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Rethinking Khrushchev's Support of Cuba and Commitment to Revolution

Updated on March 8, 2012

A Revolution Betrayed?

The purpose of this analysis is to assess how far Khrushchev era Soviet interventions in the third world were motivated by a desire to support revolutionary movements by taking the example of Cuba as a case study. Given the timing of the Cuban revolution this question must be understood in light of the ascendancy of Nikita Khruschev to the position of General Secretary of the CPSU. His often contradictory alterations to Marxist-Leninist theory such as ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the capitalist camp provide an insight into his geopolitical motivations, including with regards to Cuba. However, it is not enough to make theoretical interpretations alone, one must also analyse the concrete actions of the Soviet government, of which theoretical interpretation provides the basis of understanding. By way of this method of analysis it is found that while there was a general motive of supporting revolutionary governments, this could be overridden by national self interest and was not grounded in the basis of scientific socialism. This approach was made all the easier to justify in light of Khrushchev’s dilution of revolutionary theory.

The End of Revolutionary Theory?

The main revision of Marxism-Leninism carried out by Khruschev was the theory of ‘peaceful coexistence’. This revoked Leninist orthodoxy regarding the inevitability of war, an act forewarned by Josef Stalin in only 1952[i]. It is also necessary to consider that Stalin unlike Khrushchev was not just a general secretary of the CPSU, but also a revolutionary leader and theoretician. Of Khruschev it has been said that he had probably never even read Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism[ii]. From this vantage point it is clear that Stalin who followed the theoretical line of Lenin speaks with greater authority than Khrushchev, making Stalin‘s forewarning of this of real significance. Furthermore, as Khrushchev’s commitment to revolutionary theory has been shown to be questionable, it may be easily extrapolated that Khruschev’s commitment to revolutionary practice is also far from certain.

The revocation of revolutionary theory by the post-Stalin Soviet leadership is also highlighted by the criticisms levelled by the Communist Party of China under the leadership of chairman Mao Zedong. One such criticism is the CPSU assuming the position that there can be a peaceful road to communism. The CPC argued with some justification that the CPSU were suggesting the use of fruitless bourgeois methods as opposed to violent revolution[iii]. The CPC correctly identified this as Kautskyite deviationism, a trend argued against by Lenin in many of his works. In The State and Revolution for instance, Lenin calls this a distortion of Marxism[iv]. He illuminates this truth by arguing that if the state is produced by the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, and stands above society then the liberation of the proletariat can only be achieved by violent revolution and the destruction of the institutions of bourgeois government[v]. It is quite clear then that the post-Stalin theoretical line of the CPSU stands removed from Leninist revolutionary ideology. If one is also to accept Lenin’s stance that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” then this has serious implications for the motive of Soviet intervention in Cuba[vi]. For if the Soviets had abandoned revolutionary theory then one must question their commitment to the revolutionary movement in Cuba.

The importance of this theoretical understanding of Marxism-Leninism is that it provides the foundations of the refutation of conventional wisdom regarding the Soviet-Cuban relations. Given what has already been said it becomes difficult to accept the positions of historians such as Wohlforth, Fursenko and Natali who argue that Khrushchev was moved by ideology and for him “Cuba was the physical embodiment of the communist future”[vii].

The Case of Cuba

Having analysed the theoretical grounding of Soviet foreign policy in this era it is necessary to discuss the material actions of the Soviet government regarding Cuba. In understanding the motives of Soviet intervention in Cuba, there is perhaps no act of equal importance to the October Missile Crisis of 1962. It has been claimed that the Soviets were prepared for nuclear war if it were required to defend Cuba[viii]. What can be inferred from this is that the Soviets were not acting out of national self interest and operating a ‘Realist’ foreign policy, as nuclear war was certainly not in the Soviet interest. However, It will be shown that this position does not bear relation to the chain of events which unfolded in this crisis.

