David North
The Heritage We Defend

The Cuban Revolution

The regroupment policy pursued by the SWP between 1957 and 1959 represented a decisive turn away from revolutionary policies based on the mobilization of the working class, toward reformist protest politics based on unprincipled alliances with Stalinists, radicals, pacifists and other representatives of the American middle class. It was impossible to disguise the liquidationist character of the regroupment policy after the experience of the 1958 election campaign, and a mood of confusion and disquiet affected a significant section of the SWP. A right-wing tendency within the Political Committee, represented chiefly by Murray Weiss and supported by Joseph Hansen, pressed for a continuation of the regroupment line. In the draft political resolution prepared in early 1959 for the upcoming Eighteenth National Convention, the Political Committee glorified the achievements of regroupment and anticipated the organization of yet another broad-based “independent” socialist campaign in 1960.

But on the eve of the convention, Cannon, realizing that the SWP was well on the road to complete liquidation, flew to New York carrying in his pocket a copy of a speech he had already delivered to the Los Angeles local warning against the continuation of regroupment. The secretariat of the political committee held a series of meetings and it was decided to officially call off the regroupment campaign.

A new resolution was hastily drafted and when the convention opened in July 1959, Farrell Dobbs was assigned the task of explaining the sudden shift in the party’s perspectives. The correction was not made in a principled manner. There was no admission that Cannon and the leadership had erred. They simply announced that the regroupment line was no longer valid.

The SWP leadership attempted to give the impression that there had only recently been a swing to the right by the petty-bourgeois forces with which the party had been collaborating since 1957. While reaffirming “the correctness of the three-year regroupment policy,” Dobbs declared,

It would now be a mistake to cling to that policy as if nothing had changed. With forces in motion in our direction, as has been the case, a flexible approach implied no contradiction with programmatic firmness. But we must recognize that the trend is now reversing, that the motion is away from revolutionary positions. It would be false to retain in those circumstances a mechanical notion of a flexible approach, because it would imply a trend toward softness on programmatic issues and it would entail a danger of compromising our revolutionary principles.[1]

In order to make the case against regroupment, Dobbs was forced to expose some unpleasant facts about the electoral alliances of the previous year:

In the united electoral campaigns we could put forward only part of our program. In New York, for example, to hold the coalition together in the face of a Communist Party attack, we had to give up the plank on socialist democracy and we had to give up our right to a place on the ticket. Neither of these were concessions in principle but they were serious—a lot to give up. And it should be emphasized that such concessions do not constitute a precedent for any future electoral coalition.

The comrades in Seattle had difficulty with a coalition candidate who insisted on being identified as a liberal and who played a generally disruptive role in their electoral campaign. In view of their experience I am sure they will be the first to agree that, to be acceptable in an electoral coalition, all candidates must be ready to identify themselves with socialism.[2]

Attempting to counteract the effects of the right-wing orientation of the previous three years, the new draft resolution declared that “it would be unrealistic to persist in our campaign for organizational regroupment along previous lines,” and reasserted its adherence to the fundamental conceptions of the Fourth International:

Everything that has happened since the outbreak of the crisis of Stalinism has served to confirm the position of Trotskyism as the only genuine revolutionary tendency in our own country and on a world scale. There has been and there is no reason whatever to abandon or modify the basic programmatic positions worked out by our movement and consistently defended in struggle since 1928. Over the past three years the SWP has again shown in practice our willingness to cooperate with socialist-minded individuals and groups of differing political views in specific issues involving civil rights, the labor movement, the Negro struggle and the cause of socialism. The party has exchanged ideas on programmatic questions without raising ultimatistic conditions which would have shut off discussion before it could start. Our party intends to continue along this line. But this method of approach, which we first applied in the revolutionary socialist regroupment activities of the 1930’s, does not imply and has never implied any intention on our part to build a politically heterogeneous organization at the expense of revolutionary principles without which no effective and enduring revolutionary vanguard party can be created. …

We stand against all other tendencies on the basis of Marxist fundamentals. Our aim is to build an independent revolutionary party of the vanguard. We reject all ideas of an all-inclusive substitute for a revolutionary party because “all-inclusive” means reformist and reformist parties can’t lead a revolution.[3]

This belated attempt by Cannon to reintroduce orthodoxy into the SWP was bound to fail without the organization of an open struggle against the growth of revisionist tendencies within the party and at the level of the international movement. The crisis within the SWP had developed far beyond the point at which it could be brought under control simply by drafting a resolution and taking a few organizational measures.

