Some more comments on Peter Taaffe’s Cuba book

The Activist - Volume 10, No 9, Oct 2000
By Doug Lorimer

Last year I wrote a letter to Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan, responding to his request for our leadership's disagreements with the Committee for a Workers' International's view of Cuba. The letter took the form of an extended polemic against Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW) general secretary Peter Taaffe's 1982 pamphlet Cuba: Analysis of the Revolution. The letter was subsequently printed in The Activist for the information of DSP members. In June this year [2000] the CWI published a book by Peter Taaffe replying to my letter to Comrade Tariq entitled Cuba: Socialism and Democracy.

Why Taaffe issued his book

Taaffe's book was the subject of a two-page review in the September 14 Weekly Worker, paper of the ex-Stalinist, now semi- Shachtmanite Communist Party of Great Britain. The CPGB's reviewer, Peter Manson, made some interesting comments -- more about the reasons for the CWI's publication of the book, than its political content:

What is it at this time that has impelled Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and leader of the SP's international tendency, the Committee for a Workers' International, to write on Cuba and the Cuban revolution?

This is not an idle question. After all, his "international" and its British section have seen what had previously been a steady decline and loss of membership since the halcyon days of the 1980s transformed into split, defection and crisis. This has been most dramatic in Scotland and Merseyside. Most of the Scottish Socialist Party's leadership are still formally members of the International Socialist Movement, the CWI in Scotland. But they are surely destined to sever all links with Taaffe's grouping -- sooner rather than later, if recent internal polemics in the CWI's Members' Bulletin are anything to go by. When the split comes, and come it will, it will be following in the footsteps of Liverpool, once the jewel in Militant's crown, where practically the entire SP organisation initially decamped into the Merseyside Socialists.

Internationally, the CWI has lost its Pakistani affiliate, the Labour Party Pakistan, as well as important layers of its sections in the USA, South Africa and elsewhere...

You would, then, have expected comrade Taaffe to have had more pressing matters on his plate than a discussion of the nature of the Cuban regime. But this pamphlet is very much connected with the internal CWI crisis: it is an attempt to stem the tide. He hopes to use Cuba as a polemical cudgel -- not least against the SSP, whose leadership is now holding up the Caribbean island not just as an anti-imperialist centre to be defended, but as an example of national "socialism", of the type to which, no doubt, they want Scotland to aspire. Taaffe aims to use this book to exhibit his supposed hard "Marxism", counterposing his own definition of Cuba as a "deformed workers' state" in order to demonstrate the dissidents' apostasy.

Supposedly, it was not the SPP leadership's new-found illusions in Castroism that spurred him to put pen to paper. Significantly Scotland does not get a mention -- the resolution on Cuba moved by Alice Sheridan at the February 26-27, 2000 SSP conference and the fact that Tommy Sheridan later honeymooned in Cuba with his bride are passed over in diplomatic silence. Everything is shadows in the CWI world.

So what we have is a polemic directed against a target who, at first sight, has no connection with the CWI: namely Doug Lorimer, a leader of the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia.

But why not follow the usual SP practice and simply close your eyes to Lorimer's article? Let Taaffe explain: "Normally it would be pointless to reply to such diatribes, which are 10 a penny in Britain from every insignificant sect. They have never done anything worthwhile but grind their teeth in fruitless frustration at the achievements of Militant..." (p 10).

Yet in this case a reply was deemed to be essential to counter the DSP encroachment into CWI territory. As comrade Lorimer himself wrote, "The following article ... was written at the request of Farooq Tariq, general secretary of the (ex-CWI) Labour Party Pakistan, as an initial contribution to a discussion between the LPP and the DSP on the character of the leadership of the Cuban socialist state and the Communist Party of Cuba" (The Activist, DSP internal bulletin, 1999, quoted by Taaffe, p 11).

