Che Guevara in Search of a New Socialism

By Michael Löwy*.

IN AN ARTICLE published in 1928, José Carlos Mariátegui, the true founder of Latin American Marxism, wrote: “Of course, we do not want socialism in Latin America to be an imitation or a copy. It must be a heroic creation. We must inspire Indo-American socialism with our own reality, our own language. That is a mission worthy of a new generation.” [1] His warning went unheard. In that same year the Latin American communist movement fell under the influence of the Stalinist paradigm, which for close to a half century imposed on it an imitation of the ideology of the Soviet bureaucracy and its so-called “actually existing socialism.”

We do not know whether Ernesto “Che” Guevara was acquainted with Mariátegui’s article. He may have read it, for his companion Hilda Gadea loaned him Mariátegui’s writings in the years preceding the Cuban revolution. Whatever the case, much of his political thought and practice, especially in the 1960s, can be said to have been aimed at emerging from the impasse to which the servile imitation of the Soviet model had led in Eastern Europe.

Che’s ideas on the construction of socialism are an attempt at “heroic creation” of something new, the search — interrupted and incomplete — for a distinct model of socialism, radically opposed in many respects to the “actually existing” bureaucratic caricature.

From 1959 to 1967, Che’s thought evolved considerably. He distanced himself ever further from his initial illusions concerning Soviet or Soviet-style socialism, that is, from the Stalinist version of Marxism. In a 1965 letter to a Cuban friend, he harshly criticized the “ideological tailism” that was manifested in Cuba by the publication of Soviet manuals for instruction in Marxism. These manuals, “Soviet bricks” to use his expression, “have the disadvantage of not letting you think: the Party has already done it for you and you have to digest it.” [2]

Still more explicit, especially in his post-1963 writings, is his rejection of “imitation and copy” and his search for an alternative model, his attempt to formulate another path toward socialism, one that is more radical, more egalitarian, more fraternal, and more consistent with the communist ethic.

An Uncompleted Journey

Che’s death in October 1967 interrupted a process of independent political maturation and intellectual development. His work is not a closed system, a polished system of thought with an answer to everything. On many questions, such as planning, the struggle against bureaucracy, and so on, his thinking remains incomplete. [3]

The driving force behind this quest for a new road — over and above the specific economic issues — was the conviction that socialism is meaningless and consequently cannot triumph unless it holds out the offer of a civilization, a social ethic, a model of society that is totally antagonistic to the values of petty individualism, unfettered egoism, competition, the war of all against all that is characteristic of capitalist civilization, this world in which “man eats man.”

The construction of socialism for Che is inseparable from certain moral values, in contrast to the “economistic” conceptions of Stalin, Krushchev and their successors, who consider only the “development of the productive forces.” In a famous interview with the journalist Jean Daniel, in July 1963, Che was already developing an implicit critique of “actually existing socialism”: “Economic socialism without a communist morale does not interest me. We are fighting poverty, but at the same time alienation….If communism is dissociated from consciousness, it may be a method of distribution but it is no longer a revolutionary morality.” [4]

If socialism claims to fight capitalism and conquer it on its own ground, that of productivism and consumption, using the weapons of capitalism — the commodity form, competition, self-center individualism — it is doomed to failure. It cannot be said that Che anticipated the dismantling of the USSR, but in a way he did have the intuition that a “socialist” system that does not tolerate differences, that does not embody new values, that attempts to imitate its adversary, that has no ambitions but to “catch up to and surpass” the production of the imperialist metropolises, has no future.

Socialism, for Che, represented the historical project of a new society based on values of equality, solidarity, collectivism, revolutionary altruism, free discussion and mass participation. His increasing criticisms of “actually existing socialism,” like his practice as a leader and his thinking about the Cuban experience, were inspired by this communist utopia, in the sense given this concept by Ernst Bloch. [5]

Three things express in concrete terms this aspiration of Guevara and his search for a new path: the discussion on the methods of economic management, the question of the free expression of differences and the perspective of socialist democracy. The first clearly occupied a central place in Che’s thinking, while the other two, which are closely related, are much less developed, with some lacunae and contradictions. But they are ever-present in his concerns and his political practice.

