Monday, May 2, 2011

Comment: Cuba's vanishing subsidies

In my last post I said that Cuba's socialist renewal embodies a reconception of socialism — of the socialist-oriented society — that junks both idealistic errors and the discredited Soviet manuals on "Marxism-Leninism" in a return to classical Marxism's conception of the transition from capitalism to socialism. I added: in the concrete conditions of Cuba today.

What is classical Marxism's conception of the transition from capitalism to socialism, and why does this matter? It matters because Marxism is a guide to revolutionary action that bases itself on the objective laws of social development rather than on some utopian scheme for a better society. Being objective in relation to society, these laws transcend revolutionary will, subordinating the dreams and strivings of revolutionaries to the constraints of historical necessity.

One such law, applying to a society that is neither capitalist nor socialist but in transition from the one to the other, was expressed by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme as: "To each according to their work". That is, individuals should receive from society according to the value of their labour contribution to society. This sounds fair, but it carries over from capitalism a degree of social inequality based on unequal access to goods and services. 

Only in a fully communist society, Marx showed, would it be possible to distribute goods and services freely according to need. For this, both economic development on a world scale and profound changes in consciousness are required. This means that during the transition period, society must compel everyone of working age who is capable of working to do so by linking the individual's or work collective's labour contribution to society to their ability to satisfy their material necessities.

How is this different from capitalism? Under capitalism a tiny minority, the corporate rich, are not compelled to work. They compel others to work for them, amassing vast fortunes through the exploitation of other people's labour. That's the only way you can "earn" a billion dollars. So it's a big advance over capitalism, but the compulsion to work does not yet disappear. In fact, it is applied consistently for the first time since the dawn of civilisation.

So when Raul Castro says, as he has done on numerous occasions in recent years, that Cuba is the only country in the world where you can live without working, this isn't quite true. It's "only" the vast majority of people in capitalist societies, the working people, who cannot live (in most countries) or live decently (in a few) without working.

But Raul has a point. In Cuba, where everyone enjoys the right to free health care and education and highly subsidised goods and services, many of those who receive money from relatives living overseas can live comfortably without working, if they choose to. For this substantial minority of Cubans, work has lost its compulsion. The same is true of many who supplement low wages — average wages have been insufficient to cover all basic necessities during the post-Soviet "Special Period" — with illicit activities linked to the black market, often involving theft from the socialist state. 

One's legitimate employment may be a cover for such activities and a source of goods to steal and sell on the black market. The generalisation of such petty corruption after two decades of the Special Period has contributed to more serious instances of corruption among administrators of socialist state property. In November 2005, in a landmark speech at Havana University, Fidel Castro revealed that up to half the revenue from fuel sales was being lost to theft and corruption all along the supply chain from the refineries to the petrol pumps.

Referring to people who choose to neither work nor study, he said there were "several dozens of thousands of parasites who produce nothing" in Cuba. In a wake-up call to Cuba's revolutionaries, he warned that the Revolution could destroy itself through its own errors if it did not correct them in time. He called for the withdrawal of universal subsidies — other than those guaranteed in Cuba's socialist constitution, such as the right to free health care and education — and the recovery of the role of wages as a means to allocate access to goods and services.

It was a call for a return to classical Marxism's conception of the transition period and its cardinal principle: "To each according to their work". The fact that some people in Cuba can live confortably without working when they are of working age and in good health is not only unjust, it is also economically untenable. To sustain the enormous and growing expenditures involved in guaranteeing everybody the enjoyment of free health care and education at all levels, Cuba — a Third World country subjected to a US economic siege with a per capita GDP around one tenth that of Australia — cannot afford to continue subsidising everyone, including those who don't need subsidising. Subsidies must be targeted to those who need them.


  1. The phrase from Marx's 'Critique of the Gotha Program' that Marce is wildly grasping for here is actually "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!", not "To each according to his work", which has a distinctly different - and less savoury - implication (and one actually *opposed* by Marx).
    That mistake, and the rather over-pugilist tone of the article, do no favours to what would otherwise be an important argument.
    When cherry-picking Marx quotes, it is rather important to get them right...

  2. "Anonymous" is mistaken. A careful reading of Marx's 'Critique of the Gotha Program' will confirm that "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" corresponds to the fully communist society in which social classes and the state have withered away. In a transitional, socialist-oriented society such as Cuba today, Marx demonstrated that the formula for distribution of consumer goods and services other than universal rights such as health care and education can only be: "to each according to their work". If Anonymous is not convinced that this is what Marx said and meant, I'll happily refer to the relevant passages from the Critique of the Gotha Program.


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