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Cuba and Trotskyism’s breakdown

C.D. Hardy

Platypus Review 116 | May 2019

THE REVOLUTION MAROONED,” published in the Platypus Review #114,[1] contains valuable observations on the heroism and tragedy of the Cuban revolution. It also demonstrates how Trotskyist methodology has lost the ability to explain the present convincingly. An examination of how Trotskyists responded to the Cuban revolution reveals degenerative weaknesses in their interpretation, most notably an equivocal conception of Stalinism. Over time, the Trotskyists’ understanding of Stalinism transformed from a historically specific manifestation of opportunism into a distinct ideological category. In turn the Trotskyists’ fixated on classifying what was Stalinist and what was not, with opposing factions feuding over these classifications and their apparent political implications.

After splitting in 1953, the fractured Fourth International — the Trotskyist world party of revolution — reunited in support of Cuba’s new regime. However, the new United Secretariat’s enthusiasm for the Cuban revolution ultimately called their own reason for existing into question. The opposition to reunification, standing for orthodoxy, turned questions of interpretation into matters of principle, with their rhetorical (and occasionally physical) ferocity increasing as their ability to change the world diminished. In order to understand the Trotskyists’ divergent responses to the Cuban revolution, one must revisit the history preceding 1959.

Leon Trotsky and his followers predicted that World War II would end in the manner of the preceding war, with mutinies, successions, and revolutions. Working class revolution throughout Europe would sweep away both the imperialist old order and the USSR's Stalinist leadership. The Stalinist bureaucracy’s existence as a privileged caste, a policeman keeping order in a bread line, as Trotsky put it, was based on the Soviet Union's isolation from culturally and technologically advanced Europe. Post-war revolutions in Germany, France, and Italy would relegate the Russian workers' state to its proper role as a junior partner in the international socialist revolution.

This perspective was refuted by the subsequent victors’ deals between the Allied powers. At the Yalta conference, Stalin agreed to limit the USSR's expansion to the borders of the old Russian Empire, or to where the Soviet Army had actually set foot in Eastern Europe. Communists in nations ceded to British or French domination were left to their fates. The victorious Greek Communist partisans, isolated from the details of Moscow's diplomatic maneuvers by years of guerrilla warfare, were crushed by occupying British soldiers, with Stalin’s consent. Winston Churchill subsequently described the defeated rebels as Trotskyists to distinguish them from the more responsible Communist organizations. Communist parties in France and Italy, as some of the only mass organizations in either country untainted by Nazi collaboration, emerged from the war with widespread popular support. Due to the USSR’s hope for peaceful co-existence with the Allies, both the French and Italian Communists opted to form governing coalitions rather than make revolution.

The victors’ deals seemed to prevent the anticipated European revolution. They did validate the Trotskyists' analysis of Stalinism as the socialism’s betrayer, a parasite preserving its hold on its host by confining it to inactivity. In 1947, James P. Cannon, leader of the American Socialist Workers Party, the foremost national section of Trotsky’s Fourth International, argued, “Stalinism is essentially an agency of world imperialism in the labor movement of the advanced countries, as well as in the colonial world.” The Communists’ apparent radicalism was only an attempt to “drive a hard bargain” over the conditions of how to sell out the working class.[2]

As the Western Allies began to renege on their agreements with the Soviet Union, the USSR retaliated by activating their communist cadre in the West and in Soviet-occupied Europe. Coalitions including Communists, as in Czechoslovakia, became Communist-dominated coalitions. The new governments introduced land reform and nationalized large industries. Within a few years of the war's end, half of Europe resembled the Soviet Union, with a new economic system backed by the permanent presence of the world's largest army.

While some left-wing dissidents saw the Soviet Union's "imperialism" in eastern Europe as further evidence of its state-capitalist or bureaucratic-collectivist character, orthodox Trotskyists were faced with the prospect the "great organizer of defeats" was revolutionizing the world in spite of its rulers' conservative outlook.

