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Castroism, the Cuban Revolution and the Permanent Revolution

The Cuban Revolution impacted 20th Century politics, and pushed the formation of alternative left policies that were critical of Soviet hegemony as well as updating the debate on Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution.

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Less than a hundred miles south of the United States and in the middle of the Cold War, the Cuban Revolution prevailed against Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship– a puppet government of US imperialism which had exercised strong influence within the island since its independence Stalin from Spain in 1902. Notably, not only was it the only successful revolution in Latin America, but it also vividly demonstrated key elements of the Permanent Revolution, widely denied by Stalinism and the Communist Parties around the world.

The July 26 Movement and its Petty Bourgeois Program

Castroism’s advocates oppose the labeling of Fidel Castro and the M26 as petit-bourgeois, but that is precisely what it was. Before the assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953, Fidel Castro was a student leader of the Orthodox Party, whose motto was “shame against money” and its symbol a broom, symbolizing that it had a program of honesty in public administration). Ernesto “Che” Guevara confirmed the characterization of M26 as petit-bourgeois in a letter to Ernesto Sábato:

“After all, Fidel Castro was a candidate for parliament for a bourgeois party, as bourgeois and as respectable as could be the Radical Party in Argentina, which followed the trail of a missing leader, Eduardo Chibas, of characteristics that we could find resembling those of Yrigoyen himself; and we, who followed him, were a group of men with little political preparation, loaded only with goodwill and ingenuous honesty. And so we arrived at the cry of ‘In 1956 we will be either heroes or martyrs’. A little before we had cried—or rather, Fidel had—’shame against money.’”(1)

The M26’s declared objective was always returning to the 1940 constitution (with the electoral code of 1943) and to limit the USA’s ambitions on the island. As the struggle advanced, Che recounts, the M26 would raise the demand of agrarian reform, winning a base of agrarian workers and peasants. In 1958, the M26 signed the so-called “Pact of Caracas” with other organizations opposing Batista. 

This pact was institutionalized in the first revolutionary government headed by Manuel Urrutia (the former president of the Supreme Court) and José Miró Cardona. Both men were expelled from power by a massive demonstration supporting  Fidel Castro and the Rebel Army. Shortly afterwards they joined the ranks of the counter-revolution.

A petty-bourgeois leadership

Marxism demands a class definition of political movements that takes into account two main elements: its leadership and its program. Fidel Castro and the M26 were originally a petty-bourgeois leadership, since their goals were limited to a democratic and nationalist program. Moreover, their program did not aim to organize the mass movement independently from the bourgeoisie, but make a “Revolutionary Civic Front” (as stated in the Pact of Caracas), which—despite its leaders’ intentions—was a sort of popular front of class collaboration. As we previously stated, the dynamic as the events unfolded forced Castro to take up socialist positions.

The M26 was a product of a long tradition within the Cuban petty-bourgeoisie, which traces its origins in José Martí’s experience. Its origins are in  The Young Cuba, a left nationalist organization headed by Antonio Guiteras that waged an armed struggle against Batista in the 30s. This tradition expresses a tendency of the petty-bourgeoisie of trying to resolve its conflicts within the state through the means of armed insurrection. However, in times of the bourgeois revolutions, the petty-bourgeoisie is unable to carry out its own program. All attempts of creating an intermediate program between the working class and the bourgeoisie have been proven to be an absolute impossibility. Once the petty-bourgeoisie takes power, it either takes the bourgeoisie’s program and smashes the revolution, or it takes the proletariat’s program and quickly turns Bonapartist.

