9 October 2007.
By Alan Woods*.
Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara was executed by Bolivian troops near the town of La Higuera on 9 October 1967, following an ambush. The operation was planned by the CIA and organized by US Special Forces. On the 40th anniversary of his death it is appropriate that we make a balance sheet of this outstanding revolutionary and martyr. Alan Woods in a two-part article looks at the evolution of Che Guevara from his early days to the day he was killed.
Che – an icon?
Lenin wrote in 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 canonize 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 vulgarizing it.»
After his death, Guevara became an icon of socialist revolutionary movements and a key figure of modern pop culture worldwide. The Alberto Korda photo of Che has become famous, appearing on t-shirts and protest banners all over the world. Thus, Che has become an icon of our times. After the death of Lenin, the leading clique of Stalin and Zinoviev created a cult around his figure. Against Krupskaya’s wishes, his body was embalmed and placed on public display in the mausoleum in Red Square. Later Krupskaya stated: «All his life Vladimir Ilyich was against icons, and now they have turned him into an icon.»
In November 2005, the German magazine Der Spiegel wrote about Europe’s «peaceful revolutionaries» whom it describes as the heirs of Gandhi and Guevara [!]. This is a complete travesty. We should form a «Society for the Protection of Che Guevara» against the people who have nothing to with Marxism, the class struggle or socialist revolution, and who wish to paint an entirely false picture of Che as a kind of revolutionary saint, a romantic petty bourgeois, an anarchist, a Gandhian pacifist or some other nonsense of the sort.
Our attitude to this outstanding revolutionary is similar to the attitude of Lenin towards Rosa Luxemburg. While not concealing his criticisms of the mistakes of Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin held Rosa Luxemburg in high regard as a revolutionary and internationalist. Here is what he wrote about Rosa, defending her memory against the reformists and Mensheviks:
«We shall reply to this by quoting two lines from a Russian fable, ‘Eagles may at times fly lower than hens but hens can never rise to the height of eagles’. [Rosa ] in spite of her mistakes […] was and remains for us an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of communists all over the world. ‘Since August 4, 1914, German social-democracy has become a stinking corpse’ ‑ this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg’s name famous in the history of the international working class movement. And, of course, in the backyard of the working class movement, among the dung heaps, hens like Paul Levi, Scheidemann, Kautsky and all their fraternity will cackle over the mistakes committed by the great Communist». (Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 33, p. 210, Notes of a Publicist, Vol. 33).
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (14th June 1928 – 9th October, 1967), generally known as Che Guevara was a Marxist revolutionary – Argentinean by birth but an internationalist to the marrow of his bones. His ancestry, like that of most people in Latin America, was very mixed. Guevara is a Castilianized form of the Basque Gebara, signifying «from the Basque province of Araba (Alava)». One of his family names, Lynch, was Irish (the Lynch family was one of the 14 Tribes of Galway). The mixture of Basque and Irish blood is somewhat explosive!
Born into a middle class family, he did not suffer poverty and hunger like so many other children in Latin America. But he suffered from ill health. His naturally adventurous and rebellious spirit was connected with the fact that from an early age he had a serious asthmatic condition. He spent all his life trying to overcome this problem by deliberately driving himself to the limit. His steely determination to overcome all difficulties may also be traced back to this.
His humanitarian instincts first inclined him to the field of medicine. He obtained a medical degree. His specialty was dermatology and he was particularly interested in leprosy. At this time his horizons were no wider than those of most other middle class young men: to work hard, get a degree in medicine, get a good job, maybe do original research into medical science and advance human knowledge by some amazing discovery. About this period in his life he wrote:
«When I began to study medicine most of the concepts I now have as a revolutionary were then absent from my warehouse of ideals. I wanted to be successful, as everyone does. I used to dream of being a famous researcher, of working tirelessly to achieve something that could, decidedly, be placed at the service of mankind, but which was at that time all about personal triumph. I was, as we all are, a product of my environment.»
Like most young people, Ernesto loved to travel. He was seized by what the Germans call «Wanderlust». He wrote: «I now know by an unbelievable coincidence of fate that I am destined to travel.» Just how far he was to travel, and in what direction he would go, was as yet a sealed book to him. No doubt he would have made a conscientious physician, but the Wanderlust got the better of him. He took to the road, and did not to return to Argentina for many years. His adventurous nature induced him to set out on a long journey travelling rough throughout South America on a motorbike.
