Cuba Needs to Unleash Creative Energy
March 28, 2014
Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TMES — Michael A. Lebowitz, Canadian economist and professor at
the Simon Frazer University in Vancouver, answered our questions
regarding: Socialism and the Party, the New State from the bottom up,
cooperatives and self-management, Cuba and its economy.
HT: What does the Cuban economy need as a factor of the first order to
Michael A. Lebowitz: I don't think it is appropriate for me, as an
outsider, to make specific proposals for the Cuban economy. However, on
the basis of my studies of countries which attempted to build socialism
in the 20th century and several years as an adviser in Venezuela, I
think I can make some general comments.
If you wish to build a new society, it is essential to find ways to
unleash the creative collective energy of the people. It is important to
create conditions in which people through their practice can transform
circumstances and themselves.
In the Soviet Union and countries which followed that model, this was
sorely lacking. The tendency was to think that all solutions and all
movements toward socialism were to be determined at the top and
transmitted to the bottom. The result was that people did not develop
their capacities, that they were alienated in the workplace and
communities and did not and could not defend the gains that were made in
those societies. And we know the result: capitalism triumphed. In short,
even though some people may think it is more efficient to make the
decisions at the top, it should be understood that this is a
disinvestment in people.
I spent a number of years living and advising in Venezuela during the
period when Chavez was president. It was evident there in the communal
councils and workers councils that when people have the ability to make
the decisions that affect them, they develop strength and dignity. One
of the wonderful characteristics of Chavez was that he had confidence in
the ability of people to develop and to build socialism and he never
hesitated to encourage them. If you want to solve the problem of
poverty, he said, you have to give power to the people. Chavez was
consistent on this point: he stressed the importance of producing new
human beings, and he often cited Che Guevara on the necessity to build
new socialist human beings.
HT: Is an economy possible completely based on self-management and the
ML: I think self-management of state-owned enterprises and cooperatives
are an important way of unleashing the creative energy of people. They
build solidarity within those workplaces and demonstrate essential
aspects of a society based on cooperation rather than competition.
However, I don't believe that you can build a just economy limited to
these islands of cooperation. Their inherent tendency is the
self-interest of the members of these collectives.
For example, in Yugoslavia the orientation of self-managed enterprises
was to maximize income per worker. They functioned within the market
and, rather than building solidarity within the society, the tendency
was to generate inequality in the society. When every group of workers
is looking out only for itself, who is there to look out for the
interests of the working class as a whole?
It is a myth (a dangerous myth advanced by those who are either ignorant
or ill intentioned) to argue that, when everyone acts out of their own
self-interest, the interests of all are advanced. That is the mythology
of Adam Smith and neoliberal economics. In Yugoslavia: the stress upon
self-interest and the market produced the destruction of solidarity
within the society and ultimately the destruction of Yugoslavia itself.
I believe that it is essential that there be an organized voice which
expresses the needs of people and thus acts as a corrective to the
self-orientation of the members of the enterprises. In Venezuela, the
stress has been to bring together the communes (composed of a number of
communal councils) and the workplaces in those areas to explore the ways
in which the workplaces can serve the needs of the local communities.
Obviously, it is not only the needs of local communities have to be
taken into account. However, it is very important that the members of
these workplaces understand their responsibility to society. Otherwise,
you can get the perverse situation which existed in Yugoslavia where
state taxation (for the purpose of equalizing development in the
country) was attacked as exploitation by a Stalinist state.
HT: Do the cooperatives need the unique party and the state as
institutional rectors of the nation?
ML: I definitely believe that you need the state. How else can you deal
with the problem of inequality and problems of national importance like
defense? However, I think it is important to begin to build a different
kind of state – a new state.
In Venezuela, Chavez described the communal councils as the cells of a
new socialist state. They were institutions characterized by
protagonistic democracy, a democracy in practice, in which people
develop through their own activity. And he saw these as the building
blocks to move to communes and from there to the creation of a communal
city and from there upward to the new national state – a state from below.
Obviously, that new state cannot possibly develop overnight and it
necessarily coexists with the old state for a period of time. But the
goal should be to build that new state consciously – precisely because
it is a state which produces the people required for a socialist economy.
I don't think that such a new state emerges spontaneously. It requires
conscious effort. It requires the battle of ideas. It requires
leadership. In short, it requires a party which recognizes the necessity
to create the conditions in which new socialist human beings produce
themselves. And that means, I think, a party with a different focus –
not a focus upon making decisions at the top and enforcing discipline
within the party but one which creates the conditions internally for
people to develop all their potential and initiative, one which contains
within it different tendencies and which respects minorities, a party
oriented toward building socialism which can listen and learn.
HT: Do you think cooperatives are the answer to the problems of Cuban
ML: Certainly the problems of Cuban agriculture are very serious and
much depends upon a solution to these. While these problems have unique
characteristics (reflecting particular decisions that were made in the
past), it is essential to understand that there are many common
characteristics in other countries of the South.
In many places, people have abandoned the rural areas in part because of
the inability to compete with the highly subsidized agriculture of the
United States and other developed capitalist countries. It is not at all
a level playing field – poor and developing countries are pressured not
to subsidize rural production but nothing is done about the subsidies
(direct and hidden) in the rich countries. The result is that many
countries of the South lack food sovereignty despite their fertile land
and end up importing substantial amounts of their foodstuffs.
This is the situation in Venezuela, where there was an enormous movement
from the countryside to the cities in the period before Chavez's
election; a particular factor there was an overvalued currency (due to
oil exports) which meant that rural producers could not compete with
The result was that Venezuela was importing 70% of its food and much of
its countryside was empty. How was it possible to reverse that and to
develop food sovereignty? In a paper I did for the Venezuelan Ministry
of Economic Development in 2008, I stressed that if you want to
encourage food production, you have to encourage food producers and, in
particular, you have to encourage new entry into agricultural production
especially of young people.
And, I argued that this goes far beyond simply increasing food prices
for the producers (which does not necessarily mean increasing prices for
consumers). It means developing an infrastructure, schools, cultural
facilities and access to modern communications. In short, you have to
create the conditions in which young people do not see themselves as
turning their back on civilization to work in the countryside. This is
obviously an investment – an investment for the future which goes far
beyond a simple solution of raising prices for agricultural production
and leaving things to the market to solve the problem.
If a society is prepared to make such an investment (which needs to be
widely discussed so people understand its necessity), then the next
question is what should be the nature of the relations of production in
agriculture. From what I've said earlier, it is obvious that I think
that forms of self-management (whether under state ownership or
cooperative ownership) are essential. It should be obvious, too, that if
society is making this investment, then the self-managed enterprises
need to recognize their responsibility to society.
If Cuban society is not prepared or is unable to make such investments,
I fear that the prospect is one of shortages, high food prices and
continued high food imports (especially with the aging of the rural
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