A late night meeting of the Cuban leadership towards the end of 1959. Fidel Castro looks around the room and asks for ‘a good economist’ to become the president of the National Bank of Cuba. Half asleep, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara raises his hand. Castro replied with surprise: ‘Che, I didn’t know you were a good economist’, to which Guevara exclaimed: ‘Oh, I thought you asked for a good communist!’ (Yaffe 2009 p.22)
This apocryphal story, told by Osvaldo Dorticós, president of Cuba from 1959 until 1976, serves to indicate the apparently accidental nature of Che Guevara’s involvement in running the economy of the Cuban state.
Guevara is better known as a leader of the guerrilla army that overthrew the hated dictator Batista at the end of 1958. Guevara played a leading role in the reconstruction of the Cuban state, including the training of the Rebel Army and the creation of the G-2 security apparatus. I’ve discussed Guevara’s Stalinist politics previously - see No hero of ours (Solidarity 3/57, 2004) and How should Che Guevara be commemorated? (Workers’ Liberty 1/43, November 1997)
Helen Yaffe’s book, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (2009) argues that Guevara’s “most significant contribution remains largely unknown”, and that, “his life and work as a member of the Cuban government from 1959 to 1965 have received scant attention from historians, social scientists and other commentators”. (2009 p.2) Guevara was appointed Head of the Department of Industrialisation in the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) in October 1959, becoming Minister of Industries (MININD) from February 1961 until 1965. He was also briefly President of the National Bank of Cuba in 1959-1960.
The claim of neglect is not entirely true – even in English. A collection of articles on Guevara’s economics, Man and socialism in Cuba: the great debate edited by Bertram Silverman was published in 1971, while the Mandelite Trotskyist Michel Löwy produced a short but glowing tribute, The Marxism of Che Guevara: philosophy, economics, and revolutionary warfare in 1973. More recently, the Cuban government itself has also made use of Guevara’s legacy – particularly during the Rectification period in the late 1980s. In this context, Carlos Tablada’s Che Guevara: Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism (1989) covered some of the same ground.
Nevertheless Yaffe’s book contains new material that merits discussion. It is the product of a PhD thesis, involving 60 interviews with nearly 50 of Guevara’s closest collaborators. It reviews Guevara’s so-called “great debate” about economic planning in the mid-1960s, but also lesser known elements, such as his critique of the Soviet manual of political economy.
The assumption of socialism in Cuba
Yaffe assumes that Cuba is socialist and has been so since the early 1960s. This assumption sets the framework for the assessment of Guevara. However she does not make the case that Cuba is socialist. The reason why is very simple: it is not possible to define Cuba as socialist without abandoning the central tenets of Marxism.
Socialism for classical Marxists and for AWL means the self–emancipation of the working class. This means the working class acts consciously for its own interests. It has its own forms of struggle – strikes, workplace occupations etc; its own organisations – unions, committees, its own party; and it creates own particular forms of democratic rule e.g. workers’ councils (Soviets). This is not a pipe-dream or an ideal – it is the reality of the high points of decades of workers’ struggle. All these factors were present in Russia 1917, when workers took power. Most of these conditions were present in Germany 1918, China 1927, Spain 1936, France 1968, Chile 1973, Portugal 1974, Iran 1979 and Poland 1980. And there was a precedent in Cuba in August 1933, when embryonic Soviets were formed in 36 sugar mills, along with workers’ militias, food committees and land distribution.
The July 26 movement (M26J) was simply not a working class movement. The M26J was self-declared as “Olive Green” in 1959, with a moderate bourgeois programme, a largely petty bourgeois and déclassé leadership heading a peasant army numbering a few thousand. It was headed by a Bonaparte figure in the shape of Fidel Castro. The movement did involve other forces, including in urban areas. The M26J had its own trade union front (FON), but its attempted general strike in April 1958 failed in most places.
Although some workers played a role in the overthrow of Batista, the striking fact of the seizure of power was the absence of the working class acting as a class for its own wider interests. In the revolution of 1958-59 there were no Soviets, no dual power; no factory committees and no workers’ party. The general strike called by Castro at the beginning of January 1959 took place after Batista fled and his army had disintegrated. It helped forestall a military junta backed by the US, but the strike was in reality closer to a holiday to celebrate the fall of the dictator.
