What Cuba can teach us
Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Mon Oct 9 18:06:54 MDT 1995
For those who are willing to learn, the Cuban Revolution can teach a
great deal about building a revolutionary party. Fidel Castro and Che
Guevara were not members of old-style Trotskyist or pro-Moscow
formations. Despite this--or possibly because of this--they managed to
reach the masses and lead them to a socialist victory. The July 26th
Movement had more in common with Lenin's Bolshevik Party than
those parties attached to the official iconography of the Russian
Castro and Guevara never spent much time investigating
organizational questions the way Lenin did in "What is to be Done".
Their speeches and writings dealt with broader anti-imperialist
themes, and issues directly related to the problems of building
socialism in Cuba.
Regis Debray made a stab at devising a revolutionary strategy based on
the July 26th Movement when he wrote "Revolution in the
Revolution". This pamphlet defended "foquismo". "Focos", Spanish
for columns, were to be rural guerrilla warfare formations that
combined military and political tasks. Debray only understood
superficial manifestations of the Cuban Revolution when he produced
this work. To an extent, this reflected the inexact theoretical stance of
the Cuban leadership itself. Che Guevara tried to implement a strategy
of "foquismo" in Bolivia and it failed. Most Latin American
revolutionaries abandoned the cruder aspects of "foquismo" as the
Of much more interest are Castro and Guevara's incidental remarks on
the character of the Cuban revolutionary movement. They both
realized that they had stumbled upon something different from the
traditional "Marxism-Leninism" of the Trotskyist or pro-Moscow CP's.
"Anyone can give themselves the name of 'eagle' without having a
single feather on their back. In the same way, there are people who
call themselves communists without having a single communist hair
on their heads. The international communist movement, to our way of
thinking, is not a church. It is not a religious sect or a Masonic lodge
that obliges us to hallow any weakness, any deviation; that obliges us
to follow a policy of a mutual admiration with all kinds of reformists
These words are from the speech Castro delivered to the University of
Havana in March 13, 1967. This was around the time that the Cubans
began orienting toward the guerrilla movements in Latin America and
away from the pro-Moscow CP's. They had arrived at the
understanding that it is deeds and not dogma or party labels that
determine true revolutionaries.
The Cubans organized conferences of the Organization of Latin
American Solidarity (OLAS) during this period. They sought to
coordinate struggles by guerrilla groups across national boundaries.
This was the first attempt at genuine internationalism since the early
days of the Comintern.
In a speech delivered to the first OLAS conference on August 10,
1967, Castro denounced dogmatism:
"This does not mean that it is enough to have a correct position and
that is all. No, even among those who really want to make revolution
many mistakes are made; there are still many weaknesses, that is true.
But logically we will never have deep contradictions with anybody--no
matter their mistakes--who honestly has a revolutionary position. It is
our understanding that we must leave behind old vices, sectarian
positions of all kinds and the positions of those who believe they have
a monopoly on the revolution or on revolutionary theory. And poor
theory, how it has had to suffer in these processes; poor theory, how it
has been abused, and how it is still being abused! And all these years
have taught us to meditate more, analyze better. We no longer accept
any 'self-evident' truths. 'Self-evident' truths are a part of bourgeois
philosophy. A whole series of old cliches should be abolished. Marxist
literature itself, revolutionary political literature should be renewed,
because by repeating cliches, phraseology, and verbiage that have been
repeated for thirty-five years you don't win anyone; you don't win over
While Castro directed these remarks against the CP's of Latin
America, he might have directed them equally against Trotskyism.
The American Trotskyists in the Socialist Workers Party were not the
self-critical sort, however. When they read these words, they assumed
that "sectarianism" was someone else's problems, not their own. They
elevated themselves above the Cuban revolutionaries in some respects.
In "Draft Theses on the Cuban Revolution" delivered to a gathering of
the Trotskyist faithful in December 23, 1960, the SWP leadership
characterized the Cubans as "petty-bourgeois", a favorite word in their
As they sat in judgment on the Cubans, the Trotskyists gave them a
passing grade. To those who questioned the need for Trotskyist parties,
as well they should, the SWP leadership had an explanation: The
Cubans were revolutionary, but the SWP was even more revolutionary.
What did this aging group of sectarians that held the allegiance of less
than one out of every half-million people in the United States know
that the Cubans did not?
The North American Trotskyist critics faulted them on economic
policy. "Take it from the economic side. Look at the delays that
occurred down there in the process of the revolution, in expropriating
the properties; they had to wait until they were pushed into it by
American imperialism, slapped around, then there was a response, a
defensive reflex to these blows struck by American imperialism. They
were stumbling, fumbling, losing all kinds of valuable time which the
bourgeoisie in the United States utilized in order to prepare the ground
psychologically for the counterrevolution."