The link between medicine and his political ideals emerged in a speech that he delivered in the San Pablo leprosarium in Peru on the occasion of his 24th birthday. He said:
«Although we’re too insignificant to be spokesmen for such a noble cause, we believe, and this journey has only served to confirm this belief, that the division of America into unstable and illusory nations is a complete fiction. We are one single mestizo race with remarkable ethnographical similarities, from Mexico down to the Magellan Straits. And so, in an attempt to break free from all narrow-minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and to a United America.»(Motorcycle Diaries, p.135).
This journey was the beginning of a long odyssey that slowly opened his eyes to the reality of the world in which he lived. For the first time in his life he was brought into direct contact with the impoverished and oppressed masses of the continent. He witnessed at first hand the appalling conditions in which the majority of people lived. That such dreadful poverty should exist amidst all the natural wealth and beauty of this wonderful continent made a deep impression on his young mind.
These contradictions moved his passionate and sensitive nature and caused him to mediate on their causes. Che always had an eager and inquiring mind. That same intellectual fervour that he showed in his study of medicine was now turned to the study of society. The experiences and observations he had during these trips left a lasting mark on his consciousness.
Suddenly all his earlier ambitions for personal advancement seemed petty and uninteresting. After all, a doctor can cure individual patients. But who can cure the terrible disease of poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and oppression? One cannot cure cancer with an aspirin, and one cannot cure the underlying ills of society with palliatives and half-measures.
Slowly in the mind of this young man a revolutionary idea was maturing and developing. He did not immediately become a Marxist. Who does? He thought long and hard, and read widely: a habit that never left him to the end of his life. He began to study Marxism. Gradually, imperceptibly, but with a steely inevitability, he became convinced that the problems of the masses could only be remedied by revolutionary means.
His conversion to conscious Marxism received a decisive impetus when he went to Guatemala to learn about the reforms being implemented there by President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. In December 1953 Che arrived in Guatemala where Guzmán headed a reformist government, which was attempting to carry out a land reform and demolish the latifundia system.
Even before arriving in Guatemala Guevara was a committed revolutionary, although his views were still in a formative stage. This is shown by a letter written in Costa Rica on 10 December 1953, in which he says: «En Guatemala me perfeccionaré y lograré lo que me falta para ser un revolucionario auténtico.» («In Guatemala I will perfect myself and gain everything I still lack to be a real revolutionary»: Guevara Lynch, Ernesto. Aquí va un soldado de América. Barcelona: Plaza y Janés Editores, S.A., 2000, p. 26.).
But the United Fruit Company and the CIA had other ideas. They organized a coup attempt led by Carlos Castillo Armas, with US air support. Guevara immediately joined an armed militia organized by the Communist Youth; but was frustrated with the group’s inaction. After the coup, the arrests began and Che had to seek refuge in the Argentine consulate where he remained until he received a safe-conduct pass. He then decided to make his way to Mexico.
His experience of the US-sponsored coup against Arbenz confirmed him in his views and led him to draw certain conclusions. It concentrated Che Guevara’s mind on the role of the United States in Latin America. Here was an imperialist power that was a bulwark of all the reactionary forces throughout the continent. Any government that tried to change society would inevitably face the implacable opposition of a powerful and ruthless enemy.
After the victory of the CIA-inspired coup, Che was forced to flee to Mexico where, in 1956, he joined Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement, which was engaged in a ferocious struggle against the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. The two men seemed to strike up an immediate rapport. Castro needed reliable men and Che needed an organization and a cause for which to fight.
Che had seen with his own eyes the fatal weakness of reformism and this confirmed in him the belief that socialism could only be achieved through armed struggle. He arrived in Mexico City in early September 1954, and entered into contact with Cuban exiles whom he had met in Guatemala. In June 1955 he met first Raúl Castro, and then his brother Fidel, who had been amnestied from prison in Cuba, where he had been confined after the failure of the assault on the Moncada Barracks.
Che immediately joined the 26th of July Movement that was planning to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At first Che was supposed to play a medical role. His poor health (he suffered from asthma all his life) did not suggest a warrior’s constitution. Nevertheless, he participated in military training side by side with the other members of the Movement, and proved his worth.
On November 25th, 1956, the cabin cruiser Granma set out from Tuxpan, Veracruz heading for Cuba, loaded with revolutionaries. It was an old ship and it was carrying many more people than it was designed for. It nearly sank in the heavy weather that reduced many of the passengers to severe seasickness. This was only the beginning of their problems.
