Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 16, 2009

Sam Farber, the ISO, and the Angolan Revolution

Filed under: Africa,cuba,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Nito Alves: the Bernard Coard of Angola

In the 1950s Tony Cliff developed an analysis of the USSR and the satellite states that while theoretically flawed at least had the merit of being engaged with a palpable reality, namely that Stalinism violated everything that socialists believed in. It was such an evil system that they applied a term to it that was intended to convey the ultimate form of opprobrium in our lexicon. It was “state capitalist”. By calling these countries “capitalist”-after a fashion-you draw a clear class line, whether or not of course it corresponds to reality.

Since Marx described capitalism as a social system that revolved around profit (“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets”), it was rather hard to describe the plodding Soviet system that was by all evidence indifferent to profits in those terms. Leaving aside this key distinction, the main merit of the state capitalist ideology is that it allowed its defenders to feel superior to their Stalinist enemies and the old-school Trotskyists who still insisted that the USSR rested on collectivized property relations.

When the Cuban revolution took place, the state capitalists were thrown a curve. Since socialism could only be carried out from “below” by parties that had mastered the profundities of state capitalist theory, they had to make Cuba look as much as possible like the USSR. Workers had to be seen as being trampled underfoot inside Cuba and the foreign policy of the Cuban government had to be based on the same kind of narrow, nationalistic interests that guided the Kremlin. To shoehorn Cuban reality into a state capitalist schema required careful selection of facts that help to support the foregone conclusion. While historical materialism is understood by its practitioners as a method that bases itself on a scrupulous examination of social reality, its state capitalist adherents are not above changing the rules when it comes to something like the Cuban revolution which undermines their own, self-privileged “vanguard” status.

Of particular use to the state capitalists have been the books and articles of Sam Farber, a Cuban-American professor whose articles have appeared with some regularity in the International Socialist Organization’s press. The U.S.-based ISO is one of the more important state capitalist groups but has no connection to the equally important British SWP which expelled it from their international movement about a decade ago. I have quite a bit of respect for the ISO, particularly their work in the Green Party in years past, but find their reliance on Sam Farber to be most regrettable.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his academic credentials, Farber is not above making things up to support his judgments against Cuba. For example, in an interview with the Shachtmanite New Politics (a magazine with some affinity for the state capitalists politically, but differing on the exact class character of the former Soviet Union), Farber claimed that Cuba-just like the USSR-put political opponents in mental hospitals. There was only problem with this allegation. It was false as I demonstrated in a rebuttal written in September 2003.

Farber seems to be at it again. In an article titled “Contradictions of Cuba’s foreign policy” that appears in the ISO newspaper and that was originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, Farber makes the case that Cuban foreign policy is self-serving even if most people on the left regard it as revolutionary internationalism of the highest order.

While Farber is on relatively solid footing by criticizing Castro’s support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (of course leaving out the trenchant attack on Soviet bureaucracy that Castro’s speech was laced with), most of the focus is on Cuban involvement in Africa which Farber gives some grudging support to:

In the case of Angola, Cuba’s strategy, along with its alliance with the Soviet empire, allowed Cuba to play a very important role in the defense of that country against Western imperialism and its right-wing UNITA agents. Cuba delivered a heavy military and political blow against South African apartheid, which supported UNITA.

But as is typical of this “One hand giveth, the other taketh away” article, Farber applies a debit to this credit, hence yielding a zero balance in the Cuban account:

However, Cuban aid was not free of cost to the Angolan people. Thus, for example, Cuban troops actively intervened in internal disputes within the Angolan MPLA, like when they insured the victory of the faction led by Agostino Neto against the faction led by Nito Alves.

Now if were an editor at the ISO newspaper, I would have written Farber immediately after he submitted the article raising this question: “Sam, our readers might not know who Neto and Alves were. Could you expand on this since it seems crucial to your argument?” Alas, they never would have bothered since they have a stake in the ideological outcome of Farber’s article. At all costs, it is necessary to paint Cuban troops as bureaucratic meddlers even if it is not exactly clear what they did. Just say the words “actively intervened in internal disputes” and the damage is done. These words summon up images of the Kremlin engineering the ouster of Earl Browder, etc. and help to place the Cuban government beyond the pale of “socialism from below” principles.

Although I would like to dissect Farber’s entire article, space limitations force me to address the Neto-Alves dispute since Farber’s bad faith reference to it will hopefully alert the reader to take the rest of the article with a grain of salt.