Now nobody could accuse the SWP of stumbling or fumbling, could
they? They believed they knew every correct step on the way to
socialism. Like most sectarians, they never asked themselves whether
any concrete step they have taken has actually produced results. If they
held themselves to the same strict standards that they held others to,
they would have closed shop decades ago.
The SWP also saw another weakness in the way Cubans neglected
democracy. "To any Trotskyist, any revolutionary socialist, it jumps
out before your eyes, the weakness of the revolution on that side. And
that weakness derives primarily from the weakness of the leadership,
of its consciousness."
Some Trotskyists would not even give the Cubans this much of the
benefit of a doubt. A minority in the SWP led by James Robertson and
our own TimW333521 sneered at the Cuban leadership.
TimW333521, who had come to Trotskyism from social democracy,
faulted Castro for not upholding institutions of worker's democracy.
He instructed Castro to emulate Lenin, the architect of Soviet
democracy. TimW333521 has returned to the social democracy fold.
(Now he calls it by the less compromised term "democratic
socialism.") TimW333521 still declares that Cuba lacks democracy,
but blames it now on Cuba's stubborn adherence to Leninist norms.
TimW333521 is hard to please. Robertson, if anything, has also been
consistent. He formed a new group called the Spartacist League in the
early 60's that gave his sectarianism an even more virulent aspect. The
cult remains faithful to the leader's religious beliefs to the present day.
The real breakthrough of the Cuban leadership was beyond the
comprehension of the Trotskyists. The Cubans had built a
revolutionary movement that succeeded in winning the masses. They
used language and concepts that emerged out of the Cuban experience.
Jose Marti was the icon of this revolution, not Stalin or Trotsky. The
July 26th Movement did not ask people to join on the basis of correct
positions on historical and international questions. You simply had to
dedicate yourself to the overthrow of the Batista regime through armed
struggle. You also needed to favor a government dedicated to agrarian
reform, democracy and economic justice. In a manner similar to the
Russian social democracy of the early 1900's, the Cubans favored an
extremely wide definition of what it meant to be a revolutionary.
Deeds counted more than words.
Che Guevara wrote "Notes for the Study of the Ideology of the Cuban
Revolution" for the October 8, 1960 issue of "Verde Olivio", the
magazine of Cuba's armed forces. He declared:
"This is a unique revolution which some people maintain contradicts
one of the most orthodox premises of the revolutionary movement,
expressed by Lenin: 'Without a revolutionary theory there is no
revolutionary movement.' It would be suitable to say that revolutionary
theory, as the expression of a social truth, surpasses any declaration of
it; that is to say, even if the theory is not known, the revolution can
succeed if historical reality is interpreted correctly and if the forces
involved are utilized correctly. Every revolution always incorporates
elements of very different tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in
action and in the revolution's most immediate objectives."
It is unfortunate that Guevara only produced these brief notes. He
would have made much more of an impact on future revolutionary
events by continuing this study rather than going to Bolivia. The
single phrase "every revolution always incorporates elements of very
different tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in action and in the
revolution's most immediate objectives" actually anticipates the
trajectory of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutions which took
place more than a decade later.
The Central American revolutions of the 1970's and 1980's are
actually an extension of the Cuban model. The FSLN (Sandinista
Front for the Liberation of Nicaragua) and the FMLN (Farabundo
Marti National Liberation) launched an armed struggle as the Cubans
did. What is more important, however, is the manner in which they
formed genuine vanguards of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran people.
They did not form such vanguards by first forming a tiny nucleus of a
party and then recruiting people in twos and threes to a fully
elaborated program. Their approach was like the Cuban's. They
developed program and theory in tandem with mass action. They
spoke in political language out of their national idioms. Their
approach to revolution was undogmatic and non-sectarian. Their
failure to win full emancipation for their peoples has more to do with
the global relationship of class forces rather than in any lack of
socialist principles or skill.
The most important assistance the Cubans have given the FSLN and
FMLN is not material aid. It is rather the continuing advice on how to
strengthen the revolutionary forces. The FSLN and the FMLN
represent consolidation of different political tendencies. If they had not
put the interest of the Nicaraguan or Salvadoran people over the
interests of their own groupings, they would have made no progress
toward victory. The Cubans, by everybody's recognition, have been
instrumental in forging such unity.
Carlos Fonseca founded the Sandinista movement in 1961 along with
Tomas Borge and Silvio Mayorga. Fonseca was an exceptionally gifted
leader. He died in combat in 1976. In the early 1970's, the FSLN went
through a series of crises and eventually split into three factions. Each
faction regarded itself as the true and only vanguard of the Nicaraguan
The first tendency was the TP (Tendencia Proletaria). It
emphasized the central role of the proletariat in the coming revolution.
