A new left-wing consensus is emerging, a “common sense” that takes Latin America as its point of departure and which combines many of the worst features of previous versions of “socialism from above”.
The new orthodoxy is articulated by talking heads such as Tariq Ali and Richard Gott as well as by many Latin American solidarity campaigns. It finds support in sections of the left and in many trade unions. Now academic Diana Raby has produced this book, which contains the basic ideas in a straightforward and uncompromising form.
Raby argues that, “Cuba and especially Venezuela represent the real revolutionary alternative of our times.” (2006 p.8) The book is an attempt to salvage something from the wreckage of Stalinism and to produce a manifesto of “socialism from above” for the 21st century. As such it has a certain value. It sets out tersely the arguments which third camp socialists who look “below” to the working class have to combat within the left.
Raby describes the Cuban revolution and the Castro regime that derives from it as “a beacon of hope” and as “an extraordinary, indeed priceless example for all those who seek an alternative genocidal and ecocidal neo-liberal capitalism”. According to Raby, “Without Cuba, the disorientation and despair of the last fifteen years would have been much worse. Cuba has shown in practice that another word, however imperfect, is possible.” (2006 p.258, p.61)
Looking back to the events of 1956-59, Raby argues that, “the Cuban revolution was a popular mass movement in which tens of thousands of people participated in different ways… The scale and importance of urban armed resistance has been reaffirmed in several recent studies”. (2006 p.84) Whilst it is true that Castro’s forces led a revolution which broke the back of the old Batista state, this does not mean the regime that arose in its place was a socialist, working class force.
Raby rejects the view that Castro’s regime was or is Stalinist. She starts from the correct assumption that it was not simply US hostility that drove Cuba towards USSR. Such an interpretation “fails to give sufficient importance to the internal dynamics of the revolution, in which the Cuban bourgeoisie was excluded from the political process (or excluded itself).” (2006 p.98)
However Raby doesn’t discuss those internal forces within the Castro’s movement, such as his brother Raúl and Guevara as well as the PSP, which backed the introduction of a Stalinist regime on the model of the USSR. She also assumes that where the bourgeoisie is overthrown, as it was in Cuba, that the regime which followed must be socialist. The idea that another ruling class with a different form of exploitation might have replaced the capitalists does not enter the discussion.
Raby rejects the view that the USSR, or indeed countries like Cuba were (or are) capitalist: “Given the high level of centralised economic planning (the ‘command economy’), the absence of individual capitalists or of a capital market, and the frequent determination of economic priorities without regard to profitability, it makes little sense to describe it as capitalist.” (2006 p.70) Again, this is a reasonable argument – but not one that points necessarily in the direction of socialism. The key criterion here should be the role of the working class, but it’s clear from Raby’s description that the working class was not the main protagonist in the Cuban revolution.
Instead of looking at the role and position of Cuban workers, Raby simply passes over their treatment by the Castro regime from 1959 onwards. The book contains a laughable description of the 10th congress of the CTC union federation - where Castro first imposed Stalinist trade unionists on the labour movement - as having “lively arguments”. (2006 p.99) Only once is the real situation of Cuban workers hinted at, when Raby described the scope for decision-making by trade unions as “severely limited.” (2006 p.106)
Raby believes that “Cuba has its own system of Socialist democracy” and approvingly quotes Fidel Castro that democracy is a government that serves the people not the oligarchs. (2006 p.78, p.122)
The book tries to make the case that Cuba is democratic, but ends up proving the opposite. Raby argues that the “Popular Power” structures are a form of democracy – indeed a superior form to liberal democracies. However she has to acknowledge that no elections took place for the first 15 years of the regime, when what she dubs “informal” mechanisms were used.
Raby describes how the popular power has functioned since 1992. At municipal level, delegates elected to assemblies represent 1,000–1,500 voters and candidates can only be nominated at public meetings. They must reside in the district they represent and face competition in the election from up to seven others. The Communist Party does not choose candidates. Once elected, the delegates are not paid for the role, have to report back every six months and can be recalled during their two and half year tenure.