Nothing could have saved the SWP from succumbing to the immense class pressures exerted by US imperialism except the resumption of the struggle to reeducate the entire party in the fundamentals of Trotskyism. This would not have consisted of a few classroom exercises. It would have entailed a direct battle against those forces within the leadership of the SWP and among the ranks who had come to represent the interests of alien class forces. Such a struggle could only have been developed inside the SWP as part of an international fight for revolutionary perspectives. That is, the SWP would have been compelled to reforge its alliance with the International Committee and renew the theoretical and political struggle against Pabloite revisionism. But Cannon realized that such a struggle would in all probability lead to another major split inside the SWP and pulled back, thus delivering a devastating blow to the principles for which he had fought for thirty years. It did not take long for the SWP leadership, despite the ban on regroupment, to find a new political banner around which they could organize the struggle against Trotskyism.

At the Eighteenth Convention, the developments in Cuba had gone largely unmentioned, if not unnoticed. There was as yet no indication that the SWP was about to embrace Castroism as a new revolutionary current that made the conscious struggle for the building of revolutionary Marxist leadership unnecessary. In all its coverage of the Cuban Revolution in the months immediately following the overthrow of Batista on January 1, 1959, The Militant had defined Castro as a bourgeois nationalist and adopted a critical stance. In an oblique attack on the Pabloites, Dobbs’ report to the Eighteenth Convention ridiculed those who “are much preoccupied with slick solutions of the world crisis short of mass action” and attacked the conception “that science, plus nationalized property, plus bureaucratic reform can resolve the historic social crisis along Stalinist lines.” He insisted on “the historically necessary avenue to full workers power, to the full assertion of the power of the working class.”[4]

However, within a few months what remained of this perspective within the SWP was to be repudiated. As the Cuban Revolution became the central focus of the party’s work, the SWP proclaimed Cuba a workers’ state and began glorifying Castroism as a political substitute for the construction of Marxist leadership in the working class.

Despite the official end of regroupment in the summer of 1959, the line of adaptation to petty-bourgeois radicalism was resumed in the spring of 1960 through the SWP’s intervention in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. In a separate study,[5] the International Committee has documented the dubious origins of this organization, which was founded between February and April 1960 with seed money provided by a New Jersey businessman and powerful behind-the-scenes figure in the Democratic Party named Alan Sagner. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which is known to have been heavily infiltrated by the FBI and CIA, became the medium through which a large number of students from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, at which the SWP had conducted no political work, entered the party.

These ex-students from Carleton College were, between 1961 and 1966, elevated into leading positions of the SWP and comprise, to this day, its central leadership.

The period which saw the entry of this group of twelve Carleton students into the party and their rapid promotion into leading positions corresponded, according to official government documents, to the period of the maximum government surveillance and infiltration of the SWP. The International Committee has also established, through the sworn testimony of Farrell Dobbs (obtained in the course of the case of Gelfand v. Attorney General, SWP, et al.) that the aging SWP leader had no knowledge of either Barnes’ background or political credentials when the ex-Carletonian replaced him as national secretary.

These issues of fact relating to the charges made by the International Committee against the leadership of the SWP have already been dealt with in a series of articles written by this author in reply to Banda’s factionally-motivated denunciation of the Security and the Fourth International investigation.[6] Neither Banda nor anyone else has attempted to refute this most recent presentation. The one common characteristic of all the attacks on Security and the Fourth International is that they never address the facts that underlie the International Committee’s contention that the leadership of the SWP was massively infiltrated by government agents.

