Che Guevara is lionised as a revolutionary icon by wide sections of the global left. Even those claiming some Trotskyist heritage, from the various “Fourth Internationals” to the British SWP, publish mostly uncritical appreciations of the individual and his politics. Yet Guevara was never a working class socialist nor even a revolutionary democrat. He helped overthrow the hated dictator Batista in Cuba, but only to replace it with a Stalinist regime.
Clearing away false messiahs and Stalinist blind alleys is a central task if the Marxist left is to revive. Samuel Farber is the most outstanding critic of Castro’s Cuba from genuine socialist perspective. His latest book, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice (Haymarket 2016) is a comprehensive debunking of the myths around Guevara. Farber charts Guevara’s rise from middle class origins in Argentina.
As a youth Guevara embraced machismo and was averse to homosexuality. His renowned shabby appearance and bohemian asceticism date from this time. The experience of travelling through Latin America politicised Guevara, but in the direction of Stalinism in the USSR and towards the Communist parties in Guatemala, Mexico and later Cuba. In 1960, on a visit to Russia as a representative of the new Cuban government, he insisted on laying a floral tribute at Stalin’s tomb.
Guevara believed that the solutions to the world’s problems were behind the “iron curtain”, at a time when Stalin’s crimes were well known, the USSR was a bureaucratic state and the Russian working class savagely atomised. Guevara emerged as an advocate of a top-down peasant-based guerrilla strategy in Cuba. His distinctive contribution was to integrate the Cuban Communists (the PSP) into the Castros’ revolutionary nationalist project. Although the rebel army succeeded in overthrowing Batista by 1959, Guevara’s efforts to apply this guerrilla strategy in Congo and Bolivia ended in disaster. Guevara was never an advocate of working-class socialism, never based his politics on working class struggle or advocated working-class political organisation such as soviets.
Guevara supported the one-party state to the end of his life. In power he brought PSP cadres into the centre of the new state, including the military academy and secret service. He was responsible for the first civilian labour camp at Guanahacabibes. He argued that the Russian’s atomic bombs were “in the hands of the people” and advocated the use of nuclear weapons during the Cuban missile crisis. Guevara’s economic views were largely derived from his reading of Stalinist textbooks, with imposed top down planning, the suppression of consumer demands and bureaucratic methods of administration.
He advocated a voluntaristic political economy, ignoring the realities of the situation in favour of exhortation coupled with coercion. Guevara saw no place for trade unions under socialism and supported the neutering of the Cuban unions after November 1959. The industries nationalised in Cuba under his leadership did not practice workers’ control or workers’ self-management. Guevara was responsible for establishing a bureaucratic collectivist mode of exploitation in Cuba. Since 1959 the regime has suppressed any efforts for working class self-emancipation.
Cuba evolved into a form of state capitalism on the Chinese model after the collapse of the USSR. The regime remains strongly anti-democratic and authoritarian, held together by the external threat of the US and the internal forces of state coercion. Cuba is no model for socialism and Guevara no part of our tradition. Farber’s book summarises these issues concisely and should form part of every socialist’s library.