Che Guevara, the ‘New Man’ and the transition to socialism
By John Waller*
This presentation was originally presented at the "Che Guevara, Thinker & Fighter! Are His Ideas Relevant for the 21st Century?" conference held in Vancouver, BC, June 13-14 2008.
Ernesto Che Guevara made many outstanding contributions to the struggle for a more just world on both a practical and theoretical level. Today I want to focus only on a certain part – his ideas about a transition to socialism which relate both to economics and to the creation of what he termed in his lifetime the “new man” but which I am sure if he had lived longer he would have corrected to the “new person”. And in what I say I will of course talk about the Cuban revolution.
Since the first socialist revolution in Russia and its degeneration into Stalinism, socialist organizations and parties have struggled with how to remain both models of true democracy and sufficiently organized to be able to oppose and eventually overthrow the highly organized capitalist state. But all too often the proclaimed model of Democratic Centralism has become in reality Un-Democratic Centralism. People have debated about structures, the rights and wrongs of the Leninist model of the party, and so on. That debate has its place – but I contend that no matter what democratic structures you put in place, if the top leadership is determined to subvert them in its own interests then eventually they will most likely succeed. The solution is either an anarchist ‘no leaders’ model – which I personally reject because it is ineffective and usually has its own ‘hidden’ leaders - or it is to be found in Che’s concept of the New Person.
Marx said – “men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing”. What Che emphasized was that in struggling to build socialism from out of the entrails of capitalist society, people also have to re-make themselves. They have to struggle to overcome all the individualistic, egocentric and generally messed up parts of who they are, that growing up within capitalism has created in their personas. Neither Che, nor Fidel, nor Raul, were born as new men – they have had to struggle to become so. My view is that an important part of why the Cuban revolution has largely resisted bureaucratic degeneration is because its leadership, and many of its activists, have striven to remake themselves, to ‘be like Che’ – and to put the interests of their people, and humanity, above their own personal desires. As I read the current interviews with Mariela Castro about how the Cuban revolution is overcoming its legacy of homophobia – and her debates with her own father – Raul Castro – I see glimpses of that process at work.
All too often Left wing organizations have reduced the notion of leadership to having the ‘correct line’. Ordinary people know better. When you are in struggle and your back is to the wall – sure you want leaders with strategic wisdom and good ideas about how to move forward. But you also want leaders in whose human qualities of integrity and commitment you trust, to know that they aren’t going to sell you out at some point. People will go, and have gone, to hell and back following leaders like Che, Fidel, Raul, and Chavez. But when asked to follow so many Left groups and parties, with their leadership cliques, petty personality cults, and decidedly “old men” in charge – people think otherwise, and such leaders remain little generals without any troops.
I now want to look at Che’s ideas about how, after a revolution has seized state power, it has to organize society economically to ensure that it is building socialism, and not a return to capitalism. In my analysis I draw heavily on the book by the Cuban economist and communist Carlos Tablada entitled Che Guevara: Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism. It is published by Pathfinder Books – and if there are copies on sale today I strongly recommend you buy it.
Che was addressing the question of how you motivate people to work under socialism. Capitalism basically treats workers like donkeys – it hits them with sticks or it bribes them with carrots. The sticks are the threat of dismissal or demotion, the carrots are bonus payments, productivity deals and other perks.
Any true socialist society has to largely throw away the sticks. It is, and indeed should be, pretty hard to sack somebody in Cuba – with its powerful unions taking care of worker’s interests. But can socialism be built solely with the ‘carrots’ of wage payments. Che said no, and he was and is right. Way back in the early 1960s he predicted the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern European societies because they were, at best, trying to build socialism using capitalist methods.
So under socialism what other methods can be used to motivate workers? Che talked about moral incentives. Even under capitalism many people work, at least in part, for non-material “moral” motives. We see this in how many people go into caring professions as nurses, or teachers, or social workers, often accepting lower pay than they would receive in the private sector. We see it too in the pride that many people take in “a job well done”. We also see it in the ways people can be motivated to work for the good of their country – though of course capitalism uses this motivation for its own, often horribly xenophobic, ends.
Moral incentives for Che meant the struggle to create New People – people who would be motivated to work for the good of others, for the betterment of society, and for the progress of the revolution, the nation and the world – because of course in revolutionary Cuba taking pride in ones own nation has always been linked to a spirit of internationalism. In societies like Canada and the US there are individual doctors who go off to serve in disaster zones when earthquakes or tsunamis have hit. Only in revolutionary Cuba can thousands of volunteers be found. This is Che’s legacy.
