Che Guavara – Revolutionary fighter
What relevance for today?
“..it is not for revolutionaries to sit in the doorways of their houses waiting for the corpse of imperialism to pass by” (Second Declaration of Havana 1962)
“Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man”. These, according to some accounts, were the last words of defiance uttered by Che Guevara before his execution on 9th October 1967 in Bolivia by Felix Rodriíguez, a CIA adviser with the Bolivian army. He was 39.
If the CIA adviser and the Bolivian army which carried out his execution thought that by killing Che they would bury with him his appeal and inspiration they could not have been more wrong.
Forty years after his death, flags, banners, portraits and slogans of Che are carried on the mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands and millions in the new revolt that is now sweeping Latin America . Through-out the continent as a new wave of struggle engulfs country after country the emblem of Che Guevara is seen on the streets of Sao Paulo , Caracas , La Paz , Mexico City, Santiago and the other urban centres. While it appeared that Che was isolated from the Bolivian masses at the time of his execution, fittingly one of the countries at the heart of the struggles today is Bolivia . Millions recently took to the streets of La Paz to protest against the far right and the threat of counter revolution. Amongst the flags and placards carried on that massive demonstration were images of Che Guavara.
Beyond Latin America, forty years after his death a new generation of young people in Europe, Asia and Africa walk the streets with Che Guevara images on T-shirts, bags and base ball caps. While for many it is a fashion statement for others it is a political declaration. They identify with the legacy left by Che Guevara as a symbol of struggle, defiance, internationalism and a better, socialist world. Today in most countries the establishment politicians and institutions are increasingly regarded as corrupt, unrepresentative, untrustworthy, self-seeking careerists. Che Guevara is justifiably viewed by these young people as an incorruptible, principled revolutionary fighter.
What his execution did in fact was create a legend. As the slogan daubed on a wall near his grave in Bolivia – before his remains were returned to Cuba – declared: “Che – Alive as they never wanted you to be”.
On the anniversary of his execution it is apt not only to salute his struggle against oppression but also to draw important lessons from his experiences, positive features and mistakes. These are invaluable against the background of the new wave of struggle currently sweeping Latin America . They also include important lessons for the impending battles of the working class internationally as capitalism enters a new era of crisis and turmoil with increasing velocity.
Che joins the struggle
Che Guavara, became a committed revolutionary and a socialist internationalist and decisively broke from his middle class background and joined the oppressed and poor to fight for a better world. As an Argentinean medical student he undoubtedly could have secured a more comfortable life. Yet, like the best of the leftwing radical middle class, he was prepared to turn his back on such comforts and committed his life to fighting imperialism and capitalism.
He was drawn into political struggle, mainly as a consequence of the poverty and social conditions and struggles he witnessed during two famous Odyssies he undertook in 1952 and 1953/4. They aroused a determination within him to fight injustice and the capitalist system. These travels helped to change his life. At the end of his first trip he recognised: “The person who wrote these notes died upon stepping once again onto Argentine soil, he who edits and polishes them, ‘I’ am not ‘I’: at least I am not the same as I was before. That vagabonding through our ‘ America ’ has changed me more than I thought”
These experiences are depicted in the film Che’s Motor Cycle Diaries. During his travels apart from his encounter with socialists in Peru , communist copper miners in Chile , the magnificent Bolivian revolution and a host of others he was deeply affected by his visit to Guatemala . Here he witnessed first hand the struggles under the radical left leaning populist government of Jacobo Arbenz. This government was eventually overthrown by a CIA backed coup. These events are graphically revealed in John Pilger’s recent outstanding film, “The war on democracy”. During his stay in Guatemala he also met for the first time Cuban exiles who had participated in the assault on the Moncada military barracks in Cuba against the Batista dictatorship. But it was later in Mexico City that he was to meet Fidel Castro for the first time.
Lessons of Guatemala
The impact of the defeat in Guatemala was to have a profound effect on him as he saw the consequences of the failure of the Arbenz government. The popular Arbenz government had implemented a series of significant reforms which enraged US imperialism and the quisling ruling class in Guatemala . A limited land reform was enacted and the hated US United Fruit Company was nationalised to the horror of the ruling elite in Washington . Like Bush today they were not prepared to tolerate any government which would not toe the line, especially in what US imperialism regarded as “its own back yard.”
Arbenz was trapped by attempting to introduce some relatively limited reforms without breaking from capitalism. By leaving capitalism and landlordism in tact he gave the counter revolution time to plot and organise which they did.
