Theoretically disabled polemic

Peter Taaffe Cuba - socialism and democracy CWI Publications, London 2000, pp124, £4.99

What is it at this time that has impelled Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and leader of the SP's international tendency, the Committee for a Workers' International, to write on Cuba and the Cuban revolution?

This is not an idle question. After all, his 'international' and its British section have seen what had previously been a steady decline and loss of membership since the halcyon days of the 1980s transformed into split, defection and crisis. This has been most dramatic in Scotland and Merseyside. Most of the Scottish Socialist Party's leadership are still formally members of the International Socialist Movement, the CWI in Scotland. But they are surely destined to sever all links with Taaffe's grouping - sooner rather than later, if recent internal polemics in the CWI's Members Bulletin are anything to go by. When the split comes, and come it will, it will be following in the footsteps of Liverpool, once the jewel in Militant's crown, where practically the entire SP organisation initially decamped into the Merseyside Socialists.

Internationally, the CWI has lost its Pakistani affiliate, the Labour Party Pakistan, as well as important layers of its sections in the USA, South Africa and elsewhere. These splits have, overwhelmingly, been characterised by rightward-moving, liquidationist politics - a fact that speaks volumes about the nature of the CWI itself. Its organic reformism has left most dissidents who rebel against Taaffe's bureaucratism completely unable to arrive at revolutionary conclusions. Recently, however, a group of USA, German and British dissidents met in London and, even more encouragingly, left SP and ex-SP comrades published Militant Left Opposition in August - an exception to the sad, liquidationist rule.

You would, then, have expected comrade Taaffe to have had more pressing matters on his plate than a discussion of the nature of the Cuban regime. But this pamphlet is very much connected with the internal CWI crisis: it is an attempt to stem the tide. He hopes to use Cuba as a polemical cudgel - not least against the SSP, whose leadership is now holding up the Caribbean island not just as an anti-imperialist centre to be defended, but as an example of national 'socialism', of the type to which, no doubt, they want Scotland to aspire. Taaffe aims to use this book to exhibit his supposed hard 'Marxism', counterposing his own definition of Cuba as a "deformed workers' state" in order to demonstrate the dissidents' apostasy.

Supposedly, it was not the SSP leadership's new-found illusions in Castroism that spurred him to put pen to paper. Significantly Scotland does not get a mention - the resolution on Cuba moved by Alice Sheridan at the February 26-27 2000 SSP conference and the fact that Tommy Sheridan later honeymooned in Cuba with his new bride are passed over in diplomatic silence. Everything is shadows in the CWI world.

So what we have is a polemic directed against a target who, at first sight, has no connection with the CWI: namely Doug Lorimer, leader of the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia.

But why not follow the usual SP practice and simply close your eyes to Lorimer's article? Let Taaffe explain: "Normally it would be pointless to reply to such diatribes, which are 10 a penny in Britain from every insignificant sect. They have never done anything worthwhile but grind their teeth in fruitless frustration at the achievements of Militant ..." (p10).

Yet in this case a reply was deemed to be essential to counter the DSP encroachment into CWI territory. As comrade Lorimer himself wrote, "The following article [a critique of Taaffe's 1978 pamphlet, Cuba: analysis of the revolution] was written at the request of Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the [ex-CWI] Labour Party Pakistan, as an initial contribution to a discussion between the LPP and the DSP on the character of the leadership of the Cuban socialist state and the Communist Party of Cuba" (The Activist, DSP internal bulletin, 1999, quoted by Taaffe, p11).

Taaffe concludes: "Thus the DSP, it seems, has been pressed into service by Farooq Tariq to supply him with arguments that would allow him to distance himself from his previous position on Cuba, when he was a member of the CWI ... The DSP are thus facilitating the political retreat of those like Farooq Tariq who, at least in words (although it is doubtful whether he fully understood the ideas), once put forward a principled, Trotskyist, Marxist approach towards the Cuban revolution" (p11).

