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Che’s Revolutionary Humanism

Michael Löwy is a frequent contributor to Monthly Review and the author of On Changing the World (Humanities Press).

Global neoliberalism parades victoriously through our era, monopolizing its discourse and ideology. To confront the inherent perversity of the capitalist system’s universal domination we need, more than ever, alternative modes of thinking and acting that are universal, global, planetary. We need ideas and models that, in a thoroughly radical fashion, confront the worship of the market and of money which has become the dominant credo of the moment. As is the case with very few other leftist leaders of the twentieth century, the legacy of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara—universal spirit, internationalist and consistent revolutionary—continues to mount such a challenge.

The interest generated by Che Guevara is not surprising. The number of books, conferences, articles, films and discussions about Che cannot be explained simply as a commemorative result of the thirtieth anniversary of his demise. For who was interested in Stalin in 1983, thirty years after his death?

Years go by, fads change, modernisms are succeeded by postmodernisms, dictatorships are replaced by “hard democracies,” Keynesianism by neoliberal politics, and the Berlin Wall is replaced by a wall of money. Yet Che’s message still shines like a beacon in this dark and cold end of the century.

In his “Theses on the Concept of History,” the Jewish-German Marxist Walter Benjamin, who in 1940 committed suicide to avoid falling in the hands of the Gestapo, wrote that for the oppressed, the memory of their defeated and slain ancestors is a deep source of inspiration for revolutionary action. Ernesto Guevara, together with Jose Martí, Emiliano Zapata, Augusto Sandino, Farabundo Martí and Camilo Torres, is one such martyr: fallen as he stood tall, gun in hand, another seed of a different future planted in the Latin American soil; a star in the firmament of hopes of the people, a coal smoldering under the ashes of despair.

In every revolutionary process happening in Latin America in recent years—from Nicaragua to El Salvador, from Guatemala to Mexico—one can detect, sometimes visibly, sometimes not, the influence of “guevarismo.” Che’s legacy lives in the collective imagination of the fighters and in debates about the methods, the strategies, and the nature of their struggles. His message is a seed that in the last 30 years has taken root in the political culture of the Latin American left, growing branches and leaves, bearing fruit. Or as one of the red-dyed threads that, from Patagonia to the Río Grande, is woven into the fabric of dreams, utopianism and revolutionary actions.

Are Che’s ideas outmoded? Is it now feasible to transform, without a revolution, Latin American societies, where regional oligarchies have encroached the political power for centuries, monopolizing its resources, its wealth and weapons, in order to exploit and oppress? Such a suggestion has been made in recent years by some theoreticians of the Latin America “realistic” left, starting with the talented Mexican journalist and writer Jorge Castañeda, in his latest book La utopía desarmada (The Unarmed Utopia, 1993). Shortly after the book’s release, however, an Indian uprising took place in Chiapas, Mexico, under the leadership of the armed utopians of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), whose most prominent leaders trace their origins to “guevarismo.” It is true that, unlike traditional guerrillas, the Zapatistas do not want to seize power, but rather to transform the Mexican social and political system by catalyzing the self-organizing action of their country’s civil society. Yet if not for their January 1, 1994, armed uprising, the Zapatistas would not have become the powerful symbol they are today for the victims of neoliberal politics, not only in Mexico but in all of Latin America and the world.

Oddly enough, in a recent article in Newsweek, Jorge Castañeda himself has begun to wonder whether in Latin America it is at all possible to redistribute wealth and power and change its ancestral social structures through democratic methods. If by the end of the century, Castañeda says, this task shall remain as daunting as before, we may find that, “Guevara had a point after all.”1

Che was not just a heroic combatant. He was also a revolutionary thinker, a harbinger of a political and ethical project for which he fought and died. The philosophy that gives cohesiveness, color and warmth to his ideological thrust is a profound and original revolutionary humanism.2 For Che, the true communist, the true revolutionary is one who regards the greater problems of mankind as his own personal problem; one who “feels deeply troubled every time a man is killed, anywhere in the world; and is filled with great joy whenever the flag of liberty unfolds anywhere in the world.” His internationalism, in addition to a way of life, a secular faith, a categorical imperative, and a spiritual abode was the most original, purest, combative and concrete expression of this revolutionary humanism.3

