Che Guevara: Myth and Reality

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A few months ago, we received two messages about Che Guevara form a comrade called E.K. We are publishing the letter we sent to him in April, and using this opportunity to complete and elaborate on our responses to certain questions. We are making this correspondence public because, as EK himself said, "we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of his death in combat." Our aim isn't to join in the celebrations, but on the contrary, to try to understand if Che Guevara was really a revolutionary and if the working class and its younger generations should claim his legacy or not.


Some extracts from EK's message

According to comrade EK, Che Guevara was an authentic fighter for the cause of oppressed peoples. In fact, for him, "Che's internationalism is without question. He is the model of the international combatant and of solidarity between peoples". He was supposedly one of the few revolutionaries who dared to criticize the USSR: "During the second conference of Afro-Asian solidarity, Che didn't beat around the bush in his criticisms of the conservative and exploitative positions of the USSR" Finally, in his first letter, EK reveals his vision of the proletariat and the role of revolutionaries: "As for the historic agent of society's transformation, there's no reason, it seems, to reduce the concept of the proletariat only to workers, the absolute negation of humanity's condition. (...)The task of intellectuals is to introduce to the proletariat the consciousness of its situation by eminently political means."

Following our response, comrade EK quickly sent us a second message in which he wished to differentiate himself from all those who transform Che into an icon, endlessly reproducing his image on T-shirts and poster: "The mythification of Che through the duplication of his image tends to deify his life and his deeds." But above all, he reaffirms in the message that "since he was following distinct objectives, the Che would logically have been led to depart from the social-imperialist model of the USSR. The CIA and the KGB even cooperated to get rid of him during the attempted revolution in Bolivia." The comrade concludes, "Ernesto Che Guevara paid for his integrity with his life. To pay homage to him is to read his texts: to perpetuate his memory, is to continue his struggle, is to support his values. As the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of his death come to a close, it is time to re-invigorate his thought and to re-enliven his ideas."

Our reply to EK

We thank you for your message from early April. Forgive our late reply. We wish to make a critique of what you wrote to us. This critique doesn't signify an end to our correspondence. On the contrary we remain willing to respond to your questions and your points of view. We would like to respond to what you say about Che Guevara by seriously and sincerely studying what really were, as you ask, "his values", "his ideas", and "his struggle".

Is Che Guevara an example for today's revolutionary youth?

In this month of October, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara, killed by the Bolivian army, framed by the CIA.

Since 1967 "the Che" has become the eternal symbol of "romantic revolutionary youth": He died young, gun in his hands, fighting against American imperialism, the great "defender of the poor masses of Latin America." Everyone has that image in his mind, of Che and his red-starred beret with a sad and distant look on his face.

His well-known travel diaries greatly contributed to popularizing the story of this rebel, who came from a slightly bohemian family from Argentina, who threw himself into an adventurous voyage on his motorcycle on the roads of South America, using his medical skills to help the poor... He lived in Guatemala at a moment (1956) when the United States fomented yet another coup d'Etat against a government that didn't suit it. This permanent chokehold by America on Latin American will feed Guevara's lifelong, implacable hatred of the former. Later on, he joins Castro's group of Cubans in Mexico, refugees there after an aborted attempt at overthrowing the Cuban dictator, Batista, who had long been supported by the United States. After a series of adventures, this group settles in the mountains of Cuba until Batista's defeat in January 1959. The basic ideology of this group is nationalism, "Marxism" being but a convenient cover for an exacerbated anti-Yankee "resistance", even if some elements, including Guevara himself, considered themselves "Marxists." The Cuban Communist Party, which in its time supported Batista by the way, sent one of its leaders, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, to Castro in 1958, only a few months before the latter's victory.

This guerrilla group was in no way an expression of a peasant revolt, and even less of the working class. It was a military expression of a fraction of the bourgeoisie seeking to overthrow another fraction and take its place. There was no "popular uprising" when the Castroist guerrillas took power. They arrived, as is often the case in Latin America, and replaced one military clique with another one. The exploited layers and the poor, enlisted or not by the putschists, don't play a major role, except to cheer the new masters in power. Against the rather feeble resistance by Batista's troops, Guevara seemed like an intrepid guerrillero, whose determination and growing charisma threatened to overshadow his master Fidel. After the victory over Batista, Fidel Castro puts Che in charge of the "revolutionary tribunals", a bloody masquerade in the best tradition of settling scores between fractions of the bourgeoisie, particularly in Latin America. Che Guevara takes his role seriously, with conviction and with zeal, putting in place a "popular" justice where Batista's torturers are judged, but also everyday folks based on simple denunciations. Later on at the UN, in response to Latin American representatives, those kind-hearted "democrats" who were offended by his methods, Che says: "We shot, we still shoot and we will continue to shoot as long as is necessary." These practices have nothing to do with some clumsy defence of revolutionary justice. They are, let's say it again, the typical methods of a fraction of the bourgeoisies that has taken the upper hand over another fraction by armed force.

