Cuba, Castro and the bureaucracy

Book Review: Cuba, socialism and democracy by Peter Taaffe, CWI Publications 2000.

Peter Taaffe’s book deals with a subject on which there is considerable controversy among socialists. As part of the ongoing debate over Cuba, Murray Smith takes a look at it.

Today, more than 40 years after the revolution, Cuba still attracts the attention and sympathy of socialists the world over. Indeed today there is renewed interest in the Cuban Revolution, in no small measure because ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has not itself collapsed or restored capitalism, as many thought it would. It has continued to defend the gains of the revolution and maintain a socialist orientation. And that is what explains the unremitting hostility of US imperialism towards it.

This reality should encourage socialists, whatever their previous analyses of Cuba, to try and understand why Cuba has stood out in the way it has. A good starting point for an understanding of Cuba today would be an analysis of the way in which, after fifteen years of integration into the Soviet bloc, the revolution started in the mid-1980s to reaffirm its own identity, through the process known as ‘Rectification’. It would then be easier to understand how Cuba survived the collapse of the Soviet bloc. And to understand how Cuba was able to embark on the course that it did, we would have to look again at the origins of the revolution.

Those seeking answers to these questions are likely to be disappointed by Peter Taaffe’s book. The first chapter is promisingly entitled “Cuba Today”. Unfortunately he only devotes two and a half pages to a very superficial description of Cuba today. Nowhere else in the book does he make up for this. He informs us in his introduction that he had: “the intention of writing an up-todate analysis of the situation in Cuba today which would involve a revisiting of the events of the Cuban Revolution itself”, “a substantial work, giving a more detailed overall picture of events in Cuba.”

The reason Taaffe gives for not having written this book is the necessity to reply to a criticism made by Doug Lorimer of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) of Australia of a pamphlet on Cuba he had written in 1978 (1). The book therefore takes the form of a polemic against the DSP. But the DSP, whose favourable analyses of the Cuban revolution and its leadership are wellknown, has made extremely detailed analyses of the evolution of the Cuban regime since the 1960s and of Cuba today. Taaffe’s failure to do likewise does not really enable him to take the debate on Cuba forward. It would perhaps have been better if he had written his “substantial work”.

After a few side-swipes at other political opponents Peter Taaffe devotes a few pages to a defence of the theory of permanent revolution and a critique of the theory of the ‘two-stage uninterrupted revolution’ that the DSP attributes to Lenin.While this is not uninteresting or unimportant in itself (2), it is not strictly necessary to an understanding of Cuba today. Neither the DSP nor Peter Taaffe nor ourselves would dispute that the Cuban Revolution overthrew capitalism, however you characterise the process by which this happened. The debate is over the nature of the leadership of the revolution, the nature, Stalinist or not, of the state which emerged from it, and the reality of Cuba today.


The book is largely devoted to defending two basic ideas. First of all, there is a prolonged attempt to demonstrate that Fidel Castro made the socialist revolution without really having intended to: “It was only the peculiar combination of circumstances that existed which resulted in Castro - who never, to begin with, envisaged going beyond the framework of capitalist democracy - presiding over the expropriation of capitalism in Cuba.” “It was only events, the attacks and provocations of US imperialism and the impact of this on the Cuban masses, which pushed Castro hesitatingly and empirically into breaking with landlordism and capitalism.” “There was no conscious foresight nor a worked-out perspective.”

Peter Taaffe is right in saying that: “the evolution of Castro’s thoughts and deeds is not an incidental or secondary question.” It is important because it helps us to understand the genesis and evolution of the Cuban leadership. But he seriously overestimates the role of improvisation, inevitable in any revolutionary process, and underestimates the degree of conscious action on the part of Castro and his comrades.