A TP leader Jamie Wheelock wrote "Imperialism and Dictatorship" in
1974 and showed that an urban proletariat and agro-export based rural
proletariat had become a major factor in the Nicaraguan class struggle.
(Wheelock, of course, was doing exactly the sort of theoretical work
that Lenin did in Russia when he examined the development of
The TP thought it was a mistake to rely on rural peasant-based
guerrilla warfare. They saw only one answer to the needs of socialism
in Nicaragua: the creation of a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. They
concentrated their efforts on the neighborhoods and factories of major
cities like Managua.
The second tendency was the GPP (Guerra Popular Prolongada).
Tomas Borge and Henry Ruiz led the GPP. It concentrated on rural
guerrilla warfare in northern Nicaragua. In some respects, this
formation had more in common with the "foquismo" approach
followed by Guevara. The GPP did not connect to urban struggles
however, an arena that belonged to the TP.
The third tendency was the "third force" or Terceristas. Another name
for them was the "Insurrectional Tendency." They tended to stress
bold, almost adventurist, actions to spur the masses into action. They
recruited from the middle-class, including lawyers, academics, Church
and lay workers, and even from lumpen elements. Daniel and
Humberto Ortega were the leaders of this faction.
In actuality, the three factions simply represented contradictory class
aspects of the Nicaraguan revolution. They were all correct in
responding to local features of the revolutionary struggle, but were also
incorrect in assuming that their own tendency had the inside path to
Would they respond to Guevara's imperative? "Every revolution
always incorporates elements of very different tendencies which,
nevertheless, coincide in action and in the revolution's most immediate
The urgencies of the Nicaraguan class struggle did bring the three
factions together. We also must assume that the Cubans gave them
advice to find a way to unite. An upsurge in the mass movement in
1978 introduced compelling reasons for unity, especially in the
military arena. That year, the three tendencies did not see themselves
in competition any longer. They recognized that the Nicaraguan
revolution was broader and more complex than any of its single
aspects. By December of that year, the FSLN accomplished
reunification. They then proceeded to build alliances with other forces
on the left. They reached agreement with the pro-Moscow CP, which
had been hostile to the idea of armed struggle for many years.
Eventually the FSLN won victory over Somoza and tried to the best of
its ability to construct socialism in Nicaragua. Many on the left in the
United States, including the super-revolutionaries in the SWP, fault
the Sandinistas for not having built "another Cuba". We should blame
the setback to Nicaraguan socialism on the inability of groups like the
SWP to do more to prevent the Reagan administration from strangling
the revolution in its cradle.
El Salvador is another case study of how the revolutionary
movement achieved unity. Like Nicaragua, the left had split into a
number of factions. In El Salvador, the divisions grew deep enough to
provoke fratricide. The story of how they overcame those divisions is
Salvador Cayetano Carpio started the first guerrilla group. Carpio was
a baker by trade and a central leader of the Communist Party of El
Salvador. He began to identify with the Castroist current during the
time. He grew increasingly dissatisfied with the electoralist and
routinist path of the CP and looked for an alternative. In 1969, Carpio
broke with the CP and, at the age of fifty, started a guerrilla group.
The group adopted the name "Popular Liberation Forces--Farabundo
Marti" (FPL) in 1972.
Carpio reflected the growing maturity of the Castroist current. He
rejected "foquismo". Carpio based his rejection "on the experience of
some guerrilla movements in Latin America and in other countries
that were removed from the people, that failed to reach out to them
and that succumbed to militaristic designs..."
Left-wing Christian Democrats formed guerrilla groups in the same
period. In 1971, Joaquin Villalobos and other activists from this
current formed the "Peoples Revolutionary Movement" (ERP). The
ERP was by no means homogeneous. Villalobos said that it was
"composed of different groups with different approaches to strategy,
but sharing the desire to promote armed struggle in El Salvador."
The ERP experienced bitter factional divisions in the early 1970's. One
wing thought the revolution was at hand and emphasized bold armed
actions. The other wing doubted this and stressed the need for patient
long-term political work. The poet Roque Dalton was a member of this
latter faction. In 1975 the in-fighting became so bad that rivals from
the other faction murdered him. Enemies of the ERP had spread
malicious lies that Dalton was a CIA agent. Eduardo Galeano wrote,
"We always meet death in a way that resembles us. I always thought
Roque would meet death roaring with laughter. I wonder if he could
have. Wouldn't the sorrow of being murdered by those who had been
your comrades been stronger."
On July 30, 1975 the Salvadoran army fired on a peaceful
demonstration of students. Government troops killed dozens of people.