Nor is that the end of the Australian group's effrontery: "The DSP likes to present itself ... as a friendly, approachable 'facilitator' of organisations and left leaders throughout the world, who are genuinely fighting for socialism. Occasionally the mask slips and scathing attacks are unleashed against their opponents in the Australian and world labour movement. The Australian supporters of the CWI ... have been the recipients of such treatment. Dismissed by the DSP as 'insignificant', the DSP has nevertheless sought to court our Australian organisation, strives to attract them into their ranks and has offered them positions on their national committee while, behind the scenes, secretly and venomously attacking the leadership and the members of the CWI" (p19).

Comrade Taaffe pretends that his pamphlet is directed towards bigger and better targets than Doug Lorimer and the LPP (although it has to be said that, if the CWI decline continues at the present rate, the DSP will soon leave it behind in terms of global influence). In an attempt to disguise the fact that his real aim is to win the internal CWI battle he states: "The justification for a lengthy reply ... lies not in the importance of the DSP or of Farooq Tariq themselves. It flows from the need to reach and convince leaders and ranks of more important organisations ... of a genuine Marxist method of analysis" (p11).

There is no doubt as to which for Taaffe is the most important organisation. For example, "nothing in the socialist and Marxist textbooks ... fully prepared Marxists for what happened in Cuba". However, "The British Marxists ... who later published the newspaper Militant (now The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party) were better prepared than most for the events of the Cuban revolution" (p1).

The leader of "the British Marxists" is clearly beside himself. He certainly has a point about the DSP's hypocrisy on openness - why publish a polemic internally (it was leaked to the CWI by "an Australian sympathiser of ours") where your opponent cannot see it? However, from the excerpts Taaffe quotes, there seems nothing unacceptable, let alone "venomous", about Lorimer's critique. But the SP general secretary is furious, not only because the DSP is wooing comrades from the CWI tradition by attacking Taaffe's political ideas, but - even worse - is actually meeting with some success, apparently.

How dare Comrade Lorimer write about the "undemocratic regime that Taaffe practises in the CWI"? Vehemently denying this characterisation, Taaffe claims that "every single written contribution was published in internal material" in the name-change and SSP-formation debates. He hurls back the accusation, describing Lorimer as "a leader of a party, the DSP, which bans factions within its organisation and supports a similar position within the Cuban Communist Party" (pp19-20).

Of course many CWI and ex-CWI dissidents would have a rather different view of Taaffe's regime. Although some opposition views are published internally, the CWI draws the line at open, public, polemic. And if your criticism is coming from a principled leftwing position, then it is unlikely even to reach the pages of the Members Bulletin. Take the suppressed document, For democratic centralism, written by long-standing member Harry Paterson. It was eventually published in the Weekly Worker (March 23) - but not before comrade Paterson had been expelled from the SP on vague charges of disloyalty.

As with his comments on the SP's lack of democracy, comrade Lorimer also hits home on its reformism: "In [Taaffe's] view, the Cuban revolutionists should only have presented a 'clear socialist programme', perhaps like the one he has presented for nearly a quarter of a century: ie, with 'socialism' being achieved through the election to parliament of a Labour Party majority armed with an 'enabling act' to nationalise industry!" (DSP The Activist quoted by Taaffe, p19).

Incredibly, Taaffe repeats this remark not in order to try and justify Militant's reformism or to dispute Lorimer's representation of it (he swiftly moves on without comment), but in order to back up his implied allegations of unacceptability "in the language and the methods deployed by Lorimer" (p19).

Such whinging is a far cry from Taaffe's more measured comments in his introduction: "Discussion, criticisms and counter-criticisms of different trends within the workers' movement and amongst Marxists can serve to clarify and educate a new generation ..." (pp2-3). Or: "We would hope to learn from the criticism of workers and organisations in any part of the world in the battle that we are waging in Britain" (p93). Unless Peter Taaffe himself is the butt of the criticism, it seems.

All of this is most informative as to the state of mind of the embattled comrade Taaffe. But the polemic on Cuba itself is certainly not without interest. Summing up the positions of the two sides, the CWI's "principled Marxist, Trotskyist, approach" leads it to define Cuba as a "deformed workers' state", while the DSP leaves out the "deformed": in other words the Castro regime constitutes for the likes of Lorimer a relatively healthy, democratic workers' state.

