Cuba: The Implications of Worker Self-Management

July 9, 2012 | Print Print |

By Samuel Farber* (photos:Nina Hooker)

HAVANA TIMES — Much of the emerging critical Cuban left is advocating workers’ self-management as a keystone of a truly democratic socialism. This is a welcome proposal that cannot be taken for granted in a country with a long history of labor militancy and struggle but lacking in traditions of class and group autonomy, the legacy of centralized top-down caudillismo and the rule of Communism – in its Cuban version – for over fifty years.

Worker self-management has important implications that need to be fully explored. The worker self-management model adopted in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America has been a courageous and self-confident response to prolonged strikes, employer lockouts and bankruptcies, which has led to the formation of democratically administered cooperatives.

But they are a local and defensive tactic. These coops exist and are part of a capitalist economy that they do not control. Consequently, the workers’ self-directed activity remains fundamentally constrained by capitalist competition and the market.

This model is not relevant to a Cuba where worker self-management is being proposed for the whole economy, or, at least, for its dominant sectors. However, it is important to realize that what happens in each self-managed factory or work center is directly and closely interdependent with what happens in other economic units.

Poor coordination among economic units and sectors is already a major problem that the Cuban economy faces under the existing bureaucratic one-party state, which results in a great waste of resources.

In 2009, Marino Murillo Jorge, the minister of Economy and Planning, complained that new electrical equipment acquired to save precious energy had been kept in storage instead of being installed promptly and properly.

The official press has also reported on the serious impact that the lack of coordination among state enterprises – such as the various agencies responsible for the repair of water leaks – is having on the quality of work performance, which has fostered a climate where nobody takes responsibility for a project as a whole.

Conceived as the separate and uncoordinated administration of each work center, a system of worker self-management could not address the serious coordinating deficiencies of the existing system.

Moreover, inequalities would arise among workers in different plants and industrial branches due to the vast differences in the modernization, capitalization, and productivities among industries as well as different units within a given economic sector.

Such differences, for which the affected workers cannot be held responsible, would inevitable lead to large wage differentials and vastly different rates of investment that would perpetuate those inequalities.

A system of worker self-management would also have to face the task of economic innovation, particularly to lighten the burden of labor for as many people as possible.

Following this logic of innovation and economic progress, the economy may need to open new productive facilities and close obsolete ones without treating the workforce in the capitalist fashion, as objects to be dumped on the garbage heap, but rather as subjects, as human beings and workers worthy of equitable treatment, alternative equivalent employment and full compensation for the costs of their displacement.

By definition, a new productive facility has no previous body of workers to bring it into being and would logically need to be created by some kind of democratic planning body. Besides, it is undemocratic to leave the decision to close an obsolete facility, which often draws resources from the rest of society to stay in operation, only to the people who work there.

By the same token, all democratically run industries and work centers have to reconcile the decisions of those who work in each them with society-wide democratic priorities. To take an extreme example, it would be undemocratic for large media organizations to broadcast only the views of the people who happen to work in those enterprises.

The Yugoslavia Model

In Yugoslavia, the system of worker self-management acquired a major economic and social weight from the 1950s until the 1970s. Being a part of a system that combined “market socialism” with political authoritarianism, self-management was limited to the operation of individual work centers; the political and economic power for the various regions and the country as a whole was monopolized by the one-party state embodied in Marshall Tito’s League of Communists of Yugoslavia.

While this locally self-managed but regionally and nationally authoritarian “market socialism” did increase worker input, decision-making and productivity at the local level, it also created unemployment, sharp trade cycles, pay inequality and increased managerial usurpation of decision-making authority.[1]

Local self-management combined with the workers’ lack of political and economic power outside their work place understandably fostered in them a parochial outlook.

As the Yugoslav scholar Mitja Kamusi? pointed out, this model of self-management encouraged workers to be interested in investments that could ensure an immediate increase in their earnings, stable employment, and better working conditions, but not in investments over the long-term and in other parts of the enterprise, or in the types of investment that would require reduction of manpower or its re-qualification. Workers were least interested in investments – however viable – in other enterprises, particularly those situated far away.[2]

Some of the attitudes that Tito’s Yugoslav system fostered lead anew to the questions raised by Karl Marx in his polemic against the German socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle in the Critique of the Gotha Program. For Lassalle, every member of a socialist society should receive the “undiminished proceeds of labor.”

But Marx insisted that deductions would have to be made from the “total social product” to replace the means of production that had been used up, and to expand production (an ecologically sound economic expansion is indispensable to improve the living standards of the great majority of the population), and to build a reserve or insurance fund to provide against accidents and natural calamities.

Deductions also would have to be made from the means of consumption to pay for the general costs of administration not belonging to production, and for those expenses that are intended for the common satisfaction of needs such as schools and health services, as well as for those unable to work.

