Tuesday, March 5, 2024

3638. Ernest Mandel, Revolutionary Cuba and Che Guevara

By Eric Toussaint, CounterPunch, January 12, 2024 

Ernest Mandel and Ernesto Che Guevara


The 20th century was marked by victories of social revolutions with a socialist character: in the Czarist Empire in 1917, Yugoslavia in 1945, China in 1949, Vietnam in 1954 and 1975, Cuba in 1959, Algeria in 1962, and Nicaragua in 1979. This sparked major public debates among revolutionaries in these countries over the most effective way to achieve a transition from capitalism to socialism. Between 1918 and 1926–1927, this was especially the case in Soviet Russia and the USSR, with Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, and Nicholai Bukharin making the most significant contributions. In Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a less public discussion of the country’s socialist transition than there had been in the USSR in the 1920s. In Cuba, following the 1959 victory, a great public debate on the nature of the economy was initiated in 1963–1965 with Ernesto Che Guevara, Alberto Mora, Ernest Mandel, and Charles Bettelheim. Some of the points discussed were the financing of public sector enterprises, the role of the market and of planning, the part played by the law of value, the role of banking and credit, the respective places of individual and collective moral or material incentives, and the role of consciousness. Mandel tried to introduce into the debate the question of socialist democracy and workers’ power.

The various attempts to move towards a socialist society aroused great expectations among hundreds of millions of people. There were vigorous debates on the major economic, social and political choices to be made in the move towards socialism, including among leftists in industrialized countries, even though none of these nations had ever had a victorious socialist revolution themselves. Setbacks, backsliding, betrayals, and degeneration eventually led to capitalist restoration in most cases, except in Cuba, which has remained non-capitalist.

The present study looks back at the great debate in Cuba from 1963 to 1965. All the contributors refer to policies to be implemented after a revolutionary victory so as to move from capitalism to socialism, and hopefully communism. The debate that played out in Cuba stretched far beyond the Cuban context. That is why it is so important to understand it in all its relevance to the present. What is the place of the market in the economic policies to be pursued in the future after an anti-capitalist revolutionary upheaval and the beginning of a transition to socialism? To answer this question, Ernest Mandel’s and Ernesto Che Guevara’s contributions are indispensable. Why is the issue of socialist democracy essential? Ernest Mandel’s contribution is indispensable. For reasons of space, we will limit ourselves here to the Great Debate that took place in Cuba, while recognizing the need to examine the later contributions of Ernest Mandel and other authors on the issue of the transition to socialism.

Ernest Mandel and Cuba

Ernest Mandel’s (1923-1995) Traité d’économie marxiste published in French in 1962 and in 1968 in English as Marxist Economic Theory [1]had a significant international impact. It was translated, studied, and reviewed in Cuba, among many other countries. Ernesto Che Guevara (1928-1967), who was then the Minister of Industry, received a copy in French at the end of 1962[2] and had it translated for his colleagues and other officials in the Cuban government. Clearly, he had a very favorable appreciation of the book. At the end of 1963 Guevara also read an article by Mandel on the Great Economic Debate that had just begun in Cuba that year. The title of this article was explicit: The Law of Value in Relation to Self-Management and Investment in the Economy of the Workers’ States, Some remarks on the discussion in Cuba. It was translated into Spanish by a young Cuban Trotskyist who worked at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Minrex). It had been published in World Outlook, a weekly news bulletin published by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International in Paris since September 1963 (World Outlook, Vol. 1, no. 14, 27 December 1963) as well as in the francophone journal Quatrième International in March 1964 (Revue QI n°21, 1st quarter 964, p. 20-28). In it, Mandel, under the pen name Ernest Germain[3], sided with Che’s positions. This is probably why Che invited him to Cuba in the spring of 1964.

What position did Ernest Mandel support in this article?

At the beginning of the article, Mandel sets out the main tenets of the Great Debate that had started in mid-1963. He refers to the writings of the two protagonists, namely Ernesto Che Guevara and Alberto Mora, mentions the issues dealt with, and emphasizes its historic impact.

“The Cuban magazine Nuestra Industria – Revista Economica, organ of the Ministry of Industry, published two polemical articles in issue No 3 (October 1963) of great interest, one written by Ernesto Che Guevara and the other by Comandante Alberto Mora, Minister of Foreign Trade. This polemic testifies to the vitality of the Cuban Revolution in the field of Marxist theory, too. It deals with a number of questions of the utmost importance in the construction of a socialist economy: role of the law of value in the economy during the epoch of transition; autonomy of enterprises and self-management; investments through the budget or by means of self-investment, etc. Involved in these issues is the problem of the ideal model for the economy in the epoch of transition from an underdeveloped country, a problem of absorbing interest to the Bolsheviks during the 1923-1928 period and which arose again, even if on a rather low theoretical level, in Yugoslavia, Poland and even in the Soviet Union in recent years.”

In the second paragraph Mandel criticizes Joseph Stalin’s position, which Alberto Mora used as a basis for his debate with Che Guevara:

“The question of the application of the theory of value in the planned and socialized economy of the epoch of transition has been subjected to the worst confusion, mainly because Stalin, in his last work, posed it in a both gross and simplistic way: ‘Does the law of value exist [sic] -and does it apply in our country?… Yes, it exists there and it applies there.’ This is an evident truism. To the extent that exchange occurs, commodity production survives, and exchange is thereby objectively governed by the law of value.”

Mandel immediately questions Stalin’s view because various major protagonists in the debate explicitly based themselves on Stalin’s analysis and politics, whose influence was still felt though he had died ten years earlier. Marxist manuals of dogmatic Stalinist inspiration published in Moscow are widely distributed and rarely criticized.[4] Among the protagonists in the debate that draw on Stalin, in addition to Alberto Mora, Minister of Foreign Trade,[5] we find Charles Bettelheim, an economist who was then close to the French Communist Party.

I am going to reiterate the main points of Mandel’s arguments because they are most useful for anyone examining the issues facing revolutionary forces that have achieved power and truly want to start a transition towards socialism and, in the case of so-called developing countries, to put an end to under-development and subordination to imperialist capitalist powers.

Mandel explains “In a developed capitalist economy, the law of value determines production through the play of the rate of profit. Capital flows toward the sectors where the rate of profit is above the average and production increases there. Capital recedes from the sectors where the rate of profit is below the average, and production decreases there (at least relatively). When the means of production are nationalized, so that there is neither a market for capital nor its free entry and withdrawal, nor even the formation of an average rate of profit with which the rate of profit of each particular branch can be compared, clearly there is no longer a possibility for the ‘law of value’ to be directly the ‘regulator of production’.”

Mandel goes on to discuss the case of a country such as revolutionary Cuba in 1963. The scope of the orientation he concludes with goes far beyond that country. It is actually quite relevant to our times, which is why I am quoting it extensively.

“If in an underdeveloped country which has carried out its socialist revolution the ‘law of value’ were to regulate investments, these would flow preferentially toward the sectors where profitability is the highest in relation to prices in the world market. But it is precisely because these prices determine a concentration of investments in the production of raw materials that these countries are underdeveloped. To overcome underdevelopment, to ‘industrialize the country’ means to deliberately orient investments toward the sectors that are least ‘profitable’ for the time being according to the law of value, but more profitable according to the criterion of the long-term economic and social development of the country as a whole. When it is said that the monopoly of foreign trade is indispensable for industrializing the underdeveloped countries, this means precisely that it cannot be accomplished without deliberately violating the law of value. [. . .]

“In an underdeveloped country, and precisely because of its underdevelopment, agriculture tends from the beginning to be more ‘profitable’ than industry, handicrafts and small industry more ‘profitable’ than big industry, light industry more ‘profitable’ than heavy industry, the private sector more ‘profitable’ than the nationalized sector. To channel investments according to the ‘law of value,’ that is, according to the law of supply and demand of commodities produced by different branches of the economy, would imply developing monoculture for the export trade as a priority; it would imply preferential construction of small enterprises for the local market rather than steel plants for the national market, the construction of comfortable lodgings for the petty-bourgeois or bureaucratic layers (an investment corresponding to ‘effective demand’) would have priority over the construction of low-cost homes for the people which clearly-must be subsidized. In short, all the economic and social evils of underdevelopment would be reproduced despite the victory of the revolution.

“In reality, the decisive meaning of this victory, of the nationalization of the means of industrial production, of credit, of the transportation system and foreign trade (together with the monopoly of the latter), is precisely to create the conditions for a process of industrialization that escapes from the logic of the law of value. Economic, social and political priorities, consciously and democratically chosen, take the lead over the law of value in order to lay out the successive stages of industrialization. Priority is placed not on immediate maximum returns, but on the suppression of rural unemployment, the reduction of technological backwardness, the suppression of the foreign grip on the national economy, the guarantee of the rapid social and cultural rise of the masses of workers and poor peasants; the rapid suppression of epidemics and endemic diseases, etc., etc.”

Mandel disagreed with the view of Alberto Mora (and of Bettelheim and others, see below) concerning the law of value, asserting that we should not be subjected to it. In his article he used one of Trotsky’s phrases, who in a polemical text against Stalin called for violation of the law of value: “planned economy of the transition period, even though based upon the law of value, violates it at every step and creates mutual relations between different branches of industry and primarily between industry and agriculture on the basis of unequal exchange. The decisive lever of compulsory accumulation and planned distribution is the government budget. With further development, its role will have to grow.” (Leon Trotsky, Stalin as a Theoretician, March 1930).

We shall see below that Che Guevara had adopted the same position as that expressed by Trotsky and Mandel on the fundamental part played by the State budget and central planning as levers for the transition to socialism. In this he stood against the positions of Alberto Mora, Charles Bettelheim and others such as Carlos Rafael Rodríguez et Blas Roca (see below), who took up the reforms being implemented in Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The reforms wanted by the economists of the Moscow regime and also by Yugoslav economists (despite being opposed to Moscow) insisted on self-financing of enterprises. Indeed, both in Yugoslavia and in Moscow and the Soviet Bloc, the big idea was to allow companies to sail free from centralized planning and keep a larger portion of their income to finance their own development.