The issue of state penetration of the SWP is a secondary aspect of its political degeneration. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee could only have become a vehicle of state penetration under conditions in which the SWP was in a state of awful political degeneration and rapidly breaking all connections with the program, principles and perspectives of Trotskyism. The Cuban Revolution—though seized upon by Hansen to slander the leadership of the Socialist Labour League and to intensify the atmosphere of poisonous factionalism which facilitated the break with the International Committee—was not simply a fabricated issue. The SWP’s uncritical adulation of Castro and its designation of Cuba as a workers’ state was bound up with the protracted political degeneration of the party over the previous years. In this sense, the attitude of the SWP toward the Cuban Revolution was the consummate programmatic expression of its break with Trotskyism and the whole historically-developed Marxist conception of the socialist revolution.

Putting aside for a moment the issue of Hansen’s connections to both the Soviet secret police and the FBI, which have been overwhelmingly documented by the International Committee, his emergence, in the course of the Cuban controversy, as the leading theoretician of the SWP personified its dreadful political decay. Prior to his “discovery” of a workers’ state in Cuba, Hansen’s political record during the previous decade was consistently right wing.

In 1949–50, during the controversy over Yugoslavia, Hansen rallied to Pablo with the most vulgar and impressionistic arguments. Dismissing the decisive question of the forms of genuine workers’ power, to which Marx, Lenin and Trotsky devoted such great attention, as mere “norms” which are of no decisive importance in evaluating the class nature of a given state, Hansen virtually equated nationalization with the existence of a workers’ state. In 1954, he coupled his wrong designation of McCarthyism as a fascist movement with an impermissible concession to bourgeois liberalism. In 1955, after instigating a divisive and unnecessary controversy inside the party over the use of cosmetics by women, he supported the call for the use of federal troops in the South and argued, like a typical petty-bourgeois democrat, that the SWP must become the most ardent champion of bourgeois democracy. In 1958, at the height of the regroupment campaign, Hansen penned an article which amounted to a total repudiation of one of the central programmatic conceptions of the Fourth International: the call for political revolution against the Soviet bureaucracy. These were the credentials of the man who produced in December 1960 the Draft Theses on the Cuban Revolution, which proclaimed that Castro had established a workers’ state.

Hansen’s argument was essentially no different than that which he had advanced a decade earlier in relation to Yugoslavia. For him, it was enough to establish that large-scale expropriations of capitalist property had been effected by Castro to conclude that a workers’ state had been established in Cuba. All the complex problems of a historico-theoretical character which had preoccupied the SWP in relation to Yugoslavia and the buffer states were barely addressed by Hansen. The vast political implications, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, of defining Cuba as a workers’ state, under conditions in which the leadership of the revolution was clearly of a petty-bourgeois character and where the seizure of power was in no way associated with the existence of any identifiable organs of proletarian power, were brushed aside by Hansen. He ignored the bitter lessons of the 1953 split which had reminded the Fourth International of the wisdom of Trotsky’s dictum: behind every sociological definition lies a historical prognosis. Hansen wanted the International Committee to forget how Pablo had exploited the definition of the buffer states and Yugoslavia as deformed workers’ states to credit Stalinism with revolutionary capacities and to thus mount an all-out assault on Marxism and the program of the Fourth International.

As we have already pointed out, the Pabloites not only endowed Stalinism with a revolutionary role, but endorsed without question the domination of the petty bourgeoisie over the anti-imperialist struggles in the backward countries. In every country and under all conditions, the Pabloites turned their backs on the central historical task for which the Fourth International was built: the resolution of the crisis of the revolutionary leadership of the proletariat. Under conditions in which the SWP had given up on the American working class and was far along in its adaptation to the petty bourgeoisie in the United States, it found in Cuba the basis for reunification with the Pabloites.

