[Marxism] Socialist Voice: Is Cuba Done With Equality? Not So!
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Mon Jul 14 11:48:20 MDT 2008
Michael Lebowitz, an important participant in this discussion on the list,
indicated that earlier versions of my article were too long to be worth
reading and that it was up to me to provide quotes for him to agree or
disagree with. Guessing what points would be important to him went beyond my
quite limited capacities.
However, Socialist Voice has done him and me a favor by providing a very
good editing and shortening of the article. This included omitting my
economic analysis of Moshe Adler's would-be Ricardian arguments against the
wage incentive, which is published in the Socialist Voice version as an
So now Michael (who is a firm believer, as we can all attest from
experience, that brevity is the soul of wit) as well as others who found the
length forbidding should have less problem deciding what they think about my
views on this issue.
Socialist Voice -- Marxist Perspectives for the 21st century
JULY 14, 2008 Web Edition: www.socialistvoice.ca
Is Cuba Done With Equality? - Not So!
By Fred Feldman
Cuba's June 11 announcement of modifications to its wage structure to
introduce productivity incentives has aroused a great deal of critical
comment among radicals and socialists. The issues are sharply posed in "Of
Pay and Productivity: Is Cuba Done With Equality?" an article by Moshe Adler
in Counterpunch, a radical U.S.-based webzine.
The debate is influenced by misrepresentation by the capitalist media.
Thus, the New York Times began its initial report on the new wage incentive
by saying this was the first radical change in the Cuban wage structure
since 1959, when Castro decreed that all Cuban workers would receive the
same wage. This is a complete fantasy. No such decree was ever issued, and
there have been many changes in the wage structure as significant as this
An Agence France Presse article claimed, "For years the pay for street
sweepers and brain surgeons has been separated by just a few dollars a
month." An urban legend, pure and simple.
Pro-capitalist course in Cuba?
In contrast to the bourgeois media, Adler is genuinely sorrowful about the
sad fate awaiting the Cubans as a result of this wage reform.
As for myself, I have learned to value the opinions of the leaders of
revolutionary Cuba who have managed with considerable skill and
thoughtfulness overall in a wide variety of challenging situations. As a
result the popular revolution has survived longer than any of this kind in
history. So I approach their actions with a certain respect.
Adler begins with a ringing proclamation: "The Communist Party of Cuba . has
just announced that from now on wages in Cuba will not be determined by the
government, which kept them nearly equal, but by workers' productivity."
Exciting, no? But he doesn't stop there:
"Of course, since it was the Party itself that made this change,
ideologically this is as momentous as the fall of the Berlin Wall." Hot
This proclamation of a world-historic shift is based on a statement that is
The Cuban government has not surrendered control of wages to the market, to
productivity statistics, or to anything else. The Cuban government
proclaimed the new wage incentive for increasing production. If they
concluded this was not was called for, they could rescind it tomorrow.
This measure does not abandon government direction in regard to wages and
can be modified by the government as and when it thinks best. In almost any
capitalist country today, this wage decree by a government would be
considered as intolerable micromanagement, not the surrender of all control.
End of equality as social goal?
"That this is an ideological defeat for equality and for communism there can
be no doubt," writes Adler.
Does the measure overturn a condition of near-complete equality which
existed up till now? No. Nor does it reverse the long-term course toward
equality in Cuba, which continues to advance in some rather important areas
such as women's and gay rights? Again, no.
The issue is complicated by negative references in Cuban economic debates to
what is called "equalitarianism." The term is not new there. It refers to
efforts to prioritize the creation of immediate simon-pure equality above
everything else that is needful, regardless of the real practical social or
economic consequences. This can actually have destructive and demoralizing
consequences in a transitional (still far from fully socialist or communist)
Che and material incentives
Che Guevara also used the term, in that sense, contrary to the portrayals of
him in the capitalist media and sometimes on the left as a simon-pure
In a letter to the Guardian, Helen Yaffe neatly punctures the myth of wage
equality in Cuba, as well as the misrepresentation of Che Guevara that
identifies him with this fictional utopia. She points out that the real
revolutionary Cuba was different and had to be:
"In reality, there has never been an `egalitarian wage system' (i.e. one
where every worker was paid the same): Che Guevara himself devised a new
salary scale, introduced in 1964, with 24 different basic wage levels, plus
a 15% bonus for over-completion. This scale . linked wages to
qualifications, creating an incentive to training, which was vital given the
exodus of professionals and low educational level of Cuba's workers....
