The ninth of October this year marked the fortieth anniversary of the death of one of the great political figures of the twentieth century: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
Born in 1928 to a relatively affluent family in Argentina, Che was a voracious reader and outstanding student in his youth, developing a broad understanding with the assistance of his father’s library, where he first encountered the works of Marx.
During his student years and the early part of his career as a doctor, Che spent a great deal of time travelling in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Guatemala. The most famous of his trips is immortalised in the book and film The Motorcycle Diaries (click here for a review of the film).
The things Che saw on his travels made a deep impression on him: he experienced at first hand the extraordinary impoverishment of the indigenous tribes in his own continent; he witnessed life in the villages and the shanty towns; and he also began to observe the role of imperialism in perpetuating this terrible poverty – indeed, Che was a witness to the CIA-engineered overthrow of the progressive government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954.
The combination of Che’s personal experiences and his continued study of Marxist-Leninist theory resulted in his decision to devote the rest of his life to the cause of socialism and the defeat of imperialism. In September 1954, Che moved to Mexico City, where he met Fidel Castro for the first time. Deeply impressed by Castro’s plans for revolution in Cuba, Che joined the Cuban guerrilla army (the 26th of July Movement), and fought with them in successful three-year struggle (1956-59) to overthrow the fascist Batista government.
Che remained in Cuba for six years after the revolution, serving variously as President of the National Bank of Cuba, Minister of Industries (in which post he made a substantial contribution to developing Cuban socialism) and other posts. He visited many countries as Cuban ambassador, and helped organise several revolutionary expeditions overseas. While in Cuba, Che was generally regarded as Fidel’s second-in-command.
There is vast speculation as to why Che left Cuba in 1965, and there is no point us adding to that speculation here. Either way, from 1965 onwards, Che spent the rest of his life furthering guerrilla struggles against imperialism in Africa and Latin America. In his farewell letter to Fidel, he wrote:
“Other nations of the world summon my modest efforts of assistance. I can do that which is denied you due to your responsibility as the head of Cuba, and the time has come for us to part.
“You should know that I do so with a mixture of joy and sorrow. I leave here the purest of my hopes as a builder and the dearest of those I hold dear. And I leave a people who received me as a son. That wounds a part of my spirit. I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be.”
Che was strongly of the view that guerrilla warfare needed to spread across the third world. Bands of guerrillas (‘focos’) must be established as poles of attraction in the struggle against imperialism and for national liberation. With a number of guerrilla wars being waged, he reasoned, the forces of imperialism would be spread thinly and the popular masses would be able to overcome them.
“How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!” (Message to the Tricontinental, 1967)
To this end, Che spent a year fighting as part of the anti-imperialist guerrilla movement in Congo and then another year establishing a guerrilla movement in Bolivia. On 8 October 1967, Che was captured by the Bolivian Special Forces (on the basis of intelligence provided by the CIA) and killed.
Che was an exceptionally principled and incorruptible human being. Although he assisted in developing a relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union, he did not for a moment go along with the historical and economic revisionism of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes.
Che naturally had a huge admiration for Joseph Stalin, who for 30 years had led the world-historic building of socialism in the Soviet Union. What Che had witnessed in Guatemala in 1954 prompted him to write the following memorable words in a letter to his aunt Beatriz: “In El Paso I traversed the vast domains of United Fruit. Once more I was able to convince myself how criminal the capitalistic octopuses are. On a picture of our old and lamented comrade Stalin, I swore not to rest before these capitalistic octopuses are destroyed.” (Quoted in Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, 1997)
Even after Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1956), in which Khrushchev launched his vicious campaign of slander against Stalin, Che would not be swayed. Indeed, visiting the USSR in November 1960, he insisted on depositing a floral tribute at Stalin’s grave, in spite of the protests of the Soviet officials. Never once did Che attempt to distance himself from the legacy of Stalin and the tremendous achievements of the Soviet people in the period from 1924-53.
According to Time magazine of 12 October 1970, Che’s Bolivian papers (which were written in 1967, the last year of his life) “betray a pervasive Stalinist influence. Che sneered at the sociologist C. Wright Mills for his ‘stupid anti-Stalinism,’ describing him as ‘a clear example of North American leftist intellectuals.’” (‘Che: A myth embalmed in a matrix of ignorance’)
It would have been easy for Guevara to attack the legacy of Stalin – Stalin was, after all, dead, and therefore unable to defend himself. It is much more difficult to make criticisms of contemporary people and policies. However, in his speeches, Che publicly criticised the increasing bourgeoisification of the Soviet Union, the attacks on collectivisation and the implementation of various market reforms. (See, for example, Castañeda’s Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, p181)
Che felt that Khrushchev’s version of ‘peaceful coexistence’ had caused the USSR’s foreign policy to be increasingly dictated by its détente with the USA; he felt that the Soviet government was becoming less and less interested in supporting revolutionary movements around the world.