You can read about the Neto-Alves conflict in Paul Fauvet’s article “The Rise and Fall of Nito Alves” that appeared in the May-August 1977 issue of “Review of African Political Economy” (contact me for a copy).

Nito Alves can best be described as an aspiring Bernard Coard for those who are familiar with the sad events in Grenada. Nito Alves was a leader of the MPLA who led a guerrilla unit in the Dembo forests that was cut off from the rest of the MPLA during intense fighting with Holden Roberto’s FNLA. Just around the time that the MPLA was poised to take power, Alves returned to Luanda and assumed leadership of the clandestine groups in the local prisons. It was also around the time that Alves began to demonstrate ultraleft and narrow nationalist tendencies that would put him on a collision course with other MPLA leaders.

For example, he developed a theory that equated the Angolan bourgeoisie as those of white and mixed ancestry, regardless of their relationship to the means of production. He proposed that whites should be stripped of their citizenship unless they had actively participated in the liberation movement. Mesticos (mixed ancestry) would have to apply for citizenship as well. This flew in the face of MPLA traditions in which the anti-imperialist struggle was based not on ethnic but on class divisions.

Despite his shaky theories, Alves’s work in the mass movement catapulted him into the post of Interior Minister. Colleagues and friends of Alves began to notice a megalomaniac streak that was only enhanced by his new duties. He was heard to say “history has reserved for me the heavy task of leading the working class to power.” In a brochure of military texts by Lenin edited by Alves, he included a reference to “the immortal Lenin, whose work I intend to continue.”

As Minister of the Interior, Alves wasted no time placing his co-thinkers in powerful positions in the new Angolan state. He was also in charge of the Luanda CPB’s (Popular Bairro Committees) that were modeled on the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Meanwhile, Afonso “MBinda” Van-Dunem, one of Alves’s closest associates, used his position in the Angolan army to promote Alves supporters.

Besides the CPB’s and the army, the nitistas (as the followers of Nito Alves were called) had a base in the Ministry of Internal Trade where corruption was rampant. They began stockholding food as part of a plan to buy the support of the masses. In exchange for their loyalty, they would get something to eat.

Concern about nitista factionalism finally led to a decision at an October 1976 MPLA central committee meeting to abolish the Ministry of the Interior. Alves and his allies, including Van Dunem, remained on the central committee but were given notice that they would no longer be able to promote their faction against the interests of the Angolan revolution as a whole.

This led the nitistas to accelerate their plans to overthrow the MPLA through a coup d’etat. They planned to kill or exile President Agostino Neto and liquidate a number of top MPLA and government officials, all in the name of “preserving the Angolan revolution”. In the spring of 1976, there were ominous signs of the growing nitista threat. His supporters at the Luanda airport prevented white Portuguese technicians from getting off their airplane, even though they had come to Angola to volunteer their services-just like the Tecnica volunteers I placed in Africa 15 years later. Paul Fauvet reports:

A Portuguese engineer in the Public Works Ministry was savagely beaten up, and some Portuguese were even murdered, apparently in attempts to spread panic in what remained of Luanda’s Portuguese community.

Acts of insubordination and near-mutiny arose in the army and the MPLA worried that the country would soon become ungovernable. Finally, in May 1977, the MPLA central committee decided to take action against the nitistas. It took notice of the factionalism that was destabilizing the country and announced its intention to bring it to a halt. Alves’s response bordered on hysteria, accusing Angola’s daily newspaper Jornal de Angola, their Barricada in effect, of playing the same role in Angola that the right-wing press played in Chile before Pinochet’s coup. Nito Alves then demanded that everybody except he and his supporters step down from the Central Committee in order to allow him to form a new one that was truly revolutionary. When President Neto and the majority of the CC declined Alves’s offer, he decided to go ahead with a coup d’etat that he had been planning for some time.

Scheduled for late May 1976, the nitista CPB’s and loyalists in the military would form “Death Commandoes” to liquidate their enemies in the Central Committee and spearhead an assault on state power.

On May 27th the coup was set into motion. nitistas attacked a prison and released a dozen of their supporters as well as hundreds of common criminals. They also seized two radio stations and began broadcasting calls for a mass demonstration that would surround the Presidential Palace. Unfortunately for them, the people of Angola were totally unsympathetic and only 500 people gathered at the Presidential Palace.

