The C-word: comm**ism. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

Let’s talk about the C-word: Comm**ism. So much more shocking than the other C-word. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

You’d think it’d actually be pretty popular. I mean… it makes quite a lot of sense. What does it mean? It means a classless society, built on common ownership of the means of production, that by definition works to overcome the worst inheritance of human history: poverty, starvation, war, racism, sexism, national oppression, social alienation, inequality, exploitation. A collaborative, participatory society that seeks to elevate the oppressed to the highest levels of happiness, education and culture; that builds upon all advances in human understanding in order to create a qualitatively new way of being. This isn’t the place to dive into the theory, but let’s face it, it sounds great.

And yet, in the collective mind, ‘communism’ is a dirty word. When we think of communism, we don’t think of progress, literacy, economic uplift, culture, national reconciliation, peace, creativity, diversity. Rather we think of secret services, prisons, indoctrination, brainwashing, stale uniformity, dictatorship, militarism, bread queues, ration books. We think of the world described by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. We think pretty much exactly what senator Joseph McCarthy wanted us to think about communism: that it is the enemy of freedom.

This image is of course unfair, and represents a massive propaganda victory for the real enemy of peace and freedom: the imperialists. Ever since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 – almost a century ago – the media and education systems in the ‘free world’ have made anti-communist propaganda one of their most central tasks. The wretched of the earth rising up and expropriating the oppressors? That’s the sort of contagious idea that has to be nipped in the bud. Hence the endless and intense slander campaign against any socialist country that ever existed, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, from Vietnam to Venezuela, from China to Albania, from People’s Korea to Yugoslavia. Any progress made by these countries is totally ignored; any problems and failures are magnified out of all proportion; issues are distorted and lies are spread.

Am I saying that these socialist countries, led by communist parties, were/are perfect models of this new type of society? Clearly not. There were, and are, massive problems in the building of socialism and laying the foundation for a future communism. However:

1) All of these problems are exaggerated by a well-funded western media and academia, and all too often the ‘statistics’ about socialist history are based on the claims of highly dubious McCarthyite ‘scholars’.

2) Issues regarding repression must be seen in the context of socialist states having to protect themselves within a hostile international atmosphere where the enemy spares no effort to destabilise and attack them (just look at the 600+ attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro).

3) Building a new society and getting over the inheritance of feudalism and capitalism is never going to be easy.

4) Most accusations pointed at the socialist countries generally speaking apply in much greater measure to the capitalist countries. For example, no socialist country in history ever had anything like the incarceration rate of the modern day USA.

5) Whilst it’s popular to talk about the “crimes of communism”, what about the “crimes of capitalism”? Such as, for example:

  • The transatlantic slave trade
  • The genocide of the native populations of the Americas and Australia
  • The numerous famines in India and Ireland brought about by British colonial policy
  • Apartheid
  • The dispossession of the Palestinians
  • The killing of 10 million Congolese by Belgian colonialism
  • The 13 million that die every year due to malnutrition (wholly preventable but for capitalist greed)
  • The rape of Africa
  • The wanton destruction of Vietnam and Korea
  • The Opium Wars
  • The Nazi holocaust
  • Systemic racism
  • The cult of the individual and the breakdown of community
  • The destruction of cultures across the globe
  • The monopolisation of wealth by a small handful of implausibly rich people

It’s quite obvious to any thinking person that, even if we accept the extremely dodgy and dubious claims of CIA-payroll historians like Robert Conquest, the “crimes of capitalism” far outweigh any “crimes of communism”.

6) Meanwhile, in the face of great difficulties, socialist countries have achieved some pretty extraordinary things.

Let’s take China for example. Pre-revolution life expectancy was around 35; now it’s around 74. Literacy was under 20%; now it’s 93%. It has witnessed the most rapid poverty alleviation in history. Its people were looked down upon as the scum of the earth. As WEB DuBois said in a broadcast on Radio Peking:

“What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not the time when in Shanghai no Chinese man dare set foot in a park which he paid for.”

And who doesn’t know that Cuba provides by far the highest standard of living for ordinary people anywhere in South America and the Caribbean; that it has a life expectancy of 79 and literacy rate of 99.8%, in spite of a cruel economic blockade; that it has done more to eradicate the scourge of racism than any other country in the western hemisphere?

And who doesn’t know that the Soviet Union brought about a profound improvement in the living standards of the vast majority of its people; that it defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe; that it provided crucial support to the liberation movements in Africa, to Cuba, to Nicaragua, to Vietnam, to Korea; that it brought about a transformation of the republics of Central Asia, ground down for centuries by competing colonial interests? When we think of communism, why isn’t it all this that we think of?