This fact has at times been acknowledged by the Cuban leaders themselves. Guevara is quoted in Yaffe’s book in 1965-66, admitting in his notes on political economy that, “In China, Cuba and Vietnam the revolution was not led by a revolutionary proletariat aligned with the peasantry. In Cuba it was a multi-class movement which radicalised after taking state power.” (2009 p.251) Fidel Castro was explicit in public on 26 July 1970, when he stated: “We must say that early in 1959 the majority of our people were not even anti-imperialist and had no class consciousness. What they did have was a class instinct, which isn't the same.” (Granma, July 27 1970)
No socialism is possible without the conscious, active role of the working class. There is no “unconscious socialism”, no workers’ states, however “deformed” or “degenerated” created without the agency of the working class. There are no “blunt instruments”, no locums or substitutes capable of making socialism or leading the working class. The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. Or else it is not socialism.
If the Castroites did not lead the working class to power, then the social formation that exists in Cuba is not socialism but a class society. The key question in any society is how the surplus product is pumped out of the direct producers. Under socialism, the surplus product would be democratically controlled by the working class. If the working class does not rule politically, it does rule at all. This is the fundamental dividing line in determining the class character of Cuba.
What sort of class society was created in Cuba? In my view it was Stalinism, on the model of Stalin’s rule in Russia after 1928, but also China from 1949, Eastern Europe 1945-89 and Vietnam. Cuba since 1960 has been a class society with a Stalinist form of exploitation: the state owns the means of production, and a totalitarian bureaucratic ruling class controls the state and extracts the surplus product from workers and peasants. In other words the direct producers are exploited directly, with the state providing the means of subsistence in return for absolute control over the product. This is not a capitalist mode of exploitation, though Stalinist societies do tend to evolve towards capitalism, given their material backwardness and the pressure from the world market.
Yaffe’s abject failure to engage with this argument is a fundamental flaw of the book. Her assumption is not only made about Cuba – the persistent references to “the socialist countries” suggest she also believes these societies went beyond capitalism. The collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe 1989-91 and the evolution of China and Vietnam towards capitalism give little sustenance to the view that they were ever socialist, or even post-capitalist. The simple failure to learn anything from the collapse of Stalinism is a gigantic hiatus.
Nationalisation in Cuba
How far Cuba was and is from socialism is indicated in Yaffe’s book, which inadvertently reveals the meaning of nationalisation under Castro.
In 1960 Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir visited Cuba, around the time that the sugar mills were nationalised. Yaffe recounts the tale, recalled by Orlando Borrago Díaz, Guevara’s deputy from 1959 to 1964. Borrego was called up during the night by Guevara and told that they needed to somehow find 200 people by nine the next morning to run factories and sugar mills. The need was desperate: legislation had been rushed through in a special night-time cabinet meeting in the face of increasingly acrimonious actions by the US. Borrego said:
“I nearly had a heart attack! Where were we going to find them? I only knew about three people with any accountancy experience. Half an hour later Che called me again and said Fidel had an idea, a solution. There was a boarding school with 200 youngsters aged between 15 and 20 years old, training to be teachers…
“Fidel said: ‘We will nominate them as managers of the factories’. I was shocked! Minutes later Fidel called to tell me to go the school to wake them up even though it was the middle of the night. He arrived at 4am. The students went mad with joy, throwing their things up in the air.” (Yaffe 2009 p.33-34)
Yaffe argues that the unions in the sugar mills supported this action. However what the episode indicates is that the workers were not involved in any sort of upsurge, nor did they in any sense have control over the process. The incident also shows the Castroites contempt for workers – the job of administration was given to some unqualified outsiders, while the workers were not considered capable of taking over the running of the industry.