Taaffe concludes: "Thus the DSP, it seems, has been pressed into service by Farooq Tariq to supply him with arguments that would allow him to distance himself from his previous position on Cuba, when he was a member of the CWI... The DSP are thus facilitating the political retreat of those like Farooq Tariq who, at least in words (although it is doubtful whether he fully understood the ideas), once put forward a principled Trotskyist, Marxist approach towards the Cuban revolution" (p 11).

Nor is that the end of the Australian groups effrontery: "The DSP likes to present itself ... as a friendly, approachable `facilitator' of organisations and left leaders throughout the world, who are genuinely fighting for socialism. Occasionally the mask slips and scathing attacks are unleashed against their opponents in the Australian and world labour movement. The Australian supporters of the CWI ... have been the recipients of such treatment. Dismissed by the DSP as `insignificant', the DSP has nevertheless sought to court our Australian organisation, strives to attract them into their ranks and has offered them position on their national committee while, behind the scenes, secretly and venomously attacking the leadership and membership of the CWI" (p 19).

Comrade Taaffe pretends that his pamphlet is directed towards bigger and better targets than Doug Lorimer and the LPP (although it has to be said that, if the CWI decline continues at the present rate, the DSP will soon leave it behind in terms of global influence).

... from the excerpts Taaffe quotes, there seems nothing unacceptable, let alone "venomous", about Lorimer's critique. But the SP general secretary is furious, not only because the DSP is wooing comrades from the CWI tradition by attacking Taaffe's political ideas, but -- even worse -- is actually meeting with some success, apparently.

Manson's explanation of why Taaffe has published a 128-page book polemicising against the DSP seems to me to be eminently credible. However, as an adherent of the Shachtmanite theory that Cuba is a "bureaucratic collectivist" society (i.e., a post- capitalist society ruled over by a historically new exploiting class of bureaucrats, who "collectively" own the means of production), Manson holds the same political line as Taaffe, i.e., any advance toward socialism in Cuba requires the revolutionary overthrow of the Castro leadership.

A rebuttal devoid of evidence

While Taaffe justifies this political line by claiming that Cuba is a "deformed workers' state", in which political power is monopolised by a "privileged elite" made up of the "party and state officials", he completely fails to demonstrate the existence of this "privileged elite", despite devoting 18 pages to this issue.

He opens the fourth chapter of his book -- entitled "Is there a Privileged Elite?" -- with an attempt to rebut my rejection of the supposed evidence he cited in his 1982 pamphlet:

Lorimer spends pages and pages trying to demonstrate that no elite existed or exists today in Cuba. In fact he contends power was and is exercised by the workers and peasants in the same fashion as in Russia immediately after the revolution. He derisively dismisses the evidence that we furnish for this. He writes:

"Here's the `evidence' Taaffe cites: `... Even as early 1963, KS Karol remarks that in one factory he came across an engineer (who) received 17 times the wage of a worker! Moreover, he cites other perks and privileges cornered by the bureaucracy, such as the `high-class' restaurants like `Monse¤or' (sic), the `Torre', the `1830', the `Floridita' and other which charge colossal prices for meals. At the CP Party Conference in 1975 a decision was taken to allow Cubans to buy cars -- which up till then had been the preserve of party and state officials!' This is all the `evidence' Taaffe cites to make his case."

Lorimer outlines a liturgy of excuses for the privileges that exist. These amount to the fact that the high-class restaurants were merely for foreign tourists and that all cars prior to 1975 were the preserve of the state. But how does this refute the contention of Karol that this "state property" was used almost exclusively by the state officialdom? Guevara, who lived a very austere existence, taking even less than the official salary, himself recognised the bureaucratic trend that existed soon after the revolution, never mind today, and was intolerant of anyone in his immediate entourage who demonstrated any such tendencies.

Jon Lee Anderson gives examples of this.

