Should the Cuban Revolution Hold on to Power? Part 4: Lenin’s New Economic Policy and the Cuban Situation

Red Ant – September 4, 2021
By Sam King

[This is the fourth and last article in a four-part series by Sam King published by Red And.]

The following article outlines some theoretical considerations to help place Cuba’s contemporary situation into a Marxist framework. A relevant reference point seems to be another revolutionary country that also found itself in the situation of isolation – Russia.

In the broadest possible terms, the objective situation in Cuba today approximates aspects of the situation the Russian revolution faced in 1921 after its victory in the civil war. There are countless differences in detail and emphasis, however, in broadest terms, in both countries state power had/has been consolidated in the hands of the revolutionary side, both have largely undeveloped or backward economies compared to the level of development of the core imperialist economies of their time and both are isolated in that situation, with no immediate prospect of a revolution in a developed, imperialist country that could help to rapidly relieve their worst distortions and weaknesses.

The questions therefore posed to the revolutionary leaderships in each of these situations are broadly similar: what can be done with the state power and by the most politically conscious and active sections of the working class and its supporters to consolidate and strengthen their position vis-à-vis imperialism, the counter-revolution and to help bring about other revolutions as rapidly as possible? In thinking about Cuba today, it is worthwhile to look at what Lenin, then leader of the Russia government, had to say at the time.

Fidel Castro described the period of crisis immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “special period in a time of peace”. He was likening the degree of dislocation, and the required response, to the sort of crisis that can be caused by war. The situation in Russia in 1921 was also a critical economic crisis during peacetime.

Russia’s New Economic Policy

The policy the Bolsheviks adopted in 1921 came to be known as the New Economic Policy. The NEP replaced “war communism” – the policy of the civil war period which involved the rapid forcible expropriation of capitalist property in order to allow the state to direct social resources into the war effort, deprive the enemy of its social base of existence and win the war. Most importantly, war communism meant the forcible expropriation of grain from the peasantry. Grain above and beyond that required for the peasants’ own consumption was seized by agents of the Soviet government and distributed to city workers and the Red Army.

The war communist state had no ability to produce sufficient consumer goods to compensate the peasantry for seized grain and hence had little choice but to carry out the expropriations by force where necessary, leaving only promissory notes. Lenin argued this policy was possible only in the short term during the civil war because the smaller peasantry knew that if the Soviet government lost power, that would mean the return of the landlords and reversal of land reforms that had benefited poor and middle peasants. Despite this, forcible expropriation had already been met with resistance and sabotage during the civil war and resulted in a decline in grain production. With the Soviet military victories from 1920 a new more sustainable policy was necessary.

Lenin makes his case for the New Economic Policy in a pamphlet called The Tax in Kind published in May 1921. Outlining the situation faced by the Bolshevik Government and the working class Lenin says,

"The Civil War of 1918-20 aggravated the havoc in the country, retarded the restoration of its productive forces [after the devastation of World War One], and bled the proletariat more than any other class. To this was added the 1920 crop failure, the fodder shortage and the loss of cattle, which still further retarded the rehabilitation of transport and industry, because, among other things, it interfered with the employment of peasants' horses for carting wood, our main type of fuel.

Why Introduce Capitalist Measures?

In addressing the question of “why the peasants and not the workers” should be the beneficiaries of urgent measures to improve conditions, Lenin wrote,

Because you need grain and fuel to improve the condition of the workers. This is the biggest "hitch" at the present time, from the standpoint of the economy as a whole. For it is impossible to increase the production and collection of grain and the storage and delivery of fuel except by improving the condition of the peasantry, and raising their productive forces. We must start with the peasantry. Those who fail to understand this, and think this putting the peasantry in the forefront is "renunciation" of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or something like that, simply do not stop to think, and allow themselves to be swayed by the power of words. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the direction of policy by the proletariat. The proletariat, as the leading and ruling class, must be able to direct policy in such a way as to solve first the most urgent and "vexed" problem. The most urgent thing at the present time is to take measures that will immediately increase the productive forces of peasant farming. Only in this way will it be possible to improve the condition of the workers, strengthen the alliance between the workers and peasants, and consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletarian or representative of the proletariat who refused to improve the condition of the workers in this way would in fact prove himself to be an accomplice of the whiteguards and the capitalists; to refuse to do it in this way means putting the craft interests of the workers above their class interests, and sacrificing the interests of the whole of the working class, its dictatorship, its alliance with the peasantry against the landowners and capitalists, and its leading role in the struggle for the emancipation of labour from the yoke of capital, for the sake of an immediate, short-term and partial advantage for the workers.