The subordination of workers was a given for the regime. The “planning” process was bureaucratic, top-down with at most an opportunity to rubber stamp decisions made from above. Interviewed by Maurice Zeitlin in 1962, Guevara was asked: What role do the workers take in the actual creation of the national economic plan? Guevara answer was candid but revealing: “They take no part in the creation of the first plan. After the first plan has been worked out by the Central Planning Commission, the specific plans are sent to the enterprises, and from there to the factories, and in the factories to the assembly of workers, where the factory plan is discussed. Here the workers discuss the possibilities of the plan for the factory and send the revised plan back up for approval, and then it becomes law. In this way the workers have a voice in the plan of the factory, but not in the national plan.” (Bonachea and Valdes, Che: Selected Works of Ernesto Guevara., 1969 p.396-97)
The lack of workers’ control
Yaffe argues that workers did have some say at factory level. She cites the Committees for Spare Parts set up in 1960, as the first workers’ committee established in industry. In 1961, Advisory Technical Committees (Comités Técnico Asesor – CTAs) were set up in every work centre and every nationalised industry. Finally, “Production Assemblies generalised the active role of the CTAs among the entire workforce. They involved a meeting of all the workers, advisors, technicians, engineers and administrators linked to each workplace, at quarterly, if not monthly intervals.” Yaffe argues that “a minimum of 70% of the workers must participate or Assemblies had to be cancelled. Trade unions, the party and other mass organisations were responsible for mobilising workers to participate”. (2009 p.139, p.145-47)
However these bodies were also little more than top-down schemes, like Japanese quality circles and codetermination (mitbestimmung), designed to involve workers in their own exploitation. They were widely criticised at the time, including within Cuba, something Yaffe conveniently overlooks. Again, Guevara own testimony bears witness to the real state of affairs. Speaking on The People’s University TV programme on 30 April 1961 he said:
“In other words, the leaders of the country in close identification with their people consider what is best for the people and put that into numbers, more or less arbitrary though, of course, based on logic and judgement, and send them from the top down: for example, from the Central Planning Board to the Ministry of Industries, where the Ministry of Industries makes the corrections it deems appropriate since it is closer to certain aspects of real life than the other offices. From there it continues downward to the enterprises, which makes other corrections. From the enterprises it goes to the factories, where other corrections are made, and from there to the workers who must have the final say on the plan.”
He went on to say:
“I was reading a little news sheet we have here. It’s hardly worth mentioning, but it’s a Trotskyist newspaper whose name I’m not sure of. [Voice in background tells him it is Voz Proletaria.] It criticised the Technical Advisory Committees from a Trotskyist point of view…
“The trouble in fact with the Technical Advisory Committees is that they were not created by mass pressure. They were bureaucratically created from the top to give the masses a vehicle they had not asked for, and that is the fault of the masses. We, the “timorous petty bourgeoisie”, went looking for a channel that would enable us to listen to the masses’ voice. That is what I want to emphasise. And we created the Technical Advisory Committees, for better or worse, with the imperfections they very likely have, because they were our idea, our creation, that is, the creation of people who lack experience in these problems. What was not present at all, and I want to stress that, was mass pressure… the Replacement Parts Committees, also created from above by the revolution…” (Guevara, Cuba’s Economic Plan in George Lavan, Che Guevara Speaks, 1967 p.37-38, p.42-43, my emphasis)
[Footnote: According to the US SWP Joseph Hansen, Guevara went on television the following day to apologise for misrepresenting the “Trotskyist comrades”. (Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, 1978 p.161) This does not detract from Guevara’s assessment of the status of these bodies]
Yaffe’s fall back is to blame the context. As she put it: “It must be recognised, meanwhile, that the persistently punitive US blockade, terrorist attacks and political machinations against Cuba have limited the feasibility of decentralising management to the Cuban masses. It has been necessary, therefore, to integrate workers from the masses into the central apparatus of government. The decentralisation to which Guevara aspired has not yet been achieved.” (2009 p.162)
This is entirely disingenuous. The absence of workers’ democracy makes workers less likely to defend the government in the face of US aggression. And workers’ democracy is the essence of socialist relations of production, the very oxygen that permits the working class to rule itself and to administer a modern economy, with a division of labour and specialisation. The persistent absence of workers’ self-management is concrete proof that Cuba is not any kind of socialism.
