Why some socialists can't see revolutions

By Marce Cameron

Revolutionary socialists have a duty to support socialist revolutions in other countries. Such international solidarity is vital. Since capitalism is a global system of exploitation and oppression, the struggle to replace capitalism with a socialist world order based on shared wealth, social equality and ecological sustainability requires the cooperation of working people across national borders.

A socialist revolution abolishes the capitalists’ power and property, transferring ownership of a country’s productive resources to a government resting on the organisation of working people, and redirects production of goods and services from enriching the capitalist minority to meeting the needs of the working majority. For these reasons, the world’s capitalists and their politicians will do everything they can to demonise, isolate and crush living examples of socialism in the making.

The capitalists understand that if growing numbers of people become convinced that there’s another, better world worth fighting for — because they can see living examples of socialism in the making — then the whole rotten capitalist system could be threatened by a wave of anti-capitalist revolts and further socialist revolutions. This prospect worries the most clear-sighted defenders of the capitalism system, and the part of the world they worry about most at present is Latin America.

Since April 2002 — when a mass uprising of working people smashed a US-backed military coup against the pro-poor government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — the revolutionary process led by Chavez has taken an increasingly radical, anti-capitalist course, becoming a conscious struggle for socialism. Despite many difficulties, Venezuela’s socialist revolution continues to advance and consolidate. Cuba’s socialist revolution, having survived the 1990s “special period” of economic crisis created by the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, is now undergoing its own process of renewal as it emerges from this crisis period.

Together, socialist Cuba and revolutionary Venezuela stand on the front line of resistance to neoliberal globalisation in Latin America, a rising tide of resistance that is challenging US corporate domination in its self-proclaimed hemispheric “backyard”. The Cuba-Venezuela axis of solidarity and socialist renewal is showing with deeds — such as “Operation Miracle”, a program of free eye operations that is starting to wipe out curable blindness throughout Latin America — what international aid can achieve when the working people have state power. With the US military bogged down in unwinnable counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with Cuba and Venezuela showing the way forward, Latin America is the region of the world in which the struggle against imperialism and for socialism is most advanced.

To millions of poor people throughout Latin America and the rest of the Third World, Venezuela and Cuba are beacons of hope, while revolutionary leaders such as Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro are popular heroes. Less than two decades after the collapse of the bureaucratically ossified “socialist” regimes in eastern Europe, the flowering of Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist revolution has put socialism firmly back on the historical agenda. The socialist revolutions in Venezuela and Cuba are living proof that there is an alternative to predatory, decaying global capitalism. Chavez has repeatedly denounced capitalism and has called on the rest of the world to join Venezuela and Cuba in building “socialism of the 21st century”.

‘Bureaucratic state capitalism’?

If you want to make a revolution, it helps if you can recognise one when it happens. If you can’t recognise a socialist revolution in another country, how can you hope to build an organisation capable of convincing working people to carry out a socialist revolution in your own country? Unfortunately, some revolutionary socialist organisations in Australia still do not recognise, and therefore refuse to politically support, the socialist revolutions Cuba and Venezuela.

One such group is Socialist Alternative (SAlt), the largest socialist organisation on Australian university campuses. SAlt’s leaders not only fail to recognise that the working people of Cuba and Venezuela have taken power from the capitalists, they are politically hostile to these living socialist revolutions. How can dedicated revolutionary socialists fail to recognise actual socialist revolutions? What is the source of this strange detachment from reality?

SAlt’s leaders cling to the theory invented by British socialist Tony Cliff in the late 1940s that the Stalinist regime in the USSR was a form of capitalism — “bureaucratic state capitalism”. Like their cothinkers in the British Socialist Workers Party, SAlt’s leaders regard Cliff’s theory as the touchstone of their politics, setting them apart from all other revolutionary socialists. According to SAlt’s statement of general principles, available on its website: “The society that existed in Russia after Stalin’s rise to power was not socialist. Nor are those in China, Cuba or Vietnam. Such regimes, which are merely a statised version of capitalism, are essentially no different from the West. Just as here, a small minority benefits from the labour of the majority.”

According to SAlt, revolutionary Cuba — which has sent more doctors abroad to heal the sick in Third World countries than the UN’s World Health Organisation — is not essentially different to the bureaucratic tyranny led by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, a regime that carried out the forced collectivisation of agriculture, mass deportations of national minorities and the imprisonment or execution of nearly all of the leaders of the 1917 socialist revolution! What use is a theory that doesn’t allow you to distinguish between the grotesque caricature of socialism in Stalinist Russia and Cuba’s extraordinarily generous and humane socialist revolution?

Similarly, SAlt’s leaders don’t make any distinction between the post-1992 capitalist state in China — a regime dominated by privileged officials and wealthy capitalists, who have carried out a brutal restoration of capitalism to make themselves and their families richer — and the socialist states of Cuba and Vietnam, which organise the working people to defend their socialist revolutions against the threat of capitalist restoration. This distinction is obviously important to millions of workers, farmers and students in Vietnam and Cuba, but it’s unimportant to SAlt’s leaders because their theory tells them — without them having to trouble themselves with the facts — that revolutionary Cuba is “essentially no different from the [capitalist] West”.

