Saturday, 23 April 2011

Edited version of a speech given at the Manchester RATB commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the victory at the Bay of Pigs 17 April 2011

Our celebrations today coincide with the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba. So-called ‘Cubanologists’ and spokespersons for the mass media will be examining its proceedings in minute detail: will it be a rubber-stamping exercise proving once again the dictatorial nature of the Castro brothers, or a milestone in Cuba’s inevitable progress towards market socialism and thence to capitalism? Of course we should not expect the facts to stand in the way of shallow prejudice, and we may expect all sorts of nonsense in the days to come.

For our part, we will take what Raul Castro says as the most authoritative view, and even the BBC has to concede that ‘he insisted the socialist character of Cuba would be "irreversible" and accumulation of property would not be allowed.’ In other words, there would be no change to Fidel’s declaration 50 years ago. And in truth, the position of the Cuban revolution, despite serious problems, despite the illegal US economic blockade, is stronger now than it has been in the past. Consider its international position: its principal enemy, US imperialism, is engaged in three wars in the Middle East and north Africa. It has been unable to resolve its financial and economic crisis. It faces challenges from other imperialist powers, and from the rise of China as a major industrial power. Its position in Latin America has been significantly undermined, in part through European competition, in part through the rise of Brazil as a regional power, but most significantly of all, through the development of the ALBA alliance.

However, what I want to discuss is what Cuban socialism means for us today, here in Britain, where we face a massive assault on working class conditions. Let us take a few examples of what is happening now:

• New limits on housing benefit paid to the poor mean that hundreds of thousands of people face losing their accommodation;
• Disability tests run by the French multinational Atos are forcing hundreds of thousands of people on Disability Benefit from the higher level of Employment and Support Allowance on to basic Jobseekers’ Allowance despite the fact they are clearly not fit for work;
• Essential local council services for the elderly, the disabled and children are being slashed up and down the country because of a 26% cut in central government support;
• Working class youth will be unable to complete secondary education because of cuts in Education Maintenance Allowance worth £30 a week if they continue in full-time education;
• Even if they do complete their secondary education, they will be unable to go to University because they will have to pay £9,000 tuition fees each year plus their living costs. This will also rule out many middle class students;
• The Health and Social Services Bill currently before parliament will end central government responsibility for delivering universal health care free at the point of use. That responsibility will pass to health care multinationals running commissioning consortia which will have powers to decide what health services to buy, and whether to charge patients for them, and if so, how much.

British police thugs attack student protesters

What we are seeing is the wholesale dismantling of what is called by many the Welfare State. I say ‘by many’ because in reality we do not have a welfare state in this, one of the richest countries in the world. We do have a system of state welfare, to be sure: but that is something quite different. A welfare state is a state committed to the welfare of its entire people, where access to adequate housing, access to free and universal education, to free and universal health care are treated as basic human rights. Such a state cannot be a capitalist state, which exists to defend the rights to private ownership and exploitation. A welfare state can in fact be only a socialist state. What is happening today in Britain demonstrates this point conclusively, especially if you look at how the Cuban state managed an economic crisis far more severe in the 1990s.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries in 1991, Cuban GDP fell by 35%. Seizing the chance, the US ratcheted up its illegal economic blockade with the Torricelli and Helms Burton Acts. But despite this, there were no moves by the Cubans to privatise health or education. Far from it: the share of Cuban GDP on social programmes rose by 34%; between 1990 and 2003, the number of Cuban doctors increased by 76%, dentists by 46%, nurses by 16%. The number of maternity homes rose by 86%, day care centres for older people by 107%. Infant mortality fell from 11.1 per thousand in 1989 to 6.4 per thousand in 1999. Education spending rose from 8.5% of GDP in 1990 to 11.7% in 1999.

In other words, amidst the devastation of that economic crisis and the terrible privations it caused, the Cuban people and the Cuban state made a choice: to preserve and extend essential welfare. Such a response is only possible with different social relations, ones based on collective ownership of property: a socialist system, a genuine welfare state.

In contrast to Cuba, the wealth of Britain is vast. Its overseas assets are a staggering £10,000bn, seven times its annual output. Through the City of London, the largest financial centre in the world, British imperialism loots the world, impoverishing billions. Yet we are being told by the government and the millionaire press that we are living beyond our means, that the public sector debt is unsustainable, that the NHS has to be reformed, that we cannot afford the current level of state university investment, or to educate working class youth or to give the disabled and elderly a decent healthy life.

This in a country where there are 500,000 millionaires, each with their own tax avoidance scheme, gigantic multinationals – two of the largest oil companies in the world, the largest arms manufacturer – also with their own tax avoidance schemes, vast banks and financial companies to whom tax avoidance is just a standard way of doing business. £120bn is the estimated loss each year to the British state as a result of all this personal and corporate tax avoidance, more than enough to cover the £81bn state spending cuts demanded by the City of London and its ConDem government.

Yet what is at issue is not the degree of national wealth, but its social form: that of private property with the social relations that follow. In conditions of economic and social crisis, the defence of the interests of private property are not compatible with systems of state welfare even in a country as wealthy as Britain. It reminds us that the systems of state welfare established in most European countries proved possible because of the exceptional conditions of the post-war boom from 1945 to the 1970s, and necessary to prevent the working class fighting for a real welfare state like that which existed in the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc.

What this tells us as we face up to the political problems presented by the imperialist crisis, is that what takes place in Cuba matters to us. It matters to us because it is the alternative, the alternative that we must constantly put before the working class here as it takes a stand against the impact of the crisis. What we have to show is that we don’t have a welfare state in Britain, but we need one – and that means changing the social form of wealth from one based on private property to one based on collective ownership. Such is socialism: and Cuba shows on a daily basis that this is possible.

Robert Claridge,
Rock around the Blockade (RATB)