Cooperatives becoming bigger part of Cuba’s reforms

The continuing debates over cooperatives, including whether they represent a promising form of socialism or a reinforcement of capitalism, will likely have fresh evidence in coming years from Cuba.

The nascent cooperative movement in Cuba is genuine and growing, but many questions about its future direction are yet to be answered. That the Cuban cooperative movement is largely a top-down process, and subject to still opaque decision-making by party and government officials, adds more uncertainty. And inevitably intertwined with these debates are long-standing tensions between traditional state-owned models of property and emerging de-centralized models of cooperative property.

Perhaps the safest observation that can be made today is that nobody knows where Cuba’s experiment will lead.

Sunrise in Havana (photo by Jvlio)

Sunrise in Havana (photo by Jvlio)

The beginning stages of Cuban cooperatives were handled with considerable input. Thousands of meetings were held throughout the country in advance of the Communist Party of Cuba’s Sixth Congress, held in April 2011, to discuss the document Lineamientos de la política económica y social en Cuba (Guidelines on Economic and Social Policy in Cuba), which listed more than 300 goals intended as significant reforms to the Cuban economy. The guidelines approved at the Sixth Congress included autonomy for the state enterprises, an expansion of cooperatives, new taxing laws and changes in the system of subsidies.

Changes came swiftly. Almost 200 occupations previously limited to state enterprises were opened, and within three months of the Sixth Congress, more than 100,000 new small-business licenses were granted. The Cuban government estimated that about 489,000 people, representing nearly a tenth of the workforce, were self-employed in the first half of 2015.

The cooperative sector has not grown as fast, but by October 2013, 270 urban cooperatives had been approved. By late 2014, that number had reached nearly 500. But cooperatives are not new to Cuba — agricultural cooperatives have existed since the early years of the revolution and they produce about 80 percent of the food grown in Cuba. What is new is that cooperatives are now encouraged outside of agriculture, although they are primarily in services rather than manufacturing.

Reversal of previous openness to discussion

The Communist Party had intended to “update” the Guidelines at its Seventh Congress, held in April 2016. But no final documents have been released, nor had the documents to be discussed at the Congress been made available for discussion. This lack of transparency, said to be due to a continuing inability to complete the work, resulted in considerable public disapproval. A commentary in Green Left Weekly, contrasting this lack of transparency with the public input that helped shape the Guidelines approved by the Sixth Congress, noted the party faced a choice of either abandoning public consultation or postponing the congress.

The congress was not postponed. But the party did acknowledge the criticism directed at it. In a March 28 article (shortly before the Congress convened) in Granma, the official party newspaper, the paper wrote:

“The editorial office of this newspaper has received, by various means, expressions of concern from Party members (and non-members, as well) inquiring about the reasons for which, on this occasion, plans were not made for a popular discussion process, similar to that held five years ago regarding the proposed Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and Revolution.

The fact that such opinions and doubts were expressed is in no way reproachable, much less when they come from people who are genuinely concerned about the work of the Party and the country’s destiny.”

The Granma article argued that the discussions scheduled for the Seventh Congress would be a “continuation” of the work of the Sixth Congress, and that most of the Guidelines were still in the process of being implemented. Therefore, “what is more appropriate is finishing what has begun” rather than opening new discussions. The article argued that:

“[T]he guidelines approved by the 6th Congress serv[e] as the tactical approach to reach our aspirations, reflecting their continuity and development. These documents do not, therefore, represent anything different in terms of the road taken, but rather a higher level expression based on what has been discussed and submitted for consultation to all Party members and the people.”

Responding to criticisms of this line, President Raúl Castro later proposed that the Seventh Congress would adopt any documents “in principal” rather than definitively, promising further public consultation. The Congress did agree, but the documents still have not been released. This delay appears to be due to the drafts still being in progress; one of the documents is reported to have been drafted eight times.