Bonapartism in Cuba

Marxism uses specific terms in order to properly characterize a regime. Bonapartism is a term that was first used by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to describe the government established by Napoleon III, who had been elected to the office of the presidency in 1848. Three years later, in 1851, he staged a coup d’etat against his government, setting up a military dictatorship in its place. Marx argued that Napoleon III’s rule “demonstrated how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” Bonapartism has been used to describe a government that raises itself over the two struggling camps in order to preserve property and order. However, given the situation of Cuba as a semi-colonial country, a specific kind of Bonapartism arose. Leon Trotsky first described this phenomenon when analyzing the particular characteristics of Lázaro Cárdenas’ government in Mexico:

“In the industrially backward countries, foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a sui generis Bonapartist character of extraordinary nature. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capital and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by maneuvering with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom from the foreign capitalists.” (3)

Fulgencio Batista’s government could be described as the former case: a Bonaparte who established a police state to keep the workers and peasants chained to foreign capital. The Cuban Revolution was a historical exception in Latin America that proves the general rule of the inability to present an intermediate program between the bourgeoisie and the working class: after taking power through an armed insurrection of workers and peasants, the Cuban petty-bourgeoisie had to break with the national bourgeoisie to carry out its democratic program of land distribution and to achieve national independence, had to take up socialist policies to defend the revolution from imperialism’s attacks.

After the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro’s policy was to control the mass movement on one hand, and to strengthen ties with the USSR and the local Stalinists on the other. They enacted a repressive regime that persecuted political dissidents and LGBT people in the name of a bureaucratic, bourgeois and patriarchal morality.

Trade unions were put under control of Lázaro Peña, who came from the Stalinist Popular Socialist Party (which had participated in Batista’s government in the 1940s), even when most workers had massively supported the M26’s ballot against the communists and rejected him. From the 163 delegates to the 10th Congress of the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba (CTC), only 3 came from the PSP. Before Peña was appointed to head of the CTC, Fidel used to denounce his complicity with Batista:

“What right does Mr. Batista have to talk about communism if he was the Communist Party’s presidential candidate in the 1940 elections, if his electoral satires took shelter under the hammer and sickle, when there are still plenty of photographs of him together with Blas Roca and Lázaro Peña and when half a dozen of his current ministers and close advisors have been outstanding members of the Communist Party?”(4)

In 1962, Castro ordered that all revolutionary tendencies dissolve into the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC), which in 1965 became the Communist Party of Cuba. The Cuban Trotskyists were arrested in 1962 and in 1965 were forced to dissolve their organization, the Worker Revolutionary Party (Trotskyist) (POR-T). Thus, the PCC became the only official organization in Cuba, with Fidel at its head.

The changes produced in the revolution between 1959 and 1962 gave way to a new kind of sui generis Bonapartism. As such, Fidel governed at the expense of the democratic self-organization of workers and peasants.. As such, Fidel’s Cuba spelled the downfall of the old semi-colonial bourgeois state and the birth of a degenerated workers state.

At first upon the revolution’s victory, as a consequence of the defeat of the old Batista army,  the M26 and the rebel army transformed into the arbiters of any conflict trying to impose a balance between all actors. The break with the bourgeoisie forced them to look for popular support, giving rise to a worker and peasant government that started on an anti-capitalist course. From this moment on, the radicalization of the revolutionary process led the new government to take the initiative as a way to express its control over the political situation and guide the actions it took. The M26 as a political force, quickly acquired a centrist course, producing a transformation within its ranks; as Fidel tried to control the masses, the workers and peasants saw in this movement the political instrument to push for their revolution.

We say then that this is a specific kind of sui generis Bonapartism that expresses a general tendency common to all governments to play in the semi-colonial countries: the role of an arbiter between imperialism and the proletariat and the oppressed classes. Lacking a national bourgeoisie, the newly formed government leaned on the popular classes. Since it was a government that originated from the revolution, which transformed social and property relations and the state’s character, it produced a qualitative shift.

As leaders of a class that was not theirs, Fidel Castro and the M26 saw a change in the revolution that was giving rise to a workers’ state. Their transformation as leaders of this process did not imply a change in its more general Bonapartist character, but in the social content and therefore in the nature of the new contradictions that appeared before them. On the one hand, the opposition to imperialism and the internal counter-revolution. On the other, the mobilized masses and their own left wing within the M26, and in the middle, playing an increasingly dominant and decisive role, the Moscow bureaucracy and the Stalinist Cubans. This Bonapartism is one of the indications of the deformed character of the new state, which, after the recoil of the revolutionary wave and the narrowing relationship with Moscow (beyond any fluctuations that may have arisen) allowed the political regime to be Stalinized.