Guevara’s views on the Cuban working class
Yaffe attempts to argue that Guevara’s attitude towards the working class was somehow different from the rest of the regime. She quotes an article in Trabajadores from July 1961, in which Guevara outlined two distinct responsibilities for the unions: to promote the goals of the government among the workers and to defend the immediate material and spiritual interests of the workers. However she quotes the main emphasis – increasing production. Guevara wrote: “The trade unions are intimately linked to a rise in productivity and to work discipline, two pillars in the construction of socialism… the superior weapon of the working class, the strike, is precisely the weapon of the violent definition of class contradictions, which cannot occur in a society on the path towards socialism.” (2009 p.93)
A similar ambivalence was illustrated in Guevara’s interview with Zeitlin. Asked, can the workers strike, if they feel it is necessary? Guevara answered: “I believe yes! We maintain, that a strike is a defeat for the government and for the working class. For example, we had a 24-hour strike – which was solved politically as all strikes must be. The strike occurred 14 months ago. Now there are no strikes.” (Bonachea and Valdes 1969 p.395)
Yaffe says nothing about the effective suppression of independent trade unionism in Cuba by the Castroites. In November 1959, they imposed Stalinists on the CTC union federation, and in the following months purged most of the union leaders, including M26J supporters elected after the 1959 (and not hangovers from the Batista period). The government imposed Lazaro Peña as general secretary of the CTC in 1961. Peña previously held the position when the Stalinist party (PSP) was in alliance with Batista between 1938 and 1947.
However the book does reveal unintentionally the real nature of industrial relations in Cuba under Guevara. He organised for a new salary scale to be introduced in 1964. All wages were grouped into eight categories and there was a 15% differential between the eight hourly wage rates. (2009 p.96) Yaffe made a big fuss of this in The Guardian last year (20 June 2008), arguing that Cubans had long experienced wage differentials. The point entirely missed is that these wage scales were imposed from above; they were not the product of collective bargaining but rather of top-down diktat.
The so-called great debate – two approaches to bureaucratic planning
Yaffe lack other previous commentators ascribes exaggerated significance to the debate in Cuba between 1963 and 1965 involving leading members of the Cuban government, and some European intellectuals. The discussion ranged over the role of the law of value, the way planning was organised, and about the place of material and moral incentives.
On the one side were those who supported the Soviet Auto-Financing System (AFS), which meant “financial decentralisation for enterprises which functioned as independent accounting units responsible for their own profits and losses and, in the case of INRA, was similar to the khozraschet model of cooperative farms in the USSR”. On the other was the Budgetary Finance System (BFS) advocated by Guevara and operated by his ministry. (Yaffe 2009 p.47)
Both sides took their cue from Stalin: the former from his last article on economics (1952); the later from his political economy during the 1930s. Both adopted a mistaken view of the law of value as operating initially under “simple commodity production”, a logical construct and/or historical period suggested originally by Engels at the end of his life but not found anywhere in Marx’s economic writings. The problem with this approach is that it treats the law of value as principally a theory of prices. But Marx accepted that actual prices are not simply determined by values (i.e. quantities of socially necessary labour time) even under capitalism. In fact Marx’s real insight, derived from his exposition of the value-form, was to uncover exploitation beneath the veneer of equal exchange under capitalism. Yaffe appears unaware of these discussions, despite a rich Marxist literature .
Yaffe is convinced that Guevara’s view was right. “Guevara stated that ‘value’ is brought about by the relationships of production. It exists objectively and is not created by man with a specific purpose. He agreed that the law of value continues under socialism.. Guevara insisted that commodity-exchange relations between factories threatened transition, via ‘market socialism’, to capitalism. He stressed central planning and state regulation as substitutes to such mechanisms. Cuba, he argued, should be considered as one big factory… Guevara believed that a socialist country’s task was not to use, or even hold the law of value in check, but to define very precisely the law’s sphere of operation and then make inroads into those spheres to undermine it; to work towards its abolition, not limitation.” (2009 p.53-54, p.56)
Under the BFS, cost-cutting not profit was the key to evaluating enterprise performance. BFS enterprises did not control their own finances. They could not get bank credit. However she concedes that “the origin of the BFS lay in the capitalist corporations of pre-Revolution Cuba”. (2009 p.48, p.58, p.168) Yaffe goes as far as to say that “Guevara’s vision was of Cuba Socialista as a single factory operating under what today is known as Just in Time techniques to achieve the greatest possible efficiency, via rational organisation, maximum returns on investments and a focus on quality.” (2009 p.129-130)
Perhaps Guevara’s critique of the USSR as heading for capitalism had some traction. However the BFS was also a bureaucratic, top-down system of planning, with no democratic means through which workers could exercise their power. Some of the differences were exaggerated. Yaffe concedes that others were cosmetic: “Guevara insisted on changing the titles of various functions to dissociate them from capitalist concepts… So profit is renamed ‘record of results’.” (2009 p.201) The debate was actually between different forms of bureaucratic planning within different Stalinist states. Neither side have much to say about how a real socialist economy might function, because they both downgraded the active agency of workers.
