This is a slightly truncated clip of my radio appearance on April 20th 2018 discussing the change of president in Cuba: https://twitter.com/i/status/987346949534830593
Category Archives: Communism
From Clayton to Macron
On Saturday, a reporter from the Cote d’Ivoire asked Emmanuel Macron a perfectly reasonable question; drawing an analogy with the Marshall Plan, the reporter asked how much money Europe was willing to commit to Africa, and (as a secondary question) what France’s position would be. In answering the question – or, rather, challenging its logic – Macron rejected any idea of a Marshall Plan for Africa, effectively stating that had it been that simple, it would have happened already. This is a peculiarly teleological view of progress, particularly from someone who just faced a fascist in a two-way presidential run-off, but I’ll leave that to one side by noting that it fits fairly neatly with the idea of ‘sensible centrism’ which finds itself in vogue in particular circles in 2017.
I am no expert on France, but I have taught enough French history (and followed enough news stories) to get a sense of how successive French governments demonstrate a posture of enormous entitlement to ‘guide’ or ‘advise’ Africa (with a focus on its Francophone nations), an asymmetric a priori position which has led frequently to military intervention. This mentality crosses the ideological spectrum within the mainstream of French politics too – it pertains to Mitterand or Hollande as much as, say, Sarkozy. [Note in that Economist piece on Hollande, the insidious phrasing: ‘Africa has a way of intruding on French politics’. Good grief. How terribly inconvenient that must be.]
In some senses, La Françafrique seems to echo the relationship between the United States and Latin America. While most of the latter has avoided formal colonisation since independence, many countries – particularly in the circum-Caribbean region – have experienced threats, destabilisation, and/or military occupation by the US since 1898. Hearing Macron attempt to shift the conversation from one of aid and economic stimulus towards one of criticising African attitudes (to say nothing of his comment on family sizes) reminded me immediately of President Truman’s stern rebuke to Latin Americans demanding their own version of the Marshall Plan in the postwar period. On 15th August 1947, the New York Times reported that at a press conference the day before, Truman had stated bluntly: ‘there has been a Marshall Plan for the Western Hemisphere for a century and a half known as the Monroe Doctrine’.
“¡Agua, Jabón y Estropajo… el Plan Clayton, abajo!”
Like Macron, Truman’s view was – broadly – ‘our way is best’. And the prescriptions which flowed from that attitude strongly favoured trade and investment over aid or loans. On 3rd September 1947, he opined: ‘Here [in Latin America] the need is for long-term economic collaboration. This is a type of collaboration in which a much greater role falls to private citizens and groups than is the case in a program designed to aid European countries to recover from the destruction of war’. The effects of occupation in Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and elsewhere were passed over. And here, for comparison, is Macron: “It’s by a more rigorous governance, a fight against corruption, a fight for good governance, a successful demographic transition… As of today, spending billions of dollars outright would stabilize nothing”. He warns that any ‘plan’ must use “public private partnerships, and must be conducted on a regional and sometimes even national basis.” Markets, and self-improvement. Macron also raised security cooperation; it is notable that in 1947, US negotiators were successful in their attempts to de-couple security from economic cooperation, and deal comprehensively with the former first (at the 1947 Rio de Janeiro Conference for the Maintenance of Continental Peace and Security). Thus, Latin American governments lost a bargaining chip ahead of any economic settlement.
Truman having ruled out the extension of Marshall Aid, Latin America was included in what became known locally as ‘Plan Clayton’, part of the haphazard confection of what William Cromwell has called “the Marshall Non-Plan”. It was Assistant Secretary of State William Clayton who lent his name to the Latin American part of the post-war trade-and-aid policy. He was already a target for populist denunciation in Mexico since he had “issued the first warning that Latin America should not count on postwar economic aid” at the Chapultepec Conference in 1945. Two years later, when – in place of aid – Clayton suggested a relaxation of intra-hemisphere trade restrictions and tariffs, his propositions were denounced as “aggression on the part of imperialist forces”. La Voz de México – the newspaper of the Mexican Communist Party – urged the formation of a “National Democratic Front to Oppose Plan Clayton.”
