Heinz Dieterich and the ‘salvation’ of the Cuban Revolution

By Jesús Arboleya Cervera

The debate on the future of the Cuban Revolution when Fidel Castro is no longer there is very popular today. The topic is of legitimate concern for the left, both because of the historical importance of the revolution and its Third World influence, and also because it is part of the confrontation with the right, since the strategy of the United States has been to use the topic to provide hope to a counter-revolution that has been declared defeated for as long as the Cuban leader remains alive.

I believe it is in this context that we would have to place the recent statements of Foreign Affairs Minister Felipe Pérez Roque during the latest sessions of the National Assembly of People’s Power [Cuba’s parliament]. In indicating what he considers are the strengths and weaknesses of the revolution to face the event, Pérez Roque is acting on the Cuban reality and joining a valid political effort to reinforce the political and ideological consensus which supports the revolution.

A very different thing, however, is to imply—as some do—a scientific approximation to a phenomenon which nobody knows exactly when it will take place or, depending on the context of its occurrence, what reactions it will provoke on the Cuban structure and superstructure. The battle over “post-Castro Cuba” is meaningful as far as the nature of the proposed project defines the forces in conflict. It is a present-day political debate and not an exercise in historical engineering that, based on supposedly predetermined variables, pretends to forecast the future. It is in fact a debate on the here and now of the Cuban socialist model rather than on its future.

This seems to be precisely the focus of German scholar Heinz Dieterich in his articles “Socialist Transition: Fidel discusses the possibility of the Cuban Revolution being lost” and “Cuba: Three premises to save the revolution when Fidel dies” recently published in Rebelión. Dieterich does not put forward any forecasts, but leaves us with a number of questions that practically provide their own answers and allow a glance at his vision of Cuban reality and his differences with the country’s leadership regarding the construction of the socialist model and the legitimacy of the state that tries to direct it. My comments are, therefore, addressed to these views.

Let me begin by saying I agree with Fidel on the fact that it is a mistake to believe that someone “knows” how to build socialism. Dogmatic rationalism put forth the idea that the construction of socialism was ruled by unchanging rules whose simple application would produce the desired result. In reality, as happens with any other concrete historical process, the theoretical and practical richness of socialism is in its eclecticism. This eclecticism is determined by the infinite variables the trial has to face, even more so when socialism starts from different realities and, more than a goal in itself, must be understood as a process towards communism. To talk about “transition towards socialism” is a theoretical contradiction, because socialism by definition cannot be framed into only one model.

According to Dieterich, Fidel’s aim in his recent declarations is to “apply dialectics to stagnation” by calling for a “world debate” that has not had an echo in the left due to the existing “repressive tolerance”. From this statement one must assume that it is a call “to save the Cuban Revolution”, not from potentially dangerous ongoing conflicts, but from a nature doomed to failure because, as he puts it, its “social-economic-political-institutional” environment is essentially the same that existed in the vanished ussr and gdr.

I am surprised to hear someone affirm that the “social-economic-political-institutional” environment in Cuba is similar to the one in those countries, because it suggests that even the snow was imported from Eastern Europe. Contrary to this view, what I believe is clear in Fidel’s statements is the confirmation of a theoretical premise that historically differentiated the position of the Cuban revolutionaries from those of the leaders of European real socialism. Such a premise emanates from very different objective realities, related precisely to the environment for the construction of socialism in a Third World country, where socialism rather than a result of development becomes a means to reach it. This discussion goes back to the arguments of Che on the need to shape a “new man” as a requisite of the socialist process. Dieterich´s comment is aimed at opposing this thesis, which indicates he is interested in discussing the essence of the phenomenon, not the context.

From the perspective of Cuban revolutionaries, ethics is part of socialist political ideology; therefore a weakening of ethics can lead to a political crisis that could destroy the system. They consider that this is exactly what happened in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, and it is what they are trying to avoid as they see evidence of corruption in the functioning of society. For Dieterich, however, “the empirical evidence seems to indicate that the idea of the homo novus is only valid for the masses in transitional stages or exceptional conditions; for longer periods it is only valid for minorities, possibly 10 or 15% of the national population”.

In a different part of his works he tells us:

… for any given period there is, as Marx explained, a historically determined measure of consumption for the worker which is expressed, in terms of the process of valorisation of capital, in the variable capital. This measure of consumption determines, essentially and in a stratified way, the quality of the material life of the people. Today, the dominant pattern of consumption in the globe is that of the middle classes in the First World and although it is still unreachable for the majorities, it exerts an irresistible attraction—so much so that many people risk their lives to reach those countries.

In other words, if we follow his reasoning, the consumption level that determines the quality of the life of workers today, which he identifies with the variable capital defined by Marx, is that of the middle classes in the First World “although it still remains unreachable for the majorities”. With a new rhetoric, this is the same thesis that guided the economic policy—in fact “the policy”—of the old socialist states in Europe, because this was the criterion that supported the “economic competition” of these states with the developed capitalist countries, a criterion which Che Guevara predicted would lead to the ruin of socialism in those countries. History proved him right.

