revolution of January 1959 and developments in its first couple of years. Their political approaches are also distinct. Gott is an honest supporter not only of the revolution but of the Castro regime, willing to admit to its faults (unlike many Cuba enthusiasts), but still, as a socialism-from-above man, with considerable faith in Castro’s politics. By contrast, Farber is a Cuban exile of an unusual sort, a revolutionary socialist Cuban exile. He is someone who has been critical of the Cuban regime at the same time as trying to advance the various struggles against capitalism in the US, where he has lived since the early 1960s. He wrote his first analysis of the revolution in this journal in 1961 under the title ‘Yanqui No, Castro No, Cuba Si’1 (and then engaged in a polemic with Tony Cliff who objected to treating Castro as an enemy in the same league as US imperialism)2. His work therefore complements the out of print writings of opponents of imperialism like K S Karol3 and René Dumont4 who went to Cuba as enthusiasts during the revolution’s first decade and returned considerably disillusioned.
Farber argues that the revolution could occur because the dictator Batista had lost the support not only of the workers and peasants but also of most of the bourgeoisie, leading his army to collapse in the face of a small rebel force. The great mass of people supported the new government because it gave them positive reforms, and it was this which prevented its overthrow by supporters of imperialism and enabled it to take the major means of production under its control. But the government was not based on the workers and peasants: the command posts in the rebel army were held by ‘declassés’ members of the petty bourgeoisie and at no point were democratic organs of genuine popular power established in which the workers and peasants could debate and decide upon the great questions of state. Such discussion was confined to the inner ranks of the regime itself.
All these points are relevant today because there are those in Venezuela and Bolivia who would see the revolutionary processes there occurring along similar lines, through control of the state from above with workers and peasants at best ‘participating’ but not controlling. This seems to be the advice Cuban advisers are giving to Chavez—although usually adding that ‘Venezuela cannot be Cuba’, in that control of the state must be achieved through the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy and most industry can be left in private hands. What matters, despite these differences, is that change takes place from the top down. But what created the conditions in which such change could happen in Cuba? Can they be replicated elsewhere?
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