In Workers’ Liberty 42 , Helen Rate rightly criticises the Socialist Workers’ Party’s opportunistic attitude towards Che Guevara. The thirtieth anniversary of his murder, this October, prompted much discussion of his legacy, both on the left and in the bourgeois press. Although I agree with Helen’s overall assessment of Guevara, I think that certain issues about his life and politics need to be drawn out more sharply than an article which focuses on the SWP is able to do. Recent biographies of “El Che,” particularly one by John Lee Anderson, have shed new light on his place in history and allow us to make a more balanced assessment.
Guevara’s experiences in Guatemala in 1954 were the turning point in the development of his political views. Despite the good intentions of Abenz’s reforming, bourgeois government — redistributing land, taking control of US-owned industries — they failed to break up the old state machine and were brought down by a CIA-backed coup. This set off a bloody chain of repression making Guatemala a frightening place to be for the next thirty years. The army systematically terrorised the peasant and workers’ movement.
The young Che Guevara — a 26 year old medical student who tried to join the revolutionaries in Guatemala but was only able to donate his medical expertise to the movement before it was crushed — drew conclusions about how to wage a serious fight against US imperialism and its allies in Latin America. He fled to Mexico where he linked up with Cuban revolutionaries grouped around the Castro brothers in the July 26th Movement (J26M). For the Cubans armed struggle was already a strategic method of fighting — they tried to seize the La Moncada barracks in Cuba in 1953 — and it would serve them well when they sailed for Cuba on the Granma in November 1956.
Recently uncovered evidence has shed more light on Guevara’s views before the successful seizure of power in Cuba on 1 January 1959. It is clear that he became a Stalinist long before Fidel Castro, and was centrally responsible for pushing the Cuban revolution from its petty-bourgeois origins towards Soviet-style communism. After capitalism was overthrown a totalitarian state would take its place. Evidence comes from the CIA file opened on Guevara while he was in Guatemala. The authors debate whether he was a communist: he had refused to join the Guetamalan CP, but by December 1954 he announced his conversion to Communism to his family.
Guevara mixed with various radicals and revolutionaries in Mexico, but the earliest (and otherwise unconfirmed) date for his formal membership of the Stalinist movement was, according to research carried out in the Soviet archives by Fursenko and Naftali, in 1957. At the time, the PSP (the Cuban Communist Party) was openly hostile to J26M which Guevara was leading. (The PSP remained publicly hostile until 1958, when it sent Carlos Rafael Rodriguez to meet with Castro. It had accepted ministerial positions in Batista’s government as part of its popular front strategy.)
The Granma expedition was ambushed on its arrival in the summer of 1957 by Batista’s forces. The remnants of the expedition had to regroup. The PSP sent a young cadre, Pablo Ribalta, to work with Che in the mountains. They set up political education classes. Che’s sympathies with Stalinist politics hardened during this period and in a 1958 interview with an Argentine journalist, Massetti, Che claimed to be a, “genuine Marxist,” whilst Fidel was still a, “revolutionary nationalist.”
In the decisive months of late 1958, as Che’s rebel army closed in on Havana, he linked up with PSP columns and led the decisive battle for Santa Clara in December 1958. With the army in disarray, the old Cuban state, already rotten and decaying, collapsed, and the Batista fled.
In the early months of 1959, Che played a key role in the new government, organising the purging and reconstruction of the state through the G-2, the new secret service. The G-2 included a PSP politburo member as its deputy chief. At the same time, Che organised political education on “Marxist- Leninism,” i.e., Stalinism, for Cuban army officers. He also presided over the tribunals which sentenced some 500 former Batista supporters to death and imprisoned hundreds of others. Guevara pushed for more radical land reform and the nationalisation of Cuba’s mineral wealth, electricity and the US-owned telephone company, ITT. In January 1960, cattle ranches, sugar plantations and other large holdings were taken over. By the end of the year, 80% of industry was state owned. Che played a role in switching the trade links from the US to the USSR. The main commodity, sugar was sold in return for Soviet oil.
It was Guevara who led the drive to turn Cuba into a one-party state and, spurred on by the defeat of the US-inspired Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he pushed for the fusion of the PSP and J26M, which took place in July 1961. The final seal on the Stalinisation of the Cuban revolution was set by the first five year plan, orchestrated by Guevara in early 1962 in his capacity as director of the National Bank and Industry Minister.