Taaffe cites a quote from Anderson's biography of Guevara in which Anderson describes how Che criticised a colleague for commandeering for his personal use an abandoned car -- "a brand-new Jaguar sports car" -- and driving it around "for about a week". Taaffe follows this with the comment:

This was one case where the egalitarian Che Guevara could check an individual minister's tendency for bureaucratism. But this could not, given the relative isolation of the Cuban Revolution and its reliance on Stalinist Russia, prevent the increasingly bureaucratic degeneration overall. Of course, the privileges, as we have commented above, when the lava of revolution had still not cooled, were relatively small, particularly when compared to the luxurious lifestyle of the elite in the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe, Russian and even of China. But privilege was not just expressed in a salary 17 times higher than that of a worker -- which Lorimer just passes over as one example of one deviation in one factory. It is also shown in the access to "high-class" restaurants that existed and still existed in Cuba not just for the tourists but for the privileged officialdom.(1)

Contrary to what Taaffe says here, I did not "just pass over" Taaffe's citing of the French-Polish Maoist K.S. Karol's "remark" that "in one factory he came across an engineer who received 17 times the wages of a worker". I pointed out that the fact that in 1963 Cuban engineers (i.e., highly skilled workers) had much higher wages than unskilled workers did not prove that the party and state officials in Cuba constituted a "privileged elite". Taaffe completely fails to respond to this argument. And for expensive restaurants to be"accessible" (i.e., affordable) "not just for the tourists but for the privileged officialdom", there must not only be expensive restaurants, but also a "privileged officialdom". But Taaffe completely fails to prove any evidence of the existence of this "privileged officialdom".

He goes on to cite a quote from a 1991 book by Jeannette Habel, a leader of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, in which she refers to the "privileges enjoyed by the administrative bureaucracy and top officials of the economic and state apparatus". But this assertion by Habel proves nothing -- other than that Habel is as prejudiced as Taaffe.

As evidence of this, here's what Taaffe cites from Habel's book as proof of the existence of supposedly institutionalised privileges of consumption enjoyed by Cuban state officials:

From June 1986, the Politburo of the PCC undertook an "exhaustive analysis of the problem of crime and anti-social behaviour", particularly in Havana, highlighting "instances of aggressive conduct, violence against the person, and `hooliganism' displayed in the capital"...

Just over a year later several top officials fled to the United States, either by using considerable resources in foreign currency which they had embezzled or by taking advantage of special facilities, thus pointing to the importance of certain privileges. In 1986 Manuel Sanchez Parez, vice-minister in charge of purchasing technical supplies from abroad, deserted to Spain with US$499,000. According to his declarations, "While still in Cuba I did some business deals with foreign firms and accumulated funds for the purpose of creating [abroad] an institution which will prepare a strategy for a return to democracy in Cuba." This gives us some idea of the facilities available to leading officials. In May 1987, General Rafael del Pino, a former fighter at Playa Girin [the Bay of Pigs -- DL], managed to reach the United States in a small Cessna 402 aeroplane, taking off from an airbase with his wife and children "under the pretext of taking a trip around the island". The mind boggles at the ease with which this general had access to a private runway...

In June 1987, Luis Dominguez, the president of the Institute of Civil Aviation (INA), was arrested, accused of corruption and the misappropriation of resources; he supposedly had personal bank accounts to the tune of $500,000. This arrest was followed by the desertion of Commander Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, the head of Cuban counter-espionage in Czechoslovakia, and then of Gustavo Perez Cortt, vice-president of the State Committee for Technical and Material Supplies (CEANT), in January 1988.

In my critique of Taaffe's 1982 pamphlet I pointed out that, "As in Soviet Russia, there has been a problem of bureaucratism, of privilege-taking, of corruption of individual officials, in revolutionary Cuba from the start. As early as 1962 the Castro leadership openly acknowledged and attacked these problems. But they are not the same thing as the political triumph of a crystallised petty-bourgeois social layer such as was represented in Soviet Russia by Stalin."