Differing ideas as to direction of reforms

There is a consensus among informed observers that a primary reason for the Communist Party’s slowness in promulgating clear rules for the formation of cooperatives is that the party leadership has yet to reach a consensus itself. The Green Left Weekly commentary mentioned above suggests this division of opinion is behind the delays in producing the updated documents promised for the Seventh Congress. The author, Marce Cameron, wrote:

“The Central Committee’s glacial progress in drafting the two key documents suggests that it has tried to reconcile, behind closed doors, divergent conceptions of the new Cuban socialist model that is aspired to. They had to be reconciled if the leadership were to present a more or less coherent programmatic vision to the party as a whole—rather than strive to involve the party as a whole in developing that vision from the outset over the five years since the 6th Congress.”

In a thoughtful NACLA article, Roger Burbach, basing his analysis on the work of Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, summarized three visions of socialist economic development in Cuba. They are:

  • A statist position, largely reflecting the old guard. Advocates of this position call for more discipline and greater efficiency among state industries and enterprises, and argue that Cuba’s economic problems can be corrected through a more efficient state, not through a dismantling of the state.
  • A market socialist perspective, advanced by many economists. Advocates of a “socialist market economy” argue for privatization, even at the price of increased inequality, the exploitation of wage workers and environmental degradation, as the route to increased productivity and efficiency. These advocates assert the state can always step in to correct excesses.
  • An “autogestionario,” or self-management, stance that calls for democratic and sustainable development primarily through the promotion of cooperatives. Participation, association and solidarity should be at the heart of the new economy, advocates say. In this view, control should not come from the top down but from the bottom up, as workers engage in self-management to further their social and economic concerns.

The so far strong push for cooperatives from the party, and the assistance provided to them, is a good indication that cooperatives will be a part of Cuba’s future. To what degree remains an open question, but however that question is ultimately answered, the intention is that a significant portion of the economy will remain in state hands for the foreseeable future.

No return to capitalism

In a presentation on Cuba cooperatives at the Left Forum in New York last May, Isaac Saney noted that, despite the top-down manner of cooperative creation and the ongoing debate on whether the state should drive the development of cooperatives, popular support remains firm. He gave the example of U.S. President Barack Obama, on his trip to Cuba, saying the U.S. would buy coffee directly from Cuban coops, but the coops condemned that as intended to undermine the socialist state, which they would not go along with.

In the same Left Forum presentation, Al Campbell offered five considerations:

  • Cooperatives tend to build a sense of responsibility for the participants.
  • Coops build collective consciousness.
  • A negative is that coops can develop competition and rivalry with others; structures and practices are necessary to connect coops with the rest of society.
  • The danger of leaving economic coordination to the market; planning is an essential aspect of socialism.
  • Self-determination is a collective process; different decisions must be made by different people.

Parallel to these factors, in a part a reflection of the complex nature of the reforms, is that many cooperative enterprises did not become so on their own initiative. The Left Forum presenters, and others, have interviewed members of cooperatives who, when asked why they became a cooperative, did not know, saying they were told their state enterprise would now be a cooperative. Of 124 non-agricultural cooperatives created by mid-2013, 112 were former state enterprises, according to the Inter Press Service.

Complimentary to the creation of cooperatives, enterprises remaining in state hands are to be given more autonomy. The Inter Press Service reports:

“The authorities have defended ‘social ownership of the basic means of production’ as an essential aspect of the new economic model being built on the basis of reforms outlined by the ‘economic and social policy guidelines’ of the governing Communist Party of Cuba, considered a roadmap for ‘updating’ the socialist system promoted by President Raúl Castro.

In recent legislative debates that touched on this issue, the vice president of the Council of Ministers, Marino Murillo, said the changes underway were aimed at building ‘prosperous and sustainable socialism, in which the main protagonist is the public enterprise, strengthened with greater autonomy in its management and the distribution of its results.’ ”

Cooperatives not necessarily a path to socialism

There is some fear that cooperatives could lead Cuba back to capitalism. Although cooperatives represent a socialized form of production, and potentially can form the basis of a socialist economy based on democratic principles, coops are also completely compatible with capitalism. The formation of cooperatives in itself does not eliminate competition, not even capitalist competition. Locating the cause of greed, injustice, inequality and other social ills in the authoritarian, hierarchical structure of the capitalist enterprise is an overly simplistic analysis.