The Character of the Cuban Revolution

The Soviet bureaucracy led by Nikita Kruschev had made an important political turn that reaffirmed the Stalinist theory of “socialism in one country” by implementing the so-called “peaceful coexistence” with US imperialism, carrying on—only now more openly—Stalin’s policy of class collaboration. Along with it returned the old conception of a revolution by stages, which claimed that undeveloped countries had to forcefully go through a capitalist phase of a bourgeois republic before making a socialist revolution, a policy that justified the Communist Parties’ alliances with the national bourgeoisie and even encouraged positions such as the idea of a “peaceful transition to socialism.” This is what led the Communist Party of Cuba to reject the revolutionary process and to label it at first as “petty-bourgeois ultra-leftism.”

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, first of all because the revolutionary process materialized itself through the means of an armed insurrection and also because the masses’ support not only toppled Batista’s dictatorship but also surpassed the program of the M26 itself, since to be able to carry out its promise of a land distribution it had to directly confront the imperialist interests on the island. Thus, pressured by the masses, the M26 had to advance the expropriation of American interests, proclaim the “socialist character” of the revolution and ally itself with the Communist Party of Cuba. Doing so required completely breaking with the two-stage theory and getting directly to the creation of a worker state, unwittingly proving what Leon Trotsky had said in his text “What is the Permanent Revolution?”:

“The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution. […] Therein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.” (5)

Moreover, this situation was even predicted (in a sense) in the Transitional Program written in 1938, at a time when Trotsky was already exiled in Mexico, although Trotsky had labeled this as highly improbable:

“Is the creation of such a government by the traditional workers’ organizations possible? Past experience shows, as has already been stated, that this is, to say the least, highly improbable. However, one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.), the petty bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie.” (6)

The fulfillment of this “highly improbable” situation was the result of the “Yalta Order.” (7) In Cuba, the “order” was broken due to the mobilization of the masses. Thus, the guerrilla fighters once in power realized the fragility of their situation. They knew that they were at the risk of losing control of the masses’ push if they were unable to carry out a working-class program. This forced the guerrillas to break both with imperialism and with the national bourgeoisie allied to it. This is the dynamic of the Permanent Revolution, which Trotsky explained:

“Not a single one of the tasks of the ‘bourgeois’ revolution can be solved in these backward countries under the leadership of the ‘national’ bourgeoisie, because the latter emerges at once with foreign support as a class alien or hostile to the people. Every stage in its development binds it only the more closely to the foreign finance capital of which it is essentially its agent.” (8)

The Cuban Revolution’s character was essentially a rebuttal of all policies put forward by the Soviet bloc at the time, and its influence made it possible for broad layers of society (chiefly the youth) to criticize from a left perspective the Communist Parties’ actions and even push new political alternatives, such as guerrilla parties.

A “counterpunch revolution”?

The idea that the Cuban revolution was a revolution in reaction to the imperialist offensive (a counter-punch revolution) bothers Castroism’s advocates because it denies that the victory of the socialist revolution in Cuba was a well-thought strategic plan and, on the contrary, proves that it was the result of extraordinary circumstances. Che Guevara was the one who coined the term “counterpunch revolution”to explain the fact that the process of social radicalization the revolution brought was a result of the blows and counterpunches with which the US imperialism tried to break the revolutionary process (backed by the mass movement) and its defensive positions.

Imperialism and the national bourgeoisie began to break with the revolutionary government due to two key elements: the agrarian reform which caused massive land occupations by peasants, and the popular tribunals which tried and executed Batista’s agents and officials. It must be recalled that the guerrillas, along with the mass movement, gave a serious blow to Batista’s armed forces in the battles of Las Villas and Santa Clara. The bourgeois army was defeated, leaving the Rebel Army, which was acquiring more and more the shape of an armed militia of workers and peasants as the only armed force. When the imperialist forces and their allies tried to stop the process with the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April of 1961, one million workers and peasants answered the call to take up arms and defend the revolution.

This exceptional situation of violent opposition to imperialists (who have implemented a criminal blockade since then), of the defeat of the bourgeois armed forces and of the revolutionary mobilization of workers and peasants was what forced the revolutionary government to take up measures to defend the revolution and ultimately what gave it its socialist character.