Certainly, many individuals have suffered unfairly in socialist countries. But why is the blame always assigned to ‘communism’? If I want to see oppression and repression, I can take the briefest of walks down Tottenham High Street. If I want to see corruption, bureaucracy and the centralisation of power, I can observe the proceedings at Westminster. But these things don’t get attributed to ‘capitalism’. Most people who walk past dozens of homeless people each day don’t turn into zealous anti-capitalists (more’s the pity). Anti-communism is the dominant narrative, and so it’s easy to adapt to. Anti-capitalism is not at all the dominant narrative, and to adapt to it is to face isolation and abuse.

The question is: can the C-word be re-claimed, or has the propaganda war already been lost? Are sensible, progressive people so put off by any mention of communism that they immediately disregard anything associated with it? Do we need new terminology for the basic principles of equality, people’s power and social justice? I have come across quite a few very decent and principled people putting forward such an argument – that the C-word is beyond the pale. I’m not convinced. Imperialist cultural hegemony isn’t going to broken unless people who oppose it stand up confidently and loudly for what they believe in. Are we simply going to allow free reign to slander and disinformation? Should we leave prejudices intact? To use a parallel from the world of religion: could Muslims get rid of islamophobia by changing the name of their religion to, say, Democratic Mohammedanism?

Prejudices need to be attacked. Disinformation needs to be exposed. People’s psychological/ideological/cultural reliance on imperialism needs to be broken. That won’t happen if we keep playing by the enemy’s rules.

Like Malcolm said:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Book review of “China’s Global Strategy – Towards a Multipolar World” by Jenny Clegg

Jenny Clegg’s book China’s Global Strategy, published by Pluto Press in 2009, is an extremely useful examination of China’s economic and political outlook. It focuses on the country’s overriding strategy of developing a ‘multipolar world’, where no one country dominates and where the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America – for centuries ground down by colonialism and neo-colonialism – have space to develop in peace.

China’s vision: survival and peaceful development in a hostile world

China’s strategy is derived from one simple overriding aim: the survival of People’s China. The need to maintain China’s sovereignty in the face of intense imperialist hostility gives rise to the main aspects of China’s economic and geopolitical strategy: integrating itself into the world economy; opposing US domination; promoting ‘balance’ – a larger (and increasing) number of influential powers; promoting South-South cooperation; utilising the rivalry between the different imperialist powers to push forward the development agenda; and promoting the general rise of the third world.

All these elements can be summed up as the drive towards a multipolar world; a world involving “a pattern of multiple centres of power, all with a certain capacity to influence world affairs, shaping a negotiated order“.

The theory of multipolarity is largely the product of the collapse of the USSR and the boost it gave to the hegemonic ambitions of the United States. Despite the long period of hostility between China and the USSR, the latter’s existence was a powerful force of balance in world politics. With the USSR gone, the US embarked with renewed energy on an orgy of neocolonial domination: extending the reach of NATO further and further eastwards; waging wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Libya in the pursuit of natural resources and geopolitical advantage; imposing structural adjustment programmes on dozens of third-world countries; and deepening its military dominance through ‘missile defence’ and the like.

Clegg notes that “China … was left more exposed to US hegemonism by the collapse of the USSR and the eastern European communist states. The West had attempted to isolate China, imposing sanctions following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 …” (pp54-55)

Capitalising on advantages in technical innovation, especially in hi-tech weaponry, as well as its cultural influence, the United States was re-establishing its power superiority. By reviving both NATO and its military alliance with Japan, the United States was able to reincorporate Europe and Japan as junior partners and rein in their growing assertiveness, and to contain Russia as well as China, so weakening the multipolar trend …

For Chinese analysts [the war against Yugoslavia] marked a new phase of US neo-imperialist interventionism and expansionism – a bid to create a new empire – which presaged new rounds of aggression and which would be seriously damaging for the sovereignty and developmental interests of many countries. The United States was stepping up its global strategic deployment, preparing to ‘contain, besiege and even launch pre-emptive military strikes against any country which dares to defy its world hegemony’.” (p59; citation from Wang Jincun, ‘”Democracy” veils hegemony’)

Clegg cites [former Chinese President] Hu Jintao at a meeting of senior Communist Party leaders in 2003: “They [the US] have extended outposts and placed pressure points on us from the east, south and west. This makes a great change in our geopolitical environment.” (p34)

In this dangerous environment, faced with the unrelenting hostility of the world’s only remaining superpower, China developed the clever – albeit dangerous – strategy of integrating itself into the world economy and, in so doing, making itself indispensable to the US. It is clear that this policy has, so far, been successful in its main objective; although the US is desperate to slow China’s economic growth and restrict its political influence, it finds itself unable to launch the type of diplomatic (or indeed military) attack it would like to, for fear of Chinese economic retaliation.

As Clegg puts it: “China is using globalisation to make itself indispensable to the functioning of the world economy, promoting an interdependence which means it becomes increasingly difficult for the United States to impose a strategy of ‘isolation and encirclement’.