Moral incentives and voluntary labour
Yaffe also discusses the significance of Guevara’s advocacy of “moral incentives” in production. She argues that for Guevara, voluntary labour was “not obligatory”. She quotes his deputy Borrego, who dismissed the view that voluntary labour is a cheap form of exploitation: “Voluntary work under socialism is for social and collective benefit. No one would do voluntary labour in a private capitalist enterprise…” (2009 p.214, p.212)
This is rather naïve. Even TUC figures for the British economy estimate that five million workers are doing over seven hours unpaid overtime a week. It also contradicts Cuban reality. Yaffe states that by 1964, trade unions in the Ministry of Industries “agreed to accept 40 hours’ pay for a 44-hour working week”, what she laughably calls “creating another form of voluntary labour”. (2009 p.215)
Guevara also considered “socialist emulation” to be a fundamental component of the BFS. Super-productive workers received material rewards including cash, but mostly goods such as refrigerators, housing, vacations and travel to Eastern Europe. He also believed that people were more inspired to participate in emulation by the example of outstanding workers. Yaffe cites the case of Reinaldo Castro who became famous in the 1962 sugar harvest for hand-cutting 11 tons a day in nationwide emulations. In 1963 he cut 25 tons in eight hours and the following year was named National Hero of Work. (2009 p.204, p.206) The problem for Yaffe is that this kind of labour discipline is indistinguishable from Stakhanovism during high Stalinism in Russia in the 1930s.
It was the absence of workers’ democracy, workers’ control and workers’ self-management that made these methods appear necessary in bureaucratic Cuba. Sam Farber made the key political point about how a real socialist society would deal with these issues: “Classical Marxism, besides assuming that socialism would take place in a society with a relatively high level of material abundance and cultural advancement, emphasised not ‘moral’, but what could be called ‘political incentives’ that involved democratic control of the economy, polity and society, including the control of the workplace by the workers. According to this approach, only by participating and controlling their own productive lives would people become interested and responsible for what they do for a living day in and day out; that is, only thus would they get to care and give a damn. In this sense, workers' democracy was seen both as a good in itself -- people taking control of their lives -- and as a truly productive economic force. (Visiting Raúl Castro's Cuba, New Politics, 43, 2007)
Yaffe also makes a defence of another form of work discipline in operation in Cuba, namely labour camps. In particular she argues that the Rehabilitation Centre at Guanahacabibes was not really coercive, because Guevara’s ministry “sent only management personnel there, not production workers; second, going there was optional”. (2009 p.216)
She admits that Guanahacabibes was an extension of the hard labour camp set up by the Department of Education of the Rebel Army on Cayo Largo in 1959 for soldiers under reprimand. From mid-1960 the armed forces ministry set up a work camp at Guanahacabibes and sent soldiers there as a form of punishment. They were joined by students who had abused foreign scholarships and been expelled from socialist bloc countries. In 1961, Guevara began sending MININD directors to Guanahacabibes to assist the labour force, as did other ministries. “The men slept in the open air until they had made tents, then wooden huts, then houses of cement and iron…. A report in November 1962 listed 56 people there under sentence… (Yaffe 2009 p.216, p.218)
Guevara said in January 1962: “To Guanahacabibes are sent people who should not go to prison, people with more or less serious failings of revolutionary morality with the simultaneous sanction of removing themselves from their posts. In other cases it is not a punishment but a kind of re-education through work. The work conditions are hard, but not bestial… no one should go to Guanahacabibes who does not want to go, leave and work somewhere else.” (2009 p.219) Apparently, when one of the founding members of the Department of Industrialisation, Francisco Garcia Vals, was sent there, Guevara visited every weekend to play chess with him and ensure that he understood the reprimand. (2009 p.221)
Yaffe argues that the history of Guanahacabibes as a ‘rehabilitation centre’, and one involving hard labour, “presents a conceptual challenge”, “raising the spectre of the harsh reality of such camps in other socialist bloc countries”. (2009 p.222) it does much more than that. In an economy where the state was the main employer, the “choice” to work somewhere else rather than go the camp was hardly a free one. More significantly, Guanahacabibes has to put into the context of hundreds of other prisons where convict labour routinely takes place, producing clothing, construction, furniture, and other factories as well as agricultural camps at it maximum and minimum security prisons. It also needs to be put in the context of the military draft of 16 to 45 years olds, and the deployment of recalcitrant workers in the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). These all represent forms of systematic exploitation, oppression and coercion by a state that dominates its population.
