“And that’s what he’s been like for forty-five years. Fantastic! Speeches that go on for four, five, six, seven hours… I wonder if when he gets to 90 he’ll stop and say ‘But that’s enough about me… let’s talk about you’.” – Mark Steel, 2001
So, as you might have heard, Fidel Castro died. Aged 90. Ruler of Cuba since the revolution of 1959, which he led, and which unseated Batista. Something something survived x many US Presidents something something Che Guevara something something Bay of Pigs something something…
…aaaaaand at this point we would normally go into a recitation of certain obvious points. Different points depending on the political orientation of the writer, his publication, etc.
For the Right, we would recapitulate that Castro was a dictator, that there is little democracy in Cuba, that it’s a one-party system, that post-revolution Cuba has a dismal human rights record, that dissidents are persecuted, that political prisoners are often ill-treated, that the regime cruelly persecuted LGBT people, etc.
Unusually for the Right, this is all true. They generally don’t have to lie about Cuba. They would if they had to, but they generally don’t need to. Not about the basics anyway. Which must be refreshing for them. (Actually I don’t think they give a flying toss.) They lie about the bigger picture, of course, characterizing Cuba as an exceptional abhorrence, while suppressing votes and supporting privatised slave gulags at home, and bombing Syria and cuddling the Saudi royalty and arming Israeli apartheid and invading Iraq, etc etc etc.
For the Left, we would probably stress the enormous improvements in education, literacy, health care, etc, which came from the revolution. We’d talk about Castro’s support for the ANC against South African Apartheid (in contrast to most Western governments) and for similar liberation struggles across the world, Palestine for instance. We’d talk about how bad Batista was (and he was a vicious dictator), about how pre-revolution Cuba was a playground for the US corporations and the mafia, about how badly the USA treated post-revolution Cuba (very badly), the hypocrisy of the West in condemning Castro when it snuggles up to friendly dictators (Pinochet, the Saudi royals, etc etc etc) and commits imperial atrocities itself, including multiple coups to put US-friendly dictators in charge of Latin American nations. We’d talk about 600-odd CIA assassination attempts, and exploding cigars, and so on.
Again, all true. Truer, perhaps.
Occasionally, you’ll get an article which mixes the two approaches in the name of nuance and balance. Even Owen Jones managed this basic feat. But even in such cases, the exercise is still in the mixing of two distinct approaches. (With Jones, the result was a classic case of ‘this, but on the other hand this’, followed by his customary moralising at the Left.)
And that’s the point. Both sides are more-or-less right about Castro and his Cuba. Maybe not in their ideological conclusions, but in their factual cases.
But very few commentators have stopped to ask why these two realities overlap.
The truth about Castro appears to be that he was an effective anti-imperialist, friend of liberation struggles, social reformer, and so forth, despite being a dictator, the head of a repressive state. Or perhaps… whisper it darkly… he was an effective anti-imperialist, friend of liberation struggles, social reformer, and so forth, because he was a dictator, the head of a repressive state.
That dark whisper is actually the dirty truth that most of the Right and much of the Left are secretly and tacitly agreed upon. That’s why they don’t stop to ask why. They both think they know, and they agree on what they think they know. (To Jones’ credit, he’s an exception to this, as he staunchly denies the necessary connection between socialism and authoritarianism, even if then digs no deeper.)
The Right assume that you can only be anti-imperialist, a supporter of liberation struggles, and a social reformer, etc, by being undemocratic and dictatorial. The conclusion they draw is naturally that one should therefore not be an anti-imperialist, a supporter of liberation struggles, or a social reformer, etc. Unsurprising, given that the whole point of being on the Right is to support imperialism, to oppose liberation and social reform – to protect the interests of power, privilege, and property, in other words. It’s actually the same old noxious concoction of lies they always tell. Leftism is inherently tyrannical, ergo it isn’t worth the candle. Trying to change the world always makes the world worse. It’s essentially already as good as it can possibly be, a few problems aside… and you should just wait for those to sort themselves out all by themselves, or through the good will and slow perseverance of the well-meaning powers-that-be. Or through the divine deliverance of the almighty market. Anything more than that and you’re on the slippery slope to gulags and Big Brother and some animals being more equal than others.