Indeed, Clegg suggests that, “at its core, China’s is a Leninist strategy whose cautious implementation is infused with the principles of protracted people’s war: not overstepping the material limitations, but within those limits ‘striving for victory’; being prepared to relinquish ground when necessary and not making the holding of any one position the main objective, focusing instead on weakening the opposing force; advancing in a roundabout way; using ‘tit for tat’ and ‘engaging in no battle you are not sure of winning’ in order to ‘subdue the hostile elements without fighting’.” (p223)

Manoeuvring towards multipolarity

Twenty-one years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conditions are certainly right for a multipolar world, and this is beginning to take shape.

That the various major countries no longer unquestioningly accept US dominance is demonstrated by the bitterness over the Iraq war, which was opposed by France, Germany, Russia and India. More recently, Russia and China have used their position on the UN Security Council to prevent a full-scale military assault on Syria. Meanwhile, a strong anti-imperialist trend has been emerging in Latin America, with Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua leading the move away from US dominance. Southern Africa – not so long ago dominated by vicious apartheid regimes in South Africa, South West Africa (Namibia) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and by Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique – is now largely composed of progressive states.

The major ‘non-aligned’ powers such as Brazil, Russia, South Africa, India and Iran are all forging closer relations with China and are starting to take a leading role in developing a new type of world – a ‘fair globalisation’, as the Chinese put it.

China has focused strongly on building international alliances at every level. It initiated the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was constituted in 2001 in order to cooperate with regional allies on issues such as energy strategy, poverty alleviation and combating US-sponsored separatism. The SCO was built around the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, but includes a number of former Soviet republics in Central Asia as full members, while a number of key Asian powers, such as Iran, India and Pakistan, presently have observer status and may become full members in the future.

China is one of the driving forces behind BRICS – the international alliance of the five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. BRICS is firmly focused on promoting South-South cooperation, and the BRICS development bank (which could be launched within two years) will be provide crucial investment for development projects in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean.

China is also starting to lead east Asian economic cooperation, proposing and implementing the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), under which the weaker east Asian economies are given priority access to China’s markets, while China also benefits from the technical and other advantages of the more developed economies of the region.

Far from cutting the ground beneath the export-oriented countries of East Asia, the development of manufacturing in China has been the engine of regional economic growth. After 2001, with the United States in recession and the Japanese economy still stagnating, China’s growth was key to reflating the regional economy still shaky after the 1997 crisis.” (p116)

Through its policies of regional security and economic cooperation, as well as its complex relationship with the various imperialist powers, China is frustrating US expansionism. “The US aim to encircle China though networking the hub-and-spokes pattern of its bilateral military alliances into an Asian NATO based on the conditions of its own absolute security, is therefore being thwarted as China, region by region, seeks to foster an alternative model of cooperative security.” (p121)

But hasn’t China capitulated to the US?

Clegg notes, and treats seriously, the left critique of China: that it is going down the path towards capitalism; that it is following the path of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

She writes: “Across a wide spectrum of view among the western Left, China’s gradual path of economic reform since the later 1970s has been regarded as a ‘creeping privatisation’ undermining self-reliance bit by bit with foreign investment steadily encroaching on the country’s economic sovereignty. Its 2001 WTO accession is thus seen as the outcome of a gradual process of capitalist restoration – a final step in sweeping away the last obstacle in the way of China’s transition from socialism.

Clegg argues that, on the contrary, China’s “’embrace of globalisation’ is in fact a rather audacious move to strengthen its own national security … The goal is not to transform the entire system into a capitalist one but to improve and strengthen the socialist system and develop the Chinese economy as quickly as possible within the framework of socialism.” (p124)

This is the basis on which China joined the WTO – in order to able to “insert itself into the global production chains linking East Asia to the US and other markets, thus making itself indispensable as a production base for the world economy. This would make it far more difficult for the United States to impose a new Cold War isolation.

Further, China’s integration in the world economy has allowed it to be a part of “the unprecedented global technological revolution, offering a short cut for the country to accelerate its industrial transformation and upgrade its economic structure. By using new information technologies to propel industrialisation, incorporating IT into the restructuring of SOEs [state-owned enterprises], China would be able to make a leap in development, at the same time using new technologies to increase the state’s capacity to control the economy.” (pp128-9)

Clegg quotes Rong Ying’s explanation of the economic drivers behind China’s strategy: “Developing countries could make full use of international markets, technologies, capital and management experience of developed countries to cut the cost of learning and leap forward by transcending the limits of their domestic markets and primitive accumulation.” (p84; Rong Ying is a foreign affairs expert at the China Institute of International Studies)

In the author’s view, China is not abandoning Leninism by seeking to engage with the US; rather, it is following the creative and pragmatic spirit of Leninism, making difficult compromises in a novel and extremely tough situation. Moreover, in dealing with second-rate imperialist powers, such as France and Germany, for example, Chinese strategists have taken to heart Lenin’s advice to take “advantage of every, even the smallest, opportunity of gaining an … ally, even though this ally be temporary, vacillating, unreliable and conditional“. (Cited on p99)

Despite the apparent similarities between China’s ‘reform and opening up’ and the revisionist era in the Soviet Union, there are also some important differences.

