Che Guevara in Search of a New Socialism (Part Two)

By Michael Löwy.

In the economic discussion of 1963–1964, an important political aspect that is worth noting is the very fact of the discussion; that is, the position that the public expression of disagreements is normal in the process of building socialism, or the legitimation of a certain democratic pluralism within the revolution.

This problematic was only implicit in the economic debate. Guevara never developed it explicitly or systematically, and he certainly did not link it with the question of democracy in planning. But he did adopt, on several occasions during the 1960s, a favorable attitude toward freedom of discussion within the revolutionary camp and toward respect for a plurality of opinions.

An interesting example may be found in his conduct in regard to the Cuban Trotskyists, whose analyses he did not agree with at all (he criticized them harshly on more than one occasion). In 1961, in a discussion with the North American left-wing intellectual Maurice Zeitlin, Guevara denounced the destruction by the Cuban police of the printing plates for Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution as “an error” that “should not have been done.”

A few years later, shortly before leaving Cuba in 1965, he managed to free the Cuban Trotskyist leader Roberto Acosta Hechevarria from prison, taking leave of him with a fraternal greeting: “Acosta, you can’t kill ideas with blows.” [10]

The clearest example is his reply, in a 1964 report to his comrades in the Ministry of Industry, to the charge of “Trotskyism” leveled against him by some Soviets:

“In this regard, I think that either we have the capacity to destroy contrary opinions with arguments or we should let them be expressed….It is not possible to destroy opinions by force, because that blocks any free development of intelligence. There is much that is worthwhile in Trotsky’s thinking, although it seems to me that his fundamental conceptions were wrong and his later action mistaken.” [11]

It is no accident, therefore, that Guevara’s most explicit defense of freedom of expression and most direct criticism of Stalinist authoritarianism was manifested in the field of art. In his famous essay “Socialism and Man in Cuba” (1965), he denounced Soviet-style “socialist realism” as the imposition of a single form of art: “the kind of ‘art’ functionaries understand.” With this method, he emphasized, “True artistic inquiry ends” and “a straitjacket” is put “on the artistic expression of the man who is being born….” [12]

Socialist Democracy

Although Che never managed to elaborate a finished theory of the role of democracy in the socialist transition — perhaps the major gap in his work — he rejected the authoritarian and dictatorial conceptions that did so much damage to socialism during the 20th century. Some critical notes from 1966 concerning a Soviet political economy manual contained this blunt formula: “Stalin’s great historical crime was to have depreciated communist education and instituted the unfettered cult of authority.” [13]

The major limitation lies in the insufficiency of his thinking about the relationship between democracy and planning. His arguments in defense of planning and in opposition to market categories are extremely important and acquire new relevance in light of the neoliberal vulgate that now dominates with its “market religion.” But they leave aside the key political question: Who does the planning? Who determines the major options in the economic plan? Who determines the production and consumption priorities?

Without a genuine democracy — that is, without (a) political pluralism, (b) free discussion of priorities, and (c) free choice for the population between the various economic propositions and platforms that are being debated — planning is inevitably transformed into a bureaucratic and authoritarian system of “dictatorship over needs” (as is amply demonstrated by the history of the former Soviet Union).

In other words, the economic problems of the transition to socialism are inseparable from the nature of the political system. The Cuban experience over the last three decades reveals, as well, the negative consequences of the absence of democratic socialist institutions, although Cuba has managed to avoid the worst bureaucratic and totalitarian aberrations of the other states of supposed “actually existing socialism.”

This debate is related to the problem of the revolution’s institutions. Guevara rejected bourgeois democracy, but — notwithstanding his anti-bureaucratic and egalitarian sensibility — he was far from having a clear vision of socialist democracy.

In “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” he acknowledges that the revolutionary state may make mistakes, thereby provoking a negative reaction among the masses and forcing the state to make a correction (the example he cites is the sectarian policy of the party under the leadership of Anibal Escalante in 1961–1962). But, he notes, “Clearly this mechanism is not adequate for insuring a succession of judicious measures. A more structured connection with the masses is needed….”

