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

By Robin West.

The practice of ideology

Following the trip, Guevara eventually found himself in Guatemala. His distaste of foreign intervention in Latin America had increased and he made his first substantial contact with communist organisations challenging American hegemony. A politically mature Guevara rapidly emerged and in 1955 he was introduced to Castro. The following year he took part in the invasion of Cuba, integrating his increasing knowledge of Marxist literature with revolutionary guerrilla warfare tactics. Together with Castro, Guevara declared that agricultural workers were to be the new proletariat. Subsequent ideological conflicts within the communist world caused Castro and Guevara to move in different political directions concerning economic positions – although still close personally to Castro, Guevara experienced political isolation. In 1965 he decided to leave for the Congo and re-engage directly in the revolutionary struggle. The following section will attempt to describe how the events of this period can be explained from both the analysis of the actor – by referring to the enabling nature of bourgeois habitus – and the paradoxical affect on the interpretation of external structures both within the African context and those that were at play in the broader historical arena.

II. The Congo: tensions and consequences of habitus and doxa.
Emotions, structure, and practice

In 1960, the Congo gained independence from Belgium and fell under the control of a proto-nationalist government. Chaos ensued following provincial secessions, military coups and counter-revolts. The superpowers became involved and the situation developed ostensibly into a struggle between socialism and imperialism. I have argued that a sense of emotional reflexivity is emergent from, and generates, habitus. As we have seen, significant interactional situations appear to have provided the opportunity for the elaboration of character along these lines and have led to emotional motivation in the formulation of strategies. The situation in the Congo illustrates this well – with reports suggesting that Guevara was ‘profoundly’ moved by the combination of poverty, backwardness, and oppression structuring the potentiality of the situation. In what follows, I draw attention to the latent tensions between what can be considered as the dynamism of emotional reflexivity (such reflection propelled Guevara toward a dispositional passion for Marxist ‘guerrillaism’) and the transmutation of emotions into the structural character of dispositions that form emotive constraints in the field of action (cf. Lizardo, 2004:376).

The composition of Ernesto’s character, as we have analysed it, is one that retains the original import of his middle-class socialisation process. His belief premises concerning the spread of communism have been incorporated into this character through ideological elaboration and direct encounters with the proletariat. These factors have been accompanied by an early admiration for indigenous culture. Undoubtedly, Guevara’s success in Cuba would have ratified his ideological position and produced an unquestioning faith in his own policies. It is this habitual package that Ernesto carries with him to the Congo without adequate knowledge of the wider social forces with which he must contend for control of the situation. The event we are concerned with takes place in the field of ‘revolutionary struggle’ in which a network of actors and collectivities ‘share a certain number of fundamental interests’ (Bourdieu, 1993b:73). We must think of this network in terms of ‘position-practices’ which, from a structural perspective, sees the actors set in an institutionalised framework of relations: in this case the military/political organisation (cf. Cohen, 1989:208). Occupying the field at one level, we have the government forces opposed to the revolt – we can align this aspect with the wider historical ideological conflict through the support of the U.S. who feared a ‘communist Africa’. I will not discuss this aspect of the field further, but will concentrate on the ‘position-practices’ of Guevara and his ‘allies’. Cohen suggests that position practices must be understood by analysing the actors’ varying claims to legitimate identity in the field and the 7
practices through which claims to prerogatives are foregrounded. These then interplay with the contingent situations and often erroneous strategies that contest the performance of institutionalised reciprocities (and that can produce a struggle for control of the situation). As Cohen makes clear, the motivation behind ‘strategic forbearance’ from acting must also be considered (1989:210). It would be fair to say that revolt in the Congo failed predominantly due to the international context – however, having established our picture of Guevara’s dispositional traits as modified on a continuum, that is as emergent from the cultural background and subsequently modified through cognitive and emotional encounters, it will be useful to analyse their effect on the relational field in which he became embedded.

I want to argue that, for Guevara, Marxist and guerrilla ideology, merged with his perception of indigenous culture as primitive communism, form an internal structure that comes close to the status of ‘personal’ doxa. In this sense, the invigorating dualism between habitus and the capacity for renewed reflexive modification seems to have fallen into stagnation. Guevara had adopted an unquestioning perspective that championed the advent of the ‘New Man’ orientated by moral motivation and constructed on a new base that rose above material incentives. As Bourdieu states, ‘in each of us […] there is a part of yesterday’s man’ (1977:79) – the events of Guevara’s life had culminated in his belief that he was the agent that would produce this phenomenon through the ideological guidance of the agricultural proletariat. It is clear that world events played the key role in preventing the emergence of the ‘New Man’ in the Congo. However, the failings of Guevara can be tentatively explained in part through the cognitive implications of habitus. Stones (2001) points out that agents draw on significatory structures that condition action alongside knowledge of the situation arising from ‘practical consciousness’. Such significatory structures ‘can in no sense be direct representations’ of the exterior world. Guevara’s perspective of the world is in part constituted by the ‘imagined symbolism’ of indigenous collectivity and moral universalism that have been accepted and stored in habitus as emotional residues. However, as shall be seen, the world is perceived from multiple ideological and traditional perspectives and the actual chance of homogeneity within any situation becomes slim (Stones, 2001:186).