But Che was not a naďve idealist. He recognized that the new person had to be created in struggle, and that for a long time to come material incentives would be necessary. Cuba never abolished wage differentials, it significantly narrowed them. Che emphasized the importance of people acquiring training and skills, and said that they should be materially rewarded for that. Carlos Tablada outlines how, after Che’s death, some of his followers took his ideas to an extreme in Cuba – arguing that material incentives could simply be abolished.
But many in the Cuban leadership did think that Che was too idealistic about people’s potential – as I would phrase it – while it is good to aspire to be like Che, one also has to recognize that he was an exceptional human being. Can a society be truly run based on being like Che?
What does Fidel think? Well Fidel has shown his skills over half a century at running a country – and Fidel has always been in his guts a believer in moral incentives. Time and again in modern Cuban history Fidel has roused the nation to a moral crusade – the mass literacy campaign of 1961, the 300,000 volunteers who fought in Angola in the 1970s and 80s, the volunteer construction brigades of the late 80s. And Cuba would not have survived the incredibly harsh deprivations of the Special Period in the 1990s without the foundations of political consciousness laid by those campaigns.
But when resources are focused on a campaign, resources have to be diverted away from other things. This can be seen in Fidel’s crusade that failed – the attempt in 1968 to harvest 10 million tons of sugar. In my view it failed not because it only got to 8.5 million tons, which was still a very creditable achievement, but because of the disruption it caused in other parts of the economy as everything was diverted to the sugar harvest.
The hard question, which I so wish Che was here right now to give his own answer, is how much do you need to make use of material incentives, higher wages, productivity bonuses etc in running the totality of an economy, every day, away from the glamour of the high profile campaign – when people are doing a job like cleaning floors which isn’t the least bit glamorous. This is the question that Cuba’s leadership is grappling with now in very specific circumstances.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the overnight loss of 90% of its foreign trade precipitated an enormous economic crisis in Cuba. Seventeen years later, on an aggregate level, Cuba has emerged from that crisis. But due to some of the absolutely necessary measures to overcome the crisis – such as mass tourism, joint ventures with foreign capital and legalized self-employment - Cuba has emerged bearing social and economic scars. Economically the society is much more divided, and worse than that, the people with the largest incomes are often not the ones who have worked hardest or are the best trained. Rather they are the people who, legally or illegally, derive income from tourists, or receive significant remittances from relatives abroad. All of us who know Cuba well know the tales of hotel waiters who earn (in tips) vastly more than a brain surgeon or a government minister.
A situation where official state wages (apart from the hard currency bonuses many state workers do receive) buy very little in the shops is socially corrosive in the long term. As Cubans, with their marvelous capacity for cutting irony, tell the joke “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work”. The current Cuban leadership is very clear that what Cuba needs right now is a strong dose of the correct material incentives – as opposed to the totally perverse incentives that currently exist in some sectors of the economy. That is why one of Raul’s first acts as president was to significantly raise the price paid to farmers for their produce.
The Western media asks, self interestedly, is Raul a ‘reformer’ who will lead Cuba down a Chinese style return to capitalism? I am sure he is not – but the risk is there. Which is why, at the same time that the Cuban government is focused on reintroducing proper material incentives, it also has to be continually boosting the moral incentives.
As Fidel has been saying since the late 90s – the current world order is socially, economically and environmentally unsustainable and will inevitably be replaced. The question is what will replace it. To build a better world we need, in Cuba and everywhere, Che’s New Person, Che’s belief in humanity and its capacity to act based on morality rather than economic self-interest alone. Fidel has correctly framed the debate as a “Battle of Ideas” – but many of the sharpest ideas in that battle come from Che.
I want to end by saying something about Che and what will happen on Sunday. A quote from Che that used to be on the door to my room in Vancouver said
“Words that aren’t matched by deeds are unimportant” but the text was highlighted in a certain way so that what stood out was “Words match deeds important”
On Sunday the route of the Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba that begins in Victoria and Vancouver will be crossing the border at Blaine and we want to have the largest possible presence there at the border to celebrate the crossing, as well as to make sure that no US customs official even thinks about trying to bar the aid from entering the US. If Che was here today he would be saying to you – join me at the border on Sunday.
How do I know that? I think back to a conference of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in Britain in 1994. I was proposing a motion that we should send members of our campaign on the annual Pastors for Peace caravan. Che wasn’t there but his spirit was present, personified by his daughter Aleida. She was the keynote guest speaker. But when it came to the time for motions and I proposed mine, when the chairperson asked for speakers in favor, breaking all protocol Aleida’s hand shot up and she made an impassioned speech on the importance of those caravans as both practical and symbolic challenges to the US blockade.
The words around ideas at this conference are very important. But on Sunday join the spirit of Che in action.
*John Waller is a long-time Cuba solidarity activist and the International Coordinator of the Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba.
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