‘Che’ Guevara: A Sociological Analysis of a Life (Part One)

By Robin West*.

Whether we choose to regard Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara as the tragic Hegelian ‘world-individual’ whose passions are exploited and exhausted in the dialectic of change, or as an individual who finds the odds against him in his attempt to implement widespread ideological change, focus primarily falls on the actions of the historical Guevara in the context of voluntarism. Yet, as Bourdieu (1977) points out, passions and emotions become mere escapes into the transcendental layer of the self when the locus of agency is seen purely in terms of the subjective – and the agental determinisms of the objective world, toward which these passions are directed, is denied. Alternatively, to treat the actions of an individual as directly determined by prevailing conditions, external influences, or predetermined ‘roles’, is to exclude the reflective and agental capabilities of the knowledgeable actor. This paper focuses on significant events in Guevara’s life by aligning influential factors with contemporary theories of structure and agency.1 Following an introduction to the composition of his early years, Part One will consider Guevara’s youthful travels in Latin America and will draw mainly on the formation of his character by considering emotional responses as emergent properties of habitus. In Part Two, by examining the events of Che’s penultimate (and disastrous) escapade in post-colonial Congo, I suggest that dominant residues of the habitus may have affected his powers of judgement and agency when faced with multi-dimensional external structures.

I. The development of an egalitarian character: habitus and the experience of doxa.

Youth and the accumulation of dispositions.

Ernesto Guevara was born in 1928 into a blue-blooded line of Argentinian aristocracy. His father was of Spanish-Irish descent whilst his mother, Celia, came from a distinguished and landed lineage. Ernesto’s grandmother had been prominent socially as a liberal and iconoclast and was a significant figure in his life. Although Celia was educated in Catholicism, any leanings in this direction were tempered by the influence of her elder sister – a card-carrying communist – and she eventually emerged as a ‘socialist, anti-clerical feminist’. Prior to Guevara’s meeting with Fidel Castro, Celia was to be the major intellectual and political figure in his life. At the time of his birth, Argentina was a prosperous, fledgling democracy that aspired to join the ranks of ‘first world’ nations. By the late 1930’s the effects of the Depression had transformed it into a shadow of its former self: the economy collapsed, right-wing pressure groups were formed; the middle-class became disillusioned and eventually democracy was replaced by military rule. All this led to ideological polarisation and great cultural changes for the nation. During this time, Ernesto attended public school, giving rise to some curious paradoxes in his early life. Prior to the Depression, Argentina had been a fairly homogenous society that aimed at improving equality – hence Ernesto studied alongside pupils from destitute neighbourhoods and social elites alike. However, the economic troughs of the Thirties saw the emergence of a new working class compounded from the now redundant agricultural sector. Thus, on the one hand, Ernesto had early intellectual experience of social diversity – and, on the other, he was spatially separated by his social position as a scion of the Argentine elite: a position that gave him a cultural and self-enhancing advantage.

Through this sketch of the cultural background of Guevara, a sense of the initial factors that combined to furnish a particular socially conditioned disposition is revealed. We can see the nascent forms of the intellectual and cultural capital that will affect his sense of reflexive judgement in relation to external structures in later life. Bourdieu has defined the notion of a ‘socialised subjectivity’ as the habitus (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:126): that is to say that it is the sum of the acquired patterns of thought, behaviour, and aestheticism that provides the initial bridge between the subject as ‘agent’ and the determinism of objective social structures. Habitus can therefore be considered as the internalised storehouse of cultural capital from which we draw according to the relevant situation, and which will reflect the social constitution of our ‘generalised’ worldview as a ‘system of cognitive and motivating structures’ (Bourdieu, 1977:76). In much the same manner in which Giddens considers structures as ‘rules and resources’ existing as memory traces and as the ‘organic basis of human knowledgeability’ (1984:377), habitus defines the normative conditions of the cultural ‘lifeworld’ that are drawn on as a pre-reflexive source in the individual’s phenomenological activity. An example can be taken from an experience in Ernesto’s early life. The street in which he lived bordered a shantytown district of dispossessed workers wherein a character known as the ‘man of dogs’ (as a legless cripple, he was pulled around on a small chariot by a brace of hounds) resided. One day the local children took to taunting and molesting him. Ernesto’s reaction was to attempt to intervene and plead with the children to stop – yet he was met with mockery not from the children, but from the cripple he had tried to defend, whose eyes were ‘filled with an ageless, irreparable class hatred’. This incident perhaps illustrates Ernesto’s disposition towards injustice embedded in his habitus and reflects the normative structures underlying bourgeois family life. It also reveals the taken-for-granted distinction, not so much between class divisions, but with regard to the fact that his actions could somehow be separated from his elite social positioning. Bourdieu points to the element of conservatism at play in the way that we pre-reflexively accept uncontested accounts of our social world (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:73-74): hence pre-reflexive appraisals are defined as the doxic realm in which categorisations (such as class) conform to the established order (Bourdieu, 1977:164). Guevara’s position during this encounter can be considered as the doxa of the bourgeois ‘socialist’ lifeworld in the sense that the intellectualisation of egalitarianism effectively serves to reify class divisions. Consequentially, the contempt directed towards the cripple’s ‘saviour’ reveals the fact that the status of ‘enemy’ was conferred not on the attackers, but on the ‘rich child trying to defend him’.

