Thursday, November 19, 2015

Was Che a Socialist? (1998)

Letters to the Editors from the December 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

I've been taking the Socialist Standard for some years now and generally find myself in broad agreement with your analysis of capitalism and the fact that it can't be reformed into true socialism.

I also work and campaign against the US economic blockade of Cuba and all of the ongoing aggression that the World's only superpower makes against this small island that tries so hard to aspire to socialist values. I was somewhat taken aback to find myself and others who try to put a brake on the advances of extreme right wing ideology and global neo-liberalisation, blasted as "Trotskyist" and "anti-working class" in the editorial of your August issue.

I too despise patriotism and nationalism. The reason that I campaign is not for the greater glory of Cuba or of a single personality like Fidel Castro. I also wouldn’t argue for one moment that Cuba and the current Cuban system is perfect or that it represents true socialism. I think we are again in agreement that socialism isn't possible on a single country basis. The point is that the Cuban government and (I believe) a great majority of Cuban people through 40 years of revolutionary education understand and want true socialism on a World-wide basis. The system that they operate has many socialist values and in its achievements gives the world a glimpse of what mankind could aspire to if we could move on from capitalism.

Che Guevara when Cuban Minister of Finance wanted a completely moneyless Cuban society and it is a matter of speculation whether the Cuban Revolution could have survived and prospered if this had been implemented. I think probably not, imports of vital items such as oil have to be paid for on the world markets. Without global socialism and accepting the evil of currency, Cuba has still managed to achieve a huge amount both within the country and in the rest of the world. I think that the fact that Cuba didn’t collapse when the Soviet Union folded is because its system has always represented something different and far closer to true socialism than the state capitalism of the USSR.

Elsewhere in the August issue, you list facts and figures about poverty and starvation in the rest of the world. The terrible statistics that you give occur in countries that are forced to operate ever harder capitalist systems by organisations like the IMF and the World Bank. You report that 12 million children under 5 years of age die each year of whom the majority could be saved. In Cuba, the infant mortality rate is 7.2 per 1000 births. That’s lower than Sweden and many poorer areas in the UK. There is one doctor for every 75 persons, which is the highest ratio in the world. This is despite the blockade of the US, which means that drugs, medicines and technology controlled by the US dominated pharmaceutical trade can't be bought at any price. You relay that 110 million children don’t attend primary school and 275 million don’t go to a secondary school. Not one of them is Cuban! Literacy rates are almost 100 percent. When it comes to life expectancy, you report that there is a variance of 20 to 35 years between "rich" and "poor" countries. You don’t mention the one exception of Cuba where the life expectancy is now over 76 years. I don’t think it would fall into your definition of a rich country would it? I could go on listing the achievements of the Cuban revolution in many other fields, such as sport, art and music. I could also mention the tremendous spirit of internationalism that Cuba has always displayed. In Angola, hundreds of thousands of Cubans volunteered and many died defeating the nuclear-armed apartheid forces of South Africa. Cuban doctors are currently working free of charge in many third world countries in gestures of solidarity. More causalities from the Chernobyl disaster where treated by Cuban doctors than any other nationality. Thousands of Africans and Latin Americans have been educated in Cuban schools and universities.

All of this has been achieved despite the continual attacks of the US. They have tried everything from full-scale invasion, to biological weapons and spreading disease, to numerous well-documented assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. There have been 40 years of a steadily increasing trade and economic blockade and much more besides. What capitalist country would be able to stand such pressures?

I believe that the reason the US, the power base of the capitalists, expends so much effort in trying to snuff out the Cuban revolution is simply because they are terrified of the Socialist example that it sets. Why else would they prevent their own citizens from travelling there? If Cuba can make and retain such remarkable gains for their people from their own limited version of socialism, then what could be achieved on a World-wide scale? I think that Cuba gives a tiny taste of the potential of socialism. The Cuban message that the US and world capitalists are trying so hard to silence should be amplified by socialists across the world to help explain why socialism is a superior system to capitalism.

Perhaps in view of these points you could answer the following questions for me:

1. Do you think that Che Guevara was a true socialist, even though he was also a revolutionary?

2. What do you think of Castro's prediction that a global economic crisis is inevitable and that this will provide the trigger for a new era of World-socialism?