After the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which took the world to the brink of nuclear war, Che told Sam Russell of the Daily Worker that if the missiles had been under the control of the Cubans, they would have fired them against the US. He denounced the climb down by Khrushchev as a sell-out, and it added to his dissatisfaction with the poor quality of Soviet technical aid to Cuba. Never one for personal privilege, Che denounced the USSR as a “pigsty,” in 1964, and later as an “accomplice of imperialism,” in 1965. He also expressed support for the Chinese model of Stalinism early on, employing Chinese advisers in his ministry, at a time when Sino-Soviet relations were deteriorating.
Beginning in 1962, Guevara began to organise guerrilla forces in Argentina, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Peru. He reacted against the policy of “peaceful co-existence,” favoured by the USSR and by Castro, and was increasingly viewed by orthodox Stalinists as a Maoist or a Trotskyist, bringing him into conflict with other Cuban leaders. Upon his removal from government posts in 1965, ostensibly for his remarks on the USSR, Guevara set off for the Congo, where he spent what was until recently a “missing year.” In The Guardian, 30 November 1996, Richard Gott wrote an article piecing together what happened between Guevara’s disappearance from Cuba in March 1965 (he resigned both his leadership post and his Cuban citizenship) and his ill-fated expedition to Bolivia, which began in November 1966.
Contemporary commentators thought that Guevara’s expedition signalled a break with Castro, but in fact it had the full backing of the Cuban leadership. From 1960-63, the Congo crisis was headline international news. Taking the pseudonym Tatu, meaning three, Che and 150 specially-trained black Cuban guerrillas flew to Africa. They fought with the Peoples Liberation Army of Congo, and on the side of Laurent Kabila. The expedition was fraught with difficulties: many Cubans, including Guevara, became sick (Guevara suffered from asthma); Congolese fighters were sometimes unable to master their weaponry.
The Cubans were forced to flee to Tanzania in November 1965. Here Guevara wrote a document from which researchers have drawn the bulk of their conclusions. It turned out that Guevara’ ‘resignation’ was to cover the Cuban government should he fail. Guevara was welcomed back by Fidel Castro on his (secret) return to Cuba in July 1966.
The final events of Guevara’s life and his murder are better known, thanks to the questionable testimony of Felix Rodriguez, the CIA agent who was sent to Bolivia following Guevara’s capture by the Bolivian Special Forces. Rodriguez witnessed the night of Guevara’s death, when Sergeant Mario Teran emptied his machine gun into Guevara’s body in a schoolhouse in the village of Higuita.
There has been an historical dispute over whether the CIA or the Bolivian President authorised Che’s murder. His hands, cut off for identification, were returned to Cuba, whilst his remains were buried near the town of Vallegrande. Just this summer, these remains were “discovered,” dug up and returned to Cuba. They were buried in a mausoleum last month near Santa Clara, the scene of his greatest military triumph.
What are revolutionary socialists to make of the life and politics of Che Guevara? As a man he was, in the words of Jorge Castaneda, “generous, idealistic, unselfish,” expressing the, “heroism and nobility of the Latin American middle class,” and a, “symbol of the impossibility of indifference.” In the early 1950’s he chose to give up an affluent life as a doctor to join the fight against American imperialism in Latin America, and against this most powerful enemy he remained implacably opposed until his death. In 1959 he helped to lead what was ostensibly a popular revolution against a hated dictator, and later reacted to the evident bureaucratisation of the Cuban revolution by continuing some kind of internationalist struggle in other countries. Che was certainly a man who gave his life to a struggle for what he perceived to be human freedom, and for whom theory and practice were intimately connected.
For these actions and attitudes we should honour Che Guevara, without pretending that his leftward evolution in the mid-60’s meant he was moving toward revolutionary socialism or Trotskyism. In fact, he denounced Fourth International supporters in Cuba on TV (then apologised) in 1961. And his attitude appeared to harden in 1964, when he called them “divisionists,” with, “no history of support to the revolution.” The idea that Guevara was some kind of “unconscious Trotskyist,” as argued by some on the left (especially in the US), is ridiculous.