In his article Mandel analysed this ongoing state of affairs.

It must be noted that at the time of the Great Debate, the model of management and economic calculation imported from the Eastern Bloc, and in particular Czechoslovakia, was applied in the Cuban economy, for which Alberto Mora (Minister of Foreign Trade) and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez (head of the Institute of Agrarian Reform) were responsible. This model was referred to in various ways: financial autonomy, self-finance or economic calculation. But Ernesto Che Guevara, with the government’s agreement, had implemented a different model called the model of financing through the State budget (in Spanish sistema de financiamiento presupuestario). The two models existed side by side and those who advocated the model from the Eastern Bloc questioned the one upheld by Ernesto Che Guevara and tried to move the country out of it while Che Guevara wanted to extend it and prove its validity and superiority in the way it reinforced the transition towards socialism.

Not to submit to the law of value does not mean disregarding it

Before we come to the question of the priority given by Che Guevara and Mandel to financing through the State budget, as opposed to the priority given by others to self-financing by companies and recourse to bank loans, it is important to specify that Mandel affirmed that although we should not submit to the logic of the law of value, we should not ignore it.

Mandel gave the following reasons why the law of value should not be disregarded:

“To violate the law of value is one thing; to disregard it is something else again. The economy of a workers’ state can disregard the law of value only at the price of losses to the economy which could be avoided, of useless sacrifices imposed on the masses, as we shall later demonstrate.

“What does this mean? In the first place that the whole economy must be carried on within the framework of a strict calculation of the real costs of production. These costs will not determine investments; these will not automatically go toward ‘the least costly’ projects. But to know the costs means to know the exact amount of subsidies which the collectivity grants the sectors which it has decided to develop by priority. In the second place that it is necessary to have a stable yardstick for these calculations; without stable money, no rigorous planning. In the third place that the sectors where economic or social priorities do not dictate any preference are to be actually guided by the ‘law of value’ (for example, different crops aiming at the domestic market). In the fourth place, so long as the means of consumption  remain commodities, and aside from the commodities and services deliberately subsidized or distributed free by the state (pharmaceutical product, school and training materials, books, etc.), the preferences of the consumers will freely operate on the market, the law of supply and demand will affect prices, and the plan will adapt its projected investments to these oscillations (within the limits of what is available in finances, equipment, raw materials, etc.).”

Here again, Mandel’s position concurs with that of Che Guevara.

Among the points under discussion, Mandel and Che Guevara took the same view on another question: they both considered that the products that nationalized companies exchanged between each other, for example machines, were not merchandize, commodities. A company that acquired a machine from another company did not buy that machine as though it were being sold on the market. It was a non-market exchange within the nationalized sector. Thus, they both considered that the law of value did not prevail within the State or public sector. On the other hand, if a public company were to buy or sell machines or other goods to a small or middle-sized private company, then you could talk about selling merchandize or a commercial relationship[6].

At the end of this part of his article, Mandel wrote, “On all these questions, Che Guevara is entirely right against Mora.”

One of the implications of the position advocated by Mandel and Che is that, within the public sector (state or nationalised), the government must avoid considering that companies sell goods to each other and make profits from their exchanges. Rigorous accounting must be kept in terms of costs, not profits in the capitalist sense, and the directors of state-owned companies must not be allowed to have their hands on a significant part of their earnings.

In the second part of the article, Mandel discusses foreign trade. It would take too long to summarize what he says here, although it is extremely interesting. I recommend reading the whole article.

In the third part, Mandel broaches the question of the autonomy of decision-making at the enterprise level. He analyses two different situations: Yugoslavia on the one hand, and on the other the USSR and other countries of the Socialist Bloc (especially Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany). Remember that Yugoslavia had been excommunicated by Stalin in 1948 and followed a different path from that of the pro-Moscow Bloc.

Yugoslavia had generalized self-management at the firm level[7], which was not the case in the Soviet Bloc.

In the years running up to Cuba’s Great Economic Debate, despite substantial differences between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Bloc, there was a clear evolution towards greater autonomy for enterprises.

In the case of Yugoslavia, self-managed enterprises were entitled to keep a bigger and bigger share of revenue to reinvest as they chose. Mandel emphasizes that: “[t]he Yugoslav authors have even formulated with regard to this a veritable new dogma which requires critical analysis: ‘Without the right of the self-management collectives to dispose of a considerable part of the social surplus product, [there can be] no genuine self-management.’”

As for the USSR, the evolution consisted of giving company directors more autonomy in how revenue was used.

Mandel warned of the dangers of the path the Yugoslav government was following. But the value of what he wrote is that it was more widely applicable.

He wrote:

“The more backward a country is, the more conditions of almost universal scarcity rule not only in the means of production sector but also for much of the industrial means of consumption (at least for the great majority of the population), and the more detrimental the practice of self-investment is, the more detrimental it is to permit the self-management collectives to determine for themselves the projects for priority of productive investments.

“It is evident in fact that under conditions of almost general scarcity of industrial commodities, almost all the investment projects can be economically profitable, no matter how gross the economic errors that are committed. Almost every profitable industrial or agricultural enterprise (providing funds for investment) is like an island in a sea of unsatisfied needs. The natural tendency of self-investment is therefore to attend to what is most pressing, both locally and in each sector.

“In other words: if the self-management enterprises hold large funds for self-investment, they will have a tendency to orient their investments either toward the commodities which they lack the most (certain equipment goods; raw materials; auxiliary products; emergency sources of energy), or toward the commodities which their workers or the inhabitants of the area lack the most. Thus, criteria of local or sector interest are placed above national interests, not because the law of value is ‘denied,’ but precisely because it is applied! This means, once more, to orient industrialization toward the ‘traditional road’ which it followed in the historic framework of capitalism, in place of reorienting it according to the requirements of a nationally planned economy.”

Mandel goes on:

“Since an underdeveloped economy is characterized precisely by the fact that the enterprises of high productivity are still the exception and not the rule, it is sufficient to leave them a part of their net surplus product and the inequality of development between the industrialized localities and the non-industrialized localities, the inequality of development and of revenue between archaic enterprises which enjoy only an average level of productivity and enterprises [that are] technologically ‘up to date’ will increase instead of diminishing. It is necessary, moreover, to insist on this fundamental idea of Marxism: any economic freedom, any “autonomy of decision” and any ‘spontaneity’ increases the inequality so long as there exist side by side strong and feeble enterprises or individuals, rich and poor, favored and unfavored from the point of view of location, etc.”

This dangerous tendency pointed out by Mandel gathered speed and was one of the causes of the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation in the early 1990s.

To return to Yugoslavia at the time of the Great Debate, Mandel considers that priority should be given to financing enterprises with the State budget:

“The economic logic of a planned economy therefore speaks completely in favor of productive investment by budgetary means at least for all the big enterprises. What must be left to the enterprises is an amortization fund sufficiently large to permit modernization of equipment with each renewal of fixed equipment (gross investment). But all net investments should be made in accordance with the plan, in the branches and places chosen according to preferential criteria selected for the society and its economy as a whole.”

He adds: “In this respect, too, the thesis of Comrade Guevara is correct.”

Mandel then comes to an argument put forward by those in Yugoslavia who wanted greater autonomy for enterprises and a greater part of their earnings left at their disposal. According to Mandel, support for this argument was based on the idea that “decentralization of the decisions on investment would be a powerful guarantee against bureaucratization.”

Mandel however saw it differently:

“This thesis is based on a fallacy. The Yugoslavs are right in stressing that the power of the bureaucracy grows in relation to its freedom in disposing of the social surplus product. But the technicians and economists of the planning commission ‘dispose’ of the surplus product only in the form of figures on paper; the real power of disposal is situated at the level of the enterprise. The more resources other than consumption funds (distributed revenues and social investments) are left at the free disposal of the enterprises, the more bureaucratization is stimulated, at least in a climate of generalized scarcity and poverty; also, the greater the temptation becomes for corruption, theft, abuse of confidence, false entries – temptations that do not exist at the level of the planning commission, if only because of multiple checks. The concrete experience of Yugoslav ‘decentralization’ has shown, moreover, that it is an enormous source of inequality and bureaucratization at the level of the enterprises.”

Regarding ongoing reforms in the USSR at the time, Mandel merely alluded to the fact that the greater autonomy that enterprises wanted and the bigger share of the revenue they would be allowed to keep would actually serve the interests of bureaucrats, especially company directors, who sought to increase their own income and improve their lifestyle.  Mandel responded to theses upheld in the Soviet Union, notably by the economist Evsei Liberman: “The reforms which have been put into practice in the USSR, as a result of the Liberman-Trapeznikov proposals, are not limited in their consequences solely to a considerable increase in the incomes of the bureaucrats; they are often accompanied by an increase in their powers and prerogatives within the enterprises as well.”

Mandel developed this criticism, particularly in March 1965, in the review Quatrieme Internationale[8].

The vital question of Socialist democracy

Next, Mandel pleads for socialist democracy and tries to convince his Cuban interlocutors that the question is of vital importance.

Mandel begins by asking: “But doesn’t the possibility of complete centralization of the means of investment at the state level create the danger of the economic policy as a whole favoring bureaucracy, as was the case in Stalinist Russia?”

And immediately answers: “Obviously. But then the cause does not reside in the centralization itself; it lies in the absence of workers’ democracy on the national political level.”

He then quotes Trotsky for the second time in the article:

 “Only the co-ordination of three elements, state planning, the market and Soviet democracy, can assure correct guidance of the economy of the epoch of transition and assure, not the removal of the imbalances in a few years (this is utopian), but their diminution and by that the simplification of the bases of the dictatorship of the proletariat until the time when new victories of the revolution will widen the arena of socialist planning and reconstruct its system.”[9]

Mandel adds:

“This means that a genuine guarantee against bureaucratization depends on workers’ management at the enterprise level and workers’ democracy at the state level. Without this combination, even the autonomy of the enterprises will eliminate none of the authoritarian, bureaucratic and (often) erroneous features of economic decisions made at the government level of the plan. With this combination, the centralization of investments – priorities being democratically established, for example through a national congress of workers’ councils – would not encourage bureaucratization, but, on the contrary, suppress one of its principal sources.”

