Permanent Revolution and the National Movement
Jose G. Perez
jgperez at netzero.net
Mon Jul 7 03:05:07 MDT 2003
I thank Walter for bringing up the U.S. SWP/Militant editorial from
He is quite right that the balance sheet I wrote when I was in the SWP
(about Posadas and the world Trotskyist Movement's reaction to the Cuban
revolution) did not deal *at all* with the position the SWP itself held
until some point in 1960 which were very similar to those I criticized
in other Trotskyist currents.
It was, I'm afraid, quite *typical* of us in those days in the SWP to
simply believe that the SWP's more positive stance towards Cuba as it
evolved in mid-to-late 1960 had been its posture all along. This
editorial shows the SWP's positions were different a few months earlier:
"THE CASTRO LEADERSHIP
"The main danger to the Cuban revolution is in its own
"When Castro's peasant forces swept into the cities, the
bourgeois wing of the leadership sought strategic government
posts where they could best influence economic and financial
policies. Wall Street viewed these figures favorably.
"The more revolutionary-minded elements projected
far-reaching reforms, especially against the big
landholders. But they procrastinated. And they failed to
consider such fundamental measures as nationalization of
industry, government monopoly of foreign trade, and the
expropriation of the capitalists."
First, let's be clear that this was a major line statement, not just a
casual comment. In fact, it reads more like a PC resolution than
something you'd typically write for the paper. Probably there is no way
of knowing it for sure today, but I believe a statement like this would
have come out of discussions in the Political Committee, and have been
reviewed by the central leaders of the party before publication, and
quite possibly the text itself was ratified by the PC.
Today it isn't hard to pick it apart, but it reflects four problems of
many Left groups that are still abroad and well worth pondering:
* Zinovievist (pseudo-)Leninist Partyism
* Propaganda League/Ideological Sect Full Programism
* Arrogant Marxist know-it-allism.
* Sectarian workerism or "class-ism"
To place the editorial in context, a little historical background:
The revolution triumphed on Jan. 1, 1959, when dictator Fulgencio
The first government set up was dominated by figures from the bourgeois
opposition and the only revolutionary in the cabinet was Fidel as head
of the armed forces. The main thing that happened initially, in the
first weeks, were trials and exemplary punishment for the henchmen of
This first cabinet wasn't able to do anything, leading to a crisis, and
Fidel becoming prime minister a couple of months later, in February or
Then the first revolutionary laws were adopted, nationalizing the
electric company, slashing rents and so on, in March, 1959. There was a
veiled struggle over the agrarian reform, which was finally enacted in
But resistance to it by the person who had been named President led to
another cabinet crisis: Fidel resigned from the government in mid-July
1959, explaining he could not be part of a government with this
As a result, the president was forced to leave, a Fidelista became
president and Fidel once again resumed being prime minister on July 26,
1959. In August the agrarian reform began to be applied in earnest, and
shortly thereafter the first militias were formed, intimately connected
with the task of overcoming resistance by local landlords to the reform.
Now, although it did not *formally* go beyond bourgeois bounds, in
reality the agrarian reform attacked directly the most important native
and foreign capitalists on the island.
This led to a huge escalation in the polarization in the country,
including what was meant to be the beginning of a military rebellion,
led by one of the July 26 commanders, except that it fell flat. This was
the famous Huber Matos affair, and that took place in October, 1960, and
as a result the last bourgeois figures left the cabinet.
Not much then seems to take place for a few months, but that is for a
reason. It is the time of the sugar harvest, the leaders of the country
are focused on getting that to work. Also, the agrarian reform isn't a
question of a decree, but something that has to be carried out *on the
ground*. So there is an intensifying class struggle in the countryside,
and generally there is a systematic creeping encroachment on the rights
of capital. A number of companies are "intervened" -- placed under a
government administrator. It is during this period, in January, 1960,
that the Militant editorial is written.
A few months later the pace really picks up. In February Cuba signs a
trade deal with the USSR; the foreign-owned refineries refuse to refine
soviet crude when it arrives in May; as a result, they are nationalized
in June. In July the U.S. cuts the sugar quota as a reprisal, and Cuba
responds with the nationalization of all significant U.S. holdings on
the island, then with the Latin American Youth Festival held under the
slogan "Make the Andes the Sierra Maestra of Latin America" and the
(First) Declaration of Havana reinforcing the call to extend the
revolution; and with the expropriation of the local capitalist class in
These are changes in class relations, a social revolution in the most
far-reaching conceivable use of the term, not simply a matter of
transferring property titles or managers.
