Despite the millions of written or spoken words either for against the Cuban President Fidel Castro after his death and before it, to me the characterisation of his social and political role remains somewhat muddled. For some commentators, he was a brilliant charismatic leader of a revolution which introduced universal education and health care to a country starved of both and in the grips of a corrupt pro capitalists dictatorship. To others he was a ruthless dictator in control of a police – state with a disgraceful human rights record and a destroyer of individual initiative and alternative left politicians. Such dualistic partisanship exagerates and distorts, in one favoured direction or the other, his real historical role. It also fails to make clear the evolution of the political positions which he adopted in order to maintain himself (and his inner circle) as the sole political party of the island of Cuba. In fact the reality as it unfolded within Cuba was full of contradictions, and as we shall see they were the contradictions generated by a petite-bourgeois elite.
In Cuba, before what has been described as ‘the revolution’ in 1956, the ruling strata of Cuban social and political life was headed by the dictator Fulgencia Batista. To enrich themselves and their cronies, this corrupt elite were hand in glove with two exploititive and oppressive institutions based in the USA – corporate capitalism and organised crime. This meant that practically the whole population of Cuba was at the mercy of this corrupt combination of brutal and ruthless elites. Not surprisingly the corruption spead elsewhere in Cuba, including all the state institutions, the police and the armed forces. It was this corruption which Fidel Castro sought to eradicate when he petitioned a Cuban Court to have Batista removed from power. When this petition failed (it was not even accepted by the court), Fidel, his brother Raul and some of their supporters tried another tactic. They attempted to capture a military barracks, and failed in this also. Fidel was imprisoned for this failed attempt. He was later released and moved to Mexico where he met Che Guevara.
The Guerrilla phase. (1956 – 1959)
While they were in Mexico, Fidel and Che recruited other like – minded individuals and a group of them covertly sailed back to Cuba. Unfortunately most of them were captured, but Fidel and Che managed to escape into the forested mountain region. From there they began a series of armed confrontations with Batista’s army forces. Recruitment to this rural guerrilla force was slow mainly because the socialists and communists in the urban centres did not appear to support Fidel or Che’s political goals. For a considerable time the feeling was mutual. Fidel at this early stage did not have political positions based upon a commitment to class struggle – at least not in the Stalinist form. The left was split in Cuba as elsewhere.
At this early stage Fidel and his rural guerrilla group simply wanted a government and state free of corruption together with a rural and urban economy freed from the stranglehold of American big agri-businesses. After several years, the guerrilla forces began to outsmart and regularly defeat the loyal Bastita military forces and in 1959 becoming aware of his eventual ousting, the corrupt dictator fled the island. Shortly after Batista’s delarture the fighters around Castro and Che swept all opposition before them and with sufficient popular support behind them seized political power. All those who were judged to have obstructed this political ‘revolution’ were dealt with by imprisonment or execution.
In 1960 the new regime placed American businesses under the supervision of their loyal supporters and this action prompted America to implement an embargo on Cuban goods. This response was not what Fidel and his compatriots wanted because the Cuban economy was largely dependent upon exports to America. It was taxes and duties arising from this trade which financed the government, both of which suffered drastically from the embargo. Under the model of economic activity envisioned by Fidel and his comrades taxes and duties were important because without them there would be no wages and salaries to support the non-productive sectors of society such as the military, state officials, educators, doctors and the political class etc.
For this reason another trading partner was urgently needed and one was forthcoming in the form of the Soviet Union. This was a political dictatorship which wished to increase its influence in the region. It is this change in circumstances that prompted a change in Fidel’s political orientation. In other words in 1960’s the economic interests of the new Cuban elite and the political interests of the Soviet elite coincided and it was this raproachment which brought forth a new strategy in Cuba. Economic trade with the Soviet Bloc via the Soviet sponsored ‘Council for Mutual Economic Aid’ in 1972 influenced much which then happened politically. Meanwhile.
The bay of Pigs. (1961)
In 1961 the American CIA hatched a plan to use Cuban exiles to invade Cuba (at the Bay of Pigs) and foment a popular uprising against the new ruling elite. It failed miserably but it prompted Castro and his inner circle to increase the ties with Russia for security as well as economic reasons. It was during this period that Castro then decided to declare his allegiance to Marxist/Leninism. This declaration must have been primarily a tactical move for there is no reason to believe that he really agreed with Marx’s position on anything, let alone Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism or his revolutionary humanism. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any of these self proclaimed revolutionary elites had seriously and thoroughly studied the works of Marx such as Das Capital or the Grundrisse or had examined the counter – revolutionary nature of Stalinist sectarianism or its roots in Leninist vanguardism.
