With Raul Castro's recent call for structural changes in the Cuban economy, Che Guevara's earlier ideas on the economic incentives allows us to rethink Socialism of the 21st Century
By: Amaury E. del Valle
Most of the work of Che Guevara is still a mystery to study. His life is closely linked to intellectual work that, as he confessed in a letter in February 1964, can sometimes seem a little «obscure,» precisely because it was written mainly when «my watch read past midnight.»
However, to read it slowly is to find a great many reflections, some of them marked by the historical moment in which he lived, while others that are still incredibly valid. Many of his thoughts were ahead of the times that we have experienced over the last several years, such as the collapse of what he called the «Soviet model of socialism.»
In his writings and discussions, Che was most concerned with the economy, national and international policy, and liberation struggles.
Che’s economic thought is not an undecipherable riddle or a theoretical Minotaur impossible to defeat. Even in its unfinished nature it can be summarized, as he did in his essay El socialismo y el hombre (officially titled «Socialism and Man» in the 1960s). In a prophetic phrase that still remains as a challenge, he said «To build communism, we have to build a new (person) at the same time that we build the material base.»
One of the pillars of Che’s economic concepts was precisely the creation of a structure in which the most important element would be not only the satisfaction of the basic needs of people, but also their education, in order to make them aware of themselves as being the real owners and main beneficiaries of the means of production.
One of the essential moments in his thought was the controversy about the direction of the newly born socialist economy in Cuba, between 1963 and 1964. The argument emerged from issues that were merely national, and eventually became a debate over the appropriateness of the economic model implemented in the socialist countries at that time.
Regarding the matter, Che himself warned against «blind apologetics;» he criticized those who wanted to import experiences that were alien to Cuban reality, saying that «The law which supposedly governs the transition from socialism to communism is a mechanistic and conservative concept, an attempt to put Soviet reality in step with the theory, to put aside all analysis and ignore the harsh problems that would arise if a truly revolutionary course were taken.»
In his work «Neither Imitation Nor Copy: Che Guevara and the Pursuit of a New Socialism,» researcher Michael Löwy says that, contrary to the tendencies of copying the Soviet model that was in fashion in his time, the guerrilla commander believed that building socialism was «an heroic attempt to create something new, the pursuit —interrupted and unfinished— of a different paradigm for socialism, which in a many aspects was radically opposed to the ‘really existing’ bureaucratic caricature.»
Other Che specialists think similarly to this, especially regarding the debate on Cuban economy between 1963 and 1964, when they acknowledge that at the time there were evident tensions and contradictions between the ideals of the Cuban Revolution and those of the leadership in the Soviet Union. The internationalist ideals of the socialist national liberation of the Cuban Revolution were opposed to the Soviet system and its ideology, which despite being mechanistic and subordinated to «building of socialism in one country,» was the strongest force operating and speaking on behalf of Marxism.»
It was not in vain that Che himself highlighted the «great boldness» of questioning not only the model of socialism implemented at the time, but also the role of the USSR itself in the international arena, which he thought many times behaved like an imperialistic superpower.
In a speech he made in Algeria in February, 1965, he said openly, alluding to the USSR, that «there won’t be socialism if there is not a change in conscience among peoples that leads to a attitude of solidarity; this must change both at the individual level and in the society in which socialism has been or is being built, and worldwide, because of all the peoples who are subjected to imperialist oppression.
Cuban economist Osvaldo Martinez referenced Che’s own words, when he said that it was «heresy» and «audacity» to refer to a plan to write a true Marxist political economy, one which was non-apologetic, but more like a «scream from the bottom of underdevelopment.»
There is not doubt that the objective of Che —and of Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries— was to establish a framework of thought characteristic of the Cuban Revolution, which was far from what was then understood as «Marxism-Leninism.»
What had been feed to Cuba and the rest of the world under that name were no more than professed «truths» that were held up as being eternal, when in fact they responded more to the concrete realities of the USSR —even distorting Marxist theory— than to truly creative and “ecumenical" thought about socialism, as Che called it in his reflections.
To Build the 21st Century
Aspects that most concerned Che in his reflections were the search for economic efficiency, the application of science and technology as the means of increasing production levels, and especially the use of the moral incentives as a complement and even a necessary support for people’s attitudes toward work.
In «Socialism and Man in Cuba» (http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/slatta/hi216/documents/chesocandman.htm), he referred directly to this idea when he affirmed that “The pipe dream that socialism can be achieved with the help of the dull instruments left to us by capitalism (the commodity as the economic cell, profitability, individual material interest as a lever, etc.) can lead into a blind alley. And you wind up there after having travelled a long distance with many crossroads, and it is hard to figure out just where you took the wrong turn. Meanwhile, the economic foundation that has been laid has done its work of undermining the development of consciousness. To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new (person).»
Equally, in a letter sent to Fidel before his departure to the Congo, he maintained that «communism is a phenomenon of conscience; you don't arrive there through a leap into the void, a change in the productive quality, or the simple clash between the productive forces and the productive relations. Communism is a phenomenon of conscience; it is necessary to develop that consciousness in people, where individual and collective education for communism is a constituent part of them. We cannot measure in terms of per capita income the possibility of entering the communist stage... »
However, Che did not have his back turned to reality; nor was he an incurable idealist, as some have wanted to paint him – trying to mystify his figure so as to minimize his thought.