Furthermore, comrade Lorimer claims - despite all the evidence to the contrary - that Fidel Castro and his 26 July Movement had been from the beginning committed to socialism. The circumstances and events between 1959 and 1961 that led Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union have been well chronicled and Taaffe does a competent job in describing them: the USA's incorrect intelligence that Castro was a communist; its overreaction to his first tentative land reforms; its cutting of the sugar quota and blocking of oil supplies; the USSR stepping in to fill the breach; the nationalisation of uncooperative US-owned firms; blow was followed by counter-blow, culminating in Castro's 1961 declaration that "Cuba has become Marxist-Leninist".

This was in sharp contrast to his statements made before, during and in the early days of revolutionary power. A 1956 document of the 26 July Movement talked of its desire "to reach a state of solidarity and harmony between capital and labour in order to raise productivity", and there were numerous examples of Castro and other revolutionary leaders specifically rejecting nationalisation and hoping for renewed western investment.

But for Lorimer that was all part of a crafty plot. Castro and the 26 July Movement, he says, were quite right to 'pretend' not to be socialists. Openly stating that your aim is socialism is not a good idea: "If they had done this then it's highly unlikely that they would have succeeded. That's because in the minds of the overwhelming majority of Cuban workers and peasants 'socialism' was identified with the Stalinist police states in eastern Europe ..." (The Activist quoted by Taaffe, p32).

You might think that this pathetic vision of a top-down socialism, sneaked in through the back door before the working classes know what has hit them, is not worth bothering with. But Taaffe does bother, spending page after page disputing Lorimer's ridiculous claim that Castro had been a closet communist all along. He concludes: "If, despite all the evidence, Castro was already a 'Marxist' ... but concealed this for 'tactical' reasons, then we believe he was wrong to do so. Could Lorimer give us one example of Lenin between February and October 1917 concealing his views from the workers and peasants of Russia? He clearly agrees that Castro was correct to hide his real views ... This indicates that the DSP has ... borrowed the methods of the Stalinists of seeking to conceal their real programme from the masses for fear of 'frightening them'" (p25).

All this is quite correct of course. But it is mind-blowing in its hypocrisy. Could this be the same Peter Taaffe who for years published a reformist programme Militant: what we stand for. The Same Peter Taaffe who argued for the dropping the of name 'Militant' because the word was allegedly associated with islamic fanatics? The same Peter Taaffe who, in the pages of the internal Members Bulletin, explained that although the SP is for the abolition of passports and borders, if it were to openly back the call to end all immigration controls, the workers 'would not understand'? The same Peter Taaffe who, also in Members Bulletin, advises election candidates not to give a straight answer if they are asked whether they are for revolution?

But back to the Lorimer-Taaffe polemic. The DSP was formerly part of the Fourth International, but it has not only abandoned the United Secretariat, but has also ditched many of the tenets of orthodox Trotskyism, including one of its most sacred shibboleths, Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. Lorimer argues that Lenin, like Castro, had an indeterminate, two-stage schema for socialism: first, October 1917 ushered in a democratic revolution; then, a year later, came the socialist revolution, when nationalisation was forced upon the Bolsheviks. The same thing happened in Cuba!

Apparently it was the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 that made the current DSP leaders think again: it "toppled our Trotskyist theory that socialist revolutions were one-stage affairs, and vindicated the two-stage strategy of revolution developed by Lenin" (p7). From what I can gather , Lorimer's 'two stages' of the Russian Revolution consisted of (a) the victory of the 'bourgeois democratic revolution' under the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' in October 1917; and (b) the 'socialist revolution', carried out in the summer and autumn of 1918.

These two stages were for Lenin compatible with the term 'uninterruptedly' in Lorimer's view. Taaffe quotes the DSP leader's comments on the 1905 revolution: "Lenin argued that the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution by an alliance of the workers and the peasants, led by a Marxist party, would then enable the working class, in alliance with the poor, semi-proletarian majority of the peasantry, to pass uninterruptedly to the socialist revolution" (p15).

This seems an accurate enough reflection of Lenin's views to me. But Taaffe retorts: "This is quite wrong. Lenin only occasionally mentions about moving 'uninterruptedly' towards the socialist revolution. This idea, 'uninterrupted' or 'permanent' revolution, had been put forward by Trotsky ... If Lenin had consistently advanced the idea outlined by Lorimer, then there would have been no fundamental difference between him and Trotsky" (pp15-16).