"The new pay regulations were introduced to standardize salary policy across
the economy as part of the general implementation of the economic management
system operating in army enterprises since 1987. Capped or not, bonus
payments in Cuba are awarded for outperforming the national plan in the
production of physical goods or services. Your article did not mention the
fact that these payments remain capped at 30% of salary for various
bureaucrats, technicians and economists - a measure to prevent the emergence
of a technocratic elite.
"The new salary incentives - to increase internal production and
productivity, particularly in agriculture and exports - reflect Cuba's push
to reduce vulnerability to the global food price crisis, rather than a
return to capitalism."
Cuba is still on road to greater equality. The incentive pay increase need
not mark, in and of itself, a radical expansion of the current wage
differentiations in the working class, nor make stratification of the
working class in particular or the society in general radically wider and
more explosive. The trend may well be toward a general increase in wages and
living standards, stemming in part from a rise in productivity.
There is no necessary tendency of the wage incentive to divide the working
class along hostile lines, as incentives to intensified and more efficient
labor can and do entail in the United States. In Cuba, increased production
and relative prosperity has consistently tended to strengthen the oppressed,
not the oppressor.
Whether fundamental inequality will deepen or decrease in the next period
will depend ultimately on whether the benefits of a rise in productivity, if
the Cubans achieve this, are socially shared rather than concentrated in the
hands of individuals.
The wage incentive decreed by the Cuban government seems likely to be
considerably less stratifying in its effects by far than the tourist
industry and remittances from the United States, not to mention the period
of "dollarization," have been. (I leave aside here the significant political
advantages of tourism for the Cuban revolution internationally.)
Why workers need material incentives
The purpose of the new incentive is an elementary but perfectly legitimate
one - to inspire workers to intensify their labor, take better care of their
machines, and so on.
This is an attempt to move the working class, the agricultural workers, and
the society as a whole (not just individual model workers) away from the
truly demoralizing and corrupting "they pretend to pay us, we pretend to
work" mentality. This approach has social roots in the conservative and
bureaucratic administration of factories, and became the norm in the former
Soviet and East European post-capitalist societies. But it also affects
revolutionary societies like Cuba which for long periods have had to grind
away at a relatively low subsistence level, which can pass for "equality"
when viewed from the outside. To yield to it is to accept the perspective of
This present "incentive" is linked organically to the perspective that work
can better the conditions of all; that it can make their country stronger
relative to the imperialist enemies; and that it will make Cuba a more
effective contributor to progress and unification in Latin America.
Have the Cubans become bourgeois economists?
Adler insists that the Cuban leadership has "fallen for the fallacy that the
wages in market economies are determined by productivity." There are two
unexamined givens here for the price of one. First, that the wage incentive
demonstrates a decision to imitate the methods of "market economies."
Despite Adler's insistence on the world-shaking significance of the adoption
of this wage incentive, no evidence is provided.
The other unexamined given in Adler's assertion is that the Cuban leaders
believe that wages in capitalist societies are determined by productivity.
No evidence beyond the mere fact of the wage incentive is presented to
But Raul and other Cuban leaders are quite insistent that they are Marxists.
And Marx explained that wages are determined in capitalist societies by the
cost of reproduction of labor power (that is, of workers), as affected by
such factors as the relationship of forces in the class struggle, and (in
imperialist countries) the added flexibility the ruling classes gain by
raking in super-profits from around the world.
There is plenty of evidence that the Cuban leaders take Marx's analysis
Labor productivity exists and is measurable. (Adler disagrees here; see
appendix.) Today in capitalist countries it gets measured in the interests
of the capitalists, and workers find the time and motion man standing over
their shoulder, looking for ways to squeeze more out of them to enrich the
But after a socialist revolution, the productivity of labor remains a key
guideline of how far forward the new society has gone and can go. The
increase in the productivity of labor is one of the central material forces
Cuba's grim future, according to Adler
Adler concludes that the Cuban leaders will probably observe the pay
differentials that exist in the West and implement them at home. "What's in
store for Cuba is the standard menu that comes with wage inequality,
including poor public education but first-rate private schools, insufficient
or no health care for the majority but excellent medical care for CEOs and
government officials, a substantial increase in the length of the working
day, with fewer vacations and job insecurity to boot."