What Habel describes in her book are cases of corruption by individual top officials, not the existence of institutionalised privileges of consumption for all party and state officials. What the latter involves can be illustrated by the following description of the institutionalised special privileges of Soviet party and state officials given by Hedrick Smith, the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, in his 1976 book The Russians:

Pick any weekend afternoon to stroll down Granovsky Street two blocks from the Kremlin, as I have, and you will find two lines of polished black Volga sedans, engines idling and chauffeurs watchfully eyeing their mirrors. They are parked self-confidently over the curbs, in defiance of No Parking signs but obviously unworried about the police. Their attention is on the entrance at No. 2 Granovsky, a drab beige structure, windows painted over and a plaque that says: "In this building on April 19, 1919, Vladimir Iyich Lenin spoke before the commanders of the red Army head for the (civil war) front."

A second sign, by the door, identifies the building simply as "The Bureau of Passes". But not just for anyone, I was told. Only for the Communist Party Central Committee staff and their families. An outsider, not attuned to the preference of Party officials for black Volgas and untrained to spot the tell- tale MOC and MOII license plates of Central Committee cars, would notice nothing unusual. Now and then, men and women emerge from "The Bureau of Passes" with bulging bags and packages discreetly in plain brown paper and settle comfortably in the rear seats of the waiting Volgas to be chauffeured home. Down the block and out of general view, other chauffeurs are summoned by loudspeaker into an enclosed and guarded courtyard to pick up telephone orders for delivery. A white-haired watchman at the gate shoos away curious pedestrians, as he did me when I paused to admire the ruins of a church at the rear of the courtyard.

For these people are part of the Soviet elite, doing their shopping in a closed store deliberately unmarked to avoid attracting attention, accessible only with a special pass.

An entire network of such stores serves the upper crust of Soviet society -- the bosses or what one Soviet journalist irreverently called, "Our Communist nobility." These stores insulate the Soviet aristocracy from chronic shortages, endless waiting in line, rude service, and other daily harassments that plague ordinary citizens. Here, the politically anointed can obtain rare Russian delicacies like caviar, smoked salmon, the best canned sturgeon, export brands of vodka or unusual vintages of Georgian and Moldavian wines, choice meat, fresh fruits and vegetables in winter that are rarely available elsewhere. Once, a Russian mother told me an old joke about a little girl asking her mother the difference between rich and poor people in Russia and getting the answer: "The rich eat tomatoes year-round and we eat them only in summer."

Certain stores also provide the elite with foreign goods the proletariat never lays eyes on (at cut-rate, duty-free prices): French cognac, Scottish whisky, American cigarettes, imported chocolates, Italian ties, Austrian fur-lined boots, English woolens, French perfumes, German shortwave radios, Japanese tape-recorders and stereo sets. In other stores, VIPs are even supplied with hot, ready-cooked meals to take out, prepared by Kremlin chefs. So superior is the quality of this food to the common fare in state stores that one well-connected Muscovite told me that she and her friends patronize a "diet" food store in the Old Arbat district because it gets leftovers from "The Bureau of Passes" on Granovsky Street.

The Soviet system of privileges has its protocol: perquisites are parceled out according to rank. At the top, the supreme leaders of the Communist Party Politburo, members of the powerful Party Central Committee, cabinet ministers, and the small executive group that runs the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, get the kremlevsky payok, the Kremlin ration -- enough food to feed their families luxuriously every month -- free. (By contrast, an ordinary urban family of four might spend 180-200 rubles a month, easily half its income, on food.) The very top leaders get home delivery or supposedly use stores right inside the Kremlin and Central Committee headquarters. Deputy ministers and the Supreme Soviet executive group have their special shop at Government House, a hulking gray apartment building next to the Shock-worker Movie Theater on Bersenevsky Embankment Road. Old Bolsheviks who joined the Party before 1930 are now on pension get their Kremlin ration at a special shop in a three-storey building on Komsomol Lane. The value and quality of the rations are arranged in descending order, according to the rank of those receiving them.

