What role did the Cuban working class play in the 1959 revolution? This is the key question discussed in Steve Cushion’s provocative book, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory, (Monthly Review, 2016). Whilst the book demonstrates the active role workers played in Cuban history during the 1950s, the author is soft on Castroism and inflates the role of the Stalinists.
Cuba in the 1950s was ruled by the dictator Fulgencio Batista. His regime was propped up through the trade union bureaucracy, led by Eusebio Mujal, who ruled the Cuban workers’ confederation (CTC) with thuggery and corruption. The Cuban working class was highly unionised, with over one million members in a country of six million people. Powerful union organisations, such as the sugar workers’ federation (FNTA) took militant action for both economic and political demands. Within the unions there were rank-and-file networks, including communists, ex-Trotskyists and others who opposed Batista and Mujal.
Workers supported bourgeois political forces, including the Autentico and Ortodoxo parties, and Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement (MR-26-7), formed in 1955. The MR-26-7 organised a workers’ section from the beginning, led by sugar worker Luis Bonito. It took in Guantánamo rail workers around Ñico Torres and others, eventually becoming the national workers’ front (FON) in 1957. It would organise general strikes in August 1957, April 1958 and January 1959 as part of the campaign to overthrow Batista.
Cushion has trawled through the archives in Havana, Manzanillo, Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba to examine the leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers and other clandestine materials produced by Cuban workers in the 1950s. He has unearthed some fascinating accounts of struggles by public transport, bank, port, tobacco and sugar workers that have often been ignored in previous histories. In particular, his account of other regions beyond Havana has brought into sharper relief some local successes even where workers were defeated elsewhere. Cushion also draws out the key role played by particular individual militant leaders, whose allegiances, whether communist or Castroite, shaped the outcome of key struggles.
However Cushion makes some grandiose and politically dubious claims that don’t stand up based on the evidence presented. It is hardly news that the Cuban workers fought against Batista or that workers’ struggles helped to undermine the regime. It was after all a revolution in country with a sizable organised working class. Nor is it particularly unusual for bourgeois forces to organise workers’ sections. The Autentico party did so in Cuba (organised by Mujal), as did the Peronists in Argentina and the ruling PRT in Mexico.
Perhaps the biggest political error in the book is its interpretation of the Cuban Communist Party, known as the PSP. Cushion says this party was “probably the only consistently honest force in Cuban politics during the 1940s”. Yet this was a Stalinist party almost from the start. It was a party subordinate to Russian foreign policy under Stalin through the twists and turns of third period sectarianism to the popular front. The PSP supported Batista in the 1940s and ran the trade union movement until purged at the beginning of cold war. Although it led some militant trade union battles and organised its own networks (CDDO, CNDDO) against Mujal, it was a Stalinist formation opposed to independent working class politics in Cuba during this period.
Cushion admits that the PSP did not offer a socialist alternative in the 1950s and tailed nationalist currents such as the MR-26-7. Yet throughout the book he represents the PSP as some sort of genuine working class force, as a legitimate tendency within the labour movement simply competing with the mujalistas and the MR-26-7 for workers’ support. Cushion portrays the differences between the MR-26-7 and the PSP as essentially tactical, with both forced to converge to overthrow Batista. This under-represents the particular politics of both the Castro movement and the PSP’s Stalinism.
Cushion emphasises the role of MR-26-7 and PSP networks in organising the general strikes in August 1957 and April 1958. The successful 1957 action, triggered by the murder of prominent MR-26-7 leader Frank Pais, has sometimes been regarded “spontaneous”. However it was clearly well orchestrated by MR-26-7 activists. The 1958 strike is often regarded as a failure, in part because the MR-26-7 organised it without consulting the PSP. Cushion argues that the MR-26-7 “military” conception of strike organisation contributed to its failure in Havana, but that the action was more successful outside the capital in Santiago and Guantánamo. These correctives are valuable, but do not challenge the overall picture of workers being used by the MR-26-7 as a stage army to batter down the walls of the Batista regime, while remaining subordinate to the guerrilla-led armed forces.
Perhaps Cushion’s most overblown claim concerns the January 1959 general strike, which he believes forced the dictator from office. He claims the strike was “the result of a high level of working class organisation and was crucial to the triumph of the revolution”. Cushion accepts that during 1958 the main role of the MR-26-7 workers’ section was to provide logistical support for the guerrilla armies. However he seizes on the creation of the united national workers’ front (FONU), which brought together the MR-26-7 and PSP workers’ sections, as well as the workers’ congresses within the liberated territory at the end of 1958, as somehow proof of the working class exercising a decisive role.
Cushion’s own account shows that the demands made at these gatherings were for a cross class alliance, with explicit appeals to business people to back the rebels. What he calls a “united front” was much more a popular alliance, with both sides retaining their autonomy (including newspapers and network organisation), while agreeing on a final push to overthrow Batista. Batista fled on New Year’s Eve and Fidel Castro called the general strike whilst taking Santiago on New Year’s Day 1959. Cushion accepts at face value Castro’s later claim that the strike had prevented Batista’s generals from organising a coup. This is highly debatable, since the armed forces had disintegrated.
The wider point is more significant. The January 1959 general strike was never of the magnitude or nature of a workers’ revolution, nor of independent working class action against the old regime. There were no soviets, or factory committees, red guards or other expressions of workers’ own power separate from the rebels. Even if the workers’ action helped to finish off the old regime, they were in no position to fight for their own rule at this point. That is the tragedy of the Cuban revolution.
Finally, Cushion’s account does not shed additional light on the labour movement struggles in the first year of the Castro government. He reproduces the hackneyed Stalinist version of events, whereby the PSP was marginalised by the MR-26-7 trade unionists in the initial takeover of the CTC, only to be brought back inside by the Castro’s intervention in November 1959. Cushion dismisses the MR-26-7 union leaders elected in early 1959 as trade union bureaucrats, ignoring the fact that the Castro group employed the PSP’s trade union apparatus to tame the unions and bring them under rigid state control.
Cushion claims workers’ action was crucial to the rebel victory in 1959. Undoubtedly workers played a role in the revolution and militant action helped to undermine the old regime. But this was at the behest of Castroite and communist political forces, neither of which stood for socialism or independent working class politics. Cushion’s book is mainly a booster for the Stalinist’s role in the Cuban revolution. The workers were subordinated to other, ultimately hostile political formations. Working class socialism was missing from the Cuban revolution – that is decisive for our assessment of class battles in the 1950s.