That was then, this is now
Speaking at the weekend, Macron set out the following interpretation of the Marshall Plan: “a reconstruction plan, a material plan in a region that already had its equilibria, its borders and its stability”. Quite striking given that many of those equilibria were maintained by enormous occupying forces, and that borders or stability could be talked of as constants when just a year and a half had passed since the war formally ended. This was followed by Macron’s suggestion that “the problems Africa face are completely different and… are ‘civilizational.’” Yet how does the description Macron decides to give Africa – particularly that of “failed states, complex democratic transitions and extremely difficult demographic transitions” – sound fundamentally different to Europe in the immediate post-war years? [The most glaring difference is the postcolonial relationship, something which the US is essentially trying to define in Iraq and Afghanistan today, but was not directly relevant in postwar Europe. If anything, the postcolonial obligation is surely greater.]
My research on Plan Clayton (which I will work up into an article next year) has focused on the reaction from the Mexican left. In brief, the PCM (Mexican Communist Party), PP (Popular Party) and ASU (Unified Socialist Action) opposed Plan Clayton from broadly similar positions, emphasising the threat to “we, the Mexicans” as a whole. The manner in which the story was reported by La Voz de México or addressed in public pronouncements from labour leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano and PCM head Dionisio Encina implies coalescence of interest between the constituencies of the Marxist left (i.e. the urban proletariat, urban intellectuals and, to a lesser extent, campesinos) and the government, the embodiment of the ‘national bourgeoisie’. In the public discourse of the left it remained inconceivable that, first, the ruling PRI did not serve the national interest and second, that the national interest of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ was not consonant with that of the Mexican working classes. The degree of subordination of class-based interest to nationalism here is highly significant, and something I have written about at length elsewhere. Only the ASU augmented this approach with a substantial appeal to class-specific concerns, yet they remained careful to cloak their pronouncements in broad, nationalist rhetoric.
I am therefore interested to see what sort of reactions emerge – particularly from African lefts – to Macron’s intervention. Because it was a set of comments during a question and answer session, there may be more leeway, less formal scrutiny. The implication, though, is clear. Any idea of responsibility for centuries of colonial (and decades of post-colonial) oppression, interference, or exploitation is shelved. Instead, two things emerge: first, a sense that Europe’s idealised economic mode – open, dynamic, neoliberal – must be embraced by external partners, Europe’s technocratic, asymmetrical and stultified inner-workings notwithstanding (some of these contradictions are noted in Perry Anderson’s recent piece on Macron’s meteoric rise); and second, that a degree of mass personal transformation must go hand in hand with this economic change. While the first fits very neatly with Truman and Clayton’s ideas of how best to ‘help’ Latin America (in practice, through fairly untrammelled extraction of surplus, one way or another, by the US), the second echoes broader civilising discourses which cross from formal imperial relationships (the ‘White Man’s Burden’) into informal empire and neo-colonial notions of ‘underdevelopment’. It is no surprise the most striking initial reactions to Macron’s statement came from those attuned to anti-colonial discourses; it will be fascinating to see if the current hero of liberalism loses any of his sheen with the broader polis.
A cartoon from La Voz de México, 23rd February 1947, urging President Alemán to stand up to President Truman, even if he must necessarily be courteous; Truman’s feet are muddied by his eponymous plan, that of Clayton, and imperialism generally.
 The New York Times, 15th August 1947, p.8. This ‘quote’ – reproduced in many books on the period – is not presented as direct speech by the Times. Instead it is reported as what Truman said, delivered without quotation marks. As such, there is a question as to whether it is in fact paraphrased.
 “Water, soap and scourer… down with Plan Clayton!” – a slogan from the campaign.
 Quoted by R. Trask, in “The Impact of the Cold War on United States-Latin American Relations, 1945-1949”, Diplomatic History, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1977, p.278
 W. Cromwell, “The Marshall Non-Plan, Congress and the Soviet Union” in The Western Political Quarterly, Vol.42, No.4 (1979)
 L. Bethell & I. Roxborough, “Latin America between the Second World War and the Cold War: Some Reflections on the 1945-8 Conjuncture” in Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol.20, No.1 (1988), p.181
 Plans for hemispheric defence cooperation were denounced just as furiously by the PCM. See, for example, “El Imperialismo Yanqui es Propiciador del Plan de Truman para la ‘Defensa Continental’”, La Voz de México, 9/6/1946, p.2.