The expedition was almost destroyed right at the outset. They landed in the wrong place and were caught in the swamps. They were attacked by government troops soon after landing, and about half of the rebels were killed or executed after being captured. Only 15-20 survived. This battered and depleted force somehow managed to re-group and escape into the Sierra Maestra Mountains from where they waged a guerrilla war against the Batista dictatorship.
Despite the initial setback, the rebels had struck a courageous blow, which resonated in the hearts and minds of the masses and especially the youth. New recruits filled up their depleted ranks. The guerrilla war spread throughout eastern Cuba. Che had been taken on as a medic, but in the heat of battle he had to make up his mind whether he could serve the cause best as a doctor or a fighter. He decided:
«Perhaps this was the first time I was confronted with the real-life dilemma of having to choose between my devotion to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. Lying at my feet were a knapsack full of medicine and a box of ammunition. They were too heavy for me to carry both of them. I grabbed the box of ammunition, leaving the medicine behind « (Quizás esa fue la primera vez que tuve planteado prácticamente ante mí el dilema de mi dedicación a la medicina o a mi deber de soldado revolucionario. Tenía delante de mí una mochila llena de medicamentos y una caja de balas, las dos eran mucho peso para transportarlas juntas; tomé la caja de balas, dejando la mochila ….»)
The main strength of the rebellion lay in the chronic weakness of the old regime, which was internally rotted with corruption and decay. Despite the support, money and arms of US imperialism, Batista was unable to check the advance of the revolution. His soldiers were unwilling to risk their lives to defend a diseased regime. Weakened and demoralized by a series of ambushes in the heights of the Sierra Maestra, at Guisa and Cauto Plains, the army was already thoroughly demoralized when the final offensive was launched.
In this campaign Che became a Comandante, gaining a reputation for courage, bravery and military skill. He was now second only to Fidel Castro himself. In the final days of December 1958, Comandante Guevara and his column of fighters headed west for the final push towards Havana. This column undertook the most dangerous tasks in the decisive attack on Santa Clara. In a speech given in Palma Soriano on December 27, 1983), Castro pointed out the importance of this offensive:
«We established our defensive line on the Cautillo River. We had Mapos surrounded, but there was still Palma. There were approximately 300 enemy soldiers. We had to take Palma. We were also anxious to take the arms that were to be found in Palma, because when we left La Plata, in the Sierra Maestra, because of the latest offensive, we left with 25 armed soldiers and 1,000 unarmed recruits. We armed those troops along the way. We armed them during the fighting, but we really finished fully arming them in Palma.»
The final orders to the rebel army were issued from Palma on January 1, 1959. But the final blow that finished off the dictatorship was the general strike of the workers of Havana. The whole edifice was collapsing like a house of cards. Batista’s generals were attempting to negotiate a separate peace with the rebels. When he learned of this, the dictator realized that the game was up and fled to the Dominican Republic on New Year’s Day, 1959.
The old bourgeois state had been smashed and a new power was formed, or rather improvised, on the basis of the guerrilla army. Power now passed into the hands of the guerrilla army. Marxists all over the world rejoiced at the victory of the Cuban Revolution. This was a heavy blow stuck at imperialism, capitalism and landlordism on the doorstep of the most powerful imperialist state in history. It gave hope to the oppressed masses everywhere. Yet the way in which it took place was different to the Russian Revolution of October 1917. There were no soviets and the working class, although it had ensured the final victory of the Revolution through a general strike, did not play a leading role.
There are some who argue that this is irrelevant, that every revolution is different, that there cannot be a model that is applicable to all cases, and so on. To some extent this is true. Every revolution has its own concrete features and characteristics that correspond to the different concrete conditions, class balance of forces, history and traditions of different countries. But this observation by no means exhausts the question.
«The dictatorship of the proletariat»
Marx explained that the workers cannot simply lay hold of the old state apparatus and use it to change society. He developed his theory of workers’ power in The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s’ Association, 1871. What is the essence of this theory? Marx explained that the old state could not serve as an instrument to change society. It had to be destroyed and replaced with a new state power – a workers’ state – that would be completely different to the old state machine, «the centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature». It would be a semi-state, to use Marx’s expression, dedicated to its own disappearance:
«The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members was naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.
«Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.
«Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the «parson-power», by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.» (Marx, The Civil War in France, The Third Address, May, 1871 [The Paris Commune])
This bears absolutely no relation to the bureaucratic totalitarian regime of Stalinist Russia where the state was a monstrous repressive power standing above society. Even the word «dictatorship» in Marx’s day had an entirely different connotation to that which we attach to it today. After the experience of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Pinochet the word dictatorship signifies concentration camps, the Gestapo and the KGB. But Marx actually had in mind the dictatorship of the Roman Republic, whereby in a state of emergency (usually war) the usual mechanisms of democracy were temporarily suspended and a dictator ruled for a temporary period with exceptional powers.
