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The legacy of a revolutionary
Who was Che?

October 12, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

FORTY YEARS ago, a CIA operative executed Ernesto Che Guevara in Bolivia after his guerrilla fighters were defeated in combat. Since then, Che's image has inspired millions of people who want to fight for a better world. But very few people, especially in the U.S., know much about Che's life or politics.

The Russian socialist Lenin once said that after a revolutionary leader dies, their image is scrubbed and made into a monument by the rich and powerful as a sort of concession to the very people they oppress. Thus, Martin Luther King Jr. has a national holiday to honor him and Malcolm X is on a postage stamp. TODD CHRETIEN looks beyond the image to describe Che's real life, actions and ideas.

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CHE GUEVARA was born in Argentina in 1928 to a downwardly mobile landowning family with longstanding left-wing politics. They taught him a sense of justice, gave him the chance to go to medical school and unfortunately passed on a lifelong condition of nearly crippling asthma.

Working his way through several countries in medical clinics for the poor, Che developed a profound hostility to American imperialism and the wealthy classes in Latin America.

In 1954, he ended up in Guatemala just in time to see the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz overthrown in a CIA-orchestrated plot. The coup and Arbenz's failure to mobilize to defeat it had a profound impact on the young doctor.

What else to read

The most comprehensive selection in English of Che's writings, letters and speeches is the Che Guevara Reader. Che kept a journal during his early 1950s trip across Latin America that helped him form his ideas--it has been published as The Motorcycle Diaries. The journal was the basis of an excellent movie called The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles and starring Gael García Bernal.

Among the many biographies of Che, two of the best are Guevara, Also Known as Che, by Paco Ignacio Taibo, and Jon Lee Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.

For more on the Cuban revolution, see Sam Farber's Revolution and Reaction in Cuba: 1933-1960, recently reissued in a new paperback edition.


Moving to Mexico, Che came into contact with a small group of Cuban exiles around Fidel Castro in the middle of 1955. For the first time in his life, after years of wandering around, he became part of a genuine organization of revolutionaries who were trying to develop an organized plan to put their ideas into practice.

Months later, the Argentine military overthrew President Juan Perón, infuriating Che and putting his family in danger. Che decided it was time to act.

Castro had come from a wealthy family and could have chosen a career as a lawyer. Instead, he joined the opposition to U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and led an unsuccessful military assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953.

Castro was jailed and exiled, but he also became famous because of the attack. Three years later, with Che along as doctor, Castro led 81 men on board the Granma to begin a guerrilla war against Batista. Within days, all but 17 of the fighters were killed in action, or captured and executed.

However, Castro, Che and the others survived in the remote mountains, and over the next two years, they built up an effective guerrilla army, uniting other rebel bands under their command and coordinating their actions with a strong urban network of revolutionaries.

On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba, and the rebels marched into Havana where they were met by hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters. Thus, in just over three years, Che was transformed from a political tourist into one of the main figures in the Cuban Revolution.

In the next three years, Che played a leading role in a huge land reform program, campaigns to wipe out illiteracy, the nationalization of all U.S. property and the defeat of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Che's desire to duplicate Cuba's success led him first to the Congo in 1965, and then to Bolivia in 1967, where his attempt to lead a guerrilla struggle was defeated.

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CHE'S EXTRAORDINARY life explains part of his continuing iconic status. However, the real reason for his popularity is that the same social and economic conditions that drove him to revolutionary conclusions remain with us today, or are even worse. So what can we learn from Che today?

Che realized that American capitalism dominated the economies of Latin America, from Anaconda Copper in Chile to United Fruit in Guatemala.

Whenever these economic relations were put in danger by local working classes, the U.S. military would step in to "defend American interests." In the 20th century alone, the U.S. invaded Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama and Grenada, and it built up and backed brutal local military regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Honduras, Chile and more.

Far from being ancient history, just five years ago, the U.S. helped plan the failed coup against democratically elected Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and in 2004, President Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti was deposed by U.S.-backed thugs.

Social reforms are important, but Che learned that at a certain point, they aren't enough. In Guatemala in 1954, the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz began to redistribute some of United Fruit's millions of acres of unused land.

The U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower directed the CIA to overthrow him. But the coup's forces were actually quite weak and consisted mostly of propaganda and threats. The secret to its success was that Arbenz was afraid to distribute arms to the workers and the poor in Guatemala, for fear that a revolution would break out and go "too far."

Arbenz wanted reform, but he feared revolution. In the end, he got neither. Instead, the right-wing military governments killed almost 500,000 poor and indigenous people in the decades after the coup.

Che was a self-taught Marxist and wanted to see socialism replace capitalism. Like most people who called themselves socialist during his time, he supported the Russian Revolution of 1917, and thought that whatever problems had developed in the USSR after Joseph Stalin's rise to power in the 1920s were relatively minor.

Although Che viewed the USSR very favorably immediately after the Cuban Revolution, he became increasingly hostile to its bureaucratic ruling class. The Russians were willing to offer some aid to Cuba, but just enough to embarrass the U.S., while economically forcing Cuba to continue relying heavily on the back-breaking business of sugar plantations.

Che came to see the USSR, along with the U.S. as participating in the "imperial exploitation" of the underdeveloped world.