Che often quoted a phrase coined by Martí that summarized `the true colors of human dignity’. “All true men,” Martí said, “must feel a sting when another man is slapped in the face.” His struggle to achieve this kind of dignity was the driving force behind all of his actions, from the Battle of Santa Clara to his final desperate gamble in the mountains of Bolivia. Perhaps his attitude comes from Don Quixote, the novel Guevara read atop the Sierra Maestra and taught in his classes of literature among peasant recruits, as well as the hero with whom he identified ironically in his last letter to his parents. Yet not even then does he stray from Marxism. For wasn’t it Marx who said, “The proletarian needs his dignity more than he needs bread.”

Che’s humanism was no doubt Marxist, but his was an unorthodox type of Marxism which differed radically from the dogmas found in Soviet booklets or in the “structuralist” and “antihumanist” interpretations that emerged in Europe and Latin America in the mid-1960s. If Che shows such great interest in the young Marx of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 it is because that work concretely suggests “that man is an individual being, whereas the problems of his liberation belong in the social being,” stressing the relevance of the struggle of human consciousness against alienation: “Without this type of consciousness enveloping man’s social being, communism is not possible.” With great sensitivity, Che also discovers this humanistic outlook in Das Kapital: “The magnitude of this monumental achievement of human intelligence is such that we are often oblivious to the profoundly humanist (in the best sense of the word) nature of its interests. To a certain extent, the mechanism of the relations of production—and its most obvious consequence, i.e., class struggle—conceals the fact that it is man who peoples history.”4

Mortal enemy of capitalism and imperialism, Ernesto Guevara dreamed of a world of justice and liberty, where men would cease to prey on other men. The human being of this new society who Che called the “new man” or the “man of the 21st century” would be an individual who, after breaking the shackles of alienation, would bond with his neighbors in true solidarity and concrete universal brotherhood.5 This new world must be a world of socialism. Che’s famous remark in his “Letter to the Tricontinental” (1967) is very much apropos: “No other alternatives are left, either a socialist revolution or a travesty of the revolution.”

Although Che never elaborated a finished theory of the role of democracy in the socialist transition, perhaps his works’ biggest shortcoming, he rejected authoritarian and dictatorial conceptions that did so much damage to this century’s socialist beliefs.6 To those who purported that people needed to “be educated” from above, that false dogma sharply rebuffed by Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach, i.e., “then who will teach the teacher?” Che responded in a 1960 speech: “The first step to educate the people is to introduce them to the revolution. Never pretend you can help them conquer their rights by education alone, while they must endure a despotic government. First and foremost, teach them to conquer their rights and, as they gain representation in the government, they will learn whatever they are taught and much more: with no great effort they shall soon become the teachers, towering above the rest.” In other words, the only pedagogy that is liberating is one that enables people to educate themselves through their revolutionary practice or, as Marx put it in the German Ideology, “in revolutionary activity, personal change coincides with a modification of conditions.”7

Though Che’s ideas on socialism and democracy were still in flux at the time of his demise, an increasingly critical stance against Stalin’s successors and their “actually-existing socialism” was evident in his speeches and writings. In his famous February 1965 “Speech at Algeria,” he called upon those countries that considered themselves socialist to “liquidate their tacit complicity with exploitative Western nations” that maintained unequal trade relations with those peoples who had waged a war against imperialism. For Che, “socialism cannot exist without a change in consciousness that will bring about a more brotherly disposition toward humanity, both at the individual level in those nations where socialism was being, or had been, built—and at the world level, with all the nations that are victims of imperialistic oppression.”8

In his March 1965 essay, “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” Che scrutinized the socialist models prevalent in Eastern European countries and, always from a humanistic and revolutionary standpoint, he repudiated those notions that purported to defeat capitalism by relying on its own fetishes. “In pursuing the Quixotic goal of building socialism by resorting to worn tools inherited from capitalism—merchandise as the cell of the economy, profitability, individual material interest as an incentive, etc.—we may find ourselves in a dead end…. To build Communism while strengthening society’s material foundations we must create a new man.”9

One of the greater risks inherent in the Soviet model is the toleration of increasing social disparities and the emergence of a privileged stratum of technocrats and bureaucrats. Under such a system of rewards, “it is the managers who increasingly are earning more. A quick glance at the recent project of the German Democratic Republic reveals the relevance attributed to the manager’s role—better yet, his earnings, for his performance.”10

Socialism in America, said José Carlos Mariátegui, can neither be copy nor imitation, but heroic creation. That is precisely what Che, while refusing to copy the models imported from “actually-existing socialist” nations, tried to do. He sought instead new roads to socialism, roads that would be more radical, more egalitarian, more brotherly, more humane, and more consistent with Communist principles.