One may idolise the austere "hero" of the Sierra Maestra, the "guerrilla leader" who died a few years later in the mountains of Bolivia, but in reality, he played the role of doing the dirty work of placing in power a regime that is communist in name only.

Che Guevara: internationalist?

You tell us: "Che's internationalism is without question," and "during the second conference of Afro-Asian solidarity, Che didn't beat around the bush in his criticisms of the conservative and exploitative positions of the USSR" and finally, "Che would logically have been led to depart from the social-imperialist model of the USSR."

Castro's nationalist regime quickly clothed itself with the qualifier "communist", in other words, the regime rallied to the imperialist camp headed by the USSR. Cuba's proximity to America's coastline could obviously only worry the leader of the Western bloc. The Stalinisation of the island, with an important presence of military and civilian personnel and the secret services of Eastern bloc states, would reach its apogee in 1962 with the missile crisis.

During this process, Che Guevara, now minister of industry (1960-61), in order to solidify the new alliance with the "socialist camp", is sent by Castro to the countries of that camp, where he lavished the USSR with praise: "this country that so loves peace", "where freedom of thought reigns", "the mother of liberty"... He also praises the "extraordinary" North Korea or Mao's China where "everyone is full of enthusiasm, everyone is working overtime" and so forth for all the countries of the East: "the accomplishments of the socialist countries are extraordinary. There's no possible comparison between their systems of life, their systems of development and those of the capitalist countries." We will return to Guevara's supposed lack of love for the USSR. But, contrary to what you affirm, Che never uttered the slightest principled doubts about the Stalinist system. For him, the USSR and its bloc were the "socialist and progressive" camp, and his own fight slotted well into that of the Russian bloc against the Western bloc. His slogan "Create one, two, several Vietnams", is not an "internationalist" slogan but a nationalist one favourable to the Russian bloc! His real criterion wasn't really social change, but hatred against the leader of the other bloc, the United States.

Basically, after World War II, the world found itself divided into two antagonistic blocs, one led by America, the other by the USSR. "National liberation" proved itself to be a perfect ideological mystification used to justify the military mobilisation of populations. Neither the working class nor the other exploited classes had anything to gain from these wars. They were simply used by the different bourgeois fractions and their imperialist sponsors. The division of the world into two blocs after the Yalta accords meant that any exit from one bloc would result in the entry into the opposing bloc. And Cuba is the perfect example of this: this country went from the corrupt Batista dictatorship, directly under Washington's thumb, controlled by its secret services and every sort of mafia, into the Stalinist bloc. Cuba's history is the tragic epitome of the "struggles for national liberation" of the last half-century.

Before saying when and how Guevara supposedly distanced himself from the USSR, it is necessary to be sure of the nature of the USSR and its bloc. Behind the defence of Che as a revolutionary is the idea that the USSR, whether we like it or not, despite its faults, was the "socialist and progressive bloc." This is the greatest lie of the 20th century. There definitely was a proletarian revolution in Russia, but it was defeated. The Stalinist counter-revolution gave itself a slogan: "the construction of socialism in a single country", a fundamentally un-marxist slogan. For Marxism, "the workers have no country"! It's this genuine internationalism that served as a compass to the entire global revolutionary wave that began in 1917, and to all the revolutionaries of the era, from Lenin and the Bolsheviks to Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacists. The aberrant adoption of this "theory" of a "socialist motherland" to defend resulted in the systematic usage of bourgeois methods: terror and state capitalism, the most ferocious and totalitarian expression of capitalist exploitation!

Did Che "depart from the social-imperialist model of the USSR"?