For example, in Cuba the October expropriations are followed immediately
by intense preparations for the great literacy crusade, which was
actually the central project of the revolution in 1961. About a quarter
of a million people (out of a total population of six million) were
involved in teaching; 100,000 of them were the high-school and
college-age literacy brigade members that went into the countryside.
More than a million people learned to read a write, but the city kids
also received an education about the reality of their nation.
Lifting a million school-age children and adults out of illiteracy,
including about a quarter of the adult population, and doing so as a
mass campaign, in which the *masses* are the protagonists and the
*youth* are in the vanguard, in one year, while at the same time having
to contend with imperialist sabotage and invasions; the bandit bands;
organize the recently-expropriated enterprises into a planned economy;
develop the army, the militia, the block-by-block committees for the
defense of the revolution -- I can't think of a more graphic, concrete
illustration of a people conquering their liberation and setting out
resolutely to transform society top to bottom in every single sphere,
political, social, economic and cultural.
That's the sort of *social transformation* that leads directly to
Eisenhower imposing the economic blockade (July, 1960 is when the last
of the sugar quota was cut off), breaking off diplomatic relations (Jan.
1961) and putting preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion into high
gear, although it takes place in April, 1961, under Kennedy.
Two days before the invasion Cuba is attacked by American B-26 bombers,
and at a rally the next day, on the eve of the invasion, Fidel says
something like that what the imperialists can't forgive is that we've
made a socialist revolution right under their very noses, so that day is
remembered in Cuba as the proclamation of the socialist character of the
revolution, although the expropriation of the capitalists as a class had
begun in 1959 and been completed in October 1960.
Now, the Militant editorial was written a few months before the
expropriations became wholesale, but after the most significant
capitalists had already been hit by the agrarian reform, more than a
year before the Bay of Pigs.
Yet the danger, as the Militant saw it back then, was in the Castro
leadership. A lot of this hostility came from, I believe, the reality
that the July 26 Movement was not a Leninist Vanguard Party, which, as
everybody in this kind of group knows, is the sole legitimate
representative of the working class.
Half-baked impressions from the imperialist press on the composition of
the revolutionary forces, leading the Militant to imagine that the
bourgeois forces that occupied cabinet posts in January of 1959 were
part of the "leadership" of "Castro's peasant forces" compounded the
error (as well as a lack of a concrete understanding of the structure of
the Cuban economy, of the importance of the capitalist landholdings).
The truth is that these bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians were
precisely the ones that the Fidelistas had broken from in waging the
revolutionary struggle against the dictatorship. Yet it was not enough
that Fidel and other hard core July 26 Movement people understood the
role of these politicians; it was necessary for the masses to ALSO
understand it and THAT could only come from their OWN experiences, not
from speeches. What Fidel and the July 26 movement did was to go THROUGH
the experience with the masses, applying under those specific conditions
the same kind of strategic concept that Lenin espouses in his pamphlet
on ultraleftism by calling for electoral "critical support" to
petty-bourgeois and pro-capitalist political figures and parties that
operate within the workers movement.
The procrastination the Militant editorial speaks about is simply the
period during which the Cuban masses put to the test --and found
wanting-- the country's traditional political leaders, figures and
parties. It took the form of successive cabinet reshuffles, protests and
mass rallies, not bourgeois elections. It is analogous to the Kerensky
period in the Russian Revolution, and it was a period of profound
political organization and transformation of the Cuban masses. The
wholesale expropriations of the summer and fall of 1960 would not have
been *possible* in the spring or summer of 1959, but they also would not
have been possible without the spring and summer of 1959.
And they became possible not through abstract socialist preaching, which
under the conditions of Cuba in the McCarthy era would certainly have
led to the isolation of the revolutionaries from the masses, but because
working people came to see that the capitalists were basically
anti-national, as the nation was being redefined and reconstituted by
The Militant didn't see it because the Cuban revolutionaries around
Fidel were not "armed" as we used to put these things, with the correct
revolutionary Marxist program. "They failed to consider such fundamental
measures as nationalization of
industry, government monopoly of foreign trade, and the expropriation of
the capitalists", the Militant assures us, even though other steps cited
in the editorial show very clearly that is *exactly* what the Cuban
leaders were planning, and already beginning to implement.
