Let us first understand what bureaucracy is. As formulated in classical sociological theory by the German sociologist Max Weber, bureaucracy is characterized by a hierarchy of positions, with each position assigned particular duties and responsibilities (Gerth and Mills 1946:196-99). Bureaucracy is an efficient form of organization. By establishing a hierarchy of authority, a clear direction with respect to goals and policies of the organization is promoted. And by developing a division of labor, proficiency in the performance of tasks is facilitated. But bureaucracy can be inefficient, in that it can give rise to bureaucratism, an infirmity with two symptoms: (1) a stifling of creativity and initiative, as people who occupy positions passively wait for instructions from above; and (2) a lack of imagination, as the persons in the bureaucratic structure develop the habit of looking at things only from the vantage point of their particular position.
Bureaucracy is a modern form of social organization, and it exists in modern states as well as in modern non-state organizations of all kinds, including corporations and educational and religious institutions. Indeed, modern life has become bureaucratized, a fact that Weber lamented, inasmuch as it was placing us in an “iron cage” of our own making.
Bureaucracy is a highly impersonal form of social organization, and as such, it goes against “human nature,” or what perhaps is better described as a common human tendency, nurtured in human societies, to form social relationships. Bureaucracy is impersonal in two senses. First, it establishes a network of functional relations that are separate from the “natural” or “traditional” personal relations formed in families and societies. We are expected to leave behind these personal relations when we enter a bureaucratic world, and to give our attention for a determined number of hours each day to the functions that we are assigned in a bureaucratic structure. Secondly, within the bureaucratic world itself, we are expected to relate to one another on the basis of our assigned tasks, leaving aside any personal sentiments that we may have toward one another. If we hold a position of bureaucratic authority, we are required to leave personal likes and dislikes aside in promoting or dismissing persons and in assigning tasks, rationally following the bureaucratic rules.
Because of its impersonality, the bureaucratic form of organization, be it a factory, a school, a university or any other bureaucratic structure, has to be imposed on the people. Since it goes against their “nature,” the people always resist, and like wild horses, they must be “broken in.”
In the development of capitalism in the modern West, the imposition of bureaucratic impersonality and rationality has been more advanced than other regions of the world. The reason is that the modern West was developing on a foundation of superexploitation of vast regions of the world, thus providing it with the capacity to offer high levels of material rewards for its employees in industry, commerce, education and human services. Thus there have been significant material incentives for leaving the “traditional” and the “natural” behind.
In addition to material rewards, advanced capitalist societies motivate people by generating fear of being dismissed from their positions. Fear of unemployment, particularly in a system with high levels of material reward, is a powerful psychological tool and motivator.
In the advanced capitalist societies, the mechanisms of material reward and fear were accompanied by an ethic of individualism, which gave priority to the rights of the individual over the needs of society, a cultural dynamic that has been especially deep-seated in the United States. The nation proclaimed itself to be a “land of opportunity,” where individual upward social mobility was possible for all capable individuals willing to work. This led to a devaluation of persons of low social status, for it implied that they lacked a work ethic and/or intelligence. These cultural dynamics gave additional incentive to individuals to adjust to the impersonal demands of bureaucracy, in order to facilitate their ascent in a bureaucratic structure, which would affirm their worth as superior to those of lower social status.
In spite of the mechanisms of reward, fear, and the promise of upward mobility, people in the modern West are not entirely broken. They continue to bring the personal into the impersonal bureaucratic environment: they attend to family and other personal matters at work; and they hire and promote people that they like or with whom they have a personal relation. Furthermore, they may demonstrate little creativity or initiative, and they can be indifferent to the goals of the organization or factory. The people have a natural resistance to bureaucratic impersonality, and they value their personal lives beyond the reach of the bureaucratic world and its demands.
The natural resistance of the people to bureaucratic organization is particularly advanced in the formerly colonized regions of the world, where bureaucracy was imposed as an integral dimension of colonial domination. Psychologically and politically, personal resistance to bureaucracy was hard to distinguish from resistance to colonialism.