Nevertheless, the pragmatic adaptation of the Cuban elite in 1965 to the vanguardist model ensured they adopted a similar Jacobin outlook to that of the Soviet leadership. [The term Jacobin is derived from the French Revolution of the 18th century in which a section of the French revolutionary middle-class leaders (the Jacobins) professed absolute faith in the ideal of mankind, but exhibited absolute distrust of all real men – and women. Trotsky initially characterised Lenin and the Bolsheviks as having a Jacobin mentality before he joined them and became a convinced Leninist.] It was this vanguardist middle-class Jacobin arrogance which I suggest also prompted the four or five hour long speeches in which Castro lectured those who managed to endure them. To my mind such marathon events stem from a presumptious assumption that such leaders are the font of all revolutionary wisdom and that working people are the ignorant and passive soil in which to plant their patriarchal prejudices – no matter how long it takes.
The Soviet Union implodes. (1990 -1991)
With the eventual break up of the Soviet Union, the economic lifeline provided by Russia to Cuba ceased. This meant that Fidel and his inner circle no longer needed to doff their cap to Marxist/Leninism but this did not alter their vanguardist views. At no point did they see their role as working alongside the workers and facilitating their self-governance and communal control of production. They still thought it absolutely necessary that they remain in power as a guiding elite for the future development of a Cuba they thought suitable. And indeed, on the basis of the support they got and using the energy and determination of the Cuban people, they had introduced many policies positively effecting the socio-economic basis of Cuban life. Education and health care provision in particular were outstanding developments and way in advance of many much larger countries. Still, it is not by their modest life-styles or any acts of elite generosity or benevolence, (numerous or otherwise) that modern socio-economic systems should be judged.
For it is an undoubted fact that right-wing dictators have introduced some benefits to their citizens as well as left-wing dictators. Yet these have been granted whilst the elites have retained their privileged positions and kept their citizens in childlike fear and state controlled dependence. Even many enlightened capitalists have embraced some limited forms of equality for women and people of colour. So the granting of these limited privileges (which lessen the burden a little) are not the basis for assessing whether a mode of production has radically changed in favour of the oppressed. Indeed, beneficial reforms for workers under oppressive regimes were precisely the attraction of Fascism, Stalinism and Social Democracy for many workers. It is also a telling fact that all those middle-class radicals on the left who sought to initiate challenges to capitalism from above, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky Mao, Tito, Chavez and yes Fidel Castro, actually prevented the working classes from taking control of the means of production. And yes they all demanded fatherland or death from the working class in defence of this top – down system .
All the above (and their inner support networks) imposed exploititive systems upon working people which were experienced by these classes as less preferable than the exploitation imposed by the capitalist mode of production. As a result, in every one of these so-called countries of socialist realism, the capitalist mode of production has either re-established its domination or is well on the way to doing so. That is how these so-called ‘socialistic’ experiments should be judged. And in some countries, (Russia, China, Yugoslavia, and now Cuba) the ‘vanguard’ leading and promoting the resurgence of capitalist domination were (and are) the political descendents of those elites who created the ‘socialist’ power structures in the first place. How ironic is that?
An open invitation to capital.
Cuba was no different in this regard. From 1998 to 2002 the political agents of American economic control (Jimmy Carter etc) and the agents of religious, pro-capitalist mind control (Pope John Paul 2 etc) were invited to Cuba whilst Fidel was still alive. In 2008, when he became too ill to function as the leader, he passed his authority on to his brother in a gesture worthy of ancient kingdoms where domination and elite leadership was passed on – as far as possible – within the male line of the family. This new form of left-wing patriarchal ‘vanguard’ preeminence was initiated in the 19th century, enthusiastically embraced by the Bolsheviks, and is still being kept alive by a majority of the left in the 21st. The Cuban elite provide just one more example.
The overall result, despite some undoubted benefits (beneficial social programmes and anti – racist gestures for example) is the continued steady intrusion of international capital into the production processes of Cuba. This steady economic infiltration has been accompanied by the elite spolitical accomodation to capital’s needs for profits via a docile and impoverished Cuban working class. That is the actual inheritance bequeathed to the present generation by the middle-class, left-wing Hero’s or Villain’s of the past – including those such as Fidel Catro operating in Cuba.
Interestingly, this process of inviting the internationalisation of capitalist exploitation within Cuba is occuring at precisely the period in which the capitalist mode of production has once again entered a severe crisis of relative over-production with its attendent economic and military wars of aggression and dispossession. Humanity is still faced with the problem of going beyond capital before it further destroys, exhausts and pollutes the planet driven as it is by an insatiable greed for surplus-value. Whilst the need is to go beyond capital, Cuba is actually going back to domination by capital. Despite the pioneering work of some 19th century middle-class intellectuals, the middle-class left intelligentia of the 20th century have provided no practical examples of how to solve this historic problem. They have only provided examples of what not to do.
We can conclude from all this international history and the example of Fidel Castro (et al) in Cuba, that the working classes in future need something entirely different. More and more working people need to outgrow any child-like dependence on charismatic patriarchal males as father figure guides to a better future. We need to reject this secularised version of the outmoded religious ‘good shepherd’ dependancy and work collectively to revolutionise the mode of production in order to create a post-capitalist method of production worthy of humanity in its most generous and egalitarian form.
R. Ratcliffe (December 2016)