What the Militant was saying wasn't so much about the private
discussions of the top Fidelistas --they weren't privy to those-- but
simply that the July 26 Movement was *not* propagandizing "socialist
ideas," unlike the typical ideological sects (or if you prefer a less
harsh term, "propaganda leagues") do. That is certainly true. So much so
that Fidel only began using the "S"-word openly a half year AFTER the
last big wave of nationalizations.
But by early 1960, had the Militant actually been following closely and
with real knowledge of Cuba what was going on there, it would have
understood the *class dynamics* of the process underway, and that is at
the *heart* of what Trotsky was trying to get at by talking about
That the comrades on the Militant and in the SWP leadership then felt
free to make medicine for Cuba *despite* the lack of real concrete,
intimate knowledge is revealing: the most important thing is "The
Program," facts are secondary, you only need a bare bones outline to
draw up a diagnosis and start prescribing.
Above all what is lacking in the Militant's appreciation then (and, I
believe, later, despite a much improved stance) is any feel at all for
the *national* movement, for the Cuban revolution as the expression of a
nation. Yet the appeal to save the nation from the degradation it had
been subjected to by the dictatorship and preceding governments was
clearly the *central message* of the Fidelistas from before July 26,
The Militant's approach is an entirely "workerist" or "classist" one,
where the national question is liquidated into the class question.
Everything is translated down to class terms, and in doing so they miss
the *central* thing that has happened, which is a *change* in the
leading classes in the nation. This is like looking at the rise of Black
Nationalism in the United States in the 1906s and basically ignoring it
because, after all, in the final analysis it is just an extremely
complex way through which the class struggle has found expression.
Because the revolution presented essentially as a revolution for
national salvation, initially it had widespread support among virtually
all social classes. But the bourgeois elements very quickly withdrew
that support. They wanted the revolution declared over on January 2,
1959, but Fidel instead was preaching that it was only now beginning;
he, like the Jacobins, like Marx, like Lenin, like Trotsky, did not want
the revolution declared over but continuing in permanence. (And you'll
notice to this day, the Cubans speak of the revolution as something
going on NOW, not a historical event that took place way back when in
the middle of the Cold War).
As the process deepened, layer after layer of bourgeois forces peeled
away from the government, and this even found some expression in the
July 26 Movement. The other side of this coin is that the interests of
the majority, the working people, increasingly come to the fore as the
interests of the nation as a whole.
This "liquidation" of the national question into the class question is,
I believe, what was behind the absolutely hopelessly confused debate
around the "permanent revolution" in the SWP and other Trotskyist
groups, and the hair-splitting search for this or that not-very-balanced
formulation by Trotsky on China in the 1920's to explain some
fundamentally "flawed" aspect to the theory, or the impulse on the part
of many Trotskyists to want a nearly instantaneous expropriation of the
capitalist class and proclamation of socialism the morning after the
seizure of power.
In a previous post, I've argued that the problem doesn't lie with
Trotsky's wording in this or that document. The problem isn't that he
took a mistaken position on China in the 1920s, because 90-odd percent
of the comrades who view themselves as Trotskyists haven't read it; and
of the few that have, perhaps a handful are intimate enough with Chinese
history and conditions at that time so as to be able to absorb the
mistake and replicate it.
It comes instead from a lack of understanding, feel for, and
appreciation of the national movement. And I think that is above all
what the Militant editorial showed: when it came to understanding the
Cuban revolution as *Cuban*, as the expression of a nation, the
comrades, frankly, were unable to respond.
This is surprising in a way because if one reads the pamphlet Joseph
Hansen completed in late July or August 1960 (no precise date is given
but from the events he refers to --and doesn't refer to-- it is clear
that's when it was finished) there is very much an appreciation and an
attempt to popularly explain to working people in the U.S. the
nationalism of the Cuban revolution.