On the military front, things were just as bleak for the nitistas. Paul Fauvet reports:

One barracks fell to the nitistas-that of the Ninth Armored Brigade. They also captured a fort on the outskirts of Luanda-but as soon as loyal troops appeared there, the rebel commanders fled and the soldiers laid down their arms, saying that they didn’t know what was going on, but had been told by nitista officers that they were ‘defending the revolution.’

In the next paragraph, Fauvet deals with the Cuban connection. Suffice it to day, it has nothing to do with Farber’s false charge about meddling in Angolan politics:

Confessions of nitista leaders soon after May 17 show that Alves believed that the Cuban forces in Angola would at least stay neutral in the conflict, if not rally to him. He was therefore shocked to discover that the Cubans had immediately put themselves at President Neto’s disposal. When questioning Veloso [a nitista] mid-morning on the situation in the centre of Luanda, Alves asked “And you even saw the Cuban comrades?”. When Veloso confirmed this, Alves remarked “Then I shall have to review my understanding of scientific communism”.

To this I would only add the observation that Sam Farber and the ISO should too review their “understanding of scientific communism”. To fault the Cubans for supporting a revolutionary government that obviously enjoyed the support of the country against a coup d’etat led by a crazed factionalist responsible for the murder of white Angolans whose only offense was being white is incontrovertible evidence that the comrades are simply not interested in the truth. In order to find Cuba guilty in the court of socialist public opinion, they have only indicted themselves.


  1. Thanks for the insightful piece – never knew much about Alves myself (my parents (and grandparents on one side) were settler colonialists in Angola). Been trying to learn more about April 25, Amilcar Cabral, the MPLA and all of that… any suggested readings?

    Comment by zeca — January 16, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

  2. The ISO has gone to great lengths to demonstrate its hostility to Castro in recent years including lead articles and front page coverage in the ISR. Indeed, they have displayed far more opposition to Fidel than to Barack Obama, even though the former certainly commands the support of a far bigger “mass movement” in South and Central America than the latter does here. During the heady days of the “global justice movement,” when Che and Chavez were the heroes of many of the radical youth the ISO was hoping to win over, they actually displayed a bit of “glasnost” over Cuba. But since then they have rallied around the Stalinophobic “state capitalist” banner. I suppose defending their sectarian point of honor, ie, “state capitalism,” that they inherited from the Brits comes before defending the Cuban revolution from US imperialism. Only since they were kicked out of the British SWP’s “international,” they have lacked the services of the SWP’s Latin American afficiando, Mike Gonzalez. Hence, the need to employ those of Farber, who is nominally associated with Solidarity, which, by the way, is filled with Castro critics and supporters of democratic counter-revolution anywhere that capitalism has been overturned). Thus, Farber regularly appears at the ISO’s big educational conferences when ever they are held here in NY as the guest expert on Cuba. Always alone, never on a panel where his views might be questioned in a real debate. For his part, Farber has been waiting with baited breath for Castro to either drop dead or fall from power ever since the Soviet Union went out of business. At a Solidarity meeting in the early 90s, Farber castigated those of us, very few of us, I would add, that had the audacity to still think about “democracy” in class terms as part of our defense of the Cuban revolution. Farber is also a strong supporter of the “Leninism (in power) leads to Stalinism” school and wrote a whole book on why the Bolsheviks should have given up power after the Russian civil war had been won, even if it meant the triumph of the counter-revolution they had just defeated, rather than risk the bureaucratic excesses that one-party rule entailed. While this makes him very popular with an anti-Leninist outfit like Solidarity it should make him less so with the ISO. That it doesn’t says something about the ISO…and the theory it stakes its all on.

    Comment by MN Roy — January 16, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

  3. In response to #1, I could not find any book that deals with all aspects of the struggle in the Portuguese colonies, I suspect that Basil Davidson’s “The People’s Cause”, written in 1981, is quite good. It covers MPLA, Cabral et al as well as Zimbabwe and other struggles. It is out of print but should be available from a good library.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 16, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

  4. Thanks for this. I’d forgotten all about this obscure historical incident.

    Comment by John B. — January 17, 2009 @ 12:18 am

  5. FWIW, This is what wikipedia has:

    “On May 21 the MPLA expelled him from the party. He and his supporters broke into a prison, freeing other supporters, and took control of the radio station in Luanda in an attempted coup. Forces loyal to Neto took back the radio and arrested those involved in the coup attempt. While Cuban soldiers actively helped Neto put down the coup, Alves claimed that the Soviet Union supported the coup.[..]”