The New Man

In his famous “Speech in Algiers” in February 1965, Ernesto Guevara called on the countries claiming to be socialist to “put an end to their implicit complicity with the exploiting countries of the West” as expressed in the unequal exchange relationships they were carrying on with peoples engaged in struggle against imperialism. Socialism, in Che’s view, “cannot exist without a change in consciousness to a new fraternal attitude toward humanity, not only within the societies which are building or have built socialism, but also on a world scale toward all peoples suffering from imperialist oppression.” [6]

In his March 1965 essay, “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” analyzing the models for building socialism that were applied in Eastern Europe, Che rejected the conception that claimed to “conquer capitalism with its own fetishes.” “The pipe dream that socialism can be achieved with the help of the dull instruments bequeathed to us by capitalism (the commodity as the economic cell, profitability, individual material interest as a lever and so on) can lead into a blind alley….To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man.” [7]

One of the major dangers in the model imported from the countries of Eastern Europe was the increase in social inequality and the formation of a privileged layer of technocrats and bureaucrats: in this system of remuneration, “it is the directors who always earn more. Just look at the recent proposal in the German Democratic Republic; the importance assigned to management by the director, or what’s more the director’s remuneration for managing.” [8]

Basically, the debate was a confrontation between an “economistic” view, which considered the economic sphere as an autonomous system governed by its own laws like the law of value or the laws of the market, and a political conception of socialism, in which economic decisions concerning production priorities, prices, and so on are governed by social, ethical, and political criteria.

Che’s economic proposals — planning in opposition to market forces, the budgetary finance system, collective or “moral” incentives — were attempts to find a model for building socialism based on these criteria, and thus differing from the Soviet model. It should be added that Guevara did not successfully develop a clear idea of the nature of the Stalinist bureaucratic system. In my opinion, he was mistaken in tracing the origin of the problems and limitations of the Soviet experience to the NEP rather than the Stalinist Thermidor. [9]


[1] J. C. Mariátegui, “Aniversario y balance,” Ideología y Política, Biblioteca Amauta, 1971): 249. José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930) was one of the major Marxist thinkers of Latin America. He is primarily known for his 1928 work, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (Austin: University of Texas, Austin, 1971).

[2] Letter from Che to a Cuban friend (1965). This letter is one of Che’s documents that remain unpublished. Carlos Tablada quotes from it in his article “Le marxisme d’Ernesto (Che) Guevara,” Alternatives Sud III, no. 2 (1996):168. See also, by the same author, Che Guevara: Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism (Pathfinder Press, 1992) and Cuba, quelle transition? (L’Harmattan, 2001).

[3] Fernando Martínez Heredia correctly notes that “… there are even some positive aspects to the incomplete nature of Che’s thinking. The great thinker is there, points to some problems and some approaches, shows some possibilities, and demands that his comrades think, study, and combine practice and theory. It becomes impossible, once one really comes to terms with his thought, to dogmatize it and transform it into a speculative bastion or a receptacle of slogans.” “Che, el socialismo y el comunismo,” Pensar el Che, (Havana: Centro de estudios sobre América, Editorial José Martí, vol. II, 1989): 30. See also Fernando Martínez Heredia, Che, el socialismo y el comunismo (Havana: Casa de las Américas prize, 1989).

[4] L’Express, July 25, 1963, 9.

[5] Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) was a Jewish-German philosopher exiled to the United States in 1938 . He became a professor at Karl Marx University in Leipzig in 1949, and at the University of Tübingen after going over to the West in 1961. From The Spirit of Utopia (1918) to The Principle of Hope (1954-1959), this unorthodox Marxist sought to restore to socialism its secular messianic dimension.

[6] Ernesto Che Guevara, Oeuvres 1957-1967, vol. 2 (Paris: François Maspero, 1971): 574.

[7] Guevara, Oeuvres, vol. 2, 371–372.

[8] Ernesto Che Guevara, “Le plan et les hommes,” Oeuvres 1957–1967, vol. 6 [unedited text] (Paris: Maspero, 1972): 90.

[9] This concept is very clear in the essay on political economy that Che wrote in 1966, from which Carlos Tablada quotes certain extracts in “Le marxisme d’Ernesto (Che) Guevara.” Janette Habel rightly observes that Guevara put “too much emphasis, in the economic criticism of Stalinist deformations, on the weight of market relations and not enough on the police and repressive nature of the Soviet political system.” (J. Habel, preface to M. Löwy, La pensée de Che Guevara (Paris: Syllepse, 1997): 11.

* 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.

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