Far from a totalitarian monster, the Paris Commune was a very democratic form of popular government. It was a state so constructed that it was intended to disappear – a semi-state, to use Engels’ expression. Lenin and the Bolsheviks modelled the Soviet state on the same lines after the October Revolution. The workers took power through the soviets, which were the most democratic organs of popular representation ever invented.
Despite the conditions of terrible backwardness in Russia the working class enjoyed democratic rights. The 1919 Party programme specified that, «all the working masses without exception must be induced to take part in the work of state administration». Direction of the planned economy was to be mainly in the hands of the trade unions. This document was immediately translated into all the main languages of the world and widely distributed. However, by the time of the Purges in 1936 it was already regarded as a dangerous document and all copies of it were quietly removed from all libraries and bookshops in the USSR.
In any revolution where the leading role is not played by the working class but other forces, certain things will inevitably flow. There is always a tendency for the state to rise above the rest of society and even the most dedicated people can be corrupted or lose contact with the masses under certain circumstances. That is why Lenin devised his famous four conditions for workers’ power:
i) Free and democratic elections with right of recall of all officials.
ii) No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
iii) No standing army but the armed people.
iv) Gradually, all the tasks of running society to be done by everybody in turn (when everybody is a bureaucrat nobody is a bureaucrat).
These conditions were not a caprice or an arbitrary idea of Lenin. In a nationalized planned economy it is absolutely necessary to ensure the maximum of participation of the masses in the running of industry, society and the state. Without that, there will inevitably be a tendency towards bureaucratism, corruption and mismanagement, which can ultimately undermine and destroy the planned economy from within. That is just what happened to the USSR. The points raised by Lenin have an important bearing on the events in Cuba and on Che’s own evolution.
Che occupied various posts in the revolutionary administration. He worked at the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, and was President of the National Bank of Cuba, when he signed banknotes with his nickname, «Che». All this time, Guevara refused his official salaries of office, drawing only his lowly wage as an army comandante.
This little detail tells us a lot about the man. He maintained that he did this in order to set a «revolutionary example». In fact, he was following to the letter the principle laid down by Lenin in State and Revolution that no official in the Soviet state should receive a salary higher than a skilled worker. This was an anti-bureaucratic measure. Lenin, like Marx, was well aware of the danger of the state raising itself above society and that this danger also existed in a workers’ state.
Taking as his point of departure Marx and Engels’ analysis of the Paris Commune, Lenin put forward four key points to fight bureaucracy in a workers’ state in 1917 to which we have already referred to above.
«We shall reduce the role of state officials,» wrote Lenin, «to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modest paid ‘foremen and accountants’ (of course, with the aid of technicians of all sorts, types and degrees). This is our proletarian task, this is what we can and must start with in accomplishing the proletarian revolution.» (LCW, Vol. 25, p. 431.).
During the first months of Soviet rule the salary of a People’s Commissar (including Lenin himself) was only twice the minimum subsistence wage for an ordinary citizen. Over the next years, prices and the value of the ruble often changed very rapidly and wages altered accordingly. At times the figures were quite astonishing – hundreds of thousands and millions of rubles. But even under these conditions Lenin made sure that the ratio between lowest and highest salaries in state organizations did not exceed the fixed limit – during his lifetime the differential apparently was never greater than 1:5.
Of course, under conditions of backwardness, many exceptions had to be made which represented a retreat from the principles of the Paris Commune. In order to persuade the «bourgeois specialists» (spetsy) to work for the Soviet state, it was necessary to pay them very large salaries. Such measures were necessary until the working class could create its own intelligentsia. In addition, special «shock worker» rates were paid for certain categories of factory and office workers, and so on.
However, such compromises did not apply to Communists. They were strictly forbidden to receive more than a skilled worker. Any income they received in excess of that figure had to be paid over to the Party. The chair of the Council of People’s Deputies received 500 rubles, comparable to the earnings of a skilled worker. When the office manager of the Council of People’s Deputies, V. D. Bonch-Bruevich paid Lenin too much in May 1918, he was given «a severe reprimand» by Lenin, who described the rise as «illegal».
Due to the isolation of the revolution, and the need to employ bourgeois specialists and technicians the differential was increased for these workers – they could earn a wage 50 per cent more than that received by the members of the government. Lenin was to denounce this as a «bourgeois concession», which should be reduced as rapidly as possible.