So how often must you put forward a view before "occasionally" becomes "consistently"? I know this might appear sacrilegious to propounders of post-Trotsky Trotskyite dogma like comrade Taaffe, but there was no fundamental difference between Lenin and Trotsky over the question of revolution - despite all the hot air and animosity generated between the two men.

But Taaffe is determined to uphold the faith: "Both Trotsky and Lenin agreed therefore that it was an alliance of the working class and the peasantry, the majority of the population of Russia, who were the only force capable of completing the bourgeois democratic revolution. Where they differed was on the issue of who would exercise the leadership of the alliance. Would it be the working class or the peasantry? Moreover, once this alliance had come to power, who would be the dominant force in the government? Would it just carry through the bourgeois democratic revolution or would it be forced to go further?" (p13).

The implication is clear: before Lenin 'saw the light' in April 1917 he was little better than a Menshevik, or perhaps a Socialist Revolutionary. Is Taaffe seriously suggesting that Lenin thought the peasants should lead the alliance? That his talk of moving "uninterruptedly" towards socialist tasks was an aberration?

Lorimer quite correctly points out that the Bolsheviks believed that the victory of the Russian Revolution would stimulate revolution in the advanced countries in western Europe. A victory in Germany, Britain, etc, would in turn "open the way for the Russian proletariat to advance along the road of the socialist organisation of the economy" (p16). He goes on to say: "Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not build support among the Russian workers and peasants for the struggle against either the tsarist autocracy or (after February 1917) the landlord-capitalist Kerensky government on the basis of a 'socialist programme' (a programme for the wholesale expropriation of bourgeois property in industry)" (p24).

It was of course true that the Bolsheviks did not advocate wholesale nationalisation as an immediate task of the revolution (although of course, unlike both Lorimer and Taaffe, they were under no illusion that nationalisation, rather than workers' power itself, is the essence of socialism). But Taaffe disputes Lorimer's "false argumentation" and writes: "Lenin's pamphlet The impending catastrophe was in effect a transitional programme ... he comes out in favour of taking over, nationalising, 'the commanding heights of the economy' ...

"Lorimer argues that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had just as little a worked out perspective as Castro did in the period prior to 1960. This is because the Bolsheviks did not proceed to nationalise the bulk of the industry until compelled to do so by the exigencies of the civil war and the sabotage of the capitalists in the autumn of 1918. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bolsheviks, prior to coming to power, had envisaged that they would be compelled to take over the 'commanding heights of the economy' in time and said so openly. But in order to give the relatively culturally deprived Russian working class the time to acquire the expertise to control and manage industry, the workers' state left ownership in the hands of the bourgeoisie and a system of workers' control was implemented" (pp24-25).

What nonsensical gibberish. The Bolsheviks, according to Taaffe, stated that they would nationalise "the commanding heights" in their "transitional programme", but did not do so, because, although they wanted to carry this out as soon as possible, they felt it would be best to give the "culturally deprived" Russian workers a dry run at 'controlling' and 'managing' under capitalist ownership. That way, presumably, the capitalists could pick up the tab if the inexperienced workers got it wrong first time round.

Taaffe's top-down 'socialism' is well and truly exposed once again. The party takes power and then hands down reforms to the workers (this is exactly what he proposes should now happen in Cuba, as we shall see). The Taaffe-Lorimer dispute over nationalisation is a total diversion. The timing and exact nature of the expropriation of the capitalists is, for communists, a tactical question determined by the internal balance of class forces and the progress of the world revolution. The important thing is the self-empowerment of the working class, its own initiative in the running of the whole of society from top to bottom.

At the root of the confusion lies the thorny issue of the "bourgeois democratic revolution". Lorimer thinks that you have to leave a bit of a gap between completing its 'tasks' and embarking on the socialist revolution (ie, nationalising). Taaffe thinks you can get on with both jobs at the same time. Either they can both find reason to believe that the Bolsheviks carried out their own interpretation of what it means.