First, of course, the prevailing economic and political circumstances: China in 1980 was significantly less developed than the USSR in 1960; the peasant population was (and is) still much larger than the working class; the average standard of living was far behind the major capitalist countries, as was the level of technical development.

Second, the imperialist countries had made huge advances in military technology, which China had to catch up with if it wanted security. Therefore, the Chinese invocation of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (the economic policy introduced in the Soviet Union in 1921 that introduced market elements in order to kick-start the economy after the war of intervention) has a lot more substance than Gorbachev’s.

Naturally, having seen what happened in the USSR, people get anxious when they see market reforms in China. However, if the “proof of the pudding is in the eating”, then it should be noted that, whereas the USSR stagnated through the 1980s, China has witnessed the most impressive programme of poverty alleviation in human history .

Whereas, in the last years of the USSR’s existence, the needs of its population were increasingly ignored, in China, the needs of the people are very much at the top of the agenda. Whereas, in the USSR, technical development fell way behind the imperialist countries in the 80s, in China, it is rising to the level of the imperialist countries. Indeed, the centre of gravity of the scientific world is slowly but surely shifting east. And China is playing a valuable role in sharing technology, for example by launching satellites for Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Whereas, in the USSR, the ruling party (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) started to lose a lot of its prestige, the Chinese Communist Party remains extremely popular and is by far the largest political party in the world, with over 85 million members. And the Chinese leadership have clearly studied and understood the process of degeneration in the USSR. The new President, Xi Jinping, has talked about this issue a number of times, and warned that the party must remain firm in its principles and its working class orientation. A recent article quotes Xi telling party insiders that “China must still heed the ‘deeply profound’ lessons of the former Soviet Union, where political rot, ideological heresy and military disloyalty brought down the governing party. ‘Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered’, Mr Xi said. ‘Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone'”.

So perhaps what we are seeing is an extremely complex, creative, dialectical and dynamic approach to developing the aims of Chinese socialism and global development. After all, to refuse to accept any compromise; to demand revolutionary ‘purity’ at the expense of the practical needs of the revolution; would be utterly un-Marxist.

Is China the latest imperialist country?

Another accusation that is often levelled against China (usually by liberal apologists of imperialism) is that it has become an imperialist country; that its investment in dozens of third world countries amounts to a policy of ‘export of capital’; that it has established an exploitative relationship with those countries with which it trades.

To be honest, it’s difficult to take these claims seriously. By and large, they are the jealous cries of British, US, Japanese, French and German finance capitalists, who have got enormously rich out of the structural adjustment programmes imposed on so many third world countries in the 1990s and whose profits are now threatened by China’s emergence as an alternative source of development capital in Asia, Africa and South America.

Those countries of the Global South that are working hard to improve the lives of their populations are deeply appreciative of the support they get in this regard. Venezuela’s rise over the last 14 years would have been extremely difficult without Chinese support, and the much-missed Hugo Chávez was a great friend of China. Chinese investment is also very important to Cuba, South Africa, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Jamaica and elsewhere. An important recent example is the 40-billion-dollar deal whereby China will build in Nicaragua an alternative to the Panama Canal – “a step that looks set to have profound geopolitical ramifications“. As Clegg writes: “China’s large-scale investment and trade deals are starting to break the stranglehold of international capital over the developing world.” (p212)

Since joining the WTO, “China’s lower tariffs and rising imports have helped boost trade with other developing countries, many of which are experiencing significant trade balances in their favour for the first time in decades … Thanks to increased demand from China, the value of exports by all developing countries rose by 25 percent, bringing their share in world trade to 31 percent in 2004, the highest since 1950.

Since 2004, China has also taken major steps in its commitment to cooperation through large-scale investment in the developing world. From Latin America to Africa, countries are increasingly looking to China as a source of investment and a future business partner, as China seeks synergies in South-South cooperation…

By funding infrastructure projects in other developing countries China is helping to boost trade so that they can lift themselves out of poverty. In addition, China has reduced or cancelled debts owed by 44 developing countries and has provided assistance to more than 110 countries for 2,000 projects.” (p210)

Further: “Over 30 African countries have benefited from China’s debt cancellations to the tune of $1.3bn … Investment credit is to be doubled to $3bn by 2009 [it is now more than double this figure]. Chinese companies offer technical assistance and build highways and bridges, sports stadiums, schools and hospitals to ensure projects deliver clear benefits to locals, for example in helping to restore Angola’s war-ravaged infrastructure.” (p211)

China is intent on assisting its brothers and sisters in the third world, and it feels that, by improving south-south cooperation, by sharing its technical know-how, and by helping to raise developing countries out of poverty, it is moving towards its overall strategy of multipolarisation.

