‘These books give a perspective we don’t often hear’

Havana International Book Fair event discusses class struggle in the United States

By Martín Koppel
and Jonathan Silberman
March 11, 2019
Feb. 14 panel at Havana book fair. From left, Róger Calero, chair; Yoel Cordoví, vice president of Cuban History Institute; Mary-Alice Waters, Socialist Workers Party and president of Pathfinder Press; Silvio Jova, member of editorial board of Cuban trade union magazine.
Militant/Jonathan SilbermanFeb. 14 panel at Havana book fair. From left, Róger Calero, chair; Yoel Cordoví, vice president of Cuban History Institute; Mary-Alice Waters, Socialist Workers Party and president of Pathfinder Press; Silvio Jova, member of editorial board of Cuban trade union magazine.

HAVANA — “When I read these four volumes on the struggles of the Teamsters, I discovered things I didn’t know,” said Silvio Jova. The most important was, “I learned that U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was no saint. I didn’t know he had a record of repression” against the U.S. labor movement.

Jova, a member of the editorial board of CTC, the magazine of the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC), was speaking at a Feb. 14 event that launched the Spanish-language edition of Teamster Bureaucracy. The book is the last of the four-volume series by Farrell Dobbs on the 1930s Teamsters union organizing drive, of which the author was a central leader. The entire set is now available in Spanish for the first time.

Yoel Cordoví, vice president of the Cuban History Institute, struck a similar note at the event, which was part of the Havana International Book Fair. He presented In Defense of the US Working Class, by Mary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party and president of Pathfinder Press.

“Given the world we’re living in,” Cordoví said, “this book is very timely. It gives us a perspective we don’t often hear — a firsthand view of struggles by workers, by farmers within the empire, within the United States.”

Róger Calero, who chaired the Feb. 14 event, told the audience of 50 that In Defense of the US Working Class, published by Pathfinder Press, is based on a program that featured presentations by Waters and a panel of four workers and a farmer from the United States, who described concretely the economic and social conditions U.S. working people face today and the struggles they are waging. It was part of last year’s May Day International Conference in Havana, sponsored by the Cuban History Institute and the CTC.

Cordoví recalled that when Waters was first invited by Cuban History Institute President René González Barrios to organize a session of the 2018 conference, she had said, “Well, we’re not professional historians or researchers but workers, trade unionists, communists.” González Barrios had replied that this was exactly what they needed.

Top, Griselda Aguilera speaks from the floor at Havana meeting. On a recent U.S. tour speaking about the Cuban Revolution, she said she learned that “working people in the U.S. defend their rights.” Bottom, school workers rally in Charleston, West Virginia, during 2018 strike.
Top, Militant/Hilda Cuzco; bottom, AP/Tyler EvertTop, Griselda Aguilera speaks from the floor at Havana meeting. On a recent U.S. tour speaking about the Cuban Revolution, she said she learned that “working people in the U.S. defend their rights.” Bottom, school workers rally in Charleston, West Virginia, during 2018 strike.

“What better panel than one made up of workers involved in the day-to-day problems” and struggles within the United States, said Cordoví.

Waters, he said, posed three questions in the book that really made him think. The first was, “Did the 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump register a rise in racism, xenophobia, misogyny and every other form of ideological reaction among working people in the U.S.?”

“I would’ve answered that question in the affirmative,” Cordoví said. “But then it becomes harder to answer the other two.”

Waters had also asked, “Is that why tens of millions of workers of all races voted for Trump?” And thirdly, “Is a socialist revolution in the U.S. really possible? Or are those like ourselves who answer with an unhesitating ‘Yes’ a new variety of utopian socialist fools, however well-meaning?”

Cordoví pointed to the 2018 strike by teachers and other school workers in West Virginia that Waters describes in the book, emphasizing what it showed about the dignity, solidarity and fighting capacity of working people. He urged everyone present to read In Defense of the US Working Class, stating, “There’s more to the picture than many might have thought.”

