[Marxism] "Is Cuba Done With Equality?" NOT!
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Mon Jun 30 07:23:49 MDT 2008
(A couple of weeks ago, Louis submitted the item from Counterpunch referred
to below, and I wrote some hurried comments in response. Anyway, I have
since developed and pruned them and calmed them down and expanded them. I
personally think the following is a useful contribution, from my personal
point of view, to the discussion on the left about the latest developments
in Cuba and their significance.
By Fred Feldman
I am responding to "Of Pay and Productivity: Is Cuba Done With Equality?" an
article by Moshe Adler, director of Public Interest Economics, which
appeared in the June 20 Counterpunch
(http://www.counterpunch.org/adler06202008.html). It deals with the latest
modifications of the wage structure made public June 11.
I think it would be useful if I presented some general considerations,
despite what I admit is a broad but rather too shallow knowledge of the
Cuban revolution. I have never been in the country, for example. My
knowledge of Spanish has grown quite a bit in the recent period, so that I
can plow through shorter Spanish-language articles with a dictionary in
hand, but it is still in the poquito range.
I have to thank Helen Yaffe, Saul Landau, and others whose contributions
reflect their more extensive and intimate knowledge of Cuba. This has
already significantly improved my information level.
I have given a lot of thought to the Adler article, and I think my comments
may help inspire further and more focused information, discussion, and
debate. My focus is on the debate, to the extent to which it occurs, on the
left, and the broader poliical and even theoretical issues that are posed.
Effect of media exaggerations
The debate is influenced by the widespread lack of information about Cuba
combined with the misrepresentation of what was happening in the US
capitalist media. The misrepresentation includes truly bizarre declarations
The New York Times began its initial report on the new wage incentive with
the statement that 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 one.
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.
Personally, I find nothing objectionable about a street sweeper and a brain
surgeon getting the same pay, but no country in the world is, has been, or
is likely soon to be close to this situation.
The fact that in Cuba, a street sweeper and a brain surgeon will both have a
place to live, that their families will not suffer from malnutrition, have
competent medical care, and that they and their children will be literate
and have educational opportunities does not mean they are paid at basically
the same rate. They are not. Of course, it is characteristic of US society
and US mainstream journalists that they find something terribly wrong when
the gap is at the relatively --RELATIVELY -- modest Cuban level.
I have noticed that such claims in the ignorant big-business media about the
level of wage and salary equality in Cuba had a real impact of the
discussion, heightening fears about what might be coming in a Raulista new
As a bourgeois economist, Adler might seem quite peripheral to a discussion
among supporters of socialism and the Cuban revolution. But he is genuinely
sorrowful about the sad fate awaiting the Cubans as a result of this wage
reform. Nothing less than the restoration of capitalism and social
catastrophe. This sorrowful mood does find an echo among those friends of
Cuba who are alarmed by the current shifts.
I want to admit my own biases. I love the Cuban revolution and have learned
to love it more with the passage of time. I have learned to respect the
opinions of the leaders who, though far from perfect in their judgment
unlike my infallible self, have managed with considerable skill and
thoughtfulness overall in a wide variety of challenging situations.
As a result the revolution, as a revolution based on the people not the
interests of a clique or caste of top officials, has survived longer than
any of this kind in history. So I approach their actions with a certain
respect. I keep my critical faculties alive alert but also try to arm myself
against knee-jerk "revolutionary" reactions stemming from my own political
training (far from all bad in my opinion). More importantly, I keep in mind
my lack of knowledge of the details wherein, scientists like to say, God
dwells. Also, I don't claim to know the future, as Adler and others do.
Pro-capitalist course in Cuba? Adler begins with a ringing proclamation:
"The Communist Party of Cuba has seen the light; it 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 intolerable micromanagement, not as 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.
There is a general misunderstanding of what the term "equalitarianism" means
in Cuban economic debates. The term is not a new one there. This refers to
efforts to prioritize creating 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)
society. It can obstruct the needs of social development that advances in a
socialist direction, which alone can create the possibility of a world
without economic inequality.