Clegg sums up China’s international policy as attempting to create “a new international order based on non-intervention and peaceful coexistence without arms races, in which all countries have an equal voice in shaping a more balanced globalisation geared to the human needs of peace, development and sustainability“. (p226)

A dangerous game

China has followed a path of rapid growth, which has led to phenomenal results in terms of improving the lives of ordinary people. In the last 30 years, the proportion of Chinese people living below the poverty line has fallen from 85% to under 16%. Life expectancy is 74 (a rise of 28 in the last half-century!). Literacy is an impressive 93%, which compares extremely well with the pre-revolution level of 20% (and, for example, with India’s 74%).

Nonetheless, the economic reforms have undoubtedly brought serious problems – in particular: unemployment (albeit a reasonably manageable 4%), a massive increase in wealth disparity, regional disparities, an unsustainable imbalance between town and country, reliance on exports, the growth of unregulated cheap labour, and an unstable ‘floating population’ of rural migrants.

These are, of course, problems that face many other countries as well, including the wealthy imperialist ones. The difference is that in China there are both the political will and the economic resources to seriously address these issues. Huge campaigns are under way to reduce unemployment, to reduce the gap between town and country, to modernise the rural areas, to create employment, to wipe out corruption, to empower the grassroots, to improve workplace democracy, to improve access to education, to improve rural healthcare, and so on. Such are the issues on which the government’s attention is firmly focused.

The problems in the rural healthcare and education systems have been placed centre stage in the government’s ‘people first’ agenda. In 2006, a rural cooperative medicare system was started in low-income areas, with farmers, central and local government all making equal contributions. According to government estimates, the new scheme already covers 83 percent of the rural population, and the aim is for complete coverage of the whole population by 2010 … To improve the situation in rural education, the government is abolishing fees for all 150 million rural students in primary and secondary education, while increasing support for teacher training.” (p155)

China is also strongly focused on empowering its trade unions to represent the interests of the working class in its bid for better pay and conditions. Unlike in Britain, corporate no-union policies are illegal, and union officials have the right to enter the premises of non-union enterprises in order to recruit.

Clegg notes that “the rabidly anti-union Wal-Mart was compelled by law to recognise a trade union for the first time anywhere in the world in one of its outlets in Fujian province in 2006“. (p162)

Conclusion

There are a variety of opinions with regard to the political and economic path that China is following. Only time will tell if the Chinese vision will lead to the long-term strengthening of socialism and a more equitable world. As things stand, this seems to be what is happening, and that is one of the reasons that the outlook for the world is much more favourable than it was at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Progressive people worldwide should take courage in China’s achievements, its people-centred policy, its continued support for the developing world, and its leadership role within the progressive family of nations. The destruction of People’s China would be a tragedy for the people of China and the developing world, and would be a disastrous setback for the international socialist and anti-imperialist movement. For that reason, China should be defended and supported.

China’s Global Strategy gives a thorough overview of the current political and economic thinking in China, and is the first book in the English language to perform this task in such a succinct way. While Clegg is essentially supportive of China’s policy, she certainly does not attempt to sweep its problems under the carpet, and, indeed, deals with those issues at some length. Although the book is written in a relatively academic style, it is nonetheless perfectly readable even for those with little knowledge of Chinese politics, and is an invaluable resource for those wanting to understand the most significant force for progress and peace in the world today.

Cuito Cuanavale 25 years on: celebrating revolutionary internationalism in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid

27 June, 2013

“The history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale” – Fidel Castro

Twenty-five years ago, on 27 June 1988, the army of apartheid South Africa was forced to start withdrawing from Angola after 13 years’ intervention in that country’s civil war. The South Africans had been outmanoeuvred and outgunned by the Angolan defence forces (FAPLA – the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola), in combination with thousands of Cuban soldiers, and units from both the MK (uMkhonto weSizwe – the armed wing of the ANC) and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army of Namibia – the armed wing of the South West African People’s Organisation). The four-month battle between the SADF and the Cuban-Angolan force at Cuito Cuanavale was, to use the words of Nelson Mandela, “the turning point for the liberation of Africa from the scourge of apartheid.”

Background

Cuba’s assistance to post-colonial Angola started in 1975, just a few days after the independence celebrations on 11 November (Angola won its independence from Portugal in the aftermath of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974). At the time, three different Angolan political-military movements were struggling for supremacy: the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola). The most radical, most popular and best organised of these groups was the MPLA, which had the support of most of the socialist countries. The FNLA was allied with the pro-imperialist Mobutu dictatorship in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and UNITA was collaborating with the US, white-supremacist South Africa and the representatives of the old colonial order. As Fidel Castro noted at the time: “The Soviet Union and all the countries of Eastern Europe support the MPLA; the revolutionary movements of Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau support the MPLA; the majority of the nonaligned nations support the MPLA. In Angola, the MPLA represents the progressive cause of the world.” (Speech given in Havana to the first contingent of military instructors leaving for Angola, 12 September 1975)

South Africa, faced with the prospect of pro-socialist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, independent states in Angola and Mozambique (plus a rising independence movement in its colony of South West Africa – now Namibia), decided to intervene militarily in Angola on the side of UNITA. The SADF entered Angola from Namibia on 14 October 1975, and the MPLA’s army, FAPLA, was in no position to stop its advance. It was, writes Piero Gleijeses, “a poor man’s war. South of Luanda there were only weak FAPLA units, badly armed and poorly trained. They were strong enough to defeat UNITA, but were no match for the South Africans” (‘Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976’).