The CIA backed coup was to become the first of a series of such interventions over the next four decades throughout Latin America . Arbenz failed to act and put his faith in the “democratic constitutional loyalty” of armed forces and refused to arm the masses. When, at one minute to mid-night he eventually ordered the army high command to distribute arms to the people they refused to do so. This mistake was to be repeated two decades later in Chile when Socialist Party President Allende put his faith in the “democratic” loyalties of Pinochet and the military and agreed to a constitutional “pact” not to touch the officer caste and the military high command.
This flowed from the ideas of the reformist-left and the stages theory of a gradual step by step, incremental policy to eventually replace capitalism. Such ideas have repeatedly allowed capitalism and reaction to bind its time, prepare its forces to strike at an opportune moment and defeat the working class. Allende refused to arm and mobilise the working class and overthrow capitalism. As a result thousands of Chilean workers and youth were drowned in blood in a military coup in 1973.
Events in Guatemala at the time however led Che to look for an alternative way of combating capitalism and imperialism. But, he was not drawn towards the Communist Parties. His experiences so far had led him to become suspicious of the CPs and especially of their policies of supporting ‘Popular’ or ‘People’s Fronts’. This policy put them in alliances with the so-called “liberal” section of the national capitalist class. This wrong policy was justified by them on the basis that such a tactical alliance was ‘temporary’ and necessary in order to be able to struggle against imperialism. They did not have the objective of fighting for socialism but of firstly strengthening “parliamentary democracy”, developing a national industry and economy and passing through a stage of capitalist development before it was possible to move towards the working class taking power.
This policy resulted in the CPs holding back the struggles and demands of the workers, justified on the basis of not “frightening” or alienating the “progressive” wing of the capitalist class. As a result in many countries the workers’ movement was effectively paralysed and disarmed by this policy which often led to the bloody defeat of the working class at the hands of reaction. The application of this policy resulted in the establishment of a fascist regime under Franco in Spain in 1939 following their victory in the civil war. It was also to prove to be disastrous in Chile in 1973.
Unfortunately, similar ideas are echoed today by the leadership of the movement in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Joining 26th July Movement and to war
Based on his experiences in Guatemala and discussions about Cuba , Che, as his ideas began to develop, rejected this approach, although, he had not developed a rounded out alternative to it. While being repelled by the Communist Parties whose approach he found too “conservative” and “orthodox” he was drawn towards the struggle unfolding against the Batista regime in Cuba and joined the July 26th Movement in Mexico.
This for Che, seemed to offer a more combative arena of struggle. The 26th July Movement, (named after the fated attack on the Moncada barracks in 1956 led by Fidel Castro who was then in exile in Mexico), was at that stage quite a wide ranging organisation. It included a liberal democratic wing, whose objective was the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship and the establishment of a “democratic” Cuba .
However, at that stage, they did not stand for the overthrowing of landlordism and capitalism. The movement also included a more radical socialist element in which Che was to increasingly emerge as a prominent representative.
It was on 2 December 1956 that a small, badly organized group of 82 guerrilla fighters, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro landed in Cuba and began what became a two year guerrilla war. This culminated in the downfall of the hated Batista dictatorship and the unfolding of the Cuban revolution. Only a handful of the original group of fighters which landed in Cuban survived. Some had drowned during the sea crossing while others were to fall victim of Batista’s army or decease.
During the war Che was to play an heroic role, made all the more so by his life long struggle with chronic asthma. Every obstacle, hardship and pain that it is necessary to endure fighting a guerrilla war was more for him because of his condition. It was his revolutionary determination which drove him to refuse to let his health prevent from playing a decisive role in the struggle he was now engaged in.
As the war progressed the guerrillas won increasing sympathy from the peasants. After a two year battle, with many ebbs and flows the guerrilla war against Batista was to be victorious. As it was won the anger and hatred against the Batista regime in the cities began to reach boiling point. The Batista regime finally collapsed and the rebels entered the cities on New Year’s Day 1959, to be greeted by the eruption of a massive general strike. The playground of US imperialism with its lavish casinos and brothels whose clientele was largely US businessmen and their side kicks was about to be closed down as a social revolution gathered momentum.
Socialism or capitalism
The process that unfolded had meant that the working class in the cities had played an auxiliary role to the guerrilla war. Some on the left have argued that although the working class entered the arena of struggle later it decisively shaped the character of the regime that was to emerge into a genuine socialist regime of workers’ democracy. However, the process was more complicated and the absence of a conscious, organized movement of the working class in the leadership of the revolution did affect the type of regime which eventually was established as explained later.
In the early stages of the revolution, when Castro and Che Guevara entered Havana it was not yet fully clear how far events would go. While Che was a committed socialist at this stage Castro was not raising the issue of socialism but was limiting himself to a “cleaner” more “liberal” and “humane” capitalism. These were similar ideas to those advocated by Hugo Chávez when he first came to power in 1998. Then he spoke only of a more “humane capitalism” a “third way” and a “Bolivarian revolution”. Only in the recent period has he raised the idea of socialism and the socialist revolution.
