Cuba: The One-Party State Continues

Samuel Farber

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 19, Summer 1995]

Samuel Farber was born and grew up in Cuba. He is ther author of Revolution and Reaction in Cuba 1933-1960 (Wesleyan University Press, 1976) and numerous articles dealing with that country. He teaches political science at Brooklyn College and is a member of the editorial board of Against the Current.

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE COLLAPSE OF COMMUNISM in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, some leftists are willing to take a more critical look at the socio-economic and political system that has prevailed in Cuba for more than 35 years. Among them is Carollee Bengelsdorf, a professor of politics at Hampshire College. Unlike many pro-Castro leftists, who substitute Third Worldist clichés for their scant knowledge of Cuban society and history, Bengelsdorf is intimately acquainted with Cuba. She must also be given credit for affirming the need for democracy as a central element of the necessary transformation of the Cuban polity and society.

But in spite of its virtues, The Problem of Democracy in Cuba is a deeply flawed book.* Bengelsdorf's narrative often appears to be a history without subjects making choices and taking decisions. This is particularly true of her treatment of Fidel Castro, the most powerful actor in the Cuban drama. Thus, Bengelsdorf advocates a democratization of Cuban society and at least implicitly recognizes that neither Castro nor the Cuban Communist Party shares her inclinations. Yet, she fails to follow through on her analysis and confront the issue of whether the democratization she recommends is compatible with the continuing rule of Fidel Castro and his Communist Party, or whether it will have to be accomplished in opposition to these forces.

Moreover, she evades the issue of the continuing one-party state suggesting, with little logic but a good deal of equivocation, that this state

in and of itself, does not spell doom for any movement toward democratization, just as the existence of two or more parties in other countries does not guarantee it. Rather, what is critical in this regard is the Party's continuing effort to confiscate the political arena. (p. 171)
Bengelsdorf tiptoes around the question of Castro's leading role, or addresses it with euphemisms and circumlocutions. A case in point is her characterization of Castro's regime as paternalism, which she defines as the practice of treating people as children instead of self-reliant adults capable of making decisions. This approach captures an aspect of Castroism but deflects attention from the major role repression has played in almost four decades of rule. While the right-wing incorrectly claims that Castro does not enjoy any popular support and that his regime rules only on the basis of repression, it is disturbing that Bengelsdorf downplays the role of State Security (Seguridad del Estado) and the neighborhood vigilance carried out by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), resulting in systematic violations of civil and political liberties.

SIMILARLY, BENGELSDORF ACCEPTS AT FACE VALUE Castro's espousal of the values of national unity as a justification for his suppression of any expression of political opinion potentially threatening his monopoly of power. She also accepts Castro's claim that his approach is based on the views of Cuba's Founding Father, Jose Marti. When Marti -- a Freemason with views deeply rooted in 19th century traditions of progressive liberalism and nationalism -- spoke about unity he was trying to overcome the petty jealousies of the insurgent caudillos in order to bring about a united military campaign against Spanish control of the island. Marti attempted to accomplish this through political means: persuasion, education, and the creation of a united organization to achieve Cuban independence. He did not advocate forceful suppression, imprisonment or the execution of those who resisted his efforts. Furthermore, Marti's views pertaining to "unity" in the struggle against Spain had no relevance to the different issue of the social, political and constitutional arrangements of the Cuban Republic to be established after victory.

For Castro, the word unity has been a euphemism for monolithism and autocratic power. As early as 1954 he wrote to Luis Conte Aguero, then his close friend:

Conditions which are indispensable for the integration of a truly civic moment: ideology, discipline and chieftainship. The three are essential but chieftainship is basic...The apparatus of propaganda and organization must be such and so powerful that it will implacably destroy him who will create tendencies, cliques, or schisms, or will rise against the movement.
Thirty-eight years later, in a lengthy interview with Sandinista leader Tomas Borge, Castro criticized Stalin on a number of grounds including the invasion of Finland and the Stalin-Hitler Pact. But when Borge asked him "What do you believe were Stalin's merits?" the first thing that Castro mentioned was the following: "He [Stalin] established unity in the Soviet Union. He consolidated what Lenin had begun: party unity."