South Africa’s invasion, along with the continued threat and provocations by Mobutu’s Zaire, caused Fidel Castro and the leading commanders in Cuba to understand that Angola needed urgent help. In mid-November 1975, several hundred Cuban soldiers boarded two planes for Angola. Over the course of the next 13 years, nearly 400,000 Cubans volunteered in Angola, mostly as soldiers but also as doctors, nurses, teachers and advisers.

With Cuban assistance (and with the help of Soviet advisers and weaponry), the Angolans drove the SADF troops back across the border, and for the next decade or so South Africa focused its efforts in Angola around destabilisation, providing significant financial and logistical support for UNITA, thereby extending a brutal civil war that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Angolan civilians.

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

As long as Angola was embroiled in bitter civil war, it was not a major threat to apartheid control of South Africa or Namibia. But in mid-1987, FAPLA – with the help of Soviet and Cuban forces – launched a major offensive against UNITA. This offensive had the potential to finally bring an end to the civil war – an outcome that neither South Africa nor the US could accept. Therefore the SADF intervened again. “By early November”, writes Gleijeses, “the SADF had cornered elite Angolan units in Cuito Cuanavale and was poised to destroy them.”

Ronnie Kasrils notes that the situation “could not have been graver. Cuito could have been overrun then and there by the SADF, changing the strategic situation overnight. The interior of the country would have been opened up to domination by UNITA, with Angola being split in half. This was something Pretoria and [UNITA leader Jonas] Savimbi had been aiming at for years.”

The Cubans moved decisively in support of their African allies. Fidel decided that more Cuban troops must be sent immediately, boosting the total number in Angola to over 50,000.

Cuito Cuanavale was defended by 6,000 Cuban and Angolan troops, using sophisticated Soviet weaponry that had been rushed to the front. The SADF had been convinced that its 9,000 elite troops – in addition to several thousand UNITA fighters – would be able to conquer Cuito and thereby inflict a major defeat on MPLA, and indeed the progressive forces of the whole region. But Cuito held out over the course of four months, in what has been described as the biggest battle on African soil since World War II (Greg Mills and David Williams, Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa, 2006). Kasrils notes: “All the South African attempts to advance were pushed back. Their sophisticated long-range artillery kept bombing day and night. But it didn’t frighten the Angolan-Cuban forces and turned out to be ineffective.”

With the South African stranglehold at Cuito Cuanavale broken by the end of March 1988, the Cuban-Angolan forces launched a major offensive in the south-west of the country. This offensive is what Castro had intended from the start: to tie South Africa down with pitched battles at Cuito (several hundred kilometres from its nearest bases in occupied Namibia) and then launch a ferocious, dynamic attack to drive South Africa out of Angola once and for all, “like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right – strikes“. Castro noted: “While in Cuito Cuanavale the South African troops were bled, to the south-west 40,000 Cuban and 30,000 Angolan troops, supported by some 600 tanks, hundreds of pieces of artillery, a thousand anti-aircraft weapons and the daring MiG-23 units that secured air supremacy advanced towards the Namibian border, ready literally to sweep up the South African forces deployed along that main route.” (Cited in Vladimir Shubin ‘The Hot “Cold War”‘)

Kasrils writes: “The end for the SADF was signaled on June 27 1988. A squadron of MiGs bombed the Ruacana and Calueque installations, cutting the water supply to Ovamboland and its military bases and killing 11 young South African conscripts. A MiG-23 executed a neat victory roll over the Ruacana dam. The war was effectively over.”

The supposedly invincible South African Defence Force had been forced out of Angola. The apartheid regime was left with no choice but to sue for peace.

Turning point for southern Africa

Fidel stated that “the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale”. Nelson Mandela is on record as saying that Cuito Cuanavale was “the turning point for the liberation of Africa from the scourge of apartheid”. What made a battle in the Angolan war the major turning point for the wider southern African region?

Isaac Saney explains in his excellent book ‘Cuba: A Revolution in Motion’: “The defeat shattered the confidence of the South African military, and with the approach of Cuban forces toward Namibia, Pretoria sought a means by which to extricate their troops ‘without humiliation and alive’. Thus, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was instrumental in paving the path to negotiations. In December 1988, an agreement was reached between Cuba and Angola on one side and South Africa on the other, which provided for the gradual withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and the establishment of an independent Namibia”.

