[Marxism] Chris Harman on the Cuban Revolution

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jul 15 09:08:23 MDT 2006

In the latest issue of International Socialism, the journal of the British 
SWP, there's a review of new books on Cuba by Sam Farber and Richard Gott: 

I might have more to say on this review (but probably not since it is such 
a well-worn matter) but the following paragraphs are breathtakingly ignorant:

"At key moments of political crisis he would address enormous mass meetings 
to show his power­but in such a way as to not let those present at the 
meetings take decisions or initiatives of their own. Such meetings might 
have been full of enthusiasm, but they were a million miles from the mass 
participation in decision-making that characterised Russia in 1917. That is 
why histories of the Cuban Revolution concentrate on the guerrilla combats 
of 1957-58 and on the subsequent political changes at the top, not on what 
was being said and done by the mass of workers, agricultural labourers and 
peasants. Hugh Thomas’s authoritative history provides a couple of 
sentences about strikes and hunger strikes by workers in the first weeks 
after the fall of Batista, but that is all.19 Richard Gott’s book provides 
even less information.

"This is undoubtedly in part bias of authors whose main interest is history 
from above. But it also reflects the reality that enthusiastic support for 
what leaders were doing was not the same as the workers and peasants taking 
things into their own hands."

That's what happens when a group like the British SWP bases all its 
analysis of Cuba on a selective reading. In all their articles I have seen, 
you *never* see references to books that are sympathetic to the Cuban 
revolution. Some of them have been published by Monthly Review. If Harman 
and his co-thinkers ever bothered to consult these texts, they'd realize 
how silly it is to speak of workers and peasants failing to take "things 
into their own hands".

Edward Boorstein's "The Economic Transformation of Cuba":

By October 1960 most of this administrative and technical personnel had 
left Cuba. The Americans and some of the Cubans were withdrawn by the home 
companies of the plants for which they worked, or left of their own accord: 
they found themselves unable to understand the struggle with the United 
States, unwilling to accept the new way of life that was opening up before 

The Revolutionary Government had to keep the factories and mines going only 
with a minute proportion of the usual trained and experienced personnel. A 
few examples can perhaps best give an idea of what happened.

Five of us from the Ministry of Foreign Commerce, on a business visit, were 
being taken through the Moa nickel plant. In the electric power 
station--itself a large plant--which served the rest of the complex, our 
guide was an enthusiastic youngster of about 22. He did an excellent job as 
guide, but his modesty as well as his age deceived us and only toward the 
end of our tour did we realize that he was not some sort of apprentice 
engineer or assistant--he was in charge of the plant. I noticed that he 
spoke English well and asked him if he had lived in the States. "Sure," he 
answered, "I studied engineering at Tulane." As soon as he finished, he had 
come back to work for the Revolution and had been placed in charge of the 
power plant.

In another part of the complex, the head of one of the key departments was 
a black Cuban who had about four years of elementary school education. He 
had been an observant worker and when engineer of his department left he 
knew what to do--although he didn't really know why, or how his department 
related to the others in the plant. Now to learn why, he was plugging away 
at his minimo tecnico manual--one of the little mimeographed booklets which 
had been distributed throughout industry to improve people's knowledge of 
their jobs.

And so on throughout the Moa plant. The engineer in charge of the whole 
enterprise, who had a long cigar in his hand and his feet on the desk as he 
gave us his criticisms of the way our Ministry was handling his import 
requirements, was about 28 years old. His chief assistants were about the 
same age and some of them were obviously not engineers.

Yet Moa was made to function. Even laymen are struck with its delicate 
beauty--a testament to American engineering skill. 'Es una joya'--it's a 
jewel, say the Cubans. It is much more impressive than the larger but older 
nickel plant at Nicaro. Shortly after the nickel ore is clawed out of the 
earth by giant Bucyrus power shovels, it a pulverized and mixed with water 
to form a mixture 55 percent and 45 percent water. From then on all 
materials movement is liquids, in pipes, automatically controlled. The 
liquids move through the several miles of the complex, in and out of the 
separate plants, with the reducers, mixing vats, etc. Everything depends on 
innumerable delicate instruments, and on unusual materials, resistant to 
exceptions high temperatures and various kinds of chemical reaction. The 
margin for improvising in repairing or replacing parts is small-much 
smaller than in the mechanized rather than the automated Nicaro plant. Yet 
the Moa plant was in operation when we were there: two of the main 
production lines were going-and all four would have been going jf it had 
not been necessary to cannibalize two lines to get replacement parts for 
the other two.

Except that Moa was an especially complex and difficult operation, jt was 
typical of what happened throughout the mines and factories, and far that 
matter in the railroads, banks, department stores, and movie houses that 
had been taken over. The large oil companies had expected that the Cubans 
would not be able to run the oil refineries. But they were wrong. When a 
co-worker and I talked to the young administrator of the now combined 
Esso-Shell refineries across the bay from Havana, he said, only 
half-jokingly, that he was about two lessons ahead of us in his 
understanding of how the refinery worked--and I wondered how it was kept 
going. But we had been around the ten minutes earlier and there it was--going.

A textile plant was placed in the charge of a bearded young man of about 23 
who had impressed Major Guevara with his courage and resourcefulness in the 
Rebel Army. The former Procter and Gamble plant, which each year turns out 
several million dollars worth of soaps, and tooth paste, was run by a 
former physician who, besides being generally able, knew some chemistry. 
For many months, the Matahambre copper mine was in the charge of an 
American geologist, a friend of mine. After coming to Cuba to work for the 
Revolution, he had been pressed into service, though he was not a mining 
engineer and had never run a mine, because he was still the most qualified 
person available. He had to educate himself rapidly in mine ventilation; 
this was one of Matahambre's biggest problems at the time. I went through 
the mine with him once end it was obvious from the way the men treated him 
that he had gained their respect for the way he was handling his job.

Once an economist from the Ministry of Industry and I visited a large plant 
near Matanzas that produced rayon for tires, textiles, and export. We 
sensed at the plant that the harassed, outspoken administrator, almost the 
only engineer left, was all but sustaining the whole operation by himself. 
We got into a conversation about him with one one of his assistants. It 
turned out he had a bad leg of some sort which was giving him trouble; his 
father, who had owned valuable property in the nearby swanky bathing resort 
at Varadero was out of sympathy with the Revolution; and his brother, also 
an engineer, had left for Venezuela or some such place. But there he was, 
holding a meeting with his staff at 11 P.M., using all his energy to help 
keep the rayonera going.

When you walked through a Cuban factory, you didn't need to be told that it 
was under new management--you could see and feel it everywhere. In the 
Pheldrake plant for producing wire and cable, formerly owned by Dutch and 
American interests, the whole office of administration was filled by men in 
shirt-sleeves who were unmistakably workers; the engineers had gone and the 
workers had taken over. On the main floor, a group of them were 
struggling--using baling wire techniques--to repair one of the extrusion 
machines so that the wire required by the Cuban telephone industry could be 
kept coming. In a large tobacco factory, the administrator was black; in 
the metal-working plant formerly owned by the American Car and Foundry 
Company, the head of a department turning out chicken incubators was black. 
Black people had not held such positions before the Revolution.

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