Many on the Left, on the other hand, take many of the same assumptions for granted, but just put a different spin on them. In order to be an effective anti-imperialist, friend of liberation struggles, social reformer, and so forth, you have to sacrifice democracy. The rump Stalinist Left – which embraces Castro because he identified as a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ – certainly accepts some version of this idea. They might not admit it, but they do. They wouldn’t be tankies otherwise. (It’s actually disconcerting how today’s generation of neo-tankies conform to Orwell’s diagnosis of the British Stalinists of his day, with their displaced patriotism finding refuge in power worship directed towards the Stalinist edifice… but that’s another rant.)
(A little disambiguation might be in order here: I identify as a Marxist. That means I think Karl Marx was right enough about enough stuff enough of the time to make it worthwhile to identify with his thought, and at least some of the subsequent elaborations upon it. I wouldn’t call myself a Leninist as such, but I certainly find much in Lenin’s political writing and practice to admire. I certainly would not, however, describe myself as a ‘Marxist-Leninist’, since ‘Marxism-Leninism’ was the name given to the political religion of the Stalinist state. It is, in my view, a crude and mechanistic creed, often little more than an apologia for Soviet state tyranny and Soviet Russian imperialism, which has little real connection to the dynamic and inspirational ideas of the two thinkers from whom it fatuously derives its name. It derives a great deal of its terminology from Marxism, but perverts it, or empties it of meaning and substance, especially through its vulgarisation of the Dialectic. It stifles rather than encourages thought and originality, and has almost always proved the enemy of real revolution from below. Suffice to say, a great many people have been Marxists and/or Leninists without being ‘Marxist-Leninists’. Indeed, some of the sternest opponents of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ have been Marxists and Leninists.)
In a strange way, the Stalinists have always had more in common with the Right, and also with reformist Leftists, in the Western democracies, than any of them know. We’ve already mentioned how both the Right and some on the Left agree on the essentially tyrannical nature of socialism, even if they’d put different value judgements on this. But a similar thing applies to the non-Stalinist Left. After all, both the Stalinists and the reformist Left are committed to the idea that socialism can be constructed in one country, in isolation from the rest of the world, and without a global movement. Both believe that socialism can be imposed from above, top down, by a relatively small group of socialists who take over the state on behalf of the working class (by revolution or coup in the one case, by elections in the other). Both believe that the power of the state is fundamentally what creates and implements socialism, and that achieving socialism is thus simply a matter of reforming the state so that it becomes a socialist institution.
In practice, reformist socialist parties in the West were content to preside over the continuation of the capitalist system but with a few tweaks. Big tweaks, sometimes. Good tweaks, often. The NHS in Britain, for instance… or land reform in Cuba. But simply tweaks nonetheless. In practice, reformist socialist parties in Europe did not do much about radically democratizing their own societies, let alone dismantling their empires (when they found themselves running countries which had empires). Indeed, in practice, reformist left-wing European governments often found themselves behaving in highly reactionary ways once in power, and tended to be as vicious, cynical and racist in their administration of empire as their conservative opponents had been. This isn’t because they were TRAITORS!!!!! (though plenty of them were reprehensible hypocrites and backsliders). It’s rather because they found themselves administering the capitalist-imperialist system rather than abolishing and replacing it, and the structural pressures of the system made it impossible to do anything else.
This is essentially the story of the Stalinist countries as well. In the absence of the world revolution for which the Bolsheviks hoped – and which very nearly happened – the Russian revolution was isolated. Blockaded, starved, impoverished, attacked, invaded, and plunged into civil war against quasi-fascist counter-revolutionaries (funded and armed by the West), the revolution could not hope to achieve its aims. It had to fight simply to survive. And the fight very nearly destroyed it but for a rump bureaucracy. To cut a long story short: Stalinism was the result. And Stalinism was predicated on the idea that you could build ‘socialism in one country’ – a notion absolutely contrary to both Marx and Lenin’s ideas. Stalinism was based on the idea that the rulership of the state, and state ownership of all means of production, was essentially the same thing as socialism. This idea has more support in Marx and Lenin at different times, but it is highly arguable that both ultimately grew beyond it, and both based their temporary support for this idea on the assumption that the state in question would be a ‘workers’ state’, i.e. a state controlled from below by the working class. Lenin made allowances for the exigences of war, but his ultimate idea was always that the state would come back under the rule of the workers. This didn’t happen in Stalinist Russia, for complex and contingent historical reasons that aren’t really covered by yelling “1984!” at people. But in the Stalinist state that emerged, there was no radical workers’ democracy. There was the rule of a Communist Party. The claim was that the Soviet state was a workers’ state because it was ruled by the Communist Party, and the Communist Party was the party of the working class, ergo the working class controlled the state. A nonsense, of course. But is it really all that different to the assumptions underlying Western representative democracy? The government is ultimately responsible to us, and represents us, because it is run by a party that was elected by us. The logic is similar because it describes something similar. Now, I’m not saying it’s ‘the same’, or that Soviet bureaucratic tyranny wasn’t worse. It was. I’m just pointing out the family resemblance between cousins.
