Joan Casanovas. Bread, or Bullets!: Urban Labor and Spanish Colonialism in Cuba, 1850-1898. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. 340 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-5675-4; $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4070-8.
Reviewed by Kirwin R. Shaffer (Humanities Department, Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales)
Published on H-Urban (July, 1999)
Bread, or Bullets! is one of the most important works on Cuban labor history and nineteenth century Cuban history to have been published in either English or Spanish. Joan Casanovas weaves a compelling history about the growth of urban labor as one of the leading political forces on the island during the last fifty years of Spanish rule. Casanovas argues convincingly that the urban labor movement, largely anarchist-led by the 1880s, played the central role in shaping the popular classes' drive toward independence in the 1890s after it became clear that colonial political reformism was a lost cause.
In the past decade or so, the historiography on Cuba has begun to diversify. While scholarship in the US still places a heavy emphasis on post-1959, increasingly non-Cuba based scholars are delving into serious studies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cuban scholarship has long focused on this period, but in light of the 1959 Revolution, scholarship has tended to emphasize late-colonial and early-republican era Cuban history (1850s-1930s) as either contributing to or taking away from a deterministic march toward a socialistic revolution. Bread, or Bullets! successfully avoids both historiographic trends. Rather, this book focuses on a far too understudied topic (nineteenth-century urban labor) and suggests a reevaluation of traditional Cuban scholarship about the important roles of blacks in the all-important tobacco trade, the roles of reformists and anarchists in building a successful labor movement on the island, and the roles of the labor movement in developing a separatist agenda by the 1890s.
The book is structured around three central questions: (1) what was the relationship between free workers and slaves in urban centers, and the relation of these workers to the labor movement?; (2) what historical circumstances led the urban popular classes to adopt particular ideologies and tactics?; and, (3) what was the role of urban laborers in the evolution of Spanish colonialism in Cuba?
In response to the first question, Casanovas contradicts the standard historiography that has labeled sugar a "black" crop and tobacco a "white" one. Rather, through primary and secondary materials, Casanovas illustrates how blacks were used extensively in the tobacco industry. This is particularly important when one remembers how tobacco was largely an "urban" industry and that tobacco workers played some of the most pivotal roles in working-class reform and agitation from the mid- to late-1800s. Besides the tobacco sector, slaves and free black workers increasingly labored alongside whites and Asians in all urban skilled and unskilled sectors of Havana's economy. As Casanovas concludes, this "diverse labor force worked together, which increasingly helped urban workers to recognize their common interests" (p. 42).
Casanovas, however, shows how this recognition of interests evolved slowly over the second half of the century. While workers of different ethnicities and regions of origin may have labored together, a united labor organization was hampered by the prevalence of peninsular, creole and Afro-Cuban artisan associations, societies and cabildos. These associations encouraged the sectarianism of Havana's working class. Still, both economic conditions and political determination acted to unite these ethnic differences. First, Casanovas argues that the Spanish practice of apprenticeships did much to create conditions whereby white workers had to labor under circumstances that approached virtual slavery. While blacks increasingly worked toward freedom through gradual emancipation, many whites like the clerks and associates in urban shops (dependientes) experienced conditions that converted "juridically free labor into semi slave labor" (p. 61). These similar conditions created a basis for caste- and race-divided workers to unite. Second, reformist and later anarchist labor movements organized what Casanovas calls "reformist populism"-the use of workers' coops, schools and unions to build a formidable working class. Based in Havana and the emigre communities of Florida, these labor and cultural institutions brought different workers together, serving as the beginning of a united labor movement. Through these concerted measures, workers of all ethnicities pressed to improve conditions, agitated for political reform, and ultimately pushed for political independence by the 1890s.
The second large question informing this book examines the circumstances leading to the adoption of certain ideologies and tactics by urban workers. Casanovas rejects much traditional historiography that superficially analyzes the role of reformism and anarchism in pre-independence Cuba. Traditional historiography, particularly Cuban historiography written since 1959, suggests that workers pursuing reformist and anarchist strategies were practicing false consciousness, were dupes of Spanish colonial authorities, or were merely tropical transplants of Iberian movements. Likewise, Casanovas is to be commended for rejecting the notion that when workers did adopt anarchist strategies they adopted them practically unchanged from Spain. The rejection of both assumptions leads Casanovas to argue that worker ideologies may have originated in Spain, but they were modified and creolized in Cuba. This was especially true of anarchism, which came to dominate the urban labor movement by the 1880s. While anarchism dominated the Iberian labor movement at this time, this fact alone is not sufficient to explain the rise and character of anarchism in Cuba. Instead, by century's end, most Spanish immigrants came from regions with little history of anarchism. Consequently, anarchism on the island was primarily the product of Cubans and Spaniards with little contact with Iberian anarchism. Casanovas stresses the importance of this fact by adding that "the localism of political parties and Cuba's colonial condition gave Cuban anarchism its particular characteristics and trajectory" (p. 146). In fact, Casanovas illustrates how Cuban anarchists often were at odds with their Spanish comrades, particularly over the relationship that the island's anarchists should have with reformist colonial administrators (pp. 185, 204).