Castroism and Guevarism

For many, Guevarism was a revolutionary alternative to Castroism. Guevarism was certainly a left wing of the Cuban Revolution that opposed the Stalinist influence regarding the economic policy, socialist realism and peaceful coexistence with capitalism. However, Che Guevara never considered himself as a tendency separated from Castroism, but a member of it. As such, he preferred to renounce the political struggle within Cuba with the hope that extending the revolution would give new strengths to revolutionary Cuba.

In economic policy, Che—as Minister of Industry—favored a centralized plan by sectors of production that could create an industry that could guarantee basic consumption for the Cuban population. This orientation was defeated. Instead,Castro favored an exchange of sugar for oil and basic inputs with the Soviets, which Guevara pointed out was unequal). This way, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie that allowed the spectacular development of health, education and human resources, was prevented from an integral development of productive forces, forcing Cuba to depend on sugar monoculture. This is a structural cause of Cuba’s underdevelopment.

Regarding peaceful coexistence, Che proposed to “export the revolution” under the motto of “one, two, many Vietnams” and denounced the Soviet bureaucracy for their conservative policy towards Vietnam and anti-imperialist movements. Under Che’s influence, Castro created the OLAS (Latin American Solidarity Organization), which tried to export guerrilla warfare as a revolutionary method in the continent. In this sense, Castroism-Guevarism aimed to replace proletarian internationalism—which seeks the independent organization of workers and peasants in a revolutionary international to overthrow capitalism and imperialism—with the artificial creation of guerrilla armies separated from the masses. This strategy led Guevara to be defeated after leaving the organization of worker and miner support for the guerrilla in the hands of the PCB (Communist Party of Bolivia), which ended up betraying him. The problem is that Guevara’s opposition to Stalinism originated from a common perspective with castroism, which considered bonapartism (albeit in a revolutionary sense) and the single party structure as essential conditions of a revolution.

Was the Cuban Revolution a bolt of lightning in a clear sky?

Castro’s defenders believe he had no alternative but to ally with the Soviets because Cuba found itself isolated from the world. However, the Cuban Revolution was just the preface of a much more general revolutionary period that swept through the continent and the world during the late 60s and early 70s.

In 1965, there was a popular uprising in the Dominican Republic that was suffocated by 40,000 marines sent by the White House. In 1968, the French May general strikes (the first in Western Europe since WWII) and occupations shook Europe, as did the Prague Spring protests in Czechoslovakia that same year. The latter of these was condemned by Castro, who preferred to support the Red Army’s massacre rather than the protesters’ demands for a socialist democracy.  The following year, the “Cordobazo” in Argentina saw workers and students taking the streets and making barricades against the Argentinian dictatorship. In 1970, Castroism supported the Popular Unity coalition that won the presidency in Chile but disarmed all workers, peasants and soldiers who armed themselves against the CIA-backed reaction. In 1971, the Popular Assembly in Bolivia was created, which overthrew dictator Banzer. In 1979, the Sandinista Revolution came out victorious in Nicaragua, where Castro declared that “Nicaragua will not be another Cuba” and advised the Sandinistas not to expropriate the bourgeoisie.

Cuba was not alone.Rather, Castroism preferred to subdue itself to the Kremlin’s policy and help appease revolutionary processes where it had a strong influence. It preferred to support a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy that oppressed its people instead of being a beacon that lighted the way of the masses’ mobilizations across the world.

The Revolution and its methods

The Cuban Revolution’s shockwaves not only shook the Communist Parties around the world, but also the whole left,including Trotskyism, which immediately saluted the revolutionary process and the newly-born Cuban worker state. However, it also presented divergences with Trotskyism. According to Che, the Cuban Revolution had left three main lessons:

“We consider that the Cuban Revolution made three fundamental contributions to the laws of the revolutionary movement in the current situation in America:

1) People’s forces can win a war against the army.

2) It is not always necessary to wait for all conditions favorable to revolution to be present; the insurrection itself can create them.

