Bulletin of Latin American Research Vol. 32, No. 1
Besancenot, Olivier and Löwy, Michael (2009) Che Guevara: His Revolutionary Legacy, trans. J. Membrez, Monthly Review Press (New York), 144 pp. £16.95 pbk.
I am writing this in Córdoba, Andalusia. Outside the Mezquita, alongside Burger King, are the ubiquitous tourist shops with Che Guevara T-shirts inevitably on sale. A question that has long preoccupied me struck me again. What does this T-shirt mean? Jon Lee Anderson (1997) suggests that the image of Che Guevara often symbolises youthful rebelliousness, jettisoned at adulthood along with piercings and dyed hair. Does it mean anything other than an alternative to a flamenco sombrero, a figurine of a bull, or an ‘I Love Spain’ T-shirt?
The central thesis of Besancenot and Löwy’s book emphasises that yes it does. Guevara is much more than an innocuous statement of capitalist commoditisation; indeed while his message and symbol belong to a particular historical and political context, and while they resonated amongst different movements of that period, he is of immense importance today: ‘an ember still burns – the communism of Che Guevara’ (p. 10).
Two traditional obstacles are overcome. First, the authors maintain, Guevara and his political message should never be associated with Stalinism and the manifest ills of the Soviet enterprise. Guevara was vehement in his critique of this rigid structure of power, and consequently his voice should be defended against the reactionary critique that the politics of the left have proved to be hierarchical, oppressive, and a weak ideological opposition to capitalism: ‘The consequences of Stalinism weigh heavily on the socialist idea. It is not just the millions of deaths. It has discredited for an entire generation the idea that a functional system other than capitalism could be established’ (p. 9). Guevara, with his principles of resistance to imperialism – Yankee and Soviet – should, they argue, serve as a redeeming figure in the present resistance. Second, Guevara should not be held accountable for the ills of the Stalinist cultural model enforced upon Cuba during, especially, the so-called Quinqenio Gris of the 1970s.
Both statements are simplifications of a far more complex and nuanced history. It is worth recognising that Guevara’s critique of the Soviets is always attributed to his 1965 speech at the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria, which did criticise socialist failure to support Third World revolution, but was no forthright denunciation of the Soviets. Second, it is hard to divorce Guevara from the cultural developments within Cuba of the 1960s. Kapcia argues in Island of Dreams (2000), that many Cubans, both supporters and critics of the Revolution, separate Guevara from the harsher policies of the Revolution, often against historical evidence, and thus support an image of Guevara unsullied by the brutal realities of real politik. As such, it is clear that the ideological position of the authors and the manifesto-style narrative betray the very processes of mythologisation (contrary to demonisation in other authors) that characterise analyses of Guevara.
Nevertheless, the authors speak passionately about the ills of the neoliberal, free market enterprise, arguing that this is modern imperialism which brutalises and enslaves and demands resistance; and they dust off the image of Guevara as a fully operative totem of this resistance – if he can just be unshackled from the failure of historical communism. The impact of Guevara in modern resistance movements is well illustrated in Chapter 4, in which ‘Guevarism’ is analysed as a prominent political ideology in Latin America, inspiring such movements as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, and even the pacific Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. While strategically sidestepping Guevara’s possible influence on the Sendero Luminoso and the FARC (calling the former violent Maoists – a label often pinned to Guevara by his detractors), the authors paint a convincing picture of the manifest legacy of Guevara, and while they recognise that Guevara is in part ‘mystique’ (p. 81), they perhaps fail to articulate the widespread disparity between Guevara as political philosopher and as mere decontextualised symbol of resistance. A deeper analysis would, perhaps, question the absence of Guevara’s foco theory in many political movements, and recognise the prevalence of Guevara as a face on a flag.
The book was published first in French with the title Che Guevara: Une braise qui brûle encore, which reveals more of the mission statement of the work than the less politicised, more theoretical English version. This is a political statement, a manifesto of Guevarist thought for the modern era, an articulation of his pertinence in the geopolitical struggles of the present. It is forthright and uncompromising. The text itself is Guevarist.
University of Kent
Anderson, J. L. (1997) ‘The Legacy of Che Guevara’. PBS. [WWW document]. URL
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/november97/che4.html [accessed 13 April 2011].
Kapcia, A. (2000) Cuba: Island of Dreams. Berg: New York.
© 2013 The Authors. Bulletin of Latin American Research © 2013 Society for Latin American Studies