What Cuba can teach us

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Mon Oct 9 18:06:54 MDT 1995

Louis Proyect:

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 
years advanced.

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 
and pseudo-revolutionaries."

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 
capitalist agriculture.)

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 
political consequences.

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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