The recent layoff of 500,000 employees by the Cuban government brought very different responses from socialist groups. For instance, the Party for Socialism and Liberation wrote about it here, and the International Socialist Organization here.
How should we read these articles? Some comments.
1. I’m by no means an expert on Cuba. I know something about the revolution and the early sixties there, mostly because there are accessible scholarly books on the subject. In more recent times, one is forced to rely on less scholarly sources.
2. And so, this first problem is tied to a second one: it’s hard, or at least I find it hard, to get a good analysis of what’s going on in Cuba. (Maybe I’m missing some good sources; if you know any, let me know!) Most of the information we see comes through orgnisations devoted to either the destruction (US govt, CIA, terrorist exiles, etc) or the defence (PSL, various marxist groups) to the Cuban
revolution. We are really forced to read between the lines. No doubt there are several factors contributing to this problem: the entire US political mainstream has no problem with US terorrism and aggression against Cuba, and does not take any effort to try to stop, or even to explain, what is going on; Cuba is not a huge place; Cuba is actually repressive of the free press, so there’s little good information coming off the island; the general disintegration of the left, and so on. And so here, as it seems you found, we are faced with taking information, if not from the mainstream media, then from partisan authoritarian socialist with sectarian ideological fixations on the issue.
3. Well at least there are some obvious things one should say about Cuba. The US has been criminally and terroristically trying to crush the government for about 50 years. The revolution did overthrow a horrible US-backed dictator and establish a regime which improved living standards and advanced various economic and social goals, nutrition, health care, education, and so on. The regime has withstood this half a century of superpower onslaught, and it is still standing. This is fantastic defiance.
On the other hand, the regime is actually dictatorial. Basic civil and political rights are horribly restricted. The party dominates political life. The economy is not democratically controlled. Rather it is run by authoritarian central planning, with a small amount of legal capitalism, and a large black market run in US dollars. Though the regime seems to go back and forth over time between slightly more or less democratic approaches, my understanding is that the general nature of the economy is actually authoritarian and undemocratic (although non-capitalist).
4. In any situation of revolutionary government, of course the new regime will be mercilessly attacked, from within and without. There are massive pressures on any such regime. The pressures are massive to restrict the free press in the flood of enemy propaganda. The pressures of external subversion, probably well-founded, lead to massive hesitation to leave the system to run by participatory or workplace, or even representative parliamentary democracy. The pressures are massive to rapidly and even ruthlessly build up a set of institutions to defend the revolution, creating a disciplined population, working hard, armed, militaristic, and ready to defend against reactionary attack — which, in the case of Cuba, has actually happened, both at the level of armed invasion at the bay of pigs, and at the level of superpower confrontation which nearly (in fact should have, but for one man) destroyed the world. So one should understand the difficult situation faced by a single revolutionary government, facing the wrath of the established world order. And, the revolution is under threat from our own State’s terrorism and subversion, our first responsibility is at home. But, that should not stop us being critical of abuses within a revolutionary government — in fact, all the more so, if we want to see socialism succeed.
Both the articles do note their primary role to stop US aggression against Cuba, and I think this is correct.
5. The PSL article seems clearly terrible for the most part. It has almost every stereotypical problem one expects from a statement of an authoritarian communist party, and in this way guarantees its own irrelevance. Euphemisms and spin are used to play down the Cuban “revolutionary” government’s harmful policies. Gratuitous references to the USSR are made, even though they are mostly unnecessary to explain the party’s position — but they are necessary for ideological conformity. That of course doesn’t mean that they recall Soviet policies accurately; as an authoritarian communist party the horrors of Soviet collectivization and repression must be ignored, neglected, or sanitised. There is, as there must be, a section about the greatness of Marx and how we deduce what to do from his writings; completely analogous to the tendency of Christian fundamentalists to quote scripture and derive their actions from the Bible. This is
guaranteed to alienate most readers who are not Marxist fundamentalists, and lose every possible mainstream reader. And of course that doesn’t mean that they recall Marx accurately; they read Marx in their authoritarian sectarian fashion, so that a “socialist basis” means State ownership, and “socialist methods” mean authoritarian scentral planning. There is no such dictum from Marx. Not that it matters so much; the question rather is why Marx is so extensively quoted in the first place. There have been many writers since Marx with theories and analysis that are much more applicable to Cuba; but the answer of course is that he is included for partisan-sectarian-religious reasons, not for reasons of better explaining what is happening.
6. This level of ridiculousness from the PSL is not matched by the ISO. Since the PSL is ideologically committed to defending the Cuban government, but the ISO is not, we should expect the ISO to sound more reasonable, as it has more space for honesty. On other matters I’m sure it would be the other way round: an assessment of Trotsky, I would think, could be done far more accurately by the non-Trotskyists, who are not bound like the ISO to lionize him at all costs, and therefore may be a little more honest.
7. That said, there does seem to be some useful analysis in the PSL article: the remarks on overproduction, the comparison with China, the role of trade with the USSR and its collapse leading to vast economic trouble for Cuba since 1991, and so on. When they stick to the facts and concrete analysis, as one might imagine, since they presumably actually do know a lot about Cuba, they seem to be presenting something much more useful.
8. The ISO analysis generally seems much more accurate, at least to anyone who thinks socialism should mean, at base, worker’s control. It largely sticks to the relevant facts, and doesn’t go far into history. That generally means it can’t go too far wrong, and I think it was useful to read. But it does not go into the general problem of how to achieve socialism in Cuba, which is much more difficult. The PSL, thinking that the Cuban government is actually still on the road to socialism, has all sorts of remarks on the best path for the party to take along that road — even if they do it in their alienating and irritating orthodox-Marxist fashion. The ISO, thinking that socialism is long lost in Cuba, doesn’t have to. That makes their task much easier again; and again although I’m not an expert, I tend to agree with them here.