Other special cut-rate food stores cater to Soviet marshals and admirals, to top-flight scientists, cosmonauts, economic managers, highly-decorated Heroes of Socialist Labor, to Lenin Prize-winners, actors, or ballet stars, to senior editors of Pravda, Izvestia, or other important publications, to the Moscow city hierarchy. The Central Committee apparatus has three levels of officials and employees, I was told by a man who often visited officials there, and they shop at three different levels, graded shops and eat in cafeterias at Party headquarters provisioned strictly according to the pecking order. Middle-level functionaries in the Party, major ministries, the armed forces general staff, or the secret police have middle-level stores with fewer luxury items, and they pay more than the big bosses.

In many government agencies the higher-ups are rewarded with what are known as "special distributions", actually passes granting them access to special stores located on the premises. Each official, one bureaucrat told me, has some specified quota of money that he can spend in the store, marked on an identification card, and fixed according to his rank. The amounts are kept secret from the subordinates. Tucked away on the third floor of G.U.M., Moscow's main department store emporium, is Section 100 -- a specially stocked clothing shop for part of the elite. In the basement of Voyentorg (Army-Navy store) on Kalinin Prospekt, there is a secret shop for military officers. Dotted around Moscow are tailors, hair-dressers, launderers, cleaners, picture framers, and other retail outlets -- about 100 in all including the food stores, I was told by one man with access to the network -- secretly serving a select clientele. "I couldn't believe my eyes... I wanted to buy everything in the store," a middle-aged woman journalist confided to me after she had been smuggled into one store by a powerful friend. "For them," added her husband, "Communism has arrived."(3)

Smith is able to go on like this, giving detailed descriptions of the supposedly "secret" special privileges -- chauffeur- driven state cars, luxury apartments, exclusive medical facilities, reserved seating on airliners, trains, etc. -- of the Soviet bureaucratic elite (estimated to number well over a million, and several millions, if relatives are included) for 33 pages.

By contrast, what detailed evidence does Taaffe provide for the existence of institutionalised special privileges for Cuban party and state officials? -- that a French Maoist in 1963 found one factory in which an engineer received 17 times the wage of an unskilled worker! If we didn't know that Taaffe actually believes this is sufficient "evidence" upon which to make his case that the Castro leadership represents a ruling bureaucratic caste, it would be tempting to regard it as an attempt to demonstrate that radical politics is not without its comic relief.

According to our English sectarian-doctrinaire, the Castro leadership is the political representative of a caste of privileged officials analogous to that which existed in the Soviet Union, as described by Smith. He cites Habel's description of cases of corruption and desertion to the West by individual high Cuban officials as proof of this. Ironically, he also cites the following explanation given by Habel for these desertions:

The desertion of top officials was a symptom of the exacerbation of social and political tensions, particularly amongst the privileged stratum who felt insecure and threatened by the current direction taken by Castro. Corruption, the misappropriation of funds from enterprises or using the latter for private ends have been repeatedly denounced.

During the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs in April 1986, the offensive was resumed "against those who confuse income from work and speculation, fiddlers who are little better than thieves." This theme reappeared during the CTC [trade union federation] Congress: denunciation of the huge profits made, thanks to the existence of a significant private sector, by the nouveaux riches (truck owners, farmers, middlemen in charge of selling works of art, etc); by administrators linked to external trade or enjoying privileges gained in trips to Western countries (also denounced by the Young Communists at their 1987 congress)...(4)

But if Castro is the political head of a ruling stratum of privileged officials, as Taaffe contends, why would the "current direction taken by Castro" (i.e., his and the Cuban CP leadership's post-April 1986 offensive against corruption and privilege-taking by party and state officials) lead privilege- seeking officials to flee Cuba? Taaffe is so blinded by his sectarian-doctrinaire hostility to the Castro leadership that he fails to see that Habel's comment refutes his whole analysis of the nature of the Cuban leadership.


1. P. Taaffe, Cuba; Socialism and Democracy (CWI Publications, London, 2000), pp. 59-60.
2. D. Lorimer, The Cuban Revolution and Its Leadership (Resistance Books, Sydney, 2000), p. 5.
3. H. Smith, The Russians (Sphere Books, London, 1976), pp. 41-44.
4. Cited in Taaffe, ibid., p. 62.