A Response on Che, Cuba and Revolution

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

Jeanette Habel

“Socialism and Man [sic] … the risks and the risky splendor of utopia….”—Che Guevara, Socialism and Man

I BASICALLY AGREE with what Christopher Phelps had to say in the May-June 1993 issue of ATC. As he emphasized, trying to navigate between the Scylla of imperialism and the Charybdis of apology” isn’t easy when it comes to Cuba. The complexity of the social formation on this island is generally underestimated, as is the specific character of its belated nationalism, imbued with the Jacobin, socialist and ethical conceptions found in the writings of José Marti.

We misunderstand Castroism if we fail to grasp its historic significance for a people who before 1959 suffered unimaginable humiliation and scorn. This island was an ethnic and cultural crucible, a meeting point for all manner of influences. The internationalist spirit of the Cuban people was produced by the mixing of African, European, Asian and Latin American migrations.

Since I agree with Christopher Phelps, I will concentrate on two questions: my disagreements with Sam Farber (see July-August 1993 issue) and some thoughts on how to assess Che Guevara.

Farber’s Assessment

Farber’s article poses questions about Cuba that derive from a balance sheet of “actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union and East Europe. It is clear that his analysis of Cuba (unfortunately intermixed with his appreciations of Che’s works) registers in thought spurred by the collapse, the historic implosion, of these bureaucratic dictatorships.

The presupposition that guides his thinking leads him to write the following: “Equally ignored is that Castro’s Cuba (with the full agreement and support of Che Guevara as long as the latter was alive) [remember, Che only stayed in Cuba six years before leaving for Africa and then Bolivia—JH] has been, in its repressive policies and societal structure, demonstrably (our emphasis) more Stalinist than every single pre-1989 East European state with the exception of Albania and Romania.”

Statements like this can seriously inhibit discussion. It should suffice to recall that the Bolshevik Party was destroyed several years after the seizure of power, that repression in the Soviet Union tallied deaths in the millions (it’s worth rereading the Khrushchev revelations on this score), and that the Berlin uprising was crushed in blood, not to mention events in Poland or Hungary during the 1950s.

When did massacres like this ever take place in Cuba? Not a single human rights organization has ever dared make this allegation. Would such slaughter even have been possible? No, because the ultra-rightists in Miami would have used it as a rallying cry to get a green light for intervention they’ve been waiting for a chance like this for a long time.

The same goes for the comparison with Maoism. Today we know that tens of thousands died during the Cultural Revolution. It there any comparable example in Cuba’s history? During the rectification campaign—erroneously characterized by some as a return to Guevarism—was there a wave of repression like this? This equation, Guevarism=Maoism=Stalinism, leads Farber to make such a glaring error, not to mention the equally wrong but less serious false equation of Che with Castro.

Besides, it’s always somewhat unsettling when the executioners and the victims are lumped together (it’s fashionable to assign the revolution responsibility for the counterrevolution). The method used dodges an historical analysis of Stalinism and its essential base: the struggle of a social force for preservation of power and privileges. (Whether we analyze it as a caste or class isn’t the most important thing, though in my opinion recent experience has rendered the concept of state capitalism inoperative.)

Stalinism is not a theory, or a clash of ideas (otherwise how can your account for a Yelstin, who comes out of this social layer, making an about-face conversion to the glories of the market?), or any kind of conception of the transition, whether centralized or decentralized. Stalinism embodies the defeat of a revolutionary wing in the specific circumstances of a past historical time. Stalinism is no more the continuation of Leninism than Castroism—and nobody has a clear idea of what this term means anymore—is the product of Guevarism.

In other words, Farber sees a political divide in all the issues raised in a discussion of ideas, of different conceptions of the transition (the relations between plan and market, degree, of privatization and opening to foreign investments, etc.). As the title of his article says, “democratic revolutionary socialists” are on one side of the line and Stalin-Castro-Guevarists on the other, the Guevarists being advocates of “primitive communism” (an assertion that is not backed up).

The dividing line does exist, but it is drawn elsewhere. Very different conceptions can exist in the “revolutionary camp” among supporters of different degrees of marketization, privatization, foreign investment, or on international policy questions.*

Cuban Options

Farber asks who determines the boundaries between revolution and counter-revolution, who decides where the lines are drawn? In the first place, the geo-political context and the international environment, which he never talks about, have been decisive.