The Importance of Coordination

All of this underscores that a democratic, self-managed economic system needs a coordinated decision making process for the economy as a whole that is fully transparent. For this decision process to be democratic, purposes and demands coming from numerous and diverse social sectors must be integrated into internally coherent programs that are bound to provoke disagreement.

That is what political parties should be about: forums to debate alternative socio-economic priorities for society as a whole. This requires the abolition of “monolithic unity” and the constitutionally mandated single party system that enforces it.

One of the most important questions to be addressed in such a democracy would concern the amount and kinds of accumulation that the society requires; in other words, whether to reduce savings to improve present living standards, or to increase savings, in spite of current scarcities, out of concern for the standard of living of future generations.

Decisions would also need to be taken about where or in which sectors of the economy to realize the savings. Market mechanisms always favor the elimination of “unprofitable” economic units or sectors of the economy, but they may need to be kept and subsidized for otherwise sound social reasons.

This does not mean that every economic enterprise can be subsidized because the economy would in short order become severely inflationary and undercapitalized. But a rational economy policy can include a calculated and measured use of subsidies for specific and thought out purposes.

It is conceivable, although very unlikely, that the Cuban Communist Party might be compelled to allow for worker self-management of factories. But if that happens, self-management will be limited to the operation of discrete, separate units while the single ruling party retains its control over the coordination of sectors of production and the economy as a whole.

Cornelius Castoriadis, perhaps still reflecting the anti-Stalinist Marxist tradition in which he was trained, described this state of affairs as akin to the “specialists of the universal,” that is, the ruling party, saying, “You go manage your little corner, that’s fine; as for us, we are going to take care of the general coordination of activities.”

Obviously, if that were to occur, local “management” would very quickly be emptied of all meaning, since the question of the integration of the various “social units” cannot be miraculously be resolved all by itself, and it does not constitute some sort of secondary and external aspect whose repercussions on each unit might remain strictly circumscribed and of limited importance.

It is absurd to think of socialist factories or simply self-managed ones within the context of a bureaucratic “coordination” of the economy and society.[3]

Some will argue that a democratic socialist economy would be best managed through one or another form of market socialism. This is not the place to argue an issue about which hundreds of books and articles have been written.

In any case, that would be a matter to be decided by the Cuban people once they are free to debate on the issue in all its enormous implications. That is when others, myself included, can make the case for a democratically planned economy as the only way in which people are able to control their destiny, both political and economic.

*Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba and is the author of many books and articles dealing with that country. His most recent book is Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959. A Critical Assessment (Haymarket Books, 2011)   


[1] Saul Estrin, “Yugoslavia: The Case of Self-Managing Market Socialism,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 5, No. 4, Fall 1991, 189.

[2] Mitja Kamusi?,  “Economic Efficiency and Workers’ Self-Management” in Branko Horvat, Mihailo Markovic and Rudi Supek (eds.) A Reader. Self-Governing Socialism. Volume Two. Sociology and Politics. Economics. White Plains, New York: International Arts and Sciences Press, Inc. 1975, 222.

[3] “ ‘The Only Way to Find Out if You Can Swim is to Get into the Water’: An Introductory Interview (1974)” in David Ames Curtis (ed.) The Castoriadis Reader, Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishers, 1997, 7-8.


What's your opinion?

  • Jim

    As someone living in the modern global economy I find this article ideological, full of political cliche, and written by someone who does not live in the modern world and refuses to retool. First of all, what is worker self-management; it is never defined. Secondly, would like to point out that Argentina with its closed model of trade and declining economic growth, is a poor reference for economic excellence. I would suggest the author study Chile or even Peru. Thirdly, Cuba is an autocratic paternalistic political system that does not work and has at least 3 economies with little connection to one another. The shadow economy of the black market that many Cubans prefer is because the wild west nature of it and the self determination benefits is far superior to the governments messy and corrupt system of Cuban pesos that are not worth the Cuban paper they are printed on. In Latin America they laugh at you when you try and trade even the third tourist dollars. The workers in Cuba are bullshit because they receive pittance and are not respected and have no motivation because they have no hope. Instead, it seems everyone shaves off every commodity they sell or keeps 1 TV for every 1 they ship because the system is so broken and the corrupt autocrats in Cuba are terrified to give up their control and power. This article is a pipe dream built on an empty infrastructure. Not until everyone can own and sell property, travel when and where they want as promised in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and to which Cuba is a signature, and not until people can operate any business they want with clearly published and easy to use and understand regulations and licensing procedures will Cuba have a chance. Then people will motivate themselves and have a hope for tomorrow they don’t have today. Let a man buy his own saw and make and freely sell his own furniture and then he can dream. Then he will feel like a free and noble man. To rely upon the outdated and narrow logic of Karl Marx is like hoping frauds psychoanalysis has any relevance or success after he opined it. He totally misunderstood the biology of hysteria and lacked the experimental method to document his ideas although he delved into some fascinating philosophy and new concepts such as the ego and libidinous drives. Similarly, Marx ventured into some interesting territory when he began to look into industry, capital and labor, but he lacked any knowledge of social systems and psychology and never he refers to the rights of man and reduces him into a factor in an economic equation. The author throws around the word capitalism as if it were the devil himself just as Marx did with bourgeois. The author demonstrates a naiveté and a realistic understanding of the modern world and is unfortunately the recipient of brainwashing and now produces his own propaganda being the smart student he is. He opines without his own honest research even though he cleverly uses citations as if he did go to the library and really study the geopolitical systems of the world and honestly stacked Cuba up against them. There is a reason why Raul Castro is now in china and view nam and it’s not to get a lesson in worker self management. Now we all wish the cuban communists in Havana and the Cuban fascists in Miami would stop fighting and using the blockage/embargo as a nasty way to maintain power and exert control – and let thy people go. Over 11 million wonderful Cubans on the island because of the selfish habits of these selfish groups. Arguments like the one proffered here are well intended but get us nowhere.

