During 1996 and 1997 numerous books, pamphlets and articles have been published by assorted writers about Ernesto Guevara to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of his execution. Throughout the world he is known simply as ‘Che’. He was given this nickname by friends and comrades in struggle when he was in Mexico during the 1950s. Che is a commonly used term in Argentina – his native country. In 1997 young people in Latin America and Europe have begun to wear Che Guevara T-shirts and display posters of his portrait.
Some cynical and superficial pro-capitalist journalists have attempted to dismiss this re-awakened interest in Che. They have falsely attempted to portray it as nothing more than a desire to be identified with the so-called permissive life-style associated with the 1960s.
Che Guevara undoubtedly has a romantic and cultural appeal to many young people who associate with his image as a “rebel”.
More importantly the renewed interest in Che Guevara reflects the appeal he always had for those looking for a way to change society and end the exploitation of capitalism and imperialism. Che, and Cuba, are seen by many as a symbol of resistance. Reflected in the public display of support for Che Guevara by a new generation, is the beginning of a search for revolutionary socialist ideas which offer a viable alternative society to capitalism.
So why has the CWI produced another pamphlet on Che and Cuba when so much has already been written on them internationally?
Apart from the cynical articles and on occasion flippant articles in some magazines and papers some serious books and biographies have already been produced. Che Guevara – A Revolutionary Life, by the US journalist and writer, Jon Lee Anderson, is a well researched and an enjoyable biography. So is Ernesto Guevara tambien conocido como El Che (Ernesto Guevara also know as El Che) by the Mexican writer, Paco Ignacio Taibo (available only in Spanish).
Despite the extensive research and investigation such authors have undertaken, their work inevitably lacks one thing. They do not draw a political balance sheet of the lessons of Che’s contribution to the revolutionary movement that can assist the struggle against capitalism and imperialism today. Such authors, although making a valuable contribution in recording history, cannot achieve this task. The reason is simple enough. They are not active participants in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and begin the task of building socialism.
The CWI has produced this pamphlet on Che and the 1959 Cuban Revolution in order to assist in the task of building an international revolutionary socialist organization that will be able to defeat capitalism and imperialism. History never repeats itself in exactly the same way. However, there are important lessons from previous struggles and revolutions that must be drawn by those fighting for socialism today if we are to be successful.
It is for this reason that this pamphlet has been published at this time. The Cuban revolution, in particular the contribution to it made by Che Guevara, has many lessons for the struggle against exploitation which is taking place today, especially in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
In order to make such a balance sheet it is necessary not only to follow the historical events that took place but to discuss the ideas and methods advocated by the central figures involved. This pamphlet is a contribution to a discussion on the experiences, ideas and methods of struggle that developed during the revolution in which Che played a principal role.
Consequently this pamphlet does not aspire to be a full personal biography of Che’s life. Many aspects of his life, including his two marriages, are not covered although such personal questions are important features in the formation of any character and had a bearing on his political evolution. Neither has it been possible to give a full account of all the historical events that took place and in which Che participated. Readers will need to study other biographies and works on Cuba, Che and the Cuban Revolution in order get such information.
On the thirtieth anniversary of his death it is right to recall the heroic and self-sacrificing struggle that Che conducted in opposition to capitalism and imperialism.
He was a bitter opponent of capitalist exploitation and fought against it. He was drawn towards socialism largely as the result of his own experiences and was motivated by a desire to see its victory internationally. Initially he looked to the USSR and Eastern Europe as alternative socialist societies. This he did from “a distance”. Later his first hand experience of those bureaucratic regimes that ruled in the name of socialism repelled him.
Committed to the life of a revolutionary by his mid-twenties, the struggle for the international revolution would cost him his life at the age of 39. He led by example and was an incorruptible internationalist. Because of these qualities he continues to be a source of inspiration as a symbol of struggle against oppression and exploitation.
At the same time his ideas were not fully rounded-out from the point of view of a full understanding of Marxism. It was his ideas on guerrillaism, which had a decisive bearing on the Cuban revolution and events that followed, especially in Latin America. His defense of these ideas as a method of struggle to be adopted throughout Latin America put them at the center of a debate in the revolutionary socialist movement throughout that continent and beyond. These ideas of Che are discussed in this pamphlet as they have many important lessons for today’s struggle against capitalism and imperialism.
Che also developed other ideas relating to the economy and also what he called “socialism and the new man” which centered on how people’s attitude towards society could be developed after the overthrow of capitalism. These works reflect some of the issues he had to deal with after the revolution had taken place in 1959. Because of limitations of space it has not been possible to discuss them in this pamphlet.