On this crucial issue, Mandel was not able to draw on Che Guevara’s position as the latter did not directly broach the matter. What is clear is that Mandel tried, in the discussions they had in Cuba, to convince Guevara of the need to adopt policies favourable to workers’ management at enterprise level, workers’ democracy at State level and the importance of setting up a national congress of workers’ committees; in other words, the importance of building a socialist democracy.[10]

Ernest Mandel’s first visit to Havana in March-April 1964

Mandel’s visit lasted seven weeks; his programme was intense. Mandel had followed events in Cuba closely.

Ernest Mandel met Che Guevara on several occasions. It was Che who had called upon him to take part in the ongoing debate within the Cuban leadership and the Cuban government. The debate involved people with ministerial portfolios from the former Stalinist, pro-Moscow Communist Party – people like Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, or political leaders like Blas Roca, president of the PSP and director of the daily newspaper Hoy. For years, the former Communist Party, known as the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), had been criticising the petit-bourgeois leftist nature of the 26th of July Movement founded and led by Fidel Castro; but then in the middle of 1958, six months before victory, it decided to join the insurrectionary movement .

On the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) 

Here is how the official organ of the Stalinist PSP analysed the attack on the Moncada Barracks at Santiago de Cuba in July 1953:

“On 26 July, the bourgeois-latifundista, pro-imperialist clique that was imposed on the country by the reactionary coup of 10 March 1952 in fact succeeded in carrying out another coup, this time aimed at accentuating the reactionary nature of its government and eliminating many obstacles to the completion of its plans.

Sterile and erroneous, the Eastern rebellion, whose high point was the assault on the barracks at Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo, easily put down by the regime’s military forces, provided the pretext – despite the good intentions its instigators may have had – for sweeping away any remaining shreds of legality and for coming down with full force on the mass democratic movement, which at the time was developing and becoming a serious threat to all the government’s plans. […] It has been well established that our party not only did not participate in the events in the Oriente, but also that it is opposed to these bourgeois putschist tactics, because they are false, because they take place outside the masses, because they compromise the struggle of the masses, who alone are capable – via their natural development into the highest and most militant forms – of leading the way to victory against reaction and imperialism” (excerpt from the report presented by A. Díaz on behalf of the national executive commission at the plenary session of the national committee of the PSP on 6 April 1954; in Michaël Löwy, Le Marxisme en Amérique latine, Anthologie; Paris: Maspero, 1980, p. 261–263; translation CADTM)

Fernando Martínez sums up PSP’s attitude regarding the goals of the struggle in Cuba prior to the victory in January 1959 in these terms: “agrarian,” “anti-imperialist,” “against residual feudalism,” “for national development,” etc. According to them, there was also a need to seek out and find a national bourgeoisie who could play a positive, active role against the camp made up of pro-imperialists of the international market and feudal or semi-feudal forces of the countryside. It would be a national, positive bourgeoisie against the comprador bourgeoisie. But History was to decide otherwise. (see Fernando Martínez Heredia and  Éric Toussaint, “Du 19e au 21e siècle : une mise en perspective historique de la Révolution cubaine” (From the 19th to the 21st century: a historical perspective on the Cuban Revolution), interview conducted in 1998) https://www.cadtm.org/Du-19e-au-21e-siecle-une-mise-en [available in French or Spanish]

Following the revolutionary victory in 1959 the PSP, swearing allegiance to the Stalinist doctrine of revolution in stages, strongly opposed the socialist turn taken by the Cuban Revolution. One citation illustrates this orientation clearly:  in August 1960, when the revolutionary Cuban government began to intervene in the operation of enterprises and to expropriate the big landowners, Blas Roca, secretary-general of the PSP, had the following to say at the party’s Eighth National Assembly:

“In the current, democratic and anti-imperialist stage, it is necessary – within limits that are to be established – to guarantee the profits, the operation and the development of private enterprise […] There have been excesses; there have been abusive interventions which could have been avoided. […] Intervening in the operation of an enterprise or a factory without sufficient reason does not help us, because it creates irritation and turns against the Revolution […] those elements of the national bourgeoisie which must and can be kept on the side of the Revolution at this stage […].” Blas Roca.[11]

In 1962, a serious conflict broke out between Fidel Castro and the old guard of the PSP. The latter, thinking that the time had come for it to “reclaim” the revolution for their own benefit, and strengthened by the increasingly close relations established with the Eastern bloc, set about infiltrating the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI), which were intended by Castro as an intermediate stage toward the creation of the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC). The “struggle against sectarianism” rapidly put an end to these notions for the time being. Moscow did not intervene in the dispute. In the struggle for supremacy over the Communist world against China, beginning in the early 1960s, the Soviet Union could not afford to haggle over its support for the first Socialist government in Latin America, especially since that government enjoyed a certain prestige within the Third World.

Fidel Castro on the ORI crisis:

“…were we really forming a true Marxist party? […] We were not integrating the revolutionary forces. We were not organizing a party. We were organizing or creating or making a straitjacket, a yoke, compañeros. We were not furthering a free association of revolutionists, rather we were forming an army of tamed and submissive revolutionists. […] The compañero who was authorized — it is not known whether he was invested with the authority or whether he assumed it of his own accord, or whether it was because he had slowly begun to assume leadership on that front, and as a result found himself in charge of the task of organizing, or of working as the Secretary in Charge of Organization of the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations. […] the one who despite this fell, who regrettably, most regrettably, fell into the errors we have been enumerating, was the compañero Anibal Escalante. […]We believe that Anibal Escalante’s actions in these matters were not the product of oversight nor were they unconscious, but rather that they were deliberate and conscious. […]And what was the nucleus? Was it a nucleus of revolutionists? The nucleus was a mere shell of revolutionists, well versed in dispensing favors, which appointed and removed officials and, as a result of this, it was not going to enjoy the prestige which a revolutionary nucleus should enjoy, a prestige born solely from the authority which it has in the eyes of the masses, an authority imparted to it by the example which its members set as workers, as model revolutionists. Instead of coming from these sources, the authority of the nucleus came from the fact that from it one might receive or expect a favor, some dispensation, or some harm or good. And as was to be expected, around the nucleus conditions were being created for the formation of a coterie of fawners, which has nothing to do with Marxism or with socialism. […] …that obsession with command, that mania for giving orders, that mania for governing […] took possession of a certain compañero (…) Then how were the nuclei of the Integrated Revolutionary Organization (ORI) formed? I’m going to tell you how. In every province the general secretary of the PSP was made general secretary of the ORI…”  (Source: Fidel Castro Denounces Bureaucracy and Sectarianism (Speech of March 26, 1962), New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1962).

Following this major conflict, Anibal Escalante was sidelined and sent to Czechoslovakia for two years, but the PSP retained strong influence in various key ministries, in the security services, in trade unions, and in the press and the training apparatus.

Note that a book published in Havana in 2006 entitled Apuntes críticos economía política contains a series of texts by Che Guevara and minutes of internal meetings of the leadership of Cuba’s Ministry of Industries. At one of these meetings, held on 22 February 1964, Guevara said the following about the Anibal Escalante affair:

“The fundamental error Anibal made, an error that needs to be analysed more in depth, was not Anibal’s personal aspirations. That is a personal matter, a personal misstep, which would not have resulted in major problems were it not for the fact that Anibal, in his position as Organising Secretary, needed to control all apparatuses of the party, which had become executive apparatuses. As a result all ideological control depended on a series of gentlemen who were both executives and controllers, which was impossible.” [12]

Beginning in early October 1967, a large segment of former PSP members directed by Anibal Escalante, who had returned from exile, was denounced by Fidel Castro for having organized a micro-faction within the Communist Party, founded in October 1965. Some forty members of this micro-faction were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison. They were accused of factional activities linked to the Soviet Embassy, as well as those of Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Anibal Escalante was sentenced to 15 years in prison in January 1968, but was released in 1971. Eight of the defendants were sentenced to 12 years, eight to ten years, six to eight years, five to four years, six to three years and one to two years. As an additional sign of Cuba’s distancing from Moscow, Fidel Castro announced that the Cuban Communist Party would not attend the meeting of pro-Moscow parties held in Bulgaria in March 1968. In several speeches from 1968, he harshly criticized the manuals published by Moscow. Anticipating possible reprisals by Moscow, the Cuban government gave orders to “adopt all measures and all procedures necessary for saving as much fuel as possible” (“La reunión del Comité Central,” Granma, La Habana, Año 4, n°24, 28 de enero de 1968. Translation CADTM).

In 1963-1964, pro-Moscow leaders of the PSP held important leadership positions in the government and the new apparatus of the state (in particular the security apparatus) and took part in the debate regarding the policies Cuba should conduct, stressing what was being done in the Eastern Bloc under Moscow’s direction. Among the high-level representatives of the PSP were Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, president of the Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA). Alberto Mora, who defended the same positions as the PSP’s directors without actually being a member, was Minister for External Trade in 1963. And on the other side there was Che Guevara, Minister of Industries, whose proposals were supported and shared by the Finance Minister (Ministro de Hacienda), Luis Álvarez Rom. As was mentioned above, two international Marxist figures also took part at the invitation of each of the two tendencies. Che Guevara had invited Ernest Mandel, a member of the Fourth International (United Secretariat), while the defenders of the PSP’s pro-Moscow line had called on Charles Bettelheim, a pro-Moscow economist of the period. The documents of the Great Debate were published and publicly debated in Cuba in 1963–1964. Tens of thousands of copies were published in the journal of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, the magazine of the Ministry of Industry and the journal Socialista. A little over forty years later they were brought together in a book published in Cuba in 2006 by the Che Guevara Studies Centre – directed by Aleida March, Che’s second wife – and by the publishing house Australian Ocean Press. It includes five contributions by Che, two by Ernest Mandel and one by Charles Bettelheim. These texts had been published together beforehand in 1969 in issue no. 5 of the Argentinean journal Pasado y Presente.