So, as part of the negotiation process resulting from the Cuban-Angolan victory, South Africa was forced to set a timetable for withdrawal from Namibia. Namibia became an independent state in March 1990. The victory in Angola also provided important impetus for the anti-apartheid forces within South Africa. In early 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 long years, the ANC and other liberation organisations were unbanned, and the negotiations towards a free South Africa were begun in earnest. UNITA suffered a series of major military reverses and Angola was able to start pursuing a course of peaceful progress. These were all extraordinary developments that nobody could have predicted a few years’ earlier.

“Cuito Cuanavale changed the military balance in Southern Africa on the side of liberation” (Kasrils).

Not a proxy cold war but an epic battle between the forces of imperialism and the forces of progress

It has been suggested by several western historians that the war in Angola was, at heart, an extension of the so-called Cold War between the two superpowers of the day (the USA and the USSR) with South Africa acting on behalf of the USA and Cuba acting on behalf of the USSR. Such an analysis is wholly refuted by the facts; its only purpose is to place a moral equivalency between imperialism and socialism.

For one thing, Cuba has tended to maintain a high degree of political independence in spite of close relations with the Soviet Union. In Angola, it is well documented that the Soviets were surprised by the sudden arrival – in both 1975 and 1987 – of large numbers of Cuban soldiers. Kasrils writes that the US security services were “surprised to discover that the Soviet Union’s so-called proxy had not even consulted Moscow over Havana’s massive intervention. They were even more taken aback when sophisticated Soviet military equipment was rushed to Angola to supply the Cuban reinforcements.”

Even the arch-reactionary Henry Kissinger, who was among the leading ‘hawks’ in relation to US Angola policy at the time, admitted: “At the time, we thought Castro was operating as a Soviet surrogate. We could not imagine that he would act so provocatively so far from home unless he was pressured by Moscow to repay the Soviet Union for its military and economic support. Evidence now available suggests that the opposite was the case.” (Cited in ‘Conflicting Missions’)

The Soviet Union did provide significant support for the MPLA, sending weapons, funding, training and military advisers to Angola (as documented in detail in Vladimir Shubin’s book ‘The Hot “Cold War”‘). Furthermore, they provided much of the weaponry and planes used by the Cubans. Was this done in the pursuit of cynical geostrategic interests, for the sake of ‘cold war’ one-upmanship? Such a suggestion represents a vicious attack on the history of socialist internationalism. Shubin, former head of the Africa Section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s international department, writes:

“The Soviets did not assist liberation movements and African frontline states only because of the ‘Cold War’. To put it in the language of the day: such actions were regarded as part of the world ‘anti-imperialist struggle’, which was waged by the ‘socialist community’, ‘the national liberation movements’, and the ‘working class of the capitalist countries’… In reality the ‘Cold War’ was not part of our political vocabulary; in fact the term was used in a strictly negative sense. It was considered to be the creation of the ‘warmongers’ and ‘imperialist propaganda’. For us the global struggle was not a battle between the two ‘superpowers’ assisted by their ‘satellites’ and ‘proxies’, but a united fight of the world’s progressive forces against imperialism.”

One need only look at the succession of devastating, predatory wars of imperialist domination since the collapse of the Soviet Union – Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – to see that, in spite of a period of intense confusion and political degeneration, the USSR played a fundamentally positive role in opposing imperialism and standing with the oppressed nations.

The continuing relevance and necessity of revolutionary internationalism

Why is it important to remember Cuito Cuanavale? Because it represents a pinnacle of revolutionary internationalism, of solidarity between peoples struggling for freedom. As Nelson Mandela said, speaking at a huge rally in Havana in July 1991:

“The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

Cuba’s actions in Angola were driven by a deep sense of social justice and revolutionary duty. One of the historical forces driving its actions was the depth of African roots in Cuban society. Fidel, speaking shortly after the departure of the first few hundred troops to Angola, explained: “African blood flows freely through our veins. Many of our ancestors came as slaves from Africa to this land. As slaves they struggled a great deal. They fought as members of the Liberating Army of Cuba. We’re brothers and sisters of the people of Africa and we’re ready to fight on their behalf!” This dynamic is reflected in the name that was given to the operation: ‘Carlota’ – in honour of the heroic Afro-Cuban female slave who led an uprising near Matanzas in 1843 and who, upon her capture, was drawn and quartered by Spanish colonial troops.

Raúl Castro pointed out that Cuba had itself benefitted massively from revolutionary international solidarity and thus felt morally compelled to extend the same type of solidarity to others. “We must not forget another deep motivation. Cuba itself had already lived through the beautiful experience of the solidarity of other peoples, especially the people of the Soviet Union, who extended a friendly hand at crucial moments for the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The solidarity, support, and fraternal collaboration that the consistent practice of internationalism brought us at decisive moments created a sincere feeling, a consciousness of our debt to other peoples who might find themselves in similar circumstances.” Fidel emphasises this point: “As we have said before, being internationalists is paying our debt to humanity. Those who are incapable of fighting for others will never be capable of fighting for themselves. And the heroism shown by our forces, by our people in other lands, faraway lands, must also serve to let the imperialists know what awaits them if one day they force us to fight on this land here.”

