- Created: Tuesday, 18 July 2017 14:35
- Written by Trevor Rayne
A new path for socialism? Revolutionary renewal in the Soviet Union and Cuba – from FRFI 63, October 1986
In a series of speeches and analyses made in 1986, Cuban President Fidel Castro launched a 'strategic counter-offensive' aimed at strengthening the socialist revolution against the revival of capitalist and petty-bourgeois tendencies within Cuban society. Neither history nor geography have afforded Cuba the luxury of resting upon its revolutionary laurels. Its relative underdevelopment and close proximity to the United States have demanded heightened vigilance, greater efforts, and the firming of principles from the Cuban communists.
The current historical epoch is marked by the life-and-death struggle between imperialism and socialism. Since the Russian Revolution in 1917, imperialism has relentlessly conspired to destroy the socialist states. Any weakness in the revolution becomes a potentially lethal weapon in the hands of the imperialists. Today, the reactionary US and British ruling classes are leading their own counter-offensive, attempting to reverse the gains achieved in Asia, Africa and Latin America since the Vietnamese victory in 1975, and to throw the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries onto the defensive.
In particular, imperialism's huge military expenditure forces the socialist countries to drain the resources available for construction. This both exacerbates the problems of underdevelopment inherited by the socialist states. and in-creases the menace posed by defects in socialist organisation and by those who abuse the socialist system.
As Castro puts it: ‘All those who look for privileges and cushy jobs, who divert resources, who seek to protect money they haven't earned by the sweat of their brow, engaging in rackets and schemes, they are doing the mercenaries' work.'
Marxists do not pretend that socialist revolution will usher in Utopia. As Marx pointed out, communists will have to build communist society 'not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is, therefore, in every respect economically, morally, and intellectually still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it comes'. Socialism must be built with the material to hand, not only the productive forces but with the human material that actually exists. It has not only had to contend with underdevelopment, but with the habits, traditions and attitudes of the past which it inherited.
Capitalism can only be vanquished by socialism overcoming economic backwardness and generating a higher level of productivity. Small-scale production and scarcity remain the seed-beds of capitalism and an egoistic mentality. They act as a drag upon socialist production and confront communist values with the values of the market place. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Vietnam have all been confronted with the problem of needing to raise productivity in both their agricultural and industrial sectors while retaining the alliance of the peasantry with the working class. Strategies used have ranged from encouraging peasant commodity production, combined with material incentives, as in the Soviet Union during the New Economic Policy (NEP) period, to forced collectivisation combined with the elimination of income differences, as in the Soviet Union in 1928 and in China during the Cultural Revolution. Both methods run the risk of raising a peasant-based opposition.
It is an indication of the intransigence of the problems posed by the backward agricultural sectors that the socialist states have veered between these two strategies as new opposition elements emerge. Currently, both China and the Soviet Union are embarked upon a series of reforms aimed at accelerating the rate of economic development using market mechanisms. These reforms have been combined with campaigns against corruption in both the state and private sectors.
The Cuban Experience
Cuba has had to confront similar problems. In his speeches, President Castro identifies the peasant free market and the misapplication of material incentives as key sources for the regeneration of capitalist tendencies. This process has led ‘to the creation of a wealthy class in Cuba, as large or larger than the bourgeoisie which the revolution expropriated'. Critically, these tendencies showed the potential to infect the whole of society, including state and party organs. President Castro, leader of the most vibrant and vigorous revolution of our times, emphasises the importance of keeping politics at the forefront of the revolution.
‘The Revolution doesn't mean economic development alone. It also means defending an ideology, our homeland and a whole series of values that must be promoted amidst very difficult conditions.'
When economic development is divorced from political direction the revolution itself is imperilled.
‘This is a long struggle, and I think it has to do not only with our Revolution, for it's clear that such things have happened elsewhere. It has been proven. Privileges here, demoralisation there, and the time comes when the demoralised and confused masses fall prey to anyone with a swan song, to any demagogue, to any pseudo-revolutionary, to any pseudo-democrat. Ours is a genuine, legitimate, home-grown revolution, like the Soviet Revolution where they built socialism under very difficult conditions. It is a really legitimate revolution and we can't let it fall apart'.
The Street Vendors' Movement
The 1963 Agrarian Reform Law set the limit on private land-ownership at 67 hectares. In a concession to the peasantry the Cuban government allowed the establishment of a free peasant market where produce could be traded for profits at free market prices. These markets also attracted small-scale manufacturers who were allowed to work on their own. The effect of these reforms was to 'create a different mentality, a different spirit, which manifested itself in the growth of a "street vendors' movement"'.
The free peasant market became a vehicle for private accumulation at the expense of social wealth and the national economic plan. Peasant farmers would sell 10 per cent of their produce to the state and the rest on the free peasant market. In this way, for instance, a farmer selling cloves of garlic for one peso each could make 50,000 pesos from one hectare of land (the wage of a Cuban doctor is 5-6,000 pesos a year!). Those who worked alone defied the law, bought machinery, hired labour, and acquired materials from state enterprises to make goods, like brooms, which were in short supply and sold them at a profit. Cooperative employees were seduced by the easy money to be made serving these 'new industrialists'. 'The result was that a series of measures that had been taken whereby Cooperative farmers could produce and sell, made it possible for them to earn 50,000 pesos without having to produce a single broom, simply by acting as the sales agents for these new industrialists who produced brooms.' The peasant free market had entered into competition with the socialist co-operatives, and had done so through the conditions encouraged by the economic reforms.
