It is now 44 years since the death of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. On October 8, 1967 his body was flown down from mountains in Bolivia where he had been executed after being captured by forces of the Bolivian dictatorship. “We got him,” was the message delivered to a meeting of the National Security Council in Washington. The US and their Bolivian underlings had finally caught up with and murdered one of the most outstanding Latin American revolutionaries of the past century.
Many of the student radicals of the West who adorned their walls with Che posters in the 1960s and early ‘70s have long since abandoned playing at revolution and taken up dull, grey posts in the apparatus of the capitalist system Guevara dedicated his life to trying to destroy. Some of them have even been helping run capitalist governments.
Guevara himself did not have much time for people in the First World who liked to attach themselves to revolutions in exotic places, while doing little to fight capitalism in their own countries. When a group of students from the US asked him in Cuba how they could help the Latin American revolution, he told them to go home and “make a revolution in the USA.”
Che’s understanding of the need for revolution grew out of his experiences in the politics of the continent, most especially the negative case of Guatemala and the positive example of Cuba.
Che had been born in Argentina in 1928, into a comfortable middle class family. He struggled with bad asthma, but was determined not to let it narrow his horizons. In 1953, after qualifying as a doctor, he travelled around the continent, ending up in Guatemala where he supported the newly-elected radical Arbenz government. This regime was overthrown by the CIA in 1954. This provided Che with the salutary lesson that a revolution needed to be able to defend itself – and, in fact, it needed to be a social revolution not merely a set of policy reforms implemented from above within the confines of parliamentary capitalism.
The following year Guevara was in Mexico and met Fidel Castro, a young Cuban revolutionary who had been released from prison on the island in an amnesty after the 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Castro and others had set up the July 26 Movement and were intending to return home and launch a guerrilla war against the hated Batista dictatorship. Guevara joined up.
In December 1956 just over 80 guerrillas, on the now legendary Granma ship, landed on the Cuban coast. They were attacked by Batista’s forces and all but a dozen were killed or captured. The remaining small band set off for the Sierra Maestra mountains to start the struggle to overthrow the dictatorship.
In little more than two years, Castro’s guerrillas ground down the morale of the Batista forces. Their struggle also galvanised an urban mass movement, including much of the working class, led by underground cadres of the July 26 Movement and their student allies in the Revolutionary Directorate. The guerrillas and the urban movement succeeded in overthrowing Batista in January 1959. Guevara, who had originally been primarily assigned medical roles, had taken on more and more important military leadership during the guerrilla war. He emerged as one of the top revolutionary commanders and a major figure in the revolutionary government of the early 1960s
Cuban society was revolutionised, with not only the imperialists but the local capitalist class being expropriated. Land was distributed to the impoverished peasantry, illiteracy was abolished, and health and education were made free and extended to everyone. Whereas the Arbenz regime in Guatemala, and others like it that had existed at various times, were no match for the US and its local allies, the Cuban leaders were. Because they made a revolution, transformed society and armed the people, they were able to beat off attacks from the United States and its underlings.
Cuba showed that not only was revolution possible, but that it was the only realistic road out of military dictatorship, poverty, under-development and Western domination in the Third World.
As one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution, Che occupied a number of top posts in the new government. He also played an important part in the discussions about how to build socialism in Cuba and how to avoid the kind of deformations which marked the Soviet Union, which Cuba had been forced to turn to in order to survive the (still extant) US economic blockade.
For Guevara, it also seemed to prove that even small rural guerrilla insurgencies, based on the idea of foquismo (a strategy of mobile guerrilla columns), could end up bringing down apparently-powerful military dictatorships. His aim was, eventually, to lead a guerrilla movement in his native Argentina and a foco was set up there in the early 1960s to prepare the way for his arrival. The disaster of the Argentinian foco, which was easily destroyed by the regime and its own weaknesses, indicated that Che’s strategy for revolution in Latin America was wrong. Indeed foquismo did not even really mirror the Cuban experience of a large urban underground which could call mass strikes and insurrections.
Before going to Latin America, Che went to the Congo in 1965, where he linked up with the divided factions of the movement which identified with Patrice Lumumba, the radical nationalist leader who had been overthrown in a US-backed coup in 1960. This effort had the backing of the Cuban, Algerian and Tanzanian governments. Che and his Cuban fighters, who included members of the Cuban government, along with the Congolese, fought both government troops and white mercenaries from South Africa and Britain.
However, many of the Congolese ‘leaders’ preferred the brothels and limelight of African capitals to the hard life of a revolutionary on the ground in the Congo. The factional divisions could also not be overcome. Attempts to inculcate a revolutionary discipline and outlook into the Congolese ranks generally failed. Also, support was withdrawn by radical regimes in Africa itself. The Cubans had to beat a retreat as they became isolated.
One of the conclusions Guevara drew from this experience was that it would be necessary for him, rather than unreliable local leaders, to be in control of a revolutionary struggle in a similar situation. The problem with this, however, was that no outside leadership, let alone an individual, can hope to succeed in setting themselves up as the leader of a revolution in someone else’s country. This was an error which cost Che his life.
The final part of Che’s life was spent in Bolivia, leading a tiny and isolated guerrilla unit in the mountains. This period is a testimony to his revolutionary spirit, courage and commitment to the Latin American masses, to whom he dedicated his life. These are things which many of on the left could certainly learn from. Bolivia, however, also showed the weaknesses in his theory of guerrilla-led revolution. His Bolivian Diary indicates the heroism of his central core of guerrillas but it also shows the hopelessness of his strategy in that country.
The most positive feature of Che’s guerrillaism was that it put the struggle for power, for the overthrow of capitalist regimes, at the centre of its political strategy. Unlike the bourgeois liberals and pro-Moscow CPs, who together had monopolised the ‘opposition’ movements in Latin America beforehand, Che and his supporters rightly concluded that the state machine had to be defeated and destroyed and that the struggle for power was not some dim and distant goal but an immediate and practical necessity. They understood that the revolutionary forces cannot be subordinate to bourgeois oppositions, but must strike out for leadership of the masses with the aim of revolution. Che raised the banner of a direct struggle for power, for revolution and socialism. As he put it, “Either socialist revolution or caricature of revolution.”
The weak point of the guerrillaist strategy was that it failed to integrate the working class. While the peasantry remained by far the most populous class in many Third World countries, there was a dramatic increase in the size of the working class in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. It is inconceivable that revolutions, even today, could take place in much of the Third World without some form of rural guerrilla warfare. But it is also clear now, and should have been at the point Che went to Bolivia, that in the more developed sections of Third World countries – such as many of those in Latin America – a revolutionary strategy has to focus first and foremost on the working class. Moreover, the foco was the least applicable form of guerrilla warfare. The Maoist prolonged people’s war strategy was much more relevant.
Ironically, Che’s greatest and most enduring legacy, along with his spirit of internationalism, courage and commitment, may well be his writings on the construction of socialism. Che had quickly become critical of the Soviet model, which he increasingly saw as bureaucratic and more like capitalism than communism. He saw that the construction of a new society was completely intertwined with the ending of alienation and the creation of a new human being, an active maker of history and society motivated by social solidarity rather than the mere object acted upon by market forces.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc has renewed interest in Che’s economic writings within Cuba and among other revolutionaries, especially in Latin America.
Indeed, while the imperialists and their Bolivian henchmen may have killed Che they have been unable to kill the impact of his revolutionary spirit and the more profound of his political writings.