A profound observer, constantly studying and an untiring traveller, he quickly concluded that socialism would be going down the wrong road if it attempted to compete with the overproduction of capitalism, precisely the basis upon which that entire system of exploitation is built.
«The communist model of production presupposes a considerable abundance of material goods, but not necessarily a strict comparison with capitalism,» he held, when asserting that instead of disproportionate production, «planning and economic efficiency» would be imposed. These were pillars of his theory in the field of economics.
«We have a great gap in our system: how to integrate the person into their work in such a way that is not necessary to use what we call material disincentives, how to make each worker feel the vital necessity to support their revolution and, at the same time, make work a pleasure... », wrote Che in that same letter to Fidel.
He himself questioned the situation about which he assured it was necessary to «thoroughly study.» He proposed in a meeting of at the Ministry of Industries «to fight with all our force so that moral incentives replace the material incentives to the degree possible and within the shortest time possible. This means we are establishing a relative process; we are not excluding material incentives, we are simply saying that we should fight for moral incentives to become, in the least possible time, the decisive factor in the performance of workers.»
However, he didn't assume a utopian position and reject the necessity of recognizing material rewards to those who work better than others. He maintained that «workers must be rewarded, but not with money based on the percentage they have exceeded the norm, but by their capacity to acquire a greater capacity. Let’s take the example of someone going to school ... and graduating with a higher qualification. Returning to the workplace with the new qualification would automatically translate into a wage increase – that is to say, a material incentive... »
A promoter of voluntary work, which characterized him as a true revolutionary, the economic thought of Che went into such specific details, given his position as the minister of Industry, that he ended up theoretically and practically involving himself in the determination of how wages would be determined in the socialist society in the making.
«How much is invested for the work of a soldier and how much for a teacher? How much for a minister and how much for a worker? Lenin, in«State and Revolution,» had an idea (Marxist) that rejected the comparison of officials' salaries and those of laborers, but I am not convinced that his reversal is correct,» questioned Che when criticizing the “Fundamentals of Political Economy” of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, then taken almost like a «Bible» for socialist construction.
He himself responded, analyzing the reality he saw in the Soviet Union and Cuba, that «the real essence of all of today difficulties is the false conception of the communist person, based on a long-term economic practice that tends to and will continue to tend to make people just a number in the production process through the lever of their material interest.» He also noted that «trying to raise productivity by individual rewards is falling even lower than capitalists.»
Educating the new person with a new approach to production was the principal thesis championed by Che, although it was not always well understood, or applied, neither in Cuba nor in the Soviet Union.
Foretelling the Soviet Collapse
Perhaps the importance of Che’s economic thought, in the light of current events and the challenges faced by Cuba, have not been weighed enough.
This is partly because many of his writings were not published until recently, and also because of the mystification of Che as a guerrilla commander and a man of action has often overshadowed his side as a philosopher and a Marxist economist – self-taught but well trained.
While in Prague, after leaving the Congo, Che wrote to Orlando Borrego, one of his closest collaborators. The said that he was thinking on «initiating a work on the manual of Political Economy from the Academy,» referring to the material from the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union.
These notes, which were unpublished only recently, as well as others he wrote down in the Bolivian jungle on philosophy, are some of the most illustrious of Che’s visions on socialism, and especially on the Soviet Union.
His worry came as a result of his visit to that country, a year and half earlier, in which he perceived some «dangerously capitalists arguments» in his exchanges with Soviet leaders and academics.
Fueled by the controversy about the Cuban economy in the construction of socialism —of which Che was a main actor in its first years— the idea of the thirst for profits and productive competition with capitalism being the driving force of development worried him greatly.
Argentinean academic Néstor Kohan said, «Guevara believed that in the transition to socialism the survival of the law of value had to be surpassed by socialist planning or... there would be a return to capitalism.»
Likewise, he criticised the siren songs of the praised Soviet manual of Political Economy that spoke of the «general crisis of capitalism,» a phrase about which he said «people must be careful...» «Crumbling» has a clear meaning in language; a fully grown man cannot undergo any more physiological changes, but he’s doesn’t agonize. The capitalist system has reached its total maturity under imperialism, yet it has not taken full advantage of its possibilities at the current moment and has great vitality. It is more precise to say «fully developed» or to say that it has reached the limits of its possibilities for development.
At the same time, Che was not convinced that the Soviets were knocking at the doors of communism, as they asserted; nor did he believe that setting economic goals to compete with capitalism was the ideal way of reaching that objective. As he said,«no one can set ‘bread and butter’ goals for reaching communism.»
This double characteristic of criticising capitalism while rejecting «sanctified» models was the largest contribution of his economic work, unfinished and based on notes, it was an effort «aimed at inviting people to think, to take Marxism with the seriousness this giant doctrine deserved.»
That is the reason why Che could formulate that warning thirty years prior that «The Soviet Union is returning to capitalism.» At the same time he set the foundations for the path to the socialism for its construction in the 21st century, which was intended to break with any narrow simplification of political economy. As he said in a 1965 interview with the Algerian newspaper The Avant-Garde, «this new society is the result of conscience.»