Trapped in the contradiction he himself admits between this consumerist objective and the “standard of living allowed by the level of the productive forces and the redistribution system in the country”, Dieterich’s solution is to collectivise the economic leadership, so that each one can decide “democratically” what he or she prefers from the First World basket, and develop an individual awareness of the fact that it is not possible to have all of it. In essence, his proposal is not very different from the Cuban thesis, because on tackling the objective problem of real limitations in approaching First World consumption standards, Cuba admits there is no alternative but to appeal to people’s understanding and acceptance of these limitations. The difference is that Dieterich deprives this approach of the political and ethical values included in the formation of the new man formulated by Che.

In his democratising view of economics, there is no criticism of the injustice inherent in such a pattern, or of the ecological and economic irrationality of this norm. Neither is there solidarity with fellow beings, and people would still be deciding by selfish criteria, distant from a collective view of the problem. According to Dieterich, this outcome is inevitable, because the attraction exerted by consumer values is “irresistible” and attempts to ideologically “vaccinate with ideology the young people against the essential elements of the life pattern they consider fair and necessary will be effective only in a minority”.

Here we find ourselves facing the old debate of whether Che’s hypothesis was an example of “leftist idealism”, as it was labelled by the dogmatic followers of the so-called “real socialism”—and which today Dieterich compares to the “idealistic ethics that followed Platonic obscurantism, reinforced daily by Catholic moralistic hypocrisy”—or whether it was a response to the objective demands of the construction of socialism. In my view, to Che the “new man” was a need of socialism, precisely because there were no objective conditions to satisfy socially the standards of consumption set by capitalism. Neither should these standards be considered a goal, because they are not “just and necessary” as Dieterich states—confusing them with the variable capital as defined by Marx. Instead, these standards respond to the demands of a capitalist profit which is irrationally determined by the market and bring about inherent inequalities. If it is impossible to overcome this view of the standard of the real “quality of life” for human beings, as Dieterich says, then socialism is objectively unfeasible, because in the world at large there are no material conditions for its implementation.

I do not believe that the statements of the Cuban minister of foreign affairs need to be amended on the subject of the “dialectical unity of opposites in Cuban reality”, where according to Dieterich “the correct opposition would be: ethics and consumption rather than ethics and consumerism”. On the contrary, I believe the correct opposition was expressed by Pérez Roque, because he is not aiming at a society without advancement in the quality of life, devoid of progress and consumption of what is really necessary; but he is rejecting consumerism as the power source of human effort. It is Dieterich, in my opinion, who confuses legitimate consumption with consumerism when he adheres to the First World middle class welfare standard “although still unreachable for the majorities”.

In this context, I would like to stress a premise sometimes neglected in the discussion of the economic incentives of socialism: the First World consumption standards are based on the exploitation of the Third World. Without this exploitation, it would be impossible to accumulate the capital such standards require. Therefore it is a necessity of socialism to modify this mentality of exploitation and establish solidarity as ideology, even when it entails the personal sacrifice of a number of people and the consequent political price. The life of socialism is at stake in this “battle of ideas” because objectively there is no other choice.

This dilemma is more evident in poor countries, such as Cuba, where the country’s wealth is insufficient to satisfy the individual and collective needs of people and also provide for development. At a certain stage “recessive equality” becomes an economic imperative that affects the best-positioned sectors in the social scale and obviously generates a political problem that finds expression in lack of interest for work, corruption, emigration or inconformity with the system. The solution to such problems, however, is not to be found in any area other than the ideological. It is impossible to solve it by means of economic incentives without altering the social justice standards of the system—the foundation for collective consensus—and the investment for development. Furthermore, at given times—as was the case of the special period in Cuba—the application of the socialist formula “from each according to their ability and to each according to their work” seems doubtful, if the country is to guarantee the indispensable services for the population.

Although based on a different logical approach, I agree with Dieterich that a problem yet unsolved by socialism is the one related to the individual responsibility for social property. In my view, this is also rooted in an objective problem: the awareness of collective property requires subjective attributes that individual property does not require; therefore the problem cannot be solved by an individualistic awareness of collective property. It cannot be solved by the assumption that this piece of collective property is mine—as Dieterich states in his formula of collective direction of the economy—but by a mentality of common ownership, a mentality that humanity lost with the emergence of class societies but that is not contrary to “human nature”, as the theoreticians of capitalism have historically tried to make us believe.

I believe it is in this area that Dieterich makes his most negative approach to the Cuban socialist state. As he puts it, the lack of individual collective responsibility for collective property and, consequently, the cause of corruption is the fact that “productive property in Cuba is in the hands of the state, not in the hands of the majority”. He assumes the Cuban state is not made up of the dominant class—i.e. the proletariat or to be more precise, the people—but by the “ruling class”, which like a ghost risen from the grave illegitimately decides on the life of the people. This criticism is all encompassing, because with a stroke of the pen it disqualifies the popular nature of the Cuban revolutionary state and de facto brings down the Marxist theory on the class nature of the state.