Yet if one reads his discussion article on "The Character of the New
Cuban Government," which is dated July 1960, i.e., it was written at the
same time there is no weight given *at all* to the *national* character
of the movement; on the contrary, the revolution is described as
"Beginning with the simple political objective of overthrowing Batista's
army-police dictatorship, it rapidly disclosed its tendency to
revolutionize social and economic relations and to extend its influence
throughout Latin America and beyond."
One can only conclude that Hansen and the others active in the SWP at
the time understood the importance of explaining Cuban nationalism in
terms of countering the propaganda in the U.S. press about "anti
Americanism" in Cuba and so on, but in terms of analyzing the
revolution, it isn't really relevant. The tasks and forces are all
simply described in class terms.
(Both of these are in the book, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, by
Joseph Hansen, which does not include, however, the earlier Militant
editorial we've been discussing.)
The main point of the internal discussion article from July, 1960, is to
create a theoretical grounding for taking a positive, supportive stance
towards the revolutionary government by elevating a sentence or two in
the 1922 Theses on Tactics of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern and a
similar passage in Trotsky's transitional program into a category, "The
Workers and Farmers Government," thus making it "legal" for Trotskyists
to take the position the comrades *wanted* to take in relation to Cuba.
The *problem* with making it into a rigid category of "class" analysis
as the SWP did, and thereby completely forgetting the *national*
character of the movement, is that when the forms change, you're caught
unprepared. There is simply no way to shoehorn the Venezuelan process,
for example, into the neat "workers and farmers government" category, at
least not yet, as far as I can tell. Indeed, in Cuba's case Hansen
changes his position from July 1961 to December 1961. In July he says
the government that came to power in 1959 was a workers and farmers
government. In the Dec. 23, 1960, "Draft Theses on the Cuban Revolution"
he refers to the end of the (last vestiges) of the "coalition
government" in the fall of 1959 saying that with that personnel change
"Cuba now had a workers' and farmers' government."
Now you would think that a heavyweight change like that from a
(bourgeois, although the draft theses avoids using the word) coalition
government to a workers and farmers government would mean a radical
change in the stance of revolutionaries and the masses. But that really
didn't happen: Cuban revolutionaries supported the revolutionary
government before and after those changes. Moreover, in Nicaragua there
were "bourgeois ministers" (among them Labor Minister and then later
Vice President [under Mrs. Chamorro] Virgilio Godoy until 1984, five
years after the victory of the revolution), which did not stop the SWP
from considering it a workers and farmers government, so even the
presence of bourgeois figures turned out not to be dispositive.
This shows that this "category" and "rules" approach to politics in
I think the basic problem being reflected in these incoherences is that
the approach is not centered on what it should be centered on: the
national revolutionary movement itself, the social phenomenon. Because
it can have a wide variety of expressions at the governmental level
depending on a host of circumstances, including especially the degree to
which the class differentiation and polarization that the revolutionary
process will tend to produce has, in fact, taken place.
If revolutions in Latin America continue to arise as movements for
national salvation or against national degradation, as I think is
likely, then to begin with, as the revolutionary mass movement bursts
onto the political scene, it is entirely likely that its first political
expression will be a "coalition" of some sort or another with bourgeois
figures for it is in the nature of the kind of social decay or crisis
that evokes such a movement to ALSO be felt even among many in ruling
class circles. That their *class* interests are essentially and
fundamentally anti-national will become evident soon enough, but it
won't be seen that way at the outset. (Of course, the ruling class types
won't view themselves as "anti-national" they'll view the revolution,
once they cast themselves out of it, as further degrading the country,
bringing it down to the level of the "chusma" -- the rabble, the
Indians, the mulattos, etc., and they will view their own fight as one
to keep the country civilized, orderly, make it more cultured and so
NOT understanding this is going to lead to even more blunders and
stupidity, like, for example, some of the things the Militant wrote a
few years ago about Chávez being a "bonapartist" and another "Fujimori"
(a stance that, happily, they have abandoned).