What divided a part of the Cuban leadership, among other factors, was the issue of the rapidity of the evolution towards socialism; whether or not methods used in Eastern Europe and Moscow should continue to be used; the importance of central planning; the importance of moral and collective incentives for increasing production; and the importance of material incentives – wage increases, bonuses, etc.

In 1967, in the French journal Partisans, Mandel summed up the Great Debate, and in particular Che Guevara’s position, as follows:

“Cuba’s nationalised industry was largely organised according to the trust system (consolidated enterprises) by branches of industry, very comparable to the organisational model used by Soviet industry over a long period. Financing of these trusts came from the central budget with financial control exercised by the ministries (of Industry and Finance). The bank played only a secondary intermediary role.

One of the practical goals of the economic discussion of 1963–1964 was therefore: either in defence of this system – which was the position of Comrade Guevara and those who generally supported his theses–, or postulating its replacement by a system of financial autonomy for enterprises (leading to the principle of the individual profitability of the latter); that thesis was defended by Carlos Rafael Rodríguez and numerous other participants in the debate.

Che Guevara’s position appears fairly pragmatic in this particular case. He did not claim that centralised management was an ideal in itself, that is, a model to be applied always and in every case. He simply defended the idea that that method was the most effective way to manage Cuban industry as it existed at the time. The arguments he advanced were essentially the following: a limited number of enterprises (fewer than existed in the city of Moscow in the USSR alone!); an even more limited number of industrial and financial managers; means of communication that are fairly well developed, and greatly superior to those of other countries that have attained a level of development of the productive forces comparable to Cuba’s; the need for a stricter economy of resources and control of the latter; etc.”

Mandel adds:

“Certain opponents of Che Guevara’s theses have linked the question of greater efficiency of decentralised management (and the financial autonomy that stems from it) to that of material incentives. Enterprises which are compelled to be profitable are companies which must submit their entire operations to a very strict economic calculation, and which to do that may make much more ample use of material incentives, giving workers a direct interest in the growth of the productivity of labour, in improving the enterprise’s profitability (for example through savings in raw materials) and in surpassing the goals of the plan.

In relation to that, Che Guevara’s response is essentially practical. He does not reject the need for strict economic calculation in the context of the plan, or the use of material incentives. But he subordinates that use to two conditions. Firstly, it is necessary to choose material incentives that do not weaken the internal cohesion of the working class, which do not result in rivalry between the workers. For that, he recommends a system of collective bonuses (for teams or enterprises, much more than a system of individual bonuses). Then, he is opposed to any excessive generalisation of material rewards, because this creates detrimental effects on the awareness of the masses. Guevara wishes to avoid having the entire society become saturated by a climate of selfishness and obsession with individual enrichment.”(translation CADTM; for the French version of this article available on the Net)

We should recall that at the time of the Great Debate the two systems co-existed. The one supported by Che Guevara and  Luis Alvarez Rom (the Finance Minister) was applied in a part of Cuba’s industry (in particular “heavy” industry), while the system allowing companies financial autonomy, backed by Alberto Mora, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez and the PSP, was implemented in another part of the industrial sector and in part of the agricultural and trade sectors.

Charles Bettelheim’s intervention and Che Guevara’s and Ernest Mandel’s rebuttals

Charles Bettelheim’s intervention in the debate was particularly conservative, following the lead of the policies pursued in the bloc that was led from Moscow. In his contribution to the debate, he cited the writings of Joseph Stalin on ten different occasions. At no point did he ever mention the forced collectivization imposed by Stalin and the dramatic consequences it had. He presented the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as the most advanced of all socialist countries. He also attacked Rosa Luxemburg.[13] No revolutionary fervor is perceptible in his text, despite the fact that at the time Cuba was in ferment and the Ministries for Industries and Finance were endeavouring to promote a model that was appropriate to realities on the island while refusing to adopt the model of Eastern Europe and Moscow.

Bettelheim adopted a mechanistic and deterministic approach in conformity with the dogmatic Marxist principles that held sway in Eastern Europe. According to him, the state of Cuba’s productive forces did not make it feasible to adopt policies of the kind Che Guevara and Luis Álvarez Rom promoted.

Che Guevara challenged the notion that the insufficient development of the productive forces would impose an unsurpassable limit, explaining that: “We consider that two fundamental errors have been committed in this article by Bettelheim, and we shall attempt to clarify them. The first concerns the interpretation of the necessary correlation between productive forces and relations of production […].” Che asks the question: “When can the relations of production not be a faithful reflection of the development of the productive forces?” and he answers:

“At times when an advancing society breaks the preceding one in order to develop, and at times when the old society is breaking and the new one, whose relations of production are yet to established, struggles to consolidate itself and to break the old superstructure. Thus, the productive forces and the relations of production, at a given historical point in time, analysed concretely, will not always be able to correspond in a totally coherent way […] In the broader context of the worldwide capitalist system in struggle against socialism, one of its weak links – in this concrete case, Cuba – can break. Taking advantage of exceptional historical circumstances and under the able leadership of its vanguard, at a given point in time, the revolutionary forces take power and, based on the existence of sufficient objective conditions as regards the socialisation of labour, burn through the stages, declare the socialist character of the revolution and set about building socialism.” (Che Guevara, “La planificación socialista, su significado,” Revista Cuba Socialista, año 4, n°4, junio 1964, pp. 13-24. Republished in El Gran Debate, p. 221–222. Translation CADTM).

And in opposition to Bettelheim, Che Guevara underlines the role of the consciousness of the people as a factor for overcoming the limitations imposed by the insufficient development of the productive forces.

Guevara also stresses the conscious role of the state: “The productive forces develop, the relations of production change, and everything depends upon the role of the workers’ state on the consciousness of the workers.” (Che Guevara “Sobre el sistema presupuestario de financiamiento” (On the budgetary finance system), published in February 1964). Note that Che Guevara uses here the concept of the workers’ state, also used by Ernest Mandel and by the Fourth International to characterise the Cuban State at that time.

According to Bettelheim (and on the Cuban side for Alberto Mora) it is not possible to consider that, in the nationalised sector, commercial relations can be abandoned.  Guevara answers (as does Mandel): “we deny the existence of a commodity category in relations between nationalised companies”, Che Guevara.[14]

In opposition to Bettelheim, Ernest Mandel defended Guevara’s position, recalling that at

“the transitional period from capitalism to socialism involves a partial survival of commodity production and the monetary economy, but the means of production are not commodities, since they circulate within the nationalised sector. The debate may seem Byzantine or Talmudic,” he wrote, “but it has many implications, and especially regarding the degree of autonomy of the state in economic decision making. Because from the idea that everything that is produced during the transitionional period is commodity production stems the conclusion that the law of value continues to govern the economy. And an even more serious conclusion, for the Stalinists, is that autonomy of decision is in reality very restricted, since there is no choice but to use the iron laws of economics which continue to govern the evolution of society. This pseudo-materialist position is in total contradiction with Marx’s idea of what the transitional period should be. And, and this is the paradoxical aspect of the affair, that theoretical position is also in total contradiction with the extreme  subjectivism of Stalinist practice, which while constantly referring to objective economic laws, set arbitrary prices and behaved like adventurers when it came to planning.” [15]

Ernest Mandel added, about Bettelheim, Alberto Mora and other Cuban leaders who advocated the application of methods imported from the Eastern Bloc:

“For them, everything that is produced in Cuba is commodity, and therefore the criteria of profitability must be established for enterprises, in other words an economic development model inspired by the Soviet Union. There was a logic that was to lead to a faithful, if not servile, imitation of Stalinist theory and its model of organisation of the economy in the Soviet Union, with consequences for the political framework of the workers’ state.” [16]

Mandel warned in no uncertain terms against the serious consequences of the policies recommended by Bettelheim and Mora:

“Comrade Bettelheim appears […] to be concerned with balancing excess demand (relative to the plan) with additional supply induced (through hidden reserves) by the incentive of ‘market prices.’ In a sense, this would be to legalize and institutionalize the ”parallel market.”

We will not deny that some increase in production can be obtained this way. But one should be aware that:

1. This method could lead to major social injustices […]

2. The prices formed by this ”free” market would not coincide with average costs of production, and they would inevitably cause distortions as well as an enormous amount of speculation, which could well disrupt the plan in the area of production. For example, in some world agricultural-product markets, prices are formed according to changes in supply and demand caused by national production surpluses in the large exporting countries; in other words, by an insignificant fraction of world production. This leads periodically to drastic price shifts. Even bourgeois economists see the need to control this chaotic state of affairs in the capitalist economy. Is it really worth considering its introduction into a socialized economy?

3. This method may create additional disturbances rather than bring about the more harmonious operation of socialized industry, because the face-to-face existence of two systems of prices, some low, some high, is a permanent temptation for enterprises to shift some part of the production intended for the regulated market to the ”free market.” This is especially true if such enterprises operate under the auto-finance system. The logic of a system of ”free” prices determined by equilibrium between excess demand and additions to supply would exert a growing pressure to have investment priorities determined by the size of unsatisfied effective demand. It is useless to recall that this would mean building luxury apartments before investing in public housing. In other words, it would be to recreate an economic logic nearer capitalism (where investment is determined essentially on the basis of the profit to be derived from effective demand) than socialism (where investment is deter mined by priorities consciously established in accordance with socialist socioeconomic criteria).” (Source: Ernest Mandel, “Mercantile Categories in the Period of Transition,” originally published in Nuestra Industria, Revista económica, year 2, No. 7, June 1964, pp. 9–36 in El Gran Debate, pp. 206–207. English version).

We should stress that the arguments advanced by Ernest Mandel in 1964 concerning the dangers of pro-market reforms have been confirmed in fact throughout the decades that followed and are still valid for analysing the reforms currently under way in Cuba.