From a historical perspective, the legitimacy of the state does not depend on its democratic functioning but rather on the interests it serves. This has been very clear for the bourgeoisie, which has been able to coexist with monarchies as well as with representative democracies skilfully articulated without altering the class nature of the regime: the king did not serve the nobility and the democracy did not serve the people. By defining democracy by its formal aspects, capitalism has been able to conceal the class nature of the system and set the trap into which the “well-intentioned” intellectuals of the left, as Alfonso Sastre defines them, have fallen.

Conceptually speaking, socialism aims at a full democracy, but like any democracy it is a class democracy, because the mechanisms to implement it are historically determined by the demands of the class struggle. The confrontation with the United States is not an excuse to limit the scope of Cuban democracy; it is a reality that determines the nature of Cuban socialism. I may coincide with Dieterich that the better organised the people’s participation is, the better the socialist state will function—what he calls “cybernetic or feedback quality … for optimising the performance of any cybernetic cognitive system”—but I do not believe it is theoretically justifiable to make the class legitimacy of the Cuban state dependent on the existence of the “democratic mechanisms” he is proposing; which are in essence questionable from a practical point of view.

In my view, the aim of socialist democracy must be the strengthening of the socialist state, and this does not depend on the fact that each individual can decide whether the country purchases a bus, builds a hospital or repairs a baseball field, but rather on the collective capability—not only institutional but also intellectual—to preserve its class nature and its proper functioning. To dilute the role of the state into “popular assemblies” is a criterion not far from the neo-liberal formulation on the role of the state and has the same outcome: to weaken the state as a source of power, which, in the case of people’s states, is to weaken them as a source of people’s power.

The implications of this approach not only affect Cuba, whose legitimacy has been the safeguard of the revolution against imperialist aggressions, but also reverse the dialectics of the revolutionary processes for which the attainment of political power is a precondition for victory. If the masses reject the idea of building their own state, then they will be unarmed in the face of the bourgeoisie and imperialism; these have always had absolute clarity about the limitations of democracy in the capitalist state and its hegemonic function.

In the same way we reflect on the weaknesses of the Cuban Revolution, I think it is also very useful to consider its strengths, because it is the first really anti-neocolonialist revolution in history and its experiences, good and bad, are of great importance for the popular movements in the Third World. One of these experiences is precisely the determining role the leaders play in revolutionary processes. This aspect of Pérez Roque’s analysis is disregarded by Dieterich, who reduces his comment to the statement that the exemplarity of the leaders is “correct and necessary [although] it remains to be seen whether the future structure of the Cuban political system allows for it”.

Generally, revolutions are not led by organisations. Not even the Russian Revolution, which had the Bolshevik Party, could do without Lenin as the central figure of the process. Lacking the institutional maturity resulting from the dismantling of the established mechanisms of government, peoples place their trust in their leaders for guidance toward their destinies. This is a historically conditioned phenomenon which cannot be altered at will, simply because it has no substitute at a given time and place. It can truly be argued that this has not always been positive, but it has not always been negative either. In the case of Cuba, its revolutionary history has always been marked by the presence of outstanding leaders who determined with their example the most advanced political processes in the country.

It is clear that such influence at given times, as is the case of Cuba today, overrides institutions and even objectively reduces their role in society; but this is not a historical rarity and it is another way of expressing the legitimacy of a people’s regime, perhaps in the most powerful example of “people’s power” which, in the final analysis, is what democracy should be. Undoubtedly, such a relation between institutions and leadership will be altered when a leader of Fidel’s stature is no longer present, and this is precisely what Pérez Roque meant. But for as long as he [Fidel] is present, that kind of relation cannot be replaced, because it responds to a particular objective and subjective reality.

The United States is betting on the idea that once Fidel disappears physically, consensus will vanish and the revolution will fade away. I must say this thesis is widely extended within the left and is even present among Cuban revolutionary circles who fear the eventual absence of the leader. But history does not work like that, least of all Cuban history. We can affirm that after his death, José Martí has been more influential in Cuba than when he was alive; the same can be said about Che Guevara and others whose ideas and examples make up the Cuban revolutionary heritage.

It is logical to assume that Fidel Castro’s legacy will have a tremendous influence in the future of Cuba. His own enemies unwillingly contribute to this when they ascribe to his person the sole strength of the revolution. However, if they have been unable to defeat the mortal human being, I can’t figure out how they will face the perfected myth of his memory. In this sense, Fidel will continue to be one of the pillars of the Cuban Revolution.

[Jesús Arboleya, who holds a doctorate in Historical Sciences, is an alternate professor at the University of Havana. The translation is by CubaNews. We have slightly adapted a version edited by Walter Lippmann.]