Thus, the first thing we need is immediate and serious measures to raise the productive forces of the peasantry.

This cannot be done without making important changes in our food policy. One such change was the replacement of the surplus appropriation system by the tax in kind, which implies a free market, at least in local economic exchange, after the tax has been paid.

Thus, direct acquisition of grain by groups of armed workers was replaced with a system where producers could grow as much grain as they were able, with the state only appropriating a portion of that production as tax in kind. Under “war communism” the free sale and profit from grain had been banned. Hence the producer had no incentive to produce (or at least declare) grain above and beyond the minimum amount necessary to meet their requisition quota and that necessary for personal consumption. The tax in kind restored the incentive to the peasant to increase their production as much as possible by only taxing a part of all grain produced and allowing the remainder to be traded for profit.

Evidently Lenin favoured an economic recovery by resorting to capitalist methods at least in the countryside. It’s not that Lenin saw such a policy as without risks and negative consequences. Rather he viewed it as the only way to stabilise and increase the productive base of the economy – an unavoidable step. Like in Cuba, the severely limited choices open to the Bolsheviks was, according to Lenin, a function of Russia’s isolation.

“Left-Wing” Childishness

Quoting from his 1918 pamphlet “Left-Wing” Childishness Lenin argued,

"Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science. […] At the same time socialism is inconceivable unless the proletariat is the ruler of the state. This also is ABC. And history… has taken such a peculiar course that it has given birth in 1918 to two unconnected halves of socialism existing side by side like two future chickens in the single shell of international imperialism. In 1918, Germany and Russia had become the most striking embodiment of the material realisation of the economic, the productive and the socio-economic conditions for socialism [in Germany], on the one hand, and the political conditions [in Russia], on the other.

A victorious proletarian revolution in Germany would immediately and very easily smash any shell of imperialism…"

Lenin also argued,

"…it was not without reason that the teachers of socialism [i.e. Marx and Engels – SK] spoke of a whole period of transition from capitalism to socialism and emphasised the "prolonged birth pangs" [my emphasis – SK] of the new society.[3] And this new society is again an abstraction which can come into being only by passing through a series of varied, imperfect and concrete attempts to create this or that socialist state."

"…it always exists in the development of nature as well as in the development of society, that only by a series of attempts–each of which, taken by itself, will be one-sided and will suffer from certain inconsistencies–will complete socialism be created by the revolutionary co-operation of the proletarians of all countries.

… it would be an obvious mistake to give free rein to ranters and phrase-mongers who allow themselves to be carried away by the "dazzling" revolutionary spirit, but who are incapable of sustained, thoughtful and deliberate revolutionary work which takes into account the most difficult stages of transition.

Fortunately, the history of the development of revolutionary parties and of the struggle that Bolshevism waged against them has left us a heritage of sharply defined types, of which the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries and anarchists are striking examples of bad revolutionaries. They are now shouting hysterically, choking and shouting themselves hoarse, against the "compromise" of the "Right Bolsheviks". But they are incapable of understanding what is bad in "compromise", and why "compromise" has been justly condemned by history and the course of the revolution.

Compromise in Kerensky's time meant the surrender of power to the imperialist bourgeoisie, and the question of power is the fundamental question of every revolution."

Lenin’s basic argument is that the type of compromise which is not permissible is that which undermines the proletarian power. That which is permissible is that which consolidates the power.