Peter Taaffe’s case rests largely on various pronouncements made by Castro over the years. Now in analysing the role of parties and individuals what they say has some importance, as has what others say about them. But it is what they do that is decisive. For example, there is no doubt that Castro made at various times during the guerrilla war and in the early months of the revolution some very conciliatory noises towards Washington. But an analysis of Castro’s actions shows that at no time did he modify the aims of the Cuban Revolution to accommodate American imperialism or the Cuban landlords and capitalists.
Furthermore,Washington had no illusions on this score. It envisaged removing Cuba’s new revolutionary government as early as March 1959.

Peter Taaffe defends the idea that Fidel Castro: “up to this stage [the victory of the Revolution] had been no more than a radical middle-class democrat whose ideal was democratic capitalist America.” It is highly doubtful whether this was ever true of Castro. In fact, like most Latin American radicals (not even Communists or Marxists), Castro was viscerally anti-gringo. His baptism of fire came in 1948 when as a young delegate to an anti-imperialist students’ conference in Colombia he took part in the “Bogotazo” uprising.

Ten years later he had a quite unambiguous view of “democratic capitalist America” when he wrote on June 5, 1958 to his close collaborator Celia Sanchez: “When I saw the rockets that they fired on Mario’s house, I swore that the Americans are going to pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over, I’ll start a much longer and bigger war of my own: the war I’m going to fight against them. I realise that will be my true destiny.”

This gives a rather more reliable idea than do his various public pronouncements of what Castro really thought about America six months before the victory of the revolution. It also largely anticipates what was in fact to be his “true destiny” over the next 40 years.


You do not have to accept the view that Castro was a conscious Marxist in 1953 to reject the idea that he simply made the revolution under pressure, without any clear plan. Castro did evolve politically towards Marxism over several years, but this evolution was marked by a series of conscious political choices at decisive moments. Castro’s programme of 1953 was not a programme for socialist revolution. But it was a very radical programme for a national-democratic revolution in a dependent country, which made serious inroads into private property, including American property. That programme, if it had been implemented at the time, would have been quite enough to arouse the hostility of Washington, which overthrew the Arbenz regime in Guatemala the following year for no more than that.

Incidentally, both Guevara, who was there, and Castro drew the lessons of Guatemala. And the principal lesson they drew, and which they applied five years later in Cuba, was the need to dismantle the old state machine, in particular the armed forces, and to arm and mobilise the workers and peasants to defend the revolution.

The programme that Castro did in fact implement in the early months of 1959 was basically his programme of 1953, and it quickly brought him into collision with Washington and the Cuban ruling class. Did he just improvise under pressure from the masses and reacting to American hostility, without really knowing where he was going? He may not have understood theoretically in 1959 that only a socialist revolution could free Cuba from imperialist domination and backwardness (though his brother Raul and Guevara certainly did). But there is considerable evidence that he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that he was going to take measures that would provoke a violent reaction from the Cuban ruling class and United States imperialism. These measures were carefully planned. They were not simply the result of the pressure of events. Not only did Castro not simply react to events, he prepared the inevitable clash and mobilised the workers and peasants to back up his programme.

In his masterly biography of Che Guevara (3), Jon Lee Anderson outlines how from January 1959 (that is, immediately after the seizure of power), Castro, Guevara, Raul and other key leaders of the left wing of the July 26th Movement engaged in prolonged secret discussions with the leaders of the Cuban Stalinist party, the PSP. These discussions centred on two main points. First of all, a process (which was to be protracted and difficult) of fusion between the Rebel Army and the PSP to form a new party. Secondly, a project for a radical agrarian reform, carefully prepared behind the backs of the bourgeois ministers in the government. (When it was promulgated in May 1959 the bourgeois Minister of Agriculture resigned, and was later shot for counterrevolutionary activities.)

By July 1959 most of the bourgeois stooges who had occupied their ministries without ever deciding policy were gone. And it is clear that from the first days of the “The Americans are going to pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over, I’ll start a much longer and bigger war of my own: the war I’m going to fight against them. I realise that will be my true destiny.” Fidel Castro, 1958 revolution Castro was working hand in hand with the PSP. There is no dispute about the sordid Stalinist history of the PSP, right up until the 1950s. But there can equally be no doubt today (4) that the party supported Castro’s guerrilla movement much earlier than had previously been thought.