Co-op symbolAlthough that structure certainly is a factor, the cut-throat nature of unfettered, market-driven competition is central. The relentless pressure to increase profits, maximize market shares and eliminate competition — on pain of enterprise death for those who don’t do this sufficiently — makes unethical or anti-social business decisions inevitable. Putting social decisions in the hands of the capitalist “market” means putting those decisions in the hands of the biggest industrialists and financiers.

What if an economy was dominated by cooperative enterprises, but those coops competed ruthlessly with one another in unfettered market competition? Cooperative members would wind up reducing their own wages (which would be a commodity in such a scenario) and cutting whatever corners they could to survive the competition, just as capitalist enterprises do today. Smaller coops would go under or sell themselves to larger coops — an oligarchy would inevitably arise in most industries.

Working for a cooperative has its advantages, even under capitalism, but even a hugely successful cooperative such as Mondragon faces limits due to the relentless nature of capitalist competition, as the 2013 closing of its household-appliances company, Fagor Electrodomésticos, demonstrates.

An economy based on cooperatives would have to have cooperation between its cooperatives, rather than competition. Prices would have to be negotiated up and down the supply chain (with all enterprises’ financial information available to prevent unfair price-gouging) with perhaps an arbitration board to step in when parties could not agree. Community input would also be desirable, in the industries in which a given community is directly involved and for retail prices of consumer goods.

Cooperative enterprises can be responsible for investment, production and financial decisions — subject to democratic oversight — but might be required to demonstrate full compliance with a range of standards on issues such as equal opportunity, workers’ rights, health and safety, environmental protection and consumer protection. Enterprises could be required to be certified on all relevant issues before conducting business, and perhaps be re-certified at specified intervals.

And of course an economy based on cooperatives does not preclude that certain key industries remain in state hands (with democratic control). Banking, energy and basic utilities such as water come to mind as too important to allow any private control.

Old patterns of hierarchy not eliminated

The foregoing are theoretical constructs for a more developed system. In present-day Cuba, as would any society moving toward a cooperative model, there are many practical questions still to be worked out. There are also growing problems that need to be tackled. Writing in Daily Kos after a trip to Cuba, “Geminijen” observed that hierarchy seemed to stubbornly survive in some coops. She wrote:

“Although the coops are managed by the workers and the workers share the profits, many of the criteria of a coop seemed to be missing or in progress — i.e., there was usually one spokesperson who appeared to be the manager or ‘boss’ or a husband and wife heading up the business (coops are not supposed to be family businesses) and there did not always seem to be a clear path as to how the people who worked there could elect a different manager or board members (they all had elected boards) if they wanted to do so. In some cases, the members were encouraged to participate in the decision-making process, in others not so much.”

Although the writer noted that workers mostly seemed to not mind these conditions because they were making more money and had a say in pay scales, nonetheless inequality is a potential problem. In examining why “self-organized” forms of private enterprise approved by the state seemed more successful than state-run coops,

“[W]e didn’t consider that the state coops were hampered by their lack of access to raw materials necessary to create the coops. As a visiting Puerto Rican educational scholar pointed out to me, the privately organized coops have come in and taken over the failed state coops because they have the money (capital) to develop the business that the state run coops do not. When I asked self-organized coops where they got their capital, they were often evasive. My source suggested that many of these businesses were started with money from remittances from wealthy relatives in the United States. She also noted that since most of the wealthy people living in the States are white, this ability of one group of Cubans to obtain and invest capital not only was reintroducing class divisions, but increasing the divisions again between the races since most Afro Cubans did not have access to remittances.”

The Cuban government is making efforts to assist the coops created from state enterprises. Earlier this year, the government announced that restaurants and some other ex-state enterprises would be able to buy products at reduced prices from wholesale operations to be established for them, along with a tax cut, in exchange for price controls. Construction cooperatives are also hampered by inconsistent access to supplies and the sometimes poor condition of equipment inherited from state companies.