MARTIN LAWSON-SMITH, Bampton, Oxon


Reply: 
What do you mean "a true socialist, even though he was also a revolutionary"? A "true socialist" has to be a revolutionary in the sense of wanting a rapid change from minority class ownership to common ownership by all the people as the basis of society. Such a social revolution doesn't have to involve violence, insurrection, civil war, street battles, and executions as in the mistaken, popular conception of "revolution". The criterion for judging whether someone is a revolutionary or not is whether they want a rapid and decisive change in the basis of society, not the means they advocate to bring this about.

So what about Guevara? To have wanted to carry out an experiment in organising production without money, as was in fact done on a small island off the Cuban mainland for a while, shows that he must have had some notion of what socialism involves. But his approach was elitist: that an enlightened minority could seize power and then liberate the masses from above by educating them in socialist ideas.

Although he probably developed this approach independently, it was also that of Lenin who had himself inherited it from various 19th century revolutionaries. These despaired of the down-trodden and uneducated masses they could see around them ever being able to come to want socialism under the capitalist conditions that had degraded them. The conclusion they drew was that, if socialism was to be established, the enlightened minority who did want socialism would have to seize power and establish their own rule, their own dictatorship in fact, and use it to free the unenlightened masses from the grip of capitalist ideas.

It was a theory that socialism could only be established by, if you like, a benevolent dictatorship. Guevara was in this tradition. But, as Marx had already pointed out to his fellow 19th century revolutionaries, it was a flawed theory. Socialism by its very nature required popular participation; the working class could not be liberated from above by some self-appointed enlightened minority but only by its own actions.

This is our approach too. But it wasn't Guevara's. He still believed in what Engels criticised as "revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses". But what happens when such a small minority does succeed in winning and holding on to power? Because the "unconscious masses" don't want or understand socialism a key condition for its establishment is missing, so whatever happens socialism can't be the outcome. Not being able to establish socialism the new rulers find themselves obliged to govern what is inevitably still essentially a capitalist economy based on wage-labour, money-commodity relations and trading—which is why we say that Cuba, just like Leninist Russia used to, has a state-run capitalist economy.

The enlightened minority may try to do this more or less "benevolently"—and we are prepared to recognise that this is what Castro, Guevara and the others genuinely tried to do—but this doesn't make much difference as what can be done, and what happens, is determined not by political will but by economic conditions. You yourself recognise this when you say that in Cuba "imports of vital items such as oil have to be paid for on the world markets". But to pay for them goods have to be exported and sold on world markets too and, in Cuba's case, this has largely meant sugar. To maximise sugar sales on the world market—so as to maximise the money needed to pay for vital imports and develop the country—the price has to be competitive, so production costs have to be kept down. But production costs include the wages of those working in the sugar industry.

Castro, Guevara and the others were in an impossible position: they wanted to improve the living standards of the "unconscious masses" but were severely limited as to what they could do by world market conditions and in fact, as the government of a state-run capitalist economy in the context of global capitalism, were in a sense obliged to impose the restrictions on consumption that world market conditions imposed. Conditions are certainly better in Cuba than there were under Batista before 1956 but we are not sure that workers in Cuba would agree that conditions there are as rosy as you paint them.

Another problem with the view that an enlightened minority should seize power with a view to liberating the unenlightened masses is that the minority can come to justify, as part of its programme of uprooting capitalist ideas, coercion against so-called "backward" elements within the working class who are accused of clinging to capitalist ideas to the detriment of the common good—and in Cuba as well as in Russia one idea that has been classified as backward is pressure for a higher individual wage or salary, denounced as selfish "economism". Similarly, those who advocate free speech can also be seen as dangerous on the grounds that this would allow free rein to the capitalist ideas which hold the unenlightened masses in their grip. So it is not just people in the pay of the CIA or of Cuban gangster businessmen in Miami who end up in jail but also genuine trade unionists and advocates of free speech. Socialists like ourselves probably would too.

As to Castro's prediction, we certainly think that, since capitalism is subject to periodic slumps and is a global system, global economic crises are inevitable from time to time. In fact the world seems to be heading for a new one before even fully getting out of the last one. We would like to think that this would trigger off a world-wide movement for global socialism but experience has unfortunately shown that there is not necessarily a fixed one-to-one relationship between economic crises and the growth of socialist ideas. Other factors too are involved and only time will tell how the socialist movement will fare as capitalism lurches into its next crisis—Editors.

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