A study of Che’s life shows that his ideas developed over a lengthy period of time, often as the result of his own experience. He died at the relatively young age of 39. It is clear that he was still developing his ideas at the time of his death. In this respect a certain parallel exists between Che and Malcolm X and George Jackson in the USA.
Confronted by the difficulties of the situation in Cuba and the horrors he witnessed as a result of his visits behind the ‘iron curtain’ to the USSR and Eastern Europe, he seemed to be searching for an alternative and began to explore other ideas. He started to read some writings of Leon Trotsky a few years prior to his death. We can only speculatively pose the question: if he had continued his studies of Trotsky’s ideas would he have embraced them?
In 1964 he was in Moscow to attend the celebrations for the 47th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. During this visit he not only protested about the lifestyle of the Russian officials but argued that economically “…the soviets are in an economic dead-end, dominated by bureaucracy”.
The bureaucratic caste in China at this time was adopting a more “radical face” internationally in an effort to win support after the rupture which had taken place between it and the USSR bureaucracy. This had occurred as a result of a clash of narrow national interests between the two regimes.
Che was attracted towards the Chinese bureaucracy as a result of the “radical face” it adopted during this period and also because of the victory of the peasant army that had taken place in 1949. It appeared to confirm his own analysis. However, he also began to explore the ideas of Leon Trotsky. In Moscow he was attacked as being “pro-Chinese” and a “Trotskyist”. Aware of these denunciations Che referred to them in a meeting in the Cuban Embassy with Cuban students. The incident is recounted in Paco Ignacio Taibo’s biography.
Che commented: “…I have expressed opinions which could be closer to the Chinese side…and also those mixed up with Trotskyism have come up. They say that the Chinese are fractionalists, also the Trotskyists and me as well.” He continued: “Opinion which must be destroyed with batons is opinion which brings us an advantage. It is not possible to destroy opinions with batons and it is precisely this that is the root of intelligence…it is clear that you can get a series of things from Trotsky’s thought.”
There is no indication of what conclusions Che was drawing from any reading of Trotsky’s writings and he did not advocate ideas that would have flowed from him embracing Trotskyism. However, he did continue to study them further. Just before his death in 1967 he was given some books of Trotsky by the French intellectual, Regis Debray, who was in Bolivia, working with Guevara’s forces at the time.
During this period the dominant current that subscribed to Trotskyism failed to engage in an open political dialogue and discussion with a view to helping Che develop fully rounded-out ideas on the socialist revolution. They merely supported and encouraged the ideas on guerrillaism, which he advocated and gave support to Fidel Castro’s regime.
This was combated at the time by some within the Trotskyist movement, including the then tiny forces in Britain organized in Militant (now the Socialist Party) who later established the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). In 1960 at the time of the stormy events in Cuba the members of Militant enthusiastically welcomed the revolution and the overthrow of Batista but also explained the character of the new regime that developed and the need to look to the working class in order to develop the revolution throughout Latin America.
Later, Peter Taaffe, in an article in Issue 390 of the British Militant newspaper explained the processes that had unfolded in Cuba. “Castro and Guevara relied on the peasants and the rural population. The working class only entered the struggle through the general strike in Havana when the guerrillas had already triumphed and Batista was fleeing for his life.” Explaining how this rural base shaped the whole character of the movement, he continued to outline how the revolution unfolded, ending in the abolition of capitalism and private ownership of land by the big land owners but “because of the forces involved – a predominantly peasant army” the new regime lacked conscious democratic control and management of the economy by the working class.
Despite encountering some of Trotsky’s ideas in his search for an alternative, Che unfortunately did not embrace the alternative ideas or methods of Trotskyism. Nevertheless his actions were sufficient to provoke a reaction in the Kremlin and elsewhere. In Cuba and amongst the Latin American masses Che was a hero whose revolutionary example should be emulated. Amongst the ruling circles of the bureaucracy in Moscow he was attacked as “an adventurer” “pro-Chinese” and worst of all a “Trotskyist”. The ruling class of the capitalist countries hated everything he defended and fought for.
Che was executed by those intent on defending the rich and powerful. His image lives on as a symbol of struggle against oppression. As protests against ‘neo-liberal’ policies and the market have erupted in Latin America it is still common to find graffiti scribbled on walls by young people – “Che -Vive” – Che Lives.
To commemorate the anniversary of his execution it is justified that those fighting capitalist exploitation internationally should learn important lessons from his ideas and experiences in order to win the victory he desired – socialism. This pamphlet is intended as a contribution to assist in that struggle.