By Mitchel Cohen*.
Che Guevara was not overly concerned about elections as a means for transforming a capitalist or authoritarian state. But he was extremely concerned about finances, and how to fund the revolution. There is a piece in the film, «Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary,» which is eerie in that it shows Che as part of a Cuban delegation in Moscow begging for funds for Cuba. In the film, the 34-year old Che Guevara is barely able to bite his tongue and check his scathing sarcasm for the Russian bureaucrats, in order to gain funding from them.
Che hated the Cuban revolution’s reliance on the Soviet Union, and went on to devise other means for obtaining funds and dispersing them. As the only one among the victorious guerrilla leadership in the Cuban revolution who had actually studied the works of Karl Marx, Che despised the bureaucrats and party hacks in the USSR as well as in Cuba.
I.F. Stone revealed that how, as early as 1961, at a conference in Punte del Este, Uruguay, Che Guevara — born in Argentina and a student of medicine there — was huddled in discussion with some new leftists from New York. A couple of Argentine Communist Party apparatchiks passed. Che couldn’t help shouting out: «Hey, why are you here, to start the counter-revolution?»
Like many in the emerging new left around the world, Che had first-hand experience with party apparatchiks and hated their attempts to impose their bureaucracy on indigenous revolutionary movements.
Indeed, contrary to the conceptions of many in the U.S. today, the revolution in Cuba was made independent of, and at times in opposition to, the Cuban Communist Party. It was only several years after the revolution succeeded in taking state power that an uneasy working relationship was established leading to a merger of the revolutionary forces and the Party — a merger that provided no end of problems for Che, and for the Cuban revolution itself.
We can learn something for our situation in the US today by examining Che’s approach in Latin America.
One such problem: Cuba’s increasing dependence upon the Soviet Union (in some ways similar to radical organizations’ increasing dependence on Foundation grants and other hoop-providing jumpsters). In its desperation for currency to buy needed items, the government — after strenuous debate — decided to forego diversification of Cuba’s agriculture in order to expand its main cash-crop, sugar, which it exchanged for Soviet oil, using some and reselling the rest on the world market. Despite Che’s (and others) warnings, Cuba gradually lost the capability to feed its own people — a problem that reached devastating proportions with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Similar crises had beset the Soviet Union and other avowedly socialist countries when they pursued industrial models of development and tried to pay for it by producing for and competing in the world market. Che’s response: Don’t produce for the world market. Reject cost/benefit analysis as the measure for what gets produced. A truly new society, Che believed, must aspire to and implement immediately, in the here and now, what its people dream for the future. And to get there, REAL communist revolutions must reject «efficiency» and nurture communalistic attempts to create a more humane society instead.
Che’s contempt for the officials of Marxdom (while considering himself a marxist) and bureaucrats of every stripe broke with the numbing mechanistic economics that Marxism had become. With Che and the new left inspired by him, «Revolution» was placed back on the historical agenda.
Che’s internationalism and identification with the poor and downtrodden every-where, his refusal to recognize the sanctity of national boundaries in the fight against U.S. imperialism, inspired new radical movements throughout the world. Che called upon radicals to transform OURSELVES into new, socialist human beings BEFORE the revolution, if we were to have any hope of actually achieving one worth living in. His call to begin living meaningfully NOW reverberated through an entire generation, reaching as much towards Sartre’s existentialism as the latter stretched towards Marx. Through action, through wringing the immediacy of revolution from the neck of every oppression, of every moment, and by putting one’s ideals immediately into practice, Che hammered the leading philosophical currents of the day into a tidal wave of revolt.
For Che, Marx’s maxim: «From each according to their ability to each according to their needs,» was not simply a long-range slogan but an urgent practical necessity to be implemented at once. The harrowing constraints of developing a small country (or radio station!!!!) along socialist lines, particularly in the context of continued attacks by U.S. imperialism (including a blockade, an invasion, a threatened nuclear war, and ongoing economic and ideological harrassment), on the other hand, militated against Che’s vision and boxed-in the revolutionary society into choosing from equally unpalatable alternatives.
In a sense, many of our organizations face similar «alternatives» today.
It was amid such contradictory pressures that Che tried to set a different standard for Cuba, and for humanity in general. As Minister of Finance, he managed to distribute the millions of dollars obtained from the USSR to artists, and to desperately poor farmers who in the U.S. would have been considered, shall we say, «poor risks.»
The Russian bureaucrats, like any capitalist banker, were furious with Che’s «Take what you need, don’t worry about paying it back» attitude. They leaned on Fidel to control Che and to regulate the «proper» dispersal of funds, just as twenty years later under Brezhnev, and apparently having learned nothing, the Soviet state leaned on Poland to pay back its inflated debt to the western banks, causing cutbacks and hardship and leading to the working class response: the formation of Solidarnosc. Indeed, the Soviet Union at that time was the best friend Chase Manhattan ever had! And in so doing it paid the ultimate price.