Cuban essayist and critic Lisandro Otero, for example, condemns “the ineffectiveness of the socialist system” and declares himself a “partisan of a very radical internal reform.” He advocates “a dialogue with dissidents inside Cuba” but states that “he is in the camp of the revolution” and believes that “calling for Fidel to step down would be madness, given the scope and weight of his effect on Cuban history … this is the most important element of national cohesion.”(1)

Opinions like this, coming from someone who has been penalized in his professional life for political reasons, are probably still widespread in Cuba. Does this mean that Castro should be forgiven for his repressive methods and authoritarian, caudilloist concepts of power? Absolutely not. My disagreements with Sam Farber aside, I accept his criticisms about how my critique of Castro was too general in the original version of my book.

This deficiency can also be traced to the complexity of the new world order (or disorder). If we want to be in style, we have to divide the world into two camps: supporters of human rights and others. This was one of the goals of the conference just held in Vienna. Parting the waters in that way leads to placing Hassan II, Saddam Hussein, and Fidel Castro in the same camp.

But if we happen to think that the dividing line today is between “North” and “South,” (leaving aside the class differences that must be dealt with), between the oppressors and the oppressed peoples, we will then nuance the analysis. We’ll remember that the Cuban government was the only one to vote in the United Nations against involvement in the Gulf War, and that it assisted the Central American revolutionaries whenever possible.

Unlike China, which is a big market and profits from “most favored nation” status, unlike Vietnam, which is about to benefit from the lifting of the embargo against it because of its Southeast Asian location, Cuba is “far from God and close to the United States,” subjected to out-and-out geo-political strangulation.

Fidel Castro undoubtedly bears a large part of the responsibly for the limits on civil and political liberties in his country. Someday, a mobilization of the population will show that there is a political price to be paid for this policy. But, in making a balance sheet of the thirty years of a revolution on a single island in the backyard of the United States, the real question posed now is: what should be done to win?

Give the market a greater role? (The free farmers market in particular?) This question is still more complicated than it seems it is enough to analyze the present-day effects of this policy of market liberalization to understand how explosive it is, since “market socialism” doesn’t exist Restore political freedom and, better still, popular power and control? Of course, and clearly the most serious condemnation of the Castroist government is on this level (patent while Gorbachev was going down).

Break the isolation of the revolution? Yes, and we can’t indict Che on this account Farber’s review offers an implausible interpretation for his departure to Bolivia. Che left precisely because he clearly understood these constraints, understood, contrary to what Farber said, that it wasn’t possible to “abolish the division of labor” by decree. Twenty-six years after his death, we still haven’t found the key to success for building socialism “90 miles from home.”

A Necessary Reminder

Reread Che’s last texts in the big, public economic debate of the 1960s, where he opposed the supporters of Soviet ideas about economic reform (the initial version of perestroika), his essay on “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” and his last speeches, especially the one he gave in Algeria in 1965. All plainly exhibit a critical and premonitional vision of the problems of Soviet society in transition and the difficulties that Cuba might encounter, given its dependence on the Soviet “big brother.” What, then, was Che’s critique, his overall project, and where did he go wrong?

As early as the seizure of power, Che understood the need to break with the sugar monoculture in order to reduce the country’s dependence and attempt to assure a more autonomous economic development. The emphasis he placed on industrialization was a response to this key concern. But the iron law of the market made itself felt very quickly: the fall in sugar production, the chief export product, made it impossible to guarantee imports necessary for economic development in a country devoid of native energy sources whose revenue basically came from the monoculture imposed on it by nineteenth-century colonization.

Corrections had to be made; an economic policy that utilized agricultural resources as the driving force for industrial development had to be designed. Commerce with the Soviet Union, especially oil deliveries after the complete break with Washington, was supposed to contribute to this development. It was to have guaranteed the stability of trade as well as a genuine commercial equity between a small, economically backward country and a world power claiming to be socialist, possessing nuclear weapons and beginning the conquest of outer space.

Unlike other Cuban leaders, it didn’t take Che long to grasp the risks and the fragility of this enterprise. Beginning in 1962—one year after the official proclamation of the socialist character of the Cuban revolution and two years after privileged relations with the Soviets had been established—the missile crisis shook his confidence in the solidity of this alliance and the reliability of its aid.