Cubans not looking north for answers

Forming a cooperative from scratch can still be difficult. There are heavy barriers, a Cuban anarchist visiting New York earlier this year reported in a presentation — approval is needed from the government, and there is no time period in which a response must be made. Political resistance remains; the presenter reported that his group was told to take down a banner saying “socialism is democracy” while participating in a parade, although they refused to do so. He is also fearful that Cuba is headed toward the model of China and Vietnam — a capitalist direction that he disapproved of.

Concomitantly, his biggest fear was of genetically modified organisms and other ills pouring into Cuba from the United States. Although there is a widespread desire among Cubans to be rid of the U.S. blockade that has done so much damage to their country, there is little desire for Cuba to revert to capitalism.

Daniel Hellinger, writing of the increased incomes but widening class divisions resulting from the reforms, reports that Cubans are firm in seeking to defend their gains. In a report written after a two-month stay in Havana, he wrote:

“They unfailingly welcome change — so long as three major accomplishments of the revolution are left untouched. No one wants a future without free, quality universal health care; free, quality education; and the peace of mind that comes with streets that are virtually free of crime or violence at any hour of the day or night. Moreover, while Cubans clearly welcome the thaw in relations, they are not looking to the U.S. to save them. Virtually everyone who talked to me seemed to agree with the government’s approach to rectifying problems; where they disagreed was over the pace of change, with most hoping to see it speed up, but more than a few anxious about their jobs, rations, pensions, etc.”

The Cuban government has consistently said it intends its reforms as a renewal of socialism, not a retreat. An objective accounting of the old Soviet model of centralized control with state ownership of all means of production has to acknowledge the disadvantages that come with it, along with the accompanying political constrictions. Change came too late, too haltingly and too much on the backs of working people in the Soviet Union, factors that can’t be ignored in assessing why the Soviet Union crumbled.

Cuba is a different country, but does face the problems of centralization. To the leadership’s credit, it is making a bonafide effort to effect necessary change, even if that change is yet to be agreed upon. It is much too early to say where Cuba’s experiment in cooperatives will lead, but the surest guarantee that it will prove to be an advance and not a retreat is the Cuban people themselves, who have stood up to unceasing U.S. attacks for more than a half-century.

26 comments on “Cooperatives becoming bigger part of Cuba’s reforms

  1. tubularsock says:

    An excellent post SD. Tubularsock has always loved the theories but then …… there are people! There’s the rub!

  2. newtonfinn says:

    How refreshing to read about a country where there is intelligent discussion of economic development, however much division there might be in the background (as everywhere), slowing things down. Might this little island, where a true believer in communism took charge for a generation and warded off relentless capitalist assault, evolve into a world model, blending the best of the socialist and anarchist/distributist traditions? Let us hope so, with eyes open to the dangers and difficulties of such a transition as discussed in this article. The author indicates that theory, however important, can only be evaluated, for better or worse, through embodiment. This reminds me of what Albert Schweitzer said about his philosophy of reverence for all living things: “My life is my argument.”

    • A core argument of my book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is that the Soviet Union had been overdue to update its overly centralized system, one designed for an under-developed country to rapidly industrialize. There was a steady stream of research papers calling for just that, but were ignored throughout the long Brezhnev period.

      The Cuba authorities clearly realize that no central organ can run an entire economy on its own effectively. Socialism is democracy, and thus socialism can’t exist without the people making decisions for themselves, in the context of the greater social good. People have long been widely consulted in Cuba, but that is not the same thing as making decisions themselves.

      The growing experiment with cooperatives, handled well, can be a path toward more grassroots decision-making and less centralization. Of course, planning will still be necessary and the risks of a return to capitalism, in which Cuba would return to a fully subordinate position, are real. Continued discussion is surely the way forward, and the clarity with which Cubans understand their advances under the revolution will be a guide.

  3. Arjun says:

    I would imagine that the direction of Cuba in the coming years will heavily depend on how the opening of US-Cuba relations plays out. Will US re-engagement with Cuba be dominated by capitalists and politicians? Or will leftists in the US successfully carve out their own space of engagement with Cuban society, and help establish lines of communication and collaboration to further radical anti-capitalism in both countries?