The attempted coup in Venezuela , the employers’ lock out and mass movement of the working class and poor to defeat reaction during these threats by the counter-revolution to regain control of the situation, have driven the process towards the left. This was reflected by Chávez who now proclaims his government is socialist and the “revolution in Venezuela ” is socialist. However, despite this positive development, after his being in power for almost a decade, capitalism still remains in Venezuela and it has not been overthrown.
Revolution in Cuba
In Cuba , the revolution was driven forward following a series of tit for tat blows with the USA until three years later capitalism and landlordism were eventually overthrown. This process was possible at that time because of a combination of factors which included; the massive pressure from below by the workers and peasants, the refusal of US imperialism under President Eisenhower – and his successors – to try to embrace and influence the regime but rather to impose a boycott which has lasted until today and numerous assassination attempts on Castro, together with the existence at that time of centralised planned economies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe which were ruled by a vicious, bureaucratic dictatorship but appeared to offer an alterative to capitalism.
A nationalised centrally planned economy was eventually introduced. This was a tremendously positive step forward and had an electrifying effect in Latin America and internationally.
Che Guevara played a crucial role in this process and from the outset was pushing for the revolution to take a more “socialist” road. Moreover, from the beginning he was stressing the need for it to be spread internationally. He played an important role in drafting what was known as the ‘Second Declaration of Havana’ which was published in 1962. This makes inspirational reading even today. Amongst other things it answers the question of why the US responded with such ferocity to the revolution on a relatively small island: “(The USA and ruling classes) fear that the workers, peasants, students, intellectuals and progressive sectors of the middle strata will by revolutionary means take power …fear that the plundered people of the continent will seize the arms from their oppressors and, like Cuba, declare themselves free people of America”.
Working class and socialism
However, while Che undoubtedly aspired to the idea of the international socialist revolution, his greatest weakness, and his greatest tragedy was in his lack of understanding of how this was to be achieved. He had been drawn towards the guerrilla struggle as a means of winning the socialist revolution rather than basing himself on the working class in the cities. Even in countries where the working class in the cities comprised a minority of the population its collective role and the consciousness which arises from its social conditions in the factories and workplaces means that it is the decisive class for spearheading and leading the socialist revolution. This was the experience of the Russian revolution in 1917.
In practice this demonstrated that the capitalist class in the neo-colonial countries which are tied to both landlordism and imperialism are incapable of developing the economy, industry, building a stable democracy or resolve the national question. These tasks of the democratic bourgeois revolution in the modern epoch cannot be resolve by the capitalist class. Today, in countries where the tasks of the bourgeois revolution remain to be resolved, the task falls to the working class with the support of the poor peasants and others exploited by capitalism which are linked to the socialist revolution and the need to spread it internationally.
However, in Cuba , because of the rottenness of the Batista regime and the political vacuum, it appeared that the guerrilla struggle offered the way forward. In reality, even there it had come together with the eruption of a general strike after the war was effectively won as the guerrillas moved into Santa Clara , Havana and other cities. A similar process later also developed in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas took power in 1979. However, there, while nationalising about 25% of the economy, they failed to overthrow landlordism and capitalism. As a result over a period of time a creeping counter-revolution was eventually able to triumph. Now the same Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista president, who has been returned to power. Having fully embraced capitalism he has joined hands with his former opponents in the US backed Contras and right-wing Catholic Church.
However, based on this experience in Cuba , Che wrongly attempted to replicate this first in Africa and through-out Latin America and internationally where conditions were entirely different and the working class was in a much stronger position with more revolutionary traditions and experience. The lack of a rounded out conscious understanding of the role of the working class in the socialist revolution was undoubtedly Che Guevara’s biggest political weakness.
Lessons for today
These events are rich in lessons for the new wave of struggle sweeping Latin America today. The coming to power of a series of radical left governments, especially of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales on Bolivia, represents an important step forward for the working class in these countries and internationally. The coming to power of these governments are an important positive step forward following the setbacks faced by the working class internationally during the 1990s. They have carried through important reforms and taken some measures against the ruling class and the interests of imperialism. Yet, if capitalism is not overthrown, they can also face defeat and the threat of reaction. The threat of reaction has already been seen in Venezuela and Bolivia . So far the spontaneous movement of the masses from below has held reaction in check. However, the threat still remains and if capitalism and landlordism are not over thrown it will prepare and strike again.
It is very positive that both Morales and Chavez today speak of socialism. But the crucial question is how to achieve it and overthrow capitalism. Neither government yet, has gone as far as Allende, or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua , in encroaching on the interests of the ruling class. Evo Morales, faced with attempts at reaction is making the same mistake as Allende in Chile and is speaking of the “democratic” and “constitutional” loyalty of the military high-command and is leaving them in tact.