It is not possible to grasp the fundamental character of the programmatic divisions which led to the 1963 split without an analysis of the Cuban controversy. From the standpoint of program and historic perspective, the class lines dividing the International Committee on the one side and the SWP and the International Secretariat on the other were clearly demarcated on the analysis of the Cuban revolution. But just as Michael Banda makes no analysis of the political process through which the SWP’s capitulation to hostile class forces was expressed, he all but ignores the profound significance of the issues raised by its position on Cuba. Banda merely writes: “Another fallacy which must be exposed is the legend that the discussion on Cuba proved the ‘orthodox’ credentials of the IC.” As is typical of Banda’s method, he makes no attempt, beyond the assertion itself, to expose this supposed “fallacy.”

Hansen’s claim that a workers’ state had been established in Cuba was not only directed against Trotskyism, as the specific contemporary organizational expression of Marxism, but also against the whole historically-grounded theoretical edifice of scientific socialism as the conscious expression of the revolutionary destiny of the proletariat. If workers’ states could be established through the actions of petty-bourgeois guerrilla leaders—based principally on the peasantry, who possessed no significant historical, organizational and political connections to the working class, and under conditions in which there existed no identifiable organs of class rule through which the proletariat exercised its dictatorship—there then followed a whole new conception of the historical path to socialism, entirely different from that foreseen by Marxists.

It implicitly rendered anachronistic Marx’s writings on the Commune and Lenin’s assessment of the universal significance of soviet power as the new form of state power “discovered” by the proletariat, the first nonbourgeois type state. The Marxist preoccupation with the leading role of the proletariat, indeed, the very identification of Marxist parties with the proletariat, was being called into question. The relevance of the strivings of generations of Marxists to organize the proletariat independently of all other classes, including the oppressed peasantry, and to infuse the workers’ movement with scientific socialist consciousness was being flagrantly challenged.

The claim that the class character of the Cuban state could be determined simply on the basis of the expropriations and nationalizations carried out by Castro was a fundamental departure from the Marxist theory of proletarian revolution.

But Hansen breezed by these fundamental theoretical issues. His Draft Theses dealt summarily with the problem of the forms of state power. Theses 12 and 13 stated:

12. The Cuban government has not yet instituted democratic proletarian forms of power as workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils. However, as it has moved in a socialist direction it has likewise proved itself to be democratic in tendency. It did not hesitate to arm the people and set up a popular militia. It has guaranteed freedom of expression to all groupings that support the revolution. In this respect it stands in welcome contrast to the other noncapitalist states, which have been tainted with Stalinism.

13. If the Cuban revolution were permitted to develop freely, its democratic tendency would undoubtedly lead to the early creation of proletarian democratic forms adapted to Cuba’s own needs. One of the strongest reasons for vigorously supporting the revolution, therefore, is to give the maximum possibility for this tendency to operate.[7]

This was not scientific analysis, but wishful thinking. To this day, there do not exist specifically proletarian organs of workers’ power and Trotskyism remains a proscribed tendency. Moreover, Castro has loyally supported the suppression of workers’ movements outside Cuba, e.g., Czechoslovakia and Poland. There was a crude theoretical error in Hansen’s twelfth thesis, which claimed that “democratic proletarian forms of power” is something “instituted” by a government.

This claim had absolutely nothing in common with either the Marxist concept of the state or that of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The soviet, as the specifically proletarian state form, is a mass social phenomenon that arises out of the development of the working class at a very advanced stage of the class struggle, overthrows the bourgeoisie and sets itself up as the new state power. Bolshevism did not “invent” Soviet power or “grant” it to the working class. Rather, it conquered state power through the soviet form created by the Russian proletariat, whose class consciousness had been developed through the decades-long struggle of the Marxian socialists.