Besides concessions to the peasantry in order to revive the rural economy, the Bolsheviks also sought to improve the efficiency of industrial output and distribution by rationalising, centralising, modernising and better organising factories and distribution systems as much as possible. Due to the social or “cultural” backwardness (as Lenin puts it) of the Russian proletariat at the time – a factor massively exacerbated by the dislocation and deaths during the civil war – there was no prospect of much immediate progress in those things under the exclusive stewardship of the Russian working class in 1921.

The Bolsheviks adopted a policy of employing the former capitalist owners and skilled professionals to assist in administration, but under supervision and direction by workers appointed as “commissars”. To bring over the capitalists and technicians to work for the revolutionary government was not usually possible without paying them high salaries – hence, another injustice, economic distortion and danger was introduced.

Against left critics who viewed the employment and privileging of capitalists with alarm Lenin justified it thus,

"Now power has been seized, retained and consolidated in the hands of a single party, the party of the proletariat… To describe as "compromise" the fact that, having arrived at a situation when we can and must rule the country, we try to win over to our side, not grudging the cost, the most efficient people capitalism has trained and to take them into our service against small proprietary disintegration, reveals a total incapacity to think about the economic tasks of socialist construction."

Lenin’s Views and Cuba

What the NEP shows is that, for the Bolsheviks, economic compromise with capital is permissible, albeit undesirable. According to Lenin, there are circumstances when it is the only correct and sensible policy. Returning to Cuba, does that mean that, in a Leninist view, the economic policies pursued by the Cubans are necessary and basically correct? Well, maybe, maybe not. That depends on all the concrete details.

From what Lenin writes above, it seems highly likely he would have argued that at least some degree of compromise is necessary: “Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science.” In Cuba, much of the limited large-scale industry they had prior to 1991 collapsed along with the Soviet Union.

What we can say for sure is that those socialists who argue today that Cuba should be criticised simply because it has implemented some market reforms – but do not attempt to give any sort of assessment of these – are not making an argument in the Leninist tradition. If we are blunt, we’d have to say such “criticisms” are not making an argument that is in any sense materialist. Any assessment of what the Cubans can or should do has to be based in an assessment of the balance of forces between classes and between the Cuban state and imperialism. Such an assessment is completely impossible if the entire material-social foundation of Cuban society is “forgotten”.

It was suggested in article two that many of Cuba’s left critics agree, at least nominally, that “socialism in one country” is impossible. To hold this view on the one hand, while at the same time criticising the Cubans for making concessions to the market suggests that, for them, nothing the Cubans can do is right. If our Cuban comrades were to try to proceed with the other policy that is available to them, i.e. with some Cuban version of “war communism” and all the deprivations that would entail, Emeritus Professor Callinicos and his friends would be delighted to attack Cuba with the first sign of dissent that such a course would inevitably provoke.

In other words, both of the possible paths open to Cuba (and also to Venezuela) are wrong. According to such views, the Cuban Revolution shouldn’t exist. That is why Callinicos and his friends chose not to think or speak about it – except when it’s under attack, then they join in. For them, Cuba’s destruction of capitalist state power is wrong from the standpoint of theory because it did not occur in a developed country.

That is why they don’t mind if it’s defeated. For them the only revolution is a revolution made inside an imperialist country. The way to make one does not involve organising workers and raising consciousness against imperialist strangulation of the Third World. It does not include raising the understanding of First World workers through giving solidarity to examples of resistance to this imperialist oppression – even when this is led by revolutionary socialists.

The quickest path, they believe, is to not sully the reputation of socialism and dirty the hands of First World socialists by associating them in the minds of workers with such impure actors as the PCC in Cuba nor the Chavistas in Venezuela.

However, for revolutionary socialism to be successful it will have to start from objective facts. Like the fact that every socialist revolution to take state power since the Second World War has been in the Third World – the Cuban Revolution being an important one. Recognition of this fact is not a renunciation of the necessity for a proletarian revolution inside the imperialist societies. Without the latter socialism can’t be ultimately victorious, whether in Cuba or anywhere else.

It is necessary to recognise both of these crucial facts: the reality and necessity of anti-imperialist and socialist struggle in the oppressed nations of the world and the necessity of socialist revolution of the working class in the advanced countries. Both are starting points for the global struggle to come.