The July 26th Movement was not a socialist or Marxist movement. It was made up of courageous, mostly middle-class youth who wanted to overthrow the Batista dictatorship and improve the situation of the Cuban people. It was heterogeneous. It had a left wing composed of Guevara, Raul Castro and others, some of whom were conscious Marxists from early on (5). It also had a right wing, some of whose members would end up going over to the counter-revolution. What is clear is that at every decisive moment Castro came down on the side of the left. This was true after the failure of the general strike organised by the right-wing urban leadership of his movement in April 1958 and again in December 1958 when he rejected the Miami Pact which would have subordinated his movement to the bourgeois opposition and left Batista’s army intact.

The decisive choices were made before January 1, 1959. The only evidence of him being hesitating and empirical after that is to be found in some of his statements. The actual process of the revolution shows very little hesitation. There is a constant and fairly rapid progression from the agrarian reform to the nationalisations, along with the creation of a new army, state machine and militia, breaking along the way with the Cuban bourgeoisie,Washington and all those who wanted to stop the revolution half-way.


The other main theme developed in Peter Taaffe’s book is that politically, the result of the revolution was a regime fundamentally similar to those of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. That is, a system dominated by a privileged bureaucracy which puts its own interests before those of the masses and a political leadership which represents this bureaucracy. This is of course the absolutely central issue in relation to Cuba today. Peter Taaffe’s treatment of it is extremely inadequate.

When Trotsky dealt with the development of the Soviet bureaucracy, he meticulously traced its origins and analysed the sources of its privileges and the process of its transformation into a social caste separate from the working class. Taaffe makes no such analysis in his book, nor has he anywhere else to my knowledge.What he does is to assemble an eclectic collection of facts and quotations chosen to justify his arguments. There is no doubt that a bureaucratic layer exists in Cuba.

There is no doubt either that the members of this layer can use their position to acquire certain privileges and that there have been numerous examples of corruption.What is at issue is the relationship between this social layer, the masses and the political leadership.

After any socialist revolution there will be for a certain time a state apparatus separate from the mass of the population, exercising administrative functions. It is only progressively that the whole of the population will become involved in the administration of the state. The more backward the country, the lower the level of economic and cultural development, the longer this separation will last. The key question is not whether such an apparatus exists but whether it has institutionalised material privileges and to what extent it is controlled by the masses and by the political leadership.

There are, as Peter Taaffe points out, no soviets or their equivalent in Cuba through which the working class can govern and control the state apparatus. However it is clear that there exist mass organisations and elected assemblies which can and do exercise a certain control over the state apparatus and the running of the economy.


The Cuban Revolution passed through several distinct phases. From 1959 to about 1970 it was relatively autonomous from the Soviet Union, indeed often more or less overtly critical of the Soviet model and Soviet policies. A whole debate on economic planning took place in the early 1960s. Guevara outlined an alternative to the Soviet system involving strong elements of participation and control by the working class, but lost the debate. From 1970 onwards, there was an increasing alignment on the Soviet model. Soviet influence became dominant in all spheres, as the French Marxist Janette Habel has pointed out (6). In ten years the number of bureaucrats increased by 200,000.

Peter Taaffe quotes abundantly from Habel’s book to demonstrate the extent of bureaucratic privilege and corruption. But he fails to situate these quotations in their context.

The book was written in 1989, and Habel deals extensively with the sustained “rectification” offensive against bureaucracy and the break with Soviet-style economic planning which occurred from the mid-1980s, and with the resistance of the bureaucrats to this offensive. Taaffe has nothing to say about this, other than: “condemnation of bureaucracy is nothing new for Castro or other leading figures of the state or government.”

