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“Livestock fattens under the gaze of its master”

A reflection on socialist labor

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That mankind feels the need to do voluntary work is an internal thing and that mankind feels the need to do voluntary work due to his surroundings is something else. The two should be united. The surroundings should help mankind to feel the need to do voluntary work, but if it is only the surroundings, the moral pressures that oblige a man to do voluntary work, then that is the continuation of an evil that is called the alienation of man.

–Ernesto Guevara


The Cuban Yassel Padrón affirms, observing the real socialisms that arose as the first experiences of revolutionary States during the twentieth century, that “The principal error that has been committed in real socialism was to compete with capitalist production on its own ground”. The consideration is valid and poses questions: what can we hope from a society run by the working class, where individual owners of the media of production disappear?


Many questions emerge: concerning the character and the nature of this new society in formation, on the way to putting a definitive end to the injustices known under capitalism and, perhaps the key question, the possibility of building socialism in one country. With respect to this last question, the experience of these first steps (the Soviet Union, China, Cuba) show that it is only partly possible.


To build and maintain a paradise of equality in the midst of a furious attack by the capitalist world is extremely difficult. Huge countries rich in resources, such as Russia and China, were able to maintain, not without difficulties, a socialist project, consolidate and grow in every way, guaranteeing equity for their population. But history leaves many questions: why did the Soviet Union fall? and why did the Chinese People’s Republic opened itself to market mechanisms?


In countries that are much less rich, with fewer resources (Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Vietnam), la question is harder: why do they look for a way out through controlled capitalism? Is it that socialism does not achieve the share of justice that was expected? Everything indicates that in fact it does: “In the world there are 200 million children in the streets. None of them live in Cuba”, Fidel Castro was able to say with pride. Without doubt, the socialist models fulfilled the basic needs of their peoples infinitely more than the capitalist model. But a doubt remains: why did the experiences of socialism not move forward with their initial scheme without stumbling, and why in many cases did they move back to forms of free markets? Was the population tired of shortages? Perhaps planned production leads inevitably to this tedium?


The response can come in two ways: on the one hand, because it seems impossible to fully develop a socialist experience, forerunner of communism, of a society without classes (“free associated producers”, Marx would say) in the sea of capitalist countries that enclose them. The fall of the Soviet Union is surely the most evident case. Meanwhile, the culture of individualism inherited from capitalism is deeply engrained, and everything indicates that we will require many, many generations to change this, which demands much time. And we want to delve into this now.


Socialism produces justice, it began to wipe out socio-economic asymmetries, but as Yassel Padrón points out it “competed on the same terrain” of capitalism. That is to say: they faced off spectacularly. To each US missile, a Soviet missile was opposed, to each capitalist technological advance they sought a similar one of a “proletarian and revolutionary” character. But when it is a question of producing wealth (understood as the sum of goods and services), capitalism definitively takes the lead. It has done so, at least with this scheme, because it has been accumulating for centuries, and the wealth produced comes from the alienated labour of the working class. That is to say, the true producer is not the owner of what is produced but rather, through added value, the owners of the means of production pocket this wealth. The accumulation achieved by big capital today is fabulous, unequalled. Is it necessary to generate the same from socialism in order to benefit the whole population? The five-year plans did not achieve this abundance. Why not?


It is a difficult and thorny question: real socialism was able to distribute equity (no children on the streets), but there is no abundance of wealth. And in a largely capitalist world, where the glitter and the multicolored mirrors dazzle the great majorities, these shortages are costly. This was, together with a sum of other errors, what hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. And what made China (and maybe also Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea?) seek capitalist mechanisms to hasten this economic growth.


Without doubt, China is achieving this. With their hard to understand (for Westerners) “market socialism”, in 30 years their GDP per capita multiplied by 17, something that no capitalist country has ever managed. Now there is wealth there, it abounds, it is flourishing in the whole country. But that also creates serious doubts: are there no alternatives but the super exploitation of the working classes to achieve this?


To achieve the hopeful situation described by Marx in 1875, in the Critique of the Program of Gotha, that announced “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, we first need to pass through the phase of socialism (“first phase of a communist society”), where the rule would be “From each according to his ability, to each according to his labor”. That is: one consumes according to what one produces, what one contributes; a principle which still smacks of capitalism, where individualism dominates.


So is there no other form of incentive to production than that of a material reward, a reward for one’s own efforts? In the Soviet Union, during the Stalinist period between the wars, there was a movement that attempted to foment the increase of productivity, the Stajanovism (promoted by the miner Alekséi Stajánov), consisting of the payment of an extra bonus for increased production. “Under capitalism, this is torture, or deception”, said Lenin referring to the premiums given to workers in US industry. “There are elements of ‘torture or deception’ in the Soviet records as well”, added León Sedov (eldest son of Trotsky) analyzing Stajanovism, that it is just a capitalist formula of fomenting individualism, a reward for personal voluntarism.


What then is the key to increasing productivity, if we understand that this is the path to an increase in wealth? Are we condemned to the maxim that “livestock fattens under the gaze of its master”? Rigid state planning has been shown to be questionable. The changes introduced by Mijail Gorbachov with his intention of re-structuring (Perestroika) sought to introduce personal incentives of a Stajanovist type. The results are already too well konown.


The present “market socialism” of China achieved an impressive increase of national wealth in a few decades. Everything seemed to indicate, then, that competition is the source of development. What is to be said of this? If socialism is possible from phenomenal wealth generated by modern industry, is there no alternative to establishing market logic (even though controlled by a socialist State, as one supposes is the case with China), encouraging individualism so as to accumulate wealth? It is an urgent debate that is only outlined here, with an invitation to develop it more thoroughly.


For the moment, some conclusions (perhaps preliminary ones) to widen this discussion include: 1) The only real socialist experiences did not come from industrialized countries, but fundamentally from agrarian ones. 2) We have internalized the idea that wealth is hyper-consumption, the accumulation of goods; perhaps it is a question of changing this model (that affects human dignity and the planet). 3) In the face of centuries of individualism, that rules us and is exponentially augmented by capitalism, solidarity and the community spirit should be encouraged (a task of the Socialist State), since they are not born of themselves.



(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)