    Ironically, Alves *sought* SU support.

    Comment by Erik — January 17, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  6. I think there are many sectors in our unquestionably capitalist 21st-century global economy that are as plodding, inefficient, bureaucratic and state-dependent as anything you would have found in the Soviet Union. This doesn’t make them any less capitalistic.

    Who controls the means of production? That is the question. Is the economy managed by private businessmen (or government functionaries) — or is it managed by the workers? If the Cuban regime were actually responsive to the desires of the Cuban people, it would’ve liberalized the Cuban economy long ago.

    When the regime takes the China route (and it surely will) the Cuban people will cheer it on and foreign Castrophiles will probably blame the dastardly Raul’s ‘revisionism’ or some bullshit like that.

    Comment by Adrian — January 17, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

  7. In response to #6, I would urge you to read Alec Nove’s “Toward a Feasible Socialism”, which involves an exhaustive study of the failure of Soviet firms to follow entrepreneurial, profit-seeking methods. In the capitalist world, firms go bankrupt if they do not produce profits. In the USSR, this did not exist. In fact, Gorbachev’s “reforms” were intended to make Soviet firms respond to market imperatives. Certainly, there are plodding firms in the US–GM is one of them–but if they cannot produce a profit, they go out of business, as GM actually might. If you can’t see the difference between the US today and Brezhnev’s USSR, then I cannot help you.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 18, 2009 @ 1:44 am

  8. Louis, you made a valid point in #7. However, our government is currently considering bailing out a number of plodding firms, such as GM. It may be that our country is becoming more like Brezhnev’s USSR.

    Comment by Austin — January 18, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  9. In response to #8, the bailing out of GM will most certainly involve massive layoffs. In the USSR, unemployment did not exist. One of the main goals of Soviet and Chinese “reformers” in this period was to create a market for labor. Unless you can use the threat of unemployment to discipline workers, productivity and profits would never be assured. That is unless, of course, the workers felt like they were in control. That possibility was eliminated back in the 1920s.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 18, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

  10. Doesn’t Rick Wolff, occasional contributor to MRZine, argue for the Soviet Union as “state capitalist” thesis? Seems like I was reading something from him long ago along these lines, but its hazy.

    Comment by Sheldon — January 18, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

  11. Wolff and his writing partner Steven Resnick do indeed adhere to a state capitalist perspective. So does CLR James who I consider the outstanding American Marxist thinker of the 20th century. James, I should add, was very much a supporter of the Cuban revolution while still describing it as not really socialist. You simply cannot find the sense of solidarity for Cuba in the Cliffite movement that you can find in CLR James who wrote in 1981:

    “I believe that the revolution in San Domingo [of 1801] was a total revolution. It cleared out what stood in the way completely. And the Haitian revolution weakened because there was no international assistance, they were by themselves. But after 150 years the same thing happened in Cuba. The revolution was complete, the whole system was thrown aside.”

    from: http://www.candw.ag/~jardinea/ffhtm/ff991231.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — January 18, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

  12. The citation from James is one that marks an important distinction between that of James and Cliff. Both men had the bad habit of using dialectical materialism selectively to back up their state capitalist perspective, but James, at least, was willing to second guess his own thinking on many a political question and never lost any sleep over it. Cliff went to his grave grasping his state capitalist thesis like a eucharist.

    As for the ISO in the United States, they remain a hodgepodge of Chomskyists, and democratic socialists with a dash of Zinn thrown in for libertarian marxist flavor. They refuse to engage with any Leninist writings where there can be found valuable contributions on the complexity of socialist construction and the ugly compromises it entails. To do so would be to recognize that Cuba is no more state capitalist than the Bolsheviks were at any period in their development as a political tendency or leadership body, and their reified notion of the role Lenin found himeself forced to play would fall to pieces.

    The unfortunate reality is that any version of socialism that exists in a world of capitalist encirclement is going to contain bureaucracy and some features of state capitalism. Should we then dismiss every god damn effort made by the proletariat as one doomed to fall to the avarice of state capitalism? That’s what the ISO would have us do, and from there, it’s not a very far leap to the neverland in which their cadre walk around adapting Obamian campaign slogans and tailing the bloody “democrats”.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — January 18, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  13. Regarding:
    Response #1, There’s a great French-made documentary (multilingual soundtrack)called “Cuba, An African Odyssey” which I can recommend. It’s distributed by Arte Video and produced by Jihan El Tahri.