However Raby also mentions the limits of the system. Candidates cannot stand on their politics nor can they campaign. Instead they stand solely on their biography. If that wasn’t enough, once elected, delegates “lack real power” and “do not legislate” but rather supervise local projects (2006 p.125, p.126)
The situation in the higher assemblies is even worse. “There is only one candidate for each position at provincial and national level”, the “nomination process less open” and requires 50% of the registered electorate. Raby describes the process as the “popular ratification of a pre-selected list of candidates”. Once elected, the National Assembly plenary meets “twice a year for a few days” and most votes are unanimous. (2006 p.127)
Raby complains that some on the left argue that Cuba is undemocratic because of the lack of Western-style elections. (2006 p.121) Since Cuba is a one-party (in fact non-party state with no space for opposition), the comparison is not misplaced. However, the yardstick that is actually more damning is with working class democracy. Cuba doesn’t even have basic trade union norms of democracy, never mind compared with the best rank and file movements, factory committees and workers’ councils – where different parties and factions compete for workers’ support by proposing different programmes and strategies - and where recall means actually having a choice between representatives to replace the incumbents. The organs of power in a genuine workers’ state would have real control over the social surplus and not simply be subject to top-down diktat.
In fact Raby lapses back on two rather weak arguments to justify the Cuban system. Firstly she writes: “Only the strength that comes from a true popular revolution which still retains its essential character can explain such resilience” and secondly that “‘Democratisation’ along liberal lines would undermine Socialism and would open the door to domination by the US and the Miami exile mafia.” (2006 p.78)
These arguments ignore the basic mechanisms of force and consent used by the regime: the weight of the repressive pparatus and the legitimacy derived from social welfare policies. The arguments are also self-contradictory. If Cuba is so democratic and its people overwhelmingly support the government, it seems odd for its apologists to believe that merely a (liberal) election would let in the Miami reactionaries. Raby also misses the central point: the price for ruling out space to organise, speak and associate is the permanent bondage of Cuban workers.
Although Cuba is an object of veneration for the author, it is Venezuela that is the subject of exaltation in the book. Raby argues that the victory of Hugo Chávez was “the first successful popular and anti-capitalist revolution since the fall of the Soviet bloc, and one which is so profoundly democratic, open and original, it offers hope to a degree unimaginable even five or six years ago.” (2006 p.61)
In places, the hyperbole becomes ludicrous, if it were not so preposterous. For example Raby argues that “the Venezuelan people acquired a collective identity and were constituted as a political subject through the actions of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Movement” - as if workers do not have a history of struggle before and apart from Chávez. (2006 p.233)
Although Raby is keen to extol the virtues of Chávez, she also highlights some important truths. Firstly, she confirms that the decisive characteristic of Chávez’s rule is the “civil-military alliance”, in which the military core (the MBR-200) predominates. (2006 p.146)
This is extended to an interpretation of the April 2002 coup attempt and its repulsion. Raby argues: “the conventional wisdom on the Left is that it was the people in the streets who defeated the Fascist Carmona and his acolytes, but this is at best a half-truth… What saved the revolution was the ‘civic-military alliance.” (2006 p.168, p.169) She goes on to argue that it was largely the loyal soldiers who restored Chávez to power.
Although this is a more realistic explanation of the events, Raby can’t resist spoiling it by quoting Mao favourably, arguing that “what has happened in Venezuela is – quite remarkably – that the conventional military has been in large part transformed into a revolutionary army”. (2006 p.169)
Raby does discuss the situation in workplaces in Venezuela, although again the picture is far from overwhelming. Apparently the number of co-ops has grown from 762 in 1998 to 73,000 in mid-2005, and now involves 800,000 members. (2006 p.180)
On 17 July 2005 Chávez announced that, “136 enterprises which had been closed by their owners were being evaluated with a view to expropriation in order to turn them over to workers in co-gestión [co-determination]”. Chávez declared that he was creating Empresas de Producción Social (social production enterprises, EPS) and that “the government had discovered 1,149 enterprises totally or partially closed down by their owners, a situation which could not be allowed.” (2006 p.183) However, Raby wisely observes that very few firms operating cogestión have anything like workers’ control.