In Guevara’s middle-class lifeworld the naturalisation of a class society presupposes any discourse on equality – the latter relying on the recognition of a heterodox account of antagonistic social positions. It is in this context that Mouzelis (1991:100) separates the paradigmatic from the syntagmatic play of exchanges in social interaction.3 That Guevara consciously acts on his own ethical standpoint in the above incident does not obscure the sociological observation that he uncritically imposes the ‘virtual’ morality of his habitus onto an ‘actual’ world built on diverse experiences. The consequence is the instigation of an interactional dualism in which his sense of agency is restricted. The clash of different lifeworlds, typically in the form of culturally instilled ethical agency versus antagonistic embedded structures, is a theme that re-occurs throughout his life. The following account of his travels in Latin America will draw on this premise through a hermeneutical interpretation of the intellectual challenges faced during this time and, by arguing that the modification of consciousness enriches the scope of habitus, explain how this period may have been instrumental in the intended, and unintended, outcomes of future actions.

My underlying argument is twofold: first, I suggest that Ernesto’s habitus emerges from this standpoint and is initially drawn upon in practice as the unreflexive enactment of internalised rule-games. Second, I consider the possibilities for atypical action that result from reflexive evaluations of situations. That these may fall beyond the scope of a priori experience does not conflict with Bourdieu’s emphasis on the durable and transposable nature of habitus (1977:95). Certainly, habitus should be considered as orienting the individual toward a predisposition for ‘particular’ forms of practical action (Burkitt, 2002:225), however, as new objective structures are encountered, then new modes of habitus arise in response to emergent realities (cf. King, 2000:428). This, of course, suggests that actors do not enter into new situations with tabula rasa minds given the anterior determinism of their ‘personal and culturally nuanced ideas and memories’ (Stones, 1996:48). However, whilst Bourdieu’s sense of habitus appears to bear a quality that transcends the objectivist-subjectivist divide, without due modification, it retains an overly deterministic character through its emphasis on culturally inherited dispositions (in the last instance). In terms of the individual qua personality, Bourdieu suggests that each individual system of dispositions should be considered merely as a structural variant of the wider group habitus and as the expression of the difference between subjective life courses both inside and outside of the group (1977:86). We will notice, however, that in stating this Bourdieu does not adequately consider the developmental role of subsequent experience that may occur beyond the scope of culturally instilled dispositions. By this I imply those experiences that may serve to substantiate a specific trait of character4 through either emotional or evaluative ratifications. Thus, and as Mouzelis (1991) elaborates, we must allow for the experiential trajectory that removes the actor from the limitations of pre-reflexive habitus in the form of the dispositional dimension of attitudes, skills and norms, that do not derive from a specific role, but from the actor’s wider experience of life vis-à-vis new situations. To understand actions it is necessary to look for the ‘situational dimension of social life’ that reveals an order of interaction between participants and their respective lifeworlds (cf. Mouzelis, 1991:198).

It is at this juncture that we must seek the phenomenological dimension of the actor that selectively (if not unconsciously) draws on, or rejects, the stock of cultural knowledge in conjunction to the experiences that are faced in unique interactions. It is then perhaps best to think of dispositional attributes as existing on a continuum that flows between the objective and subjective worlds.5 My overall aim is to highlight the conflicts that arise in this modification of habitus but, nonetheless, to stress the resilience of early formulations of belief and strategies. Therefore, in the subsequent accounts of events in Guevara’s life, I intend to illustrate the intransitive and transitive6 content of habitus rooted in both cultural conditioning and common-sense ‘relational’ understandings respectively. With reference to the unintended and intended outcomes of his actions, I am suggesting that habitus necessarily retains a sense of ontological dualism within the agent due to the co-existence of deeply embedded dispositions and the capacity for effective (or erroneous) reflexivity. In short, habitus simultaneously displays qualities of inertia and dynamism (cf. Noble and Watkins, 2003:524).7 In this sense, there is a constant tension between the generative possibilities of habitus and those restrictions emerging from attempts to synthesise the motivations inherent to diverse cultural beliefs.

The conjunctural development of habitus.

Between 1951 and 1954, Guevara travelled extensively through Latin America. With the above suggestions in mind, we can think of Ernesto’s trips in terms of both an initiation rite to the wider culture of the continent’s lifeworld and as a political epiphany that increases the scope of habitus. There are a number of interactions during this period that can be considered as revealing the relevance of habitus as either constricting or enabling – or, as Bourdieu (1984; 1993a; 1993b) sets out, disclosing the existence of cultural fields that consist of the objective relations between culturally positioned actors that enable or prevent the activation of a particular type of cultural capital. Initially he travelled, with a companion, from Chile through to Venezuela. I will focus on one instance that gave a broader vision of the ‘order of things’ and the conditions that underlay the social and political status quo that perpetuated a distinct sense of caste and inequality outside of his native Argentina.