Responding to Bettelheim, who defended the reforms coming from the Eastern Bloc, Che Guevara writes:

“we are returning to the market theory. The entire organisation of the market relies on material incentives… and it is the directors who earn more every time. Just look at the latest project of the German Democratic Republic, and the importance that the director’s management – or better the remuneration of the director’s management.” [17]

It is important to mention that a few years later, in the late 1960s – early 1970s, Bettelheim was to move to another extreme.[18] Whereas he rejected the possibility of overcoming capitalist market relations in the state sector on the grounds that the state of the productive forces made it impossible, he then adopted a position of following the voluntarist policy applied by the Chinese authorities under the authority of Mao Tse Tung.[19]

In his contribution to the debate in Cuba, Bettelheim places no importance on the exercise of power by workers, intervention by the people in decision-making,[20] worker’s control, etc. in total opposition to the ideas of Ernest Mandel.

Bettelheim cites Lenin abundantly, but only when justifying economic policies for necessary concessions made to the market economy in order to restore the alliance between peasants and workers, and never when it is a question of the role of trade unions and the dangers of bureaucratisation, despite the fact that Lenin clearly called attention to them. [21]

In his contribution cited above, published in Havana in June 1964, in response to Bettelheim, Mandel states: “As to the enterprise’s internal organization of work and production, we believe it is essential to pursue the goal of placing administrative responsibility in the hands of the workers themselves (labourers and employees). One cannot conceive of socialism, much less communism, without this ‘performance of administrative functions by each worker in turn.’” (El Gran Debate, p 210 – English version).

As for Che, he expressed his concerns about the insufficient participation of workers in decisions several times. In a very long letter to Fidel Castro on 26 March 1965, when he had decided to give up his responsibilities in the government, he wrote: “How can worker participation be achieved? That is a question I have not been able to answer. It is my greatest failure, and it must be reflected upon because it concerns relations between the Party and the State.” [22]

I would like to deal with an additional point concerning the debate between Charles Bettelheim and Ernest Mandel upon which, to my knowledge, no other author has commented until now. Charles Bettelheim maintained that workers of enterprises in the state sector did not sell their labour power. “Thus, the wage in socialist society [note by Éric Toussaint: Bettelheim is referring to the USSR and its Bloc] is no longer the ‘price of labour power’ (since the producers are no longer separated from their means of production, since they are in fact their collective owners), but rather the form in which a part of the social product is distributed.” This affirmation by Bettelheim was in conformity with the position of Soviet authors and of Stalin: as Socialism had been achieved in the countries of the Moscow Bloc, since the workers were co-owners of the means of production, it was unimaginable to state that they sell their labour power to the enterprise as a commodity. Nevertheless, this affirmation contradicted Bettelheim’s other statement, namely that the capital goods or raw materials which public companies exchanged were commodities (contrary to what Che Guevara and Mandel held). But let us leave that for now. What is interesting is the fact that Mandel expresses his disagreement with Bettelheim and the authors in the countries of the Moscow Bloc regarding the question of the sale of labour power. Mandel shows that in contradiction with Moscow’s propaganda, in a society in transition towards socialism, the worker continues to sell her or his labour power.  After having demonstrated that, he says: “Why cannot a member of a collective enterprise, a co-proprietor of the enterprise, sell individually owned property to that enterprise?  The crux of the matter is that labor power is still private property (Mandel is speaking of a transitional society from capitalism to socialism [Éric T]), while the means of production are already (in essence) collective property. To abolish private ownership of labor power before the society can assure the satisfaction of all its people’s basic needs would actually be to introduce forced labor.” (El Gran Debate, p. 196 – English version). This argument of Mandel’s is highly important because workers’ need to be able to organise and act to make demands regarding wages, for example, follows from it. A fortiori, that need was all the more vital in the case of countries of Moscow Bloc at the time, which were bureaucratically degenerated workers’ states that had begun an evolution towards restoration of capitalism.

Che Guevara on the National Bank and loans in Cuba’s transition towards Socialism

During the Great Debate, Che Guevara, who was president of Cuba’s National Bank from November 1959 to early 1961, disagreed with Marcelo Fernández Font, president of Cuba’s National Bank in 1963-1964.[23] In a contribution to the debate published in the magazine Cuba Socialista in February 1964 under the title “Desarrollo y funciones de la banca socialista en Cuba” (Development and functions of the socialist bank in Cuba),[24] the latter sharply criticized the system supported by Che Guevara and claimed it was much less efficient than the one implemented in the USSR and supported by Alberto Mora, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez and Charles Bettelheim. While in Che’s system, enterprises were financed by the state budget, in the system of financial autonomy (or self-management, as it was sometimes improperly called) imported from Eastern European countries and the USSR, enterprises were financed by loans with interest granted by the National Bank of Cuba, which could then monitor their activities. Marcelo Fernández Font saw Che’s system as bad for the economy and the transition towards Socialism since it involved excessive monetary issuance and increased the State deficit. He actually demanded more powers for the National Bank, notably to monitor enterprises that functioned within the system applied by the Ministry of Industry, which had not been the case so far. The president of the National Bank also wanted his institution to decide on which investments could be financed, as was already happening in the sector in which the Eastern European and USSR model was applied.

In his reply entitled “Banks, loans and socialism” published in the magazine Cuba Socialista in March 1964, Che Guevara frontally opposed such extension of power over the economy of the country and notably over the sector of the economy in which enterprises were financed by the State budget. He also opposed the loans with interest granted to enterprises by the National Bank. He refused to allow the function of monitoring enterprises to be delegated to the Bank. He considered that such a monitoring function belonged to banks in the capitalist system, not in a transitional society towards Socialism.[25]

How they debated

At this stage we should introduce an important point of general interest on how opponents debated. In their various contributions, Alberto Mora, Marcelo Fernández Font and those who questioned Che’s system never openly said that they disagreed with the Minister of Industry and the Minister of Finance: they criticized the positions of “some (unnamed) comrades”. This was the case in the article by Alberto Mora (Minister of Foreign Trade) in June 1963 entitled “About the issue of how the law of value functions in the Cuban economy today”[26] and in the article by Marcelo Fernández Font (director of the National Bank of Cuba) quoted above. In his replies, Che Guevara assumed his responsibilities and stood by his positions, blaming them for not having the courage or candour to clearly identify the target of their criticism. He did it politely but firmly. This is undoubtedly one of Che’s main qualities: his candour in debate and his determination to engage in a thorough and public debate, which was completely at odds with the Stalinist tradition imposed since the mid-1920s in the USSR and in its camp, including, in the capitalist countries, the Communist parties that were under Moscow’s control.

Ernest Mandel’s impact in Cuba

Ernest Mandel had a significant impact in Cuba in 1964 when he stayed there and in subsequent years in the second half of the 1960s and in the early 1970s. He would meet up with members of the Ministry of Industry, with Che Guevara himself as well as with Luis Álvarez Rom, Minister of Finance, and with members of his cabinet. He was invited to deliver lectures at the university. There were sessions of collective reading of chapters from his Marxist Economic Theory. As mentioned above the book had been translated into Spanish and distributed to leaders and senior executives, notably in the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Finance.

When he stayed in Cuba in 1964, Mandel did not meet Fidel Castro. Che had wanted them to meet and talk. He urged Fidel to speak with Mandel but it did not happen. There is a simple explanation: strong pressure from the PSP leaders and Moscow. Consequently, Castro probably considered that it would have been too risky to meet with Mandel, who was rightly identified by Moscow as leader of the FI and opposed to the policies implemented in the Soviet Union and in Eastern and Central Europe, which pro-Moscow leaders such as Carlos Rafael Rodríguez wanted to implement in Cuba.

While in Cuba, Ernest Mandel also met Che’s first wife, Hilda Gadea, of Peruvian origin, who still had political relations with him. Hilda expressed her interest in the Fourth International and met Mandel, to report on the situation of Trotskyists in Peru. She had met Peruvian Trotskyists when she had visited her native country shortly before. She sent several letters to Mandel from Cuba in 1964, to which he replied. She also went to Paris and met in 1965 Pierre Frank , member of the Unified Secretariat of the FI. She was in touch with young Cuban executives who sympathized with the positions of the FI (see Box on the Fourth International); she also tried to protect them from repressive and intimidating measures taken by members of the PSP, who were very active within the state security services they had infiltrated.

Fourth International and Trotskyists in Cuba during the 1960s

The Fourth International leadership had wholeheartedly supported the Revolution and its initial achievements after the dictator Batista was overthrown on 1st January 1959. There was a group of Fourth International activists in Cuba; other activists from countries such as Argentina and Uruguay had joined them. Cuban Trotskyists had participated in the insurrection in the ranks of the 26 of July Movement. Some of them were close collaborators of Che, such as Roberto Acosta, a militant Trotskyist since the 1930s. After the victory, there had been diverging views within the Fourth International regarding their relationship with the revolutionary government. Should an autonomous Trotskyist organization be created? Which tasks should be prioritized? The majority of members of the small POR-T (Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers’ Party) were in favour of self-assertion while the majority of members of the Unified Secretariat were in favour of accompanying the process without developing an autonomous party. Disagreements between the majority of the FI and the main Latin-American leader, the Argentinian Juan Posadas, went far beyond the question of what position to adopt in support of the Cuban revolution. In the spring of 1961 Juan Posadas and his supporters eventually decided to leave the Fourth International and create their own international organization. During the missile crisis in October 1962 his international organization and the POR-T which was part of it defended the idea that Cuba must use nuclear weapons against US imperialism. It implied self-sacrifice in order to wipe imperialism off the face of the planet and allow socialism to triumph on the other continents. The members of the POR-T were not the only revolutionaries in Cuba to defend such an unacceptable position, which the Fourth International rejected.