This type of solidarity, sacrifice, sense of duty and revolutionary morality is a model, a benchmark. This level of unity of the oppressed is exactly what we need in an era when imperialism – desperate to slow its historic decline and to cut down all potential challenges to its hegemony – is projecting its military power around the world, ably assisted by its media dominance.

Today, Syria is under attack from imperialism. Libya has been set back decades. The Democratic Republic of Congo has been put through a disastrous war, motivated by foreign greed for raw materials. Iraq is a shadow of its former self, as are the states of the old Yugoslavia. Iran is under permanent threat from the imperialists, as is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as is Zimbabwe, as are other countries.

The point is not that Cuba or any other country should send a massive military force to Syria, Iran or elsewhere (actually, a little-known episode of Cuban internationalism is that Cuba sent a thousand troops to assist Syria in the war against Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, 1973-74). Today’s global political and military context simply doesn’t support that type of action. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, Cuba could send troops far and wide with the confidence that the USSR was there to back it up. Today there is only one military superpower: the United States. China and other countries may be rising fast, but the US is still the largest military power by a massive margin (its per-capita military spending is 30 times that of China).

But there are other important ways of expressing international solidarity. Thankfully, the level of unity and confidence within the progressive family of nations seems to be rising again, after the years of confusion following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The simple fact that Britain, France and the US have not thus far been able to force direct military action against Syria is an indication of that change. Progressive regional and international blocs such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), CELAC (Economic Community of Latin America and the Caribbean), ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) and SADC (Southern African Development Community) offer a glimpse of a new future for unity and solidarity.

Until imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism have been finally eradicated from our planet; until there is no longer the oppression and domination of the ‘third world’ by a handful of rich countries; until a world order built on friendship, cooperation and equality has been established, the history of Cuba’s solidarity with Angola is a story that must continue to be told.

Cuba continues to uphold the banner of socialism

Another important reason to recall Cuba’s internationalist mission in southern Africa is to remind people that Cuba is one of the world’s shining lights of socialism, internationalism and progress. Although it has suffered immensely as a result of the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern European people’s democracies, and although it remains under permanent threat from imperialism, facing a cruel and illegal economic blockade, it continues to build a dignified, independent, socialist society. Operation Carlota has been one of its greatest contributions to the global freedom struggle.

At a ceremony for those Cubans (over 2,000) who lost their lives fighting for Angola’s freedom, Fidel spoke passionately in their honour:

“These men and women whom we are laying to rest today in the land of their birth gave their lives for the most treasured values of our history and our revolution. They died fighting against colonialism and neo-colonialism. They died fighting against racism and apartheid. They died fighting against the plunder and exploitation of the third world. They died fighting for the right of all peoples to ensure their wellbeing and development. They died fighting so there would be no hungry people or beggars, sick people without doctors, children without schools; human beings without work, shelter and food. They died so there would be no oppressors or oppressed, no exploiters or exploited. They died fighting for the dignity and freedom of all men and women. They died fighting for true peace and security of all nations. They died defending the ideals of [Cuban independence heroes] Céspedes and Máximo Gómez. They died defending the ideals of Martí and Maceo. They died defending the ideals and example of Marx, Engels and Lenin. They died defending the ideals and example that the October Revolution extended throughout the world. They died for socialism. They died for internationalism. They died for the proud, revolutionary homeland that Cuba is today. We will follow their example. Eternal glory to them.”

Cuba still lives by those same principles. Fidel’s mention of the October Revolution here – in a speech made in December 1989, in the context of the obvious decline of the Soviet Union – is clearly a way of declaring that Cuba would not be participating in Gorbachev’s attack on socialism and working class power; that Cuba would not follow the ‘trend’ of capitulation to capitalism. In the same speech, he says: “We have never aspired to receiving custody of the banners and the principles the revolutionary movement has defended throughout its heroic and inspiring history. However, if some day fate were to assign to us the role of being among the last defenders of socialism, in a world in which US imperialism has realised Hitler’s dreams of world domination, we would defend this bulwark to the last drop of our blood”.

Long live socialist Cuba! Victory to Africa in its continuing struggle for freedom! Towards ever greater unity and solidarity against imperialism!

Further study

ARTICLE: Ronnie Kasrils: Turning point at Cuito Cuanavale

ARTICLE: Piero Gleijeses: Cuito Cuanavale revisited

ARTICLE: Cuban Five member Fernando González: ‘Angola was milestone in my life

ARTICLE: Mandela thanks Cuba for its solidarity

BOOK: Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own. Pathfinder Press, 2013

BOOK: Piero Gleijeses – Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, Pretoria. Galago Publishing, 2003

BOOK: Vladimir Shubin – The Hot ‘Cold War’: The USSR in Southern Africa. Pluto Press, 2008

FILM: Sisters’ and Brothers’ Keeper (produced by Isaac Saney and Mark Rushton)