This is certainly not how the capitalist rulers of the US see it. For almost five decades they have punished Cuba’s working people with a cruel economic blockade. Following the overthrow of the US-backed Batista dictatorship in January 1959, Cuba’s workers and peasants abolished capitalism in their country in 1959-60, and the US imperialists have never forgiven them for this. Never mind that, says SAlt: Soviet Russia under Stalin’s leadership was capitalist, Cuba under Fidel Castro’s leadership is fundamentally the same as Stalin’s bureaucratic regime, which was “essentially no different from the capitalist West” — therefore Cuba since 1959 is “essentially no different” from the capitalist societies in the US or Australia. Stalin’s Russia, Castro’s Cuba, George Bush’s USA, Kevin Rudd’s Australia are all “essentially” the same — they’re all just capitalism of one form or another, and they’re all just as bad as each other.

The adherents of Cliff’s theory of “bureaucratic state capitalism” can certainly claim to have a “unique” view of Cuba. It’s a view that not only sets them apart from the vast majority of revolutionary socialists in the world, but from everyone else, including both Cuba’s 11 million workers and peasants, but also Cuba’s actual capitalists.

It’s not just the vast majority of the 11 million Cubans living on the island who think that capitalism has been abolished in their country. The former owners of Cuba’s plantations, mines and factories also think so, and they should know. They remember all too clearly when, in October 1960, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government mobilised armed workers to take over the sugar plantations and factories. The Cuban capitalists, now living in Miami, have sought for 48 years now to get back ownership of “their” property, which the Cuban revolution “stole” from them. They have sought for 48 years to have the US marines invade and occupy Cuba in order to restore capitalism to the island.

But, according to SAlt, they needn’t bother — capitalism has continued to exist in Cuba for the past 48 years. Why is it that, unlike SAlt’s leaders, both the former Cuban capitalists and the US capitalists can’t see that Castro’s Cuba is “essentially no different” from Jeb Bush’s Florida? Perhaps it’s because the capitalists’ view of Cuba is shaped by some essential facts (such as that capitalism was abolished in Cuba almost five decades ago), rather than by Tony Cliff’s “unique” theory of “bureaucratic state capitalism”.

SAlt’s frame-up of Cuba

According to SAlt, the Cuban revolution’s original sin was that it “was never a genuine workers’ revolution”, as Danielle Thornton put it in an article headed “Behind Cuba’s crackdown” in the July 2003 edition of Socialist Alternative magazine. She went on to claim that the “Cuban revolution ... was carried out, not by ordinary Cubans, but by a relatively small guerrilla army which waged a national liberation struggle against the massively unpopular Batista regime for three years before seizing power in 1959”.

The idea that a guerrilla army numbering around 3000 armed combatants could overthrow a US-backed government commanding an army of 33,000 soldiers without massive and active support from the ordinary Cubans, i.e., the country’s urban and rural working people, is another “unique” view. And, like SAlt’s theory that Cuba is a capitalist country, it has no relation to the facts. In her account of the Cuban people’s struggle against the US-backed Batista dictatorship, Thornton omits to mention the extensive urban underground wing of the revolutionary July 26 Movement, and the other urban-based revolutionary organisations, that supported the guerrilla struggle and that organised the revolutionary general strike of January 1, 1959.

This glaring omission is convenient, for it allows Thornton to perpetuate the myth that the revolution that overthrew the Batista dictatorship was the work of an insignificant minority, and that “consequently, the society that emerged from it was never socialist”. Thornton claims that “popular as it may have been, the revolution was neither instigated by the Cuban working class, nor directed against capitalism per se”. This again is simply untrue. In a wave of expropriations of capitalist property beginning in August 1960, Cuba’s revolutionary government took over ownership of every foreign-owned and Cuban capitalist business on the island. By the end of 1960 capitalism had been replaced by a centrally planned economy directed towards meeting the needs of Cuba’s working people.

Thornton acknowledges some of the social gains made by Cuban working people since the 1959 revolution: “Of course many of the progressive social reforms inaugurated by the new government — such as campaigns to promote literacy, the introduction of free health and education, land and housing reforms — have made significant improvements to the living standards of most Cubans, which despite the US embargo, continue to surpass those of other Central American countries. Life expectancy has risen from 60 years in 1959 to 76, while infant mortality has dropped by 80 per cent. At 98 per cent Cuba also has the highest literacy rate in Latin America, and the highest number of doctors per head.” But she fails to acknowledge that these social gains were possible only because Cuba has carried out a revolution that abolished capitalism.