Cannon called the years between 1929-1933 the “dog days of the Left Opposition,” due to the Trotskyists’ isolation during the Stalinists’ ultra-left “Third Period.” The years between 1948-1960 could be called the “dog days” of the Fourth International. While the Warsaw Pact Communists expropriated large landowners and embarked on massive public works projects, Trotskyist leaders fought bitterly with each other over how to interpret these developments and how their followers should orient towards the new regimes. In North America, the combination of “Red Scare” political hysteria, the post-war economic boom, and industrial unions’ rapid bureaucratization confined radicals to the margins of academia and trade union activism. The Trotskyists, who for a brief period had attracted some of the brightest intellectuals and toughest trade unionists, faced a diminished audience and were unable to replace the generation gradually retiring from politics.

This situation led to several splits within the Trotskyist movement in the 1950s. Without going into the particulars of each case, there were currents within most national sections that came to the conclusion that it was better to be inside the Moscow-dominated Communist parties than out on their own. Revolutionaries could escape sectarian isolation by joining the European communist parties and new third-world anti-imperialist organizations, guiding their strategy from the inside. Within the Fourth International, the American SWP led the opposition to this tendency, which was labelled Pabloism, after the leading European Trotskyist Michalis “Pablo” Raptis. Many Trotskyists recoiled from the prospect of forming a “loyal opposition” within the Communist parties that had driven their comrades from the workers’ movement and participated in murderous conspiracies against Left Oppositionists. Although the guardians of orthodoxy rejected “Pabloism,” they accepted that a new group of “deformed” workers’ states had been created, either by the presence of the Soviet Army, anti-fascist partisan groups, or peasant guerrillas. In other words, the existence of a socialist party and militant proletariat were not necessary in the creation of a workers’ state.

The sudden and anomalous course of the Cuban revolution upset many Trotskyists’ assumptions. During its guerrilla war, Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement was ideologically vague, aspiring to national renewal and independence. Aside from an egalitarian patriotism, it was non-ideological, focussed more on the corruption and authoritarianism of the Fulgencio Batista regime than a coherent programme. This amorphous character allowed sympathetic observers to see what they needed in Cuba. For Jean-Paul Sartre, the revolution’s emphasis on direct democracy represented an alternative to the USSR’s grim bureaucracy and the potential for a higher form of socialism. For C. Wright Mills, it confirmed his intuition that the young intelligentsia would make the revolution, not the working class, which had been compromised by its absorption into the welfare state. For many New Leftists, Cuba’s transition to socialism (and to an officially Marxist-Leninist ruling party) represented a more humane path than the Soviet Union’s. And for the leadership of the Fourth International, the advent of a group of democratic patriots forced into socialistic measures validated Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. That these revolutionaries “were not trained in the school of Stalinism,” according to leading SWP member Joseph Hansen, and “by-passed the Communist Party” on their way to power, pointed to new possibilities for international revolution.

It is worth mentioning the distinct differences between the Cuban experience and the colonial rebellions in, for example, Algeria, Egypt, Belgian Congo, and Ghana. If there is a general pattern to decolonization, it is that a nationalist avant-garde succeeds in their aims only to be displaced by more conservative institutional figures in the new government. Instead the July 26 Movement began by forming a patriotic coalition government, then eventually proceeded to nationalization, then to proclamations of Marxism. If there was a conservative force in the government after 1960, it was among the veterans of the Popular Socialist Party, the Communists, who had previously supported Batista and were wary of the upstart guerrillas. These peculiarities, particularly the nationalists’ deepening radicalization, shaped the Trotskyist enthusiastic reception of Castro’s new government

Hansen’s phrase, “the school of Stalinism,” was not just a metaphor, given the existence of organizations like the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee and its Patrice Lumumba University, founded in 1961. The Soviet Union literally provided political, military, and technical education to generations of Third World revolutionists. But Hansen’s remark is indicative of the Trotskyists’ deteriorating understanding of Stalinism. In the 1930s, Trotskyists spoke contemptuously of Stalinist theory as something “created after the fact, and with small regard for what they were teaching yesterday.”[3] Stalinism was not a set of ideas but ad hoc justifications for a bureaucratic elite’s self-perpetuation. The bureaucracy was reactive in character, attempting to prolong its life by any means necessary. This meant it had to contain economic and political crises through increasingly coercive administrative measures. It also had to secure the encircled country’s borders and industrialize the backwards agrarian economy. The regime’s post-war stagnation and inevitable downfall resulted from its inability to solve the basic contradictions of “actually existing socialism.” The bureaucracy’s existence as a ruling elite was necessitated by cultural backwardness and generalized scarcity, but it could not invite democratic solutions to these problems without jeopardizing its precarious status. Instead it dealt with problems as they occurred through a mix of pragmatism and brutal willpower.

