Samuel Farber has played an irreplaceable role in the third-camp Marxist tradition for more than six decades. Kent Worcester has conducted a fascinating interview with Farber about his political and intellectual history, now published in Left History journal (24, 1, Spring/Summer 2021).
Farber’s outstanding contribution has been his Marxist analysis of Cuban society, articulated in four books and countless articles. A simple rule should apply on the left: no socialist of any stripe should speak publicly about Cuba unless they have read Farber.
Farber’s book Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (2011) characterises Cuba as a class society, a “bureaucratic system of state collectivism”. Cuba’s economic surplus “is not extracted in the form of profits from individual enterprises, nor is it realised through the market... The surplus is appropriated directly, through the state’s control of the economy”.
Farber explains the power and privileges enjoyed by the Cuban bureaucratic ruling class, contrasted with the complete disenfranchisement of the Cuban working class. He explores the absence of democracy, interlaced with a critique of racial, gender and sexual oppression. Farber rightly opposes the US embargo but makes no concessions to sickly apologism about the Cuban welfare system. Cuban society cannot be defined as a “workers’ state” and is certainly not a model for socialists. Farber’s biography, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice (2016) exposes the ingrained Stalinism among the Cuban leadership.
Farber was born in 1939 to Polish-Jewish parents who emigrated to Cuba in the 1920s. He grew up in Marianao, near Havana and participated in the popular movement against the Batista dictatorship as a high school student. In 1958, Farber moved to the United States, where he joined the third camp, anti-capitalist, anti-Stalinist Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL).
In the early 1960s, Farber joined the International Socialists (IS: forerunner of the SWP) while studying in England. Returning to the US, he took part in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Farber was active in the Independent Socialist Clubs (ISC) and the US International Socialists (IS) during the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, he has contributed to a range of socialist publications, includingNew Politics and Against the Current. Farber taught for decades at Brooklyn College-CUNY, retiring in 2007. He has continued to write and engage with revolutionary socialist politics into his eighties.
The most enlightening aspects of the interview are Farber’s comments on some significant Marxists he met. The praise is fulsome, but criticism forthright.
In 1959, Farber first met Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s speeches were “a little long winded”, but a 1960 talk on imperialism and national liberation was “excellent”. In 1961, Shachtman spoke on the Russian revolution at a Chicago YPSL school, where he was denounced for supporting the Bay of Pigs attacks, but stood unequivocally for the withdrawal of US “advisers” from Vietnam. (He would later shift on Vietnam). Farber comments that “Shachtman was moving to the right, but at an uneven pace, and with some back and forth. It was not a unilinear process. In the case of Shachtman, I always wondered whether he was withholding from his followers how far to the right he had gone”.
Farber regards Hal Draper as a “mentor”. They worked together for five years in the Berkeley ISC branch. Draper “gave talks and offered incredibly useful advice. He had lots of insights about strategy and tactics for those of us in the FSM. He was very shrewd. But he didn’t take organisational responsibility”. But Draper “changed when he got older and became a bit harder and bitter in his approach. He became more interested in putting people down than winning them over”.
Farber witnessed a row Julius and Phyllis Jacobson had with Draper about whether to support Eldridge Cleaver, the presidential candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968. The ISC had already endorsed Cleaver and participated in his campaign. At the time “it struck me as a matter of tactics and strategy rather than principles. In arguing against this position, the Jacobsons were vituperative. They were literally screaming at Hal. After that I decided to avoid these kinds of arguments with them”. Later Farber states that the Jacobsons “were both quite sectarian when it came to the question of the Communist Party... They were complete Stalinophobes”.
Farber respected Tony Cliff, but “detected a crudity… a peasant-like homespun wisdom that was not an act”. Farber says Cliff was “intellectually unscrupulous”, spurning references to sources in his books and simply ignoring socialists he disagreed with. Farber refers to Cliff’s crass comment in the middle of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when he claimed, “there won’t be a war between the US and the USSR because the rate of profit is too high”.
Farber describes the culture of IS in the early 1960s as “easy-going, unpretentious, and democratic”. The first meeting he attended was a debate between Alasdair MacIntyre and Cliff on Marxism and philosophy, when MacIntyre “just demolished him”. But in the late sixties and early seventies IS started to change, when Cliff turned the group in what he called a “Leninist” direction. Farber did a speaking tour for IS in 1973, where he experienced its “undemocratic Zinovievite version of Bolshevism”.
Unlike other observers, Farber found the early IS “less elitist than the Shachtmanites, who suffered from what I might call a ‘cult of the heavies’”. He did not really regard the British IS as Shachtmanite.
Farber argues that “the difference between the bureaucratic collectivist perspective and the state-capitalist perspective was significant… the state-capitalist perspective had an adverse impact on how the British IS assessed various manifestations of Communism in the Third World”. Their approach “suffered from a certain degree of reductionism… they were very weak in terms of understanding third-world Stalinism”.
All Farber’s wider work displays his commitment to science, rationality and freedom. In my view, his weakest book is Before Stalinism (1990), which is highly critical of civil war Bolshevism and argues that a political opening was the necessary corollary of the NEP from 1921. However historical studies by Oliver Radkey, Scott Smith, Vladimir Brovkin, and Geoffrey Swain — all hostile to Bolshevism — demonstrate there were no other parties for the Bolsheviks to rule with. The Socialist Revolutionaries, Left SRs, Mensheviks and anarchists all got their political lines wrong after October 1917, on the workers’ government, the Soviets and Brest-Litovsk.
Crucially, all these opponents organised armed resistance against the Bolshevik-led workers’ government, participated in “alternative” governments and most backed reactionary bourgeois forces. This active hostility to Bolshevism, which was well developed by early 1918, persisted throughout the civil war (including Kronstadt), despite several attempts by the Bolsheviks to open political space for pro-worker opposition parties. Farber underestimates Bolshevik efforts at democracy and underplays their opponents’ anti-democratic practices. This undermines his reading of this period.
Farber has also come to reject what he regards as “Trotskyist organisation”. Given his experiences with Cliffites in the US and Britain, this is hardly surprising. However recent studies by Lih, Nimtz, Riddell and others show that the real Bolshevik tradition was very far from the semi-Stalinist approach of the SWP from the early 1970s. Lenin and Trotsky led organisations brimming with democratic debate, where nobody was forced to parrot politics they did not believe in.
There is no substitute for working class political organisation, to take on the ruling classes and their states. Poor past attempts do not invalid the need for revolutionary working class parties in today’s conditions. Farber should stick with it. We need comrades like him.