Che's frustration with the USSR was compounded by the Stalinist ruling class' opposition to international revolution. All over Latin America, pro-Russian Communist Parties put Moscow's foreign policy interest in "peaceful coexistence" (read: lucrative commercial treaties) above fighting to lead their own working class in revolutions against local ruling classes.

As the Cuban revolutionary process stalled in the early 1960s, Che became more and more convinced that the only future for Cuba lie in the success of revolutions throughout the world, especially in Latin America. By 1964, Che had essentially ceased all work as a leader in the Cuban state and begun to put into practice his plan to spread the revolution.

Although his tactics were disastrous, Che's understanding that the Cuban revolution would be strangled without international solidarity from the masses of Latin America was absolutely correct. By 1968, Castro had dropped all pretensions of international revolution, and more and more openly aligned his regime with Stalinist Russia. For example, when Russian tanks smashed a 1968 uprising in then-Czechoslovakia, Castro supported the butchers and called the rebels "fascists."

Since the fall of the old USSR in 1991, Castro has built up a new set of alliances with capitalist governments all over the world, from Mexico to Spain to Germany. More recently, Castro has developed ties with Venezeula's left-wing government, but that has been the exception to the rule.

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CHE SAW injustice all around him, like we see today. Famously, he once remarked, "If you are a revolutionary, make a revolution." Yet the hardest part of understanding Che's political legacy is understanding what he meant by that.

Carlos Fuentes, the great Mexican novelist, describes the motor force of Che's revolutionary theory as "voluntarism"--that is, the belief that the power of a few individuals' can change political conditions on a mass scale. Any honest critic would find it hard to disagree, and this is where Che's ideological commitment to Marxism and his practical actions and ideas clashed most obviously.

So, for example, Marx's insistence that the mass of working class people could--and had to--make their own revolution in order for it to be genuinely socialist had a profound impact on Che. However, when he came to political consciousness (the mid-1950s), he saw working classes in Latin America that had suffered defeats and seemed to remain passive, despite the exploitation they faced.

Rather than seeing this as a temporary situation caused by the postwar boom and the Stalinist Communist Parties' reformism, Che developed a theory that workers in the cities would necessarily remain passive until after the revolution, when they could be enlightened by the revolutionary state.

Part of Che's loss of faith in the revolutionary potential of the urban working class was his analysis of the level of repression it faced. Even in his famous work Guerrilla Warfare, Che says that one big reason to move the revolution out of the cities and into the countryside is simply that it was possible to operate out in the wilderness, relatively safe from the secret police and army.

But Che went on to use this observation as an excuse to take responsibility for making the revolution out of the hands of the mass of the working class and place it in the hands of a select group of guerrilla fighters.

When he tried to generalize the success of the Cuban revolutionary guerrillas in the Congo, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia, it ended in absolute disaster each time.

Why? First, Che underestimated the urban forces involved in the Cuban revolution itself (both radical and moderate, working class and middle class). Second, he overestimated the capacity of guerrillas to transform the political climate of a given country simply through the power of their revolutionary example.

It turned out that Che developed a one-sided view about why the Cuban revolution succeeded in the first place--and he tragically tried to impose that misunderstanding in other places and times.

Removing the working class from the center of his revolutionary logic led Che to adopt a view that the job of a revolutionary party (or guerrilla group) is to win the revolution on behalf of the working class. Then, after the revolution, the party will run the state in the best interests of the working class. Workers' power, participation and democracy are not at all necessary to achieve socialism.

This idea jars very sharply with Karl Marx's belief that "socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class." In the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had followed an almost opposite path to power.

Unfortunately, in Cuba, this led Che to help Castro consolidate his bureaucratic state power, rather than fight to keep a path open to workers' democracy and the possibility of a genuine socialist revolution.

Che can't be faulted for joining a revolution he didn't fully understand, nor for making serious mistakes in practice. Without a healthy model to follow, he had to make up much of his practice as he went along.

The legacy of Stalinism meant that his generation was generally robbed of much knowledge about how Russia's Bolshevik Party really operated during history's only successful workers' revolution.

Indeed, when faced with the choice of adapting to the growing bureaucratization of the Cuban revolution and giving his life in an attempt to internationalize the fight against capitalism, Che didn't hesitate.

But we shouldn't keep quiet about Che's mistakes. There was another path to take.

Che convinced many of the best of the 1960s revolutionary generation to replace what confidence they had in the capacity of the working class to liberate itself with a faith in the power of the gun in the hands of the guerrilla.

But the Latin American working classes would soon prove Che wrong, as struggle began to break out up and down the continent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Millions of workers in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and beyond joined in general strikes and mass movements to fight against their exploiters.

Who knows what role Che would have played had he lived to see this? Unfortunately, Che and his followers were either already killed in futile guerrilla actions or politically unprepared for these rebellions. Thus, this is a good example of why people who think that political theory doesn't matter are 100 percent wrong.

Che wasn't a saint. He was a revolutionary and deserves to be treated as one. This means the greatest tribute we can make to him--indeed the only fitting one--is to follow him into the struggle, but take what from his experience and ideas is worthwhile, and leave aside the mistakes he had no choice but to make.

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