    Response #6, I don’t know why you say Cuba will “surely” follow the China route. This sort of fatalistic “revolutions in third world countries are doomed to fail because of the objective circumstance” line is a feature of the Cliff-state capitalist type world view. Yes it’s an inherent risk that by allowing a measure of market mechanisms, foreign capitalist investment and local small capitalist ventures that they create a layer of people who would like (if not consciously at first) to go down the China path (i.e. transform the Cuban state into a pro-capitalist anti-worker state). The only safeguard against this is a population educated and mobilised to stop such a degeneration/counter-revolution. But what other choice does Cuba have? To not introduce these market mechanisms/capitalist investment after the collapse of the USSR would have condemned them to a Khmer Rouge style agarian ‘utopia’.

    General: As an outside observer (not from the USA) I really enjoy the US ISO’s website and it seems like they do a lot of good work…their attachment to the unscientific “state-cap” theory is a terrible limitation.

    Comment by Sam Wainwright — January 20, 2009 @ 5:43 am

  14. There was (or was there?) a time when global class solidarity could override partisan sectarian bullshit. No more. Now Left parties are happy to spread disinformation smearing third-world governments and apparently only academics are interested enough to contradict them.

    Comment by MFB — January 21, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

  15. I’ve always been quite an admirer of Cuban foreign policy, especially their involvement in Angola. I’ve visited Cuba and talked with Angola veterans, and while some had an anti-war attitude common amongst any vets, most were very proud of their stand with the MPLA and against South Africa, the West, et al.

    It’s in the last few years that I’ve come to study Cuba’s role in Africa in the 1970’s more closely. What I’ve found is a mixed record. The more I read about Cuban involvement in Angola, the more respect I have for Castro. The more I read about Cuban involvement in Ethiopia, especially in their war with Eritrea, the less respect I have. Leftists are of many opinions regarding the ostensibly leftist coup that took power in Ethiopia in the mid-70’s: a glance at, say, an issue of Monthly Review from that period will attest to this. No matter what label you slap on the regime, they ruthlessly suppressed the Eritrean national movement, a movement that had the support of the vast majority of Eritrean people.
    They were able to do this, in part, with help from some of the same Cuban commanders that had played such an important role in Angola.
    I was late to really investigate this role, in part because the left press spends very little time appraising this involvement, even when writing on Cuba and Africa. It doesn’t take away from my support to Cuba’s role in Angola, but it sure dashes any “romantic” notions about Cuba’s role in African as a whole. What do other comrades think?

    PS: A note on the group Solidarity and Cuba. As with many things, there is some disagreement in the group. You’ll get folks who are quite critical of Castro (as noted above), and others who list Cuba as a primary inspiration. The “bottom line” is defense of Cuba against imperialism, which is unanimous. Is Castro a leading light of the socialist movement or a nationalist-populist demagogue? That’s something you’ll get different answers on.
    Hell, I’ve been a member of Solidarity for a decade and I have a portrait of the Old Man on my office wall!

    But, honestly, what do are we supposed to make of Cuba’s role in Ethiopia/Eritrea?

    Comment by Brad — January 21, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

  16. I’m sorry but this article is totally perplexing to me.

    Cuba that great worker’s paradise that’s had the same leadership for nearly half a century…… And of course class conflict doesn’t exist in Cuba at all. There are no prostitutes, there are is no dual economy, there is no dictatorship, there is no bureacracy.

    I’m sorry but Cuba is a bureacratic dictatorship even though it has some progressive and anti-imperialist leanings (despite supporting Soviet imperialism). Class is well alive in Cuba, if you cannot see that, you must be able to see this is not a free country (dictatorship, no freedom of travel, etc). A free country is not a socialist country.

    Comment by Futurecast — January 23, 2009 @ 5:15 am

  17. I think this is a fascinating post, and I appreciate having found it. However, it presents a very one-sided view of the events surrounding the Nito Alves uprising, including some factual inaccuracies. For example, it was not Afonso Van Dunem but José Van Dúnem, who led the uprising with Nito. There is also no mention here of all the innocent people who were killed by the MPLA-Cuban joint actions after the uprising, accused of being nitistas.

    Comment by Lara Pawson — December 30, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

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