The soviet as a form of state power, which develops organically out of the whole historical development and mass struggles of the working class, cannot be equated with those bureaucratically-conceived institutions commonly set up by nationalist leaders in backward countries to stabilize their regimes. Castro’s creation of Poder Popular (“People’s Power”), which did not even come into being until more than a decade after the revolution, is no more a substitute for soviets than the Jamahiriyas of Col. Muammar Gaddafi. In a study of Cuba prepared by authors who strongly support Castro and consider Cuba a socialist state, the origins of the Poder Popular, created in the mid-1970s, were explained:

After the failure of the ambitious sugar production plan in that year [1970] there was a period of urgent reassessment and a recasting of economic plans and political processes. Basically there seemed to be a choice at that point to go forward by authoritarian and bureaucratic means, with stricter work discipline and material incentives to productivity, as urged by the USSR; or to look for a way to get higher productivity that relied on moral incentives and greater mobilisation and participation of the mass of the people. The latter is known to have been Fidel Castro’s preference.[8]

In an article written in 1960, entitled “Ideology of the Cuban Revolution,” Hansen quoted without complaint the views of Che Guevara, who explicitly rejected the concept of proletarian revolution and insisted that the working class movement could not provide the axis of revolutionary struggle in Latin America:

“The third contribution is fundamentally of strategic import and must be a call to attention for those who attempt with dogmatic criteria to center the struggle of the masses in the movements of the cities, completely forgetting the immense participation of those in the countryside in the life of all the underdeveloped countries of the Americas. Not that struggles of the masses of organized workers are to be depreciated, the analysis simply chooses a realistic criterion to estimate the possibilities under the difficult conditions of armed struggle, where the guarantees that customarily adorn our Constitutions are suspended or ignored. Under these conditions, the workers’ movements must be clandestine, without arms, in illegality and running enormous dangers; the situation in the open field is not so difficult, the inhabitants supporting the armed guerrillas and in places where the repressive forces cannot reach.”[9]

Guevara probably did not realize it—and, neither, we suspect, did Hansen—but his arguments in favor of abandoning the revolutionary organization of the proletariat and centering work on the peasantry were hardly new. Russian Marxism in general and Bolshevism in particular developed in a merciless struggle against all those forces which, insisting on the decisive role of the peasantry, rejected the proletarian foundation of the socialist revolution. Continuing and deepening the work begun by Plekhanov, Lenin subjected to merciless criticism the conceptions of the populists, who subordinated the working class to the peasantry. The political essence of the Social Revolutionary movement was summed up incisively by Lenin as “an attempt on the part of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia to obscure the working-class movement = radical, revolutionary petty-bourgeois democracy.”[10]

This observation provides the key to understanding the hypnotic attraction of Castroism, Maoism and other forms of left bourgeois nationalism for the modern day petty-bourgeois radical intelligentsia: it serves “to obscure the working-class movement,” confuse the democratic and socialist elements of the anti-imperialist movement, and provide left phrases which justify the denial of the leading role of the proletariat and its subordination to the peasantry.

Hansen adapted himself to Guevara’s position. “Guevara does not rule out the action of the city proletariat altogether,” Hansen noted. “But, since city terrain is the most unfavorable for guerrilla warfare, only limited acts are possible.”[11]

Nor did Hansen forthrightly oppose Guevara’s declaration that the decisive characteristic of Cuba’s agrarian reforms “ ‘is the decision to carry it through to the end without favors or concessions to any class.’ ”[12] Instead, Hansen resorted to sophistries and cynical equivocations to persuade the SWP that the written and spoken views of Guevara and Castro did not really matter:

Leon Trotsky remarked in 1940, “The life-and-death task of the proletariat now consists not in interpreting the world anew but in remaking it from top to bottom. In the next epoch we can expect great revolutionists of action but hardly a new Marx.”