Some leftists have ruled out any analysis that locates Castro and his close associates as part of the Stalinist tradition, on the basis that Castro's political current did not come out of the old pro-Moscow parties in Latin America. However, the history of the left is littered with independent Stalinists unaffiliated with Moscow franchise-holders and while it is necessary to understand the Stalinist tradition in order to understand Fidelista politics, it is not sufficient. The challenge posed by the Fidelista tradition is to establish how and why a wing of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie and declassed elements discovered, as it became successful beyond even its highest expectations, its strong elective affinity with Stalinism.

The Stalinist and Fidelista traditions in Cuba fused under the aegis of Castro while maintaining some of the original characteristics of Fidelismo, particularly in the area of political and cultural style. For example, one of the significant but little noticed contributions of Fidelismo to Cuban Communism was the dropping of the old Communist form of address "camarada" (comrade) and its replacement by the much broader political term companero(a), the term historically used in the Cuban student and trade union movements. This is of some significance because, in the Cuban context, the words convey either a sense of inclusion [companero(a)] or sectarian exclusion (camarada).

Many on the left tend to write about Cuba purely in national and sometimes in Latin American or Third World terms without addressing the strong systemic similarities between Cuban and Asian and East European Communism. In part, this is due to the embarrassment caused by the decay, bureaucratic stodginess and atrocities associated with old-style Communism long before its collapse in the 80s and 90s. No sense can be made of Cuban Communism without understanding Cuban radical nationalism but most forms of radical nationalism in Latin America and elsewhere have not historically evolved into Communism, while a Cuban variety of it did. This alone should suggest that there is something more than radical nationalism involved in Cuba.

Radical Cuban nationalism had nothing to say about how to reorganize and restructure a capitalist society into a "socialist" society. Thus, it was not just the dependence on massive aid from the USSR that pulled Cuba in a particular direction. There were also political and ideological factors. For one, the authoritarian caudillismo of Castro. But also the paucity of alternatives to both capitalism and Communism. Little wonder then that whatever cultural and stylistic distinctiveness Cuban Communism undoubtedly retained, when it came to the historically much more decisive question of political and socio-economic organization, the Cuban government faithfully copied, and with remarkably little originality, the then existing Communist models in Asia and Europe. This produced a structural assimilation of Cuba to European and Asian Communism. After all, even presumably original Guevarist policies had many more similarities than differences with Maoism, Third Period Stalinism and the policies of "War Communism" during the Civil War in Russia.

Bengelsdorf is among those who pay attention only to Cuba's national peculiarities. Thus, in analyzing the Cuban 60s, she insists in finding only "transitory political forms," "avoidance of structure," and "flexibility." (p. 67). Her avoidance of the larger question of Cuba becoming Communist produces an analysis which misses the forest for the trees. What was important about the Cuban 60s were not the differences with Asian and European Communism but the dramatic transformation of what had been originally a democratic and, shortly after the successful overthrow of Batista, a radically reformist and anti-imperialist revolution into a member of the Communist family. By the end of 1960, the trend was fairly clear: the commanding heights of the Cuban economy had been nationalized; the trade unions had come under state control after a thorough purge of the democratically elected leadership; the press and other media had been cleansed of opposition voices; and political opposition, even if loyal, had been effectively placed beyond the pale.

The remainder of the 60s witnessed what was essentially a consolidation and mopping up operation -- most of the remaining privately owned land was nationalized as were practically all urban enterprises, even tiny ones. The unified Communist Party was created in 1965 after a four-year gestation period. Finally, after all opposition groups had been eliminated, independent and critical voices within government circles were also silenced (e.g. in 1961, the influential literary supplement of the government newspaper Revolucion and in 1968, the so-called micro-faction of old-line Communist Party members, whose members were imprisoned).

Granted, there was a good deal of improvisation on the part of young political leaders and administrators who lacked any previous government experience. But this improvisation took place within well established systemic boundaries developed elsewhere long before the Cuban Revolution. How could these improvisations, or the political differences between Che Guevara and Moscow, as real as they were, compare with the momentous and indeed historic overall transformation just described?

While the Cuban 60s constituted the decade of political and economic consolidation, the 70s became the decade of "institutionalization," that is, the decade of routinization after the tremendous revolutionary upheaval of the 60s. In this period, the Cuban government introduced a significant degree of decentralization primarily to alleviate the considerable administrative inefficiencies generated by the over-centralization of the previous revolutionary decade. Again, it is to Bengelsdorf's credit that, unlike a number of apologists for the Cuban regime, she distinguishes decentralization from democratization. Still, her analysis of the Cuban 70s is limited by her "national" focus. If we look at the Cuban 60s, 70s and 80s through the lens of comparative Communism, the presumed uniqueness of Cuban developments disappear almost completely. Communist economies in the past have tended to oscillate between statification offensives and pragmatic adaptations to political reality which resulted in the relaxation of state controls. Thus, for example, the Chinese Revolution fluctuated between land distribution in the period immediately after the 1949 victory, to the collectivization offensive in the latter 50s of "The Great Leap Forward," and back again to a relaxation of state economic controls.