The blood these blood-relations share is that of hierarchy, of class society itself. Because far from being socialism – which is inherently a society in which the majority class, the working class, rules, thus abolishing class hierarchy in the normal sense – the Soviet state was very much still divided into classes, with the working class at the bottom, and a new ruling class now controlling the means of production through state bureaucracy rather than through privately owned and competing firms. Marx wouldn’t have been entirely surprised by such a development. He was well aware that private ownership was simply the social (in this case legal) form of an economic control relation.
For all the talk of socialism and communism, the Stalinist states were still essentially capitalist. Capitalism is more than just free enterprise. It is, a Marxist would say, a mode of production, which can have different social features expressing the underlying economic reality. Even in market capitalist countries there is usually a large state sector. During the era when the Stalinist system arose, much of the West was becoming increasingly state capitalist too, under various pressures. You’re still in a capitalist society, and in an exploited position, if you work in the state sector of a market capitalist country. In Stalinist Russia, and later in Cuba, they still had the means of production controlled by a tiny minority, with the majority working for a wage under conditions not under their control. This majority were still exploited, the product of their labour becoming alienated from them as capital, the surplus value they created being appropriated by a ruling class, and that class competing – not against each other as in market capitalist countries but rather against the world market, etc.
This system was called ‘socialism’ and/or ‘communism’ by both sides in the Cold War, with one side characterizing it as a deadly inhuman threat to freedom, and with the other characterizing it as a utopian paradise. In both cases, these characterizations were bullshit, the ideological dogma of ruling classes peddling their own interests.
The imperialism of the Stalinist system was decried as evil by the West; meanwhile the Stalinist system characterized its own imperialism as – in much the same terms the West always justified its own imperialism – bringing freedom. The Stalinist systems claimed to be ‘people’s democracies’ even as they crushed both people and democracy. They needed to do this because of the logic of capital. Just as capital crushed people and democracy as it spread and established itself across the globe, so it did when it arose in state-controlled form in Russia. Take a look at the industrial revolution, or the slave trade, and then tell me how capitalism is democratic, and independent of the state.
And, paradoxically, the Stalinist claim to be socialist actually rested on this very necessary authoritarianism. Not only did they use authoritarianism to crush those who pointed out that their system wasn’t socialist (and many brave genuine socialists in the Soviet bloc countries did point this out, and paid the price) but they then claimed that socialism and authoritarianism were fundamentally identical. On the other side of the wall, the Western capitalist democracies characterized such socialism and communism as evil precisely because of the same authoritarianism… despite their own monstrous hypocrisy in doing so, and despite the fact that the ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ they decried was actually just an extreme form of state capitalism. Capitalists don’t have to always stick together. In fact, they have to compete viciously. This doesn’t just apply to competing firms. In the era of capitalist imperialism, when large blocs of domestic capital fuse with the interests of nation states, capitalist countries go to war over land, resources, helots, etc. That’s essentially what the two world wars were. In every case, both sides, however equally capitalist they may be, say they’re fighting an evil alien system.
So you see the fundamental agreement which runs through so much of the world. Despite their many disagreements, the Right and much of the Left agree on some big basic principles about what socialism is: socialism is a top-down, state-run affair, controlled by a few managers and bureaucrats at the top who wield a formal mandate but aren’t actually controlled by the working class. Meanwhile, socialist society doesn’t do away with hierarchy and class, it simply provides better facilities for the working class as they continue to toil away for the profits of others without any direct control over the government. Meanwhile, the imperialism that such systems tend to need (because they’re really capitalist in terms of their economic base) continues apace. It just gets called ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’ imperialism when it happens to be perpetrated by a government run by a party which declares itself socialist or communist.