The origin of Che's critiques of the USSR was the missile crisis of1962. For the USSR, its domination of Cuba was a godsend. Finally, it could return the favour to the United States, who threatened the USSR directly from countries close to it, like Turkey. The USSR began to install nuclear missile bases only a few miles from American coastlines. The United States responded by putting in place a total embargo of the island, forcing the Russian ships to return home. Khrushchev, the master of the Kremlin at the time, was finally forced to remove his missiles. For a few days in October 1962, the imperialist confrontations between those who presented themselves as the "free world" and those who presented themselves as the "socialist and progressive world" almost pulled mankind to the brink of extinction. Khrushchev was then considered by the Castroist leadership as lacking the "balls" to attack the United States. In an excess of patriotic hysteria, where the Castroist slogan "fatherland or death" takes it most sinister meanings, they are prepared to sacrifice the people (they'll say that it's the people who are willing to sacrifice themselves) on the altar of atomic war. In this perverse delirium, Guevara could only be in the forefront. He writes: "They are right (the countries of the OAS) to be fearful of 'Cuban subversion', it is the frightful example of a people willing to pulverize itself with atomic weapons so that its ashes will serve as cement for building a new society, and who, when an agreement is reached on the removal of the atomic rockets without it being consulted, doesn't sigh in relief, doesn't receive the truce with gratitude. It throws itself into the arena to [...] affirm [...] its decision to fight, even alone, against all the dangers and against the atomic threat of Yankee imperialism". This "hero" decided that the Cuban people are willing to extinguish itself for the fatherland... Thus, at the origin of the critique of the USSR is not a loss of faith in the virtues of "Soviet communism" (Stalinist capitalism in reality); on the contrary, Che's complaint is that the system didn't go to its logical conclusion of military confrontation. And the talks in Algiers on which you base your claim that Che departed "from the social-imperialist model of the USSR", don't change the fact of Guevara's attachment to Stalinist positions. On the contrary! During those famous talks, he questions the "mercantilism" in the relations between the countries of the Eastern bloc but he still calls them socialist, and "friendly peoples": "the socialist countries are, to a certain extent, accomplices in imperialist exploitation [...]. [They] have a moral duty to end their tacit complicity with the exploiter countries of the West". Beyond its radical appearance, such a critique is thus that of someone within the Stalinist system. Worse still, it emanates from a leader who participated with all his energy in the instalment of state capitalism in Cuba! Anyway, after that, Guevara will no longer officially offer the slightest critique of the USSR.

Che Guevara, at the moment he was assassinated by the CIA and the Bolivian army in 1967, was the victim not only of American imperialism, but also of the Kremlin's new political orientation of "peaceful coexistence" with the Western bloc. We won't go into the reasons that propelled the USSR and its bloc to take this "turn". But this "turn" has nothing whatsoever to do with some "betrayal" of the peoples who wished to "liberate themselves" from imperialism, nor of the proletariat. The politics of the Stalinist bourgeoisie often changed in accord with its class interests. The Cuban missile affair showed the leaders of Stalinist imperialism that they lacked the means to defy the U.S in its own backyard and that they needed to be prudent in Latin America. This was a point that Guevara and a fraction of the Cuban leadership refused to understand, to the point of becoming a nuisance not only to the USSR, but also to their own Cuban friends. From that moment, Che Guevara's destiny was sealed: after the disastrous adventure in Congo, he ends up alone in Bolivia, with a handful of comrades in arms, abandoned by the Bolivian CP which, in the end, lined up with Moscow. For the more "Muscovite" factions, the adherents of the "foco" (the Guevara-inspired guerrilla "theory" of revolution) were a bunch of petty bourgeois adventurers, "cut off from the masses". And for the factions of the CPs who favoured armed struggle, who critically supported every other movement, the "officials" of the CPs were coffee-shop revolutionaries, privileged bureaucrats who were also "cut off from the masses." For us left communists, these are two forms of the same counter-revolution, two variants of the same great lie, that the Stalinist counter-revolution was in continuity with the October revolution, and that the USSR was communist.

What was Che Guevara's vision of the working class?

For you, the intellectual's task is "to introduce to the proletariat the consciousness of its situation..." You seem to echo Che Guevara's vision of the "revolutionary elite". But doesn't this position of Che's in reality hide a profound contempt of the working class? What do his lyrical flights about "the new man in the Cuban revolution" really reveal?