 Tangentially, I think Mexico provides a good counter-example to Bresser-Pereira’s portrayal of Latin American ‘national bourgeoisies’ more generally. See Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, ‘From the National-Bourgeoisie to the Dependency Interpretation of Latin America’ in Latin American Perspectives, 38:3 (2011)
Castro, Cuba, and Hypocrisy
A few words on Fidel Castro (1926-2016), a figure of world-historical importance (does his death mark the ‘end of communism’ for instance?) and without whom the teaching of courses on US-Latin American relations would be difficult to imagine.
I don’t want to say much here about the achievements of the Cuban revolution – in education, in health, in global anti-imperialism and anti-apartheid struggles, in disaster relief and medical solidarity, and very recently in helping to broker the probable peace between the FARC and the Colombian government. Others have covered these positives in great detail, along with Castro’s varying personal role. Instead I want to concentrate on some of the negatives, as a caution against what I see as a frequently hypocritical and in-bad-faith dismissal of Cuba tout court.
Some of Castro’s fiercest critics seem to be judging him by imagined contemporary standards rather than the standards of the Cold War (by which the Cuban regime emerges as unusually progressive). The period and region were characterised by violence, dictatorship, militarism and censorship and while Castro’s repressive government certainly demonstrated each of these traits, the Cuban regime’s crimes pale next to those of authoritarianisms almost everywhere else in the region. And perhaps Castro invited closer scrutiny by so publically judging the actions of other rulers and regimes, and acting upon those judgements with force of arms. But using overt or covert methods to export ideology to other parts of the world? That was Cold War 101 for all serious practitioners, whether US, USSR, China or lesser lights. It seems to me that a particular problem for the Cuban government was that it represented a small nation, was somewhat autonomous, and very vocal – a combination which greatly riled its enemies.
Others seem happy to write Cuba off as a ‘prison state’ or as part of the extended ‘axis of evil’ without acknowledging extrajudicial arrest and imprisonment, clampdowns on dissent, electoral irregularities, and foreign policy adventurism in its supposedly more palatable neighbours – and even closer to home. As I said above, while Cuba’s revolutionary government was undoubtedly (though not consistently) repressive, and made some significant missteps in economic and foreign policy, I think history will, on balance, be kind to Castro – at least kinder than political scientists and journalists seem to be. The impact of the revolution in inspiring Latin Americans and others to assert political and economic independence was huge, while the role Cuba played in opposing and defeating white supremacist regimes in southern Africa is also important.
We should condemn aspects of Castro’s rule and legacy, no doubt: the jailing and even killing of one’s political enemies, censorship, the disdain for multi-party democracy, the enforced isolation of HIV-positive Cubans in the 1980s (and ongoing temporary ‘quarantining’), the wholesale backing of Ethiopia against Somalia in the late 1970s. But we cannot pretend these things (or equivalents) are unusual in regimes we would perhaps prefer to think of as liberal democracies (and certainly not in their less ‘liberal’ allies) the world over.
Take imprisonment, for instance. The US is a carceral state, with around one per cent of the population in jail – that’s well over two million people, of whom (as is well publicised), most are people of colour, a form of political jailing in and of itself. Cuba’s rate of incarceration is high, of course, but it is well below that of the US – in fact only around two thirds of it.
And during Castro’s period of rule there were political prisoners in British, US, French and German jails, even if we rarely think about it that way. Nearly two thousand people were interned, that is to say imprisoned without trial for political reasons, in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and many were tortured. The United States has a prison camp on the island of Cuba itself – Guantanamo Bay, probably the most notorious site of detention without trial in the contemporary world. It’s not only a reaction to 9/11, though – at least a hundred people were already being held for primarily political reasons as a result of the COINTELPRO programme set up by Hoover in 1956, the same year Castro’s expedition landed in Cuba.
