Che’s economic thought and some current debates (II) By Jose Luis Rodriguez
Che’s economic thought was expressed through multiple analyses, debates, and conferences, which nurtured a significant volume of works if we take into account the time he had to devote to the tasks he had to assume in the leadership of the country.In this sense, it is worth noting that in his understanding of the economic problems of the transition to socialism, he always started from an essential point: the critical assessment of the role of monetary-mercantile relations, the law of value, and the market, especially in relation to the conscious construction of the new society and the need to overcome the contradictions that these relations engendered.
This analysis of economic issues was always expressed in conjunction with the social and political valuation of the same. The definition of what he considered as communism clearly evidenced this integral vision when he pointed out: “In our position, communism is a phenomenon of consciousness and not only a phenomenon of production; and that communism cannot be reached by the simple mechanical accumulation of quantities of products placed at the disposal of the people.”However, at the height of the ’60s of the last century, the study of monetary-mercantile relations in socialism had not reached definitive conclusions. The complexity of the subject and the inexperience in the construction of the new society, together with errors of interpretation of the Marxist theory of value, posed an enormous challenge for anyone who pretended to give a theoretical and practical answer to the problem.
The opinion of Marx and Engels on the subject had started from considering the disappearance of the market in socialism, taking into account the high socialization of production to be achieved and therefore, the possibility of a direct expression of the social character of labor, without the intermediation of mercantile exchange being necessary for it. In this respect, Engels would state “As soon as society takes possession of the means of production and applies them to it, socializing them directly, the labor of each individual, however much its specifically useful character may differ, will acquire beforehand and directly the character of social labor.”
On the other hand, Lenin’s interpretation of the existence of monetary-mercantile relations in socialism initially did not differ -in essence- from that previously expressed by Marx and Engels, but with the triumph of the October Revolution, the Soviet leader would have to face situations that could not have been foreseen by the classics of Marxism that preceded him, who always avoided speculating on the peculiarities of socialist development subsequent to the revolutionary triumph.
In fact, Marx had only arrived in his work “Critique of the Gotha Program,” to establish the need for a period of transition between capitalism and socialism, in which elements typical of capitalist society would still be present, but he could not anticipate the high complexity that this process would entail when the revolution triumphed in the most backward country in Europe at that time.
Thus it was that a few months after the revolutionary triumph in Russia, the country was submerged in a bloody civil war for three years, which was accompanied by a policy -known as war communism- which led, by the imperative of the circumstances of the war, to the disappearance of mercantile relations in the economy of that time.
But with the end of the civil war, the need arose to restore the country’s economy which was completely devastated. The analysis developed by Lenin then took into account that the basic economic structure of Russia, constituted by the small production of an enormous mass of peasants who had to be encouraged through freedom of trade, together with the inevitable development of capitalism which would derive from it, so there was no other way out than to recognize the monetary-mercantile relations opening a space for their development until reaching -even- a certain form of State capitalism as the only alternative in those circumstances, in which the support of the peasantry and resources of all kinds were demanded to survive.
Thus emerged in 1921 the New Economic Policy (known by its acronym in English as NEP) which Lenin always conceived as an inevitable tactical retreat to save the country in exceptional circumstances, clearly recognizing the transitory character of these concessions when he said “We have retreated into State capitalism. But we have retreated in due measure. Now we are retreating into state regulation of commerce. But we will retreat in due measure. There are already symptoms that the end of this retreat is in sight, that the possibility of the cessation of this retreat is insight in the not too distant future.”
The measures taken at that time in Russia have since generated intense controversy.
For many years after the implementation of the NEP, there have been attempts to give this specific economic policy a universal character, as if it were a regularity of socialism. In this respect, Ernesto Che Guevara would sharply point out “As can be seen, the economic and political situation of the Soviet Union made necessary the withdrawal Lenin spoke of. Therefore, this policy can be characterized as a tactic closely linked to the historical situation of the country, and, therefore, it should not be given universal validity to all his statements”.
On this subject, the attempts to revalue the NEP -and especially the formula of State capitalism- in order to apply it to the economic policy of our country, without taking into account the difference in circumstances and the context that separate -a hundred years from now- the Russia of 1921 from the Cuba of today, call our attention even today.
After Lenin’s death, the discussion on the action of the law of value in socialism and its relation with the planning continued for some years, linking this debate on economic policy with the debate on the development strategy to be implemented in the USSR.
As is well known, various positions clashed. On the one hand, there were the theses defended by Nicolas Bukharin, who maintained a position that essentially recognized the validity of the law of value, while defending a gradual industrialization based on a non-confrontation with the peasantry, which he considered could even become richer. On the other hand, there were the ideas of Eugenio Preobrazensky published in his 1926 book “The New Economy” in which he defended the extraction of the agricultural economic surplus through a non-equivalent exchange with socialist industry, forming what he called the law of original socialist accumulation that would act imposing itself on the action of the law of value.
In these debates, in which many Soviet economists and politicians of the time participated, there predominated -however- the assessment of monetary-mercantile relations as something inherited from capitalism and not essentially associated with the development of socialism itself.
Unfortunately, these discussions were cut short.
The solution to the contradictions generated by the application of the NEP and the tensions associated with them did not receive the political treatment foreseen by Lenin, which supposed the gradual development of cooperation in the countryside, to the extent that greater development was achieved in the country. On the contrary, the contradictions pointed out were confronted with political measures of coercion and unjustified repression, which characterized the process of forced collectivization of the land carried out mainly between 1929 and 1933, based on a polemic interpretation of the class struggle raised in the party led by J. Stalin.
It was thus produced -by coercive and extra-economic means- the capture of accumulation resources, generated to a greater extent by the peasant economy in order to undertake Soviet industrialization.
While this development was taking place, there was no space for the theoretical clarification of the monetary-mercantile relations, limiting the discussion from the 1930s onwards to the separate approach to the use of mercantile categories, according to the principles of economic calculus.
The conceptual vacuum that this represented would have important consequences for the construction of socialism in the USSR and in the countries that embarked on this path sometime later.
It would not be until years later, once the Second World War was over, that a scientific debate on the subject was called again, based on the need to give a coherent answer to a central issue in the construction of socialism, and the conclusions of this analysis were presented by Stalin in his well-known work of 1952 “The economic problems of socialism in the USSR”. In this document, an explanation was given for the permanence of the monetary-mercantile relations in socialism based on the existence of different forms of property, while the presence of mercantile categories in the heart of state property was attributed a formal character and only linked to the effects of statistical-accounting calculations.
This interpretation -which repeated the errors of the 1920s- would only be gradually overcome in the course of the debates that took place in the context of the economic reform to be implemented and which lasted in the USSR from 1958 to 1965, precisely at the time when Ché was also debating these crucial issues in Cuba.
(To be continued)
Ché’s economic thought and some current debates (I)
Posted 3 days ago by Cuba-Network in Defense of Humanity