Paul Hampton reviews Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution by Mike Gonzales (Bookmarks, £8.99)
Is there no end to the opportunism of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)? After decades using the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” they are now publishing books trying to breath life into old Stalinists.
This book is published to coincide with a new film, The Motorcycle Diaries, based on the early life of Ernesto Che Guevara. But it also reflects a new political stance for the SWP. At their “Marxism” summer school this year, banners of Guevara adorned the walls of the auditoria.
Guevara was a leader of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and returned to guerrilla action in the last years of his life, only to be killed in Bolivia in 1967. But he is remembered as an icon of “revolution” from the 1960s, epitomised by the famous Christ-like photo taken by Alberto Korda. Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called him “the greatest human being of the age”.
Much that has been written about Guevara glosses over the essentials of his politics. This book does little to dispel the myths and even seeks to reclaim him for the revolutionary socialist tradition. Gonzalez obscures important differences between Guevara’s “revolutionary” Stalinism and authentic working class socialism. For instance, the book omits much of the evidence that Guevara was a die-hard Stalinist, from well before the seizure of power in Cuba to his dying day.
Guevara told his family it was his experience in Guatemala in 1954, where he witnessed a CIA-backed coup, that led him to become a “Communist”. But what sort of “Communist” did he become? Gonzalez doesn’t tell us much, but Guevara’s fellow motorcyclist Alberto Ganado later said that it was Stalin that Guevara “discovered” in the mid-50s.
We also know that before his arrival in Guatemala, after witnessing the power of the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, Guevara wrote to his aunt telling her that he had “sworn before a picture of our old, much lamented comrade Stalin that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated”.
Guevara became a Stalinist at a time when thousands were becoming disillusioned with official “Communism”. He rejected Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing the reports of Stalin’s crimes, as “imperialist propaganda”. He defended the Russian invasion of Hungary that crushed the workers’ uprising there in the same year.
Guevara joined Fidel Castro’s guerrilla expedition to Cuba in 1956, becoming a commander in the July 26 Movement (M26J). Gonzalez writes: “[In 1958] Che was sympathetic to Communism in general, but not to the Cuban Communist Party in particular”. But the evidence suggests a close connection between Guevara and the Cuban Stalinist party (known as the PSP) during the guerrilla struggle.
According to a book by Fursenko and Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958–1964, based on their investigation of the Soviet archives, Guevara formally joined the PSP in 1957.
We know Guevara played a central role in integrating PSP cadres into the M26J. In summer 1957 the PSP sent a young militant Pablo Ribalta to work with Guevara, and he was soon given responsibility for organising political education classes among the guerrillas.
In a letter to another guerrilla leader dated 14 December 1957, Guevara proclaimed: “Because of my ideological training I am one of those who believe that the solution to this world’s problems is to be found behind the so-called Iron Curtain”.
This shows that Guevara was a conscious protagonist for establishing a Stalinist state in Cuba before the guerrillas overthrew the dictator Batista in 1959. All this is skirted over in Gonzalez’s book.
Gonzalez does acknowledge that Guevara was central to establishing the new state once the guerrillas were in power — though this doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to his assessment of the man.
In the early months of 1959, Guevara was responsible for the tribunals that imprisoned and executed Batista supporters. He was centrally involved in the creation of the G-2 state security and intelligence apparatus — which included a PSP politburo member as its deputy chief and a veteran Stalinist from the Spanish civil war. He was also responsible for setting up the first labour camp in Cuba, Guanacahabibes, in 1960 and for organising “Marxist” education in the army.
Guevara also was one of the key figures pushing for the Stalinisation of the Cuban economy from 1959 onwards. He advocated the collectivisation of agriculture and the nationalisation of industry, in his capacity as head of the industrial development in the agrarian reform institute (INRA) and as governor of the National Bank. In June 1959 he negotiated the covert purchase of sugar from the USSR.
In early 1960 the government set up a joint national economic council (JUCEPLAN) under the influence of Soviet advisers — what Gonzalez rightly says was a decision to move towards a Soviet-style command economy. Guevara was on its managing council. He was also head of the Ministry of Industry from 1961 to 1965, responsible for Cuba’s bureaucratic planning based on Eastern European methods.
The deployment of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba took the world to the brink of annihilation in 1962. Guevara thought that the USSR’s withdrawal of the missiles was a betrayal, and the experience began to turn him against the Russian Stalinist state. Gonzalez neglects to mention Guevara’s comment to Sam Russell of the British Communist Party that if the missiles had been under the control of the Cubans, they would have fired them against the US.
Guevara did criticise the Eastern Bloc for its technological backwardness, its bureaucracy and its trade policy towards Cuba and the Third World as an “accomplice of imperial exploitation” in 1965. However, he still told Russian delegates that he was “a true friend of the Soviet Union” as late as January 1964 and never developed an analysis of Stalinism as a class system. Yet Gonzalez writes as if Guevara broke from Stalinism at this time — which simply isn’t true.
