Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara de la Serna was the eldest of five in a middle-class Argentine family, born 14th June 1928. Aged 19, he studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. During his course, he travelled through much of Latin America with his friend, Alberto Granado. Guevara was radicalised by the extreme poverty and suffering of workers he witnessed. He finished his degree, then set to work materialising his visions for the world.
The same year, Guevara joined the Guatemalan resistance against the ongoing US coup d’état. After, he met Fidel Castro in Mexico City, where the Cuban revolution against US-supported dictator Batista was reimagined. Half a decade later, Guevara would be head of the Department of Industrialization, president of the National Bank of Cuba, and Minister of Industries, for the newly proclaimed Republic of Cuba. He would visit over 60 countries and partake in revolutions in 3 of them.
In fact, such a varied life had Guevara, that Wikipedia merits six official occupations to his name. However, one quality was consistent throughout his eventful life: his study of, and faith in, Marxist philosophy. But which one? That of Marx? That of Lenin? That of his own? This work intends to explore this question. So, which Marxist did Che Guevara most reflect?
Reform or Revolution?
As a Marxist, Guevara affirmed that history should be studied using analysis of class relations, defined by the prevalent mode of production. For example: slavery, and the relations presupposed between the slave and their master. Guevara further believed we could judge from this, which are the best strategies to accelerate human social development.
In this respect, Marxism can be called a science – each separate society being an experiment. To illustrate, Marx claimed history repeats itself: ‘the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce.’ Avoidable social problems must be, Marx concluded, engineered by an oppressive class in power. Poverty is an example. Civil rights activist, Nelson Mandela, agreed: ‘Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.’
From this analysis, Guevara concluded armed struggle had more commonly and more successfully motivated social development. In his ‘Message to the Tricontinental’, he explains the (successful) fight against oppression will materialise ‘through armed struggle in most cases’. We might refer to the French Revolution of 1799, or the Russian Revolution of 1917. In other works, Guevara describes violence as ‘the midwife of new societies’.
However, Guevara does not outright reject the possibility of peaceful struggle. In fact, he explicitly and simply declared to the UN: ‘We [either Cubans or Communists] want peace.’ But struggle only assumes a peaceful nature when, as Guevara explains, ‘mass movements compel — in special situations of crisis — governments to yield’. So, then, there is capacity for the revolution to be bloodless. However, if the oppressors should refuse to relinquish their monopolised power at the demand of the people, then Guevara does not condemn their forcible overthrow.
This can be compared to words of Mao Tse Tung: ‘We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.’ Although we can draw similarities, Tse Tung is more resolute to armed struggle and it armed struggle alone.
In short, the Capitalist-class employs violence constantly. Violence can be a process as well as an act. This isn’t necessarily physical; it can be systematic or coercive, but equally detrimental. Examples of this violence include poverty, unemployment, imprisonment, et cetera. The worker must either surrender the best years of their life under the boot of the employer – commodified and exploited – or live no life at all. What Guevara says, conversely, is that the workers should work under their own conditions. If this can only be brought about by violence, Guevara comments, then so be it. The oppressed will deliver their demands; it is the choice of the oppressor to accept and assimilate with their new social conditions, or necessitate the armed struggle for liberation.
Guevara argued, ‘I think the place to start is to recognize the individual’s quality of incompleteness, of being an unfinished product’. Guevara refused to accept humanity had reached its optimal state. In fact, one of the most important elements of Marxist theory is that nothing of the trend of development – whether of nature or of human society – is ever static. Engels explained, ‘Motion… [is] the mode of existence… of matter’. Of course, Guevara wasn’t referring to physiological change (which would represent evolution) but rather psychological change. The product of this transformation would be the human being of Socialist society, and at its mature stage, Communist society. Guevara referred to this phenomenon as ‘the new man and woman’.
But what was this ‘new man and woman’? First and foremost, they care just as much for their brothers and sisters, as they do for themselves – an equal consideration of interests. They seek fair conditions for all, themselves included. This is radical egalitarianism. But it is in conflict with the capitalistic system altogether, whose moral Soviet propaganda agencies evaluated as: ‘Man is man’s enemy!’ In other words, it is a ‘contest of wolves’ system, whose ‘dull instruments’ cannot facilitate this higher state of humanity. As a result, Guevara concluded this ‘new man and woman’ could only exist in a (post-Capitalist) classless society.
The character of work, in turn, changes as well. ‘Human beings-as-commodities cease to exist’ and work for something greater than merely satisfying ‘one’s animal needs.’ One works instead for the betterment of oneself and their comrades. Radical egalitarianism becomes a moral incentive to work, as one fulfils his social duty by society. Labour is no longer sold, as if the worker is being rented like property, but rather embodies the worker’s self-expression, and represents their contribution to society. The 1936 Soviet constitution, known as the Stalin constitution, similarly states: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.’
Although transformation in human nature is discussed by other (if not all) Marxists, Guevara is the only one to so comprehensively describe this shift in culture, psychology and being.
Proletarian internationalism is one concept comprised of two:
(i) ‘Proletarian’ refers to the Proletariat, characterized by Friedrich Engels
as ‘the class of the wholly propertyless’. It pertains to the oppressed and
exploited of modern society (ie. the working-class labourers).
Fidel Castro evaluated this social camp as ‘the children in the world who do
not have a piece of bread… the sick who have no medicine… those whose
rights to life and human dignity have been denied.’