This is the essential synergy that the reaction to the death of Castro has revealed once again. Another little irruption of the old Cold War dynamic, so long after the dynamic supposedly ceased to be relevant. The old Cold War relic dies, and suddenly we hear the same old revenental Cold War rhetoric, showing the same old assumptions, once again. And, once again, there’s a secret truth, which is that the old assumptions and rhetoric are nowhere near as obsolescent as they seem. America, after all, now has a President Elect who is vociferously supported by a distinct contingent of 21st century neo-fascists, who base much of their thinking on the same assumptions and rhetoric. Socialism is any form of state control, any form of state provision for the working class. This itself is inherently evil, a form of tyranny, leading inevitably to the totalitarian gulag. It’s inherently and unavoidably ‘the road to serfdom’. Indeed, to hear them tell it, Obamacare is essentially already Stalinism. If there is a rational kernel to their febrile nonsense, it is the one outlined above – the essential synergy and agreement, between most of the Right and Left, about what socialism is. Historically, the Left must take some of the blame for this misapprehension about socialism – that it is a matter of state control. Huge swathes of the ostensible Left have claimed this themselves.
Cuba is actually yet another bit of proof that the opposite is true. Look at Cuba today. Cuba has, in recent years, been becoming more and more open to Western capital, to the encroachment of a creeping neoliberalism. This was undoubtedly happening with Fidel’s knowledge and approval, even after his retirement. It began with the fall of the Soviet communist bloc in the late 80s/early 90s, which threw Cuba into an escalating economic crisis. Cuba turned to Venezuela – another capitalist country formerly run by a left-leaning government with a strong state. Venezuela fell into recession and then reaction and spiralling crisis, which further dented Cuba’s independence (with the paradoxical effect that the failure of capitalism is thus once again touted as proof of the unworkability of socialism). Cuba is now on the road to reassimilation into the global capitalist economy (apocalyptic Trumpian insanity permitting).
This simply couldn’t happen without a fundamental social and political revolution if Cuba was actually currently a fundamentally different kind of society with a fundamentally different kind of economic base. I’m reminded of what happened after the ‘fall of Communism’. The odd head of state aside, the ‘communist’ countries carried on into full reintegration with global capitalism without much reordering of the personnel at the top. What we saw there, and are seeing again now in Cuba, is the political re-ordering of a continuous system, complete with a transfer of wealth out of a sector where it could potentially be used to help the working class (because, essential similarities aside, I wouldn’t want to claim in a crude way that state control is exactly ‘the same’ as private ownership). Cuba has actually had a fairly ‘mixed’ economy for some time now, with a substantial amount of private enterprise co-existing alongside state-run enterprise (I think the ratio is roughly 25-75 but I stand to be corrected). This isn’t to say that the probably forthcoming drastic changes in Cuba won’t be disastrous. What is probably in store, at some point in the future, is something akin to the catastrophic reintroduction of ‘capitalism’ and ‘free enterprise’ into post-Soviet Russia… by which we mean the wholesale reckless smashing-up and selling-off of all state-directed and socially-oriented wealth, which led to recession and starvation while a minority of vulpine profiteers grew fat on the profits.
Truth is, post-revolution Cuba was always state capitalist. It wasn’t a workers’ state, run democratically, bottom-up, by a confederated commonwealth of workplace-based councils (and councils in equivalent places for non-working members of the class, such as the retired), with representatives paid the same as a normal worker, subject to regular re-election, and immediate recall. It has never been an economy in which production is planned democratically for need rather than surplus extraction, trade, etc. Rather its economy is based, like that of the Soviet Union on which it based its structure, on state-run enterprises. And, as such, its structure of control, if not the specifics of how that control is legally organised, is similar to any other capitalist country. It is certainly hierarchical. And the hierarchy is actually a function of the capitalism, not a contradiction of it. Cuba’s system has more in common with the capitalist West than it has with socialism as I understand it. Yes, they have a one-party system… but is this really as alien to us as so many of the moralists against Castro would have us believe? Not only do the great democracies tend to rely upon alliances with tyrannies of various stripes but, as many have observed, the US essentially has a one party system itself. They have one big political party which supports capitalism and imperialism, with different wings which differ over some social issues and some aspects of economic management, and which subsequently have different logos.
The myth is always that capitalism is the great liberator. There’s a kernel of truth to this, certainly if you look at the freedoms the rise of capitalism brought to feudal Europe… but capitalism erects its own hierarchies. The hierarchy and lack of democracy is not in simple contradiction with the country’s claims to be communist or socialist (as Owen Jones might see it), because such claims are simply hot air, based entirely on the orientation of the ruling government group, and the ideological notion that socialism is the same thing as state control. The solidarity with liberation struggles stems not from socialism so much as from an orientation towards anti-imperialism, which is to say against Euro-American hegemony, which is in the interests of the national Cuban ruling class.