The most that can be said is that Guevara became disillusioned with Soviet-style Stalinism, but not with the model of rule practised in Cuba or in China.
Guevara came to be regarded as pro-Chinese from 1963 — calling Mao a “wise man”. With his proximity to Maoist guerrilla warfare strategy, his sympathies for the Chinese “Great Leap Forward”, and his liking for “moral” incentives, Guevara was exchanging one form of Stalinism for another.
Guevara was a sincere man and never a careerist, as the men of the Kremlin were careerists, but the fact is he shared a common world view with them all.
And, contrary to some received wisdom, Guevara was not evolving towards Trotskyism at the end of his life. In the early 1960s he repeated the old Stalinist lies about Trotskyism, despite the Cuban Trotskyists’ rather uncritical “defence of the revolution”. Although Guevara helped secure the release of some Trotskyists from prison in 1965, they were freed only on the condition that they cease their political activity.
Guevara’s dedication to Stalinism as a model was unwavering. As US socialist Sam Farber put it in New Politics magazine (Summer 1998): “Nothing in Che’s writings, actions or speeches suggests that he ever questioned or criticised the one-party state and the complete absence of democracy in any Communist country.”
Gonzalez makes the ridiculous comment that Guevara was “unaware” in 1960 of the terrible history of Stalinist forced, terror-driven industrialisation in Russia, going so far as to say that his ignorance of the real situation in China and Eastern Europe — “was part of his attraction”. Yet the facts about Stalinism had been widely available since the early 1930s.
Gonzalez makes no overall characterisation of the nature of the Cuban social formation established by Castro and Guevara. Gonzalez actually believes Cuba became state capitalist after 1959, which seems rather odd considering the new regime did away with the capitalist class. But at least this view has the merit of representing Guevara as part of the new ruling class — something Gonzalez often seems to forget in his enthusiasm for rehabilitation.
Gonzalez makes far too much of Guevara because he wants to hail him as a “revolutionary”. The book is scattered with references to Guevara’s “commitment to social change”, his uncompromising “revolutionary commitment” and his devotion “to the political project of liberation”. And soppy stuff: “Then as now, the face of Che Guevara was a symbol of revolutionary hope”, a “symbol of struggle and revolutionary integrity”.
In more reflective moments, Gonzalez undermines his own rose-tinted evaluation. He accepts that Guevara’s peasant guerrilla strategy was far from the Marxist conception of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. And he says: “Revolutionaries must have that profound sense of injustice, of course, but they also need the driving vision of a different world, a clear sense of whose class interests and values will shape it, and of how that class can organise to overthrow the old order and usher in the new.”
The SWP are vague on what it means to be a revolutionary, for their own opportunistic reasons. Gonzalez knows it was the Cuban government that resurrected the figure of Guevara, as Stalinism collapsed in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and the Cuban economy lost its Russian subsidies — but this doesn’t seem to matter.
Gonzalez observes that Guevara’s face appeared on banners in Venezuela carried by urban rioters against price rises in the early 1990s. He notes that the Zapatista rising in Mexico in 1994 adopted Guevara, and that in Italy his image has been prominent on political demonstrations for a decade.
Gonzalez says: “But the millions who wear the T-shirt that bears Che’s face, or the scarf of the Zapatistas, or the beret with the red star, are making a different kind of statement. In the words of the anti-capitalist movement, it is that ‘a better world is possible’. The image of Che does not belong to a state, any state, but to the movement that has rediscovered him.”
This goes far beyond the reasonable desire to discuss political ideas with young people who wear Guevara T-shirts. It legitimates and actively endorses their mistakes. It teaches them nothing about the kind of better socialist world that is possible or about which class can make it.
At various times, Gonzalez’s enthusiasm becomes a eulogy. He says the symbol of Guevara’s face represents “a rage against imperialism”. It represents “a revolutionary yearning for a world without injustice, dispossession or inequality”. He concludes: “Che expresses their denunciation of exploitation and war. Che is their promise of a better world to come.”
Gonzalez’s book reads like a plea for Guevara’s inclusion in the Marxist canon. He says:
“The symbolism of Che — the beret, the star and the red scarf — is, if you listen carefully, a call for a different revolutionary tradition, for a different project for transforming society.”
But no amount of listening will transform Guevara into a fighter for workers’ liberty. Guevara was undoubtedly a courageous man who saw himself as a revolutionary and died fighting for what he believed in. The problem is that he devoted his energies to the reactionary politics of Stalinism, which puts him outside of the political universe of working class self-liberation.
Sam Farber provided a far better evaluation of Guevara, when he concluded:
“In the last analysis, however, the political question remains: was Che Guevara a friend or foe of emancipatory, liberatory politics? The historical record is clear; Guevarism is incompatible with the struggle to build an egalitarian and democratic society, a society in which working people decide their own fate without reliance on ‘well-intentioned saviours’.”
* There are three useful biographies in English about Guevara: Jorge Castañeda’s Compañero, Paco Ignacio Taibo’s Guevara, Also Known as Che and John Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: a Revolutionary Life.