Guevara, critic of Stalinism?
The supporters of Che Guevara have long protested that he somehow broke from Stalinism in his last years. They cite his remarks about the USSR after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and his view that Russia had imperialistic relations with the Third World. Others such as Ernest Mandel have gone further, stating that Guevara and the revolutionary leadership were some sort of “unconscious Trotskyists”. I have previously argued that Guevara may have become disillusioned with the USSR, but far from becoming a Trotskyist he instead moved closer to the Maoist variant of Stalinism. Yaffe’s book provides some proof of this. Guevara stated in December 1964:
“There are some useful things that can be taken from Trotsky’s ideas. I believe that the fundamental things which Trotsky based himself on were erroneous, and that his later behaviour was wrong and even obscure in the final period. The Trotskyists have contributed nothing to the revolutionary movement and where they did most, which was in Peru, they ultimately failed because their methods were bad. That comrade Hugo Blanco, personally a man of great sacrifice, based [his position] on a set of erroneous ideas and will necessarily fail.”
He added: “In many aspects I have expressed opinions that could be closer to the Chinese side: guerrilla warfare, people’s war, in the development of all these things, voluntary labour, to be against direct material incentives as a lever, a whole set of things which the Chinese also raise…” (Yaffe 2009 p.234-35)
Further proof of Guevara’s lasting commitment to Stalinism is also found in Yaffe’s book, right at the heart of the new material that she presents. Between 1965 and 1966, Guevara made critical notes on the Soviet Manual of Political Economy, whilst in Africa. The notes were smuggled back into Cuba by his wife Aleida March, who passed them onto Borrego, who kept them under lock and key for forty years. (2009 p.233)
Although it is true that the notes were not written for publication, nor were they brought together as text, it is fair to say they reflect Guevara’s thinking close to the end of his life.
Firstly Guevara argued that after Marx and Lenin, “the fountain of theory had dried up”, “leaving only some isolated works of Stalin and certain writings of Mao Tse-Tung as witness to the immense creative power of Marxism”. He stated: “In his last years, Stalin feared the consequence of this lack of theory and he ordered a manual to be written which would be accessible to the masses and deal with all the themes of political economy up to the present period.” (Yaffe 2009 p.240)
Guevara criticised Lenin for the original move towards market mechanisms. He wrote: “In the course of our practice and our theoretical investigations we have discovered the most blameworthy individual with the name and surname: Vladimir Ilich Lenin… Our thesis is that the changes brought about by the New Economic Policy (NEP) have saturated the life of the USSR and that they have since scarred this whole period.” (2009 p.240)
This seems bizarre. The NEP was a limited opening by an emaciated workers’ state recovering from civil war. It’s possible to debate the merits of NEP, but the point here is that Guevara misses out the whole period of Stalin’s forced industrialisation and collectivisation, where market mechanisms were largely obliterated. Stalin may have permitted them in the last years of his life, but not before presiding over a whole period suppressing the law of value in the USSR.
The Soviet Manual criticised Stalin’s thesis that commodity production under socialism represents a break on the development of the productive forces leading to the need for direct exchange between industry and agriculture. Stalin, it stated, failed to fully appreciate “the operation of the law of value in the sphere of production, in particular as far as concerns the means of production”. Despite Stalin’s responsibilities for embedding capitalist levers, never mind his other crimes, Guevara still regarded him as less reactionary than the authors of the Soviet Manual. He wrote: “In the supposed errors of Stalin is the difference between a revolutionary and a revisionist attitude. He saw the danger in commodity relations and attempted to pass over this stage by breaking those that resisted him.” (Yaffe 2009 p.249)
If Guevara retained his reverence for Stalin until the end, he also did not spurn Soviet backing to Cuba. Yaffe states that “Guevara recognised the value of Soviet assistance and had great respect for the feats of the USSR. It is vitally important to understand that his criticisms were intended to be constructive”. (2009 p.234)
However Guevara’s notes also indicate how far he was from revolutionary Marxism, and inadvertently how far Cuba was from socialism.