Che and material incentives In that sense, Che Guevara also used the term,
in contrast to the portrayals of him in the capitalist media and sometimes
on the left as a simon-pure utopian "equalitarian." Another view falsely
attributed to Che is that "material incentives don't work."
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" (ie 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 - which I studied during my research
in Cuba on Che's work as minister of industries - 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 standardise 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. I believe
that is the aim of this measure, and I hope it is the result.
There is no necessary tendency of the wage incentive to divide the working
class along hostile lines, as in incentives to intensified and more
efficient labor can and do 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 are able to achieve this as they intend, are socially shared
rather than concentrated in the hands of individuals. The whole Cuban
tradition in better times and worse says that the former will be the case.
Unlike in the United States and other imperialist countries, where we have
to live with the fact that when we produce for capital -- which we must do
to live and raise families -- everything we produce goes into the hands of
our class enemy and strengthens their hand against us. They own the means of
production, they hire us to work them, they own the goods we produce, and
they reap the profits of our labor.
The wage incentive decreed by the Cuban government seems to me 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. These were all measures imposed on Cuba by
economic difficulties that could not be evaded. (I am leaving aside here the
political advantages of tourism for the Cuban revolution internationally,
which I think are significant.)
Why workers need material incentives
Why are material incentives a NECESSARY component of planning for such a
society? Because the working people, even though the capitalists have been
thrown out of power, still MUST live by the sweat of their brow. And I might
add, in a well ordered society, intensified labor can be recognized as
costing more to producea.
The purpose of the incentive in this case is an elementary but perfectly
legitimate one -- to inspire workers by a modest, uncorrupting (in my
opinion) incentive 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 has social roots in the conservative administration of
factories, and became the norm in the former Soviet and East European
The "they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work" mentality was
institutionalized in the Soviet and Eastern European postcapitalist
societies in their last decades, ultimately stemming from the officialdom's
need to pacify and live-and-let-live with the workers under their thumbs.
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 eternal stagnation. This is certainly not necessary or
inevitable in Cuba.
There are, of course, those counter-pose material incentives (bad) to moral
and social and internationalist incentives (good), and who attribute their
preconception to Che Guevara. But this "incentive" is linked organically to
the perspective that their work can better the conditions of all; that it
can make their country stronger; that increasing the productivity of labor
will strengthen the position of their country in the world relative to the
imperialist enemies; that it will make Cuba a more effective contributor to
the advancing process of economic social, political, and diplomatic change,
integration, and unification in Latin America; and the simple fact that
Cuba's unprecedented commitment to provide universal education and medical
care CANNOT be sustained over time without a growing productivity of labor.
It is also linked to the victory, the advance the Cuban revolution won in
surviving and even going forward in some respects in the "special period."
This was the catastrophic economic situation and potentially ruinous
political situation caused by the disintegration and disappearance of the
Soviet bloc to which Cuba had been economically and politically allied.
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." Aside
from his 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 of the 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 more
seriously than Adler, who doesn't consider it at all. (His economic concepts
apparently begin and end with Ricardo, the great British economist of the
early 19th century. Marx learned much from Ricardo but surpassed him by
analyzing the workings of capital from the standpoint of the exploited class
Adler vs. Marx on workers as producers
Adler believes that the whole idea that the productivity of labor can be
increased is a fallacy, and that attempting this in Cuba must lead to
"As economist David Ricardo explained some two hundred years ago, the very
idea of " worker productivity" is a hollow concept. Not only can a worker's
productivity not be measured, it cannot even be defined.
"Ricardo pointed out that production is normally performed by workers who
work not with their bare hands but with machines, producing not a whole
product but instead performing only one step in a production process that
has many. Therefore, Ricardo explained, a worker's productivity cannot be
separated either from the productivity of the machine that she works with,
or from the productivity of the rest of the workers in the production
process. When a skyscraper goes up, how much of a building would there be
with only a crane operator but no crane, or with only crane and operator but
no workers to pour the concrete? The workers and machines together form a
team, and measuring the productivity of the team is easy."