The "bourgeois democratic revolution" is a leftover from the arid Second International paradigm of the 'inevitable' historical progression of all societies: primitive communism - feudalism - capitalism - socialism - communism. This is a distortion of Marx's view of how the world system of capitalism actually arose in each country - as if everywhere had to follow Britain. Thus, according to the 'theory', in backward countries it was necessary for the bourgeoisie to fully develop the forces of production and capitalism before the working class could come to power. Hence the "bourgeois democratic revolution" and the Mensheviks' attempts to encourage the bourgeoisie to do their duty against the tsar. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks used the term, but fortunately filled it with a proletarian content. But a "bourgeois democratic revolution" carried out by the working class is not a "bourgeois democratic revolution" at all. It is a workers' revolution even though it may not as yet be able to transcend the bounds of commodity production.

However, while the comrades appear to be divided over this debate, they are actually united over one thing: for all their talk of mass action, they both believe socialism can be brought into being through reforms handed down from above. Thus the DSP comrades had illusions in Gorbachev's 'democratisation' of the USSR and insist on seeing workers' power in Cuba today. For them the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution are "the same type of representative institutions as the early Russian soviets" (p55). In fact the CDRs, like the workplace councils (or 'workers' technical committees' whose powers were always limited) and the popular militia, soon became thoroughly institutionalised under the firm control of the Castro bureaucracy.

Taaffe, however, rejects this view of Cuba. He recounts how all power effectively lies in the hands of just 18 individuals, how Castro himself is the general secretary of the Communist Party, the head of the armed forces and the president of the council of ministers, while his brother Raàºl is his deputy in all posts. Castro's role as leader of the revolution is enshrined in the constitution, thus making opposition to Castro literally anti-constitutional. The workplace councils are part of Castro's conveyor belt for implementing policies he has personally decided upon.

Taaffe, unlike Lorimer, correctly points out that the Cuban revolution, however heroic, had very little to do with the working class. It was based primarily on the support of the rural population, although of course, thanks in no small measure to the brutal and corrupt Batista dictatorship, it eventually won the support of the overwhelming majority of the population: not just the peasantry and the rural proletariat, but the working class and even, during the death throes of the Batista regime, sections of the bourgeoisie.

So how is it then that comrade Taaffe, after recounting the events which led to the revolution and those which followed it, can nonchalantly announce that by the end of 1960 "a workers' state had been established ... a deformed workers' state ..." (p105)? The workers, as he says, did not make the revolution and had no real power (he claims that there were "elements of workers' power" during the early days). Yet they found themselves in a "workers' state". The answer lies in the fact that Castro had embarked on large-scale nationalisation and, in Taaffe's words, ended "capitalism and landlordism".

He writes: "To his credit [Castro] also reflected the pressure of the masses in the period of the revolution to break with capitalism and establish a planned economy" (p71). There is no evidence that "the pressure of the masses" was exerted in the direction Taaffe says. The masses, particularly in the countryside, were certainly militantly opposed to the Batista regime and yearned for a better life, but surely that is about as far as it went.

As for Taaffe's "planned economy", what he means by this is purely and simply state ownership. He himself approvingly quotes Tad Szulc's description of how practically all aspects of Cuban life have been run by just one man, Castro himself: "His compulsive dedication to detail and the conviction that, no matter what the subject, he knows more about it than anyone else have combined to make Castro an obstacle to an efficient development of both economy and society ...

"His impatience led him into continuous shifts between short-, medium- and long-term planning, as well as endless improvisations. No policy was given reasonable time to succeed (or to be proved unsatisfactory), and political or visionary pressures pushed Castro into grandiose projects the economy could not possibly handle" (T Szulc Fidel: a critical portrait pp29, 498).

To call this a "planned economy" is stretching the meaning of words beyond all recognition.

Nevertheless, Taaffe is convinced that this absurd characterisation of Cuba as a "deformed workers' state" with a "planned economy" marks the CWI out as the only organisation with a "Marxist standpoint". You could almost feel sorry for him if he were not so arrogant.

This is how he believes his definitions differentiate his organisation from the former leaders of the USFI: "A healthy workers' state with 'bureaucratic' deformations and a deformed workers' state is the difference between a wart and a monstrous ulcer, an incubus, which threatens to consume the 'body', the planned economy. In the former the task is to 'reform', to correct the bureaucratic deformations through increased workers' control and management, and the spread of the revolution internationally. In a bureaucratically deformed workers' state, a bureaucratic caste has separated itself from the control of the masses.

