Socialist envy

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Apr 3 08:28:44 MDT 1995

> ON SOCIALIST ENVY David Schweickart (d.schweickart at
> Modern socialism, particularly Third World socialism, is beset with a
> difficult dilemma.  On the one hand, socialist movements have been
> motivated by an ethical ideal--that of equality.  They have been powered by
> a deep hatred of inequality, and have aspired to create a more egalitarian
> social order.  On the other hand, the very passions that have been
> mobilized against oppressive inequality shade easily into envy, envy of a
> particularly destructive sort.

Louis Proyect:

This is a most peculiar version of the dynamics of 3rd world socialist
revolutions. What motivated the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cubans, Nicaraguans,
etc.--as far as I can tell--was not a desire for some kind of abstract
"equality". Rather, it was a desire to end the concrete conditions of
oppression that motivated them. The Nicaraguan campesino simply wanted an
end to Somozista guardia terror, the unclean water that caused needless
infant deaths from diarrhea, lack of access to medical facilities and
schools, etc.

They didn't seek to become "equal" with the plantation-owner; neither did
they lapse into "envy" of the rich in Nicaragua. In all the time I spent
in Nicaragua, I saw no evidence of leveller fury. I suspect that this is
the case in other 3rd world revolutionary societies as well.

The true source of resentment in Nicaragua, Cuba, China stems rather from
pre-revolutionary elites and newly emerging elites such as the "yummies"
in Cuba who were examined by Marc Cooper in an article I posted to this
list recently. Their resentment is based on their inability to gain
access to consumer goods manufactured in the imperialist nations. They,
in turn, fight for elimination of state control of production and
distribution in order to open up the possibility of enjoying such
privileges as automobiles, designer jeans, etc. The campesino desires a
roof over his head, clean water, literacy and medical care. The
petty-bourgeois layers, given a choice between satisfying the poor and
themselves, will choose themselves. The power of the dollar is

Just to illustrate this phenomenon, I will re-submit for your
consideration some of Marc Cooper's report on "market socialism" in Cuba:

The rain-forested, open-roofed lobby of the Melia Varadero brought to
mind a Hyatt Regency. We wandered through an atrium to the dining
room, which overlooked a massive swimming pool complete with its
own sandy beach. "If you came here blindfolded and then opened your
eyes," Alvaro asked playfully, "would you ever guess you were in

We might as well not have been. In a city where even the top tourist
hotels offer buffets of suspicious-looking cold cuts and rubbery fried
eggs, the fare in Varadero--boiled lobster, grilled swordfish, filet
mignon--seemed right out of Malibu, as did Alvaro's lunchtime
discourse, which extolled the "flexible" organization that Cuban mixed
enterprises are now allowed to have, "freeing us from the slow
machinery of our socialist state. One of the biggest problems in Cuban
industry," he said, "is that usually it is very hard to fire a worker.
There's always the union in between, the Communist Youth, too many
layers of protection. But in mixed enterprises, personnel management
is more flexible. It's easier to fire workers. In return, the worker gets a
salary about 15 percent above the national scale. We also pay for better
food for the worker, offer better work, clothes, and in some cases the
workers are given a monthly <jabita>, a little bag, full of hard-to-get
items like soap and razor blades."

As Alvaro explained the rules governing mixed companies in Cuba, it
became clear that the big winner was the Cuban state. The government
provides workers for each foreign enterprise and charges the employer
a monthly salary in dollars. A waiter in a tourist hotel, for example,
costs a company about $350 a month, most of which is pocketed by the
state. The worker receives, from the state, the base salary of a Cuban
waiter: 192 pesos a month, or about $2.

"How much do you earn?" I asked Alvaro over dessert.

"My salary is 350 pesos a month," he answered. "My employer pays
the Cuban state $706 a month for me. And I get the rest."

"Less than four dollars a month," I calculated aloud. "How do you buy
a Rolex on that pay?"

"My foreign employer understands the situation here and takes care of
my needs," he said.

"You mean he gives you a packet of dollars each month."

"Obviously. For the moment, there's no other way."

His candor prompted another line of questioning. "I know you support
the Cuban government," I said, "but its future is unstable. What do you
tell foreign investors who are contemplating coming in to Cuba but are
wary of the risks?"

"Cuba is the safest place in the world for foreign investment," he
answered. "We already made our socialist revolution, defended it for
thirty years, and now we're opening up. Your best bet is right here.
Because no matter what happens, life will become easier for investors.
No one is going to expropriate your factory. Even if our government
fails--and I don't think it will--it would mean that socialism has failed.
So whatever comes next is not going to be unfriendly to business."

The bill for our three-person lunch--chicken, beer, dessert--came to
just under $100. Alvaro paid with a crisp C-note. "What everyone
wants is to live well," Alvaro said. "One way you can do that
nowadays is by working in a mixed enterprise. There are those who
criticize us, envy us our success. What do I say to them? Well, we tried
to create the New Socialist Man here using moral incentives, the most
beautiful idea in the world. But you can't eat ideas. So I'm trying to do
what is best for society and for me. Right now that means sell, sell,
and sell some more"

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