Wow! Talk about how great oaks from little acorns grow! The alleged acorn in
this case being the proffering of a modest wage increase to encourage
increases in labor productivity. And the great oak being the destruction of
public education, the elimination of universal medical care, growing
illiteracy, a declining life span for the people, mass poverty and so on!
And no need to show how any of this comes about, let alone why it must come
But I think the matter can be presented more accurately in the opposite way.
The advanced and still advancing systems of medical care and universal
public education in Cuba require a growing productivity of labor. Socialist
good will on the part of the leaders or the masses is not enough, and
stagnation will not do. If the conditions of the "special period" had gone
on indefinitely these revolutionary social institutions would have begun to
fray and disintegrate along with the revolution itself. But Cuba survived
the special period. Events - particularly in Latin America - have sharply
reduced the relative isolation that affected Cuba after the fall of the
Soviet bloc, and opened up new prospects and perspectives for the
It takes more than positive ideals and ethics to create a socialist society.
The possibility of a socialist future for the world was opened up in part by
the increase in the productivity of labor represented by the creation and
rise of the modern working class. And worldwide, further increases in the
productivity of labor, oriented in a quite different social direction, are
needed if socialism is to be won.
Gorbachev's Soviet Union and Raulista Cuba
Gorbachev took some measures similar to those in Cuba at the beginning of
his regime. I didn't find the measures at that initial point wildly
But the context proved to be all-important. The Russian revolution was one
in which the forward drive of the workers and peasants as governing classes
was decisively pushed back from the mid-1920s to the 1930s. A caste of
officials took command of the state, and the party leadership was purged of
all revolutionary-minded elements. The noncapitalist state survived with
sharp ups and downs, but beginning in the late 1960s, stagnation and decay
became the norm in the government and economy and profound demoralization
took hold among the people.
By the time Gorbachev took power, matters had come to a pass where neither
moral nor material nor social incentives could move things forward. Could
you imagine appealing to the workers to produce more based on ideals or the
future of socialism in those years?
In Cuba, however, the revolution is alive, a tribute to the capacities and
revolutionary dedication of the leaders as well as the masses. The people
are different. The leadership is different. The morale is different. In
Cuba, a combination of material, moral, and social and political incentives
has the potential to continue the forward motion. In some respects, it was
one such combination that brought them through the very difficult "special
period" after the collapse of their Soviet bloc allies.
Cuba not turning away from socialism
The Cuban revolution is socialist in the national-class-social character of
the revolution, the government, and in the aspirations and goals of much of
the population. The nationalization of the factories and other industries
and resources has given the people an important weapon for defending and
advancing their interests and their perspective. I see no sign that this is
Is Cuba abandoning moral and social incentives? Are the internationalist
missions of Cuban doctors, teachers, and others being abandoned? Is there
any evidence that Cuban doctors and teachers routinely demand bribes for
their services, as happened in the Soviet bloc? Or is Cuba giving up on
internationalist support to countries that stand up to imperialism,
especially those that undertake progressive social changes as well?
The army, though substantially draftee, remains from all reports highly
motivated politically and socially, and internationalist in outlook. The
officers and ranks are not concerned only about their own material benefits.
Cuba, though no communist utopia by any means, remains a long, long way from
a dog-eat-dog society, including with the new organization of wages.
But Cuba cannot and will not reach socialism under present world
circumstances. The revolution must hold the fort and gain more ground as
best the Cubans can until more allies and participating countries can be won
for the cause. That is the context of these changes, which seem moderate and
reasonable to me, and seem to have been greeted favorably by the working
people of the country.
Of course, whether these moves will have the desired results is another
question. That involves many questions, not least the parlous condition of
the world capitalist economy and the fate of the national salvation,
anti-imperialist, and social transformations being attempted in a growing
number of Latin American countries. Cuba is capable of standing alone for a
long time. But things will surely be much better if they are less and less
If the new measures turn out to be flawed or imperfect, well, they can be
corrected, adjusted, reversed, or extended - whatever
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