In fact, the small Trotskyist group active in Cuba during and after the revolution — the POR(T), who believed that Cuba had become a healthy workers’ state and made only limited criticisms of Castro — were the object of a crackdown which began in May 1961 when their paper, Voz Proletaria, was seized and the plates for Trotsky’s book Permanent Revolution, were smashed. In a 1962 interview with Maurice Zeitlin, Guevara claimed this repression was, “an error,” committed by a second-rank official, but that the Trotskyists were, “acting against the revolution.”
There is some other evidence to suggest that Guevara disagreed with the repression and intervened to gain the release of some of the Trotskyist leaders. From 1963, he shielded some Trotskyists known to him from prison sentences and even from the death penalty. Trotskyist Roberto Acosta continued to work for the Cuban state with Che’s tacit approval. However, we also know that Guevara led the praise for the PSP on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its paper, Hoy, in 1963 — despite its scurrilous role before the revolution.
Although there is evidence of his growing disillusionment with Russian Stalinism by this stage, it does not mean he embraced a Trotskyist account of international politics. His attitude to Trotskyism was contradictory. Moreover Guevara extracted a price for the Trotskyists’ freedom. In 1965 on the instigation of G-2 he made them give up their political propaganda and activity. Whatever his reading matter, Guevara was neither willing, if indeed he was able, to secure the Trotskyists’ right to dissent.
“Trotskyism” however, moved closer to Guevarism. Post-Trotsky Trotskyism adopted a millenarian, contentless and agentless view of “revolution.” Like many of the would-be Trotskyists of the 1960s, Guevara understood the, “uninterrupted revolution,” to be an ill-defined process, to be led by an elite band of cadres who would make, “the revolution” — i.e., create a benevolent Stalinist state, on behalf of the people.
This is entirely at odds with Trotsky’s idea of the permanent revolution, where the working class is the leading class of the revolution, fighting for its own interests at the same time as seeking to answer the democratic, land, anti-imperialist and national questions of other oppressed classes and strata. Revolutionaries play an irreplaceable role but they do not substitute themselves for the workers movement.
We should not forget that Guevara was one of the architects of a Stalinist state in Cuba, which to this day holds down by terror the independence of the Cuban workers. For all the recent eulogies of Che in Cuba, Britain and elsewhere, this central question of his legacy has been conspicuously ignored.
Guevara’s strategy of a guerrilla seizure of power is not an answer for revolutionaries in Latin America (or elsewhere) in the present period, particularly given the growth in the size and weight of the working class in these societies. Clearly Che’s actions in Cuba in 1957-59 involved more than just guerrilla fighting divorced from big struggles, and the J26M did go some way to organising peasant resistance to the landlords and the government. The best of this tradition is represented today by the Zapatistas in Mexico.
However, other attempts at guerrilla warfare, including Che’s own fateful expedition to Bolivia, did not successfully mobilise the peasantry and the elitism of these guerrilla bands does little to promote the mass action of workers in the cities against capitalism. For this, a revolutionary party is the historic instrument of the socialist revolution, not the guerrilla foco.
Whilst we honour his fighting spirit, we evaluate Che Guevara on his politics, the very thing that he fought and died for.
An historical footnote.
“The myth-creating force of popular fantasy has manifested itself in all times in the invention of “great men.” The most striking of this sort is indisputably Simon Bolivar.” Karl Marx, Herr Vogt, 1860.
Historical analogies and comparisons are not always useful or valuable, and quotes from Marx on their own do not tell us how to evaluate a twentieth century figure like Che Guevara. However, I think our attitude to Guevara can be informed by some evaluations made by Marx of comparable characters from his period. Centrally, Marx’s attitude towards individuals turned on their attitudes to the working class and its struggles, and how their life’s work and deeds related to the progressive political aims of the socialist movement. On these criteria, Guevara saw himself at best as making, “the revolution,” for the workers, rather than the workers emancipating themselves, and, although the overthrow of Batista in 1959 was unquestionably a progressive act in the interests of Cuban workers, this does not mean we should be uncritical of its consequences, which were ultimately to deny Cuban workers any political and economic freedom. Acknowledging objective processes does not necessarily imply political support by working class socialists for them. The nearest analogies are, I think, with Bolivar, the “Liberator” of South America, Hungary’s Louis Kossuth and the Italian revolutionary Mazzini. They too fought, with varying degrees of success, for broadly progressive goals in the nineteenth century, but Marx did not flinch from political criticism of their actual role in the class struggle. Neither should we when discussing Che Guevara.