    Seems to me that without such a transnational strategy, Cuban society will slowly but inexorably bend toward subsumption into US capital, regardless of how the actual discussions play out.

    • Good observations, Arjun. The flip side of the easing of the U.S. embargo is that Cuba begins to be integrated into the world capitalist system, under which it is very difficult to resist the pull tide of U.S. dominance.

      Leftists in the U.S. do have a solidarity role to play, as you indicated, and I would add that a firmer united Latin American bloc is also a necessity. The weakening of the Bolivarian Revolution, along with the return of the Right in Brazil, also do not bode well for Cuba and the international solidarity all Latin American countries need.

      • Peg Rapp says:

        Excellent well documented article. The discussion of the process and issues is pretty much as I understood it when I was in Cuba.
        One aspect that I still think us important is a discussion of how the traditional production of surplus labor value, necessary to increase development of new technologies and increased mass production is replaced or “hidden” inside the cooperative network structure – you touched on it in the way smaller coops have been subordinated to larger coops or businesses as almost sweatshops -which has most certainly occurred in Emilia Rogmana Italy, as well as Argentina.

        The second issue is how much the global neoliberal environment has drawn coops in many countries seeking to introduce socialist oriented coop networks into their country, into neoliberal capitalist practices at the expense of their own goals (ie, production for commodity export to increase inflow of the dollar economy instead of production for food and survival self suffiency – Nicaragua, Italy, Increasingly Mondragon)
        Discussion to be continued.

        • Those are among the many questions yet to be answered, Peg. Certainly, what a society in which cooperatives are a predominant part of the economy will do with surplus value, including how much cooperatives get to keep and what must be shared via taxes and other remittances, is something that is at the barest beginning stages of discussion. And how coops can be a socialist structure, and not one leading back to capitalism, is an issue sure to remain upper-most in Cuban discussions.

          I do believe Cuba’s ongoing experiment will provide an interesting laboratory, and of course we can only hope that the reforms will prove beneficial in the longer term.

  4. Prole Center says:

    SD, what’s so special about “cooperatives?” What exactly do you mean by that term? Is it a public or a private institution? Why not just have state-owned enterprises with varying degrees of autonomy?

    Like the Cuban government, I would say that I’m not necessarily opposed to cooperatives per se, but the devil is in the details.

    • A cooperative is a private institution in that it is property collectively owned by the cooperative members with all members having a democratic vote, managing their operations themselves, and sharing and distributing the surplus value equally among themselves. That can be completely compatible with capitalism. It can also be completely compatible with a de-centralized socialist economy.

      I see no reason why centralized state control is necessary over every small corner grocery and small service operation. In Cuba, the new push for cooperatives is almost entirely either in services or agriculture-related operations. Manufacturing is thus far almost untouched. So should manufacturing enterprises become cooperatives? I would say the answer is yes, with reservations.

      The Argentine factories taken over by their workers are rooted in their communities; indeed would not have survived without the community, sometimes physically, defending those coops. There are barter agreements that supplement these community links, done outside any market.

      A socialized cooperative, operating in an economy based on cooperation and negotiation, with planning (as opposed to cooperatives competing in markets against one another), and in which serious labor, safety, environmental and other standards must be met on pain of closure, is one in which technically private enterprises can produce for social good. In such an economy, certain key industries can remain in state hands, with democratic control and some measure of autonomy.

      There is no one model. During the Prague Spring, for example, the workers’ control movement intended enterprises to remain state-owned but under democratic, community control and with some autonomy, with local, regional and national bodies to coordinate production. I discuss this at length in Chapter 3 of my book, It’s Not Over, and more briefly in this article. Cuba, as I wrote, intends that the state sector will predominate, but that state enterprises will be given more autonomy. Different countries and cultures would surely develop different ratios of state-owned versus cooperatives. That is only to be expected.

