Cuba: No ‘New Man’
Seen in its most favourable light (and not just as a theory of political dictatorship that it is), Leninism can be seen as the view that the way to socialism is for a minority of socialists to seize power at the head of a discontented but non-socialist working class and then using this power to educate this majority into becoming socialists.
This accepts that socialism is a classless, stateless, wageless, moneyless society based on common ownership and with voluntary work and free access to goods and services, and also that such a society can only function with majority support and participation. (Leninists call it ‘communism’, confusingly reserving the word ‘socialism’ to describe the state-capitalist regimes they establish when they come to power.)
This view is based on the premise that, due to capitalist control of the idea-forming apparatus, a majority can never come to be socialists while capitalist rule lasts; only a minority can and therefore it is their duty to seize power to liberate the majority. Lenin did not invent this view; he merely followed a tradition that went back to Babeuf’s ‘Conspiracy of the Equals’ in the French Revolution.
One Leninist who took this seriously was Che Guevara who was a minister in the Cuban government in the early 1960s. He liked to quote from a review Lenin wrote in January 1923 of a chronicle of the Russian Revolution written by the non-Bolshevik Russian revolutionary Nikolai Sukhanov:
‘You say that civilization is necessary for the building of socialism. Very good. But why could we not first create such prerequisites of civilization in our country by the expulsion of the landowners and the Russian capitalists, and then start moving toward socialism? Where, in what books, have you read that such variations of the customary historical sequence of events are impermissible or impossible? ‘ (www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1923/jan/16.htm).
Answer: in everything that Karl Marx wrote.
Guevara wanted Cuba to ‘start moving towards socialism’ straightaway by, among other things, creating ‘the new man’. This meant the ‘revolutionary vanguard’, as the government, educating people into becoming and behaving like socialists, in particular getting them to participate in the running and work of society on a voluntary basis because they realised this had to be done in the common interest. Hence he favoured ‘moral incentives’ over ‘material incentives’.
In Socialism and Man in Cuba Guevara said that creating ‘the new man’ had to involve moving away from commodity production (production for sale):
‘The commodity is the economic cell of capitalist society. So long as it exists its effects will make themselves felt in the organization of production and, consequently, in consciousness.’ (www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1965/03/man-socialism.htm).
Castro took the same view, declaring in an interview with a French magazine in 1967:
‘I am against material incentives because I regard them as incompatible with socialism … What we want is to demystify money, not rehabilitate it. We even intend to abolish it completely’ (Nouvel Observateur, 17 September 1967).
Quite apart from considerations of how voluntary for some workers’ ‘voluntary work’ really was, this was never going to succeed because people in Cuba were not living in socialist conditions. Socialism presupposes that plenty for all is being produced. People can’t be expected to behave in a socialist way in conditions of continuing scarcity, such as existed in Cuba. Marx and Engels pointed this out in a passage in The German Ideology which is the perfect answer to Lenin’s question (though Lenin was not aware of it since this work wasn’t published until 1932). Discussing ‘the alien relation between men and what they themselves produce’ when there is private property, they wrote:
‘This “alienation” (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an “intolerable” power, ie. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity “propertyless,” and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced .’
Moral exhortations cannot overcome the economic reality of material scarcity. Scarcity means that people are obliged to try to get as much money as they can, not for its own sake but to get access to what they need to live. In other words, ‘material incentives’ will prevail.
There was a rather less appealing side to the attempt to create ‘the new man’ as it also involved the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ stopping people hearing further the capitalist-individualist ideas that had been inculcated in them before the revolution. In practice this meant suppressing these ideas and the parties and individuals (imprisoning some) deemed to be advocating them, including some of the original Cuban revolutionaries who thought that the revolution’s aim was political democracy rather than socialism (actually, this had been Castro’s view at the time too).
Castro and Guevara were of course well aware that socialism (or communism as they called it) was not possible in isolation on the island of Cuba, but they did believe that progress towards it could be made. Fifty years later, however, there is still production for sale, money still exists, and ‘material incentives’ prevail.
The fact is that Lenin could not have been more wrong in imagining that progress towards socialism could be made where its essential prerequisites did not exist, neither objective (a sufficient development of productive capacity) nor subjective (a working class with a sufficient degree of culture wanting and understanding socialism). All a socialist minority that seized power in the absence of these conditions could do would be to preside over the further development of capitalism in one form or another; which, granting that Castro and Guevara did want socialism, was what happened in Cuba. State capitalism was supposed to be a step on the way to socialism but that’s where it stopped.