1960s >> 1968 >> no-770-october-1968

Castro, Guevara and Revolution

In his study of the guerilla campaign in Cuba Régis Debray assessed its relevance for other theatres of activity, especially elsewhere in Latin America. What he emphasised was the impotence of the left-wing ideologues who argue that every national liberation struggle must conform to the Bolshevik tradition. How, he asked, can you impose a network of party cells and trade unions on a peasant economy or Indian community which dates back to Mayan or Incan times? Even the methods adopted by the Chinese and Vietnamese are of limited value in the South American context, suggested Debray. Thus, while Mao and Giap—the ’classical’ exponents of guerilla warfare—are committed to ‘democratic centralism’. [1] Castro’s conclusions are quite different:

Who will make the revolution in Latin America? Who? The people, the revolutionaries, with or without a party.

Debray’s thesis was that it is the guerillas who are the vital factor, who play the vanguard role. “The guerilla force is the party in embryo’’ and, more than that, it alone can guarantee the construction of a socialist system.

(In Cuba) the advance towards socialism was undertaken as quickly as it was after taking power because Fidel from the first day demanded, won and defended hegemony for the rural guerillas.

It was all this that led Régis Debray to choose his iconoclastic title—Revolution in the Revolution? For him, men like Castro and Che Guevara were revolutionary innovators, leaders who had devised a whole range of new techniques for advancing to socialism. Certainly, for anyone accustomed to thinking in Bolshevik patterns, this might be a reasonable conclusion to draw—but it is one which socialists do not accept.
The guerilla war in Cuba was launched towards the end of 1956 when Fidel Castro and his tiny army of 82 disembarked from the yacht ‘Granma’. They were immediately spotted and attacked by Batista’s forces, with the result that only twenty men got through to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. [2] Then began the long process of building themselves up, of gradually extending their operations to the lowlands and finally of taking power at the end of 1958. What has been generally overlooked is that, far from representing a novel approach to socialist revolution, the guerilla campaign was fought in the classical style of Latin American insurrections. In Cuba itself the numerous unsuccessful uprisings against Spanish rule in the nineteenth century invariably started with a group of exiles on the American mainland plotting to liberate the island. Having collected arms and supporters they would cross to Cuba’s eastern coast (the region farthest from Havana — Castro landed at Belie) and then take to the Sierra Maestra, which they would use as a base for their forays. It was in the last of these rebellions that José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, was killed in 1895.
But, far more than the poet Martí, the man who really inspired the fight against the colonial powers in South America in the nineteenth century was Simon Bolivar. In many ways he epitomised everything that distinguishes the bourgeois revolutionary. He was outraged by the ignorance and poverty which he saw throughout the continent and identified this with Spanish oppression. In its place he hoped to establish independent republics which would be based on universal ideals of justice and liberty. As a member of the educated, land-owning class he looked to this minority to play the vanguard role in the rebellions. Known as the Liberator, he was idolised as the romantic man of action (Byron is said to have named his boat ‘Bolivar’ and to have considered emigrating to Venezuela). The similarities between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and their nineteenth century forerunners are thus painfully obvious. Both Castro and Guevara came from land-owning families and, being isolated from the peasants and workers, both thought in terms of ‘going to the people’ and emancipating them. Certainly this is why they have become heroes. Professor Gerassi, of the San Francisco State University, has written about Guevara:

  . . .  he was an idealist, a man who lived . . .  for other people, for people he had never met, for the poor, for the exploited, for the alienated, for those who feel, perhaps only instinctively, that they are merely tools in their society, tools of greedy and powerful men who do not really care about human beings.

