Notes on the ideas of Che Guevara

On October 9th, 1967 Ernesto “Che” Guevara was killed by the Bolivian army, backed by the United States. Fifty years later, Guevara remains one of the most popular revolutionaries amongst workers and youth around the world. To commemorate the figure of Che, but also, and most importantly, to understand the relevance of his life and ideas to today's struggles, we are publishing an edited version of an article written for the Italian Marxists’ theoretical magazine ten years ago on the 40th anniversary of his death.

Guevara was and still is, together with Fidel Castro, a symbol of the Cuban revolution and moreover of the struggle against oppression throughout the world. His spirit of self-sacrifice, his rigour and his intellectual honesty are a source of inspiration to us all.

It is not by accident that his profile and works find themselves time and again at the centre of political debate. In the year of the 40th anniversary of his murder, this is truer than ever.

Che’s beginnings

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928. He moved to the capital city, Buenos Aires, to study medicine. In 1951 he embarked on a motorbike journey through Latin America with his friend, Alberto Granado. In that period, a political consciousness began to take shape in his mind. Particularly important to this process was his stay in Guatemala, where he became involved in the resistance against a coup d’etat staged by the US against the elected President, Jacobo Árbenz, in 1954. The latter was implementing agrarian reforms that clashed with the interests of the US corporation, United Fruit Company.

In Guatemala, Che met Hilda Gadea, who introduced him to Marxism, and who later became his wife. But what kind of Marxism was Guevara becoming acquainted with while taking his first steps as a revolutionary? It could only have been an outlook heavily influenced by Stalinism, which at that time enjoyed enormous influence due the victory of the USSR in the Second World War, and also with the Chinese CP coming to power in the Chinese Revolution of 1949.

The origins of the cuban revolution

In spite of this, Castro and Guevara were not prepared to support the policy of the Stalinised Latin American Communist parties, which were extremely degenerate and followed a criminal policy of support for their own national bourgeoisies. And one of the most right–wing of these was the Cuban Communist Party which ended up participating in the first Batista government with two ministers. The Cuban revolutionary youth launched their own organisation, the 26th of July movement (Movimiento 26 de Julio), named after the failed assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953. The movement was to launch an armed landing in Cuba with the idea of sparking a mass insurrection against the dictatorship. That also failed, and they were then forced to embark on a protracted guerrilla war.

The goal of this guerrilla movement, when it began its struggle against the Batista dictatorship, was not a socialist revolution but a number of radical reforms aimed at the establishment of genuine national independence, while remaining under capitalism. This is clearly revealed in the famous speech “History will absolve me”, delivered by Fidel Castro in his own court defence against the charges brought against him after he led the  failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953. Fidel proposed “to grant workers and employees the right to share 30% of the profits of all the large industrial, mercantile and mining enterprises” and the “establishing of social justice, based on industrial and economic progress”.

At this time Che Guevara had already developed a more radical perspective, that of socialist transformation, and in his Diaries he hints at the idea that after the victory of the revolutionary war he might have to break with his comrades and push further ahead.

In the first months of 1959, immediately after the seizure of power, even Che Guevara had illusions about a democratic development within the limits of capitalism, as he explained in this interview:

“We are democratic, our movement is democratic, [we are] of a liberal consciousness and keen for cooperation throughout America. It is a classic deception of the dictators to call Communists those who refuse to submit to them. Within a year and a half, a political force will be organized with the ideology of the 26 July Movement. Then there will be elections and the new party will compete with the other democratic parties.” (H. Thomas, Cuba: A history, page 831, Italian edition).

In Cuba, however, there could not be a "democratic" stage of capitalism. A clash with US imperialism due to its total domination over every aspect of Cuba's economic and political life was inevitable, given the fact that the US multinationals owned ninety percent of the island’s industry and controlled the sugarcane crop!

From the minute the July 26th Movement entered Havana, the US began to hinder and sabotage the new revolutionary government. There was therefore no possibility of any economic or social development under capitalism. In the same period, the Soviet Union, China and the rest of Eastern Europe provided an important point of reference. And when the US government refused to buy sugar from Cuba, Moscow offered to buy it in its place.