In short, it is more accurate to see Stalinism as a frantic reactive scramble than a curriculum to be followed. If Stalin appeared as a “grey blur,” as one Menshevik critic said, perhaps it was not due to his uninteresting character, but his constant movement. So in trying to formalize an understanding of Stalinism as a static phenomenon, the Trotskyists accommodated to the conditions of defeat that empowered the Soviet bureaucracy in the first place. Attempting to understand Stalinism as the sum of a series of subjective decisions, or as a set of a priori ideals, weakens the characterization of Stalinism as the reaction of an isolated and impoverished revolutionary movement. In fact, this attempt to precisely define Stalinism facilitated the Trotskyists’ accommodation to it, by narrowing the definition to self-conscious adherents of Stalin. The SWP, for example, consider the remnants of the Popular Socialist Party a malign Stalinist influence on Castro’s leadership, and attribute many of the regime’s mistakes to the Stalinist faction’s maneuvers. Even the Cold War socialist Max Shachtman thought a legitimate national revolution had been subverted by totalitarians operating in secret. While the Communist old guard did serve as Moscow’s agents and informants in Cuba, the Stalinist worldview was pervasive and would have existed without their direct influence. The SWP saw Castro’s refusal to slavishly follow the Soviet Union as “unconscious Trotskyism.” As with Tito’s Yugoslavia and Mao’s China, the distinction between anti-Stalinism and ultra-Stalinism is unclear. Rejecting Moscow’s directives on nationalist grounds affirms “socialism in one country” more than it points to tacit acceptance of Trotsky’s critique.

Commemorating 90 years of the Communist Manifesto, Trotsky felt the need to explain why communism’s foundational document had nothing to say about colonial independence:

To the extent that Marx and Engels considered the social revolution “in the leading civilized countries at least,” to be a matter of the next few years, the colonial question was resolved automatically for them, not in consequence of an independent movement of oppressed nationalities but in consequence of the victory of the proletariat in the metropolitan centers of capitalism.[4]

It was only the lack of this anticipated social revolution that made the colonial problem a distinct issue for socialists. While many earlier socialists assumed colonial rebellions would facilitate revolutions in advanced states, few devoted the majority of their time to anti-imperialist solidarity efforts, and some of those struggles that were supported, e.g. the Boers’ guerrilla war against the British Empire, would not be viewed sympathetically today. After World War II, socialists came to reverse Marx and Engels’s assumption of the metropolitan revolution, instead emphasizing the revolutionary potential of the colonial and semi-colonial territories. Third-world revolutions would provide a catalyst for uprisings in the advanced capitalist countries, or would at least draw sharp lines of demarcation between those who accepted the exploitation of the colonial nations and those who did not. 

Compare this sentiment to the Peruvian Marxist Mariategui in 1929,  “... we are anti-imperialists because we are Marxists, because we are revolutionaries, because we oppose capitalism with socialism, an antagonistic system called upon to transcend it, and because in our struggle against foreign imperialism we are fulfilling our duty of solidarity with the revolutionary masses of Europe.”[5]

This was not a minority opinion in 1929. Among radicals it was widely believed a continental revolution was in the works and the colonial revolution would be a supplement to those efforts. It is only through the failure of the economically advanced countries to make revolution that the colonies came to bear the impossible hopes of First World revolutionaries.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky explained the origins of the Soviet bureaucracy, its compulsion to authoritarian methods, and its degeneration into one-man rule. Trotsky believed that he was describing an unstable and inevitably transitional aberration. The Revolution Betrayed was not an explication of a new society or new historical class. Trotsky specifically characterized the Stalinist elite a “caste” to emphasize the “makeshift character” of his analysis, as “sociological terminology… could not prepare a name for a new social event which is in process of evolution (degeneration) and which has not assumed stable forms.” [6] The Revolution Betrayed was a diagnosis of Stalinism as a fever that would either break or kill the patient.