But Cuba’s apologists have more sophisticated arguments than those of Gerassi. Many of Castro’s defenders will concede that he started out with the mental equipment of a “middle-class reformer”, but then go on to suggest that objective conditions have forced him to take the first steps towards establishing a socialist system in Cuba. They maintain that, while Bolivar had no reason to go beyond the limits of his reformist ideas, Castro was brought into conflict with American imperialism and therefore by “basing himself on the workers and peasants, he was forced to carry through the expropriation of Cuban and foreign capital”. In the same way, the fact that the guerilla bands in the Sierra Maestra had no understanding of Socialism and, come to that, not even a programme of state capitalism is dismissed by Régis Debray with the bland comment that any persons who raise such objections “are not yet liberated from the old obsession; they believe that revolutionary awareness and organisation must and can in every case precede revolutionary action.” Socialism, he suggests, was being built in Cuba long before it was consciously recognised and long before the leaders formally adopted the term.
What lies behind these various lines of thinking is that in 1959, with Castro in power, a struggle with American interests in Cuba rapidly escalated. It started with the American government cutting its import quota of sugar and the new regime nationalising certain American enterprises in retaliation and ended with Russia stepping in and offering to take the cancelled sugar orders while Castro nationalised virtually all large-scale industry. All that this demonstrates, however, is that the erection of a state capitalist economy in Cuba had nothing to do with ideology and that it was only in retrospect that Castro and his supporters discovered that they had been ‘communists’ all along. Far from the basis of Socialism having been constructed in Cuba, what has been achieved is merely that the means of production have been concentrated in the hands of the state. The workers continue to work for wages, as in any other capitalist country, while a new ruling class of party bosses and bureaucrats has consolidated its power.
For all that, the Cuban leaders came to power on a wave of popular discontent and—like any other ruling class—they now have to defend their privileged position with an ideology. Up to his death Guevara was prominent as one of their foremost ‘theoreticians’ and his skilful mixture of Marxist and nationalist ideas has found a ready audience in left-wing circles. He could be outspokenly critical of Russia and the East European countries, at times referring to “their tacit complicity with the exploiting nations of the West” and inferring that the industrialised, state capitalist countries were “in a way, accomplices of imperialist exploitation”. What especially aroused him and Castro to fury were negotiations such as those between Russia and the right-wing Brazilian regime in 1966 when Russia signed a $100 million credit agreement, making Brazil the leading recipient of Soviet ‘aid’ in Latin America after Cuba. Coupled with this was Guevara’s emphasis on going forward to a new society, of creating a system where people would work voluntarily because they enjoyed it it (the so-called “moral incentive”) and would be able to take freely whatever they wanted, without any restrictions in the form of money or rationing. Echoing Lenin, he talked about “our sons who will live communism”.
None of this ought to surprise anyone. Friction between “fraternal, socialist lands” is a commonplace these days, although Castro—because of his extremely vulnerable position and heavy dependence on Russia—is shrewd enough not to push his criticism of other state capitalist countries beyond acceptable limits. At the same time, Guevara’s idealistic yearning for a new social system is the sort of hangover from the revolution which one would expect. Bourgeois revolutions are normally characterised by a belief that a just society is being created and this is inevitably used to encourage the working class to greater efforts. In fact, for each of Guevara’s references to the future communist society, he made at least a dozen pleas urging the Cuban workers to increase production.

  . . .  what I wanted to stress is that the working class is not putting forth its full effort (Television speech, 1961).
  . . . by working on the proletariat’s sense of responsibility, we hope to greatly improve the quality as well as the presentation of industrial products. (Article in Cuba Socialista, 1962). The perfect revolutionary, the member of the ruling party, must work every hour and every minute of his life, during these years of very hard struggle that lie ahead of us. (Speech to textile workers, 1963).

This is not to imply that Guevara consciously set out to trick the working class. There is no reason to doubt that he honestly believed that, by a combination of hard work and sacrifice, Socialism could be constructed in Cuba. But the fact is that, within the framework of a state capitalist economy, his slogan of ‘work now—Socialism later’ functions as a cover for the accumulation of capital by the ruling class. 
This is not to overlook the important and far-reaching reforms which the Castro regime in Cuba has introduced since 1959. Illiteracy has been virtually wiped out, for example (there were 1,250,000 illiterates under Batista) and at present something like 5.3 per cent of Cuba’s national income is being diverted to education. It would be foolish to underestimate the value of this for the working class. Such a gain, however, will better equip the working class for understanding what Socialism entails. The battle for a socialist society has yet to be fought in Cuba, let alone won.
The problem remains, then, what can socialists do today under Latin American conditions? At present the tactics being adopted by those who claim to be interested in establishing Socialism vary from the guerillas—advocating a particular form of direct action—to the pro-Russian Communist parties at the other extreme. Typical of these latter is the Venezuelan C.P. which was legally recognised up till 1962. was then prohibited for its support of the local guerilla forces, but has now renounced guerilla activity. In the current presidential elections it has offered to throw its weight behind the candidate with the most attractive reform programme, the one who will “promise to put an end to repression”. Both these strategies are useless for advancing to Socialism. The job of revolutionary socialists, wherever they are, is to make the world socialist revolution and this boils down now to the immediate task everywhere of spreading socialist ideas among the working class. The Socialist Party of Great Britain recognises that the difficulties of doing this in many countries, including the South American dictatorships, are extreme and that, until the working class in such areas have gained sufficient strength to capture the limited democracy which has been won in Western Europe and elsewhere, the efforts of socialists must be severely hampered. There is, however, no alternative.
This would be a more solid contribution to the building of a world socialist community than is agitating for a capitalist state such as Cuba. To try to dodge the issue by talk of a “revolution in the revolution’ ’is mere escapism.
John Crump

[1] “Politics directs the gun” (Mao). The first fundamental principle in the building of our army is the imperative necessity of placing the army under Party leadership, of constantly strengthening Party leadership.” (Giap)

[2] The exploits of the guerillas have been surrounded by such a collection of myths that it is now difficult to check simple facts such as these. The number of men to reach the Sierra Maestra has been reported at various times as 7, 12, 13 and 20.

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