When socialist revolutions in the Third World triumph, they must restructure economic, financial, political, educational, health, and foreign policy institutions and the media of communication, seeking to establish the sovereignty of the nation and the protection of the social and economic rights of the people. This enormous task, always carried out in the context of the aggression and oppositionist maneuvers of the global powers, requires that many people effectively carry out productive, commercial, political, educational, social and technical tasks. That is to say, the development of the socialist project requires bureaucratic structures, and it requires that people submit to the bureaucratic hierarchy, carrying out fully the tasks that are assigned to them, and doing so with intelligence and creativity. There can and should be mechanisms for the communication from below of possible strategies and goals, but direction and coordination from above must be maintained, if organizational goals are to be attained. Any thought that socialist societies, in the current stage of human development, could eliminate bureaucracy, is idealistic and utopian. National projects must be directed and coordinated, if the nation and the people are to be defended.
As they develop bureaucracies, necessary for carrying out challenging tasks, socialist nations of the Third World must overcome the problem of bureaucratism. But they find that the mechanisms for doing so are limited. As formerly colonized societies whose economic structures had been converted to the supply of cheap raw materials, what they can offer to the people in the form of material rewards has been limited. Moreover, as socialist societies, they sought to develop structures for the protection of the rights of workers, so that employees are much less driven by fear of unemployment. And as socialist societies, they have wanted to be more humane, thus they have been oriented to flexibility with respect to family responsibilities and tolerance with respect to personal relations at work. In addition, as socialist societies, rather than a promise of individual upward mobility, they affirm the intrinsic value of all persons, regardless of their level of educational attainment or occupational achievement. Such structures and values of socialist societies are far more humane than those of capitalist bureaucracies, but they are less efficient, in that they are less able to motivate people to produce, to work hard, and to work with creativity and imagination.
So in Third World socialist societies, the mechanisms available to Western capitalist societies can be applied only in a far more limited form, because of limited resources, or because they run counter to socialist values. This is the essence of the problem of bureaucratism in socialist societies.
In the case of Cuba, the problem of bureaucratism and the issue of work productivity has been dealt with by exhortations to duty: all persons should contribute to the development of the nation and to the improvement of the socialist society. This call to duty was most strong during the time of Che Guevara, who expressed the hope and the goal that socialist societies would produce a new kind of person, driven above all by a sense of duty, who would be hard-working, creative and productive, seeking to contribute to the common good. The call to duty continues to be a part of the Cuban socialist project today.
Fifty years after the historic moment of Che, it could not reasonably be said that Cuba has succeeded in creating the “new person” as a general phenomenon. Examples of lack of responsibility abound among the people. However, the constant messages calling the people to social responsibility, existing in various forms, certainly have had their effect. In the first place, an informed and socially responsible vanguard, comprising perhaps twenty-five or thirty percent of the people, has been created. These persons occupy leadership positions in a wide variety of institutions, offering a constant example to the people. The quality of the Cuban leadership, and not merely at the highest levels, sharply contrasts with the characteristics of those who occupy positions of authority in institutions in various fields in the capitalist nations of the West, who typically are neither informed nor socially responsible. In the second place, among the mass of the Cuban people, there is a level of appreciation for socially responsible behavior, even though many do not conform to this norm in practice. Thus it can be said that, although the people are not always virtuous, they have not redefined vices as virtues.
The nineteenth century Cuban revolutionary José Martí taught us that persons can be truly free only by being educated. Education is the key to the liberation of humanity, not education in the formal sense, but education in the sense of developing, first, an informed understanding of human history and current global dynamics, and secondly, a commitment to universal human values. Socialist Cuba in fifty years has not been able to form a new people, but it has been able to from a new leadership, which is appreciated by the people. This is more than other nations have attained, and it represents an important advance in human development. The spread to the people as a whole of a more informed understanding and of an attitude of long-term self-sacrificing commitment constitutes a new terrain of challenge for humanity, which the Cuban socialist project is undertaking as it continues to evolve.
Gerth, H. H. and C. Wright Mills, Eds. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press
Key words: bureaucracy, bureaucratism, socialism, Cuba, Weber, work ethic, work incentives, individualism