      • Prole Center says:

        So, I’m curious, why elevate and separate the economy from the political realm? Workers are not just workers – they are also consumers and citizens. I think Cuban citizens, for example, who wish to have more direct control over their workplace and every other aspect of their lives can and should seek to join the Communist Party. They can participate in making decisions that affect the governing of the entire country by active participation as members and even by pursuing leadership positions in the party and government. What’s wrong with that approach?

        By the way, the Cuban government and economy is heavily based on the Soviet model and yet, while the former USSR is consistently excoriated by anarchists, social democrats and other pseudo-leftists, Cuba usually gets at least somewhat of a pass by these same folks. Why do you think that is?

        • To answer the last first, I think most people who are critical of the former Soviet Union are also critical of Cuba. I suspect there is less divergence here than you believe, but in those cases where there is a difference in approach, it could be because the Cuban government has provided much consultation than the Soviet did. I suppose you could ask them why the difference.

          To answer your first batch of questions, I don’t see that the economy is separated from the political in a cooperative-based economy because there would still be planning and cooperatives would operate in a social context, not as independent islands. There is no one model, and the idea that the Soviet system somehow represents the “only” model of socialism should be rejected — that is the sort of narrow, ideological thinking that led to the “era of stagnation” (and black-market corruption) under Leonid Brezhnev.

          • Prole Center says:

            I absolutely agree that there is no one model for socialism. I have never said that and I’m pretty sure Soviet leaders never claimed that; if they did they were wrong to do so. They always maintained, as far as I am aware, that socialism would develop differently in each country.

            However, Marxism-Leninism or scientific socialism has the most successful track record and offers the best way forward, but even following these basic principles allows one a wide degree of latitude.

            And yes, there was stagnation and corruption under Brezhnev. So what? I’ve never claimed the Soviet Union was perfect, but it deserves far, far more credit than it gets from what passes for a Western left. If you continue to demand perfection from socialist movements you will always be disappointed.

            I think you have no idea of the difficulties and challenges of building socialism while under attack from within and without. The revolution is the easy part.

            • The practice of Soviet leaders, as opposed to their statements, is what counts, and on that they had a firm record of believing only the Soviet model was socialism. All else in their minds was a return to capitalism, even fascism, and that is quite evident, inter alia, in the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring.

              The Soviet leadership also never lifted a finger for the Sandinistas during their long liberation struggle in Nicaragua. Why? Because the Sandinistas created a movement and a theory that was based on Nicaragua’s concrete conditions, and because the Sandinistas had a different conception than that of rigid Soviet ideology, the Soviet leadership repeatedly stated that any Left forces there should make no attempt at taking power (a policy of class conciliation in practice) because “objective conditions” were supposedly not there.

              The Sandinistas obviously thought otherwise. We can repeat this lesson from the late 1920s, if you wish, with Stalin telling the Chinese communists to subordinate themselves to the Kuomintang, only for the KMT to massacre the communists and their student and worker supporters.

              Or in 1945 with Stalin ordering the French and Italian communists to stand down and accept capitalist rule despite the enormous moral authority they enjoyed due to their leadership of the Resistance.

              I have no idea of the “difficulties and challenges of building socialism”? Why is it then that I have a book published on this very topic? That book is the product of decades of activist work, by the way. We do our cause no good by paying lip service to the concept of analysis while throwing up our backs at any instance of critique, even when it’s from the Left.

              The subtitle of my book is “Learning from the Socialist Experiment” for a reason. Of course some will disagree with my conclusions, but we all ought to be capable of analyzing with an open mind. Analyzing should never be confused with “expecting perfection.”

              • Prole Center says:

                The Soviets didn’t lift a finger to help the Sandinistas? Where did all those Hind attack helicopters and AK-47’s come from then?

                I know about Soviet support for the Kuomintang. There were valid reasons for urging the Chinese communists to join with them in defeating the Japanese imperialists. There was apparently a left-wing of the Kuomintang and that organization as a whole was better organized and so it seemed to make sense to let them lead the struggle for the time being. As it turned out this may have been a strategic miscalculation. After the betrayal and massacre you mention, the Soviets changed course. You make it seem as if Stalin set the Chinese communists up on purpose. That’s ridiculous.

