The Fidel Castro Handbook by George Galloway is a hagiography about one of the last grand Stalinist autocrats by one of its most loquacious apologists.
It is the modern equivalent of the biography of Josef Stalin by Albanian tankie Enver Hoxha.
The book has the overtones of an extended obituary, no doubt because of Castro’s ill health just prior to publication. But in reality it is a requiem for Stalinism by one its last loyal servants.
The book reveals more about Galloway than it does about Castro. It lays bare Galloway the fawning despot-lover, Galloway the obsequious little hack simpering around his master, Galloway the deferential hero-worshipper paying homage to his idol.
History for Galloway is the history of great men – and his bedside reading list includes a litany of leading Stalinists – Ho Chi Minh, “the titanic Tito”, “Chairman Mao”. Therefore his galloping sycophancy toward Castro is hardly a shock (p.6)
Galloway describes himself as a “militant in the worldwide socialist movement” (p.6) though of course he aspires to be a comandante, or at least to keep that sort of company.
Working class people don’t feature in the book, except as the deserving poor. The struggles of the Cuban workers before and during Castro’s period are ignored, unless subject to his command, as in the disastrous general strike in 1958.
Galloway’s sexism and homophobia also stands out. He mildly chides Castro for his “macho prejudice” after an outburst at his bisexual brother-in-law for “sexual degeneration”. (p.103) More seriously he reports without criticism the apparently popular chant at the time of the Cuban missile crisis “Nikita [Khrushchev], you little poof, what you give you don’t take back” (p.250). He repeats the archaic joke that “Aristotle Onassis would never have married Mrs Khrushchev” (p.9) and he thanks “the women I have loved and lost” in his acknowledgements, without bothering to name any of them. (p.422)
However Galloway does thank some other notables. He confesses that, “this book could not have been written, amid the swirl of war and resistance to it, without my clever comrade Kevin Ovenden”. He includes John Rees and Lindsay German in his list of friends “who make sure I don’t stray from the path”. And he thanks among others, Rob Hoveman who “make my office work”. Now doubt these leading SWPers will glow with pride at such handsome praise. But it might worry the ordinary SWP member to know how far their leadership have lurched and how far the tail is now wagging the dog.
Galloway describes himself as a “friend of and partisan for Fidel Castro” and “a partisan, for Cuba, for its revolution, for its leadership for its role in the world”. He believes Fidel Castro is “one of the greatest men of the twentieth century and that he will be remembered and revered.” (p.9)
The book contains very little new information on Castro’s life, though it is lavishly illustrated with photos, some no doubt impossible to obtain without the blessing of the Cuban government. It is little more than a propaganda yarn, which could easily have been put out by the Cuban Ministry of Culture.
The book is rather a “Boys’ Own adventure”, full of gallant deeds and athleticism. Castro shows his prowess by his swimming two miles back to shore after a failed uprising, by swimming the Rio Grande, even by going swimming with George Galloway. (p.55, p.129, p.312)
Always it is Fidel the superman, Fidel the mighty, Fidel the conqueror.
Galloway offers a contradictory account of Castro’s politics before he came to power. Cold Warriors and apologists alike have traditionally agreed that Fidel Castro was always a “Marxist-Leninist”, whereas the evidence suggests he turned to Stalinism only under the external pressure from the US, after receiving help from the USSR and because of the sympathies of his closest associates, his brother Raúl and Che Guevara, who certainly were Stalinists before and after 1959. (See my review of Sam Farber).
Galloway’s narrative begins on solid ground, suggesting that Fidel Castro was a radical nationalist as a student, graduating into the bourgeois Ortodoxo party, only to have his political career ruined by when standing as their candidate by Batista’s coup in 1952.
However in the midst of this narrative, Galloway quotes Castro from a recent book of interviews with him, that: “In the university, where I arrived with a rebel spirit and some elementary ideas of justice, I became a Marxist-Leninist and acquired the sentiments that over the years I have had the privilege never to have felt the slightest temptation to abandon.” (p.67)
Slightly more revealing about Castro’s politics is his reading matter before the revolution. Apparently in prison after the attack on Moncada in 1953 he read Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and then when released studied the Mexican government of Lazaro Cárdenas (1934-40). What Louis Napoleon and Cárdenas had in common of course was that they were both Bonapartist politicians in the Marxist sense, balancing between social classes but ruling in the interests of the bourgeoisie, while creating a government autonomous from the immediate bourgeois parties. This seems a plausible description of what Castro was doing in power in 1959-60, before the international and domestic circumstances pulled and pushed him towards introducing Stalinist collectivism in Cuba by mid-1961.
Galloway makes one other allusion, which, in spite of his intentions, sheds some light on the significance of Castro. Galloway compares Castro to Don Quixote. For example one interviewee points out Cervantes’ book was the first published in Cuba after Castro came to power. (p.29, p.222)
Marx also wrote a good deal about Don Quixote, invariably as a man who defended gallantly an outmoded cause, one who struggles in vain against powerful historical forces, the best representative of an epoch now past. In a sense, that is what Castro is: the last revered surviving representative of Stalinism, a cul-de-sac bureaucratic system that did not overcome capitalism or develop as a more progressive alternative.
Galloway described Castro as “a sprig of white heather in the future’s lapel”. (p.10) Apparently heather is considered a token of good luck in Scotland, while some believe that it grows over the final resting places of fairies. Heather apparently makes a medicinal tea or a soporific mattress.
In each case, the comparison with Castro bears out – though not in the manner Galloway would like.
For sure you need to consume something soporific or have a lie down after a speech by Castro (or indeed Galloway). The idea that Castro’s Cuba is socialist is a fairy tale that can only be believed if you rub out the conditions of the Cuban working class – something Galloway manages to do completely – for example simply by ignoring the take over of the trade unions in late 1959 – early 1960.
And if the future of socialism is Castro’s Cuba, then there is no possibility of socialism.
But real socialism does have a future. Our socialism – meaning the self-emancipation of the working class – what we call workers’ liberty – is not obsolete, is not a relic of the past, but the very real alterative for the present. It 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.