Issue 212 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: The lost generation - the life and politics of Che Guevara

Mike Gonzalez

Che Guevara was murdered on 9 October 1967 by the Bolivian army, with the complicity of the CIA who had a representative present at the killing. In October 1997 his bones will be returned to the town of Santa Clara, Cuba. Almost a generation has passed, and the actual events that led to Che's death have probably been largely forgotten. Yet Che's image remains as potent as ever. In Cuba every house has his portrait on the wall; along the main highways it appears on hoardings calling for sacrifice, patriotism and work. His face is also Cuba's most important tourist commodity, emblazoned on T-shirts, posters, key rings and musical instruments.

Through the late 1970s and 1980s, the image began to fade from view; but in the 1990s it re-emerged from obscurity. The Cuban government resurrected the figure of the 'heroic guerrilla' when the collapse of Eastern Europe brought economic and political crisis, and sacrifice became the key political slogan. At the same time, the revolutionary icon reappeared on demonstrations in Italy and Venezuela, and was carried to the Lima embassy siege by the Tupac Amaru guerrillas and imprinted on the red scarves worn by the Zapatistas in Chiapas. The publication of Guevara's Motor Cycle Diaries in 1996 attempted to reconstruct him as a hippy traveller with a social conscience. Then in 1997 John Lee Anderson's massive and fascinating biography crowned the new iconography with the definitive life.

In all these different contexts Che symbolised rebellion and defiance, a reputation that the Cuban government has harnessed recently to hide its own contradictions and compromises. Removed from his time and place, Che came to represent some timeless moral quality, a feeling reinforced by the Christ-like qualities of that last picture with its thin drawn face and its extraordinary pallor.

John Lee Anderson's Che Guevara provides all the material to place Che back in his time and place. Yet the biographer consistently avoids the historical explanation that should flow from it. His only comment is that Che encouraged many to embark on decades of 'futile revolt'.

Ernest 'Che' Guevara was born in 1928 to bourgeois parents slightly down on their luck. He grew up in the Argentina of Peron (1946-55), a regime based in its first phase on the mobilisation of unorganised migrant workers. Peron was hated equally by the upper classes and the Communist Party, who formed an odd alliance against him. Like Fidel Castro, Che grew up with a deep distrust of organised politics, of a corrupted communist tradition, and of any mass movement.

The Motor Cycle Diaries record the journey in 1953 of a spirited young medical student looking for adventure. They express Che's social conscience and his instinctive anti-imperialism but there is little evidence of any familiarity with revolutionary ideas, though Anderson tries hard to suggest otherwise. The year 1954 was a turning point. Che was in Guatemala when a reformist government under Jacobo Arbenz attempted to nationalise the vast landholdings of the United Fruit Company. In time honoured fashion the US government (which included two executive directors of United Fruit) organised an armed coup which overthrew him. There was little resistance. Guevara was touring Maya ruins at the time of the coup but his conclusion was that Arbenz's fall was due to lack of military organisation. In fact, the explanation was an absence of political direction.

Che moved to Mexico where he met a group of Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, who were planning the armed overthrow of the Batista dictatorship. In November 1956, 82 guerrillas sailed for Cuba. The landing was a disaster - they were expected, and only 22 escaped the army ambush, among them a wounded Guevara. Yet within two years, in January 1959, Batista was overthrown and the liberating columns under Che, Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos entered Havana.

Che's experience of that guerrilla war is recorded in two books - Guerrilla Warfare and Reminiscences of the Revolutionary War. They were not just diaries but political writings that defined the relationship between the revolutionaries and their social base. Anderson constantly describes Che's 'iron will' and 'discipline' in this period. In two years in the mountains, Che executed several people and severely punished others. Although ostensibly the result of military decisions, Che's central concern was the conduct of the guerrillas, which for him was the touchstone of revolutionary success. Anderson accepts this political method in his biography, where Che's behaviour is described in intimate detail while the condition of the mass movement, the level of political mobilisation and the relationship between the revolution and the working and peasant classes rate hardly a mention. The implication is that it is the revolutionaries who make the revolution by an act of will, rather than the working classes who seize power in concrete historical conditions.