That's why I say the problem isn't permanent revolution, the SWP
rejected what it viewed as the ultraleft errors associated with the
theory a couple of decades ago. And if this January 1960 editorial had
somehow come up at that time, when those discussions were going on, I'm
certain it would have been cited as en example of the kind of mistake
this leftist bias leads to, more proof that it was necessary to abandon
But having adopted this change, the SWP fell into what is in my view
exactly the same kind of sectarian error in relation to Venezuela when
the Chávez movement emerged. And if they have now (happily) changed
their stance, that is because the screams of pain of the Venezuelan
ruling class have made the class dynamics and forces in motion
But that isn't the only point or the main one, even, to correct your
position as events show which side you should be on. What comrades need
to come to understand is the progressive nature and class dynamics
inherent in these national movements, in and of themselves. Without
having to wait a couple of years for it all to unfold so neatly that
even the occasional perceptive bourgeois reporter will pick up on it and
pretty straightforwardly describe what is going on as a class struggle
between the rich and the poor.
Obviously, this "lack of sensitivity" on the part of revolutionaries in
imperialist countries (and not only) comes from somewhere. And not from
bad wording in an article Trotsky wrote or even a skewed political idea
in the whole notion of permanent revolution. That is an idealist
explanation of the errors. Such persistent errors can't be explained
simply as resulting from bad ideas that have been handed down. They have
material sources, they are reflections of the social forces that bear
down on all of us.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out the social force that would push
people to dismiss the national movements of oppressed nations, so that
you confuse a Chávez with a Fujimori, you imagine that some of the
bourgeois figures in the Cuban or Nicaraguan revolutionary governments
were leaders of the mass revolutionary struggle that led to those
governments coming to power, and so on.
But just recognizing that the pressure of imperialism can lead to a
political manifestation of the type Lenin used to call "Great Nation
Chauvinism" isn't enough. History has shown that movements for national
salvation, for national liberation are the form through which the masses
in colonial and semicolonial country become its protagonists. They may
not be the only possible form --we must not turn into some sort of
schema-- but looking back at Latin American events over the past
century, since the rise of modern imperialism, the only possible
conclusion is that this is a very generalized phenomenon.
And we should also assimilate some lessons about some common
characteristics, not to all such processes, but to many of them. They
will often, very often, present around a charismatic leader. One can
call this "Bonapartism" if one wants, but its roots, character, and
class dynamics behind it are entirely unlike "classical" or Soviet
Bonapartism. What we see in Latin America is that rallying around a
central charismatic figure is one of the possible forms through which a
movement for national salvation takes place. That is actually what took
place. A great deal comes to depend on the character and caliber of
revolutionary leadership of that individual, and of the team that person
I say that because there is a strong tendency, this was partly involved
in the Militant's errors around Chávez a couple of years ago, and in the
criticisms and hostility of many leftists, even today, towards the Cuban
revolution, to see the emergence of a strong, charismatic popular leader
and immediately think of Napoleon crowning himself emperor, or of
And it may be true that some figure that some national movement begins
to emerge around doesn't really have a plebeian revolutionary bone in
their body, and as a result the process will not have anything like the
sweeping dynamism and scope of the Cuban revolution. The figure of Pepe
Figueres in Costa Rica in the 1940's comes to mind as one possible
example of this, but even then, even though that revolution did not at
all become permanent, and was soon over, by all accounts the Costa Rican
masses obtained significant social conquests.
But most likely the name that popped into everyone's mind as they read
the last paragraph was Perón. I don't know exactly how I would describe
Perón. I've read some things about him, including the excellent posts
from Nestor and his friends on this list over the years, but if the
central question that you're focused on is that one, Perón's individual
role, then I think you're still not getting it. It is not how good/bad,
plebeian/aristocratic, proletarian/bourgeois the particular leader
involved is, but rather the character of the movement: that is the first
thing, the one that has overriding importance. The starting point is
this: the movement is an expression of an oppressed nation for
liberation. And the driving force of it, whatever the surface appearance
may be at an early stage, are the stirrings of the class interests of
the oppressed and toiling masses.
What is going on is the entry onto the stage of history as protagonists
of the masses. In this specific form. And that the only place for
revolutionaries is INSIDE the movement, however that translates in
practice in the specific case that has emerged.
If it were simply a problem of this one small group, or even just these
groups in the U.S., perhaps this point wouldn't be worth stressing so
much. But I think Nestor and his friends in Argentina have presented
here over the years a fairly convincing case that essentially the same
or very similar mistakes were made by many groups in Argentina that
claimed to be Marxist or Socialist, with terrible results. This is a
more general weakness of the Marxist movement, not one that is
specifically tied to Trotsky or the Permanent Revolution.
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