A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution; How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory
Monthly Review Press, 2016
272 pages, $30
The Cuban Revolution has created international ripples ever since its military victory on January 1, 1959. The United States was quick to recognise the threats to its dominance in Latin America and set out to crush the rebel regime.
In response, the revolution’s leaders took the process rapidly leftwards, socialising property and seeking to help revolutionaries in other countries. The moral and political weight of Cuba’s revolutionaries remains far out of proportion to their economic and military strength.
Cuban moral authority within the Third World of super-exploited countries is absolute. However, the Cuban Revolution has proven a litmus test for the intellectual and moral fibre of socialist currents in the advanced capitalist countries — a test that some have failed.
The inability to understand the Cuban Revolution is very much a “First World problem” for socialists in imperialist countries.
At the heart of the hostility is the claim that the Cuban Revolution cannot have been socialist because the July 26 Movement (J26M) was led by middle-class elements and the working class was marginalised in the struggle. They apparently believe the Rebel Army, which never marshalled more than 3000 fighters, militarily defeated the 30,000-strong national army independently of any other class forces — a claim hard to credit.
Steve Cushion has therefore done the revolution and its supporters a service by delving deep into Cuban archives and memories of surviving revolutionaries to bring the whole story to the surface. Cushion demonstrates a strongly materialist and dialectical grasp of Cuban history.
The Cuban workers were profoundly involved in the struggle from the beginning and the relationship between the guerrillas in the mountains and the urban and rural workers was very dynamic. The workers learned their own political lessons from struggle — painfully unsuccessful industrial battles — and choose for themselves the political current that served their interests.
The Cuban economy was totally dependent on one crop — sugar. But with sugar’s 1950s price decline, Cuban employers needed to increase workplace exploitation in all sectors and to sack workers.
Cubans knew a class battle was being waged. The bosses’ front man was the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Initially Batista was, ironically, supported by the Cuban Communist party, called the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), and enjoyed the complicity of the central trade union organisation, the CTC.
The PSP had significant working-class membership, but was mired in the Stalinist policy of Popular Fronts with “progressive” bourgeois parties. Maintaining those alliances meant limiting workers’ economic demands — and the J26M strategy of armed struggle-plus-general strike to seize power was anathema.
Batista cunningly provoked strikes in particular sectors at different times, isolating and crushing them with military violence. The first victims were rail workers, then bank workers, textile workers and finally, the big battle against the half-million strong membership of the sugar workers’ union.
The sugar workers fought a desperate struggle. Their 1955 strike was nationwide and total. As the military moved in the workers occupied installations, burned sugar fields, blockaded roads, derailed trains and sabotaged refineries.
The sugar workers were defeated by a combination of death squad murder, mass arrests and betrayal by the CTC bureaucracy.
What lessons did rank-and-file workers and militant activists learn from these defeats? They started sizing up the two competing opposition trends they were encountering: the PSP and the Castro-led J26M. The PSP started losing control of its ranks.
Another important, though minority, trend was the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party (POR), which had important influence in the Guantanamo area —where the J26M based its operations.
POR railway worker Nico Torres Chedebaux joined the J26M early on and became the national coordinator of the movement’s worker branches. He was one of the organisers of the strikes in Guantanamo when the guerrillas landed on The Granma in 1956. Later, he was a leader of the general strike in Oriente Province following the murder of Frank Pais, the leader of the J26M urban underground.
It was at the grassroots level that unity in action was achieved by workers acting in support of the guerrillas, despite their formal party differences.
Cushion goes to great lengths in detailing how the PSP membership adapted to, and then fell in behind the J26M. What he describes is how the Cuban working class came to utilise the Castro current as its political weapon against the dictatorship.
“Many rank-and-file PSP members were coming to recognise the inadequacy of the tactic that the party referred to as ‘la lucha de masas’ (mass struggle),” Cushion writes. “The year 1957 saw the increasing popularity of [the J26M] among rank-and-file PSP members and a willingness to engage in joint action.”
The PSP leaders’ passivity in the face of repression was suicidal for militant workers and the J26M’s line simply won out. The book is littered with examples of cooperation at the local level between the two party’s members, despite the PSP national leadership’s hostility to the armed struggle.
The ability of the Castro current to manoeuvre through the minefield of Cuban politics, with its competing parties ranging from liberal to Stalinist is an outstanding example of revolutionary leadership. Neutralising the PSP’s influence among workers and then politically forcing the PSP to formally support the revolution — just two months before the victory — is the “back story” of the Cuban victory.
The formal support of the PSP was essential, Cushion writes, in “maintaining and building a level of working class discontent that responded so overwhelmingly to Castro’s call for a general strike in January 1959”.
The PSP leaders were never a reliable part of the revolution. Following the victory, they happily folded their party into the J26M to form the Communist Party of Cuba — and promptly used classic Stalinist methods to attempt to take it over.
That led to two political crises in the 1960s, through which the Stalinists were firmly defeated.
Cushion’s book is a sterling example of how to write history. He parses a huge amount of material into an exciting narrative of the Cuban working class revolt. By doing so, he illustrates general lessons for leading revolutions.
The J26M current demonstrated to the Cuban working class the relevance of its strategy. It engaged in all levels of political machinations to advance its cause, while keeping its independence. Working people turned to the revolutionaries to survive and in a dialectical relationship they propelled the J26M to power.
That dialectical relationship continued after January 1, 1959 and was the catalyst for the revolution’s socialist unfolding.