The dialectic of control

That Guevara did not meet with success in the Congo can be attributed to the combination of emergent structural and personal properties that are set in the wider historical framework (see Archer, 1995, 2000), that is the international political field and the more immediate field of interaction. Guevara bemoaned the motivation and discipline of the Congolese troops he commanded. The latter refused to carry supplies, ran away at the first sign of conflict and were, more-than-often, drunk. Guevara responded by drawing on his stock of knowledge of guerrilla warfare and imposed harsh disciplinary measures. More worryingly, the Africans relied heavily on dawa, a magical incantation delivered by sorcerers, to protect them in the field of battle. Guevara became concerned that any defeats would be attributed to the Cubans’ lack of faith in this respect. He also attempted to ridicule the Congolese into discipline by suggesting that they should be made to wear skirts and carry vegetables in a basket – an insult that would have mortified Hispanic mentality, but was met with hysterical laughter from the Congolese. In each of these situations Guevara fails to assimilate his dispositional strategy with the normative structures prevailing in the Congo and thus underestimates the potential power bases that may oppose attempts to establish order. Just as events in his early life failed to appreciate the actuality of situations by applying an idealisation of the overall situation (i.e. the cripple and the mine-workers), so his willingness to believe that his romanticised indigenous fighters would embrace his strategy is challenged. Consequentially, the increasing restoration of dawa and the general lack of deference can be seen as the struggle for power that emerges from the clash between the combined emotional and ideological motivation of Guevara and the doxic institutionalised ritual of the Congolese. As we shall discuss in the next section, this results in a dialectic of control (Giddens, 1984:16; 288, Stones, 1996:93) that allows the Congolese to reassert their sense of autonomy.

Giddens (1984) argues that social relations must be examined through the analysis of how individuals draw upon structural properties in their strategic conduct. Hence, contextual boundaries (in our case, the delineation of traditional practices and guerrilla tactics) are revealed by giving attention to the expression of both discursive and practical consciousness (Giddens, 1984:288). ‘Less powerful’ agents possess and perform a knowledgeability of the social situation and manage the resources that are available to them in a way that enables them to exert control over authoritative figures (ibid:373). Thus, a ‘dialectic of control’ is established that affects the ‘balance of power’ and can lead ultimately to the loss of one of the party’s agency (Stones, 1996:93-94). The situation in the Congo reached such a height that Guevara was forced to concede to the traditional practices he had idealised and abandoned any hope of effective control. This confrontational interaction must be defined in the synthesis of relevant contexts – that is Guevara’s rigid doxic appraisal of the situation as was covered above, the dispositional behaviour of the Congolese, and finally the abstract agency emerging from the historical circumstances.

Historical contexts

To explain how this dialectic of control is substantiated in the overall context we must briefly look at the prevailing conditions in the Congo, conditions that I feel were partially concealed by the myopic reflexivity resulting from Guevara’s romantic idealism and emotionally driven cognition. Whereas Guevara seemed to rely on national unity as a precondition of universal socialism, in effect ethnic division split the country – with any form of nationalism only present as a ‘vague ideological cohesion’ (Davidson, 1981). The actual rising against neo-imperialism could not truly be seen as such as it was the re-activated residue of much older tribal conflicts and intentions (ibid.).9 Any modernising ideology had always come in the guise of colonial repression, therefore the attempt to create a new social structure in a ‘liberated’ Congo was counteracted by a reversion to traditionalism, hence the dogmatic adherence to dawa. Guevara’s sentimental idealisation of indigenous culture as revolutionary vanguard seems at odds with the social reality, in this case as the Congolese recruits, without substantive political guidance, were susceptible to the structural authority of traditional magic.