It was Guevara's central belief that selfless individuals could make revolutions in any conditions. And he agreed with Castro in the internal disputes with other sections of the Cuban resistance; for both of them the revolutionary guerrillas were the actors and the role of the urban movements was to provide support. Later Guevara was insistent that their struggle was for an 'agrarian revolution' in which workers had no clear role. The mountains were the location, the method was guerrilla war, and the form of political organisation was a command model built upon military imperatives. After the failure of the general strike of April 1958, the political leadership of the struggle against Batista passed definitively to the mountains.

Guevara's job in the first months of the revolution was to organise the state security apparatus, G-2, and deal with the execution of Batista's henchmen. He had a leading political role in creating the machinery of the new state. Similar were his periods at the National Bank and as Minister for Industrial Development. Anderson's claim that Guevara was the Marxist heart of the revolution is questionable - but what was clear was that Che was reading Marxist economics in an attempt to define the key tasks for the new state.

Two linked ideas began to find expression in Che's speeches and writings - internationalism (the need to spread the revolution into Latin America and beyond) and economic development. He saw clearly that without industrialisation Cuba could not break out of the straitjacket of its dependency on sugar production (which represented 95 percent of its pre-revolutionary exports). Yet Cuba was locked into the world economy and lacked the means for any independent action - the oil, raw materials, machinery or industrial base. In the economic debates that arose in 1963 and 1964, Che opposed the Soviet insistence on the profitability of each enterprise and the creation of a new, bureaucratic, managerial class. He was increasingly concerned about the failure to industrialise on the one hand, and Cuba's growing isolation on the other. By now, however, the Cuban Communists were gaining influence over Castro and Che's vision of the future of the Cuban Revolution increasingly diverged from Fidel's. In February 1965 Che's public criticism of the Soviets for their lack of internationalism opened a gulf between them. He had already resigned his posts, though his letter of resignation was not made public until much later.

In the same year his essay 'Man and Socialism in Cuba' argued for the creation of a new kind of society, renouncing capitalist values and replacing them with a concept of social solidarity and moral (as opposed to material) incentives. The essay was a new application of the 'politics of the will', the argument that revolutionaries could break out of the material constraints in which they lived by a simple decision to do so. Anderson insists that he was a Marxist, yet Che did not heed Marx's elemental warning that 'men make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing'.

By now Che had turned his attention to the international context but within the same political framework of the theory of the revolutionary vanguard embedded in Guerrilla Warfare. The method was not based on the development of a movement of struggle and resistance embracing growing numbers of workers in the overthrow of the existing state. For Che revolution was the act of a group of revolutionaries acting on behalf of the masses and by their actions spurring them to support their revolution. As Anderson says:

'The fraternal nature of guerrilla life, in which men are bound by a common cause...by the conscious willingness to sacrifice oneself while facing the dual prospect of imminent death or ultimate victory, was the crucible of Che's own transformation, the experience that had crystallised him as a man. That experience Che was now extrapolating to the larger world.'

Early in 1965 Che left Cuba. His whereabouts remained unknown for a while. The full story of those months is told in Anderson's book for the first time. And it is perhaps the most revealing and the most tragic chapter of Guevara's life.

Immediately after the Cuban Revolution young Latin American revolutionaries came to Cuba to absorb the 'Guevarist' reading of the Cuban experience, and to train briefly for their own attempts to 'make the revolution'. In almost every case they were quickly and decisively wiped out by counter-guerrilla forces in their own country. Yet the lessons of that experience seemed to make no impact on Che.

In April 1965 Che and a small group of Cubans arrived in the Congo to 'lead the revolution'. They knew little or nothing about the political and social conditions of the country, nor did they understand the struggle for power between the 20 or more groups claiming leadership of the Congolese resistance. The result was a disaster: four months of waiting, of incomprehension, of futile training - ending in an ignominious last minute flight across Lake Tanganyika. Yet nowhere was there any critical reflection on the experience, on the arrogance of a travelling revolutionary leadership seeking a war to win.

