I remember having a Che Guevara T-shirt back in high school. It was my favourite T-shirt. Many other young people wore shirts with Che’s image. But in my high school I remember with pride of being the only one wearing such a shirt.
I felt all the more pleased at knowing who Che Guevara was. Even then I already read his Bolivian Diaries. A depressing book that by negative example tells one how not to conduct guerrilla warfare. Most other people my age thought Che was Bob Marley or some other rock star.
But despite the loss of meaning that accompanied the commodification of revolutionary images, what cannot be denied are the contributions of Che Guevara as a symbol of revolutionary struggle and proletarian internationalism.
I reread some of his speeches and writings in the thick book Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution a few days ago. It contains writings and on the Cuban revolutionary war against the US-backed Batista dictatorship. There are articles on the process of socialist construction in Cuba, his speeches during international gatherings, and assorted letters.
Contrary to Fidel Castro’s judgement in a speech in front of the Cuban people last October 19, 1967, just after the news of Che’s death went out, that all of Che’s writings are “Enduring Contributions to Revolutionary Thought,” I contend that Che’s ideas offer a mixed bag.
It is good that we are able to follow the progress of the Cuban revolutionaries against Batista from its beginnings of less than two dozen guerrilleros up to its final victory. But the collection contains more of accounts of specific episodes of their guerrilla war rather than condensation of its lessons.
For the latter, it is better to read Che’s other book, La Guerra de guerrillas (Guerrilla Warfare), wherein he establishes the contributions of the Cuban experience on how a small force can grow and eventually win against a larger enemy:
- Popular forces can win a war against the army.
- It is not always necessary to wait until all the conditions for revolution exist; the insurrectional centre can create them.
- In underdeveloped Latin America the arena for armed struggle must be basically the countryside.
These general observations remain valid up to the present, although Che had problems on how he actually applied these lessons in the specific conditions of Bolivia in 1967, misreading and misapplications that led to his demise at the hands of CIA-trained puppet troops.
Regis Debray’s systematization of this experience under the rubric of the so-called “foco theory” in his book Revolution in the Revolution would lead many Latin American revolutionary movements astray into the path of a purely military practice that isolated them from the masses and eventually defeat.
The speeches on building socialism in Cuba, particularly “On the Budgetary Finance System,” “Voluntary Work is a School for Communist Thought,” and “The Cadres: Backbone of the Revolution,” are reliable windows into the problems faced by the Cubans in the process of the radical changes that their country underwent.
Meanwhile, the speeches of Che in the United Nations and other international gatherings where he exposes the shenanigans of US imperialism to world leaders are lengthy and full of clichés, which is a given considering the audience he is addressing.
One of the things I appreciated though is the resolute spirit, absence of pessimism, and willpower present in his 1967 message to Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America entitled “Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams, That is the Watchword.”
Despite the former Soviet Union’s shift into the modern revisionist policy of peaceful coexistence with imperialism and the seemingly invincible strength of US imperialism, Che’s fiery resolve to fight never wavered. This fervor never left even a few months before his death:
How close and bright the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe, with their quota of death and their immense tragedies, with their daily heroism, with their repeated blows against imperialism, forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples of the world!
Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution shows the evolution of the Cuban struggle from a purely anti-fascist one into a real movement of the people for national democratic changes like agrarian reform and national industrialization, and its eventual gaining a socialist content.
It was only later that they established a vanguard party of the Cuban working class, the United Party of the Socialist Revolution, to lead them to liberation after relying on a military leadership at the beginning of their struggle. This is Che’s realization in “Building a Party of the Working Class”:
One cannot conceive of beginning the building of socialism with a party of the bourgeois class, with a party having a lot of exploiters in its ranks, and with these exploiters entrusted with setting its political line.
The guerrillas’ integration with the peasant masses in the process of armed struggle as mentioned in “Notes for the Study of the Ideology of the Cuban Revolution” played a role radicalizing their leadership. US economic and armed aggression also pushed them into the socialist camp (of which the part led by the USSR sadly became modern revisionist).
But despite the limitations and the regressions of the Cuban experience, one cannot underestimate the victories attained by the Cubans from the overthrowing of the Batista fascist dictatorship and US imperialist control over Cuba to the implementation of genuine land reform and one of the world’s best health, education, and disaster-response systems.
In Cuba, children in school and all citizens are taught to emulate the example of Che Guevara. As Fidel Castro eulogized, “Let them be like Che!” Che’s own message to the younger generations in his speech “What a Young Communist Should Be” still deserves a second look:
[The youth] should have a great sense of duty, a sense of duty towards the society we are building, toward our fellow men as human beings and toward all men around the world… And along with that: deep sensitivity to all problems, sensitivity to injustice; a spirit that rebels against every wrong, whoever commits it; questioning anything not understood, discussing and asking for clarification on whatever is not clear… always being open to new experience.
I think one of the best pieces by Che in the collection is his speech “The Duty of Revolutionary Medical Workers” wherein he sets out the need not only of curing the disease and maladies of individuals but more importantly putting to put himself in the service of a revolutionary movement that seeks to cure the social cancer afflicting society:
To be a revolutionary doctor or to be a revolutionary, there must first be a revolution. The isolated effort, the individual effort, the purity of ideals, the desire to sacrifice an entire lifetime to the noblest of ideals goes for naught if that effort is made alone.
Another article which I think deserves a closer reading is his “Socialism and Man in Cuba” wherein he tackles the process of remoulding the individual in the process of building socialism. Here he counters the black propaganda that under socialism the individual is only subordinated to a “totalitarian” state.
On the contrary, Che argues, it is precisely under socialism that the full potentials of the individual can be fully attained. While there are still residues from the old class-divided social order there is a conscious effort to change the individual self while building the new society:
Work no longer entails surrendering a part of his being in the form of labor power sold, which no longer belongs to him, but represents an emancipation of himself, a contribution to the common life in which he is reflected, the fulfilment of his social duty.
Indeed, as Che rightly insists, the individual has a crucial role in mobilizing and leading the masses in their struggle as an expression of love. In what are now perhaps the most famous words of the late commandante:
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality…
We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity is transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.