Not only in theory but in practice, Che adhered to similar revolutionary principles.
Che versus Stalinism
Che Guevara was an instinctive revolutionary. He was personally incorruptible and detested bureaucracy, careerism and privileges. His was the stern and puritan morality of the revolutionary fighter. Therefore, he was repelled by the manifestations of bureaucracy and flunkeyism that he observed after the victory of the Revolution.
Che often expressed opinions in opposition of the official positions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev. He was opposed to the «theory» of peaceful coexistence. He did not like the slavish attitude of some Cubans towards Moscow and its ideology. Above all, bureaucracy, careerism and privilege repelled him. His visits to Russia and Eastern Europe shocked him and deepened his sense of disillusionment with Stalinism. The bureaucracy, privileges and suffocating conformism repelled him to the depths of his soul.
He became increasingly critical of the Soviet Union and its leaders. That is why he initially inclined to China in the Sino-Soviet dispute. But to portray Che as a Maoist is to do him an injustice. There is no reason to believe that he would have felt any more at home in Mao’s China than in Khrushchev’s Russia. The reason he appeared to lean to China was that the Chinese criticized Moscow’s decision to remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba, an act that Che looked on as a betrayal.
It is impossible to arrive at a neat classification of Che Guevara. He was a complex character with a fertile brain that was always seeking after truth. The dogmas of Stalinism were the absolute antithesis of his way of thinking. He was repelled by bureaucratic servility and conformism and detested privilege of any sort. This made him an object of suspicion to visiting «Communist» dignitaries from Europe and the Soviet Bloc. The Stalinist leaders of the French Communist Party were particularly hostile to him and even launched a campaign of calumnies against Che, describing him as a «petty bourgeois adventurer».
Minister of Industries
Guevara later served as Minister of Industries, in which post he grappled with the problems of building a socialist planned economy in the difficult conditions that confronted the Cuban Revolution. My good friend and comrade Leon Ferrera, the veteran Cuban Trotskyist, worked with Che in the Ministry and had many discussions with him about Trotsky and Trotskyism. He gave him Trotsky’s books to read and he showed some interest in them. But there was one point he could not grasp: «Trotsky writes a lot about the bureaucracy, but what does this mean». Leon explained as best he could, and after a while Che said: «Yes, I think I understand what you mean.»
The next day Che and Leon were together cutting sugar cane in the fields. In the middle of this backbreaking work, Leon saw a big black car slowly advancing across the field. He turned to Che: «Comandante, it looks like you have a visitor,» he said. Che looked up, surprised and saw the limousine. Then his face lit up with a smile and he said to Leon: «Now just you watch this!»
The car came to a halt and a sweating official with a suit and tie stepped out and began to walk towards Che. Before he could open his mouth, Che shouted at him: «What are you doing here? Get out! We don’t want any bureaucrats here!» The shamefaced functionary turned back and headed for the car and Che turned to Leon: «You see!» he said with a triumphant grin.
When the Cuban Trotskyists were arrested Che personally intervened to secure their release. (He later said that this had been a mistake.) He also proposed a study of the writings of Leon Trotsky, who he regarded as one of the unorthodox Marxists. This attitude is very different to the position of the followers of Mao Tse Tung who described Trotsky as a counterrevolutionary and enemy of socialism.
These ideas are expressed in the letter of Che Guevara to Armando Hart Dávalos, which was published in Cuba in September, 1997 in Contracorriente, N°9. The letter was written in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania on 4 December 1965, during Che’s African expedition. In it he expresses himself in very critical terms on Soviet philosophy and the servile tail-endism of some Cubans:
«In this long period of holidays [sic!] I have stuck my nose into philosophy, which is something I have been meaning to do for a long time. I met my first difficulties in Cuba [where] there is nothing published except the unreadable Soviet tomes [literally «Soviet bricks» los ladrillos soviéticos] which have the drawback that they do not allow you to think, since the Party has done it for you and you just have to swallow it. As a method, this is completely anti-Marxist, and furthermore they are mostly very bad.»
«If you take a look at the publications [in Cuba] you will see a profusion of Soviet and French authors [He is referring to the French hard-line Stalinists like Garaudy]. This is due to the ease with which translations are obtained and also to ideological tail-endism [seguidismo ideológico]. This is not the way to give Marxist culture to the people. In the best case it is Marxist propaganda [divulgación marxista], which is necessary, if it is of good quality (which is not the case), but insufficient.»