1. There Is No Popular Protagonism without Decentralization
Popular protagonism becomes a mere slogan if people do not have the opportunity to make their opinions known and take decisions in areas where they participate: (geographic spaces, workplaces, educational establishments, interest groups). If the central state decides everything, there is no room for local initiatives and the state ends up being a hindrance, or in other words, as Marx says, it hinders the "free movement" of society.1
István Mészáros thinks that the excessive centralization of the Soviet state led to the fact that "both the Soviets and the factory councils had been deprived of all effective power."2 We should not be surprised, therefore, when he argues that one of the aims to be pursued is that of "accomplishing a genuine autonomy and decentralization of the powers of decision making, in opposition to their existing concentration and centralization which cannot possibly function without ‘bureaucracy’.3
The relationship between decentralization and people’s protagonism is one of the central themes of twenty-first century socialism and we should always keep it in mind. However, there are other aspects that we should like to discuss here such as the relationship between centralization and bureaucratism.
2. Decentralization: An Antidote to Bureaucratism
Obviously this was not Lenin’s idea; he always related the phenomenon of bureaucracy to the state inherited from capitalism. When he died he was worried about the "bureaucratic ulcer" which was affecting4 the state apparatus. In one of his last writings he maintained that "our state apparatus is to a considerable extent a survival of the past and has undergone hardly any serious change.5 A few days earlier he had described it as "a bourgeois and tsarist hotch-potch."6
In January 1922, in his last work on the role of the unions, he went as far as to say that "in no way could the strike struggle be renounced" provided that it is directed against the bureaucratic deviations of the proletarian state, explaining, however, that this struggle was very different from the one waged under the capitalist regime. In that case the struggle was to destroy the bourgeois state but in this case it was to fortify the proletarian state by combating "the bureaucratic deformations" of that state, its huge weaknesses, and "all kinds of survivals of the old capitalist regime in its institutions, etcetera."7
As we can see, Lenin thought that the bureaucratic deformations which characterized the Soviet state were a legacy of the past. I think that he was wrong and the fact that he was prevented him from prescribing the right medicine for this disease. As I understand it, the underlying causes of bureaucratism — and far more important than legacies of the past — lie in the excessive centralisation of the Soviet state. We know full well what happens when not only strategic decisions but nearly all decisions are taken centrally: the paperwork sent upwards; the endless running around; the slowness with which decisions are taken; the lack of control. . . .
3. The Central State Cannot Control Everything — Only Social Control Can Prevent Corruption
One of the most important lessons learned when the goal set by Fidel for the 1970 sugar harvest in Cuba was not met was precisely that of understanding that it was impossible for the socialist state to administer everything centrally, especially so in an underdeveloped country like Cuba.8 Therefore spaces where the people could control the way the state functioned were needed in order to ensure that it operated more effectively. Castro admitted this in his 26 July speech in 1970: "The revolutionary process itself has shown the problems caused by bureaucratic as well as administrative methods."9
After pointing out the mistakes that had been made by identifying the party with state administration and by allowing mass organizations to become weakened, he stressed the role that the people should play when decisions are made and problems solved.
Imagine a baker’s shop on a street which provides bread to all who live there and an administrative apparatus that controls it from above. How does it control it? How could the people not care how that bakery operates? How could they not care whether an administrator is good or bad? How could they not care if people there had privileges or not, if there was negligence or not, insensitivity or not? How could they not care how it provided its services? How could they not care about the hygiene problems there? And how could they not care about the production problems, absenteeism, the quantity and quality of the goods? It is impossible not to care!
Can anyone think up a more effective means for controlling that bakery than the masses themselves? Could there be any other method of inspection? No! The person who runs that micro-unit of production could go bad, the person who inspects it could go bad, everyone could go bad. The only ones who are not going to go bad are those affected [by all this], those affected!
These ideas were incorporated into Cuba’s new constitution in 1976.
The new political model proposed decentralizing as many as possible of the state’s functions down to the municipal level. Although these institutions had to be subordinated to those above them, they could act autonomously within the established legal and regulatory framework and "should not be submitted to constant and restricting supervision by the institutions above them."