According to Yaffe, he argued that, “In dependent (oppressed) countries, foreign investment turns the working class into relative beneficiaries compared to the dispossessed peasant class, whose plight they ignore”. He also claimed that, “The working class in developed countries do not unite with national liberation movements in a common front against imperialism. They become the accomplices of the imperialists from whom they receive crumbs…” The dismissal of the working class in the main capitalist centres went further: “The working class in the imperialist countries strengthens in cohesion and organisation, but not in consciousness” and “Today we describe could describe as the labour aristocracy the mass of workers in the strong countries with respect to the weak ones”. (Yaffe 2009 p.251-52)
Guevara also criticised the Soviet Manual’s claim that under socialism trade unions were important organisations of the masses with the right to monitor the state on completion of work and protection legislation. He wrote that “trade unions appear anachronistic, without meaning” and complained of “the bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement” (2009 p.252) Of course, the Soviet “unions” were no such entities – they were state labour fronts tied to the bureaucracy, just like their Cuban counterparts. However Guevara’s rejection of the role of unions under socialism was real enough.
Yaffe makes a great deal of Guevara prediction that capitalism would re-emerge in the USSR unless it changed course. Of course this is what happened after 1991. However this was hardly a novel prediction in the mid-1960s. Semi-Stalinists such as Paul Sweezy, not to mention the Chinese state after the Sino-Soviet split also made similar claims and indeed went further, stating the process had already occurred. Guevara’s originally on this, as with much else, is overstated in the book.
Guevara’s (ir)relevance for today’s socialism
Yaffe argues that Guevara’s outstanding contribution was “to devise a system of economic management that gave expression to his Marxist analysis in practical policies, applying his theory of socialist transition to the reality of 1960s Cuba and its level of economic development”. (2009 p.260-61) Since she fails to prove Cuba has anything to do with socialism, and in fact indicates the anti-working class character of Guevara’s political economy, the book must be judged a failure.
Yaffe’s interest in Guevara has a contemporary echo with greater pertinence. During the 1990s, the Cuban state allowed more space for the functioning of market mechanisms. Some 300 firms linked to the military, such as GAESA, Aerogaviota and UIM were set up, along with semi-autonomous state agencies, including Cubanacan, Artex and Cubalse. The Enterprise Perfection System (EPS), which measures production in capitalist management terms i.e. ‘profit’, was generalised. Joint ventures in tourism, nickel, telephone, oil and citrus, with foreign capital from Spain, Canada, Mexico, Italy, the UK and China were established. And around 150,000 small enterprises were permitted.
Although much of this remains, the move towards the market has been heavily curtailed.
In 2003, US dollar payments between Cuban enterprises were abolished and replaced by payments in Cuban convertible pesos. In 2005 financial autonomy was removed from Cuban enterprises and their reserves transferred to the central bank. Yaffe says that the number of mixed enterprises (Cuban state and private/foreign capital) operating in Cuba decreased from 403 in 2002 to 236 in 2006, and accounts for less than 1% of employment. (2009 p.267, p.269)
Yaffe believes that the result of these measures is “a degree of financial centralisation not seen since Guevara’s BFS” and is “to limit the sphere of operation of capitalist mechanisms introduced via foreign capital diminishing their impact on Cubans as producers and consumers”. (2009 p.269) She denies that Cuba is undergoing a Chinese-style market-opening. In other words she appears to celebrate the stalling of the process as a vindication of Guevara’s approach in the earlier period.
That the transition to capitalism in Cuba has slowed is indisputable, and it might even have stalled. However the reason for it is clear. Fidel Castro has lived longer than most expected. Raul Castro, the chief advocate of the Chinese road will not press ahead while the Bonaparte is still alive.
Guevara’s economics are no place of refuge for Cuban workers. They will not find a means to overcome their exploitation in the political economy of mildly dissident Stalinism. Cuban workers will need to break free of such icons and rely on their own self-organisation to overcome the twin travails of capitalism and Stalinism with Cuban characteristics.