3) In the underdeveloped parts of America, the battleground for armed struggle should in the main be the countryside.” (9)

These were the principles of the guerrillas that appeared throughout Latin America, that created militarized parties and tried to create small bands of “focos” throughout the continent, an enterprise in which Guevara himself gave his life. This, however, overestimates the capacity of the irregular guerrillas and underestimates that of the masses, without which there would have been no possible victory, since it was the general strike in Santiago what gave Batista’s dictatorship the coup de grâce. Also, it puts the guerrilla fighter as the key subject whose action would make the revolution for the masses, transforming their role to a mere passive support from which more fighters can be recruited.

Instead of a worker vanguard party made up of the most advanced elements of the proletariat demanding that the worker and peasant councils  take power and organize political and economic life (a situation that, although embryonic, could be seen in the 1933 revolution), a guerrilla party consolidated itself as the representative of the masses. Based on this substitution of the mass action in favor of the guerrilla and on the army’s control of the state apparatus, the Cuban worker state was created as a bureaucratic state that barred the workers and oppressed masses from all decision-making. As a result,immersed in a single-party regime, they had no possibility of seeing their interests represented. This situation is what has made possible the capitalist restoration in Cuba, a path also followed by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, where former state officials—yesterday’s bureaucracy—became today’s capitalists who held onto what remained of the former Soviet state.

Cuba’s current course of capitalist restoration has reestablished diplomatic relations withUS imperialism and reintroduced the capitalist logic of supply and demand, leading a good portion of workers to instability. Examples of this include the introduction of a special second currency for tourists and the cuts to social benefits for the masses, both of which were imposed with no opposition by Raúl Castro and with Fidel’s approval, primarily affecting the Cuban people.

Defend the revolution!

Fidel Castro’s image is closely linked to the Cuban Revolution. In this sense, the historical and theoretical criticism of Castroism constitutes a key point to establish a defense of the Cuban Revolution. This means having an anti-capitalist opposition to the privileged bureaucracy and the restorationist policies in Cuba. It means fighting to defend the 1959 Revolution’s achievements and for a government of worker, peasant and soldier councils. A criticism of such a nature is rejected by those who defend the Cuban bureaucracy, who conceive that the revolution must generate a single thought and personality cult for the leader without any kind of differing opinions.

This position is a copy of those who, before 1989, maintained that criticizing the Stalinist regimes of so-called “actual existing socialism” was playing into the counter-revolution’s hands. Thus, they covered up the monstrous crimes of the bureaucratic leaders against their people without preventing those same leaders from encouraging  capitalist restoration, thus generating a new capitalist oligarchy. This sort of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, conflating criticism of the policies or decisions of the leadership with bourgeois attacks on the workers movement, and of conflating a country with its leadership, aims to stifle dissent. In this sense, instead of defending the revolution, what they did was smash any democratic debate and limit the role of the masses to a blind obedience to the leadership, their state and their party. The independent initiative of workers and peasants was liquidated, with their achievements put further at risk by an increasingly aggressive imperialism and a bureaucracy that encourages policies restoring capitalist relations.

For this reason, a pivotal task of the working class is a political revolution that defends the achievements of 1959, that ends the bureaucracy and the army’s benefits, that hands real decision-making power to organs of direct democracy of the working and oppressed masses in Cuba so that the revolution’s fate answers to their necessities and interests.


(1) Guevara, E. “Letter to Ernesto Sábato, April 12, 1960” in Claves Políticas [Political Keys], Ernesto Sábato, Alonso Editor, Buenos Aires, 1972, p. 90.

(2) Pact of Caracas.

(3) Trotsky, L. Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management (1939)

(4) Fidel Castro, Bohemia (1955).

(5) Trotsky, L. What is the Permanent Revolution? Basic Postulates (1931).

(6) Trotsky, L. The Transitional Program (1938).

(7) Yalta Order is the name given to the geopolitical order that arose as a consequence of World War II, whereby imperialism divided the world with the Soviet bureaucracy in “influence zones” and the US came out as the unexpected hegemonic power among the capitalist countries. The Yalta Order saw the creation of institutions like the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the adoption of the US dollar as a common currency after the Bretton Woods Conference. An order where all institutions were made to favor US interests worldwide.

(8) Trotsky, L. The Chinese Revolution (1938).

(9) Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare.

Translated by Óscar Fernández

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