Che Guevara: the politics behind the icon

Submitted by Janine on 30 May, 2007 - 8:42

Who was Che Guevara?

Ernesto Guevara was born in 1928 to middle class parents in Argentina.

He studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires and after qualifying as a doctor travelled through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela in 1953 – recorded in his Motorcycle Diaries.

In 1954 Guevara was in Guatemala when a CIA-backed coup overthrew the reforming Arbenz government, which turned him towards political activity.

In 1954, he moved to Mexico City, where he met Fidel Castro and joined the July 26 Movement. It was at this time he acquired the nickname Che, meaning mate.

In 1956, the July 26 Movement landed in Cuba, initiating a two-year guerrilla war against the dictator Batista. Guevara became a Comandante in the guerrilla army.

The guerrillas overthrew the Batista regime in January 1959 and Guevara became a leading figure in the new regime. He wrote two books advocating a peasant based guerrilla strategy.

Guevara renewed his involvement in guerrilla activity in 1965 in the Congo. Having failed in Africa, he organised further guerrilla activity in Bolivia beginning in 1966 and recorded in his Bolivian Diary.

Bolivian forces backed by the CIA executed him in October 1967 and amputated his hands for identification. His remains were buried in Bolivia, but were returned to Cuba in 1997.

Yet much that has been written about Guevara glosses over the essentials of his politics. Need to dispel the myths and reject attempts reclaim him for the revolutionary socialist tradition or the anti-capitalist movement.

Clarify important differences between Guevara’s “revolutionary” Stalinism and authentic working class socialism.

1. Guevara was a Stalinist before 1959

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 he led him to become a “Communist”.

Guevara’s fellow motorcyclist Alberto Ganado later said that it was Stalin that Guevara “discovered” in the mid-fifties (Anderson pp.165-166, p.565).

In fact before his arrival in Guatemala, after witnessing the power of the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, Guevara wrote to his aunt (December 10 1953) 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” (Castañeda p.62).

In 1955 while in Mexico he signed a letter to the same aunt “Stalin II” (Anderson p.167).

Guevara became a Stalinist at a time when thousands were becoming disillusioned with official “Communism”. He rejected Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing the crimes of Stalin as “imperialist propaganda” and defended the Russian invasion of Hungary that crushed the workers’ uprising there in the same year (Castañeda p.86).

After Guevara joined Fidel Castro’s guerrilla expedition to Cuba in 1956, the evidence suggests he established a close connection with the Cuban Stalinist party (known as the PSP) during the guerrilla struggle.

According to a book by based on an investigation of the Soviet archives, Guevara formally joined the PSP in 1957 (Fursenko and Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964).

Whether or not he was a member, we know Guevara played a central role in integrating PSP cadres into the July 26 Movement. 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 (Anderson pp.296-297).

In a letter to another guerrilla leader [Daniel] dated December 14 1957, Guevara proclaimed that: “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” (Taibo p.154).

This is important because it shows that Guevara was a conscious protagonist for establishing a Stalinist state in Cuba before the guerrillas overthrew the dictator Batista in 1959.

2. The Cuban state Guevara helped create after 1959 was a Stalinist state

Guevara was central to establishing the new state once the guerrillas were in power.

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 (Castañeda p.178)

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 secret purchase of sugar from the USSR.

In early 1960 the Cuban government set up a joint national economic council (JUCEPLAN) under the influence of Soviet advisers – a clear decision to move towards a Soviet style command economy (p.115). 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 (Anderson p.462).

3. No break with Stalinism before his death

Guevara did criticise the Eastern Bloc for its technological backwardness, for its bureaucracy and its trade policy towards Cuba and the Third World as an “accomplice of imperial exploitation” in 1965 (Castañeda p.291).

However he still told Russian delegates that he was “a true friend of the Soviet Union” as late as January 1964 (Anderson p.625, p.585).

He never developed an analysis of Stalinism as a class system.

The most that can be said is that he became disillusioned with Soviet-style Stalinism, but not with the model of rule practiced in Cuba or in China.

Guevara came to be regarded as pro-Chinese from 1963 – calling Mao a “wise man” (Castañeda p.253).

Given his proximity to Maoist guerrilla warfare strategy, his sympathies for the Chinese “Great Leap Forward” and his liking for “moral” incentives, Guevara simply exchanged one form of Stalinism for another.

Guevara might have been a more earnest Stalinist than even Mao or Ho Chi Minh and far from the careerists in the Kremlin, but the fact is he shared a common world view with them all.

And Guevara was no Trotskyist, nor was he evolving in that direction 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 (Revolutionary History 2000, Vol.7 No.3) pp.193-195, p.249).

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.”

What kind of revolutionary?

Most pro-Guevara arguments emphasise his role as a “revolutionary”.

1. Cuban missile crisis 1962

The deployment of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba took the world to the brink of annihilation.

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.

Yet Guevara’s response to Sam Russell of the British Communist Party was that if the missiles had been under the control of the Cubans, they would have fired them against the US – in particular New York (Castañeda p.231, Anderson p.545).

2. Attitude to the working class

Guevara’s peasant guerrilla strategy was far from the Marxist conception of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class.

He never focussed on the working class as the crucial agent of change:

In Cuba 1933 soviets had been set up in the sugar mills;

Bolivia - militant history of struggle – miners 1952 ;

Argentina also had a vibrant workers’ movement e.g. Cordoba.

All ignored

3. Conception of socialism

Guevara may have had a “profound sense of injustice” about the role of the US in Latin America, but his “driving vision of a different world” was a Stalinist totalitarian nightmare and the class he came to represent was the Cuban bureaucratic ruling class that has exploited Cuban workers for over forty years.

He may well have helped “overthrow the old order” in Cuba but he led and advocated a different kind of revolution to one made by workers.

By any working class criteria, Guevara was not a revolutionary socialist at all.

Relate to youth?

“Then as now, the face of Che Guevara was a symbol of revolutionary hope” and that he was a “symbol of struggle and revolutionary integrity” (Gonzalez p.169, p.172)

“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’.

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.

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.

Tourist industry chic.

Our job – measure Guevara politically

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.

No hero of ours and he shouldn’t be resurrected.


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