(ii) ‘Internationalism’ describes the collaboration of separate national
bodies or masses, typically towards a synonymous or mutual goal.
However, perhaps the most convenient definition is provided by Lenin: ‘working wholeheartedly for the development of the revolutionary struggle in one’s own country, and supporting this struggle (by propaganda, sympathy, and material aid)… in every country without exception.’ In other words, revolutionaries must work not only against the oppressor, but also devices used to divide the oppressed peoples’ movement – ie. national borders. They must combat nationalism and other Reactionary (regressive or traditionalist) ideologies. Nationality needn’t be attacked, which is a point notably stressed by Polish Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg. But the idea that the Proletarians’ interests are different, purely due to different geographical places of origin, is one that both Guevara and Lenin emphasised must be mitigated. The hegemony of the Capitalist-class cannot be overthrown in just one nation, but must be in every nation.
This is perhaps most wholly characterised in the final words of ‘The Communist Manifesto’: ‘Workers of all nations, unite!’ This is Proletarian internationalism’s goal: to unite the global Proletariat into one movement.
When describing Vietnam’s lack of support against the threat of US imperialism, Guevara compared the situation to ‘the bitter irony of the plebeians coaxing on the gladiators in the Roman arena. It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression, but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or to victory.’ Here, Guevara stresses the imperative nature of Proletarian internationalism. In other works, he refers to it as a ‘duty’ and ‘revolutionary necessity.’
However, Guevara does not wholly reject nationalist tendencies. In fact, he believed they could benefit the movement under specific conditions. Notably, he finished many letters and speeches with the words, ‘Patria o muerte!’ (‘Homeland or death!’). This phrase echoes the spirit of Latin American wars of independence during the eighteenth century. But what Marxist spirit does it evoke? Mao Tse Tung claimed: ‘Can a Communist, who is an internationalist, at the same time be a patriot? We hold that he not only can be but also must be.’ Both Guevara and Tse Tung denounced the nationalism of oppressive nations, but promoted the nationalism of oppressed nations. At the time, Mao cited Nazi Germany and Japan as some of these oppressive nations, whose nationalism was harmful to progress. For Guevara, Cuba was one of these oppressed nations – as was all of Latin America and the rest of the exploited world – whose nationalism could motivate progress. But through any strategy (nationalism or not), Guevara argued Proletarian internationalism should never be abandoned.
Socialism in One Country or Permanent Revolution?
One of the fiercest schisms in Marxism is perhaps between Joseph Stalin’s Socialism in One Country and Leon Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution. The former is the idea that territories liberated by the proletariat should confine their focus to themselves, at least mostly. They should concentrate on bolstering their production and global influence. Following this, it is thought, other nations’ Proletarians will witness their successes and try to repeat the results in their own country – eventually spreading the revolution worldwide. The latter concept is, simplified, that the revolution must be actively spread – unfailingly through material and moral aid – until the entire world is united under Socialism. This is expected to take an historical length of time, but it is a constant effort – hence the ‘Permanent’ Revolution. But which did Guevara actually advocate?
Guevara was a self-described fan of Stalin and his contributions to the revolutionary struggle. In a letter to his Aunt Beatriz written in the year of Stalin’s death, Guevara in fact stated: ‘I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses are annihilated’. However, Guevara does not especially swear support for Stalin’s policies. He mentions Socialism in One Country far too infrequently and briefly for us to make assumptions on his perspective.
In fact, arguably much of Guevara’s words actually mirror Trotsky’s. In his ‘Message to the Tricontinental’, Guevara argues that the ‘general tactics of the people should be to launch a constant and a firm attack in all fronts where the confrontation is taking place.’ Is this tactic not comparable to the Permanent Revolution? In the same text, he instructs the oppressed ‘must carry the war into every corner the enemy happens to carry it’. As we’ve explored, the enemy employs war against the oppressed everywhere – in the form of coercive, systematic violence. Does Guevara mean to say, then, that the workers must engage their adversaries globally and constantly – ie. the Permanent Revolution? Trotsky explained: ‘The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable.’ Similarly, in his farewell letter to Castro, Guevara wrote: ‘I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people’. Should these new battlefronts have no limit in Guevara’s mind, then perhaps he hints toward Trotsky’s stance on the revolution.
Although his ideas certainly seem to correlate with some of Trotsky’s, Guevara remained a critic of Trotskyists, both in Cuba and in general. Guevara stated he did ‘not agree with the Cuban Trotskyists on some questions.’ Guevara did not deny them input into Cuba’s government, but by no means was a sympathiser for the Trotskyist philosophy.
In this work, we have discovered Guevara shares similarities with a multitude of Marxists. In fact, many Socialist and Communist organisers have been dubbed the ‘Che Guevara’ of their region. Guevara’s correlation to Marx and Engels is needless to mention. Similarly, his allegiance to Lenin is fairly self-explanatory. For most, these individuals form the personified basis of Marxism. However, his agreements with other ideologies – like that of Trotsky or Tse Tung – come with a pinch of salt, as we see Guevara also criticise them. The combined result of this mix-and-match of ideas is an ultimately unique ideology, personal to Guevara himself. It rejects sectarianism, infighting and cults of personality or authority. His theory is exactly that: his. But it is not his alone – for we can all learn lessons from this figure of history, this coordinator of liberation, this Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
‘I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. It exists when people liberate themselves.’