Guevara, a key agent in the conflict, relates to this structure at the level of the combination of his passionate beliefs and established rules, thus acting on the basis of a synthesis of his position, disposition, and subsequent interaction in the paradigmatic sense outlined above. Conversely, the Congolese relate to socialist strategy in the context of their particular relevant position (i.e. the desire to escape any form of imperialism). The levels of knowledge to which they have access alienate them from an intimate understanding of the guerrilla rulebook by which Guevara abides. Although he has tacit knowledge of the surface rules that underpin Congolese culture, due to the overwhelming historical context and the limited knowledge of the reality of that culture (which becomes idealised in accordance to the emotional element of his habitus), Guevara has little purchase in effecting any impact in the specific time-space situation (cf. Mouzelis, 1991:100) and is thus unable to effect widespread social change. Consequentially, Guevara and the Cubans were forced to flee in defeat after seven months of frustration. Doubtless many factors beyond the influence of Guevara’s habitually conditioned judgement will have been at play in this situation. The trajectory of his habitus – negotiated though instances of determinism and emergence – almost undoubtedly gave rise to the Guevara that sought to bring socialism to the Congo. However, the values that accompanied him, as Bourdieu (1984:466) suggests, can tentatively be considered as transmuted into ‘automatic gestures’. With this I contend that despite the possibility for generative reflexivity in the face of novel situations, there is an intransient element to Guevara’s character through which rational judgement emerges in a filtered form – that is to suggest that subjective conditions for action are always constrained by the accumulated residues of experience that are ratified and embodied by the ‘emotional’ habitus (cf. Burkitt, 2002:232).


In this paper I have attempted to show the intransient cultural and social roots that give rise to the habitus of Che Guevara. I have sought to show that these dispositional traits are modified through a phenomenological dialogue with external conditions and are influenced by both rational and emotional reflexivity. By suggesting that these two elements reveal a dualistic nature to the agent that, nonetheless, results in a dominant course of action depending on their subjective predominance, I have attempted to illustrate Guevara’s characteristic self-assurance in his ideological standpoint that dictates the almost doxic avoidance of historical reality. This culminates in the Congolese fiasco. It is perhaps the additional dualism between Guevara’s position and traditional and international structures that provokes his final critical reflection of the situation, and, retaining some degree of agency, flees. Less than eighteen months later, having renounced Cuban nationality and whilst attempting to create ‘twenty new Vietnams’ in Latin America, Guevara was betrayed, captured, and later executed by Bolivian government forces.

1 In this paper, the narrative of the life of Guevara is taken from Jorge Castañeda’s (1997) biography Compañero. All unreferenced quotations are taken from this work. Quotations and accounts drawn from the diaries of Guevara himself are fully referenced.
2 Cultural capital, for Bourdieu, is the sum of socially transmitted ‘techniques’ that enable the subject to act competently in relevant situations (Bourdieu, 1977:89).
3.As I understand Mouzelis, the paradigmatic refers generally to the enactment of rules in a virtual unreflexive manner in which they are both the medium and the outcome of social action – thus it seems that the actor can be awarded a significant account of agency throughout interaction. The syntagmatic allows for a more relational situation in which a subject’s agency is restricted by the knowledge and agency of other participants (Mouzelis, 1991:99-100).
4. Although Bourdieu would most likely abstain from associating habitus to ‘character’, I am in sympathy with Burkitt’s attempt to root habitus in the idea of a generalised disposition that ‘suffuses’ action throughout life and thus is interpreted as a mould of the personality – or, ‘character’ (Burkitt, 2002:220).
5. By this I mean that we must consider habitus as the constantly modified result of the negotiation of phenomenological experience, memory traces, and doxa.
6 In this formulation of habitus, I draw on Lau’s (2004) account that attempts a critical realist development of Bourdieu’s theory. The intransitive nature of habitus (in my account) refers to the pre-reflexive – and therefore not directly accessible – element that is encountered only as the locus of corporeal memory (in Bourdieu’s sense of the bodily hexis (1977:82)). For Lau, habitus is considered as a ‘practical sense emergent’ from experience and thus escapes suggestions of purely cultural reductionism. However, my argument attempts to place the onus of responsibility for action on the agent’s successful negotiation of cultural conditioning and the capacity for the innovative rationalisation of situations.
7. Lizardo (2004:394), however, contends that habitus should be regarded in terms of a ‘duality of structures’ (i.e. historical and developmental) that intersect and overlap.
8. Castañeda suggests that the great tragedy of Guevara’s life was the fact that he constantly generalised the overall situation. Guevara’s hope for a unified Latin-Americanism is based on his admiration for the indigenous peasant – hence at one stage he claims that he would ‘rather be an illiterate Indian than an American millionaire’. His misconception of the situation blinds him to the fact that in reality, most Indian peasants would rather be American millionaires.
9. As Davidson tells us in his history of the Congo conflict, ‘volunteers might receive a revolutionary teaching; but with them, and more powerful, came also the beliefs of their own rural culture. Theirs, increasingly, was a messianic fiction of a golden age when the ancestors should govern once more, the goods of the Europeans should pass automatically to the Africans, and power would once again reside in spiritual shrines’ these therefore took precedence over ideas of ‘capitalism, exploitation, class conflict and the rest’ (1981: 111).

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Rob Stones for inspiration and initial comments on an early draft of this paper. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewer for pointing out clear ambiguities and tensions in the original submission.

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