But what happened from 1984 and especially from 1986 on was much more than that. The Cuban economist Carlos Tablada explains:“More than 60,000 local meetings took place and were very critical. Between 1986 and 1988, 60 per cent of enterprise managers were replaced. Some twenty ministers as well as dozens of viceministers and national and regional department heads lost their jobs. As a result of a direct and secret ballot about 60 per cent of the leaders of local workers’ assemblies were replaced, as well as nearly all national leaders. In order to boost production the number of bureaucratic positions and state functionaries was reduced by 20,000 a year.” (7) This was rather more than a “condemnation of bureaucracy”. It was a major offensive against bureaucracy, initiated by the party leadership around Castro and involving mass participation by the working class. It represented a major turningpoint. It was a break with the Soviet model whose political and economic effects had been found to be a danger for the very survival of the revolution. Simultaneously Che Guevara’s ideas once again became a central part of the political debate in Cuba.

All this would have merited some serious attention from Peter Taaffe. But it would question some of his assumptions. Firstly, he would have to explain how a leadership that was simply the political representative of the bureaucracy could carry out not a bureaucratic purge but a major political reorientation which was the result of an alliance between the Castro leadership and the working class. And secondly he would have to deal with the fact that it is clear that in Cuba the working class exercises a degree of control over the state and economic apparatus which is qualitatively different from that in any Stalinist state. That and the fact that the Cuban leadership has consciously based itself on the working class, explains how Cuba was able to survive the collapse of Stalinism.


Cuba is not and has never been for us some kind of model of workers’ democracy. But nor is it possible simply to equate it with the Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China. The rectification process did not destroy the bureaucracy nor did it subject it to institutionalised control from below, but it did weaken and disorganise it as a social force. Habel’s judgement in 1989 was that “the bureaucracy does not constitute a homogenous body, welded together in the defence of its interests and its privileges”, though she also underlines its capacity of passive resistance.

The rectification process did not have time to work itself out before Cuba was hit by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The readjustment has been painful and difficult but Cuba has correctly rejected a policy of autarky and has succeeded in integrating itself into the capitalist world economy in spite of the US blockade, while maintaining state control over the essential levers of the economy and defending the gains of the revolution in health, education and other sectors. But exposure to the global capitalist economy brings new dangers and underlines the fact that the fight against bureaucracy requires the systematic development of institutions of workers’ democracy.

This will become more urgent if Castro himself dies and his unique political authority is taken out of the equation. Today a triumph of the technocrats would result not in Stalinism but in the rapid restoration of capitalism.

In line with his characterisation of the Cuban regime, Peter Taaffe argues that the task is: “not ‘reform’ but the establishment of workers’ democracy, which is only possible through a complete change of political regime which in torn requires a political revolution.”

He specifically rejects the idea that: “the task is to ‘reform’, to correct the bureaucratic deformations through increased workers’ control and management, and the spread of the revolution internationally.” The difference between these two approaches is at the heart of the debate over Cuba today. In his book, Peter Taaffe does not prove his case.We will come back to the question in future issues of Frontline.

(1) Cuba: Analysis of the Revolution, Peter Taaffe, 1978. Doug Lorimer’s critique has now been published as a pamphlet: The Cuban Revolution and its Leadership, Resistance Books, 2000.

(2) See the extensive debate in Links numbers 16 and 17 between Phil Hearse and Doug Lorimer.

(3) Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life, Jon Lee Anderson, Bantam Press, 1997.

(4) See Anderson, op.cit.

(5) At one point Peter Taaffe quotes the Cuban revolutionary Carlos Franqui, apparently to support his argument that Castro was not a Communist before the Revolution: “No one thought Fidel was a Communist. I mean no one. We knew that Raul Castro was a Communist, that Che Guevara was also, and that Camilo, Ramiro, Celia, Haydee and some comandantes and other collaborators were Communists, too. But no one knew about Fidel, including me - who saw him at quite close range - and even his most intelligent enemies.” Apart from the fact that all we learn about Fidel Castro is that Franqui did not at that point think he was a Communist, the other names Franqui cites make up practically the entire inner circle of the leadership of the Revolution.

(6) Cuba: the Revolution in Peril, Janette Habel, Verso 1991.

(7) Cuba: new economic actors in a socialist society, Carlos Tablada, English translation published in Links number 9.