As a matter of fact, it was Che who was assigned to negotiate military assistance from Moscow in face of more and more pointed threats of American intervention after the fiasco of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion The decision to station nuclear missiles in Cuba—it has not been clearly established whether Havana or Moscow was responsible for it, though the Castro leadership has claimed it came from Khrushchev—was aimed at dissuading the Pentagon from unleashing aggression But it changed the balance of nuclear power in the sense that the proximity of the missiles to American territory escalated the nuclear threat; they gave the Soviets greater quick strike capacity in any possible conflict and diminished the effectiveness of a U.S. response.

Kennedy demanded the withdrawal of the missiles under threat of risking thermonuclear conflagration; the world was on the verge of war. The Soviet government immediately agreed to dismantle the offensive arms. But the withdrawal of the missiles and the negotiations between Khrushchev and Kennedy were carried out in the bureaucratic tradition of Soviet diplomacy—over the heads of their ally without any consultation, in total disregard for Cuban sovereignty. The shock and indignation of the Cubans was colossal. The October crisis (“those enlightening and sad days,” as Che remembered them in his letter of farewell to Cuba) was undoubtedly the first breach in Soviet-Cuban relations.

The Soviet government has replayed these events and used them to discredit Fidel Castro by presenting him as a mad, irresponsible adventurer prepared to plunge the world into an atomic war. This interpretation, which is based on a new version of Khrushchev’s memoirs, doesn’t square with the positions taken by the Cubans in that period. They favored total destruction of nuclear weapons and proposed a test ban, while at the same time Cuba demanded that all countries respect the borders of others and opposed all aggressor including with conventional weapons.(2)

According to other sources, it was Khrushchev himself who proposed this offensive strategy to the Castro leadership, without weighing all the consequences. He was accused of adventurism both by the Chinese leadership and by his peers when they ousted him.(3)

It was clearly Soviet foreign policy—especially the parsimonious support given to the Vietnamese people—that was at the origin of the increasingly critical way in which Che saw the so-called socialist camp. But his doubts grew quickly about Soviet domestic policy. The proposals for market reforms being made by Soviet economists, notably Liberman and Trapeznikov, were widely debated at a time when Cuba was confronted with the need to redefine a strategy for economic development.

Transition and Underdevelopment

The great economic debate engaged within the Ministry of the Interior between 1963 and 1965, and subsequently in the whole of the Cuban leadership, was first of all a debate on how to build socialism. More precisely, on the transition from capitalism to socialism in a small, dependent country directly subject to the pressures of the international market and shackled by an all-out blockade put in place by the world’s leading economic power.

Che’s project was underpinned by a communist concept of the new society under construction He cared deeply about the relation between socialism and humankind—humanity as an essential factor in the revolution. As Che put it: “actor in this strange and impassioned drama that is the building of socialism.” He added: “in this period of the building of socialism, we can see the new man being born. His image is not yet completely finished—it never could be—since the process goes forward hand in hand with the development of new economic forms. … What we must create is the man of the twenty-first century, although this is still a subjective and not a realized aspiration. It is precisely this man of the next century who is one of the fundamental objectives of our work’ (Socialism and Man, Merit Publishers, 1968.)

Far from Stalinist deformations, Che Guevara’s premises were humanist and revolutionary at one and the same time. He vigorously criticized “the scholasticism which has hindered the development of Marxist philosophy and impeded the systematic development of the transition period.”

Because Che believed that revolutionary aspirations should give rise to a “new man,” liberated from all alienation, he very quickly saw the need to fight against privilege. His own personal austerity was legendary, as was his hostility toward the nomenklatura, even though the term was not in use at the time “We must not bring into being either docile servants of official thought, or scholarship students who live at the expense of the state—practicing ‘freedom.’”

The economic controversy at that time revolved around the law of value during the transitional period, the degree of centralization of enterprises, the role of material and moral incentives. Those who emphasized the importance of the law of value attributed a major role to market mechanisms in a planned economy. They stressed the need to accord substantial financial autonomy to the individual firms and insisted on the role played by monetary incentives in raising the productivity of labor.

Che and his supporters laid stress on control over the administration. They took into consideration the uneven development in Cuba: an adequately developed telecommunications network, a severe lack of trained cadres, and the need to strictly control resources, given the blockade and the low level of development.

They felt that financial independence of individual enterprises might lead to favoring the profit of a given sector over respecting nationally established priorities, and might foster growing autonomy of directors in decisions about investments and wages. They were fearful of the effects of an organization of labor based exclusively on monetary incentives, and the social differentiations that would inevitably result.