1930s Teamsters struggles

“The four books on the history of the Teamsters struggles in the 1930s and ’40s give us lessons that everyone needs to study,” Jova said in his remarks.

The Teamsters series chronicles the 1930s battles that led to the unionization of a quarter million workers in the trucking industry across 11 states in the Midwest. Dobbs and other members of the Communist League of America, forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, became leaders of that fighting Teamster organizing drive.

The union forged an alliance with working farmers, organized the unemployed as a section of the union, launched a union defense guard that prevented an employer-backed fascist recruitment effort from gaining a foothold in Minneapolis, and led working-class opposition to Washington’s preparations for entry into the second imperialist world war. For this, the U.S. government framed up and imprisoned 18 leaders of the SWP and the Teamsters under the infamous Smith Act on charges of advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

Jova said Dobbs’ books shattered his view of U.S. government policy under the Roosevelt administration. Previously he had simply accepted the position held by many in the Cuban labor movement that Roosevelt’s so-called Good Neighbor policy — supposedly ending a long history of U.S. military intervention in Latin America — was beneficial to working people in general and particularly in Cuba. Jova said it had never occurred to him that Roosevelt’s New Deal policies might not have benefited working people in the United States.

He said he had accepted the view that Roosevelt’s pressure on Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista for greater democracy made it possible to establish the Confederation of Cuban Workers in 1939.

In fact, this political stance toward the Roosevelt presidency was promoted not only in Cuba and the United States but worldwide by the Stalin-led Communist International. Adopted at the international’s 1935 congress, this Popular Front line of class collaboration with “democratic” imperialism was imposed on Communist Parties, which everywhere were ordered to support “progressive” capitalist parties and governments.

In Cuba the CP (later renamed Popular Socialist Party) backed Batista, campaigning for his election as president in 1940, and two CP leaders joined his cabinet in 1943–44.

The powerful union organizing drives of the 1930s, and the gains wrested from the capitalist rulers as a result, were not due to any “democratic tendencies” among them, however. They were won in the course of pitched class battles against the capitalist class and their governments, in  the United States and Cuba alike.

Jova said Dobbs’ account gave him a more accurate understanding of the class struggle in the United States, and “I will never again view Roosevelt as a saint.” But he still saw Roosevelt’s policies toward the Cuban government as helpful.

History of Cuban workers movement

“Another question these books by Pathfinder make us rethink is Trotsky and Trotskyism,” Jova said, adding that Trotskyism is not viewed favorably in Cuba. According to the accounts he had read in history books, he said, those known as Trotskyists promoted “disunity” in the Cuban labor movement in the decades before the revolution.

Moreover, Jova said, Eusebio Mujal, the gangster-like union chief who in the 1950s became the Batista dictatorship’s enforcer in the CTC, with a hand in the torture and murder of untold numbers of workers, “had been a Trotskyist.”

Jova was echoing longtime Stalinist slanders against Russian communist leader Leon Trotsky and the international movement he led. During the 1930s, as the counterrevolutionary caste in Moscow consolidated its rule, not only were many millions arrested and sent to work and die in Siberian labor camps, but hundreds of thousands of communist workers were imprisoned and executed. In the international workers movement, opponents of the Stalinist course were branded “Trotskyite splitters” and “fascists.”

In Cuba, the pro-Moscow Popular Socialist Party (PSP) sought to discredit workers known as Trotskyists by labeling the hated Batista henchman Mujal a “Trotskyist.” They pointed to the fact that Mujal at one point had been part of a group identified with the international forces led by Trotsky that fought for a return to the political course led by Lenin.

Jova went on to say that while he knew Mujal was called a Trotskyist, he also knew that in December 1958, only weeks before the triumph of the revolutionary war, Rebel Army commander Raúl Castro gave responsibility for organizing the Congress of Workers in Arms in the liberated territory of the Second Eastern Front to Antonio “Ñico” Torres, a rail worker in Guantánamo and leader of the July 26 Movement in the region, “who came out of the Trotskyist movement.” And that gave him pause for thought, Jova said.