As a person Che Guavara was not prepared to demand of others what he was not prepared to undertake himself and returned to active guerrilla warfare. Attempting to take the revolution to Africa he led a doomed expedition to the Congo . Later he returned to Bolivia to launch a struggle which ultimately cost him his life.
However, in Cuba , before Che had given his life in Bolivia , the revolution which resulted in the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism demonstrated the superiority of a planned economy.
Benefits of a planned economy
Even today, ravaged by the consequences of the collapse of the former Soviet Union and loss of economic subsidies, and suffering from the effects of the US imposed boycott, the gains of the revolution are to be found in the form of one of the best health systems in the world. Within a few years of the revolution illiteracy was abolished. Free health care was available to all. Education and healthcare remain amongst the central pillars of the revolution. With one teacher per fifty seven inhabitants the teacher pupil ratio remains one of the best in the world. The same can be said of doctors. 73% of operations carried out in Pakistan following the catastrophic earthquake were undertaken by the 2,600 doctors and health technicians sent by Cuba . While life expectancy in Cuba is 75 years of age, in Russia , where capitalism has been restored, it has plummeted to about 57 years of age.
None of these gains would have been possible without the planned economy and the revolution. The CWI supports all these and other gains of the Cuban revolution. Yet, at the same time, the form the revolution initially took had consequences for the nature of the regime that was established.
What type of regime?
The government led by Castro and Che Guevara after the revolution was immensely popular and enjoyed overwhelming support. However, the absence of the organised working class consciously leading the revolutionary process – which it did in Russia in 1917 – meant that there was not a genuine workers’ and peasants’ democracy established. While there were initially elements of workers’ control in the factories there was not a genuine system of democratic workers’ control and management. A bureaucratic, top down regime took shape.
Some of these bureaucratic features and ‘top down, administrative’ methods are also present in Venezuela today. The absence of conscious, independent organisation and participation by the working class is one of the main obstacles holding the Venezuelan revolution in check at the present time. Without this any state which overthrew capitalism would give rise to a bureaucratic, administrative regime which would hold back the economy and come into collision with the interests of the working class.
In Cuba, Che began to come into collision with these bureaucratic obstacles in the revolution. He was instinctively against any privileges or perks being taken by any government official or representative and was very harsh with those in his department who attempted to take even the most minimal privilege for themselves above what the ordinary worker or peasant received.
When he traveled to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe he was disgusted and repelled by what he saw with the lavish lifestyles and contemptuous attitude the bureaucrats there adopted towards the working class. He also was increasingly frustrated with bureaucratic features that were present in Cuba .
However, despite reacting against the horrific, monstrous bureaucratic dictatorship in the USSR and Eastern Europe , which on one occasion he described as “horse-shit”, he did not develop a clearly formulated alternative to it or see how to fight against it there or in Cuba. As his experience as a revolutionary grew he was undoubtedly searching for such an alternative. He was denounced as a Trotskyist by the Soviet bureaucracy.
Che and Trotsky
In his knapsack in Bolivia he was carrying a tome of Trotsky, according to some reports it was Revolution Betrayed. In fact he had been introduced to some of Trotsky’s writings earlier. The Peruvian former air force officer, Ricardo Napurí, who had refused to bomb a left-wing uprising in 1948, gave Che Guavara a copy of the Permanent Revolution when he met him in Havana in 1959. The Cuban revolutionary Celia Hart, whose father, Amando Hart, fought with Castro and Che Guavara and was a government Minister, says that it was Che Guavara who first convinced her to study Trotsky. Her father also showed her some book by Trotsky in the 1980’s.
It is evident that one of Che Guavara features was his willingness to discuss and explore different ideas and opinions. Unfortunately, despite his reading of some Trotsky by the time of his premature death at the age of 39 he had not been all to draw all the necessary conclusions to develop a coherent and rounded out alternative. To do so in isolation, without contact, discussion, and exchange of ideas along with a broader international revolutionary experience to draw on would have required a massive leap in understanding which, alone, would have been extremely difficult. In time, had Che lived and experienced more international events and struggles of the working class, through further debate and dialogue we can be confident that he would have drawn the right conclusions of the tasks necessary to achieve the international socialist revolution.
These deficiencies in Che’s understanding had tragic consequences for him and the legacy he could have left for a new generation of young workers and youth who are now joining the battle field to fight oppression, war and capitalism. Yet, his positive features and lasting legacy as a symbol of uncompromising, self sacrificing, incorruptible struggle serve as a source of inspiration for a new generation. If the lessons of his mistakes can be also learnt then his determined struggle for the objective of an international socialist revolution will be achieved.