Che simply moved on and turned his attention to Bolivia - not because of Bolivia's long and extraordinary history of working class struggle (led by a truly heroic miners' union), nor because Bolivia's social conditions suggested a possibility of revolution. Che's eye was on Argentina, where an urban movement built around the working class movement was growing up. Yet his decision to build a guerrilla focus on the Bolivian/Argentine border placed him and his group at a maximum distance from the centre of both Argentina and Bolivian working class resistance.

Che's experiences in Bolivia are recorded in the Bolivian Diary. It is an extraordinarily poignant document because it is a record of failure. At one point Guevara notes that a combative miners' strike has been going on for a month but the guerrillas had no contact with it - or any other group. Encircled and captured, Guevara was murdered in the village of Camiri. Few of his comrades survived.

There is a paradox here that Anderson alludes to but does not explain. In 1965 a young French postgraduate called Regis Debray attracted Fidel Castro's attention. Debray was encouraged to write a defence of the guerrilla method for European consumption. Incredibly, it seems that Castro discussed with him whether Bolivia was suitable, and sent this ignorant European to assess the conditions for revolution there. Debray's later attempts to find Che in Bolivia almost certainly contributed to his discovery and capture.

The myth of the guerrilla propagated by Debray among the new generations of European third worldist revolutionaries looking for alternatives to Stalinism coincided in time with the collapse of the strategy it recommended. The mythology of third world revolution, symbolised everywhere by the image of Che, came to its climax as Guevara was wandering, sick and lost, in the Bolivian rainforest. Che's call to the Tricontinental Conference in April 1967 to create 'One, two, three many Vietnams' was a brilliant slogan. His political practice, however, was unable to deliver on its promise. Che's death was its epitaph. Within a year Castro announced Cuba's absorption into the Soviet camp and abandoned the guerrilla war strategy without a fanfare - and only Douglas Bravo, the Venezuelan revolutionary, denounced it as an act of betrayal.

Jean Paul Sartre called Guevara 'the greatest human being of the age' - and set in train the simultaneous consolidation of the Che legend and its depoliticisation. Sacrifice, selflessness and commitment are admirable qualities, but ultimately they can only be judged by the cause to which they are devoted. Guevara was a revolutionary, committed to the struggle for social change; yet his mythic status was used first to promote and then to conceal a disastrous political method from which it has taken a generation for the Latin American left to recover.

Debray went on to dismiss the guerrilla method and later joined the government of François Mitterand. In 1989 the collapse of Eastern Europe exposed in the most brutal and savage way the reality of Cuba's subordination to the Soviet bloc - and its continuing dependency. Its economy collapsed under the double impact of the end of Stalinism and the US blockade. The country's survival demanded of ordinary Cubans the most extraordinary sacrifices. The symbolism of Che now served to suggest that Castro and the Cuban government had emerged untainted from their 20 year complicity with Stalinism. Che was uncontaminated and so were they; and the two intervening decades were wiped away. The trick has failed. The daily reality is that Cuba is already part of the world economy, receiving its tourists, selling its bodies to them, scrabbling for dollars - the expression of the world market - to buy even the most elementary goods. The rhetoric of sacrifice will simply not work this time, and the attempt by the Cuban state to both organise the exploitation of Cuban workers on behalf of external interests and represent itself as their protector will collapse under its own contradictions.

In years to come the Cuban working class will have to relearn the lessons of organised resistance, and rediscover the politics of social revolution whose central driving force is not the creation of heroic guerrillas, or the conquest of the moral high ground, but the self emancipation of the working class. It will have to rediscover workers' internationalism and the meaning of an authentic democracy flowering in the organs of struggle. It is perfectly possible that Guevara's image may serve them again to symbolise the yearning to change the world. But what Anderson's exhaustive biography confirms is that Che's life and politics must also serve a different but crucial purpose - to remind us that the spirit of the revolution may be symbolised in the face of the heroic guerrilla, but the practice of revolution demands that it is the working class that takes the stage of history and enacts its own liberation.

Che Guevara by John Lee Anderson is published by Transworld, price £25


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