Was Castro’s regime brutal? It was deadly of course, especially to begin with, when several thousand people were executed in the first ten or fifteen years of the revolution – mostly functionaries of the Batista dictatorship, though not all. Yet note that the death penalty was last exercised in Cuba in 2003 – and that wasn’t for anything explicitly political, it was for hijacking – since that time almost five hundred US prisoners have been executed. China, whose leaders successive British Prime Ministers have praised for being pragmatic modernisers, executes thousands of people each year. That doesn’t stop talk of a ‘golden era’.
As for elections, Cuba was and remains a one-party state. Castro didn’t exactly invent this state of affairs, nor did he show any inclination to remedy it. But ‘undemocracy’ creeps into even the most self-confident republic. Only three weeks ago the new US president was chosen in an election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act and where it increasingly looks like voter suppression may have played a decisive role. We in the UK are allowed to vote, and that’s an important and valuable right, but we don’t have an elected head of state or even an elected prime minister right now. Was the EU referendum a ‘free and fair election’?
I am not suggesting equivalence here, just that ‘democracy’, ‘voting’ and ‘elections’ in and of themselves are rather unhelpful and elusive terms. Venezuela was nominally democratic throughout the Cold War, but with little evidence of meaningful popular sovereignty. Democratic Britain spent the 1950s conniving to overthrow governments from Iran to Guyana, imprisoning and torturing Cypriots, and massacring political opponents in Kenya. And where conservative critics of Cuba have cited undemocratic tyranny as an irredeemable fault of the regime, they often fall silent on Turkey, Saudi Arabia or other strategic allies. Furthermore, a democratic mandate did not save Arbenz from a US-supported coup and dictatorship, nor would it save Allende.*
We should also remember that Castro did not rule alone (though there were some signs of a crisis of succession seen in progressive movements under siege since the English Revolution), that while political culture was limited it was nevertheless effervescent, that the government maintained a significant degree of public support (talk of ‘totalitarianism’ seems particularly off, even if dictatorship is arguable), and was buoyed by a patriotic and anti-imperialist popular spirit which was only increased by US foreign policy. I don’t think it is possible to unpick restraints on domestic Cuban freedoms from the greater constraint imposed on the Cuban island, society and economy as a whole by the United States and its allies. President Obama came very close to acknowledging this when he began the current rapprochement, talking of ‘cutting loose the anchor of the failed policies of the past’.
Anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid, egalitarian – all to be applauded. But authoritarian, militaristic, censorious? Yes, it was those too. And the question that many – critics and supporters – have come back to, is ‘was it worth it?’ I wouldn’t ask anybody to hold back in their criticism of Castro, and I am not at all advocating ‘whataboutery’. But I would ask that the same standards are applied elsewhere – to the eleven presidents of the United States who have stood in opposition to Cuba’s revolutionary path, to our own past and contemporary liberal-democratic governments, to our allies doing our dirty work elsewhere – otherwise it just looks like good old-fashioned red-baiting.
*An aside: Ben Smith has shown, one-party states can be lively sites of contestation at the sub-national level.
The ‘Cogwheel’ Conception of Global Communisms
One idea I am working on at the moment is that, rather than as a monolith or even a hierarchical pyramid emanating downwards and outwards from Moscow, global communisms may be seen as cogwheels which together formed a decentralised and multipolar ‘machine’ (at least during the Cold War). In place of the traditional conceptualisation of information and leadership flows as hierarchical and linear (or, in a more sophisticated sense, multilinear), the interaction of these ‘global communisms’ worked more like a series of inter-related cogs of varying sizes. Sometimes these cogs were driven from the centre, sometimes from the periphery, and sometimes a breakdown in the system would see a single cog (Yugoslavia, for example) or an entire sub-system (the Chinese-dominated variants of communism) spin off and form a new ‘machine’. To extend the metaphor: sometimes external ‘spanners’ were thrown into the works; sometimes the cogs worked against one another; sometimes the teeth of the cogs simply wore down.
Currents of Communism
Here’s how I currently visualise the main currents of communism from Lenin up to around the 1950s/1960s. The next major addition will be the dissident strains caused by the Hungarian and Czech ruptures, the development of Eurocommunism, and the fragmenting of East and Southeast Asian communisms. This visualisation draws particularly on the work of Isaac Deutscher, Fred Halliday and David Priestland.
Comments most welcome as always.