In March 1965, six members of POR-T were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 3 to 8 years on totally outlandish charges. They were accused of being agents of US imperialism. A few months later, they were released thanks to the direct intervention of Che Guevara, who invited Roberto Acosta Hechevarría, one of the leaders of the POR-T, who had been detained for two months (without having been sentenced), to his office. He was taken to his office under the guard of two state security agents. As we have already mentioned, Roberto Acosta worked alongside Che Guevara at the Ministry of Industry, as head of the standards and metrology department. According to Roberto Acosta, he and Che had a positive and constructive exchange on Trotskyism. In the end, Che Guevara obtained the release of Roberto Acosta and his comrades imprisoned in Santiago de Cuba.

Next to members of the POR-T, with whom the Unified Secretariat of the FI stayed in touch in spite of diverging views, other activists in Cuba reinforced their collaboration, notably through written correspondence with Ernest Mandel, with Joseph Hansen (one of Trotsky’s former secretaries from 1937 until Trotsky’s murder by an agent of Stalin in August 1940). Hansen, who was a member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International and a member of the leadership of the SWP in the United States, visited the island on several occasions with leaders of the Canadian section of the Fourth International. Livio Maitan, another member of the Unified Secretariat of the FI, also kept track of the situation in Cuba though with the allocation of tasks among leaders, his priority was South America. Vazquez Menendez was a member of the POR-T who maintained regular exchanges with Mandel in spite of the separation with the Unified Secretariat.

Among Cubans who shared the views of the Unified Secretariat of the FI were Nelson Zayas, who was 25 and worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Javier de Varona, a legal expert, professor of philosophy (24), Walterio Carbonell (44), an Afro-descendent Cuban, author of a book published in 1961 under the title Como Surgió la Cultura Nacional ? (published in English under the title How Cuba’s national culture came to be). Walterio Carbonell, who had known Fidel Castro when they were students together, was later in touch with the Black Panthers in the US.

Che, his speech in Algiers and his resignation from the Cuban government

After leaving the island, Ernest Mandel maintained close relations with Cuba. He was in touch with Che Guevara when the latter delivered a very significant speech at the Afro-Asian conference in Algiers on 24 February 1965. In it, Che Guevara criticized the selfish attitude of governments of the Eastern block of so-called socialist countries. About the high prices they demanded when trading with Third World countries he said:

“How can it be ‘mutually beneficial’ to sell at world market prices the raw materials that cost the underdeveloped countries immeasurable sweat and suffering, and to buy at world market prices the machinery produced in today’s big automated factories? If we establish that kind of relation between the two groups of nations, we must agree that the socialist countries are, in a certain way, accomplices of imperialist exploitation.”

It was courageous of him and caused great discontent in Moscow. Soon after this speech Mandel phoned Che Guevara and said he was ready to go to Algiers. Che wanted him to come. Mandel applied to the Algerian Embassy to leave on the next day, but it turned out not to be possible.[27]

The outcome of the Great Debate was that the Eastern Bloc’s positions backed by Alberto Mora, Marcelo Fernández Font, Charles Bettelheim and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, leader of the former PSP, carried the day. Fidel Castro had remained aloof and had not publicly taken sides. Che Guevara, whose positions were clearly at odds with the interests of the authorities in Moscow and the Eastern European countries, gave up all his responsibilities in the Cuban government.

Che Guevara’s last known letter to Fidel Castro

In a 37-page letter to Fidel Castro dated 26 March 1965, which was not published in extenso until 2019,[28] Che Guevara begins, in some fifteen pages, with a highly critical assessment of the country’s economic situation, and then, in some ten pages, summarizes the model for the operation and financing of the economy that he advocates (“sistema de financiamiento presupuestario” or budgetary finance system). Next he develops his thoughts on the party and the state.

In the part in which he advocates the model of financing by the state budget vs the model implemented in the countries of the Moscow Bloc and in Yugoslavia, he describes in very strong terms one of the consequences of those countries’ evolution: “Factories are closed and Yugoslav (and now Polish) workers emigrate to the countries of Western Europe in full economic expansion. They are slaves that the socialist countries send as an offering to the technological development of the European Common Market.”

In the final part when he discusses how the economy, the party and the state function he writes (as already quoted above):

“How to involve the workers is a question I have not been able to answer.  I consider this as my greatest failure and it is one of the things to think about because in it is also involved the problem and the relationship of the party and the state.”[29]

He writes about the Party:

“To fulfil its task of an ideological driving force, the party and each member of its member, must be a vanguard and, for this, they must present the closest image to what a communist should be. Their standard of living, that is, the standard of living of the party members, must never exceed, neither as professional cadres, nor as cadres in production, that of their peers.” (…) “All this, seeking to act in such a way that the struggle against the tendency to bureaucratise the Party, i.e. to turn it into another instrument of statistical control of the government, or into an executive body, or into a parliamentary body, with many paid people and many jeep-riders, going from one meeting to another, etc. etc. etc. is always kept in mind.” (…) “The Party, naturally, must have its own organization, separate from the state, even though today there are occasionally a series of positions in which the party and the state are mixed.”

At the end of the letter, he writes about the training of party cadres: “To make the party cadre a thinking element, not only of the realities of our country but also of the Marxist theory which is not an ornament but an extraordinary guide for action (the cadres do not know Trotsky or Stalin but they qualify them as ‘bad’ scholastically).” In this part of the letter, Che Guevara explicitly mentions as an instance of scholastic warping the daily paper Hoy controlled by leaders of the former PSP.

It should be noted that this long letter does not include a clear determination to propose and achieve political reform so as to organize socialist democracy with workers actually exercising power. This is undoubtedly one of Che Guevara’s serious mistakes.

Ernest Mandel’s second trip to Cuba in 1967

Ernest Mandel went back to Cuba in June 1967, invited by the Cuban leadership. We should keep in mind that in June 1967, Che Guevara was conducting guerilla warfare in Bolivia so the decision to invite Mandel to La Havana came from the Cuban leadership and Fidel Castro. Che Guevara could not have had any part in it since the level of material communication with Cuba was very low and anyway he no longer had any direct say in Cuban debates. Mandel stayed for more than a month and had again a number of significant contacts, since at the time Cuba played a key role on the international stage as founder of the Latin-American Solidarity Organization (OLAS), a structure that brought together a large number of political organizations inclined to armed struggle. The organization was necessary for the revolutionary current to avoid Moscow’s and China’s direct control. There was a buzz in Cuba in terms of internationalism, debate and openness in the international context which, moreover, would lead to May 68. Fidel Castro and the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party (founded in 1965) were very critical of the Soviet leadership. On that occasion, Ernest Mandel travelled with his partner Gisela Scholz, who became a leader of the FI. Back in Belgium, he published several articles in support of the Cuban revolution and of OLAS in the weekly La Gauche.

The assassination of Che Guevara in Bolivia

A few months after Mandel had returned to Europe, we heard about the tragic death of Che Guevara, who had been assassinated by the CIA and the Bolivian army on 9 October 1967. Ernest Mandel immediately wrote an article in homage to Che Guevara’s memory in the paper La Gauche. He wrote: “The Cuban and Latin-American revolution has lost one of its main leaders; we have lost a dear comrade.” It was reprinted in organs of the FI.”[30]

Mandel and Cuba in the 1990s

At the end of 1989, Ernest Mandel wrote a short polemical text about the way supporters of Glasnost and Perestroikawanted to claim Che’s heritage. He starts his article[31] as follows:

Among the many attempts at reclaiming Che’s heritage, the latest one is not the least surprising. Emphasizing the ‘spiritual and psychological affinity’ between Che and Gorbachev with regards to the ‘values of socialism’ is the hazardous project of Kiva Maidanik in his 1987 book published in Nicaragua, Perestroika : la revolución de las esperanzas. (Perestroika: the hoped-for revolution, not translated). He was interviewed by Marta Harnecker (1937-2019), a well-known journalist in Cuba, often inspired by pro-Soviet stance, who seemed to have been invested with a mission of good offices between the ‘orthodox’ Latin American CPs and the loyalist current. However, this attempt at reclaiming – even under the label of perestroika – presented a number of difficulties.

Next Mandel sums up again the ideas Che advocated in the Great Debate:

“Market-based economic reforms were not among the ‘values of socialism’ to which Che was particularly attached. His hostility to the reforms advocated by Liberman and Trapeznikov in the 1960s was quite clear; he was against the introduction of ‘economic calculation’ based on the financial autonomy of enterprises, and against a payment system based above all on material incentives, piecework and bonuses. His opposition was not the result of any contempt for ‘economic laws and mechanisms’: Che supported a strict planning, a centralized fiscal system involving monitoring investments and loans with regards to general not sectorial interests, in the name of the construction of a form of socialism that would be radically different from a capitalist society, based on categories opposed to those of profit and commodity. He considered that using market-based categories had to be limited to the least socialized sectors when it was not possible to avoid them. ‘With the rotten weapons inherited from capitalism, commodity as economic unit, return on investment, individual material interest as incentive, we run the risk of heading into a dead end.’ This has been confirmed by history.”

Afterwards Mandel challenges Kiva Maidanik’s assertion that Che’s positions in the Great Debate did not form the “core of Che’s conception as a theorist.”

He claims that

“Che thought that mobilizing the masses and their class consciousness could be stimulated by international policies supporting revolutionary processes, by fighting bureaucracy and corruption, by the exemplary behaviour of leaders and by the development of socialist democracy although, on this issue, his views were somewhat short-sighted.”

Mandel condemns Gorbachev’s agreements with Ronald Reagan at the expense of the revolutionary process underway in Central America at the end of the 1980s:

“It all adds up: Che’s internationalism would have found it hard to accept the priority given to diplomatic ‘dialogue’ with the USA to the detriment of revolutionary processes in the Third World, which were reduced to the status of mere ‘regional conflicts’. At a time when Nicaragua was short of oil, granted sparingly and conditionally by the Soviet government, Gorbachev was considering reducing its military aid ‘to the level of light weapons of the type used by the police.’”