The event had as much of a galvanizing effect on Salvadoran society
as the Kent State murders had in the United States. A number of
distinct student groups coalesced together at this time and formed the
"People's Revolutionary Bloc" (BPR). Most people called it "el
Bloque". This was a new type of organization that began to typify the
Salvadoran popular movement. These organizations of students,
workers, women or peasants participated in political discussions for
the first time in their lives. They worked in these organizations as an
alternative to vanguardist or electoralist formations. They participated
in civil disobedience, mass demonstrations and rallies.
Eventually a coalition of left and centrist politicians came together in
the "Democratic Revolutionary Front." The most famous member of
this formation was Guillermo Ungo, a member of the government in
1972 along with Jose Duarte. When the army launched a coup, Duarte
remained in office while Ungo went into opposition.
Another important step forward occurred when the Communist Party
of El Salvador decided to participate in the armed struggle. Their
leader Shafiq Handal became an important and well-known guerrilla
leader. The evolution of the CP in El Salvador indicated that years of
sectarianism were dissolving at last. The movement included both
Shafiq Handal and Guillermo Ungo.
All of these groups and individuals came to the realization that they
had to unite to become effective. Once again, Guevara's observation
that, "Every revolution always incorporates elements of very different
tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in action and in the
revolution's most immediate objectives" was vindicated. They achieved
such unity when they formed the Farabundo Marti Front for National
Liberation (FMLN). The FMLN was the umbrella group that
coordinated the armed struggle, while the FDR under Ungo's
leadership conducted the legal struggle.
The Salvadoran revolutionaries acknowledged the importance of the
formation of the FSLN in Nicaragua in influencing their decision to
unify. The pressure of events persuaded each of the separate groups to
put the needs of the Salvadoran revolution over their particular
factional interests. Each grouping within the FMLN-FDR represented
contradictory class aspects of the Salvadoran revolution. The FSLN
and the FMLN shared with Lenin's Bolsheviks a very generous
definition of what it meant to be a revolutionary. This is a lesson that
the left in the advanced capitalism countries must learn. Again, we can
only assume that the Cubans had a significant role in bringing this
unity to fruition.
None of these formations--the July 26th Movement, the FSLN, FMLN-
-were conventional "Marxist-Leninist" formations, yet each one
achieved powerful revolutionary breakthroughs. If the Soviet Union
had not been going through such a profound counterrevolutionary
shift, there was every possibility that socialism would have won
substantial victories in both Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Nicaragua and El Salvador are important because they show the
necessity of forging a common class-struggle approach above and
beyond the narrow interests of party or sect. Today many people
misunderstand the accomplishment of Lenin. They see Lenin as the
great splitter. He split with the Mensheviks, then he split with the
Second International and formed the Third, etc. This is an
undialectical view of Lenin. Lenin was also the individual who helped
to unite socialists in Russia when no organization existed. Lenin's
great success was not in forming a new type of party in Russia, but
simply building an uncompromised socialist party where none existed.
Another thing that the Bolsheviks and the Cuban model have in
common is that they do not define themselves by historical or
international questions. Lenin, like Castro, focused on issues of the
class-struggle in his own country. He let the French, the Chinese and
the English, etc. work out their own solutions to reaching the masses
in their own countries. The Cuban-style formations did not stand on a
decades long program that took positions on innumerable historical
questions. To join the SWP today means to adopt the
position that WWII was imperialist, while to join the CP presupposes
the opposite position. We simply do not need this type of ideological
New socialist formations must be inclusive and pluralist in their
political perspectives. Basically, they should accept members on the
basis of agreement with Marxism, the way Lenin's Bolshevik party
did. No group has the inside track on truth. The truth will only emerge
after years of struggle in the trenches. Nobody today can predict how
the American socialist revolution will unfold. There is almost
complete ignorance about important new developments like the
populism of the western states. Nobody has begun to describe the
current status of the working-class adequately. What was true in the
1960's is no longer true. The United States is no longer a nation of
economic security and prosperity. The differences between the United
States and third world countries is narrowing. This has enormous
Marxist thought can only evolve and prosper outside of a
"vanguardist" framework. The kind of discussion that a socialist party
requires is exactly the kind of discussion that takes place on the
Marxism list: uncensored, democratic and critical. No "Marxist-
Leninist" party enjoys the kind of discussion that we do. The socialist
movement as a whole should enjoy these types of discussions.
In my final post in this series, I will discuss the South African
Communist and former East German Communist Party. Both of these
groups have gone through startling transformations. Then I will
analyze the success of the Worker's Party in Brazil. Finally I will also
discuss two new groups in the United States--Committees of
Correspondence and Solidarity--and show how they both reflect a new
non-sectarian and undogmatic approach.
There will be a new radicalization. It will come not because of the wording i
n some group's leaflet, but because of the terrible, brutal course U.S.
capitalism is navigating. We must start preparing now.
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