Prophetically, Che wrote: “The theory of the market is being revived Market organization is wholly reliant on material stimulus … and the directors always get more. Just look at the latest scheme in the German Democratic Republic and the importance it accords the director’s administration, or rather the salary the director gets for his administration.”(4)

Twenty-five years later we saw the consequences of this in the anti-bureaucratic—at its beginnings—uprising of the popular masses in East Germany, who had wearied of economic stagnation, the absence of political freedom, and the privileges of corrupt officials.

Che was inspired by an acute anti-bureaucratic sensibility. He was guided above all by political and social considerations when he decided against the primacy given to monetary-market relations in the building of socialism—which in no way means that he had any delusions about their brutal suppression.

His insistence on the need for moral stimulus, conceived as collective incitement to labor, went hand in band with a wage policy closely linked to skill development, the most important being “to correctly select the instrument for mobilizing the masses,’ without which socialism was doomed to defeat This question is at the center of debate today.

For Che, the answer to this question assumes the development of revolutionary education and consciousness, a communist attitude toward work “The formation of the new man and technological development”—in other words, Soviets plus electricity.

Actual experience would obviously have led him to think about the difficulties of excessive centralization of the economy. His concept of a vanguard party steered by exemplary leaders would also probably have been called into question by the stark balance sheet of Stalinism’s bankruptcy. And maybe he would have contemplated the misdeeds of the single party/state party and concluded that a democratic, pluralist policy was necessary as a counterweight to bureaucratic degeneration.

It’s true that Che’s thinking on this latter question was the least developed. Surely the explanation for this can be found in the specificity of the Cuban experience at its beginnings. We shouldn’t forget that up until 1965 three political currents co-existed in Cuba. The single party was not established until 1975, when its first congress was held; the fusion process had been that difficult. Besides, in the mobilization atmosphere during the first years of the revolution these problems didn’t loom as large.

More than any other Third World leader in this period, Che was aware of the defects of “actually existing socialism.” He despised the bureaucratic babble of incompetent apparatchniks, and did not shy away from harsh, public criticism. In his public speech in Algeria in 1965 (his last official speech as a Cuban leader), he denounced the Soviet leader ship for “tacit complicity’ with imperialist exploitation and the perpetuation of unequal exchange at a plenary of the Afro-Asian seminar.

Create Two Or Three Vietnams

It was because he foresaw the hellish difficulties confronting the building of socialism on a single island and the necessity for other revolutionary victories that, in his message to the Tricontinental Congress, Che launched the famous slogan, “Create two or three Vietnams.” (“When we analyze the solitude of Vietnam, we are struck by the anguish of this illogical moment for humanity.”) With his characteristic lucidity, here again Che anticipated history by foreseeing the dangers for isolated insurrections in a world order tragically dominated at that time by the Cold War being waged by imperialism and Stalinism.

There never was and is not now a Guevarist model of socialist construction. Che’s work should be judged using a number of criteria. Idealism or voluntarism did not guide his thinking, rather the understanding that a social revolution constitutes a break ‘business as usual” can’t continue. The new humanity embodied by Che is not a possibility in the immediate, but a utopia we must strive to reach in order to show that it is possible to fundamentally change the world, that a new order can be achieved.

The egalitarianism that some condemn in Cuba today, and the clearly excessive socialization of the economy, have been decisive for popular resistance. In face of aggression from without, another society appears to be in creation that would be something worth fighting for. This is the fight now being construed as a utopia doomed to defeat. The vise tightening around this island may just make that a reality. The Cold War is over. Yet the aggression continues, because this example of resistance has to be destroyed: the power of Goliath must be boundless.

In the era of balance sheets, it should be kept in mind that the responsibility for this reversal falls principally on the big powers. While the Castroist leadership bears a part of it, nobody has yet found the means to resolve the nearly insurmountable contradictions it faced.

*Later, I take up Che’s ideas on these issues. (Farber forgets how old they are—Che’s been dead twenty-six years and spent very little time, only six years, in Cuba.) A note in passing: the degree of repression does not mechanically derive from the degree of centralization or decentralization; the Girondists were not necessarily more democratic than the Jacobins.


  1. El excelsior, Mexico, June 22, 1993.
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  2. Che’s Speeches at the Nineteenth General Assembly of the United Nations (December 1964), Obra Revolutionaria. Ed. ERA, 1967.
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  3. See Le Monde, September 26, 1990 and October 5, 1990, and the speeches of Fidel Castro in October 1962.
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  4. Che Guevera, Writings of a Revolutionary, Editions LaBreche.
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September-October 1993, ATC 46