Anarchism's appeal led to the rise of a united working class on the island. By the 1880s, after workers had determined that reformist options were no longer beneficial to their lives, urban laborers increasingly joined and supported anarchist-led coalitions. By the 1890s, when anarchists themselves had determined that selective cooperation with Spanish authorities was fruitless, the anarchists pursued a "no politics" agenda. Traditional historiography of Cuban anarchism argues that this "no politics" approach inhibited the spread of separatist sentiment among Cuban workers. Casanovas argues instead that the anarchist stance should be seen as broadening labor's base of support which was increasingly channeled against Spanish imperial rule on the island. In fact, anarchism's approach actually fostered "class ties among people of diverse race, political sympathy, and origin (peninsular and creole)" (p. 202). This broadened support actually contributed to anarchists becoming the main leaders of the labor movement as Cuba emerged into the heady independence years of the 1890s. As anarchists emerged at the head of a popular class struggle, a socialistic approach to "nationalism" (in which all would benefit from independence) began to challenge the more bourgeois separatist leaders pushing for a more traditional form of "national" independence without the calls for wealth redistribution and larger societal reforms.
Casanovas' third question (the role of urban labor in the evolution of Spanish colonial rule) is a logical extension of the previous two questions. By illustrating how workers of different ethnicities came together to form a labor movement and then discussing the historical circumstances creating the tactics and ideologies followed by these workers, Casanovas is able to show how urban workers played the political system for their benefit until it no longer profited them to do so. In a sense, this angle epitomizes a larger focus of the book: to demonstrate the notion that Cuban workers were instrumental in leading Cuba to independence from Spanish rule. Workers were actors in this process and not merely respondents to the larger political and policy shifts emanating from Spain. For example, following the Treaty of El Zanjon, which ended the Ten Years War in 1878, a reformist administration allowed for the increase in popular associations. Workers responded to this by creating new associations, but then took the initiative by using this opening to expand the number of workers' schools, unions, etc. As stated earlier, these associations became leading forces for workers to forge working-class unity and in the next decade to push the urban working class toward separatism.
Ultimately, readers interested in Latin American labor history, Cuban history and the history of radical politics will find much to like and smile about in this book. Casanovas bases the answers to his questions on research in Dutch, North American, Spanish, Mexican and Cuban archives. The book's nine chapters are sprinkled liberally with illustrations and photographs. This illustrated quality helps to bring the book to life, especially the nineteenth-century drawings of the laboring trades and the photographs of important labor and anarchist activists. This illustrated quality also fits into the larger cultural approach that Casanovas brings to his study of labor and the popular classes. Throughout the book, Casanovas discusses the important roles of workers' cultural centers, cooperatives and schools. Such a larger cultural focus is more than just a recent historiographical trend that blends labor and cultural studies. Rather, Casanovas shows how the workers' associations, centers, coops and schools provided important locations within cities for workers to coalesce and thus work to build a labor movement that cut across races, castes, and regional origins. Ultimately, this culture-labor approach works on two levels: it uses culture to highlight political conflict on the island and in so doing it illustrates the role that workers' cultural projects played in the larger labor and political context.
Of particular note is Casanovas' resurrection of the anarchist movement in pre-independence Cuba. For too long this movement in Cuba has been denigrated at worst, ignored at best. Casanovas lucidly shows the impact of Cuban anarchists in the push for separatism and independence. Scholars should appreciate the uniqueness of this movement in Latin America-a movement that "introduced" a form of internationalist socialism to Cuba in the midst of an anti-colonial war for national independence. This itself is unique to the history of anarchism in Latin America and contributed to the importance of anarchism in post-independence Cuba-a topic that this reviewer currently is pursuing and who has benefited greatly from Casanovas' first-rate research and writing.
Commissioned for H-Urban by Ronald Young <email@example.com>, Department of History, Georgia Southern University
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Kirwin R. Shaffer. Review of Casanovas, Joan, Bread, or Bullets!: Urban Labor and Spanish Colonialism in Cuba, 1850-1898.
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