At first, he seems to be satisfied with a vague “dialectical unity” between the leaders and the masses. But a few pages later he confesses that the problem is far from an adequate resolution that would allow effective democratic control: “This institutionalization of the revolution has not yet been achieved. We are looking for something new….” [14]

Unpublished Writings

We know that, in the final years of his life, Ernesto Guevara had gone a long way in distancing himself from the Soviet model, in his rejection of the “imitation and copy” of “actually existing socialism.” But a good part of his last writings, and particularly his critical comments on the 1963 edition of the Soviet Handbook of Political Economy, remained unpublished.

It is only in 2006 that these critical notes were published in Cuba. [15] They were written during his 1965-1966 stays in Tanzania and Prague, after the failure of his mission in Congo and before leaving for Bolivia. For four decades this document remained “invisible,” although after the end of the USSR some Cuban researchers were allowed to consult it, and take a few notes. It is only now, some 40 years after their writing, that it was decided to publish them in Cuba, together with other unknown documents from the same period.

Why were Geuvara’s notes not published earlier? One can, perhaps, understand that, before the end of the Soviet Union, there could have been some (bad) diplomatic reasons to keep them hidden. But after 1991, what “danger” could these notes represent? Who decided that they should be kept in a drawer? Who finally gave the “green light” for the publication?

In any case, at last this material is available to interested readers, and it is really quite significant. It documents his intellectual independence, his distancing from the Soviet model of “actually existing socialism,” and his search for a radical alternative. As in the earlier debate, Guevara defends planning as the key element in the process of building socialism, because it “liberates the human being from his condition of economic thing.” But who should make the plans?

During the 1963-1964 debate he did not answer this question. It is here, in these critical notes written from 1965 to-1966, that one finds new insights. One such paragraph is extremely important, for it shows that in his final political thoughts Guevara came close to the idea of socialist democracy, a democratic planning process in which the people themselves, the workers, “the masses,” to use his terminology, will make the major economic decisions:

“In contradiction with a conception of the plan as an economic decision by the masses, conscious of the peoples’ interests, we are offered a placebo, in which only the economic factors determine the collective fate. This is a mechanistic, non-Marxist technique. The masses must be able to direct their fate, to decide which share of production will be assigned respectively to accumulation and consumption. Economic technique must operate within the limits of this information and the consciousness of the masses must ensure its implementation.” [16]

One can consider these notes as an important stage in Guevara’s path toward a radical alternative to the Soviet (Stalinist) model. In October 1967, the assassins’ bullets of the CIA and its Bolivian accomplices interrupted this work of the “heroic creation” of a new revolutionary socialism and a new democratic communism.


[10] “Interview with Maurice Zeitlin,” in R. E. Bonachea and N. P. Valdes, eds., Che: Selected Works of Ernesto Guevara (Boston: MIT Press, 1969): 391, and “An Interview with Roberto Acosta Hechevarria,” in Gary Tennant, The Hidden Pearl of the Caribbean: Trotskyism in Cuba (London: Porcupine Press, 2000): 246. According to Roberto Acosta, Guevara told him that at some point in the future Trotskyist publications would be legal in Cuba (249).

[11] Che Guevara, “Il piano e gli uomini,” Il Manifesto, no. 7 (December 1969): 37.

[12] Guevara, Oeuvres 1957-1967, vol. 2, 379.

[13] Quoted by Juan Antonio Blanco in Tercer Milenio, una visión alternativa de la posmodernidad (Havana: Centro Felix Varela, 1996): 56.

[14] Guevara, Oeuvres 1957-1967, vol. 2, 369, 375.

[15] Tablada, “Le marxisme d’Ernesto (Che) Guevara,” 173.

[16] Ernesto Che Guevara, Apuntes criticos a la Economia Politica (Havana: Ocean Press, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales) 2006, 132–133.

* Michael Löwy is a French philosopher and sociologist of Brazilian origin. A Fellow of the IIRE in Amsterdam and former research director of the French National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS), he has written many books, including The Marxism of Che Guevara, Marxism and Liberation Theology, Fatherland or Mother Earth? and The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. Löwy is a member of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France.

The article by Michael Löwy was published first in Against the Current 142, September-October 2009. Retrieved from the International Viewpoint.

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