Raby also acknowledges that Venezuelan national capital plays a big part Chávez’s “revolution”. She accepts that “Pragmatic Venezuelan entrepreneurs and transnational companies have come to realise that they can do business perfectly well under Chávez… Capitalists may still be able to make handsome profits, but they do so under conditions dictated by the Venezuelan state and not just as they please. The economic system as a whole is still capitalist, but it is subject to a degree of dirigisme not seen anywhere in the so-called ‘Free World’ for at least two decades… Although private capital can and will continue to do business in Venezuela, the logic of the process is anti-capitalist… Although members of the national oligarchy still control most of their economic bastions, they have lost both political and military power.” (2006 pp.195-96)
These observations about the central role of the military and of national capital have been made for many years by the AWL and lead to the conclusion that Chávez is leading a bourgeois Bonapartist regime in Venezuela, which working class socialists should oppose sharply. Although Raby seems to have grasped important elements of Venezuelan reality, she comes to the opposite conclusion and positively embraces Chávez’s military road to “socialism”.
The rationale for such a bizarre stance is three-fold: Raby offers a rejuvenated Stalinism, the embrace of populism and the rejection of the working class as the essential agent of its own liberation.
Raby’s book is nothing less than the selective rehabilitation of Stalinism. For example she justifies the theory that it is possible to build socialism in one country, the very core of Stalin’s doctrine from 1924 onwards. She says: “Socialism, or at least an anti-capitalist political and social order, may be able to exist in one country or a group of countries for a significant period of time, but will always be unstable and in constant tension with both external and internal capitalist pressures.” (2006 p.64)
There are persistent references in the text to the “socialism” of the Eastern bloc and China and that the Yugoslav experience [under Tito] “may be quite relevant to any new attempt to construct a non-capitalist socio-economic alternative.” More specifically, she says that, “revolutionary popular power can survive for decades even in a small country like Cuba.” (2006 p.65, p.75)
Just to be absolutely clear, Raby argues that, “the Trotskyist thesis of the impossibility of ‘Socialism in one Country’ is dangerously misleading.” (2006 pp.65-66)
Raby also promotes the tradition of leftist populism in Latin America, stretching back to Simón Bolívar. She highlights the examples of Juan Perón in Argentina (1943-73) and Eliécer Gaitán in Colombia (1943-48), celebrating the fact that today “a spectre is haunting the world, the spectre of populism”. (2006 p.255)
Raby follows Ernesto Laclau in understanding populism a “multi-class or supra-class political movement, emerging at a critical conjuncture and characterised by charismatic leadership and a radical anti-establishment discourse”. In particular she distinguishes between the populism of the dominant classes and the populism of the “dominated classes”. (2006 p.240, p.241)
Populism was summed by well by Gaitán, who said “Yo no soy un hombre, yo soy un pueblo” – I am not a man, I am the people”. (2006 p.245) The young Fidel Castro was in Colombia during the riots that broke out after the assassination of Gaitán – and seems to have learned some of his populism from the Colombian experience.
Raby accepts the prominent role of the military in populism, claiming that the “military are not genetically reactionary”. (2006 p.16) With regard to Venezuela, she makes the incredible claim that “dictatorship and military rule might be considered a force for civilisation while the reality of democracy brings barbarism.” (2006 p.50)
Raby also acknowledges that populism emerges as an alternative to (or the failure of) working class political representation. She writes: “If the majority of the working class or of the popular classes in a broader sense are already organised in support of a Socialist, Communist or other party which they recognise as representing them, then there is no room for a popular movement to develop.” (2006 pp.246-47)
The working class cast out
Raby opts for populism essentially because of a lack of confidence in the democratic and organisational potential of the working class. She hints at this, with the comment that “social revolutions will continue to occur – at least in the global South” – effectively writing off workers in the “North”. (2006 p.65)
And she is more incisive in the conclusion. “It is not a question of building a pure working class movement in the sense of strict conventional Marxist analyses, but a movement of the popular classes in the broadest sense, encompassing ethnic minorities, immigrants, women, sexual minorities, students, pensioners, and small and medium businesspeople: the whole gamut of oppressed and excluded groups.” (2006 p.261)
In other words, Raby’s conception of socialism (from above) is to be built by developing a popular front movement. This is a dangerous illusion, which countless historical events, from Spain and France in the 1930s, to Chile, Portugal and Iran in the 1970s have demonstrated. The working class in Latin America and elsewhere should have no truck with such a pernicious strategy, which is guaranteed only to continue its subjugation.
Review of D.L. Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today, Pluto 2006