This mechanism, "in addition to making the higher level bodies work faster and better and be more in tune with the time and location demands of the decisions that have to be taken — according to Raúl — frees them, and especially national institutions, of the heavy, voluminous burden of everyday administrative tasks which in practice they cannot properly carry out [. . .] but which, what is more, prevent them from seeing to the important tasks that they really are competent to undertake in areas related to setting standards, control and inspection of the activities they deal with."10
As time went by, experience showed that it was necessary to decentralize government administration even more and therefore the institution of the Popular Council was set up in Havana in 1990. This was a government body that functioned in an area smaller than the municipality and the aim was to improve the control and supervision over all administrative bodies and find ways which made it possible to involve all members of a community in solving its own problems. Jesús García says that the idea was to have "a strong government body at the "barrio" level that could organise community forces for solving the problems the people at that level had."11
Unfortunately the great economic difficulties that have beset Cuba in the last two decades placed huge limitations on the resources available for attending to people’s aspirations, the People’s Power cadres began to "burn out" and grow weary, people lost trust, and participation began to diminish, often turning into something merely formal. This — as well as other reasons that we cannot go into here — meant that People’s Power which had started out with such brio and creativity began to lose prestige.
4. Marx Argued That All That Can Be Decentralized Must Be Decentralized
Historical experience has convinced me more and more that decentralization is the best weapon for combating bureaucratism since it brings government closer to the people and allows them to exercise social control over the state apparatus. I therefore share Marx’s opinion that it is necessary to decentralize all that can be decentralized keeping as functions of the central state only those tasks that cannot be carried out at the local level.
In the Civil War in France Marx said: "The communal regime once established in Paris and the secondary centres, the old centralized government would in the provinces, too, have to give way to the self-government of the producers. . . ."
5. The Central State Is Not Weakened, It Is Strengthened
"The few but important functions that would be left to a central government would not be eliminated, as some have said, deliberately falsifying the truth . . . : The unity of the nation was not to be broken; but, on the contrary, to be organised by the Communal constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excrescence."12
Of course, this decentralization must be imbued with the spirit of solidarity. Each of the decentralized spaces should feel that they are part of the national whole and be willing to contribute with their own resources to strengthen development of those spaces with the greatest shortages. One of the most important roles the central state plays is just that, implementing this process of redistributing national resources to protect the weak and help them develop.
After everything I have said, it should be clear that I am not talking here about the kind of decentralization promoted by neoliberalism with the aim of weakening the nation state but of a different way of looking at decentralization: one which, on the contrary, by strengthening the communities, and the territorial units which are the foundation of the nation state, helps in fact to strengthen the central state, the fundamental instrument for defending our sovereignty and leading the country towards the new society which we want to build.13
1 Marx, The Civil War in France.
2 István Mészáros, Beyond Capital, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1995. p. 906. According to Meszáros, the positive reference made by Lenin in The State and Revolution "to the experience of the Paris Commune (as the direct involvement of all the poor, exploited sections of the population in the exercise of power) disappeared from his speeches and writings and the accent was laid on ‘the need for a central authority [. . .]‘ A little further on he says: ‘The ideal of autonomous working class action had been replaced by the advocacy of the greatest possible centralisation’" (ibid., p.904).
3 Meszáros, ibid., p.703.
4 Lenin, "10th Congress of the RCP(B)," 16 March 1921, Collected Works, Vol. 32, pp. 165-271.
5 Lenin, "How We Should Reorganise the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection," Collected Works, Vol. 33, pp. 481-86.
6 Lenin, "The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation’," 30 December 1922 in Collected Works, Vol. 33.
7 Lenin, "Role and Functions of the Trade Unions in the New Economic Policy," Collected Works, Vol. 33, pp. 188-196.
8 Most of the paragraphs about Cuba’s experience have been taken from the book Cuba, Dictatorship or Democracy? 1979,
9 Fidel Castro, Speech for the 10th anniversary of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, 28 September 1970.
10 Raúl Castro, at a seminar for the delegates of the Matanzas Popular Power Assembly, 22 August 1974.
11 Jesús García, Cinco tesis sobre los consejos populares, Revista Cubana de Ciencias Sociales, No5, La Habana, 2000.
12 Marx, The Civil War in France.
13 Marta Harnecker (ed.,) La descentralización ¿fortalece o debilita el estado nacional?(Does Decentralisation Strengthen or Weaken the National State?), a book which includes the papers read by those taking part in a workshop on 23-24 September 2008 organized by the the Centro Internacional Miranda, published on www.rebelion.org.
Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile, where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuba Revolution and on the nature of socialist democracy. She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.