On the basis of a massive revolutionary thrust, capitalism was eliminated in Cuba. The building of the new system, however, did not follow the example of the republic of the Soviets of Lenin's time, but that of the Soviet Union of Stalin and Khrushchev. That system, as a result of the backwardness and the isolation of the USSR, had seen a bureaucracy develop which usurped political power from the working class. All the bodies of a workers’ democracy, the soviets, the councils, and so on, were reduced to mere transmission belts of decisions by the state apparatus.

In Cuba in those early years there was a great desire on the part of the workers and oppressed classes to become politically active, with millions joining the mass organisations (particularly the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution), and hundreds of thousands taking up arms to defeat the imperialist Bay of Pigs attack. But there was no democratic structure through which they could have an input into the main decisions and exercise direct control over the economy and the running of society. Workers had no opportunity to elect officers and administrators from within their own ranks, nor the ability to recall those who failed in their duties.

The Cuban revolutionaries, having no other model as a point of reference, applied the one suggested by their Soviet advisers. In those early years, Che Guevara was genuinely convinced that this was the correct course, and there is much evidence to prove it. Take for example the "Reglamento de la Empresa consolidada" elaborated by Che when he was Minister of Industry. One can read that the manager, nominated by the Ministry, was entitled "to know and administer all the planning, the organization, the implementation and the control phases, all the functions and tasks of the consolidated enterprise, and  to administer its means and its facilities and all that is involved in this, and to represent it in every circumstance" (E. Guevara, op. cit., page 509).

The Soviet Union, in spite of all the distortions that ultimately led to the collapse of the system at the end of the 1980s, could at that time boast great successes in the field of economics, science and culture. This was despite the bureaucratic control, and thanks to the abolition of the market system and the planning of economic resources. Here is an account of Che’s first impressions on visiting the USSR: "Even I, coming to the Soviet Union, was surprised because one of the things you notice most is the enormous freedom that there is (...) the enormous freedom of thought , the enormous freedom that each one has to develop according to his own abilities and temperament" (E. Guevara, Scritti, discorsi e diari di guerriglia, Einaudi, 1969, page 946). These words were pronounced in 1961, five years after the military repression of the Hungarian workers’ revolution by Moscow.

And on the strategy of the development of socialism, speaking again about the USSR, we can see the confused ideas of the Argentine revolutionary: "Listen carefully: every revolution, whether we like it or not, we wish it or not, has to pass through an inevitable stage of Stalinism, because it must defend itself from the capitalist encirclement "(KS Karol, La guerriglia al potere, Mondadori 1970, page 53).

Stalinism here is treated as a disease of childhood. Instead, it was a process of political counterrevolution carried out by a political caste: the bureaucracy of which Stalin was the representative, and which did not exhaust itself upon his death. It involved the physical elimination of all the Bolshevik old guard, who had led the October Revolution. The thread of revolutionary tradition was interrupted in many countries: for this reason, anti-Stalinist positions in the Communist movement, including those of Trotsky, were weak in countries like Cuba, and were often explained in a caricatured manner. Che probably became aware of all of this in the last years of his life.

The problem for Cuba in the early years was that cooperation with the Soviet Union which was not only inevitable, but necessary, and resulted in the transposition of the Soviet model to the island. It was (mistakenly) believed that, under such a bureaucratic model, Cuba could carve out an unalterable and guaranteed role as supplier of raw materials and foodstuffs (sugar and nickel), without worrying too much about the harmonious development of the economy. The process of bureaucratisation of the Cuban revolution, however, was not without its problems. In the first stage there were many sharp clashes between the Cuban revolutionaries and the Soviet bureaucrats (and their followers on the island, in the old Communist party, PSP). These debates ranged from economic to foreign policy, to issues of Marxist theory to questions of the arts and culture.

The debate on the economy

Che began to develop his first doubts after looking at the problems afflicting the management of industry: the sector of which he was minister. In the debate on the "budgeting system" (sistema de financiamiento presupuestario) in which Che was accused of introducing capitalist measures, he explained: "There are many similarities with the monopolies’ calculation system, but no one can deny that monopolies have a very efficient one” and criticized the system used by the USSR as one that produced inequalities by providing individual incentives (especially to managers) as the central axis.

The main plank of Che’s heated argument with the Stalinists over economic planning was that he advocated a “budgeting system”, in which the central economic authority would allocate resources to different branches of the economy. Above all, he was concerned with developing industry, which he saw as crucial, inasmuch as it would also strengthen the working class.