I would also like to mention an episode regarding the relationship between Ernest Mandel and Cuba in which I am personally involved. It happened in 1992 and concerns the meeting between Marta Harnecker, mentioned above, and Ernest Mandel. Marta Harnecker had been a member of Chile’s Socialist Party under Allende’s presidency; she was known as a popularizer of Marxist ideas, notably with her booklet The Elementary Concepts of Historical Materialism.[32] She lived in Cuba, and was the partner of Barbarossa, the moniker of Manuel Piñeiro Losada, who was a trusted comrade of Fidel Castro and the man in charge of all guerrilla operations in Latin America supported by the Cuban leadership. I had been in close contact with Marta Harnecker since 1988-1989 and with Manuel Piñeiro Losada since 1991. I had met Marta Harnecker in Managua in the 1980s and 1990s, in the context of the Fourth International’s support of the Sandinista revolutionary process. At the time, she often stayed in Managua (I’ll come back to this point in another article). After the Sandinistas failed to win the elections in 1990, Marta Harnecker went back to Cuba. I visited Cuba on a regular basis since I was in charge of the Coordination against the US embargo against Cuba, a very large coordination created in Belgium, that brought together political parties such as the FI and others such as the Communist Party of Belgium and major solidarity movements, NGOs such as Oxfam. At the time I was invited to Cuba as a member of the Political Bureau of the Belgian section of the FI. It was in this context that I regularly met Marta Harnecker and Barbarossa, aka Manuel Piñeiro.

In 1992, Marta Harnecker was invited to Brussels by the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB, Parti du Travail de Belgique), a party of Maoist origin that was still imbued with Stalinist ideology. She gave a lecture during which she was booed by some because she mentioned Trotsky and it was inconceivable to say anything positive about Trotsky in an assembly of cadres of the Workers’ Party of Belgium. While she was in Brussels, she contacted me because she really wanted to meet Ernest Mandel. We went together. It lasted for two and half or three hours in his house in Schaerbeek. It was one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba, which had depended to a large extent on its economic exchanges with the USSR, was experiencing a severe economic crisis. The island’s authorities responded by declaring a special period. Given the effects of the dismantling of the Soviet Union, economic relations between Cuba and Moscow had fallen sharply, particularly those involving the supply of oil. The economic situation in Cuba was extremely difficult, and there were major concerns about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Marta Harnecker told Mandel, “Listen, Comrade Ernest, we would really like to know how you explain the collapse of the USSR. You are one of the few people able to formulate a coherent explanation whom Fidel Castro would listen to. If you agree,” she said, ” on my return to Cuba I could try and persuade Fidel Castro to invite you to Cuba to present your analysis of the end of the Soviet Union”. We thoroughly discussed the reasons for the collapse and what had been the nature of the Soviet Union, what sort of projects were perestroika and glasnost, how to analyse Gorbachev’s policies, the attempt at self-reform of the Soviet bureaucracy that had ultimately led to the implosion of the Soviet Union. Did this mean victory for the restoration of capitalism, which was under way, with privatizations and shock therapy applied to the various republics that had emerged from the Soviet Union? The discussion was constructive. But Ernest said to Marta: “Look, I’ve been to Cuba twice, I’m in complete solidarity with Cuba over the American embargo, but I’m convinced that Fidel Castro won’t want to see me, he won’t want to have a real debate. In 1964 and 1967 I noticed that even though I was invited with his agreement it was out of the question for Fidel Castro to meet me and have a discussion that would include both an internal and an external dimension. So you can try and persuade him, but there is practically no chance that Fidel would wish to meet me.” To the end of his life, Ernest Mandel expressed his support for the Cuban people against the US embargo, he hailed Fidel Castro’s initiative to call for Third World countries not to pay their external debt and he was willing to debate and develop his views on the critical revolution. If he had met Fidel Castro, if there had been a public debate, he would no doubt have mentioned socialist democracy as a sine qua non condition for a transition towards socialism.


– Ernest Mandel was quick to understand the significance of the Cuban revolution and expressed solidarity with Cuba throughout his life.

– He supported Che Guevara’s positions in the Great Economic Debate on which policy to choose for a transition towards socialism as early as the last quarter of 1963, when he heard about the positions Che had publicly voiced a few months earlier.

– Che Guevara and the leaders who shared his views, such as the Minister of Finance, Luis Álvarez Rom, invited Ernest Mandel to Cuba where he tried to help reinforce their positions in dealing with those supporting the policies implemented in the Soviet Bloc while distancing himself from the positions of the Yugoslav leaders (whom Stalin had excommunicated starting from 1948).

– In each of his contributions, Mandel tried to introduce into the debate the issues of socialist democracy, of workers’ and the people’s direct participation in the decision-making process. He very clearly insisted on the vital need to give priority to the people making decisions. On this score, while aware of the problems resulting from the absence of workers’ participation, Che did not share the point of view of Mandel and the Fourth International. Yet in his long letter to Fidel dated 26 March 1965, when he left the Cuban government, Che wrote: “How to involve the workers is a question I have not been able to answer. I consider this as my greatest obstacle or my greatest failure and it is one of the things to think about because in it is also involved the problem of the Party and the State, of the relations between the party and the state.”[33] Later in 1966, when Che Guevara wrote the critical notes in the margin of the Soviet Manual during his stay in Prague, he stated that it was up to the people, the masses, to decide the priorities of the plan.[34]

– In later years Mandel never stopped giving this issue central significance through texts, speeches, debates and resolutions at world congresses. To mention only two instances, in his 1970 anthology Contrôle ouvrier, conseils ouvriers, autogestion (Workers’ control, workers’ councils and self-management) and his contribution to a text on the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Socialist Democracy, in which he wrote “A living pluralist and socialist  democracy, the free confrontation of choices among various priorities, independence of political and social organizations from the state apparatus, are not some luxury for rich countries which poor countries ought to do without until better times. In any socialist revolution they are a functional demand, in order to overcome the contradictions of the economy, to reduce disproportions, to rein in injustices, to find in collective consciousness ways to defeat obstacles. Human civic and social rights, State of Law, unrestricted political democracy, democracy of associated producers, democratically centralized planning, necessary but limited use of market mechanisms, and self-management necessarily complement each other in the construction of a socialist society. Only one missing link can pervert the whole.” (Manifesto adopted by the 13th World Congress of the Fourth International in February 1991. Special leaflet Fourth International, Paris, 1993).

– Beyond the positions supported in the Great Debate and the deep convergences between Che Guevara and Ernest Mandel in this context, we can add other points of agreement:

– The need for public debate on issues that call for choices.

– The need to extend revolution to as many countries as possible – one of Che Guevara’s leitmotivs – with the prospect of creating one, two, three, four, five Vietnams and of developing Internationalism. It was also vital for Mandel and the Fourth International.

– Che Guevara’s refusal to use repression against ideas within the Left (which led to him to free Cuban Trotskyist activist members of POR-T in March 1965 before he left for the Congo).

– The need to use armed struggle in a revolutionary strategy to extend socialist revolution. In this respect, as early as 1964, Ernest Mandel had been granted his request that Bolivian Trotskyist activists receive a military training in Cuba[35]. Unfortunately in 1967, while some of them had been trained in Cuba, they could not join the guerilla group led by Che Guevara. The reasons for their being stopped have not been made clear. It should be mentioned that Ernest Mandel did not support a militarist version of armed struggle strategy. This is evidenced by the break between the Fourth International and the PRT-ERP in Argentina in 1973.[36]

– We should also mention that there were significant differences of appreciation between Ernesto Che Guevara and Ernest Mandel about the possibilities of revolutionary struggle in industrialized countries. In the notes he drafted in Prague in 1966 back from the Congo and before sneaking back to Cuba to get ready for Bolivia, Ernesto Che Guevara mentioned more than once that he did not think the working class in industrialized countries was ready for radical struggles while Ernest Mandel and the Fourth International were convinced of the anti-capitalist potential of the working class in countries of the North and in the three sectors of the world revolution. If Ernesto Che Guevara had not been assassinated in October 1967 and had witnessed the impressive rise of students’ and workers’ struggles in Europe from 1968 onward and in the first half of the 1970s, he might have revised the opinion expressed in 1966-1967.

The author is grateful to Rafael Acosta, Eric Corijn, Christian Dubucq, Michaël Löwy, Maxime Perriot, Claude Quémar, Pierre Salama, Catherine Samary and Patrick Saurin for reading this text through. He is also grateful to Christian Dubucq, Sushovan Dhar and Vicki Briault for their help in checking sources. Bibliography

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[1] It was published in English in 1968:  Ernest Mandel (1968), Marxist Economic Theory (New York: Monthly Review Press). Translated by Brian Pearce. Originally Traité d´économie marxiste (Paris: Julliard, 1962). In audio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wbOcVkwgck

[2] Che understood and spoke French.

[3] Ernest Mandel used several pen names: Ernest Germain, Henri Valin, Pierre Gousset and, in the Fourth International, he was called Walter. See https://maitron.fr/spip.php?article89557 (in French).

[4] Ernesto Che Guevara criticized those manuals on several occasions during the Great Debate of 1963-1964. And after he left Cuba, while he was staying in Tanzania and in Prague in 1966, he drafted a systematic critique of Political Economy. A Textbook issued by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1954 [English edition 1957]. Che Guevara’s notes were published at La Havana in 2006. See Ernesto Che Guevara, Apuntes criticos a la economia politica, Editorial Ciencias Sociales, Centro de Estudios Che Guevara, Ocean Press, La Havana, 2006, 397 pages.

[5] See Alberto Mora, “En torno a la cuestión del funcionamiento de la ley del valor en la economía cubana en los actuales momentos”, (Concerning the issue of how the law of value functions in the Cuban economy today), an article published in the journal of the Ministry of Industry, Nuestra Industría, Révista Económica, year 1, n°3, October 1963, pp. 10-20. Stalin’s phrase quoted by Mandel comes from this article by Alberto Mora.