"What is therefore required to establish a healthy workers' state is not 'reform', but the establishment of workers' democracy, which is only possible through a complete change of political regime which in turn requires a political revolution" (p21).

Well, that certainly leaves you in no doubt as to what comrade Taaffe is proposing for Cuba ... or does it? In a later section he criticises the actions of the Revolutionary Workers Party, a Trotskyist grouping operating in Cuba at the time of the revolution. The RWP's press, which printed its paper Voz Proletaria, was smashed by members of the 'official communist' Partido Socialista Popular in April 1961.

Taaffe quotes the response of Che Guevara: "That did happen. It was an error ... However, we consider the Trotskyist party to be acting against the revolution. For example, they were taking the line that the revolutionary government is petty bourgeois, and were calling on the proletariat to exert pressure on the government and even to carry out another revolution in which the proletariat would come to power. This was prejudicing the discipline necessary at this stage.

"... let me give another example. They have one of their principle centres in the town of Guantánamo near the US base. And they agitated there for the Cuban people to march on the base - something that cannot be permitted. Something else. Some time ago, when we had just created the workers' technical committees, the Trotskyists characterised them as a crumb given to the workers because the workers were calling for the direction of the factories" (p48).

What is Taaffe's response? While criticising Guevara for his lack of understanding of Trotsky and 'genuine' Trotskyism, Taaffe saves his main fire for the RWP itself: "This exchange illustrates ... the completely ultra-left position of the Cuban 'Trotskyists' who were calling for the overthrow of Castro and Guevara while these two enjoyed the mass support of the workers and peasants of Cuba. At no time did we advocate such a crude position as this, as Lorimer implies in his attack on us. We adopted a friendly, positive attitude to the revolution and its leading figures. We advocated for Cuba in 1959 and the early 1960s the establishment of workers' and peasants' committees and a programme of workers' democracy.

"A genuine Marxist approach was to positively support all the progressive measures of Castro and Guevara and the leaders of the revolution, while offering friendly suggestions as to how to create a workers' democracy to ensure the gains and advance the revolution. To propose a march on the Guantánamo base, which Guevara claimed was the proposal of the Cuban 'Trotskyists', would easily be perceived as a provocation and give US imperialism the excuse to intervene against the revolution" (pp48-49).

No doubt comrade Taaffe would also have offered "friendly suggestions" to the Kerensky government after the February 1917 revolution in Russia and urged workers to avoid "prejudicing the discipline necessary at this stage". Note that he makes no comment on the RWP's call for workers themselves to take control of the factories.

But perhaps I am being unfair. That was Taaffe's position "in 1959 and the early 1960s". What about today? Surely today he is demanding nothing less than a "political revolution"? This is how Taaffe concludes his pamphlet: "This scenario [capitalist restoration] could only be definitely averted through the establishment of a genuine regime of workers' democracy, linked to the perspective of carrying the idea of the socialist revolution to Latin America and internationally ... this would involve the establishment of genuine workers' councils, locally and nationally, which would have control and management of the economy as a whole. All representatives and officials must be elected, subject to recall by those they represent and receive only the average wage of a skilled worker ...

"The one-party regime should be scrapped. As Tony Saunois points out: 'This is often justified because of the threat to the revolution from imperialism ... This threat is real, but will not be averted by only allowing the party of the bureaucracy to organise itself ...' (T Saunois Che Guevara, symbol of struggle p63).

"Independent trade unions should be established separate from the state but in support of a planned economy and a democratic workers' state ... Cuba needs genuine Marxism, the programme of workers' democracy, in order to rekindle and regenerate all the best traditions that led to its victory more than four decades ago" (pp98-99).

Needless to say, all the demands comrade Taaffe raises are correct. But how are they to be achieved? Through "'reform', to correct the bureaucratic deformations through increased workers' control and management"; or "through a complete change of political regime, which in turn requires a political revolution"?

I would not of course wish to imply that the CWI comrades want to "conceal their real programme from the masses", so I will have to leave readers to ponder the answer for themselves.

Peter Manson