The Stalinists on the other hand advocated giving enterprises more autonomy, using criteria of profitability to incentivise production in each enterprise and using market criteria in the relations between different enterprises.

In this Che Guevara was correct, although perhaps he had a position which tended towards voluntarism.

In the discussion about the incentives which was linked to it, Guevara criticized the exclusive use of material and economic subsidies by focusing on moral incentives.

One of the most important mechanisms in Che’s organization of society was social emulation, considered as "a weapon to increase production and an instrument for raising the consciousness of the masses" (quoted in the book of Carlos Tablada Perez, Economia, etica e politica nel pensiero di Ernesto Che Guevara, page 209, italian edition).

However, the debate on the economy in those years in Cuba was

flawed in one crucial respect. The key question missing was that the only “moral” incentive for production in a planned economy lies in workers’ democracy, the fact that workers not only are nominally “the owners of the means of production”, but rather that they feel they have real power in society, that they are in charge and that the decisions they take shape the development of society and therefore benefit themselves individually and collectively as a class. We always return to the issue stressed by Trotsky: "The planned economy needs democracy as the human body needs oxygen."

Guevara, on the other hand, always gave more importance to voluntarism: to the development of the “new man”, as can be seen in one of his most famous writings, Socialism and Man in Cuba. To try to build a "new man", free of alienation and selfishness, must certainly be one of the priorities of a communist when it comes to the development of a socialist society, but this process must have sound material foundations in society and must be based on the decisive role of the working class in the new system.

On the relationship between the leaders  and the masses in the Cuban socialist state, Che provides an interesting perspective: “The initiative generally comes from Fidel, or from the revolutionary leadership, and is explained to the people, who make it their own. In some cases the party and government take a local experience and generalize it, following the same procedure.” (E. Guevara, Socialism and Man in Cuba)

And again: “At the great public mass meetings one can observe something like the dialogue of two tuning forks whose vibrations interact, producing new sounds. Fidel and the mass begin to vibrate together in a dialogue of growing intensity until they reach the climax in an abrupt conclusion crowned by our cry of struggle and victory.”

This description is very apt of the mood which existed, particularly in the first years of the revolution and the close and intense relationship between the leadership, which had an enormous moral and political authority, and the masses, which supported them enthusiastically. However, that is not enough. There were no real channels for the masses to participate democratically in the running of the state and the economy. The principles of a workers’ state as described by Lenin in State and Revolution” (the election and right of recall of all officials, no official to earn a wage higher than that of a skilled worker, no standing army but the people in arms, the rotation of officers so no-one could become a bureaucrat, etc) did not exist in Cuba.

Later, in the same text, Che deals with the problem of the participation of the masses in the process of decision-making, when he explains that "it is necessary to deepen conscious participation, individual and collective, in all the structures of management and production". He is looking for "new revolutionary institutions": "This institutionalization of the revolution has not yet been achieved. We are looking for something new that will permit a complete identification between the government and the community in its entirety". However, he cannot indicate the means by which to do this. This indicates how deep was the bureaucratic break from the ideas of true Bolshevism and the October Revolution, when even sincere revolutionaries like Che failed to elaborate an alternative to Stalinism.

On this last point, the extreme position that Che developed on the question of the trade unions is symptomatic: “About one thing I'm sure, it is that the trade unions are a brake that need to be destroyed, but not with the method of withering away: they must be destroyed as the State should be destroyed, in one go." (This and all the other quotations of the Unpublished works of Che are taken from articles by Antonio Moscato, published in the daily paper Liberazione between September and October, 2005).

The alleged uselessness of trade unions in the planned economy does not take into account that even the best system of workers’ democracy will never be perfect, because it will reflect the antagonisms of the different classes that have not yet disappeared. It may happen that workers will have to organize to defend themselves from abuses of power, even under a workers’ state. Hence, the need for a trade union structure in the transitional era. This was the position Lenin defended in the trade union debate in the Soviet Union in 1920. In that debate Lenin clashed with Trotsky, who later conceded he was wrong.

Internationalism or chauvinism?