                In Italy and France in 1945 it was almost certainly the right call to urge the communists there to not engage in armed struggle. At the end of WW2 the Soviets had lost over 27 million lives, had massive damage done to its infrastructure and economy and now the Americans had nuclear bombs! And they weren’t timid about making threats. Who could blame Stalin for seeking a temporary respite from the carnage while buying time to consolidate the gains won and to rebuild?

                Do you see what you’re doing? By misrepresenting the history of the Soviet Union you are spreading the most damaging propaganda lie of all: that socialism has never succeeded; that it cannot work; that where it does take power it becomes a hypocritical mockery of true socialism.

                I really wish you would stop. The fact that you can’t find a single good thing to say about the USSR is becoming quite suspicious.

              • Prole, you need to stop hyper-ventilating. And to grasp the concept of nuance. At no point have I, or would I, ever said “socialism has never succeeded” or that “it cannot work.”

                You are making phantasmagoric straw-man arguments based on your imagination, not on the body of my work, with which you quite obviously unfamiliar. What I am arguing is that we learn nothing if we make blanket statements that everything was wonderful, all the decisions were right and all would be well if it weren’t for the CIA, or MI6, or whatever, bringing it down.

                We won’t counter anti-socialist propaganda, which is all too pervasive, by being the mirror opposite. Nor will be find a way to socialism in the 21st century by blindly copying what was carried out by the 20th century. We can only find our way to a better world by carefully analyzing what happened, weighing the good, the bad and the ambiguous.

                Part of that of that process is discussing mistakes, not to condemn but to learn from them so such mistakes can be avoided in the future. It is those with your attitude, who repeat propaganda as a substitute for discussion, who do the most damage to the cause of socialism.

                Finally, as to Nicaragua, a partial quote from Tomás Borge: “Since it was not easy to see the prospects for such a change — even revolutionary forces in the world had not grasped the imminence of victory and had adopted a rather indifferent attitude — we did not receive support during the war from any of the socialist countries, except Cuba.” That was said without judgment, incidentally; he understood context. You should, too.

  5. thomas c mountain says:

    You made a very serious factual error in you article that calls into question much of what you wrote. You claim that Cuban cooperatives produce 80% of Cuba’s food. In 2011 Cuba IMPORTED 75% of its food and was going bankrupt doing so. This is why Cuba changed its policy of only state run companies, out of economic pragmatism, to survive, literally. Today Cuba imports 60% of its food? from what i have read, correct me if I am wrong.

    • About 80 percent of the food grown in Cuba comes from the cooperative sector, not 80 percent of all food consumed there. That figure is well established and is reported in multiple outlets. I just revised that passage to make that point more clear.

  6. Prole Center says:


    I didn’t accuse you of explicitly saying that “socialism cannot work.” I’m just telling you what I think most Americans will hear when you tell them that all the socialist countries were failures and/or frauds, but not to fear because now you have the answer and it will work out the next time if everyone joins a coop (yes, I know I’m overly-simplifying your argument).

    And I’m still waiting for you to say one nice thing about the Soviet Union. In all your research you haven’t found a single positive thing about the USSR that we can learn from today? How about guaranteed housing and employment? Free quality healthcare and education? If you grew up poor or working class in a capitalist country these things are not just nothing.

    Borge is wrong, by the way. Maybe he made that statement in anger or he was simply exaggerating. The Soviet Union did help the Sandinistas with military, economic and diplomatic support, although some might claim that aid may have been a bit lackluster for a few reasons:

    – It seems to be true the Soviets weren’t all that enamored with the Sandinistas, but the Sandinistas weren’t too sure about them either.

    – In the eighties the Soviets were bogged down in Afghanistan and its economy was in decline (yes, partly due to its own intransigence and stupidity).

    – The Soviets were a bit skittish about getting involved too heavily at the USA’s doorstep, so to speak.

    However, even if the USSR didn’t directly help Nicaragua at all, who do you think was helping Cuba? Where did the weapons come from? Who was underwriting the Cuban economy by paying above-market prices for Cuban sugar?

    You don’t have to love the Soviet Union, just give them their due.

