The Cooking the Books column from the October 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Earlier this year, when in June the Cuban government, now under Fidel Castro's brother Raul, announced a new system of wage payments, the Guardian (13 June) wrote that Cuba had "abandoned its egalitarian wages system". This brought a response (20 June) from Helen Yaffe, author of Ermesto Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution:
"In reality, there has never been an 'egalitarian wage system' (i.e. one where every worker was paid the same): Che Guevara himself devised a new salary scale, introduced in 1964, with 24 different basic wage levels, plus a 15% bonus for over-completion".
In other words, Cuba never had practised wage equality, not even when Guevara was Minister of Industry. Not that socialists favour equal wages. As long as the wages system – the sale of people's working skills for money – exists there will be a different price for the different types of skill. We want the abolition of the whole wage system, an end to the buying and selling of people's working abilities, and the application of the principle "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs".
Yaffe made a claim about this too:
"Like Marx himself, Che recognised the socialist principle: 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his work' – which your article associates exclusively with Raul. Cuba has never claimed to be communist and therefore never embraced the principle 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need', which expresses the attainment of communist society".
While it is true that Marx thought that it would not have been possible to implement "to each according to needs" immediately had a "co-operative society based on the common ownership of the means of production" been established in his day, he never drew a distinction between a socialist society (where this principle couldn't yet be applied) and a communist society (where it would be). He actually spoke of two "phases" of the same society, which he called "communist society". Engels and the later socialist movement adopted the term "socialist society", but both terms referred to the same type of society; they are interchangeable.
In any event, the temporary measure until distribution according to needs became possible which Marx mentioned in the private notes he wrote in 1875 known as The Critique of the Gotha Programme was a system of "labour-time vouchers". This would probably have proved unworkable but it was not the same as "to each according to their work". It would have been "to each according to their working time", with people being given a consumption voucher based on the time spent at work not for the particular kind of work they did. There wouldn't be 24 different levels, just one. An engineer and a cleaner who put in the same number of hours would get the get the same number of consumption vouchers. In this sense it would have been "egalitarian".
But what Lenin, Stalin, Castro and Guevara called "socialism" did not even correspond to Marx's "first phase of communist society" since it was based on the state, not the common, ownership and control of the means of production, the majority remaining propertyless and having to sell their working skills to live. As the state was controlled by the leaders of a minority vanguard party, these leaders became in effect the employers of the excluded majority. As employers they had to devise some system of pricing the different kinds and qualities of labour-power they purchased. Hence schemes such as Guevara's and the one just introduced in Cuba. This was state capitalism, not socialism/communism.