It is widely suggested that the crisis was a result of Khrushchev adopting a strategy of bullying, expecting not to provoke a response[ix]. In actuality the placement of missiles in Cuba was itself a response to provocation rather than a provocation of response. For the United States had its Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey, meaning the missile crisis was in the first instance a case of getting even[x]. Furthermore, rather than actually get even, if successful all the mission would have achieved is the mere perception of parity[xi]. For these reasons the notion of a Soviet bullying strategy must be rejected. In contemplating the idea that the Soviets were committed to defending Cuba even by means of nuclear warfare, this position would seem untenable in light of Khruschev’s words in 1953 regarding nuclear missiles, that “we could never possibly use these weapons”[xii]. Of even more importance is the fact that such weapons never were used by the Soviets, even when the US committed an act of war by blockading Cuba, indeed what Khrushchev did was to essentially back down in the crisis when he ordered the missiles return home. He did this on the basis of a deal with John F Kennedy to secretly remove the US missiles in Turkey, thus highlighting a ’realist’ approach to international relations. This is further supported by evidence in Khruschev’s memoirs where he discusses his need to avoid being humiliated by and accepting the arrogance of the US[xiii]. Yet this is exactly what occured, as the deal on Turkey was done in secret and Kennedy reneged on an agreement to publicly guarantee there would be no US intervention in Cuba, this meant the Soviet Union appeared weak in the face of imperialism.

All of this left great distaste in the mouths of the Cuban revolutionaries. The Soviet Union would remove the missiles without so much as a word of notification to the government in Havana[xiv]. Not only were missile sites in Cuba dismantled, Khrushchev ordered the return of all tactical bombers and military personnel with the exception of one training brigade[xv]. Che Guevara commented that Soviet actions left the Cuban leadership ‘baffled’ and that pandering to imperialism and the subsequent retreat reduced the revolutionary potential in Latin America[xvi]. The ever astute Fidel Castro noted that if the debacle had been about protecting the Cuban revolution then Khrushchev would not have traded the Cuban missiles for the Turkish missiles pointed at the USSR. Instead it would have made logical sense to trade for the Guantanamo naval base occupied by the United States military[xvii].

It is also important to note that Khrushchev’s attitude to the Cuban revolution was that it was not of proletarian essence. It was only after Cuba’s nationalisation of US assets that Khrushchev became enamoured with the Cuban revolution[xviii]. Such attitudes towards external revolutionary governments and people’s democracies were actually quite typical of Khrushchev. Indeed when the German Democratic Republic requested aid Khruschev’s response was that “we won the war” and “don’t thrust your hands in our pockets”[xix]. Even more damaging attitudes were expressed regarding Mao Zedong who was described in terms of his “savage vengeance and deceit”, as well as his “Asiatic cunning”[xx]. Such language of course carries severe racial connotations. In this context it is difficult to interpret Soviet interventions of the period as emerging out of primarily internationalist and revolutionary principles.

The attitudes described provide further evidence for the departure of Marxist-Leninist theory among the Soviet leadership. As does the notion that the cold war was a product of “dark forces” and that it was primarily about a nuclear stalemate[xxi][xxii]. The former verges on conspiracy theory with the notion of a few people orchestrating this grand conflict. More importantly it is to ignore class antagonisms as the motor of history and Lenin’s theory of imperialism of which it has already been said Khrushchev knew little to nothing of.

It should however be stressed that there is no desire to give the impression of Khrushchev’s leadership as something entirely counterrevolutionary. We must rather say it was misguided and a product of miscalculations. For unlike the patient, reflective and meticulous approach of Lenin and Stalin, Khrushchev was impulsive and unpredictable by nature[xxiii]. His lack of ideological understanding has been made evident, but that is not to say there was no support of revolutionary governments. We cannot completely ignore deals such as the provision of interest free loans to Cuba and the purchase of the US embargoed Cuban sugarcane.

There are however other instances where the Soviets failed to support the Cuban government. For example in 1963 Cuba refused to sign a treaty which would declare Latin America a nuclear weapons free zone. Cuba would only sign the treaty on the basis of the US removing their arsenal from the Panama Canal zone and Puerto Rico[xxiv]. This position was opposed by the Soviets even though the US arsenal represented a real danger to Cuba. The Cuban leadership were also critical of the USSR’s light response to the US intervention in the Dominican Republic where the US motive was to ‘prevent another Cuba’, thus implying a lack of appetite on the Soviet part to defend the international revolutionary movement, as was the case in Vietnam[xxv]. Fidel Castro would again openly criticise Soviet policy on August 10th 1967. This was because the Soviets were supplying technological assistance to capitalist states, including Cuba's regional rivals; Colombia and Venezuela[xxvi].Such an approach being the material manifestation of the peaceful coexistence policy.

It is clear then that the Soviet commitment to Cuba’s revolution is at best uncertain. What is certain is that Soviet foreign policy lacked the ideological grounding to make it of Leninist revolutionary essence. This is shown with regards to theoretical positions and their material manifestations. Thus, there is an arrival at conclusions which contravene conventional wisdom but bear greater relation to the actual conditions of Cuban-Soviet relations.

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