As private wealth accumulated through the peasant free market so the radius of the power of the street vendors' movement expanded to influence other sections of society. Resources were diverted from their planned destination. 'We also found that a very large number of state enterprises throughout the country were involved in these irregularities committed by the peasants. A free trade mentality had sprung up, and the cooperatives were selling to enterprises they had no right to sell to. They were also going into town, setting up stands and stalls and selling to people. There was a bit of everything – real chaos.'
Along with the prosperity of the free peasant market spread an atmosphere in which crime and delinquency reappeared. 'There was an increase in the crime rate, but what concerned us most was the increase in the ambition for money, the spirit of profit that was invading our working class. This really was a source of deep concern, because if there is one thing we must keep pure it is our working class because it is our vanguard.'
Material Incentives Versus Consciousness
Material incentives do not in themselves conflict with the socialist principle 'From each according to their ability, to each according to their work'. However, Castro reminds us, 'Marx himself said that this formula does not go beyond the narrow limits of bourgeois right,' which, in practice, is a right of inequality: workers being differingly endowed with skills, family commitments etc. From his examination of Cuban work norms and bonuses Fidel Castro concluded that the principle was being abused 'because when you start paying out money that is not related to work, you're violating the socialist formula'. This resulted in the payment of excessively high salaries.
Castro likened the use of material incentives to the treatment of workers as mercenaries. He recollected Che Guevara's arguments. Guevara greatly distrusted material incentives as a means of managing a socialist economy, and envisaged their disappearance: 'We do not negate the objective need for material incentives, but we are reluctant to use them as a fundamental element. We believe that in economics such a lever becomes an end in itself and then begins to impose its own force on the relationships among men. We should not forget that material incentives come from capitalism and are destined to die under socialism.
'How are we going to make them die? Little by little, through gradual increases in consumer goods for the people, which will make this type of incentive unnecessary – we are told. We see in this answer a very rigid mechanism. Consumer goods, that is the watchword and the great moulder, in the end of consciousness, according to the defenders of the other system. We believe that direct material incentives and consciousness are contradictory terms.' (Che Guevara, On the Budgetary System of Finance, 1964.)
The construction of socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class. While feudalism depended upon brute force and ignorance to discipline its labour force and capitalism upon the threat of unemployment and hunger, the communist organisation of labour rests upon the free and conscious discipline of workers themselves.
President Castro makes political education of the workforce central to socialist construction. 'Among the workers our work is based mainly on material incentives, and this leads to corruption. I was worried because while the sector of intellectual workers could acquire greater political development, the working class vanguard might become politically underdeveloped, and this is what I'd seen everywhere.'
The narrow economic outlook which places output as an end in itself, manifests itself in the pricing policies of state enterprises, whereby one would increase its profits at the expense of another's efficiency. 'No matter how important profits might be, enterprises must think first of the country and society. When an enterprise thinks of its own interests, it starts to become a two-bit capitalist enterprise. Therefore, if we have no alternative but to have enterprises and cost-accounting even though it resembles a capitalist mechanism, we will also have a list of moral and revolutionary principles which a socialist enterprise must respect and which define what can and can't be done.'
In this respect, Castro considers, the enterprise that would seek to import equipment, because it is cheaper than Cuban produce, even at the expense of valuable foreign exchange reserves, is thereby placing its individual interests ahead of those of the country and revolution. He also condemns those managers who would cheat and bend laws in order to achieve production quotas: 'Worker consciousness is more important than meeting any plan. If I were in an enterprise and had to choose between safeguarding worker consciousness, between acting honestly and meeting the plan, no matter what the consequences, you can rest assured that I would protect worker consciousness and act honestly.'
The achievements of the Cuban revolution are renowned: a Third World country without beggars or poverty, a literacy rate higher than that of the USA, a health service to compare with any in the world and the most sustained economic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet President Castro has launched this penetrating self-criticism of the revolution's progress. In Cuba today the motto of the students and youth is 'each new generation will be more revolutionary than the previous one'. Castro and the Communist Party of Cuba are ensuring that for as long as imperialism exists it will have to confront the sons and daughters of the generation that defeated it at Playa Giron, who turned back the apartheid army in Angola, who resisted cannon-fire and jets with hand-guns in Grenada, and who give their lives selflessly for all the oppressed of the world in Nicaragua. The revolution goes forward, continually rekindles its principles, or imperialism will drive it into retreat.
The peasant free-market was eliminated in May 1986, wage rates are under examination, new norms are being implemented, profits have been confiscated from some enterprises, and the State Committee for finance has ordered an internal audit which should increase workers' control over resources held in warehouses. These are only the initial measures. Earlier this year the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba was revitalised with new members taken from the youth, black people and women. Following Fidel Castro's example they are taking Cuba forward to be in the vanguard of world revolution as we step onto the threshold of the twenty first century.