`Is Cuba done with equality?' NOT!

By Fred Feldman

June 28, 2008 -- 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 (a radical monthly print and daily webzine based in the US.) The article deals with the latest modifications of the country's 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 plough 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 of "fact" .

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 order.

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 puppies!

This proclamation of a world-historic shift is based on a statement that is factually inaccurate.

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 prioritise 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 demoralising 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' (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 -- 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 labour.

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 "dollarisation", 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 labour can be recognised as costing more to produce.

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 labour, 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 demoralising 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 Eastern European post-capitalist societies.

The "they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work" mentality was institutionalised in the Soviet and Eastern European post-capitalist 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 counterpose 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 labour 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 labour.

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 support this.

But Raul Castro 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 labour 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 analysing the workings of capital from the standpoint of the exploited class in struggle.)

Adler vs. Marx on workers as producers

Adler believes that the whole idea that the productivity of labour can be increased is a fallacy, and that attempting this in Cuba must lead to catastrophe:

"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 commonsense and natural materialism. Unlike other arguments Marx's, which -- though generally equally correct -- run counter to the ordinary appearance of things.

Human labour produces machines. Machines are not beings, but simply products of human labour -- in many ways the central, most indispensable products of human labour today. They are produced by workers, labouring 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 utilised 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 labourer utilising 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 trade unions, explaining to them socialist views on everything from the Cuban Revolution to Cynthia McKinney and Barack 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 their tools.

Importance of labour productivity

So labour 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 specialist standing over their shoulder, looking for ways to squeeze more out of them to enrich the boss.

But after a socialist revolution, the productivity of labour remains a key guideline of how far forward the new society has gone and can go. The increase in the productivity of labour is one of the central material forces for progress. And without a growing productivity of labour, socialism and communism would never be attainable. So when the Cuban government attempts to measure the productivity of labour and seeks ways to improve it, this should not be taken as evidence that they have turned against the labouring 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 labour 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 about!

(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, anti-capitalist, relatively equalitarian country like Cuba must have 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 my conscience.)

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 labour. Socialist goodwill 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 labour represented by the creation and rise of the modern working class. And worldwide, further increases in the productivity of labour, 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

Mikhail Gorbachev took some measures like these in the Soviet Union 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 non-capitalist 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 demoralisation 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 is 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 nationalisation 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 defence 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 organisation 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 favourably 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 isolated instead.

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 has been an activist, beginning in the US civil rights movement, for 47 years. He is a factory worker who lives in Newark, New Jersey.]