We must take as an entry point the hybridity of socialism and an emotional interest (cf. James, 1884) in native culture that lay at the core of Ernesto’s personality: both can be attributed to the educational capital underlying bourgeois habitus, thus enabling later evaluations. Perhaps it is Guevara’s fascination for the ‘exotic’ that becomes fused with a nostalgic sense of primitive communism and fervent anti-imperialism that stands out in his account of this time. We find here the nascent interpretations of the reality of social divisions and the attribution of a ‘meaning’ to national and class struggle. As I hope to show in the final section, the effects that this modification of habitus has in subsequent situations have both intended and unintended outcomes on agental conduct in terms of reflexivity, motivation, and the prioritisation of concerns.

One episode in particular represents the overall point that I am trying to make. In his journey through Latin America, Guevara, apparently for the first time, engaged with the industrial proletariat and was immediately attracted both by their ‘difference’ and the limitations of authentic contact. Whilst in transit through Chile, the pair planned a visit to the Chuquicamata copper mine and, waiting for official permission, spent the night with a working couple who were ardent communists. Ernesto was acutely aware of the differences between himself and these individuals who had suffered at the hands of the authorities for their political beliefs. His diary entry is worth reproducing so as to catch the essence of the phenomenological conception that bridges his inner-world as habitus and the alien exterior world:

The couple, numb with cold, huddling together in the desert night, were a living symbol of the proletariat the world over. They didn’t have a single blanket to sleep under […] it was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent; but also one which made me feel a little closer to this strange, for me anyway, human species […]. Although by now we could barely make out the couple in the distance, the man’s singularly determined face stayed with us and we remembered his simple invitation: ‘Come, comrades, come and eat with us. I’m a vagrant too,’ which showed he basically despised our aimless travelling as parasitical. (Guevara, 1996:59-60. My emphasis.)

Here we seem to find echoes of the incident with the Argentinian cripple in the sense that Guevara bases his perceptual evaluation on the uncontested ethics of bourgeois mentality – hence he is unnerved by the critical rationality of his host. In terms of the distinction of habituses, there is a gulf between the shared understandings of either party – the middle-class adventurer who nonetheless proffers an ethical reflection of the situation falls short of the reality of the lived experience with which he is faced. This perhaps is not surprising given that each party in the interaction inhabit a field that does not allow for the mutual synthesis of dispositions. Despite the element of human ‘connectedness’ in the situation, it falters due to the collision of antagonistic cultural positions. Ernesto and his companion are culturally competent in their own field, yet they cannot ‘cash in’ their capital for their hosts are oblivious to the cultural rationale behind the desire to acquire knowledge through travelling. Guevara’s interpretation of the plight of the couple reveals an innocent ethical stance that takes in the tragedy of the moment but remains politically naïve; hence he declares that what had ‘burgeoned’ in the communist worker was merely the natural desire for a better life, ‘a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine, whose real meaning he could never grasp’ but when translated as ‘bread for the poor’ became something that the worker could understand (ibid:60). In this sense, it is an almost poetic interpretation of a political affiliation that demeans the agency of the worker through its adherence to dispositional beliefs, but one, nonetheless, that prompts Guevara to engage in a level of reflection that will propel him towards a closer affiliation with the working class. This reflexivity is enabled via the occurrence of a unique situational dimension (cf. Mouzelis, 1991:198).

This youthful simplicity vis-à-vis the actual conditions of the proletariat and the wider political context becomes blurred with his interpretation of indigenous culture that is formed by the access to, and conditions of, his educational background. Thus habitus ensures an intellectual knowledge of the indigenous position, yet is impoverished by a lack of intimate contact with the ‘real world’ of events. Guevara was ‘fascinated by the tropics with their mulatto and black exoticism’ that was ‘so starkly different from his white, middle-class Buenos Aires’. He was enraptured by the ‘richness’ of indigenous culture and the mysteries that were buried in the ruins of Indian architecture – such cultural remnants signifying the last border of resistance against Spanish imperialism. What I intend to argue here is that Ernesto’s critical reflections on situations he encounters have a considerable outcome on his sense of agency. Through the newly acquired knowledge of social settings and positions, he is able, as Mouzelis outlines, to make sense of ‘micro-situations’ by constructing abstract typifications of the social world (1991:89). This seems to be consolidated into a new worldview (based increasingly on the idea of mutual Latin-Americanism) through the process of associating concrete perceptions with his (limited) understanding of ideological issues and ethical position. In the case of Guevara, Mouzelis seems quite right when he suggests that ‘these typifications are often erroneously perceived as actual macro-structures that subsume, control or generate micro-situations’ (ibid.), for the simplistic associations belie both the structural reality and the actual ordering of concerns of other individuals.

* Robin West is a teaching fellow at the University of Essex (U.K.).



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