The main conflict between Guevara (and, at least in the early period of the revolution, Fidel as well) and the Soviet Union was, above all, on internationalism. In the 1960s, Cuba launched several appeals for socialist revolution in Latin America; for example, in the Message to the Tricontinental and in the Second Declaration of Havana, both written by Che Guevara. The need to extend the revolution was one of Che's main insights, which could hardly be conciliated with the "peaceful coexistence", advocated by Khrushchev. As far as Guevara was concerned, socialism in one country was simply impossible.

Guevara’s unpublished works reveal his very firm position: "Internationalism is replaced by chauvinism (of a weak power or small country), or by submission to the USSR, while maintaining the discrepancies between other popular democracies (Comecon)."

Che’s later years are characterized by a growing mistrust of the role of the countries of "real socialism" (i.e. of the Stalinist bloc), and his unpublished works provide an even clearer context to his speech to the Second Afroamerican Economic Seminar, which took place in Algiers in February 1965:

How can it be ‘mutually beneficial’ to sell at world market prices the raw materials that cost the underdeveloped countries immeasurable sweat and suffering, and to buy at world market prices the machinery produced in today's big automated factories? If we establish that kind of relation between the two groups of nations, we must agree that the socialist countries are, in a certain way, accomplices of imperialist exploitation. It can be argued that the amount of exchange with the underdeveloped countries is an insignificant part of the foreign trade of the socialist countries. That is very true, but it does not eliminate the immoral character of that exchange. The socialist countries have the moral duty to put an end to their tacit complicity with the exploiting countries of the West.” (At the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria).

Along with these arguments we find a harsh critique of the bureaucracy, described as "a brake on revolutionary action," but also "a corrosive acid that distorts (...) economy, education, culture and public services" to the point that "it damages us more than imperialism itself".

Che Guevara and Trotskyism

The search for a different path towards socialism was certainly one of Che's main concerns during his last period. His tragic death interrupted this search, so today it is difficult to determine what would have been. But we can be sure that Guevara had broken with Stalinism.

For Guevara "proletarian internationalism is a duty, but also a revolutionary necessity", thus clashing with the nationalism of official Communist parties and with the strictly "Cuban" vision of so many revolutionaries on the island. Until the end of his life, the goal of Che’s political activity was to spread revolution throughout Latin America. He had no confidence in the supposedly progressive nature of the various national bourgeoisies, defended by Moscow and Beijing:

“On the other hand, the autochthonous bourgeoisies have lost all their capacity to oppose imperialism — if they ever had it — and they have become the last card in the pack. There are no other alternatives; either a socialist revolution or a make-believe revolution.” (Message to the Tricontinental)

As we have seen, Che came into conflict with the Soviet bureaucracy on this and various other issues. But to state that he had become "Trotskyist", as some "alternative" historians claim, does not correspond to reality. To sustain this falsehood would do disservice to the figure of Ernesto Guevara, who considered honesty and intellectual rigour as core principles. Guevara was a revolutionary who thought deeply about his political experiences and about perspectives for the revolution. In the last period of his life, he read Trotsky, as testified by his notebooks, focusing on books such as The Permanent Revolution and the History of the Russian Revolution, from which he recopied entire pages.

But Che’s reflection on these texts remained incomplete. The choice of using guerrilla war first in the Congo and later in Bolivia confirms this, backed by a few excerpts from his unpublished works. When Guevara asked himself whether the proletariat still represents the driving force behind the revolutionary process, his answer is categorical:

"The examples of China, Vietnam and Cuba prove the inadequacy of this thesis. In the first two cases the participation of the proletariat was none or poor, in Cuba the struggle was not led by the party of the working class, but by a multi-class movement radicalized after the takeover of political power.”

As a matter of fact, in Cuba, the general strike, which paralyzed the country for a week, was a decisive factor in the seizure of  power. The working class had entered the stage of revolution with force, but without any representative body, comparable to the Soviets in 1917. Instead, it put its trust in the peasant guerrillas. This hugely facilitated the rise of a bureaucracy that was placed at the head of the state apparatus. In China and Vietnam, the guerrilla struggle led to victory over imperialism and the collapse of capitalism, but the regimes that emerged were from the beginning deformed workers' states in the image and likeness of the USSR.

One of the lessons of the Russian Revolution of 1917 was that even in a backward country the proletariat plays a decisive role, no matter how small it may be from the numerical point of view.