(Not having studied Ricardo, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Adler's
version of his theory.
Adler argues that worker productivity cannot be measured because in
production, human beings work as team members with other beings called
machines. Who can tell what the human produces and what the machine
produces? As the King of Siam says in "The King and I," "Tis a puzzlement!"
Except in Marx, of course. He explains it almost from the get-go.
And his argument, in this case, is readily comprehensible from the
standpoint elementary common sense and natural materialism. Unlike other
arguments Marx's, which -- though generally equally correct -- run counter
to the ordinary appearance of things.
Human labor produces machines Machines are not beings, but simply products
of human labor-- in many ways the central, most indispensable products of
human labor today. They are produced by workers, laboring farmers, and
artisans. Everything that is not produced by nature (including by non-human
animals) is produced by human beings.
Machines produce NOTHING, except as tools created and utilized by human
beings for the purpose of enabling human beings to produce more with less
effort. A part of the machine?s power is expended in producing each product,
and as a result a portion of the cost of production of the machine enters
into the cost of production of each item produced by the human laborer
utilizing the machine..
And that's that. The machine has no productivity as such, only as an
instrument for use in human production. It is created by human production to
serve human purposes.
Of course, if the point ever comes where machines become producers and
creators in their own right, I will be all for welcoming R2D2 and C3PO into
unions, explaining to them socialist views on everything from the Cuban
revolution to McKinney and Obama. I will be glad to enroll them in a
revolutionary international movement, and fight side by side with them
against the Dark Side.
But until that actually happens, I think that Marx's approach works better
than Adler's. Working people, not machines, are the producers of goods,
including machines. The power of machines to contribute to production is a
human product, as are the goods that human beings produce with machines as
Importance of labor productivity
So labor productivity exists (unlike machine productivity) and is
measurable. 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
for progress. And without a growing productivity of labor, socialism and
communism would never be attainable. So when the Cuban government attempts
to measure the productivity of labor and seeks ways to improve it, this
should not be taken as evidence that they have turned against the laboring
majority that brought them to power and keeps them there.
Cuba's grim future, according to Adler
Adler concludes: Since productivity is not measurable, how is the Communist
Party of Cuba likely to implement its plan to pay workers according to their
productivity? Having fallen for the fallacy that the wages in market
economies are determined by productivity, the Party 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
(If Adler is right, I fear I will be duty bound to refuse my next annual pay
increase, due in April. Twenty-five cents an hour, $8 dollars a week, about
$34 a month ? pretty much comparable to the Cuban wage incentive. After all
if a wage increase in a revolutionary, anticapitalist, relatively
equalitarian country like Cuba must has such catastrophic consequences,
imagine what the consequences of a wage increase in the much more
reactionary imperialist environment in the United States must be -- fascism,
world war, and the holocaust AT LEAST. Let the boss have the quarter. I
don't know about the rest of my co-workers but I don't want those things on
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 politically, socially and economically. 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 revolution.
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. (And only human beings can increase
productivity in industry and agriculture -- if you ask a machine to do it,
however politely and whether with moral, material, or mixed incentives,
nothing will happen.)
Gorbachev's Soviet Union and Raulista Cuba
Gorbachev took some measures like these at the beginning of his regime. I
didn't find the measures at that initial point wildly objectionable either.
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 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
Cuba is not ceasing to be socialist. First of all, Cuba has not achieved
socialism, and therefore cannot cease to be socialist. 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 being abandoned.
Is Cuba abandoning moral and social incentives? Are the internationalist
missions of Cuban doctors, teachers, and others are 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.
Willingness to sacrifice, including their lives, for the defense of the
revolution seems to me to be widespread in the working class, the
agricultural sector, the working class, and the intelligentsia.
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 is needed for the
preservation of Cuba as a revolutionary state and society in an
imperialist-dominated world. I tend to think that the masses can make
themselves heard in Cuba through many formal and informal channels (more
formal channels would be good, in my opinion). And I am convinced that their
leadership has the revolutionary conviction and capacity to correct errors
if that proves to be needed.
Fred Feldman 6/28/2008
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