    • That the capitalist countries put vast efforts into undermining countries that called themselves socialist speaks for itself. Full employment, low housing costs and high culture being made widely available to working people are the sort of examples that capital, and the governments capital control, would have wanted to stamp out.

      The larger point here isn’t whether or not I “say something nice” about the Soviet Union, but rather how we want to acknowledge history. If all you have to offer people is re-creating the Soviet Union, you will go nowhere. That isn’t going to happen, and the people of the world don’t want it. What we have to do, if we are serious, is find new pathways, sifting through what worked and what didn’t work in previous experiments (including the Soviet), as part of working out the contours of a better world. My critiques are provided simply to persuade you to take off your rose-colored glasses and see clearly.

      The choice of the future is quite clear: Socialism or barbarism, as Rosa Luxemburg put it a century ago. We can’t live in the past (although we must learn from it) if we want to see socialism, and not barbarism, be the future.

      Borge did not make that statement in anger. It came in an interview by Frederick Jameson in New Left Review. So his comments were measured and well thought out. Again, he said it without judgment. And, by the way, Gorbachev threatened to cut off Nicaragua’s oil if the Sandinistas didn’t agree to talks with the Contras. Not much help there.

      • Prole Center says:

        That was a lot better. I pretty much agree with most of what you just said.

        Don’t get me started on Gorbachev. He put the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union. He was probably a CIA agent or if he wasn’t he might as well have been – an “unwitting” agent, if you like; or someone close to him was like Yakovlev, the architect of perestroika.

        My biggest criticism of the USSR is that the Communist Party allowed itself to be penetrated and subverted by CIA and was not able to mobilize an effective response in time. As Fidel Castro has said, the death of the socialist countries was not so much a murder, but a suicide.

        These links might prove interesting. There is plenty of speculation here, but one thing I feel is quite certain – the whole story of the so-called collapse of the Soviet Union has not been told:

        • Prole Center says:

          And another thing, SD, if you wanted to figure out how to proceed with the development of socialism you could have saved yourself a lot of time and energy by just asking those socialist countries that are still around how they have managed to survive this long.

          Western leftists, instead of arrogantly trying to lecture others, might try learning from such countries as Cuba, North Korea and especially China.

          • Prole Center says:

            From “Seven Myths about the USSR” (

            Interestingly, a 2003 poll asked Russians how they would react if the Communists seized power. Almost one-quarter would support the new government, one in five would collaborate, 27 percent would accept it, 16 percent would emigrate, and only 10 percent would actively resist it. In other words, for every Russian who would actively oppose a Communist take-over, four would support it or collaborate with it, and three would accept it [15]—not what you would expect if you think Russians are glad to get out from underneath what we’re told was the burden of communist rule.

            So, the Soviet Union’s passing is regretted by the people who knew the USSR firsthand (but not by Western journalists, politicians and historians who knew Soviet socialism only through the prism of their capitalist ideology.) Now that they’ve had over two decades of multi-party democracy, private enterprise and a market economy, Russians don’t think these institutions are the wonders Western politicians and mass media make them out to be. Most Russians would prefer a return to the Soviet system of state planning, that is, to socialism.

            Even so, these realities are hidden behind a blizzard of propaganda, whose intensity peaks each year on the anniversary of the USSR’s passing. We’re supposed to believe that where it was tried, socialism was popularly disdained and failed to deliver—though neither assertion is true.

            Of course, that anti-Soviet views have hegemonic status in the capitalist core is hardly surprising. The Soviet Union is reviled by just about everyone in the West: by the Trotskyists, because the USSR was built under Stalin’s (and not their man’s) leadership; by social democrats, because the Soviets embraced revolution and rejected capitalism; by the capitalists, for obvious reasons; and by the mass media (which are owned by the capitalists) and the schools (whose curricula, ideological orientation and political and economic research are strongly influenced by them.)

  7. Tom Herzog says:

    A suburbly argued and insightfully analytic article about the efficacy of co-ops that astutely goes beyond the mere advocacy of worker control of business. Thank you, Mr. Dolack!

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