While Bengelsdorf's analysis is limited and even parochial in its refusal to place Cuba in the context of comparative Communism, the book is extremely ambitious and anything but parochial in its attempt to root the problem of the lack of democracy in Cuba in the thought and practices of Marx and Lenin. There is no doubt that Bengelsdorf is well acquainted with the critical literature on Marxism and Leninism. Unfortunately, her attempt to connect the lack of democracy in Castro's Cuba with Marx and Lenin can only be carried out by seriously distorting what Lenin and especially Marx stood for, while granting too much credit to Castro's claim to Marxism and even Leninism.

LET US FIRST TAKE THE ISSUE OF PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY. Bengelsdorf leaves little doubt that she sees the Cuban regime, particularly in the 60s, as encouraging "participatory democracy" since it was only through practicing it, "that the problems of underdevelopment, resource scarcity, and constant external threat could be overcome." (p. 8). Although Marx did not use this term, a strong case can be made that his conception of democracy was highly participatory as seen in his praise for the institutions developed by the Paris Commune in 1871. But Marx took it for granted that this participation was to be an advance over the political freedoms already gained in the struggle against feudal rule and royal absolutism, not a denial of those freedoms. Furthermore, participation was intended to enrich and secure the political power acquired by the workers' movement and its allies, not to be an alternative to that power.

While Marx was not confronted with anything like the Fidelista phenomenon, the idea that he would have endorsed participation without independent popular power or without political freedoms is absurd on the face of it. Indeed, a strong case can be made that participation without power or political freedom is a regressive practice that has more in common with political systems such as Gaullism and fascism than with socialism. Finally, we should keep in mind that there exists by now an extensive "tradition" of both capitalist and Communist power-holders utilizing participation to derail the development of power and democracy from below. As the slogan of the 1968 French movement put it so well: "I participate, you participate, they control."

Like so many on the left, Bengelsdorf utilizes the distinction between formal and substantive democracy in a manner detrimental to democracy which she falsely attributes to Marx. The distinction is useful to the extent that it identifies those regimes that pretend to be democratic because they use certain ostensibly democratic formal mechanisms which are nevertheless devoid of significant democratic content. However, it does not follow that there can be a substantive democracy that is not also formal. Thus, for example, the Paris Commune established mechanisms for election and recall of delegates. Similarly, the Russian soviets (before they lost their democratic character in mid-1918) established mechanisms for the allocation of representatives and for elections which had to take place at least every three months. The notion that formal democracy can be ignored means nothing less than the very undemocratic idea that the mass of the population can somehow have "democratic" leaders without voting and without protections for minority views. The motivation behind this obfuscation is rather plain; to make it appear that Castro's rule has been substantively, although not formally, democratic despite the Cuban people's total lack of independent political power.

For Marx, even the purest form of democracy signified coercion, i.e., majority rule of a still existing state implementing the decisions of the majority over the obviously dissenting wishes of the minority, and of course with the forceful suppression of any violent resistance to majority rule. Thus, he looked forward to the higher stage of communism where any kind of rule or coercion, even that of the democratically elected workers' government, would altogether disappear. It is quite legitimate to wonder whether the "higher stage of communism" could ever be attained. What is not legitimate is to take comments Marx made about the democratic workers' state (first or lower stage of communism) from the perspective of the higher stage of stateless communism, and make it appear that these comments represent a Marxian defense of authoritarianism.

Thus, Bengelsdorf suggests that Marx and Engels' rejection of the term "free people's state" for the post-revolutionary system signified an endorsement of authoritarianism in the usual, invidious sense of the term. However, what Marx and Engels claimed was that it was nonsense to speak of a "free people's state" since the state by definition implied coercion and could not therefore be free. By calling the post-revolutionary state "authoritarian," Marx and Engels were not wavering in their commitment to democracy, but were arguing instead that post-revolutionary democracy was not yet as free as stateless communism and was therefore "authoritarian." In decontextualizing Marx and Engels' statements on the state and freedom and calling them authoritarian in the normal, non-democratic sense of the term (p. 21), Bengelsdorf is creating a spurious link between Marx and Castro in order to legitimize Fidel's ideological credentials.

