Fidel Castro, one of the last remaining leaders of a Stalinist state, died last week at the age of 90. Among sections of the left there is near-hysterical outpouring of eulogy, while bourgeois commentators blithely dismiss him as a communist despot. A third camp socialist assessment of Castro’s politics is needed.
Fidel Castro was undoubtedly the central historical figure of modern Cuban history. The 1959 revolution that brought his 26 July Movement (M26J) to power was a bourgeois political revolution which smashed Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, but replaced it with their own Bonapartist regime. Half driven by US hostility and half by choice, the Castroites opted to create a Stalinist state in 1961, adopting the model of the USSR, China, North Korea and (North) Vietnam at the time. Castro ruled until 2006, when he handed power to his brother, the current president Raúl Castro. Over the past 25 years, Cuba has taken faltering steps towards capitalism, while the ruling bureaucracy has maintained its iron grip.
How was Cuba ruled under Fidel Castro?
Fidel Castro established a bureaucratic collectivist class society in Cuba. The surplus was appropriated directly, through the state’s control of the economy. Cuban workers and peasants received their means of subsistence most as non-monetary rations — low cost or free food, housing, education, health and other welfare facilities. However the surplus product pumped out of the direct producers was controlled and allocated by the ruling bureaucracy, while independent trade unions and civil liberties were suppressed.
Under Fidel Castro the state owned the means of production and the bureaucracy owned and controlled the state, ruling through the myriad of state-sponsored “mass” organisations. The bureaucracy, armed forces and security services he headed had privileged access to consumer goods through special stores, separate hospitals, recreational villas, and trips abroad.
Raúl Castro has summed up the political ideal of the Cuban ruling class as “monolithic unity”. Although there is enforced mass participation in Cuba’s polity, democratic control is absent. The Communist Party, formed in 1965 has only held seven congresses in nearly 60 years. The Popular Power assemblies were not established until 1976 and allow only vetted candidates to stand on their biography, with those “elected” able only to rubber stamp decisions taken elsewhere by the bureaucrats.
Who was Fidel Castro?
Fidel Castro’s politics originated in the Latin American populist nationalism. He came from an upper-class Cuban background. He emerged politically during his five years at the Law School of the University of Havana, between 1945 and 1950. Fidel Castro was involved in the anarchist group UIR as a student, enrolling in an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1947. He was in Bogotá during the riots in April 1948.
By the early 1950s Castro was a young lawyer and second-rank leader of the bourgeois Ortodoxo party, founded by Auténtico Eduardo Chibás in protest at the latter’s corruption. Castro was on the party’s slate as a candidate for Congress in elections scheduled for June 1952, which were aborted by Batista’s coup in March that year. Castro revered Jose Marti, who fought for Cuban independence against the Spanish. He upheld a morality of “honour” in contrast to the gangster politics that prevailed in Cuba. But as late as March 1956, in his resignation letter from the Ortodoxo party, he remained a mainstream Cuban politician, writing “for the Chibasist masses, the July 26 Movement is not something distinct from the Ortodoxia”.
What distinguished Fidel Castro was his emphasis on political control from the top down and his obsession with organisation. In his book, My Early Years (1998) Castro claimed to have devised a middle-way strategy in the context of the Cold War. He put particular emphasis on what he called “chieftainship”, or what Marxists have regarded as Bonapartism, where the leadership, balancing between contending classes and organisations, establishes a strong state to direct development. Castro’s approach stands in contrast to the kind of collective, democratically elected leadership group found in a genuinely Marxist organisation.
Was Fidel Castro a Stalinist from the start?
Fidel Castro claimed he supported and was strongly influenced by Marxist-Leninism before the revolution. Certainly key people around him were connected to the Stalinist movement. Raúl Castro joined the youth wing of the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP, as the Cuban CP was called) in the 1950s, while Che Guevara was also committed to Soviet Stalinism. However the clashes within the M26J and differences between the M26J leaders and the PSP do not suggest Fidel Castro was fronting for Stalinism at the time. The assessments of the US and Soviet governments, and of the PSP do not suggest Castro was a Stalinist in 1959.
Fidel Castro became a vocal Stalinist after the US government became hostile to his regime, imposing its blockade and sanctions. Cuba’s much heralded achievements under Fidel Castro depended in part on the receipt of massive Russian aid from the early sixties to the end of the eighties. Between 1960 and 1990, Cuba received about 65 billion dollars of Soviet aid on very favourable terms. Under Fidel Castro, Cuba supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
What about the workers?
The idea that Cuba under Fidel Castro was some kind of “workers’ state” is ridiculous and destructive. Some workers did help overthrow the Batista dictatorship in 1959. But it was not a socialist revolution, where the working class self-consciously establishes its own organs of struggle. There were no soviets, no big working class mobilisations, no workers’ control and no Marxist party at the helm. Fidel Castro was candid enough to admit as much on numerous occasions.
Supporters of the M26J ousted pro-Batista trade union bureaucrats immediately after the revolution and elected more authentic representatives. But at the tenth congress of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) in November 1959, Castro intervened and imposed his own leadership slate. After the congress concluded, the Labour Ministry assisted by the Stalinist union leaders and their allies purged a large number of trade union leaders who had resisted their influence. There were no new elections and no more union autonomy.
At the eleventh CTC congress in November 1961, unanimity replaced controversy. With no contest allowed for the leading positions, all leaders were elected by acclamation. The old Stalinist leader Lázaro Peña regained the position of secretary general that he had last held in the forties under Batista. The unions became state labour fronts. In 1961, Guevara argued that “the Cuban workers have to get used to living in a collectivist regime and therefore cannot strike”.
Under Fidel Castro, new labour laws strengthened labour discipline. They punished workers who displayed signs of “laziness, vagrancy, absenteeism, tardiness, foot-dragging, or lack of respect for superiors” through wage cuts, job transfers and sackings. The Castro government imposed labour files on Cuban workers and incarcerated “non-productive” workers in labour camps. In 1983 a Solidarnosc-type independent union was suppressed by Fidel Castro’s government.
Fidel Castro was not an advocate of human freedom or an opponent of oppression in other respects.
On coming to power the regime set up the Federation of Cuban Women, but it is not independent nor committed to women’s liberation. The majority of Cuban women have ended up with a “double burden”: working many hours outside as well as inside their homes. For many years Cuban law denied the legal concept of “marital rape”. At the beginning of Castro’s rule, the Cuban government strictly enforced the existing anti-abortion legislation, though this was liberalised in 1979.
Cuban LGBT people suffered greatly when Fidel Castro was in charge. In the 1960s the regime routinely harassed LGBT people and published homophobic literature. In 1965 the government erected the UMAP camps, where for some three years gays, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Catholics, members of Abakúa and other black secret societies, and other “deviants” were forced to provide cheap, regimented labour. Mandatory screening for HIV infection began in 1986. HIV-positive people (900 cases in 1993) were quarantined in sanatoriums and once they developed full-blown AIDS, transferred to hospitals. The quarantine policy was used as a substitute for serious educational programmes on AIDS.
If the future of socialism is modelled on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, then there is no possibility of socialism. Fidel Castro contributed nothing to working -class socialism. He is no hero of ours.
But real socialism does have a future. Our socialism – meaning the self-emancipation of the working class – is not obsolete, is not a relic of the past, but the very real alternative for the present. Our socialism is based on the actual tendencies in the world today and on the real forces of the working class, the social agent we look to in Cuba and everywhere else as the progressive agent of change.
Sam Farber’s work, including the books, Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (2012) and The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (2006), provides the best understanding of Castroism.