Glossing over this, Thornton hastens to remind her readers that “none of this diminishes the fact that in Cuba — as in any other capitalist country — a small minority (comprised in this case of high-ranking members of the Cuban Communist Party), continues to live off the labour of the majority of workers and peasants”. Do they? She doesn’t provide a single fact to substantiate the assertion that Cuba is ruled by a privileged officialdom. She simply asserts it, telling us nothing at all about Cuba’s system of socialist democracy.

Cuba’s socialist democracy

Cuba’s socialist democracy rests on four pillars: the system of government, known as poder popular (“people’s power”); the mass organisations of workers, farmers, women, youth, students and neighbourhoods; varying degrees of workplace democracy; and the guiding role of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), a selective organisation of the most exemplary and committed of Cuba’s revolutionary socialists. The PCC is not an organisation of bureaucratic privilege or advancement. Candidates for membership of the PCC are selected from exemplary workers nominated in workplace assemblies, and work collectives review the conduct of party members on a regular basis as a mechanism to weed out corrupt individuals.

While petty theft, individual corruption and privilege-seeking are commonplace in the lower levels of Cuba’s public administration — a serious problem that Cuban revolutionaries are struggling to overcome as the country emerges from the “special period” — at the higher levels of the party and state, corruption is a rare exception rather than the rule, and corrupt officials are summarily dismissed from their posts. Cuba’s political leaders live among the people, not separated from them in mansions within gated communities. They are expected to set an example of modesty and dedication to the revolutionary cause.

Poder popular is based in the rural and urban neighbourhoods, where neighbours meet every two and a half years to nominate candidates election to the local councils and municipal assemblies. Elected delegates are accountable to their constituencies and can be recalled at any time. Delegates to the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly are elected every five years by popular vote from lists of candidates created through an exhaustive consultative process involving the mass organisations and the municipal assemblies.

Delegates to the municipal assemblies keep their regular jobs and do not receive any financial remuneration for performing their duties as delegates. This eliminates money as a motivation to run for public office. Deputies to the national and provincial assemblies who have to give up their regular jobs to serve as government officials receive an income no higher than that of a skilled worker. When Fidel Castro was president of Cuba, he earned a salary of around US$30 a month.

It seems that SAlt’s leaders aren’t troubled by the lack of factual evidence for their bogus claim that Cuba is ruled by a bureaucratic elite or by capitalist business owners. After all, their theory tells them Cuba must be an example of what they call “state capitalism”, and it follows from this erroneous theory that Cuba must be ruled by a privileged stratum of officials. If SAlt leaders can’t find any facts to support this assertion, the facts must be ignored.

This utter disdain for facts leads SAlt to the absurd position of calling for the working people of Cuba to rise up and overthrow Cuba’s revolutionary socialist government. Its general principles document states: “We support workers’ revolutions to overthrow the remaining Stalinist states in, for example, China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. We support the replacement of these bureaucratic regimes, not with other forms of capitalism, but with genuine workers’ governments based on workers councils.” If SAlt’s leaders cared to take a look at Cuba, they’d find that Cuba already has a government based on workers’ councils — the organs of poder popular and the workplace assemblies that discuss and vote on each workplace’s contribution to meeting the national economic plan.

Instant revolution

SAlt’s leaders have an idealised view of what a socialist revolution involves. This could be called the “instant coffee” view of socialist revolution. According to their theory of “state capitalism”, Cuba must be either a fully socialist society or it must be a form of capitalism. It’s either one or the other. It cannot be a society in transition from capitalism to socialism, in which elements of the old capitalist society (such as wages and money) are combined with elements of the new socialist society under construction (such as public ownership of the key economic resources and distribution of goods and services according to need).

This kind of dialectical thinking is anathema to SAlt’s leaders. But this is how change occurs in the real world — through transitional stages combining elements of the old with elements of the new. There exist many examples of such transitional forms. Archaeopteryx, a feathered dinosaur-like creature, lived 155-150 million years ago. It had features of both dinosaurs, from which it had evolved, and modern birds, which evolved from it. Archaeopteryx was neither a dinosaur nor a bird, but something in between. SAlt’s leaders demand that Cuba must be classified as either a capitalist dinosaur or socialist bird. But since Cuba has only begun to build socialism, is still in transition from capitalism to socialism, they dismisses this promising beginning as just another form of capitalism.

SAlt’s lack of enthusiasm for the Venezuelan revolution is an extension of its erroneous view of the Cuban revolution. In its view, the Venezuelan revolution is no more than a radical nationalist revolution, and Hugo Chavez a populist demagogue who talks about creating socialism while he leads the Venezuelan people down the Cuban road of “bureaucratic state capitalism”. This view is completely at odds with what is actually happening in both Cuba and Venezuela. The governments of these two countries, led by committed revolutionary socialists, are providing concrete and inspiring examples of how to renew the movement for socialism in the 21st century. SAlt’s refusal to recognise this demonstrates the utter bankruptcy of the dogmatic theory is at the core of its politics.

[Marce Cameron is an activist in the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society and the national organiser of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]