Revolutionary proletarian unity has a concrete expression: class solidarity. It is this spontaneous solidarity during the organisation of the struggle, created through mutual aid and fraternity, that feeds the revolutionary proletariat's capacities for dedication and devotion. But this "devotion" from the mouth of Guevara, in the best of cases, sounds like a quasi-mystical call to supreme martyrdom (one must recognize that he was always prone to sacrifice, and undoubtedly was willing to become a "martyr" for the imperialist cause that he and the "wilful" people of Cuba defended at the moment of the missile crisis)... Beyond his own "exemplary" behaviour, is his vision of "sacrifice" and "heroism" (just like the nationalist idealism exalted and spread by the Stalinists of the "Resistance" during the Second World War) that would be imposed from above, for the needs of the state, under the whip of a "lider maximo". This vision rests on the petty bourgeois intellectual's contempt for the "proletarian mass" which is looked upon from high above, which supposedly needs to be "educated" so that it can understand the "benefits of the revolution". "The mass..." declares Guevara condescendingly, "is not, as is claimed, the sum of elements of the same type...which acts like a flock of sheep. It is true that it follows its leaders, basically Fidel Castro, without hesitation...." "Viewed superficially, it might appear that those who speak of the subordination of the individual to the state are right. The mass carries out with matchless enthusiasm and discipline the tasks set by the government, whether in the field of the economy, culture, defence, sports... The initiative generally comes from Fidel, or from the revolutionary leadership, and is explained to the people, who make it their own" (Socialism and Man in Cuba, 1965).

In fact, when you tell us that "there's no need to reduce the concept of the proletariat only to workers," your reasoning surely involuntarily draws its roots in this contemptuous vision of the working class. In fact, one of the common characteristics of the different mutations of Stalinism (from Maoism to Castroism), is their distrust and their disdain of the working class, making a mythical poor peasantry the "agents of the revolution" led by intellectuals who "introduce" consciousness into the brains of the masses. At best, for these neo-Stalinists, the working class was useful in terms of providing them with some historical reference, pawns for their revolution. One never finds, in the writing of these pseudo-revolutionaries, the slightest reference to a working class organising itself in the organs of class power: the soviets. These clones of Stalinism no longer need to disguise their state capitalist ideology or talk about workers' councils and other expressions of proletarian life in the Russian revolution. All we have left is the state led by "enlightened" people. And the masses, who are sometimes allowed to show some "initiative", are recruited into "committees for the defence of the revolution" and other organs of social surveillance.

In Cuba, one of the major organs for controlling the working class were, once again and unsurprisingly, the unions. The Cuban unions (CTC) were already American-style unions, perfectly integrated into "free-market capitalism" and in its corruption. These were quickly transformed by the Cuban leadership, in 1960, into Stalinist unions, on a bureaucratic and statist model. The first decision of the Castroist regime was to charge the unions with he task of keeping the workers in line and to enforce the ban on strikes in the companies. And here again, this attack against the working class will be justified by anti-Americanism and the "defence of the Cuban people". Taking advantage at the time of a strike against wage decreases at some American companies in Cuba, the Castroist leaders stigmatise the strikers as wreckers and use the opportunity to declare a "strike on the strike" from the mouth of the new Castroist head of the CTC.

In the past few weeks we have seen debates about the life and works of Che. On one side, the side of the apostles of "the death of communism", the right-wing fractions of the bourgeoisie, with the help of some historians, are always ready to tell us about the "anti-democratic" role, his role as executioner-in-chief, as the head of the "revolutionary" tribunals at the beginning of the Castro era. They rail against each other on the question of whether the executions were "excessive", if a "bloodbath" occurred, if the justice was "moderate" or "arbitrary". For us, as we said earlier, he simply played his necessary role in the process of putting a new regime into power, one as bourgeois and repressive as the previous one. On the other side, we have been battered with lies and semi-truths about his glory. One only has to see how the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire which, with its desire to replace the PCF and to become the leading "anti-capitalist" party in France, today has embraced "the Che" and exploits his "young and rebellious" image.

Dear comrade EK, this is the reality: in all these youths who wear Che T-shirts, there is surely a generous and sincere heart, wishing to fight against the horrors and injustices of this world. But if Che is being put forward as an icon, it is in order to sterilise the enthusiasm that feeds revolutionary passion. Che is just one in a long line of nationalist and Stalinist leaders, more dashing than the others maybe, but still a representative of that tropical mutation of the Stalinist counter-revolution that is Castroism.

Despite our differences, comrade EK, the discussion obviously remains open.... we warmly encourage you to continue to discuss with us.

International Communist Current,

November 2007.

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