October 8, 1967 is a date that will stand eternally in the millennial march of oppressed humanity toward its own emancipation. Bullets may kill a freedom fighter, but not his ideals. These will continue to live on, provided that they take root in the minds of those generations who will resume the struggle. That is what the wretches who slaughtered Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Emiliano Zapata, and Che Guevara, discovered, much to their frustration.

After the demise of so-called “actually-existing socialism,” the neoliberal faith and its obsessive worship of money stand supreme, in stark contrast to the society Che dreamed of and fought for. But for those who reject the pseudo-Hegelian notion of the “end of history” with its primal belief in the eternal nature of capitalist exploitation, as for those who condemn the heinous crimes generated by this system and the imperialist New World Order’s exclusion of the people of southern nations from the global polity, Che’s humanist revolutionary outlook remains a window opened to a future of a different sort.

Notes

  1. Jorge Castañeda, “Rebels Without Causes,” Newsweek, January 13, 1997.
  2. I attempted to analyze the philosophical ideas of Che in my book, El Pensamiento del Che Guevara (The Thought of Che Guevara), Mexico, Siglo XXI, 1971.
  3. E. Che Guevara, Obras 1957-1967, La Habana, casa de las Americas, 1970, Vol. II, pp. 173, 307. Also see p. 432: “The Cuban revolution…is a revolution with humanistic features. It shows solidarity with all the oppressed peoples of the world.” Or as Roberto Fernández puts it in a simple yet lyrical way: Che “was not concerned about staying up to date; his concern was to contribute the bulk of his knowledge to the high noon of justice. And justice asked him to bond with the wretched and the offended, to throw in his lot with the poor of the Earth.” “El Che, imagen de pueblo,” Contracorriente, La Habana, Dec. 1996, n 6, p. 4.
  4. “Sobre el sistema presupuestario de financiamiento.” 1964, Obras, Vol. II, p. 252.
  5. Although in his works Che uses traditional language in referring to “man,” this does not mean that he was in cahoots with the patriarchy. In his March 1963 speech, years before this became a hot issue, he denounced the coarse discrimination against women that persisted in Cuba. “What does this mean? Simply that the past still weighs upon us that the liberation of women is yet unfinished.” Obras, Vol. I, p. 108. Also read the clarifying points made on this by Luis Vitale in his book Che, una pasión latinoamericana, Buenos Aires, Ediciones Al Frente, 1987, pp. 64-68.
  6. Fernando Martínez Heredia is right to note that, “What is unfinished in Che’s thought…has a positive side. The great thinker is still there, pointing out problems and indicating alternatives, showing ways, demanding his brothers and sisters to think, study, and combine practice with theory. When one truly adopts his ideas, it is impossible to turn them into a dogma, or fodder for speculators, or a quick reference book of clever phrases.” “Che, el socialismo y el comunismo,” in Pensar el Che, Centro de Estudios sobre America, Editorial José Marti, La Habana 1989, Vol. II, p. 30. Also see Martínez Heredia’s book under the same title, Che, el socialismo y el comunismo, La Habana, Premio Casa de las Americas, 1989.
  7. E. Che Guevara, Obras, Vol, II, p. 87.
  8. E. Che Guevara, Obras, Vol, II, p. 574.
  9. E. Che Guevara, Obras, Vol, II, p. 371-2. Also read the famous interview with French journalist Jean Daniel in July 1963. “I am not interested in economic socialism without Communist principles. We fight against misery, but also against alienation…. If Communism overlooks the acts of consciousness it may well be a system of redistribution but hardly a revolutionary ethic.”
  10. E. Che Guevara, “Le plan et les hommes,” Oeuvres, Vol. VI, Paris, Maspero, 1972, Text Inedits, p. 90.
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