Marxism does not underestimate the importance of the peasant movement. Without the support of the mass of poor peasants, millions of which engaged in the vanguard, the October Revolution would have never been possible. But it was the industrial working class - in spite of the fact that it represented a minority of Russian society (just over 10%) - who led the revolutionary movement. It is in industry, in every country where capitalist production relations have been established, where the decisive clash takes place. The leading role in the struggle for socialism is given to the working class not by divine law, but by the role it plays in production.

We find it quite understandable that Che Guevara, politically educated in the 50s and 60s, did not consider the proletariat of the Western countries as decisive, given the long lull in the workers' movement in those countries, facilitated by the post-war economic boom. But it was wrong to elevate a period of lull in the workers’ struggles to a general theory. Unfortunately, May ‘68 in France and the Hot Autumn in Italy came too late to allow Che to correct his analysis. In an attempt to create "two, three, many Vietnams" Guevara generalized the methods used in the Cuban Revolution. In his opinion, the struggle had to be developed outside of the city, there was no need to build a party as the vanguard of the working class. These theories, later adopted by others in many Latin American countries even when they had already been proven wrong by the experience of Che in Bolivia, led revolutionary organisations to take cadres from factories and cities and take them into the countryside, even in highly industrialized countries such as Uruguay or Argentina!

The Foco theory can be  summed up in the following words of Che Guevara: “It is not always necessary to wait for all the necessary conditions for a revolution, the insurrectionary foco can create them” (E. Guevara, ibidem, page. 284). The history of the workers' movement shows the opposite: revolutionaries intervene in revolutions, they do not create them. And the experiences of the Congo and Bolivia confirm this hypothesis. Despite all Che’s efforts, and also thanks to the corrupt character of the Congolese nationalist guerrilla leadership, the last period in the Congo would become "the year we were nowhere", according to some of Che's comrades.

Congolese student groups, trained in China and Bulgaria, as Guevara recounts, "had no intention of risking their lives in combat". On arrival, they asked for 15 days of leave and protested "because they did not have a place to leave luggage and there were no weapons ready for them. A really comical situation, had it not been so sad to see the attitude of those guys on whom the revolution had placed its hopes "(The year we were nowhere, by P.I Taibo II, F. Escobar, F. Guerra, 1994, page 233-234).

In Bolivia, the conscious boycotting role played by the Bolivian Communist Party leadership was striking. Even Fidel Castro, in one of his forewords to the Bolivia Diaries, excoriated the PCB leadership for "treason". But this factor alone can not explain the failure of the Cuban expedition in Bolivia.

Guevara went to create a guerrilla movement in the area around Ñancahuazu, a depopulated area, unsuitable for guerrilla warfare, with virtually no supporters in the towns and cities. Here we see all the limitations of the Foco theory. Even if we admit that Che's intention was to create a "political-military school for Bolivian guerrillas" the substance of the question does not change at all. Forming a conscious vanguard, willing to make sacrifices, is one of the first tasks of a revolutionary. But equally important is that this vanguard does not separate itself from the masses, and above all that it operates among those masses that are the decisive factor for revolutionary change.

In Bolivia there was a strong workers’ movement, whose vanguard were the tin miners. A few years after the death of Guevara, a movement of the masses swept away the dictatorship in 1970, and opened the brief experience of the La Paz Commune in 1971. Where were the best resources, therefore, for a really effective revolutionary struggle?

Guevara paid for his mistakes with his life. To discuss today his political and theoretical legacy is an indispensable task. Guevara was a sincere revolutionary, and the study of his thoughts assumes meaning for the current situation: not least in relation to the past, present and future of the Cuban and Latin American Revolution.

We consider one of Che’s conclusions more relevant than ever today: the need to spread the struggle for the socialist revolution throughout the Latin American continent, internationalism not as an abstract word, but as a central idea of the revolutionary movement. We think it is not an accident that Che and the Cuban Revolution in its early years were in fierce conflict with the Communist parties under Moscow’s influence on this particular subject. In internationalism lies the only salvation for the Cuban revolution. The international struggle is more relevant than ever. When we see mass mobilisations and revolutions taking place from Venezuela to Bolivia, from Ecuador to Argentina, we are committed to providing political and material support to the forces of Marxism in those countries.