  • http://www.GRDPublishing.com Grady Ross Daugherty

    Farber’s article presumes that “real” socialism is based on the prompt, legal abolition of private productive property rights under socialist state power. This follows the core principle set forth on the next-to-last page of the second chapter of the Communist Manifesto of the state concentrating all productive forces in its hands.

    Farber’s idea of worker cooperative self-management therefore cannot escape from a Yugoslavia-type cooperative system in which the state is still the legal owner of all enterprise, and workers are only granted self-management as a program, or a gift from the bureaucratic, one-party state. As such, his article is pointless. He is one more disguised state monopoly socialist, but with the usual verbiage which cries out for the gift of workplace democracy–but not for direct worker, not state, ownership of enterprise.

    The question is not “whether” there ought to be worker self-management, in order to have dynamic socialism. It is whether such self-management can occur without discarding the Manifesto’s stipulation of abolishing private productive property right out of capitalism. I would argue that it cannot, and there is the crux of the question.

    Farber, like all Trotskyists, cannot understand that the socialist state need not own everything productive. He thinks that only by the state owning everything can socialism exist. But he is wrong, and his mistake is profound. In reality, private productive property rights are absolutely necessary during the socialist bridge period, as is a conditioned, price-fluctuating market.

    This is totally logical (although Farber may never understand the logic) because the abolition of private property rights it something that is supposed to occur only in the far-in-the-future stage of full communism. If it is supposed to occur in the more distant “goal” of a classless, stateless society, who in blazes would think that it could exist and be functional under socialism?

    If the abolition of private property is a feature of full communism, it cannot and should not be forced onto society during the socialist bridge to a classless, stateless, private property-less society. Who can argue against this?

    What has happened in the world socialist movement is that the moralistic, upper-class, Utopian principle of the immediate abolition of private property has been smuggled into the working class socialist movement, in order to subvert if from within. But Farber has never, and presumably will never figure this out, and so he cannot write an article on workers’ self-management that contains any substance whatsoever.

  • Luis

    Farber correctly asserts that cooperatives can exist in the ‘micro’ but so far have failed to do so in the ‘macro’. The Yugoslav model, even if flawed, was the closest thing to socialist self-management in the ‘macro’, so we must not deny its historical importance.

    • http://www.GRDPublishing.com Grady Ross Daugherty

      Sure, Luis, if you define “socialist self-management” as the state owning an enterprise and the workers being given the responsibility of making it work efficiently and productively. In other words, if you define it the way that all state monopoly socialists define it.

      You automatically set forth an analysis that is consistent with both Stalinism and Trotskyism, that is, that socialism is the state owning everything productive, and private property rights are abolished right out of capitalism. But you are wrong.

      Socialism, and socialist self-management does not have to be defined as you, Farber, Trotsky, Mao, Lenin, Fidel, Raul, Marx and Engels would define it. Try to look at the results of real world experiments and come to a new definition of socialism and socialist worker cooperative self-management.

      Trotskyists, in spite of their ultra-democratic, pro-cooperative rhetoric, are nothing but state monopoly socialists in disguise. Ask anyone of them whether the state should own all the instruments of production, per the Communist Manifesto, and the answer will by “Yes.”

      What is needed is for us to see socialism as retaining private property rights, and having the workers of significant industry and commerce own their cooperative corporations directly. The socialist state could then get ample quarterly revenues from silent, partial co-ownership.

  • http://yahoo BUB

    Worker self-management …is that like “individual freedom” to decide what You want to do, when and how You want to do it? To reap the fruits of your labors and not share them with people who don’t labor as hard or not at all? Is that to dream, to be inventive rather than be told to harness up for your “tour of obligation”? Don’t understand what’s taking so long, you justly revolted against one dictator, throw the junta out! Where are your patriots, in prison?