Cuba, it would seem, has done her share toward verifying this observation. In their pattern of action, the Cuban revolutionaries feel certain that they have pointed the way for all of Latin America. The proof is their own success. But when we seek to determine the exact meaning of their deeds, Marxist clarity is not easily found. …

It is quite true that the Cuban revolutionaries do not have any time for spinning fine theories. They are practical people, swamped with tasks. They scarcely have time to look up from the day-and-night schedules they have had to follow since they came to power.[13]

This shameful glorification of intuition and pernicious belittling of the decisive significance of the role of consciousness in the struggle for socialism was, on Hansen’s part, consciously directed against the necessity for constructing sections of the Fourth International based on the strategy of world socialist revolution. His worshipping of spontaneity became a means of ascribing the completion of the programmatic objectives of the Fourth International to leaders who, regardless of their origins or perspective, acted merely under the pressure of objective events. Thus, Hansen turned the crisis of revolutionary leadership into a justification and apology for Castroism and then suggested that Castroism represented the solution of the crisis! It was no longer necessary for the Fourth International to organize and train the proletarian cadre that would defeat the influence of counterrevolutionary Stalinism in the international workers’ movement. This task was being accomplished through the sheer strength of objective forces which, working in their own mysterious way, made use of whatever leaderships were at hand to advance the revolution:

Unable to blast away the Stalinist obstacle, the revolution turned back a considerable distance and took a detour. The detour has led us over some very rough ground, including the Sierra Maestra of Cuba, but it is clear that the Stalinist roadblock is now being bypassed.

It is not necessary to turn to Moscow for leadership. This is the main lesson to be drawn from the experience in Cuba. …

To finally break the hypnosis of Stalinism, it became necessary to crawl on all fours through the jungles of the Sierra Maestra.[14]

This was mysticism, not Marxism. If the break with Stalinism can be accomplished without the theoretical education of working class cadre, simply by a handful of tenacious men crawling on “all fours,” then it must be concluded that the entire theoretical and political struggle waged by the Left Opposition and the Fourth International since 1923 was, historically speaking, superfluous. At any rate, Hansen’s assessment of the “main lesson” of the Cuban revolution was one which was evidently not understood by Castro himself. It was not too long before the Cuban leader, acting on the basis of national considerations, began to adapt himself to the political line of the Soviet bureaucracy. This later shift in Cuban policy was immediately defended by Hansen.

The fact that Hansen could even suggest that Castro’s victory meant that the “Stalinist roadblock” was being bypassed meant that he considered Cuba exclusively from the standpoint of a national struggle. The struggle against Stalinism is, above all, the fight to actualize the strategy of world revolution through the building of an international party that unites the workers of all countries. This strategy is developed out of the fundamental political and theoretical premise that the building of socialism can only be achieved by the collective and coordinated efforts of the international working class. As Trotsky wrote:

The international character of the socialist revolution, which constitutes the third aspect of the theory of the permanent revolution, flows from the present state of economy and the social structure of humanity. Internationalism is no abstract principle but a theoretical and political reflection of the character of world economy, of the world development of productive forces and the world scale of the class struggle. The socialist revolution begins on national foundations—but it cannot be completed within these foundations. The maintenance of the proletarian revolution within a national framework can only be a provisional state of affairs, even though, as the experience of the Soviet Union shows, one of long duration. In an isolated proletarian dictatorship, the internal and external contradictions grow inevitably along with the successes achieved. If it remains isolated, the proletarian state must finally fall victim to these contradictions. The way out for it lies only in the victory of the proletariat of the advanced countries. Viewed from this standpoint, a national revolution is not a self-contained whole; it is only a link in the international chain. The international revolution constitutes a permanent process, despite temporary declines and ebbs.[15]


SWP Discussion Bulletin, vol. 20, no. 15, September 1959, p. 8.


Ibid., p. 4


Ibid., pp. 8–9.


Ibid., p. 12.


ICFI, “The Carleton Twelve,” (New York: Labor Publications, 1981).


See David North, The Case Against the SWP (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1986), reprinted in Fourth International, vol. 13, no. 2, Autumn 1986, pp. 172–189.


Joseph Hansen, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution: The Trotskyist View (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), p. 75.


John Griffiths and Peter Griffiths, eds., Cuba: The Second Decade (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Society, 1979), p. 19.


Hansen, Dynamics, p. 257.


V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 40 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), p. 67.


Hansen, Dynamics, pp. 258–259.


Ibid., p. 259.


Ibid., pp. 260–261.


Ibid., p. 265.


Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London: New Park Publications, 1962), p. 9.