Castro wasn’t a communist when he led the Cuban revolution. He was actually hostile to communism at the time. Though the guerilla military coup against Batista involved some socialists and communists and Marxists, and though the way was paved for such a coup by years of workers’ strikes and resistance, and though the coup enjoyed a fair bit of popular support among the working class, the Cuban ‘ revolution’ was not actually communist or socialist in any sense, not even a formal sense. Not only was it not a socialist revolution of the type advocated by Marx (“the movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority”) or by Lenin (who wanted government by workers’ and soldiers’ councils, or ‘soviets’… which is what ‘soviet’ means in Russian: ‘council’) but it wasn’t even socialist in the sense of being led by a socialist party, or by people who identified as socialists. Castro initially said he’d protect foreign capital, said his Cuba would be open to new foreign investment, etc. The ‘communist’ nature of the Cuban revolution was only subsequently “revealed” by Castro after he was more-or-less forced to turn to the Soviet Union for help, and thus became a Soviet ally and adopt their system. (US intransigence, aggression, trade embargo – coupled with urgent demands for reform and improvements coming from the Cuban people – was the cause of this about face.)
Castro was part of an anti-imperialist / bourgeois nationalist tide which swept the post-war colonial world. His was one of many such nationalist takeovers (of various forms) in such countries formerly-dominated by big Western imperial interests (that’s what Batista was – the front man for, and client of, the foreign imperialists). Ironically, Castro’s takeover of Cuba has more in common with the declaration of independence issued by thirteen American colonies against the British government in 1776 than it has with the Russian October Revolution of 1917 (though to say that is to efface loads of other context to do with race). Like other such independence movements in the colonial world, the Cuban revolution attempted to use the Cold War for its own ends. And, with some contortions, it succeeded. Whatever else you say, Castroism has kept Cuba free of direct colonial occupation or imperial domination by the US – which had formerly been its constant fate – for decades.
What it hasn’t done, however, is build anything recognisable as socialism, no more than any such bourgeois nationalist independence movements have anywhere, no more than have Labour governments, or Stalinist nomenklatura imposed by Russian tanks. They haven’t managed this precisely because they have not taken power in socialist revolutions, in which the majority of the working class moves to take over the running of the state, developing its own counter-system of radically democratic representation which is then substituted for the bourgeois state. This is what happened in Russia in 1917 before the new system was strangled in its crib by isolation and Western aggression. It never even started in Cuba, except very briefly and embryonically when workers’ councils arose in the course of mass strikes against Batista’s regime. Rather, the Castro guerrilla movement seized control of the bourgeois state as it stood, as a result of a military conflict and then a coup (albeit with much popular support). Castro then turned to Stalinism – itself a form of state-capitalistic hierarchical government – to prop up his squeezed and floundering national independence movement.
I stand with Castro – or rather, with the movement he led and represented – against Western imperialism, in the same way that I will always stand with any movement on the part of oppressed nations against imperialism. I believe, with Lenin, in the rights of small nations to self-determination. But socialist revolution is “the movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority”. Socialism isn’t coups by guerrilla movements, no matter how anti-imperialist they may turn out to be. Nor is socialism the crushing of democracy. Indeed, socialism is radical democracy or it is nothing. Revolutions might not be nice and pretty, but if they’re to deliver socialism they have to deliver radical democracy. Which means they have to be the work of the working class, not a clique of guerrillas. The guerrilla-coup theory of revolution is one of the most disastrous legacies of the Cuban revolution. It swayed huge numbers of people who would otherwise have made decent socialist revolutionaries to instead become Che-wannabes. And you only have to look at what Che achieved – i.e. nothing – to see what that was worth.
Castro’s regime in Cuba had some features in common with what I would see as the likely form of a workers’ state, imposed by socialist revolution. But it lacked the necessarily radically democratic nature of such a state, as a result of its origins. And it also lacked another necessary feature of the workers’ state: it lasted. The workers’ state is, by definition, a temporary affair. It is a stepping stone on the way to something even better. It needs to be part of a world revolution, which will allow it to supply itself, and repel aggression, without having to stay forever in a state of siege and emergency. To be fair, Castro and Che tried to spread their revolution. But they did it through trying to replicate the Cuban revolution elsewhere, in coups led by small gangs of guerrillas… with, as noted, disastrous results, where there were any results at all. The problem was precisely that rejection of the idea that socialism is inseparable from radical democracy, and can only be created by working class revolution.
Paradoxically, the proof that Castro’s Cuba wasn’t socialist or communist is that, in the absence of world revolution, it is still here.