In 1959, the guerrillas, headed by Fidel Castro, swept into Havana having defeated the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Although the U.S. government armed and funded Batista, the CIA had its agents in Fidel’s guerrilla army as well.
One lieutenant in the guerilla army, Frank Fiorini, was actually one of several operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency there. Fiorini would surface a few years later as a planner of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, two years after that as one of three «hobos» arrested in Dallas a few moments after President Kennedy was assassinated and immediately released (one of the other «hobos» was none other than CIA-operative E. Howard Hunt), and again as one of the culprits involved with the dozens of CIA assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro.
Fiorini became quite famous again in 1973 as one of the burglars at the Democratic Party Headquarters at a hotel known as the Watergate, under the name Frank Sturgis. Indeed, it was precisely when the Watergate hearings were on the verge of raising serious questions about the Bay of Pigs and U.S. covert operations in Cuba that, suddenly, the existence of secret White House tapes was «unexpectedly» revealed. From that moment on, all we heard was what did Nixon know and when did he know it, and the potentially explosive investigation on the verge of revealing the secret history of illegal CIA interventions in Cuba, the murder of John F. Kennedy and attempted assassinations of Fidel were effectively sidetracked.
And yet it was under the constant threat of warfare by the U.S. — overt as well as the ongoing covert operations — that the Cuban revolution, especially under the instigation of Che, took some of its boldest steps in introducing «socialism of a new type.»
Contrast that with the erstwhile «communist» states, as they sacrificed whatever visionary socialist features they had in order to lure capitalist investment, so that they could compete on the world market. As head of the Cuban national bank, Che going against the tide, as always — made Cuba’s new banknotes famous by signing them simply «Che.» The first question Che asked of his subordinates when he took over the bank was «Where has Cuba deposited its gold reserves and dollars?» When he was told, «In Fort Knox,» he immediately began converting Cuba’s gold reserves into non-U.S. currencies which were exported to Canadian or Swiss banks. (1)
Che’s concern was not so much with developing «solvent» banking institutions in Cuba, but with two things: fighting U.S. imperialism, in this instance by removing the revolution’s gold from the clutches of the United States government (which could all too easily invent an excuse to confiscate it, as it later did with other Cuban holdings. Che was prescient in understanding that this would happen); and, of equal importance, finding ways to foster and fund the creation of a new socialist human being without relying upon capitalist mechanisms, which he understood would end up undermining the best of efforts. Che best put forth his outlook, which came to be that of the new left internationally as well, in a speech, «On Revolutionary Medicine»:
«Except for Haiti and Santo Domingo, I have visited, to some extent, all the other Latin American countries. Because of the circumstances in which I traveled, first as a student and later as a doctor, I came into close contact with poverty, hunger, and disease; with the inability to treat a child because of lack of money; with the stupefication provoked by continual hunger and punishment, to the point that a father can accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident, as occurs often in the downtrodden classes of our American homeland. And I began to realize that there were things that were almost as important to me as becoming a famous scientist or making a significant contribution to medical science: I wanted to help those people.
«How does one actually carry out a work of social welfare? How does one unite individual endeavor with the needs of society?
«For this task of organization, as for all revolutionary tasks, fundamentally it is the individual who is needed. The revolution does not, as some claim, standardize the collective will and the collective initiative. On the contrary, it liberates one’s individual talent. What the revolution does is orient that talent. And our task now is to orient the creative abilities of all medical professionals toward the tasks of social medicine.
«The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth. … Far more important than a good remuneration is the pride of serving one’s neighbor. Much more definitive and much more lasting than all the gold that one can accumulate is the gratitude of a people.
«We must begin to erase our old concepts. We should not go to the people and say, `Here we are. We come to give you the charity of our presence, to teach you our science, to show you your errors, your lack of culture, your ignorance of elementary things.’ We should go instead with an inquiring mind and a humble spirit to learn at that great source of wisdom that is the people.
«Later we will realize many times how mistaken we were in concepts that were so familiar they became part of us and were an automatic part of our thinking. Often we need to change our concepts, not only the general concepts, the social or philosophical ones, but also sometimes our medical concepts.
«We shall see that diseases need not always be treated as they are in big-city hospitals. We shall see that the doctor has to be a farmer also and plant new foods and sow, by example, the desire to consume new foods, to diversify the nutritional structure which is so limited, so poor.
«If we plan to redistribute the wealth of those who have too much in order to give it to those who have nothing; if we intend to make creative work a daily, dynamic source of all our happiness, then we have goals towards which to work.» (2)