[6] Elsewhere, earlier in the article, Mandel discussed this question: “It is necessary to carry out strict calculations of production costs to show in the case of each commodity whether its production has been subsidized or not. But nothing calls for the conclusion that prices must be ‘determined by the law of value’, that is, by the law of supply and demand. If such a conclusion still has some meaning with regard to the means of consumption, it is senseless for the means of production which, we repeat, are not commodities, at least in the great majority of cases. And even means of production which are still commodities – those produced by the private or co-operative sector for the delivery to the State, and which the State furnishes to private enterprises or co-operatives – cannot be ‘sold at their value’ without encouraging under certain conditions private primitive accumulation at the expense of Socialist accumulation.”

[7] For more on the conditions under which Yugoslavia adopted self-management, see Catherine Samary, Decolonial Communism, Democracy and the Commons – Resistance Books, London, 2018, https://resistancebooks.org/product/decolonial-communism-democracy-and-the-commons/ Catherine Samary, Plan, Market and Democracy, The experience of the so-called socialist countries, IIRE, Amsterdam, 1988, https://fileserver.iire.org/nsr/NSR7.pdf  Catherine Samary, “In the name of the Communist ideal” in Le Monde Diplomatique, English edition, May 2020 ; translated from the French : « Quand les peuples de l’Est luttaient au nom de l’idéal communiste » Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2020.

[8] In English, Ernest Germain, “Soviet Management Reform”, International Socialist Review, Vol.26, n°3, Summer 1965, pp.77-82. https://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1965/03/sovreform.htm

[9]Leon Trotsky: The Soviet Economy in Danger. In English, in a different translation, see The Soviet Economy in Danger in Militant, 12 November 1932-7 January 1933.

[10] See Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel A Rebel’s Dream Deferred, Verso, London/New York: 2009, 392 pages, p.151

[11] Blas Roca, Balance de la labor del Partido desde la última Asamblea Nacional y el desarrollo de la revolución, La Habana: 1960, pp. 87–88. Cited by Michael Löwy in “La revolución permanente en América Latina”, (Permanent Revolution in Latin America), in: Michael Löwy et al, Socialismo para armar. Documentos urgentes de la historia contemporánea, Hijos Red Mundial, Colección Socialismo y Libertad, Libro 68, 2016, p. 19. Translation CADTM.

[12] Ernesto Che Guevara, Apuntes criticos a la economia politica, Editorial Ciencias Sociales, Centro de Estudios Che Guevara, Ocean Press, Havana, 2006, 397 pages. P. 285. (Translation CADTM).

[13] Bettelheim wrote: “Rosa Luxemburg, [who] in a ‘leftist’ perspective felt that in a socialist society there are no economic laws and that political economy therefore becomes inapplicable…” To bolster his argument, he cites an excerpt of a text where Luxemburg states: “… political economy as a science has played out its role as soon as the anarchic economy of capitalism makes way for a planned economic order, consciously organized and managed by the whole of working society. The victory of the modern working class and the realization of socialism accordingly mean the end of political economy as a science.” (The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. 1, Economic Writings 1 [Peter Hudis, ed.], London: Verso, 2013). However, contrary to what Bettelheim claims, nowhere in that citation is it stated that in Socialism there are no longer any economic laws. And further, Luxemburg is speaking of the end of political economy once Socialism has come about; she is not speaking of society in transition towards Socialism. There is no doubt that the Stalinist economists were endeavouring to denigrate Rosa Luxemburg.

[14] In Che Guevara “Sobre el sistema presupuestario de financiamiento” (On the budgetary finance system), published in February 1964 and as “La planificación socialista, su significado” (Socialist planning, what it means), in June 1964.

[15] Ernest Mandel quoted by Janette Habel, in « El Gran Debate Cubano 1963-1965» Jacobin América latina, Jacobin Revista, Nùméro 5, Argentina, 2022, p. 58-59

[16] Ernest Mandel, Interview “L’économie de transition et l’homme nouveau,” transcript of a speech recorded in 1965 cited by Janette Habel, in « El Gran Debate Cubano 1963-1965» Jacobin América latina, Jacobin Revista, Nùméro 5, Argentina, 2022, p. 56–65. (Translation CADTM).

[17] Ernesto Che Guevara, Écrits d’un révolutionnaire Ed. La Brèche, Paris, 1987. Translation CADTM.

[18] In his debate with Paul Sweezy (1910–2004) and the Monthly Review following the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 by Warsaw Pact troops, Bettelheim wrote “the fact is that the proletariat (Soviet or Czech) has lost its power to a new bourgeoisie, with the result that the revisionist leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is today the instrument of this new bourgeoisie.” In the same article Bettelheim says that the 20th Congress of the CPSU (which was held in 1956 and is considered the congress of de-Stalinisation) marked the arrival to power of that new bourgeoisie and the abandonment of the proletarian line that was predominant in the previous period. Bettelheim’s taking this position justifies the use of the epithet “Stalinist” in referring to him, because at that time he still considered that under Stalin the proletariat was in power. As noted by Jérôme Leleu in the following note, Bettelheim changed his position in the early 1980s. Further, in his exchanges with Sweezy, Bettelheim criticizes the “obscurantism” (sic!) of the positions developed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, saying that there are real problems behind their rejection of the market. Bettelheim considers, as did the various categories of Stalinists and sectarian leftists, that the Cuban leadership stemming from the 26 of July Movement was petit-bourgeois. Samuel Farber used that same characterization in the 2000s in several writings describing the PSP as “proletarian” and the 26 July Movement as “downgraded and petit bourgeois,” or even “Bohemian” in the case of Che Guevara. See the very fair critique made by Janette Habel and Michael Löwy, “Ernesto Che Guevara: penser en temps de révolution. Contre l’approche biaisée de Samuel Farber,” Contretemps No 58, July 2023 (in French).

[19] According to Jérôme Leleu: “Charles Bettelheim’s thought was extremely variable throughout his life. A theoretician of planning and development strategies from the time of his doctoral thesis in 1939, he was later, in particular in the 1960s, to theorize the law of correspondence between production relations and the nature of the productive forces at a time when he was taking a particular interest in the transition towards Socialism. Starting in the late 1960s and during the 1970s, he would refute his earlier theses on the primacy of the productive forces to gradually promote the role of the Political, Ideology and the Party during the period of transition to Socialism in a Leninist perspective, encouraged by his infatuation with Maoism and the Chinese revolutionary experience.” Leleu adds: “During the 1980s, he again refuted his earlier vision by qualifying Leninism, and by demonstrating in the last volume of his Class Struggles in the USSR that the Russian Revolution had only led to a ‘new type’ of Capitalism (Bettelheim, 1982) and that the takeover of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917 was carried out by an intelligentsia who smothered the aspirations of the Russian population as a whole.” (Translation CADTM).

[20] A few years later, in 1968–1969, in the public exchange of letters with Paul Sweezy of Monthly Review mentioned above, Bettelheim states that the plan “must be developed and implemented by the base at the initiative of the masses.” During the same period, he took as his model of the transition to Socialism what was happening in China, which clearly shows the limits of Bettelheim’s vision regarding the initiative of the masses and their actual intervention in decision-making.

[21] I dealt with Lenin’s positions on these questions in “Lenin and Trotsky confronting the bureaucracy – Russian revolution and transitional societies” published by Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, 21 January 2017, https://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article37717

[22] Guevara Ernesto Che, “La otra carta de despedida del Che a Fidel” firmada el 26/03/1965 publicada el 28/06/2019 por La Tizza Cuba https://medium.com/la-tiza/la-otra-carta-de-despedida-del-che-a-fidel-d3a61b0443b

[23] In June 1964, Marcelo Fernández Font replaced Alberto Mora as Minister of Foreign Trade. Alberto Mora became a collaborator of Che Guevara in the Ministry of Industry.

[24] Marcelo Fernández Font, “Desarrollo y funciones de la banca socialista en Cuba”  (Development and functions of the Socialist bank in Cuba), Revista Cuba socialista, year 4, n°30, February 1964, 32-50.

[25] Che Guevara supported the same position on banks and loans in Apuntes (already quoted) La Havane, 2006, 174-178.

[26] Alberto Mora, “En torno a la cuestión del funcionamiento de la ley del valor en la economía cubana en los actuales momentos”, Revista Comercio exterior, n°3, June 1963.

[27] Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel A Rebel’s Dream Deferred, p. 154.

[28] Ernesto Che Guevara, “La otra carta de despedida del Che a Fidel” (The other farewell letter from Che to Fidel) dated 26/03/1965, published on 28/06/2019 on the Cuban website La Tizza Cuba https://medium.com/la-tiza/la-otra-carta-de-despedida-del-che-a-fidel-d3a61b0443b (in Spanish). In English, see https://revolutionarystrategicstudies.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/the-other-farewell-letter-from-ernesto-che-guevara-to-fidel-castro-is-published/

[29] “¿Cómo hacer participar a los trabajadores? Esta es una pregunta que no he podido responder. Considero que este es mi mayor fracaso, y es una de las cosas  sobre las que hay que reflexionar, porque implica igualmente el problema del partido y el Estado, las relaciones entre el partido y el Estado”.

[30] http://www.ernestmandel.org/new/ecrits/article/l-exemple-de-che-guevara-inspirera

[31] See Ernest Mandel, “Au nom du Che” (In the name of Che), 1December 1989,  https://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article67378 (in French) In Spanish: https://rebelion.org/en-nombre-de-che-guevara/

[32] Marta Harnecker, Les concepts élémentaires du matérialisme historique, Paris, (Introduction to Elementary Concepts of Historical Materialism) L’Harmattan, 1985 [1969], 365 pages.  In English, see https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/periodicals/theoretical-review/tr-7-1.pdf  (pp. 21-29).

[33] See https://chicagoalbasolidarity.org/2023/07/14/the-other-farewell-letter-from-che-guevara-to-fidel-castro/

[34] Ernesto Che Guevara, Apuntes criticos a la economia politica, Editorial Ciencias Sociales, Centro de Estudios Che Guevara, Ocean Press, La Havana, 2006, 397 pages.

[35] Ernest Mandel refers to this in internal letters within the Fourth International he had sent from Cuba. See Ernest Mandel’s archives at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam.

[36] See Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel A Rebel’s Dream Deferred.


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