Torres was “a fighter for the unity of the July 26 Movement,” Jova noted. He opposed efforts by other July 26 Movement members who wanted to exclude elected delegates who were PSP members from the Congress.

Jova said reading Dobbs’ account and learning about the course of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States reinforced what he already knew about “Ñico” Torres. He concluded that there was much more to the question of Trotskyism than he had realized.

Later, during the discussion period, Waters answered Jova. “To imply that Mujal was a “Trotskyist,” she said, is as slanderous as it would be “to call fascist dictator Mussolini a communist because he had once been a leader of the left wing of the Italian Socialist Party out of which the communist movement there was founded.”

Concluding his remarks, Jova said that above all, the Teamsters books “help us understand that it’s among working people that there are forces that can lead a change of course in the United States,” and urged everyone to read them.

Political weapons for coming battles

“What is unfolding around us is the greatest crisis of the capitalist ‘world order’ any of us have known,” said Mary-Alice Waters, the final panelist. “All the treaties, alliances, ‘agreements’ and fictitious structures imposed on us by the victors of the two world imperialist slaughters of the 20th century are being pulled apart at their seams by the diverging interests and sharpening conflicts between rival capitalist classes and their states.”

Waters said the two books being discussed “are part of the weaponry we need to arm ourselves for the class battles ahead.” Communists in the United States and other countries use these political weapons as they discuss with fellow workers with whom they are engaged in common struggles.

She reported that volunteers headed by Steve Clark, editorial director of Pathfinder, were simultaneously participating for the first time in the Baghdad International Book Fair. And she described how in that war-torn part of the world — from the Mideast to Central Asia — they were finding a thirst for books that offer a revolutionary working-class perspective.

Quoting Dobbs in his “Afterword” to Teamster Bureaucracy, Waters said the main lesson from the Teamsters’ course of struggle “is not that, under an adverse relationship of forces, workers can be overcome.” The lesson for fighting workers is the opposite, she said. “With the honest and truly revolutionary leadership they deserve, it is the oppressed and exploited toilers who can triumph.” (Waters’ presentation is reprinted on page 7.)

‘U.S. workers are not source of racism’

First to take the floor during the discussion period was José Ángel Maury de Toro, international relations secretary of the Union of Young Communists. He noted that the real conditions facing working people in the United States “are not well-known among young people in Cuba.” And new generations “are further and further away from the big social transformations of the early years of the revolution.”

He said this makes books published by Pathfinder “valuable tools for Cuban youth” to learn about the lessons of struggles against capitalist exploitation — and to answer those who “argue that the only way for us to develop is capitalism.”

Fernando García Bielsa, who for many years served in Cuba’s diplomatic offices at the United Nations and in Washington, D.C., said most Cubans “don’t really know the United States” and the impact of the economic crisis on working people there. “We need opportunities like this to get out the truth even more broadly to the Cuban people,” he said.

Griselda Aguilera, who when she was only 7 years old joined Cuba’s 1961 literacy campaign, spoke about what she has learned on visits to the United States, where she has spoken to audiences about the Cuban Revolution and her experiences in the massive drive that wiped out illiteracy here in one year.

The image presented in the international media “that working people in the United States are racist, violent, opposed to solidarity is not true,” Aguilera insisted. “I’ve met construction workers, teachers, members of unions and churches. Racism in the U.S. doesn’t come from ordinary people — it comes from the governing elite that benefits from sowing divisions. Working people in the U.S. defend their rights.”

When the meeting concluded, audience members bought more than 140 Pathfinder books, including seven sets of Dobbs’ four-volume Teamster series.

Following the book fair in Havana, communist workers from the United States and the United Kingdom were invited to three other events to present these books. One was a meeting, organized by the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, at the University of Santa Clara in central Cuba. Another was an exchange with workers and mechanical engineering students at the Antillana de Acero steel plant in Havana.

A third event was held at the Cigar Workers Palace, a CTC-affiliated community center and museum of the Cuban workers movement that is being established in the working-class Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso. The Cigar Workers Palace was the site of the 1939 founding congress of the CTC.