The Alliance of Cuban Trotskyists and Revolutionary Nationalists
This essay appeared in 2003, in the last issue of the French quarterly, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, whose editor was a great historian of the communist movement, Stalinism, Trotskyism, and revolutions, Pierre Broué. He passed away two years later.
Paraphrasing what Trotsky said about the 1905 revolution in the Russian empire, it can be said that the events of 1933 in Cuba formed a majestic prologue to the revolutionary drama of 1959. But later, in revolutionary Cuba, one of the decisive aspects of this prologue was hidden: the Trotskyist movement, which experienced its rise during the 1933 revolution and played a role in it, disappeared totally from the history of this revolution. It was well known and obvious that, in 1933, the mortal enemies of the Hundred Days’ Government, led by a reformist nationalist, Ramón Grau San Martín, and a revolutionary nationalist, Antonio Guiteras, were the Cuban ruling class and the American imperialism. But what was hidden after 1959 in Cuba was the fact that one part of the Cuban left fought this government, too, while another part defended it. “In the spectrum of revolutionary forces”, recognizes now a prominent Cuban historian, Julio César Guanche, “the Grau-Guiteras government was defended, among others, by the Bolshevik Leninist Party (PBL) and the International Workers’ Defense (DOI), of Trotskyist affiliation, and sectors that, animated by this inspiration, cohabited [with other radicals] inside the Student Left Wing (AIE) and the Havana Workers’ Federation (FOH), while it was fought ferociously by the National Workers’ Confederation of Cuba (CNOC) and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), both following the ‘Soviet Marxism-Leninism’”.
The Stalinist Communists and the union apparatuses under their control characterized the Hundred Days’ Government as a Fascist one. But after 1959, during nearly forty years, their struggle against this government was largely silenced in Cuban historiography, while the Bolshevik Leninist Party was erased from it. Nevertheless, the stubborn silence around this party was ambiguous. In the best Cuban historiography of the 1933 revolution, the Trotskyist movement was an invisible, never-mentioned but present ghost of history. If you knew the chapter about Cuba in the book by Robert Alexander on Trotskyism in Latin America, published in 1973, and if you obtained from your Cuban friends an elementary confidential knowledge on the matter, it was possible to find or identify at least some Trotskyist imprints and hear some echoes of the Trotskyist voice in the revolutionary history of Cuba. It was in this manner that I found and heard them living in Cuba for nearly five years in the second half of the ‘70s. Paradoxically, it was only during my visit to Cuba in 2005 that I could know personally the 87-year-old veteran Trotskyist militant with a very clear-sighted mind and never-waning working class and revolutionary spirit: Idalberto Ferrera Acosta.
The historiographical breakthrough came in 1997, when Rafael Soler Martínez, a historian from the University of Oriente (Santiago de Cuba), defended in Havana his PhD thesis about Trotskyists in the 1933 revolution and recognized that they were a revolutionary current. My Belgian friend Eric Toussaint was present at the defense and reported publicly about it. Soler Martínez published soon in Cuba four articles based on his thesis. In 2000, the second relevant work appeared: in Britain Gary Tennant published his own very important PhD thesis on the history of Cuban Trotskyism.
Soler Martínez’ and Tennant’s approaches to the subject were substantially if not radically different and their interpretations of the same facts sometimes frontally opposed. Such a major difference concerned a key question of the program and strategy of Cuban Trotskyists: the question of permanent revolution. For Soler Martínez, “their dogmatic, mechanist and sectarian positions did not allow them to understand the need of a national liberation, anti-imperialist, agrarian and democratic stage in the revolution, as a necessary previous phase for the uninterrupted transition to the socialist phase”. For Tennant, the contrary was true: they conceived “a democratic anti-imperialist revolution as a distinct stage on the path towards proletarian revolution”. Tennant attributed to them a “one-sided approach to revolution which not only borrowed the slogans of the national liberation movement, but saw the revolutionary nationalist sector as a vehicle for the proletarian revolution” and inclined them to follow this radical petty bourgeois sector. For Soler Martínez, “they negated the revolutionary potentialities of the petty bourgeoisie, the role that it should play in the revolution and the necessity of the alliance of workers not only with peasants but also with this social force”.
My essay was a critical and polemical comment to Tennant’s book. I presented an essentially different story. Cuba was a country where, since the war of independence, petty bourgeois revolutionary nationalism was a very dynamic factor of political struggles and established its long-term hegemony in the revolutionary movements. This hegemony was exercised even over large sectors of the workers’ movement. It was what the most brilliant Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella understood very well and it was why he defended and applied consistently the politics of the anti-imperialist united front. Later, Cuban Trotskyists followed, in general, his united front politics. At the same time, they were attached to the theory of permanent revolution.
Since the defeat of the 1933 revolution, a majority of them progressively chose the so-called “external way of building the Fourth International”. In practice, in this manner they renounced their political independence, merged with revolutionary nationalists and dissolved their current inside the nationalist currents. But, contrary to what Tennant said, it was not the end of the story. They did not abandon the basic element of the theory of permanent revolution: the idea that in an underdeveloped and dependent country, it is impossible to overthrow imperialist domination and accomplish the outstanding historical tasks of the national democratic revolution without overthrowing capitalism and making a socialist revolution. They implanted this idea rather successfully inside nationalist currents.
Alberto Sendic observed effects of this implantation and its transmission to the revolutionary nationalist movement that led the Cuban revolution to the victory in 1959, when he stayed in Cuba in 1960. In this decisive year, Sendic said later, “many Trotskyist ideas circulated and inspired measures by and the evolution of the revolution and its leadership team.” Sendic was an Uruguayan Trotskyist and brother of Raúl Sendic, the future leader of Tupamaros. He told me about his discovery and we discussed it at length when I met him in Paris in the ‘80s.
“Trotskyism influenced the revolutionary nationalist tendency led by Antonio Guiteras”, wrote Adolfo Gilly, Sendic’s former Argentinian comrade who also stayed in Cuba at the beginning of the ‘60s. “I am sure that it is possible to study it and to gather evidence that it had something to do with the apparently strange permanent course of the revolution” of 1959.
My essay was the first – and, it seems, is still the only – contribution to such a study.
The full text in French is available here: Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski, Le camarade Mauser a la parole. L’alliance des trotskystes avec les nationalistes révolutionnaires cubains