IN REVIEWING THE EXTENSIVE LITERATURE ON MARX, Bengelsdorf finds a number of problem areas in Marx's political thought which deserve serious discussion. Among these are the apparent inconsistencies between Marx's centralizing and decentralizing views of socialism and whether he was correct in thinking that politics as such could eventually disappear into mere administration. But whatever views one may have on these important questions, it cannot be denied that Marx put forward a democratic vision of the socialist revolution, and took it for granted that a variety of views would contend for hegemony within the revolutionary camp. In this context, it is worth noting that as critical as Marx was of the Paris Commune leadership's failure to take decisive actions against the enemy, it did not occur to him to attribute this failure to the diversity of views among the Communards, which is precisely the kind of argument favored by Castro and the Stalinist tradition in general.

To analyze the relevance of Lenin and Leninism (not the same thing) to the politics of the Fidelista leadership would require a more extensive discussion of the relationship of Lenin to Stalinism than would be appropriate here. The interested reader is invited to examine my book, Before Stalinism (Verso, 1990) which contains a discussion and materials relevant to the question. Nevertheless, I would like to note some major features of Lenin's politics which seriously call into question Castro's Leninist claims. Lenin was the first among equals in the Bolshevik leadership. It is quite inconceivable that Castro could tolerate -- let alone collaborate with --other party leaders of the caliber of a Trotsky or a Bukharin. It is also inconceivable that Castro could tolerate as factionalized a party as the Bolsheviks were before and after the seizure of power. Whatever may have been wrong with Lenin or the Bolshevik Party, the fact remains that until the Civil War, any comparison between the Bolsheviks and other political parties would show that the Bolsheviks had more internal democracy, a clearer ideology and program, and a firmer class commitment.

While investing considerable intellectual effort in discussing Marx and Lenin and their possible impact on Fidelismo, Bengelsdorf pays much less attention to the influence of Stalinism on Cuban events. Yet, I would contend that it is the latter that is really important. While Lenin's "Leninism" had meant different things at different times and therefore constituted an ambiguous legacy, Stalinism presented itself to the world as a finished system for all times and places. Similarly, while Lenin, in the early 20s, had come to justify repression and lack of democracy as a virtue rather than as an unavoidable necessity, the political and economic regime established under Lenin never quite lost its provisional and historically conditioned flavor. By the 30s there was nothing provisional left in Stalin's system which was characterized by such structural features as full nationalization of the means of production, a one-party state and statified unions, the absence of the right to strike or any other civil and political liberties, and an all-embracing secret police to help maintain the regime in power. By this time, the newly predominant Stalinist system had made the strong claim that it was only those influenced by bourgeois thought who would worry about such insignificant matters as freedom and democracy. For these new recruits to Communism, the history of Marxism previous to Stalin's rule was the caricature provided by Soviet manuals distorting socialist history.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Cuba. By the time Fidel Castro became a student activist at the University of Havana in the mid- and late 40s, the very word and meaning of socialism had become coterminous with the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), Moscow's franchise in Cuba. The once important anarchist movement had disappeared from the scene by the 20s, and the small but at one time influential Cuban Trotskyists had dissolved into the Autentico nationalist-populist camp and had become virtually invisible as a distinct political tendency. Yet, while the Cuban followers of Moscow were by then the only significant tendency espousing socialism, the PSP was organizationally very sectarian and compromised by its betrayals of populist-nationalist causes and by unscrupulous political deals. In one notorious instance, the Cuban Communists exchanged political support for Batista for control of the trade union movement during the years 1938-1944. Thus, the peculiarities of the Cuban PSP left open a niche for an independent non-sectarian Stalinism untainted by the PSP's betrayals, a niche that was eventually filled by Fidelismo after the revolution.

It is difficult to assess the political significance of The Problem of Democracy in Cuba. Does it portend a more politically and intellectually respectable stance for non-Communist supporters of the Cuban regime during this era of right-wing political pressures? My hope is that it is part of a perhaps unfinished but genuine democratic-socialist process of reconsideration of the Cuban experience.


* The Problem of Democracy in Cuba by Carollee Bengelsdorf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. return

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