The significance of Guevara’s refusal to toe the revisionist line should not be understated, because it causes him to stand out in stark contrast from the vast majority of the leaders of the communist movement in the western world. Almost all the old ‘official’ communist parties nodded meekly as Khrushchev smeared dirt over the greatest era in the history of the working class. Many formerly-great communists irreparably tarnished their legacy by blindly following the USSR, either out of sheer habit or because Khrushchevism legitimised and nurtured their latent social-democratic tendencies.
Che’s staunch position is great testament to his total incorruptibility and political integrity.
“The workers have no country” , wrote Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. A true communist thinks and acts not as a member of this or that nation, but as a member of the international proletariat. Born an Argentinean, Che dedicated his life to the cause of the working class and oppressed masses worldwide, fighting in both Latin America and Africa.
Speaking at the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria on 24 February 1965, he said: “Ever since monopoly capital took over the world, it has kept the greater part of humanity in poverty, dividing all the profits among the group of the most powerful countries. The standard of living in those countries is based on the extreme poverty of our countries. To raise the living standards of the underdeveloped nations, therefore, we must fight against imperialism. And each time a country is torn away from the imperialist tree, it is not only a partial battle won against the main enemy but it also contributes to the real weakening of that enemy, and is one more step toward the final victory. There are no borders in this struggle to the death. We cannot be indifferent to what happens anywhere in the world, because a victory by any country over imperialism is our victory, just as any country’s defeat is a defeat for all of us. The practice of proletarian internationalism is not only a duty for the peoples struggling for a better future; it is also an inescapable necessity.
“If the imperialist enemy, the United States or any other, carries out its attack against the underdeveloped peoples and the socialist countries, elementary logic determines the need for an alliance between the underdeveloped peoples and the socialist countries. If there were no other uniting factor, the common enemy should be enough.”
Che’s uncompromising internationalism should be studied by those curious characters who criticise Proletarian from time to time on the basis that we have significant coverage of international issues. In their eyes, every percentage wage increase for British workers is a thousand times more important than showing solidarity with those people in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa who are waging a life-and-death struggle against imperialism.
In discussing the contribution of Che Guevara, we should not limit ourselves to purely political factors, as there is much to learn from his extraordinary personal courage and total selflessness. His every action was made on behalf of the oppressed masses of the world; his every thought was consumed with the battle against imperialism – that miserable oppressor of the toiling billions.
Che had no time for luxury or the ‘high life’. His only possessions were those that he needed to help his revolutionary struggle. He thought as an internationalist, a communist, and never as an individual. He considered himself a cog in the wheel of revolution, and was not afraid to give his life for the struggle.
He wrote: “Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people’s unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America. Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear, that another hand may be extended to wield our weapons, and that other men be ready to intone our funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries of war and victory.” (Message to the Tricontinental, 1967)
We in the heartlands of imperialism must pay particular attention to this aspect of the life of Che Guevara. In a rich, exploiter country, one is too far removed from the realities of modern life. We rarely see the extent of the violence and poverty that ‘our’ ruling classes export daily. For the most part, we are not worried about where the next meal is coming from. Furthermore, we are constantly exposed to consumer culture and the never-ending trivia that is served up in order to divert us from revolutionary thought and action.
Let Che’s example remind us that our lives are only useful or important to the extent that we contribute to the world-historic struggle of the working class and oppressed masses of the world to defeat imperialism and build socialism.
Lenin wrote in the preface to State and Revolution: “What is now happening to Marx’s theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.”
These words perfectly encapsulate the way the image of Che Guevara has been used over the years by the imperialist propaganda machine. Much is made of his looks; much is made of his supposedly romantic and vague notions of a ‘better world’; his militancy is hushed up; his vehement hatred of imperialism is hushed up; his principled Marxism Leninism is hushed up; t-shirts and posters are sold, and millions of students get to feel that they are making a ‘statement’ against capitalism.
Che has precisely been converted into a “harmless icon” ; the liberal bourgeoisie has “blunted his revolutionary edge”.
However, Che’s legacy must be reclaimed, and it is being reclaimed. He remains one of the greatest anti-imperialist fighters in history. His courage, selflessness, internationalism and boundless integrity will forever remain an inspiration to revolutionaries.
Let us learn to be more like Che.