As Communist Party members called themselves Marxist-Leninist, and Trotsky’s followers initially called themselves Bolshevik-Leninists, “Stalinist” and “Trotskyist” (or, pejoratively, “Trotskyite”) both imply deviation. Stalinism meant socialism in one country, rather than international revolution. It meant “kowtowing to accepted facts,” rather than trying to overcome them. It meant nationalism instead of internationalism. Left oppositionists coined the term to distinguish between the international socialist revolutionaries and the conservative rulers of the USSR, who sought to retain their own privileges by limiting the revolution’s scope.

And yet, in Castro’s Cuba, it was at times more dangerous to be a pro-Moscow Stalinist than a Trotskyist. When the government saw some of the old Popular Socialist Party maneuvering to replace them, they imprisoned Anibal Escalante’s “microfaction,” who were accused of trying to overthrow the Communist Party on Moscow’s behalf.

This is where Trotskyist lexicon— already of specialized interest— fails us. How can deviation from a norm be described, when the deviation has become the norm? Stalinism is not an aberration of the 20th century. It is a barely recognized part of the background, like wallpaper.

In earlier years, when American Trotskyists reached for an analogy to explain Stalin’s takeover, it was not Caesar or Napoleon. It was the “labor skate” — Industrial Workers of the World slang for a careerist union boss, presumably referencing the boneless, bottom-feeding fish. At its most militant, the “skate” was John L. Lewis, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leader, who split the American Federation of Labor and led the industrial unionist organizing drive during the Great Depression. Lewis began his union organizing career as a red-baiter but realized how useful Communists were as organizers in the 1930s. He went on to be one of the most influential trade unionists in American history.  As Harry Braverman wrote of Lewis, demonstrating the resigned mood of American radicalism in the 1950s, “The American industrial workers could have done much better, had events and past developments provided them with a Marxist leadership. They also could have done worse.”[7]

If today we look back — if anybody looks back — to the glory days of the CIO and the United Mine Workers, their tenacity and courage makes our own moment seem small by comparison. A big boss like Lewis had the President’s ear, for a time, and, significantly, won rewards for his constituency through ongoing militant collective action. The surplus to pay these rewards was found elsewhere, but it briefly appeared as if Lewis and his cohort might be the “new men of power” in an American statist capitalism.

But this was not to be, and American trade unions remained within the middle layers of power until they were definitively smashed in the 1970s and 80s, and relegated to a prop in a “big tent” next to other Democratic discontents.

If this reads as a tangent, it’s only to demonstrate the extent of regression that Platypus uniquely emphasizes. John L. Lewis, who was skewered by revolutionaries in his time as a self-serving demagogue, now appears among the apex of industrial unionism. Walter Reuther’s corporatist “social unionism” is fondly remembered, despite his betrayal of the United Auto Workers’ long-standing advocacy of an American labor party. And rightly so, compared to the grim present of trade unionism. Even a gangster like Jimmy Hoffa ensured his union recruited more new members than it lost, something few private sector union leaders today could claim.

To return to the analogy between labor bureaucracy and Stalinist bureaucracy, the critical point is that when something becomes so ubiquitous, as the “labor skate” did, it becomes difficult to recognize in particular circumstances. It is fitting that Trotsky argued in the last analysis a workers’ state is a trade union with state power. The absence of alternatives to the Stalinist model made it hard to distinguish between conscious imitators of the USSR and nationalist Bonapartes making it up as they go.

The collapse of the USSR and the end of the era of colonial revolutions has made these distinctions obscure. Trotskyism has either fully liquidated into the world of academic radicalism or lingers on in an afterlife of sterile sectarianism. Either way its existence today seems largely scholastic. If Cuba still captures young radicals’ imagination, it is not in the manner it did with Sartre, Mills, or Hansen. Instead the revolution’s appeal is in its ongoing “resistance.” The Cuban state’s continued existence becomes a measure of its success. This falls short of the goals the revolution’s leaders set for themselves, let alone the aspirations the New Left and the Trotskyists projected onto Cuba. | P


[1] Linehan, Ethan. “The revolution marooned: Cuba and the Left,” PR 114 (March 2019), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2019/03/02/the-revolution-marooned-cuba-and-the-left/>

[2] James P. Cannon American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism

[3] Trotsky The Revolution Betrayed “The Soviet Thermidor”

[4] Trotsky Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto

[5] Mariategui Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint

[6] Trotsky “The USSR in War” In Defence of Marxism

[7] See: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/braverman/1950/11/lewis.htm\>

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